Home Articles posted by George O'Brien
Construction Cover Story

History in the Remaking

Dave Fontaine Jr.

Dave Fontaine Jr.

Crews working on the $64 million initiative to transform the former Court Square Hotel in downtown Springfield into market-rate housing say the project takes them back in time. Actually, it takes them to several different periods of time — from the property’s days as prominent hotel to more recent days, when it hosted a popular tavern and several other businesses. While doing this time-traveling, these same crews are living in the present and confronting a number of challenges as they usher in the next chapter in this property’s intriguing history.

Dave Fontaine Jr. calls it a “cool memento.” Actually, it’s turned out to be more than that.

He was referring to a bid package submitted by his firm, Fontaine Bros. Inc., for redevelopment of the former Court Square Hotel in the heart of downtown Springfield. The date on the three-ring binder, crammed with interior and exterior photographs and other materials, is 2000.

And that wasn’t the first — or only — time the company had submitted a bid on a project to transform the property, now vacant for more than 25 years, for a different use — endeavors that never saw the light of day for one reason for another.

There have been so many in fact, that Fontaine, vice president of the company started by his great-grandfather and his brother, had some humorous material for use when he was asked to say a few words at one of the many ceremonies to mark milestones for the project that actually made it off the drawing board — a $64 million initiative to convert the property into 71 units of market-rate housing.

“I joked that I believe I’m the third generation of Fontaines to bid on the project,” he told BusinessWest, adding that both his father, Dave Sr., and grandfather, Lester, were involved with similar proposals. “We’ve been pricing it over decades, with at least a dozen iterations and many different planned uses.”

More than a quarter century after the first such bid, Fontaine is finally at work in Court Square, with one of its banners hanging on the front of the property. It’s an intriguing project, said Fontaine, one of many the company has handled that falls in the broad category of historical restoration. Others include the transformation of Classical High School into condominiums, Berkshire Hall at the Berkshire School in Sheffield, the public libraries in Holyoke and Shrewsbury, and even the conversion of 95 State St., visible out the windows of the Court Square property, into the home of MGM’s headquarters in Springfield.

Work at Court Square began early this year, he said, noting that the first phase involved weatherizing the property and making it structurally sound, significant steps for a building that was, in his words, in “terrible shape” when crews arrived and set up shop.

One of the original staircases at the Court Square Hotel.

One of the original staircases at the Court Square Hotel.

Actually it was in terrible shape in 2000, as photos in that bid package reveal, he said, adding that conditions only worsened over the past two decades as the elements took their toll on the structure.

“It had been vacant for 20 or 30 years,” he explained. “When we got there, the envelope needed work — and there are still areas where water gets into the building when the weather is poor — and historically there has been no heat in the building in the winter. The building was really on its last legs.”

Repairing and renovating what Mother Nature has damaged is just one of many challenges on this project, said Fontaine, noting that, like all construction projects undertaken at this time, this one has had to contend with everything from supply-chain issues to often dramatic increases in the prices of materials and labor.

“I joked that I believe I’m the third generation of Fontaines to bid on the project. We’ve been pricing it over decades, with at least a dozen iterations and many different planned uses.”

So much so that the Springfield City Council approved an 11th-hour request for $6.5 million in emergency funding to handle cost overruns for the project which came to fruition through a public-private partnership that includes a number of players, from the state, to Wynn Development and Opal Development, to MGM Springfield.

Another challenge is implied in that phrase ‘historical renovation.’ Indeed, the property, which dates to the 1890s, is on several lists of historic properties, said Karl Beaumier, on-site superintendent for the project, adding that, in many respects, crews from Fontaine are dismantling what was in place in the old hotel rooms and other spaces, storing those pieces, and putting them back after mechanicals, equipment, and appliances are installed and finishing work is completed. Everything that goes into the renovated structure, including new windows (600 of them) must be reviewed by the National Park Service.

“We salvaged a tremendous amount of the wainscoting on the corridors — some of it was left here, some of it came off and it’s going back on,” said Beaumier. “All of the doors were salvaged, the door frames, the door cases, the window cases on all the exterior windows, the baseboard, the chair rail, the crown molding — all of that stuff got saved; there are 10 40-foot conex boxes (shipping containers) completely full of salvaged woodwork that has to go back in the building.

“It’s been carefully removed, catalogued, and stored,” he went on. “It will all go back as part of the historical renovation.”

For this issue and its focus on construction, BusinessWest took a hard-hat tour of the property, and talked with Fontaine and Beaumier about the massive undertaking and the steps still to come.

