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Generating Results

Holyoke G&E Manager Jim Lavelle

Holyoke G&E Manager Jim Lavelle at the hydroelectric facility at the Hadley Falls Dam.

Holyoke Gas & Electric was recently recognized among a handful of utilities nationwide for its leadership in transforming to a carbon-free energy system. That designation, from the Smart Electric Power Alliance, underscores a green-energy mindset at the municipal utility that is not only earth-friendly, but a powerful force when it comes to economic development in the Paper City.

Jim Lavelle acknowledged that Holyoke Gas & Electric (HG&E) has some decided advantages when it comes to clean energy and reducing its carbon footprint.

Take, for example, the hydroelectric facility at the Hadley Falls Dam on the Connecticut River, capable of generating 33 megawatts of electricity, as well as some smaller hydro units located throughout the Holyoke canal system that produce another 15 megawatts — clean-power generation that is beyond the means of many utilities, especially municipal operations.

“We’re extremely fortunate that we have this infrastructure at our disposal — 50 megawatts of hydro in our backyard,” said Lavelle, general manager of HG&E. “It’s a tremendous asset that we try to take full advantage of.”

But HG&E’s commitment to a carbon-free energy system goes well beyond the hydroelectric facility. Indeed, it also includes early adoption of utility-grade solar power (20 megawatts in all), punctuated by the Mount Tom Solar & Energy Storage System. That facility, built near the site of a former fossil-fuel plant, is a large, utility-scale battery and the second such system to be installed in the state, drawing power directly from the solar farm, the largest community solar project in the Commonwealth.

“We’re extremely fortunate that we have this infrastructure at our disposal — 50 megawatts of hydro in our backyard. It’s a tremendous asset that we try to take full advantage of.”

That commitment also includes a diverse power-supply portfolio that includes hydro, solar, nuclear, and wind, as well as efficiency and conservation programs and development of emerging clean-energy technologies, all of which have the utility well-positioned to meet the state’s net-zero target by 2050 (established in the recent clean-energy bill), as well as incremental benchmarks for 2030 (50% below 1990’s emissions levels) and 2040 (75% below).

But long before these mandates and net-zero targets were put in place, HG&E was taking full advantage of its assets, especially those in the clean-energy category, and promoting what it called “cost-competitive clean energy.”

The Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center

The Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center is located in Holyoke, in large part, because of the low-cost, green energy available there.

This track record, coupled with many recent initiatives, has earned HG&E recognition among a handful of utilities nationwide for its leadership in transforming to a carbon-free energy system by the Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA) and a spot on the 2021 Utility Transformation Leaderboard. There, it joins just nine other utilities, all of them much larger, including Southern California Edison, Green Mountain Power in Vermont, and Consolidated Edison of New York.

While Lavelle is clearly proud of the award, what it means, and what it says about his utility, he is focused as much on what it — and all of the utility’s efforts toward clean, modern energy — mean for Holyoke. Indeed, the municipal utility and its lower-cost energy have always been selling points and economic-development engines, he said, but they become even more so as the energy becomes cleaner and greener.

“We have a ‘green team’ here that does a lot of our advanced planning on carbon-footprint management, but we also have everyone involved in some way, shape, or form in this effort. Our team is really engaged, and it’s good to see how passionate people are about working toward this objective and how creative they are.”

This was in evidence with the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center, which is based in Holyoke, in large part, because of the availability of vast amounts of clean, lower-cost energy, said Lavelle, adding that these factors also played sizable roles in bringing two huge cannabis-production facilities to the city, with more on the way. And as companies of all kinds look to reduce their carbon footprints, embrace clean energy, and perhaps escape the high lease rates of major urban areas, HG&E and its drive to a carbon-free energy system could bring more businesses to the Paper City.

But while the utility has made great progress in the broad realm of clean energy, it acknowledges there will be stern challenges as it continues down this road.

“With this climate bill … if everyone’s going to convert their gas and oil and propane — their inefficient systems — to cleaner electric systems, that’s going to put a huge demand on our electric capacity,” Lavelle said. “So what we’re forecasting is that we could potentially see a tripling of our electric kilowatt-hour sales by 2050, depending on how we navigate from here to there.

“And even today, we’re seeing that, in certain neighborhoods, all it takes is one resident to put in an electric vehicle, and it taxes the transformer that’s serving that neighborhood,” he went on, adding that upgrading these transformers, built for a different time, will be just one of the many tests awaiting a utility that is committed to being ready for whatever the future brings. And that’s another reason why it’s one of just 10 utilities on SEPA’s short list.

The Mount Tom Solar facility

The Mount Tom Solar facility is the largest community solar project in the Commonwealth.

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Holyoke G&E’s ongoing efforts — and true leadership — with regard to clean-energy transformation, what it means for a city looking to make history of a different kind, and what the road to hitting the state’s benchmarks might look like.

 

Scaling Up

As he gave BusinessWest a tour of the Hadley Falls Dam facility, which has been powering businesses for more than 150 years, Lavelle talked at length about what else goes on there.

Indeed, this is the site of the Robert E. Barrett Fishway, and the fishlift there helps migrating fish over the dam. In a normal spring, the facility would be visited by dozens of school classes on field trips — and other visitors — who can watch American shad, sea lamprey, sturgeon, and (hopefully) a few Atlantic salmon make their way through the lift and over the dam to resume their journey north. This is not a normal spring, however, and the fishway is closed due to COVID-19.

The work of ferrying fish over the dam continues, however, as does the work of producing electricity at the twin turbines, production that, as noted, is just one of the reasons HG&E finds itself among those utilities identified by SEPA as taking the lead in transforming to a carbon-free energy system.

As it went about completing its report on the state of clean-energy transformation and identifying utilities now on its leaderboard, SEPA listed what it calls the “four dimensions of utility transformation” — clean-energy resources, corporate leadership, modern grid enablement, and allied actions and engagement.

As he talked about his utilities efforts, Lavelle touched on all these elements, starting with those clean-energy resources.

HG&E now has many of them, he said, listing the dam, the Mount Tom Solar and Energy Storage System, and others, which, together, create a diverse, increasingly clean power-supply portfolio.

Beyond this portfolio is a mindset to embrace clean energy, efficiency, conservation, and planning for tomorrow, a mindset that has existed for many years now, long before the state started setting net-zero goals.

“We have a ‘green team’ here that does a lot of our advanced planning on carbon-footprint management, but we also have everyone involved in some way, shape, or form in this effort,” Lavelle noted. “Our team is really engaged, and it’s good to see how passionate people are about working toward this objective and how creative they are.”

The latest example of this passion and creativity is the Mount Tom Energy Storage System. Operated by ENGIE Storage (formerly Green Charge Networks), it is designed to keep electric rates stable by reducing rising demand-based charges for HG&E and its customers by storing energy needed to reduce peak loads — in a clean, environmentally friendly manner.

“Two of the highest-cost elements in our energy ledger are capacity and transmission costs,” said Jonathon Zwirko, HG&E’s project engineer and Energy Resources coordinator. “By timing things properly and discharging the batteries at the right time, we’re able to save on both capacity and transmission costs.”

Through the use of this battery system, which can store 6 megawatt hours of energy at a rate of up to 3 megawatts per hour, the utility can save 2% to 2.5% on its total energy costs annually, a number that will go higher when a second, larger battery facility, this one on Water Street, goes online later this month.

Jim Lavelle at HG&E’s energy-storage system

Jim Lavelle at HG&E’s energy-storage system, the second such system to be installed in the state.

The solar facility and energy-storage facility are just a few components of a diverse clean-power portfolio that, as noted, also includes hydro, wind, and nuclear, a portfolio that gives the utility flexibility and the ability to offer competitive rates, Lavelle said.

As noted, this powerful combination has helped bring some businesses to Holyoke that might not otherwise have considered that zip code.

That’s especially true of the cannabis businesses, including large manufacturers, that have, well, put down roots in the city. They’ve been drawn by the hundreds of thousands of square feet of available mill space, said Zwirko, but even more important to them is the large amounts of green, comparatively cheap electricity needed for all elements of the operations, but especially the lights that enable plants to grow.

Green Thumb Industries is currently operating a plant on Appleton Street that consumes roughly 1.5 megawatts of electricity, said Zwirko, noting that Trulieve, which recently moved into the old Conklin Furniture complex just a few hundred yards from the Hadley Falls Dam, will, when operating at peak capacity, consume 4 megawatts. By contrast, Holyoke Medical Center and Holyoke Community College each consume roughly a half-megawatt.

“If we see a tripling of our load, and that power has to come from carbon-free sources, that will be a real challenge. Different camps think offshore wind will fill in a lot of the gaps, but if we’re going to see a tripling of load, every other utility is going to see a tripling of load, so there will be a huge demand.”

So these are huge users of electricity, he went on, adding quickly that HG&E can handle several more of these facilities.

“There are about 10 others that have received licenses and are in the process of construction,” he said, “and we probably have another handful that are knocking on our door, with that 5-megawatt request — each — which we’re prepared to handle.”

Lavelle agreed.

“Part of our strategy with our local grid has been anticipating this growth,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, starting with the computing center, which consumes roughly 4 megawatts, the city has anticipated that it’s blend of clean, inexpensive power would attract more large-scale users. “We weren’t anticipating the cannabis industry at that time, but were targeting and anticipating data-related loads.

The hydroelectric faciliity at the Hadley Falls Dam

The hydroelectric faciliity at the Hadley Falls Dam is just one of HG&E’s many assets when it comes to green energy.

“We’d like to see more people, more jobs, tied to these developments, and while we haven’t seen that on the data side, we’re seeing it on the cannabis side,” he went on, adding that, with improvements made to the system, the city and its utility can accommodate another 15 or 20 megawatts worth of cannabis-related businesses.

 

Watt’s Happening?

While the utility is well-positioned to handle the needs of the present — and the addition of several more cannabis-related businesses — the future, as noted, is dotted with question marks, especially when it comes to what’s becoming known as ‘electrification’ — of cars and many other things

“If we see a tripling of our load, and that power has to come from carbon-free sources, that will be a real challenge,” Lavelle said. “Different camps think offshore wind will fill in a lot of the gaps, but if we’re going to see a tripling of our load, every other utility is going to see a tripling of load, so there will be a huge demand.”

In the face of these seemingly inevitable surges in demand, utilities, including HG&E, will have to put an even greater emphasis on energy efficiency, conservation, and education to stem the tide, he went on.

“We’re going to have to do those things so we don’t see a tripling of load,” he said. “Can we mitigate, or offset, that growth through energy efficiency and energy conservation and educate people on how to use less energy? We’ll have to. We’ll need to educate people about how to charge their electric vehicles at the right time — at night, right now — at off-peak times.”

Elaborating, he said there will likely be more of what he called “behavioral incentives” that are already being used to change attitudes about clean energy and reduce surges in demand.

Summing up HG&E’s efforts toward transforming its energy system, Lavelle channeled Kermit the Frog by implying strongly that it’s not easy being green. In fact, it’s quite challenging.

But it’s necessary, and for many reasons. The state is demanding it, and, increasingly, customers, both residential and commercial, are demanding it as well.

Well before these demands became loud in nature, HG&E was committed to exploring and implementing strategies to make its power portfolio cleaner and more earth-friendly, knowing they would pay off, not with awards and accolades (although those have come, too) but in cost reductions and opportunities for the city to grow and attract new businesses.

These investments are certainly starting to pay off, and as they do so, HG&E is making a powerful statement, literally and figuratively.

 

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

Restaurants Special Coverage

Chain of Events

John (right) and Chris LaVoie at Hot Table’s location in Tower Square.

John (right) and Chris LaVoie at Hot Table’s location in Tower Square.

Hot Table, now a chain of panini restaurants, started humbly in 2007 with a small location in the Breckwood Shoppes in Springfield. The brand has come a long way since then, and in many different ways. There are now seven locations, with plans for four more to open this year or early next, including the first free-standing facility. After that … well, the partners talk of having perhaps 50 stores by the end of this decade. What they do know is that growth will be controlled — and strategic in nature.

John DeVoie gestured toward an array of architect’s renderings of Hot Table’s first free-standing facility, complete with a mobile pickup window, planned for Memorial Drive in Chicopee, and said, “that’s our future.”

He then corrected himself and said, “well … that’s a big part of our future.”

Indeed, the future takes a number of shapes and directions for this growing chain of panini restaurants. Indeed, while construction is due to start on that Chicopee location later this year or early in 2022, work will begin before that on new locations within shopping malls in Framingham and West Hartford, with an additional location planned for a development, blueprinted by Pride Stations owner Bob Bolduc, to reshape the land inside the jug handle off turnpike exit 3 in Westfield with Hot Table and Starbucks.

Overall, this chain, which started with one small restaurant in the Breckwood Shoppes across Wilbraham Road from Western New England University and now has seven locations, has aggressive plans to add four more restaurants by the end of this year and reach perhaps 50 by the end of this decade.

“For the most part, we’re keeping our efforts focused on New England,” said John, who launched the chain with his brother, Chris, and another partner in 2007. “And over the next 10 years, we want to become a well-known, regional brand.”

This brand is striving for a mix of free-standing facilities like the one in Chicopee and more locations leased in retail centers, and, overall, a “balanced portfolio,” said Chris, adding that the goal is measured growth.

“We’re very excited to grow, but we want to grow the right way,” he told BusinessWest. “We don’t want to add overhead and layers of management just to support a few more stores; we want to be very strategic about how and where we expand.”

Overall, with four new stores on the drawing board, 2021 is certainly shaping up as a milestone year in the company’s history, one that will take it to new markets and in new directions. This growth and territorial expansion come at a time when many restaurants have been fighting to merely survive the COVID-19 — and some haven’t. Hot Table itself was hit hard initially.

“In March and April, when the pandemic hit, we weren’t sure we had a company — we had an 80% plunge in revenue,” John recalled. “We had the same ‘what the heck just hit us?’ experience that just about everyone in the restaurant business did.”

But within the fast-casual category within this sector, many chains bounced back quickly and have enjoyed success since, said John, adding that many have benefited from the takeout nature of most business and also from an added delivery component.

Hot Table invested in an app that enables consumers to order from the menu and arrange delivery through Grubhub or another provider, said John, adding that the technology served to introduce the brand to new audiences.

An architect’s rendering of Hot Table’s first free-standing location

An architect’s rendering of Hot Table’s first free-standing location, slated for a parcel on Memorial Drive in Chicopee.

“That was a silver lining for us,” he explained. “We had a lot of folks discover us who might have just been at home ordering from a third-party platform, who had never been in one of our stores.”

And this is just one of the ways the pandemic has actually benefited Hot Table, he went on, adding that it has made real estate both more available and more affordable.

So much so that the company, which has long considered Boston far out of its reach when it comes to real-estate prices, is being encouraged to take a good look at the Hub.

Whether this chain can actually attain a Boston address for one its locations is one of the many questions that will be answered over the next several years. For now, the company is focused on 2021, and all that it has on its plate — literally as well as figuratively.

For this issue and its focus on restaurants, BusinessWest talked with the brothers DeVoie and third partner Rich Calcasola, based in Charlotte, N.C., to get a sense for where this brand can go next and how big the portfolio can become.

 

Ingredients for Success

As he referenced those architectural renderings of the Chicopee site, John DeVoie pointed to what could become the ‘golden arches’ for this chain. That would be the tall red signage, or marquee, with what has become the company’s brand — a stylized slice of panini bread with grill marks running across it, with the words ‘Hot Table’ over it.

It’s not really possible to put such large, pronounced signage on the existing locations within shopping plazas, he said, adding that the new look represents another breakthrough for the company and an opportunity to not only sell more paninis, but grow its brand.

“When you build your own building, you have the opportunity to think about what your brand says on the outside — what is the golden arch for us?” he noted. “And it’s a long way from our origins at the Breckwood Shoppes.”

By that, he meant not just the marquee, but the free-standing store concept, locations on both ends of the state, aggressive plans to add four stores in just over a year, and ongoing talk about where to go next.

“For the most part, we’re keeping our efforts focused on New England. And over the next 10 years, we want to become a well-known, regional brand.”

But before talking more about the present and future, let’s recap how we got here.

Our story begins in 2006, when John and Chris, both successful in corporate sales, decided they wanted to make money for themselves, instead of someone else, and started to focus on the restaurant industry.

Blending vast amounts of experience with taking corporate clients with a healthy appetite for entrepreneurship out to eat, they started shaping a concept for the growing fast-casual category of eatery, and followed the advice of their sister, who told them about a dining model she encountered on a trip to Italy — cafés of sorts called tavola calda, which translates, literally, to ‘hot table,’ and their parents, who suggested a made-to-order panini concept.

For their first location, the two chose the Breckwood Shoppes, which they knew well because they both graduated from Western New England. The site wouldn’t attract any of the huge players in the fast-casual arena — Chipotle, Chick-fil-A, Panera Bread, Shake Shack, and others — because of the demographics of the surrounding area, but for them, it worked.

It blended the college crowd — students, professors, staff, and administration alike — with a thickly settled neighborhood, large traffic volume, and visitors to other shops in the plaza.

The large players in smart casual wouldn’t have gone where Hot Table went next — Tower Square in downtown Springfield, in 2009 — either. But the brothers, enticed by the large population of office workers in surrounding towers and an attractive offer from then-owner MassMutual, decided to roll the dice. And they essentially rolled a ‘7.’ Indeed, the site has become a popular lunchtime destination — even moreso with recent arrivals such as Cambridge College and UMass Amherst Center at Springfield — and has even thrived during the pandemic without most of those workers and students.

“We’re pretty close to last year’s numbers, overall,” said John, comparing 2020 with 2019. “What’s happened is that this has become a delivery hub for people in West Springfield, Chicopee, and other cities and towns.

“With the new model of how we do business — we have more than 30,000 users of our app, which allows people to order and then utilize a third-party platform for delivery — our business model shifted,” he went on. “So now, we’re way above pre-pandemic sales levels overall.”

After Tower Square, the DeVoie brothers, now partnering with Calcasola, have been focusing on where the large players in fast-casual have put down stakes. In fact, the strategy has been to follow them — on the theory that their research into where to locate is certainly solid — and, in doing so, create more of a critical mass of quality eateries, which creates dining destinations.

“In March and April, when the pandemic hit, we weren’t sure we had a company — we had an 80% plunge in revenue. We had the same ‘what the heck just hit us?’ experience that just about everyone in the restaurant business did.”

This was the case with the company’s next locations — in Enfield (2012) and Glastonbury, Conn. (2014), Route 9 in Hadley (also 2014), Marlborough (2017), and Worcester (2019). And that’s also the case, to one extent or another, with the Chicopee (there’s a Chick-fil-A right next door), Framingham, Hartford, and Westfield locations.

“People just drive there to eat, and you get in the rotation,” Chris said. “When Chick-Fil-A and other competitors came to Enfield, our sales went up.”

 

Location, Location, Location

When asked about the chain’s ‘formula’ when it comes to identifying markets they want to be in and then locations within those markets, the partners said it involves a blend of science and intuition, but mostly critical masses of traffic, retail, diners, and, yes, competitors.

All these ingredients are found in Hadley, said Calcasola, noting not only the large college population (there are four colleges within a few miles of the store’s location on Route 9), but also a host of fast-casual competitors and a large and growing cluster of retail that draws people from three counties.

Most of these same essentials can be found in Worcester, in the chain’s site in the the Trolley Yard, a mixed-use development that is also home to Starbucks, Chipotle, Sprint, and other national brands. Indeed, Worcester boasts seven colleges and a growing business base, said Chris, noting that it benefits greatly from being within easier commuting distance from Boston.

Meanwhile, in Marlboro, there are no colleges, little retail, and a less-dense population than in other communities the chain calls home. But there are a number of office parks and hotels, said John, adding that this was the store most impacted by the pandemic — although it, too, has rebounded.

An architect’s rendering of Hot Table’s first free-standing location

The Hot Table chain has come a long way since the opening of its first location in the Breckwood Shoppes in Springfield.

In Chicopee, Memorial Drive has been transformed into a retail destination over the past decade, said Chris, noting that the changes have caught the attention of Chipotle, Buffalo Wild Wings, and Chick Fil-A, which made that the address for its first (and still only) location in Western Mass.

Meanwhile, the Framingham store now under construction and set to open in June is in Shoppers World, a large retail complex boasting 27 stores, including Chick-Fil-A, Olive Garden, TGI Fridays, and Chipotle.

“That whole area is called the Golden Triangle,” said John, referring to the retail district in Framingham and Natick. “And it’s the number-one retail destination in metro Boston. So it’s kind of a big jump for us, but our business model now supports that.”

By ‘big jump,’ he meant, among other things, the rates for the property being leased, which was also the case in West Hartford and a spot in Corbin’s Corner next to Shake Shack, although, as noted earlier, the pandemic has eased some of the sticker shock, while also creating some opportunities as stores — and restaurants — went out of business.

“There are more opportunities in the form of spaces becoming available,” said Calcasola. “Meanwhile, the asking price dropped in some locations, including West Hartford; we’re still paying a good amount of money, but not what they were advertising it for a year and half ago.”

As to the question of where the chain might go next, there are many ways to answer it.

For starters, the company wants to go where those major brands listed several times above are going. In fact, that’s usually the first question being asked, said Chris, noting that, as Hot Table ponders whether to expand into Rhode Island, the presence of other chains is a key consideration.

“We’re pretty close to last year’s numbers, overall. What’s happened is that this has become a delivery hub for people in West Springfield, Chicopee, and other cities and towns.”

“We’ll ask if there are Chick Fil-As and Chipotles around,” he told BusinessWest. “Wherever they’re going, that’s where we want to be. We want to compete with the nationals.”

Availability of real estate is another issue, said John, adding that the company has long sought to be on Riverdale Street in West Springfield, specifically the stretch south of I-91, but has not been able to secure a location because of exclusivity clauses secured by some competitors. Meanwhile, price remains an issue in some areas, including Boston, although the pandemic, as noted, might bring that city into reach.

“We have a consultant that we work with. Before the pandemic, he said, ‘guys, don’t even bother going into Boston; it’s crazy — don’t do it,’” said John. “The last meeting we had with him, he said, ‘you may want to think about exploring opportunities in Boston.’”

 

Pressing On

When and if the company goes down that road remains to be seen. For now, its principals, as noted, have other things on their plate.

Lots of them.

Indeed, this will be a year when Hot Table takes giant strides toward becoming that established brand the partners want it to be, a year when that image of the panini top with the grill marks on it becomes known in new markets and in new ways, like that sign on the property in Chicopee.

That location isn’t the future — but it is a big part of the future, with additional growth and territorial expansion on the menu.

As John DeVoie said, this company has come a long way from the Breckwood Shoppes — and in all kinds of ways.

 

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

Class of 2021

Regional Director of Marketing & Communications, Trinity Health of New England; Age 38

Amy Ashford got her start within the healthcare sector not in marketing, but in human resources. It was a chance conversation in the ladies’ room with the CEO of the hospital where she was employed that changed the trajectory of her career.

“She said, “we have a position in marketing, and I think you’d be a really great fit for it; would you consider it?’” Ashford recalled, adding that she had lunch with the director of that department, and … well, that was not only the start of a friendship that continues to this day, but the next important step in a journey that has taken her from a supporting role with a hospital in New Hampshire to her current role as regional director of Marketing & Communications for Trinity Health of New England.

There were steps in between, and all that accumulated knowledge and experience has certainly been needed during what Ashford described as the most difficult test, and in some ways the most rewarding experience, of her career — coordinating the region’s communications efforts during the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Those first several months, it was basically crisis communications and trying to keep the community as updated as possible,” she recalled, adding that she and other administrators were hunkered down (safely) in an incident command center. “Things were changing quickly, and it was our duty, and our responsibility, to communicate with people as much as possible.”

While excelling in her field — she recently received the Society for Health Care Strategy and Market Development’s Rising Star Award — Ashford is also active within the community. She has been the second vice president of the board of directors for Big Brothers Big Sisters of Hampden County since 2014, and is also a former board member for Symphony Hall and CityStage.

Returning to her relationship with the woman who first hired her to do marketing, Ashford said she remains a mentor to this day, and the experience has prompted her to seek out opportunities to mentor young people in this profession, which she finds quite rewarding.

“That lesson has really stuck with me, and I take very seriously the opportunity to mentor younger people in the marketing field,” she said. “I enjoy helping them grow and advance their careers.”

 

—George O’Brien

Class of 2021

CEO and Founder, Tech180; Age 39

To borrow a phrase from the industry it serves, Easthampton-based Tech180 has certainly taken off over the past few years.

Indeed, the company, founded by Chris Bakker — one of the true entrepreneurs in the class of 2021 — and now located in the Paragon Arts & Industry building in Easthampton, is gaining altitude in a highly competitive industry through his efforts to modernize and streamline the necessary but inefficient process of testing and certifying flight-worthy vehicles.

As Bakker, who earned his bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science at the University of California at Berkeley, explained it, “an aircraft has a lot of different computers on it that handle all sorts of things, like the flight controls, the engines … anything that moves on the aircraft has its own computer. And that computer has software on it that needs to be tested.

“To test that product, you don’t want to just put it on an airplane and then hope it doesn’t crash,” he went on. “You want to be able to test in a laboratory environment and make sure it’s completely vetted and safe before it goes on an aircraft.”

By creating such an environment, or testing system — one that “simulates the airplane” — Bakker and his team have enabled the company he and a few partners started in 2018 to grow to 30 employees and expand its footprint for a third time, adding a large warehouse and more manufacturing capacity to its suite of offices and existing manufacturing space.

In late 2020, the company announced an official partnership with NI (formerly National Instruments) and SET, two companies in the test industry. This partnership has brought Tech180 access to a larger pool of potential clients.

Such access is needed because, while COVID-19 hit every industry hard, it hit aerospace really hard, Bakker said. The company has responded by diversifying and adding military clients — flexibility that should serve it well when the market picks up again, which experts predict it will.

When asked what he does when he’s not working, Bakker joked that he “doesn’t do anything besides work.” What ‘spare’ time he does have is reserved for family — his wife, Rebecca, and daughters Inara and Juno — and also for sustainability and environmental causes.

Indeed, Bakker has served on the board of Grow Food Northampton and is currently involved in efforts to promote solarization, including at the mill buildings where Tech180 and other businesses are located.

 

—George O’Brien

Class of 2021

Assistant General Counsel and Director of Legal Services, Health New England; Age 37

When asked why she became a lawyer, Ashley Bogle started by explaining why, for a long time, she didn’t want to become a lawyer.

“I thought that all attorneys did was argue — like on Law & Order. I’m not really a fighter, so I really didn’t want to do that,” she explained, adding that she took a different route and became a pre-pharmacy major. She eventually worked in a pharmacy and didn’t enjoy what she was doing, to put it mildly, so she went to work for a law firm as a legal assistant, an experience that changed her perspective — and her career track.

Meanwhile, Bogle found Health New England through a staffing agency in 2010 and, after graduating from UConn School of Law, worked her way up at HNE to the twin duties of assistant general counsel and director of Legal Services. She described her work as a “mixed bag,” everything from reviewing contracts to keeping track of the regulatory filings with respect to maintaining licenses and accreditation.

But there is another important aspect to her work at HNE. Indeed, Bogle co-chairs the company’s diversity, inclusion, and belonging (DEIB) committee, which guides the organization toward its goals of embedding DEIB into its mission, operations, community outreach, and practices in several areas, including associate engagement, corporate social responsibility, recruitment and retention of diverse talent, advancing health outcomes, and community engagement. Bogle has initiated a diversity and inclusion e-mail inbox to allow associates to share feedback about DEIB within the organization, and regularly shares updates to all HNE associates via biweekly town halls.

“We want to push forward a diversity mindset and an equity mindset,” she explained. “It’s been a lot of work, but it’s been very exciting, and the organization as a whole has been very supportive of these efforts.”

In 2020, Bogle was appointed to represent HNE in the Massachusetts Assoc. of Health Plans’ recently established Racial Disparities Work Group, advancing the work of two important initiatives on behalf of MAHP’s member health plans.

Meanwhile, she is also very active within the community, volunteering for meal service at Friends of the Homeless, taking part in community-service projects through the United Way’s Day of Caring, and fundraising and organizing events for Go Red American Heart Assoc. Heart Walks.

 

—George O’Brien

Class of 2021

Primary-care Physician, Health Services for the Homeless; Age 34

It’s called ‘street outreach.’

That’s what Dr. Jessica Bossie calls the work she does on Thursday afternoons and Fridays, and it’s aptly named.

That’s because she is, quite literally, on the streets — and also under bridges, in homeless camps, and in other locations, bringing needed healthcare directly to the homeless population in Western Mass.

“Sometimes it’s Main Street in Northampton or some of the drags in Springfield — we know where our patients panhandle; we know where they go,” she explained. “If we need to find them for something serious, we’ll go find them — and we do.”

Street outreach is part of an extremely broad set of responsibilities for Bossie, the only primary-care physician working within a Springfield-based but regionally focused program called Health Services for the Homeless.

Others include seeing patients at both the Worthington Street homeless shelter in Springfield on Mondays and Wednesdays, and the homeless shelter in Northampton on Tuesdays and Thursdays; acting as a repository of information for a transient population that crosses many city and county lines; directing a harm-reduction program for the homeless patients who suffer from chronic alcohol abuse; and even overseeing and operating all aspects of an 800-square-foot community vegetable garden in Barre.

Her work is difficult to describe in much detail in this space. Suffice it to say it is 24/7 and involves caring for and advocating for the homeless population in Hampden, Hampshire, and Franklin counties, work that involves both treatment and prevention. This work resonated with the judges for this year’s 40 Under Forty program, as Bossie was the highest scorer among nearly 200 nominees.

A graduate of Boston University School of Medicine and the mother of three young girls, Bossie said she always intended to serve underserved populations, and was specifically interested in substance-abuse treatment. She had some direct exposure to Boston’s highly acclaimed healthcare program for the homeless, and has brought many of its best practices to this region.

When asked what she found most rewarding about her work, she said it’s the “human component,” the relationships she’s made with her patients.

“It’s wonderful to be able to help them in ways they’ve been wanting but haven’t found a way to get before,” she said. “Even after they move on, some of my patients travel hours just to come back and see me. It’s really flattering, and we develop these really amazing, really strong relationships.”

 

—George O’Brien

Class of 2021

Special Programs Coordinator, Gateway to College, Holyoke Community College; Age 39

Julissa Colón can certainly relate to those individuals she assists through the Holyoke Community College (HCC) Gateway to College program.

Indeed, when she was 19, she left college when she had her first child. She thought the opportunity to earn a college degree had passed her by.

She was wrong, of course. She now has an associate degree from HCC and a bachelor’s degree in Latin American studies from Smith College, with a minor in history. What she needed to earn those diplomas was some encouragement and a path forward — and that’s exactly what she helps provide to others who have left traditional education.

“These are students who have already left high school or are on the verge of leaving,” Colón said. “They don’t leave because they’re not smart, they don’t leave because they’re not capable; they leave because of life. Some of them have had to go to work; some of them have stayed back so many times they feel too old to be in traditional school; some are homeless; some have had children, or they’re ill, or their parents are ill.

“What they all have in common, though, is that they don’t want to give up — they do want their high-school diploma, they do want to be successful, they do have dreams,” she went on, adding that Gateway exists to build a unique pathway to success for each student.

Colón joined Gateway a decade ago and has been instrumental in transforming the program, according to Vivian Ostrowski, the program’s director, who nominated her for this award. She said Colón is also a big reason why the program now enjoys an 83% graduation rate for those who left traditional school.

While rising in the ranks from clerk to office manager to Special Programs coordinator, she has drawn on her own experiences, and also her mother’s (she came to Holyoke from Puerto Rico) to help her understand and appreciate her students’ experiences, and also to help guide them and keep their dreams alive.

She said students often ask her to describe her role, and her answer is usually something like this: “I’m like your high-school guidance counselor and your college advisor and your auntie and a social worker — I’m all those things wrapped into one.”

She’s something else as well: a tremendous role model.

 

—George O’Brien

Class of 2021

Associate Director of Diversity Recruitment and Enrollment, UMass Amherst; Age 33

Xiomara Albán DeLobato had to pack up a lot of things for her 40 Under Forty photo shoot. She wanted to tell her story visually and explain what’s important her.

