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Community Spotlight

renovated chapel

An architect’s rendering of the renovated chapel at Wilbraham & Monson Academy, what students are calling the ‘Harry Potter dining hall.’

The students have started calling it the “Harry Potter dining hall,” and with good reason.

That’s the look that will be created by an ambitious initiative to transform the ornate but very much underused chapel at Wilbraham & Monson Academy (WMA) into a next-generation dining commons.

The undertaking, the second phase of a much larger strategic initiative that comes with an $18 million price tag, will enable the school to make far better use of not only the chapel, but the current dining hall, which will be converted into an auditorium and event space.

“This is going to be stunning,” Head of School Brian Easler said. “Because the music department is under the current dining hall, it will be a much more efficient use of space. Right now, we use the chapel once a week for 20 minutes for school meeting; other than that, it stays vacant, which is a shame because it’s the most beautiful building on the campus. So we’ll use the most beautiful building as the heart of the school.”

Perhaps the best part about all this, Easler said, is that the idea for converting the chapel into a dining hall came from a student, who was looking at a 3D scale model of the campus created by the architectural firm handing the project and put forth a powerful ‘what if?’ (more on that later).

Transformation of the chapel, the timing of which is dependent on fundraising — which is off to a solid start, according to Easler — is not the only landscape-altering development taking shape on or just off Main Street in Wilbraham.

Indeed, there’s also new construction just down the road from WMA, where, on the site of three demolished buildings, a mixed-use facility is taking shape, one that will house a brewery, an Italian restaurant, additional commercial businesses, and seven apartments.

This development, called the Center Village project — on top of other emerging and established success stories across town — is expected to spur new development in what is considered the town, or village, center, although it still doesn’t look much like a center, said Mike Mazzuca, chair of Wilbraham’s resurrected Economic Development Committee.

“We want to look at how we can create a true downtown for Wilbraham,” he said, noting that there is real potential for business to thrive beyond the Boston Road corridor.

Jeff Smith, another member of the committee and co-owner, with his wife, Amy, of one of those Wilbraham-based businesses, New England Promotional Marketing (NEPM), agreed.

“Back in the ’80s, there was a lot more going on in the town center, and it was used more,” he explained, noting, for example, that the post office was there before it was relocated to Boston Road. “Things changed, a couple of the buildings became vacant, and there was less and less activity there. Now that there will be more activity, we believe that will spur more development.”

Mazzuca added that, while one of the committee’s primary goals is to bring new commerce, vibrancy, businesses, and especially people to the town center, its larger mission is to send a message, loud and clear, that Wilbraham is ‘open for business.’

It always has been, he said, but it has also always been a mostly residential community and among the region’s unofficial ‘best places to live.’ It can still be that, he went on, while also building on a somewhat impressive portfolio of businesses — most of them small, most of them retail or service in nature, and most of them on Boston Road.

As it goes about its work, the Economic Development Committee will promote all that Wilbraham has to offer, said both Mazzuca and Smith, adding that there are many amenities on that list, starting with a single tax rate and continuing with available tax-increment financing; a vibrant business corridor (Boston Road) that boasts traffic counts of 12,000 cars a day; proximity to Springfield, Ludlow, Hampden, Palmer, and Monson; a diverse existing business base; high-speed internet; and more.

“We want to help out and be a liaison between the municipality, the permitting authorities, and the actual businesses, with the ultimate goal of getting that message across that we are open for business.”

Smith said the committee is working to parlay these assets and the current momentum in the town on Main Street, Boston Road, and beyond into new business opportunities.

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Wilbraham and all that goes into that phrase ‘open for business.’


Food for Thought

As he recounted that now-famous session where students and the architects were discussing what should come next — and where — on WMA’s campus, Easler could hardly contain his sense of pride in the fact that one of his students had masterminded what will be the signature component of the largest building initiative at this private school in anyone’s memory.

“The architect was leading them through a brainstorming exercise, focusing on three primary questions: what do we need? Where should it go? And what should happen first?” he recalled. “We were at that part where he was asking them where things should go, and the specific question was ‘is the dining hall in the right place?’

“The kids were chatting and moving blocks around, when one of the boys said, ‘what if we made the chapel into a dining hall?’” Easler continued. “There was a nervous chuckle around the table for about five seconds, and then there was a 10-second pause where you could see the wheels turning in everyone’s head. And then there was just this ‘a-ha’ moment where everyone went, ‘that is an awesome idea.’”

And an idea that will become reality … soon, when enough money is raised to commence construction, said Easler, noting that fundraising, which involves almost exclusively alumni of the school, is progressing well, but there is a good amount still to be raised.

mixed-use facility taking shape on Main Street in Wilbraham

The mixed-use facility taking shape on Main Street in Wilbraham is expected to spur new development in the town center.

As noted earlier, renovation of the chapel is just part of a much larger undertaking designed to enable WMA to make better, more effective use of existing facilities, said Easler, noting that the chapel itself has served the school as a meeting place, and there simply haven’t been many meetings there.

The project also calls for the existing dining commons, on the other side of Main Street from the chapel and most classroom facilities, to be converted into an auditorium with stadium seating, with the existing kitchen to be used for back-of-house functions for that facility.

“This will have a really remarkable impact on the campus, and the town, actually — it will reduce pedestrian traffic on Main Street by about 70%,” Easler told BusinessWest, noting that dining facilities will now be on the same side of the street as classes, dramatically reducing the number of times students will have to cross the street each day.

Beyond that, it will give the arts program a functioning theater (the current dining hall), a dramatic improvement over existing ‘black box’ facilities, and the students will have the ‘Harry Potter dining hall.’

Wilbraham at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1763
Population: 14,613
Area: 22.4 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $18.70
Commercial Tax Rate: $18.70
Median Household Income: $65,014
Median Family Income: $73,825
Type of government: Board of Selectmen, Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Baystate Wing Wilbraham Medical Center; Friendly Ice Cream Corp.; Big Y; Home Depot; Wilbraham & Monson Academy
*Latest information available

And the school, which is currently at full enrollment, will be in an even better position to recruit young people to the campus, he said.

“Boarding school, and private school in general, is about the experience,” Easler said. “We have top-notch education, rigorous and supportive programs, lots of things people can do outside of academics … but a big reason people choose to invest in us is because it’s an experience they can’t get in a public school or a day school. And a big part of experience is having facilities like these to support it — like that dining room.”


Progress Report

There has been considerable momentum at WMA generated by several projects in recent years, including the building of a new athenaeum and conversion of the basement of the science building into a 5,000-square-foot innovation lab, and these advances constitute just some of the positive developments on Main Street and beyond in this community of around 14,600.

Michelle Buck, Wilbraham’s Planning and Community Development director, cited several signs of growth and progress across town.

That list includes several new developments on Boston Road, including a new Starbucks now under construction in front of Home Depot, once the site of a bank branch that was demolished; parking-lot expansion of the Lia Toyota dealership; a new Golden Nozzle car wash; a new fitness center called Cycle & Praise; and an outdoor dining facility for Route 20 Bar & Grille, as well as a large solar farm soon to be under construction on Three Rivers Road.

But the most visible — and most impactful — development, she said, is the emerging home for Scantic River Brewery, the ‘new’ Parfumi’s Pizza (the current version is right next door), seven apartments, and, hopefully, other small businesses. Center Village is an important development for the community, said all those we spoke with, not only because of what is planned for the site, but because of how it might make the town’s center more of a destination and spur additional development.

“It’s an exciting project that could bring more people to Main Street,” Buck said, adding that, while town leaders want to cluster most commercial activity on Boston Road, there is certainly opportunity for development in other areas of town.

Mazzuca agreed, and said bringing new businesses to Wilbraham is overarching mission of what would be called the ‘new’ Economic Development Committee, which has been working on a number of fronts simultaneously.

One has been bringing some of the businesses displaced by the closing and demolition of the nearby Eastfield Mall to the town. The committee helped secure Boston Road addresses for two of them — Mall Barbers and School of Fish — through the use of ARPA funds to help with relocation expenses.

The other major front has been ongoing work to bring more businesses and vibrancy to the downtown area, which, as Smith noted, was more of a destination 30 or 40 years ago, and can be again through developments like the Center Village project and others that might come to the drawing board because of it.

The broad goal, he said, is to create a walkable downtown and an attractive mix of businesses that will effectively serve those living in Wilbraham and surrounding communities.

“Looking north and south on Main Street, we have a farmers’ market now at the church once a week, and some activity at WMA,” he said. “So we want to look at the whole picture of the way vehicles and pedestrians interface, and revamp that. The first concern would be safety, and the second would be convenience — and it’s convenience that attracts people. There’s a snowball effect.”
He said similar efforts to revitalize town centers and downtowns are taking place in communities across the country, and those on the committee are looking at what communities of similar size and demographics are undertaking to do some benchmarking and adopt best practices.

“The ultimate goal of the Economic Development Committee is to be a liaison for businesses locating in Wilbraham,” Smith explained. “We want to help out and be a liaison between the municipality, the permitting authorities, and the actual businesses, with the ultimate goal of getting that message across that we are open for business.”



Strengthening the Lines of Defense

Peter Sherlock says the numbers certainly help tell the story.

There are roughly 26,000 employed in Massachusetts today in what would be called the cybersecurity sector. And there were, at the precise moment we talked with him, exactly 18,263 openings in that realm, a number that goes up seemingly every day.

That means this sector has about two-thirds the number of qualified individuals it needs, said Sherlock, adding that the dire need to close that gap was one of the motivations behind the creation of CyberTrust Massachusetts, which he now serves as CEO.

Another motivation was to make the state’s businesses, institutions, and municipalities more cyber-secure at a time when the number of victims of cyber and ransomware attacks — like the number of job openings in this sector — keeps going up.

Peter Sherlock

Peter Sherlock

“As we put these students into these SOCs, they’re going to be working under the supervision of cyber professionals. We’re going to put them to work making cities and towns more cybersecure.”

How CyberTrust is going about these assignments, which overlap in many different ways, as we’ll see, will be among the focal points of Sherlock’s presentation at the 11th annual Cybersecurity Summit at Bay Path University, set for Friday, Oct. 13 at the Mills Theatre in Carr Hall on the school’s Longmeadow campus.

Registration for the event, which has been drawing steadily larger audiences because of the importance of the subject matter, is required. Individuals can register at baypath.edu/summit, and attend either in-person or remotely.

The working title for the program is “Who’s Next? How a Stronger Cyber Ecosystem is the First Line of Defense.” And Sherlock told BusinessWest that there are many elements that comprise this ecosystem, including the business sector, government, and education (the state’s colleges and universities, and even its high schools and middle schools). Together, they work on those twin assignments of building the workforce and making entities more cyber-secure.

At the forefront of these efforts is CyberTrust Massachusetts, a nonprofit committed to building both opportunity and security through a consortium of statewide businesses and colleges.

“CyberTrust arose out of a long-running dialogue among business and academic leaders, with some folks in government; these were discussions centered around workforce,” he said, adding that he understands first-hand the challenges of hiring — and retaining — within this sector.

Indeed, he previously served as chief operating officer of MITRE, as well as senior vice president responsible for MITRE’s defense and intelligence business.

“In my roles there, I had to worry about our annual hiring programs; trying to hire 1,000 STEM professionals every year was quite a challenge, as was retaining them,” he explained. “I would talk a lot with other executives in the Massachusetts area about the challenges of growing the pipelines in some of these technologies to keep up with the demand.

“And as the pandemic disrupted the workforce a bit more, those problems have become even more urgent,” he went on, adding that this urgency helped bring business and education together in the CyberTrust Massachusetts consortium to “move the needle,” as Sherlock put it, on not only these workforce issues, but the growing threat — in the form of cyber and ransomware attacks — to businesses of all sizes, nonprofits, institutions, and municipalities.

In his presentation at the Cybersecurity Summit, which will followed by what is expected to be a robust question-and-answer period, Sherlock said he will address a number of issues and initiatives, including the workforce challenges, efforts to activate new pathways for the talent pipeline in order to both grow and diversify and workforce, and cybersecurity approaches for municipalities across the Commonwealth.

While doing so, he will discuss how these problems intersect, and also about efforts to address them jointly, such as the security operation center, or SOC (pronounced ‘sock’ by those within this sector) that is taking shape at Springfield’s Union Station. This SOC, to be established by Springfield Technical Community College, will provide threat monitoring and other cybersecurity services for the state’s municipalities, small businesses, and nonprofits, while also creating learning opportunities for those in or seeking to join this sector at a ‘cyber range,’ a new testing lab that will mirror real-world IT environments to provide hands-on training opportunities to local companies, universities, and other cyber-focused organizations.

“We need to introduce new people to the cyber career field, whether it’s recruiting them from high school or getting adult career changers, and making non-cyber majors credentialed in cyber.”

“While focusing on workforce, we decided we could be serving another purpose at the same time,” he explained. “As we’re training our cyber learners with hands-on experiences, we could actually put them to work securing cities and towns, nonprofits, and small businesses. We put together this rather ambitious plan to set up security operations centers at a number of universities across the Commonwealth and to infuse new cyber-range technology into these colleges and universities and enlist cyber employers from across the state into this activity.

“As we put these students into these SOCs, they’re going to be working under the supervision of cyber professionals,” he went on. “We’re going to put them to work making cities and towns more cybersecure.”

Overall, Sherlock said the workforce issue requires creative, outside-the-box thinking and efforts to encourage individuals to consider this field while they are still in high school or even middle school.

“We need to introduce new people to the cyber career field, whether it’s recruiting them from high school or getting adult career changers, and making non-cyber majors credentialed in cyber,” he said. “There are a lot of different ways to get people into the field that we weren’t working at too much.”

Sherlock said he would go into much more detail at the summit, which grew out of the growing importance of cybersecurity in today’s society, the emergence of that sector, and the need to keep businesses and the community at large informed when it comes to new trends, new initiatives — and new threats, said Tom Loper, associate provost and dean in the School of Management and Technology at Bay Path.

Loper said he hopes, and expects, this year’s summit to be well-attended because of its focus on businesses and municipalities, the efforts to keep them safe from cyberattacks, and the role that they play within the emerging cyber ecosystem.


Cover Story Education

Change of Course

STCC students Sarai Andrades, left, and Destiny Santos

Sarai Andrades is a second-year student at Springfield Technical Community College (STCC). She’s enrolled in the health sciences program, with the goal of starting work toward a nursing degree in 2024. Her ultimate ambition is to become a travel nurse.

To pay for her first year at STCC, she had to take on $5,000 in loans because she and her husband were earning too much to qualify for financial aid. But this year, she’s going for free, essentially, because of the MassReconnect program, which enables individuals 25 and over (she’s 49) to attend one of the state’s 15 community colleges without the burden of having to pay tuition — or even for books.

For Andrades, relief from the burden of debt is, in a word, “huge.”

Indeed, she eventually decided to resign from her job so she could attend school full-time, and the debt she took on for that first year was certainly burdensome.

“Not to take out a loan, not to be in debt when there’s only one income in my family, is a big relief for us,” she said. “Before, there was worry — this is a two-year program, and to become a full-time college student with only my husband working was going to be tough. I’m ecstatic that they’re doing this for us.”

With that, she spoke for hundreds of others in similar situations — and for administrators at the area’s community colleges, who have seen dramatic, and much-needed, increases in enrollment and vibrancy on their campuses this fall, and can attribute those increases, at least in part, to the MassReconnect program.

Jim Cook

John Cook

“When you reduce this cost barrier all the way, people can now find the time and space in their lives to actually imagine themselves back here.”

“When you reduce this cost barrier all the way, people can now find the time and space in their lives to actually imagine themselves back here,” said John Cook, president of STCC, noting that the school has seen its first increase in year-over-year enrollment in more than a decade. “People really do want to make a difference for themselves and their families, and this is that thing that has really grabbed their attention and carved that space back out in their lives.”

Tim Sweeney is back on the campus at Greenfield Community College roughly 20 years after he left school to start working.

Tim Sweeney is back on the campus at Greenfield Community College roughly 20 years after he left school to start working.

MassReconnect is a program created through legislation passed earlier this year, modeled on similar, and thus far successful, initiatives in other states, including Michigan and Tennessee.

For many individuals, the burden of tuition expenses and debt has kept them from attending school or forced them to the sidelines before they could complete a degree or certificate program, said Mark Hudgik, interim dean of Recruitment, Admissions, and Financial Aid at Holyoke Community College.

“We’re definitely seeing an increase in adult students applying and enrolling who had no college before, and we think that’s a direct impact of MassReconnect,” he said. “We also see a fair number who are coming back after a break.”

Linda Desjardins, director of Student Financial Services at Greenfield Community College, agreed.

“For some, coming up with a few thousand dollars for tuition and fees, plus another couple hundred for books, was making it difficult just to get here and get through the door,” she said. “This has just really opened up a new world for these students and new opportunities, which is great for the college and great for our student body because now we all have these diverse and enriching experiences coming into the classroom and on campus.

“And to see the amount of stress that just melts away from a student who was really worried about the cost — they’re thinking, ‘I know I want to come, I’m driven to do this, I want to change my life, but I’m going to have to give up groceries to pay for my books’ — it’s really encouraging,” she went on. “Now they don’t have to do that; they can concentrate on the work at hand in the classroom.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest takes an early look at MassReconnect and the many ways it is changing the paradigm at area community colleges. Spoiler alert: you’ll read ‘it’s huge’ more than a few times.


Class Act

Tim Sweeney is back at Greenfield Community College, roughly two decades after he spent parts of five years there going to school — sometimes full-time but mostly part-time — in pursuit of an associate degree in liberal arts.

“I almost finished up, but was at a point in my life where I needed to support myself financially and concentrate less on school,” the 44-year-old told BusinessWest. “I never had the inspiration or motivation to go back.”

Mark Hudgik

Mark Hudgik

“We’re definitely seeing an increase in adult students applying and enrolling who had no college before, and we think that’s a direct impact of MassReconnect. We also see a fair number who are coming back after a break.”

But through MassReconnect, he found that motivation, and he’s back on campus, taking the three courses he needs to complete that degree: “Gothic Literature,” “Interpersonal Communications,” and “American History, 1985 to the Present.”

His plan is … well, to graduate and then transfer to UMass Amherst to pursue a four-year degree. Beyond that, he doesn’t know … yet.

“I don’t have a particular direction yet,” he said, adding simply, “just forward — finally.”

Moving lives and careers forward is the basic motivation behind MassReconnect, which is designed to help people like Sweeney who had to put college aside, or who never got started in the first place, for any of several reasons, but often the cost of tuition — or even the cost of a semester or year’s worth of books.

For others, it is the apprehension of taking on debt, especially at a time in their lives when they have many other responsibilities — housing, children, and more — that keep them from taking an important step that might help them trade a job for a career.

But MassReconnect is about more than helping individuals and families cope with the cost of a community-college education, Cook said. It’s also about putting more individuals in a position where they can relieve some of the stern challenges facing employers in every sector of the economy when it comes to finding qualified talent.

And for community colleges, the program comes at a time when they are facing stern enrollment challenges that began before COVID and were exacerbated by the pandemic, to the point where, as Cook said, the schools had essentially reached bottom and “there was no place to go but up.”

It’s only been a few weeks since the start of the fall semester and the introduction of MassReconnect, but already there are signs that it is making an impact, though it will certainly take longer, at least a few years, before its influence on the workforce crisis is known.

For individuals of various ages and in various life situations, MassReconnect represents a chance to continue in school, or go back to the classroom, but without the financial burden. As DeJardins noted, the reduced stress is palpable, and is enabling individuals to focus all — or at least more — of their energy on what’s happening in the classroom.

That’s certainly the case for Destiny Santos, another student at STCC, now in her third semester, who has designs on being a nurse.

Solymar Fraticelli, left, and her mother, Nicole Rodriguez

Solymar Fraticelli, left, and her mother, Nicole Rodriguez, are both attending HCC, while Fraticelli’s daughter is attending daycare there.

“What MassReconnect has done for me is allow me to go into this semester without the financial burden,” she explained. “And now that I’m 26, I have more things to care of; this program has allowed me to go to school knowing that everything will be OK, and I’ll be able to succeed without the burden of paying a school bill.”

Similar tones were struck by Nicole Rodriguez, 43, a second-year student at HCC who wants to advance within the human-services field, and her daughter, Solymar Fraticelli, 27, who returned to the school this fall after a lengthy hiatus.

Without MassReconnect, Rodriguez said, she would be facing a bill of more than $7,000 for tuition, fees, books, and more. And the thought of taking on debt to cover that bill is intimidating.

“That’s a lot for me, and it would likely limit me as I look to further my education,” she told BusinessWest, adding that MassReconnect has enabled her to continue without the burden of debt and, in so doing, helped inspire her daughter and other adults — her sister-in-law and best friend among them — to return to school or get started.

It’s been nearly eight years since Fraticelli first took classes at HCC — she attended for roughly a semester and a half before having to put her education aside — and she now has a daughter as well. The time gap and her parental responsibilities were just two of the factors to weigh as she considered the risks and rewards of attending community college and pursue a career in the healthcare field.

MassReconnect made it that much easier to meet those challenges head-on.

“I thought it was a great opportunity to go back to school,” she said, adding that her daughter attends daycare around the corner from the campus. “It’s free, or almost free, and that makes it that much easier to go back.”

For Sweeney, who has been unemployed for more than a year now, going back to school seemed like a more fruitful course than trying to test the current job market.

“I wanted to advance myself educationally in order to advance myself in my career,” he said, adding that being able to do so without having to pay for those three courses listed above certainly factored into his decision.


Degrees of Change

Meanwhile, the college administrators we spoke with said MassReconnect is at least partially responsible for a surge in enrollment they’re seeing this fall.

Cook said current enrollment at STCC has risen to 4,500, up from 4,000 a year ago. That number is still a long way from the 5,000 recorded in the fall of 2019, the last September before COVID, and a long, long way from the high-water mark of 7,000 notched in 2012, just a few years after the Great Recession.

But it is an important step in the right direction.

“For the first time in a decade, we’ve had a meaningful increase in enrollment,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re up 13% to 14%, and there are a number of factors involved with that, including MassReconnect.”

Desjardins agreed. She said the overall student headcount is up by 8.6% over last fall, a significant boost for GCC, one of the smallest community colleges in the state.

At HCC, enrollment had declined close to 30% during COVID, Hudgik said, adding that this fall, the school has seen its first increase year-over-year since 2010, with a 5.5% increase in total students and a 14% climb in new students, numbers that can be attributed at least in part to MassReconnect.

Beyond these soaring enrollment numbers, though, college administrators are buoyed by the stories behind the numbers — individuals who are returning to community colleges, or finding them for the first time years, and in some cases decades, after they graduated from high school.

And they’re attending school without having to borrow money, which removes a financial burden that weighs on individuals while they’re working toward a degree or certificate program.

Desjardins noted that the amount of grant aid Massachusetts residents is receiving has increased by 32% at GCC over last year, which represents more than $243,000. Meanwhile, the amount borrowed has dropped by 35%, or $123,000.

“Applications for federal financial aid have gone up by 16%,” she noted. “It could be for various reasons, but with all the attention that MassReconnect is getting — and the word is spreading — it’s safe to assume that MassReconnect is a good generator of that increase in financial-aid application.”

Like others, she is encouraged by the manner in which the program has enabled many who were not eligible for financial aid because they exceeded wage limitations to now attend community college without the burden of paying for it directly or taking out loans to be paid back over several years.

“The thing that’s most remarkable to me, in my position, is how low- to middle-income wage earners who have been left out of receiving free dollars for college, like grants and scholarship dollars, are now eligible to get this money to attend college,” Desjardins said. “If you were someone who was 25, single, with no children, and you made a little over $30,000 … before MassReconnect, you may have been eligible for just a few hundred dollars for the entire school year; now, you’re eligible for enough free money to pay for your tuition and fees, plus give you something toward the cost of books and course materials. That’s huge. Someone who is a low- to middle-wage earner is struggling already to pay their rent, their mortgage, childcare, groceries, gas, and more.”

Hudgik agreed. “Loans are scary,” he said. “MassReconnect allows them to not have to worry about the income threshold; they know the Commonwealth will support them and minimize the amount of loan they have to take out, and bring it to zero if they want.”

And while community college is essentially free for these individuals, the administrators we spoke with said this hasn’t diminished the value of the education their schools provide or lessened the degree of grit and determination behind the decisions to go back to school or attend for the first time.

“What we know to be true about our adult students is that, when they make the decision to come, it is usually with a lot of thought behind it,” Hudgik said. “It’s a fairly big risk for someone who has been out of school for a while to try to restart their school-going mentality. If they’ve decided to come, they’ve usually been pretty serious about it.”


Bottom Line

When asked what it was like to be back on the GCC campus 20 years after he last attended a class there, Sweeney said it was strange on some levels, and there was a period of adjustment, but, overall, he’s comfortable — with both his decision and with being back at school.

“I feel like I’m a different person than I was,” he said, adding that he realizes the importance of a college degree to advancing himself professionally, and just needed some motivation to take this big step.

This is what MassReconnect is all about, and while it will take some time to effectively quantify its impact on many different levels, at the moment, to those surveying the scene, it is a qualified success.

Features Special Coverage

Fried and True

Peter Picknelly, left, and Edison Yee

Peter Picknelly, left, and Edison Yee, two of the many partners involved with the White Hut location in Holyoke.

When asked about where they might take the White Hut brand — and when, both Edison Yee and Peter Picknelly took long pauses and then looked at each other as if to say, ‘you first.’

They did so to indicate a few things — first, that they’ve obviously been thinking long and hard about that question, and second … they don’t really know the answer yet.

What they do know is that they will bring the concept beyond Memorial Avenue in West Springfield, the location that was rescued in 2020 by Picknelly, chairman of Peter Pan Bus Lines; Andy Yee, Edison’s brother; and others within the Bean Restaurant Group after founding owners the Barkett family announced it would close. And also beyond 825 Hampden St. in Holyoke, the location — a renovated former PeoplesBank branch — that opened last month.

“Our goal is to build a microbrand from this White Hut concept,” he said, using that term to describe brands with up to 10 locations, adding that locations are being scouted in Westfield and other communities, and if all goes well in Holyoke, there could easily be another location within a year.

Picknelly concurred. “We believe the White Hut is a brand that’s scalable; we’ve had overwhelming success in West Springfield — our customer count continues to grow there — and we think Holyoke is a great location,” he said. “This a solid brand, and we want to expand it out strategically.”

But both said that, at the moment, they and several co-owners in the Paper City venture, including Holyoke natives Jack Ferriter and Mark Cutting, are hard-focused on that location, the success of which might go a long way toward determining where and when this iconic (yes, that word fits here) brand and its red-and-white color scheme might next be seen.

Nathan Yee, director of Hospitality for the Bean Restaurant Group and part of the proverbial next generation of leadership at the company, believes it will do quite well.

“Our goal is to build a microbrand from this White Hut concept.”

Those involved spent considerable time scouting locations, he said, and eventually zeroed in on the Hampden Street location, which lies on a well-traveled road just a few hundred yards from an I-91 exit.

Beyond location, this site offers … well, everything that has made the White Hut brand iconic — its famous hamburgers, hot dogs, fried onions, shakes, and more — as well as new additions, including a salute to Holyoke: a breakfast sandwich called the Paper City Special, containing a scrambled egg with sausage, hash brown, American cheese, and fried onions on a Venetian water roll.

There are other new wrinkles as well, including a self-ordering kiosk for those who prefer that option, as well as a pickup option by which employees bring the customer’s order directly to their car.

Nick Yee cuts a ceremonial ribbon

Nick Yee cuts a ceremonial ribbon of hot dogs at the grand opening of the Holyoke White Hut last month.

In short, the ownership group is taking a brand that has a storied past and a rich history and bringing it into the future — changing what should be changed, and not changing anything that shouldn’t be changed, like those fried onions.

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the institution that is the White Hut, the long-planned move into Holyoke, and those still-evolving plans to bring the brand elsewhere within the 413 — and likely beyond.


Relishing the Possibilities

As he talked with BusinessWest in mid-September, Edison Yee had a lot on his plate — and yes, that’s an industry term, sort of.

The Big E was going to start in a few days, and Yee and many others at the Bean Restaurant Group had considerable prep work to do get ready; the group has several locations at the fair, including the White Hut, the Wurst House, and a new addition to the portfolio, a ‘Harpoon Beer hut.’

“We sell a lot of food and lot of beer,” he said, adding that the company probably has 100 or more seasonal employees working at the fair, which has been an ever-increasing part of the business plan for the group since it first started taking part eight years ago.

Meanwhile, Oktoberfest, a huge, nearly month-long celebration at the Student Prince, is coming up fast (Oct. 8 is the official start date), and Yee was deep into the planning stages for that annual happening. And then, there’s ongoing planning and the start of work at the restaurant that will become a linchpin of the redevelopment of the Court Square Hotel on Elm Street in Springfield, another collaboration between Picknelly and the Bean Group.

But on this day, and the days before, the main focus was on the Holyoke White Hut location and making sure everything was in order for the grand opening coming up the next morning. This was an event that was maybe two years in the making, said Yee and Picknelly, noting that, not long after the West Springfield location had been saved and was successfully navigating its way through COVID, talk began to turn to where this iconic brand might go next.

And it wasn’t long at all before the focus turned to the Paper City.

But before we explore this move to Holyoke, we need some background, and some perspective on both the brand and the location in West Springfield, which, to many, has achieved landmark status, figuratively if not literally.

Our story begins in 1939, when Edward Barkett opened a small restaurant on Memorial Avenue and decided to call it the White Hut because that was the principal color.

Suceeding generations of the Barkett family owned and operated the restaurant and eventually took the brand beyond West Springfield — to Amherst, in a venture that met with only limited success, in part, Picknelly believes, because the location was not highly visible.

And while the brand is famous for the loyalty exhibited by its regulars, location and visibility are keys to the success of any restaurant, he went on.

Fast-forwarding a little, E.J. Barkett (Edward’s grandson) announced rather abruptly in 2020 that White Hut would close its doors. Picknelly and Andy Yee, both to be counted as Hut regulars, as well as serial entrepreneurs and part of the group that rescued the Student Prince restaurant in 2015 when its closure seemed imminent, stepped into the breach and saved the White Hut.

And they did so under extreme circumstances. Indeed, that rescue came at the height of COVID, when that restaurant, like all others, had to find ways to do business while also keeping people safe. It already had effective takeout service, said Picknelly, adding that this quality was one of many that enabled it to persevere during those trying times.

Another quality, obviously, was the food itself, he said, adding that another ingredient in the recipe for success was simply not to change much of anything that had made the Hut such a fan favorite.

Such diligence has been rewarded with rankings on a number of ‘best burger’ lists. In 2021, for example, White Hut’s cheeseburger with grilled onions was named the best burger in Massachusetts by Thrillist, and it has been ranked among the best burgers in the country. The Hut was profiled in USA Today in 2019, which said everything about the brand is “frozen in time,” and it’s been included by the Wall Street Journal in its “Essential Guide to America’s Best Burgers.”

That success begs the obvious question — where can this brand go? That query refers to everything from geography to the size of what would have to be called an emerging chain.


A Side of Entrepreneurship

The answer to that question begins in the Paper City and the opening of the Hampden Street location, which provides evidence that everything is no longer entirely frozen in time, as we’ll see.

“Holyoke has been on the radar for our group for a long time now,” Edison Yee said, adding that several potential sites were considered before the Hampden Street location, one strongly favored by his brother, Nick Yee, the group’s principal managing partner, became the focus of attention.

the latest White Hut location in Holyoke

From left, Bryan Graham (culinary director and partner), Nick Yee, Peter Picknelly, Edison Yee, and Nate Yee stand in front of the latest White Hut location in Holyoke.

“The traffic counts are great,” he said. “And, growing up in South Hadley, we knew that this was the main street to get onto I-91; you have all the traffic that comes from South Hadley, Granby, parts of Chicopee, and, of course, Holyoke, that are filtering through this road.”

Picknelly agreed, and noted that the traffic count is actually higher on Hampden Street than it is on Memorial Avenue in West Springfield.

Beyond steady traffic, the location provides more convenience to those who travel down I-91, Route 5, or other roads to get to the West Springfield location (and there are many in that category) while also introducing the brand to new audiences.

“We think Holyoke is a great location,” Picknelly said. “Our brand is still strong here, yet it’s far enough away that we won’t be competing against ourselves, and our customers from Holyoke, Northampton, and Granby won’t have to travel as far — that’s the essence of it.”

And while the location is expected to draw people from several area communities and, its owners presume, travelers on I-91, it is a neighborhood restaurant, one that will in some respects replace another iconic eatery, Mel’s Restaurant, which closed recently, just a few hundred feet away.

The location will offer the same menu as the one in West Springfield — and essentially the same food the Hut has offered since 1939 — but with some of those new amenities, such as the self-ordering kiosk, said Nathan Yee, which will bring another layer of convenience to customers.

“With each unit, we’ve identified some of the operational areas that we can improve on, and that’s what we’ve done with this location,” he said. “We’ve added a few new features to make it more customer-friendly.”

Renovation of the former bank branch took more than a year, he noted, and an investment, beyond the purchase of the property, of more than $1 million.

And this may the first of several initiatives to bring the White Hut brand to different cities, towns, and markets, said Picknelly and Edison Yee, noting, again, that Holyoke will be a barometer of sorts for how well the brand may ultimately travel.

“Our ultimate goal is to expand the brand,” Yee said. “This is a great test for us, being in Holyoke, and we feel strongly that, if we can get this unit to operate similarly to West Springfield in terms of metrics, we’re eager to look for another spot.”

Picknelly agreed, noting that expansion, either through owner-operated locations, such as those in Holyoke and West Springfield, or perhaps franchising, is likely if not inevitable.

“There are restaurant groups in Connecticut that have contacted us and want to franchise,” he said. “We want to expand this on our own first; we think it’s really scalable — this is our first venture to do that. Once this gets up and running, I think you’ll see the White Hut brand all over the Northeast.”

“Our ultimate goal is to expand the brand. This is a great test for us, being in Holyoke, and we feel strongly that, if we can get this unit to operate similarly to West Springfield in terms of metrics, we’re eager to look for another spot.”

Elaborating, he said could envision scenarios where there are both owner-operated locations and franchises, and there are plenty of successful models of such operations, including national brands such as KFC, Burger King, and others.


Food for Thought

Summing up the current state of this brand, Picknelly said it’s “one that the Barkett family built and the Yee family made better.”

Where can it go beyond West Springfield and Holyoke? Only time will tell, but it’s safe to assume that expansion will continue across Western Mass. and perhaps beyond. A brand that’s been called ‘simple,’ ‘tried and true,’ and, yes, ‘frozen in time’ will continue to be all those things.

But time certainly won’t stand still for the White Hut and its owners.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

A.J. Crane

A.J. Crane acquired the ‘carpentry’ building at Ludlow Mills with the goal of having it redeveloped, with a restaurant being the preferred use.
Staff Photo



As he led BusinessWest on a tour of what’s known as the ‘carpentry building’ at the Ludlow Mills complex, A.J. Crane walked up a deteriorated but still solid set of stairs to the second floor, and then to the row of new windows looking out on the Chicopee River, maybe 150 feet away, the riverwalk in front of it, and a stretch of land before the walk on which a patio could be built.

“Imagine the possibilities,” he said, adding that he certainly has, and that’s why he acquired the property from Westmass Area Development Corp., which purchased the mill in 2011, with the intention of renovating it and then leasing it out, perhaps to a restaurateur — the master plan for the mill complex calls for one at this location — although he doesn’t really know what the market will bear at this point.

What Crane, president of Chicopee-based A. Crane Construction Co. (and a Westmass board member) does know is that nothing can be built that close to the river today. Well, almost nothing; this property is grandfathered, so it can be developed. And that’s a big reason why he took on this risk — the property has been vacant for decades and needs a considerable amount of work for any reuse — and has invested heavily in its renovation.

But there’s another reason as well.

“I just wanted to be a part of this,” he said, waving his hand in a sweeping motion to encompass the sprawling mill in front of him.

‘This’ is the transformation of the mill complex, once home to a jute-manufacturing facility that employed thousands and played a huge role in the town’s development, into, well, a community within a community, one that is already home to residents and businesses of various kinds, and, perhaps someday, in the former carpentry shop, a restaurant.

This transformation is an ongoing process, one that was projected to take 20 years when Westmass acquired the property 12 years ago, and may take another 20 still, said Jeff Daley, president and CEO of Westmass, noting, as Crane did, that the pieces to the puzzle are coming together.

And as Daley and Jeff LeSiege, vice president of Facilities and Construction at Westmass, conducted a walking tour, they pointed to several of these pieces — from the ongoing renovation of the landmark ‘clocktower building’ (Building 8) into 95 apartments to the construction of two new parking lots; from extensive water, sewer, and electrical work to new businesses such as Movement Terrain, which boasts an obstacle course and an Astroturf arena (more on all this later).

Jeff LeSiege, left, and Jeff Daley

Jeff LeSiege, left, and Jeff Daley stop by one of two large parking lots being created at Ludlow Mills.

Then there’s the clocktower itself, which is slated for renovation, said Daley, adding that he’s not sure when the last time the clock — which is on the town seal and the masthead of the local newspaper — worked, but “it’s been a very long time.”

Transformation of the mill, which has been well-chronicled by BusinessWest over the past dozen years, is the story in Ludlow. But not the only story.

Another is a possible charter change making the community a city and changing its form of government from the present Board of Selectmen to one of several options, including a town manager/Town Council format, a mayor/City Council alignment, or perhaps a mayor/manager/council arrangement.

“I do know there is a great shortage of available land and available buildings at this time, and I think we’re going to have some good interest in the property.”

The town has hired the Edward J. Collins Center for Public Management to guide it through this process, said Town Administrator Marc Strange, adding that a charter-review committee will gather in the coming weeks and meet consistently for roughly a year, with a charter to be presented to town-meeting voters in October 2024, with a new form of government possible by the middle of 2025.

Meanwhile, there are some infrastructure projects moving forward, especially an ambitious streetscape-improvement plan for the East Street corridor, which leads into Ludlow Mills.

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Ludlow and its many developing stories.


No Run-of-the-mill Project

Hanging on a wall on the ground floor of Ludlow’s Town Hall is a large aerial photograph of the section of town beside the Chicopee River, circa the 1920s.

Glancing at the image, the enormity of the mill complex — then even larger than it is today — comes clearly into focus, literally and figuratively.

The mills were, the many respects, the heartbeat of the community and an economic force, a supplier of jobs and vibrancy. And over the past several years, they have become that again, with new developments seemingly every year.

The latest, and most visible, of the latest developments is the ongoing renovation of the L-shaped clocktower building, including replacement of the hundreds of large windows that provided needed light for the mill workers.

Town Administrator Marc Strange

Town Administrator Marc Strange says a change of government is needed in Ludlow.

The upper floors will be converted into nearly 100 apartments on the upper floors, with 48,000 square feet of space on the ground floor set aside for commercial development, Daley said, noting that this commercial space, to be built out to suit the needs of tenants, would be appropriate for a number of uses, including as home to support businesses for the growing number of people living in the mill as well as the surrounding area.

The apartments will be available for lease next July, he added, noting that there should be considerable demand for the units given both a regionwide housing crunch and a six-year waiting list for units in nearby Building 10, the first of the mill buildings to be redeveloped into housing.

Other developments at the mills include $2.1 million to replace water and sewer piping to connect to the two dozen old stockhouses on the property, all of which are sporting new roofs, he said, as well as construction of two new, and sorely needed, parking lots.

One of these lots, with 150 spaces, is nearing completion, with landscaping and other finishing touches to be completed, while the other, located across Riverside Drive from the carpentry building and expected to feature another 75 spaces, is in the early stages of construction.

Ludlow at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1774
Population: 21,002
Area: 28.2 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $19.51
Commercial Tax Rate: $19.51
Median Household Income: $53,244
Median Family Income: $67,797
Type of Government: Town Council, Representative Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Hampden County Jail and House of Correction; Encompass Rehabilitation Hospital; Massachusetts Air National Guard; Kleeberg Sheet Metal Inc.
*Latest information available

“These parking facilities are for tenants and visitors alike,” Daley said, adding that parking is a critical need as more of the spaces within the complex are developed.

