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Economic Outlook

The Prognosis Is for Another Year of Stern Challenges in 2022

 

Dr. Robert Roose says he’s deeply optimistic that 2022 will be the year when, as he put it, “COVID no longer rules most aspects of our lives.”

Elaborating, Roose chief medical officer for Mercy Medical Center, said that soon — how soon, he doesn’t know — COVID will reach a point where it is a more endemic infection that has much lower risk for larger numbers of people in the community. He bases that belief on a number of factors, including vaccines, rapid testing, and, soon, an oral, pill-based therapy that can reduce the risk of hospitalization amongst those that are most vulnerable to severe illness.

“The combination of these things has me optimistic that, for the summer, six months from now, and perhaps sooner, we will have lower rates of infection, higher proportions of our population immune to COVID — or at least the most severe effects of COVID — through vaccination or natural infection, and we will have more therapies that are available for those that would be vulnerable,” he said. “And I’m optimistic that will happen this year.”

Lynnette Watkins

Lynnette Watkins

“I’m very much an optimist; I’m a glass-half-full kind of person. I’m optimistic about the year ahead, despite the many challenges we face now and into the future. But 2022 is going to be challenging, especially the first few quarters, because of COVID and the ramifications of both the current surge and previous surges.”

Roose is not alone in that assessment — others we spoke with expressed similar optimism — but for now, all those in healthcare must cope with the present, when COVID still does rule most aspects of our lives, and when there are myriad other challenges stemming from the pandemic.

These include everything from intense workforce shortages that are being felt in this sector perhaps more than any other; high levels of fatigue and burnout among those working in most all healthcare settings, especially hospitals; growing mental-health issues that are impacting people in all age groups; and mounting non-COVID-related health issues stemming from individuals putting off needed care during the pandemic, or simply not being able to get it (see related story on page 41).

The sum of all these challenges and others prompted Dr. Mark Keroack, president and CEO of Baystate Health, to use the word ‘crisis’ early and quite often as he addressed the state of his healthcare system at an hour-long Zoom press conference a few weeks ago. Actually, he used the plural of that word, noting that his system was and is facing four crises: staffing, capacity management, a surging need for behavioral-health services, and, of course, COVID and the skyrocketing increases in cases due to Omicron.

While addressing these issues, Keroack echoed Roose when he said he is optimistic that COVID will become more endemic and, therefore, less controlling in the months and years ahead. But those other issues, and especially the workforce crisis, are expected to linger well into 2022 and probably well beyond.

Lynnette Watkins, who recently took the helm at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton, agreed, although she, too, was optimistic about 2022 and beyond.

“I’m very much an optimist; I’m a glass-half-full kind of person,” she said. “I’m optimistic about the year ahead, despite the many challenges we face now and into the future. But 2022 is going to be challenging, especially the first few quarters, because of COVID and the ramifications of both the current surge and previous surges.”

Dr. Mark Keroack

“About one in five healthcare workers has left the field since the start of the pandemic, and clearly that has shown up in our institution as well.”

The new year will certainly get off to an ultra-challenging start, she went on, noting that Omicron will test the healthcare system in every way imaginable, from capacity to workforce.

“We’ll get through this, but it’s going to be a challenging, challenging time for the next three to four months,” she told BusinessWest. “We tend to be about three weeks behind our neighboring states, meaning Connecticut, New Hampshire, and New York, in particular, when it comes to this surge in the disease. So January is going to a particularly tough time for this region, but what we’re seeing in the research is that, as quickly as this virus surges, it declines.

“With that, we need to make sure we have the capacity and capability of taking care of those patients who are COVID long-haulers, as well as those who have deferred and delayed care,” she went on. “And that is going to continue to be a challenge.”

Looking forward, those we spoke with said that perhaps the biggest challenge looming over the industry is a workforce crisis that was in evidence before the pandemic, especially among nurses, but has been exacerbated by COVID.

“We’re seeing those gaps just widen,” Roose noted. “The chasm between what we need to close is just wider.”

For the immediate future, hospitals and other providers will be impacted not only by people leaving their jobs, or the industry as a whole, due to retirement, burnout, and other factors, but also workers being infected by the virus and being forced to the sidelines, as well as the huge toll the shortages take on those in the trenches.

“We’ve really put a lot on our people — we’ve asked them to do a lot, like coming in for extra shifts, filling in, and stretching themselves,” Keroack said. “If we were fully staffed with people who were feeling refreshed, we’d feel a lot more confident about what we’re facing in the next few weeks.”

Meanwhile, staffing up during this crisis is a difficult and very expensive proposition, with all hospitals forced to hire what are known as ‘contract nurses,’ often at rates of $5,000 per week or more, Roose noted.

As for workers leaving their jobs, the numbers tell the story; Keroack told the assembled press that Baystate had 1,800 vacancies at that point in time in a total workforce of 13,000, roughly 14% of its workforce. In normal times, the number of vacancies would be closer to 500.

Dr. Robert Roose

Dr. Robert Roose

“Long-term, we could build some strength out of this. But short-term, it’s going to be very challenging.”

“About one in five healthcare workers has left the field since the start of the pandemic, and clearly that has shown up in our institution as well,” he remarked. “It’s been especially hard for bedside caregivers; many nurses have taken early retirement, and it has also affected respiratory therapy and pharmacy, and it’s been hardest for our entry-level employees — medical assistants, various technical positions, nurses’ aides, environmental workers, food-service workers.”

Roose said the numbers are similar at Mercy, with vacancy rates of 10% to 15%, with ‘functional’ vacancy rates, those that take into account open positions but also those employees on leave, being much higher, in some departments as much as 30% or more.

At Cooley Dickinson, Watkins noted, the number fluctuates anywhere between 9% and 12%, with the majority in nursing and nursing support.

In response to these developments, hospitals have made adjustments, said those we spoke with, including higher wages for many positions, expanded benefits eligibility, bonuses, ramped-up recruiting efforts, job fairs, and other steps, all aimed at bringing improvement when it comes to both hiring and retention.

And in some respects, they’re working, said Keroack, noting that these efforts are bringing in between 100 and 150 new workers each week, with the ratio of people coming in to those leaving being roughly 2 to 1.

“So we’re gaining on the problem, but it still quite significant,” he said, adding that, to that point in time, the system had spent roughly $40 million on bonuses and shift differentials, and another $40 million on contract-labor expenses, for calendar year 2021.

Looking ahead, those we spoke with said that, eventually, the laws of supply and demand will being improvement to the staffing crisis, but relief is not likely to come any time soon.

Keroack said part of the problem, especially when it comes to nurses, is simply getting enough people into and then through the pipeline.

“There’s a tremendous shortage of nursing faculty members — we had a number of senior seniors take early retirement — and so the pipeline simply wasn’t fat enough to completely replenish the pool in a quick amount of time,” he said. “We have waiting lists of people wanting to go to nursing school, but they’re limited by the number of clinical placements and the number of faculty.”

Roose agreed. “I think that at some point, a few years from now, things will start to settle out, perhaps sooner if there can be some major interventions at the federal level from a legislative perspective, as well as reconnecting with some of the meaning behind why people get into healthcare in the first place,” he noted. “This can spur people to enter the field as a result of wanting to be part of something so transformative.

“Long-term, we could build some strength out of this,” he went on. “But short-term, it’s going to be very challenging.”

The same can be said the mounting mental-health crisis impacting the region and the entire country, said Watkins, expressing optimism that American Rescue Plan Act funds can and will be put to use to address this emerging issue.

“A lot of what’s coming through this act will definitely help on all fronts and all healthcare providers,” she explained, “but especially our mental-health professionals and building that pipeline to increase access to care — because we’ve all suffered, and if we’re not looking into mental-health support services, we should.”

And while COVID has certainly given all those in healthcare a number of headaches and challenges, it has also given this sector the opportunity, born of necessity, to innovate and find and new and often better ways of doing things and caring for patients, said Watkins, adding that perhaps the best example of this is the rise of telehealth, a trend that will certainly continue in 2022 and beyond.

“While a lot of people might have thought about telehealth before the first wave of the pandemic, now it’s here, and it’s here to stay,” she said, with conviction in her voice. “Whether it’s teleradiology, teleneurology, or other ways of engaging telehealth … this has emerged as one of the key delivery options of the future; there’s more access, without the inconvenience of travel and waiting. The emergence of telehealth has been a real game changer.”

Summing things up, Watkins maintained her glass-half-full outlook, but stressed repeatedly that 2022 will pose the same challenges as the past two years, and they will likely increase in intensity before there is solid improvement.

“We have a very, very depleted workforce,” she said while speaking for all her colleagues in the industry, “and a very, very sick population.”

 

— George O’Brien

Economic Outlook

Region’s Colleges, Universities Face More Stern Tests in 2022

 

Looking ahead to 2022, Sandra Doran projects that this will be what she called “the year of the woman.”

Elaborating, she said many women have put their lives, careers, and educational goals on hold the past few years. And she projects that many will be making up for lost time in the months to come as the region and its large and important higher-education sector look to return to something that has been quite elusive since March 2020: normalcy.

“COVID has had a disproportionate impact on women, both in the workforce and in higher education,” said Doran, president of Bay Path University in Longmeadow, a women’s college, at least at the undergraduate level. “Many people lost their jobs, and many students weren’t able to continue, especially our adult students, those who work and live and go to school, and our graduate students — many of them had to delay their own aspirations. And I see many people saying, ‘I’m not going to put that aside any longer.’”

Sandra Doran

Sandra Doran

“Many people lost their jobs, and many students weren’t able to continue, especially our adult students, those who work and live and go to school, and our graduate students — many of them had to delay their own aspirations. And I see many people saying, ‘I’m not going to put that aside any longer.’”

The area’s colleges certainly need this to be the year of the woman — and a better year all around. Many had been struggling with enrollment before the pandemic, due to smaller high-school graduating classes, but other factors as well. And the pandemic only exacerbated the problem, with enrollment down more than 3% nationally in the fall of 2021.

The region’s community colleges have been the hardest-hit, with double-digit drops in enrollment at all of them over the past two years, but all schools have been impacted by COVID.

“Like every state university in Massachusetts, we’re having enrollment challenges,” said Linda Thompson, who took the helm at Westfield State University last summer, noting that many are still wary about attending college in the midst of a pandemic.

Those we spoke with said ‘normal’ was something they were anticipating would return last fall. Indeed, as COVID cases plummeted over the summer and the economy reopened across the board, there were high expectations for that fall semester, said Harry Dumay, president of Elms College in Chicopee. But the Delta variant showed how quickly the picture, and expectations, can change.

And as the new year dawns, COVID and its Omicron variant loom large over this sector, with some uncertainty about whether schools can open their campuses for the spring semester (several closed their doors as Omicron cases spiked in the middle of December) and under what circumstances they can reopen.

“Fall of 2021 was actually a very good enrollment period for us.”

“We’ll be watching over the break to see how things develop, and we will have contingency plans in place if we need to do anything different,” said Dumay, adding that returning students must be vaccinated and receive their boosters as soon as they are eligible. “We’ll be as cautious and prudent as we were in the fall of 2021, and even more so, given what we’ve seen from Omicron.”

There are other challenges as well, especially a workforce crisis that hasn’t spared any sector, especially higher education.

“We have jobs that are going unfilled; we have jobs where, in the past, we’d have 100 applicants — we’re just not seeing that anymore,” said Thompson, noting this trend involves positions at every level and shows few if any signs of abating any time soon.

But amid the questions, concern, and uncertainty, there is also optimism, expressed by Dumay and others, that 2022, and especially the fall semester, will bring improvement on enrollment numbers and a return to something approaching normal.

Harry Dumay says he’s confident about the way enrollment is trending at the Elms heading into 2022.

Harry Dumay says he’s confident about the way enrollment is trending at the Elms heading into 2022.

Or continued improvement, as the case may be.

“Fall of 2021 was actually a very good enrollment period for us,” said Dumay, adding that, after a slight decline in the fall of 2020, the first semester after COVID made its arrival, the school — bucking those national trends — saw record applications among traditional, first-time freshmen, close to record acceptances, and one of the highest enrollment numbers for first-time freshmen in more than a decade.

Meanwhile, the numbers for transfer students and graduate students were also solid, with the latter helped by the opening of a graduate admissions office, he went on, adding that the only segment that was down was continuing education, the students who transfer from community colleges, a statistic in keeping with the struggles at those schools.

“As we look to the fall of 2022, everything is trending as it was in the fall of 2021,” he went on. “In fact, we’re ahead, year over year, in terms of applications, and all three segments that were good last year continue to look very solid for 2022.”

Doran shared that optimism. “I feel very confident about next fall,” she said. “Many students had an online experience over the past few years in high school, and now, they’re looking for a more personalized, in-person fall experience, and that’s what we’re really good at.

“I really see this as a very strong year for women in education and women in the workforce,” she went on. “And I feel that way for several reasons, starting with the fact that I hear women say, ‘we can no longer put on our lives on hold — we have to move forward aggressively, and part of our life plan is to make sure we have the right education.’

“But we also hear from employers that they’re very eager to fill their talent pipeline,” she went on. “They know our students, that they’re well-qualified and exceptional employees, and we’re working very closely with employers to make sure our curriculum provides our students with the strengths, capabilities, skillsets, and thinking ability to succeed; I see it on both sides of the equation.”

Linda Thompson

Linda Thompson

“We’re looking at more things we can do with community colleges. We need to streamline pathways from high school to community college to four-year institutions. These are the things that are going to much more prevalent moving forward.”

When asked if the phrase ‘pent-up demand,’ which is being heard in many contexts as the economy continues to grow, also pertains to higher education, those we spoke with offered a qualified ‘yes,’ noting that there is demand for education that is career-focused.

“I think we’re going to see increased enrollment in the online space, and I think it’s because women know that, to advance their careers and to realize their career aspirations, many of them need a credential, a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree — if you’re going to teach in Massachusetts, eventually you’ll need a master’s degree,” Doran said. “There’s a lot of momentum around educational attainment, particularly for our students. That’s because we’re really focused on student services, internship, career development, and making sure our curriculum aligns with workforce needs.”

Thompson agreed, noting that, as the number of high-school graduates continues to decline, colleges and universities need to increase their focus on those who may have tried college and stopped because life got in the way.

“Now, they’re probably looking for opportunities for growth and moving up in their jobs,” she noted. “So we need to do more to reach adult populations; faculty are starting to look at the way they offer courses, and probably will be offering more things in a blended format.

“Also, we’re looking at more things we can do with community colleges,” she went on. “We need to streamline pathways from high school to community college to four-year institutions. These are the things that are going to much more prevalent moving forward.”

Beyond enrollment and a long list or protocols to be followed and updated as necessary, COVID has brought other challenges as well, and these will certainly continue in 2022, said those we spoke with. Dumay told BusinessWest that managing through the pandemic has been difficult and exhausting on many levels.

“Across higher education, and across all industries, for that matter, people are tired,” he said. “If you ask any college president, they would say they and their teams are … fill in your favorite word — they’re on edge, they’re tired, they’re demoralized. And we’re paying attention to all that.”

Elaborating, he said ‘all that’ means paying more attention to the needs of students, obviously, but also faculty and staff, many of whom are coping with pandemic-related issues off the job as well as on it, and also focusing on the mental health of students.

“Students have different ways of coping with the uncertainty of the time,” he said. “And we’re seeing, across all campuses, a lot more students with mental-health issues, and COVID is exacerbating that.

“All of these things have created a whole lot of challenges, and there’s been very little let-up,” Dumay said in conclusion, adding that this trend, in addition to all the others, will almost certainly continue into the new year.”

Thompson agreed. “I think we’re going to be living with this virus for a long time,” she said. “I see it continuing to mutate; I see us having to be vigilant with hand washing, wearing masks, paying attention to our health and well-being, and doing whatever we need to do.”

 

— George O’Brien

Economic Outlook

Many Are Busy, But Challenges Linger as the New Year Dawns

 

Bart Raser says customers, contractors, and homeowners have all felt frustration

Bart Raser says customers, contractors, and homeowners have all felt frustration when their favorite brands aren’t available.

Bart Raser started by stating the obvious: 2021, like 2020, was “a great year to be in the hardware business.”

Indeed, many of those who found themselves working at home, or just spending more time at home because of COVID, found themselves wanting to work on their homes as well, and that certainly brought more customers — contractors and do-it-your-selfers alike — to the doors of the eight Carr Hardware locations, six in Western Mass. and two in Northern Conn., with the flagship store in Pittsfield.

But while business has certainly been good, there have been myriad challenges as well, from workforce shortages — which Raser, the company’s president, has largely been able to avoid, and he’s one of the few who can really say that — to inflation, production, and supply-chain issues, caused in large part by that soaring demand and a workforce crisis that no one in his sector has been able to avoid.

And that’s why large orders of grass seed, bird food, and other spring items will be arriving at those stores in a few days or a few weeks, rather than in mid-March, as is customary, because Raser’s team ordered well in advance to make sure the shelves would be stocked. And that’s also why he’s predicting it will be very difficult to buy a new lawnmower come April, and those forced to do so will pay a steep price for that item.

“Lawnmowers for spring look tricky — really, really tricky,” he told BusinessWest. “Some of the big manufacturers got out, and … there will be fewer choices and significantly higher prices.”

Raser’s story has its own specific nuances, but there are common threads for most all small-business owners in the region. For many, business has been good, although in most cases still not as good as before the pandemic. But there have been — and will continue to be — headwinds, like inflation, shortages of products that consumers want, lingering workforce issues, and the impact of all of the above on the bottom line.

Kris Houghton, a partner with the Holyoke-based accounting firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka, said 2021 was a time when her small-business clients were looking to put COVID behind them. That didn’t happen, obviously, and as they continued to battle the pandemic and many new challenges emerged or escalated, especially the workforce crisis and the rising cost of everything from labor to health insurance.

“There’s definitely an employee shortage, which is causing employers to have to pay more than they would otherwise have paid in the past,” she explained. “And, of course, paying more leads to two things: they either increase prices to their customers, or there is less profit for them in the end. It’s a compounding problem, and the biggest issue is employees.”

But there are others, including supply chain, she said, adding that businesses in many sectors could have done better in 2021, if they only had product to sell or produce. That’s true of auto dealers, obviously, but also hardware chains, restaurants, and manufacturers.

“Supply chain is also a big problem because, if businesses can’t get the product, they can’t sell it,” Houghton noted. “And if they want the product bad enough, they pay increased shipping costs to try to make product available; all this is leading to diminished bottom lines.”

And these dynamics become even more critical in the months ahead, she went on, because most federal support programs, from PPP to the employee-retention credit, have expired or soon will.

“Those were lifelines to try to restore a little bit to their bottom lines,” she said. “So there is concern about the future. In New England, we’re resilient, and some businesses were fortunate enough to have some reserves that can help them carry on. I don’t know about the other businesses. Are they going to be able to borrow? Are they going to run up costly debt? Are business owners going to be relying on credit cards, which come with 18% interest? These are some of the questions that will be answered in 2022.”

“Supply chain is also a big problem because, if businesses can’t get the product, they can’t sell it. And if they want the product bad enough, they pay increased shipping costs to try to make product available; all this is leading to diminished bottom lines.”

As noted, 2021 was a solid year for many small businesses, especially those in manufacturing and related services. Jeanne Bell, controller and co-owner of Westside Finishing Co. in Holyoke, spoke for many when she said her company struggled to keep up with demand from customers who saw a surge in orders themselves.

“We ended up having a really good year,” she said. “It started off rocky, of course — the first two quarters, we were eligible for the employee-retention credit, but the second half of the year has been really, really busy, and it looks like it’s going to continue into next year.”

She said Westside is a job shop that power-coats parts and ships them back out again. Clients, and there are many, include OEMs like East Longmeadow-based Excel Dryer.

“We work for a variety of industries, and all of them are busy right now,” she told BusinessWest. “We’re actually turning down work right now because we can’t do it all; we would have to start a second shift to have more capacity, and we probably wouldn’t mind doing that if we thought we could get the people, but that’s our biggest challenge — workforce.”

Elaborating, she said the company’s labor costs rose in 2021, and one of the big reasons why was the need to hire additional staff to fill in for those out with COVID. And those additional costs kept this past year from being as profitable as others in the past.

Looking back, and ahead, she said overall sales in 2021 were not quite at pre-COVID levels. But she believes the company can get there in 2022, if current trends involving customers continue, if the economy continues to grow, and if some of those issues impacting clients themselves, including production and supply chain, work themselves out.

That’s a good number of ‘ifs,’ but overall, she said there is ample reason to be optimistic about the year ahead.

“We’re actually turning down work right now because we can’t do it all; we would have to start a second shift to have more capacity, and we probably wouldn’t mind doing that if we thought we could get the people, but that’s our biggest challenge — workforce.”

Raser concurred, but noted that most of the issues that came to the surface in 2021, especially when it comes to production and supply-chain woes — due to everything from soaring demand to workforce shortages to that large number of container ships waiting in a queue to be unloaded — are expected to linger well into 2022. He said roughly 3,000 of the 38,000 products his company sells have been impacted by both production and supply-chain issues, with that list including everything from paint and batteries to plumbing supplies and those aforementioned lawnmowers and other types of power equipment.

Paint manufacturers have been especially hard hit, he noted, adding that resin plants in Texas were set back by a succession of natural disasters, including the snow and freezing temperatures last winter and, later, hurricanes, as well as workforce challenges.

“All the big manufacturers of paint — Sherwin Williams, PPG, and Benjamin Moore — are all really struggling,” he noted. “And our painting contractors are very frustrated, as are their customers and homeowners as well. We’re been around a long time and have a lot of brands, so we’re able to pull a lot of levers to keep items in stock, but people have to flexible — they may have to consider moving to a different brand or a different product to get their project done.”

That part about being flexible goes for small businesses as well. This past year was solid for many of them, but business wasn’t the ‘normal’ that people had been hoping for, and expecting, around this time last year.

As we turn the calendars again, there are similar hopes and large doses of optimism, but the reality is that normal, as we knew it 22 months ago, is still an elusive target.

 

— George O’Brien

Economic Outlook

There Were Glimpses of Progress in 2021, and More Are Expected

When asked to project what lies ahead, Rick Sullivan said he believes the region got a taste of what he expects 2022 will be like last summer and early fall — before Delta and Omicron entered the lexicon.

Flashing back, he said the tourism sector was rebounding on many levels, with the Big E on its way to a very solid year, many other attractions across the region open again, and most all restaurants and other types of venues taking full advantage of large amounts of pent-up demand.

Meanwhile, the housing market was (and still is) booming, in part because there was considerable interest in moving to this region among those in Boston, New York, and other markets due to the growing popularity, and availability, of remote work. And the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council, which Sullivan serves as president and CEO, was seeing an uptick in inquiries and site searches involving the region, with much of the interest coming from transportation and distribution companies, but also some manufacturers as well.

Rick Sullivan

Rick Sullivan

“From a retail and from a travel and tourism point of view, the future looks bright, and we had that taste of it.”

“We didn’t quite get to where we thought we’d be when we looked into our crystal balls at the start of 2021, but I thought we caught a glimpse of where we will be in the summer and early fall,” he said. “From a retail and from a travel and tourism point of view, the future looks bright, and we had that taste of it.”

That ‘taste,’ as Sullivan called it, could be a preview of 2022, and there is considerable optimism that it will be. But there are many question marks regarding what’s on the horizon, and most all of them are COVID-related in some way, shape, or form.

That includes a workforce crisis that has impacted every sector of the economy and spawned the term ‘Great Resignation,’ as well as supply-chain issues, enormous stress and strain on healthcare providers, and a host of challenges for small businesses, including, by and large, the end to COVID-generated federal relief measures such as PPP and the employee-retention credit.

As for COVID, itself, its unpredictability — and deep impact on the economy and specific business sectors — were on full display in December, said Tom Senecal, president of Holyoke-based PeoplesBank, citing postponed business conferences, canceled holiday parties (including one scheduled by his company), and the ripple effect all this had on businesses that were projecting a far better end to 2021, as just one example.

“COVID is going to be the impactful event of the beginning of 2022 — it might alter the way we continue to do business,” he said. “It comes down to mandates and whether businesses can stay open. Some colleges are closing; think about how it might affect the Amherst and Northampton market if colleges are closing and maybe not reopening depending upon how COVID goes.”

But despite great uncertainty about COVID and other issues, such as inflation and the fact that is no longer transitory in the eyes of the Fed, there is optimism that soon — how soon no one knows — the region may be see more of what it caught a glimpse of in 2021.

Vince Jackson, executive director of the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce, said many businesses returned to 2019 levels of revenue last year, and many others that didn’t at least came close, with expections that they will in the year ahead. But in many ways, the situation is similar to what the region was experiencing a year ago. As 2021 dawned, there was a general feeling that the worst was over and that ‘normal’ was maybe a quarter or two away. The reality was much different, of course.

“One of the things we learned from 2021 is that things are ever-changing,” he explained. “The outlook could be one way today, but end up being very different. We didn’t know what to expect at the end of 2020 as we headed into 2021, and we were just hoping for the best. And … here we are again, ending the year with a lot of uncertainty, just as much uncertainty going into 2022.”

As the new year starts, Jackson noted, many business owners, especially those in the retail and hospitality sectors that dominate Northampton’s economy, are looking for more consistent statewide direction regarding masking, vaccinations, and other COVID-related matters.

Vince Jackson

Vince JacksonVince Jackson

“One of the things we learned from 2021 is that things are ever-changing. The outlook could be one way today, but end up being very different. We didn’t know what to expect at the end of 2020 as we headed into 2021, and we were just hoping for the best. And … here we are again, ending the year with a lot of uncertainty, just as much uncertainty going into 2022.”

“Most business owners are looking for guidance on masking so that they don’t have to end up being the mask police,” he said, adding that many have questions about whether masks should be mandated or simply advised, because business can be lost depending on the answer.

Like Sullivan and others we spoke with, Jackson said 2021, or at least a short slice of it during the summer, provided a glimpse of what everyone is hoping for in 2022.

“As the year went on, things got better,” he recalled. “Summer came, the economy reopened, and people were ready to get outside and return to a sense of normalcy. We saw that in almost every sector of business, and the response was beyond expectations because of the community’s response, the public’s response, to returning to what was normal for them.

“From a restaurant standpoint, there was outdoor dining for those not quite ready to get out as much, and there was still takeout. But then, there was a whole statewide initiative to push indoor dining because we had the vaccines and things were safe,” he went on. “As I look back, I think we need to learn from history because we’re kind of in the same cycle in most people’s minds.”

Looking back at 2021, Jackson said the dominant limiting factor for most businesses was workforce. It kept many restaurants closed an additional day, or even two, each week, and it kept many types of businesses from realizing their full potential as the economy roared back to life in last spring and summer as COVID restrictions were lifted.

Thus, perhaps the biggest question hanging over 2022, beyond COVID, of course, is whether there will be any improvement on the labor front.

Tom Senecal says COVID is going to be the impactful

Tom Senecal says COVID is going to be the impactful event of early 2022, and might continue to alter the way business is done.

It’s too early to tell, but at present, there are few signs of real progress, said Senecal, who related a recent experience at the bank that speaks volumes about how deep and widespread the problem is.

“We had an open, entry-level position a few months ago that 16 people applied for; 16 people set up an interview, and 16 people didn’t show up the interview,” he recalled. “No phone call, no nothing.”

As alarming as that is, what’s perhaps more disconcerting is a lack of solid answers for what is behind this and similar episodes being recorded at businesses across the region.

“I don’t know what that says,” Senecal said, with a note of exasperation in his voice. “This was a few months ago, after the unemployment benefits ran out. I don’t understand that phenomenon and why it’s happening now.”

Sullivan concurred, and said that what the past few months have clearly shown is that the problem is much deeper than unemployment benefits and also rests with issues such as childcare, elder care, and the retirement of many in the Baby Boom generation.

“Every business has the help-wanted sign out, and you’ve seen things like sign-on bonuses and higher wages, which I think is a healthy thing for the economy,” he told BusinessWest. “Our employers have had to get a little more creative with incentives to keep the employees they have, and they’ve had to do things to bring new workers in. It’s not a regional problem, but a national one, and it’s one we’re going to have to come to grips with in 2022.”

“Our employers have had to get a little more creative with incentives to keep the employees they have, and they’ve had to do things to bring new workers in. It’s not a regional problem, but a national one, and it’s one we’re going to have to come to grips with in 2022.”

Meanwhile, there are other challenges the region must contend with in the weeks, months, and quarters to come.

“Supply chain and inflation are the two biggest economic dampers, both nationally and regionally,” Senecal said. “Core inflation is up 6%, gas is up 33%, cars are up 12% … when you talk inflation, it’s not the 6%, it’s the things outside the core inflation index that are really driving up prices. And the Fed has taken the words ‘temporary’ or ‘transitory’ out of their projections, meaning the Fed believes it’s real inflation.”

But while there are challenges, there are opportunities as well, said those we spoke with, noting that 2021 brought some positive signs when it comes to interest among both individuals and businesses alike to come to Western Mass. to take advantage of its quality of life and lower overall cost of living.

As for individuals, many have decided they can live in the 413 and work essentially wherever they want, said Sullivan, adding that this dynamic certainly impacted the local housing market, driving prices higher as inventory levels fell, following the laws of supply and demand.

And on the business side, there has been an uptick in activity when it comes to site selectors inquiring about the 413.

“We currently have more than 40 site searches going on, and that number has been pretty consistent for us over the past year or two,” he said. “And that’s a healthy number; it’s at the high end of what we’ve traditionally seen. It doesn’t mean that everyone is going to come here, obviously, but it does mean that people are out there looking.

“And the big difference this year, as opposed to perhaps few years ago, is that this interest comes in different sectors,” Sullivan went on. “We’ve always been historically attractive to the transportation and logistics companies because we’re at the crossroads of New England, and businesses can easily serve the Northeast given the Turnpike, I-91, and the other highways here, and rail and the airports. But we’re seeing the sectors increase, everything from manufacturing, which we had not seen a lot of, to cybersecurity and Big Data, such as the proposal for Westfield.”

Overall, Sullivan and others said the trends, both positive and negative, will continue into 2022, which should — and COVID will obviously have a lot to say about this — provide more than just a glimpse, or taste, of better times.

 

— George O’Brien

Economic Outlook

Optimism Abounds, but Many Factors Make It Difficult to Project

Bob Nakosteen started his discussion concerning the regional and national economy with a quick rejoinder that doubled as something to top everyone’s wish list.

“Well, if we put aside COVID…” he started while talking about the year ahead and, more specifically, about inflation and optimism that the Fed’s anticipated actions to raise interest rates will stem the rising tide of the past few quarters and bring it more under control in the months to come.

Overall (COVID notwithstanding), Nakosteen, a semi-retired professor of Economics at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst, said most factors involving the economy are positive — everything from consumer confidence to jobless rates; from a still-white-hot housing market to persistent pent-up demand for goods and services, especially the former.

Of course, you can’t take COVID out of the equation, as much as we all might like to, and that’s why predicting just what will happen in 2022 with regard to the economy and the many forces that drive it is still somewhat of a crapshoot.

Still, there is general optimism when it comes to the big picture and matters such as inflation — even though the Fed and others have dropped the word ‘transitory’ when talking about the issue — confidence, supply chain, the stock market, and perhaps even the workforce crisis, said Nakosteen and others we spoke with.

Karl Petrick

“The Fed wants to make sure it doesn’t jam on the brakes and raise interest rates so fast that they cause the recession they’re trying to avoid. It’s not good to get a recession named after you.”

Indeed, earlier this month, in a note to clients, Marko Kalanovic, JPMorgan’s chief global strategist, wrote, “our view is that 2022 will be a year of a full global recovery, and end of the global pandemic, and return to normal conditions we had prior to the COVID-19 outbreak.”

All that might still happen in the next 12 months, but the events of the past few weeks show that recovery may be slower, and perhaps not as complete as JPMorgan projects.

Karl Petrick, a professor of Economics at Western New England University, told BusinessWest that inflation should ease up in 2022 and retreat from highs of nearly 7% (year over year) in November to below 5% and perhaps to 4% or even 3% in the months ahead.

He said soaring gas prices, triggered by the laws of supply and demand as the economy started to roar back to life roughly a year ago, have been a big factor in soaring inflation, and they have already started to fall.

“It takes time for supply to meet that surge in demand, and as oil suppliers rebound, we expect to see that price come down, and we’re already seeing some moderation,” he said, adding that, if the impact of Omicron on the global economy is substantial — and already there are signs of slowdown and even shutdown in some countries — then demand for energy (and, therefore, the prices for same) will come down.

“Regardless, we expect to see inflation moderate,” he said. “It will still be a little uncomfortable compared to what we’re used to — we had gotten used to prices going up 2% or 1% a year, and that was part of the shock we felt as prices really started to jump the second half of this year — but things will improve.”

One key to what happens with inflation is action on interest rates, said Nakosteen and Petrick, noting that the Fed is certainly paving the way for higher rates. In mid-December, the central bank announced plans to phase out its large-scale bond-buying program faster than initially planned. That will give the Fed more flexibility to raise rates, and 12 of the 18 members of the Fed’s rate-setting committee expect rates to rise by three-quarters of a percentage point or more in 2022.

While such action is expected to keep higher inflation from becoming more entrenched, there are risks and costs to raising rates, said Petrick, adding that the Fed wants to keep inflation in check without slowing the pace of growth or, far worse, putting the country on a course to a recession.

That’s what happened in the early ’80s, he said, when then Fed Chairman Paul Volker elevated interest rates to historic levels, which triggered a recession that, in many historical references, bears his name.

Bob Nakosteen

Bob Nakosteen

“I don’t think the Fed is going to have to raise interest rates to the point where it’s going to dip us into a recession.”

“The Fed wants to make sure it doesn’t jam on the brakes and raise interest rates so fast that they cause the recession they’re trying to avoid,” Petrick said. “It’s not good to get a recession named after you.”

Nakosteen agreed, and said that, overall, he’s in the camp that believes that higher inflation as was seen over the last three quarters of 2021 will be transitory — and not built into the economy, as others predict — but perhaps for a longer period than everyone would like. He also agrees that, while the Fed is talking tough about inflation and the need to keep it in check, its overall response will not be as tough as the talk.

“I don’t think the Fed is going to have to raise interest rates to the point where it’s going to dip us into a recession,” he told BusinessWest. “The economy is going to continue to grow, maybe not as quickly, inflation is going to come down over the next year, and interest rates are going to go up, but not by very much; it will affect the housing market and automobiles.”

Petrick agreed, projecting “pretty reasonable” growth for the year ahead, but adding quickly that events of even the past few weeks — the rise of Omicron and setbacks for President Biden’s Build Back Better program among them — have tempered some of those expectations.

“At the beginning of December, before we knew the Omicron variant was as prevalent as it was internationally, growth projections were pretty high, about 4% to 5% globally, and about 4% in the United States,” he said. “And then … those projections came down to about 3.7% to 3.8%, and now, with the doubts about the Build Back Better agenda getting through Congress, they’ve been downgraded again, to 3% to 3.5% on an annual basis next year — that’s the consensus that I’ve seen.

“But the first quarter will be pretty quiet, with about 2% growth, which was our average, pre-COVID,” he went on. “And that’s a big slowdown from this year, when we saw 5.5% growth overall, which was expected.”

As for the longer-term picture … Petrick said the consensus, if there is one, is that there will be continued growth in 2023, perhaps 2.5% to 2.9%. But as the events of the past few weeks have shown, things can change — and very quickly.

So projecting too far out is obviously difficult. For now, there is widespread if cautious optimism about which way the arrow will point in 2022.

But as Nakosteen noted, the past two long and mostly painful years have shown that there is simply no putting COVID aside. u

 

— George O’Brien

Cover Story

Standing Out in His Field

Myke Connolly is a serial entrepreneur who has always understood — and always preached — the power of marketing.

Myke Connolly is a serial entrepreneur who has always understood — and always preached — the power of marketing.

Myke Connolly, known to some as Mr. Stinky Cakes, is a serial entrepreneur who has always understood — and always preached — the power of marketing. His latest venture is a business that brings that message to light, figuratively but also quite literally. Stand Out Truck has now attracted clients ranging from parents of high-school graduates to the local shop to President Biden — or at least one of his marketing teams. The goal is to make this a national brand, and he’s well down that road.

Myke Connolly says the e-mail found its way into his inbox around 2 that Monday afternoon.

The firm handling some marketing and promotion work for the Biden administration wanted to know if Connolly and his team at Stand Out Truck could have one of his vehicles — pickup trucks outfitted to carry digital wording and imaging — in New Hampshire the next day to present a message promoting the president’s Build Back Better plan of action.

The quick answer, as it almost always is with such inquiries, was ‘yes.’

By early that evening, the message “Better Roads. Better Bridges. Better Jobs. — Brought to you by Joe Biden” — complete with a picture of the 46th president — had been readied, and before dawn the next morning, a crew was on its way to the Granite State.

“We spent some time in Manchester, then we went to Woodstock, where the president spoke in front of that bridge, and then we went back to Manchester, and then back to Springfield — it was an eight-hour campaign,” he noted, adding that, other than the name on the account, this was much like most of his gigs to date.

The assignment from the Biden camp gives Connolly and Stand Out Truck (SOT) a new and impressive top line for its growing list of clients, and a new example of how quickly the company can respond to client needs and present a message to an intended audience.

And since this serial entrepreneur known to some as ‘Mr. Stinky Cakes’ launched this venture just as the pandemic was arriving in this region (more on that later), there have been all kinds of messages — and all kinds of audiences.

In that first category, there’s been everything from birthday wishes and congratulations to a high-school or college graduate to last-minute messages from political candidates; from invites to a pitch contest to welcome messages from a bank with a new branch in the neighborhood. The audiences, meanwhile, have ranged from families to groups attending a VFW-sponsored car show to cities and counties, as in New Hampshire.

Stand Out Truck landed a high-profile assignment helping President Biden promote his Build Back Better plan.

Stand Out Truck landed a high-profile assignment helping President Biden promote his Build Back Better plan.

And while the concept is gathering speed, as well as clients, Connolly believes he’s just getting started. Indeed, while he has one eye on the present and his two trucks on the road, his other is on the future and prospects for taking the business to the regional and even national levels, with perhaps licensing options (there’s already one of those in place) and franchising.

“The goal is to build a national brand — eventually, I want to take my company public,” he said, adding that he’s building for the long term and striving for steady growth.

Meanwhile, Connolly, 39, lives by what he encourages his clients to do — aggressively marketing his business. He said the Biden camp found him not by accident, but because he’s visible and always promoting what he does. And he advises businesses — and those politicians — to do the same; indeed, Stand Out Truck is an offshoot, or expansion, of a marketing business he started called Launch and Stand Out Agency. That’s the same title he put on a book he wrote in 2013.

“We make ourselves so visible and so accessible, we have some high-profile people that reach out to us all the time,” he explained, he said, adding that his business model is all about getting a message across — figuratively, but, in the case of his trucks, also quite literally.

“The goal is to build a national brand — eventually, I want to take my company public.”

And this new venture is the culmination of three decades (yes, he started when he was in grammar school) of being in business and marketing himself and his products and services.

“I always tell people … it’s not the truck,” he said. “It’s everything behind it; that’s why it works.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Connolly about his latest venture, a lifetime (almost) of entrepreneurship, and how, in his words, he’s marketing “in slow motion.”

 

Seeing His Name in Lights

Connolly’s relatively new mailing address is a small suite in the Venture X complex — a co-working space — in Holyoke. Along one wall of that space is a collection of more than 100 photos of his Stand Out Trucks in action.

The wall is almost entirely full, and these framed images speak to just how far this venture has come in almost two years. And as he talked, Connolly kept gesturing … to the Biden assignment. To his message to an employee enjoying a birthday — “his phone was ringing all day because people were seeing the truck.” To at least a half-dozen political candidates and their messages. To several corporate clients with various messages. To high-school graduates … the list goes on.

One wall of Myke Connolly’s space at Venture X

One wall of Myke Connolly’s space at Venture X is covered by photos of his Stand Out Trucks in action.

The road to filling that wall has been a long one, with a number of twists and turns.

As noted earlier, Connolly is a serial entrepreneur. He’s been in business and marketing, and also studying business and marketing, to some extent since he was 9.

Connolly grew up in the Bahamas and spent a lot of his time with his stepfather, who owned a pest-control business. He remembers a lot about those days, but especially what he saw on the coffee tables and TVs of clients, especially the wealthy ones. The coffee tables boasted business magazines, and the TVs had shows with the stock-market crawler at the bottom.

“I would go home and watch the TV show with the ticker,” he recalled. “I understood nothing, but I knew enough to know that all these successful people were doing the same thing — and watching that ticker — so there had to be something to that.”

While watching, he did a lot of reading and learned about successful entrepreneurs like Yankee Candle founder Mike Kittredge, Vermont Teddy Bear founder John Sortino, and many others — stories he said he could understand as a young person and draw inspiration from.

When, in 2008, he started his first business, Stinky Cakes, which offered practical gifts to new parents such as cakes shaped from diapers (hence the name), he would call on Kittredge, Sortino, and some of the others to talk about marketing, brand building, and much more.

“In month two, they started canceling graduations. So I said, ‘forget about selling ad space to businesses … I’m just going to go celebrate all these kids that I know.’ I turned it into a graduation truck.”

“These guys were in my phone; when I had questions, I would call them,” he told BusinessWest. “And that’s why I encourage kids today to read and to learn about entrepreneurs, and to reach out to them; truly successful people always want to find a way to help.”

As for marketing, Connolly says he’s been doing that since he was 9, when he would take some of the candy his grandmother would bring back from trips to Florida and sell it to classmates in school.

“I had flavors, like Jolly Ranchers, that the school store didn’t have,” he explained. “I didn’t know it was marketing at the time, but I started giving the candy to kids in my class. That’s how simple marketing is — showing people that would buy what you have that you have what they want.”

As a result of his success in business and marketing, Connolly was asked to do some teaching, guest lecturing, and mentoring of young entrepreneurs by groups like Valley Venture Mentors and EforAll Holyoke.

He focuses heavily on building credit, creating solid cash flow, and sound money management. “If you don’t know how to manage your money, none of this will ever work,” he said. “I say, ‘you can be making $1 million a year, but it you’re spending $1.5 million … then you’re in big trouble.’”

One course he’s taught is called the “100 Grand Plan,” which, as that name suggests, advises those taking it on how to make their first $100,000. Among the keys to doing so, and one that is often overlooked, is marketing.

“In order to make money, you have to understand marketing, but no matter how much we laid it out and taught them, some of them just didn’t get it,” he told BusinessWest. “So some of them started asking me to do their marketing for them.”

This led to the creation of the Launch and Stand Out agency, he went on, adding that one of his clients wanted to feature children on billboards across the country and hired him to do some of the buying of space on those boards.

This experience prompted him to want become part of what’s known as the ‘out-of-home’ advertising business, and, specifically, digital billboards — in this case, ones that move.

“I had a group of really intelligent engineers put together the truck … and we just started,” he said, joking that he could have bought two Ferraris for what he spent on the trucks and the related equipment.

 

The Road to Success

A big component of any business venture is timing, said Connolly, adding that, with Stand Out Truck, his was awful. For the most part, anyway.

He launched on March 9, 2020, a carefully chosen date that coincides with the death (in 1997) of rapper Biggie Smalls. Unfortunately, it also coincided with the arrival of COVID-19. Indeed, just as he was putting his trucks on the road, the state and most all businesses were shutting down, and people across the region were hunkering down.

Myke Connolly’s clients run the gamut

Myke Connolly’s clients run the gamut from local organizations to national brands.

It was a tough time to start, but Connelly, again practicing what he preaches — in lectures to college students, advice to young entrepreneurs, and also in the book he wrote called Launch and Stand Out — made sure he started out with enough capital to withstand what he expected would be a few soft months of getting his name and product out and building up the business.

Business turned out to even softer than he anticipated. But he was helped by some of those connections he made teaching and lecturing in area colleges.

“In month two, they started canceling graduations,” he recalled. “So I said, ‘forget about selling ad space to businesses … I’m just going to go celebrate all these kids that I know.’ I turned it into a graduation truck.”

Elaborating, he said he essentially covered half the cost of hiring one of his trucks to celebrate a graduate himself, charging the rest to families looking for a unique way to honor a son or daughter not able to walk across a stage to pick up a diploma.

“I made it super affordable,” he recalled. “Kids were being celebrated on the truck for $75, and that included photography, editing the photos, everything; we gave them something really special. We probably did more than 500 of those.”

Since that adventurous start, the company has been steadily building its client base, which now includes everything from the local pizza shop to national brands (Texas Roadhouse, for example) to the president, and the goal is the same with all of them — to help get the message out, but in a unique and somewhat powerful way.

The concept caught the attention of PeoplesBank, which first used one of Connolly’s trucks to drive applications to the EforAll Holyoke class last spring. The bank used the company for its own business for the opening of a branch in West Hartford, hiring SOT to generate awareness around the banking-center location prior to its official opening, and also to appear at the grand-opening party and a nearby ‘build day’ undertaken in conjunction with Habitat for Humanity in Hartford.

“Mychal is a ‘hustler’ in the very best sense of the word,” said Matt Bannister, senior vice president of Marketing and Corporate Responsibility for the bank. “He has endless energy and enthusiasm, tremendous work ethic, and a strong focus on getting results for his customers. The SOT allows us to bring our message to places it might not ordinarily reach, and the quality of the images on the truck is a good representation of the brand.”

Moving forward, Connolly, who now boasts a team of 10, including designers, drivers, and those managing the equipment, wants to earn more testimonials like that. With them, he believes his goal of taking the company national — and eventually going public — are perhaps within reach.

“Some people think we’re a guy with a truck. We’re not — we’re a startup, and we’re looking to build the right way,” he said, adding that, while there are digital billboards in virtually every market, his concept is relatively unique. Meanwhile, he brings strong marketing experience to the table that can help clients create a strategy, not merely a message on wheels.

“I’m not just a guy with a truck — I’ve been doing marketing since I was 9 years old,” he went on. “I love marketing, and I respect the craft of marketing, and I love giving that to my clients. It’s not just about putting a picture on a truck and driving around.”

 

To a Higher Gear

In addition to all those framed pictures of his trucks in action, Connolly’s office also sports a small sign that serves to inform and inspire both his students and himself.

It features numbers breaking down what $1 million a year in revenue equates to, as in … $83,333 a month, $19,230 a week, and $2,739 a day. There’s then a poignant tagline: ‘Dreams Don’t Work Unless You Do.’

Connolly has lived by that credo all his life, and Stand Out Truck is the latest example. He doesn’t know where he can go with this concept, but he’s allowing himself to think, and dream, big.