That’s Brody the boxer, her best friend, on the other end of the leash. That’s the Ecuadorian flag to the left; her parents emigrated from there to the U.S. And that’s the LGBTQ flag to the right, which represents who she is and symbolizes a core driver of the work she does.

The pennants? They explain where she works (UMass Amherst), where she worked previously (Elms College, Springfield College, and the University of New Hampshire), and where she’s earned degrees (Elms and UNH). There’s also signage for Girls Inc., which she serves as a board member and Development chair, and also as sponsorship chair of the agency’s annual Spirit of Girls event, as well as for Veritas Prep Charter School, which she’s a trustee, and the Springfield Public Forum, where she sits on the board of directors.

As for the books, they represent some of the reading she’s been doing when it comes to her work, which has also become … a passion.

Indeed, DeLobato is the first person to hold her job title at UMass Amherst — something that speaks volumes about the growing importance of this role — and it’s a title that effectively and succinctly sums up what she does.

Sort of.

There are many responsibilities attached to this position, but she smashed it all down to a simple and powerful sentence. “We want to create a sense of belonging.”

As she explained, “universities are seeing the need for their communities to be inclusive. It does take intentionality — you can’t just say, ‘we’re a diverse place and an inclusive place’ without mindfully and very intentionally creating spaces that are inclusive for all our students. We need to do our very best to make people understand that this is a place where they belong.”

This is the real meaning of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) and the foundation of all of her work, which includes everything from developing strategic DEI goals to actively shifting the culture within the enrollment-management division to focus on DEI.

Yes, DeLobato had to pack up the car for her photo shoot. But, by doing so, she helped explain who she is — and why she’s a member of the class of 2021.

 

—George O’Brien

Class of 2021

Director of Nursing, Mercy Medical Center; Age 35

Lindsey Gamble doesn’t have any trouble recalling the time and the circumstances when she first decided she wanted to be a nurse.

She was 12 years old, and her mother was pregnant with her fourth child. Lindsey made up her mind that she wanted to witness the birth of that child, and successfully lobbied those at the hospital for the right to be in the room. She’s very glad she did.

“It was the best day of my life,” she said. “I immediately knew I wanted to become a nurse and hopefully deliver babies at one point — but definitely nursing. It was a really positive experience.”

She used it to propel herself into a career in nursing, one that eventually did include a stint as a labor and delivery nurse before she made the transition to management roles within the Nursing Department at Mercy Medical Center.

Today, Gamble is director of Nursing, a broad role that carries with it many responsibilities, including staffing, budgeting, training, and ongoing education of the nursing staff. And that list became even longer during the past 14 months of COVID-19.

Indeed, at the start of the pandemic, Gamble implemented a daily huddle to keep the day and night shifts up to date on the changing protocols and testing for the virus, while also collaborating with the departments of Respiratory Therapy and Education to cross-train nurses to perform certain duties to relieve the workload for respiratory therapists. She also coordinated ‘resiliency rounds’ to allow frontline staff to decompress and take care of themselves, and worked with the Philanthropy team to coordinate the many food donations and deliveries to frontline workers.

She also played a key role in the opening of Mercy’s Innovation Unit, designed to ensure that families of COVID patients stay connected with the patient and the care team during their hospital stay — a connection that became especially important when the hospital could no longer allow visitors.

Gamble is also active in the community, especially at the school her children attend, Enfield Montessori. There, she’s a volunteer — handling everything from reading in the classroom to teaching gym to working in the cafeteria — and also serves on the advancement committee.

Meanwhile, at Mercy, she has been instrumental in the hospital’s annual holiday campaign to collect hygiene products and clothing items for the homeless.

In other words, she’s a true leader — in all aspects of her life.

 

—George O’Brien

Class of 2021

Director of Procurement, Logistics, and Special Projects, Auxiliary Enterprises, UMass Amherst; Age 39

Chris Howland says it was a phone call that ultimately “changed the trajectory of my life’s path.”

It was 2003, and he was a senior at UMass Amherst, working toward a degree in animal science. Looking for some needed pocket money, he made a call to the university’s Auxiliary Enterprises in hopes of getting part-time job. Long story short, he did. But what he really found was a very rewarding career.

“I had aspirations to maybe become a veterinarian or work in a lab,” he told BusinessWest. “But I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. Once I graduated in May, those in Auxiliary Services invited me to stay on through the summer, and then in the fall … I just continued on and kept taking on more responsibilities and moving my way up in the ranks.”

That’s putting it mildly.

Today, he’s director of Procurement, Logistics, and Special Projects for Auxiliary Enterprises, which includes residential and retail dining (the largest and most-awarded collegiate food service on the country; Princeton Review has ranked it number one for ‘Best Campus Food’ for five years running) as well as catering, concessions, food trucks, the University Club in Amherst, conference services, and more. He currently oversees an annual spending budget of more than $30 million (in a normal, non-pandemic year) and a staff of 10 who administer bids, contracts, vendor payments, accounts payable, and much more.

It’s intriguing work, with “a number of moving parts,” as he put it, with one of the more intriguing — and rewarding — being the ability to work directly with many of the farms he worked with, and learned from, as a student majoring in animal science, like Mapleline Farm in Hadley, which provides milk to the university.

“It’s like coming full circle for me to be able to understand their business, help them with sourcing their milk, and telling their story,” Howland said. “And I’ve been able to do that with a lot of different farmers.”

While his work keeps him busy, as in very busy, he says weekends are reserved for family time, and he, his wife Karen, and two daughters, Emma and Violet, are looking forward to the day when loosened pandemic restrictions will allow for more day trips to museums, zoos, aquariums, and other places that blend fun with learning.

 

—George O’Brien

Class of 2021

Academic Matters Coordinator, Graduate and Professional Programs, Isenberg School of Management, UMass Amherst; Age 32

As a student in UMass Amherst’s sport management program, Matt Kushi harbored dreams of being an athletic director at a small college or high school. Such dreams never came to pass, but Kushi has forged an intriguing and rewarding career nonetheless.

Actually … two of them.

By day, he’s Academic Matters coordinator for the graduate and professional programs at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst. And by … well, day and night, actually, he operates Kushi Farm and North Hadley Chili Pepper Co., LLC, which, as that name suggests, specializes in hot peppers and hot-pepper products, including jelly.

Both pursuits came about as he was trying to figure out what to do with his life after graduation from UMass in 2010 into a down economy where jobs, especially those in sport management, were scarce.

At Isenberg, Kushi serves as a liaison between his office and faculty and staff for several graduate and professional programs. He also coordinates academic matters such as scheduling courses, classroom technology needs, and course evaluations.

As for the peppers … well, that’s a continuation of a family tradition, and family business, that goes back a century or so, one that Kushi, who also majored in history, discovered while doing some research for Hadley’s 350th birthday. Indeed, his great-grandfather grew tobacco and asparagus (the crop for which Hadley is famous) on land Kushi now tills (and lives on) today.

“I found that very interesting, that I had farming in my blood,” he said, noting that he started dabbling in growing vegetables and giving them to people in 2010. “The next year, I took a 20-by-20 plot in the family garden and started growing a few things like peppers and cucumbers and started selling them to people, and found I could make a few dollars.”

Today, he sells his peppers, which he describes as “middle-hot” jalapenos and hot red cherry peppers, wholesale, mostly to regional distributor Pioneer Valley Growers. It’s a business that’s taken root (pun intended), but is only one of many passions competing for his time.

Kushi is also chair of Amherst’s Agricultural Commission, a member of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau, coordinator of Hadley’s holiday tree-lighting ceremony, and owner and president of the MDK Initiative, which operates a special-projects entity with a focus on disability, diversity, and inclusion, and educational resources for families of individuals with disabilities.

 

—George O’Brien

Class of 2021

Partner, Alekman DiTusa; Age 32

Laura Mangini is a huge fan of true crime.

Her podcast list is dominated by shows within that genre, and her bookshelves boast several selections from that broad category.

This has been pretty much a lifelong passion, or obsession, she told BusinessWest, adding that she entered Westfield State University’s criminal justice program with the intention of one day joining the FBI as a profiler.

Her career path changed when one of those CJ classes gave her an introduction to, and an appreciation for, the judiciary system. She attended law school at UConn and, upon graduation, soon joined the Springfield-based firm Alekman DiTusa, becoming a partner this past January.

She specializes in personal injury, and also representing victims of crime, sexual abuse, and sexual assault, as well as those taken advantage of by insurance companies. In one recent high-profile case, she obtained a $2.5 million verdict on behalf of a 28-year-old man from the Berkshires who was sexually abused by his mother’s live-in boyfriend as a child.

“I love litigating and the adrenaline that comes along with that,” she said. “But what’s rewarding is doing the work for the clients; especially in the crime-victims area, many of your clients are people who have been pushed aside, or no one has taken them seriously, or no one has stood up for them. The most rewarding part for me is to be that person who stood up for them.”

Mangini is active with a number of professional associations. She is currently co-chair of the Western Mass. Committee of the Women’s Bar Assoc., and has served on the board of the Hampden County Bar Assoc. since 2015. She is also a member of the Massachusetts Academy of Trial Lawyers, the National Crime Victims Bar Assoc., and the American Assoc. of Justice.

In the community, she volunteers her time with both the District Court and Housing Court Lawyer for a Day programs, and frequently participates in the Lawyer on the Line program, in which lawyers volunteer to provide free legal advice via a phone bank set up by the bar association. She is also active in her firm’s community-outreach efforts, volunteering for Revitalize Community Development Corp.’s annual GreenNFit Neighborhood Rebuild day each year.

When not working, she enjoys the outdoors, hiking, mountain biking, kayaking, and hanging out with her chocolate lab.

 

—George O’Brien

Class of 2021

Deputy Chief of Staff for State Sen. Eric Lesser; Chicopee City Councilor; Age 29

Joel McAuliffe can’t remember a time when he wasn’t in public service. Well … he can, but he has to go back to his high-school days, and even then, he was involved in politics and looking for ways to become more so.

He first ran for a seat on the Chicopee School Committee when he was 18 and tried again when he was 20. Neither run was successful, but he was eventually hired as the Communications director for Mayor Richard Kos in 2014, a stint that lasted three years and only served to whet his appetite for public service.

Indeed, he ran for City Council in 2017 against a long-time incumbent. He remembers hearing from supporters that he should “wait for his turn.” But he decided this was his turn, and he triumphed in a hard-fought race. He’s still on the Council, working hard for the residents of Ward 1, near Westover Air Reserve Base, and, overall, to “keep the city affordable.”

Meanwhile, he also serves as deputy chief of staff for State Sen. Eric Lesser, himself a member of the Forty Under 40 class of 2015. That role is the latest McAuliffe has held in a seven-year stint with Lesser, calling himself a “jack of all trades.”

Both jobs keep him quite busy, but he has many other things on his plate as well. He got engaged last August and is currently planning a wedding and house hunting in the city that isn’t just a home, but a passion. He’s currently involved with a project to bring the city’s residents municipal broadband service, one of the many initiatives aimed at improving quality of life in Chicopee and positioning it for growth and vibrancy in the years and decades to come.

“Chicopee is at a crossroads,” McAuliffe said. “We have a tremendous opportunity in front of us … we’re primed for success in a post-COVID world that will be filled with people working remotely and relying on technology.”

When asked about his ultimate ambition when it comes to public service, he gave an answer that speaks volumes about what he’s done already — and what might come next.

“Whatever is it that I do, politically, civically, professional work-wise … I want to be doing something that, in my opinion, gives back to the community and elevates the people who don’t have a voice.”

 

—George O’Brien

Class of 2021

Client Relationship Manager, Traffic Manager, Market Mentors, LLC; Age 27

Sarah Murphy went to college just outside Boston — at Lasell University in Auburndale — and was thinking about a summer internship in the Hub between her junior and senior years. But the city is expensive, and she quickly determined it was too expensive, so she opted to come back home to Agawam for summer break.

With some guidance from a friend, Bob Greeley, owner of R.J. Greeley Co., she readjusted her sights for an internship and started by talking with Michelle Abdow, owner of Market Mentors. That talk led — eventually — to the start of a career in the marketing business, and an intriguing job with many moving parts.

That’s eventually, because Murphy later interned in Boston for a large marketing firm and had to make the decision about which side of the state to work in. She chose Springfield, and Market Mentors, and has never looked back.

“In Boston, it felt like I would have been a little fish in a big pond,” she explained. “In coming here, I feel like I’m making more of an impact being with a smaller agency — and that spoke volumes to me.”

That impact, as she called, it, can be seen both in the agency and within the community.

Indeed, Murphy is now relationship manager and ‘traffic manager,’ a new position in which she handles a number of responsibilities and builds on experience gained while working her way up the ladder.

“I’m the liaison between the account executives and the other departments at the agency — I’m the middle person between our AEs and our copy and design, digital, and web departments,” she explained. “And I manage the deadlines for all of our projects. You might say I’m the hub for the agency; all the workflow goes through me.”

As noted, she is also quite active in the community, continuing a pattern that started in college, when she traveled to Uganda for two months with the Shoulder to Shoulder program and assisted seventh-grade school children by teaching science. Today, she’s an involved board member for the Foundation for TJO Animals, which supports the Thomas J. O’Connor Animal Control & Adoption Center.

With TJO, she helps lead many of its fundraising and outreach events, such as the Ride Like an Animal Motorcycle Run and Car Show. She also volunteers additional time at the adoption center, providing companionship to the shelter’s numerous animals.

 

—George O’Brien

Class of 2021

Manager, Audit & Assurance Department, Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.; Age 31

Like most who venture into the broad realm of accounting, Matt Nash discovered early on that he had an affinity for numbers. But, again, like most of those who join this profession, he discovered this business isn’t really about numbers; it’s about relationships and helping business owners and managers cope with the challenges and opportunities that come their way.

And that was before COVID-19.

The pandemic has merely served to amplify those sentiments, said Nash, manager in the Audit & Assurance Department at Holyoke-based Meyers Brothers Kalicka, who, since joining the company as an intern a decade ago, has risen in the ranks and taken on a host of new responsibilities within the firm, while also becoming quite active within the community as well.

“It’s making it more fun,” he said of the pandemic, with a discernable amount of sarcasm in his voice. Speaking with BusinessWest at the height of tax season, he said the firm is helping clients navigate a host of COVID-related matters, from two rounds of Paycheck Protection Program grants to the Employee Retention Credit, to simply keeping the doors open in the wake of falling revenues. “It keeps it interesting.”

And that phrase applies to much more than accounting and auditing. Indeed, Nash and his wife, Riley, welcomed their first child, Brooks, just a few months after COVID arrived, with the pandemic adding new layers of intrigue to what is always a memorable and challenging time.

“Any time my parents or my wife’s parents wanted to see our son, it was almost like a two-week quarantine for them,” he recalled. “My father-in-law wasn’t able to hold my son for three or four months after he was born. It definitely made things much more difficult.”

As for his work in the community, Nash, a native of West Springfield, said he wants to give back to the region, and the firm not only encourages its employees to do so, it facilitates that process by giving them the time to get involved.

Nash is a board member with Springfield School Volunteers, a member of the Ronald McDonald House golf tournament committee, a mentor for the Westfield State University accounting program, a volunteer for Greater Springfield Habitat for Humanity, and a co-leader of his firm’s community initiative to help ‘stuff the bus’ for the United Way of Pioneer Valley.

 

—George O’Brien

Class of 2021

Attorney, Bulkley Richardson; Age 35

Lauren Ostberg took a winding road to Western Mass. — as one can see from the maps she and her husband and two sons are holding up in the accompanying photo.

Indeed, she’s also lived in Ohio (she grew up there), Vermont, Tennessee, Pennsylvania, Montana (“it’s delightful — and cold — there, but there are no speed limits in most places”), and also Argentina for a short time.

She and her husband came to Western Mass. for a variety of reasons, and here, she’s found not only a home, but a professional niche, if you will — one she wasn’t necessarily thinking about when attending law school at Vanderbilt: cybersecurity.

Indeed, Scott Foster, co-chair of Bulkley Richardson’s cybersecurity practice (and a 40 Under Forty honoree in 2011), describes her as the “heart and soul” of that group, and one of the driving forces in its creation.

In this role, she has been instrumental in the launch of a well-respected series, CyberSafe, an in-person seminar turned virtual (because of COVID-19) that focuses on topics like preparation, implementation, and response to ensure that businesses and organizations are aware of their legal obligations; safeguards to stay protected; and what to in the event of a breach.

She has delivered cybersecurity presentations to large groups on a variety of topics, including WISPs (written information security programs), and contributed to articles on this broad subject for publications including BusinessWest.

“It’s a lot of fun, both intellectually and in terms of the work on the ground,” she said of cybersecurity law. It’s fun intellectually because the law and its applicability are always changing — even the definition of ‘personal information’ is constantly changing.

“And you also get some of the adrenaline you get from litigation,” she went on, “in responding to potential breaches for clients, like writing notification letters to attorneys general, crafting notices to consumers, counseling people on whether or not to pay the ransom … it’s all really interesting stuff, and very important.”

When not helping clients keep their businesses safe, Ostberg, who started her career as a freelance journalist and creative writer, is a regular participant in New England Public Media’s Valley Voices, with one of her stories taking the runner-up prize in the 2019 Valley Voices Championship. She is also active in the community, co-managing an annual fundraising campaign for the United Way of Pioneer Valley and also serving on Easthampton’s Cultural Council.

 

—George O’Brien

Class of 2021

Project Manager and Estimator, Chicopee Industrial Contractors Inc.; Age 32

Liz Sauer says she’s getting used to it. Sort of. At least in some respects.

She’s referring to her responsibilities in a field — rigging, moving machinery, and related work — still heavily dominated by men, and, more specifically, to the annoying questions she gets, almost exclusively from men.

“They’ll ask how long I’ve been doing this kind of work,” said Sauer, adding that the implication is that she hasn’t been doing it very long, and thus her credentials are in question. “And they’ll ask if my father owns the company.”

Sauer says she never wants to appear fazed or upset with those questions, and has worked overtime to make sure she isn’t. Better still, she has developed an intriguing response mechanism, one that essentially turns the tables on those questioning her.

Indeed, while she says she hasn’t become “sassy enough” to ask any of her inquisitors if their father owns the company they work for, she will ask them how long they’ve been doing what they’re doing.

“The responses often lead to lively conversations and relationship building in a business — and industry — where that’s very important,” said Sauer, who is now a proud member of an all-female leadership team at Chicopee Industrial Contractors, one that has steered the company through the many challenges presented by COVID-19.

But there is much more to her résumé than her duties at CIC. Indeed, Sauer is the founder of Route to Rise Yoga and currently offers classes at a Windsor, Conn.-based studio called Wabi Sabi Yoga & Wellness Center. She also advocates for yoga and wellness in the workplace at the Eversource Health and Wellness Fair, and facilitates small-group active workplace chair yoga for the Commonwealth Care Alliance.

Sauer, who holds a master’s degree in fine arts from the University of Florida, is also a mixed-media artist with a strong emphasis on fiber arts, sculpture, and figure drawing. Meanwhile, dance has been a constant passion throughout her life, and, with her partner, Gregg Todd, she offers workshops involving yoga, dance, and couples connectivity through shared movement. Both professional dancers, the duo perform a fusion of Latin-inspired modern dance.

When asked how she finds time for all that, she said she makes time — somehow — while also saving a few moments to offer a defiant ‘no’ when asked if her father owns the company.

 

—George O’Brien

Class of 2021

Owner, Filmmaker, and Director, Chris Teebo Films; Age 38

“His camera was his paintbrush, and his canvas his screen.”

That’s how Judy Matt, president of the Spirit of Springfield, chose to sum up the life and work of Chris Thibault, who created some stunning videos for the agency and its Bright Nights holiday lighting display in Forest Park. As she did so, one could sense the pain of having to use the past tense — a pain felt by all who came to know him, even if only for a short while.

Thibault is BusinessWest’s first posthumous 40 Under Forty honoree. He passed away in February, during the nomination period, and the many who nominated him felt firmly that, because of his body of work, his professionalism, the manner in which he touched those he worked with and for, and the way in which he took a long and difficult cancer battle public and inspired countless people in the process, he earned a place within the class of 2021.

And they’re right.

Thibault was an entrepreneur, launching his production company, T-Bo Productions, in 2004. But while he was a businessman, he was, to most, an artist — one who took ideas and goals and turned them into video works of art. Over the years, he worked with a number of area clients, including Spirit of Springfield, Big Y, Mercedes-Benz of Springfield, the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau, Health New England, and many others.

There were no small projects in his mind, said his wife, Missy, and he approached every project with passion and energy.

“Some people can immerse themselves in their work, and it can have a negative effect — like it was too much,” she explained. “With him, it seemed like a very natural balance. He put everything he had into each and every project. That’s how he did things.”

He kept doing things that way even as cancer ate away at his body and made it more difficult to work and create, and this was just one of the many ways he inspired others. Another was the way he and Missy shared their cancer battle with the world.

“That just came naturally to us because we love to document,” she explained. “He always said, ‘the story is king,’ and he had a story of his own that he felt he had a responsibility to tell.”

By telling it, he took his already-considerable talents as an artist to an even higher level.

 

—George O’Brien

Cover Story COVID-19

Help Wanted

Long before COVID-19 arrived in Western Mass., businesses across many sectors were struggling to find adequate supplies of good help. But now, just as the economy seems ready to surge, the problem, fueled increasingly by unemployment benefits that are conspiring to keep workers on the sidelines, is getting considerably worse, with no real end in sight.

 

Steve Corrigan has been in the landscaping business for more than 40 years now, and for most of that time, finding good help has been a challenge — to one degree or another.

But he says he’s never seen anything quite like this.

“Between our Chicopee location, a small branch we have in Wilbraham, and the office we have in Manchester, Conn., we probably have 12 to 15 positions we could fill tomorrow if we could find the people,” said Corrigan, president of Mountain View Landscapes and Lawncare, adding that this is a mighty big ‘if’ at the moment. “It’s crazy what’s going on — and it’s across the board.”

Indeed, his company is one of countless businesses across virtually every sector of the economy that are struggling mightily to fill positions, even as unemployment remains somewhat high in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. There are many reasons for this imbalance between open positions and adequate supplies of qualified help, but the main culprit comes in the form of federal unemployment benefits, including a $300 weekly bonus that is part of the American Rescue Plan. These benefits, say area employers, are serving as a strong deterrent to putting people back into the workforce.

“When you do the math, if you took a person making $20 an hour … with their normal unemployment, they’d be getting $500 to $600 a week,” said Corrigan. “Throw another 300 bucks on top of it … and why would you go to work for $20 an hour? It doesn’t make sense.”

Employers have been posing similar questions since the first stimulus-related unemployment benefits — complete with a $600 weekly bonus — were approved roughly a year ago. But the situation is even more precarious now, because the economy, after a slow to very slow 2020, depending on the sector of the economy, is starting to rev up again. And just as companies are looking forward to consumers going back out again and spending some of the money they’ve been saving over the past 14 months, businesses are being hit with pervasive hiring issues — and deep concerns about if and when the situation might improve.

As noted, the problem exists across the board — with landscapers, home-improvement companies, and pool installers; restaurants and banquet facilities; golf courses and local farm stands; manufacturers and service businesses.

In response to the problem, employers have tried a number of strategies — from sign-on bonuses to higher wages to rewards for referrals that lead to new hires. Meanwhile, most all forms of marketing for businesses in a variety of sectors now include references to looking for help, being a great place to work, or both.

For the most part, these strategies seem to be generating lukewarm results, with those unemployment benefits being just one of many issues to contend with. Another is the inability, or unwillingness, on the part of most states, including this one, to enforce the basic rules pertaining to unemployment eligibility.

Greg Omasta, right, seen here with his son, Chris, at the new Walsh Park in Springfield

Greg Omasta, right, seen here with his son, Chris, at the new Walsh Park in Springfield, says his company has responded to the ongoing challenge of finding workers by hiking wages above the average for this region.

“Most of the states have done away with the requirement that people on unemployment actively look for work,” said Meredith Wise, president and CEO of the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast, which has seen its hotline handle a number of calls related to this matter and a host of related issues. “In pre-pandemic times, if people were on unemployment, they had to prove that they were physically out there looking for work — applying for jobs, looking at the help-wanted ads, and actively seeking work. And those with the state would occasionally ask them to prove that they were doing all this. With the pandemic, the employment offices have been overrun, and states took away that requirement that you were looking for work.”

Perhaps the best hopes for area employers are that returning college students and area high-school students soon to be off for the summer might increase the pool of applicants — and that the unemployment benefits are due to expire in September.

But even those hopes are tempered by the realization that September is a ways off, and the benefits may well be extended by elected officials who have already shown a willingness to do that.

“It’s crazy what’s going on — and it’s across the board.”

So companies, some of them with the help of EANE and even area marketing companies, are honing their messages and updating their hiring strategies in the hope they will have enough warm bodies to take advantage of what is expected to be an uptick — if not a surge — in the economy.

For this issue, we look at what they’re up against and what they doing in the face of this growing challenge to their ongoing success.

 

Labor Pains

As they talked with BusinessWest about the hiring challenges they’re now facing, business owners, almost with one voice, said that COVID has simply exacerbated a problem that has existed for some time now.

Indeed, the phrase ‘skills gap’ has been a part of the local lexicon for years now, with many businesses, especially those in manufacturing, but in other sectors as well, struggling to find adequate supplies of help, with the degree of difficulty varying with the relative condition of the economy.

Chad Jzyk, HR business partner for Charter Next Generation (CNG), a Turners Falls-based manufacturer of plastic blown film for the medical industry, said the company has been challenged to find help for several years now. But the problem has reached a new level in recent months.

“There’s not a huge availability of workers — the pipeline of basic-skilled applicants is really non-existent,” he noted, adding that the company has been running with one and a half to two open positions monthly on an almost constant basis for some time now. COVID has made the situation worse, at a time when the opposite might be expected because of the number of people out of work, and for several reasons, he said.

“With the stimulus checks and unemployment extension, the availability of workers has been impacted in a negative way,” he said, referring to both the number of applicants in the pool and their willingness to accept an employment opportunity.

“We’ve tried to engage with a couple of temporary agencies,” he went on. “In the past, it was common that you would have an applicant pool of temporary workers of between 15 and 20 people that were already pre-screened and ready to go — you’d call the employment agency and, pretty much on the spot, get someone in 24 hours. Working with a few local agencies that we’ve traditionally worked with … there’s no applicant pool; they’re seeing the same thing.”

Jzyk said the company’s hiring challenges have yet to directly impact production or limit its ability to take on new orders. However, he said it does limit CNG’s ability to be more “proactive,” as he put it, and do more when it comes to training and flexibility with employees’ responsibilities.

For other employers, the shortage of workers represents a real threat to day-to-day operations and especially the ability to handle the larger volumes of business expected as the region returns to something approaching normal as vaccinations rise and consumers venture back out to restaurants, bars, museums, stores, and more.

Nadim Kashouh, owner of Nadim’s Downtown Mediterranean Grill in downtown Springfield, said he’s looking forward to the return of shows to the MassMutual Center and other forms of vibrancy, but he quickly, as in very quickly, changed to the subject of staffing and his ongoing concerns about whether he can find enough help to handle whatever surge comes.

Meredith Wise says the escalating challenges facing employers looking to hire are prompting wage skirmishes in some sectors.

“I hesitate to get too excited because one of the things we’re dealing with right now is the lack of people who want to work,” he told BusinessWest, gesturing to a lighted message board behind the bar. Among the many messages being delivered is that help is wanted — and that display is just one of many ways that point is being made.

“We have created a commercial that focuses on how our patio will be open soon,” he said. “But it also notes that we’re looking to hire people — we need to keep letting people know that.”

Fran Beaulieu, second-generation president of Phil Beaulieu & Sons Home Improvement in Chicopee, said the hiring crunch, which is certainly nothing new for that sector, has resulted from a number of factors, with COVID-related issues being only the latest additions.

Overall, fewer people have been getting into the trades, he said, and this has left the region with a shortage of carpenters and other specialists.

“You basically have an entire generation that didn’t get into the trade,” he noted, adding that, despite a wide-ranging effort involving social media and other strategies, the company has a workforce that is 30% short of what is needed. And this harsh reality is certainly impacting the firm’s ability to take on jobs — at a time when jobs are plentiful, again, due to COVID and people home so much and often of a mind to improve their surroundings.

“Finding projects has never been the problem; the problem has been managing your labor in accordance with how many projects you have sold,” Beaulieu said. “You almost have to stop selling after a while because you just don’t have the help.”

 

Hire Power

In the wake of the ongoing struggle to find adequate supplies of help, area businesses are taking a number of steps, with aggressive marketing of their staffing needs being just one of them.

Indeed, companies have initiated hiring bonuses and rewards for those who refer candidates who eventually sign on. Meanwhile, others are hiking wages, said Wise, adding that, in some sectors, wage skirmishes have arisen, the likes of which have not been seen in some time, if ever.

“What we’re seeing happening, and it’s a little scary, is that, for some positions, wage battles have ensued,” she said. “People are saying, ‘I’ll pay you $2 more an hour to come work for me because I need the help,’ and the employee goes back to his employer and says, ‘they’re willing to give me $2 more an hour; will you give me $3 more an hour to stay here?’

“There are some positions where people are willing to pay a premium to get individuals to come to work,” she went on. “And it’s starting to affect different kinds of businesses.”

One of them is the broad landscaping and lawncare sector, she noted, which has historically faced challenges to maintaining adequate staffing and is now seeing its problems escalate due to the many aspects of COVID.

Greg Omasta, owner of Hadley-based Omasta Landscaping Inc., said this has certainly been a trying year.

“Most of the states have done away with the requirement that people on unemployment actively look for work.”

“The government incentives allow people to stay home and get paid more than if they actually went to their job on a daily basis — so some of the problems small businesses are facing in this country are inflicted by our government,” he told BusinessWest, adding that some of those the company had to lay off at the end of last season have opted not to come back when offered the chance, instead choosing to collect unemployment. “But there’s a general lack of people out there in the labor force who want to work hard, like in the trade we’re in, the landscaping business. A lot of people want to sit beyond a computer screen and punch a keyboard all day.”

Historically, the company, like others in this sector, has relied heavily on legal immigrants, many from Mexico and Guatemala, he said, adding that even this pipeline has become less reliable in recent years.

As a result of this ongoing challenge, he said the company has changed the way it compensates employees, with the goal of attracting and retaining better candidates. By and large, it’s a strategy that has worked, although this year, given the many additional COVID-related challenges and responses within the industry, it is certainly being tested.

“We’re probably one of the higher-paying landscape contractors in the area,” said Omasta, whose company handles a number of large commercial accounts and municipal facilities, such as the recently reopened Pynchon Plaza in downtown Springfield, as well as residential customers. “We do that because we try to attract better people and keep those people here. Paying that higher hourly wage makes a difference in the people that we’re able to find, keep, and employ.”

Corrigan, who can certainly relate to all that, said his company hired someone to handle recruiting full-time just before COVID hit. To say her job has become difficult, and frustrating, in the wake of the pandemic and the various stimulus packages would be an understatement.

“She’s at her wit’s end with people right now,” he said, adding that, between a hesitancy to work among many people and drug tests often standing in the way of those do want to work, the talent pool has become increasingly smaller.

Chad Jzyk

Chad Jzyk

“There’s not a huge availability of workers — the pipeline of basic-skilled applicants is really non-existent.”

And this shrinking pool has definitely impacted Mountain View’s ability to expand the commercial side of its business and grow.

“We’ve had discussions — heated discussions — in our budgeting processes,” Corrigan said. “We ask ourselves, ‘how can you grow if you can’t get the help?’ And the obvious answer is, ‘you can’t.’”

 

The Job at Hand

It is that obvious answer that is keeping many business owners and managers awake at night.

Indeed, at a time when the challenges seem to be mounting for businesses of all sizes and in most all sectors — Omasta referenced the rising cost of materials such as lumber, still-escalating fuel prices, the specter of inflation, and the very real possibility of higher corporate taxes — finding good help is the one that poses the biggest threat to companies at a time when many are poised to break out from pandemic-induced doldrums.