 

Past Due

As they started their tour on the ground floor of the property, most recently home to several storefronts and eventually to be the site of a restaurant, Beaumier and Fontaine said that for the on-site crews, going to work each day also means going back in time.

Or to several different times, to be more precise.

view out one of the windows on the sixth floor

This view out one of the windows on the sixth floor explains why there has always been interest in converting the property for residential use.

Indeed, on the ground floor, the areas housing the storefronts bear evidence of their former uses, especially the space that was home to the tavern known as the Bar Association, a name chosen to reference the many clients from the legal community, many with offices within a block or so from the courthouse just south of the Court Square property.

“It was like things were stuck in time from the late ’80s,” said Fontaine, noting such items as the stained-glass window in the Bar Association and a door that still had the ‘R’ from owner Tony Ravossa’s name. “It’s cool seeing the old storefronts.”

From the ground floor, Beaumier took BusinessWest to the basement, where collected water provided evidence of still-ongoing work to shore up the property, and then to the second floor, where the next use of the property is starting to come into focus.

There, and on the remaining floors, long rows of what used to be hotel rooms —most all of them with doors to the rooms on either side — have been essentially gutted, with the masonry walls that divided them (see photo, page 30) taken down and the groundwork laid for what will become one- and two-bedroom apartments. In one hallway, rows of shower units were waiting for eventual installation.

While the property will have a completely different use than it did a century ago, it will look, in almost all respects, as it did back then, Beaumier explained.

“When we’re done, and we look down this corridor, it’s supposed to look just like it did in 1900,” he told BusinessWest as he gestured down the narrow hallway of the wing of the property that runs north-south toward State Street. “All these doors that went into the individual hotel rooms … we’ve opened up the spaces, so there will probably be two dummy doors for each unit; the doors that we took off have to get pinned back in the wall so that when you look down this corridor, it looks the same as it did historically; every third door will actually open into a unit, the rest will be dummy doors.”

Elaborating, he said that the actual walls to the units were pushed back a foot from where they stood originally, because the original corridor is too narrow for a wheel chair to turn in, an example of how some adjustments have to be made to enable a century-old building to comply with modern building codes and state and federal regulations.

The tour then provided more glimpses into the past as it went to and then down one of the original staircases to what was the lobby area of the former hotel, complete with the remains of a revolving door, marble-covered walls, and a ceiling, now in an advanced state of decay, that will be restored.

“Right now, we’re getting the building structurally back to where it needs to be so we can do the mechanicals and other systems,” said Fontaine adding that the initial phases of this project have involved demolition, structural work, and salvaging a number of features. When these have been completed, crews will move onto installation of those mechanical systems, replacing hundreds of windows, building out the individual apartments, and putting the salvaged items back in.

When the tour reached the sixth floor, Beaumier pointed out one of the north-facing windows to dramatic views of Court Square (see photo, page 26), looks that help explain why there has always been interest in redeveloping the property for housing, and why there has been a high level of interest in this project.

As they walked and pointed out specific areas of note in the sprawling property, Fontaine and Beaumier talked about everything from the significance of the project to Springfield and its central business district to the many challenges involved with undertaking a project like this at this time of soaring prices, supply-chain issues, and a workforce crisis that has affected all sectors of the economy including construction.

Photo by Joe Santa Maria, Kill the Ball Media

Work to convert the property into a mix of residential and retail spaces is expected to be completed in the early fall of 2023. Photo by Joe Santa Maria, Kill the Ball Media

Fontaine, whose family has developed or redeveloped many properties downtown, from the aforementioned State Street project to the expansion of what is now known as the MassMutual Center, to the creation of MarketPlace, said the Court Square is an important next step in the revitalization of that area.

“That downtown area means a lot to us, we’ve handled a lot of projects in that area,” he said. “I grew up in this area, we’ll stay in this area; I want my daughters to be able to stay around here and work and live here if they choose to, and I this is a big step toward making downtown attractive to working professionals and people who want to be downown.”

As for the many challenges that come with building at this time, Fontaine said there have been some adjustments to make.

That includes the emergency funding from the City Council, he said, adding that the amount allocated should cover the escalating cost of the project. But it also includes longer lead times for items and, in some cases, having to use different products or materials because the lead times are too long.

“As with every construction project going on right now, there have been a lot of items with long lead times — significantly longer than normal,” he explained. “We’ve been working through that with the designers to use some products that do what we need them to do, but also get here within the lead times. With the mechanical systems, one of the manufacturers that was specified for the unit heaters had a 52-week lead time; we found something we could get in the time frame in which we needed them.”