That’s the message he drives home to his students and mentees, and now … well, he’s driving home all kinds of messages. And, in doing so, writing another stirring chapter in the book that is his life.

 

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

Features Special Coverage

The Year in Review

You could have called it ‘COVID — year 2.’ Many people did. It was supposed to be the year the pandemic was put in the rear view. But it didn’t work out that way. Instead, 2021 was a year in which COVID-19 not only stayed with us, but multiplied its impact in numerous ways, especially within the business community. The shutdowns, heavy restrictions, canceled events, and long lines for testing in 2020 gave way to vaccinations, a general reopening of the economy, and the return of many events and institutions — from the Big E to the Thunderbirds to the local chambers’ After-5 gatherings — in 2021. But there was also inflation, supply-chain issues, a workforce crisis, profound changes in how and where work is done, and something that came to be known as the Great Resignation. But it was also a year when the local cannabis industry continued to grow and broaden its already significant impact on the region, Smith & Wesson announced it was moving its headquarters to Tennessee, tourism bounced back in a big way, and the region lost one its iconic entrepreneurs and restaurateurs. It was another year to remember — or forget, depending on your point of view. With that, here’s a look back at the biggest stories of the past year.

 

 

COVID-19

Actually, COVID wasn’t one story; it was perhaps a dozen different stories all happening at once, some of which you’ll read about below. There was the virus itself, which evolved into different variants, including Delta and, most recently, Omicron. But there were many side effects from the pandemic, each one being a big story in its own way.

That list includes vaccinations — and there are several different aspects to that story — and also ongoing changes to the workplace, a workforce crisis spawned in many ways by the pandemic, supply-chain shortages, inflation generated by huge amounts of money being infused into the economy at a time when there were shortages of many items, and much more.

The news that everyone had been waiting for — the lifting of all restrictions placed on businesses as a result of COVID — came just before Memorial Day. BusinessWest announced this critical turn with the cover headline ‘The Next Stage.’ In actuality, the next stage wasn’t all that most businesses thought it would be, as many of them were now facing new challenges, such as severe labor shortages, the inability to order parts and supplies, lingering issues regarding remote work, and, much later, matters regarding vaccination (more on all these later).

“In most all respects, things were much better in 2021 than they were in 2020, but ‘normal,’ as in pre-COVID, was elusive for many businesses, large and small.”

Still, in most all respects, things were much better in 2021 than they were in 2020, but ‘normal,’ as in pre-COVID, was elusive for many businesses, large and small. From car dealerships with very few new cars on the lots — and used cars taking up showroom space — to restaurants having to close an extra day during the week because they couldn’t get enough help, there were many signs that the pandemic wasn’t going to be relegated to the past tense any time soon. And with the number of cases and hospitalizations spiking this month, it seems certain there will be a ‘year 3’ of COVID — and, for now, great uncertainty about what that will bring.

The Workforce Crisis

Perhaps the most enduring image from this past year, at least within the business community, was the help-wanted sign. It appeared in the window of every kind of business imaginable, from restaurants to manufacturing plants; from roofing companies to landscapers; from golf courses to supermarkets. The list goes on. Everyone was looking for help. And most of them still are.

Indeed, what can only be called a workforce crisis shows no signs of letting up, with signs saying ‘Help Wanted,’ ‘Join Our Team,’ and ‘We’re Hiring’ still dominating the landscape. BusinessWest covered the story extensively and from many different angles in 2021, interviewing everyone from law-firm managing partners to hospital administrators to restaurant owners. They were all saying the same thing: good help is very hard to find, and for many reasons.

For much of the year, one of the presumed factors was attractive (many would say too attractive) federal unemployment benefits. But when those benefits ended in September, the problem did not improve appreciably. Meanwhile, the workforce crisis has had a number of side effects of its own, including higher wages, the need for sign-on bonuses and other incentives, and, most importantly, lost business opportunities from simply not having enough help. And the matter of finding help became greatly complicated by the growing need for help.

“Perhaps the most enduring image from this past year, at least within the business community, was the help-wanted sign. It appeared in the window of every kind of business imaginable.”

That’s why the phrase ‘Great Resignation’ entered the lexicon in 2021, a reference to the millions of people who left their jobs over the course of the year for reasons ranging from the ability to retire early to job dissatisfaction to mandated vaccinations. Overall, it was a good year to be looking for work, and a very difficult year for those looking for help.

 

Inflation and the Supply Chain

‘The Rising Cost of Everything.’ That was the headline on a BusinessWest cover story in late May. That same headline could have worked in every month since. Indeed, the price of just about everything, from steak to lumber to used cars, kept heading skyward.

Last month, in fact, inflation hit its highest point in almost 40 years. The Consumer Price Index, which tracks the price of a broad range of goods, rose 0.8% in November and is up 6.8% from a year earlier. The biggest risers included food, housing, cars (both new and used), and gasoline. Energy costs in November were up 33% over a year earlier, food costs were up 6%, and used car and truck prices climbed 31%.

The most recent echo of such severe inflation took place in the 1970s, a situation spurred by disruptions in global oil supplies. Inflation rose from below 3% in 1972 to above 13% in 1979, prompting the Federal Reserve to hike interest rates to as high as 20%. By 1982, inflation had receded, but the experience shaped monetary policy for decades.

“One of the main drivers to the current inflation crisis, of course, has been a broken global supply chain — an issue with so many interlocking factors, it’s hard to see it resolving any time soon.”

One of the main drivers to the current inflation crisis, of course, has been a broken global supply chain — an issue with so many interlocking factors, it’s hard to see it resolving any time soon. The earliest factor was a widespread economic shutdown in the spring of 2020; when the economy began reopening at high speed later that year, supply chains — for products like steel, lumber, and other key supplies — were slow to respond to growing consumer demand, and never caught up.

Add in serious delays in freight shipping, a bottleneck of shipping containers across the globe, and a persistent shortage of workers, and the result is additional strain on businesses and soaring prices all the way down the supply line — which eventually reach consumers in the form of, you guessed it, inflation. Untangling all of this will be one of the big challenges facing policymakers and business leaders in 2022.

 

Changes in the Workplace

If 2020 was the year of remote work, then 2021 was the year of deciding if, when, and under what circumstances people would continue to work remotely. And for many businesses, deciding just what to do became a stern challenge.

Many arrived at a hybrid format as the most common-sense solution, a mixed approach that had employees working remotely most days but in the office at least one or two. However, many employees, citing how well they worked at home, questioned whether the hybrid approach was needed or even effective.

Meanwhile, the changing dynamic created still more challenges for those confronting the ongoing workforce challenge. Indeed, beyond salary, benefits, and workplace culture, many job seekers put the ability to work remotely high on their wish list — or demand list, as the case may be.

Sarah Rose Stack, recruiting director for Holyoke-based Meyers Brothers Kalicka, summed things up poignantly in a piece she wrote for BusinessWest in October. “Employees are actively seeking remote or hybrid work opportunities just as many companies are now demanding that employees return to in-person work,” she explained. “Some have even pre-emptively started seeking flexible work opportunities out of fear that their current remote-work situation might change. Many are expressing that the ability to work from home and have more flexible work schedules in general have helped to prevent burnout. People have enjoyed ditching the morning commute and 5 p.m. rush hour. The returned pockets of time have come with myriad benefits, including more sleep, more time with family before and after work, less wear and tear on vehicles, more time with pets, and an overall more comfortable environment.”

“If 2020 was the year of remote work, then 2021 was the year of deciding if, when, and under what circumstances people would continue to work remotely. And for many businesses, deciding just what to do became a stern challenge.”

But while remote work presents challenges, there are opportunities for businesses as well; managers in many different sectors told BusinessWest that remote work gives them the opportunity to recruit talent from across the country, not simply from within the 413. That same opportunity could be a boon for this region and, especially, rural areas like the Berkshires and Franklin County, which offer quality of life, lower cost of living, and, now, an opportunity to live there and work almost anywhere. Like many of the stories on our list, this one will take some time to play out.

 

Smith & Wesson Heads to Tennessee

The press release found its way into the inbox of area media outlets early in the morning of Sept. 30. And it was a bombshell. Smith & Wesson President Mark Smith was announcing that the company was moving its corporate headquarters — and roughly 500 jobs — from Springfield, where the company was launched more than 150 years ago, to Blount County, Tennessee.

The stated reason was that the company did not want to remain headquartered in a state where legislation had been filed that would ban the manufacturing of more than half the products (specifically assault weapons) made by the company. Smith & Wesson’s new home is a county that bills itself as a ‘Second Amendment sanctuary.’

While the stated case for leaving was greeted with significant skepticism — many elected officials stated that the company was simply taking advantage of huge tax breaks and other incentives — there was considerable discussion about just what Springfield and this region would be losing. The 500 jobs were at the top of that list, obviously, but some were saying the city was also losing some of its business and manufacturing heritage (even if 1,000 of the company’s jobs were staying in the city) and some bragging rights, given that S&W is among the most recognizable brands in the world.

As for the lost jobs, some elected officials, and some area manufacturers as well, see this as an opportunity for the region, given the ongoing workforce crisis and shortage of good help (see how the stories on this list are all interconnected?). One firm, Indian Orchard-based Eastman, actually started advertising directly to those impacted Smith & Wesson workers, welcoming them to seek work at that firm.

 

Cannabis Continues to Flourish

In the three years and one month since NETA opened on Conz Street in Northampton and became the state’s very first dispensary for legal, recreational cannabis, almost 200 cannabis businesses — not just retail shops, but growers, manufacturers, labs, and wholesalers — have cropped up across Massachusetts. Last month, total sales in Massachusetts crossed the $2 billion mark … and the second billion arrived in a much shorter timespan than the first billion.

What this tells industry proponents is that constant expansion of competition isn’t simply spreading out a limited pool of customers; it’s creating more, and many believe there remains a significant well of individuals who haven’t yet turned on, but will eventually, as they hear good things from friends and family and the last barriers of stigma fall.

Locally, that’s good news on a couple of economic fronts: municipal tax revenues and jobs. In Northampton, for instance, which boasts at least 20 cannabis-related businesses, excise taxes have brought in more than $4.3 million over three years, to help pay for much-neede city services. And just down the road in Holyoke, a surge in employment in this new industry — hundreds of jobs and counting in that city alone — has led to new job-training programs to feed the growing demand.

If there has been one hiccup, the Cannabis Control Commission’s stated commitment to social-equity opportunities — with the goal of helping communities and demographics negatively impacted by the war on drugs to access entrepreneurship opportunities in cannabis — has met with inconsistent results. But commissioners have heard those complaints, and the conversation continues.

“Last month, total sales in Massachusetts crossed the $2 billion mark … and the second billion arrived in a much shorter timespan than the first billion.”

Meanwhile, the sheer number of cannabis businesses in Massachusetts is actually making it easier for all players — even small ones — to succeed, because of the cross-pollination making vertical integration less of a necessity these days. It’s an industry of many niches, and every niche is reporting tremendous oppportunity.

 

Tourism Industry Rebounds

While full recovery is still a ways off, the region’s large and vital tourism and hospitality industry staged an inspiring comeback in 2021. The biggest story, on many levels, was the return of the Big E after a one-year hiatus due to COVID. The 17-day fair drew large crowds — nearly 1.5 million in total — and on the final Saturday, it topped the all-time single-day attendance mark with 177,238 visitors.

Meanwhile, the fair boosted the fortunes of a number of other businesses, from hotels and restaurants to tent-renting companies. But there were other signs of progress as well, including solid visitation numbers at a renovated Basketball Hall of Fame, the return of live performances at Jacob’s Pillow and a host of other cultural venues, a steady if unspectacular year for MGM Springfield, and, of course, the return of the Springfield Thunderbirds, which were in first place as of this writing.

As for restaurants, they rebounded as well, with patrons returning in large numbers, especially after the state lifted all restrictions on such businesses just before Memorial Day. But for most all restaurants, reopening came with challenges, especially on the workforce side, with many forced to close more than one day a week (the traditional number) because of a lack of workers.

“While full recovery is still a ways off, the region’s large and vital tourism and hospitality industry staged an inspiring comeback in 2021. The biggest story, on many levels, was the return of the Big E after a one-year hiatus due to COVID.”

As for hotels and event venues, weddings and similar events returned in full force, but the story was different on the corporate side, with travel and events still well below pre-COVID levels. So, while the tourism sector has recovered to some degree, there is still some work to do.

 

The Vaccination Issue

Businesses already facing a number of challenges as a result of COVID were handed another with the arrival of vaccinations to combat the virus.

The efficacy of vaccines isn’t in doubt. While they don’t totally prevent spread or infection, their impact on severity is well-documented, with hospital ICUs reporting that 95% or more of the most severe cases — and deaths — in 2021 have been among the unvaccinated. And those deaths are nothing to scoff at. As the pandemic approaches the end of a second year, the U.S. is about to surpass 800,000 deaths from the virus, hitting the elderly the hardest; roughly one in 100 older Americans has died from the virus, while, for people younger than 65, that ratio is closer to 1 in 1,400.

So it’s natural that business and political leaders have been frustrated by vaccine hesitancy among wide swaths of Americans. While the vaccines have certainly prompted decreases in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths from COVID, they have left employers with hard decisions — and some dilemmas.

“While the vaccines have certainly prompted decreases in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths from COVID, they have left employers with hard decisions — and some dilemmas.”

Many business owners didn’t want to be in a position to require vaccinations, but this fall, the Biden administration made the decision for them, requiring vaccinations for all businesses with more than 100 employees and those working on federal contracts (or subcontracts), healthcare workers, and federal government workers.

Legal challenges have gone back and forth on these vaccination mandates, putting the mandate for federal workers in limbo for a time (though it’s back on for the time being), while private employers moving forward with the mandate must cope with employees leaving because they don’t wish to be vaccinated, adding to an already-difficult workforce environment. It’s another story that will play itself out over the coming weeks and months.

 

Data Center Proposed in Westfield

It’s being called the largest private-sector development proposal in the region’s history. That some of the language attached to a plan to build a $2.7 billion data center on a 165-acre parcel off Servistar Industrial Way in Westfield.

The proposal’s developers, Servistar Industrial Realties, have presented plans calling for a complex of 10 buildings totaling more than 2.74 million square feet, with projected customers expected to include the likes of Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, and Facebook. The project, which still has a number of hurdles to clear before it becomes reality, has received approval from the Planning Board and City Council, with the state now considering a 40-year tax-abatement package.

The developers focused in on Westfield and the large parcel in question — actually, several smaller parcels knitted together — because the site could check a number of boxes, including the ability to draw power, and large amounts of it, directly from the grid, as well as access to a reliable, high-speed fiber communications network. Competitive cost of doing business is also high on the list, as is a skilled workforce and easy access to major markets.

Area economic-development officials note that, while sites for such massive initiatives, called ‘hyperscale’ projects, are rare, there is the potential for smaller-scale data-center ventures, and success with the Westfield project could create other opportunities for the region.

 

Housing Prices Soar

Have you tried to buy a house lately? How frustrating has it been?

Probably plenty frustrating, because of a simple supply-and-demand equation: there are far fewer available houses on the market, especially in Western Mass., than there are buyers, and that’s caused prices to soar. Homes are often publicly on the market for a day or two before they’re snapped up, often at more than the asking price, sometimes without an inspection.

Statistics from the Realtor Assoc. of Pioneer Valley bear this out. Last December, home sales in the Pioneer Valley were up 29.2%, and median price was up 10.1%, from December 2019. And the trend has continued through 2021, with sales down slightly from 12 months earlier, but the median price up another 15%.

A few different factors have been in play. Since the start of the pandemic, especially since the advent of widespread remote work, families have been trying to escape urban areas, driving sales in Berkshire and Franklin counties, but also in more populous Hampden and Hampshire counties as well. Demand has outpaced supply, and home buyers aren’t putting their own houses on the market until they’ve got a new home nailed down.

Meanwhile, interest rates have been at historic lows, even creeping below 3%. “The rates are so low that a lot of people are realizing it’s much cheaper than renting,” Realtor Tanya Vitale-Basile told BusinessWest earlier this year, adding that sellers from the Boston area find they can get much more living space for their money in the Pioneer Valley.

In short, families spending much more time at home have decided they want a different one — and for many, it’s been tough to buy one.

 

Other Stories from 2021

There were many of them, including the death in May of serial entrepreneur and restaurateur Andy Yee. What would have been his 60th birthday a few weeks later was one of the bigger parties of the year. It was a celebration of a life well-lived.

There was a loss of another kind in late November, when a four-alarm fire ravaged the Maple Center Shopping Plaza in Longmeadow, which left five businesses, which collectively employed 74 people, homeless. The community has rallied around the business owners and employees to help them recover.

In news that affects businesses of all kinds, 2021 will be a record-breaking year for data breaches. According to Identity Theft Resource Center research, the total number of data breaches through three quarters has already exceeded the total number of events in 2020 by 17%, with 1,291 breaches from January through September 2021 compared to 1,108 breaches in 2020.

Ambitious proposals for east-west rail, connecting Pittsfield and Boston along the southern half of the state and North Adams and Boston up north, have gained steam, with MassDOT just last week convening stakeholders and launching a study of the latter. Meanwhile, north-south service on the Amtrak Valley Flyer and Vermonter lines was restored over the summer after pandemic cutbacks.

“In news that affects businesses of all kinds, 2021 will be a record-breaking year for data breaches. According to Identity Theft Resource Center research, the total number of data breaches through three quarters has already exceeded the total number of events in 2020 by 17%, with 1,291 breaches from January through September 2021 compared to 1,108 breaches in 2020.”

Plans by Carvana to build a large car-processing facility in Southwick were scuttled over the summer when the company withdrew its proposal hours before a public meeting where residents were expected to oppose it by a wide margin, mainly due to traffic concerns.

One ongoing story from 2021 is an apparent surge in entrepreneurship prompted by COVID and its many side effects. Indeed, the pandemic left many with the time and inclination to move on with their dreams of owning their own businesses, and many of them seized the opportunity, with new ventures ranging from breweries to a Latino marketing agency to a wine-distribution business.

As for BusinessWest, it was a busy year, especially when it came to events. Due to COVID, there were actually six this year, with two slated for late in 2020 rescheduled for this past January. Live events returned with a raucous 40 Under Forty gala at the Log Cabin in September, followed by the Healthcare Heroes and Women of Impact celebrations in October and December, respectively. Nominations are open for these recognition programs for 2022.

 

Features

Picking Up the Pieces

The aftermath of the Nov. 23 fire

The aftermath of the Nov. 23 fire that ravaged the Maple Center shopping plaza.

Alexis Vallides has some experience bouncing back from disaster.

Actually, it was her bother who had that experience. His business, Latino Food Distribution, was one of many in West Springfield that were leveled by the tornado that tore through many area communities in 2011.

Vallides has been leaning hard on her brother, and certainly gaining inspiration from his comeback, as she embarks on one of her own.

Indeed, Vallides is one of many business owners who were left homeless by the massive fire just before Thanksgiving that engulfed the plaza in Longmeadow that unofficially took of the name of her business, Armata’s Market.

She was called early in the morning on Nov. 23 to let her know about a fire in the neighboring liquor store. Less than a few hours later, her store was almost completely leveled.

Like others impacted by the blaze, she is starting to write the next chapter in her business story, and, while there are many emotions attached to this rebuilding process, she is, well, very businesslike about it.

“As a business owner, things happen; we take a lot of risks,” she said. “Every day, we’re susceptible to catastrophes and disasters like that; you have to cope and move on.”

That’s what her team did the morning of the fire — she recalls employees standing and watching the fire, and also conceiving ways to prepare and distribute prepared meals for customers.

Armata’s was one of five businesses impacted by the fire at the Maple Center shopping plaza, which left 74 people unemployed initially. The others are the Bottle Shop liquor store, Iron Chef Asian Cuisine, Longmeadow Salon, and Dream Nail and Salon. Most, if not all, have expressed a desire to reopen — in Longmeadow if they can, said Lyn Simmons, town manager, noting, as others did, that there isn’t a large inventory of retail space, and especially vacant space, in this mostly residential community.

One business, the salon, has already reopened in East Longmeadow, she said, adding that, as these business owners grapple with the many challenges facing them, the town, the state, and several area business and economic-development-focused agencies are bringing resources to bear aiding in the recovery process, and connecting impacted business owners with grants, loans, and whatever else is needed to start anew.

Grace Barone, who leads one of those agencies, the East of the River Five Town Chamber of Commerce, knows firsthand what it’s like to claw back after a fire has destroyed a business and left dreams in a state of perilous limbo. Indeed, she owned Bridal Reflections, one of 20 ventures left homeless by a massive blaze in a retail plaza in Palmer.

She told BusinessWest that, in the wake of such a disaster, business owners go through a wide range of emotions, from the initial shock to what amounts to grief concerning their loss, to the frustration that comes from dealing with insurance companies and the myriad other issues related to getting back on one’s feet.

“As a business owner, things happen; we take a lot of risks. Every day, we’re susceptible to catastrophes and disasters like that; you have to cope and move on.”

“This is a challenging time, and it can be so overwhelming,” she said, adding that, in such a situation, the best her agency and others can do is stand by those impacted by it and provide whatever support they can.

“You go through the shock of ‘oh my gosh, everything I’ve worked for is gone; what do I do next?’” she said. “You try to formulate a plan and determine whether you’re going to rebuild and where you will conduct business in the meantime. And you go forward from there. But every time you think you’ve taken a few steps forward, there’s always something that pops up, and then you have a setback. We want to make sure we’re there for our members when those times come.”

As for Vallides, she is moving forward with plans to find both a temporary location and, if the Maple Center owners rebuild, as she expects they will, return to Shaker Road in the future.

“I’m checking out places in Longmeadow and Enfield for a temporary location, but, unfortunately, Longmeadow doesn’t seem to have anything quite big enough for our needs,” she said, noting that the operation requires roughly 5,000 square feet. “There are a few potential landing spots in February, and maybe by February we can get something up and running.

“We’re in it for the long run, and if we can set up something temporarily, close to our customers, we’ll do that,” she went on. “But, ultimately, we want to be back on Shaker Road.”

As for what she learned from her brother’s experience and is using to help her in her comeback efforts, she said there were many lessons from that story.

“It’s important to be strong and hang in there, not just for myself, but my employees as well,” she said. “Everyone counts here.”

And with that, she spoke for everyone impacted by that fateful fire.

 

—George O’Brien

Cover Story

Changing Course

Susan Beaudry, founder of Beau Co. Wine

Susan Beaudry, founder of Beau Co. Wine

Among the many side effects of COVID and the so-called Great Resignation that has accompanied it has been a recognized surge in entrepreneurial activity. It has manifested itself in many ways, from soaring registration for the “Basics of Starting a Business” course at the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center to the absorption of many vacant storefronts, to area chambers filling their calendars with ribbon cuttings. Each story is different, but there are some common threads, including a desire to use the time and inclination provided by the pandemic to realize what’s important. And in many cases, it’s starting that business that one has always dreamed about.

 

Susan Beaudry says there’s a story behind every wine label she distributes.

That’s certainly the case with one called Sophie, a product of South Africa.

“The locals … their accents couldn’t pronounce sauvignon blanc,” she explained. “And it kept coming out ‘Sophie,’ so they named the wine Sophie. The wife of the husband-and-wife team that own it created this beautiful young woman that’s on the label — Sophie. The tagline is ‘the most beautiful woman that never was.’”

It is these stories — and, again, she has dozens of them — that go a long way toward explaining Beaudry’s fascination for wine, and her dream of creating a business that brings labels like Sophie to the 413.

It’s a dream she’s had for some time now, and one that became real because of COVID-19 — at least in some respects.

Beaudry, as many readers may know, was the executive director of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, which was essentially shut down by COVID in early 2020, and there are now questions about when and if it will return to the place in regional culture it occupied before COVID arrived.

But that’s another story.

This one is about how Beaudry found the time — and the inclination — during COVID to move ahead and make that dream, called Beau Co. Wine, reality.

“Toward the end of 2020, we started seeing many people who were either laid off or who had left their jobs, for whatever reason, who wanted to start their own businesses.”

The wines she imports can be found, among other places, at the Springfield Wine Exchange, a new storefront in Tower Square owned by Carlo Bonavita, who is part of this movement, if we can call it that, as well. He decided a few years ago to go back into business — the liquor-selling business — for himself and found some additional motivation during the pandemic (more on that later).

Beaudry and Bonavita are far from the only ones to use this crack in time to pause, re-evaluate, and perhaps fulfill an entrepreneurial urge, said Samalid Hogan, executive director of the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center’s Western Mass. office. But not for much longer, which we’ll get to in a minute.

She told BusinessWest that, as a result of a number of colliding factors — from people losing their jobs to individuals losing interest in what they were doing, to remote workers not at all excited about orders to return to the office — there has been a surge in entrepreneurial energy.

“Toward the end of 2020, we started seeing many people who were either laid off or who had left their jobs, for whatever reason, who wanted to start their own businesses,” she explained. “And in 2021, we’re seeing a huge surge in people calling the office looking for help in starting a business. There were so many that we had to create another ‘Basics of Starting a Business’ class; we usually offer one a month, but we had to double up and increase the number of registrations from 30 people to 40 people.”

And now, she is part of this story, although she certainly doesn’t need the “Basics” course.

Indeed, she will be stepping down from her role with the MSBDC later this month to start her own consulting business.

Samalid Hogan

Samalid Hogan says many people reached a crossroads during the pandemic and chose the road to business ownership — and she’s one of them.

She said that, like others during this time of COVID, she did a lot of thinking about what was important and what she wanted to do with her life. And she decided that now was the time to put her own name in the door.

Actually, that name will be Greylock Management Consulting, a nod to the highest mountain in the state, a venture that will be focused on both existing businesses and the agencies providing services to startups, especially minority-owned ventures.

Hogan said she is launching this venture with both eyes open, and full acknowledgement of the fact that consulting is often a challenging way to earn a living and a significant departure from a steady job with a steady paycheck. But it’s a gamble she’s ready to take.

Actually, she’s taking two gambles. In addition to her own business, she has become chief operating officer for the Latino Marketing Agency, launched by Veronica Garcia, who also fits the profile of someone who found time and inspiration during the pandemic to move ahead with an entrepreneurial venture.

A television producer, soap-opera actress, and influencer in the Latino community, she worked for many years at New England Public Media, where she was the host of a popular and award-winning bilingual series named Presencia. In April of this year, when NEPM announced it could no longer produce the show, she left the station to start to Viviendo Sin Limites (Living Without Limits), with the goal of having it become the go-to resource for mental health and emotional well-being for the Spanish-speaking population. She also started the Latino Marketing Agency, in conjunction with Hogan, to help Hispanic-owned businesses with that critical aspect of their operations.

“I now have the privilege to know many entrepreneurs in this region, and I’ve found that marketing is one of the areas where they need assistance, especially Latino businesses,” she said, adding that, like Hogan, she is confident that her change of course career-wise, from steady paycheck to the uncertainty of being a business owner, is the right course.

 

Proof Positive

As noted, Bonavita is no stranger to wines and the liquor business. Indeed, his family owned and operated several liquor stores in the area, including Riverside Liquors in Agawam, and he worked at them for a number of years.

When he left in 2002, he signed a non-compete agreement that was 15 years in duration. It wasn’t long before he started counting the years down, and after a decade or so of working in property management, specifically condominium projects, he was quite ready to go back to working for himself.

COVID only served to accelerate the process further.

Veronica Garcia has launched two new ventures

Veronica Garcia has launched two new ventures, Latino Marketing Agency and a platform called Viviendo Sin Limites — Living Without Limits.

“When COVID hit, it changed the way we did business a zillion percent,” he explained. “It meant more hours, more everything, and at the age I was getting to, I was getting burned out and tired of this. I knew it was time to do what I wanted to do.”

And that was to open another business of his own, one he calls the Wine Exchange. He has a wide variety of labels with price tags from $7.99 to $115, and features a variety of gift baskets as well. He opened in October, good timing considering the approaching holidays, and said he’s off to a good start thanks to those who are returning to the office tower in his building and the others in the downtown area.

As for his decision to strike out on his own?

“I absolutely love it — I really do,” he said. “I’m not a guy who could retire completely, and I couldn’t sit at home. So this is perfect; it’s where I want to be at this point in my life.”

Beaudry, who provides most of the labels on his shelves and in his racks, said essentially the same thing, but her story — her dream of becoming a wine wholesaler, importer, distributor, and ‘enthusiast’ — is much different and took a lot longer to become reality.

“I was getting burned out and tired of this. I knew it was time to do what I wanted to do.”

She said her love of wine developed over time and especially when she was traveling extensively for her former employer, Simplex. Her travels would take her to its various branch offices around this country and other countries, and would inevitably involve visits to local attractions — and restaurants, preferably the ‘hole in the wall’ she asked to be taken to.

The good food she encountered was almost always accompanied by good wine as well. She would attempt to replicate what she encountered, food and beverage-wise, at dinner parties that would grow in size over time, with many of the attendees encouraging her to start her own restaurant or other related business.

She said she long desired to venture into wine importing and distributing, but life and family responsibilities made it difficult to leave a steady paycheck and take that leap.

“I think COVID presented the opportunity, with the symphony not performing and all the employees furloughed,” she explained. “Meanwhile, my daughter had just completed her first year of college, so the stars were aligned for me; I went ahead and got started.”

There are many stories like these being written in the region at this unprecedented time, when many have been sidelined by COVID and others have taken stock of their lives and decided they wanted — and needed — something different. The so-called Great Resignation (Bonavita and others we spoke to could be considered part of that) has prompted some to leave for other jobs, but others to absorb some risk and go into business for themselves, Hogan said.

The phenomenon has manifested itself in many ways, from new beer labels to the absorption of vacant storefronts, to area chambers of commerce giving their giant ceremonial scissors a workout with seemingly non-stop ribbon cuttings.

And also those soaring registration numbers for the MSBDC’s “Basics of Starting a Business” class, which is now offered online because of the pandemic, said Hogan, adding that she has seen a very diverse group of individuals gravitate to that offering.

By that she meant both older and younger men and women, those representing many ethnic groups, and people with varied backgrounds, from professionals to retirees, to some not far removed from the college classroom.

The class, as might be gleaned from its title, focuses on the basics — writing a business plan, legal considerations, licensing, insurance, business entities, and much more.

Many of the labels Susan Beaudry now distributes can be found at the Springfield Wine Exchange, founded by Carlo Bonavita, left.

“We don’t give advice during the class,” she stressed. “The goal is to give information to the attendees so they understand all that is involved with starting a business from an administrative, practical point of view; we don’t get into business models, and we don’t get into whether you have a good idea or not.”

Many who sign up for that class will eventually reach out for one-on-one advisory services from the agency, she said, adding that there has been a decided uptick in the number of people seeking such services.

 

Grape Expectations

As for her own venture, Greylock Consulting, Hogan is confident she has a good idea, one born from a desire help more small-business owners, especially minority-owned businesses. Her plan is to consult for individual businesses and also the various groups assisting such businesses and help streamline and improve the programs they provide.

She said she has several clients in the pipeline and is confident she can succeed in the challenging world of consulting.

“I’ve done consulting before,” she said. “You have to have a good, healthy pipeline of clients, there’s a lot of proposal writing involved, a lot of meetings prior to revenue-generating activities that you have to be willing to do and invest your time in. It’s a different world, but I like it.”

It’s a different world for Beaudry, as well, but one that she long desired to be in.

That said, she acknowledged that starting her importing and distribution company required more than time and inclination. It also requires capital, and a lot of contacts.

“It took a lot of tenacity — finding a warehouse, securing the insurances, the licenses, and everything else you need,” she told BusinessWest. “It’s really just been about working my contacts, people I know who tell me, ‘this is where we buy our great wines; the person who owns it is this … go introduce yourself.’ It’s been typical sales-call daily activity: going out, shaking hands, letting people know who I’m representing and some of the wines that I have available.

“It’s also very new — it’s just starting to gain momentum now,” she went on, adding that there have been distribution issues to contend with and other challenges, but, overall, she is making steady progress.

The next step is to create her own import activities, Beaudry said, adding that she will soon be traveling to Europe to meet with some small, boutique vineyard owners and winemakers, with the goal of importing some labels on her own.

She has a 2,000-square-foot warehouse in Westfield, one she hopes — and expects — to outgrow in only a year or two, and plans to distribute the wines she brings there to restaurants, country clubs, liquor stores, concert arenas, “anywhere you can buy a glass of wine.”

At present, she carries 58 different SKUs, and she’s connected with another distributor who will give her another 100, all them small, boutique winemakers that have a story.

“These are small businesses, family-owned, multiple generations for many of them,” she said. “I want to stick with these family-owned small options that have a lot of historic value — and they have interesting stories; the further back the history of the vineyard goes, the more interesting the story is, and a lot of people who love wines also love the stories.”

As for Garcia’s story, it’s another one where the opportunity and inclination were there to propel her to her current status as business owner.

She said she has long understood that, in general, and within the Hispanic community in particular, mental illness is something that isn’t talked about — or really understood. And she has long desired to create a forum where such issues could be discussed and both information and inspirational stories could be presented. So when NEPM announced that it would no longer produce Presencia, she gave her notice and created Viviendo Sin Limites.

Its stated mission is to “motivate, inspire, educate, and inform in a dynamic environment through interviews, blogs, conferences, sharing personal experiences related to our emotions and well-being, and offer tools to have an open, lively, positive, creative, and joyful mind,” and the goal is to be one of the first talk shows in New England for the Latino community through social media such as Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram.

As for the Latino Marketing Agency, it has already signed on a few clients to provide marketing and consulting services, she said, adding that she believes there is enormous potential for such a venture in this market — for both Hispanic-owned businesses and companies looking to market effectively to the region’s growing Hispanic community.

 

Dream Weavers

Summing up what she’s seeing, hearing — and doing herself, Hogan said that, because of the pandemic and issues springing from it, including those leading to all those resignations, many people are finding themselves at a crossroads.

And increasingly, they’re taking the road to entrepreneurship, one that certainly has its share of dangerous curves, speed bumps, hills, and dips. This road is not for the faint of heart, but in this climate, many people are finding they have what it takes to at least start down that road and pursue a long-held dream.

That’s how it is for Beaudry, who spends a good amount of time telling stories like the one about the Sophie label from South Africa and countless others now in her warehouse and on area shelves.

As for her own story, it’s still being written, and like the many others now generating some entrepreneurial energy, she’s finding each chapter to be everything she hoped it would be, and more.

 

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

Education Special Coverage

A Stern Test Continues

Springfield Technical Community College President John Cook

Springfield Technical Community College President John Cook

 

For the area community’s colleges, the enrollment numbers continue to fall, with annual declines recently in the double digits. There are many reasons for these declines, which actually started well before COVID but were greatly exacerbated by the pandemic. With many students and potential students now in a state of what one college president called “paralysis,” there are hard-to-answer questions about what ‘normal’ will be like moving forward.

 

It’s been a while since anyone has talked about parking at Springfield Technical Community College — or the lack thereof.

John Cook, the school’s president, sometimes yearns for the days when they did.

And that was most days. Indeed, going back decades, parking was a problem at this urban campus that sits on the site of the Springfield Armory, despite numerous efforts to add more. By the time Cook arrived in 2017, the school was still parking cars on the commons (the old parade grounds converted by the school into athletic fields) the first few days of classes to make sure all students had a space. That practice was no longer necessary after a new lot was built near the Pearl Street entrance in 2019.

These days, there’s plenty of space in that lot and all the others as enrollment at the school continues a downward trajectory, a pattern seen at the other community colleges in the area — one that is defying many of the patterns concerning these schools and the economy, but one that was already in evidence before the pandemic and only accelerated by it.

“People are in a state of paralysis. And that fear, uncertainty, and the unknown is a driving factor for a lot of people; they feel stuck, they feel lost, and they don’t have a sense of even what they should be preparing for.”

Indeed, since STCC saw enrollment hit its high-water mark just after the Great Recession of 2008, roughly 7,000 students, the numbers have been declining steadily to the present 4,000 or so.

“We were down 16 or 17% last year, and this fall, we were down another 10%,” said Cook, adding that this pattern has been seen at other schools as well, with COVID-19 adding an exclamation point to the problem. At Holyoke Community College, for example, enrollment saw another double-digit decline in 2021, and President Christina Royal said that, with just six weeks to the start of the spring semester, the numbers are down another 7% or so from this time last year.

While most all colleges are seeing enrollment declines at this time, community colleges are being especially hard-hit, in large part because the students who attend these schools, especially older, non-traditional students, are those most impacted by the pandemic and its many side effects, from unemployment to issues with childcare to overall problems balancing life, work, and school.

Christina Royal

Christina Royal says some students and potential students are stuck in state of what she called ‘paralysis,’ not knowing exactly what kind of career to prepare for.

While many have returned to the classroom, others have remained on the sidelines, and they are in a state of what Royal likened to paralysis, not knowing exactly what to do with their lives or even what course of study to embark upon. And this distinguishes what’s happening now in the economy from almost anything that has happened before.

“A recession, as difficult as it is, is a predictable circumstance — and it has been up to this point,” she noted. “People are familiar with the ebbs and flows of the economy. What we’re dealing with now is fear, uncertainty, and the unknown.

“Now people are in a state of paralysis,” she went on. “And that fear, uncertainty, and the unknown is a driving factor for a lot of people; they feel stuck, they feel lost, and they don’t have a sense of even what they should be preparing for.”

She said these factors help explain why enrollment continues to decline at a time when logic says they should be rising based on previous performance. Indeed, community-college enrollment would normally rise when the country is in recession or something close to it, when unemployment is still higher than average, and, especially, when businesses in every sector, from manufacturing to IT to healthcare, are facing a workforce crisis unlike anything seen before. And it would also be expected to rise when the cost of four-year schools continue to soar and many parents are looking to community colleges as a sound alternative for those first two years.

“A two-year college is just as good as a four-year school, and it can potentially be a feeder to the four-year college, where they will do even better because they have the foundation from us.”

Michelle Coach, campus CEO at Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield, agreed. She said enrollment at ACC (one of 12 schools currently being merged into something called the Connecticut State Community College), which hit its peak of just under 1,000 a few years ago, is now in the mid-700s for full-time equivalents, up from a low of 650. The numbers are down for several reasons, including restrictions due to COVID that kept inmates from four prisons within just a few miles of the school from attending.

Even enrollment in the school’s popular manufacturing program, which has been supplying graduates to area plants in desperate need of workers, is down, she said, adding that many who would be applying are cautious and hesitant for all those reasons mentioned above.

Overall, many factors are contributing to the falling numbers, from COVID to smaller high-school graduating classes. The ongoing challenge for schools, Coach said, is to tap into new pools of students and consistently stress the value — in the many ways it can be defined — of a community-college education.

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked with area community-college leaders about the present and, to the extent they can project, the future as well. In short, these administrators don’t know when, or to what to extent, things will return to normal.

 

Unsteady Course

As she talked about enrollment and the state of community colleges today, Royal, like the others we spoke with, reiterated that the declines in the numbers started well before COVID.

Indeed, if one were to chart the numbers from the past 15 years or so, she explained, there would be a bell curve, or something approximating it, with the numbers slowly rising until they hit their peak just after the Great Recession and then beginning a gradual tumble after that.

“When I came in in 2017, we had already seen seven consecutive years of declining enrollment — this is certainly a long-term trend,” she said, adding that she believes there is some artificiality in comparing today’s numbers to the high-water marks of a decade or so ago. “If you take out the effect of the recession, both the ramp-up and the decline afterwards, it doesn’t look as extreme and bumpy.” 

Michelle Coach says there is general optimism

Michelle Coach says there is general optimism that enrollment numbers at ACC and elsewhere in Connecticut will start to move higher, especially with the many incentives being offered.

But ‘gradual’ turned into something much more pronounced during the pandemic, said those we spoke with, noting that enrollment is off 20% or more from a few years ago, and for a host of reasons.

The declines have become the most pressing topic — after ever-changing COVID protocols — at the regular meetings of the state’s 15 community-college presidents, said Cook, adding that, collectively, the schools are looking for answers, a path forward, and perhaps an understanding of what ‘normal’ will look like in the short and long term.

The answers won’t come easily because COVID has created a situation without precedent, and the current trends, as noted earlier, defy historical patterns, he explained, adding that the overarching question now is “where are the people who would be our students? What are they doing?”

And at the moment, many of them are still trying to simply cope with the pandemic.
“They’re still trying to figure out childcare in many cases,” he went on. “Or they may be reconsidering what their own career process might be. And there’s a lot of people who are standing pat and taking stock of what’s important.”

Cook said there has been growth in some numbers, especially those involving students of color and especially the Hispanic population, and there has been growth in some individual programs, such as health science, which the school didn’t have four years ago.

But numbers are down in many areas, including nursing — at least from a retention standpoint — at a time when demand for people in that profession has perhaps never been greater. It’s another sign that these are certainly not normal times.

Royal agreed. “When we have a typical recession, people don’t like the fact that they can’t find jobs or that they’re laid off,” she noted. “But they know that they have to retool, they go back to college, so that they can be prepared for when the jobs come back and the wages start to go up. Now, people are stuck.

“When you have such a global event as COVID-19 has been for our world, then it has put a lot of people in this state of ‘I don’t even know what a couple of months is going to look like — I might not even know what next week is going to look like. How can I think about going to college and starting a future when I’m not even sure what we’re here for anymore, what my purpose is, and what I want to do?’ All of this is causing people to stay still.”

And it’s prompting those running community colleges to do what they can to get them moving again, understanding this may be difficult given those factors that Royal described and fresh uncertainty in the wake of the Omicron variant and rising COVID cases as the winter months approach.

Indeed, most of the colleges are doing some targeted marketing and putting some of the federal-assistance funds to work helping students with the financial aspects of a community-college education.

“We certainly have used every tool available to us to help us with recruitment and retention,” Cook explained, adding that STCC has issued checks of up to $1,500 to help them defray the costs of their education.

“These are not loans … it’s $1,500 to use as you as you decide,” he said. “We’ve done things like that, and we’ve done it for three semesters. This is a real shot in the arm for people.”

Some are taking advantage of the unique opportunity, but many others remain on the sidelines because of COVID-related issues such as childcare, matters that $1,500 checks cannot fix.

At Asnuntuck, the school is being equally aggressive, especially when it comes to recruiting students from the Bay State. Through its Dare to Cross the Line program, Massachusetts residents can attend ACC for the same price as those in Connecticut.

“Currently, 10% of our students are from Massachusetts, and that has stayed fairly consistent,” Coach explained, adding that many enroll in the manufacturing program and a good number in cosmetology, but there is interest across the board. “We’re trying to get the word out, and we’ve done some additional outreach to Massachusetts high-school students.”

Meanwhile, thanks to a grant from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, ACC was able to place ‘smart classrooms’ in each of the nearby prisons to allow inmates to take classes, bringing enrollment numbers up somewhat.

Moving forward, with high-school graduating classes getting consistently smaller, there will be greater outreach to non-traditional students, but also a focus on high-school and even middle-school students — and their parents — with the goal of stressing the many advantages presented by the two-year schools.

“For the high schools, we’re trying to change the perception of community colleges,” Coach explained. “In the past, they’ve always said, ‘this is how many students are going to a four-year university.’ Well, a two-year college is just as good as a four-year school, and it can potentially be a feeder to the four-year college, where they will do even better because they have the foundation from us.”

 

Learning Curves

Overall, Royal and others said it’s clear that community colleges will have to make continual adjustments to bring more people to their schools and see them through to completion of their program. Changes and priorities will likely include everything from a greater emphasis on early college — enabling high-school students to earn credits for college in hopes that this might change their overall career trajectory — to greater flexibility with semester schedules and length of same, to efforts to address the many work/life/school issues challenging students, especially older, non-traditional students.

Royal noted that those who will graduate next spring will have spent their entire time at HCC coping with a global pandemic and everything that has come with it.

These students hung in and persevered, received their degrees, and, in many cases, will be moving on to a four-year school. 

“These are the students that have embraced that uncertainty, and say, ‘I’m going to do something with my life; we don’t know what’s going to happen in the world, but I’m going to further myself and be prepared for when we get to the other side of that.’ That’s who you’re going to see in our graduating class.”

What you won’t see are those who became stuck, as she called it, those who didn’t have the inclination or the ability to plow forward during the pandemic.

Just when people can and will move out of this state of paralysis is still a question mark. Until then, parking will remain a non-issue at STCC — and other schools as well — and the region’s community colleges will remain tested by a situation that is defying trends and their own history.

 

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

Special Coverage Sports & Leisure

Coping with the Conditions

Gary Rome, seen here with ‘Daisy,’ one of his mascots

Gary Rome, seen here with ‘Daisy,’ one of his mascots, says cars are moving off the lot as fast as they come in, with most sold long before they arrive.

For the area’s auto dealers, this will be a year, and a December, unlike most and certainly not anything approaching normal. Lots are barren, and showrooms often have used cars under the bright lights. Dealers are coping as best they can, and so are customers, and while current conditions are expected to continue into next year, there seems to be some light at the end of the tunnel.

 

On one wall in his office at the Hyundai dealership that bears his name, Gary Rome has a large screen that displays images captured by more than two dozen security cameras.

As he talked about the current conditions facing dealers like himself, he gestured toward pictures on that screen of one of the back lots at the massive store on Whiting Farms Road in Holyoke — a barren lot with no cars parked on it.

“Normally … that would be full — four lanes, full,” he said, noting that ‘normal’ was quite some time ago. Now, instead of normal, there is only reality, in the form of inventory shortages that have, as Rome noted, prompted dealers to put used cars in the showrooms, position cars so it looks like there is more inventory than there actually is, and even have employees park in front to provide that same effect.

He’s only taking the first of those steps, and that’s out of necessity, he said with a voice that hints at frustration, which is certainly understandable, but mostly acceptance of a situation that is far beyond dealers’ control and something they will have to live with for at least several more quarters.

“We’re just coming through the second year of the most unprecedented time that the industry has ever faced — and the forecasts for what was going to happen to this industry were far more dire.”

The frustration comes from the knowledge that these dealers could certainly sell a lot more cars if they had them, especially given the pent-up demand and the fact that many consumers have money to spend and are eager to spend it. And also the numbers — most dealers are looking at overall sales volume being down between 20% and 30% from what would be considered a ‘normal’ year. The acceptance part comes from the knowledge that consumers have responded to the situation mostly with patience and understanding, and, overall, dealers are making the best of a bad situation that could actually be worse. Much worse.

“We’re just coming through the second year of the most unprecedented time that the industry has ever faced — and the forecasts for what was going to happen to this industry were far more dire,” said Ben Sullivan, chief operating officer at Balise Motor Sales. “And we’ve actually fared pretty well, and the customers have been accommodating because they can understand; they see the news. Somehow, we’re making it through, and a lot of customers have no issues with doing it this way.”