Meanwhile, work continues on the carpentry building, a 13,200-square-foot brick structure between Riverside Drive and the Chicopee River. Crane told BusinessWest it had probably been on the market for 20 years, and really came onto his radar screen four years ago.

He described it as a solid investment opportunity — albeit one requiring a large investment on his part — but also a chance, as he said, to be part of the larger story of the mill’s transformation into a community, and a destination.

“I couldn’t afford any of the larger buildings, so I bought a smaller building that I thought could be an important part of what we’re doing here,” he said. “It’s exciting to be part of this.”

Every day, he said, dozens of walkers, joggers, and runners on the riverwalk will stop and ask him about the building’s next life. He tells them he’s not sure, but he’s anxious to find out.

Crane said he has replaced the roof and is currently putting new windows in. When that work is completed, he will begin entertaining options to lease the property, with a restaurant certainly among those options.

“I’m open to … whatever,” he told BusinessWest. “I bought the building knowing you could never build that building again so close to the water.”

There are many spaces still to be developed, Daley said, including the massive (500,000 square feet) Mill 11, the largest building on the property, as well as the greenspace at the eastern end of the property given the informal name ‘the back 40’ (acres) and the formal name Millside Commercial Park. A MassWorks grant has been received to build a road and cul-de-sac through that property, and the project recently went to bid.

“That will open that back acreage for development, and we’re excited that this is moving forward as well,” he said, adding that he expects the road to be ready by June of next year.

Officially, there will be roughly 38 acres of land available to sell or lease, he went on, adding that there should be considerable demand.

“I think that, once it gets out on the street to bid, we’re going to get a lot of inquiries,” he said, noting that there will six different lots of varying sizes, including one large lot that can accommodate a 250,000-square-foot building. “I do know there is a great shortage of available land and available buildings at this time, and I think we’re going to have some good interest in the property.”

As for the preferred uses, Daley said manufacturing is at the top of that list due to the job-creation potential, but the market will ultimately determine what happens with that acreage.

“We’re focused on maximizing our downtown area, through development, through infrastructure improvements, through aesthetic improvements — however we can do it.”

“We’re certainly going to work to make sure it’s a good fit, not only to the mills, but to Ludlow,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re not just going to take anyone willing to buy it; it’s got to be a business development that fits the makeup of what we’re trying to accomplish at the mills.”


Progress Report

Strange came to Ludlow as town administrator in the spring of 2022, marking a course change for the former director of Planning and Development for Agawam and selectman in Longmeadow.

He told BusinessWest that he saw the position in Ludlow as an opportunity to take a leadership position in a community and use his various skill sets to effect change in this community of roughly 21,000 people.

“I love municipal government,” he said. “I know it sounds cliché, but it gives you a chance to impact people’s lives every day in a way that you can’t at the state level or the federal level. I just fell in love with that.

“I started thinking about opportunities to become a town manager or town administrator,” he went on, adding that he was a finalist for the same position in East Longmeadow when he was chosen as a finalist in Ludlow, and ultimately chose the latter.

“Ludow is a great fit for my personality and a great opportunity for growth, both for me and the town,” he went on, acknowledging that these are certainly intriguing times for the community, especially when it comes to a potential, and likely, change in the charter, something he believes is necessary, as well as the Ludlow Mills project and the many developments there.

“A change in government is much needed,” he said. “We’re no longer a town; we’re a 21,000-person city.”

And a growing one, he noted, adding that the mill project will continue to bring more new businesses and residents to the city, and vibrancy to that section in particular.

With that in mind, the town is blueprinting extensive infrastructure improvements to the East Street corridor, from the mills to Ludlow Country Club, Strange noted, and expanding its District Improvement Financing area, which is currently just the footprint of the mills, to East Street.

Conceptual plans are being prepared for the East Street area, he said, noting that one calls for a “modern, loud-colored concept,” one has a “more urban feel,” while another has more green infrastructure, with planters and a “more earthy feel.”

The various options will be presented to the Board of Selectmen, who will make the final decision, he said.

Overall, Ludlow is largely built out, with the notable exception of the mill complex, Strange said, adding that, moving forward, considerable energy is focused on improving what would be considered the downtown area — that section just over the Route 21 bridge connecting Ludlow with Indian Orchard — so it may better serve the growing number of residents in that area, and also perhaps serve as a destination.

“We’re focused on maximizing our downtown area, through development, through infrastructure improvements, through aesthetic improvements — however we can do it,” he said. “We do have a budding, or increasing, population of residents down at the mills; they have their condos and the riverwalk, but what kind of other amenities can we provide for them? That’s our focus and our goal right now.”


Bottom Line

As Daley noted, the clock in the famed tower hasn’t worked in a very long time.

Getting those hands to move again is one of many intriguing developments in this community, one, in many respects, whose time has come.


Courses of Action


This is the third article in a monthly series examining how area colleges and universities are partnering with local businesses, workforce-development bodies, and other organizations to address professional-development needs in the region. One college will be featured each month.

Jeff Hayden

Jeff Hayden says professional-development initiatives have become an important part of the mission at HCC.

Communication. Teamwork. Networking. Listening.

Jeff Hayden acknowledged that, to many, these sound like buzzwords in discussions about the workplace and how to succeed within it — or about how companies can become more productive and achieve continuous improvement.

But in reality, these are just some the skills that individuals must possess if they want to thrive in their chosen career and move up the ladder within it. And they are the qualities that businesses large and small must stress if they want to prosper in an increasingly global, intensely competitive business climate — and if they want to successfully compete for talent and retain it.

And these are just some of the skill sets — some broad, some very specific — that help define a full roster of professional-development programs at Holyoke Community College (HCC), which Hayden serves as vice president of Business and Community Services.

“Those words, like teamwork and communication, feel like buzzwords, but in reality, those are the places where employee satisfaction and productivity find their nexus,” he said. “It’s really a unique spot where one can see the gain for the company, but also the gain for themselves.”

These touchpoints run through the portfolio of programs at HCC, the Commonwealth’s oldest community college, which include everything from a non-credit “Introduction to Bookkeeping” course to a women’s leadership lunch series; from certificate programs in residential interior design and medical interpreting to two new HR workshops on “Leveraging Assessments with the New World of Work” (more on these later).

In each case, the motivation is the same, Hayden said — to help individuals advance and enable companies to be efficient and productive, and also recruit and retain employees when businesses in all sectors are still struggling to do so.

“We put an emphasis on trying to find those occupational skills that managers, business owners, and professionals need to successfully grow their company, grow their employees, increase productivity, or increase employee satisfaction.”

“We take a broad approach to professional development at HCC,” he explained. “We do certificate and training programs in management, leadership, and IT, and then we have a number of programs aimed specifically at careers, like our introduction to bookkeeping or, in the IT field, an introduction to networks.

“We have a certificate in business communication, which is online, and also one in innovation and critical thinking,” he went on. “There are a number of areas, and depending on the needs and interests of the individual, we can accommodate many other things they may be looking for.”


Getting Down to Business

Hayden, who came to the college after many years working for the city of Holyoke in economic-development roles, said HCC — like all the region’s community colleges — plays a critical role in workforce development in the region. And that role extends well beyond providing the traditional two-year degree programs which, in the case of HCC, often lead to transfer to four-year programs.

Indeed, it extends to continuing education, non-credit programs, and initiatives that, as he said earlier, involve professional development for the individual and initiatives aimed at helping businesses of all sizes become more competitive and productive.

“Oftentimes, when we think of workforce training, especially at community colleges, we tend to focus on occupational skills,” he explained. “And although those are necessary, they’re often related to specific tasks. So we put an emphasis on trying to find those occupational skills that managers, business owners, and professionals need to successfully grow their company, grow their employees, increase productivity, or increase employee satisfaction.

“And in some sense, increasing productivity and increasing employee satisfaction are companions in that same effort,” he went on. “Sometimes we think of them as separate; when we think about how to make sure our employees are happy and satisfied, we go to the issue of compensation, instead of focusing on the issue of job satisfaction, having pride in one’s work, and ownership of the project or service they provide. So we try look at professional development as a way to broaden the scope or mindset of the employee and have them look at the picture in terms of just not making something or doing a service, but having that be part of their own career goals and pathway.”

With these goals in mind, the college has offered a women’s leadership lunch series featuring area women business leaders talking about their success formulas, Hayden said, adding that this series, staged over six lunches, will likely return in the spring of 2024.

Overall, the college is continuously monitoring the business community and the workplace, he explained, with an eye toward creating programs to address emerging needs and challenges.

Such is the case with the new HR workshops on assessments, which will be led by Lynn Turner, president of CORE XP Business Solutions Inc.

“These are designed to help organizations understand how to leverage assessments within the future of work — how to assess and evaluate employees in a way that increases productivity and increases teamwork, communication, and employee satisfaction,” Hayden said, noting that there will be two workshops, with participants having the option of signing up for one or both. They are designed for entrepreneurs, HR personnel, and managers at small companies that don’t have their own HR departments,

The first will focus on the changing dynamics of the future of work, understanding the value of assessments within a talent strategy, and gaining exposure to different assessment tools. The second will focus on best practices for assessment implementation, leveraging assessments for talent acquisition and development, driving engagement and retention through assessments, and creating a customized roadmap for leveraging assessments.

Overall, the professional-development programs at HCC are blueprinted to assist individuals as they look to enter or advance within the workforce, but also meet identified needs within the business community for specific skills, Hayden said, noting that these twin ambitions are the motivation behind such programs as a 12-hour educational cannabis core program that provides an overview of the cannabis industry in Massachusetts and is designed for individuals looking for general knowledge as they consider a career in that sector, and the non-credit “Introduction to Bookkeeping” course, the need for which has become increasingly apparent given recent trends.

“There is growing need for bookkeepers in the region, especially at smaller companies; many nonprofits, for example, are looking for people who can help on that end,” he said, adding that the program is geared toward individuals looking to enter that field, but also incumbent workers looking to acquire more skills in that realm.

There are many such programs being offered the school, he said, noting that HCC offers a number of online certificate programs, most of them focused on business management and administration, such as an offering in nonprofit management featuring a simulation component, another in business communication, and others in innovation and critical thinking, data analytics, and project management.


Work in Progress

Summing it all up, Hayden said professional development at HCC is a huge part of the school’s mission and its evolving role when it comes to both workforce development and economic development.

The portfolio of programs and initiatives is, like the business community and the workforce itself, ever-changing. But the goal remains the same: it’s about helping area employees, job seekers, business leaders, and companies get where they want to go.

Features Special Coverage

We’re All Ears

Dave Wisseman

Dave Wisseman says this year’s maze is designed to get people thinking about AI and all its implications.

“Where art and agriculture come together.”

That’s how Dave Wisseman, the soon-to-be 10th-generation owner of Warner Farm in Sunderland, described the famous corn maze that has put this operation on the map.

And he’s right. The designs that are cut by a Bobcat into the 10 acres of feed corn growing on one field at this gorgeous piece of land in the shadow of Mt. Sugarloaf certainly constitute art — whether the resulting image is of Babe Ruth, the Mona Lisa, an homage to the country’s national parks, or this year’s creation: a nod, if one can call it that, to artificial intelligence.

Or at least the discussion about AI.

But there is more coming together with agriculture than art at what has become an institution in Western Mass. and a destination that draws people from the 413 and well beyond. Indeed, there are also large doses of tourism, entertainment, innovation, inspiration, culture, and education.

And a whole lot of entrepreneurship.

They all collide at the maze, which started its annual run on Sept. 8, but has been in the planning stages for several months now, said Wisseman, who acknowledged that farms are not big on titles, but if he had one, it would be ‘business manager.’

In that role, he noted that the maze has become more than a revenue stream, although it is certainly that. It has become a huge part of the business plan at the 150-acre farm, which grows a variety of fruits and vegetables and operates CSA (community-supported agriculture) programs in Sunderland with five pick-up areas in the Greater Boston area — so much so that many other traditional fall initiatives, and the feed-corn crop itself, now take a back seat to the maze.

“For us, the corn maze is such a huge part of our business that it made sense to slow down the other things in the fall and focus on making sure the maze is the best it can be.”

“For us, the corn maze is such a huge part of our business that it made sense to slow down the other things in the fall and focus on making sure the maze is the best it can be,” he said, noting that the attraction draws more than 20,000 visitors each year, most from Hampden and Hampshire counties, but neighboring states as well. Many leaf peepers have made it part of their annual visit.

As for the images chosen each year, they are part of the evolving story of the maze, said Wisseman, noting that his father, Mike Wisseman, and local artist Will Sillin originally decided to combine talents and create what they called ‘corn art.’ The inaugural image was of the ‘Amazing Minuteman,’ as seen on the 2000 Massachusetts quarter, with subsequent designs featuring the Mona Lisa, Babe Ruth, King Tut, George Bush and John Kerry (who squared off in the presidential election of 2004), Charles Darwin, Andy Warhol’s Campbell’s soup can, and Julia Child — images seen by the world through photos taken by passing airplanes.

In 2015, Sillin essentially retired from corn art to focus on his personal artwork, and the creative development torch at what became known as Mike’s Maze was picked up by Dave Wisseman and his wife, Jess Marsh Wisseman, also an artist.

Her creations have included ‘Alice in Sunderland,’ a tribute to Alice in Wonderland; ‘Greetings from Earth,’ a celebration of the Voyager missions to explore the outer reaches of our solar system; and ‘Cornstock,’ a celebration of Woodstock a half-century after the generation-defining music event — images captured by drone and then sent to the world.

Greetings from Earth

‘Greetings from Earth’ is one the many works of art etched into cornfields at Warner Farm over the past two decades.
Photo courtesy of Mikes Maze

Getting back to this year’s theme of artificial intelligence, it exemplifies the farm’s efforts to be topical and relevant, but also go well beyond creating art in the rows of now-10-foot-high corn stalks. The larger mission is to get people to think, while also being entertained, Dave said.

Etched around the outside of the maze is the question ‘In the Age of Artificial Intelligence, What Makes Us Human?’ In the middle is the word ‘Thinking.’ The letters take on a high-tech look.

“We’re posing that question out in the maze and inviting people to answer it,” he said. “There’s a trivia game all about the different elements of artificial intelligence and robotics, and we’ll have a kids’ game, where they’ll use binary language to decode a secret message. And there will be a few stations out there where we pose some more of the deeper ethical questions about AI and ask people to consider them.

“‘Can computers think?’ That’s one of the questions we ask,” he went on, adding that the maze is designed to prompt visitors to think about technology and its place in the world.

For this issue, BusinessWest visited Warner Farm and this year’s maze to learn about how this has become much more than a place where art and agriculture come together.


Kernels of Wisdom

Tracing the history of the farm, Wisseman said it dates back to the early 1700s, when Eleaser Warner — a descendent of the family who arrived not long after the Mayflower and eventually settled in what was then called Swampfield, now Sunderland — started tilling land near what is now the center of town. (Indeed, the farm’s mailing address is South Main Street).

This is his mother’s family and and one of the founding families of Sunderland, he said, adding that, in the beginning, it was subsistence farming, and it remained that way for several generations. Over time, the farm started growing and selling potatoes, onions, and, later, strawberries.

“In the ’60s, my grandfather was introduced to the concept of pick-your-own strawberries, and we were one of the first people to do pick-your-own strawberries in the Valley, and it really took off,” Wisseman noted. “That was the first venture into the agri-tourism world and inviting people down to the farm to have that farm experience.”

Today, the farm’s main crops are strawberries and sweet corn, but it also grows tomatoes, melons, peas, green beans, peaches, and “a few apples,” he said. It sells wholesale to local stores, other farms, and other CSAs, while operating its own CSAs, including the Millstown Farm Market.

Wisseman said he grew up on the farm until he was 10, when he and his mother relocated to the Cincinnati area, and he would return to the area to work on the farm while in high school and college. He graduated from the College of Worcester in Ohio with no real intention of making the farm his career, but … his commencement coincided with the start of the Great Recession in 2008.

“In the ’60s, my grandfather was introduced to the concept of pick-your-own strawberries, and we were one of the first people to do pick-your-own strawberries in the Valley, and it really took off. That was the first venture into the agri-tourism world and inviting people down to the farm to have that farm experience.”

With few other opportunities available, he came back to the farm to work beside his father in 2010, and together they have continued and refined the many aspects of the operation, including the corn maze, which represents a dramatic (in every sense of that word) and evolving leap forward in agri-tourism.

The concept was born at a Christmas party, he said, when his father and his friend, Sillin, decided to combine their talents. The rest is history in the making.

As noted earlier, the maze has evolved over the years and in a number of ways, from the addition of elements within the maze designed to make people laugh and learn to the diversification several years ago into a separate ‘haunted’ cornfield, featuring a number of attractions, such as an ‘executioner’s chamber,’ designed to entertain and frighten those who enter.

The corn maze at Warner Farm

The corn maze at Warner Farm has become a fall institution, where visitors can see art and agriculture come together in a powerful way.
Photo courtesy of Mikes Maze

The haunted maze and an accompanying Zombie Night Patrol, while both solid additions, were also heavy with overhead, said Wisseman, adding that they were eventually discontinued, with efforts focused on the corn maze and creating an experience for those who visit it.

That experience includes a large playground featuring a drain-tube slide, a tractor-tire jungle gym, and more, as well as horse-drawn wagons, potato cannons, picking out a Halloween pumpkin, and other activities.

Meanwhile, the farm has created what it calls ‘beer mazes’ in a separate cornfield; six brewers — different ones each week — will set up stations in the maze, Wisseman explained. “It’s a brewfest in a cornfield.”


Art and Soul

The corn maze and related activities have become so popular, and such a large part of the business plan, that the farm essentially puts its full focus on that operation in the fall, Wisseman said, adding quickly that planning and execution begin months earlier.

It starts with the concept, he said, and much discussion about what the theme will be. Current events often play a role, as do round-number anniversaries, as was the case with the Woodstock theme. While other options were considered, the overwhelming amount of attention focused on AI eventually made it the logical choice for this year’s theme.

With the theme finalized, the next step is the design — in this case, the words, the font, and more — which was created by Jess Marsh Wisseman.

An Adobe file is then sent to Rob Stouffer, owner of Precision Mazes, a Missouri-based outfit that specializes in creating corn mazes. It has been handling the cutting at Warner Farm for several years now, and has a large image of the ‘Greetings from Earth’ design prominent on its website under ‘featured projects.’

Blending accurate GPS technology with advanced cornfield-cutting techniques, the company will transform a field into a message in just a few days, Wisseman said, adding that the work on this year’s maze was completed several weeks ago.

Walking through the maze, one will encounter some vast, wide-open spaces, especially where the word ‘Thinking’ has been etched, but the maze is a far more valuable revenue stream than the corn that was growing there, he said, adding that this acreage is set aside for feed corn, which is sold to other farms and also a few restaurants for the making of corn tortillas.

“We put a lot of thought into this. You want to dive into a topic, you want to make it fun and interesting, but we also like to challenge our visitors and prompt them to think about it a little bit.”

While not quite a year-round undertaking, the maze has become a huge part of this 300-year-old operation, Wisseman noted, adding that months are spent not only on the concept and design, but also the creation of learning opportunities within the maze — for children, but also people of all ages.

“We put a lot of thought into this,” he told BusinessWest. “You want to dive into a topic, you want to make it fun and interesting, but we also like to challenge our visitors and prompt them to think about it a little bit.”

Getting back to this year’s maze and the broad and now-controversial topic of AI, he said the farm isn’t making any kind of statement or forcing any opinions on visitors. Instead, it is inspiring them to think and create their own opinions.

“We’re saying, ‘hey, this is an issue that requires a little bit of thought,’” he said. “It’s easy to be like, ‘the robots are coming for us,’ but we want people to think about what computers can actually do for us; what is their greatest hope for the invention of AI and this technology? And what is their greatest fear?”

These sentiments explain what the maze has evolved into over the years. It is certainly art — the designs as seen from above are exquisite and captivating — but is so much more than that. It is now a destination and a tradition, as well as a huge part of a business that has survived for multiple generations through perseverance and entrepreneurship.

“It’s a big part of what we do,” Wisseman said in conclusion. “And it’s also just a lot of fun — it works a different part of the brain than the farming.”

The creative side.

Banking and Financial Services Special Coverage

Peaking Their Interest

Bob Fraser (left) and Matt Lauro

Bob Fraser (left) and Matt Lauro


Bob Fraser acknowledged there’s a good deal of real estate between the Berkshires and the Bay State’s South Shore. He knows because he traverses that distance regularly.

But for the somewhat unique financial-services institution known as MountainOne, which can trace its roots back to 1848, having bank branches and other facilities on opposite ends of the state, with nothing in between, really … works.

“It has worked out well for us,” said Fraser, MountainOne’s president and CEO. “In the Berkshires, we have tended to be more of a traditional retail, community-based bank, and on the South Shore, we are much more commercially oriented. We do a lot of construction lending in and around the Greater Boston markets, and we also do commercial lending; we have a pretty strong group of commercial lenders.

“In the Berkshires, we see ourselves being able to fill a void, with a high level of expertise in commercial lending within Berkshire County and surrounding areas,” he went on, adding that this void has been created through large regionals either moving their headquarters from the Berkshires (as Berkshire Bank did) or expanding in other areas — leaving what Fraser considers opportunity for his bank in their wake.

Actually, there are many things that work for MountainOne, besides these differing focal points on either end of the state, including that aforementioned strong focus on commercial lending; the diversity of the business (there is an insurance division and an investment arm); its size — large enough to handle the needs of most businesses but small enough to provide a brand of personalized service — a strong focus on technology and how to use it to better serve customers, including a new digital platform for commercial customers to go live this month; and even the name, which doesn’t tie it to one community or one region and now has strong brand recognition in the Western Mass. region, with a mascot — actually, a ‘spokesgoat’ — named Mo.

“Being headquartered in the Berkshires, we want to be seen as the go-to bank for commercial accounts and borrowers throughout Berkshire County and the surrounding areas in Western Mass.”

MountainOne, now with roughly $1 billion in assets, will continue to maximize these various strengths and qualities and work to attain greater market share in both regions it serves, especially in the Berkshires, said Matt Lauro, senior vice president of Commercial Lending, noting that, like the rest of Western Mass. — and the state, for that matter — the region is overbanked.

But it is also, in his view, underserved to some degree.

“There aren’t enough banks that are servicing large commercial clients, or commercial clients as a whole, that are really focused in Western Massachusetts,” he said. “You do have players that are primarily focused here, but there is a void resulting from the larger regionals that have tended to pull back on lending capabilities in Western Mass., and it has left C&I clients, and larger commercial-development clients, with less service than they’ve had historically.”

Added Fraser, “being headquartered in the Berkshires, we want to be seen as the go-to bank for commercial accounts and borrowers throughout Berkshire County and the surrounding areas in Western Mass.”

Both Fraser and Lauro noted that the bank’s strong roots, diversity of services, and strong track record in the Berkshires will serve it well during what can only be described as a time of challenge and uncertainty — when it comes to the economy, banks, and the foreseeable future.

Bob Fraser

Bob Fraser says MountainOne can grow as effectively through online banking as it can through geographic expansion.

“This environment we’re in … I’ve never experienced so much uncertainty as to where we’re headed,” Fraser said. “And an environment of uncertainty makes decision making so difficult, whether it’s running a bank or running your company; it’s incredibly challenging to feel confident about what the next few years are going to look like.”

For this issue and its focus on banking and financial services, BusinessWest talked with Fraser and Lauro about MountainOne and what can and should come next for this bank as its marks an important milestone.


Scaling the Heights

Team members at this institution are known as colloquially as ‘mountaineers.’

And on Sept. 19, all of the MountainOne offices will close at 1 p.m. so that the mountaineers can attend a celebration for all employees marking the bank’s 175th anniversary.

There will be much to celebrate, said Fraser, listing a rich past, and a potential-laden future, for the reasons cited earlier.

The institution can trace its roots to 1848 in North Adams, when it was known as Hoosac Bank. Fast-forwarding considerably, Fraser noted that, in 2000, Hoosac Bank and Williamstown Savings Bank came together to create the holding company to be called MountainOne Financial, which became the mutual holding company for those two banks.

“If you’re a sophisticated business owner, you understand that you don’t need a branch at the end of your street; you need a relationship manager, a loan officer who is going to be at your business when you need him, to speak with him, to work with him.”

And in 2007, South Coastal Bank, headquartered on the South Shore, merged its holding company into MountainOne’s holding company, creating what Fraser, formerly president and CEO of South Coastal, believes is the first three-bank mutual holding company.

“We’ve seen a lot more of that now, but MountainOne was the first to actually do it,” he said, adding that, over time, the three banks have been merged into one entity under the Hoosac charter and rebranded as MountainOne. Additionally, Hoosac Bank had owned two insurance agencies, which were merged under the name MountainOne Insurance Agency, while the investment division was rebranded MountainOne Investments in 2013.

Today, MountainOne has some combination of bank branches, ATMs, insurance offices, and investment offices in six communities, three on each end of the state: Quincy, Rockland, and Scituate on or near the South Shore, and North Adams, Pittsfield, and Williamstown in the Berkshires.

When asked if there was future expansion under consideration in the Berkshires region — and, if so, where — Fraser said it’s possible, but what is more likely is continued commitment to advancing internet banking capabilities that allow banks to serve customers more efficiently, with less reliance on brick-and-mortar facilities.

“The world is changing,” he explained. “You don’t need as much of a physical presence in a specific geography as you did before to manage and serve a business customer’s banking needs.”

Lauro agreed.

“If the client is in the surrounding area, we are wherever the client is,” he explained. “Wherever the client is, we are happy to be there, to work with them; that has been our opportunity, and it’s a big thing for us. If you’re a sophisticated business owner, you understand that you don’t need a branch at the end of your street; you need a relationship manager, a loan officer who is going to be at your business when you need him, to speak with him, to work with him.”

Matt Lauro

Matt Lauro says the considers the Berkshires to be overbanked but its commercial customers underserved, leaving opportunity for MountainOne.
Staff Photo

And this is what MountainOne brings to the table, Fraser said, noting that, despite the ability to serve clients through the use of technology, commercial banking is a “personal relationship-oriented service,” said Fraser, noting that MountainOne boasts lending professionals like Lauro and Richard Kelly, also a senior vice president of Commercial Lending based in Pittsfield, who are focused on the region and its economic health and well-being.

“Our vision, at the end of the day, is to help ensure the economic vibrancy of the community,” he said. “And by doing that — by supporting local businesses and entrepreneurs — we’re helping to fulfill that mission.”


Economies of Scale

As he talked physical expansion — new branches — in other communities within the Berkshires, Fraser told BusinessWest that it would be “challenging to invest in a branch location in a market that has a declining population base and is already overbanked,” and that the bank’s strategy is, as he said, geared more toward technology.

But he noted quickly that the Berkshires has seen an uptick in population in the wake of the pandemic, with some choosing more rural areas over larger cities, as well as some demographic shifts, with more young people moving to the area, and a surge in entrepreneurship, in part because of COVID and how it prompted many to pursue long-held dreams of working for themselves.

And all of these trends are certainly positive signs for the Berkshire County market and its business community.

Indeed, as they talked about the next chapters in MountainOne’s history, Fraser and Lauro noted that, independent of what is happening with the economy, interest rates, and other factors, there are many reasons for optimism when it comes to broadening the book of business and gaining additional market share.

Some of this has to do with COVID-related population surges, demographic shifts, and that aforementioned surge in entrepreneurship, the size and scope of which are still to be determined. But much of it comes down to what the bank can bring to the table beyond what all banks can provide — money.

“Hospitality is the number-one industry, and we’ve been involved in a number of projects involving hospitality-related businesses, but we also have a number of commercial accounts that involve meaningful employers and well-known companies in the Berkshires,” Fraser said. “And I think there’s a greater opportunity for us over time to continue to expand in that market as we see younger entrepreneurs establishing roots in the Berkshires. Businesses may be looking for an entity that is based in the Berkshires, is local, and obviously has a commitment to the region; we’ve been here since 1848.

“Being a mutual organization, we can look a little bit longer-term strategically than if we were a stock-owned company,” he went on. “It’s just a different business; we can be patient and look beyond the next quarter or two quarters — we have that luxury.”

Elaborating, he said MountainOne has experienced lenders who understand business and what it takes to succeed and can step into the role of adviser as well as banker.

“We’re not just a vendor that is providing you a product, which is the loan,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re also a resource. It’s a relationship, and it’s probably the most unique relationship a business will have. Anyone can sell you something — we’re the only relationship where we have to get what we sold you back.

“Another aspect of it is that we really enjoy this part of the business — it’s in our DNA,” he went on. “We love being with our customers, and we love understanding their businesses. We love talking about what we know, what we’re thinking about, and sharing those ideas.”



As for Mo the mountain goat, he’s the perfect spokesperson for the bank, as detailed in a bio on its website. “Goats are tough,” it reads. “They turn challenges into opportunities every day, and even in the most demanding, unforgiving environments, goats know how to adapt and thrive.”

MountainOne has done a lot of that over the past 175 years, and that collective work has put it in a position where it can turn challenge into opportunity and scale new heights — in all kinds of ways.

Commercial Real Estate Special Coverage

Finding Their Place

From left, Walter Kroll, Mark Healy, and Demetrios Panteleakis

From left, Walter Kroll, Mark Healy, and Demetrios Panteleakis stand in front of the recently opened Big Y store at Tower Square.

Demetrios Panteleakis has talked often about the interview he and his partners at the Macmillan Group had with the new owners of Tower Square when they were searching for a leasing agent.

He remembers it vividly, and he refers to it often because … five years later, he’s still shocked they ultimately won the contract.

That’s because they, and especially Panteleakis, were candid — as in candid — when it came to their assessment of the state of the building, its future, and what the new owners (and future BusinessWest Top Entrepreneurs) Vid Mitta and Dinesh Patel could and should do with it. Or not do with it, as the case may be.

Indeed, the brokers who came to the interview table were telling the owners they couldn’t lease the office and retail spaces that were vacant or soon to be vacant, Panteleakis recalled, adding that Mitta and Patel were looking seriously at turning the property into multi-family housing.

“I thought I was brutally honest with them, and I had a list of 10 things they must do if they wanted to make this viable again in downtown Springfield,” he said. “It encompassed the totality of the space, how they looked at it, and how they approached it. It was one of those calls where you get off the call and say, ‘this is never going to happen — we just went in there and punched these guys in the mouth; there’s no way they’re calling us back.’”

But they did, and Panteleakis believes that’s because he and his partners, Walter Kroll and Mark Healy, didn’t tell Mitta and Patel what they wanted to hear — even if they didn’t seem too happy to hear it at first.

“With most of the responses, they didn’t like it — they didn’t like what Demetrios was telling them,” said Kroll, managing director of the firm. “They were not appreciative of the plan, but they listened.”

That strategy, if it can be called a strategy, is how the firm operates, said Panteleakis, adding that this mindset applies to clients of all sizes and questions of all kinds, especially those heard most often in commercial real estate, including ‘can you buy/lease my building?’ and ‘how much can I sell my building for?’

Too many people asking those questions are drawn to people and firms who will tell them what they what to hear, Panteleakis said, adding quickly that what they should be looking for is a firm willing to partner with them on the matter on hand, be it selling a property or leasing out the vast spaces within Tower Square.

“I have lost opportunities because I am rigid on giving the correct number to someone, more than I am giving the number that the client wants to hear and has been given to them by another broker,” he told BusinessWest.

The Macmillan Group is the latest incarnation, if you will, of the brokerage and property management firm known as Macmillan & Son. When the third-generation president of that firm, Doug Macmillan, ultimately lost his battle with cancer in 2016, the firm was in limbo, Panteleakis said, adding that he was told by Macmillan’s mother, Pat, who passed away in 2002, that Doug’s wishes were for Panteleakis to take the helm and ultimately write new chapters to the Macmillan story.

At first, he was somewhat reluctant to take that course — he already had a job working for MassMutual in its real-estate arm, and was fond of it.

He was more fond, though, of the opportunity to essentially run his own firm. And his eventual partners — Kroll and Healy — were of that same mindset.

“I have lost opportunities because I am rigid on giving the correct number to someone, more than I am giving the number that the client wants to hear and has been given to them by another broker.”

“I knew right away that I couldn’t do it myself,” Panteleakis said. “So I approached Mark and Walter, two of my closest friends, and we came together on this; we pretty much run a co-op here.”

Today, this co-op boasts a growing portfolio of clients and properties — topped by Patel and Mitta, Tower Square and the neighboring 1550 Main St., also acquired by those two serial entrepreneurs — in Western Mass., but also well beyond, as we’ll see.

Looking toward the future and what’s in the business plan for the Macmillan Group, the partners said the simple and direct goal is to continue growing the firm and the portfolio by convincing more property owners (and potential property owners) to become partners with the firm, in the same vein as those who own Tower Square.

For this issue and its focus on commercial real estate, we talked with the partners about their firm, the real-estate market in the region, and what is likely to come next for both.


Space Exploration

As they walked with BusinessWest from their offices on the mezzanine level at Tower Square to the ground floor and the ‘Dunk’ (Dunkin’ Donuts) for a coffee, the three partners pointed out many of the changes that have come to this important piece of real estate over the past five years.

These include the return of the Marriott flag to the hotel after it was lost for several years amid profound deterioration of the structure and the service provided in it, and the facility became known as Tower Square Hotel; the arrival of Big Y’s scaled-down supermarket next to the ‘Dunk’; White Lion Brewery; the Greater Springfield YMCA’s fitness center and daycare operation; and new tenants in the office tower, including Farm Credit Financial Partners, Wellfleet, and others.

Overall, Tower Square boasts a wide array of different types of tenants, which makes it ideal for the Macmillan Group and its partners, who bring different areas of expertise to the table. Panteleakis offers a diverse background, including work in succession planning, development, and construction management, but especially a strong focus on the office market through his work with MassMutual. Kroll, meanwhile, brings expertise in the retail market, while Healy has focused on the office market as well as industrial and medical.

And all three brought an understanding of this market and relationships with the brokerage community to the ‘new’ firm, as well as that mentality of partnering with clients rather than simply trying to sell or lease out their building.

This was especially true with Patel and Mitta, who were taking on a huge risk with Tower Square. Indeed, in addition to losing the Marriott flag from the hotel, MassMutual — the original owner of the building, and the primary tenant — was preparing to move out of several floors of the office tower. Panteleakis recalls that most of the talk, and speculation, was about converting the hotel, and perhaps parts of the complex, into multi-family housing.

It was with this backdrop that those two partners commenced their search for a brokerage firm.

“They interviewed every brokerage firm in Western Mass., and then it was our turn; we were the last ones,” Panteleakis recalled, adding that Kroll and Healy were face-to-face with the entrepreneurs, while he joined on a conference call. And they, and especially Panteleakis, were brutally honest.

“They didn’t like what they were hearing, but they listened,” Healy said. “And that’s why I give these guys a ton of credit.”

Kroll agreed. “With a lot of people, you talk to them and say, ‘you have to do this,’ or ‘what about this?’ and they’re insulted by it. These guys, they listened, and I think it’s because we were the first people not to tell them what they wanted to hear.”

Among other things, Panteleakis advised them to be creative when it came to leasing out the retail and office spaces, and also to be patient, and not chase tenants with attractive offers on rates, even with MassMutual set to vacate large amounts of space.

“I thought it was the most valuable building in Springfield, and I still think that,” he said. “Where others came in and told them to lower their prices, I did the opposite; I told them they needed to appropriately value the building against the competition and not chase tenants with rental rate. I advised them to establish their rate and strengthen it.”

This mindset of being honest and getting clients to listen has helped the firm grow its portfolio of clients and properties with Macmillan signs. These include Hadley Park Plaza, Palmer Plaza, the office complex at 877 South St. in Pittsfield, the Laurin Publishing Building at 100 West St. in Pittsfield, 20 Maple St. in Springfield, industrial land in Agawam, and many others.

It’s a diverse portfolio, Panteleakis said, adding that the obvious goal moving forward is to broaden and deepen it by being honest with clients and potential clients, and partnering with them to achieve whatever goals they’ve set.

Which brings Panteleakis back to those comments about numbers and projections that he and his partners give to clients, and not telling them what they think they want to hear.

“Some brokers will take the attitude, ‘don’t worry about what it actually sells for — just get the listing first, and then Mother Nature will take care of itself,” he said. “Here, we have a philosophy that this is not the kind of business we want to do. We rate success on how close we came with our assessment and analysis. Did we give that client the right information?”


Looking Ahead

As they survey the commercial real-estate landscape, and especially the local office market, the three partners at the Macmillan Group take what would be considered the optimistic view about the present and foreseeable future.

“We are past this concept of working from home — it’s losing traction,” Panteleakis said with a strong dose of conviction in his voice. “People are understanding that the productivity of their workforce is just not the same; whether it’s J.P. Morgan, Google, Apple … the trend now is ‘you have to be in the office,’ which is certainly a positive for the office market.”

Elaborating, he said corporations large and small are veering toward bringing their workers back the office, if they haven’t already, on the premise that teams of workers don’t work as effectively when some or all their players are working from home.

Persistently lower occupancy rates for office space in cities ranging from Boston to San Francisco notwithstanding, Panteleakis and his partners believe the office market locally, and especially in downtown Springfield, will withstand this post-pandemic environment and the trend toward remote work.

“What I see right now is the 3,000- to 5,000-square-foot users just starting to emerge,” Healy said. “This year has been incredibly slow, but I’m beginning to see people look to next year, for what space is available. And I think it’s going to be that way for the next 24 months.”

Meanwhile, Panteleakis noted that Regus, a leading provider of office space, co-working environments, shared space, and other products will be creating such opportunities on one floor in Tower Square, roughly 16,000 square feet, bringing more options to business owners in the wake of the pandemic and other shifts within the workplace.

Still, COVID and other factors have brought some changes to the landscape, Panteleakis said, citing law firms, a huge force within the local office market, especially in downtown Springfield, as one example. He noted there are fewer large firms, and the larger firms are getting smaller as Baby Boomers retire. Meanwhile, fewer clients are actually coming to the firms’ offices to meet with lawyers, some of whom are, in fact, working remotely. All this adds up to this segment absorbing less office space in the years to come.

Meanwhile, an even bigger challenge moving forward might be the growing number of businesses, across all sectors, that are not surviving the current generation of ownership.

Indeed, Panteleakis notes with concern that the pandemic convinced a number of Baby Boomer business owners to call it quits. Meanwhile, an alarming number of those still slugging it out have no real succession plan in place.

“They’ve put 40 years into a business, and COVID taught them that life’s too short and they really can find something else to do with their free time,” he said. “Their children don’t want their business, or they’re doing their own thing. And if they go to put the business up for sale, first you have to have entrepreneurs who are willing to take the risk and have access to capital … and when you add that kind of formula to what has happened with bank lending and interest rates, we’re seeing a lack of continuity with businesses.

“Initially, you say, ‘great, there’s so much for us to sell,” he went on. “The question is … who’s going to buy it?”

Healthcare Heroes

Patient Safety Associates, Holyoke Medical Center

Their Lifesaving Actions Shine a Light on a New Position at HMC

Gabriel Mokwuah

Gabriel Mokwuah

Joel Brito

Joel Brito

When Gabe Mokwuah came to this country from Nigeria when he was 12 and heard people talking about ‘football,’ he thought about the sport played with a round ball that athletes try to kick into a net.

The other football, the one that is much more popular in this country? He didn’t know anything about it, and didn’t really want to know anything about it.

But that didn’t stop the football coach at his New York City high school from trying to convince the large, fast, and very athletic Mokwuah to try out for the team. Eventually, and we’re simplifying things here, he succeeded in those efforts. But even then, Mokwuah wasn’t really interested in the sport.

It wasn’t until he started hearing the word ‘scholarship’ and came to understand that football could be a means to an end — a college education and a ticket out of a high-crime area on Staten Island — that he began to really take it seriously.