What will happen between now and September, and even after September, remains to be seen, but it seems clear that these scary times, as Wise and others called them, are certainly far from over.

 

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

Commercial Real Estate Special Coverage

Progress Report

Roughly 14 months after COVID-19 arrived in Western Mass., the commercial real-estate market is showing some signs of life, especially with industrial properties, which are in considerable demand, with limited supply. But as companies start to return to their offices, questions remain concerning just how much space businesses will need long-term and how much demand there will be for the large inventories of space now, or soon to be, available.

Pat Goggins has been selling and leasing real estate in and around Northampton for almost a half-century now. It’s very safe to say that he knows that market better than anyone.

And he feels comfortable now, a full year and change after COVID-19 first arrived in this region, in saying that the Northampton market has “bottomed out, and is starting to work its way back to what it had become.”

He bases this assessment on a number of things — from new leases being signed for some vacated properties downtown to interest in some other buildings for sale and lease, to the lease rates themselves, which, he said, haven’t changed appreciably in 20 years now.

“We’re seeing some new activity that is creating some positive vibes,” said Goggins, president of Goggins Real Estate Inc., adding that, while challenges remain and COVID continues to take a toll on Northampton, there are many signs that a corner of sorts is being turned.

Using slightly different words and phrases, other commercial real-estate brokers and managers we spoke with said essentially the same as Goggins, that the market is moving back toward — here comes that phrase again — ‘something approaching normal, or a new normal.’ Meaning, they believe, that the worst is likely over.

“We still have a ways to go, but there is movement back to normalcy,” said Mitch Bolotin, a principal with Springfield-based Colebrook Realty Services, who is using, among other things, the parking-lot test when it comes to what’s happening within this market.

Pat Goggins

Pat Goggins

“We still have a ways to go, but there is movement back to normalcy.”

Indeed, he said the parking lots at the PeoplesBank building in Holyoke, 1441 Main St. in Springfield, and the Basketball Hall of Fame complex in Springfield, just some of the properties managed by the company, are more populated than they were just a few months ago, and much more full than last fall. The cars in those lots are evidence that businesses are, in fact, returning to their offices and the buildings are moving closer to pre-COVID levels of occupancy and vibrancy.

Still, hard questions remain about just how many more cars will be returning to those lots — and when. And these questions — which are being asked in urban areas across the Northeast and, indeed, across the country — will likely determine to just what extent the market fully recovers. Indeed, as leases have expired over the past year, some companies have downsized, said Bolotin, a few have actually upsized to give employees more space in the wake of COVID, and others are essentially standing pat.

Meanwhile, when it comes to negotiating new leases, most tenants have been able to take advantage of a market that favors them and secure a number that certainly isn’t higher, and in many cases is lower.

Ken Vincunas, president of Agawam-based Development Associates, which manages several office buildings in this region, including the Greenfield Corporate Center and Agawam Crossing, said that nearly 14 months after COVID forced many people to work remotely, questions linger about when and if businesses will summon employees back to the office, and how many will actually come back.

“I think people like to work at home,” he said. “Businesses want them to come back, but I’m not sure the employees will want to go back.”

Meanwhile, some segments of the commercial market, especially industrial properties, are vibrant, if not white-hot, said Vincunas, noting that there isn’t enough inventory to meet a growing need.

Ken Vincunas says, others, like industrial, have been very active

While COVID has slowed some segments of the commercial real-estate market, Ken Vincunas says, others, like industrial, have been very active, with inventories struggling to meet demand.

“The bulk of our portfolio is industrial, and that’s all pretty strong right now — inventory for that is very low, and prices are very high,” he said, adding that the market for medical real estate — and his company has some of it in the portfolio as well — remains strong.

For this issue and its focus on commercial real estate, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at what’s happening within the local market and what may happen as the region continues its pursuit of ‘normal’ — whatever that means.

 

Down on Main Street

As he talked about the Northampton market and what has happened within it over the past year or so, Goggins used the word ‘generational’ to describe the changes to the landscape.

By that, he meant many of the businesses that have become synonymous with Paradise City were started by people his age — Baby Boomers at or now approaching retirement.

“Downtown Northampton took off in the ’70s, and it was fueled by people who were contemporaries of mine who came into town or who were part of the community and decided to open restaurants and shops,” he said. “It was fueled by the Baby Boom generation.”

And what COVID did was push some of those entrepreneurs into retirement maybe a little sooner than they were planning, he said, adding that this led to some high-profile vacancies on Main Street, a phrase he uses to connote both that specific thoroughfare and the whole of the downtown. Those vacancies include the massive Silverscape Designs building, a former bank; 147 Main St., formerly Cathy Cross; 162 Main St., formerly Artisan Gallery; and others.

In recent weeks, though, new tenants have been secured for many of these properties, he said, noting that Rebekah Brooks Jewelry has moved into the Cathy Cross space, 25 Central has taken the Artisan Gallery space, and Cotton Gallery has moved into 153 Main St., formerly Thelo. This movement reflects his earlier-stated sentiments that the market has, in fact, bottomed out and is moving back up again, although there is still work to do.

“The vacancy rate is higher than what we would prefer, but we’re nipping away at it,” he said, adding that the emerging cannabis industry has played a factor in these efforts, and it could play a still-larger role moving forward, with nearly a dozen ventures at some stage of the permitting process.

As for the Silverscape property, he said there has been some interest expressed in it, but it is a large space with some accompanying challenges when it comes to a new use.

“It’s not for the faint of heart,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, while the former bank spaces, like teller windows, were imaginatively integrated into the jewelry store’s design, they may in some ways limit what can easily be done with the space now.

The Silverscape Designs building in downtown Northampton

The Silverscape Designs building in downtown Northampton, now on the market, will present opportunities and challenges to its next owner, said Pat Goggins, adding “it’s not for the feint of heart.”

Assessing the office market, Goggins echoed others in noting that, while more businesses are returning to the spaces they completely or partially vacated last March, there are questions about whether businesses that had to rely on people working remotely will bring everyone — or anyone — back to the office.

Vincunas said he has a diverse list of tenants at the Greenfield Corporate Center, including some state agencies that he is not concerned about when it comes to downsizing or not renewing, but also some financial-services and technology-related tenants for which there are some questions moving forward.

“People have learned to work outside the office, so we can’t be sure what will happen long-term,” he said, adding quickly that, for the short term, the property has benefited from COVID in one respect — the regional jury-pool operation has moved into 25,000 square feet of space at the facility for at least a year.

“They couldn’t space people out for jury-pool selection at all the courthouses — there just wasn’t room — so they created an off-site central-clearinghouse type of space,” he told BusinessWest. “We had a big piece of space, so they took it.”

Boloton said he’s seeing some evidence that, while the experiences of the past year have shown that remote working can be effective, most businesses want their workers back together in one place.

“I’ve seen it with a number of businesses … they’ve said, ‘we’re working at home, we’ve figured it out, but there’s still a need to be in the office, and, over time, people want to be in the office,’” he said, adding that the parking-lot test, as unscientific as it is, provides some evidence that companies are working their way back to their office spaces. “It’s a matter of want to, and need to, and there’s a slow progression back. There’s a steady return toward coming back to the office; we’re not there, but we’re getting closer every day.”

For other evidence of progress, he cited the recent closing of a deal with a business to lease 27,000 square feet of office space in a property at 11 Interstate Dr. in West Springfield. He could not disclose the new tenant, but said it was an existing Western Mass. business that is expanding.

“It’s a market that has some areas of slowdown reaction to the pandemic,” he said, listing retail in that category. “But there are other areas that are busy, and we can’t find inventory. Industrial is very strong, and we have a lot of transactions for users buying buildings, so we have a number of properties under contract.”

 

Bottom Line

Between the parking-lot test, some new leases being inked, and tight inventories in the industrial market, the commercial real-estate landscape seems to be changing in this region — and for the better.

That said, many questions remain about the market and especially the office buildings that are not only home to many types of companies, but also generate business at neighboring service- and hospitality-related enterprises.

It may be some time before all those questions are answered, but for now, it seems the worst may well be over and, as Goggins and others noted, this sector is moving steadily closer to something approximating normal.

 

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

Business of Aging

Wave Dynamics

Since they started entering the world just after World War II, the Baby Boomers have influenced society in general, and the business community in particular, in all kinds of ways. The same is true when it comes to the healthcare sector, especially as the oldest members of this huge and proud generation turn 75. The impact of such a large and aging group can be seen in everything from hearing practices to the many facets of the long-term care system. And in some ways, COVID has provided a preview of what it is to come.

 

As she talked about the massive Baby Boom generation, how its oldest members turn 75 this year, and about how almost all the Boomers could now be classified as senior citizens, Dr. Maura Brennan summoned a phase she attributed to her mother, but which she uses often as well: “No one gets out of life alive.”

She used those words to convey the thought that, while this Baby Boom generation may in many ways be healthier than those that preceded it — fewer smokers and more exercisers, for example — and it has enjoyed access to better healthcare and innumerable advances in treatment, from artificial joints to improved cancer care, its members will eventually see their health decline, and they will need increasing amounts of care. And many already do.

“I don’t believe this generation, which I am part of, will readily tolerate limited access to the best care.”

While Brennan — a 70-year-old geriatrician and palliative-care physician — says people being able to live longer is in itself a success story, it has also become a challenge, for today, and especially tomorrow.

Which brings us back to those oldest Boomers, those born just after World War II, who turn 75 this year. That’s the age when, statistically, people begin to see their needs for healthcare increase, said Brennan, adding that, as one might logically assume, when a large number of people hit that threshold all at once, the system will be taxed — in all kinds of ways.

“As one might imagine, it’s going to impact virtually every sector and specialty, with the possible exceptions of OB and pediatrics,” she explained. “We’re going to see increasing numbers of older people; not all those folks are going to be frail and complicated, but there will be an increasing number of people with multiple medical problems.

Dr. Maura Brennan

Dr. Maura Brennan says the healthcare system is struggling to meet demand for direct-care workers, and the situation might get worse.

“The numbers and the complexity will rise,” she went on. “And it will impact every area of healthcare, with probably the biggest impact being in home care and nursing-home care because, personally, I don’t believe this generation, which I am part of, will readily tolerate limited access to the best care that’s going to allow them to stay in their homes and communities as long as possible.”

Mary Flahive-Dickson, chief operating officer at East Longmeadow-based Golden Years Home Care, agreed. She said the milestone age being reached by the oldest of Baby Boomers provides an opportunity to look hard at what’s in store for the healthcare system and ask the question: is it fully prepared for the challenges to come? And, if not, what needs to be done so it might be better prepared?

In many ways, Flahive-Dickson said, the COVID-19 pandemic has actually provided a preview of sorts for what’s coming as this large generation ages, with regard to everything from telehealth to the way the overall healthcare system was tested by sheer volume of cases and even vaccination efforts, to the manner in which the need for home-care services is growing.

During the pandemic, this need was fueled by growing fears of nursing homes and other senior-living facilities. Many of those fears still persist, but for Baby Boomers, by and large, the greater issue is simply wanting to remain independent — and in the home — as long as possible.

Eric Aasheim, a certified senior advisor and owner of Oasis Senior Living of Western Massachusetts, agreed. Aasheim, who assists seniors and family members through the complex process of transitioning from home to senior-living communities across this region, said the entire long-term-care sector will be tested by the aging of this generation.

“What I see, and what I worry about, is that the long-term-care system — and that includes in-home care, nursing homes, and assisted living — is just not ready for the sheer volume of patients and residents that they’re going to have,” he told BusinessWest. “And even though these individuals living longer and their resources are being depleted, there are so few places that have any kind of programs for low-income seniors. Unless something dramatically changes in terms of the number of assisted-living facilities that can serve low-income residents, there won’t be needed options for seniors.”

Meanwhile, besides sheer size and that sense of independence and not wanting to rely on others, the Baby Boom generation boasts some other characteristics as well, including what could be described as denial when it comes to getting old and admitting some aspects of their health have deteriorated.

“That’s not a disaster or a tsunami. That’s one of the greatest success stories in modern history; people are able to live longer and enjoy their lives better.”

And that’s why, even though she is generally seeing more patients than she was years ago, Dr. Susan Bankoski Chunyk, an audiologist, says she’s seeing a continuation of, and perhaps even an exacerbation of, an annoying trend whereby people will put off seeking help for their hearing years after they acknowledge they have a problem, due to lingering perceptions about hearing aids making people look old and feeble, even though modern technology has changed that landscape.

And that’s just one example of why there are still many question marks about how and to what degree this generation will present challenges and opportunities moving forward.

 

Age-old Challenges

Before getting into any real detail about the Baby Boom generation and its advancing age, Brennan wanted to set the proper tone for the discussion.

Indeed, she told BusinessWest that years, if not decades, of talk about a ‘silver tsunami’ have succeeded in casting discussion about the aging Boomers — and, again, she’s a proud, card-carrying member of that generation — in often-negative tones.

Mary Flahive-Dixon

Mary Flahive-Dixon says most Baby Boomers want to age in place, in their own homes.

“This notion of the silver tsunami makes the aging of the population sound like an impending natural disaster over which we have no control that’s going to sweep everything away,” she said. “It feels to me, and most geriatrics leaders, like we’re framing things wrong; we’re setting this up as ‘us versus them’ — us young healthy, productive people against those old people who are going to overrun the system. These people are … us. They’re our neighbors, our teachers, our relatives.”

That said, a lot of ‘us’ are getting on in years. Indeed, maybe half or more of all Boomers can now get a senior discount at the movies, the golf course, and the pharmacy. And large numbers of them are now over 70, which means many aspects of the healthcare system — from eye care to urology; orthopedics to hearing care — are certainly already seeing an impact, and it will only grow as more Boomers reach 70, 80, 90, and beyond.

Restating the matter (again, she doesn’t want to classify it as a problem), Brennan said the Baby Boom generation is indeed large (it’s estimated that, by 2035, 10% of the population will be 85 or older; it’s closer to 6% now), and its members are living longer than the generations that preceded them, again, because of better health and better healthcare.

“That’s not a disaster or a tsunami,” she said. “That’s one of the greatest success stories in modern history; people are able to live longer and enjoy their lives better.”

That’s true, but so is what her mother said so often: that no one gets out of life alive.

“Some period of decline is going to occur for virtually all of us — unless we die in our sleep from a funny heart rhythm or get hit by a truck crossing Main Street,” she told BusinessWest. “And the causes of death in recent years have shifted; if you look back 50 or 80 years, the causes of death were frequently things like trauma, infection, death in childbirth — things that take you rather quickly when you were reasonably functional prior to that. That is no longer true. And with the successes we’ve had, and with people living longer, they are increasingly likely to die of multiple progressing chronic diseases.”

What does all this mean? Increasingly, Brennan said, people will need more care from more people as they age and approach end of life — a team-based approach, if you will.

“We’re going to have to think about care a different way because it’s not all about the doctors and the nurses,” she explained. “People will need hands-on home care, they’ll need symptom management, they’ll need direct-care workers who are grossly underpaid and overworked, and who churn through the system, with tremendous turnover.

“We’re struggling to meet those needs now, and it’s perceived to be, and is, a major problem,” she went on. “And if we do not alter the way we are paying, recruiting, supporting, and respecting those people, it will be infinitely worse. We’re going to need to restructure things, pay people differently, and offer them different kinds of professional development and career ladders that will make those positions more attractive; otherwise, we have a self-perpetuating situation. It’s the classic axiom — the system produces exactly the kinds of results it was designed to produce. If we don’t change the system, you get what you’ve got.”

Another issue that will have to addressed regards the number of specialists that will be needed to care for this larger generation of older residents, said Brennan, referring to geriatrics doctors, general nurse practitioners, social workers, pharmacists, and more.

Dr. Susan Bankoski Chunyk

Dr. Susan Bankoski Chunyk says people still put off seeking treatment for hearing loss due to outdated perceptions about hearing aids.

“As the number of older folks is increasing, the number of experts is not increasing, not one iota,” she told BusinessWest. “And, in fact, in some fields, such as geriatric medicine, the number of certified geriatricians has actually probably declined somewhat because we’re not replacing people who are retiring with equal numbers of new grads.”

 

The Shape of Things to Come

Flahive-Dickson agreed, noting that among the Boomers now in or approaching retirement are large numbers of healthcare workers. Replacing them and making the kinds of systemic changes Brennan mentioned will be just some of the many challenges facing the healthcare system moving forward.

Several of the others involve the growing trend of people wanting to age in place — and especially in their own home.

And this brings her back to COVID and what has been learned during the pandemic.

“More care was moving toward the home, basically as a result of general anxiety about facility care — about being in hospital, about being in a skilled nursing facility,” she explained. “Because of this crisis, we’ve seen more people want to get their care in the home.”

And this is a trend she expects will continue into the future as more people from this huge generation confront questions about the care they need and how and where they want it provided.

But questions arise from this supposition — many of them, in fact, including whether there will be enough providers to care for all those people who will want to stay in their homes, and also whether the payers are willing and able to adjust to a changing landscape of need and pay for services they currently don’t cover.

Again, Flahive-Dickson said the pandemic has provided an intriguing lens for looking at the problem — and the future as well.

“If COVID has done anything for us, it has previewed what is to come,” she told BusinessWest. “The pandemic has shown us that this surge in home care is a glimpse of the future. And it has provided this glimpse not only to healthcare professionals and the general population, but also to regulatory bodies, such as Medicare and Medicare Advantage.

“They have had to relax a lot of rules,” she went on. “As the Medicare population is continuing to grow, Medicare benefits haven’t caught up to that, and this is a huge problem. There are fewer than a dozen states that even offer non-medical home-care services to be paid for by a plan, and that plan is a singular plan, and that’s Medicare Advantage. In Western Mass., no one has a Medicare Advantage plan that offers the benefits of non-medical support, so it’s either out of pocket, or you have to qualify for one of the few programs that cover this.”

As for home-care workers, she said a number of demographic trends (Boomers generally had smaller families than the generations that preceded them) and other issues point toward individuals needing someone outside the family to care for them — and real challenges when it comes to having a steady supply of workers to provide that care.

That’s another lesson from COVID, she said, referring to the law of supply and demand, which was certainly exacerbated by a pandemic during which many had apprehensions about working in others’ homes.

“Fewer and fewer family members are capable of being a caregiver, either because there are fewer families, period, or … because family members might be on a different coast,” she explained. “Just because you grew up in Springfield doesn’t mean you stay in Springfield.”

Aasheim agreed, noting that these demographic trends are just some of the challenges facing the Baby Boom generation. Another is their own lack of preparedness for what is to come — financially and otherwise.

He said that only one individual in 10 has long-term-care insurance, and this is a matter to be addressed — just not when someone is 75 or even 65; those products have to be bought much sooner. Meanwhile, not enough members of this generation (and it’s not exactly unique in this regard) have their ducks in a row when it comes to needed documents — and needed preparation for poor health that often comes on suddenly and without much warning.

“What I try to focus on with the Boomers are the things they can do now, before that eventuality,” he explained. “This includes having discussions with your family about what your preferences are in terms of long-term care, gathering the documents together, getting power of attorney and a healthcare proxy, all those things. That’s what I hammer away with them — get that stuff done now, while you’re still healthy and you have the energy and the mental capacity to deal with it, so your family doesn’t have to handle it in crisis mode a few years down the line.”

Unfortunately, he said, many don’t heed this advice.

“They all nod when I talk to them in these presentations, but are they going home and getting that stuff together? My thought would be, probably not,” he went on. “Because most of the calls I get are from people who are in crisis mode.”

Bankowski Chunyk is another who wishes that more Boomers would heed some advice. Or at least listen to family members telling them they can’t hear as well as they used to, and should do something about it.

She told BusinessWest that the hearing industry talked a lot about the Baby Boom generation years (make that decades) ago, and how its size and advancing age would comprise a great opportunity for audiologists, one they should be prepared to seize.

Bankowski Chunyk did prepare, but she said the wave hasn’t been nearly as big as all those experts predicted it would be, largely because of … well, human nature, as well as lingering perceptions about hearing aids and what they say about those who wear them.

She said data shows that, between 1989 and 2019, the average age of an individual being fitted for a hearing aid for the first time fell from 66 to 65.

“I’m not sure a lot of progress was made getting people to address their hearing,” she said with some sarcasm in her voice, adding that, while there are certainly more people of that age than there were several years ago, sheer volume is not creating the immense opportunity that was predicted back in the ’80s and ’90s.

Whether it will materialize eventually or not, she doesn’t know — but she does know the Boomers are perhaps more vain when it comes to hearing aids than the generations that preceded them, so her industry has some work to do to change those perceptions.

 

Bottom Line

Perceptions are not the only thing that will have to change if the Baby Boomers, and those in the healthcare system who will care for them, will adequately manage this sizable demographic shift.

Brennan is right when she warns about this challenge becoming an ‘us versus them’ scenario, but she’s also right (and her mother was right) when she said that no gets through life alive.

As this generation ages, it will present enormous challenges to a healthcare sector that in many ways seems unprepared for what’s coming. That’s evidenced by the number of comments that began with the words ‘if things don’t change’ — comments referring to everything from workforce to accommodations for low-income seniors.

Only time will tell if things will, indeed, change. What is known is that the Boomers, as they have at every other phase of their life, will alter the landscape as they reach 75 — and beyond. And in all kinds of ways.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

 

Nadim's

Nadim Kashouh says the return of office workers will be critical to the success of businesses downtown.

The wording in the initial guidance that has come down on the $2 trillion American Rescue Plan, and, more specifically, the $130.2 billion designated for city and county fiscal relief, is somewhat vague and leaves a lot to the imagination.

“Funds can be used to respond to the COVID-19 public-health emergency and its negative economic impacts, including assistance to households, small businesses, and nonprofits, or aid to impacted industries, such as tourism, travel, and hospitality,” it reads, before going on to note that such funds may also be used for everything from investments in water, sewer, and broadband infrastructure to “providing government services in a way that covers the revenue gaps created by the COVID-19 emergency.”

As he reads this guidance, Tim Sheehan, Springfield’s chief Economic Development officer, draws immediate parallels to the federal money Springfield received nearly a decade ago in the wake of the June 1, 2011 tornado that tore through several parts of the city. Even the dollar amounts — roughly $100 million, in each case — are strikingly similar.

“Some of the outcomes resulting from the funding that came from the tornado assistance were transformative for Springfield,” he noted, adding that a reconstruction fund of $96.7 million was put to a number of uses, including business assistance, housing replacement and reconstruction, infrastructure, and more. “And we’re looking to similarly deploy, very strategically, the resources we have from the rescue plan so that we have a similar result.”

How, and how effectively, Springfield can put its American Rescue Plan funds to work will likely play an important role when it comes to how quickly and profoundly the city can recover from a very different kind of disaster. And, like many area communities, Springfield has been hard hit by the pandemic, with many question marks looming over the future.

A city that was in the midst of what many were calling a renaissance in the years leading up to COVID saw much of its momentum halted or certainly slowed by the pandemic. A central business district that was thriving and teeming with events, activity, and new businesses has been eerily quiet, with many constituencies — from office workers to hockey fans; beer garden attendees to concertgoers — absent or in far smaller numbers.

As for those office workers, there are now lingering questions about when they will return (the vast majority haven’t yet) and how many of them will return, casting the future of the office towers that dominate the skyline into doubt.

But there are some signs of life and abundant optimism for the balance of this year and beyond.

Indeed, as he talked with BusinessWest on a quiet late Tuesday afternoon, Nadim Kashouh was looking forward to the upcoming weekend — moreso than any time probably since last Father’s Day, when he struggled mightily to keep up with a flood of takeout orders.

Gymnastics — in the form of youth competitions featuring teams from across New England — were returning to the MassMutual Center for the first time in more than a year. And Kashouh’s eatery, Nadim’s Downtown Mediterranean Grill, located just a block from the convention center, always does well when the gymnasts come to town.

“If they turn right when they leave the building, they find us — and a lot of them do turn right,” said Kashouh, noting that not many people have been coming to town, as in downtown, since COVID changed the landscape in March 2020. “It’s exciting to have the gymnastics back.”

And there are other signs of life as well. The AHL’s Springfield Thunderbirds are not playing hockey — they are one of three teams in the league to essentially opt out of play in a abbreviated 2021 season — but they are gearing up for the 2021-22 slate, and management is optimistic there will be considerable pent-up demand for their product (see related story HERE).

“Some of the outcomes resulting from the funding that came from the tornado assistance were transformative for Springfield. And we’re looking to similarly deploy, very strategically, the resources we have from the rescue plan so that we have a similar result.”

Meanwhile, in Pynchon Plaza, various works by the sculptor Don Gummer are now on display, yet another sign that the Quadrangle, one of the city’s tourism mainstays, is moving ever closer to something approaching normal (see related story HERE).

While COVID has certainly slowed the pace of progress in Springfield, it has also provided an opportunity to step back, look at some of the key development challenges and opportunities in the city, and work to be ready for the proverbial ‘other side’ of the pandemic. That’s been the case with two key areas downtown — the area around MGM Springfield, which is underperforming in many ways, and the so-called ‘blast zone,’ the area surrounding the site of the natural-gas explosion in November 2012 (more on these later).

“Our thought process throughout this has been to take the mindset, ‘once we’re through it, we want to be ready to go,’” Sheehan said. “And some of the funding that is coming will be able to help those initiatives be realized.”

For this latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the City of Homes and its prospects for not merely turning back the clock to the vibrancy it enjoyed pre-COVID, but taking further steps forward.

 

Food for Thought

As the owner of one of the more prominent and visible restaurants downtown, Kashouh has long been a popular voice with the local media when it comes to commentary about business downtown and the impact of everything from the casino to the Thunderbirds; from concerts at Symphony Hall and the MassMutual Center to, yes, those gymnastics competitions.

As he did son again with BusinessWest, he first flashed back to the view in very early 2020, a time when, as he put it, “the pieces had fallen into place and everything was clicking.”

Over the past 13 months, of course, most of the pieces have fallen out of place, he said, adding that most of the key ingredients for success at his establishment — the shows on weekend nights; the hockey games, conventions, and other events at the MassMutual Center; and, especially, the downtown office workers — have been mostly missing in action as a direct result of the pandemic.

He said they’re all important, but perhaps the most critical is the office traffic, which consistently filled the restaurant at lunch and often the bar area after 5 o’clock. These days, the office crowd is a fraction of what it was, and the impact is profound.

“We saw a few of the old faces back in here today, and it was exciting — you’re seeing some of the regular faces back,” he said, referring to some commercial lenders once based downtown. “But we used to see them three or four times a week and sometimes twice a day; now, you see them once, and you hope to see them again next week — maybe.

“It’s going to be a while before things go back to where they were before,” he went on. “I was hoping that by summer things would be back to normal, but now it doesn’t look like it.”

Given this obvious trickle-down effect, the question of when, and to what extent, the office workers return to downtown looms large over the city and those in the Economic Development office.

Indeed, Sheehan, citing a story he read recently involving Citibank and its announced intention to downsize its office footprint in New York by roughly 40%, said it is becoming obvious that the pandemic will change the way businesses approach their real-estate needs moving forward, leading to endless speculation about the office market and the businesses that rely on it.

The former Willys-Overland building is now accepting lease applications

The former Willys-Overland building is now accepting lease applications, one of the first signs of redevelopment in Springfield’s so-called ‘blast zone.’

As for the present tense, the situation has improved — but only marginally.

“People are starting to come back to downtown to work, but it’s not fully engaged, and I don’t think it’s going to be until sometime late fall,” Sheehan said. “And I don’t think we’re really going to get back to 100% until the turn of the calendar to 2022. And that obviously has a ripple effect on all the businesses that depend on that population coming in every day, so that’s an ongoing concern for the city.”

This brings him back to that language in the guidance concerning the American Rescue Plan, which, he said, could and likely will extend to efforts to help keep existing businesses downtown and bring new ones there.

“Our objective, in terms of deployment of resources, is to keep as many leases in place and tenants in place as possible, and maintain, to the level that we can, the value of those leases,” he explained, “so that we don’t ultimately experience a huge negative devaluation in the commercial real-estate market.”

The process, already underway, starts with understanding the needs on both sides of the equation, meaning landlord and tenant, he went on, adding that some business sectors are doing better than others, with service and hospitality (those businesses relying on direct interaction with the public) faring the worst.

Overall, the city could access as much as $127 million in Rescue Act funds, depending on how the ‘county’ portion of the award is allocated, said Sheehan, adding that city officials are having discussions with the those at the Treasury Department about how they can be deployed.

Speaking in general terms, which is all he can really do at this point, he said the broad goal of this latest round of funding will be to provide a “softer landing” to the wild, turbulent ride COVID has given the city, which differentiates this round from the funding provided in the CARES Act in 2020.

“With the CARES Act funding, we were in the throes of the virus and the public-health orders associated with it,” he explained. “That funding was basically to alleviate the distress. With this round, it’s about how we’re going to rebuild after the virus and bring the economy back to … not necessarily what we had before, but, hopefully, even better.

“The CARES Act was wound triage,” he went on. “The funding that we’re dealing with in terms of the rescue plan is more post-operative care — that’s the analogy you would use.”

 

Forward Thinking

While the city has been mostly living within the moment during the pandemic and dealing with the day to day, planning for the future has gone on, again, with an eye toward enabling the city to emerge from the pandemic with an opportunity to seize whatever opportunities present themselves.

In recent months, there has been increasing speculation, as businesses realize they may not need to be in urban centers like New York and Boston with their (previously) sky-high lease rates, and individuals realize they don’t need to live in those cities to work for companies based in them, that there are opportunities for communities like Springfield.

Sheehan acknowledged the possibilities and, like others in recent months, said the city needs to market itself and otherwise position itself as a viable, lower-cost option to Boston.

Meanwhile, as noted, planning officials have used the COVID period to closely examine two potential-laden but challenged areas of the city, one identified as the ‘Northeast Downtown District,” a.k.a. the blast zone, and the area in and around the convention center and MGM Springfield.

The latter is the focal point of a master development plan created by Chicago Consultants Studio Inc. (CCS) and approved by the City Council in March. In it, the authors write, “MGM delivered a Casino District; the city must now drive the surrounding area development.” In the report, the consultants note what has become obvious: that, despite the city’s and MGM’s significant investment in time, design, money, and commitments to “integrate the casino into the urban fabric, the MGM complex has yet to foster important catalytic economic development and vibrancy outside the confines of the casino district.”

This unexpectedly stymied market, which prompted an urgent revisiting of the so-called Implementation Blueprint drafted for that area in 2018 as the casino was preparing to open, has resulted from a number of factors, they note, including:

• MGM’s decision to “overpay” for key properties critical to the project (an average of 240% over market) has driven an artificial increase in area property valuations, which has yet to correct itself;

• Resulting area rents do not reflect realistic market rates, which has turned away high-quality tenants interested in being adjacent to a casino anchor;

• News of MGM and potential future expansion created area-wide speculation, market inactivity, and a ‘wait-and-see’ attitude in anticipation of a buyout, which is clearly not in MGM’s plans; and

• Resulting property disinvestment, code violations, foreclosures, auctions, and growing blight in prime areas adjacent to the casino were all exacerbated on some levels by the pandemic.

Recognizing the pressing need and urgency for reinvestment in the immediate areas around MGM and the MassMutual Center, the city has narrowed the near-term focus of the Implementation Blueprint to a phase-one district generally bound by I-91/East Columbus Avenue, Harrison Street, Chestnut Street, and Union Street. Within that area, CCS has identified a number of properties that are in transition, vacant, or underutilized, including the Masonic Building, Colonial Block, Old First Church, 101 State St., 13-31 Elm St. (currently being renovated into housing and other uses), and the Civic Center Parking Garage.

The property across Main Street from MGM Springfield

The property across Main Street from MGM Springfield remains underutilized and largely vacant, despite expectations the casino would prompt greater vibrancy.

For this phase-one district, the city, through CCS, has advanced a three-part master development strategy that includes a Main Street and Convention Center Zoning Overlay District and other measures designed to stimulate and facilitate investment in that area, said Sheehan, adding that, while opportunities exist, COVID may in some ways be limiting what’s possible.

“We have to very flexible in terms of looking at what can be done with those properties,” he told BusinessWest. “My concern is that most of the foreclosed portfolio has office space above the ground-floor retail, for lack of a better word. Given the existing office market, I think we have to be very flexible with regard to adaptive reuse.”

Springfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1852
Population: 154,758
Area: 33.1 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential tax rate: $18.90
Commercial tax rate: $39.23
Median Household Income: $35,236
Median Family Income: $51,110
Type of government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Baystate Health, MassMutual Financial Group, Big Y Foods, MGM Springfield, Mercy Medical Center, CHD, Smith & Wesson Inc.
* Latest information available

As for the Northeast Downtown District, or blast zone, a master plan released in January and now still in the public comment period notes that, while that area, characterized by historic brick buildings and warehouses, has suffered a number of setbacks in recent years, including the gas explosion, it still “holds tremendous potential for redevelopment as a transit-oriented neighborhood.”

“We saw a few of the old faces back in here today, and it was exciting — you’re seeing some of the regular faces back. But we used to see them three or four times a week and sometimes twice a day; now, you see them once, and you hope to see them again next week — maybe.”

Elaborating, the report’s authors note that, “anchored by the newly renovated Union Station and the potential connectivity afforded by an anticipated increase in rail service in the coming years, the district is ripe for market-rate, multi-family residential development. And, in addition to a relatively affordable cost of living, the area benefits from being within walking distance of downtown amenities and cultural attractions, including the Springfield Museums.”

This potential is reflected in the ongoing renovation of the former Willys-Overland manufacturing facility on Chestnut Street into market-rate housing, said Sheehan, adding that more developments of this kind could follow.

One key to such efforts, as well as the revitalization of such areas as Apremont Triangle and the development of a needed “mixed-use commercial spine,” as noted by the report’s authors, is making Chestnut Street a two-way corridor, said Sheehan, adding that this change will dramatically increase traffic through the area and provide better linkage to other areas of the downtown, thus stimulating development activity.

 

Bottom Line

There is little doubt that COVID has slowed the pace of momentum in Springfield, a city that spent the better part of 20 years digging out of a deep fiscal morass and successfully reinventing its downtown as a vibrant hub for business, innovation, tourism, and nightlife.

The pandemic put much of that in what can best be described as a holding pattern, one that many see as thankfully coming to an end in the coming months and certainly by the end of this year.

When and how profoundly the city recovers from all that COVID has wrought remains to be seen, but with the gymnasts returning to the MassMutual Center, sculptures now adorning Pynchon Plaza, and the Thunderbirds selling season tickets for the 2021-22 season, there are now ample signs of life and sources of optimism.

Amd with them come more expressions of confidence that the city can not only regain what’s been lost, but surge even higher than in the days before the pandemic.

 

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

Features
Nate Costa expects a great deal of pent-up demand

Nate Costa expects a great deal of pent-up demand for professional hockey in the region.

“Baby steps.”

That’s what Nate Costa, president of the American Hockey League’s Springfield Thunderbirds, says the team is taking as it looks to return to the ice — and its place as a huge part of Springfield’s economic engine — this fall.

Such steps include selling season tickets, trying to secure some attractive dates from the league from home games, doing some preliminary planning of promotions, and putting together a new staff after most members of the old one — furloughed at the height of COVID-19 — found employment elsewhere. Most, but not all, of these assignments would be part of a normal late April for the team — but this is certainly not a normal April, nor a normal year.

Indeed, while 28 of the 31 teams in the AHL have been playing out an abbreviated 2021 season, the T-Birds are one of three franchises, all independently owned (the Milwaukee Admirals and the Charlotte Checkers are the other two) that have chosen to suspend play for the year and wait for 2021-22.

Costa doesn’t have any regrets about the decision not to play this winter and spring, saying the call was certainly the correct one from a business perspective — “at the end of the day, we made the right decision for the long-term solvency of the franchise; it was something we had to do” — and noting that his energies are completely focused on the 2021-22 season.

And as he talks about that upcoming season, he does so with a great deal of confidence about everything from pent-up demand for his product to what this new team he’s assembled can do between now and the time when the puck finally drops again in Springfield — October, by most estimates.

And that confidence emanates from the fact that he’s done this before.

Indeed, when a group of owners acquired a franchise in Portland, Maine and moved it to Springfield in 2016, Costa, then general manager, had to condense roughly a year’s worth of work into just a few months. It won’t be quite like that in 2021, but there are many similarities between the team’s start and what would have to be called a restart this year.

“We’re going to have to go back and redo this thing from scratch,” he explained. “And one thing I look at from a positive perspective is that I have the playbook; we did it that first year in a really short amount of time. We bought that franchise in June, and we had to play in October — we have that shotgun experience in our back pocket.”

Which brings us back to those baby steps. The team is taking many of them as it works to emerge from what will ultimately be more than 18 months of quiet at the MassMutual Center.

“We’re going through a normal renewal period with season-ticket holders — we’re folding those letters as we speak and just trying to get back to a little bit of normalcy,” he explained. “But it’s hard … we’re hopeful that, by October, we’ll be in a much better place. But you just don’t know; things change daily.”

Overall, he believes that, despite a year-long absence, the team is in a good place from a business perspective. Support from season-ticket holders and sponsors has been strong, he noted, and, from all indications, there will be a huge amount of pent-up demand for all the Thunderbirds bring to their fan base.

Meanwhile, with American International College going to the collegiate hockey tournament and UMass Amherst taking the home a national championship, there will likely be an even greater appetite for hockey locally, Costa told BusinessWest.

“I think people are excited about getting back to the arena, and I think that, when we have the chance to open the doors again, people are going to come, and they’re going to support us like they’ve never supported us before,” he said. “That’s what we’re hearing from people; we haven’t had a ton of outbound activity over the past few months, but recently we’ve finally been able to do some outreach, and there’s excitement.

“We’ve had some meetings with corporate partners, too, and there’s some support there as well — we’ve closed a few deals recently,” he went on. “We’re trying to be as proactive as possible … we’ve garnered a lot of support locally, and people are hopeful that we’ll be back to where we need to be.”

 

—George O’Brien

Features
Several sculptures created by Don Glummer now grace Pynchon Plaza

Several sculptures created by Don Gummer now grace Pynchon Plaza, and many more will soon be on display at the Quadrangle.

Kay Simpson calls it “a sculpture takeover.”

That’s how she chose to describe a new exhibit, featuring New York City-based artist Don Gummer, that will take place within the galleries of the Springfield Museums, outside on its grounds, and also within the recently renovated Pynchon Plaza.

“He’ll have three works on display in Yertle the Turtle Garden; another four, and these are large sculptures, on the Quadrangle green; one near the Blake House; an exhibition in the D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts; and several more in Pynchon Plaza,” said Simpson, president and CEO of the Springfield Museums as she referenced “Constructing Poetry: Sculptural Work by Don Gummer,” which will be on display from May 1 to Sept. 12, with many pieces in place already.

She described the works with a number of adjectives, including vertical, dynamic, and soaring, the last of which is one she hopes to also use in conjunction with the Quadrangle itself later this year.

Indeed, the Gummer exhibit will be one of the cornerstones of what will certainly be a very important year for the Museums, which, like all cultural and tourism-related attractions, took a huge financial hit due to COVID-19, with Simpson projecting that revenues for the fiscal year that will end June 30 will be off by roughly 50% from the year prior.

Other upcoming exhibits include:

• “Wild Kratts: Creature Power!” opening May 29, an immersive, interactive exhibit where kids explore four animal habitats and the creatures within them, building STEM skills as they play;

• “Horn Man: The Life and Musical Legacy of Charles Neville,” from June 19 to Nov. 28 in the Wood Museum of Springfield History; and

• “Ai Weiwei: Tradition and Dissent,” an exhibit featuring selections from three decades of work created by the internationally renowned artist and social activist. It will run from July 17 through Jan. 2, 2022.

Simpson is expecting these and other exhibits and programs, combined with large amounts of pent-up demand for culture — and simply getting out — to inspire a huge bounce-back year for the Quadrangle.

This optimism is fueled by the country’s aggressive vaccination efforts and statistics at her disposal from the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau noting that 84% of Americans have travel plans for the next six months — the highest number since the start of the pandemic — and a good number of them will be focusing on day trips, which is what Springfield’s Quadrangle, a five-museum gem, specializes in.

“We attract people from all across the country and also international travelers coming to our museums,” she said, “but the biggest percentage of travelers are coming from the New England region.”

Simpson told BusinessWest that evidence abounds that people are looking to get back out and do the things they simply couldn’t do, or were certainly apprehensive about doing, during the pandemic. And that includes a trip, or several, to the Museums, which were closed for four long months last year before reopening to 25% capacity last summer.

The capacity limit was recently raised to 50%, and Simpson said numbers of visitors to the Quadrangle have been rising steadily over the past several months, pointing toward what she expects will be a very solid last three quarters of 2021 — and beyond.

“Once the capacity was increased to 50%, we’ve had more and more people come to the Museums,” she noted. “I think there is a real appetite for people to come out again, and I think our summer is going to be very strong, and summer will be a really good indication for us of how the rest of the year will unfold; it typically is. If we have a strong summer, we usually have a very good year.”

The Museums will not be able to conduct some of the popular family programs that have traditionally been strong draws during the summer months, due to restrictions on large numbers of people together in tight spaces, but those at the Quadrangle will make full use of its outdoor spaces and exhibits at all five museums.

That includes the the Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum, which, several years after its opening, continues to bring people from across the region and the country, and also from around the world, to Springfield.

“Dr. Seuss remains a huge draw — our highest attendance since we reopened in the summer was a ‘beep and greet’ we did on the weekend that followed Dr. Seuss’ birthday in March,” Simpson said. “We had 700 ticketed admissions; that’s about half of what we would typically get for a Dr. Seuss birthday party celebration, but it was a beep-and-greet — people were in their cars. That just shows the incredible drawing power he has.”

 

—George O’Brien

Features Special Coverage

Courting Possibilities

Dave Thompson stands in the lobby of the former Cinemark Theaters

Dave Thompson stands in the lobby of the former Cinemark Theaters at the mall, many of which will now be used for jury trials and other court facilities.

Since the collapse of retail began in earnest a decade or more ago, the future of the Eastfield Mall in Springfield has always been shrouded by question marks. They certainly remain today, but some recent COVID-related events — creation of a vaccination site and moving of jury trials to theaters in the malls — have certainly changed the landscape at the facility on Boston Road, while providing more proof of just what’s possible there: almost anything.

By George O’Brien

The latest map of the property at the Eastfield Mall in Springfield tells an intriguing story about just how that property is emerging — and will continue to evolve in the months and years to come.

Indeed, now positioned in the center of the huge space that connotes where several cinemas once operated is the logo for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Court System, which will soon conduct jury trials in several of those theaters. Meanwhile, in the massive, 125,000-square-foot space that was a Macy’s store, there’s a logo for the Curative COVID-19 vaccine site now operating there, as well as the logo for Diem Cannabis, which hopes to soon operate a cultivation, manufacturing, and distribution facility at that site. And in the former Sears site, now owned by Eastern Retail Properties, there is the promise of additional retail development, the scope and nature of which is not yet known.

“It’s been extremely challenging to keeps the lights on, if you will.”

These logos and the operations behind them show how the mall’s owners have been aggressively, and imaginatively, seeking and often finding new uses for huge retail spaces at a time when retail is retrenching — to put it mildly. They also show how the mall has benefited from good luck and some unanticipated twists and turns — many of them COVID-related, at a time when COVID has made retail a very challenging proposition. Still.

“It’s been extremely challenging to keeps the lights on, if you will,” said Dave Thompson, property manager at the mall. “But we’re a pretty creative bunch here, so we’ve been able to do that; in fact, we have a waiting list for in-line tenant spaces — we’re 100% full.”

Overall, the mall is in the midst of a massive, 10-year (at least) redevelopment plan that will dramatically alter the look and feel of the landmark — yes, it can be called that — that opened in the mid-’60s to considerable fanfare. The rebranded property, to be called Eastfield Commons, will include a mix of commercial and residential spaces — roughly 450,000 to 500,000 square feet of the former, and 276 units of the latter.

The pace of progress on this redevelopment has definitely been slowed by COVID, said Chuck Breidenbach, managing director of the Retail Properties Group for Mountain Development, which owns most of the Eastfield Mall site, noting that many in the development community have taken a breather of sorts during the pandemic, especially those involved with retail.

“Everyone just dug in their heels when it came to thinking about the future,” he explained. “It’s been a tough development climate, especially with retail because so many retailers were closing — for good or with a certain number of stores. Or they were trying to downsize their footprints. A lot of that was going on before COVID hit, but COVID really accelerated that process exponentially.”

The situation has improved slightly, nationally and locally, but the retail picture remains cloudy in many respects. In the meantime, though, the mall is taking full advantage of the opportunities that have presented themselves. Together, they have provided foot traffic, some revenue, and also some insight into what’s possible at this site, meaning … well, just about anything that makes sense, a broad concept, to be sure.

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at what’s happening at the mall — and what could happen in the years to come at a complex with an intriguing past and a future dominated by vast potential — and a large number of question marks.

 

Space Exploration

Just after the COVID vaccine site opened, Thompson told BusinessWest, he would plant himself in the many common areas at the mall and pick up on the conversations being had, many of them involving people waiting in line to get a vaccine or wandering around the mall after receiving one.

What he heard verified what he already knew — that people who hadn’t been to the mall in years, or decades, had pretty much lost track of what was happening there; they may have taken in some headlines, but they didn’t know the full story.

“We’d hear people say … ‘I didn’t know there were still stores in the Eastfield Mall,” he said, adding that these comments were deflating in some ways — the mall still maintains a broad mix of 80 local and national retail outlets ranging from Old Navy to Hannoush Jewelers to Milan Menswear — but somewhat encouraging, at least from the perspective that people are learning, becoming more aware, and coming back to the mall for shopping visits.

“We’ve seen a good upward swing in foot traffic,” he explained. “I think we have a lot of return patrons who have gotten vaccinated and now realize there are stores here, so they’re coming back.”

The conversion of theaters into courtrooms

The conversion of theaters into courtrooms is one of several positive and unexpected developments at Eastfield Mall.

That’s just one of a number of developments that have come about, somewhat unexpectedly, and that bode well for the mall, for both the present and the future. The COVID vaccine facility is bringing large numbers of people to the site every day and, as noted, giving them a chance to update themselves on all things Eastfield Mall. The courts moving into the old theaters, meanwhile, will bring in much-needed revenue from a site that was abandoned and trashed by theater operators Cinemark and in need of major renovations if it was to be leased out again.

Meanwhile, the Diem Cannabis operation, now winding its way through the licensing process, will fill a building that has been mostly vacant for some time now, bringing new energy and vibrancy to what has been a tired retail site.

As noted earlier, some of this has been good luck, circumstance, and having the right space at the right time, while much of it has also been hard work and creativity.

“Everyone just dug in their heels when it came to thinking about the future. It’s been a tough development climate, especially with retail because so many retailers were closing — for good or with a certain number of stores. Or they were trying to downsize their footprints. A lot of that was going on before COVID hit, but COVID really accelerated that process exponentially.”

Indeed, Thompson says he isn’t exactly sure how the state found the Eastfield Mall and started pursuing it as a vaccination site. “I don’t know, and sometimes it’s better if you don’t ask a lot of questions,” he said with a laugh, adding that he took the phone call roughly three months ago (he doesn’t remember from whom) that set things in motion.

Recalling that conversation and those that followed, he said the state was impressed by the ample amounts of parking and a location that, while not ideal, is close to Mass Pike exit 7 and easily accessible to a number of communities, including Springfield, Ludlow, Wilbraham, Longmeadow, and East Longmeadow.

The state isn’t paying rent for use of the property — something Thompson certainly laments — but it has brought exposure and a boost for many of the retailers as some getting vaccines have stopped to shop or get a bite to eat.

And this new life, as temporary as it is likely to be, represents just one of a number of positive steps forward at the mall. The relocation of court trials to several of the old movie theaters is another. That was another call that seemed to come from out of the blue — and a desire to move along many of the trials that have been delayed by COVID.

The state will use three of the 16 theaters for courtrooms and several of the others for other purposes, said Thompson, adding that the initial lease is for a year, but the hope is that the state, as it looks for permanent solutions to a host of problems at the Roderick Ireland Courthouse downtown, will give serious consideration to the mall and its theaters.

“Talking with the individuals that have been here from the state, they believe that if the powers that be decide to land here on a more permanent basis, that would be fine,” he told BusinessWest. “They love the way it’s set up.”

 

What’s in Store?

As for some of those other spaces … a long-term lease with Friendly Ice Cream, headquartered just down the street, to use the former JCPenney location as warehouse space, recently expired, said Thompson, adding that there have already been discussions with many parties about using that space for the same purpose, which represents one of the more logical future uses for that site.

Breidenbach concurred. “We’d like to find another retailer, but if not, we’d would certainly be open to office, residential, or medical uses,” he said, adding that JCPenney moved out nearly a decade ago, and there have been a number of short-term tenants in the interim. “We’re looking for a long-term tenant, but the trouble now is trying to find retail tenants that will take on 125,000 square feet; right now, they are few and far between.”

Dave Thompson

Dave Thompson says the COVID-19 vaccination site has brought additional foot traffic to the mall.

While dealing with the short-term and immediate answers to the many questions hovering over the mall, the main focus is on the long term, said Briedenbach, adding that the facility will obviously become mixed-use in nature, with that mix still being a work in progress.

The goal is to create a facility where individuals can live, work, shop, eat, and attain needed services, he noted, adding that the pieces to this puzzle will come together over a number of years, depending on the appetite of the development community.

The east side of the property, which runs along Kent Road, is being eyed for residential development, he said, adding that a recent zone change of that area from residential B to residential C should help these efforts. As noted, 276 units are being eyed for land on the east side of the property, with 23 buildings of 12 units each. Meanwhile, that JCPenney site could be retrofitted for senior housing, student housing, or related types of uses, he noted.

As for other components of the live/work/shop puzzle, Breidenbach said the Diem Cannabis project could provide several of those qualities, including jobs and some retail that would bring more foot traffic to the site, possibly inspiring still more retail. The hope, and also the expectation, is that, as pieces to the puzzle come together, the broad Eastfield site will become more of a destination — for many different constituencies.

“We’re looking for a long-term tenant, but the trouble now is trying to find retail tenants that will take on 125,000 square feet; right now, they are few and far between.”

For inspiration when it comes to what’s possible, this region can look to another Mountain Development project, this one at the Eastern Hills Mall in Buffalo, N.Y., a similar initiative that is further along in the development process, said Breidenbach, adding that a local developer has been secured, and plans are now in the design stage and headed for the environmental-review process.

“That site is much larger — it’s 100 acres — and we’re looking at retail, restaurants, entertainment, hotel, office … you name it,” he said. “There are a lot of things that can be done there.”

And at Eastfield as well, he said, adding that the project is moving forward step by step, with the next one being to secure a development partner for the residential aspect of the project. After that, and once that part of the project comes off the drawing board, he expects other pieces to the puzzle to fall into place.

“This is going to be a 10-year project, and right now, we’re just taking it one piece at a time,” he said. “We’re going to go one step at a time and do what’s right for the mall and the community.”

 

Bottom Line

These days, there are far fewer lines for people to get their COVID shots. Indeed, Curative has improved the process, and now, people can arrive just before their scheduled injection.

This doesn’t leave as many opportunities for Thompson to gather intel, if you will, from those now finding their way to the mall. But in his mind, he’s already gathered enough. He knows there is still much work to do when it comes to telling the mall’s story — and an equal amount of work when it comes to filling in the canvas with regard to the long-term future of this landmark.

Thus far, through some good fortune and creative thinking, the picture is starting to fill in, and the full extent of the opportunities that exist is coming increasingly into focus.

 

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

Sports & Leisure

Buy the Buy

Dave DiRico

Dave DiRico says many people who discovered or rediscovered golf in 2020 are coming back to buy new equipment in 2021.

Dave DiRico says his shop is usually busy in late March and early April as golfers gear up for a new season.

This year, the look and feel have been different, and for many reasons. Golf got an unexpected and much-deserved boost last year when it became one of the few organized sports people could take part in. And it’s received another boost from the fact that Americans have been saving money as perhaps never before, and many of them have also been receiving stimulus checks from the government.

Add it all up, and March and April have been even busier than normal, said DiRico, owner of Dave DiRico’s Golf & Racquet, adding that, for now, he doesn’t see many signs of slowing down.

“We’re seeing it at all levels, all age groups, starting with the seniors,” he said. “They didn’t travel as much over the past year. They haven’t gone out to dinner; they didn’t go on their spring golf trip to Florida. And we’re seeing more of those people buying clubs — and that’s generally not our soft spot.”

That soft spot would be younger professionals and junior golfers, he went on, adding that these people are buying clubs, too, often with the help of the government.

Meanwhile, large numbers of people took up the game last year, or found it again after drifting away from it for whatever reason. Many of these people bought used equipment last year — so much that inventories dwindled significantly — and this year, they’re coming back for new clubs.

“Most of them are deciding to continue to play — they enjoyed it,” DiRico said. “And they’re trading in their used equipment for new stuff — because they intend to stay with it.”

The surge in play and its impact on the retail side of the game is reflected in the numbers. In the third quarter of 2020, for example, retail sales of golf equipment exceeded $1 billion for the first time ever for that period, according to Golf Datatech, an industry research firm. Meanwhile, Callaway Golf Co., which manufactures golf balls in Chicopee, reported a 20% surge in sales in the fourth quarter of 2020.

The problem some players are encountering, though, is limited inventories of new equipment. Indeed, the golf manufacturers, like those who make cars and countless other products, are experiencing supply-chain issues and difficulties getting the materials they need. This has led to sometimes lengthy waits for ordered clubs to be delivered.

“There’s such an increased demand with new golfers across the country that they’re all running out of equipment,” he explained. “They can only manufacture so much, and the demand is far more then they projected. Some companies can’t get shafts, others can’t get grips — you can’t make a golf club unless you have all the components.

“We have a few companies that are great — they’ve managed to stay ahead of this, and they’re doing very well,” he went on. “But then, we have some other companies … you have to wait 15 weeks to get a set of irons.”

Doing some quick math, DiRico said this will translate into delivery sometime in June, far longer than golfers anxious to get their hands on new irons or a new driver want to wait.

But, overall, this would have to be considered a good problem to have — if such things actually exist in business.

Only a few years ago, the golf industry was in a sharp decline, with membership down at most clubs, tee times readily available at public facilities, and racks full of new equipment for which there wasn’t strong demand. Things have changed in a hurry, and DiRico and others hope most of these trends — not the current supply-and-demand issues, certainly — have some permanence to them.

 

—George O’Brien

Sports & Leisure

A Simple Mission

Just over a year ago this time, Jesse Menachem and his staff at the Massachusetts Golf Assoc. (MGA) were fighting — and fighting hard — to convince the state simply to let golf-course owners maintain their property.

Despite some intense lobbying by his group, Gov. Charlie Baker made golf courses part of his broad shutdown of non-essential businesses in March 2020, and for weeks, the industry lingered in a sort of limbo, not knowing when, if, and under what circumstances courses would be allowed to reopen.

When they did, in mid-May, a number of limiting restrictions kept play at modest levels. But then … the lid came off, and the industry found itself in an enviable position. Indeed, golf was one of the few activities people could take part in during the pandemic, and people started taking it up — or taking it up again, as the case may be, a development that benefited public and private courses alike.

“I’ve heard from clubs that recorded anywhere from a 20% to 50% increase in rounds, which is incredible, because capacity was limited due to the longer intervals between tee times, as mandated by the state,” said Menachem, president of the MGA. “You couldn’t find tee times on weekends at many facilities; with people working from home, working remotely, not traveling, not having family activities like Little League and soccer, golf became number one in a lot of people’s minds, and the game really benefited.”

Jesse Menachem

Jesse Menachem

“If we can sustain or retain at least 25% to 33% of those who participated last year … that’s a goal; that’s a start. More would be great, but we have to be realistic.”

Now, as the 2021 season gets set to begin in earnest (some courses have already been open for several weeks), the golf industry has a simple, yet also complex, mission that Menachem summed up directly and succinctly: “make it sticky.”

By that, he meant those managing the state’s courses have to take advantage of this huge opportunity they’ve been granted and compel those who took to golf last year, because there were few attractive options, stay with the game now that other options exist.

“That’s our job; that’s what we’re up against — we have to make sure it’s sticky, and that’s something we have not been very good at,” he explained. “If we can sustain or retain at least 25% to 33% of those who participated last year … that’s a goal; that’s a start. More would be great, but we have to be realistic.”

Indeed, as they go about this mission, courses will have advantages and selling points they didn’t have last year, said Menachem, especially when it comes to their 19th holes, many of which were closed in 2020, while those that were open faced a mountain of restrictions on what they could serve, when, and how. They have also learned some lessons from last year, including how those longer intervals between tee times improved pace of play, reduced logjams on the course, and improved the overall player experience.

But golf will also be facing far more competition in 2021 when it comes to the time, attention, and spending dollars of those who found the game a year ago. Indeed, as restrictions are eased, individuals and families can return to restaurants, museums, the cottage at the beach, and more.

For course owners and managers, the emphasis must be on providing a solid experience, one that prompts a return visit — or several. This has always been the emphasis, he said, but now even moreso, with courses being presented with what would have to be a considered a unique opportunity.

“It’s really our obligation to make sure that experience is favorable,” Menachem told BusinessWest. “For those who are being reintroduced, or introduced for the first time, we’ve got to invite them back; we have to make them feel comfortable and cater to what their desires are. We have to do everything within our power to make sure that golfer on site has the best experience possible and keep them coming back.”

 

—George O’Brien

Cover Story

Lessons Learned from COVID

It’s been said time and again that, for businesses large and small, the pandemic provided a number of learning opportunities. Companies learned new ways to do things — mostly out of necessity — while also learning that the ‘old’ way may not be the best way. Meanwhile, the pandemic provided opportunities that didn’t exist before — especially when it comes to hiring — and accelerated the pace of needed change. All that means the landscape has been altered for the long term.

Drew DiGiorgio, president and CEO of Wellfleet

Drew DiGiorgio, president and CEO of Wellfleet, in the company’s mostly unoccupied space in Tower Square.

They’re called ‘insurance bibles.’

That’s the name those at HUB Insurance have attached to the large binders — some of them containing 700 pages or more, in the case of large commercial accounts — that tell clients everything, as in everything, about what’s in their policy, what’s covered, what isn’t, and on and on.

As he held one up, Timm Marini, president of HUB International New England LLC, noted that, prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, bibles only came in the printed variety. Now, if a client wants one — and some of them don’t — a digital file is sent, in part because a client can’t pick one up, and HUB can’t drop one off.

And, by and large, things will stay this way, said Marini, noting that COVID has shown those at the company that they don’t need to kill trees and use up expensive toner to provide a client with their insurance bible.

“Now, you can do it all electronically,” he explained. “And you probably could before COVID, but COVID made us do it more.”

This is just one of the many things companies large and small have learned during the pandemic, lessons that will carry over to the time when COVID is referred to in the past tense. Others involve everything from not having to scan documents for tax preparers to not necessarily limiting a candidate search to those living in the 413, to not having people travel to a conference on the other side of the state if they can instead take it in via Zoom.

“It’s a mix, but many certainly want to come back. They’re lonely … they actually want to work in more of a community setting.”

In a word, the pandemic has shown area businesses and nonprofits that they have more options than maybe they thought they had, when it comes to how and where people work and just how things are done.

For this issue and its focus on the modern office, we talked with a number of business owners and managers about what’s been learned over the past 12 months or so and how COVID has actually made companies more efficient and enabled them to reduce costs in some areas. The observations were telling.

“The audit side of our practice generally required teams of people here to go visit on site at other locations,” said Sarah Rose Stack, Marketing & Recruitment manager at the Holyoke-based CPA firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka. “Because of COVID, we learned we could do these remotely, which is something we’ve never done; this was a first-time experience not just for us, but for people in our industry. We’ve learned that it’s fine, it is efficient, and with some businesses, we’ll keep doing it this way moving forward.”

Timm Marini holds up an ‘insurance bible’

Timm Marini holds up an ‘insurance bible’ — the printed variety. Those at HUB have had to send digital documents during the pandemic, and that trend will continue into the future.

For Springfield-based Wellfleet, now with offices in Tower Square, the pandemic has provided ample evidence that employees in many positions can work effectively and remotely, and this enables the company to expand its horizons when it comes to hiring.

“You can expand your pool when it comes to workforce; we can hire someone not from the Springfield area and have them be successful with the tools that we’ve developed,” said Drew DiGiorgio, the company’s CEO, adding that the company has already hired some people from other parts of the country. Meanwhile, it is working on plans to have other employees work a hybrid schedule, with some days in the office and others remotely.

Chuck Leach, president and CEO of Lee Bank, said that, prior to COVID, HR Director Susie Brown and IT Director Drew Weibel were already hard on work on plans to position the bank to be more flexible with its workforce in terms of where and how it worked. The pandemic served to accelerate that process.

“Even though we’re Lee Bank, a lot of our employees come in from other markets,” he noted, adding that these lengthy commutes prompted talk and then creation of plans for remote work and hybrid schedules. “We were already thinking about it, and COVID forced us to be more deliberate in our approach and our policies and procedures.”

But even with these options in place and far more flexibility with work schedules than ever before, the bank is tilting strongly toward having people work on site — with some exceptions — and it’s also seeing most of its employees want to come back, which is another thing companies are learning as they work their way through COVID.

“It’s a mix, but many certainly want to come back,” Weibel said. “They’re lonely … they actually want to work in more of a community setting. They want to come back, but some find it easier to work at home until the school situation is worked out and their children are back in the classroom.”

Stack agreed. “When the shutdown first happened, everyone was excited to work from home, so a lot of people exercised that option, and some people have found they’re more efficient from home, cutting out that commute,” she said. “But while some still work from home, the majority of people, like 97% of the people at MBK, choose to come into the office every day because they don’t want to work from home.”

Work in Progress

DiGiorgio said it’s somewhat frustrating to walk around his company’s offices in Tower Square.

More than 200 employees moved into the well-appointed space covering three full floors in the late summer of 2019, only to see pretty much everyone pack up and go home to work in mid-March.

“We love it — we wish we could be in it more,” he said with a laugh. “It’s great space — open-floor design, all the things you probably don’t want with COVID. It will be great to get back to it.”

Indeed, that’s a lot of fairly expensive (for this market) downtown Springfield real estate that is not being used. But DiGiorgio doesn’t dwell on matters that are out of his control.

Instead, he’s more focused on what the future will look like — and applying all the lessons learned during the pandemic.

As for that real estate … he said this is a growing company that took three floors with the intention of perhaps soon absorbing a fourth. Need for that additional space is less likely now, he acknowledged, but the company will still need the space it’s now leasing because he fully expects most of his employees to be back in that space.

But not all will have to come back, he went on, and some, as he noted, will never have to sit at a desk there.

“We have, over the past year, hired people in Florida, Tennessee, Atlanta, Minneapolis, Upstate New York … we have a pretty remote workforce,” he said, adding that some of these hires took place before COVID because the tools were in place, but the pandemic has highlighted how effective people can be working remotely, and thus, as he said, broadened and deepened the talent pool.

“We have a billing person who’s in Tennessee. I feel more comfortable now that she can hire people in Tennessee or wherever she needs to; they may not need to be in Springfield, which is what our initial thought was. COVID has opened up our thinking to where we hire people.”

Marini agreed. “We have employees in Wisconsin who work for New England,” he explained. “We have people who decided to move to Florida and still work for New England. We had a little of that before COVID, but what we realized was that, with our ability to get our automation up and running, our digital offerings, that really expanded our talent pool; there have been some relocations during COVID and some new hires during COVID that are not Western Mass.-based. And we have some people in Western Mass. who work for some of our Eastern Mass. locations and even one in New York.”

COVID has reinforced this premise, as it has many others, while accelerating some trends and pretty much forcing companies to do some things they never considered before.

Like those virtual audits at Meyers Brothers Kalicka.

Stack said the firm’s teams have undertaken a number of them, while, in other cases, it has adopted a hybrid approach for some audits, going to the client site for some of the work while handing the rest remotely. Thanks in large part to COVID, there are now several options for handling such work, she said, adding that other lessons have been learned and other new ways of doing things revealed.

