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Pedal Power

 

Catherine Ratté, principal planner and Land Use & Environment section manager at the PVPC

Catherine Ratté, principal planner and Land Use & Environment section manager at the PVPC

ValleyBike had, by most accounts, an up-and-down first year, and we’re not talking about the hills its bikes make a little easier through electric pedal assist. But on the whole, 2018 was an encouraging success, with gradually increasing ridership across the network’s six municipalities, despite a slow and incomplete roll-out of the 50 stations and 500 bikes. With further expansion possible, hopes are high that more people will ditch their cars for a bike ride in 2019 — and then turn that ride into a habit.

A regional bike-share program may have seemed like a novel idea for many Pioneer Valley denizens last year, but for those who helped bring it about, it’s far from a new concept.

“We’ve been talking about it in the Pioneer Valley for 15 years,” said Catherine Ratté, principal planner and Land Use & Environment section manager at the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission. In fact, the PVPC produced a report in 2008 documenting previous bike-share programs around the world — including the Yellow Bike program that once existed at Hampshire College as well as the Bixi Bikeshare program in Montreal — and encouraging Pioneer Valley municipalities to look into establishing a regional program.

A lot has happened since then, but the main development was the emergence of electric pedal-assist bikes that help riders navigate hills and long distances they might not have wanted to attempt before. It was a game changer, Ratté said.

“Part of it was being a broad region — how can people get from Amherst to Northampton to Springfield? Then electric pedal assist came along, and we said, ‘oh, this could be a regional program,’” she told BusinessWest.

That program, known as ValleyBike, currently encompasses six communities — Northampton, Amherst, Springfield, Holyoke, South Hadley, and Easthampton — with others possibly on the horizon. A rider is free to pick up a bike at any of the 50 stations and drop it off at any other.

“The idea is to replace car trips with bike trips, and pedal assist makes it easier for all ages and abilities to use,” said Ratté. “It’s a big piece of acting on the climate crisis, but we also have a public-health crisis, and people don’t always have the opportunity to be physically active. ValleyBike makes it easier for people to bike to work. Maybe they aren’t physically fit enough to bike without pedal assist, and they don’t want to arrive at work sweaty — but they’re still exercising.”

A recent PVPC report detailed use of ValleyBike during 2018, its inaugural year. Even with limited availability and a slow ramp-up of stations (more on that later), the service logged 26,353 trips last year, an average of 170 per day, generating 83,735 miles — the equivalent of 3.3 times around the earth.

With the numbers expected to increase in 2019, that represents a significant front in the battle against traffic and air pollution, said Wayne Feiden, Northampton’s director of Planning & Sustainability.

“Our biggest commitment this year is to get more people to say, ‘yes, I really want to use this,’” said Feiden, who has long been one of the region’s strongest proponents of a bike-share network. “Nationwide, about a third of the people using bike shares are coming out of their car — making what would have been a car trip otherwise. If we can get you out of your car, that’s great from an environmental standpoint and a congestion standpoint. And that’s the part we need to grow most in the system.”

According to the year-end rider survey that helped the PVPC generate its report, the vast majority of users — 77.9% — rode ValleyBike less than five times per month, and 2.8% used it daily, with another 2.8% riding five or more times per week. These figures suggest that many users rode the bikes for leisure rather than to commute, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Feiden said.

Wayne Feiden says ValleyBike organizers have several goals

Wayne Feiden says ValleyBike organizers have several goals, from reducing traffic and air pollution to getting people more physically active.

“We have a lot of goals, and each one serves different purposes,” he noted. “One is just to get people to exercise more. So that’s been great, and it’s also been a diverse set of users.”

Indeed, 28.8% of survey respondents were between 18 and 30, 52.1% were between the ages of 30 and 60, and 6.9% were over 60 years old, while the gender split was close to even.

“People who use bikes tend to be younger, but these bikes are reaching a broader range of users, which is great,” he said. “Getting people healthier is wonderful, as is giving people transportation options, whether they can’t afford a car or don’t want to drive a car for environmental reasons.”

“The idea is to replace car trips with bike trips, and pedal assist makes it easier for all ages and abilities to use. It’s a big piece of acting on the climate crisis, but we also have a public-health crisis, and people don’t always have the opportunity to be physically active.”

One goal moving forward, he said, will be to increase usage of memberships. Annual passes ($80) accounted for just 13% of all rides in 2018, and monthly passes ($20) represented another 28%.

Those riders, Feiden said, are the ones more likely to use ValleyBike Share for commuting to work or other daily commitments, and to turn biking from a leisure activity into a habit and a lifestyle. “Once you sign up for a year, you tend to build your commitment.”

For this issue, BusinessWest looks at the ways ValleyBike is building on its own commitment — and its momentum, both electric-assisted and figuratively.

Winding Path

To its proponents at the PVPC, ValleyBike is a key component of the region’s path to a sustainable future by promoting healthy habits and reducing greenhouse gases emitted by vehicle trips. If managed effectively, the year-end report notes, the program could also reduce the need for road repairs and expansion, and has the potential to improve the effectiveness of the region’s transit system.

Following the 2008 report exploring the concept, UMass Amherst launched a free bike-sharing program in 2012 funded by student government fees. The same year, Northampton’s Planning and Sustainability Department began researching a program for that city.

Mayor David Narkewicz approved a single bike-share station downtown, but by early 2013, officials determined that a larger system, either city-wide or, better yet, region-wide, was preferable. At the same time, Amherst officials were meeting with representatives from Amherst College, Hampshire College, and UMass to explore a town-wide bike-sharing program.

Soon after, the PVPC secured a Massachusetts Clean Energy Center grant to work with several area communities to advance clean-energy strategies, selecting advancement of a regional bike-share initiative as a priority for funding.

The ValleyBike station at Court Square

The ValleyBike station at Court Square, one of 11 in Springfield, saw the sixth-most ride starts across the entire network in 2018.

Between 2014 and 2016, the PVPC worked with a group of member municipalities — Amherst, Holyoke, Northampton, and Springfield — to research and advance regional bike-sharing. In 2016, Northampton, with PVPC and regional support, applied for and obtained federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality funds for a regional bike-share network for four communities, later adding South Hadley as a fifth member.

A year later, Northampton, with PVPC and regional support, released a bike-share RFP and awarded a contract to Bewegen Technology for a 500-bike, 50-station system in the five communities. Toward the end of 2018, Easthampton obtained a Massachusetts Housing Choice grant for ValleyBike and joined the regional consortium, growing it to six municipalities.

The year-end report notes that ValleyBike had a rocky start due to issues with station installation, bike availability, and kiosk usability. Only 26 stations were open when the system went online on June 28, and another 17 were added in July and August. The remaining seven opened at the start of the 2019 season, bringing the total to 50.

After a slow start, the popularity of ValleyBike saw large increases in the first few weeks of August, reaching its peak ridership between Aug. 21 and Sept. 3, dipping slightly as temperatures dropped and students went back to school in early September.

“This is the first regional, multi-community, all-electric-pedal-assist bike-share program in the world. It was a really ambitious idea,” Ratté told BusinessWest. “It could have been smoother, but we had fantastic numbers of riders from all communities. And we definitely are eager to expand the coalition.”

She noted that possible expansion communities include Hadley, Chicopee, and West Springfield, should the PVPC secure the necessary additional funding. “We hope to keep it growing and expanding as well as adding some stations in the existing communities.”

“Nationwide, about a third of the people using bike shares are coming out of their car — making what would have been a car trip otherwise.”

With a longer season this year and more bikes — the network typically had about 167 available last year, but will offer 500 at the 50 stations in 2019 — she expects an uptick in ridership and increasing interest from the communities not yet on board.

“Hadley and Chicopee are the two holes in the system we’re trying to fill. We’re also trying to expand to West Springfield, but that’s more expanding out rather than filling in holes,” Feiden added. “Obviously we have to get more funding for new stations; there are many more locations that would make sense than we have money for.”

He added that more corporate sponsors are needed to make the system more sustainable. “But businesses are seeing the value for it — a third of the stations in Northampton are on private property. People gave us easements or licenses, whatever they needed to do, because they saw the value. One is at Cooper’s Corner in Florence, a small grocery store, and I hope people shop there because they gave us some really valuable real estate.”

Sustainable Future

Between climate concerns, public-health awareness, and simply enjoying the outdoors, bicycling — especially when pedal-assisted on those tricky hills — holds appeal to many demographic groups, Ratté said.

“If you ask people what they want in their region, a bike share is a popular thing. People expect their cities to fund options for getting around. And the cool thing is, you don’t have to stay inside your municipality; the same bike can go from place to place. It’s very convenient.”

That said, the program would benefit by coordinating more closely with public transit systems, she noted. According to the year-end survey, 27.5% of riders used ValleyBike in conjunction with other types of public transportation (such as rail or bus services). Organizers had hoped that bike stations could be located close to public transportation so public-transit riders could utilize the bikes to reach their final destinations. However, due to complications regarding the need for electrical outlets in close proximity to stations, this goal was not always met. That’s something planners are looking to remedy with future bike-station placements.

“People rely on the bus,” she said, “and to be able to use ValleyBike to get to and from the bus stop would be great.”

On a related note, the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts worked with the Pioneer Valley Regional Ventures Center, the not-for-profit arm of the PVPC, to allocate $12,000 per year over three years to provide subsidized memberships for economically disadvantaged residents of the region, particularly those who live in transit-rich urban cores. Bewegen was not able to launch this aspect of the ValleyBike initiative in 2018, and more people are expected to use ValleyBike when the access passes become available this year.

So far, however, people seem to be using the bikes mostly for enjoyment. Of the year-end survey respondents, 52% said they used ValleyBike mostly for leisure, while 21.2% used them to commute, 5.5% wanted to reduce pollution and traffic congestion, and 5.2% were focused on the health benefits. Notably, 36% reported an increase in riding bikes of all kinds since using the system.

“In some ways, the biggest criticism is people asking, ‘why didn’t you come to my neighborhood?’” Feiden said, noting that Northampton added one stop this year and has applied for a grant to establish four more. “And that’s great. It’s nice to get beat up for not doing it.”

The hope is that the coming years will see fewer of those complaints as ValleyBike continues to expand, giving more people an excuse to leave their cars behind, get their legs moving, and maybe leave the air a little cleaner.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Green Business

Saving Graces

Clarence Smith, owner of Final Touch Barber Shop in Springfield

Clarence Smith, owner of Final Touch Barber Shop in Springfield

While outwardly in the business of providing energy, Eversource is making a name for itself in the business of conserving energy as well. Indeed, it has a deep portfolio of initiatives that are slicing energy bills, reducing peak-demand periods, and making a real impact — on both Main Street in Springfield and main streets across the Northeast.

Clarence Smith doesn’t have any trouble remembering when Eversource Energy entered his life — and his business — and helped him see the light, in all kinds of ways.

It was early June 2016. Muhammad Ali had recently passed away, and the boxing legend was on everyone’s mind. Coincidentally enough, he was also on Smith’s wall — the back wall of Final Touch, his barber shop on State Street in Springfield, to be more precise.

A representative of Eversource, the energy company based in Hartford and Boston, with a large presence in Springfield, happened to walk by and see the mural, said Smith, adding that he came in for a closer look, an impromptu visit that led to a wide-ranging discussion and, eventually, some improvement in the numbers on his electric bill.

“He was coming from a meeting at the health clinic across the street … he walked by and said, ‘wow, that’s a beautiful picture,’” Smith recalled. “We talked about Muhammad Ali, I showed him other pictures I had, and I eventually learned that his father used to do some boxing.