By ‘this way,’ he meant that, instead of driving onto a lot and choosing from among the dozens of options of the model they want, they’re either ordering what they want and waiting for it arrive in a few weeks (or a few months, as the case may be) or buying something they know is on a truck and on its way — even if it might not be exactly what they want.

Carla Cosenzi, president of TommyCar Auto Group, agreed, noting that her family of dealerships has an appropriately named program that speaks to all this, called Reserve Your Ride.

“People can pick out their vehicle and order it or pick a car out of pipeline,” she said, adding that, while there may be fewer cars to actually choose from on the lots, people can still buy cars, and they are.

Ben Sullivan says there has been some improvement on the inventory front

Ben Sullivan says there has been some improvement on the inventory front, but it might be two more years before dealers see something close to pre-pandemic levels.

Sometimes, because of the inventory issues, it may not be a new car, she went on, adding that, in this environment, some are waiting patiently for the new cars to roll in, while others are opting for used cars, and still others, those with leases that are expiring, are opting to buy those vehicles.

And this is how it will be for the foreseeable future, said those we spoke with, all of whom noted that COVID-19 and its many impacts have made the future — even the immediate future — hard to predict.

As for the present, it’s December, a month that is generally a good one for dealers, and for many reasons, ranging from holiday-gift purchases (especially luxury models) to businesses buying new vehicles before year’s end for tax purposes.

“This is a time of year when people want something new — new cell phones, a new car, a new used car, a new espresso machine,” said Sullivan, adding that this desire for new coincides with a mostly healthy economy, lower unemployment rates, and, overall, higher levels of confidence. “And when people feel confident, they wind up making large purchases because they are not afraid.”

They may not be afraid, but there will certainly be fewer cars to buy, and that means this will be different kind of December, but one that still holds promise for dealers — and customers — waiting for the picture to improve.

 

Dropping Down a Gear

To the untrained eye, Sullivan said, it doesn’t look like much is happening at area dealerships.

Indeed, what most people see in that minute they drive by a store is lots of acreage not being occupied by new or used cars. Indeed, the vacant parking lots have become one of the enduring images of the supply-chain crisis at this stage of the pandemic.

But a closer look would reveal plenty of activity, just not the type that would be considered normal, he said.

“If you put a stop-motion camera at any dealership, you’d see 18-wheelers coming in, you’d see cars coming off of it, you’d see them going through their pre-delivery inspections and service and the salesperson calling the customer to say his vehicle has arrived, and that person picking it up the next day,” he noted. “That’s about how fast this stuff is going right now.”

Carla Cosenzi says dealers and customers alike are adjusting

Carla Cosenzi says dealers and customers alike are adjusting to a landscape that is without precedent in the auto industry.

Other dealers we spoke with echoed those remarks, saying the days of large inventories have been replaced by that new way of doing business described earlier, with the vast majority of cars sold before they reach the lot (70% to 80%, by most estimates) or within days of rolling off the truck.

This new world order is on clear display on a huge board in one of the offices at Gary Rome Hyundai, one that tracks which vehicles have been sold, by whom, and when they will arrive on the lot for the customer to pick up.

“We’re just coming through the second year of the most unprecedented time that the industry has ever faced — and the forecasts for what was going to happen to this industry were far more dire.”

It’s a different landscape, to be sure, said Rome, adding that there would normally be more than 500 cars on the Hyundai lots; currently there are roughly 140, about one-quarter of that total, with only 20 of them being new cars.

It’s the same at the TommyCar dealerships, said Cosenzi, noting that the Hyundai/Genesis dealership in Northampton would normally have 200 new models on the ground. After a shipment arrived the day before she talked with BusinessWest, there were 30 to 35. At the Volkswagen store, also in Northampton, there would usually be 80 new cars. Now, 20 is the norm.

These numbers prompt frustration because they collide with other kinds of numbers, especially the ones pertaining to unemployment, consumer spending, and consumer confidence levels, said Rome, noting, as others did, that pent-up demand remains high for all types of vehicles, but especially new models.

“Our clients, in general, have more money than they had two years ago, they have more savings, they have more equity in their homes,” he explained. “And they also feel like they want to do something good for themselves. They’ve been locked down for the past 20 months, and they’ve been looking at the same car all that time. They want to do something nice for themselves.”

Such dramatic reductions in inventory also make for obvious changes and adjustments, including those that need to be made for the holidays, said Cosenzi, noting that many of those desiring to put a new car in the driveway on Christmas morning understood that, to make that happen, they needed to place their order in November. And they might also have had to settle for their second choice when it came to color.

Meanwhile, more consumers are looking toward used cars, which are in greater abundance but still not in the pre-pandemic numbers, she said, and also at keeping a car that is coming off lease instead of trading it in for a new one.

“And a lot of those buy-out values are under current market values,” she said. “It’s a good deal for the customer.”

While things certainly aren’t normal, in some respects, the picture is actually starting to improve, said Sullivan, noting that arrivals are expected to pick up in December and be ahead of October and November levels and well ahead of months earlier this year, when supply-chain woes peaked.

“There’s cars coming in, and there’s cars going out,” he said, adding that his general managers — and there are nearly 20 of them — have reported as a group that the company should expect a solid December.

Meanwhile, looking down the road, or trying to, anyway, dealers said it is difficult to say when ‘normal’ — as in lots full of cars for people to choose from — will return, or even if they will return.

“I don’t think we’ll see it in 2022,” said Sullivan. “I think it will be 2023 before you drive by a dealership and see a stock full of cars. It’s not until the third quarter of 2022 where you’ll see maybe 65% of what you’d normally see for ground stock.”

Cosenzi concurred, but noted that projections vary with the brand, with some manufacturers responding to the worldwide microchip shortage and supply-chain crisis better than others.

“We’re anticipating that things will get better over the next few months, but it will take a long time for us to recuperate and get back to the inventory levels that we were accustomed to before COVID,” she said. “I think it will take at least a year.”

As for the longer term, Sullivan reiterated comments he made earlier this year when he said some manufacturers may not go back to those days when they built cars and then hoped dealers would sell them. They likely won’t build to order, although that’s possible, he said, but they may build fewer cars and put the hard focus on models they know the customer wants.

“Most of the manufacturers have decided that just ‘build, build, build, build, build’ isn’t that profitable for them,” he explained, “because all the cars end up on our lots, and we have to find a way to get rid of them, and they have to put incentives on them. There is a level of production that makes more sense to them.

“We’re not going to be this order-to-delivery industry, because when people want something, they want it very quickly, and some want it now,” he went on, adding that, despite this, levels of overall ground stock will likely be lower in the years to become, perhaps 75% of their current levels.

 

Bottom Line

But there are still far too many unknowns to make any hard projections about the future, said those we spoke with, adding that, right now, they’re dealing with right now.

And that’s the picture that comes clearly into focus on that screen in Rome’s office. Things are not as they were, and they may not be like that for a while — if ever again, in some respects.

“This is a year unlike anything I’ve seen in all the years I’ve been in this business,” said Cosenzi, who spoke for everyone in the industry with those comments, adding that, while the picture is slowly improving, what would be considered normal is still far down the road.

 

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

Education

A Class Act

Janis Santos

Janis Santos has spent nearly a half-century as an administrator, but she never lost her enthusiasm for being in the classroom and reading to children.

During the early, and darkest, days of the pandemic, Janis Santos recalls, she considered it vitally important to remain positive and find ways to permit her positive attitude to trickle down to every employee and every facet of the Holyoke Chicopee Springfield Head Start operation.

And so, in her daily communications with staff, she would include quotes designed to inspire and uplift others at a time of unprecedented challenge. She borrowed quotes from many, but leaned heavily on Fred Rogers (better known to most as Mister Rogers) — whom she described as a hero for the way he forcefully drove home the message about how very young children learn through play — and also the poet Maya Angelou.

From the latter, there was one passage she remembers using more than a few times: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

But as powerful and effectual as those words were, it was probably some from Santos herself that helped propel her staff through those tumultuous times. 

When asked to recall and paraphrase, she said, “everyone needed to hear that we’ve been through things before, maybe not as bad as this … but we do this for children. Why are we here? What is our purpose? We’re committed and dedicated to America’s most vulnerable children. We have a big challenge to face — we need to keep the children safe and their families safe — so let’s do it together.”

Those comments are quite poignant because they sum up not only what Santos was saying at the height of the pandemic, but what she’s been saying — and doing — during a remarkable, nearly half-century-long career in Head Start that will come to a close — officially, but not in reality — on Dec. 31.

Indeed, from the time she opened a Head Start facility in the basement of the Boys & Girls Club in Ludlow in 1973, she has been dedicated to the country’s, and this region’s, most vulnerable children. But just as important, she’s been dedicated to those who work with and on behalf of those children, working tirelessly to stress the importance of early-childhood education and lobby for appropriate wages for those at the front of the classrooms.

“I will stay connected to Head Start; I’ve devoted my life to advocating for America’s most vulnerable children, and I will continue to do that.”

And, in what could only be considered irony, the pandemic that tested her mettle as no other challenge during her long career has helped reinforce that message and bring it home in ways that seem destined to bring real change to the landscape.

“During COVID, when there was a lack of childcare and no place for parents to leave their children when they went to work, it became a point of focus,” she explained. “The public finally saw that this is important; they saw how important these facilities are to parents, employers, and the economy.”

But while COVID-19 enlightened many on this topic, it also brought attention to another aspect of this profession that has been a career-long priority for Santos — the need to raise the salary levels for preschool educators.

Indeed, at a time when employers in every sector of the economy are struggling to retain workers being tempted by higher wages and better benefits elsewhere, the problem is especially acute in early-childhood education.

“This year, I’ve lost 15 Head Start teachers to public schools,” she noted, adding that, while it has always been a challenge to recruit people to this profession and retain them, at this critical juncture, it is even more so.

As noted, Santos will be retiring at the end of the year, but not leaving the scene when it comes to advocating for early-childhood education and those who provide it.

“I will stay connected to Head Start; I’ve devoted my life to advocating for America’s most vulnerable children, and I will continue to do that,” she said, adding that, while continuing those lobbying efforts, she plans to write a history of Holyoke Chicopee Springfield Head Start.

It’s a rich history, obviously, and Santos, named a Woman of Impact by BusinessWest in 2018, had a hand in most of it. For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked at length with Santos about her career, the changes that have come to early-childhood education, and the changes she believes still need to come.

 

School of Thought

By now, most people in the region know at least some of what we’ll call the Janis Santos story. Most versions begin when she was a mother of three enrolled in night classes at Holyoke Community College, with the dream of being a preschool teacher.

It was there, and then, that a young man in her class who was from Holyoke Chicopee Springfield Head Start encouraged her to start a facility in Ludlow. She did, eventually opening the Parkside Learning Center in that aforementioned basement of the Boys & Girls Club, in 1973. But as she would eventually learn, nothing about getting that facility off the ground — from securing the space to securing the funding — was going to be easy.

Janis Santos, seen here with the late Sen. Edward Kennedy

Janis Santos, seen here with the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, has spent a lifetime preaching the importance of early-childhood education.

She recalls that Head Start was struggling financially as an organization and was not able to actually pay her a salary.

“They offered me $18 a week in Commonwealth Corp. money, and I took it,” she recalled. “I had no benefits, no nothing, and I took that for about three years until my site started to generate some income.”

But what she also learned, rather quickly and much to her dismay, was that there wasn’t much respect within the community, and within the broad realm of education, for what she was doing with her life and her career.

“The perception was that we were babysitters out there, and I felt that people just don’t understand that these are critical learning years for children,” she said. “And the other piece is that children in that age group learn through play; some of my friends would visit and say, ‘why don’t you become a real teacher and go teach kindergarten?’”

Instead of listening to that advice, she spent a lifetime convincing others that she was a real teacher and that early education was vital to young people, their families, and society in general.

“The perception was that we were babysitters out there, and I felt that people just don’t understand that these are critical learning years for children, Some of my friends would visit and say, ‘why don’t you become a real teacher and go teach kindergarten?’”

“I was determined to change those perceptions,” she said. “I wanted people, and educators, and the community to know the importance of those years.”

She would become the director of Holyoke Chicopee Springfield Head Start in 1979 and also go on to serve on the National Head Start Board of Directors for 14 years, which gave her the opportunity to not only advocate for the nation’s most vulnerable children, but make the case for early-childhood education.

Over the years, she would meet three American presidents and lobby countless elected officials on the importance of pre-K and the need to improve the wages of those in that profession. She has pictures of herself with then-U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, then-U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, several governors, and many other elected leaders.

But as important as her time with those elected leaders has been — and it has been vitally important to moving the needle on early-childhood education — Santos said the most valuable time she spent was with children in the classroom and with teachers and other staff members as a mentor.

She has taken on that role with countless individuals over the years, including the woman chosen in a national search to be her successor at HCS Head Start, Nicole Blais.

To say these two go way back is an understatement. Indeed, Santos was Blais’s preschool teacher in Ludlow in the ’70s.

Santos said she has been working with Blais during the transition, and has some pointed advice for her based on nearly 45 years of being in that job — and also advice provided by those who mentored her.

“One of them told me, ‘you have to take a bold, respectful approach,’ and I’ve never forgotten that,” she told BusinessWest.

She has some other advice for as well — to follow her lead when it comes to taking risks, something one needs to do to succeed as a leader.

“I’m a risk taker,” she told BusinessWest, referring to everything from that first gambit in Ludlow, the one that paid her $18 a week, to her partnership with MGM Springfield on a new facility in Springfield, to her involvement in the new Educare program that opened in 2019. “You can’t sit back; you have to go out there and take risks, and that’s what I tell those that I mentor. I tell them, ‘if you don’t take risks, you will not succeed.’”

 

Learning Experiences

“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning.  But for children, play is serious learning.”

That’s one of those quotes from Mister Rogers that Santos used to help encourage and inspire staff during the darkest times of the pandemic.

It’s more than that, though. It’s one of the pillars on which early-childhood education is built and one of the critical points Santos has spent a career trying to drive home to a wide range of constituencies.

With a little help from COVID, there is a now a better understanding of the importance of early-childhood education and perhaps better odds for universal pre-K to become policy in this country.

In the meantime, most have stopped referring to early-childhood educators as babysitters. And at a time when Santos is being honored by a number of groups for her many accomplishments, that is probably the biggest.

 

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

Women in Businesss

Taking a Leadership Role

Lora Wondolowski says leadership is constantly changing and evolving

Lora Wondolowski says leadership is constantly changing and evolving, and that’s one of the many intangibles that has kept her at the helm of LPV.

 

When Lora Wondolowski became founding executive director of Leadership Pioneer Valley (LPV), it certainly wasn’t with the expectation that she would one day be hard at work planning 10-year anniversary celebrations.

Indeed, Wondolowski said it was more her style, her pattern, to launch organizations and programs, stabilize and build them, and then move onto something else, probably in four or five years, as she did with her previous assignment, as founding director of the Massachusetts League of Environmental Voters and the Environmental Voters Education Fund in Boston.

“I’m someone who gets restless — who has trouble staying,” she said in reference to the many lines in the ‘work history’ section of her résumé. “My last two organizations, this one and the last one, were startups, and if I look at the trajectory of my career, a lot of the work I’ve done over the years is starting new programs or new organizations. I didn’t see myself able to sustain within an organization; I thought I’d get bored.”

Suffice it to say that, in this job, she hasn’t.

When asked why, she said there are several reasons, starting with the inspiration she gets from the graduates of LPV’s LEAP program and their success stories (a list that includes exactly half of BusinessWest’s eight Women of Impact for 2021 — more on that later).

But there is more to Wondolowski’s lengthy stay with LPV. Much more, as she explained.

“The work we do keeps changing and growing, and that’s because leadership is ever-changing; our curriculum is ever-changing,” she explained. There is a lot to keep me engaged and energized as I look for new opportunities for our organization.”

Over the past decade, Wondolowski has become a leader in her own right. She is currently serving on several boards, including those for the United Way of Pioneer Valley, the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts, and the Connecticut River Conservancy. Meanwhile, at LPV itself, she has managed and grown the organization, expanding its original mission in several different ways that have collectively made it an important addition to the region and its business community.

And, like those at the helm of virtually every business and nonprofit in the region, she has seen her leadership skills tested during COVID-19, a time of extreme challenge for LPV.

“There’s a difference between leadership in crisis, which it was in the beginning — you had to make quick decisions in a certain way — and then this sort of adaptive leadership, which we are now in, which is a lot about resilience and how to get people through change and things that are uncomfortable, because no one wants to do things differently.”

In the spring of 2020, the pandemic forced the agency to offer its programming remotely, make difficult but necessary staff cuts — Wondolowski was a one-person show (and on reduced time) for several months —and eventually take its graduation to a drive-through format similar to what was seen with area high schools.

In 2021, staffing is back to something approaching normal thanks in part to two rounds of PPP, programming has returned to the in-person format, and another class is working its way toward commencement next spring. But some companies are struggling to enroll employees in the program due to staffing constraints and other challenges, and ‘normal,’ as in what existed prior to COVID, is very much a moving target.

Meanwhile, COVID has also made its way into the curriculum. Sort of. Indeed, the pandemic and its side effects have put new emphasis on decision making, conflict resolution, and other matters that have prompted changes to some of the programs, Wondolowski said.

“There’s a difference between leadership in crisis, which it was in the beginning — you had to make quick decisions in a certain way — and then this sort of adaptive leadership, which we are now in, which is a lot about resilience and how to get people through change and things that are uncomfortable, because no one wants to do things differently,” she explained, adding that LPV changed up one of its sessions, from a hard focus on negotiation skills to one recalibrated to center on collaboration and conflict management — out of necessity and the times we’re in.

“I’m seeing more conflict,” she said. “I think some of it is dealing with people remotely, and the communication skills you need are different, and how people are approaching it is different.”

The graduation ceremonies for the LPV class of 2020

The graduation ceremonies for the LPV class of 2020 were drive-through in nature, one of the many challenges to contend with during the pandemic.

For this issue and its focus on women in business, we talked with Wondolowski about LPV as it turns 10, but also about her own leadership role in the region and that notion that leadership is ever-changing and how this still relatively new addition to the local business landscape is helping its participants navigate these changes.

 

Following the Leader

On one wall of her office on the ninth floor of Harrison Place — space LPV is now sharing with Tech Foundry — Wondolowski has put photos of the agency’s graduating classes. A few of the most recent classes are missing, and there are Post-it notes where those images should be — gentle reminders to fill in that space on the wall.

Wondolowski has had a number of other matters on her mind besides those photos lately. Indeed, she has been steering the agency through the whitewater churned up by COVID while also planning for the long term for an agency created to meet a recognized need cited by the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission’s Plan for Progress: to create more programming to give people the skills and confidence they need to become leaders in the community.

Overall, there are now 327 alumni of the LEAP program, a number that is a source of pride in and of itself. But the accomplishments of those graduates and their continued upward movement in terms of success in business and involvement in the community are much bigger sources.

Among those alums are a number of elected officials, including Holyoke’s first Hispanic mayor, Joshua Garcia, class of 2016, who won that office just a month ago, as well as state Sen. Adam Gomez (class of 2018) and a number of city and town councilors and school-committee members across the region.

“There’s still so much more work to do. And that’s the thing I really appreciate about this organization; it allows me to be entrepreneurial and to try new things. Some things work and some things don’t, so we take small risks. Overall, the need for leadership keeps expanding.”

“We’ve had close to two dozen of our graduates run for office since 2017,” Wondolowski noted. “There are several on the City Council in Springfield and school-committee members up and down the Valley.”

There are also a number of business leaders and, therefore, individuals who have graced the pages of BusinessWest — especially, those issues announcing winners of its various awards. Indeed, a number of the 600 individuals possessing 40 Under Forty plaques are LPV alums, with some going through the program before they were honored by BusinessWest, and some after.

Meanwhile, as noted, four of this year’s Women of Impact — Jessica Collins, executive director of the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts; Charlene Elvers, director of the Center for Service and Leadership at Springfield College; Madeline Landrau, Program Engagement manager at MassMutual; and Tracye Whitfield, Springfield city councilor and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion officer in West Springfield — are also alums.

The most important statistic is that 97% of the alums are still living and working in the Pioneer Valley, Wondolowski said, adding that keeping talent in the region — by getting people engaged in individual cities and towns and the 413 as a whole — was one of the motivating factors for creating LPV.

And the business plan for the organization is simple: to keep growing those numbers and inspiring more people to become leaders and get involved. It does this through a program that, at its core, connects its participants with the community to identify needs and, through the formation of ‘leadership learning lab groups,’ address those needs. In conjunction with local nonprofit partners, Wondolowski explained, teams have developed projects related to children, youth, community and economic development, arts and culture, anti-racism, and much more.

The experience creates a progress of self-discovery and growth, she went on, adding that LEAP participants return to their organizations with stronger relational and leadership skills that they also apply to the communities in which they live and work.

As for her, the decade she has spent at the helm of the agency has likewise been a process of self-discovery and growth.

“There’s still so much more work to do,” she said of LPV and its mission. “And that’s the thing I really appreciate about this organization; it allows me to be entrepreneurial and to try new things. Some things work and some things don’t, so we take small risks. Overall, the need for leadership keeps expanding.”

This need to be entrepreneurial and take small risks was exacerbated by — and in all ways impacted by — guiding LPV through COVID.

Wondolowski said the past 22 months have been a learning experience on all kinds of levels, but especially when it comes to decision making and confronting change on a massive scale.

“It’s been a real a roller coaster,” she said. “In the beginning, it was, ‘OK, we just have to do this,’ and we pulled our board together to make some tough decisions. In the early months, we were meeting very regularly, and in some ways it was hard … but it was in different ways than it is now because there was a sense of purpose, and knowing we were all coming together helped a lot.

“As it dragged on, and it waxes and wanes, there are some days when it can just be really overwhelming and hard,” she went on. “You get decision fatigue.”

These are the same challenges confronted by all business and nonprofit leaders over the past 22 months, she said, adding that COVID and its many side effects have brought changes to how and where work is done, and thus profound changes to the dynamic of the workplace.

And many of these changes are long-term, if not permanent.

“We’re not going to go back to fully in-person workplaces for a long time,” Wondolowski said, adding that many workers have been very productive at home, and many see little, if any, reason to return to the office. And a number of companies large and small see the logic in allowing remote work to continue.

But with this seismic shift comes changes in how people communicate — and how they must lead.

“There are all these questions about work culture and how you create a culture when people aren’t not all in the same place,” she said, adding that this represents just one of new frontiers, if you will, when it comes to managing in these compelling times.

“For our last class, we actually had a session on executive presence and focused a lot on how you communicate effectively virtually, and all the things about body language and how you frame yourself on the camera,” she told BusinessWest. “These are things you would never have thought about, and now you do.”

 

Bottom Line

That’s just one example of how leadership is, as Wondolowski said earlier, ever-changing. And that’s one of many factors that has not only kept her in this job longer than she ever thought she would be in it, but kept her engaged and energized.

As she plans that 10th-anniversary commencement for next spring, she is also thinking about the many springs to follow and the future classes of LPV and what they will need to be impactful leaders in the community and in business.

Filling in those blanks, especially in the era of COVID and the profound changes it has brought to the landscape, is not easy. But if anything, Wondolowski has demonstrated that she not only grooms leaders — she has become one herself.

 

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

Sports & Leisure

On His Own Turf

Christian McCollum says Notre Dame is like the New York Yankees

Christian McCollum says Notre Dame is like the New York Yankees — it’s a team people love or hate, almost in equal numbers.

Christian McCollum says he was just about to jump on his Peloton for his evening workout when the news that had been simmering all day finally came to a boil.

Brian Kelly, the longtime head football coach of Notre Dame, was leaving to take the same job at Louisiana State University (LSU).

That bombshell immediately changed the night, the next day, and the entire landscape for a number of people, including McCollum, a lead writer for the website Irish Sports Daily, which is devoted entirely to Notre Dame sports, with, as might be expected at this time of year, a heavy focus on a football team that has a huge, national following.

Long story short, McCollum, lead recruiting writer for the site, never did get his bike ride that night, and he’s not sure when he will.

Indeed, after the news became official early in the evening on Nov. 29, the writers at Irish Sports Daily went into action, quickly turning out stories on Kelly’s departure, likely successors, and, in McCollum’s case, one on who might be on the sidelines for the Irish if they play in a New Year’s Six bowl game or even one of the playoff games.

There were emergency Zoom meetings for the writers and, for McCollum, a series of calls to recruits to gauge their reaction to what was, for most, a stunning turn of events.

Recruiting has become McCollum’s main point of focus in a career now devoted mostly to Notre Dame sports and especially football. He also has an entrepreneurial venture of his own called Play Action Pools, an office sports pool hosting site that is gaining traction and looking to hit its stride in time for next spring’s March Madness.

For McCollum, Notre Dame sports has become as a much a passion as a job or a career.

After a 10-year stint with the Republican that started when he was in college, he moved to South Bend when he was hired by Frank Publishing, which produces Irish Sports Daily.  His first job was a beat writer for both the football and basketball teams.

“I would go to all the practices, all the press conferences, and all the games, home and away — I would basically cover the team,” he said, adding that he moved back to this area in 2011 and has since focused mostly on recruiting, following the high-school players the team is recruiting seriously and taking their stories right up to signing day and beyond.

“Recruitment starts earlier and earlier these days; sometimes they’re freshmen in high school, sometimes they’re sophomores,” he noted. “I just track them throughout their journey.”

“There was some hard feelings from some of the recruits and their parents, but mostly disbelief; it took a while for it to sink in.”

He acknowledged that the school’s massive fan base has a status in sports that is much like a certain baseball team in New York. He called it a ‘community.’

“They’re the most loved — and the most hated, kind of like the Yankees, as they say, which makes a lot of sense,” he noted, adding that the message-board comments reflect every emotion when it comes to the team, from loyalty to cynicism.

“A lot of members seem to enjoy misery,” he went on. “They claim to be Notre Dame fans, but they’re not just cynical, they almost seem like they’re hoping for the worst thing that can happen. But deep down, I think they’re still Notre Dame fans; they just enjoy pain.”

 

Breaking News

When BusinessWest first talked with McCollum in very late November, after the final game of the season, a win over Stanford, he said much of the discussion on the site’s message boards was about what had to happen for the Irish to become one of the four teams in the FBS playoff — certain teams needed to lose in the week ahead for that to become likely — whether that would happen, and even if it should happen.

Indeed, McCollum acknowledged that some of those cynical fans were wondering out loud if it might be better for a team that has made the playoffs several times, and even the championship game one year, but have been routed in each game, to earn a New Year’s Six bowl game instead. The thinking among some is that latter scenario would actually be better for recruiting.

“That’s a big debate we have on the board all the time,” he told BusinessWest. “People say they would rather not go to the playoffs if they’re going to get beat by 30 by Georgia. I’m of the opposite camp. You’re playing these games to try to win a championship, and you can’t win it if you’re not there.

“Some people say it hurts recruiting when you lose big like that, but this is what happened in recent years, and it doesn’t seem to have hurt recruiting,” he went on. “And it’s just as easy to say it helps recruiting; you can say to a kid, ‘we’re there … we just need to take the next step, and you’re one of the players who can help us take that next step.’”

But then, Kelly dropped his bombshell — a few weeks after dismissing speculation that he might be tempted to take other college jobs, such as the one at the University of Southern California — and everything changed.

McCollum had been planning to do a number of stories on Notre Dame’s coaches, including Kelly, fanning out to different parts of the country — now that their regular season was over and another game wouldn’t be played for at least three weeks and possibly more than a month — to check in with those coming to Notre Dame and try to sway some others to come to South Bend. Now, those trips, the ones that will still happen, will be much different in tone and complexity because so much is uncertain.

As for McCollum, he’s already been working the phones to gauge the reaction of recruits and their parents to what has taken place.

“Initially, the response was disbelief,” he said of his early calls to recruits and their families, during which he was often breaking the news about Kelly. “And then, disbelief turned into frustration. There was some hard feelings from some of the recruits and their parents, but mostly disbelief; it took a while for it to sink in.”

Overall, the Kelly saga presents an intriguing day in the life for McCollum, or, to be more precise, a day unlike any other.

Indeed, when asked where he was when the news broke, he said it was more of a process than a single phone call, text, or tweet.

“I was at home during the day when I started hearing rumbles from people I trust,” he said. “It wasn’t that Kelly was going to LSU, but that LSU was going to make a serious offer, as in money that would be hard to turn down.”

From there, events unfolded relatively slowly, and Kelly’s departure, which earlier in the day still seemed unlikely, became more of a possibility, said McCollum, adding that he kept getting calls and updates all day long, even while attending his daughter’s basketball game.

“When I got home, I still didn’t believe he was going to go because of the culture fit,” he explained. “So I started texting some of my buddies to let them know that this was out there and that it would be just my luck to have this happen now and turn my world upside down.”

And … that’s just what happened. His world turned upside down.

But that’s part of life when you cover this team, one that has such a huge following. One where seemingly small news is big news, and where big news is BIG news.

Big enough to keep him off his Peloton.

Instead of the planned stories on what recruits were thinking as National Signing Day (Dec. 15) approached, now, the focus was on whether they would stay with the Irish if they were already committed — some have already de-committed — or adjust their focus if they were not.

 

Endless Cycle

As noted earlier, talking with recruits and following the high-stakes, often-changing competition to sign top-tier athletes has become more than a job for McCollum.

He’s now one of the foremost, and most trusted, sources on Notre Dame football and especially its recruiting efforts.

He said there is certainly a Groundhog Day nature to his work in that he’s asking the same questions of different people each year, but he noted that each story is different in some respects, and he enjoys following each one to its end — whether the recruit comes to Notre dame or goes somewhere else.

“And it never really ends — it’s always a rolling thing,” he said. “Once this class of ’22 is signed, we’re heavily into ’23 and ’24, to be honest. I enjoy it … it’s my job to really help members understand what’s going on in that young man’s head, what he’s thinking, who’s the competition, what he’s going to value when it comes to making that decision, and keeping our subscribers up to date on what’s likely to happen when it comes to recruiting at Notre Dame.”

 

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

Features Special Coverage

Changing the Script

Jordan Hart

As part of a broad rebranding and rebuilding effort at the Greater Holyoke Chamber, Jordan Hart is working to build a stronger relationship with the Hispanic business community.

 

Area chambers of commerce, like businesses in all sectors, have suffered during the pandemic and faced a number of stern challenges. For the most part, they have come through these tough times — smaller in many cases, with many chambers now one-person shows — having proven their value and relevance after helping their members survive upheaval without precedence. The challenge moving forward is to rebuild their memberships, their financial foundations, and, yes, their staffs, while also creating new and different ways to maintain that relevance they found during the pandemic.

 

Jordan Hart admits to sometimes getting lonely at the Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce’s spacious offices on High Street.

There are still monthly board meetings in the large conference room and an occasional visitor. And the entrepreneur leasing a small office toward the back of the space comes in now and then.

But mostly, it’s just Hart.

Indeed, this chamber is now essentially a one-person operation, the culmination of a trend that started before the pandemic and has only been accelerated by COVID-19.

“I am the chamber,” said Hart, one several relatively new chamber leaders in the region — she became executive director almost a year ago after more than nine years with the agency in various roles, adding that there were five people working in the same space when she first started there.

And Holyoke’s is not the only area chamber to be run by a staff of one. That’s the model now in place at several agencies, including the Springfield Regional Chamber (SRC), which had five staff members just prior to COVID, but now there’s just one computer humming at its suite of offices at the TD Bank Building, a downsizing that happened over time.

“Part of it was attrition, part of its was budgetary as a result of COVID,” said Nancy Creed, president of the SRC, who announced earlier this month that she will be stepping down from her position no later than next spring to care for her elderly mother.

Coping with smaller staffs — and, in some cases, some loneliness — has been just one of the adjustments area chambers have had to make over the last few years, and especially since COVID. There have been some changes in the services they provide and how they are provided, and there has been somewhat of a change in role as well.

“As chambers stepped up, people saw us as a lifeline. We’re in the business of serving businesses, but never did we realize that we would actually be saving businesses.”

Indeed, where once chambers existed to help promote members and connect them to one another and the community, while also providing needed information on matters ranging from new legislation to changes in tax laws, the mission escalated during COVID — up to and including simply helping members survive an unprecedented disruption to their business and their life.

“As chambers stepped up, people saw us as a lifeline,” said Claudia Pazmany, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce. “We’re in the business of serving businesses, but never did we realize that we would actually be saving businesses.”

Overall, the chamber members we spoke with summarized what’s happened over the past 21 months or so by saying chambers became more relevant during the pandemic, as evidenced by the fact that membership didn’t decrease for many of them at a time of extreme financial duress for many of their members. In some cases, it actually increased.

“Throughout all of this, chambers have really shown their relevance,” Creed said. “It’s like having health insurance in some respects; you don’t ever want to use it, but you’re glad that it’s there when you need to use it, and we’ve shown what we can do and what our value proposition is.”

Now, the challenge is to remain relevant, they said with one voice, noting that they’re going about this assignment in many different ways.

At the Holyoke Chamber, for example, there has been a rebranding — a new logo and a new website, for starters — but also some strong outreach to Hispanic business owners, said Hart, adding that, historically, that population hasn’t felt as if the chamber represented them.

“It was really important to me to become a more inclusive organization, fostering not only our current members, but growing that and extending that into the Hispanic business community, which has really not had the same opportunities that the chamber has offered to other businesses,” she told BusinessWest, adding that she considers 2021 to be a comeback year for a beleaguered chamber. “I don’t want to continue to segregate the two different business communities, but instead find ways to become more unified and be the business community of Holyoke.”

Grace Barone

Grace Barone says the East of the River Five Town Chamber has brought back many of its events, but with adjustments due to COVID.

At the East of the River Five Town Chamber of Commerce, which includes Longmeadow, East Longmeadow, Ludlow, and other communities south and east of Springfield, there has been a return to many of the gatherings staged before COVID, including the popular breakfasts, an important value-added service for members.

“There’s definitely a need for these kinds of networking events,” said Grace Barone, who came on as executive director of the chamber in June. “Everyone needed to know how folks were doing, how to adjust sales, and how to move forward in this world, so we set out to do that, to bring people together again.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with several chamber leaders about this process of ‘moving forward,’ and all that this phrase entails. As with businesses in every sector of the economy, it means pivoting when necessary and finding new and sometimes different ways to be relevant and present value to members.

 

Meeting Expectations

As she talked about her chamber’s recent trade show and fundraising event, the ERC5 Talkin’ Turkey Table Top 2021, Barone said she took a page from the playbook BusinessWest used at its 40 Under Forty gala in September — the one that called for spreading people out to help reduce risks during a surge in COVID.

“We utilized all the different spaces at Twin Hills Country Club that we could,” she explained. “We had some vendors outside and in the lobby — we provided people with more room. People had to do a little more traveling through Twin Hills, but it happened, and it was a success, and everyone was very happy.”

It was the same at an earlier networking event, staged outdoors in another nod to COVID, at the Apple Place in East Longmeadow, which boasts a creamery and a number of farm animals. It wasn’t your typical networking event setting, but it worked, serving as an example of thinking outside the box and making needed adjustments to how things are normally done, Barone said.

“Throughout all of this, chambers have really shown their relevance. It’s like having health insurance in some respects; you don’t ever want to use it, but you’re glad that it’s there when you need to use it, and we’ve shown what we can do and what our value proposition is.”

Making adjustments at events — and conducting fewer events overall — while also making due with smaller staffs, and often one person, are just some of the changes area chambers have been making since COVID changed the landscape.

“It has certainly not been easy, and chambers have to do more with less now,” Creed said. “But that’s not necessarily a bad thing — I think that’s just business, and everyone needs to learn how to do that.”

Overall, most chambers have handled the adjustments they’ve had to make. There have been cutbacks in staffing for many of the agencies — again, through attrition and some cuts — and other forms of downsizing. But while chambers have closed and merged in other parts of the country and even other parts of this state, all of the chambers in the 413 have kept their names and their identities.

That’s not to say there weren’t some precarious times. Indeed, when Kate Phelon, the long-time executive director of the Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce, announced she would retire at the end of 2020, a search for a successor commenced that September. It was halted a few months later amid some concerns about the chamber’s future — and fiscal concerns stemming from the pandemic — but then started again as arrangements were made to collect past-due membership fees and take other steps to put the agency on solid financial footing.

“Dues started coming in, and people started getting creative about getting businesses into the chamber,” said Eric Oulette, who would eventually become that successor, adding that, today, membership is solid, at nearly 240 members, or roughly where things stood before the pandemic, with the ambitious goal of getting to 300 in the months to come.

Nancy Creed

Nancy Creed says area chambers certainly proved their relevance during COVID, and the challenge now is to maintain that relevance.

He’s confident the chamber can continue adding members and perhaps reach that lofty goal because of the value it has put on display during the pandemic, especially as a resource to members looking for needed information and guidance on relief programs.

Barone agreed. “We’ve been climbing higher and adding new members since I’ve come onboard,” she said, adding that the numbers have been steady and the chamber is on solid ground moving forward.

At the Holyoke Chamber, amid several changes in leadership, the agency fell out of view of many business owners and needed to not only rebrand but reintroduce itself to the business community and in some ways even reinvent itself. And Hart, because of her long tenure with the organization and familiarity with many of the business owners, thought she was in a position to orchestrate what could be called a turnaround.

“I thought I was in a position to really rebrand us and make it known that we’re here to help the community, because there was talk that the chamber was idle,” she told BusinessWest. “We were administering grants, but other than that, we had a very idle pandemic, so I took that opportunity last spring to rebrand us, with a new logo, new website, and new dues structure.”

The more significant aspect of what she is calling a ‘renaissance’ for this chamber is its efforts to promote inclusion and broaden the membership base by putting out a proverbial welcome mat to Hispanic business owners. It is doing this through a number of vehicles, including everything from diversity, equity, and inclusion seminars to complementary Spanish classes (Hart is taking one herself) and English classes as well.

“What I’ve noticed from working here almost a decade is that there are a lot of roadblocks preventing unification within our business community,” she said. “So if can we cross-pollinate and promote one another and highlight one another, using the power of the chamber to become an ally with everyone in our community, we can see tremendous growth. The potential is really endless, in my opinion.”

 

Getting Down to Business

As he talked with BusinessWest, Oulette was just returning from a ribbon-cutting ceremony, one of many he’s been part of over the past few months.

The giant scissors have been given a workout, he said, thanks in part to a surge in entrepreneurship fueled in some ways by the pandemic and the time it gave people to think about, and act on, their dreams of owning their own business.

“It was really important to me to become a more inclusive organization, fostering not only our current members, but growing that and extending that into the Hispanic business community, which has really not had the same opportunities that the chamber has offered to other businesses.”

“More than 20 businesses have opened up in the Greater Westfield area this year alone,” he said, adding that, from what he can gather, most area chambers are equally busy with those ribbon cuttings, and they represent just one of many ways chambers are showing up during these still-challenging times.

Indeed, with federal PPP money and other sources of funding, such as a large grant the Holyoke chamber has secured through its partnership with EforAll Holyoke, area chambers have been able to carry on — in somewhat different fashion, in some cases, and with a somewhat different mentality in others. And, yes, with fewer people at many agencies.

“We’ve transitioned to be more of a mission-driven organization than an events-driven organization,” said Creed, noting quickly that spending less time on events, such as those monthly or quarterly breakfasts that so many area chambers are known for, has freed up time for “things that truly matter.”

Using different words and phrases, all those we spoke with said essentially the same thing — although, for many, those events are still critical as ways to serve members and raise needed operating revenue.

But the pandemic has inspired all the chambers to look beyond those events and at different ways to help members, especially as they continue to battle not only the pandemic, but also a workforce crisis that is without precedent, and now new challenges to their existence, such as inflation and supply-chain woes.

Eric Oulette says he has been busy at ribbon cuttings

Eric Oulette says he has been busy at ribbon cuttings, one of the many ways the Greater Westfield Chamber has been visible and involved.

While the pandemic has eased in some ways, said Pazmany, area chambers are still working to not only serve but save area businesses. And this work takes many forms, from supporting the Amherst BID’s proposal to build a new parking garage downtown to more global efforts to inspire people to buy local.

But the biggest issues, one that chambers are struggling to help with, are the supply-chain woes and the workforce crisis. And they have Pazmany worried because they are preventing businesses from fully bouncing back from the pandemic, and in some ways still threatening their existence.

“I’m worried that, though our business are performing and they’re still open … they’re often just hanging on because of staffing and because of supply-chain issues,” she said. “Look at restaurants; they can’t stay open and serve the same number of people they used to. Most restaurants are busy, but they have to close two days a week, and if a restaurant has to close two days a week, they’re not doing what they were doing before the pandemic.”

And because a chamber’s fortunes are tied to the relative health of the business community it serves, there is understandable cause for concern, she went on.

“I’m a chamber, I’m a member-driven organization, all my support comes from my members and dues and sponsorships,” she explained. “I certainly have a right to worry; we’ve certainly proven ourselves in terms of our value, but if you’re not making the money, you’re going to cut somewhere. And what we don’t know is how long this staffing shortage and these other issues are going to go on.”

“It has certainly not been easy, and chambers have to do more with less now. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing — I think that’s just business, and everyone needs to learn how to do that.”

Barone agreed, but noted that one of the enduring lessons from the pandemic is that challenges can be met if groups and individuals work together and think outside the box.

“If we learned anything from this, it’s that the community comes together; if it weren’t for the residents in our small towns, a lot of businesses, a lot of restaurants, would not have survived,” she said. “But the community rallied, and that’s the piece that we’ve got to take forward — not that we didn’t before, but we need to focus on that with chambers. If our businesses are doing well and they’re successful, they give back to the communities they’re in, and everyone thrives.”

Bottom Line

As she walked and talked with BusinessWest during a visit to the space on High Street, Hart pointed to the desk positioned in the front lobby, the one she occupied when she started with the agency a decade or so ago.

When she became executive director, she recalled, she sat at that desk for some time, partly because of the familiarity, but also, as a one-person show, she wanted to be out front, greeting whoever came through the front door.

She has since settled into her office located behind the conference room, her “zen space,” as she called it. The broad goal for 2022 is to rebuild the chamber’s finances and, hopefully, place another employee at that desk out front — or one of the other unoccupied workstations.

Getting Hart some company is just one of the many challenges to address, and hopefully overcome, as chambers — like the businesses they serve — move on from surviving the pandemic to life after it.

 

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

Commercial Real Estate Special Coverage

A Time to Think Big

 

With more than $3 billion being directed to area cities and towns through the American Rescue Plan Act, there is no end to speculation about these funds should be put to use. While infrastructure projects and other municipal needs certainly need to be addressed, area economic leaders and developers are urging communities to think big and make investments that will spur additional private-sector development and allow these cities and towns to take full advantage of the changing times and the opportunities they present.

‘Unprecedented.’ ‘Once in a lifetime.’ ‘Once in a generation.’ ‘Transformative.’ ‘Totally unique.’

These are just some of the words and phrases people are using to describe the federal money now flowing into the state and its individual cities and towns from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to help them, their residents, and their businesses recover from the hard sting of COVID-19. Area communities are in line for windfalls ranging from hundreds of thousands of dollars for the smallest of towns in Franklin and Hampshire Counties to more than $130 million for Springfield. And the state itself is receiving more than $5 billion.

By and large, there are few strings attached to this money, so the $64,000 question (or the ‘fill in an amount’ question, as the case may be with individual communities) concerns how this windfall will be spent.

Keith Nesbitt

Keith Nesbitt

“There are very safe investments that can be made, and everyone would benefit. But there are game-changing investments that can be made, and I hope that they are.”

The debate is continuing on Beacon Hill and all across the region as mayors, city and town councilors, selectmen, and town administrators mull myriad options for spending these funds — and how other federal money, such as that included in the infrastructure bill recently passed into law, might be put to use.

Much of the talk on the local level concerns infrastructure — roads, bridges, sewer and water lines — as well as new roofs, HVAC systems, and more for municipal buildings, new parking garages, parks, etc., etc., etc.

And while these options have merit, those who spoke with BusinessWest on the broad subject of how this spending spree, especially the ARPA money, should be conducted said that, from an economic-development standpoint, area cities and towns — and the state itself — would do well to think bigger, and more long-term, with an eye toward using this money in ways that justify that word ‘transformative,’ and also spark private-sector development in housing (especially market-rate housing), new businesses, and more.

“These can’t be ‘bridge-to-nowhere’ kinds of investment — they have to be meaningful investments that all of us can benefit from,” said Jeff Daley, president and CEO of Westmass Development Corp., who also warned against a rush to commission studies that would likely yield reports that sit on shelves for years.

Keith Nesbitt, Berkshire Bank’s senior vice president for Business Banking for the Pioneer Valley and Connecticut, agreed.

“There are investments that are needed, and I think they come in a variety of forms,” he said. “I don’t know how we’re going to attract significant private investment without that pump priming that government resources are going to provide. I think this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity, and I really hope that local leaders are bold enough to dream big when it comes to how we use these funds.

“There are very safe investments that can be made, and everyone would benefit,” he went on. “But there are game-changing investments that can be made, and I hope that they are.”

What falls in that category? Nesbitt, who is also hiring manager for the bank and understands the workforce issues facing area businesses and the lack of qualified talent across the board, cited a community in Minnesota that is earmarking some of its federal money to ensure that all high-school graduates can attend community college.

Joy Martin

Joy Martin

“You do have a unique opportunity that you didn’t before because you have money to offer people to come in and develop in your area.”

“They recognized that need to prepare our young people for the jobs of the future,” he said. “The investment in free, two-year community college is what they’ve decided to do, and I’d love to see something that like here.”

Meanwhile, Joy Martin, director of Asset Management with Davenport Companies, which has worked on MGM Springfield, recently converted the former Willys-Overland property on Chestnut Street into market-rate apartments and is redeveloping the former Registry of Motor Vehicles building on Liberty Street, said Springfield and other communities need to think about investing the federal money in ways that would make it easier to undertake such projects.

“You do have a unique opportunity that you didn’t before because you have money to offer people to come in and develop in your area,” she said, adding that many projects need help from state and local government to make the numbers work for developers.

Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council, who can speak to this subject from various perspectives (he’s the former mayor of Springfield and a current city councilor), concurred, and also stressed the need to invest the money and not just spend it.

“I do think it’s a chance to look at the bigger picture and look down the road,” he told BusinessWest. “And not just fill a gap that might exist today, or not just make some repair that might be necessary, but really further your economy or the quality of life in your community you’re living in.”