Fast-forwarding through the next several years, Mokwuah did attend and graduate from American International College, while also playing defensive end and linebacker — so well, in fact, that he was drafted by the Green Bay Packers in the 11th round in 1992 (they only have seven rounds today).

He played in two exhibition games, was cut, tried to catch on with a few other teams, didn’t, and wound up working as a court officer at the Hampden County Jail and House of Correction, a job from which he retired several years ago.

All that adds up to just one of the intriguing backstories that can be told by those now working as patient safety associates (PSAs), or, in his case, patient safety coordinator, at Holyoke Medical Center (HMC).

Joel Brito has one of his own.

He was working for Hulmes Transportation, taking individuals to medical appointments and daily programs while also volunteering his time to help those with substance-abuse issues when he saw an ad posted on Indeed — Holyoke Medical Center was looking for patient safety associates.

“As soon as I saw it, I jumped on it, and here I am. This has always been my dream — I always wanted to be in the healthcare field,” he said, adding that his ambition is to become a certified nursing assistant.

Others now working as PSAs at HMC have backstories as well. Some are retired or semi-retired CNAs who succeeded in finding work that is rewarding on many levels. Others are getting started down the road to careers in healthcare and have taken this entry-level position to explore options and find out if healthcare is for them. Some are in pharmacy programs. One is studying for her MBA.

The PSA position is relatively new to HMC, and healthcare in general, and it represents an imaginative and innovative step forward from the ‘sitter’ or ‘patient observer’ role seen in most hospitals, said Margaret-Ann Azzaro, vice president of Patient Care Services and chief Nursing officer at HMC.

“As soon as I saw it, I jumped on it, and here I am. This has always been my dream — I always wanted to be in the healthcare field.”

Elaborating, she said the role involves not merely sitting with an at-risk patient, but engaging with them as a well, a position that brings more value to the patients and the hospital, but also those who assume that role.

“We thought, ‘let’s come up with a safety role to empower people to not only keep these patients safe, but engage with them as well,” she said. “We don’t have sitters here; we don’t have observers here — we have patient safety associates, and the idea is to give them some education and tools to enrich the experience while they’re sitting with a patient.”

Mokwuah and Brito embody the motivations behind the PSA position and also just how vital these individuals are — to a hospital, to the patients they serve, to initiatives to reduce falls and improve overall patient safety, and, sometimes, much more.

Indeed, both have been credited with saving lives in recent months — Mokwuah in April, by seeing something while in the virtual monitoring room and immediately calling for a team member to check on the patient, and Brito in July for performing the Heimlich maneuver on a patient he heard making sounds of distress while he was sitting with another patient. (More on both episodes later).

Both men were named employee of the month for their respective actions. That’s certainly an honor, and in October, they’ll be receiving another one: Healthcare Hero.


Not on Their Watch

There are actually three distinct roles within the PSA position, and individuals with that title handle all three on a rotating basis, noted Brian Toia, Nursing director of the ICU, RN float pool, and patient safety associates, adding that teamwork is what makes this innovative program so effective.

The first role involves one-on-one direct care — staying within arm’s length of a patient with a high safety risk, including those susceptible to falls, patients with dementia, and those who might be suicide risks. The second involves virtual monitoring. Utilizing a camera system placed in rooms of patients with potential safety risks, PSAs working in the virtual monitoring room can keep tabs on up to 12 patients at once.

From left, Margaret-Ann Azaro, Joel Brito, Gabe Mokwuah, and Brian Toia.

From left, Margaret-Ann Azzaro, Joel Brito, Gabe Mokwuah, and Brian Toia.

The third role is what those at HMC call a ‘rounder,’ one person dedicated to a unit who will frequently check on patients, respond to virtual monitoring calls, and also answer patient calls for assistance.

When asked which role he liked the most, Brito didn’t hesitate. “I like being a rounder. I love that it’s a non-stop job.”

But all these roles are vital to the overall mission of keeping at-risk patients safe, said Mokwuah, who coordinates the department and makes the daily assignments.

Before he talked about the PSAs and what they do, he put matters in their proper perspective. “The real heroes are the nurses, the doctors, and the administrators. And they have given us support for this program to take off. Our job is to keep people safe, and our program saves lives — we’ve proven that over and over again.”

“We thought, ‘let’s come up with a safety role to empower people to not only keep these patients safe, but engage with them as well.’”

Azzaro agreed, emphasizing, again, that PSAs are far more than the ‘sitters’ of years ago. These are individuals who can, and do, watch over patients. But they also engage them and help “enrich the experience,” as she put it, while offering some examples.

“We gave them dementia and Alzheimer’s education,” she explained, noting that this, like other aspects of the program, is fairly unique within the industry. “There are certain ways in which we can engage with patients that have dementia, that have Alzheimer’s. One thing that doesn’t help them is to not be stimulated. So the PSAs can read to them, they can play games with them, they can have conversations with them, they can read a book to them, they can put something on the TV or iPad and have the patient watch it with them.”

And while engaging with these patients, or watching them on the monitor, or coming to their assistance as a rounder, the PSAs are ultimately keeping them safe, said Azzaro, noting that there has been a measurable decrease in the number of falls recorded at HMC since the start of the program.


Changing Lives, Saving Lives

As he talked with BusinessWest outside the monitoring room, Mokwuah said the facility boasts a split screen showing more than a half-dozen patients in their beds. At this moment in time, all was quiet and normal.

That was not the case one afternoon back in April, when, while watching that same monitor, he noticed a patient that did not appear well, was acting differently, and had a noticeable status change.

He called for a rounder to immediately check on the patient, who, as it turned out, was experiencing a significant medical event, was unresponsive, and had no pulse. Staff quickly began performing basic life support, followed by advanced cardiovascular life support. After two rounds of CPR and cardiac medications, the patient’s own breathing and heartbeat returned.

Joel Brito (left) and Gabe Mokwuah

Joel Brito (left) and Gabe Mokwuah have both been credited with saving patients’ lives in recent months.
Staff Photo

Joel Rivas, director of Nursing Medical-Telemetry, who nominated Mokwuah for employee of the month, said at the time, “it is my professional opinion that, had the patient’s change in condition not been identified as early as it was, by Gabriel, we would not have had the positive outcome that we had.”

Similar things were said after another incident in early July, when Brito again showed the importance of HMC’s innovative PSA program.

He was serving as a rounder and sitting with a patient when another team member came in to provide patient care. During that time, Brito overheard a patient from another room making sounds of distress. Confirming that his one-on-one patient was safe and in the care of another team member, he stepped into the next room to check on what he’d heard.

“In the beginning, I didn’t pay too much attention to it, but something told me to get up and check that room, and when I did, I was really surprised because the lady was essentially purple,” he said, adding that he quickly positioned himself to perform the Heimlich maneuver and helped to dislodge the obstruction in the patient’s airway.

“This is a job where you have to be humble, you need to have some empathy, and you have to love people. That’s something my mom and my family instilled in me growing up, so I try to live my life that way and help people. This job gives me the opportunity to do that.”

Like Mokwuah, Brito was credited with saving a patient’s life, said Toia, adding that, had it not been for establishment of the rounder’s role within the PSA program, it’s unlikely that someone would have been able to respond as quickly to the situation as he did.

Looking back, Brito said he relied on his instincts and his training, and was thankful to be in a position where he could help people and make a difference in their lives — the most gratifying aspects of the PSA position.

Mokwuah said essentially the same thing.

“This is a job where you have to be humble, you need to have some empathy, and you have to love people,” he said. “That’s something my mom and my family instilled in me growing up, so I try to live my life that way and help people. This job gives me the opportunity to do that.”


Big-game Players

Gabe Mokwuah didn’t get to be a hero on the gridiron, at least at the pro level. But his life and career, especially this latest chapter, show that our heroes come from all walks of life. And they take all kinds of titles.

Patient safety associate is a relatively new one at Holyoke Medical Center, an innovative initiative that is helping to prevent falls, improve overall safety, and, as these cases show, save lives.

Mokwuah was right when he said that doctors, nurses, and administrators are heroes. But so are those with badges that read ‘patient safety associate,’ especially these two lifesavers and Healthcare Heroes.

Healthcare Heroes

Chief of Emergency Medicine, Mercy Medical Center

He Considers Listening His Strongest, Most Important Talent

Dr. Mark Kenton


As a general rule, physicians working in the emergency room don’t get to know their patients as well as those in primary care or other specialties, who see their patients regularly and over the course of years and, sometimes, decades.

But Dr. Mark Kenton makes it a point to get to know those who come to his ER, the one at Mercy Medical Center. Indeed, he said he always looks to make a connection by listening to each patient and learning about what they are interested in and passionate about.

In addition to making these connections, he tries to get involved and make a difference, in ways that go beyond providing medical care.

“Sometimes, the best medicine you give someone is not actually medication,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s just listening. Everyone has a story.”

He was listening as one patient, a veteran named Homer who was going into hospice care, expressed regrets about never making it to the World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. So Kenton researched the Honor Flights program and worked with the patient’s family to help make arrangements for him to visit the stirring memorial. Later, he received a letter from that family.

“They said he died two weeks before he was scheduled to go, but he died knowing that he was going, and it meant a lot to him,” Kenton recalled. “That stuck with me.”

He was also listening to another patient who was near the end of his battle with cancer and came to understand that the two shared a love of baseball and the Red Sox. Kenton arranged a phone call to the patient from former catcher Rich Gedman, whom Kenton had come to know well from his participation in Red Sox fantasy camps.

“Sometimes, the best medicine you give someone is not actually medication. It’s just listening. Everyone has a story.”

“He said, ‘I can’t believe Rich Gedman actually called me,’” Kenton recalled, adding that the conversation had a lasting impact.

This ability to listen, and act on what he hears, is one of many traits that has made Kenton a Healthcare Hero for 2023 in the Healthcare Administration category — annually one of the most competitive categories within the program.

He stood out amid a number of others nominated for the award for his ability to act upon what’s heard — in a variety of different settings — and generate needed dialogue, which has sometimes led to real change.

This includes the ER at Mercy, where he has worked with others to improve flow, shorten wait times, and reduce the number of patients who leave the ER without being seen, battles that have become even more difficult amid critical shortages of trained professionals, especially nurses.

One of Dr. Mark Kenton’s passions is baseball

One of Dr. Mark Kenton’s passions is baseball and Red Sox fantasy camps, something that has become a family affair, as in this scene at Jet Blue Park in Florida with his sons (from left) Mark, Davin, and Jacob.

But it also includes the national medical stage, as we’ll see. Indeed, a letter posted on Facebook from Kenton to the CEO of Mylan juxtaposed the CEO’s salary against the sky-high cost of EpiPens and thrust the debate about the rising cost of pharmaceuticals into the national spotlight.

In Massachusetts, Kenton played a strong role in the passage of a bill that would allow EpiPens to be purchased in the same manner as Narcan for municipalities, whereby the state would purchase them at something approaching cost.

Kenton has also advocated for increased protection from workplace violence in hospitals, testifying at the State House after a colleague at Harrington Hospital suffered a near-fatal stabbing. Those efforts have been less successful in generating change — a result he blames on the high cost of measures such as metal detectors — but he continues to push for legislation that might prevent such incidents.

For his ability to listen and effect change — in his ER and many other settings as well — Kenton is certainly worthy to be called a Healthcare Hero.


A Great Run

The art hanging on the walls of Kenton’s office certainly helps tell his story.

Most of the pictures are baseball-themed — he played in college, has attended the Hall of Fame induction ceremonies in Cooperstown since 1981, and has more than 7,000 baseball autographs, by his estimate — including photos from the fantasy camps he’s attended, with his children prominent in many of them.

“I’ve been going for 13 years now, and it’s been a pretty amazing experience,” he said, noting that he’s been on the same field as many Red Sox legends. “Now, it’s more about going back and playing with friends than seeing the Red Sox — but they’ve become friends, too.”

But there’s also a framed photo of the cast members of The Office, a gift from his children. He is a huge fan of the show, and notes with a large dose of pride that he’s met several of the cast members and possesses a suit jacket that Steve Carell wore on the show.

While Kenton spends a good amount of time in this space, his true office, if you will, has always been the ER, and especially the one at Mercy. He arrived there in 2003 and became chief of Emergency Medicine in late 2019, three months before COVID hit and turned the healthcare system, and especially the ER, on its ear.

The trajectory for this career course was set over time, and Kenton believes his passion for helping others began when he watched medical dramas on television with his mother and became captivated with what he saw.

“My mother had cancer as a child; she spent a lot of time in hospitals and always had a fascination with healthcare,” he recalled. “She was always reading medical books, and we watched every show you can think of — Quincy; Trapper John, M.D.; St. Elsewhere; you name it.”

Because of his love for baseball, Kenton initially considered a career as an athletic trainer, since he could combine both his passions, baseball and healthcare, and he attended Springfield College with that goal in mind.

He quickly realized that the life of an athletic trainer did not have a lot of stability. And after working as an EMT, a rewarding but also harrowing experience — “I remember going to shootings and the shooter was still on the loose” — he decided the emergency room was where he wanted to spend his career. He earned his medical degree at Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine, with the goal of completing his residency in Baystate Medical Center’s ER, a path that became reality.

“I hand out my business card to patients, talk to them, and ask, ‘why are you here today?’ I do that as one more check to make we’re not missing something.”

As he talked about working in the ER, Kenton related what he told his students when he served as medical director of the Physician Assistant Program at Springfield College. “I would always say, ‘be a little scared every day when you walk in — never lose that. Have a little fear when you walk in, because you don’t know everything, nor should you know everything. You need to know what your resources are and how to utilize those resources. You also need to know that you’re going to be tested — every day.’”


Safe at Home

These days, most of Kenton’s work is administrative in nature — he does one clinical shift per week — and, summing it up, he said it’s about making this ER as safe, welcoming, efficient, and effective as he can.

It needs to be all of the above because the ER is the “front door to the hospital,” as he put it, and a safety net for many within the community.

“There are so many patients that don’t have primary-care doctors now or don’t have insurance,” he said. “The ER is what they turn to.”

As he works with his team to improve flow, reduce wait times, and improve the ‘leave without being seen’ numbers, Kenton relies on what might be the strongest of his many skills — listening. In fact, he’s in the waiting room every ‘admin’ day talking with not only patients, but their families as well.

“I hand out my business card to patients, talk to them, and ask, ‘why are you here today?’” he said. “I do that as one more check to make we’re not missing something. I tell them that we’re working hard to get people through the system, and we’ll work on getting you through as soon as we can. And then, I listen.”

This brings him back to his comments about how everyone has a story, and it’s important to know and understand that story.

Dr. Mark Kenton holds up a card with the name ‘Homer’ on it at the World War II memorial

Dr. Mark Kenton holds up a card with the name ‘Homer’ on it at the World War II memorial in Washington, fulfilling, in a way, a dying patient’s desire to visit the memorial.

“You can look at the medical problem, but if you look at them as just a patient, you kind of forget that behind that patient is a person who’s scared, a family that’s scared,” he said. “Some people have lived incredible lives and been very fortunate, and some people have not had very good luck, or they’ve made bad choices, or they haven’t had the opportunities that others have had.

“I’ve taken care of Tuskegee Airmen; I took care of a gentleman who told me he flew on the Enola Gay,” he went on, referencing the famed African-American fighter and bomber pilots who fought in World War II and the B-29 that dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. “You learn from those stories.”

While listening, learning, taking care of patients and their families, and improving efficiency in the ER, Kenton has also become an advocate for needed change in healthcare. His open letter to the CEO of Mylan on Facebook was spurred by incidents in his personal and professional life.

Indeed, while on vacation with his family, his son had an allergic reaction to peanuts. He soon learned that a prescription for two EpiPens, the best treatment for anaphylaxis, would cost $600. Fortunately, that prescription was transferred to a pharmacy that would accept his insurance, bringing the cost down to $15.

But he understood that such good fortune would elude others. While working a shift in Mercy’s ED a few months later, he saw two patients suffering from anaphylactic reactions and gave them both EpiPens, knowing they wouldn’t be able to fill the prescriptions going forward because they didn’t have insurance.

His frustration with this matter prompted his letter, which garnered press across the country and a live interview on Fox Business. More importantly, it generated real change, especially in the Bay State. Kenton testified before the state Senate on a bill introduced by former Sen. Eric Lesser to make EpiPens available for purchase by the state, just like Narcan.


Stepping Outside the Box

Two years after Kenton received that letter from the family of that veteran who died before he could get to the World War II memorial, his wife was running in a marathon in D.C., and he made the trip with her.

He wrote Homer’s name on a piece of paper, took pictures of it in various spots at the memorial, and sent them to his family.

“I said, ‘your dad finally made it,’” he told BusinessWest. “From what he told me during that relationship we established in a really short period of time, that brought closure to me, that he made it there.

“There are things you can do beyond providing medication to someone — sometimes you just have to step outside the box a little bit,” he went on, using a baseball term to get his point across.

This ability to forge those relationships, listen to each patient’s and each family’s story, and go well beyond simply providing medication helps explain why Kenton stands out — in his field, in his ER, and in his community. And why he is being recognized as a Healthcare Hero. n

Healthcare Heroes

Practice Manager of Thoracic Surgery, Nursing Director of the Lung Screening Program, Mercy Medical Center

She Has a Proven Ability to Take the Bull by the Horns

Ashley LeBlanc


It’s been seven years now, but Ashley LeBlanc clearly remembers the day Dr. Laki Rousou and Dr. Neal Chuang asked her to consider becoming the nurse navigator for their thoracic surgery practice at Mercy Medical Center.

She also clearly remembers her initial response to their invite: “absolutely not.”

She was working days in critical care at the hospital at the time, and liked both the work and the schedule: three days on, four days off, she told BusinessWest, adding that it takes a while for a new position like this to get approved and posted, for interviews to take place, and more — and the doctors used the following weeks to make additional entreaties, with reminders that she wouldn’t have to work any weekends or holidays.

But the answer was still ‘no’ until roughly six months after that initial invite, when she had one particularly challenging day on the floor with a very sick patient. Challenging enough that, when Rousou tried one more time that afternoon, ‘no’ became “I’ll update my résumé and hear you out.”

“He got me at a weak moment, and it was the best decision I ever made, because they have been amazing mentors, and they’ve opened my mind up to this whole other world,” she said, adding that her career underwent a profound and meaningful course change, one that led her to being named a Healthcare Hero for 2023 in the Emerging Leader category.

Indeed, during those seven years, LeBlanc has emerged as a true leader, both in that thoracic surgery practice, which she now manages, and in efforts to promote awareness and screening for lung cancer — one of the deadliest cancers, and one she can certainly relate to personally. Indeed, she has lost several family members to the disease, many of whom would have qualified for screening had it been available at the time of their diagnosis.

“He got me at a weak moment, and it was the best decision I ever made, because they have been amazing mentors, and they’ve opened my mind up to this whole other world.”

In many respects, and in many ways, she has become a fierce advocate for patients related to lung cancer screening, treatment, and research, and concentrates her efforts on ways to decrease the mortality rate of lung cancer and break down the stigma of that disease by educating the community, connecting them to resources, and, in many respects, guiding them on their journey as they fight lung cancer.

When the screening program was launched, those involved didn’t really know what to expect, LeBlanc said, adding that, in the beginning, maybe a handful of people were being screened each month. Now, that number exceeds 250 a month, and while only a small percentage of those who are screened have lung cancer, she said, each detected case is important because, while this cancer is deadly, early detection often leads to a better outcome.

This is turning out to be a big year for LeBlanc, at least when it comes to awards from BusinessWest. In the spring, she suitably impressed a panel of judges and became part of the 40 Under Forty Class of 2023. And in late October, she’ll accept the Healthcare Heroes award for Emerging Leader.

The plaques on her desk — or soon to be on it — speak to many qualities, but especially an ability to work with others to set, achieve, and, in many cases, exceed goals, not only with lung cancer screening, but other initiatives as well.

Dr. Laki Rousou never stopped trying to recruit Ashely LeBlanc

Dr. Laki Rousou never stopped trying to recruit Ashely LeBlanc to manage the thoracic-surgery practice at Mercy Medical Center, and he — and many others — are glad he didn’t.
Staff Photo

Rousou put LeBlanc’s many talents in their proper perspective.

“Before we even had the formal program, I would say something sort of off the cuff, like, ‘I wish we could do this’ … and the next week, I would have the answer, or it would be done,” he said. “Then it turned into ‘OK, let’s try and do this,’ and in the next week or two weeks, it would be done. And then it turned into a situation where she would have an idea and we would talk periodically, but she would take the bull by the horns and just do things that were best for thoracic surgery, but also the screening program.”

This ability to take the bull by the horns, and many other endearing and enduring qualities, explains why LeBlanc is a true Healthcare Hero.


The Big Screen

There’s a small whiteboard to the right of LeBlanc’s desk. Written at the top are the words ‘World Conquering Plans.’

This is an ambitious to-do list, or work-in-progress board, with lines referencing everything from a cancer screening program for firefighters to something called a Center for Healthy Lungs, which would be … well, just what it sounds like. “That’s a bit of a pipe dream,” she said. “We’re going to need our own building.”

While it might seem like a pipe dream, if it’s on LeBlanc’s list of things to get done … it will probably get done. That has been her MO since joining the thoracic surgery practice, and long before that, going back, for example, to the days when she worked the overnight shift as a unit extender at Mercy until 7, then drive to Springfield Technical Community College for nursing classes that began at 8.

“Sometimes, I would snooze in the car for 15 or 20 minutes,” she recalled, adding that she wasn’t getting much sleep at that time in her life. “You just do what you have to do to make it happen.”

Initially, she thought what she wanted to make happen was a career in law enforcement — her father was a police officer in Northampton — but her first stint as a unit extender at Mercy, while she was attending Holyoke Community College, convinced her she was more suited to healthcare.

But plans to enter that field were put on ice (sort of, and pun intended) when her fiancé, a Coast Guardsman, was stationed in Sitka, Alaska.

She spent three years there, taking in winters not as bad as most people would think, and summers not as warm as they are here, but still quite nice. And also working for the Department of Homeland Security as a federal security agent for National Transportation Safety Board at Sitka’s tiny airport.

“The evidence is staggering concerning the number of people who have a scan done, and they have an incidental finding, and there is no follow-up for that incidental finding.”

LeBlanc and her husband eventually returned to Western Mass. after a stint on the Cape, and she essentially picked up where she left off, working as a unit extender at Mercy.

“It was five years later, and it felt like I never left,” she said, adding that she soon enrolled in the Nursing program at STCC and, upon graduation, took a job on the Intermediate Care floor, which brings us back to the point where she kept saying ‘no’ and eventually said ‘yes’ to Rousou and Chuang (who is no longer with the practice).

Rousou told BusinessWest they recruited her heavily because they knew she would be perfect for the role they had carved out — and they were right.

Over the past seven years, LeBlanc has put a number of line items on the ‘World Conquering Plans’ list, and made most of them reality, especially a lung cancer screening program, which wasn’t even on her radar screen when she finally agreed to interview for the job.

Indeed, she was prepared to talk about patient education and how to improve it and make it more comprehensive when Rousou and Chuang changed things up and focused on a screening program.


Thinking Big

Once she got the job, she focused on both, with some dramatic and far-reaching results.

As for the screening program, she said such initiatives were new at the time because the Centers for Medicare Services had only recently approved insurance coverage for such screenings. At Mercy, with Rousou, Chuang, and, increasingly, LeBlanc charting a course, extensive research was undertaken with the goal of incorporating best practices from existing programs into Mercy’s initiative.

“We had no idea what our expectations should be or how it would be received in the community — it was a very new thing,” she recalled. “That first month in 2017, we did seven scans; then we did 29, and by the end of the year, it was over 50 scans a month. A year after we started, it was over 100.”

Now, that number is more than 250, she said, adding that such screenings are important because, while lung cancer is the deadliest of cancers, there are usually no visible signs of it — such as unexplained weight loss, coughing up blood, or pneumonia — until its later stages.

“When patients are diagnosed with stage 4 lung cancer, the treatment is, by and large, palliative, not curative,” she explained, “which makes it extra important to try to diagnose these people with lung cancer at an earlier stage.”

In addition to her work coordinating the screening program, LeBlanc also handles work implied by her initial title — nurse navigator.

This is work to help the patient understand and prepare for the procedure they are facing, such as removal of a portion of their lung, and answer any questions they may have.

“When the surgeon leaves the room … that’s when a patient will take that deep breath and say, ‘I have so many questions,’” she told BusinessWest. “It can be overwhelming, and this gives me an opportunity to answer those questions, which can involve anything from the seriousness of the procedure to where to park or what to bring to the hospital with them.”

Meanwhile, she has taken a lead role in efforts to build a strong culture within the thoracic surgery and cancer screening programs, where 14 people now work, and make it an enjoyable workplace, where birthdays and National Popcorn Day are celebrated, and teamwork is fostered.

“I think it’s important to enjoy where you work, and when we’re happy, I think that carries over to patients, and they feel that,” she said. “At Easter, we have an Easter egg hunt, with grown, professional adults running around the office looking for Easter eggs. It seems silly, but it’s wonderful at the same time.”

Then, there’s that ‘World Conquering Plans’ board next to her desk. LeBlanc said she and the team at the practice have made considerable progress with many of the items on that list, including plans to expand the office into vacated space next door with an interventional pulmonary department and an ‘incidental nodule’ program.

The interventional pulmonary program is a relatively new specialty that focuses on diagnosis of lung disease, she said, adding that an interventional pulmonologist has been hired, facilities have been created, and patients have been scheduled starting early this month.

Progress is also being made on the incidental nodule program, which, as that name implies, is a safety-net initiative focused on following up on the small, incidental nodules on the lungs that show up on scans other than lung cancer screenings and are often overlooked.

“The evidence is staggering concerning the number of people who have a scan done, and they have an incidental finding, and there is no follow-up for that incidental finding,” she explained, adding that such findings often get buried or lost in reports. “When patients come to Dr. Rousou, they’ll often say, ‘I’ve had a scan every year for the last so many years; how come no one saw this until now?’”


Breathing Easier

As for the Center for Healthy Lungs … that is a very ambitious plan, she said, one that exists mainly in dreams right now.

But, as noted earlier, LeBlanc has become proficient in making dreams reality and in drawing lines through items on her whiteboard.

That’s what Rousou and Chuang saw when they recruited LeBlanc — and kept on recruiting her after she kept saying ‘no.’

They could see that she was an emerging leader — and a Healthcare Hero. n

Healthcare Heroes

Nurse, Urology Group of Western New England

During Her Long Career, She Has Made a World of Difference

Jody O’Brien

Now 87, almost 88, Joanne (Jody) O’Brien is two decades and change past what the Social Security Administration considers ‘full retirement age.’

But she is still working — two days a week as a triage nurse for the Urology Group of Western New England (UGWNE), in its Northampton office. She’s doing plenty of other things to keep busy, which we’ll get to, but for now, let’s focus on her day job — and the fact that she still has one.

When asked why, her face curves into a huge smile — it seems to be almost permanently like that — and she offers a simple and direct explanation.

“I love nursing,” she told BusinessWest with a voice that would imply this would be obvious if she’s been doing it for more than 67 years. But she wanted to elaborate, and did.

“I lucked out picking nursing as a profession coming out of high school because it’s just been the most rewarding career I could possibly imagine,” she said. “I’ve enjoyed it so much that I don’t want it to end. As long as someone keeps me employed, I’ll keep coming to work.

“I absolutely love what I do — I can’t say enough about how great nursing has been for me,” she went on. “It’s a wonderful career to have. I’ve tried so many different aspects of it, and I’ve loved them all. So I figured there’s no sense packing it in if you love what you’re doing.”

Her career has placed her in many settings — from a hospital ship that was part of Project Hope in the early ’60s to Western New England College, where she was director of Health Services; from an eye-surgery office in Hawaii to the Hampden County Jail and House of Correction, where she was a per-diem nurse and, later, director of nurses, with many other stops as well.

“I lucked out picking nursing as a profession coming out of high school because it’s just been the most rewarding career I could possibly imagine. I’ve enjoyed it so much that I don’t want it to end. As long as someone keeps me employed, I’ll keep coming to work.”

But longevity and this variety of professional settings only begins to explain why O’Brien has been chosen as a Healthcare Hero for 2023 in the Lifetime Achievement category. Beyond her various day (and night) jobs, she has undertaken a number of service and volunteer assignments — from reading at Valley Eye Radio to taking care of orphans in Romania; from teaching English to nursing students in China to tagging sharks in Belize; from restoring and protecting turtle habitats in Costa Rica to working at Whispering Horse Therapeutic Riding, supporting riders with disabilities.

All this suggests she could easily have been nominated in several, if not all, the categories of Healthcare Heroes. Because of the length, variety, and broad impact of her work, she is being honored in the Lifetime Achievement category, one that has traditionally been dominated by administrators. In this case, though, it is going to a provider. A provider of care. A provider of hope. A provider of inspiration.

Jody O’Brien with staff members

Jody O’Brien with staff members at the Urology Group of Western New England’s Springfield office.
Staff Photo

Through her 87 years, 67 of them as a nurse, she has seen just about everything, including a global pandemic. Summing it all up, she said her passion for helping others hasn’t dimmed — and has probably only grown stronger — nearly 70 years after she entered nursing school.

This enthusiasm and energy was conveyed by Dr. Donald Sonn, a physician with UGWNE, who was among those who hired her 18 years ago.

“When we first interviewed her, we were struck by how positive and effervescent she was, and how energetic she was,” he recalled. “I’m constantly amazed by her energy and her positive attitude.”

Calling her an “ombudsman” for the practice’s patients, Sonn said O’Brien consistently draws praise for her calm, steady hand (and voice on the phone) and her desire to assist others.

All of this — and much more — explains why she is a true Healthcare Hero.


Riding the Wave

‘Cuba si, Yanquis no.’ That translates to ‘Cuba yes, Yankees no,’ and it’s a phrase, and a song, that O’Brien heard repeatedly as she served aboard the USS Hope, the former Navy hospital ship that was chartered to the People to People Health Foundation in 1960, when it was docked in Trujillo, Peru two years later.

“The people who met us at the dock were Communists, and they did not want us there,” she recalled, adding that the exploits of the USS Hope in Peru later became the subject of the book Yanqui Come Back!

O’Brien spent a year on the Hope, earning a $25 monthly stipend. But as those credit card commercials used to say, it was a learning experience that was priceless.

She worked beside a constantly changing team of doctors that performed surgery on the ship and in hospitals on the mainland, with procedures ranging from plastic surgery for burns to work to address cleft palate and hairlip, to removal of tumors, some of which had grown to enormous sizes because the patients hadn’t seen a healthcare provider in years, if not decades.

Urologist Dr. Donald Sonn

Urologist Dr. Donald Sonn calls Healthcare Hero Jody O’Brien an “ombudsman” for the practice’s patients.
Staff Photo

“People would walk for miles to get to the ship to be treated, and we treated everyone who needed it,” she recalled. “It was such a learning experience for me working with all these doctors.
“I was still young and adventurous,” she went on as she talked about how she paused her career, sort of, to serve on the ship, adding that she has remained young at heart and has always, in her recollection, been adventurous.

Indeed, the book on her life and career has many intriguing chapters, some of which are still being written. In literary circles, they would call this a ‘page turner.’

Our story starts in Iowa, where O’Brien was born and raised, and where she decided she wanted to be a nurse. She attended nursing school in Davenport — a three-year diploma program that cost $500.

Upon graduation, she took a job in Davenport, but soon thereafter, she went to Hawaii to stay with a friend who had recently had a baby and wanted her company while her husband was deployed.

It was in Hawaii that O’Brien became acquainted with Project Hope. She visited the ship when it was docked and became intrigued with its mission. After returning to Iowa, she filled out an application to serve in Project Hope as an operating room nurse, and in 1962, she was approved for service.

During her year on the USS Hope, she met a volunteer named Ed O’Brien, from Holyoke. Upon returning to Iowa, she would drive to the Paper City to renew acquaintances. They would marry in 1963 and eventually settle in East Longmeadow.

Thus would commence a series of assignments in the 413, but also well beyond it.


Care Package

These included a lengthy stint at what was then Wesson Women’s Hospital, working in labor and delivery, and another as a nurse practitioner in an ob/gyn office.

From 1983 to 1988, she served as director of Health Services at Western New England College, handling the needs of 6,000 students, and also as a per diem nurse at the Hampden County Jail and House of Correction.

She then accepted a travel nurse assignment at Castle Hospital in Kailua, Hawaii. She stayed in Hawaii for a dozen years, also serving as nurse manager of an eye-surgery center and as branch director of Nursefinders of Hawaii. And while in the Aloha State, she earned a master’s degree from Central Michigan University.

“She would go on a trip every three or four months, and it was always something really fascinating — volunteering in some third-world country or teaching children or reading to the blind. She has a tremendous record of service.”

She returned to Western Mass. in 2000 and took a job as area director of Nursefinders of Eastern Massachusetts, and soon thereafter became a flex team manager at Baystate Medical Center, managing 60 RNs, 25 technical assistants, 45 constant companions, and the ‘lift team.’

At the Urology Group of New England, which she joined 18 years ago, she works two days a week — Monday and Wednesday. The former is generally the busiest and perhaps the most difficult of the days of the week, but that’s when the group needs the help, so that’s when she works.

O’Brien’s whole career has been like that, in many respects — showing up when and where the help is most needed.

That’s true professionally, but also in her work as a volunteer, with work that is wide-ranging, to say the least.

Indeed, during the three days she’s not working at the Urology Group — and all through her life, for that matter — she has found no shortage of ways to give back and be there, for both people and animals.

Among them is her work with Valley Eye Radio, where she reads the local newspaper for the benefit of those who can’t read it themselves.

“It makes you feel good to know that, for people who cannot read or have difficulty reading, we can share what’s going on today in Springfield or the United States or the world,” she said. “We can share that information with them.”

Meanwhile, she also volunteers with Greater Springfield Senior Services, helping individuals who can no longer handle their own finances with bill paying and other responsibilities, and with Whispering Horse Therapeutic Riding, a nonprofit that, among other things, brings horses to nursing homes, where residents can feed and pet the animals.

“The way they light up when they see these horses … it’s so gratifying,” she told BusinessWest, adding that she and a colleague will visit facilities regularly — sometimes weekly, other times monthly.

Animals have always been a big part of her life — and her strong track record of giving back. In addition to tagging sharks and restoring turtle habitats, she has also volunteered at animal sanctuaries in Australia to care for koalas, often taking her grandchildren with her on such service trips, introducing them to the many rewards that come with such work.

“At this age, you know you don’t have many more days to fill, so you fill each one of them,” she said, but concedes that she’s always wanted to stay busy.

“She’s done so much in her life … I’ve always looked forward to listening to her talk about trips, her escapades,” said Sonn, choosing that word carefully. “She would go on a trip every three or four months, and it was always something really fascinating — volunteering in some third-world country or teaching children or reading to the blind. She has a tremendous record of service.”

In both aspects of her life — as a nurse and as a volunteer — the common thread has been a desire to help those in need, and this explains why she has been chosen as a Healthcare Hero for 2023.

“I loved working at Western New England; the college kids were a joy to work with,” she said, adding that each stop in her career has been different — and enjoyable. “There’s something about taking care of people and helping them deal with mental and physical problems and seeing what you can do to help them in their lives.”


Still Making a Difference

There are many people who have worked well into their 80s in healthcare. And there are many people who have put dozens of lines on a résumé detailing a lengthy list of career stops.

But there are few who have the passion, dedication, and resolve to use their talents and their love for helping others to make a world of difference, in every aspect of that phrase.

Jody O’Brien is such an individual. That commitment has helped her stand out in this field for seven decades. It makes her a Healthcare Hero. n

Tourism & Hospitality

Vine Tuned

Ian Modestow and Michelle Kersberger

Ian Modestow and Michelle Kersberger have orchestrated steady growth at Black Birch Vineyard since launching the Hatfield operation in 2017.



There are not many companies that can say that the pandemic was “probably the best thing that could have happened to us.”

But that’s the phrase Michelle Kersberger summoned as she talked about those unprecedented times. And this was not hyperbole.

Indeed, while the start of the pandemic was a difficult, scary time, to say the least — Kersberger would load up her car and make deliveries to wine-club members just to bring in some much-needed revenue — by late in that summer of 2020, COVID-19 had played a major role in putting the hidden gem that was Black Birch Vineyard on the proverbial map.

“By the time August came around, we had to stop people from coming in,” she said, adding that the winery moved all its operations outdoors, and area residents starved for things to do found several at Black Birch.

“The pandemic was pandemonium. It was crazy here … people were coming from everywhere,” said Ian Modestow, Kersberger’s husband and business partner in this venture, recalling that there were COVID-related restrictions on how many people could be seated outdoors at the winery at any given time, and on more than a few occasions, he had to park his tractor at the top of the long driveway off Straits Road in Hatfield to keep more vehicles from venturing down that gravel path.

“We worked our butts off, our staff worked their butts off … we had too many people coming in, and we had to turn some away.”

Looking back on those days, Ian and Michelle said they were essentially rolling with the punches and making the very best of the opportunities that presented themselves, an MO that has defined Black Birch since they settled into this former onion farm in 2017 after selling off their share of a similar venture in Southampton.

Those opportunities range from the staging of concerts during the summer months — a tradition born from COVID, in many respects — to hosting a wide variety of events in the tasting room, to selling wool and meat generated from the 40 or so sheep that now populate this beautiful real estate.

Things have settled down a little from those crazy days of the pandemic, but business remains steady at Black Birch, and, increasingly, it is now year-round, as we’ll see.

The main businesses are growing grapes and making wine, and Black Birch now produces several different labels, from its Epic White, made from Vidal Blanc grapes, to Eloquent Red, a blend of Cabernet Franc, Blaufrankisch, and Marquette. They come in two distinct labels, white for the ‘heritage’ wines made with grapes purchased from outside growers, and black for the estate wines made with grapes grown on site in Hatfield.

This theme of rolling with the punches continues in 2023, a difficult year due to different types of extreme weather — first a killing frost that destroyed 80% of the grapes planted in May, and then incessant summer rains that will certainly impact the 20% that survived, said Modestow, noting that grapes like it dry and hot, and there simply hasn’t been a lot of that lately.

Fortunately, 2021 and 2022 were boom years for this venture, Kersberger said, adding that they have provided a cushion of sorts from the problems of this spring and summer, although the damage done by Mother Nature will certainly take a toll.

Black Birch now offers a wide array of wines

Black Birch now offers a wide array of wines featuring both its ‘heritage’ and ‘estate’ labels.

Overall, the business plan calls for moving toward producing all wines with grapes produced on site, said Modestow, adding that they’re roughly halfway to that goal, while also growing each of the various operations within this venture, from the events to the sheep’s wool.

For this issue and its focus on wineries and breweries, BusinessWest paid a visit to Black Birch to learn about how a hobby turned into a business … and a passion.


Grape Expectations

As they talked about their venture, Modestow and Kersberger were joined first by sibling cats Chardonnay, or ‘Chard’ for short, and Pinot, and later by Burmese mountain dogs Yogi and Simka, who have become part of the team, if you will, at Black Birch, a vision that first started coming into focus when the two business owners met while attending UMass Amherst in the mid-’90s.

Later, during their college journey, they traveled to the Netherlands to visit some of Kersberger’s family and took a side trip to the Loire Valley in France, famous for its wine production.

“We have a lot of repeat customers, and those customers bring new customers, and it grows from there; there’s a lot of word-of-mouth advertising.”

“Being poor college students, we had to camp, and we would camp at farms, and many of them were vineyards — mom-and-pop operations,” she explained. “It sparked our interest, and any time we traveled after that, we always made sure we visited any vineyards or wineries in the region, and our love of the culture grew from there. Everything about wine and winemaking and the community and the social aspect of it … it was always a draw for us.”

Modestow concurred. “When we traveled, we went to wine-growing areas — Burgundy, Champagne, California, Washington, Spain, even Canada and Texas.”

This interest, and burgeoning passion for wine and making wine, stayed with them as they lived in Amsterdam for a year while Ian attended school there for archaeology, and later, as they started their professional careers, with Modestow launching a dental practice in Northampton and Kersberger essentially managing that practice.