“We had a conversation about boxing, and then he said, ‘hey, I work for Eversource. We run a program — how would you like to be part of it?’” Smith went on, finishing the story (sort of) about how he became involved with the utility’s Main Street Energy Efficiency program, which has now impacted businesses on a great many streets in several different communities, and is now focusing on the Indian Orchard section of Springfield.

Through the initiative, business owners save an estimated $600 to $1,000 a year in energy costs through steps that include new and more efficient lighting, occupancy sensors, programmable thermostats, and water-saving devices.

Penni McLean-Conner

For both Eversource and Massachusetts, Penni McLean-Conner says, conservation is the “first fuel.”

The Main Street initiative is one of many that Eversource has launched with the broad goal of reducing overall energy consumption across the region and across the Northeast, involving communities, neighborhoods, and landmarks ranging from the corner market to Springfield’s Union Station; from Fenway Park to TD Bank Garden.

Others include a small-business program that provides no-interest loans to ventures to undertake similar energy-efficiency projects, often with dramatic results, such as those recorded by the Dakin Humane Society at its facilities in Springfield and Leverett.

There’s also a new focus on solar power, electric-car charging stations, and initiatives to improve storage in many locations — from UMass campuses to Cape Cod — with new technology, including lithium ion batteries and so-called ‘ice batteries’ (more on them later) to better handle peak loads, help alleviate outages, and improve reliability.

And while reducing the amount of energy consumed may seem counterproductive for a utility that sells that commodity, it makes perfect sense, said Penni McLean-Conner, senior vice president and chief customer officer for Eversource, noting that energy conservation is now a state priority and a state mandate.

“We’re at the end of the pipeline, so energy is expensive, and therefore it’s important that we leverage this resource and use it as wisely as possible,” she explained. “And Massachusetts leaders have recognized that conservation is the first fuel, something that was established with the Green Communities Act. And with that, the state has created the regulatory framework and policy framework that has allowed utilities to thrive by investing in energy-efficiency solutions.”

And Eversource has, indeed, invested in a number of these solutions, designed, overall, to help reduce the state’s carbon footprint and, locally, enable utility customers of all sizes and all business sectors to do what Smith did — trim (that’s one of his industry’s terms) his energy consumption.

“Our entire energy-conservation portfolio looks like an asset,” said McLean-Conner, who oversees a team of some 1,200 employees charged, overall, with managing the customer experience and developing ways to improve it. “In a three-year period, our energy-efficiency programs will build the equivalent of a 750-megawatt power plant. That’s powerful, because can you imagine siting a 750-megawatt power plant and getting all the lines up?”

Kim Kiernan, energy efficiency consultant for Eversource

Kim Kiernan, energy efficiency consultant for Eversource, with Charles Brush, owner of Indian Orchard Mills, which has benefited from the utility’s energy-conservation programs.

For this issue and its focus on green energy, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Eversource’s Main Street program and its many other initiatives aimed at helping businesses become greener — and save green at the same time.

Current Events

Charles Brush says he’s “a small business that manages space for lots of small businesses.”

That’s an intriguing, but accurate, description of the Indian Orchard Mills, a large mill complex along the Chicopee River that is home to more than 150 businesses. Many of them are artists who don’t use large amounts of electricity, but maybe half are manufacturers that do, especially those that make use of compressors.

“When machines start up, they create a demand — when machinery kicks on, it creates a higher rate that we pay,” said Brush, who has already had the lighting at the mill changed once through the Main Street program. With another upgrade to LED now in the discussion phase, he’s also hoping to perhaps implement some other electric-efficiency programs regarding machinery and compressors.

“We’re talking about doing what’s known as soft-starting,” he explained, “so that when a compressor comes on, it doesn’t just go from ‘off’ to ‘on,’ which creates that load; it soft-starts the motors so it doesn’t create a spike in demand.”

As noted, Brush is not your typical small business participating in these energy-efficiency programs — his mill complex boasts more than 500,000 square feet of space being put to all kinds of uses. But his issues are in many ways the same as those facing business owners occupying one-tenth, one-hundredth, or even one-thousandth of that footprint, which is about what Smith’s barbershop covers.

Every small-business owner is looking to reduce energy consumption and, therefore, their monthly bill, said Kim Kiernan, energy efficiency consultant for Eversource and manager of the Main Street program, and the utility is committed to helping as many as it can.

“Our plan is to have everyone changed over to LED lighting by 2021,” she said, stating just one of the program’s goals, adding that the Main Street program, which started in Springfield and has been expanded to several other communities, has assisted more than 600 businesses to date.

While all business owners are in the same boat when it comes to energy consumption and the need to reduce it, very large customers do have their own specific issues and challenges, said McLean-Conner, adding that Eversource breaks down the business community into several categories of customers, with usage being the determining factor.

“We don’t look at business customers as one homogeneous group; we realize that our customers have different needs, so we do a lot of segmentation,” she said, adding that very large customers — think colleges and universities, hospitals, the new MGM casino, large manufacturers, and refrigerated warehouses — have their own account executive assigned to them.

But there are also teams assigned to different business sectors comprised of large users — education, healthcare, food-processing plants, and others — with the specific goal of identifying ways to save.

“And each of the solutions for those sectors is different,” she explained, citing the example of higher education and work the utility has done in partnership with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).

“When I’m working with education, there’s considerable focus on labs, said McLean-Conner. “Those labs have intense energy needs, so the focus is how we reduce that. MIT was one of the first customers to sign on with us with a strategic energy agreement, a multi-year agreement and a public commitment by MIT and Eversource to reduce energy use over a period of time.

“They have actually increased square footage and reduced overall energy consumption — it’s a tremendous story,” she went on. “But it’s been done through the investment of wise energy-efficiency efforts, whether it’s building envelope and ensuring that the building itself is well-insulated, or heating and ventilation to make sure those systems are increasingly controlled, and lighting, which is obviously huge.”

There are a number of these tremendous stories being written, said both McLean-Conner and Kiernan. Like the one at MIT, they involve the customer partnering with Eversource to achieve stated goals when it comes to reducing energy consumption.

“In a three-year period, our energy-efficiency programs will build the equivalent of a 750-megawatt power plant. That’s powerful, because can you imagine siting a 750-megawatt power plant and getting all the lines up?”

They involve communities — Springfield was among the first, if not the first, city to ink what’s known as a strategic energy agreement with the utility — as well as large customers (UMass Amherst and Yankee Candle in this market are some of the examples cited), and literally thousands of small businesses.

“We try to develop custom solutions for these large organizations,” said McLean-Conner, noting that, at Yankee Candle, for example, the utility worked with the company to showcase various lighting options for franchisees — systems that would not only enhance the customer experience but reduce energy consumption and lower electricity bills.

Watt’s Happening

One of the keys to achieving those goals is making a dent in peak-demand periods, an important development for all commercial consumers, said McLean-Conner, because they pay not only for the energy for they use, but for the peak usage as well.

And recent trends show the peak moving higher, she said, motivating utilities like Eversource to look for innovative solutions, many of them involving a combination of energy conservation and storage of power for use during those peak-demand periods, usually in the middle of the summer when chillers of all sizes are operating at once.

“We want to avoid building resources just for those peak moments — we want to clip those peaks,” she explained, adding that one initiative in that realm is the installation of a large lithium-ion battery-storage system with the goal of reducing peak energy demand on the campus.

Funded through a $1.1 million state grant from the Advancing Commonwealth Energy Storage project, the battery-storage system will provide power that would otherwise have to be purchased from the power grid at premium rates — and it will also provide a research site for clean-energy experts, researchers, and students, said McLean-Conner.

Ice batteries do much the same thing, she noted, adding that there are a few in place across the state. These thermal storage systems produce ice at night when the demand for energy is at its lowest point. When the outside air is hot, the stored ice melts and is used to cool the building with existing air conditioning ducts and fans, but not the compressor, which requires power, she explained, adding that shifting power demand from peak times to non-peak hours is one of the major goals of the energy efficiency programs.

While working to reduce those peak-demand periods through storage initiatives, Eversource continues to work with business owners of all sizes to reduce energy consumption.

With the Main Street program, it works with very small businesses, generally shop owners who are leasing property. Launched in 2015, the program has program has focused on different communities — Pittsfield, Easthampton, Southwick, West Springfield, Ludlow, and Greenfield among them, with Hadley and Amherst next on the schedule — and sections of Springfield each year.

In the City of Homes, work began, appropriately enough, on Main Street, moved to State Street, then to the ‘X,’ and now, as noted, it is focused on Indian Orchard and customers like Charles Brush. There are some 400 small businesses in the Orchard, as it’s called, and Kiernan would like to sign up at least half of them.

That will be a challenge, she noted, because these are partnership efforts, and sometimes, some selling is required to recruit these partners.

Indeed, Kiernan noted that small-business owners, especially those who take part in the Main Street program, are, generally speaking, understandably worried about possible scams and wary of claims of reduction in their energy bills. But once Eversource can convince them to not only listen to the pitch — sometimes it’s difficult to even get a foot in the door — but implement many of the suggested steps, they’ll discover that the savings are real.

The process, with both the small-business initiative and the Main Street program, begins with an assessment by electrical contractors and then development of a detailed plan to reduce consumption. Lighting, specifically a switch to LED lighting, is a big element in these plans, said Kiernan, calling it “low-hanging fruit,” but important fruit, generally able to yield a 40% reduction in cost over what was in the ceiling.

But there are other considerations as well, such as refrigeration, HVAC, motors and compressors, occupancy sensors, programmable thermostats, and others, she went on, adding that measures are implemented without interruption to the business in question.

Eversource provides an incentive to participate, Kiernan added. With the Main Street program, 100% of the project’s cost is covered by the utility, and with the small-business program, 70% of a project’s cost is covered, and the utility will finance the rest over two years, with a zero-interest loan.

Generally, the cost of the loan is more than covered by the savings generated by the measures implemented, she went on, adding that the customer’s bill doesn’t increase through participation. When the loan is paid off, the bill will then decrease by that amount.

In many cases, as noted, all this sounds too good to be true, and utility customers need to be convinced that it isn’t, Kiernan went on, adding that, while it works diligently to do this, often it has help from those who can see first-hand that the benefits are real.

Positively Charged

People like Clarence Smith. He’s become an ambassador of sorts for the Main Street initiative, encouraging many of his business neighbors to take part.

“People don’t believe it until they see it,” he explained, noting that he’s encountered plenty of initial skepticism about the project. “I’m a testament to this program; I’ve seen how it’s worked for us, and if people ask me, I’ll tell them it can work for them, too.”

It all started when someone from Eversource saw his mural of Muhammad Ali and came in for a look and a talk — a talk that led to another of thousands of small steps to reduce energy consumption across the state and the region.

As McLean-Conner noted, conservation has become the first fuel for Eversource, as well as the state, and this mindset is creating a spark — in all kinds of ways.

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

Business of Aging

On the Path of Discovery

Skip Matthews says Louis & Clark

Skip Matthews says Louis & Clark is continuing a process of evolution and response to changes in the marketplace that began in 1965.

By now, a good number of people in this region know the story of how the second-generation, 55-year-old company known to most as Louis & Clark came to take that name.

The sign over the pharmacy on Memorial Drive in Chicopee in the mid-’60s read ‘Airline Drug,’ an obvious nod to what was then known as Westover Air Force Base, just a few hundred yards away. But before long, many customers had unofficially renamed it, using the first names of the partners — and pharmacists — who had acquired the business, Louis Demosthenous and Clark Matthews, who just happened to share names with those famous explorers (sort of).

“There weren’t really marketing companies back then,” Skip Matthews, Clark’s son, explained with a laugh. “It was just … we were Airline Drug, the customers started calling it Louis & Clark, and they kept calling it that, so they changed the name. I imagine that feeds your ego pretty well, too.”