“On the tax side of our practice, we used to have clients in the building all day, every day, from February 1 through tax day, and now, maybe three people a day drop off their boxes of papers; the vast majority of people just e-mail us their material,” she explained. “They’re happy with it, it’s efficient, and it saves us a step. Instead of having to take tons and tons of paperwork and scan it into our digital system, it’s already coming to us in that format.

“We used to have to hire a scanner for tax season — a whole person whose job was to take all this paper that people would drop off and scan it,” she went on. “We didn’t have to hire a scanner this season, and that was definitely a positive change.”

Will Dávila, executive director and CEO of the Children’s Study Home in Springfield, said the pandemic has led to positive change in many forms at his agency and most all businesses and nonprofits. He echoed others when he said that COVID has served to heighten the awareness of how technology can be used to improve efficiency and save time, such as when traveling to conferences or meetings in other cities.

Will Dávila, executive director of the Children’s Study Home

Will Dávila, executive director of the Children’s Study Home, says his agency has learned a number of lessons during the pandemic, many of them involving better use of technology.

“We now have more of a comfort level with working remotely and working via Zoom,” he said, adding that this technology existed long before COVID, but few businesses took full advantage of it. “The lesson for us, and I’m not sure we have it completely figured out yet — it will likely take us some time — is that we can do more with technology than we thought we could before. I’ve been in places where we would talk about technology and teleconferencing and telehealth, and people would balk at it. And now, we’ve been forced to take another look, and we’ve embraced it.”

Looking ahead, he said that, while most people look forward to the day when they can gather and attend conferences and meetings in person, they know there are options — there’s that word again — and they won’t be hesitant to take full advantage of them if the circumstances permit.

Caution Signs

As he walked with BusinessWest through HUB’s headquarters facility on Shaker Road in East Longmeadow, Marini pointed to a number of unoccupied workstations, some of them marked off with the yellow ‘caution’ tape usually associated with crime scenes and construction sites. Such tape can be seen throughout the suite of offices, he said, noting that the space — which was occupied by just over 50 employees prior to the pandemic — has hosted around seven a day on average, with a high of 14, by his count.

Sectioning off such areas became part of life during COVID, he noted, adding that there are myriad ways the pandemic changed the landscape for the company. Overall, there’s been a huge shift; a place once teeming with employees and visiting customers now sees very few of either.

And that has brought challenges — and some opportunities, mostly in the form of learning how to do things remotely and without reams of paper. As he talked about these opportunities, Marini gave a nod — sort of, anyway — to an organization his business works closely with, obviously: the Registry of Motor Vehicles.

“Even the Registry of Motor Vehicles here in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts has become more digitized, more automated, and more flexible, and that’s something I never thought I’d see after 33 or 34 years of doing this,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, in some ways, his company has been inspired by the RMV, as it automates and digitizes many processes that once involved paper and in-person sessions.

As for the challenges, they came in waves, Marini explained, from equipping everyone to work at home, which was expensive and difficult logistically, to helping employees cope with everything from feelings of isolation to simply filling their days with work, even though they were home.

CHuck Leach

Chuck Leach

“Even though we’re Lee Bank, a lot of our employees come in from other markets. We were already thinking about it, and COVID forced us to be more deliberate in our approach and our policies and procedures.”

“We were too accessible when we were home, so there were no breaks for our people,” he explained. “We started having big conversations and hiring professionals to come in to coach us to make sure we took breaks and that there was separation between home and work.”

What will things look like several months from now, especially if the pandemic continues to ease? Marini isn’t exactly sure, but he acknowledged that he spends a lot of time thinking about it and working with corporate to prepare for that day.

He does know that more business will be handled virtually in the future, and there will be little, if any, need for those printed insurance bibles.

As for employees, like others we spoke with, he expected that they will come back, because the company wants them back, but also because they want to be back in that office setting.

Such sentiments were echoed by many of those we spoke with. They noted that it seem logical that, after getting a taste of working at home, many employees would prefer that option, but what employers are generally seeing is the opposite reaction.

“People are sick of remote everything,” said Stack, noting that Meyers Brothers Kalicka has a younger team within the audit department that could do its work from home, but instead it has reserved the firm’s huge boardroom for the past six weeks so the members can work together, but safely and well spread out.

“They have music playing on Spotify every time you walk in there,” she said. “They just want to be in the same space — they think they’re more efficient that way, and they can ask questions of each other faster and stay on track better because they’re all together. It’s not something we told them they had to do; they’ve chosen to do it.”

Dávila agreed, although he noted that he has some employees who are quite happy working at home, and are “working on it” when it comes to returning to the office. By that, he meant he’s offering some flexibility on this matter and not rushing anyone back who doesn’t want to rush back.

“I think it’s partly generational — people who have been in the field for 15 or 20 years or more and are used to those in-person interactions, they’re used to having that time by the water cooler when they’re getting a cup of coffee. I consider those valuable interactions that help with morale,” he told BusinessWest. “But we also have younger staff who are very comfortable with technology and embrace the idea of working remotely.”

But, ultimately, they will come back, probably by the end of the calendar year. “I don’t want to say absolutely not,” he said when asked about hybrid arrangements that offer a mix of remote and in-office work. “But my preference is that we get people back to a schedule where they can see each other and interact.”

Lee Bank’s Susie Brown agreed. “When it comes to Lee Bank, I think everyone enjoys being together,” she said. “We don’t have a lot of people who are unwilling to come back; those that are unwilling are those that have other challenges at home with their children.”

Bottom Line

COVID is far from over, and there are certainly more lessons to be learned as companies large and small continue to cope with an unprecedented challenge.

But it’s already evident that this battle has prompted changes that will live on long after the pandemic is in the rear-view mirror. As they were forced to do things differently, companies learned that, in many cases, these different ways are better than the old ways.

Like the insurance bible. Clients, at least some of them, will still need one. But they won’t need to thumb through 700 pages of printed material to find an answer.

COVID has changed all that — and it keeps on changing the landscape.

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

Coronavirus Features Special Coverage

The Shape of Things to Come

With the arrival of spring, stimulus checks, and vaccinations for growing numbers of residents, continued recovery from the steep economic decline of 2020 is in the forecast. But like the weather, economic rebounds are difficult to predict. With this recovery, there is still widespread speculation as to what shape it will take — U, V, W, K, even the Nike ‘swoosh.’ Myriad factors will ultimately determine that shape, from the ongoing threat of inflation to uncertainty about when and to what extent people will gather again, to questions about just how willing Americans are going to be when it comes to spending some of the money added to their bank accounts over the 12 months that ended in January.

$4 trillion!

That’s the amount Americans added to their bank accounts over the past 12 months or so, a savings rate perhaps never before seen in this country, which has hasn’t been known for that trait.

It came about because of all the things that people couldn’t spend money on, or didn’t see the need to spend on — everything from summer camp to vacation cruises; celebratory meals out at restaurants to new dress clothes; Red Sox tickets to visits to their favorite museum. Granted, there was some spending going on, especially when it came to things like pools, new flooring, and new deck furniture for the home — or a new home itself, be it a vacation home or a bigger primary residence.

“I am pretty optimistic that people are just to their wit’s end with being isolated; they really want to get out, do things, and buy things. They just want to live a normal life again.”

But, for the most part, Americans were saving in 2020.

And now that there is light at the end of the tunnel, and it seems like people will be able to spend some of the money they saved, the speculation involves just how willing they will be to go back in the water, if you will, and do some of the things they had to forgo for a year.

That’s just one of many factors that will ultimately decide the shape of the recovery we’re now in, and how quickly the nation will get back to something approaching normal.

As several of the stories in this issue reveal, the world, or at least this part of it, is returning to a sense of normal. Hotels are booking rooms again, airports are busy (or at least busier), Tanglewood and Jacob’s Pillow will have seasons in 2021 — albeit different kinds of seasons — and, overall, the state has entered into what Gov. Charlie Baker calls stage 4 of his recovery plan. This final stage will allow indoor and outdoor stadiums to run at 12% capacity, the state’s travel order to be downgraded to an advisory that recommends people entering Massachusetts quarantine for 10 days, public gatherings to be limited to 100 people indoors and 150 people outdoors, and exhibition and convention halls to operate if they can follow gathering limits.

It’s a big step forward, but much will depend on how willing people will be to gather in these places, and how confident they will be to travel. Meanwhile, there’s all that money that people saved and the latest round of stimulus checks now finding their way into people’s bank accounts. Will people spend them, and what will they spend them on?

And what if there is a spending frenzy and economists’ fears of inflation, potentially the runaway variety, become realized?

These are just some of the questions hanging over the job market and this overall recovery, which will, at the very least, be unlike anything else the country has experienced. Indeed, it has bounced back from recessions, tech bubbles, a 9/11 downturn, wars, and more. But it hasn’t seen anything quite like this — a pandemic-fueled economic crisis that wiped out millions of jobs, followed by, and accompanied by, federal stimulus on an unprecedented level.

Mark Melnik

Mark Melnik

“Just because we hear, ‘get back in the water, everybody,’ it doesn’t necessarily mean that folks will. I think there’s reason to be bullish about the Massachusetts economy in the second half of 2021 and the early part of 2022 because of the pent-up demand. But so many of these issues are going directly to the comfort level that people are going to have psychologically.”

“I’m a little less cautiously optimistic than some, but I am pretty optimistic that people are just to their wit’s end with being isolated; they really want to get out, do things, and buy things,” said Bob Nakosteen, professor of Economics at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst. “They just want to live a normal life again.”

Mark Melnik, director of Economic and Public Policy Research at the UMass Donahue Institute, concurred, but offered some caveats.

“There’s a psychological element to the economy,” he told BusinessWest. “Just because we hear, ‘get back in the water, everybody,’ it doesn’t necessarily mean that folks will. I think there’s reason to be bullish about the Massachusetts economy in the second half of 2021 and the early part of 2022 because of the pent-up demand. But so many of these issues are going directly to the comfort level that people are going to have psychologically.”

 

History Lessons

As they have many times over the past year, experts pointed to Worlds War II as the only recent point in history that can in any way compare with the ongoing pandemic, and noted that the comparisons hold when it comes to what happened when it was all over.

“During the war, people couldn’t buy a car, and there was a great deal of rationing,” said Nokosteen, adding that, as a result, people were saving. And while there was a lull right after the war ended, during which some feared the country would actually sink back into the Great Depression that officially ended with the war, people soon started spending — big time.

“Everyone wanted to spend money,” he told BusinessWest. “And they had some money — people started cashing in the war bonds they bought, and soldiers came home to the G.I. Bill. There were a lot of things that spurred the economy on, and it came back quickly after that initial slump.”

Experts are predicting something along those lines for 2021 and 2022, but there are a number of variables that could determine the ultimate shape of this recovery.

“In many ways, this recession has been the most unequal we’ve ever seen. And it has really exacerbated existing social inequalities, both in Massachusetts and nationally. People who were vulnerable to begin with are just made more vulnerable.”

“Looking at what’s taken place after the real substantial decrease in the first half of 2020, which was historic in terms of just how fast the economy contracted, and with the third round of stimulus hitting people’s bank accounts, we seem to have avoided some of the worst-case scenarios, which would have been a U-shaped recession, where we dragged along the bottom for a long time before we took off, or a very sharp, V-shaped recovery, which also would have been bad because of worries about inflation,” said Karl Petrik, a professor of Economics at Western New England University. “We managed to have missed both of those, and I’ve almost come to the opinion that we have a check-mark-like recovery.”

Elaborating, he said the country did see a recovery starting in the second half of 2020, and the second economic-stimulus package in January helped continue that momentum. The third stimulus package, coupled with pent-up demand and the ability to do things one couldn’t do in 2020 (spring break in Miami was one good example), should enable the economy to keep chugging, he went on, with the rosiest of forecasts calling for 6.5% growth, with the least rosy being around 4%.

“Both of which would be very good,” he told BusinessWest, adding that the expectation is that there will be a return to the ‘trend’ growth rate, which, after the Great Recession, was about 2.5%.

“One of the worries when you’re coming out of recession is that you know you’re going to go back to your trend growth rate — that’s why it’s the trend,” he explained. “You just don’t want to go back too soon because it just prolongs the pain in terms of the economy having the ability to recover; that’s what we saw after the Great Recession. We never saw the real takeoff, just a slow, steady, gradual growth rate up to 2019.”

Such fears probably fueled anxiety about going too small with recovery packages, Petrick noted, adding that he believes the $1.9 trillion bill that ultimately passed is certainly big enough.

Karl Petrick

Karl Petrick

“One of the worries when you’re coming out of recession is that you know you’re going to go back to your trend growth rate — that’s why it’s the trend. You just don’t want to go back too soon.”

But questions abound about how this recovery will play out and who will benefit most. With that, Melnik talked about the growing sentiment that the recovery has been, and will continue to be, K-shaped in nature, with lines going both up and down, depending on which income bracket you’re in.

“We’ve definitely seen a bifurcation in terms of educational attainment in industry, wages, and who’s been able to work and who’s been more likely to be unemployed, and long-term unemployed,” he explained. “Those people who tend to have limited educational attainment who were working in face-to-face industries, service-type sectors, including food service, restaurants, and hospitality, and other services like barber shops, dry cleaners, nail salons, and auto-repair places … those kinds of industries have been hurt dramatically, and they really haven’t recovered many of the lost jobs.

“In many ways, this recession has been the most unequal we’ve ever seen,” he went on. “And it has really exacerbated existing social inequalities, both in Massachusetts and nationally. People who were vulnerable to begin with are just made more vulnerable.”

Looking ahead and to what course the recovery will take, Nakosteen and others said so much depends on how comfortable people will be to go back to what life was like pre-pandemic, if you will.

“How are people going to feel going out in public when the public isn’t wearing masks?” he asked, adding quickly that he doesn’t know the answer. But whatever that answer is, it will go a long way toward determining how quickly and how profoundly the country, and this region, are able to rebound.

“It isn’t just vaccinations and dealing with these new variants,” he went on. “A lot of what will determine if there’s pent-up demand and how it’s released is truly behavioral. There’s no economic reason for there not to be a sharp rebound; I think it’s behavioral, it’s epidemiological, it’s medical.”

 

What’s in Store?

As for spending … area retailers are obviously looking for the lid to come off, although in some cases, the lid wasn’t on very hard to begin with.

Dave DiRico, owner of the golf shop in West Springfield that bears his name, said that, after a very quiet early spring last year, there was a surge in spending on golf equipment and apparel as many people picked up the game, or picked it up again, because it was one of the few things people could actually do.

It’s early in the new year, but that trend is continuing, he told BusinessWest, adding that the store has been packed with players loading up for the coming year.

“We’ve been really, really busy, even for this time of year,” he said. “A lot of people have money to spend, and … they’re spending it. We’re seeing a lot of people coming in telling us they’re spending their stimulus money, and that’s a good thing. That’s what it’s for, when you get right down to it — stimulating the economy.”

Peter Wirth, co-owner of Mercedes-Benz of Springfield, expressed similar sentiments, noting that, after sales ground to a halt right after the lockdown of last March, they picked back up as stimulus checks came in, carmakers started offering almost unprecedented incentives, and consumer confidence picked up.

Granted, lack of inventory, fueled by supply-chain issues, slowed the pace of progress somewhat, but many consumers simply ordered vehicles and waited — sometimes for months — for them to arrive at the dealership.

“The main things for us is consumer confidence,” he noted. “If the consumer has confidence in the economy as a whole and in their own situation, where they don’t feel like they’re going to lose their job next week, that’s when they’re going to spend money. And that affects us just like it impacts any other business. And I think more and more consumers feel we’re going to come out of the woods on this year, this summer, whenever it is.”

The picture is improving when it comes to inventory issues, said Wirth, who expects the numbers of new cars on the lot to continue rising through the year. Meanwhile, manufacturers are keeping their foot on the accelerator when it comes to incentives. Overall, he expects 2021 to be another solid year — one comparable to those just before the pandemic in terms of overall sales and service volume.

“We feel pretty about this year,” he said. “One news story can certainly change that, but the outlook for now is good, and that line about a rising tide lifting all boats is true, and we hope that this rising tide will help those businesses in hospitality and other sectors that have suffered so much.”

One sector certainly looking for a different kind of 2021 is the clothing industry, specifically businesses focused on dress clothes. Many workers simply didn’t have to buy any in 2020, as they working at home or still toiling in the office, often with more casual dress codes to match those of people working from their kitchen table.

“As a business owner, 2020 was my most challenging year, bar none; I was faced with more struggles and complications and challenges and problems to solve and situations to fix than I’ve ever faced before,” said William Brideau, owner of Jackson Connor, located in Thornes Market in Northampton, adding that the store has managed to keep going through persistence — and a PPP grant. But the challenges have continued into 2021.

Indeed, the first quarter of this year has in many ways been his most difficult, he said, due to a gap between infusions of stimulus, when it became more difficult to pay the bills. As more support comes in, he’s feeling optimistic about 2021, but he needs people to start investing in new threads — and not just shirts that can be seen during Zoom meetings.

William Brideau believes many people are ready to get dressed up

William Brideau believes many people are ready to get dressed up, which bodes well for his store, Jackson & Connor, which suffered through a rough 2020.

“A lot of people aren’t going for pants or more formal things below the waist,” he noted. “A lot of shirts, sweaters, and sport coats — and things have certainly veered more casual.”

But he has observed a pendulum swing of sorts, with more customers coming in recently looking for suits and ties.

“One of our really good customers came in recently and said, ‘I’ve had it — I’ve been in sweatpants for months, and I’m sick of it. I need a sportcoat, I need a shirt and tie, I need trousers. I want to look like I used to look; I miss that,’” said Brideau, adding that he believes many more people harbor similar sentiments.

 

Bottom Line

Over the past 12 months, people have come to miss a lot of the things they once enjoyed. The extent to which they’ve ‘had it’ with these matters — everything from the clothes on their back to the restaurants they haven’t been frequenting — will ultimately determine not just the composite shape of the recovery, but how, and for whom, things bounce back.

As Melnik noted, just because the ‘go back in the water’ advisories are out doesn’t mean people will heed them. And if they don’t, more of that $4 trillion will stay in bank accounts. And that might ultimately push back the date when we can really say the pandemic is behind us.

 

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

Tourism & Hospitality

Big Steps Forward

The productions at Jacob’s Pillow

The productions at Jacob’s Pillow for the 2021 season will all be outdoors, many at the Inside/Out stage, seen here.

For Jacob’s Pillow in Becket, the nation’s largest and longest running dance festival, 2020 was a lost year in almost every respect.

That’s almost, and we’ll get to that silver lining, if it can be called that, shortly. First, all those losses.

Jacob’s Pillow lost an entire season of live performances and all the revenue that comes with it, forcing a 50% reduction in the budget, layoffs, and other cutbacks. It also lost some momentum when it comes to fundraising, especially for a much-needed renovation of its main stage, the Ted Shawn Theatre, or the ‘Shawn,’ as it’s known. Then, in November, the company lost its smaller, more intimate performance space, the Doris Duke Theatre, or the ‘Duke,’ to a fast-moving fire, the cause of which has still not been determined.

But from the ashes, figuratively but also quite literally, Jacob’s Pillow has plans to roar back in 2021, said Pam Tatge, executive and artistic director. It will be a different kind of year, one with performances in outdoor settings only and to limited audiences, but one in which the company plans to lay a solid foundation for its 90th birthday in 2022, and for the decades to come.

Indeed, ambitious plans are in place to modernize the Ted Shawn Theatre, add air conditioning and new ventilation, and enlarge and improve the stage. Meanwhile, plans are expected to emerge for a new Duke, one that will be conceptualized and designed with input gathered from audiences and artists alike.

“We’ve embarked on a research study to really understand what audiences and artists loved about the Doris Duke Theatre, what they want to retain, and also what artists need for works being made in the 21st century,” Tatge noted. “We’re building a space, hopefully, for the next 90 years.”

While doing that, Jacob’s Pillow will also put on a season of live performances, the pieces of which are still coming together. It will run from June 30 to Aug. 29 and, for logistical reasons and lingering restrictions on travel, feature mostly performers based within driving distance of the 220-acre campus.

Audiences will be smaller and spaced apart for safety reasons, severely limiting in-person attendance. Which brings us to what would be considered the one bright spot for 2020, a schedule of 38 performances from years past — with new pre- and post-performance talks — presented virtually and to huge, global audiences, a development that made it possible for people who could never before get to Becket to take in a performance at the ‘Pillow.’

“We realized an audience for our virtual festival that had thousands more people than we could ever accommodate on the Pillow campus,” Tatge explained. “And 80% of those people were new to us — they had not been on our list before, and that was a great revelation; people know of Jacob’s Pillow, but they haven’t been able to make their way here. So in terms of accessibility and reaching people of different economic means and physical abilities, this was an amazing way to have the magic and joy that we experience on campus at the Pillow shared far more widely.”

For the 2021 season, most performances will again have virtual access internationally, a step to broaden audiences that Tatge called a “a big experiment.”

“We’ll want to see if the audience engagement is as great — it’s summertime, and things are opening again, so we’re going to see,” she said. “But I know a virtual platform has been in Jacob’s Pillow’s mission delivery, and it will continue to be a way that we deliver our mission into the future.”

 

Staging a Comeback

Tatge was at her residence in Connecticut when she got the phone call early in the afternoon on Nov. 16, delivering the terrible news that the Duke was on fire. She raced north as fast as she could and arrived in Becket just as the last remaining portions of the wooden structure were being consumed by the flames.

The loss of the beloved theater that hosted smaller productions seemed to provide a surreal ending to a terrible year that was all too real, and all too painful.

Looking back on it, Tatge said the Pillow, like every other live performing-arts venue, was severely tested by all the pandemic bought with it.

“With the cancellation of the season, we lost all of our earned-income potential — 40% of our budget is ticket income,” she explained. “We had to lay off 35% of our staff. Ultimately, we ended the year OK because we received a PPP grant. Without that grant, we would not have made it through as successfully.”

For 2021, there will be a new, very tight budget, hopes for a second round of PPP, and some high fundraising goals, Tatge went on, adding that there are many unknowns and considerable challenges ahead even as the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to the pandemic draws closer.

Ted Shawn Theatre

At right, the Ted Shawn Theatre, which will undergo an $8 million renovation this year. At left, the Doris Duke Theatre, which was gutted by fire in November. Input is being sought on a replacement, and an architect is likely to be chosen later this year.

“Because our performances are going to be shorter, we won’t have the earned-income potential to bridge the gap between expenses and revenues,” she explained. “So we really need a subsidy, and we really need our community’s support to invest in putting artists back to work — who must get back to work if our field is going to survive this — and bring audiences back together.”

Overall, though, there is considerable optimism moving forward, and Tatge said that, for her, it’s fueled by the tremendous response she’s seen from the community, a broad term she uses to describe constituencies ranging from performers to patrons who take in their work.

“What has been impressive to me is the range of people who have contributed to Jacob’s Pillow so far, from artists themselves, who don’t have much but want to share something with Jacob’s Pillow, to alumni, to our board members and our members,” she said. “Jacob’s Pillow members are a devoted bunch, and they have stepped up, and we’re going to need that to continue until we get to 2022.”

“Our first priority is to bring people back together safely, so we have rigorous protocols that are in place — for audiences, performers, and staff.”

Optimism also abounds concerning the 2021 season of performances, which, as Tatge noted, will take place outdoors — at the Inside/Out stage and other settings around the sprawling campus.

“Our first priority is to bring people back together safely, so we have rigorous protocols that are in place — for audiences, performers, and staff,” she explained, adding that these protocols are being developed in conjunction with — and will be shared by — other performing-arts institutions in the Berkshires, such as Barrington Stage, Tanglewood, and other venues.

This collaboration is in many ways unprecedented, but also quite necessary, she went on, if the the tourism-dependent Berkshires region is to battle back from an incredibly difficult 2020.

The schedule calls for all activities — performances, workshops, and pre-performance talks — to take place outdoors or under a tent, said Tatge, adding that, in addition to the Inside/Out stage, the Pillow boasts a number of other ‘natural stages’ around the campus that will enable visiting companies to stretch their collective imaginations.

“There are so many parts of our campus that we’re going to be inviting audiences to discover,” she told BusinessWest. “And artists are crafting works particularly for our site, and that’s exciting.”

These performances will also be filmed, as most have been over the years, and presented virtually — an opportunity, as she noted earlier, to greatly expand audiences.

While the shows will go on in 2021, the Pillow is also looking to make huge strides with efforts to modernize and renovate the Shawn, opened during the 1940s, and replace the Duke.

The former, an $8 million project, has been in the works for several years, she said, adding that the pandemic has only reinforced the need for air-conditioning and improved ventilation. And this simple reality helped convince the board of directors that, despite the difficult and uncertain times, the Pillow needs to push ahead with a capital campaign conceived to raise the remaining $2 million needed for the project.

Pam Tatge says the ‘Pillow’ has put a horrendous 2020 behind it, but stern challenges remain for this Berkshires institution.

“We quickly realized that the Ted Shawn Theatre will not be viable as a theater in a post-COVID world without a ventilation system and air conditioning,” Tatge said. “It’s not a viable space at present, and we made the decision to take the Shawn offline this summer so we could move ahead with the renovation, which actually began in January, with pre-planning.”

Ultimately, the plan is to have the renovated theater ready for that 90th-anniversary year in 2022.

As for the 30-year-old Duke, that research study she mentioned has been completed, with the next steps in the process being to research architects and ultimately select one, determine the full scope of the project, and pinpoint just how much money will have to be raised beyond what is covered by insurance.

 

The Next Act

Moving forward, Tatge is focused on 2021, obviously, and bouncing back in a big way from a dismal 2020.

But she’s also focused on the future — not just the 90th-anniversary celebrations that will dominate 2022, but the years and decades to come.

The Pillow is a National Historic Landmark and a tradition in Western Mass., and the ultimate mission for staff and board members is to make sure it can serve future generations.

The pandemic severely tested the mettle of this institution, in every conceivable manner. But it has been made stronger by that test and, hopefully, even more resilient.

In short, the Pillow is ready to take big steps forward in 2021 — on stage and in every way.

 

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

Cover Story

But MGM Springfield Leader Optimistic About the Next Chapter

Chris Kelley had just arrived in Springfield and was still getting acclimated to the region when the COVID-19 pandemic arrived almost exactly a year ago.

Then, he had to get acclimated to something else — something no one in the casino industry had ever seen or been forced to endure before.

“These facilities just weren’t meant to be closed,” said Kelley, president of MGM Resorts’ Northeast Group, which includes MGM Springfield. But they were, of course — for four long, brutal months, before finally reopening in July, but only at one-third capacity and with a number of restrictions in place. Later, the state’s casinos had to reduce hours and close at 10 p.m. as a late-year surge in cases moved the goalposts again.

Now, some restrictions are being eased, and later this month, the state will enter what is known as step 1 of phase 4, prompting Kelley to glance toward the future with optimism in his voice. But in all ways, and by all accounts, the ‘ramping-up’ period for MGM Springfield — the one we all heard so much about in the months before COVID dramatically changed the landscape — has been turned on its ear.

“People are just really excited to be part of bringing downtown West Springfield back.”

In some ways, it will be like starting over for this operation, which recently reopened its hotel for weekends and also its sports bar, and is waiting with what can only be called bated breath to see if and to what degree patrons will return to the blackjack tables, slot machines, bars, and, eventually (but no one really knows when) large-scale events like concerts, shows, and fundraising galas.

In a wide-ranging interview, Kelley, who has remained mostly quiet, from a press perspective, since arriving in this region, talked with BusinessWest about the past year, but mostly about what comes next for this highly visible, nearly $1 billion business that opened to great expectations 32 months ago.

That look back was understandably painful, although he said the past year has certainly been a somewhat beneficial learning experience on many levels (more on that later) and a time when changes coming to the industry were greatly accelerated.

As for the future … it is obviously clouded by question marks that involve everything from how much pent-up demand there will be for everything a casino has to offer, to the fate of sports gambling in the Bay State.

Chris Kelley says, it feels like starting over

In some ways, Chris Kelley says, it feels like starting over at MGM Springfield.

Kelley is optimistic about both.

He said Las Vegas has recently returned to its 24/7 character and something rapidly approaching conditions that existed pre-COVID — and the early indications are certainly positive.

“With vaccine distribution ramping up around the country, there’s good reason for cautious optimism as we look at our ability to gather in larger numbers, and for our industry, in the broader sense, to see improvement as opposed what it was experiencing only a few months ago. As we look at the calendar year 2021, I think we see significant opportunities for improvement, especially as we move into the second half of the year.”

As for sports betting, he said several bills are in various stages of talk and progression through the Legislature, and he’s optimistic that the state will ultimately pass one, especially with other states already doing so, with revenue flowing to them as a result. More important than simply approving a bill, though, is passing legislation that will enable the state to effectively compete and ultimately become an industry leader in this realm. Such a bill might bring $50 million in additional tax revenues to the state annually, he projected.

“We’re looking for Massachusetts to be able to compete with all of the surrounding states that have or soon will have sports betting,” he said, noting that Connecticut will soon be in that category. “A level playing field for MGM and the other casinos in the state is very important, as is giving our customers an amenity, and an experience, that they’ve been asking for now for years.”

 

Doubling Down

Reflecting on the past year, what it was like, and even what he’s learned as a manager, Kelley started by flashing back to what were the darkest of days — when the casino was closed and there was no indication of when it might open again.

“It’s a very uncomfortable experience to walk through these facilities when they’re dark and there’s no activity and action — the sights and sounds that ultimately drew us all into this industry,” he told BusinessWest, noting, again, that once a casino cuts the proverbial grand-opening ribbon, its doors are never locked.

The fact that they had to be locked was just the first in a string of unprecedented steps that defined the next several months, from the shuttering of the hotel and restaurants to the cancellation of scores of events that were on the books, to ultimately laying off two-thirds of the employees working at the casino before the pandemic arrived.

Overall, Kelley said, this has been a humbling experience in some ways — a challenging time, to be sure, but also a learning experience and an opportunity to accelerate, out of necessity, some changes that were coming to the industry anyway.

“No business model for any company will be exactly the same, post-COVID,” he explained. “We have innovated along the way, adopting best practices, and many of those will remain, to the benefit of the guests,” he told BusinessWest. “Digital innovations are an area I would point to; MGM Resorts and MGM Springfield were already headed toward many digital innovations pre-COVID, but the pandemic really accelerated the implementation of those efforts — things like digital menus, the use of QR codes, mobile check-in, and digital keys; those things will remain, and those are a positive part of the guest experience today and moving forward.”

Elaborating on what was learned and how the casino and its staff responded to the rapidly changing landscape, Kelley said some valuable experience was gained that should benefit his team moving forward, especially when it comes to — here’s that word again — pivoting.

“We want to make it more walkable, more friendly, and more inviting so we can complement the business investment that’s happening there.”

“When the pandemic hit, it was a huge learning experience for everyone in this industry,” he said. “We all had to create new ways of operating and coping with restrictions that we had never experienced before. We put an emphasis on internal communications and external communications with our guests, and we found ways to stay in contact with our teams virtually. And through this process, we’ve been working hand-in-hand with our state and local officials and our community partners to weather this experience with the strength and support of each other. That ability to come together as a community during times like this is the silver lining to a very difficult period.

“As a team, we recently discussed the importance of leadership agility,” he went on, “because we have had to learn how to be very nimble and adjust to ever-changing conditions, which I believe will ultimately benefit the business in coming out of all this.”

Barriers at the gaming tables and social-distancing reminders have been facts of life

Barriers at the gaming tables and social-distancing reminders have been facts of life during the pandemic at MGM Springfield.

In recent months, business — and gross gaming revenues — have steadily improved, said Kelley, and this has been while the hotel and some restaurants have been closed. Looking forward, he expects this trend to continue and for there to be a good amount of pent-up demand for casino-style entertainment.

“It remains to be seen what the reaction of our communities will be to a vaccinated population, but we’re optimistic that we’ll see the return of guests to our property,” he said. “We had seen resiliency even during this time.”

The hotel reopened on a limited basis the first weekend in March, he went on, with the goal being to gauge guest demand and comfort levels and then adjust the business model accordingly. He said initial bookings have been positive, and he expects improvement to come gradually.