In 2011, this interest in wine started morphing into a business, with Modestow and Kersberger partnering with Mary and Ed Hamel in a venture that would become Black Birch Vineyard in Southampton. In the spring of 2017, they would take that name and their experience, equipment, and burgeoning entrepreneurial spirit to a former onion farm in Hatfield and put down some roots — figuratively, but also quite literally.

Indeed, they would move twice in two months, first to a storage facility and then to the farm in Hatfield, and eventually plant more than 12 acres with roughly 19,000 vines of several different cool-climate varietals, from Chardonnay to Riesling; Pinot Noir to Trominette. They also opened a tasting room (a transformed former onion barn) and launched a wine club.

Black Birch Vineyard

Black Birch Vineyard

Over time, Modestow would ease out of his dental practice — he is now all but officially retired from that profession — and he and Kersberger would make wine and winemaking a full-time pursuit.

They were gradually gaining some traction, and a following, for their wines, when the pandemic put them on a faster, more vibrant track. As noted earlier, it didn’t happen overnight; the first few months of the pandemic were quite scary indeed as both Black Birch and the dental practice shut down, leaving no revenue coming in.

But as area residents starting looking for things they could do, the Black Birch team saw opportunities as they moved many functions outside and kicked off their summer music series with artists who were looking for, and desperate for, places to play their music.

“We were able to open up, pivot what we were doing, and make everything work,” Kersberger recalled. “We worked our butts off, our staff worked their butts off … we had too many people coming in, and we had to turn some away.”

Those who did manage to get down that long driveway apparently enjoyed their experience, she went on, noting that there have been large numbers of repeat customers coming to Black Birch, enough to make 2021 and 2022 “banner years” for the operation.

“People have been coming back,” she said. “Maybe not as often, but they’re coming back; we really got our name out there.”

Indeed, Black Birch has settled into a groove, if you will, with its recently concluded summer concert series routinely drawing more than 200 visitors; the tasting room seeing business year-round; the facility hosting a wide array of events, from birthday parties to wedding-rehearsal parties; and the sheep generating various forms of business while also grazing the spaces between the rows of vines and providing fertilizer for the vineyard.

And what used to a two- or three-season business is now a year-round venture.

“Things have changed over the past two or three years,” Modestow said. “We’ve gone from winters being dead to winters actually being quite steady.”

Kersberger agreed, noting that the vineyard and winery now draw visitors from up and down the I-91 corridor and beyond, including Connecticut, Vermont, New York, and all across Western Mass., while also welcoming students from UMass and the other Five Colleges institutions — who are more into wine those of a generation or two ago — as well as their parents and friends.

“A huge portion of our customers are from this area,” Kersberger said. “We have a lot of repeat customers, and those customers bring new customers, and it grows from there; there’s a lot of word-of-mouth advertising.”


Bottom Line

Getting back to the business plan and the broad goal of producing only wines with those black ‘estate’ labels, Modestow said the extreme weather of 2023 has certainly set those plans back.

On one fateful night in May, the temperature dropped to 25 degrees, killing 80% of the crop at Black Birch.

The full impact of this setback won’t be known for some time, he said, but given the growing demand for Black Birch wines, the damages will certainly increase both dependence on grapes grown elsewhere and reliance on what remains in inventory from previous years.

Meanwhile, after those banner years of 2021 and 2022, when growth was “off the charts,” Kersberger said, projections are for steady, if not as spectacular, growth moving forward.

In short, those at Black Birch will do more rolling with the punches — and the weather.

That has been standard operating procedure since the first vines were planted back in May 2017, and this mindset has enabled a business — and a passion — to take root and bear fruit, both literally and figuratively.

Cover Story

Coming to a Head


Brewer and owner Matt Tarlechi

Brewer and owner Matt Tarlechi

Matt Tarlechi says many people assume that he found a home for his fledgling brewery and then attached a name that spoke to that location.

Truth is, he and friends had long before settled on the name Abandoned Building for this venture — he’s from Philadelphia, and, apparently, there were a lot of abandoned buildings there at the time — and then went about securing a home that, well … fit that description.

He found one, sort of, in the complex of mills on Pleasant Street in Easthampton. The spot chosen, in the sprawling Brickyard Mill, wasn’t exactly abandoned, but it was vacant, having last been occupied by a manufacturer of plastic bags and similar products.

A decade or so after settling in, Tarlechi and a growing staff now numbering 14 have found more than a home. They’ve found a place — among the growing number of breweries in Western Mass., in the community of Easthampton and the surrounding area, and, increasingly, on the list of intriguing destinations on Friday night.

Indeed, in addition to producing a wide variety of brews with names like Dirty Girl IPA, Galactic Insanity (another IPA), and Cool Beans, a cold-brew coffee stout, ABB, as it’s called, has become well-known for its Food Truck Friday, which is just what it sounds like — the gathering of a few food trucks, some live music, and cold brews in the mill’s parking lot.

“We had a good amount of time to establish ourselves as a craft brewery that puts out consistent beers throughout the year. And we’ve had a lot of customers who have been here since early on that we still have today.”

“We set up tables and chairs, and we invite three to five different food trucks to come out,” he explained. “We also have live music and provide beer in the beer garden. We do it 16 times a year, and it’s become a staple in Easthampton for families, friends, and visitors.”

On a good night — and weather is usually the biggest factor — these events will draw more than 700 people to the mill, he said, adding that they have become part of the fabric of the community and succeeded in helping to make Easthampton, a former mill town that has evolved into a center for hospitality and the arts, into a true destination.

Ten years on, Tarlechi told BusinessWest, his brewery has really found its place, and the business plan essentially calls for more of everything that has gone into the success formula. And there are many ingredients — from the beers to the food trucks to the growing appeal of the created event space, which will soon host a wedding, but is better-known for wedding-rehearsal parties, showers, birthday gatherings, and the like.

Overall, the craft-beer landscape has changed considerably since ABB first opened its doors, with a huge increase in competition across the 413. But that competition has only helped in some ways, as we’ll see, and this venture has a name and track record for excellence that are well-grounded.

“One of the great things that has been an advantage to us is that we did get in here early on — we’re coming up on 10 years early next year,” he explained. “So we had a good amount of time to establish ourselves as a craft brewery that puts out consistent beers throughout the year. And we’ve had a lot of customers who have been here since early on that we still have today.”

Abandoned Building Brewery

Abandoned Building Brewery has steadily added to its portfolio of Belgian-style beers over the past decade.

For this issue and its focus on breweries and wineries — a growing and ever-more-intriguing component of the region’s business community — BusinessWest opens the tap on Abandoned Building Brewery, which arrived with a brand, but has increasingly made a name for itself within the 413.


Perfecting His Craft

Tarlechi is an engineer by trade. But like many who start breweries, he was bitten by the home-brewing bug, and what started as a hobby while he was in college — California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo — eventually became his career.

“The science-y part of me was into the chemistry behind brewing, and the tinkerer in me was into all the fun setups of the home-brewing process,” he explained. “And throughout the end of college, and then grad school, and into my professional career, I was always doing home brewing on the side, entering competitions, earning a couple of medals.”

“The science-y part of me was into the chemistry behind brewing, and the tinkerer in me was into all the fun setups of the home-brewing process.”

After college, he returned to the Philadelphia area, where he grew up, and started work as a civil engineer in Valley Forge while home brewing on weekends.

His life, and career, took a dramatic turn after several visits to high-school friends who were attending Hampshire College. He would bring his home brews with him for these gatherings, and, after a while, his friends began to encourage him to take his brewing beyond his home — and into their backyard, figuratively speaking.

“They were saying, ‘there’s not a lot of breweries up here; you should start one in Western Mass.,’” he recalled, noting that the landscape was much different than it is now when it comes to players in the craft-brewing industry within the 413.

Food Truck Fridays

Food Truck Fridays at Abandoned Building Brewery have become part of the landscape in Easthampton, drawing people from across the region and beyond.

Indeed, there were a few established players in the region, but not many, and there was certainly room for more.

“I started doing some research, looking at the different towns,” he recalled. “At the time, I was only visiting a few days at a time, so I didn’t know the area really well. I started visiting more, looking at more of the area, and trying to figure out what breweries were up here. Back in 2013, there weren’t many — Berkshire Brewing, Lefty’s, Opa Opa was around, Northampton Brewery … those were the mainstays. The craft-beer explosion hadn’t really taken off here yet.”

Fast-forwarding a little, he said he drafted a business plan and started looking for a location — one that would go with the name Abandoned Building Brewery.

“Luckily, there were a lot of old mill buildings here in the Valley,” he said, adding that his search brought him to Holyoke, Chicopee, and other communities before settling on space in the Brickyard Mill on Pleasant Street in Easthampton, a former felt factory that had become home to a large recording studio, an electrician, a plumbing business, and a host of other tenants.

The space in question had been vacated by Yankee Plastics several years earlier, he went on, adding that it was well-suited to a brewery operation, needing only some cosmetic work, which he undertook almost entirely himself — paint, refinishing the floors, and adjustments for equipment.

“Having a really awesome space for people to visit has been at the core of moving us forward through the years.”

With the space secured, he commenced brewing in early 2014, focusing on Belgian-style brews, which makes this venture unique in many respects.

“These beers are not extremely popular in the broader craft-beer sense, like IPAs, brown ales, and stouts,” he explained. “But they’re popular enough, and they’re fun beers to make, like our Belgian Saison, which translates to ‘summer.’ It’s a lighter beer; it’s very unique in that the yeast, which is the showcase of the beer, gives it a lot of unique flavors — a lot of pepperiness, a lot of spice. We don’t add any of these things to the beer — it’s all about how you treat the yeast during fermentation.”

Meanwhile, Tarlechi and his growing team have expanded and further renovated the space, building out a larger tasting room several years ago and adding an outdoor beer garden, while also taking full advantage of a municipal project to pave the back parking lot. These steps have made the brewery more visible and more accessible.

Mike Cook (left) and Will Meyer

Mike Cook (left) and Will Meyer opened their Vegan Pizza Land trailer at Abandoned Building Brewery in May.

“Before, it really lived up to its name of being an abandoned building — people were wondering what was going on back here when we first moved in,” he recalled. “But the city and the building owners got this grant money, and they were able to improve utilities — electrical, water — and add the parking lot you see now.”


Draught Choice

Over the years, ABB has added a number of new labels to the portfolio while continuing to produce many of what could be called its legacy brews, including Dirty Girl, a Western-style IPA; Galactic Insanity, a New England-style IPA; and Curbside Pils, a Bohemian-style Czech pilsner that has become a staple of the brewery.

Additions over the years include Lola’s Saison, a pale-golden-colored, Belgian-style farmhouse Saison; Oktoberfest, ABB’s interpretation of a classic Marzen-style brew; Odin Quadrupel, the most complex Belgian-style ale in the portfolio — and the beer that started Tarlechi down the path to opening ABB — and Zappa Zappa Zappa, another New England IPA featuring a new and esoteric hop called Zappa.

These beers and others are available in the tap room, and also in cans in package stores across the region, said Tarlechi, adding that, like most breweries in this region, cans became the distribution model of choice, rather than ‘growlers,’ the large, half-gallon glass jugs that were popular several years ago, or the smaller bottles.

“It turns out that the aluminum can is actually a much better vessel for containing beer,” he explained, noting that a mobile canning operation comes to the brewery three or four times a month. “It doesn’t let any light in, the seal on it is much more durable than a bottlecap, and it’s easier to ship and easier to store.

“Once the cans came onto the market, it really changed everything — it allowed us to get into more locations,” he went on. “It’s a lot easier to sell to retail package stores with cans — they’re a little more attractive.”

But, as noted earlier, this venture has become about much than the beer, although that is still, and always will be, the main attraction.

Which brings us back to the space, to events like Food Truck Fridays, and also to a food truck that has become a permanent part of the landscape in Easthampton, one selling vegan pizza. They all factor large in the business plan moving forward.

“Having a really awesome space for people to visit has been at the core of moving us forward through the years,” Tarlechi said, adding that the space has certainly evolved over the years and has become a destination of sorts, especially with the two other breweries in town — New City Brewery and Fort Hill Brewery — creating a sort of Easthampton craft-beer trail. “Having dedicated spaces where people can go and hang out and bring their friends … you almost need to have that these days.”

Indeed, while ABB draws most of its visitors from the 413, others are coming from Connecticut, New York, and the Boston area as well.

They come for the beer, he said, but also the food trucks and the live music on Friday nights, which have become somewhat of a tradition in the region. They start in May and end in October (sometimes with space heaters), and, as noted earlier, they draw several hundred people to the mill on Pleasant Street.

“I’ve tried to keep the same equation since we started,” he told BusinessWest. “We provide the tables, the chairs, the food trucks, and the music, and that’s it. People come, bring their friends, and … community just kind of happens at these events.”


When It Rains, They Pour

The weather has not been kind to Food Truck Fridays — or many other business endeavors — this summer, said Tarlechi, noting that this is a rain-or-shine event, and on at least occasions, it’s been the former.

Still, the show has gone on, albeit with smaller crowds and a maybe one or two fewer food trucks.

But the tradition — where, again, community just kind of happens — will continue, he said. In fact, it has become part of the vision and the business plan at this brewery, a venture that, 10 years later, has found not only a home that conveys its name, but a distinctive place within the 413.

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight


Mayor Will Reichelt

Mayor Will Reichelt says planning is underway for West Springfield’s 250th birthday, with anniversary-themed events slated for each month of the year.

Once the 17 days of the Big E Fair begin, Gene Cassidy settles into a routine he’s followed for years now.

His day starts early, with a few minutes in his office in the Brooks Building, before he gets into a golf cart and proceeds to his ‘other office’ in the Hampden County building. Along the way, he stops in with employees in the parking area, the ticket booths, and other areas to get a sense of how things went the day before and what would be expected in the hours to come. And to stress, again, the importance of these 17 days to the overall health and vitality of this West Side institution.

“I remind people that they can make the difference between someone who’s a patron having a good day or a bad day,” he said. “Or I’ll thank them if the day before was pouring rain … I’m very conscientious about making sure that people understand that we make 87% of our revenue in 17 days. The people who work here, they have to know how important their role is to delivering to the fairgoing public an experience that’s at the highest level it can possibly be.”

Before any of that, though, Cassidy checks the attendance numbers for the corresponding day of the fair the year before. That number becomes a target and a tone setter, he explained, adding that, if that day from the year before was a washout due to rain, there probably won’t be any trouble matching or exceeding results and moving toward the ultimate goal of improvement over last year. If it was a really good day the year prior, it’s the opposite.

Which means that, this Big E season, there will be some big nuts to crack.

“I remind people that they can make the difference between someone who’s a patron having a good day or a bad day.”

Indeed, the fair set five single-day attendance records in 2022, starting on opening day, and continuing to the second Friday, the second Saturday (when the single-day record was broken and more than 177,789 came through the gates), the second Monday, and the final day. Overall, the 2022 fair came in just shy of the 17-day record of 1,543,470 set in 2018.

“People really responded to the fair last year, and, overall, the weather was pretty good,” Cassidy said, touching on a subject we’ll get back to in some depth later. “People really came out.”

Those new standards set last year, and maybe some others as well, might fall this year, based on what Cassidy has seen in Wisconsin, which just wrapped up its annual fair, as well as Indiana and elsewhere.

Indeed, while inflation remains high, and Americans have plowed through most of the money they saved during the pandemic and are now taking on more debt, attendance at fairs like the Big E is up, said Cassidy, who believes such institutions provide what people are looking for these days.

“We represent the very best of the American way of life,” he said. “The fair is a place for family and friends and camaraderie. The Wisconsin fair recently ended, and they had amazing attendance, and Indiana is going on now, and they had a few record-setting days. People gravitate toward that which satisfies the need for human interaction. Even in years when we have high inflation, people may sacrifice a trip to Disney or a trip to Boston for a Red Sox game to get together with family at the fair.”

West Springfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1774
Population: 28,835
Area: 17.5 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $15.54
Commercial Tax Rate: $30.58
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

The ramp-up to the Big E is always big news in West Springfield, and this year is no exception. But there are other developing stories, as they say, starting with the community’s 250th birthday in 2024; a major, as in major, upgrade of Memorial Avenue, the mailing address for the Big E and many other businesses; and the opening of the town’s first cannabis enterprises.

Mayor Will Reichelt said planning for the 250th is well underway, with a full slate of events set, starting early in 2024 and continuing throughout the year.

That slate includes a 250th Leap Year celebration on Feb. 29, with specifics to be determined; a 250th Ball, slated for May 18; a parade and block party in June; a golf tournament and 5K in July; a parade in August … you get the idea.

As for the massive, $26 million upgrade to Memorial Avenue, work is already underway, said Reichelt, noting tree-removal work and other initiatives, and it will ramp up considerably over the next few years, bringing improvement to a major thoroughfare, but undoubtedly some headaches as well.

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at West Springfield and the many things happening in this community, starting with the annual fair.


On a Good Run

Reichelt was among the competitors at the recent Ironman competition that wove its way through several area communities, including West Springfield — and a stretch of the Connecticut River for the swimming part of the competition.

He finished in just under seven and half hours — the top finishers came in at just over four hours — a time that he will look to improve upon next year (yes, he’s already committing to doing it again).

“Even in years when we have high inflation, people may sacrifice a trip to Disney or a trip to Boston for a Red Sox game to get together with family at the fair.”

“I bought an Ironman training guide and wrote my time for this year and my projected time for next year,” he said, adding that the target for the 2024 event is to get under six hours. “If I start training now, I think I can get there.”

The Ironman is one of many events already on the 2024 calendar — or soon to announce official dates — that will take on the flavor of the 250th anniversary, everything from St. Patrick’s Day activities to the block party, which will embody elements of a Taste of West Springfield event that was a staple in the community for many years.

Overall, planning for the 250th is ongoing and will ramp up over the coming months, said Reichelt, noting that, while the actual 250th birthday is Feb. 25, this will be a year-long celebration.

Gene Cassidy

Gene Cassidy says the Big E came close to setting a new 17-day attendance record in 2022, and if the weather cooperates, it might accomplish that feat this year.

By the time it’s over, some major thoroughfares will look considerably different, he said, starting with Memorial Avenue. By this time next year, a project that has been nearly a decade in the making will be well underway, he noted, adding that highlights of the ambitious undertaking, designed to improve traffic flow, will include a reduction of lanes from four to three along a stretch by the Big E, with reconstruction of traffic islands to allow for better turning in and out of businesses along the street. The stretch from Union Street to the Memorial Bridge will also feature a bike lane.

In addition, water and sewer mains are being replaced, and drainage systems will be improved, he said, adding that the project will take several years to complete.

Meanwhile, the city will soon commence work on another major infrastructure project in its downtown area.

It includes construction of a roundabout at the intersection of Westfield and Elm Streets, an area that has seen renewed vibrancy with the opening in recent years of new restaurants and the redevelopment of the former United Bank building into a mixed-use facility called Town Commons. Also planned are improvements to the town common, with new sidewalks, tree plantings, and more.

Beyond infrastructure, there are some new developments within the business community as well, said the mayor, noting that the town’s first cannabis dispensaries — the community was a late entry in this sweepstakes — will be opening in the coming weeks, with one on Memorial Avenue near the bridge, and the other on Riverdale Street.

Meanwhile, the town continues to work with Amherst Brewing on redevelopment of the former Hofbrahaus restaurant just off Memorial Avenue — a project that has been paused with hopes that it can be restarted — and plans are being forwarded, by the same group that redeveloped the former United Bank building, to redevelop a long-closed nursing home off Westfield Street, with housing being the preferred option.


Fair Game

As he talked with BusinessWest about the upcoming Big E, the weather, and the overall goal of matching or exceeding last year’s numbers, Cassidy got up from his desk and retrieved his notes from previous fairs.

In deep detail, he has recorded not just the attendance for a given day, but the weather and other factors that might provide deeper insight into those numbers.

Especially the weather.

Indeed, Cassidy goes much deeper than ‘rain,’ ‘sun,’ or even ‘partly cloudy’ to describe a day. Much, much deeper.

“We missed the 17-day record last year by just a little bit, and the reason we missed it is because we had five days of rain,” he explained. “I often laugh, because people will say ‘oh, the weather was great year.’ Well, it was great on the day they came.”

Running back over his notes, Cassidy revealed the level of detail given to cataloguing, if that’s the right term, each day of the fair, so that the numbers can be fully understood and put in their proper context.

“That first Sunday was a threatening mix all day; Monday and Tuesday were heavy rain; Monday, there was sun at 5 p.m.; Tuesday, there was sun at 2 p.m., and it was very hot,” he said, reading from his notes. “The first Thursday, there was heavy rain with lightning all day. And the second Monday was pleasant, but there was serious rain at 5:30, and the people ran out — although we had a very big day that day. We had a big day on the final Sunday, but it was cold and overcast.”

All this serves to show the importance of weather to the success of the fair, Cassidy said, adding that this isn’t lost on anyone at the fair, with everyone involved hoping that the seemingly constant rains that have swollen area rivers and damaged crops of all kinds will take a break in mid- to late September.

Beyond weather, Cassidy also likes to talk about what’s new at the fair, starting with entertainment, but also food.

Regarding the former, the 2023 fair will feature an eclectic mix of musical acts, including John Fogerty, Bachman-Turner Overdrive, Parker McCollum, Jimmy Eat World, Quinn XCII, Chris Young, and many more. As for the food, Cassidy teased that there is an intriguing new addition for the 2023 fair, but he couldn’t announce what it was at the moment.

What he did say is that food has come a long way — a long, long way — over the past few decades, with offerings that go well beyond traditional fair food and also beyond the ‘everything that can possibly be fried’ category as well.

“The food is so different today than it was 20 years ago, when it was more fair food,” he told BusinessWest. “There is a lot of high-quality food here, and it has nothing to do with being fried. The food today is so much more creatively put together. You can get steak tips with real mashed potatoes and fresh vegetables; no one thought you could buy that on a fairgrounds 20 years ago.

“When I first started in the fair industry, there were hamburgers and hot dogs and cotton candy and candied apples; there was a guy who made sausages,” he went on. “Today, the quality of food, the abundance of it, and the diversity of it are significantly different.”

Some of these eclectic offerings are available at a new area that made its debut in 2022 and will return this year. It’s called the Front Porch, and it promotes small businesses, many of them taking their first opportunity to showcase their brand, Cassidy said.

Last year, there were nine or 10 businesses participating, and this year, there will be seven or eight, to provide the ventures with more room to operate, he said, adding that some will be back from last year, while others will not, primarily because they’ve moved on to brick-and-mortar operations.

“It’s a fun way for people to get their feet on the ground,” he said, adding that the Front Porch has become an intriguing and popular addition to the landscape at the Big E — and one more reason for folks to show up in West Springfield … and maybe break a few more records.

Features Special Coverage

Celebrating a Legend

Sr. Mary Caritas

Sr. Mary Caritas

Sr. Mary Caritas, SP turned 100 on Aug. 22. It was a day to be celebrated in almost every respect, with one sad note, if it can be called that.

She decided that would be the day she turned in her driver’s license (it expired then, actually), saying goodbye to at least the driver’s seat of the Toyota RAV4 that she had come to know and love, and a small SUV that gave her something she’s never really had throughout her long and remarkable life — a break from being vertically challenged.

“All my life I’ve been looking up at … everything,” said the diminutive (in physical size only) Sr. Caritas, called ‘Little Sister’ by some in the Sisters of Providence over the years. “In that RAV4, I’ve been sitting on top of the world, looking down at everything; it’s been such a blessing.”

When asked why she gave up her license, she said simply, “I’m going to be sad about it, but it’s the time to do it,” and then elaborated a little.

“My balance isn’t as good as it used to be, my gait isn’t what it used to be, and my reaction time isn’t what it used to be; at 100, what do you expect?” she said in summing up her decision.

Maybe her balance is slipping, but her sense of humor, one of many enduring qualities, is as sharp as ever. Indeed, when she talked about her longevity and juxtaposed it against the knee replacement she underwent at age 97, she said matter-of-factly, “I need to live long enough to get my money’s worth.”

No one doubts that she will.

While she has given up her driver’s license and no longer sits on any external boards — “they all want younger boards these days, and I skew the age higher … much higher” — the dynamic Sr. Caritas, born Mary Geary, remains active on many levels.

She’s active with the Sisters of Providence, with matters for the diocese, such as deciding the fate of some of the buildings on the former Brightside complex still to be repurposed; on the golf course — although she’s not playing as much as she once did because others are having health issues — and as a mentor to many.

“The word that comes to me is indefatigable — no matter what the problem is, the task, or the role, she engages herself and gathers others around her.”

And if you watch Jeopardy! or the nightly news, you might catch her in a TV ad reciting the track record of Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, who is one of several candidates jockeying for votes in the primary coming up later this month. “I’m not out there holding signs for anyone,” she said, adding that she can’t even vote in Springfield. “But if someone asks me my option of Mayor Sarno, I’ll give it to them.”

And if you keep watching, you might see her in one of several different testimonial ads for car-dealership owner Gary Rome. “Someone put a camera in my face, asked me what I thought of Gary, and they made it into a commercial.”

She’s in these ads, presumably, because she’s extremely well-known and possesses a name, and a voice, that people trust. And when she talks, people listen. She’s earned that trust, and that willingness to listen to what she says, through roughly eight decades of service and involvement in this region, often at the highest levels.

Indeed, over the years, Sr. Caritas has been asked to do lots of things — from managing Mercy Hospital to solving the odor problems at Bondi’s Island. She’s rarely said no — when given assignments by the ministry, she really couldn’t say no — and has almost always succeeded with the task she’s been given.

In many respects, she’s risen to legend status, one of few in the 413.

“Sr. Caritas has been called a legend in her time, and that’s rare,” said Sr. Kathleen Popko, SP, president of the Sisters of Providence, who has served beside her colleague in many capacities for decades now. “From my perspective, she’s coached, inspired, and facilitated the growth of so many people and organizations. Her résumé is astounding, and the number of awards she’s received is amazing. She’s amazing.

“The word that comes to me is indefatigable — no matter what the problem is, the task, or the role, she engages herself and gathers others around her,” Sr. Popko went on, using the present tense, as we will throughout this piece. “Just think of her nickname, ‘Sr. Sludge,’ and how she dealt with the Bondi’s Island odor problem.”

For this issue, BusinessWest sat down with Sr. Caritas on the occasion of her 100th birthday to talk about her life and career — and where she found all the energy that drove her, and continues to drive her today.

Century Unlimited

On the door to Sr. Caritas’s apartment at Providence Place in Holyoke, there’s a cloth sign hanging on a hook that reads “Golf suits me to a tee.” Below that, there’s another sign featuring the ‘golfer’s prayer’ — “May I live long enough to shoot my age.”

She certainly has lived long enough, but, by her reckoning, she’s never accomplished that rare feat. Indeed, golf has always been a hobby, and sometimes a time and place to get work done. But, by her own admission, she’s never been very good, although, as most everyone knows, she has a hole in one to her credit, at the 10th hole at East Mountain Country Club in Westfield.

While golf has been a constant in her life and something that helps capture who she is, to understand her life and what she has meant to the region, one needs to take in another piece of art hanging in her apartment.

It’s a framed print of an editorial cartoon published decades ago in the Republican. It features a much younger Sr. Caritas (she was 66 at the time), then president of Mercy Hospital, sporting boxing gloves and a sweatshirt that reads, “I love a good fight! Knock out Dukakis.” Explaining the image, she said then-Massachusetts Gov. Michael Dukakis was not supporting the state’s hospitals to the degree that she and others thought he should, and the difference of opinion had turned into a real battle.

‘I love a good fight’ is not a phrase one would likely attach to a member of the Sisters of Providence, but in this case, it fits. Sr. Caritas has never backed down from a fight she thought was important, whether that involved the governor, Congress, making sure hospitals in this region were adequately reimbursed for Medicare, or her lengthy battle to win approval from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health for a cobalt unit for cancer treatment at Mercy Hospital.

These fights have earned her a number of honors and accolades over the years — too many to mention in this space — including several from BusinessWest. Indeed, she and the other Sisters of Providence were honored with a Difference Makers award in 2013, while Sr. Caritas was the first to earn a Healthcare Heroes award in the Lifetime Achievement category in 2017. And last year, she was honored by the magazine as a Woman of Impact.

The awards offer testimony to not only her fighting spirit, but other traits as well, from perseverance to entrepreneurship to innovation, all of which were on display in many settings and in many posts, most of which, as she’s fond of saying, were not of her choosing.

One that was of her choosing was nursing school, specifically the one at Mercy Hospital, this after her parents had convinced her that the best path was to become a secretary — she went to school for the vocation, but failed at it (one of the few times she’s really failed at anything) and went into nursing instead.

She started in that field in 1945 at Mercy — she was going to become a nurse in the Navy, but World War II ended before she could enlist — earning $48 a month. After joining the Sisters of Providence, she was sent to St. Vincent’s Hospital in Worcester as a nurse. But upon making her final vows after her fifth year, in 1949, she was sent back to Mercy Hospital, a move she was thrilled with until she learned that, instead of nursing, she would focus on dietary services.

After receiving a master’s degree in nutrition education at Tufts University and undertaking a dietetic internship at the Francis Stern Food Clinic at the New England Medical Center in Boston, she was assigned to be administrative dietitian at Providence Hospital in Holyoke.  After seven years in that role, she was told she would become CEO of St. Luke’s Hospital in Pittsfield, where she would eventually oversee a merger with Pittsfield General to create Berkshire Medical Center. And just as she settled into that role, she was elected to be president of the Sisters of Providence, a role she served for eight years before taking the helm at Mercy Hospital.

“Every role I’ve had in the community is the best role I’ve ever had,” she told BusinessWest. “It always came about as a surprise, and not a happy one. But it always turned out to be the best time I had.”

Sr. Popko agreed.

“She oftentimes says that we understand God’s providence only in the rearview mirror,” she said of her colleague. “She had her plans, and life, meaning God’s providence intervened. She took on those roles, she educated herself and learned how to do them, and then moved on with her own personality, courage, daring, energy, and enthusiasm, and made a success of herself — and them.” 

Still a Driving Force

Sr. Caritas told BusinessWest she had no real plans for her 100th birthday — beyond retiring her driver’s license.

There was a large party for her, hosted by members of the Tremble family (owners of Valley Communications) early this month, and hers was one of the August birthdays celebrated at Providence Place on Aug. 16. Another party will take place at Mercy Hospital in September. It will take the form of a benefit for establishing a nurse’s scholarship in her name.

“How could I say no to that?” she asked rhetorically, noting that she didn’t want a party. “Nursing was my first love.”

And it still is, some 70 years or so since she left that role to become a dietitian. There have been many positions and many settings since, but as she turns 100, Sr. Caritas displays only a few signs of slowing down. Her driver’s license is one, but that won’t keep her from being active, especially with the Sisters of Providence and its many initiatives; she currently serves as vice president of the congregation and is actively involved with the redevelopment of the former Brightside property, already home to Hillside of Providence, a low-income elderly-housing facility, where residents are part of the PACE (Program of All-inclusive Care for the Elderly) initiative.

There are several ‘cottages’ left to be redeveloped, she said, adding that their condition is deteriorating and, thus, their fate is uncertain.

“We’re in the process of selecting an architect, and hopefully we’ll be redeveloping those buildings because the walls and the roofs are fine; hopefully, we can salvage them and recondition them.”

While looking ahead, Sr. Caritas (that name translates to ‘charity’) looked back on her career and her contributions. And while noting that most everything has changed within the broad spectrum of healthcare, the most basic things haven’t. She referred to her first love, nursing, to get this point across.

“When I was at Mercy, I always used to remind people that they’re more important for who they are than what they do,” she said. “Nursing comes from the word ‘nurture,’ and you have to remember that. Even though all kinds of things have changed, the basic belief, and basic sense of being, is all about that — a nurse is not someone who does something to you; a nurse becomes part of you and becomes part of your recovery process and assists you in things you can’t possibly do for yourself.”

And while she talked specifically about nursing, she said this mindset applies to everyone who works in healthcare, a message she has tried to impart to others throughout her career.

Looking back on that career, she noted that, while she has given much, she has received much in return, especially the opportunity to work with others to change lives and improve quality of life. She said she’s grateful for being given the opportunity to use her time and talents in ways that benefit others — even now, at 100 years old.

“God has been good to me in terms of intellectual energy, and my memory is still pretty good,” she told BusinessWest. “There’s some things I forget, but … I’m blessed.”

People in this region — and well beyond, for that matter — can say the same, for her tireless use of that intellectual energy, and all her other gifts, in many consequential ways.

Make a Wish

When asked how she would get around now that’s no longer licensed to drive, Sr. Caritas said she’ll probably rely on Uber.

She joked that area business leader, philanthropist, and good friend Harold Grinspoon — a bit of a legend himself — sent her a check for $500 so she could start her own account, a check she quickly tried to divert Providence Ministries. (He told her to keep the one he sent and wrote another one of the same amount to the ministry). “All I have to do now is learn how to Uber.”

If she ever does need a ride, there are probably … oh, only a few thousand people in that broad ‘friend’ category she could call and ask for a lift. And they would all be willing to help.

That’s the kind of respect — and, yes, love — she’s earned over a century of caring.

Indeed, while Sr. Caritas celebrates a milestone birthday, the region is celebrating her — and what has truly been a wonderful life.

She’ll have to sit in the passenger’s seat now, but she will always be a driving force for progress in this region.


Getting a Refresh

Diana Szynal

Diana Szynal says the Springfield Regional Chamber is refreshing many of its events, including Super 60 and its Rise & Shine breakfasts.


That’s how many ‘engagements’ Diana Szynal estimates she had during her first year as president and CEO of the Springfield Regional Chamber of Commerce (SRC).

By this, she means in-person meetings, Zoom sessions, phone calls, emails, talks at networking events, and more. These engagements were with a number of different constituencies — chamber members, elected officials, economic-development leaders, directors of others chambers, and more.

And while she believes that’s an accurate number, it’s really just an estimate.

Whatever the total might be, it adds up to a lot of talking — and especially a lot of listening. Through all that listening, Szynal has determined a least a few things. The first is that there is a good deal of momentum concerning the chamber and many of its programs and events, as evidenced by the addition of 45 new members over the past fiscal year. The second is that there is room for change and, in some cases, improvement to better serve members as well as the region and its business community.

So, as Szynal begins her second year at the helm, changes are coming to everything from the chamber’s logo to its nearly 40-year-old Super 60 program; from its slate of breakfasts to its website.

Let’s start with Super 60, since it’s almost that time of year. Actually, it is that time of year, with nominations being sought for a revamped program that will honor businesses and institutions across five categories, not merely the traditional ‘Revenue Growth’ and ‘Total Revenue.’

The new categories are ‘Nonprofits,’ ‘Startups,’ and ‘Givebacks,’ a measure of how much a business gives back to the community. These additions, said Szynal, should provide new layers of intrigue and excitement for a program that hasn’t seem much change over its existence, while also bringing some new businesses to the podium for the awards ceremony.

“What we want to accomplish with these new categories is recognition that there are different measures of success,” she explained. “And it’s a way to award more members across various sectors for their success.”

Beyond Super 60, the chamber will be changing its look with a new logo and tagline, retiring ‘Connect2Commerce,’ she said, adding that this initiative is a work in progress, as is work on the website to make it more user-friendly. Meanwhile, the slate of events for the 2023-24 calendar year has been finalized, and there will be something of note each month, including themed Rise & Shine breakfasts to highlight different sectors of the business community, including sports-related ventures, hospitals, nonprofits, and manufacturers.

“Housing is really a challenge here in the Commonwealth, and particularly in Western Mass. When you think about the barriers to success, oftentimes, the roads lead back to a lack of housing.”

On the legislative side, the chamber will continue its strong track record of advocacy with its legislative steering committee, she said, adding that a housing subcommittee has been added to address an issue identified as a priority by the governor, state legislators, and all of the region’s mayors.

“Housing is really a challenge here in the Commonwealth, and particularly in Western Mass.,” she said. “When you think about the barriers to success, oftentimes, the roads lead back to a lack of housing.”

Overall, Szynal said, the chamber is focused on working to better serve, promote, and connect members, while also forging new and stronger partnerships with other area chambers and economic-development agencies, especially the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council (EDC).

For this issue and its focus on Springfield, we take an in-depth look at the many ways the SRC is getting a refresh, and what these changes mean for the agency and the region’s business community.


Progress Report

When she talked with BusinessWest just after taking the helm at the chamber last summer, Szynal said her first year in that position would be a time to listen and learn.

And is has been exactly that.

The listening, as noted earlier, has been a constant, involving voices with many different constituencies. The learning, meanwhile, has been about Greater Springfield — Szynal, while from this region, has lived and worked mostly in Franklin and Hampshire counties — but also about chambers, this chamber in particular, and what it should be doing to better serve both its members and the region.

What has emerged from this listening and learning is a strategic plan of sorts, one with many components, starting with a focus on collaboration and building partnerships, especially with other chambers in this region, but also other agencies focused on business and economic development.

Szynal said the leaders of the Hampden County chambers now meet every other month. Collectively, they’re piecing together plans for a multi-chamber event — details to come — to take place next March.

“We’re forming really good relationships and seeing how we can work together to each provide better value to our members,” she said, adding that SRC is also working more closely with the EDC on several fronts, especially legislation and advocacy, with Szynal now chairing the EDC’s legislative committee.

“The chamber really hangs its hat on its legislative advocacy and the structure we’ve built around that,” she noted. “But then, forming a bond with the EDC and working together with them on some things will be really great for both of our memberships.”

Meanwhile, the SRC and the EDC are both involved with the recently launched Massachusetts Chambers of Commerce Policy Network, comprised of 10 members from across the state, with plans to expand to include other chambers in 2024.

“The chamber really hangs its hat on its legislative advocacy and the structure we’ve built around that. But then, forming a bond with the EDC and working together with them on some things will be really great for both of our memberships.”

The network is designed to leverage the existing impact and on-the-ground knowledge of these local chambers to provide solutions to policy challenges that hinder the success of the state’s residents, employees, and businesses, Szynal said, adding that one recent issue it addressed was the need to rebuild trust in the state’s unemployment-insurance system after an audit found that $2.5 billion in federal money had been wrongly used by the Department of Unemployment Assistance.

Changes will also be coming to the SRC’s calendar of events, aimed at freshening some traditional programs and gatherings while also boosting participation. And the full slate has been finalized at a relatively early date, giving businesses more opportunity to plan.

The Rise & Shine breakfasts, which have seen a surge in attendance over the past year, have been expanded from four to five and, as noted, will now spotlight different sectors of the economy, starting with the one in September, which will put the focus on what Szynal called the ‘business of sports,’ which is becoming a steadily growing force in the reginal economy.

“We have a quite a few sports-related members, so we’re going to really paint a picture of the impact that sports have on a city,” she said, adding that other breakfasts will turn the spotlight on Springfield-area hospitals and their wide-ranging economic impact (October), nonprofits (January), business focused on the aging of the population (February), and Hampden County manufacturers, with a focus on how things are made (April).

Overall, there will be something every month, Szynal said, listing traditional events such as Super 60 (November), the annual Government Reception (December), the Outlook lunch (March), and a bulked-up Mayors Forum, with nine individuals taking part (May), as well as the annual Fire and Ice cocktail event in May and the annual meeting in June.

Getting back to Super 60, a program with a great deal of history and tradition (it started as the Fabulous 50 and was later expanded), Szynal said that, after more than three decades, it was certainly time for a refresh.

This year’s program will still feature 60 honorees, but, as noted, they will be in five categories, not the traditional two, with the additions designed to identify different ways to recognize excellence and “performance,” she said.

The Startups category will recognize newer, growing businesses, she noted, adding that revenue growth will be the yardstick. The Nonprofits category will be based on the percentage of an agency’s budget spent on programs.

The third addition, Givebacks, will be the most subjective of the five categories, she told BusinessWest, adding that a committee of three will weigh several factors — from the estimated value of what was donated (products, services, and more) to employee engagement — and assign a score.