Perhaps a less-known story (although the company is investing considerable time and energy in telling it, as we’ll see later) is how this company continues to evolve and respond to change — within the industry, in societal needs, in demographics, and even in the way companies are operated.

We’ll start with the much longer name over the door. Under the ‘Louis & Clark’ in large type (with a stick figure in a wheelchair taking the place of a traditional ampersand) are the words ‘Pharmacy & Home Medical Supplies,’ and they go a long way toward telling this story.

“Our employees possess a world of knowledge. Our emphasis is on unlocking all that knowledge instead of having people place an order, come in and pick it up, and leave.”

Indeed, a company that once had several pharmacies scattered across this region has seen that division of the company remain vibrant while also taking on a different look and feel. There are fewer locations — in fact, just one — but also a greater focus on convenience and delivery.

It’s all on display at the company’s recently opened pharmacy on Brookdale Drive in Springfield.

Formerly located on Page Boulevard in the same city, the company calls this a ‘long-term-care-facility’ pharmacy, one that focuses on delivery, packaging, and medication management, especially through a relatively new service called the MediBubble, its new medication-management system delivered to those in assisted-living facilities, group homes, nursing homes, and independent-living situations within the community.

The MediBubble is a medication package that helps individuals safely manage what prescription medications they take, and when, he explained, adding that each package contains all of one’s medications for a specific time of day, this reducing confusion when taking multiple medications.

Diane Cordeiro says one of the main focal points for Louis & Clark

Diane Cordeiro says one of the main focal points for Louis & Clark is to build relationships and boost awareness of its many products and services.

“Sometimes it’s hard for people to remember if they’ve taken their pills,” he went on. “With MediBubble, they simply have to look at the sheet. If that bubble has been opened, they’ve probably taken their pills.”

Meanwhile, the medical-supplies side of the operation, which itself dates back to 1978, has grown considerably and also evolved to meet new and different needs and bring a higher level of service to customers. Matthews explained this by stressing that the company doesn’t simply supply medical equipment. It also provides education and advice, something that isn’t available to those who might be tempted to merely order something online.

“The big point of emphasis now is becoming more and more knowledge providers as opposed to order takers,” he explained. “That’s a challenge for us and a challenge for our industry; people have options — they can go to a pharmacy, or they can try to find something online. For people to come into our location, there has to be a reason — it’s too easy to buy things anywhere else.

“Our employees possess a world of knowledge,” he went on, adding that some have been in the business for three decades or more. “Our emphasis is on unlocking all that knowledge instead of having people place an order, come in and pick it up, and leave.”

Over the years, the company has developed a number of specialty services, including the Pink Mermaid Mastectomy Boutique, located in the medical-supplies location in Groton, Conn., and a focus on foot care in all its medical-supplies locations — in Springfield, Easthampton, and East Longmeadow.

And it continues to find new ways to bring quality service and convenience to customers, a pattern that has continued for 55 years. For this issue, BusinessWest looks at how this ability to respond, adapt, and evolve has positioned Louis & Clark for continued growth in an always-changing healthcare landscape.

Blazing New Trails

Before talking about the present and especially the future, Matthews first stepped into the way-back machine and returned to 1965 — and actually a few years before that, when his father and Louis Demosthenous were classmates at the Hampden College of Pharmacy in Chicopee, long since merged into the Massachusetts College of Pharmacy and Health Sciences in Boston.

After graduation, they went in different directions — mostly work at pharmaceutical chains — before deciding to go into business for themselves. They acquired Airline Drug, and as you now know (if you didn’t know before), the partners’ first names, not their last, as is so often the case, became a brand.

And a brand that quickly expanded its presence across the region as the partners opened additional pharmacy locations.

Indeed, just a few years after acquiring the Chicopee facility, they opened a second on Breckwood Boulevard in Springfield, across from Western New England University. Additional pharmacy locations were opened in the center of Wilbraham (1970), Ludlow (1971), Page Boulevard (1972), Baystate Medical Center (1988), Mercy Medical Center (1992), and Holyoke Health Center, among others. The first medical-supplies facility was located in one of the company’s pharmacies in West Springfield.

Kim Vigliotte, seen here in the fitting area

Kim Vigliotte, seen here in the fitting area in the East Street, Springfield location, is a compression specialist and pedorthist who consults with 25-30 customers a day.

As the landscape changed and pharmacy became much more of a volume business, the company consolidated those operations and focused its attention on the types of business that the large chains dominating that landscape were not interested in — specifically delivery and packaging, like the MediBubble, said Matthews, who has been involved with the business since graduating from college in 1987 and assumed full ownership a few years ago.

The recently opened facility on Brookdale Drive will deliver to individuals and facilities within a wide geographic radius, from Greenfield to the north to Westfield and beyond to the west, to Monson and Palmer to the east.

As noted, the service specializes in bringing packaged medications to those who take anywhere from five to 15 medications a day, and it is becoming increasingly popular, said Matthews, adding that the pharmacy side of the business remains vibrant — but different than it was decades ago.

And the same can be said of the medical-supplies division, which has seen more dramatic growth over the years.

Indeed, there are now four locations — what Matthews calls the ‘hub,’ a large showroom and warehouse on East Street in Springfield; a satellite location in Easthampton; a recently opened retail location in the Heritage Plaza in East Longmeadow; and the location in Groton, which was an acquisition of an existing facility.

As was noted earlier, Matthews said the focus is on not merely supplying or resupplying a wide range of items — from catheters to compression socks; from incontinence products to wheelchairs — but also supplying information, education, and guidance.

“People need help, and sometimes they don’t even know what’s out there to help them — like a different product or a different size of a given product,” he said, again stressing that the company strives to move well beyond merely taking and filling orders and dispensing more knowledge.

This is especially true when it comes to foot care, said Kim Vigliotte, a compression specialist and pedorthist, who spends much of her time at the East Street location, but rotates to all of the company’s medical-supply locations.

She told BusinessWest she assists individuals with a range of foot problems, including diabetes, vascular disease, and non-healing wounds, and sees, on average, 25 to 30 people a day at the Springfield location.

“A patient comes in with a prescription from their podiatrist or primary-care doctor, and we do a foot evaluation or evaluation of their legs, and determine which product would be most appropriate for them to address whatever issues they’re having, be it pain, swelling, or ulceration,” she said, adding that there are a number of products on the market now that can improve quality of life for such patients. Her work is focused on matching them with the right ones, and she acknowledged it’s very rewarding work.

Charting a New Course

While working to improve service to customers, Louis & Clark has also been working to improve efficiency and develop and then follow a roadmap for continued growth, and it has been helped in this regard by adaptation of what’s known as the entrepreneurial operating system (EOS).

In simple terms, EOS is a system by which companies large and small can manage and strengthen six key components of business operation: vision, data, process, traction, issues, and people.

Rachel Duda says Louis & Clark has been very proactive

Rachel Duda says Louis & Clark has been very proactive in its outreach to a number of constituencies.

The company now has separate leadership teams for its two divisions — pharmacy and medical supplies — thus enabling Matthews to focus more on the vision side of the equation and long-term strategic planning.

This new structure has allowed for better, sharper focus within each division, said Diane Cordeiro, the company’s marketing manager and also the integrator, or chief operating officer, for the medical-supplies division, adding that it also enables them to work better together toward the same goals.

“The integrator is the individual who is responsible for keeping all the different business units working together — finance, HR, operations, marketing — and just make sure that each unit is working to the best of their ability and that their leader is having them maximize everything they do on a day-to-day basis,” said Cordeiro, who joined the company in 1990 as a cashier and moved steadily up the ladder. “We want to have everyone working toward the same goals and being enthusiastic about their day-to-day, helping customers, working with referral groups, and enabling us to stand out from every other standard medical-supply location.”

Elaborating, she said one of the emerging priorities for the company is to make the public fully aware of all it does — and all the knowledge its employees possess, work that dovetails nicely with the main title on her business card: ‘marketing manager.’

“I want to see that part of the business grow,” she said, referring specifically to medical supply. “And, obviously, this involves making new relationships with new referral groups, maximizing outreach for relationship building, and just letting people know who we are and what we do.”

Rachel Duda, a marketing assistant for the company, said Louis & Clark has been very proactive in its outreach to a number of constituencies, including physicians’ offices, assisted-living facilities, nursing homes, and group homes, in both Massachusetts and Connecticut, in an effort to build awareness of the company as a resource.

“It’s all about education — individuals don’t know what they don’t know,” she explained, adding that the company has taken things to a higher level in recent years with a program called ‘lunch and learn.’

As the name implies, it involves lunch and learning — about Louis & Clark and its various services, said Cordeiro, adding that lunch is very often the only time to get the full attention of a staff at a physician’s office or residential facility.

“We offer these to any new opportunity or referral group,” she explained, “including doctor’s offices, home-care agencies, physical-therapy offices, rehab facilities, anyone who would be prescribing products that we dispense.”

The lunches are definitely having an impact, Cordeiro went on, adding that company is receiving prescriptions from a number of new sources. And they are just one example of more aggressive outreach that benefits both parties.

Another is a relatively new initiative involving on-site visits to senior centers and senior-living facilities for everything from ice-cream socials to hot lunches to what are known as ‘tune-up clinics.’

“Our in-house technician will go on site on a scheduled day, and any individual who is from that community can bring down their walker, their wheelchair, anything that might need some sort of adjustment, new wheels, new brakes, whatever,” she told BusinessWest, adding that for parts under $5 there is no charge, and for parts over that amount, the individual pays just the retail cost.

That explains why these tune-ups have become hugely popular and also a huge part of the company’s efforts to tell its story and build new relationships, something it’s been doing since Lyndon Johnson was in the White House.

Making More History

After Louis Demosthenous retired more than a dozen years ago and Skip Matthews took on a leadership role, there was brief — as in very brief, apparently — discussion about changing the company’s name again to Skip & Clark.

Those talks were brief because it was decided this name didn’t roll off the tongue as well and didn’t have the historical connection. Besides, Louis & Clark had become a regional brand, one that had become synonymous with service and innovation.

So, while the name hasn’t changed, the company remains, in a word, fluid as it continues to discover — pun intended — ways to better educate and better serve its customers.

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

Green Business

Pet Project

Carmine DiCenso

Carmine DiCenso stands by the solar installation on the roof of Dakin’s facility in Springfield.

Carmine DiCenso says there’s a changed atmosphere at the Dakin Humane Society facilities in Springfield and Leverett these days — in many different respects.

Indeed, due to comprehensive spaying and neutering programs, overpopulation among canines and felines is far less of a problem than it was even a few years ago, and, as a result, there are, generally speaking, fewer animals up for adoption in these centers.

Meanwhile, societal changes have made adoption a more accepted and therefore more popular practice. “Culturally, everyone wants to rescue a pet now,” said DiCenso, Dakin’s executive director, adding that, as a result, many of the pets that wind up in the adoption centers are not there for long stays.

Those that are tend to be older and often have physical and/or behavioral-health issues and thus need more time at the shelter to become ready for adoption, said DiCenso. “We’re spending more time and resources to rehab animals, and that’s a bigger challenge,” he explained, adding that the agency is shifting its focus to work with animals in the community — by providing food, vaccinations, and other necessities — with the goal of keeping them out of shelters.

But these are not the only changes to the environment at Dakin.

The others involve energy-efficiency, and while many cannot be seen (such as the solar installations on the roofs) or heard, they are important developments in Dakin’s ability to carry out its broad mission.

That’s made clear by current numbers and those that DiCenso is projecting for a few years out. He expects that, when the latest round of planned improvements — efforts to better seal skylights and windows to improve efficiency and replacement of a 21-year-old, very inefficient inefficient chiller — are implemented, the nonprofit agency will see annual energy savings approaching $50,000 at the Springfield site. In six to 10 years, he projects that the number will be closer to $200,000.