 

Money Talks

While certainly advocating for longer-term thinking when it comes to how the ARPA money should be apportioned, Sullivan and others noted there are some immediate concerns that may also have some ramifications down the road.

That’s especially true when it comes to existing businesses and especially the smaller ventures across many sectors that are still struggling from the effects of not only COVID but some of the side effects from treating it as well.

“With the pandemic, the small, mom-and-pop, downtown, core-district businesses are still hurting,” he told BusinessWest. “They have supply-chain issues, they have employment issues … so I think some of these monies should go to the small, the really small businesses that make up the fabric, the fiber of your downtowns and your communities.

“And it can’t be loans because loans come with interest,” he went on. “It has to be either grants or no-interest loans that have a forgiveness provision — it goes away after a short period of time, be it two years or three years or five years; if you stay open and you’re moving forward, the obligation to pay goes away. Some of this money needs to go to your smallest businesses.”

Rick Sullivan

Rick Sullivan

“With the pandemic, the small, mom-and-pop, downtown, core-district businesses are still hurting. They have supply-chain issues, they have employment issues … so I think some of these monies should go to the small, the really small businesses that make up the fabric, the fiber of your downtowns and your communities.”

That said, Sullivan and others stressed repeatedly the need to think big when it comes to ARPA, meaning a focus on investments that will pay off the long term, with benefits for generations of residents of a given city or town. That could mean investments in everything from education and training initiatives to faster and more reliable internet, to initiatives that will unlock the development potential of unused and underutilized properties.

Seth Stratton, a business lawyer and managing partner of East Longmeadow-based Fitzgerald Attorneys at Law, said the focus should be on economic-development-related investments, a broad term to be sure.

“The programs and initiatives that should be funded with these resources should be intentional, impactful, and innovative — all with an eye toward a continuing spark; it has to be transformative,” he said, putting support for new housing projects high on his list of priorities. “We want to see economic development and a rising tide that lifts all boats. If we just do one-off projects here and there, that can be helpful, but it won’t have this comprehensive effect of economic development in what many of us see as somewhat of a new economy.

“What do restaurant, food and beverage, and entertainment venues look like going forward?” he continued. “We ought to be thinking about what they look like moving forward and how to embrace that and use funds in a smart way that would have exponential impact, rather than talking about one-off items.”

Daley agreed, and mentioned, as one example, Ludlow Mills, the sprawling former jute-making complex along the Chicopee River that Westmass now owns. He said investments made there by the state and perhaps the town of Ludlow could bring property in line for development and create jobs for several generations of area residents.

“We have several under-underutilized and undevelopable properties, and I think this one-time type of money coming in could help put us over the top to redevelop Ludlow Mills and other projects,” he said, adding that he hopes the ARPA money and funds in other federal programs, such as the infrastructure bill that was recently signed into law, trickle down to Western Mass. and help it attract the attention of the development community, which has often found it difficult to take on projects here for a number of reasons, including the market lease rates and the costs of renovating old mills and other properties.

“With a small investment — small relative to the numbers they’re talking about Congress and feds giving the state — we could recapitalize those dollars and give a return on investment that would be a million times what they would give us,” Daley said. “We have very, very large properties in Ludlow, specifically, that, without an infusion of cash, it’s going to hard to redevelop. With a small infusion of cash, several million dollars, we can generate a return on investment of $300 million or $400 million, realistically, within five to 10 years — and create a lot of jobs and tax dollars; there are three or four projects we could do that would change the face of Ludlow.”

Jeff Daley

Jeff Daley

“We have several under-underutilized and undevelopable properties, and I think this one-time type of money coming in could help put us over the top to redevelop Ludlow Mills and other projects.”

Martin concurred, noting that this infusion of federal money comes at an intriguing time, as many forces are coming together to make Western Mass. a more attractive option for individuals and businesses alike. These include the much higher cost of living in other areas such as Boston and New York and the opportunity to now work in those areas but live in a lower-cost region like the 413.

“Western Mass. is getting more attractive to investors and to people in general. Overland Lofts is 97% leased, and it has been 97% leased for some time,” she told BusinessWest. “We thought we were going to have a problem leasing these apartments, and we have not, and what surprised us is that we’ve attracted a lot of residents from the Worcester and Boston areas, because this location is near things that are about to happen — it’s not far from the casino, it’s near the train station … it checks a lot of boxes for urban living at a much lower cost than living in Boston or Worcester.”

Elaborating, she said one of the units is being leased by an executive with a Boston-based firm who is now able to work remotely, and chose to do so in downtown Springfield.

With these trends, or developments, in mind, those we spoke with said area cities and towns need to be thinking about ways to utilize the ARPA funds to take full advantage of the opportunities currently presenting themselves.

 

Impact Statement

Returning to that town in Minnesota using ARPA money to send young people to community college, Nesbitt said this is the kind of long-term, high-impact investing that state and area leaders should be thinking about as they consider options for allocating funds in the broad realm of economic development.

“These kinds of human-capital investments need to be prioritized,” he said, adding that the workforce crisis now impacting every sector of the economy must be considered a long-term problem and not one that will correct itself in a quarter or two or with the end of additional unemployment benefits.

Seth Stratton

Seth Stratton

“We have to have more market-rate housing in the region and be creative about it, and that’s where we talk about downtown developments. We can leverage Western Mass. and our lower cost of living by investing in market-rate housing, and such investments will help our businesses, because they are struggling to find and keep employees, and if we have robust market-rate housing, that will certainly help.”

Stratton agreed, noting that expanding vocational-education programs to assist the trades and the region’s large manufacturing sector should also be a priority. Meanwhile, he noted that other forces are converging that might bring more people into the local workforce, such as the ability to work remotely. He said there are more individuals like that executive now living in Overland Lofts, and, moving forward, they will need places to live.

“We have to have more market-rate housing in the region and be creative about it, and that’s where we talk about downtown developments,” he said. “We can leverage Western Mass. and our lower cost of living by investing in market-rate housing, and such investments will help our businesses, because they are struggling to find and keep employees, and if we have robust market-rate housing, that will certainly help.”

Meanwhile, with these changes in how and where people work, communities like Springfield have to think about the large amounts of office space currently unleased and the potential for those numbers to climb, he went on, adding that some thought should go into repurposing some of this space into flexible workplaces.

Getting projects like these off the ground is often difficult because it’s not easy to make redevelopment projects like the Overland initiative “pencil out,” as developers say, meaning make the numbers work. Often, historical tax credits or other forms of funding are needed to bridge gaps, said Martin, adding that the state and individual communities should look at using the federal funds flowing to them to make such projects more feasible and doable.

“We thought we were going to have a problem leasing these apartments, and we have not, and what surprised us is that we’ve attracted a lot of residents from the Worcester and Boston areas, because this location is near things that are about to happen — it’s not far from the casino, it’s near the train station … it checks a lot of boxes for urban living at a much lower cost than living in Boston or Worcester.”

“We run into a gap between the cost to build something and the actual asking price for something,” she said, citing the Overland project as an example. “We got 60 apartments out of it and rents that fit the area, but none of that would have happened without historical funds and state housing funds. So if the city had something that could bridge some of the financial gap between new-build and the current economic conditions in Springfield, that will help to bring developers here.

“It’s hard to justify an $18 million project with $2-per-square-foot rent,” she went on. “But if there’s some way to help bridge that gap, I think you’d see more developers willing to come in and give you a good product.”

Daley agreed, noting that the developers of the so-called Clocktower Building at Ludlow Mills, another housing project, have had to wait the better part of six years for the historical tax credits needed to move that initiative off the drawing board.

“We have another mill that’s 600,000 square feet; if we were to start today and try to get those kinds of tax credits, it would be 12 to 15 years before they were all distributed,” he said. “If the state wanted to have an impact on development of those kinds of projects, it should make more money available for good projects that are shovel-ready.”

Martin said the gap in funding facing those looking to develop existing but older and challenged buildings is one of the key factors impeding redevelopment of the buildings across Main Street from MGM Springfield.

“It’s not that people don’t want to be there,” she said. “It costs a lot to redevelop these buildings, and then to charge a rent that fits the community … it doesn’t pencil out without some kind of help,” she said. “Using these funds in a smart way like that would help bring back the Main Streets in Western Mass.”

Sullivan agreed, and said such investments are part of that process of looking beyond today and to tomorrow, and what communities want and need to look like in a rapidly changing landscape.

“I do think this is an opportunity for communities to look at the bigger picture regarding where they want their communities to be 10 years down the road, what they want their downtowns to look like, and what sectors — be it a restaurant district or an entertainment sector, travel and tourism, for example — they want to attract,” he said. “It’s about determining what you want your future to look like, and investing in it.”

 

Paying It Forward

Summing things up, Sullivan said these are what he hopes are once-in-a-lifetime windfalls that have come to area cities and towns.

“Hopefully, we won’t ever have to go through this again,” he noted, adding quickly that this unique moment in time represents an opportunity to pause, think about the future, and make some investments in it.

Fixing a bridge or putting a new roof on the fire station might be a suitable use for some of the money, he went on, but overall, cities and towns have to think bigger. Much bigger.

 

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

Features Special Coverage

A Changing Dynamic

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the business landscape in countless ways — from where and how employees work to how people communicate. It has also prompted businesses large and small to stop, think about that phrase ‘corporate stewardship’ and what it means to them, and perhaps re-evaluate this all-important concept. We put together a panel of local business and nonprofit managers to discuss the broad topic of corporate stewardship and how COVID may have provided new definition — in every aspect of that phrase — to this issue. For businesses, the pandemic has provided an opportunity to revisit the matter of community involvement and often find new and different ways to give back.
For nonprofits, missions have been broadened, and there has some been pivoting, out of both necessity and a desire to serve in different ways. The panelists are: Paul Scully, president and CEO of Country Bank; Theresa Jasmin, chief financial officer at Big Y Foods; Amy Scribner, partnership director at East School-to-Career Inc., a nonprofit that provides internships, or work-based learning opportunities and other career-education initiatives, for students; Jack Verducci, vice president of Corporate Partnership for the Worcester Red Sox; Dexter Johnson, president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Springfield; and Michelle D’Amore, executive director of Ronald McDonald House. Scully may have set the tone for the discission when he said, “I think the pandemic has been exhausting and aging, but it’s also been reflective, and I think it’s prompting people to be reflective about how to live your life and how to make a difference.”

BusinessWest: Let’s start by getting your take on — and your working definition of — those phrases ‘corporate stewardship’ and ‘being a good corporate citizen.’

Scully: “Country Bank has been around for 172 years, and its legacy for all those years has been the belief that healthy communities thrive. We’re all in business for our companies to do well, but from a community perspective, we need communities that are healthy — healthy economically, heathy demographically, educationally, with regard to healthcare. So giving back has always been a focus here, and in recent years we’ve taken it to a higher level, both with writing checks and having people on the street giving back and being part of the community. And it differs, depending on what the needs are. There can be very significant multi-year pledges — we just pledged $1 million for hunger awareness in June, with $500,000 for food banks in both Central and Western Mass., because if people have good nutrition, healthy communities will thrive — or having 14 people at Habitat for Humanity helping to build a house. It’s a focus that we do big and small.”

Jasmin: “Being involved in the community is part of the fabric of our company; we consider ourselves a family, we have a culture of caring, and we focus on personal connection, whether that’s with our customers, our employees, or throughout the community. And that manifests itself in many different ways, from large donations to capital campaigns to investments in time and talent. For us, though, it’s about relationships and creating strong vibrant communities; that’s what corporate stewardship means to us.”

Scribner: “For our organization, it’s not so much the money; it’s about organizations allowing these students to come in for semester and do a work-based learning opportunity, and that has long been a challenge for us. We’re trying to create a pipeline for employment, and to do that, we need businesses to assist us and open their doors to students. Often, it’s not about just writing a check, but getting involved on a deeper level.”

D’Amore: “We as a nonprofit are always seeking — and grateful to receive — financial support from the community. But we also rely on our volunteer base. Our organization was built on volunteers; it is the foundation of what we do. For us, we’re continuing our outreach and working with the community to ensure that what we receive is supporting the families who are with us — and there are many forms that this support can take.”

Verducci: “Our WooSox Foundation is a new foundation and not heavily funded, but what we do have is a platform to provide valuable and equitable experiences to the community; specifically, we tend to focus on pediatric oncology, recreation, education, and social justice. So while we love to donate the funds that we do have, we tend to be able to do the most good through corporate partners and partnerships within the community.”

BusinessWest: Has the pandemic changed the dynamic when it comes to corporate stewardship, and if so, how?

Jasmin: “What changed was how urgent the need was and the need to move quickly to respond to those needs. We have a pretty structured mechanism for people who are looking for financial assistance. But during the pandemic, that was accelerated because there was a high sense of urgency. For example, within a week of the shelter-in-place order in March of 2020, we gave some sizable donations to each of the five food banks in our operating area because businesses were shutting down, and people were out of work; the social structure to support those people was not in place yet, so food banks were being taxed. We made that gift quickly, and we made a second gift four weeks later when the need was continuing. That’s one of the ways we adjusted — moving more quickly to meet needs.”

Theresa Jasmin

Theresa Jasmin

“What changed was how urgent the need was and the need to move quickly to respond to those needs.”

Scully: “The urgency absolutely was escalated, but so has the dynamic. When I think of the nonprofits I sit on, so many of them rely on not only corporate giving, but some type of event or two over the course of the year. We’ve all been to a million chicken dinners; what I say to my group is that, when the auction is there, bid high and bid often, because that’s what it’s all about. The big piece that we saw was that people weren’t going to events because they weren’t being held. And it was a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ unfortunately. The money was needed, the funding was needed, but the money wasn’t coming in, and yet all of those organizations had a more dire need than is typical because there were so many people impacted by the pandemic. We looked at it and said, ‘yeah, we can stay with our traditional model of what we do, but there’s a big need to step in here.’ When we look at corporate stewardship and how things have changed over the past 20 months, the need has increased exponentially. So many were hoping that this was the year — we all had our calendars ready for events, and then, they had to switch to virtual events, which don’t raise enough money. So the corporate community needs to realize that, even if there isn’t an event, the needs are so great, and they need to get out there and make a difference.”

D’Amore: “From a nonprofit perspective, we had to figure out how we could support our mission differently. When the pandemic was creeping, we were mandated by our global entity, which holds our licensing agreement, that we could no longer accept new families. And when the last of the families went home, we actually turned it around to provide support to frontline healthcare workers. We opened the house to workers at Baystate to give them an opportunity — if they needed a place to stay, if they needed to take a shower or get a cup of coffee. So our team was committed to support healthcare and support our partner hospitals who are there for us all the time. The tables turned a little bit, but we are able to continue to support our mission in this time of need, and you saw many organizations doing similar things. We pivoted and reinvented ourselves.”

Scribner: “Last year was a real struggle for students; 20% of those students in the Commonwealth just fell off the radar. So we had to change our mindset and pivot, just to help these students communicate how they were feeling. We would have speakers come in an talk about that — how they’re dealing with it, how their companies and themselves personally are dealing with COVID and being on Zoom meetings and not being in school and not being at work. Kids, while resilient, really had a tough time; they missed going to work and interacting with people. It’s those little things that we don’t think about — like going to a company or going to UMass on a field trip. We’re slowly getting back to whatever the new normal is. But last year, we had to have an open mindset and be really flexible about what we could do for the students and also about what we can learn from all these experiences and take those best practices.”

Amy Scribner

Amy Scribner

“Last year, we had to have an open mindset and be really flexible about what we could do for the students and also about what we can learn from all these experiences and take those best practices.”

Johnson: “With the pivot in funding that happened when a lot of companies started steering dollars toward COVID-related things, we also steered a lot of what we were doing toward COVID-related things; we were one of the few places that didn’t really close. When childcare was shut down for the Commonwealth essentially, and then an emergency first-responder-type childcare reopened for those working in retail or transportation or hospitals, we pivoted; our centers closed for one week and then reopened as an emergency childcare facility. We did continue to operate during that time, and on the youth-development side, there were still a lot of great opportunities from a funding standpoint to continue to be involved with some of our corporate sponsors that were changing direction and focusing on COVID.”

Verducci: “We essentially became volunteers; we turned our ballpark in Rhode Island, where we were still based until May, into a food-distribution network. Food insecurity became a huge issue in the region, so we were able to partner with Ocean State Job Lot, which would donate the food, and we would use McCoy Stadium as a vehicle to get that food to people who needed it. We also did coat drives, and we turned the park over to the state to become a testing facility. We tried to use our resources to help where it would do the most good. And once we transitioned to Worcester, we again became volunteers, going to Worcester State University to do food drives and coat drives, and most of those partnerships were with our corporate partners that we’ve had long-time relationships with. We all came together and said, ‘how can we do the best thing for the community, and what do we have at our disposal to move quickly in this challenging environment?’”

Jack Verducci

Jack Verducci

“We all came together and said, ‘how can we do the best thing for the community, and what do we have at our disposal to move quickly in this challenging environment?’”

Scully: “It was suddenly about putting on a different pair of glasses and switching gears when it comes to how you do things. It’s all about, as everyone has talked about, switching gears and saying ‘how do we adapt?’ much like we’ve all had to adapt to how we run our businesses remotely and attend meetings via Zoom.”

BusinessWest: What are the lessons we’ve learned from all this, from having to put a different pair of glasses, and how will this carry over into the future in terms of how we look at corporate stewardship and giving back?

Scully: “If we say that this is the end of the pandemic — and that’s a stretch, certainly — I think what all this has done for us is provide reassurance about how just how good people are and that everyone wants to be a part of something greater. We have a big building here, and for a while there, about four of us were here. You weren’t connecting with people. But as soon as the opportunity came for people to come back, not only to the office, but to get involved with volunteering again, they really wanted to. I think the pandemic has been exhausting and aging, but it’s also been reflective, and I think it’s prompting people to be reflective about how to live your life and how to make a difference. I think people want to be part of something greater, so I think that stewardship will be stronger than ever because this has almost been that switch that has prompted us all to rethink what’s important. There’s a silver lining to everything, and sometimes it’s hard to find, but I think this is it.”

Paul Scully

Paul Scully

“If we say that this is the end of the pandemic — and that’s a stretch, certainly — I think what all this has done for us is provide reassurance about how just how good people are and that everyone wants to be a part of something greater.”

Jasmin: “It was reinforcing for us in terms of our viewpoint on our being involved in the community. We took a look at what our philosophy was and really came out with an even greater understanding that these are the pillars we want to focus on. We’re a food company, first and foremost, and one of our pillars is hunger relief and helping with food insecurity. And that was reinforced for us — this is a continuing need, and we should be involved with it. And just in general, it’s also reinforced that we should continue to be involved — that our investment that we’re making in time and money and people is needed and is valuable. What this has taught us is that we need to be invested continuously, so when a crisis occurs, you can react quickly. It’s not something you can develop from scratch. Overall, it was reinforcing.”

Verducci: “I think the pandemic was a catalyst for empathy amongst companies; it was shared experience that was totally unprecedented, so people were empathetic with each other, and they really did understand what was happening with everyone. Instead of people saying ‘maybe not this year’ when we reached out, everyone we contacted over the past 18 months was willing to help in some way. The other thing we realized was that even the best-laid plans are not going to go the way we anticipate, so you need to be flexible and, more importantly, creative, and this will carry forward.”

D’Amore: “As challenging as the pandemic has been, I think a lot of good has come from it in terms of pausing. Whether as an individual, business, or nonprofit, we all took the time to pause, re-evaluate, and say, ‘what’s the need? How can we help each other?’ Sometimes, prior to the pandemic, we were very focused on our own business model or our own mission, and where it was going. But we were all in the same boat essentially wanting to row in the same direction, so we collectively said, ‘how can we do this together?’”

Michelle D’Amour

Michelle D’Amore

“As challenging as the pandemic has been, I think a lot of good has come from it in terms of pausing. Whether as an individual, business, or nonprofit, we all took the time to pause, re-evaluate, and say, ‘what’s the need? How can we help each other?’”

Johnson: “I think the pandemic pushed us [nonprofits] to work closer together in different ways, such as going after joint funding as one large organization rather than individually, so it has definitely had that benefit.”

BusinessWest: Going forward, how do we maintain this new spirit of cooperation, this new sense of urgency, when it comes to giving back?

Jasmin: “One of the things we lost during the pandemic was that personal connection. We missed seeing our colleagues, our families, and people in the community at large; through corporate stewardship and giving back, we can create those personal connections, and people are recognizing how important this is. The community is us, so when you’re giving back to the community, you’re giving back to yourself, your family, your friends, and your co-workers.”

Scully: It starts with all of us — the leaders or organizations — to set the pace. The pandemic may not be over, but I think that what is over is the hunker-down mentality of being locked up at home in the basement on a computer talking to your colleagues all day. It’s time to get on with life. It won’t be the old normal, it will be the new normal, and the new normal is going to be dependent on so many of us to set that tone — that it’s time to get back out there for a Habitat event, with getting over to the Ronald McDonald House to help prepare a dinner when that becomes available to do. It’s dependent on the leadership or organizations to reinforce that tone.”

Scribner: “This pandemic has really allowed people to take time to reflect on their own lives and what’s important to them and their priorities. And when you’re given that time, I think you realize what’s important in life. When it comes to being hunkered down, I think the pandemic provided time and opportunity for people to say, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore; I want to get out, and I want to be part of my community. I want to be part of making a difference.’ People are realizing just how precious things are now, whether it’s shoveling the sidewalk for a neighbor or providing food for a food bank.”

Dexter Johnson

Dexter Johnson

“I think the pandemic pushed us [nonprofits] to work closer together in different ways, such as going after joint funding as one large organization rather than individually, so it has definitely had that benefit.”

Johnson: “In the normal ebb and flow of things, we get hyped up because something’s happened, whether it’s 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina or the tornado — things that bring us together for a short time. And then, life gets back to normal, and human nature tends to make us drift back to how we were. I think COVID is very different … it impacted everyone, every state, every city — we all know someone who has lost their life or lost their job because of it. It’s had a more far-reaching impact than any of those other tragedies, and, hopefully, that will allow it to stick with us and keep that mentality of realizing how fragile life can be.”

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

Law Special Coverage

A Changing Dynamic

Like all businesses, law firms have had to make adjustments in the wake of the pandemic, which has created both new opportunities and new challenges. Overall, firms have seen obvious changes in where people work and how. But there also may be new dynamics when it comes to recruiting and from where firms can attract new business.

Tim Mulhern in the ‘Zoom room’ at Shatz, Schwartz & Fentin.

Tim Mulhern in the ‘Zoom room’ at Shatz, Schwartz & Fentin.

 

They call it the ‘Zoom room.’ And for obvious reasons.

It’s the office of a retired partner with the Springfield-based law firm Shatz, Schwartz and Fentin that’s been converted into a small conference room equipped with a 60-inch screen for, or mostly for, Zoom meetings with clients that involve at least a few of the firm’s attorneys.

“If we have several of us who want to meet with a client or a couple of clients, we can have a multi-person meeting and have a few people in the room,” said Tim Mulhern, the firm’s managing partner, who said that, prior to the pandemic, there was obviously no need for a Zoom room. And the creation of one is just one of the many adjustments — that’s a word he and others we spoke with would use early and often — that law firms have made over the past 20 or so months. And some of them are more permanent in nature than temporary.

That can likely be said of the receptionist at Shatz — or the lack thereof, to be more precise. No one sits at that desk any longer, and, in fact, the door that leads to the reception area is now locked; a sign taped to it provides a number to call for people with inquiries.

The biggest change, though, is the number of lawyers to be found on the other side of the door — roughly half that from the days before the pandemic.

The rest are working remotely all or most of the time, something that took some getting used to — lawyers, especially, like the office setting, said Mulhern — but most have gotten over that hump.

“A number of our lawyers have learned how to work at home, myself included — I couldn’t have worked at home at all before, and I figured it out now. We’ve made that adjustment, and we have some lawyers who, either because of compromised health issues or simply because they have a long commute, are working predominantly from home.”

Ken Albano, managing partner at Springfield-based Bacon Wilson, agreed. He noted that it’s not uncommon to check his phone in the morning and hear from one or more of the firm’s attorneys letting him know they will be working remotely that day. As other firms have, Bacon Wilson has adjusted — there’s that word again — and become more flexible out of necessity, he said, adding quickly that the firm wants its lawyers and paralegals in the office at least some of the time.

“I’m old school,” he said. “I like the idea of being with a young lawyer or a young paralegal who needs mentoring and advice and has questions. It’s better for me to meet with them one-on-one, in person, with a mask on, as opposed to doing it via Zoom.”

In the grander scheme of things, though, where lawyers work, and whether there’s a receptionist or not, may well turn out to be some of the less significant adjustments, or changes, to result from the pandemic. The larger ones could involve recruiting young lawyers and the potential to add business as a result of the changing landscape.

Ken Albano says the pandemic has exacerbated an already-difficult situation

Ken Albano says the pandemic has exacerbated an already-difficult situation when it comes to hiring lawyers and paralegals.

Starting with the latter, Seth Stratton, managing partner of East Longmeadow-based Fitzgerald Attorneys at Law, summed things up effectively and succinctly when he said “we sell time.” And with some of the changes brought about by the pandemic — including less time commuting to work and less time traveling to meet clients — there is, in theory, at least, more time to sell.

Also, now that clients of all kinds, but especially business clients, have become accustomed to meeting with clients via Zoom and the telephone, there is potential to have such sessions with law firms based in the 413, which charge, on average, anywhere from one-half to two-thirds what lawyers in Boston and New York charge, and less than those in Hartford as well.

“COVID has resulted in more efficiencies, and, generally, efficiencies mean things take less time, and we sell time, so that means we’re selling less per client,” Stratton explained. “But it allows us to potentially work with more clients and work with clients who are more distant — we can expand the footprint of who we’re comfortable working with and who’s comfortable working with us.”

As for recruiting … the pandemic brings both opportunity and challenge, said Betsey Quick, executive director of Springfield-based Bulkley Richardson. She noted, as others have over the years, that it is difficult to recruit young lawyers to Western Mass. law firms, and it often takes a family connection to do so. With the pandemic and the ability to work remotely, there is now the possibility of recruiting lawyers not to Western Mass., necessarily, but to firms based here — and the young lawyers can live where they want.

But — and this is a significant ‘but’ — young lawyers who might want to come to Western Mass. because of the quality of life and comparatively low cost of living can now come here, but not necessarily to work for a firm based here — again, because of the options now available to them.

“Remote working options can help and hurt recruiting efforts,” Quick said. “We are now hearing from attorneys with great résumés who prefer more of a remote schedule. It has opened the doors to new prospects. The concept of urban flight is real, and professionals are considering their options. On the other hand, with remote work, attorneys who once flocked to big-city firms may now have the option to remain at that firm, with the big city salary, and relocated to a rural area.”

Seth Stratton says the changing dynamics

Seth Stratton says the changing dynamics presented by the pandemic could provide area firms with more opportunities to secure work from clients based outside the 413.

For this issue and its focus on law, BusinessWest looks at all of the various ways the pandemic has brought change to a sector that hasn’t seen very much of it over the past several decades.

 

Case in Point

Mulhern remembers when, at the height of the pandemic in mid-2020, he used to carry a small, foldable table in his car. It was for what came to be known as ‘driveway signings,’ among other names — the inking of documents in outdoor settings, including driveways, but also parking lots and parking garages, where each party would bring their own pen and bottle of hand sanitizer.

Those days seem like a long time ago, and in many respects they are, he said, adding that a large degree of normalcy has returned to the practice of law, although things are, in many ways, not at all like they were in February 2020.

As an example, Albano noted the recent end to Springfield’s mask mandate. While the city took that course, Bacon Wilson has decided to still require masks within its offices, a difference of opinion that has resulted in some confusion and even some harsh words for the receptionist from visitors not inclined to mask up.

Overall, changes have come to where lawyers work, how firms communicate (with clients and employees alike), how and to what extent they use paper (much less now), and how they show community support and engagement (turning out for auctions and golf tournaments has been replaced by other, more pandemic-friendly methods).

Changes have come to where lawyers work, how firms communicate (with clients and employees alike), how and to what extent they use paper (much less now), and how they show community support and engagement (turning out for auctions and golf tournaments has been replaced by other, more pandemic-friendly methods).

“You need to be in the office if you’re going to work in Springfield; if you’re a full-time person working remotely, it doesn’t work out, and it wouldn’t work out — not for us.”

Going back to that word used earlier, firms have been adjusting to a changed world, and the adjustment process is ongoing, especially when it comes to where and how people work.

At Shatz, Schwartz and Fentin, as noted, maybe half the lawyers continue to work remotely, said Mulhern, adding that the firm has not rushed anyone back, and it won’t, at least for the foreseeable future, in large part because the current work policies, if they can be called that, are working.

“A number of our lawyers have learned how to work at home, myself included — I couldn’t have worked at home at all before, and I figured it out now,” he told BusinessWest. “We’ve made that adjustment, and we have some lawyers who, either because of compromised health issues or simply because they have a long commute, are working predominantly from home.”

And there are variations on the theme, he said, noting that some lawyers work a portion of their day at the office and the rest at home.

At other firms, most if not all lawyers are back in the office. That’s certainly the case at Bulkley Richardson, which implemented a vaccine policy on Oct. 1, said Quick, noting that the firm recognizes the importance of in-person interaction with colleagues and the need for human connection.

That said, Bulkley Richardson and other firms have learned that remote working can and does work, and there is certainly room for — and, even more importantly, a need for — flexibility.

Betsey Quick says there has been a “transformation of the practice of law”

Betsey Quick says there has been a “transformation of the practice of law” because of COVID, and she believes there are many positives amid a host of disruptions.

“The transition to remote work was unprecedented, but what we learned by the unexpected lockdown was that flexibility is a viable option,” Quick said. “We have always offered attorneys some degree of flexibility and have worked with them to find an agreeable working model; until the pandemic, most attorneys worked traditional hours within a traditional office setting. But now, with the remote working more acceptable, and sometimes necessary, we have seen no change in productivity or efficiency doing work.”

Stratton agreed, noting that his firm, like most, had a degree of flexibility when it came to working remotely and allowed lawyers to do so; most didn’t, except when they had to (during snowstorms or when they were home sick), because they preferred to be in the office. Now that they’re used to it, and like it, more are taking advantage of the flexibility they have.

Indeed, before COVID, perhaps 10% to 15% of work was done remotely, and now the number is perhaps 25%, said Stratton, adding that this represents a new normal.

And the new ways of doing things have produced greater efficiency, he added, a dynamic that creates the potential for more billable hours in a business that, as he said, sells time.

Meanwhile, the pandemic and the resulting changes in how lawyers interact with clients present new opportunities for firms in the 413 to do business with those well outside it, Stratton noted.

Before, to get such business, firms would need a physical office in Worcester or Boston. Now, for many types of business law, where personal interaction is less necessary, services could be secured from lawyers in this market at rates far below those charged in those larger markets.

“With the increased use of remote communication and remote meetings, you can more easily tap those markets,” he said, adding that the firm is starting to market itself to such clients through professional networking.

 

Moving Target

Beyond where and how people work, the pandemic may have changed another important dynamic for local firms — the all-important work to attract and retain young talent.

As noted, it has long been a challenge to bring young lawyers to this market unless there is a connection, said Stratton, who offered himself as an example. He and his wife are both from this area, and it was a desire to return here (especially on his wife’s part) after some time spent in Boston that eventually brought him back to the 413.

Summing up the landscape as it has existed for some time, Stratton said the region has long faced what he called “depth of bench” challenges.

Elaborating, he said this is a “top-heavy” market when it comes to lawyers, with many of the leading players in their 60s or even their 70s. There are some rising stars coming up behind them, but not as many as the firms would like.

The reasons for this are many, said those we spoke with, but largely, it comes down to the fact that this market is not the big city — which means it doesn’t have the big-city lifestyle and, more importantly to most young lawyers, it doesn’t have big-city rates for legal services — or big-city salaries.

“Like many cities, Springfield is a proud community with historic charm and continued growth.  And yet, it is not Boston, New York, or Washington, D.C., and in most circumstances, one major difference may be the salaries,” Quick said. “As a Western Mass. firm, we are able to offer a healthier work/life balance and a unique geographic landscape. The challenge is communicating this value to candidates because, if they are not familiar with the business climate in Western Mass. and all it has to offer, attracting new talent to the area can be difficult.”

Stratton agreed. “If I were to have a job posting tomorrow for a junior lawyer with one to three years of experience that fits our practice and say, ‘you come to East Longmeadow, Mass., Monday through Friday, 9 to 5,’ I would get zero applications of qualified attorneys. That might be an exaggeration, but it would be close to zero.”

Albano agreed. He said the pandemic has exacerbated an already-difficult situation when it comes to attracting lawyers to Western Mass. He told BusinessWest the same thing he told Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly when it asked him the same question.

“It’s been very difficult to hire quality lawyers and paralegals during this COVID pandemic,” he explained. “The quality of résumés we’re getting in from people in Western Massachusetts and also outside the area is very weak.”

Moving forward, he noted, the number could be much higher because that lawyer doesn’t need to be in East Longmeadow, at least not Monday through Friday, 9-5, meaning recruiting might become easier — that’s might — because of the pandemic and the manner in which it has changed how people work. It’s also changed some opinions about urban living.

“Many lawyers are growing tired of the city life,” Quick noted. “They want to find a reputable firm where they can advance their career and continue to work with high-level clients. At the same time, they are realizing that work/life balance matters. Western Mass. offers the best of both worlds — a growing, professional city surrounded by the landscape of mountains, rivers, and forests right at your fingertips.”

These qualities may well help attract people to Western Mass., but will it attract them to Western Mass. firms? This is a big question moving forward as remote work becomes plausible and more attractive for those toting law degrees in their briefcases.

“You need to compete with markets that you didn’t have to compete with before for talent,” said Stratton, noting that someone drawn to the Western Mass. lifestyle, or who has family here and wants to stay here, no longer has to limit his or her options to Western Mass. firms. “As a young lawyer, you can, potentially, work out of the Boston or Washington, D.C. markets primarily, and the legal rates charged in those markets are higher, and the pay is higher.”

That’s the downside of the changing dynamic, he went on, adding that there is plenty of upside as well, including the ability to look well beyond the 25-mile circle around Springfield that most young lawyers are currently recruited from.

Much of this is speculation right now, he went on, adding that, over the next six to 12 months, firms like his will have a far better understanding of just how — and how much — the recruiting picture has changed.

Albano agreed, noting that, overall, Bacon Wilson will entertain a hybrid schedule, to one degree or another, but it would certainly prefer its lawyers and paralegals to be in this market.

“I got an e-mail with a résumé from a young man in New York, indicating that he was looking to apply for a job here, but he plans on living in Boston,” he recalled. “First of all, his résumé didn’t coincide with what we were advertising — and we’re seeing a lot of that — and, number two, there needs to be that one-on-one connection. You need to be in the office if you’re going to work in Springfield; if you’re a full-time person working remotely, it doesn’t work out, and it wouldn’t work out — not for us.”

 

Bottom Line

Looking ahead, those we spoke with said the process of adjusting to everything COVID-19 has wrought is ongoing. That includes looking at the amount of space being rented and whether downsizing might be in order.

“We’re talking about what the future looks like in terms of physical space,” Mulhern said. “And that’s one of the things we’ll talk about — do we still still need all the space we have?”

The firm has more than two years left on its lease, he went on, adding that the answer to that question will come at another time. The answers to some of the questions, especially those regarding recruitment and gaining additional business, including some from other markets, might be answered much sooner.

Overall, this is a time of change and looking at things differently than they been looked at for decades.

“There has undoubtedly been a transformation of the practice of law, and we believe that there are many positives amid all of the disruption,” said Quick, referring to those at Bulkely Richardson while also speaking effectively for all those we spoke with. “The pandemic taught us many things, including how to work more efficiently, utilize available resources, and communicate better to keep teams connected. I anticipate many changes will remain with us in a post-pandemic world.”

 

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

Special Coverage Veterans in Business

Serving Those Who Serve

Al Tracy, with volunteers Andrea Luppi, left, and Darlene Slater.

Al Tracy, with volunteers Andrea Luppi, left, and Darlene Slater.

The USO (United Service Organizations) turned 80 this year. It celebrated, in essence, by enthusiastically carrying out the same mission it has had since 1941 — ‘strengthening America’s military service members by keeping them connected to family, home, and country throughout their service to our nation.’ The organization, and the local chapter based in Chicopee (Pioneer Valley USO), does this in a number of ways, from care packages to Monday night dinners at the Westover base, to a program that helps transition servicemen and women to the civilian workforce. For Al Tracy, executive director of the chapter, this isn’t a job — it’s a passion.

 

When Al Tracy was serving with the First Marines along the DMZ in Vietnam, the highlight of his day, week, or month — fill in the blank — was receiving a care package from home.

He would get one from his mother pretty much every month, he recalled, adding that the best thing in them was her apple pie, always wrapped in tinfoil, which was almost as precious — and welcome — as the food.

“We needed that tinfoil — we would reuse it to cook things,” recalled Tracy, flashing back more than a half-century as best his memory would allow, adding that such recollections certainly help drive him in a role that is far more a passion than it is a job — executive director of the Pioneer Valley USO, housed at Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee.

There is no ‘interim’ next to Tracy’s title, but technically … perhaps there should be. Involved with the USO (United Service Organizations) since the ’80s, he agreed to serve temporarily as executive director when the person in that job left it roughly 15 years ago.

“They’re still looking for an executive director,” said Tracy with a laugh, adding that he likes everything about his job — except all the paperwork — and especially anything that has to do with helping active-duty servicemen and women and also veterans in need.

“I have a passion, and I love taking care of our military. I think that what they do, the sacrifices they make, are countless. You’re up all night, you don’t get weekends off … you’re stuck wherever you’re deployed. They need to know that we’re thinking of them.”

And there are many programs and services that fall into that category, from the care packages that are sent out to destinations around the globe to the Monday-night dinners the USO prepares for those serving at Westover, and also other servicemen and veterans as well (he and his staff were doing the prep work for one as he talked with BusinessWest on Nov. 1); from a program called Pathfinder that helps retiring servicemen and women transition to the workforce to providing tickets to Thunderbirds games and other sporting events.

“I have a passion, and I love taking care of our military,” he said. “I think that what they do, the sacrifices they make, are countless. You’re up all night, you don’t get weekends off … you’re stuck wherever you’re deployed. They need to know that we’re thinking of them.”

Tracy is even busier than normal these days as he coordinates a transition of sorts for the local chapter, which is giving up its independent charter and becoming part of the World USO.

“Our charter was dissolved on Oct. 1 — we’re now part of World USO. I’m excited. Maybe I won’t have as much paperwork, but I haven’t seen that yet,” he said, adding that the agency at Westover will continue doing what it’s been doing from the beginning: “strengthening America’s military service members by keeping them connected to family, home, and country throughout their service to our nation.”

That’s the official wording in the mission statement, but it’s more than words for those tasked with carrying it out. It is a passion, and one that prompts a pause for reflection as the USO, started by President Franklin Roosevelt in 1941, marks its 80th anniversary. Best known perhaps as the agency that sent Bob Hope to entertain troops in hotspots around the globe, the USO has changed over the years, and some adjustments certainly had to be made during COVID. But at its core, the agency and its purpose remain the same: it’s there to keep deployed service members, and also veterans, connected.

For this issue and its focus on veterans in business, we talked at length with Tracy about the USO, its all-important mission, and the many ways in which it is carried out.

 

Corps Mission

As he talked with BusinessWest, Tracy was thinking ahead to the Nov. 27 Thunderbirds game against the Hartford Wolf Pack, a matinee, at which he will drop the ceremonial puck. It’s an assignment he’s looking forward to.

“I told them I wanted a crash helmet, so when I fall on the ice I don’t hit the back of my head,” he said, adding that the agency partners with the team to get servicemen and women discounted admission, and also tries to secure tickets (to raffle off or simply give away) for area concerts and other types of shows.

Al Tracy says the USO’s mission comes down to a simple assignment

Al Tracy says the USO’s mission comes down to a simple assignment: keeping servicemen and women connected — to their family, their hometown, and their country.

Dropping the puck is just one of many rewarding aspects to a job Tracy has grown into over the past decade and a half after serving the USO in a variety of capacities, incuding board member and treasurer. Indeed, he’s put his own stamp on a position, and an agency, with a proud legacy and an important mission, one that brings him back to his time in Vietnam, which he can pinpoint with astonishing detail after all these years.

“Let’s see … 11 months, 28 days, four hours, 15 minutes, and maybe 30 seconds, but who’s counting? I was looking at my watch as we left the ground,” he recalled, adding that the best of those days were the ones when the care packages arrived. “During the war, my best buddy was my mom; she sent care packages all the time, and it was pretty awesome. Now … I’m just passing it on.”

And in all kinds of ways.

The care packages might be the best-known and perhaps the most symbolic part of the mission, he said, adding that the proud tradition is carried on today.

“It’s a wonderful organization and my favorite charity. I like everything we do — and I get to laugh everyday, so that makes it even better.”

“We have a huge care-package program,” he noted, adding that the local chapter will send them anywhere — all it needs is an address. “Those packages keep them connected to home; it lets them know people are thinking about them.”

Elaborating, he said the packages can be personalized, and many are, but there are many staples — personal-care items, beef jerky, snacks, sunscreen, and wet wipes, which can and often are used to clean weapons.

But there are many other ways in which the local USO carries out its mission, starting with the Monday dinners served at the base (the cafeteria is closed that night). There are usually 125 to 150 people who partake, including some area veterans, he said, adding that meals are delivered to those serving at guard posts, on the runways, and other locations.

The USO facility at Westover Air Reserve Base

The USO facility at Westover Air Reserve Base provides servicemen and women with a number of services and needed items, including books to read in what’s known as the ‘relaxing room.’

There’s also a food pantry at which service members can buy items; that facility also provides items to veterans in need.

The agency also marks deployments and homecomings, and it will also help take fallen servicemen from the area to their final resting place. It will assist servicemen and women in transition with furniture and other needs, said Tracy, and even provide small loans to those in need.

Then there’s the Pathfinder program that assists those transitioning from the service to the workforce.

“We’ll help them put together a résumé and learn how to interview,” he explained, adding that participants in the program are assigned a ‘scout’ who will assist in a job search on many levels.

There’s also the Bob Hope Legacy Reading Program, he went on, a program that enables servicemen and women to be recorded while reading a portion of a book or poem. That tape will then be sent to a designated family on a specified date, such as the holidays.

 

Finishing Touch

“That’s just another way that those off serving their country can stay connected,” Tracy noted, adding that this has been the simple yet all-important mission of the USO from the beginning.

For him, as noted, it’s not a job, but rather a passion.

“It’s a wonderful organization and my favorite charity,” he said. “I like everything we do — and I get to laugh everyday, so that makes it even better.”

It’s a unique mission, and for 80 years, it’s been mission accomplished.

 

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

Features Special Coverage

A New Kind of Challenge

The COVID-19 pandemic has tested area employers in every way imaginable. And soon, it will test many in a way that probably couldn’t have been imagined even a few months ago — vaccine mandates put in place by the Biden administration and set to take effect probably before the end of the year. The mandates are prompting lawsuits, generating questions that are often hard to answer, and creating high levels of anxiety for employers who are already dealing with a host of problems, especially an ongoing workforce crisis.

Amy Royal says she’s seen all manner of new regulations — state, federal, and local — that employers and their HR departments must contend with as they carry out business day to day.

But she speaks for all employment-law specialists — and those HR professionals as well — when she says she’s never seen anything quite like the COVID-19 vaccine mandates either already in effect or soon to be.

The mandates are far-reaching in their impact, in terms of everything from the number of businesses affected to the costs they will have to absorb to the very real possibility of losing more valued employees, said Royal, a principal with the Indian Orchard-based Royal Law Firm, which specializes in employment law, specifically representing employers. She summed up the measures and their bearing on employers with a single word. “It’s exhausting for companies.”

That would be an understatement.

Already, vaccine mandates enacted by states, individual cities and towns, healthcare providers, and private companies are resulting in thousands of people being fired or simply walking off the job. That list includes the football coach and several assistants at Washington State University, more than 100 state troopers in Massachusetts, police officers in countless communities, and a wide range of healthcare workers, especially nurses.

The recent developments raise questions on everything from just how safe many cities now are to which games NBA star Kyrie Irving can actually play in — none at his home court in Brooklyn, for starters.

And the next shoe — a rather large one — is set to drop in this unfolding drama. That would be the Biden administration’s vaccine and testing mandates, the ones affecting companies of more than 100 employees, any business with federal contracts, and federal employees — mandates the administration estimates will impact more than 80 million workers.

“People would be surprised at the array of businesses, both for-profit and nonprofit, that meet that federal-contractor test.”

Royal and other employment-law specialists we spoke with said there are far more businesses in the 413 in those categories than most people would think, and all of them are, or should be, working diligently to prepare for these mandates — which will take effect soon, although exactly when is a question.

Actually, that’s one of many, many questions, said John Gannon, an employment-law specialist with Springfield-based Skoler, Abbott & Presser, who said others include everything from whether employees get paid while they’re getting vaccinated or tested to who pays for those tests, to whether employees who ultimately lose their jobs to these mandates are eligible for unemployment benefits.

Amy Royal says far more businesses and nonprofits in the 413

Amy Royal says far more businesses and nonprofits in the 413 will be impacted by the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate than most people would believe.

“People are asking, ‘what do we do now — what can we do once the mandate is rolled out?’” he said. “They also want to know when it is going to release and how much lead time they’re going to have for compliance. And, unfortunately, we just don’t know the answers to those kinds of questions.”

Meredith Wise, president and CEO of the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast, agreed, noting, as others did, that the vaccine mandates add new layers of intrigue, challenge, and polarization for employers who have seen more than enough of all three over the past 20 months.

When she talked with BusinessWest, Wise had recently left a roundtable of CHROs — chief human-resource officers — representing companies across the Northeast. The group meets every six weeks to discuss the challenges its members are facing, she noted, adding that the dominant topic of conversation was the new vaccine mandates and what they might mean for companies, especially in the broad realm of employee relations.

“People who have not wanted to get vaccinated may get tired of the testing and may eventually get vaccinated, but be disgruntled about it,” she said, adding quickly that, if employers have to pay the cost of testing — and pay employees while they’re getting tested — then there is little incentive, if any, to get vaccinated.

“There’s still a lot of questions about what the mandates are going to say, how it’s all going to come down, and whether we’re going to lose employees,” she went on, adding that employers may have to pay a steep price for a policy they didn’t implement themselves.