As for events in the casino’s various venues — gatherings have brought people and energy to the downtown area and business to a number of hospitality-related ventures — Kelley said it is too early to know when this aspect can resume.

“Ultimately, that will be up to the state to determine,” he noted. “What we can do is make sure that we’re as prepared as possible for that day; we do discuss those things frequently, and we’re actively engaged in planning for the return of those amenities.”

 

Plenty of Wild Cards

Speaking of being prepared … this is exactly what the casino is striving to do when it comes to another key focal point moving forward — sports betting.

New Hampshire became the 16th state to legalize such betting (there are now 22) in July 2019, and officially went live in late December that year. Meanwhile, Connecticut has taken huge steps in this direction, although some complicated negotiations remain between the many parties involved when it comes to where venues will be located, how many there will be, and who will operate them.

As for the Bay State, Kelley counts himself among those who believe it’s a question of when — not if — sports betting gets the green light, and he obviously considers that step pivotal if the state’s casinos are going to going to tap the full potential of what has long been considered an attractive market.

But he stressed repeatedly that his focus is not simply on working with state legislators to pass a bill, but to create a playing field on which the state’s casino can effectively compete. And this is the consistent message he and others with MGM have been delivering to state officials.

“We’re encouraged by the number of sports-betting bills that have already been introduced, and each of the bills that has been drafted has been tailored to the unique interests of the sponsor,” he explained. “So we’ve been focused on advising lawmakers on what our experience has shown us.”

Elaborating, he said this experience has shown that the lower the tax rates are on sports-gambling revenues, the better one’s odds are of effectively competing against what he called the “illegal markets,” and also against the growing number of neighboring states already in or soon to get in this game.

“We want to create a competitive operating model, and so a tax rate that is on the lower side is helpful in creating the best payouts for the guests, and also helpful in competing against the illegal markets, and it’s helpful in competing against border states,” he went on. “And we believe that, ultimately, it creates the best guest experience as well.”

He said the casino has a plan in place and has the ability to move “very quickly” when state legislators decide to pull the trigger.

“We’ve spent a lot of time looking at the property and where a sports book makes sense, and also at how to create an experience that would really be a market leader and that will benefit the community at the same time,” he explained, adding that there is a good deal of experience in this realm within the MGM corporation that he and his team can benefit from. “We’ll have many resources to draw upon, and we’re excited about that.”

Reflecting again on those dark times that coincided with his arrival in Springfield, Kelley said those memories linger, even as many can see that proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. And they make him appreciate a return to something ‘normal’ even more.

“To see us moving back in the direction of offering those positive moments, those positive milestones, those positive experiences for our guests, is extraordinarily gratifying, and part of what I love about this business,” he said, adding, again, that while question marks still dominate the landscape, he remains optimistic about not only turning back the clock to pre-COVID levels of revenue and progress, but setting the bar higher.

Ultimately, this story is still in the early chapters, he told BusinessWest, and the ones to come will hold plenty of intrigue.

 

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Tyler Saremi

Tyler Saremi sees potential in West Springfield’s downtown, and is taking steps to inject some economic vibrancy.

When Tyler Saremi looks at what is considered downtown West Springfield — the Elm Street/Park Street area — he doesn’t see Northampton or West Hartford.

But he can easily imagine a day when that section of this city that still calls itself a town can attain something approaching a level of vibrancy and an eclectic mix of businesses, especially those in the hospitality sector, that define those communities.

And he’s doing his best to bring that day closer. Indeed, the multi-faceted business run by his family that he serves as vice president, Saremi LLP, acquired 95 Elm St. — known to most as the United Bank building because it was the main tenant for many years — with the goal of … well, turning back the clock in many respects.

The century-old building has, over the decades, been home to cafés, restaurants, a grocery store, banks, and other types of retail, said Saremi, adding that it has always been a destination, and the broad goal with this project is to make it one again. Thus, it has been rebranded as Town Common.

Already, Tandem Bagel, the Hadley-based company with locations there and also in Easthampton and Northampton, will soon occupy space where bank-teller windows have stood on the first floor; the target date for opening is July. Meanwhile, at the other end of the first floor, Saremi pointed to the place where intends to put a restaurant. He said two other leases have been signed, and several more are pending.

“People are just really excited to be part of bringing downtown West Springfield back,” he said. “Our main intention is a café and a restaurant on the first floor; whether we have to open a restaurant ourselves or partner with someone, we don’t care. That’s part of our commitment to West Springfield — it needs a café, and it needs a restaurant, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

“It’s going to be a tough year, but there are reasons for optimism — we see things opening back up.”

The redevelopment of 95 Elm St. is just one of the intriguing stories unfolding in West Springfield, a community that is, like many others, trying to rebound from a pandemic that has taken a huge toll on hospitality-related businesses. And West Side, as it’s called, has many of them, said Mayor Will Reichelt, who counted 20 hotels and motels and a number of restaurants in his community.

But the biggest business in that sector, obviously, is the Big E, which is responsible for filling many those hotels, motels, and restaurants, not just during the 17 days of the annual fair, but almost year-round, as that venue hosts a number of shows centered on everything from horses to toy railroads; dogs to guns and knives.

The Big E has been mostly empty and silent since the pandemic arrived a year ago, and while the outlook for 2021 is more promising, there remains a huge number of unknows, especially with regard to the fair, a situation that Big E President and CEO Gene Cassidy summed up this way:

“It’s like you’re navigating your way down a dark alleyway; you don’t know what’s in front of you — if there’s suddenly going to be a crack in the pavement or if you’re going to walk into a dumpster,” he said, using that phrase to indicate how difficult it is to plan when the rules keep changing, often without much, if any, notice. “Our goal, simply, is to plan to produce a product that people are going to enjoy.”

Cassidy is quite confident there will be a Big E this September — he just doesn’t how many people will be allowed to attend. He doesn’t think it will be full capacity, as in 100,000 people on a weekend day, as in fairs past. Instead, he’s expecting some percentage of that number, which won’t be ideal, but certainly better than last year.

And while most of his energy and attention is still focused on this year’s fair, he said he’s spending a good amount of time lobbying officials to understand the importance of fairs and live events in general, and to help ensure the long-term survival of such institutions, something he believes is now imperiled.

Overall, though, he’s optimistic about the rest of 2021.

Gene Cassidy says a sparsely attended Big E is better than none at all

Gene Cassidy says a sparsely attended Big E is better than none at all, and he’s moving forward with planning after having to cancel the 2020 fair.

“It’s going to be a tough year, but there are reasons for optimism — we see things opening back up,” he said, noting that various expert projections of herd immunity by fall or even sooner are encouraging, even as innumerable challenges and question marks loom.

For this, the latest installment in its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes a hard look at West Side and its efforts to become even more of a destination, even as its business community continues to battle COVID-19 and all the challenges it has brought.

 

Road to Progress

Reichelt, now wrapping up his second term in office, with plans to seek a third, said he can’t find too many silver linings from the pandemic and all the havoc it caused in 2020.

But he can find at least one — acceleration of the process to replace the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge, which connects his city with Agawam. The bridge project, which commenced two years ago, has to pause during the 17-day run of the Big E, he explained, adding that work actually comes to a halt for three weeks or more because of logistical concerns.

Obviously, that didn’t happen in 2020, he went on, adding that a project that was due to be completed this summer will now be done by spring.

“The work is way ahead of schedule,” he said. “Without the Big E, they probably gained a month of working time, and that will certainly help out on the back end.”

The broad mission moving forward is to get more people to travel over that bridge and other thoroughfares into West Side, said Reichelt, adding that the city has always considered itself at the crossroads of this region — I-91 and the turnpike connect there, and Route 5 runs through it as well. This location has long been a huge asset, one that paved the way, if you will, for major retailers and car dealers alike to populate Riverdale Street and Memorial Avenue. It has also brought visitors to the community not only for the Big E and shows on its grounds, but for myriad other tourism- and business-related functions, from leaf peeping to the semiannual EASTEC trade show.

The ongoing goal is to continually take advantage of this asset, build on the foundation that’s been laid, and try to spread the vibrancy to other areas of the city.

Which brings us back to Elm Street, Town Common, and the huge ‘Under New Management’ banner now adorning it.

As he gave BusinessWest a tour, Saremi pointed out the spot where Tandem Bagel would go, then did the same with the restaurant. Venturing to the second floor, much of which is now occupied by Saremi LLP, he showed where a number of smaller spaces, individual offices, and even co-working space might be carved out.

“We want to make it more walkable, more friendly, and more inviting so we can complement the business investment that’s happening there.”

Later, he pointed out one of the huge windows to the traffic — specifically, the juncture of Route 20 and Elm Street.

“This intersection has so much traffic … we need to get people to stop here in downtown West Side, get out, walk around, go to some shops, get something to eat — that’s how I see it,” he noted, adding that there are already some attractions there, including the Celery Stalk restaurant, a legendary luncheon stop; as well as bNapoli restaurant and the Majestic Theater. The broad goal is to build on that critical mass, he said, noting that clusters of eateries and entertainment venues have been the formula for success in Northampton, West Hartford, and other communities.

Reichelt concurred, and told BusinessWest the city is always striving to build on its already-impressive portfolio of retail- and hospitality-related businesses — and also fill in some spots that are less vibrant than others.

Mayor Will Reichelt

Mayor Will Reichelt says initiatives like a new economic recovery director and a series of infrastructure plans will help keep West Springfield on the right track.

As an example, he pointed to Riverdale Street, which actually has two distinct sections, if you will. There’s the one south of I-91, which is thriving and always has, said the mayor, who worked at the Donut Dip on that throughfare in his youth and thus speaks from experience. Then there’s the stretch north of the highway, which, while still vibrant by most measures, has some vacancies and, in general, is underperforming.

Reichelt said the city will look to help address this situation, and other business and economic-development issues in the city, through the hiring, at least on a temporary basis, of what’s being called an ‘economic recovery director.’

“The goal with this new position is to build better business relationships in the community, help with business retention, and focus on some of the underutilized areas, like the north-of-91 section of Riverdale,” he explained.

Already, there are signs of progress, he said, noting the reopened White Hut, the expansion of Calabrese Market on Park Street, and the sale of the former Hofbrahaus property to the owner of the Hangar Pub and Grill and growing ‘Wings Over’ stable of restaurants, among other positive developments.

“The common citizen wants their life to return to normal,” he said. “So I think people will come out … they will come back to fair.”

Meanwhile, a number of infrastructure plans now in place are designed to improve traffic flow and, ultimately, promote more vibrancy in the city. First up is Park Street, he said, adding that it is being repaved and steps are being taken to taken to make the commons more accessible and safer to use. Those plans include what the mayor called a mile-long loop or walking and biking trail around the green space.

Elm Street will follow, he went on, adding that this will be a multi-faceted initiative designed to beautify the area, add more parking, redesign the intersection of Elm Street and Route 20, and allow people to make more and better use of the green space there.

“We want to make it more walkable, more friendly, and more inviting so we can complement the business investment that’s happening there,” he told BusinessWest, adding that this project is in the design phase and should commence in 2022. Likewise, a huge, $25 million project to improve traffic flow on Memorial Avenue will take place that same year.

 

Fair Assessment

Sitting in the large conference room in the Big E’s administration building, Cassidy reflected on what has been an ultra-challenging 12 months for this regional institution — and what lies ahead, to the extent that he could, obviously.

He said every aspect of this enterprise — from the annual fall fair to the year-round shows that draw visitors from across the Northeast, to the restaurant on the grounds, Storrowton Tavern — have been deeply impacted by the pandemic.

And the hurt is still being felt. The shows slated for weekends in January and February were all canceled, he said, with some, including the huge Western Mass. Home & Garden Show, moved back on the calendar, in this case to August.

The Big E has received some support — nearly $1 million in the first round of PPP, with an application in for the second round of funding. There have been some cutbacks — the workforce has been trimmed from 30 full-time employees to 25 — and those who are left have found themselves with … let’s call them broadened job descriptions.

“Those of us who are still here have had to do jobs we’ve never had to before,” he noted, adding that such tasks include everything from directing traffic for the few events that have been staged to making sure the buildings on the grounds are secure. “Everyone has had to pitch in.”

West Springfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1774
Population: 28,529
Area: 17.5 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $16.90
Commercial Tax Rate: $32.49
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

As for the last three quarters of 2021, Cassidy said there are certainly some signs of optimism with his industry. For example, the Canadian government recently gave the green light for the popular Calgary Stampede to take place in June. Meanwhile, the Pasco County Fair in Florida was recently staged, albeit with a number of restrictions and safety precautions in place.

Cassidy took it in while on a trip to Tampa for ‘Florida Week’ and a number of trade association meetings that were staged in-person, which is significant in and of itself, he noted, adding that the main topic of conversation, obviously, was how to stage events safely.

“Interestingly, at the Pasco County Fair, we were there on a Tuesday night, it was chilly, but the fair manager indicated that attendance actually exceeded what it was last year, and he attributed that to the fact that people want to get out,” he recalled. “They want to resume ‘normal,’ and that’s in a state where businesses have been open and Main Street is open.”

But while he can look ahead and try to plan, there are too many question marks to do the latter with any amount of efficacy. These question marks surround everything from what the attendance restrictions will be to whether — and under what conditions — the state buildings can open, to whether individuals and families will be willing to come back out and be part of a mass gathering on the midway or one of the concert venues.

The major consideration is what will be permitted for attendance, said Cassidy, adding that it’s a simple but troubling fact that the costs of operating the fair will be roughly the same whether it’s at full capacity, 50%, or some other number. But the bottom line is that a smaller fair, attendance-wise, is certainly preferable to no fair at all.

“It costs the same to produce the fair for 1.6 million people as it does to produce the fair for one,” he said. “Our staff is preparing a conventional Big E and will try to deliver the product we’re known for.”

Cassidy believes that, as he saw in Florida, there will a significant amount of pent-up demand and that people will want to return to the fairgrounds.

“The common citizen wants their life to return to normal,” he said. “So I think people will come out … they will come back to fair.”

Reichelt agreed, and said the return of the fair this fall, even a smaller fair, will help the region’s economy and, specifically, many of those hospitality-related businesses that have been deeply impacted by the pandemic.

“Having it happen will be good, not only for the Big E, but for the region to bring back that sense of normalcy,” he noted. “And it will be helpful for businesses in the area as they start to recover from all this.”

 

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

Employment

Putting Experience to Work

Colleen Holmes says client employment, inclusion, and empowerment have been challenged by the pandemic.

Colleen Holmes says client employment, inclusion, and empowerment have been challenged by the pandemic.

Colleen Holmes calls it a ‘full-circle moment.’

That’s how she chose to describe her decision to assume the role of president and CEO of Viability, the Springfield-based nonprofit with a broad mission that boils to providing services — and creating opportunities — for those with disabilities. Those opportunities come in a number of forms, and we’ll get to that shortly.

But first, that ‘full circle’ reference. Holmes used it to note that she spent a full decade at one of the legacy agencies, in this case Human Resources Unlimited (HRU), that became Viability in 2107 (Community Enterprises was the other) before moving on to a new role leading as president and CEO of the 18 Degrees agency.

So she’s back where she was. Well, sort of, but not really. Viability is a much bigger agency than HRU was — it boasts $36 million in annual revenues, 420 employees, and 37 sites in four states — and so much has changed in the interim, much it before COVID-19. And the pandemic has simply added another layer — or several layers, when you get right down to it — of challenge and intrigue.

“Coronavirus has in no way taken away from the need for the services we provide. And in many ways, it has made it even more important to provide those services; that has been job one for me, and for all of us here.”

“Coronavirus has in no way taken away from the need for the services we provide,” Holmes explained. “And in many ways, it has made it even more important to provide those services; that has been job one for me, and for all of us here.”

In that respect, much hasn’t changed, and she has, indeed, come full circle, especially when it comes to agency’s mission, which boils down to enriching the lives of the people served by the agency and continuously reinforcing the belief that every individual, no matter their ability, can be a valuable contributor to the community — and the workforce.

It carries out this mission through a number of programs and services, including:

• Clubhouses, which provide members with a supportive environment to increase their vocational, educational, and social skills;

• Partnering with more than 600 employers to provide members with a variety of supported employment opportunities;

• Community living programs that provide that provide care management, direct care, and referral services to individuals with disabilities, enabling them to live in the community with dignity;

• Day supports and various recreational programs that provide individuals with a broad range of community activities; and

• Transitional services that provide members with upfront job-readiness skills, placement assistance, and ongoing supports.

The common denominator in each of these areas, said Holmes, is dedicated staff that not only make the programs happen, but make the individual goal set by and for each member attainable.

“This work doesn’t happen without our staff — and I don’t mean that simply from the standpoint of hands being on deck,” she said. “A lot of the way in which progress is made with individuals is through trusted relationships that are built that give people a safe space to try things, to grow, to progress, to fail and come back and try again another day. Those trusted relationships are pivotal, and our staff’s ability to offer that is everything.”

But COVID has certainly impacted many of these initiatives, said Holmes, adding that the agency has collectively overcome a number of challenges to keep employment, inclusion, access, and empowerment for people with disabilities in the forefront, despite the pandemic. Moving forward, lessons learned from the pandemic will be applied to the future of these programs and services and how they are provided.

“What worries me is that some of these people are losing ground that they worked so hard to gain — people who were working, people who were gaining life skills, people who were gaining in their levels of independence, people who were ready for their next step in employment. There are a number of folks who have lost ground.”

And there will be some important ground to be made up, she said, adding that, in some cases, COVID stunted the progress being made by some members who were forced inside and into a form of isolation that is not part of this agency’s MO.

“What worries me is that some of these people are losing ground that they worked so hard to gain — people who were working, people who were gaining life skills, people who were gaining in their levels of independence, people who were ready for their next step in employment,” she noted. “There are a number of folks who have lost ground.”

Overall, however, many members, and the agency as a whole, have been able to carry on and move forward through this pandemic, she went on, adding that many members work in essential positions, and they take pride in being essential.

For this issue and its focus on employment, BusinessWest talked at length with Holmes about her new assignment, but especially about how the pandemic has only magnified the need for the various services this agency provides, and how Viability has gone about responding to this changed landscape.

 

Work in Progress

Holmes said she certainly wasn’t looking for a new challenge when Don Kozera, the long-time CEO of HRU, her former boss (she served the agency as special projects coordinator), and, most recently, the interim president and CEO of Viability following the unexpected passing of Dick Venn (who stepped into that role after having the same titles at Community Enterprises), asked to talk with her about possibly becoming a candidate for this role.

Suffice it to say he did a good sales job, although it wasn’t necessarily a quick or easy sell.

“He said he thought I would be a good fit for this position and asked if I might consider it,” Holmes recalled. “And I said, ‘I don’t know … I’ll go talk to people; I’m always happy to do that.’”

She did talk to people, and came away intrigued by the possibilities.

“What I saw in this was an opportunity to sort of test my skills and challenge myself in a larger organization; this one is probably two and half times the size of the organization I was leading,” she explained. “Also, and this is probably most compelling, coming to Viability was an opportunity to advance work that matters to me in a different and larger arena.

“Our focus is on employment, training, empowerment, and inclusion with people who have disabilities and other challenges and disadvantages,” she went on, “and that speaks very much to me, in the combination of capacity building and social-justice change.”

Fast-forwarding a little, she did enter what became a nationwide search for a permanent president and CEO, and prevailed through a series of interviews conducted virtually, which she described as a new and different experience — at least as the interviewee.

She arrived in November to a full plate of challenges, including continuation of the daunting process of combining HRU and Community Enterprises into the larger entity that exists today, work that was in some ways slowed, and complicated, by both the passing of Venn and then the arrival of COVID.

“As I came on board, the organization that I am coming to know was ready to be on the other side of that transition,” she told BusinessWest. “And it would have been on the other side sooner had it not been interrupted by the grief and loss of Dick Venn, and had it not been for a pandemic.”

Elaborating, she said that what has been delayed has been the process of “breaking down the silos” within the organization. “You have a much larger organization in every way you can name — there’s more staff, many more programs and services, and in more geographic areas — and one that was continuing to grow, not just as a result of the merger but because it’s part of the mission, vision, and value of the organization. It’s about silos, systems work, and some of the basic functional things, like IT.”

A big part of the process of leading the organization to that proverbial ‘other side’ is to do a lot of “listening, watching, and learning,” she noted.

“You don’t walk into an organization like this one and think you know what you need to know,” she explained. “And I can say I’ve walked into an organization of people who are very welcoming, very helpful, who have lots to share, and who are deeply committed to the mission. Our people show up because they believe in the work that they’re doing and the people they’re working with.”

 

The Job at Hand

Supporting and nurturing this staff is just one of the many priorities for Holmes moving forward — and is, in itself, a challenge.

“One of my larger concerns, and it’s one that’s certainly shared, is the fact that human-service salaries are woefully inadequate to the jobs people do,” she explained. “Joining in advocacy efforts at the state level for eliminating the disparity in pay between community-based providers and state employees who do substantially the same work is important. But it’s also important for us as an organization to prioritize our staff to the extent that the limitations of our largely state-funded dollars allow us to do. Continuing services and supporting our staff are real priorities.”

Another priority, of course, will be transitioning, if that’s the right word, to a post-COVID world. Many staff members have been working remotely, she noted, and there are questions moving forward about how and where work will be carried out and even how much office space the agency may actually need in the short and long term.

And there are many factors to consider in making those decisions, she said.

“It comes down to how we most effectively support the services and the staff members that are delivering the services,” she explained. “There might be a natural tendency to say, ‘OK, there are certain positions that can be carried out remotely, so let’s just put all of them out and save that space.’ But it’s more complicated than that; human-services work is very collaborative. It’s teamwork, but more deeply than that, there is an environment of support that’s hard to come by when you’re not in contact with people, when people don’t see you walk through the hall and see you being a little more tired, a little more stressed than normal. In the kind of work we do, we need to pay attention to that.”

Meanwhile, there are those lessons learned and the new ways of doing things that came about out of necessity — and ingenuity.

“There was a brief period when staff needed to switch to providing services remotely, and … by golly, they did it,” Holmes told BusinessWest. “You get creative, and I’m sure we all have; you learn how to do some things differently, and you discover that the paradigm of how services are provided is turned on its head.

“That’s a new skill set we’ll carry forward, but it by no means replaces in-person services,” she went on, adding that, moving forward, the agency will look toward using the new skills and new technology, including virtual reality, to carry out its mission.

She noted that Viability is using virtual reality to acclimate and train clients and members for job placements. “We started during the pandemic, and we’re very much in the testing and piloting stage,” she explained, adding that early results are very positive. “If you have folks who have autism or others who for various reasons are highly sensitive to changes in environment or to noises, or just to new experiences … to be able to take a work environment and load it into a virtual-reality system so that people can safely explore and navigate that workspace without actually being there is very advantageous. It can lead to much smoother transitions.”

As for the employment programs, the ones that put thousands of individuals in jobs across this region and beyond, COVID prompted some businesses to close and many others to slow down, said Holmes, adding that obvious question marks remain about when and to what extent business, and jobs, will pick up again.

“It is a concern as to how long the economic rebound takes, and if there continues to be a shortage of positions,” she said. “As is so often the case, people who are marginalized are pushed out first, so that is a concern. But there are a number of employers we partner with who, through experience, will tell you the value of working with us, and that, when it comes to our members, their attendance is superior, and the quality of their work is at least on par.”

 

Past Is Prologue

Holmes has talked with many such employers over the years, so she understands those sentiments. She has, as she said at the top, come full circle when it comes to her career in human services.

But in most all respects, she is not coming back to where she was years ago. The landscape has changed in myriad ways and, thanks to COVID, it continues to change, each month and almost each week.

This is a different test, a sterner test, one she fully embraces. As she said, she’s excited about the opportunities — for herself, but especially for those benefiting from Viability’s programs and services.

 

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

Cover Story COVID-19

What We’ve Learned, What’s Changed, What’s Changed Forever

One year ago, the world, or at least our little corner of it, stopped. Completely.

Well, almost completely. Better to say that it paused — big time. The COVID-19 pandemic had arrived in the 413 and elsewhere, and life as we knew it had given way to something else. Something much different. Something the likes of which we had never seen or dealt with before.

The cover of the March 16, 2020 issue of BusinessWest captured it perfectly. Above a set of empty conference-room chairs was the headline “Life in Limbo.”

Almost exactly a year later … the chairs in the conference room are, for the most part, still empty. In some cases, they haven’t moved or been sat in since last March. They sit, waiting for people, and normalcy — whatever the heck that is — to return.

The fact is, we don’t know what ‘normal’ will be moving forward. In many respects, we don’t know exactly how COVID will reshape the landscape and the workplace, higher education, and the medical center down the street. We don’t know how it will impact the delicate work/life balance moving forward, and we don’t exactly know how it will permanently change how we work, network, gather, and interact with others.

But we can certainly talk about, and for the one-year anniversary of COVID (nothing to celebrate, that’s for sure), we did. BusinessWest gathered leaders with six area businesses and institutions to talk about the many ways COVID has changed our work and our lives, how it is impacting the workplace (and will for years to come), and even how it is has made them all different and, in their view, better managers.

 

They’re calling it the ‘Zen room.’

That’s an apt name for an area being set aside at Mercy Medical Center at which employees can decompress and, hopefully, remove some of the stress from their lives, at least for a while.

“We want to offer space that’s extremely tranquil — it will have massage chairs and soothing color schemes,” said Deborah Bitsoli, the hospital’s president, noting that it should be ready for use soon. “It will literally be Zen-like; it’s a best practice, and it can actually be brought across different industries.”

This Zen room wasn’t created because of the pandemic, necessarily, but rather because of the way it helped crystalize the large amounts of stress people are under even in normal times, and how they need rooms like this. And it is just one example of how the pandemic has brought about change in the workplace and change in society in general.

Other examples include that same hospital offering what it calls ‘resiliency training’; a local bank interviewing — and strongly considering — a job candidate living in Florida who has no intention of moving here; and employers spending considerable time and energy on the questions involving whether employees come back to the office, when, how, and under what circumstances.

These are some of things we learned during a lengthy virtual roundtable involving six area business leaders: Bitsoli; Mary-Beth Cooper, president of Springfield College; Robert Johnson, president of Western New England University; Jennifer Rymarski, a partner with the regional law firm Morrison Mahoney; Tom Senecal, president and CEO of PeoplesBank; and Paul Stelzer, president of Holyoke-based Appleton Corp., a property-management firm that has many elder-care facilities in its portfolio.

This was a Q&A, but also a lively discussion, with the dialogue focused on not only what’s happening today, but what will happen moving forward because of what we’ve experienced, what we’ve learned, and what we’ve changed over the tumultuous and very difficult past 12 months. Here’s a somewhat condensed version of how it went.

 

BusinessWest: The phrase we’re hearing over and over and over again is that there is light at the end of the tunnel when it comes this pandemic and all that has come with it. Are you seeing that light, and, well, how much tunnel do we still have to go through? What are you seeing in your business?

 

Bitsoli: These are challenging and unprecedented times, and at Mercy, we’ve really tried to adapt to a new norm. We have many new processes and structures that, as someone who has dedicated their life to healthcare since the age of 16, I never thought I’d see. We’ve also opened our doors to give vaccines to the public based on the Department of Health criteria; to see tears in people’s eyes as they get a vaccine is something I’ll cherish for many, many years.

We’ve balancing the needs of the community and keeping people safe, but we’re also looking to the future and how we can more provide enhanced services to the community. We’re trying to balance the present and the future.

 

Cooper: This is our third semester in the pandemic, and we’re adapting. We are back on campus, we’re fully residential, and we had our first athletic contest recently — the men’s gymnastics team played Cal. So, yes, we are seeing some light at the end of the tunnel. When we thought about the pandemic and what we needed to do, we had to pivot, just like healthcare; we didn’t imagine going online as quickly as we did, but we made it happen. The biggest takeaway for me thus far, and moving forward, has been the resiliency our faculty and students, in particular, have demonstrated.

 

Johnson: We’re in good shape for the shape we’re in, and like others, we do see a light at the end of the tunnel. As for what’s changed for our organization, we’re future-focused; we’re looking at how we want to come out of this. We’ve been planning for the next five years at Western New England since last September. We have not taken the bunker mentality of waiting for the storm to pass and then figure out what we want to do. We’ve created a vision; we want to be a ‘new traditional university,’ a phrase we’ve coined here and that we’ll define in the upcoming weeks and months to come, and imagine the possibilities.

That’s because higher education, like healthcare, has been turned upside-down; we’re reimagining ourselves, and we think the best is yet to come. It’s tough, though … we’re in a very tough environment.

 

Rymarski: We all have our own struggles, and the law is not immune to it. The biggest impact has been access to the courts and how the courts have adjusted — a lot of litigation is driven by the court schedule, and having the courts shut down for a period of time has had an impact. Also, we’ve gotten a lot of calls on the employment aspects of this pandemic — small businesses, and all businesses, for that matter, are struggling to deal with smaller staffs, how a PPP loan impacts them, what they’re going to do under the Family First or CARES Act, how they’re going to get employees back, and how they implement policies and procedures across the board that are going to be fair but also abide by all of the regulations.

 

Senecal: When this whole thing started right around March 9 — I remember that date vividly — I think I stopped breathing sometime in the middle of March, and I was resuscitated sometime in June, because it looked really bad from my perspective. June came around, summer came along, and things started to look a lot better. Then fall came around, and as cases picked up, that started to have an economic impact on a lot of our customers.

To put things in perspective, we had probably $300 million in loan balances involving customers in that first month asking, ‘can we not pay you?’ And we responded like most community banks and said, ‘yes, no problem; let’s revisit in 90 days.’ I think we’re down to $70 million, which allows me to start breathing again, and most of that $70 million is in the hospitality industry — transportation, restaurants — which is still struggling. I’m not sure where the light is at the end of the tunnel for those industries, because they’re hanging by a thread, and I’m not sure how they’re going to come back. From our banking perspective, we’re operating in a different world; we had to pivot, we had to send 180 people home, and that’s hard to do in retail banking. And if any of you have done your banking, I apologize for us — and I know our competitors are the same way — that the drive-ups are ridiculously backed up. Overall, things are going OK, but it doesn’t feel very good.

Tom Senecal

Tom Senecal

“I’ve flip-flopped on this throughout the year, but, yeah, we’re coming back. The social-interaction part of this is lost with people working at home; you can’t create a corporate culture from a remote location.”

 

Stelzer: At Appleton, we’ve morphed from emergency-response protocols in March to highly organized COVID-19 protocols in our elderly/senior/multi-family apartment communities and in our commercial portfolio that we manage, which is about 2 million square feet. In short, we’re operating at high levels; we’re able to do that even with a chunk of the workforce being remote. All of our employees have had to learn a new COVID language and new COVID protocols amid all the important tasks they already do.

Overall, there’s a lot of good news coming out, but how we’re doing is still a daily question; while the vaccine rollout is encouraging, it’s still going to take some time. But, yes, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

 

BusinessWest: During the pandemic, people have worked remotely, and successfully. As we all look toward the day when something approaching normal returns, how will, or should, companies approach work and the question of bringing people back to the office?

 

Senecal: We have 350 employees, and about half of them are working from home. I’ve flip-flopped on this throughout the year, but, yeah, we’re coming back. The social-interaction part of this is lost with people working at home; you can’t create a corporate culture from a remote location. Beyond that, there’s the human connection — staying home is not good for mental health. But I’m for some sort of balance; if your job allows it, you can work from home — we’ve proven that. I do think the outcome of this is that there will be a balance. From a workforce perspective, we’ve had a hard time recruiting people for some key positions, and we’ve re-evaluated to say, ‘no, you don’t have to be in the office.’ We’re interviewing someone today who lives in Florida who may be able to work from home for us; we’ve never, ever considered that before, and we are.

 

Cooper: When it comes to students … there were some questions pre-pandemic about the value of higher education. And I would say to you that our students are saying loud and clear that they want to be in person, face to face, they want to play sports, they want to interact with mentors like faculty members and staff members. We’re studying this … we’re looking at what the future will look like and how we bring people back safely. Some people never wanted to work at home, and now some of those same people want to stay where they are. That’s a risk to our business model; we need to have the interaction between students and mentors that shape them moving forward to be strong employees in the fields we have represented on this panel. The synergy of having people together, the opportunity to come up with ideas and piggyback on them together, and just the joy of being in the workplace, it’s difficult to get all of that on a call or on Zoom.