“And that money would be diverted right into director programming,” he explained, “and meeting the needs of our animals who need more from us — here in the shelter and out in the community.”

Backing up a bit, DiCenso said Dakin has undertaken a number of significant steps to become more energy-efficient over the past few years, many in what amounts to a partnership with Eversource, largely because it needed to, especially in Springfield.

The 47,000-square-foot facility, formerly home to the MSPCA, was built just over 20 years ago, a different era when it comes to energy efficiency, said DiCenso, adding that discussions about doing something with a building that had become a large drain on the budget began years ago.

And with a two-year, $95,000, no-interest loan from Eversource as part of the utility’s small-business retrofit program (see related story, page 18), Dakin has addressed many of these glaring needs. Indeed, starting in late 2016, the nonprofit has undertaken several initiatives, including:

• Lighting conversions. Dakin switched from fluorescent to LED lighting in many areas of the Springfield building. The parking-lot lights, formerly multi-vapor models, have also been converted to LED. Meanwhile, occupancy-sensor switches were installed in several rooms, replacing traditional on/off switches that are often left on long after people have left the room.

• An HVAC upgrade, specifically adding a dedicated domestic hot-water system that uses just the right amount of energy needed to have hot water on tap. Previously, Dakin relied on large boilers to heat even the smallest amounts of hot water.

• Variable-frequency drives. As part of the HVAC upgrade, Dakin added these drives to achieve more scalability in controlling indoor climate, said DiCenso, adding that it also installed carbon-dioxide detectors to control the amount of outside air (hot or cold) coming into the building to control costs.

“The fans were either on or off, and it took a tremendous amount of energy for them to cycle up and turn on fully, and that’s a waste of energy,” he explained. “What we have now are variable drives, which slowly build up to speed and only bring them to the level you need; instead of going from zero to 100 every time you turn them on, if they only need 25% of the energy, that’s what they’ll turn on to.”

As for the solar installations, installed in 2018, they were made possible by a gift from area residents Brian Adams and Morey Phippen, who have funded solar projects for a number of nonprofits in the area, said DiCenso, adding that, through these installations, both facilities are realizing substantial savings on their electric bills, especially the Leverett site.

“It will take a few years to really see those cost savings,” he said. “But we’ll get a bigger bang for our buck in Leverett because it’s a smaller building and the solar installation will be able to take more of the load; we do think our energy costs will drop 50%.”

Between the two buildings, as he noted, the overall savings will likely exceed $200,000, a budgetary windfall, if you will, that will be needed in the years to come.

That’s because, while the landscape has changed, overpopulation is no longer a real issue, and rescuing animals has become more popular, there are still many needs to be met when it comes to that constituency.

Because it now far more energy-efficient, Dakin will be better able to meet them.

— George O’Brien

Green Business

A Change at the Checkout

Volunteers at the annual Source to Sea Cleanup

Volunteers at the annual Source to Sea Cleanup always seem to pick up the same amount of plastic waste, meaning something has to change further up the chain.

Americans need to start talking about plastic waste, Bob Bolduc said. For proof, look no further than the customer who visits Pride Stores regularly for lottery tickets — and wants them in a plastic bag.

“What does that tell you and me? That the world has a big education problem. We need to talk about it.”

Bolduc, who owns the Pride chain, and his team have done just that, deciding to eliminate plastic bags at checkout counters across the chain. The ban went into effect on May 1.

“We’re happy to do it,” he went on. “We’re getting mixed reviews, but we think people in time will come around. Everyone’s got to do their share. This is a little thing we should have done a long time ago.”

As part of the conversion, Pride will give away reusable bags as long as supplies last, and give a 5-cent discount whenever a reusable bag of any kind is used.

“It was the right thing to do; it’s that simple,” Bolduc said. “Anybody who cares about our planet realizes it’s one of the easy fixes, so we decided to do it right away. There have been a few customers who complained, but most customers have been understanding, some have applauded us, and some — here’s the good news — said, ‘I don’t need a bag at all.’ That’s the best response, because paper bags aren’t the solution, either.”

Pride isn’t alone. Big Y Foods recently announced it will eliminate single-use plastic bags from checkouts at its 70 supermarkets and specialty stores, along with its Big Y Express gas and convenience locations, in 2020.

“We’re getting mixed reviews, but we think people in time will come around. Everyone’s got to do their share. This is a little thing we should have done a long time ago.”

Big Y supermarkets in six area communities — Adams, Amherst, Great Barrington, Lee, Northampton, and South Hadley — have already made the switch to comply with municipal bag bans, and that got the company, which has implemented a number of sustainability-minded practices over the years, thinking.

“We have a handful of stores that are in towns with bag bans, which makes it a hodgepodge for us,” said Claire D’Amour-Daley, Big Y’s vice president of Corporate Communications. “The first stores were tougher — people got mad at us. But it’s much more commonplace now, with these town ordinances. Most people support it, and the employees support it.”

Eliminating the single-use bags chain-wide, she added, simply made sense.

“It’s a start. We continue to look at all types of packaging we can substitute — we’re looking at alternative sources of everything — but we figured we’d start with the bags.”

Massive Impact

As one might imagine, plastic bags create an inordinate amount of waste. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, more than 380 billion plastic bags are used in the U.S. each year. If not disposed of properly, this plastic can end up in waterways and forests, where it can harm fish, marine animals, birds, and other wildlife.

As a large chain, Big Y uses 100 million plastic bags and 3.5 million paper bags at its checkouts each year. The company recognizes that paper isn’t the answer to this waste problem, as the paper-production process is harmful to the environment, causing increased greenhouse-gas emissions and deforestation, which is why it’s promoting the adoption of reusable bags through in-store promotions (like buy one bag, get one free) and signage.

Signage at the South Hadley Big Y

Signage at the South Hadley Big Y reminds shoppers they won’t be getting plastic bags there.

The Connecticut River Conservancy understands the impact of waste more than most. CRC volunteers have cleaned up more than 1,000 tons of trash over the course of 22 years at its annual Source to Sea Cleanup.

“It’s clear that repeated cleaning is not the solution to our trash problem,” said Andrew Fisk, executive director. “We need to redesign our economy so there isn’t waste in the first place.”

The CRC is taking a three-pronged approach to that campaign: corporate pressure, consumer pressure, and legislative efforts.

“We realize, by going out and cleaning it up, how big it is, but we’re still doing the same work year after year,” said Angela Chaffee, communications director.

“There are things that can be done to stop trash from ending up in riverbanks in the first place. That’s what we want to start working toward,” she went on. “Littering is definitely part of the problem, and we encourage people not to be litterbugs. But there are choices people can be making every day at the consumer level — things like reusable bottles, shopping bags, and coffee mugs. A lot of people think that doesn’t make a difference, but it absolutely does.”

On the subject of corporate pressure, she mentioned Dunkin’ Donuts as an example of a company that needs to do more — as evidenced by the countless plastic DD cups that get picked up at every cleanup.

“We see those all the time; they tend to gather in parking lots and storm drains on the street, which directly connect to our rivers. We got to thinking, why are these businesses making things that end up as trash in the rivers? They say, ‘it’s not us, it’s our consumers’ — but why not give your consumers better options? Dunkin’ does have a reusable mug program, and they could be incentivizing that a whole lot more.”

The goal isn’t to burden companies, Chaffee said, but to sit down at the table with them to formulate strategies for reducing waste. If that doesn’t work, she encourages consumers to speak up with their money.

“They can say, ‘hey, I’m a customer, and I love your coffee, and I want you to do it this way, not that way.’ That has been downplayed a little bit. The power of that dollar is more than people think. The public has a role and a voice.”

The third step is working with legislators to craft laws, like plastic-bag bans. “We support any municipality that wants to pass a ban because it does contribute,” she said. “But we feel the best way to solve the problem is a statewide ban, not different rules depending on what town you’re in.”

Northampton was among the early adopters of a plastic-bag ban about five years ago. Mayor David Narkewicz recalled that some shop owners were concerned about the impact on their business, that it might put the city at a competitive disadvantage. But they were given plenty of transition time, and the fears turned out to be unfounded.

“I don’t think anyone has been able to say it had an impact,” he told BusinessWest. “Stop & Shop totally ran with it. They switched without any issues — Walmart, too. And Big Y is voluntarily getting rid of plastic bags in all their stores. So I think we were ahead of the curve.”

He noted that entire states — California, Hawaii, and New York — have banned single-use plastic bags without much pushback from customers. “I think it’s part of the environmental ethic we have here in Northampton. On so many levels, it made sense to people here.”

Terry Masterson, the city’s Economic Development director, agreed. “My job for a while was to deal with businesses that didn’t comply — and we had one. Customers want to see it, and store owners want to provide it.”

Next Steps

D’Amour-Daley agreed that banning plastic is a positive step customers will adjust to — hopefully by embracing reusable bags, not relying on the paper bags available at checkout for 10 cents a pop. “California has had a ban for years. People get used to it once you put a line in the sand.”

Big Y has a history of promoting sustainability, she noted, including almost daily donations of unsold food to the five food banks within its marketing area. Last year, the company distributed 6.4 million pounds of food, including 2.4 million pounds of meat and 1.4 million pounds of produce. Big Y locations also participate in paper and cardboard recycling programs and composts 2,500 tons of food annually. In addition, it has championed other energy-saving initiatives, such as the use of solar arrays, LED lighting, and reclamation of heat from refrigeration systems to heat the stores during the winter.

“We continue to look for other types of packaging that are better for the environment,” she added. “People expect that now, and we recognize we have more work to do.”

Bolduc noted that Pride looks for ways to be more environmentally progressive as well, including charging stations for electric vehicles at new stores; the use of high-efficiency refrigeration, heating, and air conditioning in all stores; conversion of all hand dryers to cold air only; and climate-controlled stores for optimum energy reduction.

The bag ban, he said, was a comparatively simple step, and one that raises awareness of sustainable practices among customers. After all, he added, “we’re all in this together.”

Chaffee welcomes such moves. “The fact that we’re having this conversation at all is a good step forward,” she told BusinessWest. “Every little bit helps move us in the right direction. We want companies to step up and do more.”

As for individual consumers, “a lot of times, people think just one person won’t make a difference,” she added. “But you don’t have to do everything 100% perfectly. If you’re doing one small thing to make a difference, think about the millions of people across the country and around the world; it does add up and has a huge, positive impact.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Features

The Stars Were Aligned

A high-resolution image of the black hole at the center of the galaxy known as M87.

A high-resolution image of the black hole at the center of the galaxy known as M87.

The image of the black hole in the center of the galaxy known as M87 that was released earlier this month was a groundbreaking development in many respects. It was the first direct visual evidence of a black hole, and it validated Einstein’s century-old theories of relativity. But it also put the spotlight on astronomers at UMass Amherst and a telescope, known as the LMT, that the university operates in partnership with the Mexican government.

Gopal Narayanan wasn’t totally sure, but he recalls that his gut told him “that we had … something.”

‘We’ is the collective that Narayanan, a research Astronomy professor at UMass Amherst, used to describe both his team stationed in April 2017 at the LMT (Large Millimeter Telescope) erected atop a 15,000-foot-high volcano in southern Mexico, and teams at seven other telescopes around the world. And the ‘something,’ as the world now knows, was what would become the first direct visual evidence of a supermassive black hole and its shadow.

Indeed, after a series of new conferences staged around the world announced the breakthrough on April 10, media outlets published what many would call a ‘photograph’ (see above) of the black hole at the center of Messier 87, or M87, as it’s called, a massive galaxy in the Virgo galaxy cluster, some 55 million light years from Earth.