The best advice Gannon and the others we spoke with have for employers and the HR departments is to be as ready as they can be for these mandates and fully understand just what they are up against. This means knowing how many employees are vaccinated (and not) and having a plan in place for meeting the mandates.

Above all else, Wise and the employment-law specialists advise that businesses take the mandates seriously — even if enforcement of its provisions will be extremely difficult, if not impossible — and to be prepared.

 

Taking More Shots

BusinessWest asked a number of area business owners and nonprofit managers who fall under the categories of the Biden vaccination mandates to discuss the measures and what they could mean.

Not surprisingly, none really wanted to talk about it — on the record or even off. Indeed, the subject of vaccinations and the mandates regarding them are a hot-button, polarizing topic, to say the least. Most employers are staying away from it, figuring it’s best not to say anything than delve into a matter drenched in controversy.

Meredith Wise

Meredith Wise

“There’s still a lot of questions about what the mandates are going to say, how it’s all going to come down, and whether we’re going to lose employees.”

That goes for MassMutual, one of the region’s largest employers, with more than 6,000 workers, which offered only this statement from a spokesperson:

“We are waiting for the specifics of the OHSA guidance to be issued, after which we will be able to better evaluate what it will mean for our company and employees. In the meantime, we have begun to prepare by determining how much of our employee base is vaccinated, which is currently approximately 85%. We are also encouraging fully vaccinated employees to begin coming into the office if they are comfortable doing so and on a schedule that makes sense for them. We’ll continue to evaluate our broader return based on the status of COVID-19 as well as guidance from medical experts and government officials to ensure the health, safety, and well-being of our employees.”

With that, the company probably spoke for most employers in the region, who are waiting for OSHA (the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration) to offer specifics while also assessing just where they stand with regard to what percentage of their workforce is vaccinated.

Here’s what is known at this juncture. The Biden action plan directs OSHA to issue an emergency temporary standard (ETS) that requires all employers with 100 or more employees to ensure their workers are either fully vaccinated or get tested weekly for COVID-19, Gannon said. Employers will also be required to provide paid time off to employees to get vaccinated and recover from any side effects from the vaccine.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration’s plan also includes two executive orders requiring federal employees and federal contractors (and subcontractors) to get vaccinated, regardless of workforce size. There is no weekly testing exception; employees working on or in connection with a federal contract, including subcontractors, must be fully vaccinated by Dec. 8.

And, as noted, there are more companies in the 413 that will be impacted by these measures than most would think. Indeed, while most businesses in this region fit the textbook definition of ‘small’ — under 100 employees — there are hundreds of companies, nonprofits, and institutions that count at least that many workers. That includes healthcare-related agencies, manufacturers, nursing homes, municipal departments, a few banks, and many more. Meanwhile, the provision regarding federal contractors — and subcontractors — brings many more businesses under the auspices of the Biden mandates.

“People would be surprised at the array of businesses, both for-profit and nonprofit, that meet that federal-contractor test,” said Royal, noting that her own firm has had federal contracts at different points in its history. “So this has an impact on a number of organizations up and down the valley — including small businesses and human-service agencies that may provide a service to the federal government in some way and come under the umbrella of being a federal contractor.

John Gannon

John Gannon

“When President Biden first issued his plan in early September, we told people, ‘let’s see what happens over the next 30 days.’ But now, we’re getting to a situation where employers have to begin planning and preparing.”

“It might even be retail-type product that is sold on a military base,” she went on, while detailing the broad scope of these measures. “This definitely has widespread implications.”

Beyond waiting — and perhaps hoping that the measure is delayed, which most experts say is possible but not likely — the best area employers can try to do is be ready, said Gannon, adding that, while it’s anyone’s guess as to just when the OSHA standard for companies with 100 or more employees will be issued, it will almost certainly be released before the end of the year.

“When President Biden first issued his plan in early September, we told people, ‘let’s see what happens over the next 30 days,’” he explained. “But now, we’re getting to a situation where employers have to begin planning and preparing.”

Indeed, the clock is certainly ticking on the Dec. 8 deadline for federal contractors, he noted, adding that anyone who takes a vaccine that requires two shots must wait several weeks after the first shot to get the second. And full vaccination, regardless of whether it’s a one-dose or two-dose vaccine, is not achieved until two weeks after the final dose.

“It can take employees at least 45 days, and that’s if they act as soon as possible, to make sure they’re vaccinated,” Gannon went on. “Meanwhile, employers are going to have to get testing programs in place and provide options for employees on how they get tested weekly if they are opposed to getting vaccinated.”

The logical next step for employers, if they haven’t done it already, is to determine their vaccination rates and thus get a handle on the scope of the problem they’re facing, he added.

“We’ve seen all sorts of numbers, but generally, employers fall somewhere in the 60% to 80% range,” he said. “And you’re allowed to ask people if they are vaccinated or not — several agencies have confirmed that there is nothing unlawful about that. You can’t ask them why, but you can generally survey your workforce population, and that should be the first step.”

 

Compounding the Problems

Flashing back to those days — it might even have been hours — after Biden announced his vaccination mandates, when the phone calls started coming in, Royal said the initial reaction was shock, followed by incredulousness.

“That’s because it represents a whole new layer of challenges for employers when they’ve already been navigating a number of challenges related to the pandemic, or just workforce-related issues,” she explained, adding that the overriding concern, beyond all the planning, logistics, and costs of meeting the new standards, regards the potential loss of valued employees at a time when workers are retiring and resigning at unprecedented rates (see related story on page 61), and replacing them has been increasingly difficult.

“Whether you’re in manufacturing or in human services, or are a professional service, there is a general worker shortage and shortage of prospects,” Royal noted, adding that the mandates, especially the one regarding federal contracts (because there is no provision for testing, only required vaccination), will make a serious problem that much worse.

Wise agreed. While she noted that the vaccine mandates for those companies in the listed categories relieve employers from having to implement such a polarizing policy themselves, it does bring a new and unwanted layer of challenge to the table, especially when it comes to workforce.

“They’re already hurting for staff as it is,” she told BusinessWest. “If they lose employees over this, that’s going to make it even harder for them to meet their customer demands and fulfill their orders.”

But there are other considerations, including the costs attached to all this and uncertainty over whether employers who don’t want to get vaccinated or tested can become eligible for unemployment benefits.

She said there has been no clear guidance on that, but she speculates that, if the federal government issues a mandate and an employee is unwilling to comply with that mandate, then the employee would not be eligible to collect unemployment benefits.

But that’s just one of many questions that remain unanswered at this juncture, she said, adding that employers of all sizes are pondering how to get ready for these mandates, but also just how seriously to take them, especially since the T in ETS stands for temporary.

“Apparently, under OSHA guidelines, unless OSHA makes it permanent, within six months this ETS will expire,” she said, adding that some employers may roll the dice and try to wait this out.

Indeed, while there are steep fines attached to the mandates — up to $13,653 per violation — Wise said some employers are wondering out loud just who is going to enforce all this.

“In my mind, this would be a risk that I, as a business owner, don’t think I’d be willing to take,” she told BusinessWest. “But there’s a piece to this that says, ‘how am I going to get caught?’

“OSHA isn’t going to be able to come in and audit every workplace, so there would probably have to be a complaint filed,” she went on, adding that, if an employee doesn’t want to get vaccinated, he or she is unlikely to file a complaint that their employer is not in compliance.

 

Bottom Line

Like Royal and Gannon, Wise said she’s never seen anything quite like the vaccine mandates when it comes to the many ways they might impact an employer.

“I’ve been in HR for more than 40 years, and I can say that there’s been nothing like this,” she noted. “There’s been a lot of regulations and guidelines that employers have to put in place — certain safety precautions, pay requirements, overtime laws — but there really hasn’t been anything that’s come down that has affected the individual and their bodies like this.”

Indeed, these measures are unprecedented in many respects, and they come at a time when beleaguered employers are already being challenged in every way imaginable.

Only time will tell what happens next, but it’s clear that employers will have their mettle tested even further.

 

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

Commercial Real Estate Special Coverage

A Blast from the Past

Springfield’s Trolley Barn, the property at the corner of Main and Carew streets, has had an important place in the city’s history since it opened back in 1897. It was long home to the Springfield Street Railway Co. and, later, Peter Pan’s Coach Builders operation. Today, it has a new life as home to J.D. Rivet, a roofing and sheet-metal company, thus ensuring that this link to the past will have a place in the city’s future.

At top, the Trolley Barn sign

At top, the Trolley Barn sign is joined by others announcing the newest owners. Above, past and present come together in the second-floor conference room.

Jim Trask says the search took the better part of four years.

That’s because, as he and other members of the leadership team at JD Rivet & Co. Inc., a roofing and sheet-metal company, went about looking for a new home to replace the one on Page Boulevard in Springfield, they had a lot of boxes that needed to be checked.

Chief among them was — and is — location, said Trask, the company’s president, adding that several crews hit the road for jobs each day, and easy access to highways is a major consideration. But there were others, including large open space for a warehouse, parking, and more, as the company, working with a broker, considered a number of options, including property at the Deer Park Industrial Park in East Longmeadow.

Eventually, the search ended at a rather intriguing place, the corner of Main and Carew streets in Springfield, home for nearly 125 years to a building known as the ‘Trolley Barn.’

“That’s a nod to the days when there were actual stables for horses that would pull carriages,” said Trask, adding that the property certainly has seen a great deal of history and change; from the horse-drawn cars to the electrically powered trolleys of the Springfield Street Railway Co., to far more recent uses. These include it being home to Peter Pan Bus Lines’ Coach Builders repair and restoration facility, and, simultaneously, a methadone clinic in the front-office section of the facility.

Trask and Sean Gouvin, the company’s vice president, recalled that, when they were first introduced to the property by Brendan Greeley, a broker at R.J. Greeley Co., they saw both opportunity and challenge, in perhaps equal amounts.

The former was represented by those aforementioned boxes being checked, especially the location part; the property is just a few hundred feet from an on-ramp to I-91, a few blocks from I-291, and a just a few minutes from the Mass Pike. The latter came in the large amount of work that needed to be undertaken to ready the property for the planned new use, especially transforming the portion occupied by the methadone clinic into modern office and warehouse space.

“I liked the building — I could tell it was really strong,” Trask said. “I loved the space in the warehouse, but the office at the time was all broken up and I didn’t really like the office space at all.”

Eventually, though, they decided seizing the opportunity was worth the challenge. Thus commenced more than six months of cleanup and restoration work that yielded some surprises — sheetrock was covering original brick and intricate woodwork in that office area — as well as a few artifacts, and a workspace that speaks to the early 20th century but certainly works in the early 21st century.

At left, from left, Robert Ostrader, Sean Gouvin, and Jim Trask in the new first-floor conference room.

“There are a lot of reasons why we’re here — location, price, everything,” Trask said. “But I love old buildings, and this is one of the most historic buildings around.”

And it provides what the company needs most — a long-term solution to its space needs, he added, noting that JD Rivet has worked through the many hurdles created by the pandemic (although some stern challenges remain, especially supply-chain issues) and is in a growth mode.

Founded in 1960, the company specializes in the installation and maintenance of commercial, industrial, and residential roofing systems. The company has worked on everything from churches to hangars at Westover Air Reserve Base.

From its new headquarters in Springfield’s North End, it can see the past — and the future as well.

 

Pulling Out All the Stops

As for those artifacts … there are several of them, including old pictures of the trolleys that were once housed there (one now graces the second-floor conference room), a boiler alarm bell (just like it sounds, it’s a bell that would ring if there was a problem with the boiler) that dates back to the turn of the 20th century, and some old fire-insurance maps, found on the property, that offer a glimpse of the dramatic growth that came to that section of Springfield in the early 1900s.

These items would be considered a bonus, said Bob Ostrander, JD Rivet’s chief financial officer, adding that what the company really wanted from its new home was a chance to consolidate operations — it was spread out in several different buildings on Page Boulevard — as well as have better, easier access to highways and that room to grow.

“The office was so chunked up, you couldn’t really get a feel for what it was because you couldn’t see more than a few feet without a wall.”

It got all that and more at an address — Carew and Main — that has seen a lot of history and certainly changed with the times. Indeed, the owner for decades was the Springfield Street Railway Co., which opened in 1870, and originally operated a single line of track — served by four cars and 24 horses — that ran from the North End of the city down Main Street, past State Street.

The original line soon expanded to other parts of the city, and by 1891, the lines were all electrified to run trolleys. By the end of the century, the network had extended to several area communities, and connections were made to other networks in other cities, including Holyoke, Westfield, Northampton, and Hartford. To handle all this growth, the company built the facility, named the Trolley Barn, at the corner of Main and Carew.

Like all trolley lines, Springfield’s became obsolete in the 1950s as cars and buses became the dominant modes of transportation. The Trolley Barn would eventually be acquired by Peter Pan Bus Lines to house its Coach Builders operation, which painted and repaired buses.

When the management team at JD Rivet first looked at the property, Coach Builders was still occupying the large area formerly used for housing and maintaining trolleys, and a methadone clinic had recently moved out of the office portion of the property. That later operation required privacy for its clients, said Ostrander, adding that the relatively large area had been carved up into many smaller spaces covered by sheetrock.

Before-and-after shots of the office area show the amount of work needed to restore the historic Trolley Barn to its former luster.

Before-and-after shots of the office area

“The office was so chunked up, you couldn’t really get a feel for what it was because you couldn’t see more than a few feet without a wall,” he said, adding that their collective imaginations managed to see through all that. And they liked what they saw.

“We had a demolition contractor, Associated Builders, come in and tear down all that sheetrock, and when they did, it revealed all this beautiful wood,” he told BusinessWest, waving his hand across the space that has become his office. “So we decided to restore all that wood — the floors, the wainscoting on the walls, the ceilings, the doors.”

Only small portions of those hardwood floors could not be fully restored, said Ostrander, adding that the company has effectively blended the past — specifically those floors, walls, and ceilings — with the present, including a new, glass-walled conference room created on the ground-floor office area.

Gouvin agreed. “From the beginning, we treated it as historic renovation — every turn was thoughtful,” he said of the efforts to preserve historic qualities of the property (and there are many of them), yet make the property suitable for modern office and warehouse operations.

Elaborating, he said the structure is in a historic district, so any alteration to the building that faces Main Street had to be approved by the Historic Commission. That includes the windows and the front door, which had to be restored and not simply replaced.

The past and present come together in a number of spaces within the building — the warehouse still bears evidence of where trolley cars were kept and maintained, but the there’s now high-efficiency lighting there and elsewhere — but perhaps none better than the second-floor conference room, which takes advantage of large windows, more of that ornate woodwork, and a fireplace (one of several in the building) to provide a unique, homey setting.

“I don’t think we’ve had to turn the lights on in there yet — the windows let in a ton of light,” said Trask, adding that it’s the same throughout the office portion of the property.

 

Past Is Prologue

The business cards for those at JD Rivet list 2257 Main St. as the address.

That’s a location steeped in history, one that brings three different centuries together in the same building.

Those at the company are proud of how they’ve blended the past with the present. But mostly, they’re excited about the future and the opportunities presented by this new facility.

 

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

Women of Impact 2021

Program Engagement Manager, MassMutual

A Success in Business, She Is Also a Force in the Community

Maddy Landrau was returning home from a lengthy business trip to Texas. As the car that picked her up at the airport was approaching her home in the Brightwood section of Springfield, she was surprised to see a small crowd of people, including her husband, Carlos Landrau, gathered on her porch.

As she walked toward the door, she recognized the five young girls who lived next door and other children from the neighborhood, but still didn’t know quite why they were there. She would soon find out.

“They were there … with their report cards,” she told BusinessWest as she fought back tears (unsuccessfully), adding that the girls, especially, couldn’t wait — quite literally — to show them off to the person they deemed most responsible for the higher grades they’d achieved.

“They would come to me, and I’d be saying to them, ‘this is your education … you have to do well; education is your ticket out of here. No one can take away that A, no can take away your grades,’” she said, adding that the girls from her neighborhood are just some of the many she’s counseled on a wide range of matters, but especially education and its importance to quality of life.

There are many ways to explain why Madeline (Maddy) Landrau has been named a Woman of Impact for 2021, but that story — and the setting for it — probably do it best.

Indeed, mentoring young people has long been a big part of her life and career, the latter dominated by a series of assignments at MassMutual, the latest as program engagement manager, a position with a broad range of responsibilities in (and on behalf of) the community, as we’ll see.

As for the setting … that’s another huge part of this story.

Landrau left Brooklyn for Springfield at the behest of a friend more than 30 years ago. She settled in the North End and the Brightwood neighborhood, one of the poorest in the city (and the state, for that matter) and home to many Hispanics … and never left, even when friends, colleagues, and Realtors alike were advising her to look elsewhere when she and her husband decided to build a home.

“There was an opportunity to purchase land in the Plainfield area of Springfield, and my husband and I took a deep dive — we said, ‘let’s do this,’ she recalled. “There were appraisers and contractors who would say, ‘what are you doing? You could move to Agawam, South Hadley, or Wilbraham.’ And I said, ‘you’re missing the big picture, the sense of community.’ That’s what I wanted to leave my children.”

Landrau’s devotion to Brightwood, the people who live there, and the region as a whole is summed up by Jean Canosa Albano, herself a Woman of Impact (class of 2018), who nominated her for the same honor.

“Maddy believes that there is a narrow path — be it to education, financial literacy, or workplace success. All you have to do is make the path wider. And she does it! She is inclusive and representative of communities who in some places may not find a place on that path.

“She believes in leading from the rear, not seeking the spotlight, and recognizes others’ humanity,” Albano continued. “She doesn’t seek to shatter the glass ceiling as much as to open the windows and welcome more people in.”

That comment, one of many poignant takes in the nomination, explains what drives Landrau and why she has touched so many lives in so many ways.

So does this comment from Lydia Martinez-Alvarez, assistant superintendent of Springfield Public Schools and another Woman of Impact (class of 2019).

“Many young adults call her ‘mom’ because of the impact that she has had on their lives,” she wrote. “Maddy is always helping someone with whatever they need. She often puts others ahead of herself; she is a mentor to many in our community and volunteers her time to ensure that our community is a better place for all to live in.”

 

Moving Thoughts

As noted earlier, Landrau grew up in Brooklyn, specifically the Bay Ridge neighborhood.

It was a close-knit, very diverse community, but there were few Hispanics, she told BusinessWest, using ‘mixed salad’ rather than ‘melting pot’ to describe it, adding that it was a very welcoming and tolerant environment.

“Many young adults call her ‘mom’ because of the impact that she has had on their lives.”

As much as she liked those elements of home, she desired to make a new life for herself and her two young sons, and, at the behest of a friend in Springfield who promised to help her get settled, packed her bags.

“I did not want to raise them in New York City, the fast and the furious — I needed something slower,” she said. “I felt bad when I told my dad I was leaving, but I knew that I needed this challenge, this opportunity to start afresh — a white canvas.”

The picture that now fills that canvas is one that tells of a young women taking advantage of opportunities afforded her, but mostly making her own opportunities — while never, ever forgetting that neighborhood she moved to and the people, like her, who still call it home.

Upon arriving in Springfield, in quick order, she secured an apartment, a job, and daycare so she could work that job. She married Carlos, a police officer, and the two created a blended family and “pulled it together,” as she put it.

That same phrase applies to her career and her ladder climbing at MassMutual.

She started in Accounts Receivable and quickly advanced, first to a leadership role in that department, then the IT department, and later Sales and a management position in that department. In 2011, she became director of Life Company Marketing and, among other initiatives, led the development and execution of marketing and recruiting strategies to help the company reach the U.S. Hispanic and Latino markets.

Maddy Landrau engages in a game of dominoes with some North End residents.

Maddy Landrau engages in a game of dominoes with some North End residents.

In her current role, Landrau has a number of responsibilities. She manages the MassMutual Foundation’s Anchor Institution Grantee Portfolio, which represents $5 million in funding to more than 20 organizations across the state. She also leads the company’s national LifeBridge life-insurance program, which offers free life-insurance coverage to eligible parents for the benefit of their children’s education. And she also leads and executes the FutureSmart Challenge Program in markets across the country. On pause because of COVID-19, the program is MassMutual’s proprietary financial-education program that educates middle- and high-school students about making smart financial decisions and career choices.

All throughout her career, she has been active within the community, and especially the North End. Early on, she volunteered on the board of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center and also served on the New North Citizens Council. Currently, she serves as a trustee at Westfield State University — she’s the first Latina to serve in that capacity — and is now vice chair of a subcommittee of the Finance & Capital Assets Committee, as well as a trustee with the Baystate Health Foundation.

But while influential in the boardroom, she has been most impactful in the community itself and working with people (especially young Latinas) as a mentor, second mother on many occasions, and role model in every way imaginable.

She said she is connected with mentees through the New North Citizens Council, Springfield Technical Community College, neighbors, and other channels. Slicing through what she tells them and she guides them, she said there is a dominant message.

“They create these challenges for themselves … and I tell them that, if only they were to make the right choice at the given time, I foresee that they wouldn’t have so many challenges,” she explained. “If they only took a pause and said, ‘this isn’t life the way it’s supposed to be,’ and if they created this opportunity for themselves to be happy and not allow others to make them happy, but also to become financially sound.

“I see many of these mentees living beyond their means,” she went on. “The ‘wants’ become more important than the ‘needs,’ and in my mentoring I’m trying to change that — how do you create the ‘needs’ as a priority? I stress the importance of being financially sound and educated, and that these are the things they need to pass on to their children.”

She said she mentors mostly young people, in the 13-18 age bracket, but also young adults and even a few grandmothers raising their grandchildren, whom she advises to look at things differently and not try to raise young people the way they were raised.

“When I meet with them, I tell them they have to meet me halfway. They have to do their part; let’s build trust, build the communication pattern, and share the good, the bad, and the ugly. I tell them that I want to hear more good, but don’t be afraid to share the bad — and the ugly.”

With each mentee, the basic ground rules for the relationship are the same.

“When I meet with them, I tell them they have to meet me halfway,” she continued. “They have to do their part; let’s build trust, build the communication pattern, and share the good, the bad, and the ugly. I tell them that I want to hear more good, but don’t be afraid to share the bad — and the ugly.”

 

Passing It On

That’s what you might expect from someone who’s made it her life’s mission to not necessarily shatter that glass ceiling, as Albano noted (although she has done that in some respects), but rather open the windows and welcome more people in.

It’s what you would expect from someone who had a crowd of young people waiting to show her their report cards as she returned from a trip, and what you would expect from someone who passed on Wilbraham and Agawam and stayed in the neighborhood where she raised her children.

And it’s what you would expect from someone who personifies the phrase ‘Woman of Impact.’

 

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

Women of Impact 2021

Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Officer, Town of West Springfield; Springfield City Councilor

She’s an Entrepreneur, Public Servant, Mentor, and True Role Model

 

 

To effectively convey the depth of Tracye Whitfield’s impact within the community, one should probably start with her business cards — as in the plural.

She carries three of them. Sort of.

She usually has only one on her, and that’s for the job she started just four months ago — as Diversity, Equity and Inclusion officer for the town of West Springfield. That’s a new position, and in it, she’s essentially starting from scratch and drafting the blueprint for a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Department, an assignment she describes with the single word ‘difficult’ (much more on that in a bit).

But she also has a business card identifying her as an at-large city councilor in Springfield — she said she had to make it herself; the city does not supply them — and another one explaining that she is a principal with T&J Tax and Credit Savers, the most recent iteration of a small business she started seven years ago.

Together, these business cards tell a compelling story. It’s about a single mother who started working at a call center in the late ’90s because it was a way to get more doors to open for her, including the one at MassMutual, where she would become inspired — and receive the tuition reimbursement — to earn first a bachelor’s degree in business administration and finance and then a master’s in accounting and taxation, both at American International College.

She would use those degrees to launch her own tax business — one she has built steadily over the years — and eventually move on to different career challenges, including one as director of Business Development for the Training and Workforce Options (TWO) program operated by Springfield Technical Community College and Holyoke Community College, and, well before that, as a finance analyst for Springfield Public Schools.

It was while in that job that Whitfield realized many constituents were missing out on resources and program funding because they were simply not aware of them. Later, as she talked within the community about the need for better communication and a voice for all residents, friends and relatives encouraged her to become that voice by running for City Council.

Neither she nor most of the members of her team had any experience with election campaigns, but she ran hard, knocked on more doors than she could count, and would up finishing a strong sixth, just out of the running, in the 2017 election. But she was later placed in an at-large seat when Tom Ashe became chief of staff for Mayor Domenic Sarno. Today, she is vice president of the Council and running for a third term.

Yes, it’s a compelling story, and one that forms the basis of what she considers the advice she passes on to the many young people she mentors.

“There are no real barriers other than the ones we place on ourselves — we can do whatever we want to do,” she said. “And I also tell them to give back; whatever you learn, bring it forward to the next person so they can learn it, too. That’s how we’ll maintain a culture of togetherness and just helping one another. And we’re all far better off when we can do that.”

“Whatever you learn, bring it forward to the next person so they can learn it, too. That’s how we’ll maintain a culture of togetherness and just helping one another. And we’re all far better off when we can do that.”

Those sentiments, and, yes, those business cards and all they stand for, explain why Tracye Whitfield is a Woman of Impact for 2021.

 

Running Story

As noted, Whitfield is running for re-election this fall. That means an already-hectic daily schedule becomes even more so.

Indeed, in addition to her day job in West Springfield, her duties as city councilor — which include countless meetings (many now thankfully conducted via Zoom) and events — and her work handling clients who asked for extensions on filing their tax returns, she must now campaign.

Such work is a little different in a pandemic, she explained, adding that there will be less knocking on doors (at least for her). But there are still the events and the stand-outs with supporters at busy intersections. Whitfield is an at-large councilor, so she must blanket the entire city; some of her favorite stand-out locations are the convergence of Wilbraham Road and Parker Street and at the X by the CVS.

Tracye Whitfield stands outside Town Hall in West Springfield, where she now serves as the community’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion officer.

Packing a lot into the hours available in a day is nothing new to Whitfield, who long juggled work, school, and parenting duties, and still does to some extent, although now it’s her first grandchild, different kinds of work, and different kinds of education.

Born and raised in Springfield, she said she had her first child at 18 and, like many single teen mothers, faced a number of daily challenges. But unlike many others like her, she had a plan — and a path — as well as a desire to set the tone for her children.

“I wanted to set a good example for them,” she said, adding that she took a job at First Notice Systems, a giant call center, with the larger goal of taking her experience in customer service and use it to get a foot in the door at MassMutual.

She eventually joined the financial-services giant in 2000, working her way from customer service representative to ‘top Blue Case manager,’ to accounting specialist.

Along the way, as noted, she earned two college degrees and set her career sights higher. After stints with Springfield Public Schools, Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services, and Springfield Technical Community College, she landed a job as director of Business Development for TWO, a position that was eventually eliminated due to cuts forced by COVID-19, a setback that brought her back to the job market and, eventually, to apply for a new position posted by the town of West Springfield.

She saw it posted on Indeed, and after talking with friends and colleagues, she decided to apply. She prevailed and started just four months ago, becoming one of a growing number of people with ‘Diversity, Equity and Inclusion officer’ printed on their business cards.

“I have seen how much people can change their life and advance through workforce development.”

When asked about this movement, if it can be called that, she said these positions are being created out of obvious need.

“It’s important to bring everyone’s voice to the table,” she said, noting that many area communities, including West Springfield, are becoming increasingly diverse. “There’s a large refugee population in this community, and from what I’ve gathered from meeting and interviewing people, they do feel left out and isolated because communication isn’t in their language, and they don’t know where to go; they don’t have a lot of guidance and resources to help them navigate the town process itself.”

Her work is pioneering in many respects, she said, adding that there is no blueprint to follow — as noted, she’s creating one. Thus, she’s reaching out to others in this emerging field of equity and inclusion for advice and best practices. And, following a pattern from earlier in her career, she’s continuing her education. Indeed, she’s pursuing a certificate in diversity, equity, and inclusion from Cornell and attending a number of forums.

Her first assignment is to hire a strategic consultant to help chart a course, and eventually she plans to create a town Equity Advisory Committee.

While breaking new ground in West Springfield, Whitfield continues to serve her constituents across the river in the City of Homes.

As an at-large councilor, she represents the entire city and has established some priorities or specific points of focus, including transparency, finance, public safety (she’s been chair of the Mason Square C3 Initiative since 2016), home ownership, and education and workforce development.

Those are all matters to which she can speak from experience, especially when it comes to seeing how higher education can change one’s career path — and their life.

“I have seen how much people can change their life and advance through workforce development,” she told BusinessWest. “College isn’t for everyone right after high school, so I think workforce development is a great path.” 

 

Paying It Forward

Amid her myriad roles, Whitfield saves time to mentor others, especially a small group of young women, including some on her campaign team. She advises them on subjects ranging from politics to entrepreneurship; from credit repair to home ownership.

“I feel that anything I’ve done … I can pass that on to others,” she said. “If someone asks, and they’re serious, I’m definitely going to help them.”

And there is much she can help with, as we know from those business cards. Together, they speak of someone who used education to change her life, someone who has chosen not to just live in a community, but get involved in it — someone who has molded herself into a Woman of Impact.

 

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

Women of Impact 2021

Director, Center for Service and Leadership at Springfield College

She’s Built Stronger Bridges Between the College and the Neighborhoods Around It

 

Charlene Elvers says she and others at Springfield College affectionately refer to it as the “listening tour.”

It happened around seven years ago, she noted, and as that name suggests, there was a lot of listening going on — and there is still a good bit of it today. This tour, if you will, was prompted by her desire to build more and stronger bridges between the college and the two neighborhoods that surround it — Old Hill and Upper Hill — which, when you get right down to it, is her basic job description as director of the school’s Center for Service and Leadership.

The assignment, which had many components, included asking residents in those neighborhoods if they saw any tangible benefits to having the college in their backyard and, likewise, asking SC students if they saw any benefits, as in learning or growing opportunities, from being in that neighborhood. When both constituencies answered, for the most part, ‘no,’ Elvers knew she had to take some steps to change those responses.

“I wanted to someday talk with people who said, ‘one of the great benefits of living here is having Springfield College as a neighbor,’” she said, adding that, as a result of all that listening and the answers garnered, she spearheaded the creation of the Center for Leadership and Civic Engagement, an arm of the Center for Service and Leadership. It’s located in a three-story house a few blocks from campus and is, quite literally, a bridge between the community and the school.

It is mostly quiet now as a result of the pandemic, but before COVID-19 arrived, it housed a homework-help drop-in center and a middle-school mentoring program — initiatives that are both being carried out remotely.

“It is great when college students really see things from a different perspective, when they develop relationships with people who come from a different place than they came from.”

In the future, Elvers sees vast potential for the site also housing a bicycle-repair shop — her listening revealed that there isn’t one anywhere in the city, and there’s a real need for one — and that the large open space adjacent to the house can be used for fitness and recreation programs.

The Center for Leadership and Civic Engagement is perhaps the most visible manifestation of a 20-year stint at Springfield College that has been spent developing high-impact programs that seek to foster connections between the college and the community while working collaboratively with partners to identify and serve their needs.

Elvers told BusinessWest this is very rewarding work, and one of the biggest rewards is seeing how this involvement with those in the neighborhood prompts students to ask poignant questions about what they see and hear — and start to develop the resolve to help answer them.

“It’s great to have one foot solidly on this campus and another foot solidly in the community to bridge those two organizations,” she told BusinessWest. “It is great when college students really see things from a different perspective, when they develop relationships with people who come from a different place than they came from.

“I see them really begin to gain a broader a broader understanding of some of the social issues that are happening, and that’s when they begin to ask questions,” she went on. “They ask, ‘how did this happen? How did we end up here? Why are we in a neighborhood where there isn’t a grocery store?’”

Through her work to build these bridges between the college and the community, and through her efforts to inspire those kinds of questions from students, Elvers has clearly shown she is a true Woman of Impact.

 

School of Thought

Elvers, who has spent her entire career in higher education, came to Springfield College after a stint at Mount Holyoke College as director of Student Activities. In that capacity, her work drew her increasingly toward helping students connect with — and serve in — the communities they call home.

She summed up her career, and her time at Springfield College, this way. “While I have taught in a classroom from time to time, mainly my teaching is outside the classroom, and it comes through facilitating experiences for students to enhance their educational experience as well as to develop them into leaders.”

This passion, and it can only be called that, has been taken to new and higher levels at Springfield College, where, for more than a decade, Elvers oversaw the school’s annual Humanics in Action Day, which provided direct service throughout the community, and also transformed it — from a day of service to ongoing grants and support for individuals and groups wishing to partner and serve with community organizations.

“There has to be more that we can do to come together as a college and a local community and work together to make this neighborhood everything it can be and everything we want it to be.”

She also succeeded in building upon several existing programs, including a mentoring initiative, called the Partners Program, that has linked students at the college with young students at DeBerry and Brookings elementary schools for nearly three decades now.

“We have 80 pairs of mentors between the two schools,” she said, adding that the college has worked extensively with those elementary schools as well with organizations combating some of the long-standing issues in those neighborhoods, including food insecurity, homelessness, and others.

It was through these initiatives that Elvers came to understand that the college could, and should, take its involvement to a higher plane.

“Over the years, and from just getting to know a number of the families from the DeBerry school and the Brookings school, I began to realize that, in these two neighborhoods, there were a lot of families that had great ideas and things they wanted to see in their neighborhoods that weren’t there. And I began to wonder if there were ways to connect our students and facility and staff directly with the community. Working together, I thought we could start to facilitate some of the changes that we would all like to see.”

Thus commenced the listening tour, which was launched with a basic premise. “There has to be more that we can do to come together as a college and a local community and work together to make this neighborhood everything it can be and everything we want it to be.”

To that end, the school, with Elvers taking a leadership role, acquired the property that became the Center for Leadership and Civic Engagement.

Now in its fifth year, the center is a work in progress, Elvers said — progress that has in some ways been limited or slowed by COVID, but progress nonetheless.

From countless discussions with those in the neighborhood and from listening at dozens of school and church meetings, Elvers said two clear needs emerged: educational opportunities for young people outside of school, and health and wellness programs and activities for people of all ages.

The first initiatives launched were the middle-school mentoring program and the homework-help drop-in center, both of which have continued with virtual platforms, a shift that has actually enabled them to help more young people — and get more Springfield College students involved with the community.

And this brings Elvers back to the reason why it is so important to build these bridges between the college and the community. The biggest is to, in some ways, improve quality of life for those in Old Hill and Upper Hill. But there are others, especially the manner in which these programs help open students’ eyes to the challenges facing those living in these neighborhoods, prompt them to ask questions, and perhaps inspire them to help come up with answers.

Referencing the fact that there is no supermarket in that area of Springfield, Elvers said students will hear stories from the families and individuals they work with that really open their eyes.

“I have students who will say, ‘I’m working with these young people, and they have a hard time getting food, and when I ask them about it, they say they have to go somewhere else to go to a grocery store. And they’ll say they take the bus, but the driver only lets my mom take on two bags of food — and we need more food than that.’

“Our students often don’t realize the challenges that sometimes face these families,” Elvers went on. “And when they hear these stories, they start to realize, and that’s when they start to ask questions, like ‘why would there not be a grocery store in this neighborhood?’ and ‘who’s doing something about that?’ and ‘how do we get involved in that?’ and ‘what’s the process by which that can happen?’

“I have seen more college students ask the really important questions and start to engage after they’ve developed a relationship with a local family and learn of the challenges that are happening,” she continued. “These are challenges that some of them would never have faced.”

 

Grade Expectations

Opening students’ eyes to these challenges, these problems confronting those living just outside the campus, has become part of Elvers’ mission and work.

Her business card says she is the director of the Center for Service and Leadership. But she’s really a builder — a builder of relationships, of connections, of bridges between two entities that share a zip code but often little else.

And her success as a builder explains why she’s a Woman of Impact.

 

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

Women of Impact 2021

Executive Director, Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts

She Builds Coalitions to Tackle the Pressing Issues Facing Our Communities

Jessica Collins majored in history at Wellesley College. Her specific focus, the one she developed her thesis around, was the 1960s, specifically the Kennedy years and the men and women who defined them.

“I always found that time period very inspiring, and I think we’re still leaning from it today — there’s certainly some unfinished business,” she said. “I loved the oratory, the power, and the poetry of so many of the people at that time. I was always touched by it.”

So it probably shouldn’t be surprising that, upon graduating from the elite women’s school, she would heed Kennedy’s mantra of service to country and others and leave for the Pacific Northwest to serve as a Jesuit volunteer care coordinator for people living with HIV and AIDS. Her next stop after that was a two-year stint in West Africa with the Peace Corps — a tour of duty that ended when a coup erupted in Guinea-Bissau.

In both cases, it was public health — and a desire to help populations in need — that prompted which direction she took, both in terms of the compass and her career. And it’s the same today as she serves as executive director of the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts (PHIWM), formerly Partners for a Healthier Community.

The population in need is the one living in the 413 and especially Greater Springfield, and Collins and her growing team have responded with initiatives addressing issues ranging from asthma and obesity to food insecurity and oral health.

But they never address issues alone. Instead, it is in partnership with other nonprofits and healthcare providers, which illustrates what has become perhaps Collins’ strongest attribute among many — her ability to forge coalitions that can bring about meaningful change with regard to some of the most pressing, and persistent, public-health issues facing this region.

One of the latest engagements of this nature is called DASHH (Doorway to an Accessible, Safe and Healthy Home), a broad collaborative effort involving the PHIWM, Baystate Health, the Revitalize Community Development Corp., and other players that was recently honored with BusinessWest’s Healthcare Heroes award in the Collaboration in Health/Wellness category.

Through the program, launched in 2015, these organizations not only identify families in need of intervention for environmental health issues and educate them on lifestyle changes, but actually make the needed physical changes to their homes.

This is the kind of collaborative effort that not only brings about positive change within the community, but inspires individuals and groups to think about what else can be done, said Colleen Loveless, herself a Woman of Impact, who nominated Collins for the award this year.

“Jessica has made impactful contributions to the local and statewide community that have had positive ripple effects throughout the nation,” Loveless wrote. “She exemplifies spirit, service, compassion, and empathy for others, and exhibits a high sense of professionalism in everything she does.”

These traits, and especially her ability to listen, learn, and then mobilize forces to combat health and wellness issues and build stronger neighborhoods, have made Collins a true Woman of Impact.

 

Healthy Attitude

Returning to her time at Wellesley, Collins said that, while history and the Kennedy years were — and still are — a fascination, volunteering, or giving back, was — and still is — a passion.

And it took her first to the Northwest and her work with those living with AIDS.

“It was still tearing communities apart at that time,” she said of the disease. “This was still before they developed the ‘cocktail,’ a blend of medications that really came through in the late ’90s. At that time, people were dying, and it was people across all socio-economic classes; it was a very eye-opening experience.”

So, too, was her time in West Africa and the tiny nation of Guinea-Bissau, where she worked at a health center in a small village of 1,700 people. Working with a midwife and a nurse, she provided lessons in health education. “I obviously learned 100% more than what I taught,” she recalled.

Jessica Collins has devoted her career to public health and addressing some of the larger health problems facing society.

Jessica Collins has devoted her career to public health and addressing some of the larger health problems facing society.

“From both of those experiences, I knew I wanted to be part of something that would allow people to be healthy,” she explained. “It just fit my groove.”

Elaborating, she said she came to understand that she didn’t want to do this work one-on-one, but rather in a community-health setting, and with that goal in mind, she went about earning a master’s degree in food policy and applied nutrition from the Friedman School of Nutrition and Policy at Tufts University.

With that degree, she took a job as project manager of the Institute for Community Health in Cambridge, where she oversaw an overweight-prevention pilot study. Later, she served as project manager for Tufts’ “Shape Up Somerville: East Smart. Play Hard” study that received national recognition for reducing BMIz scores in high-risk third-grade students in Somerville Public Schools.

“ Jessica has made impactful contributions to the local and statewide community that have had positive ripple effects throughout the nation.”

When she relocated with her family to Western Mass., she joined PHIWM as director of Special Initiatives, and in 2015 she became executive director. She described the assignment as one that also fit her groove and gave her an opportunity to be a part of broad efforts that would change lives on many levels.

One of her first initiatives was to work with others to form the Live Well Springfield Coalition, which has been successful in increasing access to healthy eating and physical activity for residents and implementing a number of strategic initiatives, including the Go Fresh Mobile Market.

When asked about PHIWM, its mission, and how the agency carries it out, Collins said that, in essence, it watches, listens, identifies issues to be addressed, builds coalition to address them, creates action plans (with the actions varying from case to case), and, eventually, hands the issue off another group to handle and moves on to the next challenge — or challenges, to be more precise.

“We take on issues where we have heard from the community that there needs to be attention paid to that particular health issue,” she explained. “We look at the health issue both from stories we hear from people in the community as well as hard, quantitative data, and then we build a team.

“We invite people to the table with whatever strengths and value they’re going to add, and we lead the process,” she went on. “Sometimes there’s policy outcomes, sometimes there’s programmatic outcomes, and sometimes … there’s all of it. And we hold it close until there’s another group that’s poised to take it over.”

As an example, she cited the GoFresh Mobile Market, which was recently handed over to Wellspring Cooperative, a Springfield-based nonprofit that boasts Wellspring Harvest, a commercial hydroponic greenhouse in Indian Orchard that brings healthy, locally grown produce to area hospitals, schools, and residents.

“That’s just one example of how we incubate, and it’s another opportunity for another organization to take it on, build their mission out, and bring in new funding for themselves,” she said, adding that this has been the pattern followed with several public-health matters, including oral health, asthma, and transportation for patients who need it to get to appointments.

DASHH is another example, she said, adding that the PHIWM incubated the large and persistent problem of asthma and essentially handed off the healthy-homes initiative to the CDC, which can take action to address the matter on a much higher plane.

“It went from basically health education and showing up with a flyer to Colleen’s agency showing up remediating homes,” Collins said, adding that this work eventually led to a broadening of that specific mission to air quality, climate change, and the creation of a new coalition called Social Justice for Climate Change.

And that’s just one example of how interconnected the problems concerning public health are and how difficult it is to generate meaningful change.

“Public health and community health are never cut and dry — there’s not just one solution that’s going to help people lead balanced lives,” she explained. “It’s far more complicated than that, and that’s why we appreciate that this work takes decades, and we’re here to stay with it and to test different programs. It’s slow going.”

 

History Lessons

The next challenge for the PHIWM and Collins will be youth mental health, an issue essentially chosen by the city of Springfield even before the pandemic, which has only added more layers to an already complicated problem.

“We’ve been working on it for a year, and we’re in the phase of building our team and identifying strategies that we want to test in order to support families and kids around anxiety, depression, and suicidality,” she said, adding that still another priority for her agency, being addressed in partnership with the state Department of Public Health, is trying to understand how to “build capacity around the conversation of racial equity in this region,” as she put it.

“When you control for lots of different things when you’re doing data analysis around health indicators, it is clear that the color of people’s skin is still a top indicator for health,” she said. “And bringing health indicators to a level playing field will not be done until we can truly address one of the most significant root causes, which is racism in this country — so we’re working with a lot of different people to try to figure it out.”

That last comment effectively sums up what has become Collins’ life work and her significance to this region. Since arriving here, she has worked with countless individuals and groups to ‘figure it out.’

She is an administrator and advocate for those in need, but mostly she is a builder — of powerful collaborations that are changing the landscape when it comes to public health. It’s happening slowly, as she said, but it’s happening.

And that’s what makes her a Woman of Impact.

 

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

Cover Story

Portrait of the Artist

 

When he was in college and developing his skills as a photographer, Lenny Underwood recalls being told to ‘get a real job.’ He thought he already had one, and eventually built a successful business. A decade or so later, he created another one, Upscale Socks, which is turning heads with its products while also helping to bring attention to everything from breast cancer to mental-health issues. These days, while growing his two ventures, Underwood is also passing on what he’s learned and doing important work to encourage entrepreneurship, especially among young people.

 

MAKING QUICK WORK OF IT.

That was the puzzle Lenny Underwood had to solve when he advanced to the bonus round of an episode of Wheel of Fortune that aired in May 2018 — three years after he first auditioned to be on the popular show.

With the few letters that had been revealed — Underwood doesn’t remember which ones they were (he could choose three consonants and a vowel) — he wasn’t able to come up with the phrase. But he noted that he wasn’t familiar with it and had never used it himself, so he was at a real disadvantage. (He also failed to solve another puzzle — WKRP IN CINCINNATI — claiming he’s too young to recall the late-’70s sitcom.)

But, overall, his appearance — he and a good friend competed together — was a success on many levels. He did win a trip to Guatemala for advancing to the bonus round, along with some press — both before the show and after it — and some fond memories from the experience, which came at a point in his life (the audition part, anyway) when he had much more time and inclination for such escapades.

“We did a lot of things like that — we were interested in adventures,” he told BusinessWest. “Things like skydiving, being audience members for TV shows, meeting celebrities, going to book signings … things that were interesting. We would say, ‘let’s audition for this,’ or ‘maybe The Amazing Race,’ things I could add to the arsenal of things that I enjoy doing.

“I’ve been in business for 17 years, nine full-time, but I guess, for whatever reason, socks are more provocative or sexy or interesting.”

“But that was before Upscale Socks,” he went on, referring to what would be described as his latest entrepreneurial venture. It is, as that name indicates, a sock venture, but one with some distinctive artistic and philanthropic flares to it.

Indeed, since launching his line, he has designed sock patterns that do everything from identifying many of Springfield’s many ‘firsts’ — basketball and the monkey wrench are on that list — to drawing attention to breast cancer and mental-health issues. His latest design — he’s planning a press conference to announce it — is what he calls a ‘Massachusetts sock,’ complete with many symbols of the state, including mountains, cranberries, the mayflower, and art connoting higher education.

There is far less time now for things like Wheel of Fortune as Underwood continues to adjust the business plan for both his sock venture and his photography studio, another artistic enterprise he launched 17 years ago, one that suffered greatly during the pandemic, as all such businesses did, but has bounced back in 2021 as the world returns to normal — in most respects.

Meanwhile, there are other matters competing for hours in the day, he noted, listing a growing number of mentoring initiatives with young entrepreneurs, including many aspiring photographers; involvement with Valley Venture Mentors, EforAll Holyoke (he recently judged a final competition among participants in its latest accelerator cohort), and other agencies working with entrepreneurs; and teaching assignments within the broad spectrum of business and entrepreneurship. He’s also writing a children’s book on entrepreneurship.

He used to get a few requests for such work years ago, but the number grew quickly and profoundly after he got into the sock business.