There will be 12 winners in each category, she said, adding that the changes, which include a streamlined nomination process that allows the work to be done electronically, should breathe some new life into the program and bring new companies and nonprofits into the spotlight.

“We’re excited about these changes and think the business community will be excited as well,” she said, adding that nominations are due Sept. 8, and the annual recognition lunch will take place on Nov. 9 at the MassMutual Center.


Bottom Line

Returning to the matter of those estimated 349 engagements from her first year at the helm of the SRC, Szynal said the number is surely higher than that.

Whatever the total is, it represents a great deal of talking and listening, conversations that have translated into a number of action steps designed to make the chamber even more visible, impactful, and responsive to the needs of its members and the community, she said, adding these initiatives are a work in progress, in every sense of that phrase.


Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight


Natasha Dymnicki, assistant manager of Big Y’s Tower Square location, shows off the new facility, which is off to a solid start, according to company officials.

As he reflected on 16 years in office and his intention to serve another four, Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno said that, while much has been accomplished during his tenure in the corner office — the longest in the city’s history — “there is still considerable work to be done.”

And that assessment covers many different fronts — from public safety to revitalization of the city’s downtown; from working with the state to design and build a replacement for the troubled Roderick Ireland Courthouse to continuing efforts to improve neighborhoods; from schools to hospitality and tourism.

But it’s especially true when it comes to the broad issue of housing, which has been identified as a both a pressing need and a key ingredient in a formula to revitalize neighborhoods, including the downtown, and spur economic development.

Indeed, housing is at the heart of a number of projects at various stages of development in the city, from the long-awaited restoration of the former Court Square Hotel to the reimagining of the former Knox manufacturing building in the Mason Square neighborhood to the redevelopment of the former Gemini site in the South End.

“It will probably take a full year to really get settled in and fully understand all the nuances of this. It’s a different model, and we’ve been working through a lot of things like staffing and logistics.”

And housing will be at least part of the equation with several other initiatives, from the redevelopment of the Eastfield Mall on Wilbraham Road, which closed its doors last month, 55 years after it opened, to Sarno’s preferred resolution of the question of how best to replace the courthouse (more on that later).

“When you listen to Governor Healey and Lieutenant Governor Driscoll, every other word out of their mouth is housing,” the mayor said. “So, a lot of projects we’re pitching, including Eastfield Mall, have a housing component.”

Beyond housing, though, there are a number of intriguing and mostly positive developments in the city, said Sarno and Chief Development Officer Tim Sheehan, offering a list that includes:

• New restaurants in the Worthington Street/Bridge Street corridor;

• The new Big Y market in Tower Square, a unique addition to the landscape made possible by ARPA money;

• New additions to the outdoor marketing menu, also made possible by ARPA money;

• Some real momentum at MGM Springfield almost five years to the day since it opened; the past three quarters have been the best recorded by the facility when it comes to gross gaming revenue;

• An ambitious infrastructure project involving the ‘X’ in the Forest Park neighborhood, one that is designed to improve traffic flow in that area but also spur business development;

• A project to replace the Civic Center parking garage, a state-funded project that will not only provide needed parking, but also activate neighboring space and create an area outside the MassMutual Center similar to Lansdowne Street outside Fenway Park;

• Considerable response from the development community to a request for proposals to redevelop the vacant or underutilized properties across Main Street from MGM Springfield; and

• Vibrancy downtown, highlighted by a weekend in June when the IRONMAN competition coupled with performances by Bruno Mars and Tina Fey and Amy Poehler brought 50,000 people to MGM Springfield facilities.

“Downtown was alive, it was electric … you had to wait to get a seat at restaurants; this is the kind of vibrancy we want downtown,” Sarno said, adding that there have been many weekends like this over the past several years, and more to come.

The former Knox automobile manufacturing plant in Mason Square

The former Knox automobile manufacturing plant in Mason Square is one of many properties in the city being converted to housing, or to feature a housing component.

As for MGM, the mayor said the casino, the city’s largest taxpayer, has become a partner on many levels — with the city and state on projects like Court Square, and with area nonprofits on several different initiatives — and a key contributor to the vibrancy downtown. “They’ve been critically important to the nightlife of the city, and they’ve been a good corporate citizen.”

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the latest developments in the City of Homes, which is focused on many initiatives, but especially creating … well, more homes.


What’s in Store?

Reflecting on the few first months the Big Y Market has been open in Tower Square, Clair D’Amour-Daley, the company’s vice president of Corporate Affairs, said it’s going to take more than a few months for this picture to come fully into focus and this unique model to fully develop.

By that, she meant this concept is something totally new, not just for Big Y, but in the broad grocery-store realm itself — at least as far as she and others at the company can determine.

“We have nothing like it, and I’m not sure we’ve been able to model anything quite like it,” she said, adding that this is, in many respects, a scaled-down version of a Big Y supermarket, maybe one-fifth the size of a traditional store, offering many but certainly not all of the items available in one of the larger markets. It was conceptualized to address the food desert that exists downtown, and also meet the identified needs of downtown office workers, as well as people coming into the city for various events and gatherings.

“There are three basic constituents for customers,” she said. “There’s the downtown workers, and there is obviously some ebb and flow there, but we’re coming to understand that market. The second part is the tourism piece, and it has its own cadence. And then, we’re still really learning to tap into the residential community downtown, and that’s significant; we have a lot of customers tell us that they no longer have to walk or otherwise get to our store on Memorial Avenue in West Springfield.

“We want to continue to create market-rate housing, but we’ve also been successful in doing workforce-development housing.”

“We’re learning all those things and learning what types of products to put in, although we’re trying not to make radical changes just yet,” D’Amour-Daley went on. “It will probably take a full year to really get settled in and fully understand all the nuances of this. It’s a different model, and we’ve been working through a lot of things like staffing and logistics.”

Thus far, the store is off to a solid start, she said, adding quickly that, because the model is so different, Big Y is still trying to figure out how to accurately gauge results.

“There are so many variables, and we didn’t want to jump to conclusions right away,” she said. “But it’s been steady; we’re happy with where we are, and we’re just in a wait-and-see mode, waiting for things to settle.”

The Big Y project is one of many ARPA-funded initiatives aimed at helping businesses and, in this case, spurring economic development and improvements within specific neighborhoods, Sarno said, adding that, while most cities have dedicated the bulk of their ARPA funds to infrastructure work (and Springfield has done some of that), certainly, most of the more than $123 million has gone to help small businesses and individuals.

“More than 80% of the ARPA funds we’ve put out have gone to minority- and women-owned businesses,” he said. “We moved very quickly to help prime the pump and help businesses that wanted to stay open at the start of the pandemic and, in many cases, reinvent themselves.”


At Home with the Idea

As noted earlier, perhaps the biggest priority for the city moving forward, from the standpoint of both neighborhood improvements and economic development, is housing, the mayor said.

Tim Sheehan, the city’s chief Development officer, agreed, noting that housing is either being planned for, or at least contemplated, at a wide range of sites. That list includes the former School Department building on State Street as well as another project at 310 State St.; the Mardi Gras property on Worthington Street, recently sold by its owner, James Santaniello, for $2.3 million, and other properties on Worthington; the Eastfield Mall site; the properties across Main Street from MGM Springfield, including the Clocktower Building and the Fuller Block; the former Gemini Corp. factory site on Central Street in the South End; a former warehouse building on Lyman Street; and others.

This is in addition to the 90 units being built at the former Knox Automobile factory at 53 Wilbraham Road, a project being undertaken by First Resource Development Corp., which has developed a number of properties in the city, including the former Indian Motocycle manufacturing facility across Wilbraham Road from the Knox property, as well as the Court Square development (75 units), a project at 169 Maple St., and the completed redevelopment of the former Willys-Overland building on Chestnut Street as the Overland Lofts.

This housing comes in many different forms, from ownership housing at the Eastfield Mall site to various types of apartments, including affordable units and another category that is called “workforce-development housing,” Sarno explained.

“We want to continue to create market-rate housing, but we’ve also been successful in doing workforce-development housing,” he noted, referencing housing that, in the case of the Court Square project, is limited to tenants making 80% of the region’s median income. “That’s an important component of what we’re doing, and we need to do this because there’s a housing crisis in the Commonwealth and across the country.”

The mayor went on to say that these housing projects and other types of developments, including new restaurants in the downtown area, convey confidence in the city, its leadership, and its future.

“When I first came into office, people weren’t interested in Springfield — we were second, maybe third on their list,” he recalled. “People would say, ‘what can you expect from Springfield?’ Now, people say, ‘why not Springfield?’”

Sheehan concurred, noting that housing is the preferred reuse for those vacant or underutilized properties across Main Street from the casino.

The city recently issued a request for proposals for redevelopment of those properties and received what he categorized as a very solid response from the development community.

“There were five companies responding — two locals and three nationals,” he said, adding that the city expects to name a preferred developer by the end of this month.

The even better news, he said, is that the nationals were “looking for more” — as in more properties around that area to develop. And there are plenty of them.

“There is a significant amount of underutilization of property in that area,” Sheehan told BusinessWest. “There are portfolios of properties that haven’t been fully utilized for quite some time. The owners have put out pieces of their portfolios to their market, but there is much more to be developed.”


A Developing Story

Beyond housing, one of the more pressing issues confronting the city is the fate of the Roderick Ireland Courthouse, the 47-year-old structure that has taken on the name the ‘sick courthouse,’ by employees and others, because of intense breakouts of mold and other issues.

The state has vowed to address these issues, and in June, Gov. Maura Healey announced that the state will commit an initial $106 million toward replacement of the courthouse, a project that will carry a price tag of $400 million to $500 million and could take several years to resolve.

At present, there is no clear path forward, Sheehan said, noting that, also in June, the state Division of Capital Asset Management and Management issued a report identifying 13 properties (11 of them in Springfield and most of them in the downtown area) as potential sites where a new courthouse may land.

The sites were ranked according to factors like proximity to downtown Springfield, access to public transportation, and the physical capacity to accommodate the operations of several courts, and the address topping the list is 50 State St., where the courthouse currently stands. That ranking would appear to favor a plan to move the court to a temporary facility, spend whatever is necessary to renovate the existing structure (or, more likely, build a new one its place), and then move the court back to that address.

Sarno told BusinessWest that considerable time, expense, and aggravation could be saved if the state would embrace a site owned by developer — and Peter Pan Bus Chairman — Peter Picknelly, who has forwarded a proposal for a multi-use development along the riverfront that would include the courthouse, office space, housing, and a marina. The site, which combines property on East Columbus and West Columbus avenues and Clinton and Avocado streets, is on the state’s list of ranked properties, but quite far down: ninth, in fact.

“That’s a game changer,” Sarno said of the Picknelly proposal, which he believes will not only simplify the process of creating a new courthouse, but also spur new development in the city’s North Blocks area. “When I talk to the people at the court, they want to move once, not two or three times. We think we have a very viable proposal in the Picknelly site, and we’re going to continue to pursue it.”

Sheehan said the Picknelly site — or any other site other 50 State St. — would afford the city the opportunity to also redevelop the current courthouse property, which sits across State Street from MGM Springfield and is just a few hundred feet from I-91.

“You would want to have development on that site that is directly related to the anchors around it,” Sheehan said, referring to not only MGM Springfield and the MassMutual Center, but also the housing being built at Court Square and other locations, as well as the Old First Church at 50 Elm St. Built in 1810, the historic structure was sold to the city in 2008 and is currently rented out for weddings and other events.

As Springfield waits for the state to make up its mind on the courthouse, other intriguing projects are moving forward, including the redevelopment of the Eastfield Mall.

The last tenants in the facility moved out in early July, and demolition of the complex is set to begin as early as later this month, Sheehan said, adding that a mix of retail, housing, and support businesses are planned for the site.


X Marks the Spot

Meanwhile, in Forest Park, plans have emerged for major infrastructure work at the ‘X,’ the intersection of Belmont Avenue, Sumner Avenue, and Dickinson Street. This is another historic area, and a dangerous intersection, said Sheehan, noting that it has been the site of numerous accidents over the years.

The planned improvements will include modification of traffic patterns, updates to signal equipment, updates to signal coordination, the addition of five-foot bicycle lanes, reconstruction and reconfiguration of sidewalks and pedestrian facilities, accessibility upgrades, the conversion of the Belmont Avenue and Commonwealth Avenue intersection into a roundabout, and more.

“Ultimately, we’re creating a better pedestrian environment, while also looking at how those infrastructure improvements can spur more commercial activity in the area,” Sheehan said, adding that, while there are already a significant number of retail, service, and hospitality-related businesses in that area, there are obvious opportunities for more in each category.

As there are throughout the City of Homes, which stands at its own crossroads of challenge and promise.

Cover Story

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

President and COO Chris KelleyPhoto courtesy of MGM Springfield

President and COO Chris Kelley
Photo courtesy of MGM Springfield

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Doubling Down

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Odds Are

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

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

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

MGM’s music and comedy shows

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Architecture Environment and Engineering Special Coverage

What Goes Around…


Frank Antonacci, left, and Jonathan Murray

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Murray Road Recycling’s MRF

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

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

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


Leaving Little to Waste

Murray calls it the “Amazon effect.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

the primary goals for the new MRF

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

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

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

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


Reading Material

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Bottom Line

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

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

Construction Special Coverage

Bringing It Home


Oliver Layne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Suzanne Larocque (left, with Ethel Griffin)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Building Hope

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ron Schneider

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

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

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

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


The Battle Is Joined

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


On with the Fight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Commercial Real Estate Special Coverage

Divesting the Portfolio

The Paramount Theater/Massasoit Hotel

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




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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Setting Sale

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

The Fort complex

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shakago Martini & Piano Bar

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

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

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

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


Bottom Line

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

And it can develop and execute the next strategic plan.

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

Cover Story

Working in Tandem

Chris and Andrea Zawacki

Chris and Andrea Zawacki

As he talked about the business venture and the name that would go on it, Chris Zawacki said a good deal of thought went into the selection process.

The bagel shop would be located in the old railroad depot in the center of Easthampton. That’s right next to the bike path, he said, so there was considerable talk concerning bicycling terms. Meanwhile, Zawacki and his wife, Andrea, were entering into this venture with another couple, Brian and Shannon Greenwood.

Somewhere along the way, the word ‘tandem’ was tossed out, and because it has at least two meanings that were relevant to the conversation, it stayed in play, and was eventually chosen.

A little more than a decade later, Tandem Bagel Co., and even simply ‘Tandem,’ has become an ever-larger part of the lexicon — and the landscape, with additional locations in Northampton, Hadley, West Springfield, and Florence. The Hadley location also houses a central baking operation, with the bagels made there and then taken in vans to the various locations.

“It became a meeting place and a co-working space. We have several writers who come in and get some writing done during the day.”

Indeed, what started as a single bagel shop is now a thriving enterprise with multiple locations. Zawacki doesn’t like the word ‘chain’ and laments that many — as in far too many — people think Tandem is a national chain. It isn’t.

Not yet, anyway.

It’s a local business that offers bagels of all kinds, with names and flavors ranging from Snickerdoodle to Wild Cheddar to French Toast, but also breakfast and lunch sandwiches, salads, smoothies, coffee and iced coffee — a billboard promoting the company displays that product and invites people to “beat the heat” — and a lot more.

Indeed, its locations have become a place to gather and also a place to get some work done. Meanwhile, at least a few of the locations, especially those in Easthampton and West Springfield, have had a significant impact on economic development and overall vibrancy in the communities where they’re located.

It all started with the goal of replicating the model — and success — of a bagel operation that Zawacki, an Easthampton native and mechanical engineer by trade, had observed while living for a time in the state of Washington. That goal has already been achieved, he said, adding that the question he hears, and answers, most often is, “where do we go from here?”

The West Springfield Tandem Bagel location

The West Springfield Tandem Bagel location was a key contributor to the redevelopment of the Town Commons complex downtown.

Continued growth is certainly in the forecast, he said, adding that he and others are considering several potential landing spots, especially Westfield, where many visitors to the Easthampton and West Springfield locations are from, as well as Springfield. He has looked at several locations in downtown Springfield but isn’t ready to pull the trigger just yet.

Overall, the company is focused on smart growth and expansion that makes sense, he said, adding that Tandem won’t grow for the sake of growth. And, overall, he’s not really sure where he wants this brand to be in five, 10, or 20 years.

“It took a lot to get where we are, so it will take a lot to get the next level,” he explained. “Things are going well, and for our employees, getting to that next level puts a lot of pressure on people. If we can go at a steady pace, treat our employees well, and expand in slow fashion that works for all, that’s fine with me.”

For this issue, BusinessWest looks at how Tandem Bagel has become a brand in the region as well as a force when it comes to economic development and helping to transform communities into destinations.


Spreading the Wealth

As noted earlier, Zawacki was working in Washington State in the late ’90s when he became acquainted with an individual who had retired and started a venture called Sunrise Bagels.

“We frequented it with our kids,” he recalled. “We thought he had a good product, a product that was different than what we had here. It was a neat business model — he had a lot of different varieties, 25 or 30 of them any given day.

“I got in touch with him and stayed in touch with him,” he went on. “I was thinking that, at some point, maybe I would give up my engineering career and open up a bagel place.”

The team at the Easthampton location

The team at the Easthampton location, where it all started.

This blueprint, if that’s what it can be called, took a while to become reality, he told BusinessWest.

Indeed, the Zawackis looked at a few possible locations that didn’t work out, and then, in 2012, some friends suggested the old railroad depot in the center of Easthampton, owned by Williston Academy, a landmark with an intriguing history.

In 1854, Samuel Williston, a button manufacturer and founder of what is now Williston Northampton School, established the Hampden Railroad Co. with business partner Joel Hayden and purchased the now-extinct route of the Northampton-New Haven Canal, according to willistonblogs.com. After completing the 24 miles of railroad, they also constructed a small depot to go along with it.

Built in 1871, the station included a waiting room, a baggage room, and an office for the stationmaster. After rail service ended in the 1950s, Williston Academy purchased the property with the intention of using it as a maintenance building. Years later, it housed art studios and, eventually, became home to a painting teacher, Marcia Reed. Upon her retirement in 2012, the building was put up for lease again.

The Zawackis approached the school about leasing the property, and a concept that had been on paper and in the works for more than a decade was soon to be on … well, the fast track.

Actually, there were extensive renovations that had to be undertaken, said Zawacki, adding that Tandem Bagel officially opened in late March 2013.

Over the past decade, it has been a key player in the transformation of the city from a mill town to a destination characterized by a diverse economy, a thriving arts community, a burgeoning restaurant and hospitality scene, and a growing cannabis sector. Indeed, the bagel shop has drawn customers, and many regulars, not only people living and working in the mills, attending Williston Academy, and visiting the city to take in its many attractions, but also people from several neighboring communities willing to drive for a Snickerdoodle bagel. Or a Cheesy Garlic. Or a Hot & Spicy.

“I’ve looked everywhere, from Westfield recently to Longmeadow and Springfield; we’ve also looked at Greenfield. We’re just looking for the right space.”

“We helped get people downtown,” he said, adding that, while some pick up a bagel and breakfast sandwich to go, many tend to stay a while and even get some work done.

“It became a meeting place and a co-working space,” he said. “We have several writers who come in and get some writing done during the day.”


Toast of the Towns

The success of the Easthampton shop eventually led to talk of expansion, Zawacki said, adding that, almost from the beginning, the goal was to create multiple locations.

The company first expanded into neighboring Northampton, opening in the Northampton Athletic Club in 2014. This was a small location, and as Zawacki put it, “it took a number of years for people to find us.”

But eventually, the location, like the one in Easthampton, developed a strong following, and this past April, the company moved into a new and much larger space in the Stop & Shop plaza on King Street.

After Brian and Shannon Greenwood relocated to Maine several years ago, the Zawackis bought them out and later continued their course of expansion. As they did so, they recognized the need for a larger bakery space and found one in the former Sears franchise location on Route 9, space that also became home to a small bagel shop as well.

That location opened in 2020, just a few weeks before the pandemic hit, Zawacki went on, adding that the next several months were, obviously, a time of challenge for the company. But the business model and product lines enabled Tandem to effectively ride out the storm.

“After the initial six months of chaos and everybody not knowing what’s going on, we were able to get our menu going,” he explained. “We already had online ordering, so we were able to stay above water and keep our business going based on our menu. It was simple, it was online — sandwiches, coffee; everyone still wanted their coffee. It’s a good to-go business, so it worked out, and we were able to withstand the pandemic.”

And as COVID eased somewhat, the company was able to continue on its course of expansion, he said, adding that the next landing spot was Florence in early 2021, specifically the site of the former Freckled Fox Café on North Main Street, a relatively easy move because the site was nearly turnkey, having been a café.

Later that year, the company expanded into West Springfield, another location has sparked greater vibrancy in an area that’s considered West Side’s downtown.

Indeed, Tandem has become one of the linchpins in the success of redevelopment of the former United Bank building on Elm Street into a mixed-use complex called Town Commons. It features a number of offices, but also another restaurant and several other tenants.

Zawacki said that location has worked out well, with many workers in City Hall, just around the corner, becoming regulars. And if he could do again, he would — he’d just try to take a little more space.

“I wish we’d made the space a little bigger,” he said with a laugh. “We could use more seating — it fills up quickly.”

By expanding to five locations and a centralized baking facility, the company has created some economies of scale, obviously, but also a larger operation and some logistical challenges — buying vans and hiring drivers among them — as well.

And hiring became increasingly challenging as the workforce crisis continued and talent became more scarce, he said, adding that, by and large, the company has been able to weather that storm as well.

Moving forward, he said additional expansion is certainly in the business plan, with several communities and locations currently under consideration.

“We’re always looking,” he said, adding that, with others now handling most of the day-to-day operations of the various locations, he is free to focus on the proverbial big picture and especially what comes next for Tandem. “I’ve looked everywhere, from Westfield recently to Longmeadow and Springfield; we’ve also looked at Greenfield. We’re just looking for the right space.”

Elaborating, he said that, unlike large, national chains — and, as noted, many people believe Tandem is one of those — the company relies more on instinct and what it can see and feel at its current locations, rather than analytics and traffic flow, to determine where it could and should go next.

“We can map where our customers come from,” he explained. “So we know that a lot of customers come from Westfield and the Westfield area. We know the population of the city — we just have to find the right place with the right traffic flow and parking.”

As for downtown Springfield, Zawacki noted the presence of Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts, but said there is room for Tandem Bagel as well — if the right location can be found.

He has looked in Tower Square, the TD bank Building, and other properties, and said the search is ongoing. “We’re under no pressure to grow,” he said in conclusion. “But if the opportunity is there, we’ll definitely take advantage of it.”


Nonprofit Management Special Coverage

Building on a Legacy

aerial photo shows the former Square One property

This aerial photo shows the former Square One property, at lower right, the day after the tornado ripped through Springfield’s South End in 2011.
Photo by John Suchocki The Republican

While early-education provider Square One has a presence in several Springfield neighborhoods and serves residents city-wide, it has always been associated with the South End.

That’s where it’s been headquartered since the beginning, in 1883, when it was founded as Springfield Day Nursery by Harriett Merriam, the daughter of Charles Merriam, of Merriam-Webster dictionary fame, to meet a critical need for childcare among the city’s working families, said Dawn DiStefano, the agency’s president and CEO.

“We’ve always been anchored in the South End,” she said. “And it doesn’t take too much effort to walk into the South End and see that it is in woeful need of some attention.”

The bond with the South End was — and is — so strong that, when the agency’s facilities at 947 Main St. were heavily damaged by the June 1, 2011 tornado that devastated a large swath of that neighborhood and eventually razed, then-President and CEO Joan Kagan quickly pledged that the agency, which soon started leasing space at 1095 Main St., would rebuild in that section of the city.

But fulfilling that pledge has proven to be an enormous challenge.

“We’ve always been anchored in the South End. And it doesn’t take too much effort to walk into the South End and see that it is in woeful need of some attention.”

Indeed, although other options were looked at early on, it quickly became clear that, if the agency was going to rebuild in the South End, it would have to be on the property it owned, DiStefano said. And this property is fraught with challenges because of its small size, odd dimensions, contamination in the wake of the tornado, and other factors.

But, in a measure of its commitment to the South End, the agency is taking on all those challenges and moving forward with plans for a 26,000-square-foot, $12 million, three-story facility that will be built on the east end of the property that fronts Main Street.

Dawn DiStefano

Dawn DiStefano stands at the site on Main Street where Square One had a facility — and will again.

Plans call for erecting a Butler-style building on the property, one that features a number of pre-fabricated elements, which serves to reduce the overall cost of designing and building a structure, DiStefano said.

“We’re savings millions of dollars because we’re not doing a traditional brick-and-mortar building,” she explained, adding that the agency is working with One Development & Construction LLC in Westfield, which specializes in Butler-style construction, on the project.

The current timetable calls for construction to begin late this year, probably November, with the new facility slated to open its doors in the fall of 2024.

The agency is in the early — also known as the ‘quiet’ — stage of a capital campaign for the new building, with nearly $3 million committed to date — $950,000 from the city in the form of ARPA money, and a $2 million commitment from the state.

DiStefano said early indications suggest a strong measure of support for Square One’s initiative, and she expects the nonprofit will be able to open its facility with little, if any, debt.

“It’s all achievable … but we’re not working with 10 acres here. We ultimately determined that we could do something with this site.”

“The most enjoyable, and most encouraging, part of this project has been how many people and institutions are compelled to give or have shown promise,” she explained, adding that the agency undertook a feasibility study on the campaign, one that surveyed 42 individuals and companies and revealed “100% intent to support the project.”

For this issue and its focus on the region’s nonprofit sector, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Square One’s building plans and how they reflect a nearly century-and-a-half-old commitment to a city and especially one of its proudest, and neediest, neighborhoods.


Building Momentum

As she talked about the many challenges with building a new home for Square One, DiStefano said it’s good to keep things in their proper perspective.

Indeed, while there has been nothing easy about this building project, and it has a long way to go, the overall degree of difficulty pales in comparison — in most respects, anyway — with coming back from the twin disasters of 2011 and 2012 — and coping with the pandemic of 2020, for that matter.

The agency was completely displaced by the 2011 tornado; staff, teachers, and students were forced from the building and never allowed to return before engineers determined that it had to be demolished. In 2012, a natural-gas explosion downtown extensively damaged another Square One learning facility, to the point where it had to be abandoned. And early in the pandemic, Square One was forced to close its childcare facilities, as well as its operations on Main Street, before having to completely revamp operations after it was allowed to reopen to meet a huge need for childcare services.

Square One’s facility

An architect’s rendering of Square One’s facility to be built in Springfield’s South End.

The agency managed to push on and meet its broad mission — it provides early-learning services to more than 500 infants, toddlers, and school-aged children, and also offers an array of support services to more than 1,500 families each year — through all of that, DiStefano said, adding that the ability to do so offers strong testimony to the imagination and resiliency of its staff.

Those same qualities have been necessary for this building project, she went on, adding that, while rebuilding in the South End has always been the goal and the promise, it has proven to be a daunting challenge.

Indeed, the property that was ultimately destroyed by the tornado in 2011 was wedged into a narrow but deep lot, said DiStefano noted there was an administration building fronting Main Street and a two-story, L-shaped school building that extended eastward a few hundred feet. In a perfect world, or at least in a neighborhood with several alternatives when it comes to buildable lots and available property, Square One almost certainly wouldn’t rebuild on its former site, she added.

But this isn’t a perfect world. And Square One is building here only because there are few if any other options, she said, adding that she tried to purchase the brick property adjacent to former home of the agency, a move that would have provided considerably more frontage on Main Street, but was unsuccessful in that effort, just as her predecessor was unsuccessful in her efforts to secure other lots on which to build.

So the agency then focused its attention on building on its former home — an undertaking made challenging by the size and shape of the property as well as contamination from the demolition of the structures that once occupied the site.

“The bricks and all the materials from the homes that were razed obviously have asbestos and lead and other chemicals that have now seeped into the ground,” the explained, adding that the agency is currently working with a remediation company to determine just what is in the ground and what needs to be done to make the property ready for its intended use — as a home for programs for children.

Before even getting to that point, though, the agency had to conduct some due diligence to make sure it was feasible to build what it wanted to build on that parcel.

“This land is so awkward and small and weird that we didn’t want to buy it if we couldn’t build a building on it,” she explained, adding that Square One engaged in discussions with One Development to determine if its plan, its dream, was, in fact, doable.

Brad Miller, senior project manager with One Development, said that he and others ultimately determined that the answer to that question is ‘yes.’

“It is a challenging site because of its narrowness — it’s wedged between Hubbard and Williams streets,” he explained. “We only have so many options as far as the building footprint goes. The agency also needs a certain number of parking spaces, which we have to find a location for on that site, as well as a playground. It’s all achievable … but we’re not working with 10 acres here. We ultimately determined that we could do something with this site.”

The plans, still to be finalized, call for those parking spaces to be located on the Main Street end of the property, with the playground and building located toward the rear of the site, on a combination of the original site and a few smaller parcels acquired by the agency, DiStefano explained.

The planned structure will give the agency far more space than it has presently in the South End, she said, adding that the facility destroyed by the tornado had more classrooms than the currently facility.

Miller described what is planned for the site as a ‘Butler-hybrid’ building, a combination of conventional steel structure, with Butler components on the interior.

“This will a be steel-framed building with insulated metal panels on the outside, as well as some masonry on the first floor of the building,” he explained, adding that it will have a glass entranceway.

This pre-engineered building will ultimately save on design costs, he went on, adding that this is a design-build project, with One Development managing a large portion of the design as well as the construction.

While work continues on design aspects of the building project, Square One is proceeding with its capital campaign to raise funds to build the new facility.

As noted earlier, the agency has entered the quiet phase of the campaign, focusing on major grants from foundations and other donors, DiStefano said, adding that, by the start of 2024, she anticipates the process will enter the public phase.


Bottom Line

Returning to that feasibility study on the capital campaign and the resounding support it revealed, DiStefano said those results validate the agency’s determination to clear a long row of hurdles and ultimately build in the neighborhood where it was founded back when Chester A. Arthur was patrolling the White House.

“Those results make it enjoyable — that pushes you when you’re ready to say that this piece of land is too difficult to build on and it’s going to cost too much to do this,” she said, adding that this vote of confidence provides another dose of determination.

And even more commitment for Square One to build on a legacy that’s been 140 years in the making.


Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Moe Belliveau

Moe Belliveau says the WorkHub initiative is an example of how the Easthampton Chamber is evolving into more economic development.

It’s called WorkHub on Union.

This is an ambitious project to create co-working space at the Easthampton Chamber of Commerce facility on Union Street.

WorkHub will create space for solopreneurs and emerging business ventures, and also provide access to mentorship programs, networking events, educational programming, and other support services designed to accelerate the growth of startups and small businesses.

In addition to all that, Moe Belliveau, executive director of the chamber, categorizes the project as a not-so-subtle shift in the direction and overall mission at the chamber — one that moves the agency away from the traditional networking events that have defined such agencies, and more into the realm of true economic development.

“This is part of the evolution of this chamber,” she explained, adding that other examples (as we’ll see later) include more emphasis on professional development and educational programs on topical issues such as artificial intelligence.

WorkHub, for which Belliveau is actively trying to raise $500,000 to make it reality, is one of several positive economic developments in a community that has been making headlines mostly for the wrong reasons in 2023.

“Housing, housing, housing … that’s our biggest need right now.”

Indeed, a school-superintendent search that has gone terribly awry — the leading candidate had his job offer rescinded, in part, over his use of the term ‘ladies’ in an email to the School Committee chair — has brought national and even international attention, and not the kind this community would want, as well as resignations among school-board members and even a bid within the community to recall Mayor Nicole LaChappelle.

An interim school superintendent has been hired, and a search for a permanent successor will resume later this year, said a defiant LaChappelle, who responded to the recall effort in June by saying, “I will continue to do what I have been doing for five and a half years — working to give all of Easthampton the best quality of life possible.”

As noted, aside from the controversy surrounding the superintendent search, there have been generally positive developments in this community. It continues to build on the considerable progress made over the past few decades in transforming itself from a mill town to a destination, one with a strong arts community, a growing number of restaurants and other hospitality-related businesses, such as Tandem Bagel, an emerging cannabis sector, and scores of old mills that have found new uses as everything from artists’ studios to event spaces; cannabis dispensaries to condos and apartments.

Specific initiatives range from CitySpace, the nonprofit group tasked with creating a flexible arts and community space in Old Town Hall (Burns Maxey, CitySpace’s board president, was honored by BusinessWest as one of its Difference Makers for 2023), to the ongoing and very ambitious One Ferry Project to renovate several mills on Ferry Street; from the chamber’s WorkHub on Union project to expansion of the renamed public library into the former Bank of America building on Park Street.

Moving forward, LaChappelle said that perhaps the city’s greatest need is for more housing because the community is in vogue, and in addition to being a great place to work or start a business, it is increasingly viewed as a desirable place to live.

One Ferry Project

The One Ferry Project remains a work in progress, with several renovated mills and some still waiting to be reimagined.

There are several housing projects in various stages of development, including redevelopment of three former city school buildings, she said, but the need for more is constant.

“Housing, housing, housing … that’s our biggest need right now,” she said, adding that, while it’s a good problem to have in some respects, it’s a stern challenge for which her administration continues to seek solutions.


Work in Progress

As she talked with BusinessWest about plans for WorkHub on Union, Belliveau said the initiative was conceptualized to address that growing part of the community’s business community that visitors and residents can’t see — and they can see plenty.

These are ventures that people are operating in their basements, home offices, and dining-room tables, she said, adding that such businesses existed before the pandemic, but mushroomed during that time.

“This year’s topic focus is going to be resilience and collaboration, but collaboration with technology, and specifically around AI. We want to help people move from fear and panic to ‘how is this tool going to benefit my business?’ There will be some hands-on experimenting and learning with AI.”

“These are businesses, but they’re informal as opposed to formal,” she explained, adding that her goal is to take these ventures out of the basements and onto Main Street — or Union Street, as the case may be.

“We want to help these businesses become more sustainable and more resilient,” she explained, adding that there are probably hundreds of these ventures in and around Easthampton.

Recognizing the existence of, and the need to support, these businesses and those behind them, the chamber applied for and received a seed grant from MassDevelopment to conduct a feasibility study for the WorkHub facility. The results of that study verified the need and essentially confirmed that this was the project for the chamber at this time in its history and the city’s history, said Belliveau, adding that the chamber’s board voted to raise funds for the initiative and get the ball rolling.

The total price tag is roughly $500,000, which includes construction, a website, branding, and marketing, she noted, and to date, the chamber has raised $180,000 for the venture, with a $50,000 contribution from Sourcepass, an Easthampton-based IT-solutions company being the latest gift. There has also been a $100,000 ARPA earmark, as well as a $25,000 donation from Easthampton Savings Bank and $5,000 from Greenfield Savings Bank.

Easthampton at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1785
Population: 16,211
Area: 13.6 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $14.65
Commercial Tax Rate: $14.65
Median Household Income: $45,185
Median Family Income: $54,312
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Berry Plastics Corp., INSA, Williston Northampton School, National Nonwovens Co.
* Latest information available

Belliveau said WorkHub will provide more than physical space for as many as 18 small businesses following a complete renovation of the chamber’s space. Indeed, she said the goal is to position it as an educational hub as well to help entrepreneurs succeed, thus creating a “vibrant, lively, healthy local economy and regional ecosystem.”

She said the facility would be ideal for artists, freelance writers, consultants, and ‘digital nomads’ — those who travel from job to job but still might need a home base of sorts. It will include workstations, a conference room, private spaces (she called them ‘phone booths’) for phone calls and teleconferencing, and light administrative support. There is really nothing like it in Easthampton, she emphasized, and it should receive a strong response.

As noted earlier, the hub represents the latest and most visible evidence of ongoing evolution at the chamber, Belliveau said, noting that it is moving more toward economic development and professional development than the pure networking that has characterized this and other chambers in the past.

Other examples include the women’s professional-development conference called sheLEADS, the latest installment of which was staged in June, and Ignite, a two-day professional-development conference scheduled this year for Nov. 15-16 at Abandoned Building Brewery. The working title for the event is “Humanification in the Age of AI.”

“This year’s topic focus is going to be resilience and collaboration, but collaboration with technology, and specifically around AI,” Belliveau explained, adding that she hopes to have 50 to 75 people in attendance. “We want to help people move from fear and panic to ‘how is this tool going to benefit my business?’ There will be some hands-on experimenting and learning with AI.”


Getting Down to Business

The chamber’s WorkHub project is one of many initiatives designed to help spur new business development and create more vibrancy and jobs, said LaChappelle, adding that, in the post-COVID area, businesses still need support, but often different kinds of support than they did at the height of that crisis.

“During COVID, I thought our city’s response when it came to economic development and what I call Main Street jobs and concerns … I was proud of the job we did; we all pulled together,” she explained. “Now, our task is … ‘we’ve made it through; how do we keep the new things going, and how do we help the people who were always there?’

“We’re not back to the walking traffic on Union Street and Cottage Street that we had pre-COVID,” she went on. “What are we going to do to support those businesses? You rise to the challenge in a crisis, but resiliency is the long game.”

Elaborating, she noted that, to create this resiliency, the chamber and city need to work together to build into the ecosystem long-term educational and capital support. Such work is ongoing, the mayor said, adding that WorkHub is just one example of providing needed support to businesses and entrepreneurs to not only help them maintain what they’ve built, but get to the proverbial next level.

Such initiatives to build resiliency are needed, she said, because over the past few decades, Easthampton has succeeded in inspiring and nurturing entrepreneurship and growing and diversifying its economy.

That includes a cannabis cluster, if you will, that is adjusting to a new reality in the form of more competition — in this state and from other states — as well as falling profits and even tighter margins, creating a survival-of-the-fittest environment.

“The ones who got in early, and the ones who had the strongest business plans, are fine,” she explained, putting INSA, the Verb is Herb, and others in that category. “And the ones who came in because they had the biggest dispensary somewhere else and thought they’d put a branch here … they’ve closed or have chosen not to expand.”

Beyond cannabis, the cultural economy continues to thrive in Easthampton, LaChappelle said, noting that many of its old mills have become home to artists and art-related ventures, and to residents as well. Meanwhile, the city has been working with property owners on initiatives to improve the mill district.

“We’ve been successful in getting grant money to re-envision and design that mill district and make it friendlier to the immediate neighborhood and see what we can do for walking traffic and safety,” she explained.

“All of the mill owners have been great partners,” she went on, citing the Ferry Street project, which has seen several of the long-abandoned Hampden Mill buildings re-envisioned and repurposed, as the latest example of the old mills that gave the city its character finding new life.

Easthampton was able to channel $3.9 million in MassWorks public-infrastructure grants for improvements at Ferry, Pleasant, and Loveland streets to support the One Ferry mixed-use development initiative, she said, citing this as one example of the city, state, and mill owners working collaboratively to achieve positive change in the mill district.

Today, the city is working with developer Mike Michon, who also developed Mill 180, and One Industrial Lofts LLC to determine the best course for what’s known as Mill 7, the largest of the eight mills still standing on the property (many have been razed) moving forward.

“It was to be a mixture of apartments and some affordable housing, and other uses, but the affordable-housing process is now years behind,” LaChappelle said. “So he’s looking at some other solutions and mixed use, and we’re helping him do that.”

Housing, as she noted earlier, is the most pressing need within the community. And while there are several projects planned or already underway — from a new apartment complex on Cottage Street to the 180 units planned for a mixed-used development at the former Tasty Top site on Route 10 (a project called Sierra Vista Commons), to redevelopment of three city school buildings into roughly 70 apartments — there is certainly a need for more, she said.

But clearly, despite its challenges, Easthampton has become a hub of positive activity and progress, in every sense of those words.

Senior Planning

Journaling Is a Therapeutic Exercise for All Involved

Liz Berezin, who recently completed a journal for John Scalia

Liz Berezin, who recently completed a journal for John Scalia, described the experience as one that was rewarding on many levels.

Lisa Berezin acknowledged she was moving out of her comfort zone.