It’s not a photograph in the traditional sense of the word, said Narayanan, but rather, as he’ll explain later, what amounts to a mathematical interpretation of data retrieved from those eight radio telescopes, known collectively as the Event Horizon Telescope, or EHT, a name that denotes the point at which light, matter, and other energy fall into a black hole.

From left: Aleks Popsefanija, Gopal Narayanan, and Peter Schloerb, members of the team at UMass Amherst that helped capture that first image of a black hole.

From left: Aleks Popsefanija, Gopal Narayanan, and Peter Schloerb, members of the team at UMass Amherst that helped capture that first image of a black hole.

While most of the world’s focus has been on that image, what it shows, and what it means — essentially validation of Einstein’s theories of relatively forged nearly a century ago — the collaborative effort that produced that image is an equally compelling and far-less-known story.

As is the large contribution made by UMass Amherst astronomers and the LMT, a facility the university operates jointly with Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Astrofisica, Óptica y Electrónica (INAOE).

The LMT, at 50 meters in diameter, more than half a football field, is the world’s largest single-dish, steerable, millimeter-wavelength telescope in the world, said Peter Schloerb, UMass Amherst’s LMT principal investigator professor, and early on, those working to create the EHT recognized that it could play a vital role in those efforts.

Specifically, an initiative to create what would be become, in effect, a telescope the size of the planet, Schloerb went on, adding that, by combining results from large telescopes scattered across the globe, those searching for a black hole could create a virtual telescope some 9,000 kilometers in diameter.

“It’s quite rare to get eight telescopes scattered around the world in completely different geographic locations — northern and southern hemispheres, east and west — to all have good weather for a stretch of several days, which we did. And you also need to have all the telescopes working technically well, which we did. It took a lot of doing, and there was a lot of preparatory work that had to be done for this campaign.”

“Such a telescope would have the resolution power to detect an orange on the surface of the moon or read the words on a quarter held up in Los Angeles — from Washington, D.C.,” said Schloerb, adding that getting this global telescope network in sync is a huge feat.

Narayanan agreed, noting that, to eventually create that image broadcast to the world earlier this month — nearly two years after the data was actually collected — all eight telescopes had to be operating in perfect weather and with all instrumentation functioning properly, a difficult assignment, especially for the four-day window that was needed.

“It’s quite rare to get eight telescopes scattered around the world in completely different geographic locations — northern and southern hemispheres, east and west — to all have good weather for a stretch of several days, which we did,” he explained. “And you also need to have all the telescopes working technically well, which we did. It took a lot of doing, and there was a lot of preparatory work that had to be done for this campaign.”

In many ways, the image of the M87 black hole justifies decades of hard work at the LMT, a facility located in a challenging environment that has seen its share of struggles over the years, noted Narayanan, adding that the project puts the full potential of the facility on display.

“This is a fantastic validation of all the effort we have put in on the LMT,” he said. “It shows that the telescope works and that it can do ground-breaking science.”

The LMT (Large Millimeter Telescope) in Mexico

The LMT (Large Millimeter Telescope) in Mexico is operated jointly by UMass Amherst and Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Astrofisica, Óptica y Electrónica.

And the LMT will certainly play a large role in what will hopefully happen next when it comes to capturing images of black holes, said Narayanan. This includes attaining similar images of the black hole at the center of the galaxy known as Sagittarius A* — data is still being collected on it — and it might also include what he called a movie of a black hole — again, not one in the traditional sense (more on that later).

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Narayanan, Schloerb, and astronomy graduate student Aleks Popsefanija about the black-hole project and what will likely come next.

It’s All Relative

Returning to the subject of those observations captured by the EHT, Narayanan said they reveal the image of a black hole and the event horizon surrounding it.

The bright yellow and gold colors seen in the bright ring, which results from the incredible pull the black hole exerts on nearby matter, are not real, he told BusinessWest. They were chosen to convey the intensity of the emissions.

“Typically, astronomers use orangish-red hues to show when things are hot,” he explained. “These are super-hot objects around the black hole.”

This image has been literally decades in the making, he went on, adding that, while scientists have long coveted visual proof of a black hole to validate long-held theories on these mysterious and massively powerful objects, until recently, attaining one was merely a pipe dream.

The key to making it reality is the EHT and an earth-sized telescope it creates, said Popsefanija, an Amherst native who told BusinessWest that, after earning a degree in physics at Carnegie Mellon University in 2014, he was looking for a job, and his search took him the Astronomy department at UMass Amherst. Just a few years later, he would be part of the team at the LMT that made history.

And part of a larger team that would work in sync to gather and coordinate the data from those eight telescopes, which was, as noted, as almost herculean feat.

At the heart of it all is a 1-millimeter-length receiver built for the LMT that would be used to collect the EHT data. Essentially, this receiver, what Narayanan called a “super-conducting mixer” not built specifically for this purpose, takes signals from the black hole, brings them to lower frequencies, digitizes the signals, and sends them on to data recorders.

This same work was being done at the other seven telescopes simultaneously, he went on, adding that synchronizing the telescope network was an exercise in extreme precision, to say the least.

The engineering team responsible for building the 1-millimeter receiver that was installed on the LMT and used for the EHT campaign

The engineering team responsible for building the 1-millimeter receiver that was installed on the LMT and used for the EHT campaign. From left to right, Joe Crowley (MIT Haystack), Gopal Narayanan (UMass), and Ron Grosslein (UMass).

“We had to have very accurate timing in the collection of data,” he explained. “We had to know when the signals arrived at each telescope to a precision of a nanosecond, which is one-billionth of a second.”

So, to get the image that was eventually shared with the world earlier this month, the stars have to be aligned, in every sense of that phrase, said Narayanan, from the weather to the instrumentation. And those weren’t the only challenges to be faced.

Indeed, at 15,000 feet, the view from the LMT is spectacular — for telescopes, as well as the people working at one — but it’s difficult working at that altitude, said Narayanan, adding that one can remain at that elevation for maybe a dozen hours because there is far less oxygen than there is at sea level.

“Every step you take is hard, and thinking is hard, because your brain lacks oxygen,” he explained, adding that these conditions necessitated the need for two teams that would work in shifts at the telescope. “You always question any action you take, and it’s very strenuous work. At the same time, driving up the mountain and seeing the entire world beneath you, seeing the clouds beneath you, is a wonderful and emotional experience as well.”

Through all of that, Narayanan had that gut feeling that the teams working at those telescopes around the globe had ‘something.’

“I had a great deal of confidence that we had collected great data,” he explained, adding that this data then had to be analyzed and vetted, a lengthy, nearly two-year-long process during which astronomers had to keep quiet about their groundbreaking discovery.

Coming into Focus

With that, Narayanan explained how the image was attained. As for what it shows — that asymmetric ring-like structure around a central dark region — this is equally groundbreaking.

Indeed, the findings, as laid out in six papers published in a special issue of the Astrophysical Journal Letters, essentially support Einstein’s theories of relativity and confirm what scientists have long theorized about black holes without actually ever seeing one.

“Professor Einstein’s work has stood the test of time,” he said. “It’s been nearly 100 years since he came up with the two relativity theories — a special theory of relativity dealing with traveling near the speed of light and a general theory of relativity to do with gravitation. Black holes are direct predictions from his GR, general relativity theory, and multiple experiments show the theory works, and works in extreme regimes.

“But this particular regime, a 6-million-solar-mass black hole, was thought to be a place that would really test the limits of that theory,” he went on. “Our big hope was that we would obtain an image that would conclusively prove there is a black hole, and that was without a doubt the case, and that’s the sweet part of this.”

Part of the team in front of the LMT. From left, Gopal Narayanan, Aleks Popstefanija, Sandra Bustamante, Antonio Hernandez (Crya, Morelia, Mexico), David Sanchez, and Lindy Blackburn.

Part of the team in front of the LMT. From left, Gopal Narayanan, Aleks Popstefanija, Sandra Bustamante, Antonio Hernandez (Crya, Morelia, Mexico), David Sanchez, and Lindy Blackburn.

This is uplifting in many respects, said Narayanan, before adding quickly that he would likely have been equally excited, if not more so, if the evidence didn’t support those long-held theories.

“Perhaps if we had found something that violated the predictions of Einstein’s theories of relativity, we would come up in new, uncharted territory that makes us rethink the theories,” he told BusinessWest. “And that’s the way we basically make progress.

“You make a model of the universe and go out and observe to see if that model can be validated by actual observations, which is reality,” he went on. “And then you find out that the theory is not quite right because the observations belie the earlier predictions; that’s how you make progress. That’s not to say we didn’t make any progress — we made a lot of progress.”

And in a many different ways, he said, adding that the M87 project has certainly laid the groundwork for further developments in the search for — and study of — black holes.

And also in the emergence of the LMT. UMass has been involved with that facility for 20 years now, said Narayanan, who offered a quick history lesson.

He said UMass was one of the birthplaces of the pioneering field known as millimeter-wave astronomy back in the 1970s. As part of that effort, the university’s Astronomy department built a 14-millimeter radio telescope just north of the Quabbin Reservoir called the Five College Radioastronomy Observatory, which it operated until roughly 10 years ago, providing training for a few generations of students.

Years ago, it became apparent that the department had achieved about all it could with a facility of that size and commenced a search for a larger telescope. That search led to a partnership with the Mexican government and specifically the INAOE, and eventually the construction of the LMT, which saw what the industry calls ‘first light’ in 2010.

The first receiver built onto it was designed not to look at black holes, but rather the first galaxies to be created after the Big Bang.

The chosen site, the Sierra Negra volcano in the Mexican state of Puebla, brings many benefits, including location (close to the equator), that made it a pivotal piece of the EMT puzzle, said Narayanan, adding that its performance in that project bodes well for the future.

And that includes more work on black holes, including the one in Sagittarius A*, a much smaller black hole than that at M87, with a 4 million solar mass. Astronomers are still collecting data on that object, said Narayanan, adding that there many additional challenges (on top of those already mentioned) when it comes to observing and studying a black hole in the center of our galaxy.

“It’s a smaller black hole, so things move around faster,” he explained. “Also, looking through our galaxy itself produces some scattering of the light coming from the center of our galaxy. But we’re working through the data, and we should produce some results soon.”

As for that movie he mentioned, that may also become a reality through efforts to expand and enhance the EHT process through additional telescopes and other additions.

“We can make multiple images and stack them together to make a movie, as it were, of how things vary around a black hole,” he explained. “And that has fantastic scientific implications that will tell us a lot of things about black holes and the structure of our universe.”

Bottom Line

The image of the black hole at M87 that sped across the globe soon became the star of the show when it came to the groundbreaking discovery — pun intended.

But, in reality, there were many stars, including the teams of astronomers who collaborated on the project, and the LMT itself, a facility that, as Narayanan noted, has put its full talents on display.

Moving forward, the challenge — and the opportunity — lies in building on this breakthrough.

And the stars seem aligned for that to happen as well.

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

Manufacturing

Scaling Up

CEO Bill Bither

CEO Bill Bither

Over the past five years, Machine Metrics, a company that specializes in predictive analytics for manufacturers, has been scaling up its operation. But with an infusion of $11.3 million in venture capital last fall, this process enters a new and dynamic phase. The company has nearly doubled its workforce, expanded with a new office in Boston, and become much more aggressive in efforts to educate potential clients about its game-changing software.

Bill Bither was asked where he wanted to take Machine Metrics, the five-year-old startup he co-founded that specializes in predictive analytics for manufacturers.

He paused for a second or two, and then, in a voice that brimmed with confidence and conveyed the sentiment that he’d been asked this question — and given this answer — before, said simply and almost matter-of-factly, “we’re really looking to build a billion-dollar company.”