“I’ve been in business for 17 years, nine full-time, but I guess, for whatever reason, socks are more provocative or sexy or interesting,” he said with a laugh and a shrug of his shoulders, adding that his calendar is getting even busier as photo assignments come back and requests to partner on initiatives involving his socks arrive with greater frequency.

Lenny Underwood, seen here talking with a UMass Amherst student

Lenny Underwood, seen here talking with a UMass Amherst student at a pitch contest he judged, has become a mentor to many aspiring entrepreneurs.

Overall, this is an intriguing success story already — on many levels. Equally intriguing is where all this could go, especially Upscale Socks. At the moment, it is mostly a regional phenomenon, although the socks are sold online and in outlets in other parts of the country. But Underwood is looking to go next level.

“I’m hoping to attend some conventions and trade shows so I can get in more stores throughout other parts of the country,” he said. “I’ve done pretty well organically; a number of stores have reached out to me — they discover me on social media and they reach out because they’re interested — but I know that, if I want to expand into larger markets and places I’ve never heard of, I need to get in more stores and make more connections.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Underwood — about socks, photography, entrepreneurship, mentorship, that full calendar of his, and how it’s all become an adventure unto itself.

 

Dream Weaver

By now, most people know the story; Underwood has told it many, many times.

Upscale Socks is a dream come true. Quite literally.

He said it was probably seven years ago that he had a dream that he started a company making and selling socks. He said he usually doesn’t remember his dreams, and he didn’t recall all of this one. Just the main theme.

“It was really vague,” he recalled. “I just remember being the owner of this business and selling socks; the dream wasn’t to have a store, but just to have them available in stores and online as well. And that was it.”

He ran the concept by the friend who auditioned with him for Wheel of Fortune, and they agreed it was an idea with merit and potential. But there was a lot of learning to do and hurdles to clear.

“Many have a purpose behind them, and others are more artistic or wacky or funky, as some people call them.”

“I knew nothing about retail,” he acknowledged. “I didn’t do anything for maybe a year but toy with the idea and do some light searching on social media. Nothing really materialized.”

Eventually, he connected with Paul Silva, then-director of Valley Venture Mentors (VVM), who steered him to SPARK (now EforAll) in Holyoke. Mentors at that agency helped take the concept from the fuzzy dream stage to reality, he told BusinessWest, by compelling him to ask the hard questions, conduct customer discovery, and work to determine if there was a real market for the product.

“They held me accountable to look for manufacturing, so I researched probably 30 around the world,” he recalled. “They gave me more insight on numbers and data to work with; it was very helpful.”

The venture started slowly, but it has taken off. The socks, now seen on the feet of a number of area business and civic leaders, have become a fashion statement — but, as noted earlier, perhaps the real key to success has been that these socks often have a purpose well beyond comfort and fashion.

“Many have a purpose behind them, and others are more artistic or wacky or funky, as some people call them,” he noted, adding that many of his socks are attached to causes.

As an example, Underwood held up a pink sock designed to bring attention to breast cancer and Breast Cancer Awareness Month (October). He’s also working on one focused on AIDS awareness. Another initiative, undertaken in conjunction with the Mental Health Assoc., was the creation of socks designed to bring awareness to mental-health issues during Mental Health Awareness Month in May and help remove the stigmas attached to seeking help for mental illness.

“They’re very purposeful,” he said of his socks, adding that his relationships with area nonprofits and organizations, elected officials, and visitors’ bureaus bring many benefits. They create awareness for his products, but they also put a face — or a sock, to be more precise — on many of the issues of the day.

Lenny Underwood says Upscale Socks now has more than 75 designs, and many of them have a “purpose.”

Lenny Underwood says Upscale Socks now has more than 75 designs, and many of them have a “purpose.”

Overall, he has more than 75 current styles, and the number continues to grow, as with that Massachusetts sock. There are seasonal socks, for Halloween and Christmas, for example, and products for children — with matching styles for their parents.

“I hope to grow that collection in the future,” he told BusinessWest. “When I first started the children’s collection in 2016, I didn’t do as much field work to really discover what children like and dislike, so they’re not as colorful and fun as the adult socks; that’s a line I really want to grow, and I think there’s a lot of potential there.”

At present, he said he’s selling perhaps as many as 15,000 pairs a year through his website, the stores he’s in, and the many partnership efforts he’s made with nonprofits and other agencies.

When asked what that number could be someday, Underwood said the sky’s the limit — “as long as I remain authentic to what I’m offering,” he added, noting that the business plan is being continuously revised, and he’s working to create new partnerships and new avenues for visibility and growth.

 

Getting His Foot in the Door

While his businesses keep him busy — too busy to fly out to California on a moment’s notice to tape an episode of Wheel of Fortune, for example — Underwood says he tries to make time to do the occasional book signing and meet those who have forged successful careers in everything from entertainment to fashion design to literature.

“I still try to break away on a weekday if I can,” he said. “I like art, and I gain inspiration from hearing their stories — their life and how they were able to attain success and grow their business.”

Lenny Underwood, seen here donating 200 pairs of his socks to Square One

Lenny Underwood, seen here donating 200 pairs of his socks to Square One, has long made philanthropy and working with area nonprofits to help advance their causes part of his business plan.

As an example, he mentioned meeting Ruth Carter, the Oscar-winning costume designer who grew up in Springfield. “I gave her a pair of my socks, and we talked about business and designs,” he recalled. “Those are really good networking opportunities — and learning experiences.”

While listening to and learning from others, Underwood is passing on what he’s learned to others as a mentor, teacher, and advisor.

He told BusinessWest he’s been doing much more of this work in recent years, especially within the minority community and with groups like VVM and EforAll. He said it’s been a mission of sorts to not only talk about entrepreneurship and all that comes with choosing that route, but encouraging it as a career option as well.

“It’s a cool experience to share my experience and offer some advice on how to obtain success with whatever they’re looking to do,” he said, adding that, over this past summer, he was one of several invited to teach business to middle- and high-school students in Springfield. He’s also been part of programs at the college level, at Springfield College, the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship at UMass Amherst, and other schools.

He finds it rewarding on many levels to pass on what he knows and to try and inspire others to get started with their own ventures or get over the hump and to the proverbial next level, just as he is doing in many ways.

And then, there’s the children’s book. He’s still finalizing a title, but the work is essentially done.

“It’s about teaching children how to become entrepreneurs at a young age,” he explained. “There will be key words throughout the book and definitions, so when they hear the word ‘entrepreneur’ or ‘branding’ or ‘prototype,’ they’ll be familiar with that language, and they’ll have the confidence, hopefully, to embark on something.”

Imparting such lessons is important, he said, noting that he didn’t have that kind of encouragement when he was younger.

“When I was a child, I tried a lemonade stand and tried to sell things like Blow Pops and water balloons in the summer months, but I didn’t think that was a business, and it wasn’t instilled in me to start a business,” he recalled. “Even in college, when I was doing photography, I was told, ‘get a real job — that’s just something you do for fun; that’s not something you can do as a career.’”

 

Developing Story

If Underwood had solved that puzzle in the bonus round of Wheel of Fortune, he would have won a pair of Mini Coopers. Looking back, he can say with hindsight that he’s not sure what he would have done with them — probably sell them.

It’s a moot point because, as he said at the top, he wasn’t familiar with the phrase in question and certainly couldn’t nail it with the few letters at his disposal.

As for the ongoing puzzle of entrepreneurship that he’s currently trying to solve … it’s equally difficult in some respects, but he has a better handle on the answer. And it has nothing to do with making quick work of anything. Instead, it’s about handling myriad challenges, pivoting when necessary, and, in the case of socks, having designs on success — in every respect. u

 

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

Manufacturing Special Coverage

The Shot Heard ’Round the Region

Smith & Wesson’s recently announced plan to move its Springfield operations to Tennessee came as a shock to many — the 165-year-old company has been part of the city’s fabric, and the region’s rich manufacturing history, for generations. Amid questions about the gunmaker’s reasons for moving — the company cites proposed state legislation targeting its products, while some elected officials say it’s more a case of corporate welfare and a better deal down south — the most immediate concerns involve about 550 jobs to be lost. The silver lining is that, with some concerted effort, most of those individuals should be able to find other work locally in a manufacturing landscape that sorely needs the help.

 

In the wake of the announcement that Smith & Wesson will be moving its corporate headquarters from Springfield to Maryville, Tenn., questions and discussions have arisen on many levels.

These concern everything from how and when this decision came about to how aggressive Tennessee was in courting this major employer, to whether there were any major deciding factors in that decision beyond what has been stated repeatedly by the company — specifically, proposed state legislation that would ban the manufacture of most of the automatic weapons now made by Smith & Wesson.

But as the dust settles from that bombshell announcement, the lingering questions concern just what the region and the state have lost from the relocation of this company, one that can trace its roots back to 1856.

And the answers to that question don’t exactly come easily.

Western Mass. will lose roughly 550 jobs, according to the information released by the company — a significant number, to be sure, but economic-development leaders are quick to point out that just about every manufacturer has a ‘help wanted’ sign on the door, either figuratively or quite literally, and that any one of those Smith & Wesson employees who doesn’t want to relocate to Tennessee can find employment in the 413 quickly and easily (much more on that later).

“The reason they’re here, and the reason a lot of the jobs will remain here, is that you have a high-quality workforce. And that is probably the biggest issue companies are looking at right now. As a region, and as a state, we’re still a good place to do business.”

Meanwhile, the region will also lose a number of C-suite-level employees from the company that were involved in the community, sat on area boards and commissions, and engaged in philanthropic activity.

“They’re tied to the community,” said Richard Sullivan, president and CEO of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council (EDC). “And I think that, sometimes, those aspects of what it means to have a headquarters, the CEOs, and the team at any company get lost; it’s the tieback to the community, because they’re truly vested in the community and want to see it be the best it can be.”

Meanwhile, even though Smith & Wesson handguns and other products will still be made here, and we’re told they will be stamped ‘made in Springfield, Mass.,’ or words to that effect, the region will lose a certain amount of civic pride, if that’s the right term, that comes from having a large employer — and one of the most recognizable brands in the world — headquartered in the City of Homes. Indeed, many would say this company is part of not only the history, but the very fabric of the city.

State Sen. Eric Lesser

State Sen. Eric Lesser says Smith & Wesson’s decision to relocate its headquarters and some operations may actually be a blessing in disguise on some levels.

However, those we spoke with said the region and city are unlikely to lose momentum when it comes to attracting employers and jobs, or its reputation as a manufacturing hub.

Indeed, Sullivan used the phrase “one-off” to describe Smith & Wesson’s decision, drawing a distinction between this pending departure and a much larger exodus, headlined by General Electric, that befell Connecticut several years ago.

“The reason they’re here, and the reason a lot of the jobs will remain here, is that you have a high-quality workforce,” he explained. “And that is probably the biggest issue companies are looking at right now. As a region, and as a state, we’re still a good place to do business.”

State Sen. Eric Lesser, who represents Springfield and several neighboring communities and serves as chair of the state’s Manufacturing Caucus, agreed, and then went further, noting that, amid some obvious losses, there are also some possible benefits to Smith & Wesson’s decision. He even used the phrase “potential blessing in disguise,” mostly to reference opportunities that other area manufacturers may have to stabilize and grow their ventures by hiring displaced S&W workers.

“Sometimes, when one door closes, another one opens, and this may be one of those times,” he told BusinessWest. “We have a very real economic challenge in terms of making sure that those 550 families are taken of. But this is a long-term horizon — they’re not doing this until 2023. Luckily for those families, the manufacturing sector is very hot, and really, almost every company in that sector, including companies right in that immediate neighborhood where Smith & Wesson is located, are looking for people.”

Lesser is one of many elected leaders who are not buying into Smith & Wesson’s contention that it’s moving its headquarters because of the pending legislation. He echoed comments from Massachusetts House Speaker Ronald Mariano, who told the local press that “prudent business people don’t make major decisions, especially a decision that puts hundreds of people out of a job, based on one of the thousands of bills filed each session.”

“The politics of Massachusetts have been the way they are for a very long time, and at the very same time that they announced a move in Springfield, they also announce they’re closing operations in Missouri, a state that has very lax gun laws.”

Lesser, noting the very attractive deal offered to Smith & Wesson by Tennessee, said the company’s motivation for relocating probably has little to do with Bay State politics. “This is more of a classic corporate-welfare story than it is anything else.”

Which is why it shouldn’t impact Springfield’s reputation as a manufacturing hub or its long-term potential to become more of one, noted Tim Sheehan, the city’s director of Planning & Economic Development.

“In this type of industry, Springfield has had a long history, and the skill levels in this area of manufacturing have been noted throughout the Connecticut River Valley,” he said. “I don’t think this sends a message about the city of Springfield — it’s a broader message.”

 

Targeted Response

The press release arrived in the inboxes of media outlets in this region — and well beyond — at 9:05 a.m. on Sept. 30. The headline over the top read “Smith & Wesson to Relocate Headquarters to Tennessee,” followed by the subhead, “Move includes headquarters and significant portion of operations due to changing business climate for firearms manufacturing in Massachusetts.”

The release went on to quote Mark Smith, president and CEO of the company, saying, “this has been an extremely difficult and emotional decision for us, but after an exhaustive and thorough analysis, for the continued health and strength of our iconic company, we feel that we have been left with no other alternative.”

He specifically cited legislation recently proposed in Massachusetts that, if enacted, would prohibit the company from manufacturing certain firearms in the state. “These bills would prevent Smith & Wesson from manufacturing firearms that are legal in almost every state in America and that are safely used by tens of millions of law-abiding citizens every day exercising their constitutional Second Amendment rights, protecting themselves and their families, and enjoying the shooting sports. While we are hopeful that this arbitrary and damaging legislation will be defeated in this session, these products made up over 60% of our revenue last year, and the unfortunate likelihood that such restrictions would be raised again led to a review of the best path forward for Smith & Wesson.”

The path taken — to Tennessee’s Blount County, which proudly describes itself as a “Second Amendment sanctuary” — is similar to the one taken by Troy Industries, the West Springfield-based maker of a wide array of guns and related products, which announced a move to Tennessee back in May.

So while there is precedent and the relocation sounds like part of a movement, many elected officials, including Lesser, were not exactly buying the company’s stated reason for leaving.

In fact, he referred back to that same press release for some evidence. In it, the company said it was also relocating its distribution operations in Columbia, Mo. to the new, $120 million facility in Maryville.

“I don’t believe their rationale why they’re leaving,” he went on. “The politics of Massachusetts have been the way they are for a very long time, and at the very same time that they announced a move in Springfield, they also announce they’re closing operations in Missouri, a state that has very lax gun laws.”

The bill calling for a ban on the manufacture of certain assault weapons, Lesser noted, “has been filed for years and years. And 6,000 bills are filed every year on every conceivable topic; as the speaker said, for a company to make a decision of this magnitude off of one filed piece of legislation doesn’t make any sense.”

Sullivan said there’s no doubt that Tennessee, and probably other, more gun-friendly states and regions, aggressively pursued Smith & Wesson because … this is what they do.

“The states are actively working every day to get companies to move to their state,” he said. “They offer big incentives, and I have no idea what their package was or wasn’t, but they can show a business-friendly attitude, and in this case, they can show an atmosphere that is more comfortable around Second Amendment issues.”

 

Another Shot at Employment

While the company’s reasons for leaving have come into question, the loss of 550 jobs locally is real, and that has become the focus of attention for many elected officials and area agencies, who have pledged to help secure new employment opportunities should these individuals decide not to relocate to Tennessee.

“Our first issue of concern is for the employees, enduring that they have a landing spot, in either a job performing the same task or something that’s similar,” Sheehan told BusinessWest. “A number of manufacturing businesses have reached out already, to MassHire and the mayor’s office, about recruitment of those folks.”

It helps, he added that no one is losing their job immediately, with the move not scheduled to be complete until 2023.

“It’s not happening tomorrow, so we have time to plan for this,” he added. “But it’s an unfortunate situation, obviously — they’re good manufacturing jobs that are housed in Springfield, and we would have liked them to stay in Springfield.”

Like others we spoke with, Sheehan said this is a conducive market to find new employment in manufacturing, he doesn’t want the fate of hundreds of workers left to the whims of that market, so a coordinated effort is in order, involving MassHire Hampden County, the EDC, and city officials, to coordinate a response that helps people identify, train for, and succeed in new jobs.

“With any type of upheaval like this, it’s distressing,” he noted. “Our focus is to try to ensure as little economic uncertainty as possible for these employees.”

Dave Cruise, president and CEO of MassHire Hampden County, said his agency is treating Smith & Wesson’s announcement as a reduction in force, or RIF, and not a plant closing, because the plant isn’t closing — 1,000 jobs will remain here in Springfield.

But it’s an unusual RIF in that the jobs won’t officially be lost for roughly two years, until the company builds and moves into its new facilities in Tennessee. At present, Cruise’s agency is awaiting more information from Smith & Wesson on the specific nature of the jobs to be moved before putting in place a formal plan of action to assist those employees impacted by the decision.

“We have a team of people that we deploy whenever we have this type of situation,” he explained. “Right now, we’re looking to gather a little more information — we don’t much more than what we read in the papers — and whenever they sort that out, I’m sure we’ll be able to work with them and see how we come at this.

“It’s hard for us to move forward because it’s still pretty raw,” he went on. “And I’m sure they’re working hard to determine exactly who is being impacted by this. When we know more, we’ll be able to put in motion what we normally do in these situations.”

 

Loaded and Locked

While elected officials and economic-development leaders have voiced concern about the jobs to be relocated and have made assisting those workers their top priority, S&W’s announcement comes at a time when companies across every sector, and especially manufacturing, are struggling to find qualified workers.

In fact, many are already sending inquiries to Lesser’s desk, Cruise’s office, and other destinations about when and how such workers might be become available long before Smith & Wesson departs for Tennessee.

Indian Orchard-based Eastman Corp., a maker of car windshields and a host of other products, issued a statement through Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno’s office announcing it is ready, willing, and able to hire some of those being displaced.

“We appreciate the opportunity through Mayor Sarno and his administration to begin to discuss the possibility of members of Smith & Wesson’s skilled labor force considering positions at Eastman in the future,” wrote Plant Manager Shawn Pace. “When those workers and Smith & Wesson are ready, we want them to know that we are here and want to be helpful. Eastman continually reviews its business and workforce strategies to remain competitive and to ensure our long-term success. Like many, we are still learning about Smith & Wesson’s announcement. Eastman stands ready to offer any assistance that Mayor Sarno, his administration, and Smith & Wesson deem appropriate.”

Many other companies are similarly positioned to absorb workers whose jobs are being relocated to Tennessee, said Lesser, reiterating his thoughts about this possibly being a blessing in disguise for the region and especially its precision-manufacturing base.

“I got a lot of inquiries from people all over the state who are in the private sector who are eager to expand and eager to hire people, including some very fast-growing industries like life science, biotech, and robotics,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, while 2023 is two years away, many of the companies looking for help are on a strong growth trajectory, and still will be two years from now.

Elaborating, Lesser cited the tone set the state’s recent Manufacturing Mash-Up event in Worcester late last month, a day-long gathering of those in precision manufacturing.

“We had hundreds of companies from across the state, including a lot from Western Mass.,” he noted. “And they were all saying that they’re busier than they ever have been, business has never been better, and they’re all looking to hire people. And a lot of these companies are in really fast-moving, high-growth areas — robotics, life sciences, medical devices, clean energy.

“We have to react swiftly and make sure those 550 families are taken care of,” he went on. “But it’s also important for people to see the big picture.”

Sullivan agreed.

“I understand that not every manufacturing job can be plug-and-play,” he noted. “But right now, any company that does any kind of manufacturing work is looking to hire. I’m optimistic that everyone who chooses not to move with Smith & Wesson will be able to find a job. That won’t mean that their lives aren’t interrupted, but there are opportunities within this region for them.” v

 

George O’Brien can be reached at

[email protected]

Special Coverage Tourism & Hospitality

Taking Its Game to a New Level

Hall of Fame President and CEO John Doleva

Hall of Fame President and CEO John Doleva

John Doleva says that, when it comes to bar mitzvahs — and probably bat mitzvahs, for that matter — there has always been an informal type of competition among those young people (and their families).

“From what I understand, each bar mitzvah has to outdo the last one that your kid went to,” said Doleva, president and CEO of the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame. “And we think we have the right venue to outdo that last one.”

This phenomenon is just one of many factors working in the favor of the Hall as it tries to up its game when it comes to an always-important part of the business plan but one that has never really lived up to all its promise — events. Others include location, the popularity of basketball, and the lure of being in that sport’s shrine.

The biggest of these factors, though, is the refurbished Hall itself. Indeed, as the leadership team at the shrine blueprinted a massive, far-reaching, $25 million renovation of the facility, they did so with the goal of making it a more attractive venue for everything from those bar and bat mitzvahs to weddings; from corporate meetings to memorial services.

“When we the redid the museum, we designed it first to be a great museum experience, but we also looked at every gallery, every presentation, and every interactive with the opportunity to integrate it with someone coming in and doing a corporate fundraiser, a corporate meeting, a wedding, a bar mitzvah, you name it,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s a very important part of our business, and we want to see it grow.”

“You can really be different — it’s a fun environment. We can alter the lighting and do lots of different things. Rather than just the four walls of an institution, you have a special theme here.”

And while COVID-19 is certainly limiting the pace of progress when it comes to this all-important revenue stream in some obvious ways, especially with the emergence of the Delta variant, the early returns on the Hall’s status as an event venue are quite positive, and the outlook for the future — when COVID is far less of a hindrance — is quite bright.

“The facility lends itself to just about any kind of event,” Doleva said. “We’re in a great position to be ‘that place’ when we come out of all this and nonprofits need to have that all-important fundraising dinner or awards ceremony or celebration. I think the Hall of Fame is poised to be a very special place to do that.”

For this issue and its focus on tourism and hospitality, BusinessWest talked with Doleva about the Hall’s efforts to build this side of its business and how it is working to court many different kinds of event planners — literally and figuratively.

 

Points of Interest

Perhaps the best evidence of the Hall’s emergence as an event venue and its promise moving forward, Doleva said, came at the recent induction ceremonies for the class of 2021.

The actual enshrinement festivities took place at the MassMutual Center, but before that, there was a party for roughly 1,000 people at the Hall, one that became a sort of proving ground when it comes to the many steps taken to bring more events to the facilities on West Columbus Avenue.

John Doleva stands in Center Court at the Hall of Fame

John Doleva stands in Center Court at the Hall of Fame, outfitted with a new 14-by-40-foot video screen.

“We consciously forced people up into the museum rather than being in the lobby and on Center Court, where typically people would be,” he explained. “We wanted to show it off, so we expanded our food and drink offerings up into the museum, and it was a smash hit. It was so great to see everyone in the basketball community enjoying the Hall of Fame, enjoying the technology, the exhibits — just having a great time.

“We actually had a tough time getting people out of here and over to the MassMutual Center for the ceremonies — we had a couple of late buses leaving here,” he went on. “That just underscored the opportunity that we have ahead of us.”

Indeed, the game plan — yes, that’s another sports term — moving forward is to use all the facilities at the Hall, including a new Kobe Bryant exhibit and another new exhibit that enables visitors to virtually become part of TNT’s NBA broadcast crew, to attract a broad array of events.

That list of amenities includes a renovated theater, Center Court with its new 14-by-40-foot screen, the exhibits, catering from Max’s Tavern, and the full package that is now available to businesses, nonprofits, and wedding parties alike.

This is what the leadership team at the Hall had in mind as it blueprinted its renovations — a facility that would be a museum, first and foremost, but also a different kind of event venue.

“We saw the business develop with the old Hall of Fame, before our renovations,” Doleva said. “And we knew, with the redesign and the technology we had, that we could expand that business; with this iteration, it’s by design to be a function venue as well as a great sports-history museum.”

Doleva told BusinessWest that bookings have been solid over the past several months, but COVID has forced some event planners to pause and put some gatherings on hold. He mentioned a local healthcare provider that has rescheduled an event planned for this fall as one example.

Center Court at the Hall has hosted many types of events

Center Court at the Hall has hosted many types of events, including weddings, and with the recent renovations, the goal is to draw more of these receptions.

But, overall, the outlook is positive as event planners continue their quest for something new and different, even during COVID.

“I see smaller organizations wanting to bring people together, and do it in a different kind of venue that’s uplifting and exciting,” he said. “The Hall of Fame, being all brand-new, is very entertaining for people.”

That goes for wedding parties, he noted, adding that, while the Hall has hosted such receptions for years now — his niece was married there well before the renovations — there is now potential to handle more of them.

“You can really be different — it’s a fun environment,” he noted, adding that wedding parties can be, and often are, introduced in the same manner that NBA players are. “We can alter the lighting and do lots of different things. Rather than just the four walls of an institution, you have a special theme here.”

 

Net Results

It’s a theme that resonates with sports fans of all ages and especially young people, he went on, circling back to those bar mitzvahs, which the Hall is booking in ever-growing numbers.

“It’s a wonderful place to have a bar mitzvah because it’s sports-oriented, it’s very friendly for the kids, and there’s lots to do,” Doleva noted. “There’s lots of energy.”

That energy is projected to translate into more bookings, more business, and an overall improved game for what has always been part of the business plan at the Hall, but can now be a much bigger player.

 

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

Health Care

‘A Wonderful, Wonderful Fit’

 

Dr. Lynnette Watkins says she is most definitely her father’s daughter.

By that, she meant she is a second-generation ophthalmologist, following the lead set by her father, L.C. Watkins, who is one of the first African-Americans practicing in that specialty in St. Louis.

“When I say that I stand on the shoulders of giants, I don’t take that lightly, and first and foremost is my dad,” she noted. “He’s been my biggest supporter, mentor, and point of light.”

But there were other influences as well, including her mother, an educator, and, more specifically, an early-childhood-development administrator, who was one of many who taught her the importance of giving back.

“It was always expected that, with the privileges and opportunities that were afforded to me, there was an expectation to serve and to give back,” she said. “Which is why, with each position and opportunity that I’ve pursued, I’ve always had that mindset first and foremost in my mind; it’s why I wanted to have a career in healthcare.”

This is the philosophy Watkins brings to her latest assignment, as president and CEO of Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton. 

She takes the helm at CDH after a lengthy stint as chief medical officer for the Baptist Health System/Tenet Healthcare – Texas Group, and arrives at an obviously stressful, tenuous, and uncertain time for all healthcare providers, one still dominated in every way by the COVID-19 pandemic and its latest surge.

“While there’s been a lot of challenge and a lot of sadness during the pandemic, there’s also been some wonderful lessons and teachings in the resilience of people.”

Watkins, who arrived at the hospital on Sept. 27, brings to this challenge, and CDH, a wealth of experience. Like a growing number of those leading hospitals and healthcare systems, she has made the transition from direct patient care to managing those who provide that care. For her, it was a seismic but, in many ways, natural change.

“Many people have asked if the transition was difficult, and I’ve said that it was not,” she explained. “That’s because I found myself at peace moving from a clinical role to one that still has clinical elements, but instead of being the one-on-one patient-physician relationship, which is incredibly treasured, it’s one where I have the ability to impact multiple patients and improve the working lives of staff, medical staff, and other providers. I can make a bigger impact on a broader scale.”

She said there were many factors that went into her decision to come to CDH, summing them up with that often-used phrase “it was a perfect fit.” Elaborating, she said the area served by Cooley Dickinson, mostly Hampshire and Franklin counties, is one with a great deal of need, and she has experience working with such populations, as we’ll see.

Beyond that, she said this opportunity allows her an opportunity to take what she has learned at many different stops during her career and apply them to what will be a different — and obviously significant — challenge.

Lynnette Watkins says one of her first priorities will be meeting with as many community leaders and constituencies

Lynnette Watkins says one of her first priorities will be meeting with as many community leaders and constituencies — as well as frontline caregivers and hospital staff — as possible.

Watkins said the learning process has continued through COVID, which she believes has brought out the very best in those working in healthcare, while also putting an even greater focus on teamwork, collaboration, and innovation.

“While there’s been a lot of challenge and a lot of sadness during the pandemic, there’s also been some wonderful lessons and teachings in the resilience of people, resilience of systems, the importance of self-care and downtime, and the importance of working with others and understanding that it’s OK to say, ‘I need help,’” she explained. “What this has also done is challenged us to innovate, whether it’s in processes, such as supply-chain initiatives with PPE or the distribution of vaccinations and other pharmaceuticals such as monoclonal antibody infusions, or working together in groups to really take care of our community.

“That resilience, that collaboration, that innovation, that devotion to self and others have really been positive,” she went on. “The patience and working with a team have really helped me grow — as an individual, as a physician, and as a healthcare leader.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Watkins about her latest assignment, why she came to CDH, and … how being her father’s daughter will help her as she takes on this latest career challenge.

 

Background — Check

In some ways, Watkins said, coming to CDH is like coming home — or at least coming back to that part of the country where she did her residency.

Specifically, that would be Mass Eye and Ear in Boston. But she did get out to the Northampton area on several occasions during those residency years, so she’s not a total stranger to the 413.

There were several career stops between Boston and CDH, including a lengthy stint back at Mass Eye and Ear, where, from 1999 to 2004, she directed the Emergency Ophthalmology Service and walk-in clinic and was an attending physician in the Ophthalmic Plastic Surgery Service. And Watkins said all of them have helped her grow as both a provider of care and a manager of people. And she intends to put all of that experience to work at CDH.

Our story starts in Missouri, where Watkins, as noted, became intent on following her father into the medical field and earned her undergraduate and medical degrees at the University of Missouri – Kansas City and an internship in internal medicine at Truman Medical Center in Kansas City.

“I grew up wanting to go into medicine, and I was asked quite often if I was going to be an ophthalmologist like my father,” she recalled. “Candidly, I got tired of the question. It was through a series of rotations and the fact that I needed money for car insurance that my father said, ‘why don’t you come work for me in my office?’

“I did, and I liked it,” she went on. “I didn’t tell him for a while, but I did make that transition, and eventually declared that this was the specialty I wanted to be in.”

This decision brought her to Mass Eye and Ear in 1995 for her residency and stint at the at the walk-in clinic and Ophthalmic Plastic Surgery Service. She was there during 9/11, a moment in time and her career that convinced her to be closer to family and, in her words, “focus more on family.”

Elaborating, she said she went into private practice in Indiana and eventually became managing partner of a multi-specialty group, one with a large geographic footprint.

The administrative leadership of that group would later put it in “a significant financial disadvantage,” as Watkins put it, adding that she was thrust into the role of interim CEO. She said she would eventually wind down the two parent companies into multiple spinoffs, which are still ongoing today, an experience she described as both challenging and rewarding, and  one that would in many ways inspire her transition into management and leadership roles.

“We were able to keep patients seen, keep people employed, and move colleagues forward so they were able to practice — it was a huge, huge learning experience,” she told BusinessWest. “I joined one of the spinoff groups, but found myself wondering why I went through that experience.

“And it was actually a couple of colleagues, neither of whom had medical backgrounds but did have healthcare-industry backgrounds, who said, ‘this happened to you for a reason; you have this knowledge — why don’t you consider leading a hospital or healthcare system and pursue healthcare administration?’”

She thought about it and talked with family members, especially her father, to get buy-in and support. After securing it, she started pursuing healthcare administrative positions.

Her first stop was at Trinity Health in South Bend, Ind., and from there she joined Tenet’s Abrazo Community Health Network in Arizona as chief medical officer.

When that position was one of many eliminated in a round of budget cuts, she used connections she’d made to land a job as chief medical officer and chief operating officer at Paris Regional Medical Center in Texas, a system that was and is surrounded by some of the poorest counties in Texas and neighboring Oklahoma. Her time there was another important learning experience.

“One of the great joys of working there was working with people who keep in mind the individual who has limited access, limited transportation, and limited resources,” she said. “And in rural facilities where often there is one specialist or one type of provider, and there is limited access, having a high level of collaboration, particularly with the medical staff and the provider staff, is very important.

“Overall, that was an incredible learning experience, understanding the intricacies of running a facility that’s technically complex,” she went on, adding that, as chief medical officer and chief operating officer, she had oversight over just about everything except nursing, finance, and HR.

 

Right Place, Right Time

The learning experiences continued at the Baptist Health System/Tenet Health Care, where that system confronted not only COVID, but the severe — and highly unusual — weather pattern that visited most of Texas near the end of February.

Some called it ‘Snowvid,’ said Watkins, adding that healthcare systems had to confront not only the pandemic, but extreme cold that knocked out power and water to many communities.

“We had COVID patients, we had no electricity, we were on generators, and we did not have water, she recalled. “Managing through all that was a challenge, although what each of these events has shown is that it has not changed why we do what we do, but it does force us to change how we do it.”

Elaborating, she said some recent developments or trends will continue for the foreseeable future, including telehealth, which she described as a game changer for both the inpatient and outpatient sides of the equation. This became evident in Texas, as well as the hospital that would become the next line on her résumé.

Watkins told BusinessWest that the position at CDH came to her attention through a recruiter, and after more talks with family and friends, she decided that managing a smaller community hospital would be an appropriate next step on her career journey.

“It’s a wonderful, wonderful fit,” she said of CDH, adding that her views on the delivery of healthcare and areas of focus are in sync with those of the hospital and its staff. “First and foremost, I’m a physician, and I want to make sure that we’re delivering safe, high-quality care and that we’re great stewards of resources, whether it’s finance or personnel or capital, and that’s what Cooley Dickinson does.”

Elaborating, she said the opportunity to lead a hospital that is an affiliate of the Mass General Brigham system, formerly Partners Healthcare, was also appealing.

When she talked with BusinessWest before her arrival, Watkins said one of her first priorities is to familiarize herself with the community and meet with many different leaders and constituencies — in whatever ways COVID will allow. Which means a lot of Zoom meetings, some phone calls, and, when possible and appropriate, in-person gatherings.

“My goal is to get out there and meet the community where they are at as quickly as possible,” she said. “I think it’s also important that I meet the team; meet our front-line caregivers, staff, and providers; and understand what’s working well and where we have opportunities.”

Returning to her thoughts on the lessons learned from the pandemic, Watkins said that  managing through this crisis has enabled her to grow and mature as a leader — out of necessity.

“Physicians inherently have trouble delegating,” she told BusinessWest. “And I fully disclose that I am one of those physicians. It’s been a journey, but the pandemic has really helped me to leverage and trust the team and be a better partner, a better collaborator, and a better support.

“One of the things I work hard to do is listen and gather information before executing,” she went on. “And that’s been incredibly important during this time.”

When asked about the management style she brings to CDH, Watkins started by saying she is an optimist by nature, and she believes this is an important trait in this business.

“We have the singular privilege of being able to take care of patients and the community, whether it’s one-on-one or on a larger scale,” she explained. “And from that optimism, I assume good intentions and assume that those who chose this profession want to take care of people as well. We will have challenging conversations, and it will be important to challenge and push each other to do better and innovate, but I would like to consider myself to be collaborative, open, very much driven, direct, and someone who feels it’s important to have fun at work. That’s because this work makes for long days, and there needs to be some form of celebration, some sort of fun.”

 

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

Features Special Coverage

Putting the Pieces Together

It’s called a ‘hyper-scale data center.’ That’s the name attached to a $2.7 billion proposal planned for a 155-acre parcel in Westfield. The complicated project, now entering the local-approval phase, has cleared perhaps the biggest hurdle — the aggregation of a site that can check a unique set of boxes, including accessibility to huge amounts of power and data. If it comes to fruition — and there are still many challenges to overcome — the project could make the region a player in the emerging sector known as Big Data.

Demetrios Panteleakis

Demetrios Panteleakis

 

Demetrios Panteleakis says he spent a good part of the winter, spring, and some of the summer walking through all 150 acres of mostly raw land in the northwest corner of Westfield.

“I probably know every inch of it by now,” Panteleakis, the principal commercial broker with Springfield-based Macmillan Group, who was charged with assembling the parcel, told BusinessWest, adding that he’s been through it in every type of weather imaginable. “I think my family thought I had gotten into hiking and the outdoors.”

These walks in the woods — and wetlands — were a necessary part of a complicated process to aggregate land for what could be the largest private development the region has ever seen and one of the largest initiatives of its kind anywhere — a $2.7 billion proposal to build a massive data center (a ‘hyper-scale data center,’ as it’s called) that will attract the likes of Amazon, Google, and Facebook.

Plans call for constructing 10 buildings totaling 2.7 million square feet over the next 12 to 18 years, said Erik Bartone, CEO of Servistar Realty, the project’s developer. He told BusinessWest he hopes to obtain local approvals by the end of the year and state approvals by mid-2022, and break ground in 2023.

It’s a daring project, one that comes complete with all kinds of large numbers and adjectives (like hyper-scale) that connote size and scope affixed to everything from acreage to the projected cost of the initiative to the number of landowners with which Panteleakis and the Servistar had to negotiate.

That last number would be 11, just one indicator of the level of complexity involved with getting just this far, said Panteleakis, adding that finding a location and assembling the land are perhaps the biggest hurdle for a project that will face many of them — everything from required approvals for a tax-incentive plan to steps to protect endangered species, such as the eastern box turtle.

As for securing a site … a project of this nature and scope requires that a number of unique boxes be checked, said Panteleakis. These include the ability to draw power, and large amounts of it, straight from the grid — two recently upgraded 115 kV high-transmission lines run through the center of the site — as well as access to a reliable, high-speed fiber communications network. Competitive cost of doing business is also high on the list, as is a skilled workforce and easy access to major markets.

“Finding the right location in New England for a hyper-scale data-center development is difficult.”

When all is said and done, it certainly isn’t easy to find a parcel — or parcels that can be aggregated — that can check all those boxes.

“Finding the right location in New England for a hyper-scale data-center development is difficult,” Bartone said. “Access to the electric transmission grid, robust fiber communication network, sufficient land, and the ability to develop the project in an environmentally responsible manner are all very important issues that must be fully evaluated before proceeding with a particular location.”

As noted, the proposal still has many hurdles to clear, but it’s not too early to speculate on what this could mean for the city and the region.

Rick Sullivan, who can speak about the project from a number of perspectives — he’s president and CEO of the Western Mass. Economic Development Council, but also former mayor of Westfield and a current city councilor — said it represents an opportunity to show what the region can do for the emerging sector known as Big Data — and perhaps do more of.

Rick Sullivan says the Westfield data-center project

Rick Sullivan says the Westfield data-center project, if it becomes reality, could open the door to new opportunities in the realm known as Big Data.

“This is somewhat of a new sector for us, so I think there’s an opportunity to get attention,” he explained. “Sometimes, getting that first development in a sector is the hardest thing, and then, once that happens, the others do take notice.”

Jeff Daley, president and CEO of WestMass Area Development Corp., which has been hired as a consultant on the Westfield project, agreed.

“It’s an exciting project — this is a game changer,” he said. “If we get this project across the goal line, it opens up an entire industry; we would have the potential to bring other data centers here.”

As for Panteleakis, the data-center project represents another bullet point on a résumé complete with a number of big projects with complicated logistics, something he’s becoming known for within the development industry.

Indeed, when he was not walking the Westfield property and negotiating with all those owners, he was flying to Miami to put the final touches on a massive, $1 billion project that combines residential living with transportation, retail, and office space.

“This is somewhat of a new sector for us, so I think there’s an opportunity to get attention. Sometimes, getting that first development in a sector is the hardest thing, and then, once that happens, the others do take notice.”

The two projects offered a number of different challenges, with COVID presenting new and different issues to contend with, he said, adding that they epitomize what has come to be one of his trademark talents — putting the many pieces together on complicated real-estate puzzles.

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at how this complicated Westfield project came together and how this initiative could change the landscape — in all kinds of ways.

 

Big Bytes

Panteleakis told BusinessWest that, on many of his flights to and from Florida, he didn’t have much company on the airplane.

“I was on a 747 out of Boston — because you couldn’t fly out of Bradley to Florida — that had two other people on it,” he said. “It was weird. Logan was a ghost town, Miami International was a ghost town; it was very strange.”

That was how things were as he was working on two massive projects on opposite ends of the Atlantic seaboard.

The Miami initiative was a complicated matter of putting the pieces together for a project called Virgin MiamiCentral, a nine-acre living center in the heart of the city that includes 3 million square feet of commercial, office, and retail space, capped with twin residential towers, each more than 40 stories high, sitting atop a train station and retail hub.

Jeff Daley says the data-center project could be a game changer for the region.

Jeff Daley says the data-center project could be a game changer for the region.

Meanwhile, what is now known as the Westfield data-center campus became a very complicated matter of aggregating property that could meet all those unique requirements listed earlier.

In most all cases, the land required for such projects doesn’t come in one parcel, but several of them, which means negotiations on acquiring options — as in quiet negotiations — have to take place with a number of parties simultaneously.

Panteleakis, who compared it to cutting the Gordian knot, tried to put it in perspective for BusinessWest.

“We worked with about four or five different brokers in Western Mass. who represented some of the 11 owners, which at times made things easier, but a predominance of the owners self-represented,” he explained. “And that included people who had ongoing businesses, and it was very arduous and long and, of course, highly confidential.

“It was heavy lifting,” he went on, “and to see it at this stage is very gratifying.”

Overall, it took roughly 14 months to put the parcel in place to the point where the developer could move forward, he said, adding that the site, while challenged by wetlands and environmental issues, provides the size, location, and direct access to the grid needed by Servistar and its eventual clients.

“There’s currently nothing of this scale in the region due primarily to very high retail electricity costs, high property taxes, and significant regulatory challenges.”

The company has a considerable amount of experience with such projects, said Bartone, adding that Servistar has been in the electricity-procurement and energy- management business for 30 years, supporting large-scale commercial and industrial clients, including data and IT service clients.

“Our firm has provided advisory services to several data-center clients, including the management and procurement of their wholesale electricity requirements,” he told BusinessWest, adding that the company currently represents a hyper-scale data-center client that is looking to enter the New England market once local approvals are obtained for the Westfield project.

Elaborating, he said there are several smaller-edge data centers in New England, including in the Boston area, but there are currently no hyper-scale data centers in New England, and for several reasons.

“There’s currently nothing of this scale in the region due primarily to very high retail electricity costs, high property taxes, and significant regulatory challenges,” he explained. “Our firm specializes in the wholesale electricity-procurement markets along with the integration of innovative load-management strategies to proactively reduce the electricity costs for data centers and large power users. 

“This is a key cost driver for the industry and critical to making the hyper-scale data-center project feasible,” he went on. “Electricity expenditures typically represent 50% to 60% of the operating costs of a data center. Property taxes typically represent 10% to 15% of operating expenses. These two operating cost components, along with local regulatory approvals, are the primary drivers to locate hyper-scale data centers to New England.”

Bartone said Servistar reviewed numerous sites in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts before focusing on Westfield, a community that emerged in this search roughly 18 months ago.  

“We identified various parcels in the city’s industrial zones that met the requirements for the site, but the area is challenging to develop due to wetlands and endangered species, including the eastern box turtle,” he noted. “So we needed a substantial amount of land that would support the 10 data-center building development while also allowing us to minimize environmental impacts.”

Beyond meeting the energy, fiber, and property-tax requirements, the site is also centrally located between Boston, New York City, Providence, Albany, and Hartford, said Bartone, thus providing access to more than 34 million people in the Greater New York metropolitan area and New England. It is also in close proximity to the Westfield-Barnes regional airport with corporate service, only 20 miles from Bradley International Airport, and approximately 100 miles from Logan International Airport.

“Boston also has a high-tech, information-based economy that is an attractive market for corporate offices of companies locating to Westfield for their IT services,” he said, adding that this concentration of trained tech workers was still another selling point.

 

Powerful Statement

As he talked about the project and its prospects for becoming reality, Sullivan turned to the often-used analogy of getting over the goal line.

He said this project isn’t in the proverbial red zone yet, but it is certainly past midfield and making steady progress.

“There’s still a long way to go, but once they have options on the property and they’re doing work around wetlands and having discussions with the electricity suppliers, you’re past midfield, but you’re not home yet,” he explained. “I don’t think you can have a higher, better use of that property.”

Daley said the next important step is approval of what’s known as a 121A, or PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) property-tax agreement that locks in the assessed value of the property, with built-in annual increases in property-tax payments. Westfield officials have said the project would bring in $1.2 million in tax payments within three years, making the campus the largest taxpayer in the city.

A joint public hearing between the Planning Board and City Council on the proposed agreement is slated for early October, said Daley, adding that there are other approvals, on both the local and state levels, that must be secured in the coming months.

“We’re hoping to have all local permits in hand by the end of the year,” he explained. “Shortly thereafter, we’d begin work on designs and infrastructure; it would be about 18 to 24 months from go date to being operational.”

Meanwhile, speculation continues about what this project could mean for Westfield and the region. That discussion takes place on many levels, starting with immediate, tangible benefits.

That list includes 1,800 construction jobs, 1,200 indirect jobs that will result from creation of the center, and what is projected to be 400 jobs that will pay between $85,000 to $100,000 at the entry level.

“When people in economic development talk about job creation, these are the kinds of jobs that you’re looking to create,” Sullivan said. “These employees will live in our communities, they’ll invest in our communities, they’ll shop in our communities, and they’ll support the charities in our communities, as will the companies.”

There’s also the tax revenue; Servistar has negotiated a 40-year property-tax agreement with the city that is expected to produce more than $350 million in direct property-tax payments over the term of that agreement. 

Beyond these direct benefits, though, is that opportunity Sullivan and Daley mentioned for the region to not only get in the game when it comes to Big Data, but become a player in that sector, which would appear to have almost unlimited potential.

“If you look in the crystal ball, this is a sector that’s only going to grow,” Sullivan said. “And of you overlay data storage and data transmission and all the issues that are somewhat related, such as cybersecurity and other Big Data, I think there’s a real opportunity for us in Western Massachusetts to grow and in some ways lead, if you will, in this sector.

“We have out colleges, especially Bay Path and the University of Massachusetts, that are doing a lot of cutting-edge work in cybersecurity and Big Data, and others will certainly follow,” he went on. “And this will help train a workforce, which is always significant as these companies look to grow.”

As for some of those other boxes that need to be checked, Sullivan acknowledged that the cost of doing business in this state is not as low as in some other areas of the Northeast, but Western Mass. is certainly more cost-friendly that Boston and other metropolitan areas. “Developing in New England may not be the cheapest, but we’re still competitive.”

 

Bottom Line

Panteleakis — who, as noted, has been involved in large development projects in many areas of the country — said the Westfield data-center campus project represents the type of development that all regions are striving for.

“I’ve done a lot of work in Florida and Texas, and this is how they drive economic development for the 21st century in their areas; they’re focusing on new sectors and technologies,” he explained. “This project will have a tremendous impact on quality of life in Westfield and across the region. It will have a very broad impact.”