“Completely out of my comfort zone,” actually.

Indeed, she had never done anything remotely like the assignment she agreed to take on. But when her good friend, Susan Jaye Kaplan, asks for help with something, it is her policy to say ‘yes.’

In this case, she was agreeing to a request to create a journal chronicling the life and times of one of the residents at Ruth’s House, an assisted-living facility in Longmeadow. For Berezin, who earned a degree in elementary education before segueing into business, and someone who had volunteered mostly with young people, this was a going to be an exercise in learning while doing, but she was willing and able.

So was John Scalia, a 64-year-old resident whose life has been dominated by four passions — his family, his friends, his love of music (especially doo-wop), and an obsession with the New York Yankees. Family comes first; after that, it’s a toss-up between the other three.

The journal makes that clear.

While Berezin fashioned a cloth cover for Scalia’s journal, one dominated by Yankees logos and pennants, his large family is arguably the focal point of this document. It is dedicated to his mother, Lucy; father, Joseph Sr.; brother, Joseph; and sister-in-law, Michelle with a note expressing that he wouldn’t be where he is today without them.

“The process itself works different parts of the brain — the memory part and the creative part can be very healing if you have any conflicts or things you need to resolve as you’re speaking them out, working them out … it can be very healing in that way.”

Capturing passions and letting others know all the many moments and memories that go into a life is just one of the broad goals behind journaling and this particular project, said Kaplan, known to many in this region as the founder of the nonprofits Go FIT and Link to Libraries.

Others include a desire to have the subjects of these documents open up to people, exercise their memory, and simply talk about what is important to them.

Berezin agreed.

“The process itself works different parts of the brain — the memory part and the creative part can be very healing if you have any conflicts or things you need to resolve as you’re speaking them out, working them out … it can be very healing in that way,” she said. “John was very excited to share his memories, and I think he was so happy to be part of this project and have someone who really and truly cared and listened, and asked questions back. And what made John happy was so contagious for me; John’s like a happy pill for me.”

As for John, he said this was a fun experience, one in which Berezin’s questions, and prompting, brought back many great memories and made him even more appreciative of all that he’s been able to experience. “She asked all the right questions, and I tried to answer as best I could,” he said, noting that he moved to Ruth’s House with his mother several years ago and helped take of her until she died shortly after they arrived there.

Kaplan’s husband, Steve, is a resident of Ruth’s House, now four years into a courageous battle against brain cancer. And it was while creating a journal for Steve — an eye-opening experience on many levels, she said — that she decided that more people should be sharing in the process of creating these living documents — and enjoying the final product.

Susan Jaye Kaplan, left, and Delia Jones

Susan Jaye Kaplan, left, and Delia Jones say the journaling project at Ruth’s House has been a learning experience for all those involved.

So she put out a call for volunteers on Facebook, and eventually saw more than a half-dozen area residents, including Berezin, sign up to be part of this initiative.

Most of the journals are still works in progress, she said, adding that the work to compile them is as important as the final document.

It is here where the resident and the volunteer meet several times over the course of a few months to talk, learn about each other, and, most importantly, forge a friendship, said Delila Jones, Life Enrichment director at Ruth’s House, adding that, in a word, journaling is therapeutic for all those involved.

“Journaling is about voicing yourself — your identity, your mind, your heart — and just giving it a voice,” she explained. “Journaling is bringing it out of your mind and putting it down on paper.”

Berezin agreed, noting that, because of the journaling project, she has made a friend in John, and has also become committed to Ruth’s House and its patients. Indeed, she now volunteers for Wednesday trivia and other programs, and volunteered her husband, Mark, a pianist, to play on Fridays at the facility. And he, in turn, volunteered Lisa to lead a sing-along.

That’s one example of how journaling has not only enabled someone to become involved in telling a life’s story, but become more involved in the lives of others in general.

And that’s a big part of what this project is all about.


Pride in the Yankees

As she put her journal of Scalia’s life together, Berezin used words, pictures, and even some numbers, such as $12.6 million.

That’s the amount a 1952 Mickey Mantle baseball card fetched at an auction several years ago, making the card the most valuable sports collectible in the world.

Mantle has always been one of Scalia’s favorite Yankee players, as is the case with many who grew up when he did. Others include Reggie Jackson, Thurman Munson, Don Mattingly, and, more recently, Aaron Judge.

These insights are a few of the many references to the Yankees in this journal. Others include everything from Scalia’s bobblehead collection to his recollections of five-time Yankee manager Billy Martin, to memories of visits to both the old and new Yankee Stadiums.

“He’s the biggest Yankees fan you’ll ever meet,” Berezin told BusinessWest. “He can tell you what positions people played, what years, who their managers were … and on and on.”

These many and different references to the Bronx Bombers help explain how the journaling exercise yields what could be called the ‘essence’ of a person, said Berezin, adding that what came through with Scalia were both general themes — family, the Yankees, and doo-wop — and small bits of information that, together, tell a story.

In Scalia’s case, these small but significant bits include the fact that he worked at Stop & Shop in Enfield for 40 years — and wasn’t particularly thrilled with the company when it didn’t recognize his four decades of service. And the fact that he met Whitey Ford at the store one day — the Yankee legend pulled up in a limo — and got his autograph.

They also include his fondness for Mel’s Diner in Naples, Fla. and its barbecue ribs, as well as the long list of TV shows he has enjoyed over the decades, from Leave It to Beaver to the original Charlie’s Angels (yes, he had that iconic Farrah Fawcett poster on the wall in his bedroom when he was young), to a slew of cop shows including Columbo, Kojak, and Police Woman.

They also include memories of his grandmother, who would pick grapes off the vine and grind them up to make wine, and his mother, who would discipline him by saying simply, “wait ’til your father gets home.”

Summoning such memories — and Scalia has many of them, not just of his mother and grandmother, but also his Uncle Tony, a restaurant owner, and his Aunt Louise and Aunt Ann — is why journaling is such good therapy for those taking part in this exercise, Jones said.

“It’s important for the senior to participate in this because it’s giving them a voice — the opportunity to share who they are, their situation, what they grew up with … sharing their life,” she said. “For the person who facilitates this … they’re giving us access to another world, another perspective, another vision. It’s like reading a book; it’s like listening to another life and gaining a perspective that’s not yours, and that’s a privilege, because humans need to see beyond themselves, and this provides that opportunity.”

Kaplan agreed. She said she created a journal for a Ruth’s House resident more than 20 years ago, an experience that opened her eyes to the importance, and value, of such an experience.

“I didn’t know the resident very well; I just knew the family,” she recalled. “The family was on vacation. I brought a notebook with me and started asking some simple questions, and it opened a flood of memories, everything from where she grew up as a child to who her siblings were and what she remembered about growing up with them.

“I was amazed; she had beautiful stories to share — some happy, some not so happy,” Kaplan went on. “And she was willing to open up to me, a virtual stranger. She was so delighted to share a little about herself, and I found it was a win-win for me as well because I gained a wealth of knowledge about so many things and learned about this remarkable woman.”

Rob Whitten, president of JGS Lifecare, said this journaling project has yielded learning experiences on many levels.

“This is a program that opens people up and allows them to make connections that they otherwise might not have made,” he told BusinessWest. “JGS Lifecare has always had a strong track record for volunteer engagement, and this is just another example of this; it’s a wonderful program that is really by volunteers and family members … and it connects people together.”


The Last Word

Berezin said she received a wonderful and very sincere thank-you note from Scalia’s family after she presented him — and them — with the journal.

She was touched by the gesture, quickly adding that, in many ways, she should be sending one to them as well. That’s because, while this experience, this document, is beneficial for him and his family, it has been beneficial to her as well. It has given her insight into not just one life, but many, and a new appreciation for all the things that make a life special.

As she said, the best part is that she made a good friend in the process.

That’s what journaling is all about.


Community Spotlight

Betsy Andrus says that, like most communities dominated by businesses in the retail, hospitality, and cultural realms, Great Barrington suffered mightily during COVID-19.

But through that suffering, there were lessons learned and resiliency gained, said Andrus, executive director of the Southern Berkshire Chamber of Commerce (SBCC), adding that these lessons, and this resiliency, are serving this eclectic community well as it puts COVID in the rear view and moves deeper into its busiest seasons — summer and fall.

Indeed, among those lessons learned is the popularity of — and, now, the necessity for — outdoor dining, she said, adding that it is now a huge part of the scene in the city’s vibrant downtown and its pulsating center of activity, Railroad Street.

Betsy Andrus

Betsy Andrus

“The area just keeps on growing — it grew a lot during COVID, as a lot of places where people had second homes did. People moved up here and got out of the city, and that’s a trend that has made our winters much better.”

“Before COVID, very few, if any, of the restaurants offered outdoor dining,” she told BusinessWest. “Now, most of them do, and it’s a huge part of the scene on Railroad Street.”

Paul Masiero owns one of those restaurants, Baba Louie’s, maker of sourdough pizza and other specialties and a Great Barrington staple for nearly 30 years. He said he started offering outdoor dining during the pandemic and is now part of the broader scene on Railroad Street, which the city actually closes off to traffic on Friday and Saturday nights for several months a year and turns it over to a festival, figuratively but also quite literally, of outdoor dining.

“It’s kind of like a street fair,” Masiero, which is organized by Berkshire Busk!, an initiative that strives to improve economic development and community engagement during the summer by harnessing artistic talent to create a new and vibrant downtown cultural experience. “From July 4 to Labor Day, we put out 10 tables, and there are five restaurants that take part. It’s been really, really good; the closing of the street has been a great decision for the community — a lot of people come out.”

Beyond outdoor dining and the added vibrancy, COVID has helped Great Barrington and other Berkshires communities in other ways, Masiero said.

He noted that, at the height of the pandemic, some of those living in New York and other large urban areas who had second homes in and around Great Barrington decided to sell the first home and move there.

This growth in population has brought new business for restaurants and other types of ventures, he said, and brought more business throughout the year (more on that later).

Restaurants are just part of the picture in Great Barrington, the largest and most vibrant community in what would be considered Southern Berkshire County, said Andrus, adding that this city of just over 7,000 people has “something for everyone.”

That list includes shops, mostly smaller, specialty shops in and around downtown, she said, as well as culture, most notably the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, where, this summer, visitors can do everything from see some vintage films, from The Empire Strikes Back (July 28) to The Lion King (Aug. 11), as part of its Friday Night Summer Movies series, to a live performance by Broadway star and Tony Award winner Sutton Foster on Aug. 19.

“COVID forced them to look at other avenues of doing business. Before, they were kind of content and didn’t bother to really look at what they doing, why, and how. COVID forced them to think outside the box, which, for some locations, really helped — a lot.”

It also includes outdoor recreation, she said, listing the Ski Butternut resort, hiking, camping, and watersports facilities, among many others.

“Whoever comes here … there’s going to be something for them,” Andrus said. “Whether you like opera or just want to sit and have dinner and listen to music, or shop, or antique, you can find it all here.”

For this, the latest in its ongoing Community Spotlight series, BusnessWest takes an in-depth look at Great Barrington, how it has staged an impressive recovery from COVID and its after-effects, and how it manages to live up to that promise of having something for everyone.


Taking Center Stage

Masiero told BusinessWest that, after working in the restaurant business for several years for various establishments, he was ready to get out and try something different.

“I was tired of working for other people and wanted out,” he said, adding that, around that time, Baba Louie’s came onto the market. He measured the risks and potential rewards of buying the establishment, and decided that the latter far outweighed the former.

“I realized I could be the owner, be the head guy,” he said. “I decided to take a chance on it and see what I could do.”

That was 23 years ago, he went on, adding that what he could do, and has done, is not only continue the business, but build on it, becoming a part of the fabric of the economy.

He’s opened a second location in nearby Hudson, N.Y., and moved the Great Barrington location from Main Street, where it held court until just before COVID, to a larger location on bustling Railroad Street.

There, it has thrived, he said, adding that the scene in Great Barrington today is characterized by vibrancy and energy, and not just during the summer, thanks in large part to that aforementioned growth in population witnessed by the town and surrounding communities such as Egremont, Mount Washington, Otis, and others.

“The area just keeps on growing — it grew a lot during COVID, as a lot of places where people had second homes did,” he noted. “People moved up here and got out of the city, and that’s a trend that has made our winters much better.

“Berkshire County is really a destination for summer unless you ski — it’s a summertime destination with Tanglewood and all the outdoor theaters and playhouses,” he went on. “But it’s grown quite a bit in the winter, too; all our business used to happen in the summer, but now it’s more of a year-round business.”

Andrus agreed, noting that, beyond this COVID-generated population growth and its accompanying benefits, the pandemic eventually helped businesses by forcing them to dig deep, pivot in some cases, and find new ways to carry on.

Great Barrington at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1761
Population: 7,172
Area: 45.8 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $14.07
Commercial Tax Rate: $14.07
Median Household Income: $95,490
Median Family Income: $103,135
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Fairview Hospital; Iredale Mineral Cosmetics; Kutscher’s Sports Academy; Prairie Whale
* Latest information available

“COVID forced them to look at other avenues of doing business,” she explained. “Before, they were kind of content and didn’t bother to really look at what they doing, why, and how. COVID forced them to think outside the box, which, for some locations, really helped — a lot.”

Overall, Great Barrington continues to thrive because of its full menu of offerings, enjoyed by residents and visitors alike, she went on.

“There’s really unique shops with things you can’t get in the box stores. And there’s food; I’ve traveled all over the country, and I always get to places and think, ‘I’ve got to get home because the food is not good — I’ve got to get back to the Berkshires.”

This is an ever-changing community, Andrus said, noting that, while many establishments have been doing business for years and even decades, there are always new businesses opening, making each visit to the city different and fresh.

She noted that, coincidentally, some of the longer-tenured stores in the community — such as Out of Hand; Evergreen, a crafts store; and Byzantium Clothing — have closed due to retirements or will close soon. But storefronts are rarely vacant for long, she added. “Sometimes is looks there’s an empty spot, but it’s not.”

While the town is more of a year-round destination now, summer is still the busiest and most vibrant time of year — and the outdoor dining and accompanying entertainment on Railroad Street have made it even more so, she said.

“There’s entertainment of all different sorts throughout the evening each night that the road is closed,” she explained, noting that Berkshire Busk! provides everything from musicians to acrobats to balloon-character makers. Visitors come for the entertainment and then often stay for dinner at one of the restaurants.

Amid these good times, there are challenges, especially with the regionwide problem of finding and retaining adequate levels of talent. Indeed, many restaurants have been forced to reduce the number of days and hours they are open, Andrus said, adding quickly that most are coping and making the most of a difficult situation.


Right Place, Tight Time

Masiero can’t remember where, but he read somewhere that Great Barrington was listed among the top 10 places to move to during COVID (Hudson, N.Y. was the number-one destination, he recalled).

That ranking speaks volumes not only about how the pandemic that initially bruised this small town has gone on to help it, but also about all that this colorful community has to offer.

As Andrus said, it does have something for everyone, and now there are seemingly more people to enjoy it all.

The scene on Railroad Street on weekend nights tells the story — in all kinds of ways.


Creative Economy

Getting a Taste of the Region

Deborah Christakos

When her research revealed that this region didn’t have any food tours, Deborah Christakos decided that was a void she needed to fill.

Deborah Christakos has spent most of her adult life in the food business — or several businesses, to be more precise.

Trained in France, she was a chef in restaurants in several major large cities, including New York, Boston, and San Francisco. Later, after moving to Northampton, starting a family, and deciding that a chef’s life didn’t mesh well with family life, she started offering cooking lessons.

And it was while teaching one class, where students shopped at a local farmers’ market and prepared what they bought, that she started to conceptualize a new and different kind of venture — at least for this region. She would call it Pioneer Valley Food Tours, and that name tells you all you need to know.

Well, not really, but it sets the tone.

These are, indeed, walking tours involving food — in the Pioneer Valley. There’s one focused on Northampton and another that takes people to various stops in Amherst. There’s a bicycle tour, a concept born at least in part from COVID-19 and the need to keep people socially distanced during the pandemic, and private tours that have taken people to Springfield, Greenfield, and other communities.

The tours take people to restaurants, bakeries, butcher shops, farmers’ markets, and other … points of interest, let’s call them, where participants can explore local food and beverages from source to table.

“If you just go buy a loaf of bread or pastry, you may never hear about it. But when you hear from them, in their own words, talk about what they do, how what they do is special, and what they love about it, it’s a really neat experience.”

Christakos started in 2017, and what she’s learned since then is that, while these tours are centered around food, they’re mostly about people, communities, and the mostly small businesses that participants get to visit.

The people come from all over, she said, adding that some are local, while others hail from across the state or neighboring states. Others are from further away, many in the area visiting friends and family and looking for something to do, specifically something that, well, whets their appetite when it comes to this region and its food.

“I thought it was a neat idea, and I thought we could really inform people that come to this area about what’s going on here,” she said. “I felt the food here was of incredible quality, and I felt like people were visiting the area, dropping their kids off at college, driving off, and not knowing what we had here. I felt that this area was very underappreciated, so one of my goals was to sort of lift up the profile and make it into a food destination.”

Easily the best thing about her business is the opportunities it provides to meet people and learn from them while providing some insight into this region and all that it offers.

“Something I didn’t expect was that it’s really fun to meet people from all over the country or different walks, and even locals,” Christakos said. “The conversation is different every time because people bring to this their own experiences. Some people are really into food; others are really into history. It’s always interesting and fun.”


food tours of Northampton

Guests enjoy one of the food tours of Northampton, which visit several sites in Paradise City.

As for the communities that participants tour, there are opportunities to learn about much more than food. Indeed, tour members get a ‘taste’ of these communities, be it the murals, architecture, and ‘vibe’ in Northampton or Amherst’s vibrant history, including, on most tours, a stop at West Cemetery, where Emily Dickinson and several members of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, portrayed in the movie Glory, are buried.

As for the small businesses, they are the focal points of the tour, said Christakos, adding that the tours not only support such ventures — and, during COVID, that support was critical — it celebrates them and their specialties and the manner in which they help provide a community with an identity.

For this issue, we talked with Christakos about her venture and how it has gained traction and provided tour participants with some food for thought — in every way one can imagine.


Walking, Taking, and Eating

As she talked about how and why she launched this venture, Christakos said food tours are common in other countries — as well as in larger cities in the U.S. She had only been on one herself, in Ireland, but she knew about them and all they aim to celebrate in a particular community.

Returning to that cooking class she was teaching and the visit to the farmers’ market, she started thinking there must be food tours in a region so rich in agriculture and restaurants. When some research revealed there wasn’t, she decided this void needed to be filled.

She did a trial run, spoke to the businesses that would be involved in these tours, and concluded that there was a market for such a concept. She launched in the summer of 2017, and at first tried to do both the tours and the cooking classes. Eventually, she decided that she wanted, and needed, to devote all her time and energy to the former.

The venture has seen steady growth over the years, although COVID certainly created some challenges.

At the start, most of the participants were local, she told BusinessWest, but eventually word started to spread.

“People from Central Connecticut would come up for the day, or people from Boston would come up for the day,” she explained. “And then, gradually over the next few years, people started coming from further away — Utah, California, all over, people who were coming to this area and looking for something to do.”

Many had been on food tours in other cities, regions, and countries, she went on, adding that her venture provides an opportunity to explore a different area.

In larger cities, there are many different kinds of food tours, she explained, noting that some will focus specifically on pizza, or chocolate, or a specific neighborhood. Her tours are broad in nature and focused on specific communities noted for their food, restaurants, and culture, especially Northampton and Amherst.

In Northampton, the food tour, which runs three hours on average, usually starts in Pulaski Park, where participants will make introductions and sample local produce that’s in season, such as blueberries, which Christakos will either pick herself or buy from a local farm. From there, there are roughly 15 different places a group might stop; Christakos generally picks five for each tour.

A common first stop is Hungry Ghost Bread on State Street or the Woodstar Café on Masonic Street, where participants can sample something Christakos has pre-selected and often hear from the establishments’ owners about what they do and the passion they bring to their work.

“If you just go buy a loaf of bread or pastry, you may never hear about it,” she explained. “But when you hear from them, in their own words, talk about what they do, how what they do is special, and what they love about it, it’s a really neat experience.”

This is the essence of the food tours, she went on, adding that participants can hear Hungry Ghost owner Jonathan Stevens and his wife, Cheryl, talk about what makes their bread unique and how they use local ingredients.

From there, the tour might go to Sutter Meats on King Street and a few of the restaurants in the city, such as Paul & Elizabeth’s on Main Street, a vegetarian restaurant; or the Dirty Truth, also on Main Street, a gastropub featuring craft beers; or the Mosaic Café on Masonic Street, a Mediterranean restaurant.

Along the way, participants take in murals, architecture, a little history, and the feel of downtown Northampton, she said, adding that the flavor of the community, and all that goes into that phrase, comes through.

It’s the same in Amherst, she noted, where tours generally start at the farmers’ market and proceed to stops such as the Black Sheep Deli; Lili’s, a Chinese restaurant; and Mexcalito Taco Bar, as well as West Cemetery and other points of interest.

There are generally two Northampton tours a week, on Friday and Saturday, and a few Amherst tours each month, she said, adding that they are offered year-round. Spring and summer are obviously the most popular times, but there is appetite for the offerings throughout the year — she conducted a ‘chocolate tour’ on Valentine’s Day — and she will carry on unless the weather is “dangerous.”

A fairly recent addition to the portfolio has been bicycle tours, she noted, adding that these will stop in a few different communities, visiting farms, food producers, and eateries and generally covering 20 to 25 miles at a decent, but not overly fast, pace.

“The people who take those tours like to bicycle, but they’re more interested in their food,” she explained. “They’re not Tour de France candidates.”


Bottom Line

Moving forward, Christakos, who splits the tours with the company’s other guide, David Bannister, said she would like to continue growing the concept, perhaps expanding to other communities (Springfield is a possible candidate).

In the meantime, she will continue honing the concept, which is bringing the region’s restaurants, farms, and other food-related businesses to light.

As she said, these tours are really about people and communities — and an opportunity to celebrate both.


Creative Economy

Creating a ‘Time Machine’


The mural on Bridge Street

The mural on Bridge Street remains a work in progress.

You’ll need more than a glance to take in, and fully appreciate, the mural being created on the south-facing wall of the old Skyplex Building on Bridge Street in Springfield.

You’ll probably need at least 10 minutes to fully absorb all the images on the 100-foot-long wall. There are dozens of them, large and small.

But you’ll also need a cheat sheet of sorts (a few different ones will be created — more on that later) and probably easy access to Wikipedia.

That’s because, while some of the people can be easily identified (Muhammad Ali, Abraham Lincoln, and even Peter L. Picknelly, among them), most of them are far more obscure and need some explaining, at least when it comes to their connection to, and importance to, the City of Homes.

And that’s part of the charm, if that’s the right word, of this project, which is one of the more ambitious projects to date of City Mosaic, a nonprofit organization that has brought many colorful and, in some cases, informative murals to downtown Springfield — and, in the process, reactivated a number of properties and made them conversation pieces.

Such was the case with another huge work of art just around the corner on Worthington Street. That project involved the recreation of wall advertising that was on the building more than a half-century ago, as well as a few images of personalities from the past and present.

John Simpson, the lead artist on that project, said some have referred to it as a “time machine,” and asked that he create another one at the Skyplex building, another somewhat underutilized property that is slated to become home to another brewery.

Susan Riano, Madden Sterrett, and John Simpson.

And he a team of artists, including Madden Sterrett and Susan Riano, have done just that.

“We wanted to blend many of the city’s historic firsts with historical figures, and modern community members, such as Mayor [Domenic] Sarno,” Simpson said. “We want to have the past connect with the present — and have it connect with the future.”

While the wall, which is a work in progress that should be completed “soon,” according to Simpson, features some well-known personalities and landmarks (such as the Puritan statue in front of the library) that need no explanation as to why they are pictured, many of them do.

Let’s start with Abraham Lincoln. According to local legend, the name ‘Republican Party,’ the party of Lincoln, originated in Springfield. Meanwhile, his wife, Mary Todd Lincoln, is said to have taken in shows at the Paramount Theater. As for Ali, he had connections to a mosque in the city, and is said to have visited it while training in Chicopee for his first fight against Sonny Liston.

Frederick Douglass also has a presence on the wall. Simpson said he visited Springfield several times, at least once to meet with fellow abolitionist John Brown about his raid on Harper’s Ferry, which started the Civil War.

There’s also the artist James Whistler, famous for the composition known as Whistler’s Mother. While born in Lowell, he did live in Springfield for a time, Simpson said. There are a few images of Eleanor Powell, a dancer and actress (she was in a few movies with Fred Astaire) who was also born in Springfield.

As was the actor Kurt Russell. There’s a small image of him portraying the character he is perhaps best known for, Snake Plissken, from both Escape from New York and Escape from L.A.

Former NBA star Travis Best, another Springfield native, is on the wall, as is Gwen Ifill, the journalist, television newscaster, and author, who was born in New York but later relocated with her family to Springfield and graduated from Classical High School.

There’s also June Foray (born June Lucille Forer), who grew up in Springfield and later became the voice of Rocky the Flying Squirrel and a host of other characters.

There aren’t many — if any — people who would recognize Foray from the image on the wall. And that’s why there will be a plaque, or key, to the images, explaining what they are, Simpson explained, adding that there are plans to print flyers to hand out at the restaurants — Granny’s Baking Table and the Osteria — that have windows facing the mural.

“Already, people are asking the waiters and the owners of these establishments who the people are on this wall,” he said, adding that this is one of the main objectives of this project — to get people talking and asking questions — about the wall, and about the city depicted on it.

Evan Plotkin, president of NAI Plotkin, collaborator with Simpson on several art-related projects in and around downtown, and leader of efforts to reactivate properties in that area, agreed.

“They’ve captured a moment in time, and the history and character of the city,” he said of the artists. “And while doing so, they’ve brought this property back to prominence; people are talking about it, and in the present and future tenses. That’s what these murals do.”

There is still some work to do on the mural, especially in and around the letters that spell out SPRINGFIELD, Simpson said, noting that many more characters, firsts, and landmarks will be added before the wall is officially finished. He mentioned an image of the Basketball Hall of Fame and perhaps something depicting the M-1 rifle, produced at the Springfield Armory, and its inventor, John Garand, as likely additions.

But already, those behind the project are accomplishing their primary mission. They’re creating that time machine, and they’re prompting people to stop, look, point, maybe ask some questions, get some answers, learn about Springfield, and celebrate the city and its history.

That’s a lot to ask from a mural, but this one does all that and more.


—George O’Brien

Cover Story

Vintage Years

Mary and Ed Hamel

Mary and Ed Hamel

Ed Hamel acknowledged that, while all entrepreneurial ventures start with an idea, most then follow a business plan that details how to take that idea and transform it into a successful, profitable operation.

It is with a large dose of … well, let’s call it pride, because that’s what it sounds like, that Hamel says he and his wife, Mary, essentially skipped that business-plan part.

“We’re just following where this thing takes us, and we’re having a lot of fun doing it,” he said, adding that this ‘thing’ is the Glendale Ridge Vineyard in Southampton, a concept that has grown into an intriguing and, yes, successful business.

Actually, three businesses, as Mary likes to say.

There’s the vineyard, where, at present, six main varieties of grapes are grown, from Reisling to Chardonnay to Cabernet Franc. There’s also a winery, where a broad mix of labels are made and bottled. And there’s a tasting room and what could be called an events division.

Indeed, the vineyard has been the site of a few weddings and regularly hosts retirement and birthday parties and many other types of functions, as well as concerts large and small — there’s an ABBA tribute band scheduled to play on Aug. 4, and Mary is expecting north of 400 people (much more on all that later).

All three of these businesses involved steep learning curves, said both Ed and Mary, who, in previous lives, worked as a general contractor and dental hygienist, respectively, before they purchased the Sankey dairy farm in 1992 with only some vague ideas about what they might do with it. And the learning process continues — on everything from which grapes to grow (and how) to which wines makes the best blends, to what kinds of music to book for the weekly Sunset Series, which is just what it sounds like: concerts as the sun goes down, with some drop-dead gorgeous views of the Holyoke Range and Mount Tom thrown in free of charge.

“We’re just following where this thing takes us, and we’re having a lot of fun doing it.”

Like the wines they make, the business itself has developed and matured, said the Hamels, noting that each aspect of the operation is growing and, by all accounts, improving and becoming more smooth and even bold, to borrow some terms from the industry.

There is a wine club that now boasts more than 350 members, the vineyard’s wines are now available in several area retail outlets and restaurants, and the farm itself has become a destination — for wine enthusiasts, music lovers, visitors from across the country who focus their travels on winery tours, a growing number of volunteers who help pick grapes each October, and more.

Moving forward, Mary and Ed say their obvious goal is to grow each of the three businesses within the operation, which currently relies on a small core of employees, as well as that growing army of volunteers who pick grapes.

And to keep having fun.

“People tend to think it’s a great job to have a vineyard, and it is, but let me tell you, it’s a lot of hard work,” Ed said. “It’s farming — I don’t need to say anything else — but there’s a lot of joy in it, too.”

This aerial view reveals the deep beauty of Glendale Ridge Vineyard and the surrounding mountains. Photo by Glenn T. Labay, Aerial Camera Services LLC

This aerial view reveals the deep beauty of Glendale Ridge Vineyard and the surrounding mountains. Photo by Glenn T. Labay, Aerial Camera Services LLC

For this issue, we learned a little about how to grow grapes, make wine, and fill a summer concert series. We learned a lot more about how a couple with an idea but no business plan — he says they still don’t have one; she believes they do — have shaped a dream into a growing business, in every sense of that phrase.


Grape Expectations

Ed told BusinessWest that Glendale Ridge grows only about a third of the grapes needed for its growing portfolio of wines. The rest are bought from other vineyards, mostly in Long Island and the Finger Lakes region of New York.

Each fall, he’ll rent a large truck and go on grape-buying treks, which, in the case of those Long Island vineyards, from which he’ll come back with three to six tons of product, can be a bit of an adventure. At least they were early on.

“People tend to think it’s a great job to have a vineyard, and it is, but let me tell you, it’s a lot of hard work. It’s farming — I don’t need to say anything else — but there’s a lot of joy in it, too.”

“Have you ever driven a large Penske truck onto the ferry?” Ed asked rhetorically, referring to the way most people get to Long Island. “It’s fun. It’s a little nerve-wracking at first; you see other large trucks, so you know it can be done, but it will test your nerves. Now, it’s old hat; I don’t think too much of it.”

Mastering the art of driving such a large vehicle onto the ferry serves as an effective metaphor for this operation, which, for the most part, has involved a whole lot of learning by doing and simply becoming better at … well, whatever it is you’re doing over time.

Our story begins in 1992, when Ed and Mary purchased the Sankey Farm with the goal of preserving the land through an active farming project.

18 different wines

Glendale Ridge now offers 18 different wines, and the portfolio continues to grow.

“I’ve always had this thought that I wanted to grow something,” said Ed, adding that his maternal grandfather operated a small farm in Vermont, where he spent a good deal of time in his youth. “Once we were on this farm, I thought we would do the organic thing — carrots, lettuce, tomatoes — but I couldn’t wrap my head around that.

“I started looking at value-added products, and grapes came onto the scene,” he went on, adding that the couple started in 2010 with 110 vines that were planted in what has come to be called the west block. They started with a trial vineyard with rows of Reisling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Franc, and more. The initial thought was that they would make wine for themselves.

“People tend to think it’s a great job to have a vineyard, and it is, but let me tell you, it’s a lot of hard work. It’s farming — I don’t need to say anything else — but there’s a lot of joy in it, too.”

Initially, the Hamels partnered in this venture with Ian and Michelle Kersberger, who later started Black Birch Vineyard in Hatfield, a similar operation in many respects.

Today, there are three blocks and more than 3,000 vines at Glendale Ridge. The east block contains an acre of Cabernet Franc, while the Nonotuck block comprises three acres, with an acre each of Vidal, Traminette, and Corot Noir.

As he talked about growing grapes, Ed said there is lot of research and constant learning that goes into the equation, and plenty of information out there from others in the business who are willing to share what they know.

“People who are in this business are very cooperative; they’ll answer your questions honestly and give you advice,” he told BusinessWest, adding that there are a few vineyard operations in this region and many more in the winery regions of New York.

Tim Beaudry

Tim Beaudry, wine steward at Glendale Ridge, in his ‘office.’

Meanwhile, Cornell University has a strong viticulture and enology program that publishes a large amount of information, he noted, adding that it has become a great resource for him over the years.

The Cornell program has been involved in the creation of hybrid grapes, which is mostly what is grown at Glendale Ridge, he said, adding that current varieties — which involve mixes of “old-world European varieties” and grapes grown in the U.S. — include Vidal, Traminette, Carot Noir, Itasca, Cabernet Franc, and Aromella.

Harvest time is in October, he said, with the Cabernet Franc, a red grape, the last one to be picked.

“We like to let that hang as possible — typically, we’ll go to October 25 or October 28, depending on what the weather is like, before we pick those,” he explained, adding that harvesting time has become an intriguing tradition at the vineyard, one that attracts growing numbers of volunteers.

“It’s the most fun thing we do,” Mary said. “People do love it — we’ll get 35 people here.”


Heard It Through the Grapevine

These grapes and those sourced from other vineyards wind up on a crush pad, where they start to get processed into either crushed grapes, which go into red wine, or juice, which makes white wine.

There are a number of both among a growing number of labels, now featured in a retail area just off the tasting room. There is a solid mix of reds, whites, rosés, and dessert wines, everything from dry and medium-dry Rieslings to a Sauvignon Blanc; from a Merlot and a Malbec to a Cabernet Sauvignon.

The Glendale Ridge website includes colorful descriptions of each label, such as this one for a 2019 Malbec: “the nose is of dark fruit with a little smoke. Black cherry, strawberry, and cedar flavors shine with a beautiful acidity on the finish.” And this one for the 2021 Sauvignon Blanc: “You’ll find enticing scents of new-mown hay, elderflower, and honeysuckle. The palate offers assertive acidity and minerality with white grapefruit.”

Over the years, the number of individual labels has grown, and new offerings, such as a Traminette that has become a popular seller, are added regularly.

And while the vineyard and winery operations continue to grow and evolve, so too does the events and tasting-room side of the equation, said Mary, who leads that aspect of the operation.

In the tasting room, patrons can enjoy wine ‘flights,’ with three pours of wine, as well as wine for sale by the glass and the bottle, she said, adding that the vineyard has become a popular place to stop and unwind or pick up a bottle of wine or two.

picking of grapes

The picking of grapes has become an event at Glendale Ridge, one that draws a growing number of eager volunteers.

“People enjoy coming here and sitting and relaxing,” she said, noting that the vineyard, open Thursday through Sunday, sees a steady stream of visitors.

As for events, she noted that there are several weddings, small and large, at the vineyard each year, as well as many other types of events, from wedding and baby showers to rehearsal dinners and company outings; from family reunions to companies’ customer-appreciation gatherings.

“People enjoy each other’s company — and the wine,” she said.

On the Friday afternoon that BusinessWest visited earlier this month, preparations were being made for a surprise 60th birthday party and a retirement party, as well as the Sunset Series, all starting at 5 p.m.

“We have a lot going on Fridays,” Mary said, adding that, among her many responsibilities, she is charged with filling the calendar with events and gatherings, starting around Valentine’s Day and ending on New Year’s Day.

In addition to these private events, the vineyard now hosts a number of concerts, including the popular Sunset Series, which runs most Friday and Sunday evenings.

July’s series offerings are typical, Mary said, adding that a mix of music genres is preferred. On July 7, the Buddy McEarns Duo, described as ‘blue roots rock ‘n’ roll,’ and a regular at Glendale Ridge, performed. On July 9, guitarist and vocalist Dan Goldwaite visited the vineyard, and on July 14, the OverEast Jazz Band took the stage.

Beyond the Sunset Series, the vineyard hosts a number of larger concerts as well, Mary said, noting that, in addition to the ABBA tribute band, called Dancing Dream, the Wild Heart Tribute to Stevie Nicks & Fleetwood Mac is scheduled for September. She added that the vineyard, which many have praised not only only for its setting but its acoustics, has been described by some as a ‘mini-Tanglewood.’

In addition, the vineyard hosts food trucks a few days a week on average, as well as programs such as a bouquet class with Finch Flower Company and restorative yoga with the Traveling Yoga Company. Meanwhile, Tim Beaudry, the wine steward at Glenridge, will host programs on the various types of wines, what goes into making them, and how to pair them with food.

The vineyard is located near Northampton, Holyoke, Westfield, and Easthampton, Mary noted, making it central location in the region. Meanwhile, wine adds a different and appealing element to many different types of over-21 gatherings.


Vine and Dandy

“Every bottle tells a story.” That’s the marketing slogan for Glendale Ridge, or one of them, anyway.

Actually, each bottle tells several stories, but especially the one about the couple that skipped the business-plan part of the entrepreneurship process and, as Ed said, are “following where this thing takes us.”

It’s taken them in many different directions, but mostly, Glendale Ridge has become a true destination — a place where passions collide and you can view something special, no matter which way you happen to be looking.


Banking and Financial Services Community Spotlight Special Coverage

An Uphill Climb

Dan Moriarty was among the participants in the recent IRONMAN competition that wound its way through many Western Mass. communities.

The president and CEO of Monson Savings bank, Moriarty is also an avid biker, and decided to take things up a notch — or two, or three — with the IRONMAN, which featured a mile swim, downstream, in the Connecticut River; a 56-mile bike trek; and a half-marathon (13 miles and change).

Moriarty said his time — and he doesn’t like to talk about time — was roughly seven hours, and joked that that he believes he met what was his primary goal: “I wanted to come in first among all the local bank presidents.”

As things are turning out, the IRONMAN isn’t the only test of endurance he will face this year and next (yes, he’s already scheduled to take part again in 2024). He and all other banking leaders are facing another stern challenge, and where they finish on this one … well, there are several factors that will ultimately determine that, as we’ll see.

Indeed, the past year or so has been a long, mostly uphill, upstream stretch for banks, which are being severely tested by unprecedented interest rates hikes implemented by the Fed, which have a domino effect on banks — and their customers. For banks, these moves are squeezing margins that were already tight, with some margins off 50 basis points or more from last year. And for public banks, their stocks have, for the most part, been hammered.

This domino effect involves everything from the huge increase in interest paid to customers on their deposits to the manner in which those interest-rate hikes have brought the home-mortgage business to a virtual standstill.

To quantify that increase in interest paid to consumers, Tom Senecal, president and CEO of PeoplesBank, recalled a quote he read from the president of a large national bank that put things in their proper perspective.

“I won’t even call this a short-term problem anymore when it comes to profitability. It’s a medium-term problem that we’re all having to adjust to.”

“He said, ‘my raw-material costs have increased 600%,’” Senecal noted. “His raw materials are the funding for deposits for his wholesale assets, which have literally gone up 600%. If you look at any business and their profit margins — our raw materials have gone up 600%, so that squeezes our margins.”

Meanwhile, with interest rates more than double what they were a year or so ago, the refi market has obviously disappeared, said Kevin O’Connor, executive vice president of Westfield Bank, adding that, with home sales, those who might be thinking about trading up wouldn’t want to trade a 2% or 3% mortgage for one closer to 7% mortgage, so they’re taking what could be called a pause.

As is the Fed, which is taking a close look at the impact of its interest-rate hikes before deciding what to do next, although most experts expect at least one more rate hike this year.

And that will keep banks on this current treadmill, said Jeff Sullivan, president and CEO of Springfield-based New Valley Bank, adding that, while there has been talk that rates might start coming down this year, that likely won’t happen until at least early next year.

By then, the country may well be in recession, adding new levels of intrigue, said Moriarty, noting that the yield curve is currently inverted, a historically accurate predictor of recession.

“We’re going to eventually get into a recession in the third or fourth quarter of this year,” he said. “We were anticipating it might happen a little earlier with hopes that the Fed would have cut rates before of 2023, but now, we’re guessing that interest rates are going to be elevated another year out until they start cutting.”