That’s not a phrase you hear often from entrepreneurs based in the 413, but Bither, who launched this venture with Eric Fogg and Jacob Lazier and serves as its CEO, believes that stated goal is certainly attainable. And those who have watched this company grow quickly and profoundly since it first gained attention as a member of one of Valley Venture Mentors’ first accelerator classes would certainly agree.

The company develops software systems that measure manufacturing productivity. To be more specific, these systems analyze performance in real time and send out alerts to clients when production falls behind.

Clients generally see a 20% improvement in efficiency, and the phrase most often used in relation to the software and its overall impact within a given shop is ‘game changer.’

There are now more than 100 manufacturers around the world using the company’s products, and Bither expects that number to climb steadily as awareness of the software, its capabilities, and the results it has generated for customers grows.

Bill Bither, left, seen here with co-founder and CTO Jacob Lazier

Bill Bither, left, seen here with co-founder and CTO Jacob Lazier, says Machine Metrics is adding clients across the country and overseas.

“What we’ve discovered since 2015 is that the market that we’re in is really large, and that industrial technologies are moving very quickly,” he told BusinessWest. “There’s a really high demand for companies to digitize their factories, and the key missing component to doing that is getting data from the factory floor; that’s the first step in digitizing a factory, and that’s what we do very well.”

To continue to do this well on a much larger scale, the company needed to move quickly on a number of fronts — from expanding its customer base beyond this region and this country to greatly expanding its team of engineers, salespeople, and marketers, to being far more aggressive when it comes to getting the word out.

And it has moved forward on all those fronts thanks in large part to an an infusion of $11.3 million in capital late last year.

The company has put that money to work to expand its data-science and product-development teams while accelerating global sales, said Bither, adding that, while the company has been scaling up on an ongoing basis over the past five years, that process has essentially entered a new, more dynamic phase.

“Last year, we grew about 200%, and this year we’ll probably be around that same number,” he explained, adding that this is now a truly global company that continues to expand geographically and in all other ways.

Now headquartered on Pleasant Street in Northampton — a move necessitated by the growth of its workforce — Machine Metrics has also opened an office in Cambridge, and now employs roughly 50 people, a number that has almost doubled since the company announced that infusion of capital.

“What we’re doing now is going even faster, looking at international expansion; having more engineers on the team helps us fulfill our vision quicker. We’ve shown that we’re leading the space that we’re in, and we need to keep leading the industry toward digitizing their factories.”

“We’ve doubled the size of our executive team, we’ve almost doubled the size of the workforce, and our customer count is now over 100,” said Bither. “What we’re doing now is going even faster, looking at international expansion; having more engineers on the team helps us fulfill our vision quicker. We’ve shown that we’re leading the space that we’re in, and we need to keep leading the industry toward digitizing their factories.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Bither about the process of scaling up one of the most-watched startups in this region — and about the roadmap to becoming a billion-dollar company.

The Light Is Green

When he talked with BusinessWest earlier this month, Bither was in Toronto on vacation visiting family. Well, sort of.

“I have back-to-back meetings with clients today, which is what usually happens,” he explained. “A vacation trip turns into a work trip.”

There have been a number of work trips and vacations doubling as work trips for Bither and his partners over the past years, as they continue to bring awareness to a product that represents pioneering on a number of levels.

Indeed, while there have been production-monitoring software products on the market for some time, the software systems the company is now offering represent a huge step forward in what’s known as industrial IoT (Internet of Things) technology.

For clients, it has meant adding the phrase ‘being in the green’ to their lexicon. That’s the color that shows up on the dashboards, or large display boards, when machines are operating at or above the desired performance levels. An orange color means they are operating slightly below that level, and red means there’s trouble.

But beyond letting companies know how machines — or shifts of employees — are performing, the software can also predict when errors will occur and machines will fail, thus enabling manufacturers to avoid costly breakdowns that greatly impact overall productivity.

And as productivity improves, companies are better able to navigate what has long been the manufacturing sector’s most pressing — and perplexing — problem: a deep talent shortage that shows no signs of letting up any time soon.

All this explains why that phrase ‘game changer’ is being used so often by those who now have these systems operating in their plants. And it’s being heard both in this region — VSS CNC Inc. in Greenfield, Marox Corp. in Holyoke, and others are on the client list — and well outside it.

“We’re spread out across North America — I think we’re in roughly 40 states now,” he said. “And we’re starting to see some growth in Europe and South America. There’s still so much opportunity in this country, though, and that’s where we’re focusing most of our efforts.”

Bither, when pushed to guesstimate just how big the market is for industrial IoT technology, put the number at $85 billion, and said the mission moving forward, obviously, is to garner as large a share of that market as possible.

To do that, the company knew it had to expand its workforce, adding people in a number in a number of areas, but especially engineers in the field working with customers to digitize their factory floors.

As he talked with BusinessWest, Bither admitted he’d actually lost track of just how big the workforce was at that moment, a clear indication of how fast things are changing and how many people have joined the team.

“We’ve hired software developers, and we’ve added to our marketing team, our sales team, and our customer-success team,” he said, adding that the company has also brought on a chief financial officer, a vice president of Product, a vice president of Business Development, and a vice president of Sales, taking Machine Metrics and its leadership team to a much higher plane.

Meanwhile, the company has also opened an office in Boston, a step taken to not only better serve customers in that area, but also take advantage of the extremely deep pool of IT talent inside the 128 corridor.

“At the rate that we’re growing, it’s difficult to hire enough really skilled people in Western Mass. quickly enough,” he explained. “We’re combining the best manufacturing talent with the best software talent, and Boston really has a heavy concentration of software executives.”

Bither, who has been through the scaling-up process before — he grew the software company Atalasoft to 25 people before he sold it — said this experience at Machine Metrics is different in many ways, primarily because the company is a venture capital (VC)-backed enterprise.

“Therefore, the focus is on growing fast, not about being profitable — that’s the life of a VC-backed technology company,” he explained. “You’re really measured in growth and cash, more so than profits, and that’s different from what I’m used to.”

Moving forward, he said one key to continued growth and effective scaling of this venture is effective website content marketing, an approach designed to help educate and hopefully inspire movement within a sector, manufacturing, that has traditionally been slow to embrace new technologies and different ways of doing things.

Profound growth of its workforce forced Machine Metrics to seek larger quarters

Profound growth of its workforce forced Machine Metrics to seek larger quarters, and it found them in the old Post Office building on Pleasant Street in Northampton.

“We’ve been able to build quite a presence in this space without spending too much money because we’ve been able to build out content on our website and write a number of articles and blogs,” he explained. “And because of that, we’ve been able to bring in a lot of interested buyers that come through our website; our sales team will then talk to them, and a certain percentage of them will actually close.”

Another important marketing vehicle has been industry trade shows, such as the EASTEC show slated for next month at the Big E, but also the recent event in Hanover, Germany (the company’s first international show), where Machine Metrics had a large presence and was able to introduce itself and its software to new audiences.

“It was interesting because we were able to see what the landscape looks like in Europe,” he explained, adding that the company partnered with Amazon Web Services, a subsidiary of Amazon that provides on-demand cloud-computing platforms to individuals, companies, and governments, and thus gained considerable attention at the show.

The company also takes part in the International Manufacturing Technology Show, staged every other year in Chicago, and will be in Las Vegas in a few weeks for another large industry event, said Bither, adding that this exposure is critical to those scaling-up efforts.

Getting Things in Gear

Bither did not want to disclose current revenue figures for Machine Metrics, but he hinted strongly, not that he had to, that this venture is a long way from being a billion-dollar company.

But it seems to be on a path that would make that number more than a fantasy or pipe dream. This is a fast track greased by obvious need among manufacturers large and small to be able to track their performance in real-time analytics, and not rely on guesswork.

Whether the company can get to that magical milestone — or when, obviously — remains to be seen, but the scaling-up process continues, and like those clients it serves, this intriguing startup is certainly operating in the green — figuratively, if not literally.

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Mayor Will Reichelt

While the city will miss out on opportunities from its full ban on cannabis-related ventures, Mayor Will Reichelt says, there are new businesses of many kinds coming to the community.

West Springfield Mayor Will Reichelt recalls that, after his community’s City Council voted in the spring of 2018 to place a ban on any and all cannabis-related businesses, he received some texts from his counterparts in Holyoke and Westfield.

He doesn’t remember the exact wording of either one, but he told BusinessWest that they amounted to thank-you notes, as in — and he’s paraphrasing here, obviously — ‘thank you for the tax revenue that might be coming to our cities because it won’t be coming to yours.’

More than a year after that vote and those texts, Reichelt feels confident in saying that the full ban, while obviously well-intentioned, amounts to some missed opportunities for this community, for both the short and long term.

Indeed, West Springfield exists at the intersection of the Massachusetts Turnpike and I-91 (quite literally), and therefore, in many respects, it is the retail center of this region — complete with dozens of big-box stores, car dealerships, restaurants, and more — and draws people from across the region. But this retail hub will not include any cannabis dispensaries, despite a number of ideal sites for such facilities, resulting in, as those mayors pointed out in their texts, tax revenue that will go elsewhere.

But in Reichelt’s view, the ban has potentially deeper ramifications.

“A lot of our tax revenue comes from retail, most of it on Riverdale Street and Memorial Avenue; it’s car sales, it’s big-box stores — that’s a large portion of our commercial tax revenue,” he said. “And to not be open to new discussions, new ideas, and new businesses is going to hurt us in the long run because retail is changing; Amazon is coming, and not everyone is going to want to shop in Riverdale Plaza.

“If things change, we’re really going to struggle,” he went on, quickly adding that things certainly won’t change overnight or even over the next few years. “If we’re looking out 25 to 50 years, and West Springfield gets a name for itself that it’s not into these somewhat controversial but new and innovative business ideas, and the communities around us are, it will be easy to pass West Springfield by.”

Fortunately, at present, most traditional retailers, and consumers, have no intention of passing this community by. In fact, many retailers want in — and in a big way, for those reasons (and because of those roads) listed earlier. As an example, the mayor related the story of how Starbucks is very interested in landing a spot on Riverdale Street — specifically that very popular stretch south of I-91 — and how it will certainly be challenged to find one.

So while West Side won’t be entering the high-stakes competition for cannabis-related businesses any time soon, Reichelt and his administration will be focused on doing what this community has long been able to do — take advantage of its ideal location, already-deep portfolio of retail outlets, and heavy volume of traffic to attract more new businesses.

The team at 1105 Main: from left, Joe Stevens, Eric Waldman, Alex Waldman, and Liz Stevens.

The team at 1105 Main: from left, Joe Stevens, Eric Waldman, Alex Waldman, and Liz Stevens.

And it is enjoying success in this realm, as we’ll see later, with developments ranging from a new hotel on Riverdale Street to a new life for an old landmark just off Memorial Avenue, to the community’s first brewery just down that street.

Meanwhile, beyond those two main retail corridors, there are other intriguing prospects for development. One involves the property known to most as the United Bank building on Elm Street. That’s not its official name, but the bank has long occupied it and is therefore associated with it.

But United has all but moved out, and there us now a huge ‘for sale’ sign on the side of the property.

As the mayor gestured toward it while walking downtown with BusinessWest, he noted that, years ago, there were a number of a small storefronts within that footprint along the street. Turning back the clock and creating a new generation of destinations along that block would help build on growing momentum in that area of the city, he said.

Meanwhile, a former mill property along the Westfield River just over the line from Agawam is being gifted to the city by Neenah Paper, the manufacturer soon to vacate the property, said the mayor, adding that a number of new uses, including some residential options, are being explored.