As those we spoke with noted, there are still many hurdles to overcome before this proposal becomes reality. If it can clear those obstacles, it could be transformative in many different ways.

 

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

Business of Aging

An Impactful Gift

 

Allison Vorderstrasse says the $21.5 million gift from the Marieb Foundation

Allison Vorderstrasse says the $21.5 million gift from the Marieb Foundation will allow the nursing program to move forward with its mission more rapidly.

 

Transformative.

Allison Vorderstrasse acknowledged that this is a powerful word with specific meaning; it is not, or should not be, used arbitrarily.

But when it comes to the $21.5 million donation from the Elaine Nicpon Marieb Foundation to UMass Amherst, and, more specifically, its College of Nursing — the largest single gift ever given to the school — that descriptive adjective certainly fits.

“We know that, in order to transform care, we must first transform education,” said Vorderstrasse, dean of the school of Nursing, noting that the school will now bear the name of the woman who graduated with a master’s degree from the program in 1985 and passed away in 2018. “As a center of discovery — and true to our namesake — the Elaine Marieb College of Nursing will inspire individual and collective growth as we help prepare tomorrow’s leaders and advance the field.

“This gift will support multiple areas of our mission that align so well with Elaine Marieb’s legacy,” she went on. “It will certainly allow us to move forward in those areas in a more rapid fashion than we could without it.

These areas include the university’s Center for Nursing and Engineering Innovation, said Vorderstrasse, adding that the gift will also impact how the school delivers its curriculum and programs, enable enhanced use of simulation, and, perhaps most importantly, put more nurses in the pipeline at a time when they are desperately needed.

“There is a demand for nurses, obviously, and for us to be able to provide a program that can facilitate nurses coming into the profession, especially here in Western Massachusetts, where we’ve seen an even more dramatic nursing shortage, is an important part of our mission.”

When asked about the gift, how it came about, and what it means for the university and its Nursing program, Vorderstrasse started by talking about the message it sends and the trust it implies, something that’s very important to her.

Elaine Marieb

“What was really exciting to me was the enthusiasm at the foundation about honoring Elaine Marieb’s legacy in this way, and the faith and the trust that they had in us as an institution and a college to really make this gift transformative,” she explained. “They truly felt that the work we were doing was innovative, exciting, and, in many ways, unique, and this meant it was a good fit with her legacy and that they would see the impact of that gift. It was very exciting to hear the degree of enthusiasm that they had for what we do.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Vorderstrasse about the many ways her program, and the university, intend to honor that trust and put this gift to work in ways that have far-reaching implications.

 

Paying It Forward

The gift from the Marieb Foundation, announced on Sept. 16, is only the latest significant donation to come to UMass in recent months.

It comes after a $50 million gift from Rob and Donna Manning aimed at increasing access and opportunity across the five-campus university system (see story on page 28), and a $170 million gift from the Morningside Foundation to UMass Medical School, further positioning the university as a leading public education institution in the nation.

Together, these donations provide growing evidence that the system and its individual programs are growing in stature and reputation and are “well-positioned to advance education, research, and access for students at scale in the Commonwealth,” said UMass President Marty Meehan in a prepared statement.

Vorderstrasse echoed those sentiments and noted that this latest gift — again, the largest ever given to UMass Amherst — creates more momentum, enthusiasm, and exposure for the school at a pivotal time in its history.

“It’s such an exciting time for the whole university to see this come in,” she said, “because it says that the foundation and others who have been good friends of the university for a long time really do feel that this is a pivotal time to support UMass.”

Meanwhile, the $21.5 million gift is only the latest of many from Marieb and the foundation she created to area schools. Previously, she had made gifts of more than $2 million for campus-wide scholarships at UMass Amherst. She and the foundation have also made several gifts to Holyoke Community College and its Center for Life Sciences, which now bears her name.

Marieb, a Northampton native, died in 2018 at age 82, and ranks among the nation’s most influential nursing educators. As noted, she earned a master’s degree from UMass Amherst’s College of Nursing in 1985 with a specialization in gerontology. Prior to that, she received a Ph.D. in zoology from the College of Natural Sciences at UMass in 1969. She also held degrees from Holyoke Community College, Fitchburg State College, Mount Holyoke College, and Westfield State College. Her distinguished career included time teaching at Springfield College and Holyoke Community College.

Ultimately, Marieb became the author or co-author of more than 10 bestselling textbooks and laboratory manuals on anatomy and physiology after she started writing textbooks to address complaints from her nursing students that the materials then available were ineffective. Her work has been read by more than 3 million nurses and healthcare professionals practicing today.

Marieb’s impact on nursing education will only become more profound with the foundation’s latest gift, said Vorderstrasse, adding that it comes after six to nine months of collaborative discussions with foundation leaders about nursing education, the UMass program, and its mission moving forward.

In many ways, the nursing engineering program, launched last January, became a catalyst for the gift. Seed-funded by other donors and friends of the School of Nursing, the initiative was conceptualized to support graduate students in their research training and experience at UMass across various disciplines, Vorderstrasse explained.

“It functions at that nexus of healthcare, engineering, and healthcare professionals, especially nurses, and the development and application of new technologies or even existing technologies — how we apply those in an ethical manner and develop them in such a way that takes into consideration patients and the people who will use them, as well as nurses who are on the front lines using these technologies.

“We hope that it will evolve into a center that collaborates not only on our campus, but with industry partners, because Massachusetts is a hub for healthcare technology,” she went on, adding that the grant from the Marieb Foundation will fund research at the center, especially new initiatives and pilot programs that need seed funding to get off the ground.

Meanwhile, the gift will be used to help expand the nursing programs and put more nurses into the pipeline, she said. Plans call for student scholarships to be expanded to improve access for underrepresented students, and to link scholarships to academic and professional success.

Elaborating, Vorderstrasse said the traditional bachelor’s-degree program graduates roughly 65 students each year and sees more than 2,000 applicants for those seats.

Expansion of that program will be incremental, perhaps eight to 10 students at a time, she told BusinessWest, adding that a program like this cannot, and should not, double in size overnight. But over a period of years, growth can be achieved that will make a significant impact in the number of nurses entering the field.

Growth is also projected for what’s known as the second-degree nursing program, for individuals who have a degree in another field and want to venture into nursing, said Vorderstrasse, adding that this program currently graduates roughly 90 students each year.

 

Bottom Line

Getting back to the word transformative, it is saved for those occasions when someone or something can bring about profound, meaningful change.

The someone in this case, Marieb, has already done so much to change the landscape when it comes to nursing education. The something is a gift, the latest of many, that will accelerate the pace of growth and progress for the Nursing program and enable more people to earn degrees there.

As Vorderstrasse said, that adjective ‘transformative’ certainly fits in this case.

 

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

Sports & Leisure

Swinging in the Rain

 

When it hasn’t been raining, Mike Fontaine notes, this has been a very solid year for the region’s golf courses.

When it hasn’t been raining, Mike Fontaine notes, this has been a very solid year for the region’s golf courses.

 

Mike Fontaine has been working in the golf business for more than three decades now. As the general manager at the Ledges Golf Club in South Hadley, he speaks from experience when he says this season has been unlike anything course owners and managers have seen in a long while, if ever.

The rain has been almost constant, bringing with it lost rounds, lost days, damage to fairways and greens, logistical problems when it comes to all that has been postponed, additional expense on the course-maintenance side, and … well, you get the idea.

“It’s been a challenge at best,” said Fontaine, with a heavy dose of understatement in his voice. “In all my years in golf, this weather pattern has been the toughest I’ve seen. It was probably the wettest July on record, and August brought the humidity and more rain. And with no one wanting to work and it being very difficult to find people in all departments, not just food and beverage…”

His voice tailed off, but he got his key points across: 2021 has been a struggle, in every way.

But it hasn’t been a lost year by any means. Indeed, it’s been a solid season for many golf operations, especially those that are membership-based or are mostly private but allow public play. That’s because a good number of those who took up the game, or rediscovered it, during the pandemic, when there was seemingly nothing else to do, stayed with it.

At least … when the weather would allow them to.

“When we were open, it lived up to the expectations we had at the start of the year,” said Kevin Piecuch, head pro at Country Club of Greenfield, a quasi-public operation, noting that, based on last year’s strong numbers, the bar was set fairly high for 2021. “It wasn’t quite as busy as last year, but it has still been a solid year, although the weather has certainly hurt us.”

Fontaine concurred. “When it’s not raining, we’ve been packed.”

E.J. Altobello, head pro at Springfield Country Club, a private club in West Springfield, went further. He said that, despite the rain, which has taken five whole days from the calendar, by his count, and parts of countless others, the club is doing nearly as well as it did last year, and much better than the years immediately preceding the pandemic.

“When we were open, it lived up to the expectations we had at the start of the year.”

“We didn’t reach 2020 numbers, but we surpassed all our 2019 numbers,” he noted. “And we destroyed 2018 numbers — absolutely clobbered them.”

Like Fontaine and Piecuch, Altobello said the surge the game witnessed in 2020 appears to have staying power, manifesting itself in everything from those impressive numbers of rounds to a waiting list for membership, something this club, and most area clubs, haven’t seen in quite a while.

“We’re back to an initiation fee at the club, for the first time in 15 years or more,” he noted. “Every category is filled up. We’re still taking some social memberships and things like that, but everything else is full; we have 20 people on a waiting list trying to get in for 2022.”

The hope, of course, is that the rain subsides for the last few months of this year and courses continue to build momentum for 2022. But as everyone has seen this past summer, forecasting can be difficult.

 

Clouding the Issue

The 8th hole at Greenfield is a fairly short par 5, while the 9th is a stout par 4 of nearly 400 yards. There were times this year, though, when the former was a par 4 and the latter a par 3, because portions of those fairways were just too wet for play and adjustments had to be made, said Piecuch, who also has 30 years of experience under his belt and can say with hesitation that he’s never seen this much rain.

“We’ve had to flop some holes around and take some other steps,” he said, adding that there has been some shuffling of the schedule as well, especially with league play, which has seen a number of cancellations.

There have been adjustments like this at many area clubs over the course of the year, with the relentless rains taking their toll on courses that were soft most all of the time and waterlogged a good deal of the time.

At many courses, carts were not permitted on some days, and were only permitted on the cart paths on many others. Some holes were simply unplayable, and others had to be shortened. And those were some of the minor steps to be taken.

Indeed, following some of the many heavy downpours, especially those accompanying Hurricane Ida just before Labor Day weekend, courses had to close and dry out.

Fontaine, like others in the business, has kept careful count of the days, and rounds, lost to the weather. “It rained parts of 19 days in July, enough for us to lose revenue each one,” he said, adding that there were other days when it didn’t rain but the course was closed, at least part of the day, because it wasn’t playable.

“There was standing water on holes where we don’t have cart paths, or the cart paths were impassable, or trees came down,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, overall, the couse has held up well through it all.

Often, the rain came with heavy winds. Altobello said a rare microburst took down 17 trees on the Springfield Country Club property in late August.

The rain became more poignant, and even more of a story, because, as noted, this was supposed to be a big year for area courses, a time to build on the momentum gained last season, when, because almost everything done indoors was closed, golf saw a resurgence. It wasn’t like 1997, when Tiger Woods was fueling almost unprecedented interest in the game and new courses — like the Ledges — were conceptualized and built to capitalize on that surge.

But it was certainly, well … greener times for courses in a region that had seen some tracks close — Southwick Country Club and Hickory Ridge in Amherst, for example — and many private courses struggle to find members and actively market themselves (something rarely seen in years past) in search of more.

And while it would have been much better in a normal weather year, 2021 was decent in many respects. Those we talked with said it didn’t rain much on weekends, their most important days, and the clubs were able to salvage at least part of the most of the days when it did rain.

“On most all days, we were able to salvage half a day — play in the morning, get rained out in the afternoon, for example,” said Altobello, noting that, even at private clubs, rounds matter because they add up to cart and food and beverage revenues. “For the amount of rain we received, we did way better than we could have.”

Perhaps more important than the number of rounds recorded this year is the evidence collected that the resurgence the game saw in 2020 might have some legs.

“There’s a ton of interest — people who quit the game for years have gotten back into it,” he said, adding that this interest is across the board, young and old, men and women. “They’re still using it as a way to get out and spend time with people they like or love without being in an indoor setting.”

Piecuch agreed. He said that, as challenging as 2021 has been — and it has been a challenge — it has certainly maintained and in some ways built upon the momentum gained in 2021.

“We rely on our membership, and our membership is up 15% — it’s the highest it’s ever been,” he noted, adding that the pandemic certainly had something to do with this. “We’ve had a solid year overall, despite everything, and I think that bodes well for the future.”

 

When It Rains…

Looking ahead to next year, Fontaine said area courses will likely have considerable work to do to make sure fairways, tees, and greens are in good shape for the spring given all the rain in 2021.

“I think everyone is a little nicked up, a little banged up from all the sitting water on the fairways — when the sun comes out, that just burns the turf,” he explained. “So I’m sure most courses will be overseeding and praying for recovery; there’s going to be extra fertilizer put down and a lot of grass seed planted over the next few weeks.”

Meanwhile, a different kind of seed — a pandemic-fueled resurgence in the game — seems to have already taken root in this region. And it continues its growth spurt despite weather patterns that haven’t been seen in decades, if ever.

And that’s why the future of this business seems, well, sunny.

 

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

Features Special Coverage

Hire Ground?

 

For months now, business owners and elected officials have pinned the region’s mounting labor woes and all those ‘help wanted’ signs on too-generous federal unemployment assistance. Now that those benefits have expired for more than 3 million Americans, we’ll soon find out just how much of a factor those benefits were. Many involved in economic development and workforce matters say the problem has much deeper roots and that it might be some time before there is a return to anything approaching normal — whatever that is.

 

Dave Gadaire says considerable thought went into the timing of the massive, statewide job fair he helped coordinate last month.

Indeed, he said the week-long virtual gathering, said to be the largest such event ever staged, was scheduled for a time when employers across every sector of the economy were struggling to fill vacancies, often to the point where it was impacting productivity, if not profits — and when large numbers of individuals would be staring down the loss of federal unemployment benefits (specifically those weekly $300 bonus checks) in less than a month.

The thinking was that the convergence of these factors would create a sense of urgency and that the foundation would be laid for some good matches between employers and job seekers at this job fair.

And while that happened, and all those involved with the job fair, from the governor on down, have declared it a success, there are certainly question marks as to just how many matches will be made and whether this event will put a dent in a labor shortage that is, by all accounts, without precedent.

In many ways, the job fair, and the uncertainty concerning the bottom-line results from it, are a microcosm of what’s happening with the job market here and elsewhere, said Gadaire, president and CEO of MassHire Holyoke Career Center. The ongoing plight of employers seeking help and the end of those federal benefits would, logically, seem to indicate that jobs are going to be filled — probably sooner than later.

Rick Sullivan

Rick Sullivan

“States that ceased the incentive on their unemployment earlier have not seen huge upticks in labor participation. But we’ll see what happens; we certainly think some people will enter the workforce when the benefit goes away.”

But more evidence is indicating this is not going to be the easy fix that some employers and many elected officials — people who have been pinning the ‘workforce crisis,’ as it’s called, on an over-generous federal government — thought it would be.

Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council (EDC), told BusinessWest that data and anecdotal evidence from states that did away with the federal bonus checks months ago indicate this has not been the cure most thought it would be.

“States that ceased the incentive on their unemployment earlier have not seen huge upticks in labor participation,” he noted. “But we’ll see what happens; we certainly think some people will enter the workforce when the benefit goes away.”

He was quick to note, however, that he has heard from some of his members that, through smaller, more-targeted job fairs and other recruiting efforts, they are seeing an uptick in the numbers of applications and hirings. Still, he said far more evidence is needed to get a real grasp of what’s happening with the labor market, let alone project what will happen over the next few quarters and beyond.

Kevin Lynn, president and CEO of MassHire Springfield Career Center, agreed. “Murky” was the word he used repeatedly to describe the future of the jobs market in this region.

“This whole thing is not new. We’ve been hanging this lack of applicants on COVID and the unemployment situation. But if you go back to, let’s say July through December of 2019, all you heard from companies was that they had no applicants, and when they did have an applicant, they were being ghosted — ghosting became the new term.”

“It’s an incredibly murky time, because it’s all unprecedented,” he explained. “And there are so any variables. This is not a recession, it’s a healthcare crisis, and it’s been like a rollercoaster; we seem to be on a rollercoaster going down again, and that does not play well psychologically.”

Lynn went further and said that, while the problems and frustrations currently being experienced by area employers may be heightened by the pandemic and factors related to it — childcare shortages, fear of returning to the office, mass retirements, and an unwillingness to work for low wages (he and others would get into all those) — in many ways, it’s all simply a continuation of what was happening before the pandemic.

“This whole thing is not new,” he said. “We’ve been hanging this lack of applicants on COVID and the unemployment situation. But if you go back to, let’s say July through December of 2019, all you heard from companies was that they had no applicants, and when they did have an applicant, they were being ghosted — ghosting became the new term.

“Companies were having major recruiting problems prior to COVID,” he went on. “What we’re seeing is nothing new.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with several area economic-development leaders about the workforce crisis and the murkiness that surrounds just what will come next.

 

Food for Thought

Lynn told BusinessWest he was in Boston over Labor Day weekend. During his time there, he had an experience at a restaurant that was eye-opening if not frightening — a hard look at how things are for employers, especially in hospitality, and how they might — that’s might — continue to be.

“There were 15 tables there, and one woman was waiting on all 15 tables — I couldn’t believe it,” he said, using exasperation in his voice to add an exclamation point. “She was hustling, and I mean hustling. They had one woman on the tables, they had one person busing, and they had a bartender — I don’t know how many they had in the kitchen. The food was coming out, and she was hustling.”

Nancy Creed

Nancy Creed

“It’s such a competitive market, and it’s so hard to find talent that … you may hire some great talent, and two weeks later another company scoops them from you. And there is no employee loyalty.”

While that situation represents an extreme, it encapsulates what many employers are facing these days — an inability to staff up in the manner they want and need, often in ways that impact service, the customer experience, and, in many cases, the bottom line.

In Western Mass. and many other regions, print shops have been working overtime filling orders for ‘Help Wanted,’ ‘We’re Hiring,’ and ‘Join Our Team’ signs. Meanwhile, other signs get far more specific, listing benefits as well as as wage scales and sign-on bonuses. Meanwhile, most restaurants in the region have cut back days of operation and closed portions of their establishments, school systems struggle to hire bus drivers, and healthcare providers tussle with one another to find nurses and other professionals.

And the fight certainly doesn’t end when the person is hired, said Nancy Creed, executive director the Springfield Regional Chamber, adding that loyalty among employees is a thing of the past, and retention is every bit as challenging as hiring.

“It’s such a competitive market, and it’s so hard to find talent that … you may hire some great talent, and two weeks later another company scoops them from you,” she noted. “And there is no employee loyalty.”

The questions on the minds of everyone in business and economic development concern just when, and to what extent, the pendulum will swing back in the direction of an employers’ labor market.

And the answer is a universal ‘I don’t know … we’ll have to wait and see,’ or words to that effect.

While the massive virtual job fair didn’t provide any hard answers to what’s ahead, neither did the most recent jobs report, which was a headscratcher to most analysts; only 235,000 jobs were added in August, the lowest number since January, following expectations for three times that number.

Getting back to the job fair, it was large in every respect, said Gadaire, who broke down the numbers. The event drew more than 1,700 employers from across the state and across all sectors of the economy, and 17,264 job seekers. Over the course of week, 21,046 résumés were exchanged, and there were nearly 1.4 million virtual visits to the companies’ booths.

While those totals are all impressive, they will not ultimately define how successful this event was, he went on, because the numbers that really count concern the number of jobs to be added in the weeks and months to come.

“We felt we at least got some mass when it comes to what we were trying to do,” said Gadaire. “What we’re doing now is doing all the follow-up to find out how much of that turned into job offers and hires; we’re getting that information back from the companies now as we speak, and it looks like a pretty successful event.”

Time will tell, obviously, and there are a number of factors that will ultimately determine how much of a dent will be put in the state’s labor crisis.

Indeed, those we spoke with said the federal unemployment benefits were certainly a contributor to the deepening of the labor shortage that’s been witnessed over the past year and especially the past nine months. But it appears it’s not as big a factor as many thought, and in the meantime, there are many other factors.

Childcare, or a lack thereof, is a huge issue, said Creed, noting that many working parents — or parents who were working, especially single mothers — cannot return to the workplace without childcare, which is suffering from its own workforce crisis and other issues. Fear of COVID is another factor, she added, noting that the recent surge in cases spawned by the Delta variant will, in all likelihood, slow any kind of return to something approaching normalcy when it comes to the labor market.

“There are three large contributors — the federal stimulus, childcare, and the virus itself,” Creed said. “They all play a role to some degree within specific demographics and populations, and we just need to give it some time to play out and see what happens.”

 

Money Talks

Which leads to another question: just what constitutes normal these days?

Is normal what was seen in 2019, as described by Lynn and others? Is normal what existed a decade or more ago when unemployment was low, yet candidates were far more plentiful?

More to the point, what will be … wait for it … the new normal? And what do employers have to be thinking about as they try to navigate that new normal?

That’s a lot of questions, many of them without easy answers.

Indeed, as a result of the labor shortage of the past several months, wage inflation has become a matter to contend with, and it is one of many factors keeping matches from being made.

“Job seekers have realized that they’re in a bit of a buyer’s market right now,” Gadaire said. “They are in high demand, so they’re asking for higher wages than what most companies are offering or can offer, and that’s certainly a problem.”

Creed agreed. “Not every business can afford to pay $40 an hour,” she noted. “So when you hire someone, and they get pennies more at another company, they’re going to switch; it creates a wage competition that small businesses just can’t afford.

“A lot of these businesses already have very thin margins — so there’s not a lot of wiggle room,” she went on, adding that budget concerns are further compounded by unemployment-insurance issues, paid family leave, hiring incentives and bonuses, and more.

Also, the surge in the pandemic has brought a whole new level of concern, as some people are afraid to enter the workforce, Gadaire noted. “A few months ago, I thought that problem was going away, but now, here we are again.

“And that has the ripple effects attached to it, like childcare and transportation,” he went on. “And then there’s the very real onset of people realizing, and businesses realizing, that remote work is now not just a luxury, it’s a reality, and people are redefining how they do work.”

For some companies, he explained, especially those in hospitality or the broad service sector where workers are face to face with customers, remote work is simply not an option. But for those where it is an option … those companies should look long and hard at creating such remote-work opportunities because doing so will greatly increase the amount of talent available to them.

Creed said the companies may also need to rethink how they hire and whom they hire moving forward.

“Does that position really need a four-year degree? Can it be a two-year degree, or a certificate, or just a GED?” she asked rhetorically, while noting just one way companies may be able to widen the pool of applicants for a job. “We need to rethink our recruitment practices, which is something we’ve always talked about, but now, I think you have to start digging deep into your workforce and saying, ‘how can I adjust?’”

While companies have to be creative and innovative, so too does the region, said Sullivan, adding that a new ‘job trail,’ created by the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau and supported by the EDC, is one such example.

On Sept. 8 and 15, participating businesses throughout this region put out signage and orange and blue balloons to identify the ‘trail.’ Interested applicants could visit those businesses, fill out an application, and perhaps schedule an interview (participating companies were required to have people on site to handle inquiries during designated hours).

“There’s a focus on restaurant and hospitality jobs, but we have Yankee Candle, United Personnel, Big Y, Monson Savings Bank … we’ve had a really good response,” he said. “It’s a good cross-section of jobs, and the timing of it is not incidental — we appreciate the fact that the unemployment benefits are running out.”

 

The Job at Hand

As with so much else with this evolving story, time will tell regarding how effective outreaches like the job trail have been when it comes to easing what has become a historically challenging labor market for employers.

For months, experts have speculated about why so many jobs have gone unfilled when so many people are out of work and supposedly looking for work. The federal unemployment benefits were presumed to be the main culprit, but as the weeks and months go by, it’s becoming clear that there is far more to this story. And, as Lynn and others noted, what’s going on is really a continuation, and perhaps an escalation, of what was already happening before the pandemic.

Answers to this crisis have been slow to emerge, and the hope is that, in the weeks and months to come, matters will become more clear and the pendulum will finally begin to swing back.

 

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

Berkshire County Special Coverage

Walking the Walk

Mindy Miraglia was inspired to launch Berkshire Camino by her treks in Northern Spain.

The COVID-19 pandemic has provided many individuals with the motivation, opportunity, and time to pursue their entrepreneurial dreams. That’s certainly been the case in the Berkshires, where new ventures launched, or set to be launched, include a new brewery, a guided-hikes venture, and a treasure-hunt concept that introduces consumers to area businesses.

Like most of those people who find themselves walking the Camino de Santiago — the pilgrim trail (actually, several different trails) that end at the Spanish city of Santiago de Compostela — Mindy Miraglia was at a crossroads in her life.

Indeed, after many years in advertising and market research, subsequent burnout, and some time working at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health that didn’t end well, she was trying to figure out what could — and should — come next for her.

So, like hundreds of thousands of people each year, she decided to walk the Camino, also known as the Way of St. James, to pause, reflect, and maybe, just maybe, find an answer to her question. And as she tells the story, the Camino — and, specifically, her experiences on the 250-mile trek across Northern Spain — became the answer.

Sort of. Let’s just say it’s a work or progress. Or a business in progress.

It’s called Berkshire Camino LLC, which specializes in guided hikes through the Berkshires, many of which take people from community to community and are thus patterned after what Miraglia experienced in Spain on her two treks on the Camino.

“If you want to get romantic about it … we felt that there was never going to be a better sign from God that it was time to make a change.”

But that was not the original plan. Instead, she wanted to create hostels — the lower-cost, dorm-like hotels that are an important part of the Camino experience — in the Berkshires and thus bring a different type of accommodation for tourists to that market. But reality, in the form of skyrocketing real-estate prices, as well as a lack of capital and few options for obtaining it, has kept that dream in check — at least for now.

But Miraglia, at the advice of mentors assigned to her by the nonprofit EforAll Berkshires, has pivoted and now leads a number of guided hikes within the Berkshires through a venture that is not yet profitable but showing some forms of promise.

Overall, she can find countless ways, and phrases, to compare the rugged challenge that is the Camino to that of starting and growing a business.

Mike Dell’Aquila and Sara Real

Mike Dell’Aquila and Sara Real found the inspiration, and the time, to launch Hot Plate Brewing during the first year of the pandemic.

“It’s a hero’s journey,” she said of the trek in Spain, but also entrepreneurship. “You put yourself onto that path, and you have to overcome challenges and see who you are.”

Miraglia is part of what many are calling a surge in entrepreneurship in the Berkshires, one fueled in part by the pandemic, which left many out of work and looking to start their own business. It left others wanting to leave the city and head for far more rural areas — and, again, start their own business. For still others, the pandemic triggered imaginative ideas for ways to get people out and about, and generate revenue while doing so.

Mike Dell’Aquila and his wife, Sara Real, don’t fit neatly into any of those categories, but in some ways, they encompass all three. They left their condo in Brooklyn for a home in Lenox in July, and are advancing plans to launch Hot Plate Brewing Co. in Pittsfield.

As with all breweries, there’s a story behind the name; in this case, the couple lost gas service in their condo for a period of time just as they were getting serious about transforming this from a hobby to a business. So they famously bought a hotplate so they could continue honing their craft.

There’s more to this story than the name, though, said Dell’Aquila, adding that the pandemic certainly helped provide the motivation — and the time — to take their dream, which has been, well, brewing since 2018, off the drawing board.

“If you want to get romantic about it … we felt that there was never going to be a better sign from God that it was time to make a change,” he told BusinessWest, adding that he and Real were both working day jobs, from home, during the pandemic. Motivated by this ‘sign’ from above, they used the extra hour and half they gained each day from not commuting, as well as Zoom technology, to advance their concept.

They are closing in on a location for their venture and plan to start brewing beer by early next year.

As for Liam Gorman, the pandemic certainly helped inspire his venture, CozQuest, which he bills as “the new way to explore the Berkshires.” It’s a local treasure hunt, as he called it, one that connects consumers and businesses “through their love of community and adventure.”

“The overall demand for services in the tourism and hospitality sector hasn’t changed a lot, and because of that, it’s created opportunities for entrepreneurs to make a run at whatever they wanted to do. We have seen a lot of that kind of activity.”

Using their phones, players solve a puzzle, follow a map, and find and scan a QR code to win a prize from a local business. If a player finds all the prizes, he or she can win some cash. German has created a number of these hunts, in cities and attractions such as Hancock Shaker Village and MASS MoCA, and says the business has developed a loyal following among both players and sponsoring businesses. His plan is to expand the concept and perhaps take it to other markets.

These entrepreneurs and many others are part of an emerging story in the Berkshires. It’s about people finding entrepreneurial energy during the pandemic — and finding ways to harness it.

 

It’s No Walk in the Park

As she goes about trying to grow her venture, Miraglia says there are times when she will actually tell herself that she’s “on the Camino.”

By that, she meant she’s on an arduous journey, one where you’re just trying to get to the next day and really don’t know what’s around the next bend.

“It’s hard,” she said, using that phrase to describe both the Camino and entrepreneurship, which has tested her in every way imaginable.

Indeed, while her concept has drawn interest from adventure seekers across the country and even other countries — not to mention a significant amount of press locally — there have been countless challenges to overcome. These include everything from the weather, which has canceled many hikes, to lingering anxiety about gathering in, or even walking in, large groups, to lingering anxiety about how to generate revenue in the winter months.

Liam Gorman, seen here with his children

Liam Gorman, seen here with his children, believes he’s found a scalable venture in CozQuest.

“I’ve had to refund 15% of my deposits so far because of the weather,” said Miraglia as she referenced a spring and summer of almost incessant rain, adding that these seasons have been challenging enough; winter is a matter that will be decided another day.

Meanwhile, Dell’Aquila, while obviously confident and enthusiastic about his venture, was quite candid about his leap from a steady paycheck to the uncertainty of entrepreneurship.

“It’s definitely terrifying,” he noted. “I vacillate from being super-excited to being super-scared.”

By all accounts, there are more people experiencing these mood swings in the Berkshires these days.

Deb Gallant, executive director of EforAll Berkshire, told BusinessWest that the agency, part of a larger, statewide network that also includes an office in Holyoke, staged its first accelerator program just before COVID-19 arrived in the winter of 2020; it had eight participating businesses. The agency then saw a considerable uptick in applications for the next few cohorts, at the height of COVID, and for all the reasons mentioned above.

“We were really able to spend the quality time needed to put together a business plan, to work on the financial forecast, and do all of that upfront work, so that you’re not just a home brewer with a dream.”

“A lot of people were unemployed, especially those in hospitality,” she explained, noting that many large employers in that sector, such as Canyon Ranch, Kripalu, and others, shut down or curtailed operations. “We had a huge uptick in applications for the next two cohorts.”

The number of applications declined somewhat for the upcoming fall cohort, which she attributes to improved stability at many of those businesses that had shut down partially or completely during the pandemic. But the agency will still have a large cohort, said Gallant, adding there is still a good amount of entrepreneurial activity in this region, which has been reinventing itself for the past 30 years from an economy dominated by manufacturing, and especially General Electric’s massive transformer complex in Pittsfield, to one that is far more diverse and driven in many ways by tourism, hospitality, and the arts.

Jonathan Butler, executive director of 1Berkshire, a multi-faceted economic-development agency, agreed.

From the early days of the pandemic, he noted, he could sense that, while COVID would bring a wide range of challenges to the region, it would also provide some opportunities for the Berkshires as well.

They have come in all forms, he went on, from professionals relocating to the area from urban centers, a migration certainly helped by the growing success of remote working and one that is prompting population growth in cities and towns that have needed such a surge, to an unparalleled explosion in the real-estate market, which has created opportunities and challenges of its own.

And, as noted, COVID has prompted a surge in entrepreneurship, said Butler, adding that it involves both new owners of businesses that failed during the pandemic — there were many, especially in the broad hospitality realm — and a wide range of new businesses as well, many of them fueled by an even greater interest in visiting the area and taking in many types of attractions.

“The overall demand for services in the tourism and hospitality sector hasn’t changed a lot, and because of that, it’s created opportunities for entrepreneurs to make a run at whatever they wanted to do,” he explained. “We have seen a lot of that kind of activity.”

 

Something’s Brewing

For Dell’Aquila, it wasn’t really a matter of whether he and Real would launch their brewery operation. The questions were when and where they would launch.

And COVID helped answer both, but especially the former, he said, adding that it provided the time and impetus to move ahead with their plans. “We were really able to spend the quality time needed to put together a business plan, to work on the financial forecast, and do all of that upfront work, so that you’re not just a home brewer with a dream.”

Now, he and Real are home brewers with firm plans and, hopefully, a location. They are finalizing commitments for investing in their venture from friends and family, exploring possible incentives from local and state sources, and meeting with architects to finalize blueprints for their operation. They also have a slot in the next accelerator cohort for EforAll Berkshire, during which they hope to gain both a better understanding of the local business landscape and garner more feedback and mentoring on their plans and their brand, which they believe will be a solid addition to the local craft-beer landscape.

He said he and Real will bring what he called a “culinary approach” to brewing, with such as offerings as a chamomile-infused blonde ale and a Jalapeno pale ale, in addition to more traditional stalwarts such as Belgian-style farmhouse beers, some classic American pale ales, and an IPA.

Dell’Aquila acknowledged that the Berkshires were already home to a number of solid craft-beer labels, but there is room for more — and more, in his view, creates opportunities for both himself and others.

Indeed, with Barrington Brewery in Great Barrington, Bright Ideas Brewing in North Adams, Shire Breu-Hous in Dalton, and others, the addition of Hot Plate in Pittsfield boosts the potential for what Dell’Aquila called a “beer trail” from the southern part of the county to the northern region.

“One of the things we found when we were really digging in is that there is a lot of excitement and desire for craft beer,” he explained. “And adding more options will only help; to me, density is a good thing.”

While Hot Plate is preparing to launch, CozQuest is looking to build on a solid first year and explore a number of possible growth opportunities, said Gorman, who brings a varied background to his venture. Originally in journalism, he moved to Los Angeles and ventured into television.

After relocating to the Berkshires five years ago in a search for a more stable environment in which to raise children, he became part-owner of the bar Thistle and Mirth and helped reverse its sagging fortunes. He sold his share just prior to COVID’s arrival in the region, and used some of that windfall to start CozQuest, which is in many ways inspired by geocaching, a type of global treasure hunt where seekers use GPS devices to find hidden caches.

“The engagement level has been pretty high; I like to call CozQuest a foot-traffic-building machine,” he told BusinessWest. “It brings people to places they might otherwise not have known about to discover and explore.”

German was a participant in the spring cohort of 2020, and said the experience of working with mentors and other local business owners gave him the confidence to move ahead with the concept, which is currently in what he calls phase 1, where he’s honing the concept and gauging its revenue potential.

The plan is to scale up in all ways, starting with the website, which he built himself. “It looks like someone’s first website, but … it works,” he said, adding that his ultimate goal is to take the concept to other markets.

As for Miraglia, her first 14 months in business have been a learning experience on many levels.

As noted earlier, she did a hard pivot, from hostels to guided hikes, thanks to input from mentors and what she called a “reckoning with reality” when it came to the costs and other challenges or making those hostels reality.

After pivoting and focusing on hikes, she did some proof-of-concept testing in the late summer of 2020, often giving away her product away as she did so. She found that there is promise, but likely more refinement of the business model as she gains more evidence concerning what will sell and generate profits.

Indeed, she’s learned there is considerable interest in private hikes — small groups and even one person going where they want to go and not necessarily on a pre-set course.

As she noted, there have been many challenges and hurdles for this venture. She started it too late to qualify for any PPP money, and has wound up bootstrapping the operation herself, drawing down a retirement fund to do so.

“As a for-profit venture, grant opportunities are scarce,” she said. “I joke that Joe Biden has invested in Berkshire Camino since I’ve invested the pandemic aid that I received as a citizen into the business. He’s welcome to come on a hike with us at no charge.

“My aim is to establish a solid baseline in 2021 that I can use to demonstrate to a lender or investor that this has viability,” she went on, adding that the business is not yet profitable and she is not drawing a salary. “I learned from walking the Camino de Santiago that the journey is long and you take one step at a time, stay present and flexible. Just like in business.”

 

The Finish Line

Miraglia didn’t finish the Camino on her second trek in 2019. She had completed roughly 250 of the 500 miles before she injured herself and was forced to eventually call a halt, pack up, and head home.

She remembers exactly where she had to call it quits, and has plans to go back to back there — 2024, when she turns 60, is the current goal — and finish the walk the Santiago de Compostela.

Between now and then? She has more immediate goals and dreams, especially to take the venture she started to stability and profitability. She is not at all sure she will get there — the road ahead is paved with question marks and uncertainty.

As it is for all entrepreneurs. There are more of them in the Berkshires these days, by many accounts. They’ve launched ventures that have been inspired by, accelerated by, or facilitated by the pandemic — which has provided the time and opportunity to reflect and, and in these cases, move a dream to reality.

 

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

Healthcare Heroes

Emerging Leader

Hospital Epidemiologist, Baystate Medical Center; Vice Chair for Clinical Affairs, Department of Medicine, Baystate Health

Dr. Sarah Haessler

Dr. Sarah Haessler

She ‘Stands on a Wall Between the Community and Infectious Diseases’

Dr. Sarah Haessler has already been honored as a Healthcare Hero. Actually, a ‘Healthcare Superhero,’ to be more precise.

That was the unofficial title bestowed upon 76 fully vaccinated healthcare workers from across New England who attended the Super Bowl last February as guests of New England Patriots owner Robert Kraft. The group flew down on the Patriots’ team plane and got to see Tom Brady win his seventh Super Bowl — and promote vaccination while they were at it.

Haessler, hospital epidemiologist at Baystate Medical Center and vice chair for Clinical Affairs in the Department of Medicine at Baystate Health, was one of three from this region to be so honored; she was joined by Baystate colleague Stephen Boyle Sr., senior director of Hospitality; and Cherie Rodriguez, a respiratory therapist at Mercy Medical Center.

Haessler has many memories from that day, with only some of them involving the action on the field.

“It was the quintessential American experience,” she recalled, noting that healthcare workers from across the country were recognized at the game. “It was big. Everything about it was big. The music was loud, there were fireworks for everything, there were military flyovers, the jumbo screens had the president on them … America doesn’t do anything small. This was very big and very American.”

“Her role is to stand watch on the wall between our patients, our team members, our community, and the infectious agents that threaten their health. And she has successfully done this for more than a decade, not only in the face of a global pandemic the likes of which we have not experienced for more than 100 years, but every day of the year. Because in healthcare, those threats never cease.”

Haessler said pairs of tickets to the game were made available to various hospitals, and she was chosen by officials at Baystate to attend; she’s not sure how or why.

Matters are a little more clear when it comes to her being chosen as the winner in the intensely competitive Emerging Leader category for BusinessWest’s Healthcare Heroes awards. She has been chosen in large part for her many efforts to prepare those at Baystate for what was coming in early 2020 and for her ongoing work throughout the pandemic to plan, educate, and help carry out all the operations of a hospital during extraordinary circumstances. But there is certainly more to the story. Indeed, COVID-19 wasn’t her first experience with a highly infectious disease, and she acknowledged, with some resignation born from experience in her voice, that it won’t be her last.

Meanwhile, she has taken on more leadership roles over the years, serving as interim chief medical officer at Baystate Noble Hospital and currently sitting on the board of the Society of Healthcare Epidemiologists of America.

Her work in her chosen field, and her status as an emerging leader in Western Mass. and beyond, is best summed up by Dr. Andrew Artenstein, chief physician executive and chief academic officer, incident commander, COVID-19 Response, at Baystate Health, who nominated her for this honor.

“Her role is to stand watch on the wall between our patients, our team members, our community, and the infectious agents that threaten their health,” he wrote. “And she has successfully done this for more than a decade, not only in the face of a global pandemic the likes of which we have not experienced for more than 100 years, but every day of the year. Because in healthcare, those threats never cease.”

In a candid interview, Haessler talked about that harsh reality, her work at Baystate, her chosen career in epidemiology, and the many kinds of rewards that come with it.

 

At the Top of Her Game

When asked how she chose epidemiology as a specialty, Haessler started by saying that, during her residency at Dartmouth, she was interested — make that fascinated — by all aspects of medicine. It soon became clear to her that she needed to pick something broad that would cross all other specialties.

“When I sat down to pick one, I ultimately decided that the specialty where the cases that kept me up late or got me up early in the morning to learn more and read more and try to figure out what was wrong with this person — these puzzles — were the cases that were most interesting to me, and the most satisfying and challenging. And that was infectious disease,” she told BusinessWest.

Dr. Sarah Haessler was one of many ‘Healthcare Superheroes’

Dr. Sarah Haessler was one of many ‘Healthcare Superheroes’ in attendance at last February’s Super Bowl in Tampa.

“I’ve never looked back — I’ve always loved it,” she went on, adding that, in this field, she does get to interact with specialists of all kinds. “It’s been an interesting career — I’ve never been bored. And the other thing about it is that it just keeps moving. I’m a high-energy person — I keep moving — so it suits me very well.”

Things were certainly moving in the latter days of 2019, said Haessler, noting that the information coming to her from hospital epidemiologists in China, and later the state of Washington, made it clear that something ominous was on the horizon.

“We saw the pandemic potential for it because it was so swift and had created a huge influx of patients in those hospitals in Wuhan,” she recalled. “It essentially overwhelmed those hospitals immediately, and the fact that China’s approach was to put the area in lockdown … that is the kind of organism, like SARS, that causes a pandemic.”

She said Baystate was ready, in large part because it had gone through this before with other infectious diseases and had learned many valuable lessons. And she was at the forefront of these efforts.

“We had been through H1N1, and then we had been through the Ebola epidemic,” she explained. “And this really created an impetus, and a framework, across the United States for preparedness for the world’s most contagious diseases.”

Because of Ebola, Baystate had created a Special Pathogens Unit to manage extremely contagious patients, said Haessler, who manages this unit and the team that operates it. And as part of that team’s work, it created protocols and procedures for how it would manage patients, took steps to ensure that there would be adequate supplies of PPE, put in place scenarios for how patients would be cared for and where, determined if, when, and under what circumstances elective surgeries would be halted, and much more.

In short, as Artenstein noted in his nomination, Haessler was the point person for preparing the medical center for what everyone could see was coming.

“Her work provided great comfort to all, knowing that we had such an expert in such a key role,” he wrote. “Her team’s magnificent work in collaboration with employee health services led to the earliest possible recognition of infectious contacts and allowed us to limit the risks for patients and staff during a time of great uncertainty and fear.”

While the past tense is being used for most of these comments, the work battling COVID is obviously ongoing, said Haessler, adding that the Delta variant brings a new and very dangerous thread to this story.

When asked about what the past 18 months has been like, personally and professionally, she said, in essence, that it’s been the culmination of all her training and hard work.

“It’s been one of biggest events that I’ve had to participate in, and while it’s been challenging, it’s also been very gratifying, because Baystate has been an incredible organization, rising to the occasion in this. I’m so proud of Baystate; I’ve never been more proud to work at this organization and to be part of the leadership team.

“The responsiveness, the focus on what was important and what remains important, has been incredible,” she went on. “It’s been a laser focus on the safety of the healthcare workers, and protecting our patients and our healthcare workers from getting and passing this disease, getting the resources we needed to enable safe management of these patients, and staying really, really focused on what’s important here has been a phenomenal experience and an opportunity for tremendous personal and professional growth.”

 

Passing Thoughts

Returning to Raymond James Stadium and Super Bowl LV, Haessler said she had the opportunity to meet with healthcare workers from across the country who had been, at that time, battling with COVID for roughly a year.

“It was an opportunity to meet with other people, commiserate, and just be among kindred spirits — people had been through so much,” she said, adding that, seven months later, the fight continues, and in some ways, it has escalated.

In the future, there will be other fights against infectious diseases, she said, adding that the best hospitals and healthcare systems can do is try to be prepared, because, as Artenstein noted, these threats never cease.

That, in a nutshell, is what her career has been all about. Her ability to exceed in that role and many others has made her a Healthcare Hero — and a ‘superhero’ — as well as an emerging leader in Western Mass. and her chosen field.

 

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

Healthcare Heroes

Patient/Resident/Client Care Provider

Doctor and Owner, DeCaro Total Foot Care Center

Dr. Louis J. DeCaro

Dr. Louis J. DeCaro

This Specialist Has Helped Patients of All Ages Take Huge Strides

Dr. Louis J. DeCaro is firm of the opinion that no one actually has good feet.

Rather, experience tells him that everyone has one of 24 variations of bad feet.

“That includes high arches, low arches, no arches … people come in and they think flat feet are the only bad feet,” said DeCaro, owner of Hatfield-based DeCaro Total Foot Care Center, referencing a chart of what he calls the ‘24 Foot Structures.’ “But you can have an arch that causes not foot pain, but back pain. So often, high-arch people have back pain, but they don’t realize it’s coming from their feet.”

This chart, and DeCaro’s extensive use of it to explain problems people are having now — or might have later — is just one of many reasons why he was named the Healthcare Hero for 2021 in the always-competitive Provider category. Indeed, he has made pediatric podiatry his specific specialty, and throughout his career he has helped people of all ages, but especially children, make great strides, both figuratively and quite literally.

“To get a hug from a parent who tells me that their child is finally walking or is able to run or keep up with their friends … that’s really priceless.”

He has done this through everything from education to complex surgical procedures, to the development of new orthotic products, such as littleSTEPS, orthoses created specifically for young people and designed to improve coordination, balance, pain, posture, and strength, while aiding in the development of a more stable and functional gait.

He even makes an impact through his photography. DeCaro, who travels often with his family and through his work, photographs animals wherever he goes and winds up selling prints of some of his best shots, with the proceeds going to help families in need offset the cost of orthotics.

Thus, his work can be — and often is — described as life-changing, and that’s why he finds all facets of it, but especially his work with children, so rewarding.

Dr. Louis DeCaro, seen here with his children, Eliza and Lucas, and wife Jamie, says foot issues impact people of all ages, starting with the very young.

Dr. Louis DeCaro, seen here with his children, Eliza and Lucas, and wife Jamie, says foot issues impact people of all ages, starting with the very young.

“People often ask me why I do pediatrics,” he said. “And I tell them that one of the wonderful things I get to experience is when a child follows up who couldn’t walk, and I helped them walk; that’s got to be one of the most rewarding things in the world. To get a hug from a parent who tells me that their child is finally walking or is able to run or keep up with their friends … that’s really priceless.”