Mary-Beth Cooper

Mary-Beth Cooper

“The synergy of having people together, the opportunity to come up with ideas and piggyback on them together, and just the joy of being in the workplace, it’s difficult to get all of that on a call or on Zoom .”

Johnson: One of the things I’ve been big on over the past decade is preparing students for the future of work and making sure they had the essential skills that could not be replicated by robots. This pandemic has put us in a place where we, as employers, with our employees, have to do the same thing. I don’t think it’s an either/or when it comes to Zoom or face to face. The question is, ‘how do we use that technology to complement our ability be more efficient in the workplace?’ On college and university campuses, we need to be face to face and on the ground, but I can now give my employees some flexibility; it’s not 8 to 5. If they have a soccer game or child care doesn’t show up that day, we’ve shown that that we can get work done with people working from home. As managers, we have to teach people how to work with their teams and their staffs to give them that work-life balance. Overall, I think the pandemic has merely accelerated what was inevitable anyhow.

 

Rymarski: I agree with the others when they say that synergy, flow, and the social and cultural aspects are missing when people don’t come to the office. I think about the new employees who came on board just before the pandemic, and not having them in the office and having them shadowing someone every single day for a week or two to learn what needs to be done. I think that has impacted them. At the same time, this pandemic has, indeed, accelerated a process that was inevitable. I think the challenge is handling all this; we’ve basically condensed down what we need to do to a very short time, and employers are struggling to manage the expectations of every person.

 

BusinessWest: From what’s been said so far, it seems that the pandemic has brought the issue of work/life balance into the forefront as perhaps never before. Talk about if and how this crisis has provided more impetus for employers to help their employees with this challenge and cope in general.

 

Cooper: The need to be compassionate and caring for your employees has never been higher. These employees are dealing with losses — children that they haven’t seen, aging parents that they can’t see … the human toll is very high.

 

Johnson: I would agree with that wholeheartedly. We talk about work/life balance, and we’ve been talking about it for a long time. One of the things we’ve learned is that, before, managers would have said, ‘you can’t have that work/life balance; you have to be here all the time when you’re supposed to be here.’ But when we had to flip on a dime and make this thing work, it’s amazing how resilient we really are. The human toll that this is taking on people is huge, and we have to give our employees some time to breathe when this is all said and done. I know eight people who have died since last March. When I said that on a Zoom call, people started tearing up, because they’ve had those same kinds of experiences and no way to grieve. Part of this equation is that we have to figure out in our organization what that grieving process looks like, and what is the path forward.

 

Stelzer: What I think is really important going forward in the work/life balance issue is not only their own personal situations, but how do you get people to understand that they don’t need to work 14 hours a day at home? A lot of people dove into their work because they could. I’ve talked with a lot of tenant companies, service providers, attorneys, CPAs, whatever, and they’re all working longer hours than they ever were before. This is something we have to keep on the radar moving forward; if you’re going to remain in a quasi-remote-work environment, how do you find balance and work 9 to 5? (Or 9 to 7 — no one really works 9 to 5.) How do you shut it off?

Jennifer Rymarski

Jennifer Rymarski

“I think about the new employees who came on board just before the pandemic, and not having them in the office and having them shadowing someone every single day for a week or two to learn what needs to be done. I think that has impacted them.”

Bitsoli: The one thing that we all have in common is that our workforce is our most precious asset; it’s what makes us able to do the things we do. And these people are hurting right now. Last Friday, I came in early in the morning and was rounding in the ICU; there was a nurse who had just lost a COVID patient. She was relatively young, and she was weeping. We need to allow people to grieve in these unprecedented times because we haven’t seen this in our lifetime. People need the ability to express themselves. On the mental side, we need to allow them to talk, and we need to listen. And we need to support our management team and train them on how to do that.

The other thing that’s very unique about this is that many people have aging parents who are in nursing homes, and there’s social isolation — they can’t visit their parents. So not only do they have child-care issues, they are so concerned about their aging parents, and yet they can’t get in to to see them. But beyond the mental, there’s also the physical, and that’s why we’re opening the Zen room, where people can go for 15 minutes and just decompress.

 

BusinessWest: You’re probably all very tired of hearing that phrase ‘new normal’ by now. But please try to project what the new normal will be in your industry and in business in general.

 

Johnson: The new normal in higher education is that we have to rethink and reimagine our business model so that we are financially viable while also meeting the needs of our students. Also, before, we used to be able to operate with 80% or 90% of certainty and 10% or 20% of ambiguity. The new normal is … we’re going to be in a world of ambiguity where it’s more like 50-50 for years to come. The new normal for us also in our industry will be, how do we address and deal with the mental-health challenges of our current students, our future students, and our employees?

And let me really focus on future students — students who will be enrolling in our institution two or three years from now will have spent their freshman and sophomore years [of high school] basically learning remotely, and that B+ or A- in Calculus in their junior and senior year won’t be the same B+ or A- it was four or five years ago. So students will be coming to us with academic deficits, emotional deficits, anxiety deficits, and we’re going to have to think about how to retool and restructure ourselves to meet their needs on our campuses. And we all have to be focused on the future of work in terms of educating this next generation of students for jobs that don’t exist, utilizing technologies that haven’t been created, to solve problems that haven’t been identified.

Robert Johnson

Robert Johnson

“The human toll that this is taking on people is huge, and we have to give our employees some time to breathe when this is all said and done.”

Cooper: Moving forward, we have to focus on the 4 Vs of higher education, and any not-for-profit, caring organization. Value — you need courageous leaders who are thinking not only about work-life balance, but the human element. Virtual — we’re going to have a hybrid mix. We’ve seen that in all the trends, and that’s good; there’s demand for it, some students really like it, and some faculty like it. Virtuous — we’re going to need to continue to be people-centered. For us to move forward, the colleges and the universities that will survive are the ones that are student-centered, that continue to be students at the forefront. And we have to go Viral — we have to find a way to tell our story, whether it’s through discussions like this, through social media, or through our students and faculty.

From my perspective, it’s all about leadership, virtual presence, telling the story, and staying close to your mission.

 

Senecal: The new norm in the banking business? I don’t want to get too granular, but the future of our business is very different. There are a little under 5,000 banks in this country — I project that in five to seven years, there will be fewer than 2,500 banks. It will be a digital world. I think you’ll see far fewer branches — you’ll see more and more branches closing.

And from a workforce-development perspective, technology is going to be a huge piece of what we do, and certainly on the mental-health side, I see employers having to be more flexible and understanding with their workforce. PeoplesBank has done that very well over the years; we’re just going to have to adapt a lot more quickly. Workforce skills are going to have to adapt tremendously for all our industries; we’re moving toward a more technology-driven world. It’s already changed for us — we’ve seen a huge change in the last nine months. Our numbers in the digital perspective and how people utilize their banking services has shifted 20% to 30% utilization that is totally digital. If you weren’t there before the crisis, you’re going to fall behind from an industry perspective. My perspective is that things are going to change; things are going to be very different than they are now.

Deborah Bitsoli

Deborah Bitsoli

“The one thing that we all have in common is that our workforce is our most precious asset; it’s what makes us able to do the things we do. And these people are hurting right now.”

Stelzer: ‘New normal’ is an interesting phrase, but there’s nothing normal about this. As we stabilize, as more vaccine gets out, I agree with the panel — resiliency is huge. In our industry, specifically our senior/elderly portfolio, you’re going to see a lot more ‘healthy housing’ initiatives, as we’re calling them, which is a combination of telehealth for seniors and more on-site clinics for seniors. You’re going to see a whole difference in the way legacy elderly/senior property providers handle their air flow, their air circulation, and keep any inflection to a low level.

Also, on the digital side … think about how we stood the country up on the backs of broadband — it’s nothing short of amazing in all of our industries, from higher ed to telehealth to property management and banking. And we couldn’t have done that 20 years ago. My one concern there is the digital divide. What happens next with broadband becomes a very important discussion; there’s already discussion in the State House about making broadband a normal utility and not a private service.

 

Bitsoli: On the healthcare front, we need to continue to have a laser focus on the resiliency and well-being of our colleagues and our employees — they’re the most valuable asset that any of us has. And as this virus evolves, as there are variants, and as there are future viruses, there is a daily drive here around clinical excellence and patient safety and quality where we may have to continue to adapt that clinical model.

I never thought I’d see the day when 100% of the patients are being swabbed for a virus … so, for me, looking at the clinical excellence and keeping the public safe with high-quality care, and how this virus evolves, we’re going to have to be able to adapt to whatever the future holds for us to keep the community safe.”

 

BusinessWest: Much has been made about how to manage, and manage effectively, in a time of crisis. How has the crisis tested you? What have you learned about yourself, as a person and a manager? And has this made you a better manager?

 

Cooper: Let me say, my patience has been tested, certainly, since last March, and I’m working hard at meeting people where they’re at and listening and trying to slow down. And I’m also trying to be a good role model — not having Zooms on Sunday and carving out time for family. To lead during this turbulent time, you have to be self-aware, and you have to take care of yourself. Whether it’s morning exercise or carving out parameters for when you will or will not be available — people are looking for you to role-model that.

Paul Stelzer

Paul Stelzer

“People recognize fake really quick, so you’ve got to be genuine, you’ve got to be honest with them, you’ve got to tell them how it is.”

Stelzer: The key word for me is empathy. All of us have had to really dig deep for the non-traditional ways of providing support — all kinds of support — to our people and managing and being empathetic to the extent that you can and still run your business. It’s critically important — people recognize fake really quick, so you’ve got to be genuine, you’ve got to be honest with them, you’ve got to tell them how it is. And I agree with Mary-Beth — you have to take care of yourself. We’ve all walked the halls of our houses and condos from 2 in the morning to 4 in the morning trying to figure out the next move. We’ve all been there.

 

Senecal: I agree with Paul; empathy is a great word to describe the difference between managing now and managing pre-COVID. We’re all living this horror, so to speak, and realizing that we all have different issues in our lives, between family members getting sick, or trying to work at home with kids at home trying to do schoolwork, with technology issues … pre-pandemic, we glossed over these things. During the pandemic, this home life is hugely important in people’s lives. I’ve come to listen more, but empathy is the word that comes to light; I’m trying to understand how to manage people.

 

Johnson: I would add another word in there, and that’s humanity. I’ve come to realize the importance of helping us all understand that we’re part of something bigger than ourselves. Mary-Beth spoke earlier about how, among the college and university presidents, it has been the most collaborative environment that she’s ever seen; I’ve been in the Commonwealth for 11 years, and I’ve never seen anything like this, either. As CEOs, we tend to think that we’re at the center of the universe, but we’re not; we’re only as good as the people around us. And I understand what Mary-Beth means when she talks about patience. I generally don’t have much of an impacting gene, but it has developed since March of last year in ways I couldn’t have imagined.

 

Bitsoli: I’ve recognized just how precious life is, and I’m really stopping and forcing myself to be in the moment, to listen and engage, and slow down. But just as important is demonstrating that to my management team so that I’m also walking the talk in terms of saying to them, ‘life is precious; let’s have a better way of approaching our work life and recognize that life is very, very short and we have to respect and really take care of each other as colleagues.’

 

Rymarski: Patience, empathy, and flexibility are all words that come to mind. But also fairness. From the legal perspective, one of things that’s important as employers and managers is that we want to have a fair playing field, or as fair a playing field as we can. What you may have to do for one might be different than what you have to do for another, but there needs to some semblance of not only empathy, but also fairness and some structure to keep the organization together so that employees don’t become disgruntled with one another.

 

Bitsoli: Not only has this made me a better manager, it has made me a better person, and I think others on this panel would agree. I think I learned a lot about myself and about society, and, again, about the value of life. As a society, there are quite a few of us who have reflected in this way, and we’re better people overall.

 

Business of Aging

Building Momentum

Pat and Craig Sweitzer

While their workload is like a typical year, Pat and Craig Sweitzer say, the way facilities are designed in the age of COVID-19 is not.

Ryan Pelletier says that, while it was “scary at times,” he believes life has returned to something approaching normal — although ‘normal’ is certainly a relative term — when it comes to construction within the broad and all-important healthcare sector in Western Mass.

And he should know. He’s project manager for Houle Construction in Ludlow, a family-run operation (his father, Tim, is president) that does the bulk of its work within the healthcare sector, including projects for most area hospitals and a number of private practices as well.

He told BusinessWest that things were busy just after COVID-19 arrived in the 413 almost exactly a year ago, as a number of hospitals and other providers needed some retrofitting of sorts and other types of work to do battle with the pandemic, but then, things got quiet in a hurry and stayed that way for a while, before starting to revert to something akin to pre-pandemic conditions.

“We were very busy for a few weeks, and then … it just died,” said Pelletier, referring to the early months of the pandemic, and noting that hospitals and private practices simply didn’t want more people on site than absolutely needed to be there. “But in the last several months, things have started to come back. There’s a comfort level now — the hospitals and private practices are getting back to business as usual, or as usual as they can.”

But that word ‘scary’ was used in reference to much more than the number of projects in the pipeline. Indeed, it also referred to everything from the daunting task of keeping employees — and everyone else on a job site — safe to the cost and availability of materials.

And he was not alone in that assessment, especially when it comes to the price hikes.

“We’ve seen steel and lumber costs rise exponentially — they’ve almost doubled within the past year.”

“We’ve seen steel and lumber costs rise exponentially — they’ve almost doubled within the past year,” said Dan Bradbury, director of Sales and Marketing for South Hadley-based Associated Builders, which works within a number of sectors, including healthcare. He noted that these rising costs could, and probably will, impact everything from decisions on whether projects move forward in the near term to what kind of construction takes place — new or renovation of existing space (more on all that later).

As for now and the immediate future, those we spoke with said that, after going mostly and then almost completely silent in the weeks after COVID hit, the phones are starting to ring again with greater regularity — in general, and within the healthcare sector in particular.

Pat and Craig Sweitzer, co-owners of Monson-based Swietzer Construction, which specializes in healthcare construction and especially dental offices, said they have a number of projects in progress and on the books, including three new dental offices, a medical building with a dental office as part of the lineup, two new medical spas (including one in East Longmeadow, adjacent to an Ascent Dental office they built), a cannabis dispensary, and work at Adaptas Solutions in Palmer, which is now making parts for COVID testing.

Ryan Pelletier stands in the atrium at Mercy Medical Center

Ryan Pelletier stands in the atrium at Mercy Medical Center, one of the many projects within the healthcare sector undertaken by the company in recent months.

Noting how he needs to be at a number of different sites on a weekly of not daily basis, Craig Sweitzer joked, “I need to buy an airplane.”

Those sentiments express just how much the market has rebounded — if that’s even the right word — and how the outlook has brightened since the darkest days of the pandemic.

Bradbury agreed. “Especially in this new year, 2021, there’s been a more positive outlook, and we’re starting to have the phone ring more and see more potential jobs in the pipeline for this year and for next,” he said, adding that this sentiment applies, again, to construction in general and healthcare construction more specifically.

But there are still many question marks about just what the future will bring, and for this issue, we talked with these experts about what can and likely will happen, both short- and long-term.

 

Concrete Examples

Rewinding the tape on the past 12 months of COVID, those we spoke with echoed the sentiments of business owners and managers in every sector when they said the changing landscape brought with it both challenges and opportunities, and certainly more of the former.

Indeed, some construction projects in the healthcare sector were put on the shelf because of the way the pandemic impacted the client in question financially. Meanwhile, and especially in the beginning, it brought about some new work, as Pelletier explained.

“When COVID first hit, the hospitals were scrambling to get prepared for potential overflow — spikes and surges — and they wanted us to help them with that, whether it was installing plexiglass shields or building out existing spaces in their facilities to house incoming patients,” he explained. “We had to work around the clock, and it was a little nerve-wracking at first because no one was quite sure what COVID was and how dangerous it was — and they were asking us to send our guys out there not knowing exactly what they were getting into, and the crews had mixed feelings.”

Again, opportunities and challenges.

The challenges came in waves and in different forms, from meeting the many new regulations and protocols regarding when and how work can be done to handling new and different employee needs — from more sick time, if needed, to PPE, to working in settings that were often the front lines of the COVID crisis.

The opportunities have come in various forms as well, and sometimes unexpectedly. That was certainly with the case with Adaptas Solutions.

“They’ve kept us quite busy through all this because they’ve been ramping up and needed construction facilities to accommodate the work they were doing,” said Pat Sweitzer, adding that the company has some projects ongoing there.

“When COVID first hit, the hospitals were scrambling to get prepared for potential overflow — spikes and surges — and they wanted us to help them with that.”

Meanwhile, the airplane the company doesn’t have yet would also be going to several other projects across the region, the sum of which adds up to what Pat described as a fairly typical year, volume-wise.

What isn’t as typical is the nature of the work being undertaken, said Craig, noting that COVID has changed the way facilities are designed and operated, with additional emphasis on HVAC and, more specifically, air movement and air quality.

“Dental offices are ground zero — these are individuals working in a patient’s mouth, which is the means for transmitting COVID,” he explained. “These doctors and their hygienists are at ground zero as far as risk is concerned, so we’ve paying a lot of attention to our design/build criteria.

“And the lion’s share of that goes back to HVAC, so we’ve redesigned our standard operatory,” he went on, adding that, with these redesigns, instead of air being drawn up from the patient’s mouth past the doctor, it is drawn down to the floor, into the ductwork and away from the doctor’s face.

The company is also installing UVC systems, which kill COVID; additional air changers; larger, tighter air filters; and, increasingly, washers and dryers so staff can wash their clothes during the day.

“We’ve really been refining how we lay these design/build projects out,” Pat said, noting that the modern dental office now resembles a hospital operating room in many respects.

Looking ahead, those we spoke with said COVID will likely continue to impact the healthcare construction scene, even if the pandemic eases, as most project that it will.

Indeed, there is general uncertainty about when or even if the rising prices on materials will start to ease, and this uncertainty could play a role in whether some projects move forward or not.

Berkshire Facial Surgery facility in East Longmeadow.

Among the many healthcare sector projects undertaken by Associated Builders in recent months was the construction of this Berkshire Facial Surgery facility in East Longmeadow.

Bradbury told BusinessWest there is inclination among some in healthcare (and in other sectors, obviously) to try to wait these increases out with the hope that prices will start coming down.

“But there is no guarantee that prices will come down,” he said. “One thing I always tell people is that, while they think they can wait out the increases in materials costs, there are never any guarantees that they will, so we encourage people to move forward with projects — if it fits their timeline and their budget, because there are no guarantees.”

Meanwhile, COVID will likely impact the healthcare construction market in another way, said those we spoke with, specifically the lasting impact it seems destined to have on the real-estate market. Even when COVID eases, they said, it seems almost certain that some companies will settle into smaller spaces as more people work at home, bringing more commercial real estate onto the market, which will, in turn, impact new construction.

“Renovating existing space is almost always less expensive than building new, especially when you consider those amazing price increases we’re seeing,” Bradbury said. “A lot of our business is new construction, and we’re contending with a lot of empty office space; long-term, there will be more available office space to lease on the market, which, across some industries, will tamp down new construction, but it will bring an opportunity for more build-out and renovation of existing space.”

 

Bottom Line

Looking back, and ahead, those we spoke with said a sense of normal — or a new normal (there’s that phrase again) — is returning to the healthcare construction scene.

But there are many question marks still looming over the scene and a number of variables that could impact how much work and what kinds of projects move into the pipeline.

There has been a great deal of pivoting over the past year — for the construction firms and their clients as well — and there is certainly more to come.

But for now, momentum is building in a number of ways.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

 

Aaron Vega

Aaron Vega says Holyoke lost considerable momentum to the pandemic, but it has a solid foundation on which to mount its recovery.

When he made up his mind roughly a year ago not to seek re-election to the state House seat he had held for four terms, Aaron Vega had an informal list of things he would like to do next when it came to his career.

Working in Holyoke City Hall certainly wasn’t one of them. But … things changed, in many ways, and in a profound way.

For starters, the COVID-19 pandemic limited some of the other options he was thinking about professionally, especially those in higher education, economic development, and workforce development. More importantly, though, Marcos Marrero, the long-time director of Planning and Economic Development in Holyoke, decided that he, too, wanted a change. And as he went about looking for someone to fill his rather large shoes, he started talking to Vega, someone who obviously knew the city, was heavily invested in its future, and was looking for work.

“Working for the city wasn’t really on my shortlist — and not in a negative way,” said Vega, the former Holyoke city councilor who started his five-year appointment just a few weeks ago. “Marcos reached out to me and asked if I’d be interested in taking the position; it came out of the clear blue sky. I was honored that he saw me as someone who could take the reins and keep going.”

He takes the helm in economic development when Holyoke, like most communities, and especially the urban centers, are looking to regain momentum lost due to the pandemic.

And, in the case of the Paper City, it’s a large amount of momentum.

Indeed, over the past several years, Holyoke had made great strides in a number of areas — downtown revitalization, with its cultural economy, with entrepreneurship and new business development, and, most recently, with cultivation (pun intended) of a new and potential-laden industry sector: cannabis. Indeed, with Mayor Alex Morse — who will not be seeking re-election in November and has been offered the the job of town manager of Provincetown — putting out the red carpet for the cannabis sector and the city blessed with millions of square feet of vacant mill space that is in some ways ideal for cannabis growing and other aspects of this business, Holyoke has become a destination for companies looking for a home.

The pandemic has certainly slowed the pace of progress in most of these areas, though. It has certainly impacted the cultural economy, most notably with the news that Gateway City Arts, the multi-purpose arts venue, has closed, and its owners are looking for a buyer. But signs of lost momentum are everywhere. The Cubit Building, once a symbol of downtown revitalization, is still humming on its residential floors, but the Holyoke Community College MGM Culinary Arts Center has been all but shut down by the pandemic. Meanwhile, there are still a number of vacancies on High Street and other downtown throughfares. And the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day Parade, a significant economic engine for Holyoke and the region as a whole, has been canceled for the second year in a row.

“A lot of the groundwork is sort of done, and in some ways, this office how has to be more proactive and outward-facing — how can we go out to private industry and market Holyoke better? We need to go door-knocking and tell people, ‘think about Holyoke as a place to set up shop.’”

“That’s been a huge financial hit to the restaurants and many other kinds of businesses,” Vega said of the parade. “The trickle-down impact is severe.”

Even the cannabis sector has been slowed a little by the pandemic, but in most all respects, it remains a powerful force in Holyoke, with more than 30 ventures currently at some stage of progression and perhaps 300 new jobs coming to the city with the slated opening in the next few months of Florida-based Truelieve’s facility on Canal Street.

The company, which has more than 2 million square feet of cultivation facilities and more than 70 dispensaries across several states, will operate a multi-faceted, vertically integrated operation that will include cultivation, production, and office operations in a 145,000-square-foot facility formerly occupied by Conklin Office.

“We understand scale, we understand supply chain, and we’re going to be bringing that experience to Massachusetts as we build out our cultivation here,” said Lynn Ricci, director of Investor Relations and Corporate Communications for the company, adding that the company expects to begin operations by the third quarter this year and employ between 250 and 300 people from the Holyoke area when fully operational.

For this, the latest in its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest turns its lens on Holyoke, an historic city that has bounced back from its decline in the ’60s and ’70s, and must now, in some ways, bounce back again.

 

Growth Opportunities

Vega is certainly no stranger to the large office he now occupies on the third floor of the City Hall annex building.

When he was a state representative, he would meet with Marrero there every month so he could keep pace with what was happening in the city where he grew up, spent most of his childhood life, and still lives.

Gateway City Arts is just one of many Holyoke businesses

Gateway City Arts is just one of many Holyoke businesses in the arts and hospitality sectors to be devastated by the pandemic.

“We had a standing meeting with him in this office to keep up to date on all the projects that were going on, particularly around cannabis, because I was on the Committee on Cannabis Policy,” he explained. “So I was familiar with most of what was going on in this office, and I knew everyone in this office.”

Today, he’s having those same meetings with Patricia Duffy, his former legislative aide who successfully ran for his House seat last year.

“We just met a few days ago,” he said with a laugh. “We have a standing monthly meeting. It’s interesting being on the other side of the table — I spent the last eight years fighting for funding for all these programs, and now I’m actually utilizing them, and that’s kind of fun.”

Offering a similar update of sorts for BusinessWest, Vega focused on the momentum that has been lost in the city and the need to turn the clock back, in some respects, and put Holyoke back on the intriguing path it was on before March 2020.

“If you look at Gateway City Arts … the pandemic just took the wind out of them, it took the momentum away; it’s like someone slammed the door in their face.”

Before getting to that, though, he was asked to elaborate on the circumstances that brought him to his current post.

“I wanted to focus more,” he said simply when asked why he wanted to move from his House seat. “One of the great things about being a state rep is all the different topics and issues that come across your desk. But, that said, you don’t really get to focus on anything; the best description of my job as state rep was that I was in a permanent liberal-arts education — and there were certain topics that I just wasn’t passionate about.”

He is certainly passionate about Holyoke, and his goal now is built on what had been achieved in the years before the pandemic.

“What Alex and Marcos did was change the conversation about Holyoke, they changed the direction of a lot of the development, and they helped usher in a plan — the urban-renewal plan,” he explained. “A lot of the groundwork is sort of done, and in some ways, this office how has to be more proactive and outward-facing — how can we go out to private industry and market Holyoke better? We need to go door-knocking and tell people, ‘think about Holyoke as a place to set up shop.’”

The story the city can tell is a good one, although, as noted, it was better before the pandemic.

“Things were happening in this city; the momentum was happening,” Vega said. “It took a while to build that momentum, and hopefully we can get it back soon.”

The loss of Gateway City Arts, however, is a serious setback for the community.

“It was firing on all cylinders,” he said, referring to everything from its event venue to its popular restaurant. “And it’s ironic because we’re six or seven months away from having 200 to 400 more people working in downtown Holyoke in the cannabis industry — people who will be looking for a place to go eat or have a beer or listen to music after work. The irony is that we don’t have that right now.

“The biggest hit has been with momentum,” he went on. “Our restaurants took a hit, just like Northampton and Springfield; the housing developments, especially if they were dealing with state incentives, have been pushed out — everything’s taking longer now.”

Overall, Vega said, the pandemic has made it difficult for some small businesses to survive, and it’s made it more difficult for all of them to operate as they would like.

“If you look at Gateway City Arts … the pandemic just took the wind out of them, it took the momentum away; it’s like someone slammed the door in their face,” he said, adding quickly that there is interest in some of the components of that business, and, likewise, the phone is starting to ring, and more interest is being shown in Holyoke within the development community.

“There’s a couple of key projects where, if we can get them online, we can regain some of that momentum,” he told BusinessWest, noting that one such project is a large housing initiative downtown, a 92-unit project being undertaken by WinnDevelopment at the former Farr Alpaca mills that has been slowed by the always-complicated process of applying for and receiving historic tax credits.

Truelieve’s massive facility on Canal Street

Truelieve’s massive facility on Canal Street is ramping up for opening, and is projected to employ between 250 and 300 people when fully operational.

Meanwhile, some projects that were “percolating,” as Vega put it, before the pandemic and back-burnered to one extent or another are perhaps poised to be revisited and moved off the drawing board. These include some indoor agriculture that is not cannabis-related.

“The biggest price-point stuff that they’re talking about right now is lettuce and herbs,” he noted, “because there’s a quick-growing cycle; you can turn lettuce around in 30 days. So many restaurants want locally grown, hormone-free lettuce … there’s real potential there, and they can grow other vegetables, too. The price point is not as good as cannabis, but we’ve been talking about urban farming for a while, and we’re trying to create opportunities.”

 

On a Roll

Speaking of cannabis, while the pandemic has slowed some aspects of that sector, the industry is poised for additional growth, especially in the Paper City. The next important chapter looks to be written by Truelieve, which just received its occupancy permit. But there are many companies with plans in various stages of development.

Indeed, Vega said, there are two growing facilities now online and three dispensaries, but, overall, there are 40 host agreements and 40 provisional licenses at the state level.

As for Truelieve, its story touches on many of the opportunities and challenges that Holyoke and its old mills present, said Ricci, who started by noting that the company was mostly in Florida before last year, when it started expanding aggressively into other states, including a cultivation facility in Pennsylvania (added through acquisition) and dispensaries in Connecticut and other states.

“We really see 2021 as a big year for national expansion and being a true multi-state operator,” she explained, adding that, when looking for places in which to broaden the portfolio with new facilities, Truelieve focuses on cities and towns with large minority populations, communities that clearly need the jobs and everything else these ventures bring to the fore.

“Investing in a majority minority community was important to us,” she said. And upon concluding that the Bay State would be a good market to enter, Holyoke soon came onto its radar.

Holyoke at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1850
Population: 40,135
Area: 22.8 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $19.04
Commercial Tax Rate: $39.74
Median Household Income: $33,030
Family Household Income: $36,262
Type of government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Holyoke Medical Center; Holyoke Community College; ISO New England; Hazen Paper
* Latest information available

“We wanted to make sure, going in, that we were revitalizing and adding to the community and providing jobs; those kinds of things are important to us as a core value of the company,” she noted. “When we found this location in Holyoke, an area that had certainly seen better times, we thought, ‘we could invest here and provide the jobs.’”

As for the site in Holyoke, renovating the historic mill has been “a huge undertaking,” Ricci said, adding that the company entered into a sale/lease-back arrangement in order to secure the nearly $40 million required for this project (cannabis operations cannot obtain traditional bank financing, because the product is illegal on a federal level).

The actual buildout was an involved process that began more than a year ago and was slowed by state mandates that shut down many types of construction during the early months of the pandemic.

“The property is beautiful in its own way — there’s big, wide staircases and beautiful brickwork, but … it needed a lot of work,” she told BusinessWest. “It has been a challenge, and not just to set up different rooms, but to make sure everything was set up properly.”

Staffing is the next challenge to be overcome, Ricci said, adding that final inspections of the facility are expected sometime this quarter, with growing due to begin, as noted, in the second quarter.

Other facilities are in various stages of the pipeline, said Vega, who told BusinessWest that, while the city is welcoming all types of cannabis businesses, the larger cultivation facilities hold the most promise for jobs and overall impact on the city and the region, and he can envision the day when perhaps eight to 12 such ventures are operating in the city.

And, like his predecessor, he sees opportunities not merely for the growing and selling of cannabis, but also encouraging businesses that can provide needed products to those ventures.

“A lot of the products used by these businesses are made in Texas and Florida, the simple things like the planters — we should be making those here in Holyoke,” he noted. “I equate it to the ‘green’ industries. It’s great seeing solar fields — we have some in Holyoke — but we should be building solar panels in Western Mass., not just installing them.”

 

Bottom Line

Making progress in that area is just one of the ways Holyoke will be looking to regain the considerable amount of momentum it lost to the pandemic.

The city that had come so far in the past decade has the foundation that Vega mentioned in place. It has the building blocks, and it has a cannabis industry hungry for the open spaces, low energy prices, and other amenities that this city can provide.

The pandemic certainly slowed the pace of progress, but Vega and other officials are confident that the Paper City can soon regain its stride.

 

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

Class of 2021

She Has in Many Ways Become the Face of Manufacturing Locally

Leah Martin Photography

Kristin Carlson calls it the ‘Boston Marathon bomber story.’

Because … it’s about Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, one of the two brothers who perpetrated those heinous crimes almost eight years ago now. More to the point, though, it’s about the role her company played in eventually apprehending him.

Indeed, Tsarnaev was found hiding in a boat in a backyard in Watertown, and he was discovered through the use of a thermal-imaging camera in a police helicopter flying over the area. Carlson’s company, Westfield-based Peerless Precision, makes several components for that camera, including one for the cryogenic cooling system that ensures that the camera doesn’t overheat during use.

As she held one up for BusinessWest to see, she said just showing people the part isn’t nearly as impactful as trying to explain what it’s used for — or, in this case, how it can play a significant role in writing history.