These are just a few of the intriguing developments unfolding in West Side, a city that won’t be entering the intense competition for cannabis-related ventures anytime soon, but still has a host of other emerging business and economic-development stories.

Ale’s Well

Reichelt laughed heartily as he recalled the e-mail that is at the heart of a story he’s now told more times than he can count.

It was from his city planner, and typed onto the subject line was the phrase ‘Two Weeks Notice.’ Upon further reading, the alarmed mayor learned that this was not a reference to another job opportunity seized, but rather an update on the plans for an intriguing new business coming to the community.

“After that, I said, ‘can we just put ‘brewery’ in the subject line?’” said Reichelt, noting that the Two Weeks Notice Brewing Co., located in the former Angie’s Tortellinis facility since late last year, makes some nice IPAs, and has become a solid addition to the business landscape in West Side.

And it is just one of several of those over the past several months, including a new name over a familiar door.

That would be 1105 Main, an address, but also the name of a new eatery at the site of what would have to be considered a West Side landmark — the old Hofbrahaus restaurant.

Joe Stevens, who owned and operated that German restaurant with his wife, Liz, for decades, closed it roughly a year ago. The couple thought they had the building sold, but the deal fell through, prompting a reassessment of their plans.

“We starting talking about a theme restaurant,” said Joe, adding that what eventually emerged is a true family affair, involving sons Eric Waldman, who had been sous chef at a restaurant in Westchester County, N.Y. and was looking for a new and different challenge, and Alex Waldman.

Joe told BusinessWest they are calling this “an American eatery,” offering “familiar food with a twist.” As an example, he cited the lasagna, which is pan fried after it’s baked and includes a wild boar and bison bolognese.

The property at 1105 Main St. was substantially renovated for this makeover. The bar area, popular with regulars then and now, has a fresh look, as does the dining room, which has a brighter atmosphere and a hardwood floor, found underneath an inch of carpet glue after the old flooring had been ripped out.

The new eatery is drawing a mix of families and business people, said Joe, and it even complements another new business just across the street — Hot Brass, a firearm and bow range that shares space with Guns Inc., a seller of firearms.

“We like to say, ‘after you’re done shooting, come in for a shot and a beer,’” said Stevens, adding that a number of people have done just that, thus bringing still more vibrancy to the Memorial Avenue area that has changed dramatically over the past several years.

Indeed, the face of the street — home, of course, to the Big E — has been altered by the addition of Fathers & Sons’ new Audi and Volkswagen dealerships, as well a new retail plaza featuring a Florence Savings Bank branch and new stores in the Century Plaza.

West Springfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1774
Population: 28,529
Area: 17.5 square miles
County: Hampden
residential tax rate: $16.96
commercial tax rate: $32.55
Median Household Income: $40,266
Median Family Income: $50,282
Type of government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Eversource Energy, Harris Corp., Home Depot, Interim Health Care, Mercy Home Care
* Latest information available

Memorial Avenue, like the city’s other main retail corridor, is in a seemingly constant state of change, said Reichelt, adding that still more change is likely as new tenants are sought for two locations across from the Big E — the former Monte Carlo restaurant and the former Debbie Wong eatery.

Still further down the road is more property in flux, the former Medallion Motel and the vacant lot next to it, formerly the site of an auto-repair shop. Redevelopment of those parcels will likely have to wait for another day, said Reichelt, because they sit in the shadow of the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge, which crosses the Westfield River and connects West Side with Agawam and is still in the early stages of what is expected to a four-year reconstruction and widening project.

Traffic is often backed up at the site, which is why developers are unlikely to do anything in that area for some time, said the mayor, adding, as his counterpart in Agawam did a few months ago in this space, that the goal is to minimize the disruptions from the bridge project, especially during the 17 days of the Big E, and try to incentivize construction crews to reduce that four-year timetable for this initiative.

Forward Progress

Back on Riverdale Street, a new Marriott Courtyard is set to open later this spring, one of several new developments on or around that busy retail corridor, which, like Memorial Avenue, is in a seemingly constant state of the change.

Others include a gas station at the Costco in the Riverdale Shops, a project expected to commence later this year; the opening of a 1.5-mile bike path behind those shops, due to open in May; and a $21 expansion of the Agri-Mark facility on Riverdale Street, completed last fall.

Looking down the road, Reichelt said the site of now-closed Bertucci’s, located along that stretch south of I-91, is still awaiting new development, and he’s optimistic one will come because properties don’t generally remain vacant for long on that stretch of road.

Meanwhile, as noted, there are developments unfolding outside of those two main retail corridors that could have important ramifications for the community. This is especially true of the United Bank property on Elm Street.

“That used to be a collection of small stores,” he said of the facility, adding that it was renovated to house a bank branch and several of the institution’s departments. “There was a nice bookstore and coffee shop, a restaurant … it was a real destination.”

It can be that again, he went on, adding that his vision includes the community petitioning the state for additional liquor licenses and perhaps transforming the property into a home for a number of hospitality-related businesses that would complement those already thriving in that area, such as the Majestic Theater (located on that same block) and bNapoli restaurant.

Mayor Will Reichelt says redevelopment of the former United Bank building on Elm Street could be a catalyst for growth in the city’s downtown.

Mayor Will Reichelt says redevelopment of the former United Bank building on Elm Street could be a catalyst for growth in the city’s downtown.

“I’d like to section that property back off again,” he said. “If we can get two more restaurants down there, a coffee shop or bagel place, and businesses like that, we could get a lot more life in the downtown, creating a real destination.

“Everyone always talks about how they’d like to have a mini-Northampton,” he went on. “That’s never going to happen if you don’t have stuff for people to do. This [property] represents a huge opportunity for us to create more things to do.”

And while hopefully generating more things to do with that downtown project, another initiative may well create more places to live.

The Neehah Paper Co. has donated the 100,000-square-foot mill property (formerly Strathmore Paper and then Fibermark) to the city, said the mayor, adding that residential is perhaps the best reuse option, be it elderly housing, affordable housing, or perhaps some combination, although other opportunities for development exist.

“We’ve run some breweries through it, and there’s been some interest,” he explained. “But we can’t really do much until we own it. This represents a great opportunity because we’re going to an actual section of riverfront property, which we don’t have in town.”

Location, Location, Location

Returning to the matter of cannabis-related ventures and the ban that covers the full spectrum of such businesses, Reichelt reiterated his concern that this goes well beyond lost commercial tax revenue.

“Councilors like to say that we’re business-friendly,” he told BusinessWest. “I say, ‘well, no, you’re not; you just completely wiped out an entire industry from coming to town.’”

This makes West Side an island of sorts when it comes to the cannabis trade, he went on, adding that there is still a lot of business activity happening on that island, with the promise of more to come in the months and years ahead.

The great location and easy access to major highways that would make West Side a perfect host for marijuana-related businesses also make it ideal for most any type of retail and hospitality-related venture.

And, as it has for decades, the city will continue to make of the most of all that it has to offer.

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

Opinion

Opinion

By John Regan

Evidence from states that have imposed a surtax on incomes of more than $1 million shows that the policy causes irreparable harm to the economy while generating far less tax revenue than promised. A millionaires tax will cause the same harm in Massachusetts.

Lawmakers have refiled a proposal to amend the state Constitution to impose a graduated income tax, adding a 4% tax (representing an 80% increase in the personal income-tax rate) on all incomes over $1 million. The amendment would dictate that the revenue be spent on transportation and education.

A graduated income tax would eviscerate the small, family-owned businesses that form the heart of the Massachusetts economy. The surtax would take an estimated $2 billion from some 17,000 Main Street businesses and others that pay taxes at the individual rate and who would otherwise use the money to hire additional employers or expand their companies.

These companies are already drowning in more than $1.5 billion in new taxes and fees to pay for a financial shortfall in the Medicaid program and to fund the new paid family and medical leave program.

How do we know that surtaxes don’t work? Because our neighbors in Connecticut just drove their economy off a cliff by raising taxes three times in the past 10 years. Connecticut in 2009 added a 6.5% income-tax bracket for those earning more than $500,000 per year. The state followed up with a comprehensive $1.5 billion tax increase in 2011 to deal with a budget shortfall. A final round of tax increases took effect in 2015.

A graduated income tax would eviscerate the small, family-owned businesses that form the heart of the Massachusetts economy. The surtax would take an estimated $2 billion from some 17,000 Main Street businesses and others that pay taxes at the individual rate and who would otherwise use the money to hire additional employers or expand their companies.

According to information compiled by Pew Charitable Trusts, tax revenue for all 50 states is averaging 6.3% higher than it was at the start of the 2008 recession. Connecticut tax revenue, on the other hand, is only 3.8% higher, despite the three tax increases.

Once the economic heavyweight of New England, Connecticut is the only state in the nation which has yet to recover the jobs lost during the economic downturn. In addition, the state has seen an outmigration of residents since 2013 and the loss of major financial investors. Data from the Internal Revenue Service showed a spike in residents earning more than $200,000 per year leaving the state in 2015, and studies conducted by Connecticut state agencies and commissions have confirmed the loss of higher-income residents to other states.

Income-surtax laws have failed in other states as well. Within three years of Maryland enacting its millionaire tax, 40% of the state’s seven-figure earners were gone from the tax rolls — and so was $1.7 billion from the state tax base.

Similarly, in 2010, Boston College researchers released a report on the migration of wealthy households to and from New Jersey. They concluded that wealthier New Jersey households did in fact consider the high-earner taxes when deciding whether to move to or remain in New Jersey. From 1999 to 2003 — before the millionaires tax was imposed — there was a net influx of $98 billion in household wealth into the state. After the tax was implemented, an increasing number of wealthy families left the state, resulting in a loss of $70 billion in wealth.

Many of the business owners who fled Connecticut, Maryland and New Jersey moved to states that have worked to reduce, rather than boost, taxes, including North Carolina, New Hampshire, Georgia, and Tennessee.

John Regan is executive vice president of Government Affairs for Associated Industries of Massachusetts.

Cover Story

Providing a Light

Executive Director Elizabeth Dineen

Executive Director Elizabeth Dineen

Helping survivors heal. That’s been the mission of the YWCA of Western Mass. for 150 years. Today, the agency does this in a number of ways, some well-known, such as its 58-bed domestic-violence shelter, and others far-less-heralded but still important, such as helping area young people attain their high-school equivalency. In each case, the key is providing these survivors with the tools they need to achieve a higher quality of life.

Azreal Alvarez calls this his third crack at high school, or the equivalent thereof.

That’s how he referred to YouthBuild Springfield, a workforce-development initiative operated by the YWCA of Western Massachusetts, a program that is succeeding where the first two stops didn’t. Indeed, Alvarez said that, when he attended one of Springfield’s charter schools, he was bullied so much, he couldn’t stay in that environment. Later, he enrolled in what he described as an online endeavor that didn’t inspire him in any real way.

That left YouthBuild as a last hope that soon became his best hope. The program is designed to not only help young people get their high-school equivalency, but also become introduced to careers in construction or healthcare.

Alavarez, 18, who wants to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a scaffolder, described the program this way: “For some people, this is their third chance or their second chance; for others, it’s their fifth. There’s really not much hope for them, so they come here, and they find a light that no one else can explain.”

With that, whether he knew it or not, Alvarez neatly summed up the first 150 years of the organization now known as the YWCA of Western Mass., the 10th-largest YWCA in the country and one of the oldest as well. Since Ulysses S. Grant patrolled the White House, it has been helping people find a light that, yes, is often hard to explain, but very often leads to a higher quality of life.

“I love this job because we’re able to serve women and children who are desperate to receive professional services, so that they can move on with their lives.”