Tom Senecal

Tom Senecal says unprecedented interest-rate hikes have put a great deal of pressure on banks large and small.

Overall, banks’ fortunes are tied, ironically enough, to how well the economy is doing, and they are in the unusual position of hoping that things cool off a little, said O’Connor, adding that, like the Fed itself, banks don’t want to see efforts to curb inflation throw the economy into reverse.

The biggest question, among many others, concerns when the pendulum might start swinging in the other direction and things will improve for banks. There is no consensus there — not with the economy still doing well, a presidential election looming in 2024, and other factors.

But the general feeling is that the uphill portion of this trek won’t be over soon.

“I won’t even call this a short-term problem anymore when it comes to profitability,” Sullivan said. “It’s a medium-term problem that we’re all having to adjust to.”

Moriarty agreed, noting that, while the first two quarters of 2023 has been a difficult year for most banks, the rest of this year and 2024 might be an even more of an uphill climb.


Points of Interest

Senecal told BusinessWest that, as he was heading home for the first weekend in March, he planned to take a break from his phone and spend a few days unplugged.

And he did … until news broke that Silicon Valley Bank (SVB) in California had failed after a bank run on its deposits.

So he started looking at his phone again. And he kept looking at it.

“The weekend that SVB failed, the four largest banks in the country took in roughly $140 billion in new deposits, and community banks, in general, lost $130 million in deposits. There was a huge move to larger institutions out of fear.”

Indeed, there were many discussions with other leaders of the bank about how to communicate with customers and convince them that their deposits were safe.

“That whole weekend, myself and our commercial team and our retail people were on the phone explaining what was going on, answering their questions, and putting their minds at ease,” he recalled. “And I talked to a number of my competitors, and they were doing the same thing.”

Such discussions were necessary, he said, because even though those deposits were becoming far more burdensome, cost-wise, as he noted earlier, all banks need them to have the money to grow their loans, and consumers were getting skittish.

Jeff Sullivan

Despite the interest-rate hikes, the economy is still humming in many respects, Jeff Sullivan says, meaning the Fed may still have some work to do to slow it down.

“The weekend that SVB failed, the four largest banks in the country took in roughly $140 billion in new deposits, and community banks, in general, lost $130 million in deposits,” he said, citing a combination of concern fueled by social media and the ease with which consumers can now move money electronically as the dominant causes. “There was a huge move to larger institutions out of fear.”

Overall, there was less fallout in this region, said O’Connor, another of those banking leaders who was the phone to customers assuring them that their assets were safe, adding that the failure of SVB and a few other banks this spring, and the resulting fallout from depositors, were just one of the many speedbumps encountered by banks in 2023.

Indeed, this was a year the industry knew would be challenging — or more challenging — going in, especially with regard to rising interest rates. Just not this challenging.

“Just a year ago, rates were quite low, and everyone thought rates were going up a point and a half, maybe 2%, something in that ballpark — that was the consensus prior to August of last year, when Chairman [Jerome] Powell said, ‘no, we’re really going to stomp on the brakes,’” Sullivan said. “Up to that point, we thought that rates would go up slightly, and we were modeling our projections on that; I don’t think there’s anyone who projected that rates would go up 5% in seven months — that’s unprecedented territory, and that’s what is causing the squeeze.”

O’Connor agreed. A year or so, banks were paying maybe a half-percent interest on deposits, he recalled, adding that most new CD products being advertised are featuring rates in the 4.5% to 4.9% range on the higher end, while rates on money-market accounts are coming up as well, numbers that reflect both the need to garner new deposits and growing competion for those assets.

“You have competition from other banks, internet-only banks, the security brokers — everyone is clamoring for those deposits,” O’Connor said. “And that certainly puts pressure on all banks, including community banks.”

Institutions are adjusting to this landscape, said those we spoke with, but it’s going to take some time to fully adjust because the rate hikes came so quickly and profoundly.

And such adjustments take several forms, they said, including efforts to trade fixed-rate assets for variable-rate assets, initiatives that take time and come with their own set of risks — indeed, rates could, that’s could, go down quickly.

Dan Moriarty

Dan Moriarty says many ominous signs point toward a recession, which could bring more challenges for banks and their customers.

On the mortgage side of the equation, there aren’t many options. Senecal said PeoplesBank has been working to acquire mortgages written in areas that are still relatively hot, such as Cape Cod. Meanwhile, O’Connor said Westfield Bank and institutions like it are pushing home-equity loans, and there is a good market for them as homeowners look to take that equity and put it back into their homes or make other large purchases.

“It certainly doesn’t make up for what we’re losing in mortgages and refis, but it does help,” O’Connor said. “We’re seeing a lot of interest in home-equity loans.”


No Margin for Error

While banks cope with the present, there is just as much discussion, if not more, concerning what will happen next and when conditions will improve for this sector.

And most of that discussion obviously involves the Fed and what will happen with interest rates, because it’s these rates that determine what happens with all those dominoes.

There is some general uncertainty about what the Fed will do, said those we spoke with, because the jury is still out, in some respects and at least in some quarters, on whether it has accomplished its mission when it comes to slowing down the economy and curbing inflation. This uncertainty led to intense discussion at the most recent Fed board meeting, Senecal said.

“There are two schools of thought on this. One is, ‘let’s wait and see what our rate increases are doing to the economy, because it’s like steering a battleship — it doesn’t happen right away,’” he told BusinessWest. “So the Fed took this pause trying to gauge what happened, and what happened? Inflation came down little bit; it was up to 6 or 7%, and now it’s 3.5% or 4%. But their goal is to get it to 2%. So do they continue to raise rates and wait to pause, or do they raise and do a long pause to see if inflation comes down to their target level of 2%?”

“I don’t think there’s anyone who projected that rates would go up 5% in seven months — that’s unprecedented territory, and that’s what is causing the squeeze.”

While inflation slowed in June — the consumer price index rose 0.2% last month and was up 3% from a year ago, the lowest level since March 2021 — core inflation is still running well above the Fed’s 2% target. And Moriarty is among those saying there is ample evidence that the Fed still has work to do to slow the economy and further decrease inflation.

“Employment numbers are surging, and that’s an indication the economy is still moving fast and hot,” he said. “My uneducated crystal ball is telling me we might see a few more interest-rate moves, which means it’s going to be more difficult for the economy to continue on this path.”

Many are saying that the probable course will be another rate increase and then that pause, he went on, adding that there is more conjecture about what will then happen. Will rates stay where they are, or will they start to come down and perhaps reverse the trends seen over the past year or so?

Kevin O’Connor

Kevin O’Connor says rising interest rates have slowed the mortgage business — and destroyed the refi business.

“The consensus is that the economy is starting to slow down — not quickly, but it’s starting to slow down — and that rate cuts will probably start to happen in 2024 because inflation and economic growth both show signs of slowing down,” Sullivan said. “When that happens, we can start to price the deposit costs down.

“We’re probably not going back to where we were before,” he went on, meaning rates near zero. “We’re going back to normal, or what could be a new normal — deposit rates in the 3% range. They’re not going to be zero, and they’re not going to be 5%; they’re probably going to be somewhere in the middle once all this settles out.”

When things will settle down is another question that is difficult to answer because the economy is still chugging along, and, with the notable exception of the mortgage market, consumers are still borrowing money.

“Borrowers have gotten used to paying loan rates in the 6s and 7s — they’re not happy about it, but it doesn’t seem to be stopping anyone’s appetite for acquiring assets and borrowing money,” Sullivan said. “There’s still plenty of business out there, and that would support what Powell has been saying — that they haven’t really slowed the economy yet; in fact, it’s pretty darned good. We’re taking applications every day, and we’re writing loans every day; we’re running our business as usual.”


Taking Account

Well … not quite usual at most institutions, especially with regard to mortgages and refis, a huge part of the success formula for the region’s community banks and credit unions.

In this environment, O’Connor said, Westfield Bank and institutions like it are putting even more emphasis on customer service, attracting new customers and retaining existing customers.

“We have to make sure that we’re the bank of choice and remain that,” he said. “We work hard at the commercial relationships, the consumer relationships … our branch teams, our cash-management teams, our lenders, everyone is out there being very available to our customers and working hard to attract new customers from other banks.”

Banks are always working hard on attracting and retaining customers, he said in conclusion, but this year, and in this climate, there is even more emphasis on such initiatives.

It’s all part of a broad response to something that is a little more than your typical economic cycle. It’s somewhat unprecedented, in fact … and certainly a long, uphill climb for most banks.


Commercial Real Estate Special Coverage

Building Anxiety

Trulieve will soon be leaving the Massachusetts market

Trulieve will soon be leaving the Massachusetts market, and its property on Canal Street in Holyoke, leaving questions about the site’s future.

Aaron Vega calls it the ‘year of reckoning.’

And he’s not the only one who uses such language when talking about 2023 and the cannabis industry.

This has been a year when a confluence of forces has brought stern challenges to a sector that got off to a fast and hot start in this region. These forces, including mounting competition and falling prices, have prompted some players to exit the market — Truelieve was the latest to make that decision — and others to delay or cancel entry into it.

The impact of these rather sudden changes in the fortunes of the cannabis industry has changed the landscape in many different ways and in many different communities. But perhaps the greatest impact has been on the commercial real-estate market in the city that has most aggressively pursued this sector: Holyoke.

Indeed, a market that was once white-hot as Holyoke officials, led by former Mayor Alex Morse, rolled out the red carpet for cannabis has cooled off substantially, said Vega, director of the city’s Office of Planning and Economic Development, adding that this trend will likely continue as the cannabis sector continues adjusting and responding to the changing climate.

“We’re wondering … how does that property move? What does that company want to sell it for, and what is the acquisition cost going to be? It comes currently with a $300,000 tax bill; that’s a lot of money to keep a building empty. We’re hoping they’re able to move it or work with the city to find a public solution.”

A number of properties have been purchased or leased, and at prices that could not have imagined a decade ago. And as some cannabis businesses close or leave the market and others delay their plans to start, questions mount about all that real estate and what will happen with it.

“A lot of the buildings were locked up because they were purchased at a much higher price than they were probably worth, and now those companies are not going forward, or their timelines are stretched out,” he said. “Are they going to sell these buildings? Are they going to be able to maintain these buildings? They come with tax bills, and they come with maintenance; if you don’t have anything going on inside that you’re making money with, it becomes more of a struggle.”

The most visible manifestation of this changing landscape is the property at 56 Canal St., home (but not for much longer) to Trulieve’s 126,000-square-foot growing, processing, and testing facility, the former Conklin Office Furniture building. Truelieve poured tens of millions into purchasing, renovating, and retrofitting the former mill for cannabis-related uses, said Vega, who wondered out loud how the company could possibly recover that kind of investment given the current fortunes of the cannabis industry.

“We’re wondering … how does that property move? What does that company want to sell it for, and what is the acquisition cost going to be?” he asked. “It comes currently with a $300,000 tax bill; that’s a lot of money to keep a building empty. We’re hoping they’re able to move it or work with the city to find a public solution.”

While some ventures are slated to open in the coming weeks and months, Vega said, there are at least 20 properties for which special permits have been approved — for one or more of the several types of cannabis-related businesses — but where there has been little movement, if any, on site toward opening those businesses.

Vega said he was only half-kidding when he suggested that Trulieve donate its Canal Street property to the city and its redevelopment authority, which could then try to attract more and different kinds of indoor agriculture businesses. Among other things, the transformation of old mills across the city for cannabis-related uses has shown what can be done with those properties, he noted, adding that indoor agriculture could be a growth industry for the city — literally and figuratively — moving forward.

Meanwhile, another emerging model for these mills could be an incubator-like facility, such as the one taking shape at 1 Cabot St., another old mill, the former Riverside Paper Co. building, purchased by Tom and Karen Cusano in 2018.

1 Cabot St. will become an incubator of sorts

Tom Cusano says the property at 1 Cabot St. will become an incubator of sorts for several small, cannabis-related businesses, a model he believes has a great deal of promise.

There, several smaller companies, many of them social-equity ventures, are moving forward with plans, Tom said, adding that this is a different kind of model, and one he believes has some staying power.

“We have one operating tenant and four tenants who are in the licensing process, and we’re building out their space — they should be operational within 90 to 120 days,” he said, adding that this model calls for reasonable lease rates, most buildout handled by the owner, and opportunities to grow if and when the businesses do.

For this issue and its focus on commercial real estate, we take a look at what’s happening in Holyoke — and not happening, as the case may be — and what it all means moving forward.


Pot Luck

Vega told BusinessWest that the cannabis experience — and it is ongoing — has benefited Holyoke in a number of ways.

Beyond the hundreds of thousands of square feet of old mill space that has been absorbed and the jobs created, the arrival of this industry has given the city a tremendous amount of exposure locally, regionally, and even nationally and internationally, he said, adding that many people in business who didn’t know about the city’s assets and benefits, from available real estate to green, comparatively inexpensive energy, now do. And this bodes well moving forward.

For the immediate future, though, the relative strength and resilience of the local cannabis industry is the primary topic of conversation in this year of reckoning. At the very least, there are now real questions about whether this sector has already peaked, and if not, how much more it can grow.

To quantify and qualify the changes that have taken place, Vega talked about phone-call volume — as in calls from cannabis companies calling with questions about the city and opportunities to land there — and his overall workload when it comes to handling license applications and related matters.

“When I started in this job two and a half years ago, we were talking to companies once a week, and we had that peak of having 70 host agreements,” he noted. “Working with the City Council, we got 38 special permits approved; that’s a lot of work on a lot of people’s part.

“But now, I think we had two host-community agreements in the last three months, and two projects in front of the City Council and other departments for review,” he went on. “In two years, it’s changed quite a bit.”

Elaborating, he said many of the major players and ‘funders’ in this industry have already moved on to the next emerging markets in this industry, such as Connecticut and New York, with their attention also focused on federal legislation to legalize cannabis.

“With the cannabis industry, it was kind of predatory; everyone looked at it like it was the golden goose. If you had a building, you asked for four times what it was worth, and if you had space to lease, you asked the tenant to spend millions of dollars to fix up your run-down building.”

All of this is reflected in the commercial real-estate market, he said, referencing the large question marks now hanging over several of the properties acquired or leased — at high prices — with cannabis businesses in mind.

Cusano, who purchased his property not long after cannabis was legalized in this state, summed up the market frenzy, if that’s the right term, this way:

“With the cannabis industry, it was kind of predatory; everyone looked at it like it was the golden goose. If you had a building, you asked for four times what it was worth, and if you had space to lease, you asked the tenant to spend millions of dollars to fix up your run-down building. And, quite honestly, very few people could afford that.

“Some of the big, multi-state operators came in with deep pockets and dumped tons of money,” he went on. “And as we can see with Trulieve, that doesn’t seem to work.”

He’s taking a different approach, one he thinks will generate some long-term success.

Indeed, at the Cabot Street property, he’s drawing on 20 years of experience with renovating and then leasing out a former mill building to emerging small businesses in New Hampshire.

“We’re trying to help these small businesses get started; we’re doing the lion’s share of the renovation work and essentially giving them a turnkey operation except for fixtures and whatever they need to run their business, whether they’re doing cultivation, manufacturing, or processing,” he said. “We’ve talked with multiple tenants; we’ll have a retail dispensary in the front of the building that we’re working on.”

Elaborating, he said he and Karen purchased the building “for a song” and have invested far more than $1 million in it thus far. He said he’s had some experience with the cannabis industry in New Hampshire and Maine and understands its potential, both as a source of tenants and its importance to the community in question.

At present, there is one business operating at the property on Cabot Street, Mill Town, a cultivation and light-manufacturing operation, Cusano said, adding that several more are in the pipeline, ventures that will occupy 10,000- to 35,000-square-foot spaces.

He believes this model will fare better than some of the other strategies that have been tried — mostly companies overpaying to purchase or lease property, a situation that adds another layer of challenge to their ability to remain competitive in a rapidly changing market.

“People were overpaying, dumping a ton of money into these properties, and then the market collapsed because of oversupply, and they were upside-down,” he said. “We have a saying in the retail business — you can sell below cost and make up the difference with volume. But not for long.”


Bottom Line

Returning to his thoughts about indoor farming and how properties like the Trulieve facility might be turned over to such uses, Vega said such prospects represent just one of the ways the changing real-estate climate in Holyoke represents both challenge and opportunity.

“Let’s keep the cannabis industry, but let’s also help the local food economy,” he said. “Someone growing lettuce and micrograins can’t afford a $40 million building, but if the redevelopment authority can gain control of that building or sell it without needing to make a profit, and we can get a whole industry or a bunch of small businesses going, we can create a food economy, and that would be huge.”

He acknowledged, without actually saying so, that such plans represent a real long shot. The reality is that, rather than solutions, there might be more question marks for the buildings bought with designs on entering what looked at the time to be a lucrative cannabis sector.

And if things break the wrong way, Holyoke may wind up with what it had before it rolled out the red carpet for this industry — a large number of vacant and underutilized properties.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Chris Willenborg stands in front of one of the private jets

Chris Willenborg stands in front of one of the private jets based at Barnes Westfield Regional Airport, one of the many assets contributing to economic-development efforts in the city.

The F-35 stealth fighter is nicknamed ‘Lightning,’ and it is certainly expected to provide a powerful surge in Westfield.

The Pentagon announced in April that 18 F-35A fighters will be based at Westfield Barnes Regional Airport with the Air National Guard’s 104th Fighter Wing, replacing the F-15s that have been flying over the city — and on missions around the world — since 2007.

Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council — but also a former mayor of this city for a dozen years and currently a city councilor — said the F-35s will become an obvious point of pride for the community and the region, but there is an economic-development component to this decision as well.

Indeed, the move will stabilize and secure the long-term future of the 104th, which brings more than 1,000 jobs and millions of dollars in direct support to the local economy each year.

“The F-35s are obviously hugely important, not only to the operation of Westfield Barnes Regional Airport, but to the 104th, which is a significant employer in the region, and a significant business,” Sullivan explained. “Aside from being an absolute point of pride for the city and the region, it’s an important economic development as well.”

Chris Willenborg, manager of the airport, agreed.

“The F-35s mean a lot to the future of the 104th’s presence at the airport,” he told BusinessWest. “This decision really solidifies the 104th Fighter Wing having a mission at Barnes Regional Airport for the next 50 or 60 years; having a new fighter based here will be a significant asset for the airport moving forward.”

Meanwhile, the F-35s provide a powerful, up-close representation of an important part of the city’s economy: its precision-manufacturing shops, large and small, many of which provide parts to the defense and aerospace industries and planes like the F-35A.

Indeed, Sullivan, in talking about the presence of the precision-manufacturing sector and its importance to the region, has often noted that, when military or commercial planes fly over the region, residents can point to them and note that components of those aircraft are made in the 413.

And especially in Westfield, which boasts companies such as Advance Manufacturing, Boulevard Machine and Gear, and Peerless Precision, all of which have a number of customers in the aviation, defense, and aerospace sectors.

Tom Flaherty

Tom Flaherty says Whip City Fiber has become a $30-million-a-year business.

Kristin Carlson, president of Peerless, told BusinessWest that, after a lull toward the middle of the pandemic, business is picking up for Peerless and other precision manufacturers, who say their biggest challenge remains finding enough talented workers, especially as members of the Baby Boom generation retire in ever-larger numbers and the numbers of young people looking to get into this field remains … well, underwhelming.

“It’s still very much an employees’ market,” she said, adding that firms in this city and neighboring communities are competing tooth and nail for a very limited supply of qualified help, which is driving wages and benefits skyward and making it harder for smaller shops to compete against the larger national and international players.

While precision manufacturing remains a large and stable employer, the city’s economy is strong and diverse, said Mayor Michael McCabe, the former police captain who sought and won the corner office in 2021 and will seek a second two-year term this fall.

He noted the strong presence of manufacturing and distribution facilities, many of them located at or near the airport, as a well as strong retail (Walmart, Home Depot, and many others have locations in the city) and hospitality sectors, and major employers including Baystate Noble Hospital and Westfield State University.

It could also become home to a sprawling, $2.7 billion hyperscale data center complex planned for the city’s north side. That project and an accompanying tax-incentive financing plan have been approved by city officials, and the developers are awaiting word from the state on economic incentives it will provide to support the massive undertaking.

McCabe also cited a changing, rebounding downtown, one that will never again be the retail hub that is was decades ago, but is evolving into a collection of diverse shops and intriguing new developments, such as the housing complex taking shape in the former Lambson’s furniture store building on Elm Street.

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest turns its focus on Westfield, where things are looking up — and so are people, especially when the F-35s are flying overhead, as they did at the recent airshow at Barnes and will do for perhaps the next 30 or 40 years.


Ready for Takeoff

McCabe said Westfield is a city that has long boasted a number of enviable assets when it comes to business and economic development. And it has taken full advantage of those assets.

That impressive list includes developable land, a commodity lacking in many area communities, especially in its North Side, which, as noted, has become home to a number of manufacturing and distribution facilities, the latter drawn by not only land but a turnpike exit, easy access to other highways, and rail service.

The list of assets also includes the university, the airport, and a municipal utility, Westfield Gas & Electric, which, through its comparatively low electric rates and expanding fiber-optic network, has become a key contributor to economic development in the city (more on that later).

As for the airport, it has long been a somewhat hidden gem, but it continues to emerge as a force in the local economy as home to not only the 104th, but also companies like Gulfstream Aerospace, where private jets are serviced, and also as a home base for a handful of jets and dozens of other planes.

“Westfield is at the crossroads of the interstates, I-90 and I-91, there’s rail access … and coupled with that is an industry-welcoming community.”

This will go down as a big year for the airport, which has thrust itself into the limelight in a number of ways.

For starters, it is celebrating its 100th birthday, Willenborg said, adding that this comes on top of the announcement of the F-35s, which brought press coverage locally, regionally, and nationally. There was also the recent Westfield International Air Show, which featured a wide range of aircraft, including the F-35A, and brought more than 100,000 people to Barnes. And just a few weeks ago, the Commemorative Air Force, a nonprofit group based in Texas, brought several vintage World War II aircraft — and thousands of spectators — to the airport.

On top of all that, Barnes is enjoying what could be called a building boom, he said, noting that there are four new hangars in various stages of construction, investments totaling between $8 million and $10 million, as well as two taxiway projects on the docket, one to start this month and the other set for next year.

Overall, the airport, which sees 50,000 takeoffs and landings each year, contributes roughly $1.2 million of direct revenue to the city, and its overall economic impact, according to a 2019 statewide study, is roughly 2,100 direct and indirect jobs and economic output of $236 million, numbers that take into account the 104th.

“The airport is definitely a major economic engine and employer here in Western Massachusetts,” Willenborg said, adding that the arrival of the F-35s is only expected to increase that impact.


The Jet Set

Also making a considerable impact is the city’s utility. General Manager Tom Flaherty said Westfield G&E’s rates are considerably lower than investor-owned utilities such as Eversource and National Grid, a competitive advantage that, when coupled with those assets listed above, gives the city a leg up when it comes to landing large manufacturing and distribution facilities, as well as the planned data-center campus.

One of the latest examples of the saleability of this package of assets is the arrival of James Hardie Building Products, which plans to open a construction siding factory in the former Old Colony Envelope plant in the city’s north side.

When it opens, the James Hardie plant will become the G&E’s largest natural-gas customer and one of its 10 largest electric customers, said Flaherty, adding that utility rates certainly played a role in the company’s decision to come to Westfield.

“It was a solid a mix of things — Westfield is at the crossroads of the interstates, I-90 and I-91, there’s rail access … and coupled with that is an industry-welcoming community,” he explained. “And when it narrows down to utility cost, and people are looking at cost and system reliability and the capability to meet that gas demand, Westfield has all that.”

Elaborating, he said Westfield has its own natural-gas spur that comes off the Tennessee Gas pipeline, which the G&E wholly owns, giving it — and the city — a huge advantage over communities such as Holyoke and utilities currently enforcing moratoriums on additional natural-gas service.

Another advantage — again, for both the city and its utility — is the G&E’s expanding fiber-optic business, Whip City Fiber. Launched in 2013 to provide fiber-optic service to residents and businesses in Westfield, the endeavor has become a $30 million-a-year business whereby the G&E has built out and now manages fiber-optic networks in 20 area communities — from Blandford to Goshen to Colrain — with more in the pipeline.

These include West Springfield and Southwick, said Flaherty, adding that more cities and towns in this region and beyond will be joining that list in the years to come.

“In the beginning, the broad goal was to bring an additional service to the residents and business of Westfield and, hopefully, break even,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, today, through its continued expansion in the city and to other communities, Whip City Fiber generates roughly $3.5 million in net income for the utility, money that is currently poured into expansion of the fiber-optic network to different parts of the Westfield.

Westfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1669
Population: 40.834
Area: 47.4 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $16.98
Commercial Tax Rate: $33.52
Median Household Income: $45,240
Median Family Income: $55,327
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Westfield State University, Baystate Noble Hospital, Mestek Inc., Savage Arms Inc., Advance Manufacturing Co.
* Latest information available

When the entirety of Westfield is covered by the service, that revenue can be put toward other initiatives, such as the utility board’s recent vote to make additional payments in lieu of taxes to the city with the intention that they be used to upgrade athletic fields in the city.

“We’re looking to partner with the city to turf up to six fields and pay the bond for that, up to $1 million a year,” he said, adding that many of the city’s athletic fields are in need of upgrading or expansion. “That’s a project where we can give back to the community as we continue to bring in revenue from communities outside of Westfield.”


Soar Subject

While the F-35s are expected to provide a boost in civic pride and some stability for the 104th and the local economy, the precision manufacturers in the area are hoping they do something else — generate some interest in the field.

Such forms of inspiration are still very much needed, said Carlson, adding that, despite attractive pay rates, good benefits, and even growing flexibility in the workplace, it remains a struggle to find and retain talent, a challenge that is testing many of the shops in the city, including hers.

Hiring was an issue before COVID, noted Carlson, who was honored by BusinessWest with its Difference Makers award in 2021, primarily for her tireless work to educate young people about this sector and hopefully draw more of them into it, adding that the pandemic and its many side effects, including generous unemployment benefits, only exacerbated the problem.

“Whoever thought it could get harder for manufacturers to find good people?” she asked with a laugh. “It’s always been a struggle for our industry, and post-pandemic, it’s been even worse; somehow, I was able to fill open positions inside of a month this year, and I’m not really sure how that happened.

“There are a lot of us in Westfield who constantly have job openings, and we’re trying to fill them, as is the case with every manufacturer in the state and the country, for that matter,” she went on. “The problem is the same that it’s always been — we have a limited skilled labor force that we can pull from, and we’re all competing for the same ones.”

Elaborating, she said Westfield Technical Academy graduates 16 to 18 students a year from its manufacturing department, and there are roughly 30 shops in Westfield alone competing for those students, many of whom are brought into shops as part of a co-op program while they’re seniors, with the goal of seeing them stay with the firm in question.

Meanwhile, the pandemic had the additional effect of pushing many Baby Boomers over the retirement cliff, Carlson said, adding that this drain of experienced talent further tested shops large and small, including Peerless, which saw two long-time employees retire over the past year.

Still, despite these challenges, most shops, including Peerless, are thriving, she said.

“We had a slump last year, but we’re coming out of it, and we’re at almost 90-degree climb now, so it’s good,” she said, using an aviation-industry term to get her point across. “We’re seeing a lot of large customers who had really slowed down during the pandemic coming back in full force, and we’re seeing customers come back that we hadn’t done business with in three years because of the pandemic.”


Uplifting Thoughts

Speaking of 90-degree climbs … the F-35s are not expected to arrive until 2026. But already, expectations, and the overall outlook for the city, are sky high.

After years of effort and lobbying on the part of city, state, and national officials, the latest-generation F-35s will be coming to Barnes, providing — as Sullivan, McCabe, Willenborg, and others told BusinessWest — both a point of pride and an economic boost for the city and region.

It’s a lightning strike, to be sure, and one with a powerful jolt.

Women in Businesss

A Legacy of Caring, Getting Involved


Dora D. Robinson

Dora D. Robinson

It’s been more than 30 years since the incident just outside the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center in Springfield, but Nate Johnson says he won’t ever forget what happened that Halloween afternoon.

Or the woman who committed what he described not as an act of kindness, but rather as “heroism.”

A group of teenagers had gathered outside the MLK Center, he recalled, and a fight broke out among them — a “real fight.”

He was in the middle of it, he said, adding that, from seemingly out of nowhere, Dora D. Robinson, the director at the center, grabbed him and pulled him out of the fracas.

To this day, he doesn’t know why she picked him from among all the others. He’s just grateful she did, because that was simply the beginning of her influence on his life.

“She’s my superhero that came to rescue me,” he said, making a point to use the present tense, adding that Robinson, who passed away last month at age 71, essentially “adopted” him at that point and became a mother figure, mentor, inspiration, and someone who helped open doors and compel him to walk through them.

Opening doors and guiding people through them … that might be a concise yet effective way to at least start to sum up a remarkable life and career in public service that included a lengthy stint at the MLK Center, a tenure as president and CEO of the United Way of Pioneer Valley (UWPV), and many other leadership roles.

But her passion for serving the community, creating opportunities for others, and battling social injustice continued long after she formally retired, said those who knew and worked with her.

Indeed, Helen Caulton-Harris, commissioner of the Division of Health and Human Services in Springfield, who worked with Robinson on a number of initiatives and was her close friend, remembers that, just a few days before she fell ill, Robinson was working on a maternal health program in Indian Orchard and had called her asking if she would write a support letter so Robinson could secure funding for the initiative.

“Dora started her life in Elmira, New York, but Springfield was her heart and soul,” Caulton-Harris said. “She put everything she had into this community. Her leadership was critical. Even after she retired from her formal job, she still felt her passion to be a leader and to make sure she was creating opportunities and leaving a legacy of supporting nonprofits.”

Donna Haghighat, CEO of the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts, agreed. She said Robinson chaired one of the committees setting up the agency’s Young Women’s Initiative, one of many endeavors she was passionate about.

“She felt strongly about empowering young women of color,” Haghighat noted, adding that she eventually convinced Robinson to join her board. “What was compelling to her was that this initiative was mentoring young women of color, teaching them about philanthropy, which was very close to her heart. They learned about nonprofits that were doing work in the areas that they identified as barriers to their own prosperity in Springfield. So it was a wonderful way to learn that philanthropy can be a tool of social justice.”

Robinson learned that lesson early on in her career, and one of her many passions, said those we spoke with, was to impart that lesson on others.

For this issue and its focus on women in business, we reflect on the life and career of Dora D. Robinson, who certainly was an influential woman in business, with her business being the community she lived and worked in and her tireless efforts to bring about equity and opportunities for everyone.


Passion Play

Born in Elmira, Robinson made a lifetime commitment to social and racial justice starting with her participation in the Poor People’s March on Washington as a teenager in 1968.

She earned a bachelor’s degree from Cornell University, completed graduate studies at Smith College, and earned a master’s degree in social work from the University of Connecticut.

She put those degrees to use in a number of leadership roles with area nonprofits and on countless boards. She served as vice president of Education at the Urban League of Springfield and corporate director and vice president of Child and Family Services at the Center for Human Development.

“She understood her responsibility to mentor and nurture and create pathways for future leaders. She understood the need to give young Black individuals, as well as seasoned individuals, an opportunity for growth. She knew she held a unique responsibility to make sure there were others in our community who followed us.”

Starting in 1991, she served as the inaugural leader of the Martin Luther King Jr. Community Center and as a member of the MLK Community Presbyterian Church, and actively supported the Project Mustard Seed campaign to raise funds to build a community center to serve as a place for youth and family in the Mason Square neighborhood to thrive. Nearly two decades later, she had established MLK Jr. Family Services, a multi-service agency with a $3 million operating budget, 75 full- and part-time employees, and more than 100 volunteers with services delivered at three program sites located across Greater Springfield.

Robinson took the helm at the UWPV in 2009 as the first woman to serve as its CEO. Under her leadership, the agency launched several new strategies to diversify revenues contributing to education, homelessness initiatives, basic needs, and financial-security programs. She also led the founding of the UWPV Women’s Leadership Council (now renamed the Dora D. Robinson Women’s Leadership Council in her honor) to engage local women leaders in supporting financial literacy and health initiatives for women and girls.

She retired from the United Way in 2017 but continued to work on passion projects, including the Indian Orchard Citizen’s Council, the Black Behavioral Health Network, and many others.

Over the years, she served in a number of regional, state, and national leadership roles with groups including the Springfield Regional Chamber, the Springfield Library Foundation, the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston community advisory board, Springfield Technical Community College, and as a founding member of the Healing Racism Institute of Pioneer Valley.

Beyond all these lines on a résumé, Robinson is remembered for her boundless passion for the region and especially its underserved, her sense of humor, as well as her willingness to donate her time, money, and leadership to innumerable causes and organizations in this region and well beyond. She is remembered as a dynamic, forward-thinking administrator who led by example and was able to inspire others.

“As an administrator, Dora Robinson was strategic, and to me, that was one of her greatest strengths,” Caulton-Harris said. “She looked at the lanes of her administration, of her leadership, and she was very strategic about who she interacted with and how she interacted.”

Elaborating, she said Robinson understood the role she played as a Black woman in leadership roles and embraced all that came with it.

“She understood her responsibility to mentor and nurture and create pathways for future leaders. She understood the need to give young Black individuals, as well as seasoned individuals, an opportunity for growth. She knew she held a unique responsibility to make sure there were others in our community who followed us.

“Dora had a spirit that could not be harnessed. She was an explosive force of love everywhere she went; everyone she interacted with felt that generosity of spirit,” Caulton-Harris continued. “I think her legacy is one of warmth, almost like the warmth of the sun — her rays sort of permeated everything she interacted with.”

Johnson concurred, and said that, to him, Robinson was a more than leader in the boardroom. She was a leader on the streets of Springfield — in his case, quite literally.

“I’m thankful and grateful for her,” he said. “She treated me like I was her son. She stayed with me for the past 30 years, and I stayed with her. And she’s still with me.”

Caulton-Harris agreed, and then spoke for everyone who knew Robinson when she said, “frankly, I’m not sure how I move forward without her. I’ll miss her.”


Lasting Legacy

As he talked about Robinson, her legacy, and her influence on him, Nate Johnson said use of the past tense simply won’t cut it.

She remains a large and powerful force in his life and how he lives it, and always will be, he said, adding that the lessons she imparted, the example she set, and her directive to keep reaching higher and find new ways to make the most of his life, while also making a difference in the lives of others, will not only stay with him, but guide him for the rest of his life.

And there are countless people across the region who can, and do, say the same thing.

That’s the kind of impact reserved for superheroes.

Cover Story

Support Network


From left, founders Ben and Jennie Markens and Emily Leonczyk, TMG’s vice president and chief operating officer.


When Lauren Zuber started with the Markens Group just over two years ago, she understood that she would be working for “an association-management company.”

But she noted that it took her quite some time to fully understand just what that meant, what this now 35-year-old venture does, and, just as importantly, how it does it.

“I was inherently confused by the concept until probably three months into my job here,” she told BusinessWest, adding that, despite this confusion, she was drawn to the company and took the role of director of Marketing & Development because of its track record of success and strong set of values.

Emily Leonczyk, the company’s executive vice president, can relate, and said that, for many employees, it takes closer to a year before they have a firm handle on all that goes into the equation when it comes to association management — and how this company stands out in a crowded field of competitors.

Indeed, there is a lot that goes into that equation, she said, including everything from organizing and staging events to strategic leadership; from marketing and communications to membership services; from website design to social media. And the Markens Group, or TMG, provides all this and more to a wide variety of trade associations, membership societies, and not-for-profits, including the Springfield Regional Chamber, providing a team of specialists in place of one generalist.

For the chamber, TMG handles a number of assignments, from its newsletter to assistance with events such as its Outlook lunch in March, one of the region’s largest annual gatherings, to the recent annual meeting.

Diana Szynal, president of the chamber, summed up what the firm does with two highly effective words.

“They’re our support team,” she said, emphasizing both terms and noting that, while she still leads the various efforts at the chamber, TMG provides support from many different individuals with experience and expertise in several different areas. “You don’t get a person … you get a team.”

“There’s a whole story out there about how I invented the concept of association management, but … that’s another story.”

The company’s growing portfolio of clients manifests itself in an alphabet soup of acronyms for the organizations it serves — letters that appear in emails, on a large board tracking a lengthy list of events that TMG is working on, and on the binder covers on a shelf in one of the conference rooms.

There’s SRC — that’s the Springfield Regional Chamber; MLF, the Mary Lyons Foundation; NEFMA, the New England Financial Marketing Assoc.; IMFA, the International Molded Fiber Assoc.; AAHP, the American Assoc. of Homeopathic Pharmacists; FPPA, Flexographic Pre-Press Platemakers Assoc.; and many others.

portraits of staff members

Jennie Markens’ portraits of staff members hang in TMG’s conference rooms.

Behind those letters are associations comprised of businesses and organizations that are committed to their missions and moving them forward, said Ben Markens, but need help with the many day-to-day aspects of managing their organizations.

The desire to meet this need was the goal behind a broad transformation of TMG from a consulting business focused on the folding-carton industry into an accredited association-management company, or AMC (yes, another acronym), a metamorphosis that began in 2008, when the company took on management of the PPC, the Paperboard Packaging Council.

Over the past 15 years, the company has expanded its reach and its portfolio of clients and accompanying acronyms, giving the associations it manages a Springfield mailing address and phone number. In the meantime, it has become a great place to work — figuratively, but also quite literally.

Indeed, TMG has been named a ‘Great Place to Work’ by Forbes magazine, but beyond that designation, it has become a company with a culture grounded in the concept of teamwork and simply having fun, as we’ll see.

The firm has been in a serious growth mode in recent years, adding employees, taking on more space at 1350 Main St. — it now occupies a large chunk of the 11th floor — and bringing on a number of new clients.

There have been costs and risks associated with this rapid and profound expansion, said Ben Markens, but he prefers to look upon them as investments in the future of a venture that he and his wife, Jennie, built from the ground up with the intention of it remaining a force in Springfield, and in the AMC galaxy, for decades to come.

“We have a very strong bench of cross-trained individuals.”

With that in mind, the pair have spent considerable time and energy on the matter of succession, and have put in place a plan whereby Leonczyk will become the majority shareholder over the next several years.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with the senior leadership team at TMG about the first 35 years of growth, change, and maturation, and how there is more on tap for a company that has become a leader in what Ben Markens likes to call “the huge business that no one knows about.”


Portraits of the Artists

Among her many talents, Jennie Markens is a talented artist. And some of her work is on the walls at TMG.

Indeed, visitors to the office are greeted by a painting of the reflection of Springfield’s famous campanile clock tower in the glass façade of the Springfield Sheraton — an image that many TMG workers can see out the windows of their offices.

The leadership team at TMG

The leadership team at TMG, from left: Emily Leonczyk, Irene Costello, Jennie Markens, Lauren Zuber, Brian Westerlind, and Ben Markens.

Meanwhile, in one of the small conference rooms just off the front entrance are two rows of pencil sketches of TMG’s employees, a collection that has grown larger as the company has over the past several years.

The sketches, which make great conversation pieces for guests, speak to the concept of ‘team’ and how it is valued at TMG, which, as noted earlier, started as a consulting firm in 1988 that was niched to the folding-carton industry, a business that is well-represented in one of the conference rooms with a number of packaging products, including a Lucky Charms box.

TMG provided assistance to that industry on everything from pricing to strategy, said Ben Markens, adding that the leaders of the industry eventually asked him to become president of their association.

“I told them ‘no,’ because I already had a job,” he recalled. “They said, ‘figure it out,’ and we became what’s known as an association-management company. There’s a whole story out there about how I invented the concept of association management, but … that’s another story.”

While he may or may not have invented the business, Markens and the team that has been assembled has certainly come to be a leader in an industry he described as simply the outsourced management of associations — in TMG’s case, manufacturing groups and medical entities, representing everyone from podiatrists to neonatal intensive-care nurses.

“We’re able to take our experiences from one association or industry group and apply them and add value to others.”