That’s why she tells the Boston Marathon bomber story often, although she admits that its days might soon be numbered. That’s because she usually tells it to young people in the hopes that they might be intrigued enough by it to perhaps pursue a career in precision manufacturing. And by young, she means high-school age, and preferably middle-school age. And those in that latter category are now, or soon will be, too young to really remember the 2013 bombing and its aftermath.

“I want to make sure that kids, and adults who are looking for another career option, are aware of what we do in Western Mass., and they know about the viability of a career in manufacturing and what it has to offer.”

But Carlson has other stories — perhaps not as dramatic or crystalizing. All of them are designed to show what precision manufacturing is all about, and also how companies in this area provide parts for helicopters, fighter jets and bombers, the Space Shuttle, medical devices, automobiles, submarines, and so much more. She often borrows the line used often by Rick Sullivan, now the president and CEO of the Western Mass. Economic Development Council but formerly mayor of Westfield, who would say that, if you saw a plane flying over the city, there’s a good chance that tens of thousands of dollars worth of its parts were made in the city.

Other stories talk about how someone manufacturing these parts can make a very good living and have a job with real security — yes, even in the wake of a global pandemic. And she tells them often, too.

Kristin Carlson holds up one of the parts her company

Kristin Carlson holds up one of the parts her company, Peerless Precision, makes for thermal-imaging cameras, like the one used to locate one of the Boston Marathon bombers.

And then there’s her story — a 38-year-old woman now managing this precision manufacturer. We’ll get to that one in a minute. These stories help explain why Carlson has been named a Difference Maker for 2021. Indeed, while she has helped grow the company since she took over for her father, Larry Maier, as he battled and eventually succumbed to cancer, she has made an even bigger mark — on a regional and now national stage — in the ongoing effort to educate people about what gets made here and also about careers in manufacturing, thus addressing ongoing issues involving workforce and a skills gap.

“I want to make sure that kids, and adults who are looking for another career option, are aware of what we do in Western Mass.,” she said, “and they know about the viability of a career in manufacturing and what it has to offer.”

In a field where complaints about these issues have been going on for decades involving generations of shop owners and managers, she has distinguished herself by going beyond complaining. Well beyond. In fact, in many ways, she has become the face of manufacturing in Western Mass. — a much different face than has ever been associated with this sector locally.

“Instead of sitting idly by and talking and complaining, I wanted to do something about it,” said Carlson, who was recently appointed to the state’s Workforce Training Advisory Board and also sits on the National Tooling and Machining Association’s AMPED (Advanced Manufacturing Practices and Educational Development) Board.

And while there’s still much work to be done, she has, indeed, done something about it, and that’s why she’s a Difference Maker for 2021.

 

Making Her Mark

Despite everything you’ve read already in this piece about manufacturing, what a good career it is, and how Carlson has thrived in it, she readily admits she had to be talked into coming back to this this region and Peerless Precision after her father got sick.

And it took a lot of talk.

She was living in San Diego at the time, working for a fire-alarm contractor, handling everything from inside sales to building websites to being the runner to go to City Hall and get the fire-alarm building permits for new construction.

In 2009, her father was diagnosed with colon cancer. “At the time, he asked me … if something ever happened, would I come home from California and help my mom either decide to keep the company or sell it,” she recalled. “My dad always wanted me to be doing what I’m doing now, and I was pretty much in a place at that point in my life where I needed to decide what my path was going to be on my own; I didn’t want someone else to define that for me.

“Because he was stubborn and I’m just as stubborn as he was, I fought what he wanted tooth and nail until it came time for me to make that decision,” she went on. “So when he asked me if I would come home if something happened, I said ‘yes.’”

Kristin Carlson, seen here with Peerless Precision machinist Kaitlyn Fricke

Kristin Carlson, seen here with Peerless Precision machinist Kaitlyn Fricke, says progress has been made to inspire women to enter the manufacturing field, but more work must be done.

Something did happen. After undergoing surgery and chemotherapy and eventually earning a clean bill of health, her father’s cancer not only returned but spread to other parts of his body. And Carlson kept her promise to her dad, even if he didn’t remember her making that promise.

That was in 2012. Since that time, Carlson has verified the faith her father had her, establishing herself not only at the company — transitions such as these are rarely seamless — but also in the industry, and especially in the broad realm of helping to educate people (and especially young people) about precision manufacturing as a career path.

Such efforts have been going on for decades, and Carlson notes that, in many respects, she is simply carrying on the work of her father, who was extremely active with workforce initiatives in this sector. Indeed, the two of them share what could only be called a passion for such work.

Much of her work involves debunking myths, or at least long-standing beliefs. There are many of them, and they range from those concerning the death of manufacturing in this region (it’s not what it was 30 or 40 years ago, to be sure, but it’s not dead) to the presumption that women can’t or shouldn’t get into this field, to the opinion that one has to go to college to succeed in life.

“I was pretty much in a place at that point in my life where I needed to decide what my path was going to be on my own; I didn’t want someone else to define that for me.”

Carlson, who went to college because she was told she needed to, is working on all these fronts simultaneously. She confronts the problem with statistics, with stories — like the one about the Boston Marathon bomber — and sometimes just by showing up in a room.

Indeed, as a woman not just in this industry, but one leading a company and sitting on regional and national boards, she has become an effective role model, or ‘exhibit A,’ if you will, when it comes to everything she talks about. As in everything.

“For a kid whose father had bought a machine shop and was pushed to go to college when I’m better at hands-on things … I wish I had been given different options,” she told BusinessWest. “My parents told me that I couldn’t make anything of myself if I didn’t have a college degree; that’s not a good message, but it’s also the message that was being pushed across the board back then — and still, today.”

Like her father, Larry Maier, before her, Kristin Carlson has made workforce development a passion and a big part of her life and work.

While the pandemic is keeping people from touring the facilities at Peerless Precision in person, there are still virtual visits, where young people can meet not only Carlson, but her pit bull, Bruno. They can also see six women on the manufacturing floor (years ago, they would only have seen them in the front office or shipping and receiving). And they can see parts like the one that goes into the thermal-imaging camera that captured Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in that boat.

“My parents told me that I couldn’t make anything of myself if I didn’t have a college degree; that’s not a good message, but it’s also the message that was being pushed across the board back then — and still, today.”

And they can hear Carlson talk about other things made in this region — from toys at LEGO and Cartamundi to ketchup bottles at Meredith Springfield to coolers at Pelican Products. Overall, it’s a powerful message, she said, but one that needs to be reinforced and told to new audiences every year, several times a year, if possible. That’s because those old myths, those old perceptions, die hard.

 

Parts of the Whole

Before ever telling the Boston Marathon bomber story, Carlson wanted to make sure she had her facts straight.

“When I saw our customer’s logo on that camera shot, I called him right away and said, ‘do you think there’s a possibility that that part in the camera that found the bomber is from our shop?’ — and he said ‘absolutely,’” she recalled, adding that additional research verified what she suspected.

She’s told the story many times since, because it conveys what many people don’t know, but should — that the precision-machining sector in this region is making a difference in the lives of people across the country.

Likewise, Carlson is making a difference as well, carrying on the work of her father in so many ways, and, as noted, becoming the face — or at least one important, perhaps unexpected face — in a sector with a rich history and, thanks to her efforts, perhaps an equally rich future.

 

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

Class of 2021

This Nonprofit Ensures That Entrepreneurs Won’t Have to Go It Alone

Tessa Murphy-Romboletti, executive director of EforAll Holyoke.  (Leah Martin Photography)

“If your dreams don’t scare you … they are not big enough.”

That’s the quote, attributed to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Liberian president, economist, and Nobel Peace Prize winner, that is stenciled onto one of the walls at EforAll Holyoke’s headquarters on High Street, in the heart of the city’s downtown.

Tessa Murphy-Romboletti, executive director of this nonprofit since its inception, chose it for many reasons, but mostly because it resonates with her and also because it accurately sums up entrepreneurship in general, as well as the work that goes on in that facility.

In short, she said, dreams of running a business should scare someone, because there is nothing — as in nothing — easy about getting a venture off the ground … and keeping it airborne.

“Entrepreneurship is so terrifying,” she said. “And when our entrepreneurs come to us, they often don’t have the support of friends or families or big networks telling them to go for these dreams. That’s why we’re here — to tell them that they’re not alone … and that you have to be a little crazy to be an entrepreneur.”

Helping turn dreams into reality is essentially what EforAll is all about. This is a statewide nonprofit with offices in a number of cities with large minority populations and high unemployment rates — like Holyoke. Its MO is to blend education in the many facets of business with mentorship to help entrepreneurs navigate the whitewater they will encounter while getting a venture off the ground, to the next level, or even through a global pandemic (more on that last one later).

It will be many years, perhaps, before a city or a region can accurately gauge the impact of an agency focused on inspiring entrepreneurship and guiding entrepreneurs, but Murphy-Romboletti believes EforAll is already making a difference, especially with the minority population.

“The difference we make is very tangible for people who are seeking new sources of income for their families and themselves, and when you’re an entrepreneur who’s just getting started, it’s really hard to navigate where to go, who to talk to.”

“The difference we make is very tangible for people who are seeking new sources of income for their families and themselves, and when you’re an entrepreneur who’s just getting started, it’s really hard to navigate where to go, who to talk to,” she told BusinessWest. “The model that we use, providing really close mentorship, makes such a difference — you don’t have to go through the process alone.”

Her sentiments are backed up by some of those who have found their way to EforAll and been part of one of its many accelerator cohorts. People like Sandra Rubio.

Years ago, she started baking cakes for family members because she wasn’t happy with the quality and price of what she found in area stores. Soon, she was making cakes and other items for friends, neighbors, and even total strangers who had been exposed to her work. And her success promoted her to launch Totally Baked 413, which will soon open a location in the Holyoke Transit Center on Maple Street.

Sandra Rubio credits EforAll and its director, Tessa Murphy-Romboletti

Sandra Rubio credits EforAll and its director, Tessa Murphy-Romboletti, with helping her get her venture, Totally Baked 413, off the ground.

She credits EforAll with helping her make the leap from part-time activity to full-time enterprise — but not leap until she was ready and not make too big a leap too soon. She also credits her mentors and Murphy-Romboletti with getting her through those times when she was tempted to let the dream die.

“There were times when I just wanted to give up, say ‘forget it,’ and go back to work,” she recalled. “But then, I would meet with my mentors, meet with my class, and it got me right back on track — it gave me the push I needed to press on.”

And people like Jailyne Torres, who launched Shyguns, a creative clothing brand and seller of vintage clothing. She said she took part in the Spanish-speaking accelerator, called EsparaTodos, and credited EforAll with helping her gain consistency and take a concept she conceived when she was only 16 years old and make it into a business.

“I always had the idea, the concept, but I never really knew how to make it actually make it a brand,” she said. “But EsparaTodos helped me with all that.”

Such comments explain why EforAll, while still small and emerging, if you will, like the businesses it mentors, is already a Difference Maker in the community it serves.

 

Dream Weavers

As she talked with BusinessWest at EforAll’s facility, Murphy Romboletti said being there elicited a number of different emotions.

Indeed, while she said it always feels good to be in that space, COVID-19 has made the visits far more infrequent, and it has brought what is often an eerie quiet to a place that was always full of people and energy. The co-working space is now unused for safety reasons, and there are far fewer meetings and activities taking place there, with most programs carried out virtually. All this is made more frustrating by the fact that it took more than a year of hard work to secure the space and get it ready for its opening in the fall of 2019, only to have the world change and the space go mostly dark just a few months later.

“For those first couple of weeks when I would come back, it was like, ‘oh, man, this is tortuous — this is a hard pill to swallow,’” she noted before quickly taking the conversation in a different, more poignant direction. “The irony is that’s exactly what so many of my entrepreneurs were feeling; a lot of them, especially those in the cohort that we graduated that March, were just coming into the world as new entrepreneurs, and the world said, ‘hold on … we’ve got some other plans.’

“So, during the pandemic, we kind of became therapists for a while, listening to people’s concerns and what they needed help with, and trying to connect them with all the resources that were out there,” she went on. “But at the end of the day, there was so much that was out of our control; we tried to be as supportive as we could and continue to provide a community for them so they could survive this.”

COVID has changed some things, certainly, but when you get right down to it, EforAll Holyoke has always been about providing a community and helping entrepreneurs not only survive, but thrive.

Jailyne Torres says EforAll has been instrumental

Jailyne Torres says EforAll has been instrumental in helping her take Shyguns to the next level.

Launched five years ago as SPARK, the agency quickly became an important part of the region’s growing entrepreneurship ecosystem. In 2018, it affiliated with EforAll, short for Entrepreneurship for All, a network that now boasts eight offices across the state, including the most recent, in the Berkshires.

Like many of the other offices, the one in Holyoke now conducts accelerator programs in both English and Spanish (EsparaTodos), and graduates four cohorts of entrepreneurs each year, two in the spring and two in the fall.

Like most accelerators, these XX-week programs are designed to educate participants on the many aspects of starting and operating a business — everything from writing and updating a business plan to working with the media — while also connecting them with mentors who can impart their wisdom and first-hand experiences.

When asked what it’s like, Rubio said simply, “intense.” By that, she was referring to everything from the classwork to the back and forth with her mentors. And that intensity helped her persevere through the challenges of getting a plan in place, finding and readying the site for her bakery and café, and getting the doors open.

“So, during the pandemic, we kind of became therapists for a while, listening to people’s concerns and what they needed help with, and trying to connect them with all the resources that were out there. But at the end of the day, there was so much that was out of our control; we tried to be as supportive as we could and continue to provide a community for them so they could survive this.”

“Every time I was close to saying, ‘I’m done,’ they would say, ‘you’re on the right track; keep going,’” she recalled. “And we would keep going.”

Likewise, Carlos Rosario kept going with his venture, Rosario Asphalt, which specializes in residential driveways and repairs.

Rosario, speaking in English that is, like his bottom line, improving consistently from year to year, said EforAll has helped him make the big leap from working for someone else to working for himself.

He told BusinessWest that those at EforAll helped connect him with sources of capital, including banks and Common Capital, to secure loans that have enabled him to buy the equipment needed to handle more — and larger — jobs, including a trailer and a truck. And he’s hired his first employee, a truck driver.

“If it wasn’t for EforAll, I wouldn’t be where I am today,” he said, adding that the agency and the mentors assigned to him have helped with all facets of running a business, but especially with making those all-important connections to professionals, capital, and potential clients.

Torres agreed. She said EforAll has helped her with aspects of her business that people don’t think about when they’re focused on an idea and maybe a brand. Things like data entry, pricing, marketing, and “allowing transformation to happen.”

“When I started the project, it was based on the creative clothing part,” she explained. “And then, I was able to add second-hand clothing, and not limit what the future might bring.”

That’s certainly another colorful and poignant way of summing up what EforAll does for those who participate in its programs.

 

Scare Tactics

Here’s the full quote attributed to Ellen Johnson Sirleaf: “The size of your dreams must always exceed your current capacity to achieve them. If your dreams don’t scare you, they are not big enough.”

Most people have the capacity to dream as big as Johnson Sirleaf believes they should. But not everyone has what it takes to make those dreams become reality. Those who have entrepreneurial ambitions and spirit are among those who can.

But even such driven individuals can’t go it alone. EforAll exists to make sure they don’t have to. And that’s why it’s a true Difference Maker in Holyoke — and beyond.

 

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

Class of 2021

This Journalist, Educator, and Mentor Inspires Others with Her Unstoppable Energy

Leah Martin Photography

Karen Fisk, director of Marketing and Communication for the Springfield Museums, calls Janine Fondon a “connector.”

And that’s just one of many words that can be used to describe the founder of UnityFirst.com, a national distributor of diversity-related e-news to corporations and diverse communities. Indeed, she is also an educator — she’s currently chair of the Undergraduate Communications Department at Bay Path University and has been an adjunct professor at many area colleges and universities — as well as a journalist, public speaker, colleague, and mentor.

But ‘connector’ probably works best, and it most effectively sums up what she does in the Western Mass. community — and beyond.

“As a team player, she connects people in various institutions who could work together for positive change,” Fisk, who worked with Fondon to help bring the exhibit Voices of Resilience (more on that later) to the Museums, wrote in her nomination of Fondon as a Difference Maker. “As the Leader of UnityFirst, she connects the public with black-led, owned, and operated businesses and institutions. As a teacher, she connects young people to ideas that empower them … she helps nurture the seeds that grow into remarkable projects that make a difference.”

Through all this work connecting people, Fondon, who relishes this role, told BusinessWest that she strives to make the region a better place through the sharing of knowledge, ideas, goals, and dreams for the future.

“As a team player, she connects people in various institutions who could work together for positive change. As the Leader of UnityFirst, she connects the public with black-led, owned, and operated businesses and institutions. As a teacher, she connects young people to ideas that empower them … she helps nurture the seeds that grow into remarkable projects that make a difference.”

During her time at Colgate University, a liberal-arts college in Upstate New York, Fondon recalled that she was encouraged to “raise your voice, be part of the world, and make a difference.” She did so there — she became part of a gospel choir, for example — and has done so throughout her life.

Part of her MO, if you will, is to inspire others by telling the stories of those who came before, those who blazed a trail, and those who, well, made of difference in the community and the world. This is especially true when it comes to women, and women of color. Many of these stories haven’t been told, or told as much as they need to be, she said, adding that telling them was the broad goal behind Voices of Resilience, which is still on display at the D’Amour Museum of Fine Arts at the Quadrangle.

It features more than 70 stories of women — activists and businesswomen, mostly — ranging from Gwen Ifill, the longtime host of Washington Week (and Springfield native) who passed away a few years ago, to Lejuana Hood, who founded Springfield’s Pan African Museum, to Miriam Kirkaldy, Fondon’s grandmother, who came to Ellis Island in 1917 and forged a new life for herself.

“I decided to pull together some stories — some rooted in Springfield, others rooted around Springfield — and these are stories that needed to be told because we can learn from them,” Fondon explained, using her grandmother as an example.

“She came via Ellis Island from Jamaica, and she came the year before the 1918 pandemic,” she explained. “You think about the fortitude she displayed and her experience; I grew up with her experience, and I said, ‘we can learn from that experience.”

The exhibit also formed the backdrop for the fourth annual On the Move event in 2020. Organized by Fondon, this gathering, which will be staged virtually this year due to the pandemic, encourages conversation and networking among women, and it has become a well-attended tradition.

It’s also another example of how Fondon has devoted her time, energy, and imagination to finding new and different ways to bring people together, share ideas, and work individually and collectively to move the needle when it comes to diversity, inclusion, women breaking down barriers, and so much more.

In short, it’s just another case of how she connects and serves this region as a true Difference Maker.

 

Loud and Clear

If you look closely, as in very closely, you might be able to pick out Fondon in one of the pictures of real students from New York’s fabled High School of Music & Art at the end of the 1980 movie Fame.

She was in the choir, and the shot of that group was among many of the last class of that school before it merged with the School of Performing Arts and moved to Lincoln Center.

“I wouldn’t even call it a cameo,” said Fondon, who noted that she had some talent, but not enough to join the likes of famous alums such as Billy Dee Williams, Christopher Guest, Susan Strasberg, Hal Linden, or Steven Bochco and make it as a performer or producer.

But she left the school with an even deeper appreciation for the arts than what she already had, and it has remained with her throughout her life. And you might say she’s achieved a different kind of fame after first graduating from Colgate University, where she majored in sociology and anthropology and studied in London, Paris, and Barbados, among other places.

The exhibit Voices of Resilience

The exhibit Voices of Resilience is just one of many ways Janine Fondon has helped educate others and inspire them to find their own voices.

After leaving Colgate, she pursued work in the media, working first at CBS as a news intern and handling research for 60 Minutes, among other shows, then ABC in the Public Relations department, where she was encouraged to continue her education, and did so, earning her master’s degree at New York University.

Fondon worked in New York for some time before moving to an ABC affiliate in Washington, D.C. and eventually relocating to Massachusetts, where she has worked in a number of fields. She worked at Digital Equipment Corp., for example, and later at Bank of Boston, in its Corporate Communications department.

After starting a family, she desired more flexibility in her schedule and started freelance writing and then teaching on an adjunct level, with the former becoming the basis for UnityFirst.com, an information portal that shares topics related to diversity, equity, and inclusion with more than 4,000 members of the national press, including top mainstream business publications, television, radio, and internet sources.

Recent pieces on the site include headlines like these:

• “Barbara Bush Foundation Celebrates Black History Month with the Release of New Anti-racist and Anti-bias Teaching Resources”;

• “Barefoot Celebrates and Supports Black Female Business Owners with the Return of #WeStandforHer Campaign”; and

• “Canada’s Black Loyalists Honored on Royal Canadian Mint’s New Silver Coin Celebrating Black History.”

“We go to thousands of people in a variety of formats, from our direct e-mails, the website, and collaborations that we have with others across the country,” she explained. “We’re just here engaging and sharing information.

“And we have one of the most loyal readership bases I can imagine — people have been with us for 20 years and continue to read with interest,” she went on. “People are engaged in our news, and it continues to grow every day. And I’m really proud that we have a really young base that’s coming in and engaging. That, to me, is the hallmark — sharing information, having people engage, learning, and using that information.”

This past year was certainly an important one for UnityFirst, she said, given all the racial turmoil in the country and new dialogue about equity and inclusion.

“I started to do some writing and speaking beyond our own circle,” she told BusinessWest. “And that engaged a lot of people as well. And I want to do more of that because engaging with others and beginning new dialogues … that brings about change.”

While she continues to byline new stories each week and teach at Baypath, she continues to look for new and different ways to use her voice, inspire others to use theirs, and further inspire an entire region by recalling some voices of the past.

“And we have one of the most loyal readership bases I can imagine — people have been with us for 20 years and continue to read with interest. People are engaged in our news, and it continues to grow every day.”

Such is the case with On the Move, which will again be staged on March 8, this time virtually. Fondon doesn’t like the word ‘conference’ to describe it, though, preferring ‘forum’ instead.

“We have a conversation, and sometimes there are breakouts that we do,” she said, adding that the setting has changed through the years — it has been staged at Bay Path, CityStage, and the Springfield Museums, for example — but the mission remains the same: to engage, educate, and inspire. “This year, we’re going to look at where we are and where we’re going.”

Looking ahead, and anticipating what might come next in a career that has taken her to different parts of the country and a host of different career opportunities, Fondon said she intends to keep doing what’s she always done — and maybe find even more ways to do it.

“There’s so much work yet be done,” she explained. “As long as we can keep sharing information that helps us make better decisions and get to a better place, there is room for all that I have to do.”

 

Hear and Now

Returning to that nomination of Fondon, Fisk wrote that “she listens, she encourages, she shares ideas, she shares remarkable, unstoppable energy. Most important, she cares, deeply cares, and she hopes, and then she takes action.”

And, above all, she connects. Indeed, all her life, Fondon has been doing what she was encouraged to do while in high school and college — find her voice. And not only find it, but use it.

She’s used it to educate and empower people. And with this knowledge and power, others can hopefully do what she has long been doing acting as a Difference Maker in the community and, in truth, everywhere one’s voice can be heard.

 

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

Class of 2021

When It Comes to Land Preservation, He’s Been a Trailblazer

Leah Martin Photography

Pete Westover says his appreciation of, and passion for, outdoor spaces traces back to a family vacation trip to, among other places, Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado, or Rocky, as it’s called, when he was 12.

The park, which spans the Continental Divide, is famous for its grand vistas, high alpine meadows, and dramatic walking trails, some of them at elevations of 10,000 feet or more. And, suffice to say, the park made quite an impression on the young middle-school student.

“There’s bighorn sheep and mountain goats and all kinds of great wildlife and flora,” he noted, adding that he’s been back several times since. “The road goes well over 11,000 feet, so you’re up there among the peaks.”

It was this trip that pretty much convinced Westover he wanted to spend his working life outdoors. And if he needed any more convincing, he got it while working in a hospital just after high school, at a time when he was still thinking about going to medical school and following in the footsteps of his father, who became a doctor.

“I realized, there’s no way I want to spend my time in time in a hospital or a clinic,” he told BusinessWest, adding that he instead pursued a master’s degree in forest ecology at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

“Pete has dedicated his entire career to conserving land and creating trails — the Valley’s forests and farms simply would not be as intact as they are today if Pete Westover hadn’t been a prime champion for their protection.”

Thus, as they might say in what has become his line of work, he took a different trail than the one he originally envisioned. Actually, those who know him would say he’s blazed his own trail — in every aspect of that phrase.

It has led to an intriguing and highly rewarding career that has included everything from work on a helicopter forest-fire crew in Northern California when he was in college to a 30-year stint as conservation director for the town of Amherst, to his current role as founder and partner of Conservation Works, a conservation firm involved with open space and agricultural land protection; ecological and land-stewardship assistance to land trusts, towns, colleges, and other entities; and other services.

Described as a “legend” by one of those who nominated him for the Difference Maker award, Dianne Fuller Doherty, retired executive director of the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center Network’s Western Mass. office (and a Difference Maker herself in 2020), Westover has earned a number of accolades over the years.

These include the Valley Eco Award for Distinguished Service to Our Environment, in his case for ‘lifetime dedication and achievement’; the Governor’s Award for Open Space Protection; the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission’s Regional Service Award; the Massachusetts Assoc. of Conservation Commissions’ Environmental Service Award; and even the Millicent A. Kaufman Distinguished Service Award as Amherst Area Citizen of the Year.

Pete Westover, center, with fellow Conservation Works partners Chris Curtis and Elizabeth Wroblicka

Pete Westover, center, with fellow Conservation Works partners Chris Curtis and Elizabeth Wroblicka in Springfield’s Forest Park, where the company is currently working on several projects.

And now, he can add Difference Maker to that list, a title that certainly befits an individual who has preserved thousands of acres of land, created hundreds of miles of trails, and even helped innumerable parks and other open spaces identify and hopefully eradicate invasive species.

“Pete has dedicated his entire career to conserving land and creating trails — the Valley’s forests and farms simply would not be as intact as they are today if Pete Westover hadn’t been a prime champion for their protection,” wrote Kristin DeBoer, executive director of the Kestrel Land Trust, a partner and client of Conservation Works on many of its projects, in her nomination of Westover. “The number of conservation areas and protected farms that Pete has been involved with are too many to name.”

While justifiably proud of what’s been accomplished in these realms over the past several decades, Westover stressed repeatedly that this work has never been a one-man show. Instead, it’s always been accomplished through partnerships and teamwork, especially when it comes to Conservation Works.

“This is such a great valley to work in,” he told BusinessWest. “There are so many dedicated people in our field; we’re just lucky to be in a place where there are so many forward-looking people.”

Westover is certainly one of them, and his work (that’s a broad term, to be sure) to not only protect and preserve land, but educate others and serve as a role model, has earned him a place among the Difference Makers class of 2021.

 

Changing the Landscape — Or Not

It’s called the Robert Frost Trail, and it’s actually one of several trails in the Northeast named after the poet, who lived and taught in this region for many years.

This one stretches 47 miles through the eastern Connecticut River Valley, from the Connecticut River in South Hadley to Ruggles Pond in Wendell State Forest. Blazed with orange triangles, the trail winds through both Hampshire and Franklin counties, and includes a number of scenic features, including the Holyoke Range, Mount Orient, Puffer’s Pond, and Mount Toby.

And while there are literally thousands of projects in Westover’s portfolio from five decades of work in this realm, this one would have to be considered his signature work, first undertaken while he was conservation director in Amherst, but a lifelong project in many respects.

Indeed, those at Conservation Works are working with Kestrel on an ongoing project to improve the trail. But the Robert Frost Trail is just one of countless initiatives to which Westover has contributed his time, energy, and considerable talents over the years. You might say he’s changed the landscape in Western Mass., but it would be even more accurate to say his work has been focused on not changing the landscape, and preserving farmland and other spaces as they are.

And even that wouldn’t be entirely accurate. Indeed, Westover said, through his decades of work, he hasn’t been focused on halting or even controlling development, but instead on creating a balance.

“When I worked with the town of Amherst, our philosophy was, ‘we’re not trying to prevent development; we’re trying to keep up with it,’” he explained, adding that this mindset persists to this day. “For every time you see a new subdivision go up, it makes sense to address the other side of the coin and make sure there are protected lands that people can have for various purposes.

“When you see real-estate ads that say ‘near conservation area,’ or ‘next to the Robert Frost Trail’ … that’s important to the well-being of a town or the region to have that balance,” he went on, adding that it has essentially been his life’s work to create it.

Top, Conversation Works partner Dick O’Brien supervises volunteers at Lathrop Community in Northampton in bridge building on the Lathrop Trail off Cooke Avenue. Above, several of the company’s partners: from left, Fred Morrison, Dick O’Brien, Molly Hale, Chris Curtis, and Laurie Sanders.

Tracing his career working outdoors, Westover said he started at an environmental-education center in Kentucky, where he worked for three years. Later, after returning to Yale for a few more classes, he came to Amherst as its conservation director, a role he kept from 1974 to 2004. In 2005, he would partner with Peter Blunt, former executive director of the Connecticut River Watershed Council (now the Connecticut River Conservancy) to create Conservation Works. Blunt passed away in 2010, but a team of professionals carries on his work and his legacy, and has broadened the company’s mission and taken its work to the four corners of New England and well beyond.

But over the years, Westover has worn many other hats as well. He’s been an adjunct professor of Natural Science, principally at Hampshire College, where he has taught, among other courses, “Conservation Land Protection and Management,” “The Ecology and Politics of New England Natural Areas,” “Ecology and Culture of Costa Rica,” “Geography, Ecology, and Indigenous Americans in the Pacific Northwest, 1800 to Present,” and, most recently, “Land Conservation, Indigenous Land Rights, and Traditional Ecological Knowledge.”

He’s also penned books, including Managing Conservation Land: The Stewardship of Conservation Areas, Wildlife Sanctuaries, and Other Open Spaces in Massachusetts, and served on boards ranging from the Conservation Law Foundation of New England to the Whately Open Space Committee.

“When I worked with the town of Amherst, our philosophy was, ‘we’re not trying to prevent development; we’re trying to keep up with it. For every time you see a new subdivision go up, it makes sense to address the other side of the coin and make sure there are protected lands that people can have for various purposes.”

But while he spends some time behind the keyboard, in the lecture hall, or in the boardroom, mostly he’s where he always wants to be — outdoors — especially as he works with his partners at Conservation Works on projects across New England and beyond.

The group, which now includes seven partners, handles everything from conservation of open space and farmland to the development and maintenance of trails; from invasive-plant-management plans to what are known as municipal vulnerability-preparedness plans that address climate change and the dangers it presents to communities.

And, as Westover noted, teamwork is the watchword for this company.

“One of the things that attracted me to Conservation Works is that all of the professionals have very unique skills, and we all complement one another,” said Elizabeth Wroblicka, a lawyer and former director of Wildlife Lands for the Massachusetts Division of Fisheries and Wildlife. “Land conservation is multi-faceted, from the acquisition to the long-term ownership to the stewardship, and with the wildlife biologists we have, the trail constructors, boundary markings … I do the contracts, but we all have a piece that we excel in.”

Chris Curtis, who came to Conservation Works after a lengthy career with the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission as chief planner and now focuses extensively on climate-change issues, agreed. He noted that, in addition to land preservation, trail-building and improvement, and other initiatives, the group is doing more work in the emerging realm of climate resiliency — out of necessity.

“We’ve been working with the town of Deerfield for four years,” he said, citing just one example of this work. “We’ve helped it win grants for more than $1.2 million worth of work that includes a municipal vulnerability-preparedness plan, flood-evacuation plans, a land-conservation plan for the Deerfield River floodplain area, and education programs, including a townwide climate forum that was attended by 200 to 300 people.”

Such efforts to address climate change are an example of how the group’s mission continues to expand and evolve, and how Westover’s broad impact on this region, its open spaces, and its endangered spaces grows ever deeper.

 

Seeing the Forest for the Trees

Reflecting back on that trip to Rocky, Westover said that, in many ways, it changed not only his perspective, but his life.

It helped convince him that he not only wanted to work outdoors, but wanted to protect the outdoors and create spaces that could be enjoyed by this generation and those to come. As noted, he’s both changed the landscape and helped ensure that it won’t be changed.

He’s not comfortable with being called a legend, but Difference Maker works, and it certainly fits someone whose footprints can be seen all across the region — literally and figuratively.

 

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