And that light comes in many different forms, said the agency’s executive director, Elizabeth Dineen, a former prosecutor and supervising district attorney in Hampden County who spent more than a quarter-century handling special-victims cases including those involving child abuse, sexual assaults, domestic violence, and murder, and was recruited to lead the YWCA by several of its board members in 2016.

It might simply be a voice at the other end of a hotline that operates 24/7 and handles more than 10,000 calls a year, she told BusinessWest. Or it might be the peace, safety, and opportunity to start a new and better life that all come with a room in the 58-bed domestic-violence shelter. Or it might be the enlightenment gained through one of the agency’s newer counseling programs, called Children Who Witness Violence, an ambitious undertaking aimed at preventing domestic abuse, sexual abuse, and other forms of criminal behavior from becoming generational.

Or it might come in the form of exposure to a career in the medical field or construction, something a young person might never have considered as they were struggling with traditional high school, said Dineen, adding that YouthBuild and related programs are solid examples of how the YWCA has evolved and expanded well beyond its original mission and even the ‘W’ in its name.

All of this is what the agency is celebrating as it marks its sesquicentennial, an ongoing story that is driven home by the case of Linda Anselmo, who came to the agency last year at a time when she had nowhere else to turn.

A recent transplant to the area, she found herself the subject of intense and relentless verbal and emotional abuse from her partner, who, among other things, “threated to commit suicide and take me with her,” said Anselmo, noting that she was lost and alone when she found the YWCA, but never after that, thanks to the agency.

“I was completely lost — I had just moved to Massachusetts and into this relationship, and things got bad very fast,” she explained. “I didn’t know anyone, I had no family up here, nothing.”

Fast-forwarding, she said the agency helped her find temporary housing in a shelter and then transition to permanent housing in a community she chose not to disclose. More importantly, perhaps, the YWCA helped her move on from what happened to her emotionally.

“I had to heal,” she said. “I didn’t know how, but they showed me how.”

Helping people learn how to heal would be a good way to describe what Dineen and her staff of 150 do 24/7/365. For this issue and its focus on area nonprofits, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at how the agency does just that.

Answering the Call

‘Survivors.’

That’s the word those at the YWCA use when referring to the various constituencies they serve. It works much better than ‘clients’ or ‘residents’ or any other collective that might come to mind.

That’s because all those who come to the facility at 1 Clough St. (or who simply call the hotline number) are survivors — of domestic violence, sexual assault, child abuse, bullying, human trafficking, stalking, or a combination of the above.

They find this YWCA, which serves communities in both Hampden and Hampshire counties, because, while they have survived what has happened to them, they are still in need of a great deal of compassionate help as they seek to put their lives back together. Providing that help has essentially been the mission of this agency for the past 150 years.

“I love this job because we’re able to serve women and children who are desperate to receive professional services, so that they can move on with their lives,” said Dineen, who has made a very smooth transition from the courtroom to the classroom (she chaired the Criminal Justice department at Bay Path University for several years after leaving the DA’s office) to the challenging world of nonprofit management.

Indeed, while the work address and the title on her business card are different, Dineen is, in many ways, continuing the work with survivors that marked the first 25 years of her career, work she described as both extremely rewarding but very challenging.

Azreal Alvarez says the YWCA’s YouthBuild Springfield program is his third crack at high school, and his best chance to succeed.

Azreal Alvarez says the YWCA’s YouthBuild Springfield program is his third crack at high school, and his best chance to succeed.

“When you win a case, it’s very rewarding, but when I lost a case, it was excruciating, because you knew the person was going to be released to the community and would re-offend,” she explained, providing some unique insight into a realm few really know and understand. “Overall, these are some of the most challenging types of cases to prosecute.

“Children who testify in these cases are usually testifying against someone they loved, respected, and admired; it could be a coach, a parent, a teacher, or a relative, so it’s very hard to go into a courtroom and testify against them,” she went on. “And with regard to domestic-violence cases, very often the person they’re testifying against is someone they loved or still love,” she went on. “And when you’re dealing with adult rape cases, whether the survivor is male or female, it’s very challenging; people have to talk about an extremely horrific, traumatic experience.”

Dineen said her work in the DA’s office, which focused on high-profile cases including child-abuse murders, domestic-violence murders, and sexual-assault cases, has benefitted her in a number of ways as she guides the YWCA. For starters, she has a number of connections with area law-enforcement agencies and the legal community, connections that ultimately help her and her team better serve survivors.

Meanwhile, her time in law school and then as a lawyer has certainly helped her handle all the contract work that is part and parcel to managing a nonprofit these days, and especially this one.

But the greatest benefit from her work as a prosecutor is gaining a deep and unique understanding of what survivors go through — and what services they need to move forward with their lives.

This perspective has helped in the development and refinement of a number of programs and initiatives, and it comes across clearly as she talks about facilities such as the domestic-violence shelter, which is filled 24/7 as evidence of what she called an epidemic in this country and this region. She knows about the women and families who come there because she’s operated in their world throughout her career.

“When women come to the shelter, they come very often with just the clothes on their back,” she said, adding that only those deemed to be in eminent danger are assigned rooms. “If they bring anything for their children, it’s usually some kind of comfort object like a blanket or a toy.

“Many women come here right from the hospital or a police station, or they come here when there’s an opportunity to flee their abuser,” she went on. “The person might be going to work or to the supermarket, and there’s a window of opportunity that the woman has to literally flee their abuser.

“When you come to the shelter, it’s not uncommon to see people who might have a black eye, might have chunks of hair removed, might have a cast on their arm or leg,” she continued. “These are women who have experienced and endured, in some cases, long-term physical, sexual, and emotional abuse.”

Forward Progress

Thus, when they arrive, they need a full array of services, said Dineen, listing everything from direct counseling to getting children into schools or daycare as soon as possible, for their benefit, but also to help staff members focus on helping mothers prepare for the day when they will leave the shelter; from work to secure, permanent housing to assistance with entering or re-entering the workforce.

To accomplish all this, the YWCA works with a host of partners, from area school departments and daycare providers such as Square One to Way Finders (for housing and employment services) to Dress for Success (to ensure that women have suitable clothes for an interview or the first day on the job).

“Everything we do with women once they enter the shelter is designed to make them self-sufficient and independent,” she explained. “We’re trying to create conditions of success so that when they leave, they can thrive.”

This independence and self-sufficiency almost always comes through employment, Dineen went on, noting that many who come to the shelter have been out of the workforce for some time and thus need help to re-enter it. Thus, the YMCA has a computer lab and services to help survivors write a résumé and cover letter, apply for jobs online, and conduct themselves at an interview.

“No one is sitting around the shelter,” she told BusinessWest. “When you first come here, yes, you want to breathe and maybe have a couple days of just feeling safe and being able to sleep through the night without fear, but after that … everyone is assigned a case manager who will work with this person to figure out how to get her back on her feet, get her a job, get her to be economically independent, and think about where she wants to live.”

While the domestic-abuse shelter is perhaps the best-known of the programs and facilities operated by the YWCA to assist survivors, it is just one of many, said Dineen.

The YWCA facility on Clough Street

The YWCA facility on Clough Street offers a number of services and programs — all of them designed to help survivors heal.

There are other residential programs, including a transitional housing program in Springfield and teen-parenting residential programs in Springfield and Holyoke, she said, as well as a human-trafficking initiative undertaken in partnership with the Hampden County Sheriff’s Office, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Homeland Security Department, and other local, state, and federal agencies, and a host of community programs.

These include the hotline, which Dineen called a critical service to the people of this region and even some who have moved outside it and call the hotline for tips on how to locate services in their new place of residence.

“Each one of those phone calls to our hotline is a cry for help,” she told BusinessWest. “So we try to be as incredibly supportive as possible; if we don’t have a bed available, we’ll try to help someone find another bed within this state. We try to make sure that everyone who calls knows the resources available to them.”

Other services and programs include medical advocacy at hospitals for sexual-abuse victims, sexual-assault and domestic-violence counseling, SafePlan court advocacy, services for young parents, and many others.

They are all designed to help people, like Anselmo, with what can be, and usually is, a complicated healing process.

Complicated, because survivors often try to blame themselves for the abuse inflicted upon them, which is not conductive to recovery.

“I can speak for all women when I say that we go through something traumatic … you’re lost, you’re scared, and you think ‘what did I do?’” she told BusinessWest. “That’s one of the questions that each and every one of us asks ourselves. We have to realize that it’s not us.

“The YWCA gives you tools so you can understand that domestic violence isn’t just physical,” she went on. “It’s mental, it’s emotional, and those two are really hard to heal from; the bruises, they fade, but the emotional and verbal abuse really tears you down a lot.”

Courses of Action

One program that is gaining traction — and results that may be difficult to quantify but certainly can be qualified — is the counseling service for children who witness violence, said Dineen, adding that it is designed for children ages 3 to 18 and provides tools to help those who have experienced violence firsthand, or witnessed it, to cope.

They attend nine to 12 sessions, at which they are encouraged to identify their emotions and learn how to talk about what’s bothering them rather than resort to their fists or cruel words to vent frustration.

“They talk about their feelings, and they talk about what makes a healthy relationship,” she noted, with the goal that such experiences won’t be repeated and won’t become generational, as so often happens.

And, as noted, while she doesn’t have any statistical evidence with which to show progress, she has anecdotal evidence.

“When I see kids come into our shelter and I meet and talk with them, I can see how aggressive some of them, and especially the boys, are,” she explained. “And I see how they talk to their siblings, especially their female siblings, and their mother. They can be very disrespectful and bossy; they’re repeating what they saw.

“And as I see kids go through the Children Who Witness Violence program, I can see a sea change in terms of how they interact with their moms and other females in authority,” she went on. “The moms will say, ‘thank God my child had an opportunity to participate in this.’”

As for the YouthBuild and GED workforce-development programs, they are helping young people like Alvarez get a second, or third or fourth, chance at not only finishing school, but developing self-esteem and perhaps finding a career.

The program has existed for several years, said Dineen, but recently it was retooled (a new director was hired) and expanded to include not only a construction track, but one in healthcare as well, a path more attractive to most of the young women who participate.

“They have a week on campus here where they’re taking academic classes, everything they need to pass their GED,” she explained. “And the other week they’re either doing construction — we’re partnering with Habitat for Humanity — or they’re going to Baystate Health and learning to become a certified nurses’ assistant or a phlebotomist.”

The program is starting to generate results, she said, and it is becoming a last/best option for students who have not enjoyed success in a traditional setting. And, like all the other initiatives at the YWCA, it’s focused on giving people the tools they need to succeed after they leave the agency’s programs behind them.

With YouthBuild and each of the other programs, there are measures of success, some more obvious than others, said Dineen.

“I measure success when my hotline is ringing off the hook — that shows people are using it,” she noted. “I measure success when people stay in our shelter, get the services they need, and then leave — and when they leave, they leave having a job, having safe housing, and having been through counseling so they can understand their own self-worth so they don’t need to get involved with a jerk.

“When I look at YouthBuild, I measure success by how many kids get their GED, by how many kids get a job, by kids getting certified in construction or to be a CNA,” she went on. “And I measure success when people have the courage to pursue prosecution and hold someone accountable for what they’ve done. And in all those areas, we’re seeing progress.”

Seeing the Light

Alvarez and other participants in the YouthBuild program recently traveled to the State House. There, they met with members of the Western Mass. delegation and got some impromptu civics lessons. But this wasn’t just a learning experience.

Indeed, while there, the students were also advocating for the YWCA and programs like YouthBuild, an assignment Alvarez undertook with considerable enthusiasm, telling legislators the same thing he told BusinessWest — that YWCA programs can provide light to someone who has been experiencing dark times and needs an opportunity to heal.

It’s been doing this for 150 years now, and that’s truly worth celebrating.

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