Early on, Ben and Jennie made the decision to do this from Springfield. The PPC wanted them to move to the Washington, D.C. area — the association is based in Alexandria, Va. — and they considered basing it in or near their home in Westfield, but they ultimately decided the venture needed to be in Springfield and its downtown.

That move represented a risk in and of itself, said Jennie Markens, noting that 2008 was the height of the Great Recession, and taking on substantial debt and essentially launching a new business was a scary proposition.

But they moved ahead with confidence, a vision, and an operating philosophy grounded in what they call ‘fundamentals’ — and they’ve never looked back.

As they talked about association management, members of TMG’s leadership group said there are many components to this work.

Events are an important and highly visible part of it, said Ben Markens, adding that the firm will assist with everything from finding speakers to choosing the hotel; from ordering awards to handling the banquet order. But there is much more to this than events, he said, adding that TMG essentially becomes the back office for the association it serves, managing assignments ranging from membership to marketing to social-media content.

Jennie and Ben Markens

Jennie and Ben Markens have the firm on a serious growth trajectory in recent years.

As it does so, it brings to those assignments several specialists, as opposed to one generalist that a nonprofit or trade association might hire to handle those tasks listed above, said Irene Costello, director of Operations for TMG.

“If they do hire that one full-time staff person, they have one person managing the books, doing the marketing, trying to plan an event … and that person can’t be a master of everything,” she told BusinessWest. By hiring us for a similar price as a full-time employee, you wind up with a full staff of experts in each individual area that can bring their expertise and pull the association forward and make it successful.”

Ben Markens agreed. “Instead of having one person with two arms and two legs, you have the arm of a social-media person, the leg of an event planner … it’s full-time staffing at part-time rates.”

But while they’re specialists, the team’s members are cross-trained and can step in and fill any of a number of roles, said Leonczyk, citing, as one example, the Springfield Regional Chamber’s recent Outlook lunch. The team member managing the chamber’s account came down with COVID the week of the event, she recalled, adding that others within the firm were able to effectively backfill.

“We have a very strong bench of cross-trained individuals,” she said, adding that this is one of the key ingredients in the firm’s formula for success.


Firm Resolve

This deep bench, and the ability to provide specialists in the place of one or a few generalists, help explain the emergence of AMCs, and especially TMG, said Brian Westerlind, vice president of Industry Affairs and Strategic Communication for TMG. He noted that there is an association for association-management companies (the Association Management Company Institute), which has conducted studies yielding statistical evidence showing that groups that use such a firm fare better than those who try to handle such matters themselves.

“AMC-run associations had three times more net growth in assets and 31% higher growth in net revenue,” he noted. “And I think most of that comes from the fact that we know associations, we run associations every day, and I think our special sauce comes from the fact that Ben started out in this business discipline helping individual companies, and now we’re doing that for nonprofit associations and professional societies.

Leonczyk agreed, noting that one of the firm’s strengths is its ability to take lessons from work it does for one client, or group of clients, and apply it to others.

“We’re able to take our experiences from one association or industry group and apply them and add value to others,” she explained, adding that this ability helps explain the company’s strong growth trajectory in recent years.

And while the Springfield Regional Chamber doesn’t represent TMG’s niche within the AMC realm — its bread and butter is trade associations in the manufacturing and medical fields — its work with the agency exemplifies its role as a support network and its ability to handle the work of one or several full time equivalents.

Its work with that group also exemplifies the mindset with which it enters each assignment.

“Our job is to make them look really good and be all things behind the scenes,” said Leonczyk, adding that, for many associations, TMG takes the place of an executive director or administrator.

Zuber agreed, noting that the relationships with clients are partnerships in every sense of that term.

“We’re on the journey together, as opposed to a situation where we’re just managing them,” she explained. “It’s a real partnership.”

And while what TMG does for its clients is a big part of this story, an even more important piece, Leonczyk said, is how it goes about this work. By this, she meant a supportive culture created by the Markenses, one grounded in a strong value system and a desire to make theirs an enjoyable workplace, but also built on a foundation of excellence.

“It came down to the fact that Jennie and I wanted to found a company that we would like to work at — one that didn’t have a lot of arbitrary rules or a lot of backbiting, a place founded on those things we started with back in 1988,” Ben Markens explained. “We’ll do whatever’s fair, we want to have fun, and personal relationships are important.

“That’s easy when there’s just three or four of us, but as we become eight, nine, 10, or more, it becomes more difficult,” he went on, adding that, to maintain that culture he and Jennie covet, TMG stresses what are known as ‘fundamental behaviors,’ ranging from ‘we are friendly’ and ‘we do our best’ to ‘we are fair’ and ‘we have fun.’

Ben Markens puts a special emphasis on that last one — what he calls the ‘fun factor,’ and to say there has been a trickle-down effect would be an understatement.

“You can be quirky, you can be yourself here, and I really enjoy that — that’s who we are here,” Zuber said, adding that another fundamental is what she calls ‘support and defend.’

“Within three months of working here, I knew people had my back,” she explained. “I’ve worked in many different industries, and never have I enjoyed the level of support I have here.”

Moving forward, Leonczyk, a member of BusinessWest’s 40 Under Forty class of 2023 who came to the company four years ago and eventually assumed the role of executive vice president, said she is committed to keeping the firm in Springfield, continuing to build on the culture that has made this a great place to work, and maintaining the strong pattern of growth it has seen the past several years.

“I’m really grateful for this opportunity, and want to build on everything that Ben and Jennie have done here,” she said.


Bottom Line

Ben Markens may or may not have invented the concept of association management. As he said, “that’s another story.”

This one is about the company he and Jennie started and how it has grown and evolved over the years to become a leader in this business that so few know about.

This work is a science, but it’s also an art, and mastering it has become a function of teamwork, as represented in those portraits on the conference-room wall.

Those portraits speak of a canvas that is still being filled in, with new elements — and, yes, new acronyms — being added regularly.

That’s what this story is all about, and there are many intriguing chapters still to come.

Law Special Coverage

Working in Concert

Managing Partner Seth Stratton with recently named Shareholder Andrea O’Connor.

Managing Partner Seth Stratton with recently named Shareholder Andrea O’Connor.



That’s not a term you hear often in reference to a law firm. That’s because … well, the vast majority of them would still be considered the opposite — traditional, operating pretty much the way law firms have operated for decades now.

But Seth Stratton uses the word quite liberally as he talks about the firm he serves as managing partner, Fitzgerald Law, P.C., which is based in East Longmeadow but also has an office in downtown Springfield.

He says it applies to the firm’s founder and still very active partner, Frank Fitzgerald — “he’s always marched to a different beat when it comes to the practice of law; he’s a businessperson first and lawyer second” — and also how the firm’s members go about team building. Most recently, it was at a Bruno Mars concert at MGM Springfield (Stratton formerly served as vice president and legal counsel of MGM Resorts’ Northeast Group, and still had the requisite connections to buy 40 seats to the show), preceded by some bowling in the casino’s alleys.

That term also applies, to one degree or another, to how the firm is expanding, adding lawyers, and even making them partners.

Indeed, Andrea O’Connor, a bankruptcy and insolvency specialist who joined the firm in 2020 (not long before Stratton left MGM and rejoined Fitzgerald), was recently made a shareholder, continuing a pattern of growth and what Stratton called “re-invention.”

“More people have gotten involved as shareholders in the firm,” he explained. “And we’ve also been bringing in mid-career lawyers who have considerable experience and a lot that they can bring to the firm. We’re bringing people in non-traditionally to grow our firm, and as we grow, we’ll talk out ownership opportunities in the firm.”

The addition of O’Connor, as well as Christina Turgeon, another bankruptcy specialist formerly in solo practice, and Daryl Johnson, who specializes in everything from commercial lending to zoning, further diversify a firm focused mostly on business advisory work, said Stratton, noting that it handles a wide array of legal issues, including commercial real-estate development, acquisition, and sale; zoning, permitting, and licensing; and business succession and estate planning.

Bankruptcy and restructuring are now part of that mix, and an important part, he said, because, while the economy remains strong and bankruptcies have generally been on the decline in recent years, businesses do fail, and such work is part of providing the full range of services that businesses might need.

“We’re trying to figure out a model that allows us to capitalize on talent but not be wed to a traditional law-firm model. We are a little different, and we think this is what many of our clients like about us.”

Meanwhile, there are few firms in this region that have such expertise, he went on, adding that this is a key component of the firm’s overall growth strategy.

As he talked about that strategy, Stratton said the broad plan is to continue to grow and diversify the firm — it has added several new lawyers over the past few years and now boasts 10 attorneys and five partners — and take its expertise to different markets.

The Fitzgerald firm has opened a satellite office in Worcester, he noted, enabling it to better serve clients and potential clients in that part of state, and O’Connor and other attorneys in the firm are serving a growing number of clients in Boston and other metropolitan areas, as clients take advantage of the firm’s deep portfolio of services — and at Springfield-area rates.

Overall, Stratton said the firm is still trying to determine the “sweet spot” when it comes to the desired size of the firm, and hinted strongly that it will essentially know what that size is when it gets there.

In the meantime, it will continue to look for opportunities to add some rock stars to the roster and continue to grow and diversify in a way that could, indeed, be called ‘non-traditional.’


Additions of Note

O’Connor told BusinessWest that she would consider her own career path non-traditional.

She started with the Springfield-based firm Hendel & Collins, which specializes in bankruptcy and related work, after graduating from law school. After six years there, she left to serve as a clerk for the bankruptcy court.

She then returned to the firm, which became Hendel, Collins & O’Connor, P.C. While her partners eventually started winding down their practices, she was looking to take hers to the next level. The question was … where?

She said she had a number of options, but eventually decided to join the Fitzgerald firm in August 2020, the height of the pandemic.

“I started my last firm when I was eight months pregnant, so I make bold choices sometimes,” she said with a laugh. “But when the opportunity comes, you have to seize it; it was a huge opportunity for me to come here and work with this team.”

Fitzgerald has been creating such opportunities for other mid-career lawyers, said Stratton, adding that the traditional path that lawyers took for years — one where they would join a firm as an associate; make partner after six, seven, or eight years; get a bigger office; and stay with that firm for the next several decades — is increasingly not the norm.

Especially at Fitzgerald, a firm that was founded in 1992.

“There is a sweet spot in terms of size, and we’re all trying to figure out what it is.”

“We’re trying to figure out a model that allows us to capitalize on talent but not be wed to a traditional law-firm model,” said Stratton, who was on the partnership track at a large regional law firm but ultimately rejected that path and left for Fitzgerald and ultimately returned to it after a six-year stint with MGM that eventually saw him become the face of the casino. “We are a little different, and we think this is what many of our clients like about us.”

And when he returned, as managing partner, he continued and accelerated that process of reinvention, adding that it involves expansion and diversification of the firm, while focusing on what it does well.

Elaborating, he said the firm moved on from the work it was doing in such areas as family law and personal injury, and focused all its talent and energies on serving businesses and their families in all the ways they need to be served, including areas such as bankruptcy and insolvency.

Work in that realm has been relatively slow in recent years, said O’Connor, adding that an expected surge — or wave, or tsunami — of personal and business bankruptcies, one that would accompany an end of COVID-related relief efforts, has yet to materialize, and now there are doubts that it will.

“We’ve had a really good economy for a very long time,” she told BusinessWest, adding that the high-water mark for bankruptcy work came at the height of the Great Recession, some 15 years ago, and has been fairly tepid ever since, to the point where she believes fewer people are entering this specific specialty.

But there is always work in this realm, she said, adding that most of hers involve businesses in distress. Recently, she was appointed a Chapter 7 panel trustee in Connecticut, administering bankruptcy cases, primarily in New Haven, but also in Bridgeport and Hartford.

This additional focus on bankruptcy and insolvency enables the firm to better navigate the cyclical nature of the economy, said Stratton, adding that it also helps separate it from many competitors.

“This allows us to be more diversified and recession-proof in our own business,” he explained. “When the economy is good, the bread and butter of our business — transactional work, real-estate development work, loans and financing — is busy. When the economy goes in the other direction, some of that work dries up, but then, bankruptcy and insolvency work picks up, so it allows us to diversify.”

The recent staff additions to the firm have enabled it to get both younger and more gender-diverse, said Stratton, adding that he anticipates this growth pattern to continue in the years to come.

“I expect that the approach we’ve taken over the past two years will continue over the next several years,” he said. “But there is a sweet spot in terms of size, and we’re all trying to figure out what it is. We want to have enough lawyers to service the business, without growing too big to where we take on additional overhead, which pushes rate structures higher and you feel less competitive with clients.

“We don’t know what that sweet spot is yet,” he went on, “but we will find it.”


Bottom Line

Getting back to the Bruno Mars concert, Stratton said he still has a few MGM employees on speed dial who were able to make it happen.

The concert, bowling, and dinner in the sports bar before the show was a decidedly different course for the firm’s annual summer outing, and one that provided another example of how Fitzgerald is different and — here comes that word again — non-traditional.

Thus far, that character trait is serving it well, and Stratton and his growing team are committed to staying on this course moving forward.

Where it will take them is a question to be answered later — when they find that aforementioned sweet spot. For now, it’s a path toward continued growth and diversity, in every sense of that word.


Autos Special Coverage

Driving Forces

Mike Marcotte shows off one of the Bronco Sport models

Mike Marcotte shows off one of the Bronco Sport models on the Marcotte lot, one of the small SUVs that are seeing a surge in popularity.


Prior to the pandemic, Mike Marcotte recalls, there would be between 300 and 350 new cars on the lot at Marcotte Ford, the Holyoke mainstay started by his grandfather more than a half-century ago.

At the height of COVID, when there were supply-chain issues and a massive microchip shortage, there were maybe 30 or 40 cars on that same lot.

“Employees could park wherever they wanted at that time,” Marcotte, the company’s president, said with a laugh, noting that today, there are close to 200 cars on the lot on Main Street, partly out of necessity — there are still fewer cars available from the manufacturer — but also out of choice.

“You don’t need to have everything on the lot because you can factory-order vehicles,” he explained. “It’s nice to have all the options, but you have carrying costs, and you want the freshest product.”

This commitment to keeping smaller inventory levels has provided the business with another opportunity to expand what has become a complex of sorts on Main Street, one that includes everything from the dealership to a commercial truck center to a car wash. Indeed, Marcotte showed BusinessWest a row in the parking lot that is now the site of a construction project — one that will create a bank of charging stations to handle the growing volume of electric-car sales.

“You don’t need to have everything on the lot because you can factory-order vehicles.”

Rising electric and hybrid car sales and smaller inventories, by choice, are among the trends and ongoing developments in an auto-sales industry that is still in many ways adjusting to life post-COVID. It’s a time of challenge — higher interest rates, talk of recession, and some lingering availability issues when it comes to many makes and models, for example — but also opportunity, in the form of new and intriguing products (mostly those electric models), some improved incentives from the manufacturers, and some lingering, pent-up demand.

Other trends include a still-challenging used-car market — meaning challenging for dealers who struggle to find cars and challenging for consumers, who continue to face limited options and high prices — as well as steadily rising SUV sales and a growing willingness among consumers to order a vehicle rather than pick one off the lot.

Carla Cosenzi, president of the Tommy Car Auto Group, which includes Hyundai, Genesis, Nissan, Volkswagen, and Volvo dealerships, said she and her team, like most in this business, entered the year with conservative expectations, because of those challenges listed above, and two quarters into 2023, they are meeting them.

“It’s been such a volatile market, with inventory constraints, interest rates, and what’s happening with the economy, so we just made a conservative projection and figured we could always adjust if we needed to,” Cosenzi said. “We projected to increase sales over last year, which we always do, but not by a lot.”

Ben Sullivan, chief operating officer at Balise Motor Sales, concurred. He told BusinessWest that, after three years of decline, to one degree or another, and a 2022 that was essentially flat, 2023 was seen within the industry as a year when, despite higher interest rates and inflation, dealers would do some catching up.

Ben Sullivan, seen here with a Kia Sportage plug-in hybrid

Ben Sullivan, seen here with a Kia Sportage plug-in hybrid, said electric cars and plug-ins comprise a growing percentage of sales at the company’s many dealerships.

And they have, he said, although limited supplies have impacted the degree that they can do so, with some brands impacted more than others. He noted that, while there are still some supply-chain issues, the bigger challenge now is getting the cars to the lots.

“There’s still some fragility in the supply chain,” Sullivan said. “On top of chips and COVID lockdowns, which, for most part, have passed in the global supply chain, now what you’re dealing with are labor shortages at ports and shortages of rail cars — there’s a particular type of rail car that carries vehicles. And on top of that, at the end of this year, the domestic manufacturers will be renegotiating their AUW contracts.”

For this issue and its focus on auto sales, BusinessWest talked with several dealers about what’s happening with this market at the halfway point in the year, and what we can expect in quarters three and four — and beyond.


To a Higher Gear

Before addressing 2023, Sullivan first set the tone by recapping 2022, which was, by most measures, and especially the new-car-sales yardstick, a down, or flat, year. And the availability of cars, or the lack thereof, was the biggest factor.

“Every time we thought that someone was going to build enough cars to grow sales, they weren’t able to, or they weren’t able to ship them,” he explained, listing issues ranging from plant lockdowns due to COVID to a computer-chip shortage and backups at the ports. “So the industry was really under some pressure.”

“People like to feel and touch and experience what they’re going to be driving, so there’s definitely an opportunity to lose market when you don’t have the right inventory and your competitor does.”

The consensus within this sector was that things would rebound somewhat in 2023, but the bounce would be limited by everything from lingering shipping challenges to higher interest rates to inflation limiting consumers’ buying power.

And all that has come to pass, said those we spoke with, noting that one of the biggest issues still facing dealers is inventory. Indeed, while most all of them would carry fewer vehicles than they did before the pandemic, for those reasons mentioned above, they would prefer more than they have at present — at least with most models.

Cosenzi, like Sullivan, said inventory levels vary with the brand, with some manufacturers faring better at bringing cars to the lot than others.

“Hyundai has inventory, and inventory is becoming more available every month,” she said. “Meanwhile, Volkswagen’s inventory isn’t nearly as robust as Hyundai’s, and with Nissan, we’re slowly seeing it grow, but it’s not faring as well as Hyundai.

“Obviously, we’ve learned to be more disciplined through COVID and not having as much inventory, and I think that has trained the consumer to some respect,” she went on. “However, people like to feel and touch and experience what they’re going to be driving, so there’s definitely an opportunity to lose market when you don’t have the right inventory and your competitor does.”

Carla Cozensi

Carla Cozensi says inventory issues are among the many challenges facing dealers today.

Sullivan said inventories are generally improving across the spectrum of brands in the Balise stable, which now includes a second Subaru store (the other is in Rhode Island), with the quiet acquisition of the Steve Lewis dealership on Route 9 in Hadley early this spring. Overall, 60% of cars are now pre-sold, or factory-ordered, compared with 80% to 90% at the height of COVID.

Overall, he said, there is now more of a willingness on the part of consumers to factory-order vehicles and get exactly what they want — and wait several weeks for it — while rising inventory levels improve the odds of getting exactly what they want (or at least close) and driving it off the lot the same day.

Marcotte said levels of inventory are rising at his Ford store, but a good number of vehicles — maybe 33% of all sales, by his estimate — are still factory-ordered, with wait times of roughly six to 12 weeks, compared with four to six months at the height of COVID.

“It’s back to normal in many respects, but you’re still dealing with some supply issues; it may not be microchips, but other parts — one widget can hold up a whole vehicle,” he said, adding that it can still be challenging to secure adequate inventories of some product, especially, in his case, trucks and cargo vans.


Current Events

But while challenges persist, those we spoke with have seen several encouraging trends and developments.

At the top of that list is electric vehicles and hybrids, sales of which have been climbing steadily, if unspectacularly, over the past several years.

Within the Balise stable, Sullivan said, there are now 15 electric models, with more on the way, when a few years ago, there were just three.

“It’s back to normal in many respects, but you’re still dealing with some supply issues; it may not be microchips, but other parts — one widget can hold up a whole vehicle.”

“Soon, there are going to be 54 entries into just the electric-vehicle market,” he said. “And it’s going to be a very interesting landscape to watch as people decide, ‘can I go all the way in electric, and which one do I get, based on range and price and tax credits?’

“It is certainly a growing part of the business, but what’s interesting to watch as well is the number of people who go out with an electric and decide they’ll take one step away from that and go plug-in hybrid,” he went on. “We’re seeing a real demand push going on for plug-in hydrids; the hybrids have been around for a while, but the plug-in hybrid is really starting to come into its own. We’re seeing a huge increase in demand for those vehicles.”

Meanwhile, sales of SUVs, especially the smaller, crossover models, continue to dominate the market.

Some makers have all but stopped selling sedans — Ford has only the Mustang left in its portfolio, for example — amid growing popularity of SUVs, which appeal to consumers of all ages.

Cosenzi said sales of models such as the Hyundai Tuscon, Nissan Rogue, Volkswagen Tiguan, and Volvo XT60 continue to trend higher. There is still a market for sedans, she went on, noting that VW’s Jetta and Hyundai’s Elantra, both smaller models with comparatively smaller price tags, are still a strong seller. But that market is smaller and continuing to trend in that direction.

Marcotte concurred, pointing to soaring demand for the Ford Bronco and Bronco Sport, a smaller SUV that is capturing an audience.

“We’re getting a lot of new buyers because of the style of the Bronco Sport — we’ve had some Escape customers, people who have bought two or three Escapes, moving to the Bronco Sport,” he said, adding that another popular addition to the portfolio is the Maverick, a small truck that gets 40 miles to the gallon and lists for under $30,000.

As for the used-car market, 2023 has looked a whole lot like … well, 2022, said those we spoke with, much to the chagrin of consumers and dealers alike.

The problem, now and then, is inventory, or lack thereof, said Cosenzi, adding that supplies remain low, for many reasons. These include fewer new-car sales (compared to pre-pandemic levels) and, therefore, fewer trade-ins, as well as the fact that seemingly all constituencies, from consumers to car-rental companies, are hanging onto their cars longer.

That means there are fewer pre-owned cars on the lots, which equates to higher prices, a simple byproduct of the laws of supply and demand that is not likely to change any time soon, Sullivan said.

Cosenzi agreed, noting that dealers can’t get as many cars, and they have to work much harder to secure what they can.

“We’ve done a really good job sourcing them from our own customers, like marketing to people in our market that we’re interested in buying their car, and that’s how we’ve been able to maintain our levels,” she said. “But it’s been difficult. It’s been more work than it’s been in the past, that’s for sure.”


The Road Ahead

Summing up the mindset at Balise, Sullivan said the company is “bullish,” and in a growth mode.

And, increasingly, it is securing the fuel it needs for such growth — fuel in the form of inventory, demand for products (especially the new electric vehicles and SUVs now dominating the lots), and economic conditions that will prompt consumers to buy.

Time will tell what happens over the final two quarters of this year, but it seems likely that dealers will do more of that catching up that was projected for 2023.


Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Package Machinery

Plans are moving forward for a large warehouse facility on the former Package Machinery complex.

For more than 35 years now, the property at 330 Chestnut St. in East Longmeadow, known colloquially as the Package Machinery complex, has been the subject of question marks about what will come next there.

Indeed, while there have been sporadic uses of portions of the sprawling property, especially its massive warehouse facility, over the years, it has been mostly vacant. The once-mowed acreage adjacent to the administration and production facilities is completely overgrown with weeds and other forms of vegetation. And the large ‘X’s on the front of the property instruct fire crews not to enter because it has been deemed unsafe to do so.

So the questions persist — only, these days, months after a controversial plan to build a large warehouse facility there were first unveiled, and weeks after the plan was approved by the town’s Planning Board with a lengthy list of conditions, they are somewhat different in nature.

Now, the questions mostly concern what these conditions, including one requiring a right turn out of the property, will mean for certain areas of the community, including its downtown and famous (make that infamous) rotary, and other communities, including neighboring Enfield and Longmeadow. They also concern whether these conditions will be altered and new ones added, and even whether the project will hold up under potential litigation from residents.

“This is a generational opportunity and investment; East Longmeadow is an incredible community, and this gives it an asset that is a great attraction for young families.”

The matter will be the subject of a reopened public hearing on June 20, said Planning Board Chairman Jon Torcia, adding that, when it voted to approve the project in May, the board noted the concerns about traffic and noise, but ultimately concluded that this was a use allowed within that zone, and one that should be approved, with conditions.

Overall, 2023 is shaping up as a possible watershed year for this growing community of more than 16,000 residents.

Indeed, beyond the controversy over the future of 330 Chestnut St., there is also the matter of a proposed new high school for the town, one with a sticker price now north of $177 million, with the town’s share expected to be roughly $120 million.

The matter is due to come up for a vote on Election Day, Nov. 7, and to say this a huge vote for the community would an understatement.

The current high school opened its doors in 1960 and is the last of the high schools built in this region during that time that is still standing. Some see the high school as a potentially limiting factor in the town’s ability to compete with other surrounding communities for families, current students, and even businesses. Meanwhile, the building is very much energy-inefficient at a time when municipalities are moving to build schools and other facilities that move in the other direction.

“This is a generational opportunity and investment; East Longmeadow is an incredible community, and this gives it an asset that is a great attraction for young families,” said School Superintendent Gordon Smith, adding that, if voters approve the measure in November, ground would likely be broken in the summer of 2024, with the new building, to be built on athletic fields behind the current facility, to be ready for occupancy in the fall of 2026.

Bill Laplante

Bill Laplante says building lots are increasingly difficult to come by, and when they do become available, they go fast, and for high prices.

But despite its aging high school and its uncertain future, East Longmeadow remains a popular landing spot for both families and businesses, especially with a uniform tax rate.

“The town has become very desirable,” said Bill Laplante, owner of Laplante Construction, a residential builder with offices on Main Street. And he speaks from experience — he grew up in East Longmeadow, graduated from its high school, and raised a family there. “When I look at it from a business standpoint, just seeing that people are trying to find land or trying to find homes in town … it’s incredible.”

Elaborating, he said that, while there are more building lots in this town than in neighboring Longmeadow or many other communities, the inventory certainly isn’t what it was years ago. This means lots that become available in the few subdivisions being built go quickly, and the prices of existing homes move higher (more on all this later).

Beyond the warehouse and high school, there are some other big decisions that might be made in 2023, including what to do with another long-vacant property: the former home of Carlin Combustion Engineering on Maple Street. It is due to be acquired by the town, said Town Manager Mary McNally, adding that a request for proposals will likely be issued. Meanwhile, there are plans on the table for renovating one of the town’s gems, Heritage Park, plans that might move off the table — or not, depending on a number of factors, including the high-school project and its cost to the taxpayers.

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at East Longmeadow and the many important decisions that will likely be made this year.


Developing Stories

As noted earlier, the property at 330 Chestnut, across the street from the Lenox manufacturing facility, has been a declining eyesore, and a source of seemingly endless speculation, for many years.

It appeared that an answer had been found several years ago, when a development group, East Longmeadow Redevelopers LLC, put plans on the table for a mixed-use facility, or ‘village,’ as it was called by some, one that would include housing and commercial uses. Those plans were conceived just before the start of the pandemic, said McNally, adding that the project essentially died on the vine amid COVID-related issues such as spiraling costs and supply-chain woes, as well as disagreement between the developer and the Town Council over how much of the space would be devoted to commercial uses.

“When I look at it from a business standpoint, just seeing that people are trying to find land or trying to find homes in town … it’s incredible.”

In its place, East Longmeadow Developers LLC proposed the large warehouse facility — more than 500,000 square feet in size, with 100 docking bays — which has drawn considerable opposition from residents, especially those in an over-55 luxury condo development called the Fields at Chestnut, citing increased truck traffic and noise.

The project is allowed, from a zoning perspective, and the Planning Board approved the proposal, with approximately 20 conditions, earlier this spring, Torcia said. One of those conditions, mandating a right turn out of the property, away from the Fields of Chestnut, was not discussed at earlier hearings, he noted, adding that it would certainly be the focus of discussion at the public hearing slated for June 20.

The developers have estimated there will be roughly 400 vehicle trips per day at the site, he said, adding that he believes that most of these trucks will take a second right — rather than a left and head for the center of town — and proceed to highways through roads in Enfield and Longmeadow.

“I think this project will bring benefits in that it will rehabilitate a blighted property that has not been operational for quite some time,” he explained. “But we did hear from people who spoke at the meetings who were rightfully concerned about an increase in traffic, going from a property where there’s been no activity to one with considerable activity.”

Mary McNally

Mary McNally says there’s plenty of support for a new high school, but there are also cost concerns.

There has been no activity, or very little of it, at the Carlin Combustion site for the better part of a decade, said McNally, but that could soon change now that the town is acquiring the property from its current owner.

She noted that motorists navigating Maple Street at or above the posted speed limit might not even notice the property, with its overgrown weeds and rusting signs hinting at its former use. But it has not gone unnoticed by town officials or the authors of the master plan, who have identified it as a potential asset.

East Longmeadow at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1894
Population: 16,430
Area: 13.0 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $19.20
Commercial Tax Rate: $19.20
Median Household Income: $62,680
Median Family Income: $70,571
Type of Government: Town Council, Town Manager
Largest Employers: Lenox; Cartamundi; CareOne at Redstone; East Longmeadow Skilled Nursing Center
* Latest information available

Indeed, there are many possible future uses for the property, said McNally, adding that some would like it devoted to open space — it abuts a rail trail and a rail depot converted into an ice-cream parlor — or as home to a new public-safety complex, while others, and she puts herself in this category, would like to see housing of a more affordable variety than most all of the homes currently being built in this community.

“I think housing is the best option, and the Commonwealth has a lot of money designated for housing needs, and East Longmeadow needs some affordable options,” she explained. “There are a lot of new homes going up for $600,000 and $700,000; a lot of people who live here would like to stay here and perhaps downsize from a $200,000, $300,000, or $400,000 home into something smaller.”


School of Thought

When asked what plan B might be if residents do not support the proposal to build a new high school this fall, Smith, said that, in essence, there isn’t one. Or at least one that makes sense, in his opinion.

The only option for the town would be to spend an estimated $120 million to renovate the school and bring it up to modern codes, he said, adding that this isn’t much of an option.

Elaborating, he said that, through two phases of a feasibility study and feedback from residents and other constituencies, the town has moved to the point where new construction has been deemed the best option.

“The public feedback was ‘you might as well go for new construction because of some of the challenges that have been identified,’” he said, noting, as one example, that if the town were to upgrade the HVAC system to bring it to code, doing so would decrease the room size because of the need to create new walls to fit the HVAC equipment that would go between those walls.

“The Commonwealth has a lot of money designated for housing needs, and East Longmeadow needs some affordable options.”

He said the town has been talking about a new high school for at least a decade. Over those 10 years, the price tag has only increased, and the current projections — and these could change with final design — is approximately $177 million, with $55 million to $57 million to be reimbursed by the state.

This will obviously be a large burden on the taxpayers, said McNally, adding that, for a small community like this one, “the numbers are frightening.”

The exact impact on the tax rate hasn’t been determined, she said, adding that some estimates put the hit at $1,000 annually for the average taxpayer. Overall, she said it is difficult to project how November’s vote will go.

“There’s a lot of support for the school; I think everyone acknowledges, or most people acknowledge, that it’s needed. But then there’s the cost barrier. But in the absence of a new school, I’m not sure we can compete as well with Wilbraham and Longmeadow, both of which have relatively new schools.”

Meanwhile, a project of this size and scope might impact or delay other capital projects, such as long-needed, long-talked-about improvements to Heritage Park.

Indeed, McNally produced a thick file folder detailing roughly $7 million worth of improvements that include a new recreation center, an indoor gym, walking trails, dredging the pond, athletic fields, and more.

“We need soccer fields and play areas,” she said, adding that soccer fields at the Lenox complex, used by the town for years, are being converted to solar farms, and other facilities will no longer be available for public use. “Unfortunately, the school vote has somewhat tapered my encouragement of the progress of some of these other projects because you can’t pay for everything at the same time.”

Despite some of these municipal issues and question marks moving forward, East Longmeadow remains a community in demand. That’s true on the commercial side — many area banks have located branches there over the past decade or so, for example, and Chase, which is renovating a property in the center of town, is the latest to join that list — and on the residential side as well.

Indeed, Laplante said building lots are increasingly difficult to come by, and when they do become available, they go fast, and for high prices.

“You do a search for available building lots in town, and you find that there really aren’t that many,” he said. “There are scattered lots that are in established neighborhoods, but you don’t see many available building lots in a neighborhood setting.”

Still, there some new homes being built, including one his company is handling in a new subdivision off Prospect Street called Bella Vista. Overall, Laplante has built three of the homes in the complex — another high-end development where the lots are absorbed quickly, which in many ways reflects what’s been happening in this community over the past several years.


Franklin County

Putting the Focus on Community

Thomas Meshako

Thomas Meshako says Greenfield Savings Bank plans to grow organically and with a strategic expansion of its footprint.

Thomas Meshako acknowledged it was a quite a change moving from the large, regional institutions where he worked the first 30 or so years of his career in financial services to Greenfield Savings Bank.

But it’s a change he wanted.

“I decided I wanted to get out of the buying and selling of banks and really wanted to become part of the community — something I always felt was missing when you’re working in a bank and dealing with mergers and acquisitions and always trying to make the next quarter’s earnings,” he said, noting that most of the banks he’s worked for have been absorbed by larger institutions. “I wanted to be at a bank where we invested in the future, for the long haul, and that cares about the community it serves.”

He’s found all that GSB, where he arrived in 2016 as chief financial officer and serves now as president and CEO, new titles he was awarded late last fall following the search for a successor to John Howland.

Since arriving, and especially since becoming president and CEO, Meshako has been out in the community, taking part in events ranging from the Hatfield Bonfire music festival fundraiser to Northampton’s Pride Parade to Tapestry Health’s recent auction. As he talked with BusinessWest, he was gearing up for the Green River Festival, the massive three-day music fest (Little Feat is among the headliners) set for June 23-25 in Greenfield; the bank is a major sponsor.

He’s been at so many events, especially on weekends, that he’s spending far less time at his cabin in Vermont than he expected to be, but he acknowledged that “this is where I need to be.” By that, he meant Greenfield and GSB, an institution that crashed through the $1 billion assets mark in 2020 and is now focused on the next milestones — $1.5 billion and $2 billion — and what it will take to get there.

“When I looked at Greenfield Savings, I decided that it’s where I wanted to be. It’s a little different, but it’s exciting to work for a bank that was growing.”

The bank was celebrating its 150th anniversary when it passed the $1 billion milestone; when asked when he thought GSB might get to $2 billion, he joked, “sooner than 150 years.”

Elaborating, and turning more serious, Meshako said the bank plans to grow organically, and he is looking at expanding its footprint, specifically in Hampshire County, where five of its 10 branches are located. He didn’t pinpoint specific communities for new branches, but did say they would be towns deemed ‘underbanked’ by recent feasibility studies.

Meanwhile, GSB will be rolling out some new products, including a new rewards program for debit-card users, and continually upgrading its technology, with a new online product for loans and deposits, for example, to stay current and provide customers with what they want and need.

“Most people are looking for more convenience to bank from home, and we’re trying to make sure we offer that,” he said, adding quickly that brink-and-mortar branches, which provide visibility and other forms of convenience, are still a big part of GSB’s growth strategy.

For this issue and its focus on Franklin County, BusinessWest talked at length with Meshako about his new role, his long-term outlook for GSB, and his thoughts on Greenfield, Franklin County, and how this gem of a region is making major strides when it comes to economic development — and as a destination.


Generating Interest

As he talked with BusinessWest, Meshako gestured out the windows of GSB’s main conference room toward the other side of Main Street and the properties on either side of the Greenfield Garden Cinemas, one of the signature redevelopment projects of the past decade in this community.

“Just a few years ago, most of those storefronts were vacant,” he said, noting that they are now occupied, with everything from a book shop to a pop-up store that are, collectively, contributing to a new sense of progress and vibrancy in this city of almost 18,000 residents.

The GSB senior management team

The GSB senior management team includes, from left, Lori Grover, Mark Grumoli, Thomas Meshako, Steve Hamlin, and Shandra Richardson.

And there is more coming, he said, noting the highly anticipated redevelopment of the former Wilson’s Department Store, a few blocks down Main Street from the bank, into a mix of retail (specifically the Green Fields Market) and housing, which he believes is sorely needed in this community.

“Availability of housing is very tight in Greenfield and all of Franklin and Hampshire counties,” he explained. “This is something we desperately need, and that’s one of the reasons why this project is so exciting.”

Getting involved in a community at this level was an element missing for most of Meshako’s career, one that, as noted earlier, was marked mostly by work at larger, regional banks that have since been absorbed by larger institutions.

Most recently, he served as chief financial officer of Merchants Bancshares in Burlington, Vt., a commercial bank with branches throughout Vermont and the Springfield market. Prior to that, he served in several positions, including principal financial officer, at Brookline Bancorp in Boston. There were also stints at Union Bankshares in Vermont and Chittenden Corp. and the institution that acquired it, People’s United Financial.

After nearly three years at Merchants Bancshares, Meshako was a looking for a new and different challenge, and found it at GSB.

“When I looked at Greenfield Savings, I decided that it’s where I wanted to be,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s a little different, but it’s exciting to work for a bank that was growing.”

And it has continued that growth pattern, he said, noting that the bank posted record earnings in 2021 and 2022. It won’t continue that streak this year amid spiraling interest rates that are negatively impacting both the residential and commercial loan portfolios and tightening margins, but it will be another solid year, he said.

And while achieving solid growth on the bottom line, the bank has also been able to increase its contributions within the community by 10% a year since he arrived — a pattern of improvement Meshako is committed to continuing.

Looking ahead, he said the bank has essentially ruled out additional expansion in Franklin County, where there are currently five branches, and instead will focus its sights on Hampshire County, where GSB currently has a physical presence in Northampton (two branches), Amherst (two branches), and Hadley (one location).

“We’re always the number-one lender in Franklin County, and we’re now the fourth-largest lender in Hampshire County,” he explained. “And we hope to continue to grow that market share as well. Within the Five College community, there is a need for housing, and being primarily a commercial real-estate lender, that’s a niche that I think we can fill; we’ve done very well there.”

GSB has conducted feasibility studies on which communities would make suitable landing spots, he went on, adding that he considers some communities underbanked because of some of the recent mergers and acquisitions which have left fewer banks in some markets and larger institutions in others.

In the case of community banks, and especially this one, the investment — and the commitment — in a new location involves much more than brick and mortar that goes into the actual branch building.

“We don’t just put a branch up … when we move into a community, we give to the local organizations, we hire local people, and we try to make sure that everything we do makes us part of that community,” he explained. “So it’s more expensive than just opening a branch or putting people in a location.”


By All Accounts

Getting back to that view out the conference-room windows, Meshako said Greenfield, and Franklin County as a whole, is seeing progress on many fronts, from tourism to Greenfield’s downtown, which has many new businesses and projects in various stages of development, from a new town library and fire station to the aforementioned Wilson’s redevelopment initiative.

“Greenfield is on its way up; it has a lot of character, and I hope it continues to grow and evolve,” he told BusinessWest, citing not only the new building projects and the new storefronts, but a greater livability — and relative affordability — that is attracting residents and entrepreneurs alike. “The people moving here want to be part of a community, and that’s what they find — community.”

And he believes more people are finding it these days, and will be finding it in the future, especially as technology, and changing attitudes in the workplace, enable more people to live where they want and work where they want at the same time.

“Because more people are now able to work remotely, we’ve definitely seen an increase in the number of people buying properties and moving to Greenfield,” he said, adding that, while this trend will certainly impact housing prices in the long run, it will also bring more support businesses, hospitality-related ventures, and general vibrancy to the region.

As Meshako talks about his bank, its plans for the future, and its involvement in the community, and also as he talks about Greenfield and the many positive developments there, it’s clear why he made that career change seven years ago.

As he said, he wanted to be at a bank that didn’t just have a mailing address on Main Street, but a stake in everything that that is happening on Main Street — and many other streets as well.

As Meshako said, it was a big change, but a change he wanted — and needed — to make.

And he has never looked back.