Over the years, DeCaro has received many hugs like that, and that just begins to explain why he is one of the Healthcare Heroes for 2021.

 

Positive Steps

Like many in healthcare, DeCaro said that, while he ultimately chose his specialty, in many ways, it chose him.

Relating the story of how he ventured into podiatry, he said he had just finished his junior year at Stony Brook University on Long Island and was on a path to a career in allopathic medicine when he got a letter from someone at Barry University, a podiatry school in Florida.

“I didn’t know anything about podiatry at all,” he recalled, adding that the school was impressed with his MCAT scores and offered to fly him down for a visit. He took them up on their offer and came away impressed with the school, the specialty, and the opportunities it presented.

“Podiatry seemed like a wonderful profession because I could specialize in whatever I wanted — I could do surgery if I wanted to, I could treat kids if I wanted,” he said, adding that he wound up skipping his final year at Stonybrook and getting on an airplane to attend Barry.

“It was the best decision I’ve ever made; getting into this specialty has been wonderful, “he went on. “It was an opportunity-knocks moment — and I opened the door to see what was behind it.”

Dr. Louis DeCaro photographed this bear while visiting Alaska. The image is one of many he has sold to help families pay for needed orthotics for their children.

Dr. Louis DeCaro photographed this bear while visiting Alaska. The image is one of many he has sold to help families pay for needed orthotics for their children.

To say that DeCaro has made the most of his opportunity and had a profound impact on patients and their families during his career in his chosen field would be a huge understatement. Indeed, as noted, he has been changing and improving lives in many ways — through education, treatment, and the development of new orthotic solutions, such as littleSTEPS.

DeCaro Total Foot Care Center now counts 30,000 active patients, with some of them coming from other states and the four corners of Massachusetts.

“Besides Boston Children’s, which is two hours away, there’s really no other pediatric specialist in this state for foot care,” he explained. “So we get patients all the time who travel two or three hours to see me, just because of the lack of pediatric specialists.”

He said podiatry is regarded by many as a specialty focused on the elderly and the diabetic, and while many of the practice’s patients are in those categories, foot issues impact people of all ages. And many problems of the foot develop when people are young.

DeCaro said he treats many children on the autism spectrum with sensory-processing disorders, others with neuromuscular diseases like cerebral palsy, children who are late walkers or delayed walkers with low muscle tone, athletes with injuries that start with their foot structure, kids with growing pains, and those with other ailments.

“Often, orthopedic issues, especially in the pediatric population, are caused by poor mechanics in the foot,” he explained. “And it starts with the minute we walk.”

He said he sees roughly 20 patients a day, fewer than many specialists, because he enjoys spending time not only with his younger patients, but their parents as well, because they often must be educated about their child’s condition.

Similarly, when he sees a child, he will often then examine the parents as well because, by looking at their respective foot structures, he can often gain some perspective on where that child might be headed when it comes to overall foot health. “Like hair color and eye color, foot structure is genetic,” he explained.

As noted earlier, treatment of his patients is just one of the reasons why DeCaro has become a standout in his field — he has been listed among the 150 Most Influential Podiatrists in America by Podiatry Management magazine — and why he will join seven others as Healthcare Heroes on Oct. 21 at the Log Cabin. He’s also an educator who lectures often; pens articles such as one called “Assessing the Role of Gait Analysis in Pediatric Patients with Flatfoot,” which appeared in Podiatry Today magazine; and teaches the ‘24 Foot Structures’ to many of his colleagues.

Within the 24 different foot structures there are six distinct foot types or categories — A to F — and given each names, like ‘John Wayne.’ “You actually turn your legs out and walk like a gunslinger,” he explained, adding that there are fun names for each category, and they are designed to help patients understand their feet and the treatment being given them.

He’s also an entrepreneur; in addition to littleSTEPS, he and business partner Roberta Nole have also developed the RX24 Quadrastep System, a state-of-the-art alternative to traditional custom orthotic management.

There’s also his photography — and philanthropy, by which he uses his hobby to help children and families in need.

The walls of the rooms in his office are covered with photos — his favorite is one of a puma he “met” in the rain forest of Costa Rica, although he’s also fond of a bear he photographed in Alaska — primarily his feet (paws), which are prominently on display.

When asked how he gets so close to his subjects, he quipped, “big lenses.”

 

Toeing the Line

In many ways, DeCaro has spent his career  helping patients, and especially the younger ones, understand the proverbial big picture when it comes to their feet and how they are never to be overlooked when it comes to one’s health, well-being, and quality of life.

Suffice it to say that he has made the most of that opportunity-knocks moment when he got on a plane bound for Florida and podiatry school. He found a profession that has been rewarding in every way imaginable.

But the real winners from that decision he made are his patients, who have benefited from his compassion, his desire to educate, and even his ingenuity and prowess as an entrepreneur.

His ability to change their lives has made him a Healthcare Hero.

 

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

Healthcare Heroes

Community Health

Counseling and Testing Prevention and Education Program Director,
New North Citizens Council Inc.

Richard Johnson

Richard Johnson

He Has Made a Career of Being There for People Who Need Help, Direction

Richard Johnson has a simple and laudable philosophy when it comes to those seeking help. And it goes a long way to explaining why he’s a Healthcare Hero for 2021 in the always-competitive Community Health category.

“When people who are in need find the fortitude to step out of themselves and ask for assistance, there should be somebody to respond,” he told BusinessWest. “That’s because it takes a lot sometimes for many people to ask for help. And so, I like to make sure that, if I’m able, I can be that person to respond.”

For more than two decades now, during a lengthy career in public health, most recently as Counseling and Testing Prevention and Education Program director for the New North Citizens Council Inc., Johnson has been able — and ready — to respond and provide that help, in the many forms it can take.

His title is a mouthful, and there is a lot that goes into it.

Indeed, from his office at the Deborah Hunt Prevention and Education Drop-in Center, Johnson helps those in the Mason Square area of Springfield and beyond cope with issues ranging from HIV and sexually transmitted diseases to opioid and other addictions; from sickle-cell anemia awareness to treatment for mental-health issues.

And with the arrival of COVID-19, that list has only grown, with new responsibilities including everything from securing PPE for those in need to educating residents about the importance of vaccination. In short, he and his team have been helping people live with everything else going on in their lives and COVID.

“When people who are in need find the fortitude to step out of themselves and ask for assistance, there should be somebody to respond. That’s because it takes a lot sometimes for many people to ask for help. And so, I like to make sure that, if I’m able, I can be that person to respond.”

“We wanted to provide an education for these individuals so they could limit or at least mitigate some of their risk factors for contracting COVID and other things,” he explained. “So 2020 became COVID-intense. Our focus changed; our priority was educating people on how communicable this disease was, and saying to them, ‘yes, I understand that you have addiction challenges and housing challenges, but you really need to pay attention to how to prevent contracting COVID, and then we can work on some of the other things.’”

A day in the life for Johnson takes him to the drop-in center, but also to the neighborhoods beyond for off-site presentations and testing at various facilities on subjects ranging from substance abuse to prevention of communicable diseases to overdose prevention and Narcan distribution. These sites include the Friends of the Homeless facility, Carlson Detox Center, Opportunity House, Bowen Center, and Valor Recovery Center.

Richard Johnson, center, with many of the team members staffing the Deborah Hunt Prevention and Education Drop-in Center

Richard Johnson, center, with many of the team members staffing the Deborah Hunt Prevention and Education Drop-in Center in Mason Square.

COVID has reduced the numbers of such visits, but the work goes on, he said, adding that it is highly rewarding in many respects, because through it, he is helping not only individuals but neighborhoods and the larger community become more resilient.

This has become his life’s work, and his devotion to that work, that mission, has made him a Healthcare Hero for 2021.

 

Source of Strength

As he talked with BusinessWest in the tiny lab set up in the drop-in center, near the Rebecca Johnson School, Johnson said the facility lives up to every word over the door.

It is, indeed, a drop-in center, where one can find testing, counseling, education, and help with prevention. There is a team of individuals working there, but Johnson is the leader, in every aspect of that word. Meaning, he sets a tone for the work there, one born from experience working with this constituency and trying to meet its many and diverse needs.

He first became involved in community health in 2002, when he volunteered for an agency called Northern Educational Services, funded by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health.

“There were a number of folks I knew who were impacted by substance use and HIV,” he explained. “So this provided an opportunity for me to be directly involved in trying to navigate them to some sort of care.”

After this stint as a volunteer, he joined Northern Educational Services as a relapse counselor, and from there, he went from relapse prevention to HIV case management, starting first as an assistant and then working his way up to senior case manager. Ultimately, he became the director of Counseling and Testing Prevention and Education Services.

“Much of my work as a case manager centered on really just helping people to adjust to a new reality with regard to being diagnosed with HIV and confronting some of the stigmas associated with that,” he told BusinessWest. “I helped them understand that there are treatments that were effective, and helping them to communicate with their physican or medical provider as to what their concerns were and how their lives worked in terms of some of the stigmas associated with it and being able to talk to loved ones about their new status.

“That was really challenging for some,” he went on. “And so, case management at that time was a very hands-on thing; we made a great difference in the lives of those who were living with HIV, but equally so those who were unaware of how it was transmitted, and what prevention methods could be deployed by them, and that it was OK to have dinner with someone who was living with HIV, as opposed to some of the rumors, stories, or myths that they’d heard.”

Elaborating, he said that, for many, substance use and HIV went hand-in-hand, and efforts focused on helping people find recovery through detox and treatment facilities and helping these individuals understand that it was OK to live substance-free and face and confront some of their challenges involved with having a diagnosis that was highly stigmatized.

In 2010, he assumed that same title — director of Counseling and Testing Prevention and Education Services — with the New North Citizens Council, and has been continuing that challenging but needed work to counsel those in need and help with the medical and social aspects of HIV, sexually transmitted diseases, and substance abuse, while connecting people with healthcare providers.

“We’ve been very fortunate to have built relationships with medical providers that lend themselves to understanding that when we have an individual, that service, that treatment, needs to be provided, and they’re willing to provide it,” he said, listing Baystate Medical Center, Mercy Medical Center, and the Caring Health Center among the providers he and his team work with.

Over the years, Johnson has become involved with a number of community groups, boards, and commissions, including the Mason Square C-3 Initiative, the Massachusetts Integrated Planning Prevention Committee, Baystate Health’s Mason Square Neighborhood Health Center Community Advisory Board, the Baystate Health Community Benefits Advisory Council, and the Springfield Food Policy Committee.

As noted earlier, COVID has added new layers to the work and the mission for Johnson and his team. While helping individuals and families cope with what would be considered everyday matters, there is also a once-in-a-century pandemic to contend with.

Work to distribute PPE and other needed items, from masks to hand sanitizer, socks to toothpaste, goes on, said Johnson. “We still go about daily and provide PPE to people who are on the margins and often don’t have ready access to such items.”

Critical work on vaccination goes on as well, and comes in many forms, from education to dispel myths and misinformation to getting shots in arms. He mentioned a clinic at the drop-in center the day before he talked with BusinessWest, at which nine people received their second shot and two more got their first.

“Vaccination has been a challenge because there is a lot of information out there, and not all of it is accurate,” he explained. “There’s a significant amount of resistance based on information that individuals have received, so it’s really about re-educating people and helping them achieve a level of comfort receiving new information. As great and wonderful as the internet and social media are, sometimes it doesn’t provide both sides of a story.”

 

Bottom Line

Helping individuals and families achieve a needed level of comfort with many aspects of their lives — from living with HIV to battling substance abuse — has long been the best way to describe Johnson’s work and his commitment to the community.

As we noted that at the top, he fully understands just how hard it is to seek help. And that’s why it’s been his mission to be there for those who find the strength and fortitude to take that step.

His unwavering commitment to that mission has made him a Healthcare Hero.

 

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

Cover Story

A Different Kind of Gig

For roughly two decades, Richard Swift hop scotched the country on a series of interim assignments during which he shared his considerable expertise with several different health plans. As fruitful as this niche has been for Swift, he has traded his ‘interim’ tag for something permanent at Health New England — the role of president and CEO — and at a very unique and challenging time, for him and the company.

Richard Swift says he applied for the position of interim chief financial officer at Health New England with the expectation that this assignment would be like all the other longer-term interim gigs that had dominated his résumé for the previous few decades.

To say that things haven’t turned out as he originally thought would be a huge understatement.

For starters, while he interviewed for the position at Health New England’s offices in Monarch Place in downtown Springfield and had the opportunity to meet many of those in the finance team before starting, once he was awarded the job, he wouldn’t set foot in those offices for close to six months, and only then for short, very infrequent stops.

His arrival coincided almost exactly with that of COVID, which would put him in a working environment unlike anything he was used to.

“I’m told I was the first person they remotely onboarded,” he said, adding that several days before his scheduled start date the company had begun “experimenting” with employees working remotely, experiments that went very well. “They said, ‘I guess we’ll just send you a laptop.’ They sent me a computer, the IT folks hooked me up … the first time I came into the office was in August.”

While that was a huge adjustment for him, there was an even bigger one to come later.

Indeed, he would soon lose the word ‘interim’ from his business card — only he never actually had any in the CFO role, to the best of his recollection — not only from that title, but from the one he would be given roughly a year ago — president and CEO, succeeding Marion McGowan, who would become executive vice president and chief operating officer at Baystate Health, which owns Health New England.

After roughly 20 years of taking on year-long assignments as president of Medwise Partners and flying home every weekend from wherever he was stationed to his home in Arizona, he was planting roots; he even bought one of the Classical High Condominiums. When asked why, and why at Health New England, he said, “this was the right opportunity at the right place at the right time.”

It’s certainly been a whirlwind 18 months for Swift, whose tenure has, indeed, been dominated by the pandemic in every way imaginable, from its impact on Health New England and all health plans, to how and where the 380 employees at the company get work done, to the company’s work within the community and how it has changed in some ways but not in any of the ones that matter.

In a wide-ranging interview from his office at Monarch — he’s been there for several months now, usually without much company — Swift talked about all of the above. And in so doing, he provided some keen insight into what it’s been like to manage during a period unlike anything that a business manager has seen before.

“One size is not going to fit all. And for the 360 of our 380 employees who have been remote for the past year and a half, it’s been an almost seamless process. So given the fact that it’s been successful, it makes it hard to say ‘you have to come back, because it hasn’t been successful and that’s the only way to make it work.’”

“We need to be sensitive to our diverse workforce and their diverse and different needs,” he said, while summing up the challenge of leading at this time. “As a leader, I need to be sensitive to these varying needs, and I need to make sure the organization is sensitive to them. One of the things this experience has taught me is the need to be adaptable — both personally, for myself, and the organization and everyone within it — and accessible.”

As for the pandemic and health plans like Health New England, he said COVID and the changes resulting from it have brought challenges in many shapes and sizes, including to the bottom line. Indeed, while 2020 saw insurers facing far fewer claims than would be considered normal, and most eventually issuing rebates to members, 2021 has seen a surge in claims, with many health plans posting losses in the second quarter.

Swift said Health New England posted losses in that quarter as well (specific numbers were not available), but it has been able to avoid layoffs and cutbacks while actually increasing its involvement in the community, financially and otherwise (more on that later).

As for where and how people work, Swift said the pandemic gave him a first-hand look at how effective employees can be when working from their home office or dining-room table.

And he is using that experience as he goes about setting policy for the company. Above all else, he said he’s learned that managers must be practical and flexible in such matters.

“One size is not going to fit all,” he noted. “And for the 360 of our 380 employees who have been remote for the past year and a half, it’s been an almost seamless process. So given the fact that it’s been successful, it makes it hard to say ‘you have to come back, because it hasn’t been successful and that’s the only way to make it work.’”

 

Assignment Desk

As he talked about his lengthy tenure as a consultant to a number of different health plans and life as an ‘interim,’ Swift said he thoroughly enjoyed what he considered a ‘niche,’ and a successful one at that.

“For me, it was fun to parachute in somewhere and learn new people, new things, and new places; I liked to travel — it was fun to go back and forth,” he told BusinessWest, adding that his various gigs took him to all corners of the country and for assignments — usually as CFO but also CEO and COO — that varied with the health plan in question.

“Sometimes they were eight months long, sometimes they were for a couple of years,” he explained. “In some cases, people left suddenly; in other cases, it wasn’t suddenly, but they realized that they didn’t necessarily have the successor they thought they had, or they knew they didn’t have one and were going into a search process.

“Sometimes they were successful, strong health plans that just needed some expertise, and some of them were turn-arounds,” he went on. “What I brought to the table was that experience of running that business.”

Health New England was looking to tap into that experience early in 2020 when its CFO announced his retirement and a search for a successor had commenced. As noted earlier, Health New England was going to be another one of those interim assignments.

“When I looked at what was going on here, and at the opportunities that Baystate has with Health New England and that Health New England has with Baystate, I realized that there is so much that we can do together in the Western Massachusetts market.”

But things didn’t go according to script, starting with day one — or actually, even before day one.

Indeed, Swift was scheduled to start in April of 2020. COVID, as we all know, made its arrival in the 413 in mid-March, abruptly changing the landscape for the company and its new CFO (he quickly lost the interim tag), who wouldn’t have to get on a plane to take on his latest assignment.

He recalls that leadership at the company was going to use March 13, 2020, a Friday, as an experiment to see how effectively people worked remotely. That experiment went so well, and COVID invaded so suddenly, that workers never came back. In his case, he never arrived.

“I remember that conversation about ‘we’ll just send you a computer and you’ll work remotely,’ and how stunned I was at the time,” he recalled. “Because in 20 years of interim work, I pretty much got on a plane every week and flew out to my client. I was in my office in whatever city it was, on site. So the notion of doing all this remotely … it took me a while to wrap my head around it.”

While making these adjustments, Swift would soon have to make some others as well.

Indeed, in June, as McGowan was assuming some duties at Baystate while still serving as president and CEO at Health New England, Swift picked up some additional responsibilities for the company. And in October of last year, as McGowan moved to Baystate full time, he was asked to become CEO — again, without the ‘interim’ before the title.

When asked what he saw in Health New England that made him accept a permanent position — he had declined a few offers of that type in the past — he said it was a combination of things, including the team that was in place at Health New England and the opportunities he saw to partner with Baystate in meaningful ways.

“When I looked at what was going on here, and at the opportunities that Baystate has with Health New England and that Health New England has with Baystate, I realized that there is so much that we can do together in the Western Massachusetts market,” he said. “And I was really excited by those possibilities.”

 

By the Numbers

Looking back on his first 18 months with the company — and ahead to what might come next — Swift said this has obviously been a different and very challenging time for Health New England, and all health plans.

And the pandemic is just one reason why, albeit a big reason. At first, it contributed to a steep decline in claims because people were not visiting the doctor or seeking help even if they needed it. And then, it prompted a huge surge as people went back to the doctor and the emergency room, often with conditions made more serious by not seeking care through most of 2020. Meanwhile, treating COVID itself has often required lengthy and very expensive hospital stays.

“We’re certainly seeing more members having more claims and more services, and more-costly services than we did in 2019,” he said, adding that all this certainly contributed to the company’s second-quarter losses.

Richard Swift

Richard Swift

“COVID has brought a tremendous level of uncertainty. So all of us who put plans and benefits and rates in place for 2021 did that in the summer of 2020 in the middle of COVID, trying to understand what that would look like, and we’re doing it now for 2022, and we don’t know what next month is going to look like, let alone six months from now.”

But mostly, the pandemic has created uncertainty and even greater difficulty forecasting into the future, which creates problems for health plans, Swift noted.

“We set rates well in advance based on what we think our costs are going to be, and we don’t really have a chance to revisit those until the next year,” he explained. “And we obviously don’t know what the services are going to be or what new technologies are going to emerge.”

Elaborating, he said that telehealth technology certainly came of age during COVID, and Health New England, like many health plans, had previously created a telehealth benefit for members.

“In all of 2019, we had something like 850 or 900 total claims for telehealth visits; over the past year, it has averaged almost 30,000 per month,” he noted, citing this as just one example of how quickly and profoundly the landscape can change and health plans can be impacted by those changes.

Vaccines are another example, he said, adding that health plans couldn’t anticipate a two-dose vaccine when they set rates for 2021 last year, and they couldn’t have anticipated a booster, or third shot, as they set rates for next year.

“COVID has brought a tremendous level of uncertainty,” Swift went on. “So all of us who put plans and benefits and rates in place for 2021 did that in the summer of 2020 in the middle of COVID, trying to understand what that would look like, and we’re doing it now for 2022, and we don’t know what next month is going to look like, let alone six months from now.”

As noted earlier, the surge in claims and other factors have generated losses for some health plans in recent quarters and prompted layoffs and cutbacks as well.

Health New England has been able to avoid such cuts, he said, adding that, in the meantime, it has been able to maintain and, in many ways, increase its financial support to the community and its business community, something Swift takes great pride in.
“Even with everything going on with COVID, we’ve continued, and increased, the community support in terms of activities, foundations, grants, and actually providing PPE and hand sanitizer to people who didn’t have the wherewithal and the ability to get it themselves,” he said. “A lot of companies have turned inward, and many of them have laid people off; we made a conscious decision not to lay people off if we could at all avoid it, and fortunately, we have been able to avoid that.”

Elaborating, he said the company adjusted some of its sponsorship activity to accommodate what it would call “COVID mini grants,” roughly $300,000 worth of them that were awarded to community organizations that needed support to address their COVID-related needs.

In addition, the company created Where Health Matters grants, multi-year grants totaling $50,000 to $150,000 awarded to organizations to help offset the effects of COVID on their operations.

 

Giving the Forecast

Moving forward, Swift said the company would continue its pattern of flexibility and responsiveness to changing conditions as a fall shrouded by uncertainty approaches.

As he talked with BusinessWest, he noted that he was one of very few employees in the building that day, and things would probably remain that way for the foreseeable future. Employees were slated to return, in a hybrid format, by this time, he went on, but there is now more of a wait-and-see approach than a definitive schedule.

Meanwhile, Health New England has joined a growing number of businesses, especially in the broad healthcare realm, that have made vaccination a requirement for employment, a step taken in the interest of maintaining the safety of employees and customers alike.

“One of the things we’ve said concerning our coming back to the office is that we don’t know what we don’t know,” he said. “The only thing we know for sure is that things are going to change.”

And with those sentiments, he summed up both the short term and what could be called the post-pandemic world — whenever that arrives. When it does, said Swift, noting that, in some respects, it is already here, it won’t look like the pre-pandemic world.

And that goes for everything from how and where employees work to how people will access healthcare.

With regard to the latter, telehealth will almost certainly continue to increase in popularity, he said, adding that while the numbers have fluctuated as the pandemic has waned and surged, the technology has gained a broad level of acceptance.

“I do think you’ll see a lot more movement to leverage the technology that’s out there and technology that’s being developed for care without having to traditionally go back and see your doctor in the office on their schedule,” he explained.

As for the office setting and what it will look like, Swift said things simply won’t go back to the way they were in 2019. Companies have learned that employees can work effectively in remote settings, and thus it only makes good business sense to allow them to continue doing so, either in a fully remote fashion or in a hybrid format now being tried by many area businesses of all sizes.

“We have some departments that, by and large, were partially remote before and will be partially, or maybe completely remote in the future,” he explained. “The work they’re doing is such that it’s fine remotely, and they’ll stay that way.

“We have not come out with any edicts that people have to be here on ‘x’ amount of days,” he went on. “Because we know that one size does not fit all and there are certain departments and functions that have very different needs than others; we came to the conclusion that an edict was as arbitrary as pre-COVID, Monday through Friday, 8 to 5, in some respects.”

And there’s a competitive aspect to creating flexibility with working conditions, he said, adding that Health New England can now hire talented individuals from outside the 413 and even outside the state because they have the ability to work remotely.

As for business strategy and long-term planning, Swift said COVID has certainly made such exercises more difficult. But companies still have to plan, he noted, adding that there must be layers of flexibility built into such plans.

“I think that COVID requires us to plan even further ahead, but be more nimble with those plans,” he explained. “Our original date for returning to the office was Sept. 1; with what’s happened over the past several weeks, we’ve pushed that back. But in the spring, we threw out that date of Sept. 1 as the one we were targeting, again with the caveat that everything is subject to change.”

 

Bottom Line

Swift told BusinessWest that, a few weeks back, his sister called him asking for recommendations on restaurants in Detroit, which she would soon be visiting.

He was able to help her, because that was one of the places he parachuted into while doing his consulting work.

That life has ended, at least temporarily, with a permanent assignment, one that is a far cry from what he thought he was originally signing up for back in March of 2020.

He was, by most accounts, the first Health New England employee to be onboarded remotely, but he certainly wasn’t the last. His first 18 months have been a learning experience on myriad levels, and in all ways it is still ongoing.

 

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

Cover Story

Fair Amount of Intrigue

Eugene Cassidy, president and CEO of the Big E

Eugene Cassidy, president and CEO of the Big E

As the calendar turns to late summer, all eyes in the region turn to the Big E in West Springfield and the much-anticipated 2021 edition of the fair. The show did not go on in 2020 due to COVID-19, a decision that impacted businesses across a number of sectors. There will be a fair this year, and the goal is to make it as normal — there’s that word again — as possible. But it will be different in some respects. Meanwhile, as COVID cases surge in other parts of the country and uncertainty about the fall grows with each passing day, the anticipation for the fair comes with a healthy dose of anxiety.

 

In a normal year — and this isn’t one, to be sure — what keeps Gene Cassidy up most at night is the weather.

Cassidy, president and CEO of the Big E, has been quoted many, many times over the years saying that just a few days of steady rain — especially if they come on weekends — can turn a great fair, attendance- and revenue-wise, into an average one, or worse, just like that. So even though there’s nothing he can do about the weather, he frets about it. A lot.

This year … while ‘afterthought’ might be too strong a word when it comes to the weather, it might not be, either.

Indeed, Cassidy has other matters to keep him up at night, including a pandemic that is entering a dangerous and unpredictable stage, a workforce crisis that has already forced the cancellation of a giant Ferris wheel that was scheduled for this year’s fair and may pose a real challenge for vendors and other participating businesses during the fair’s 17 days, and even concerns about whether one of the organizers of his massive car show can get into this country (he’s been given the AstraZeneca vaccine, which isn’t recognized in the U.S.).

“I have a fear … that the long arm of the government can suddenly change our lives — we lived through that in 2020, to be sure,” he noted. “And the Eastern States Exposition is surviving on a very thin thread; we cannot withstand being shuttered for another fair because the vacuum that would occur in our economy is nearly three quarters of a billion dollars, and there’s no way that anyone is going to able to replace that.”

“I have a fear … that the long arm of the government can suddenly change our lives — we lived through that in 2020, to be sure. And the Eastern States Exposition is surviving on a very thin thread; we cannot withstand being shuttered for another fair.”

As the Big E enters the final countdown before it kicks off on Sept. 17, there are equal amounts of anticipation and anxiety. The former is natural given the fact that the region hasn’t gone without a fair, as it did in 2020, since World War II; Cassidy noted that advance ticket sales are “off the charts,” and running 80% higher than in 2019, which was a record-setting year for the Big E.

The fair will offer a welcome escape for all those who have spent much of the past 18 months cooped up and not doing the things they would traditionally be doing. And it will provide a much-needed boost for businesses in several sectors, from hotels and restaurants to tent-renting enterprises, for those homeowners in the area who turn their backyards into parking lots, and for countless vendors who had a big hole in their schedule (actually, lots of holes) last year.

People like Sharon Berthiaume.

The Chicopee resident has been coming to the Big E with her booth, A Shopper’s Dream — which features animal-themed merchandise (mugs, ornaments, floormats, metal signs, etc.) — for 30 years now. She said the Big E is by far the biggest show on her annual slate, and one she and others sorely missed last year.

“It was a major loss, a huge disappointment last year,” she said. “We’ve been coming back for so many years, and we have a lot of regulars who come back year after year looking to see if we have anything new. I’m looking forward to being back.”

But the anxiety comes naturally as well. Indeed, the tents, ticket booths, and other facilities are going up — more slowly, in some cases, because of a lack of workers — as COVID-19 cases are spiking and as states and individual communities are pondering mask mandates, vaccination passports, and other steps.

While there are dozens, if not hundreds, of other area events and gatherings that might be impacted in some way by the changing tide of the pandemic, from weddings to the Basketball Hall of Fame enshrinement ceremonies early next month, none will be watched more closely than the Big E.

Gene Cassidy says there is pent-up demand for the Big E

Gene Cassidy says there is pent-up demand for the Big E, but because of the pandemic and fears among some people about being in crowds, he’s not expecting to set any attendance records this year.
Photo courtesy of The Big E

Cassidy told BusinessWest he watches and reads the news every day. He’s concerned by the trends regarding the virus, but buoyed by the fact that fairs of this type have been going off, mostly without hitches, across the country. And the turnouts have certainly verified a high level of pent-up demand for such events.

Overall, the sentiment within the region, and the business community, concerning the Big E and the fate of this year’s fair was perhaps best summed up Stacey Gravanis, general manager of the Sheraton Springfield.

“It’s huge … and it’s not just the business side, it’s the emotional side as well,” she said of the Big E and losing it for 2020, “because it’s been around for so many years. It’s something we’ve looked forward to every year for as long as I can remember. So we’re super happy to have it back this year, and we all have our fingers crossed right now.”

And their toes as well. That’s how important the Big E is to the region and its business community.

 

The Ride Stuff

As he talked with BusinessWest about the upcoming fair and ongoing planning for it, Cassidy joked about how much he and his staff had to tap their memory banks after their forced and certainly unwanted hiatus.

“It’s been two years since we’ve produced a fair, and even though you’ve done this 30 times before, it’s surprising how much you forget,” he said, noting quickly that institutional memory has certainly kicked in for the staff of 26, down from 31 — a nod to one of the many ways the pandemic has impacted the Big E.

It’s been two years since we’ve produced a fair, and even though you’ve done this 30 times before, it’s surprising how much you forget.”

And while getting the show ready for primetime, Cassidy, who also chairs the International Assoc. of Fairs and Expositions, a worldwide trade association, has been on the phone and in Zoom meetings with others from his industry. Such conversations have gone on with those in this time zone and others with institutions on the other side of the world. And the reports cover a broad spectrum.

“Australia has shut itself down again — after only nine deaths from this Delta variant,” he said. “And that’s a scary development; I think there are 24 million people in Australia, and to have that country impacted like that … it’s been devastating to their economy, and people are quite anxious there.”

Closer to home, and as noted earlier, the news has been much better.

It’s been a very long 18 months for the vendors who work the Big E

It’s been a very long 18 months for the vendors who work the Big E, and they are among the many people happy to have the 17-day fair back on the slate.
Photo courtesy of The Big E

“At the fairs that have been produced, the crowds have not been diminished,” he said, listing successful events in Indiana, Wisconsin, and California as evidence. “At those fairs that have run, people have really returned — and in a large way; there have been a lot of attendance records set.”

At home, those off-the-charts advance ticket sales tell Cassidy that some people are interested in eliminating some contact points and avoiding the crowds at the ticket booths. But mostly, they tell him there is certainly pent-up demand for the fair.

“People are ready to get back to normal,” he said, adding, again, that the overriding goal for the staff was, and is, to make the fair as normal — as much like previous years — as possible.

But more important than normal is the safety of attendees and employees, said Cassidy, noting that a wide range of cleaning and sanitizing protocols are being put in place, and steps are being taken to try to thin crowding in some areas.

“We’ve have intentionally thinned out the grounds a little bit,” he explained. “There’s going to be roughly 10% more space on the fairgrounds as we have tried to space things out a little bit.”

Elaborating, he said there has been some attrition when it comes to food and other types of vendors, and some of the “lower performers,” as he called them, have been eliminated.

“We thought that space was more important than that commercial activity,” he explained, adding quickly, though, that the science is inexact regarding whether creating more space reduces lines and points of contact.

Gene Cassidy says his overriding goal is to make the 2021 Big E as ‘normal’ as possible.

Gene Cassidy says his overriding goal is to make the 2021 Big E as ‘normal’ as possible.
Photo courtesy of The Big E

When asked about what he expects for attendance this year, Cassidy said he believes last year’s record of 1.62 million is, in all likelihood, not in danger of being broken, because there are some — how many, he just doesn’t know — who will not want to be part of large crowds of people this year. He’d like to see 1.4 million, and notes that he needs 1.2 million to pay for the fair.

“My goal is simply to provide a great, healthy, family experience for the fairgoing public,” he said, adding that several factors will determine overall turnout. “Our demographic is a little bit older than in other parts of the country, and I think some people are going to be hesitant about large crowds, and I think that will have an impact on us. At the same time, if you look at some of the other events, their popularity has been very high. So I suppose it can go either way, but I think we will see some scaling back of attendance, and that’s OK.”

While crowd control is an issue, there are other concerns as well, as Cassidy, especially workforce, which will be more of a challenge for vendors than for the Big E itself, which has seen most of the regular workforce it hires come back again this year.

Indeed, he noted that work on several of the larger tents that dot the fairgrounds started earlier this year because vendors had fewer people to handle that work. This trend, coupled with cancellation of the Ferris wheel, which demands large operating crews, obviously leaves reason for concern.

However, Cassidy believes the clock, or the calendar, to be more precise, may be working in the favor of employees.

“We open on Sept. 17, and the unemployment bonus checks will cease in the first week of September,” he said. “So, hopefully, people will be wanting to get back to work.”

 

Impact Statement

While there is anticipation and some anxiety within the confines of the Big E, there’s plenty of both outside the gates as well.

As was noted earlier and in countless stories on these pages over the years, the Big E impacts the local economy, and many individual businesses, in a profound way. Gravanis tried to quantify and qualify it.

“It’s thousands of dollars in room and beverage revenue,” she said. “It’s keeping our people employed on a full-time basis. It’s seeing these people, these vendors, that we’ve worked with over the past 20 to 30 years — we missed them last year. It has both financial and impact for our staff and our local businesses.”

The Avenue of States will be open for business at the Big E

The Avenue of States will be open for business at the Big E, which is seeing record numbers of advance ticket sales for the 2021 fair.
Photo courtesy of The Big E

Elaborating, she said the hotel, like all others, suffered a seemingly endless string of hits last year as events were canceled, tourism came to a screeching halt, and airlines (who book crews into the hotel on a nightly basis) all but shut down. But the Big E, because of its duration and scope, was perhaps the biggest single hit of all.

Which is why having it back is so important, and also why those fingers are crossed.

“We get hundreds, if not thousands, of room nights, as well as the incremental spending in our restaurants — it’s extensive,” said Gravanis. “We sell out every weekend of the year with a combination of vendors and attendees; right now, there are very few rooms left.”

Berthiaume certainly has her fingers crossed. She told BusinessWest that the return of fairs, and especially the Big E, could not have come soon enough for vendors like her. She said the Charleston (R.I.) Seafood Festival, staged earlier this month, was the first event she’d worked in roughly 18 months, and it has been a long, rough ride since gatherings started getting canceled in March 2020.

“It was crazy last year because you couldn’t plan — life was in limbo,” she said, adding that events were postponed early in the year and there was general uncertainty about when or if they would be held. This year, there was less uncertainty, but also nothing in the calendar, for most, until very recently.

She said a good number of vendors have been forced to pack it in or take their businesses online. “I know a lot of people who have gone out of business because of this. Many had been in business, like us, for 30 years or more, and they figured, ‘what the heck, I’m not going to do this anymore — it’s too hard.’”

Like Cassidy, she senses a strong urge on the part of many people to get back to doing the things they’ve missed for the past year and half, and she cited the seafood festival as solid evidence.

“They had people waiting for two hours to get off the highway to get in — the traffic was so backed up,” Berthiaume recalled. “We hadn’t seen people like that in maybe five years.

“Everyone is ready to get out there,” she went on, with some enthusiasm in her voice. “People are just so happy to be out in public. So the Big E, based on what I’ve seen with their tickets for the concerts … everyone is ready to roll; everyone is waiting for the Big E.”

 

Fair Weathered Friends

Getting back to the weather … yes, Cassidy is still concerned about it on some levels. And why not? There has been record rainfall this summer and extreme conditions in other parts of the country and across the globe.

He’s hoping all that is in the past tense, with the same going for the very worst that this pandemic can dish out.

The weather can never be an afterthought at the Big E, but this year it is well down the big list of things that keep organizers up at night.

Indeed, this is a time of anticipation and anxiety — and for keeping those fingers crossed.

 

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

Autos Special Coverage

A Different World

Ben Sullivan says an ongoing inventory crisis

Ben Sullivan says an ongoing inventory crisis has forced dealers to place late-model vehicles under the showroom lights.

Auto dealers are used to adjusting to changing economic conditions and fluctuations with the laws of supply and demand. But in recent months, they’ve had to contend with an almost unprecedented mix of challenges — from dwindling inventory to an historic shortage of used cars. There is no real consensus on just when ‘normal’ will return, but all indications are that it won’t arrive until at least the first quarter of 2022.

As they talked about the past 18 months and what they project for the next few quarters, area auto dealers sounded similar tones and eventually came back to the same word. They are all adjusting.

To be more specific, they’re adjusting to some conditions they’ve rarely, if ever, seen before, and all at once. Things like:

• Used cars populating the showrooms. Yes, there have at times been some higher-end used models or a 1930 Model A in the showroom for effect, but now, area dealerships are showcasing cars with ‘2019’ and ‘2018’ stickers on the windshield, out of necessity — because that’s all they have.

• Lots that are half, or more than half, empty. Inventories of new cars are at levels never seen before as factories, confronting an ongoing microchip shortage, struggle, unsuccessfully, to keep up with what has been steady or even better-than-steady demand because many consumers still have money to spend, and it’s burning a hole in their collective pockets. Meanwhile, used cars are also in short supply. Most dealers report total inventory (new and used cars) to be one-quarter to one-third of what would be considered normal, with many being able to count new-car inventory using just two hands — with a few fingers left.

• Factory ordering becoming the new way of doing business.

• A complicated used-car market that is finally starting to level off in some respects. Still, cars are hard to find, dealers are going to great lengths to find them, and they must be careful not to pay too much and risk watching the market change quickly and profoundly.

• Even some workforce issues. Indeed, dealerships are not immune to the challenges facing businesses in seemingly every sector when it comes to hiring and retaining workers.

Add it all up, and it’s been a year described, alternately and by different people, as ‘interesting,’ ‘challenging,’ and ‘frustrating.’

“We went from trying to jump-start the auto industry after COVID happened — we had these great incentives and offers for customers who maybe weren’t in the market to incentivize them to buy a car — to now not even having the inventory levels to support that. It’s been a wild ride.”

“It’s an interesting world out there, that’s for sure,” said Ben Sullivan, chief operating officer for Balise Motor Sales, noting that, over the past 18 months, dealers have had all sorts of challenges thrown at them, from the sudden standstill after COVID-19 hit to the current situation where they simply don’t have enough cars to sell.

Carla Cosenzi, president of the TommyCar Auto Group, which includes Northampton Volkswagen, Country Nissan, Country Huyndai, Volvo Cars Pioneer Valley, and Genesis of Northampton, agreed.

“We went from trying to jump-start the auto industry after COVID happened — we had these great incentives and offers for customers who maybe weren’t in the market to incentivize them to buy a car — to now not even having the inventory levels to support that,” she said. “It’s been a wild ride.”

Moving forward, the $64,000 questions concern how long this period of extreme adjustment will continue, and what things will look like when it does.

There is no real consensus on the answers, but most believe it will be well into 2022, and perhaps a year or more from now, before the dust fully settles and the lots at area dealerships start to look like they did back in early 2020, when the challenges were much different and there were … too many cars.

Mike Kuzdzal says his lot in Chicopee has historically boasted more than 400 total vehicles, new and used. Now, there are often fewer than 100 of each.

Mike Kuzdzal says his lot in Chicopee has historically boasted more than 400 total vehicles, new and used. Now, there are often fewer than 100 of each.

“I think we’re at the bottom of the curve when it comes to availability,” said Sullivan. “From now through the fourth quarter, it will start to improve, but it won’t be back up to what we would call normal historical levels until June of next year.”

Cosenzi agreed. “They’re saying that October is when we’re going to see the inventory slowly start to trickle back in,” she said, noting that ‘they’ means the manufacturers. “We’re not going to get back to the same levels by then, and the expectation is that, by mid-2022, we’ll be back to something approaching normal.”

Mike Kuzdzal, general manager of Metro Chrysler Dodge Jeep Ram in Chicopee, concurred.

“The manufacturers are optimistic month over month that they’ll hopefully be able to ramp up production, but they just can’t keep up with current demand,” he noted. “As they make these cars and put them in an in-transit mode to us, we’re selling them before they even hit the ground.

“My hope is that, by the end of quarter one next year or the beginning of quarter two, we can get back to what we used to be,” he went on. “But the manufacturers are going to have to go double or triple time to get us there.”

 

A Different Gear

Kuzdzal told BusinessWest his dealership is one of many in the area that have placed signs on the property saying ‘we buy used cars’ — or words to that effect.

And, by and large, these signs are working, he said, noting that, just before he spoke with us, he bought a car off the street.

Such transactions, once quite rare, have become somewhat commonplace, said Kuzdzal and others we spoke with, noting, first, that COVID has yielded conditions whereby many families can do with at least one fewer car in the driveway, and, second, that prices for such vehicles have never been higher — and no one knows how long they’ll stay this high.

“Because of the pandemic and people working from home, a second or third car is not required,” Kuzdzal explained. “They’re sharing one car and saying, ‘I’m going sell my car at an all-time high and save that monthly payment, the excise tax, and insurance — and if I do go back to work, I’ll get back in the market.’”

Transactions like one he described are more than welcome, because traditional sources of used cars — everything from new-car trade-ins to rental cars — have dried up in dramatic fashion. So dealers have had to get creative.

“We’ve been acquiring a lot of vehicles from our service customers and past customers,” said Cosenzi, adding that her dealerships are now also buying essentially any car that comes off lease, where before they would cherry-pick. “We came up with a really easy five-minute trade process that has helped us generate quite a bit of used vehicle inventory.”

Overall, those signs offering to buy used cars or print, TV, and radio ads stating that ‘no one will pay more for a used car than we will’ are just part of the changed landscape in auto sales.

Carla Cosenzi (with her kids, Nico and Talia) is among many dealers expecting a return to something approaching normal by next spring.

Carla Cosenzi (with her kids, Nico and Talia) is among many dealers expecting a return to something approaching normal by next spring.

The dramatically lower volumes of inventory, used cars in the showroom, factory ordering, and essentially selling cars long before they reach the showroom, or even leave the factory, are other components of this altered state, one in which dealers say business is still solid in many respects, but altogether different.

Inventory is perhaps the biggest issue, and it has changed the landscape in all kinds of ways, the most noticeable being the lonesome lots at area car stores. The dealers aren’t used to it, and neither are local residents.

Indeed, Sullivan noted that more than a few people have asked if Balise has divested itself of the massive Chevrolet dealership on West Columbus Avenue. That Chevy store is quite visible from I-91, especially the ramp leading to the South End Bridge, which means people can see — or, in this case, not see — the rows of vans and trucks that have historically populated the south end of the property.

“Every single car that comes in is sold the day it lands there,” he said, adding that this phenomenon helps explain the bare pavement and put the inventory problem in perspective.

But not as well as some of the numbers offered by the dealers we spoke with.

“Where we normally run with 350 to 450 new cars and maybe 150 used cars, now we’re down to south of 100 of both, so we’re at a quarter of our running inventory,” Kuzdzal said.

Sullivan noted that the Balise family of dealerships includes more than a dozen makes, foreign and domestic, each one having inventory issues that have fluctuated over the past several months, with some doing better now than they were in the spring and others still struggling. He noted that, at the huge Honda store on Riverdale Street in West Springfield, there are normally 250 new cars on the lot. One day a few weeks ago, there were seven.

“It’s a situation we certainly haven’t seen, and each manufacturer will hit that low point at a different time. When Honda was out, Toyota had cars; when Toyota was out, Honda had cars. Each month, it kind of moves around, but at this point, heading into the fourth quarter, things will start to get back to what we call a more normal state.”

“It’s a situation we certainly haven’t seen, and each manufacturer will hit that low point at a different time,” he explained. “When Honda was out, Toyota had cars; when Toyota was out, Honda had cars. Each month, it kind of moves around, but at this point, heading into the fourth quarter, things will start to get back to what we call a more normal state.”

Cosenzi, who concurred with that assessment, noted that the TommyCar stable was helped initially by the fact that it traditionally keeps large volumes of inventory on its lots to offer consumers a wide selection.

“Our dealerships are usually crammed with cars,” she noted. “And that really helped us when this happened; we had a larger supply available to us when the chip shortage hit. Some dealers that only carry a one- or two-month supply ended up in trouble, while we carried a three and a half or four-month supply.”

 

Shifting Expectations

Given the shortages of microchips and other parts they’re facing, Sullivan said manufacturers, for the most part, are now only churning out the most popular, and sellable, variations of given models, and customers are adapting to this altered state.

“We’re used to carrying hundreds and hundreds of vehicles at every dealership, and customers are used to looking at 30,000 buildable combinations of a Honda Accord,” he explained. “They’ll say, ‘I want a blue one with a beige interior and this sunroof; I want this, but I don’t want that.’ The way the manufacturers have adapted through this is they’re only building the most commonly sold and fastest-churning vehicles that they have — they’re only doing certain trim levels.

“You’d think that customers would be mad,” he went on. “But they actually seem relieved. They’re saying, ‘OK, that’s the way they’re going to come in; I’ll take that one.’ Customers have been unbelievably accommodating, saying, ‘I really wanted a red one, but I guess a black one is OK.’”

Kuzdzal concurred, and noted that, in most ways, it’s easier to sell the few cars that the dealers do have on their lots.

“The consumer is coming in with his or her defenses down,” he explained. “They know it’s a tough time to get cars, and if we have it, they should buy it. If they don’t, we’ll sell it to the next person, so that makes the negotiations much easier.

“It’s never been like this,” he went on. “It’s a very comparable time to when we had the gas issue, when we spiked over $5 a gallon. But it has not slowed business down like it did then; it’s a different time, and we have to react to what’s coming our way. Inventory is at an all-time low, used cars are at an all-time high as far as value is concerned, and people are taking advantage of that.”

In addition to using that word ‘adjusting,’ all those we spoke with inevitably came back to that other word you hear and read so often these days — normal.

Some spoke of what is obviously a new normal, while others speculated on when and even if things would return to what used to be the norm.

But Sullivan spoke for everyone, and put things in their proper perspective, when he said, “I can’t wait to return to the old normal.”

Just when that will happen is anyone’s guess, but it seems certain that it can’t be a short drive from here.

 

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

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