 

Finishing Work

The elaborate project is expected to be completed in the early fall of 2023, said Fontaine.

There will certainly be an elaborate ribbon-cutting ceremony at that time, one that will close the book on the long, often-frustrating efforts to create a new life for the historic property, and usher in the next chapter.

Fontaine can also close the book — figuratively but also quite literally — on more than 25 years of bidding on projects to transform the property.

That binder from 2000 is, as Fontaine said, a cool memento, but it’s also a symbol of this property and how long its fate has been a critical issue in Springfield.

 

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

Features Special Coverage

Uplifting Spirits

For most in this region, the war in Ukraine is something to read about or see on the nightly news. For Paul Kozub, founder and president of V-One Vodka, who operates a distillery in Poland just a few hours from the border with Ukraine, the war hits much closer to home — figuratively, if not literally. He made a trip to Poland and then the border in March, and he’ll be going back in July, bringing cash for refugees and other types of support.

Paul Kozub says he’d like to forget some of the things he saw and heard while on his trip to Poland and its border with Ukraine in March, just days after the fighting began there. After all, he was seeing people in extreme distress — women and children, mostly, who were leaving their home country, sometimes with just on their clothes on their back, not knowing if they would ever be returning.

But these words and images, and there are many of them, are burned into his memory, he said, and they make him even more committed to doing what he can to help refugees who have made their way to Poland, where Kozub, founder and owner of V-One Vodka, owns a distillery.

“What I saw and what I experienced was mind-blowing, especially in 2022,” he recalled, adding that he wound up making three trips to the border in March, with each visit lasting seven or eight hours. “We saw the buses on the highway filled with women and children — martial law was declared in Ukraine, so no men under the age of 60 were allowed to leave the country. So you just saw women and children leaving, fleeing in buses on the highway — bus after bus after bus full of people.

“On the border, there were tents set up for food and a kind of transition spot,” he went on. “But you’d see women 70-or 80-years-old crossing with bags, and young women with strollers and children just walking over the border.”

Kozub told BusinessWest that he felt compelled to travel to Poland in March. He wanted to visit the distillery, located in the town of Lublin, something he’s done every few months over the past several years, although far less frequently since 2020 due to COVID, but also to support refugees if he could.

He left with several thousand dollars in cash, most of it in $100 bills, that he distributed to several different individuals and families knowing that the way exchange rates were moving, U.S. currency would buy much more than the Polish dollar. He made a few trips to the border, which is about a 90-minute drive from the distillery, and in doing helped bring the war to this country through a few interviews with a Boston television station that picked up his story and talked with him from his hotel room and at the border.

“I never thought I’d be a war correspondent, but there I was talking about what I saw and what I experienced,” he said. “To me there’s no more clear example of good versus evil, a country that’s invaded for no clear reason.”

Today, Kozub is planning a return visit to Poland and his distillery with his family — his wife and four children. He’s not sure if he will make it to the border, but does plan to visit some refugee centers and try to reconnect with several of the people he met three months ago.

He plans to visit the Help the Ukranian Children Foundation in Zyrzyn, Poland, which he is supporting through a special label for his vodka, one with the blue and yellow of the Ukranian flag; $2 from the sale of each bottle going to support refugees.

Paul Kozub displays one of the new-edition bottles bearing the color of the Ukranian flag

Paul Kozub displays one of the new-edition bottles bearing the color of the Ukranian flag. He is donating $2 from each bottle to help refugees.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with Kozub about how the war in Ukraine — and the plight of those who have fled that country for Poland — have become personal for him, and how he continues to find ways to not only support those individuals and families, but also shed needed light on their situation.

 

Proof Positive

As noted earlier, Kozub has many indelible memories from his March visit, one that brought the war in Ukraine and its profound impact on its people, home in ways that can’t be appreciated by simply tuning into CNN.

He used the word ‘surreal’ more than a few times to describe what he saw, especially during those visits to the border.
“Poland was normal for the most part — there were a lot of Ukrainain flags,” he recalled, “But as we were driving toward the border, and as we got to within 10 miles of the border, there was nobody … no cars going in our direction; instead, we saw all the buses going in the other direction.

“What I saw and what I experienced was mind-blowing, especially in 2022.”

“That was the first time we got a little anxious,” he went on. “Once we got to the border, we befriended a few Polish police men and women who started telling us the stories they were hearing.”

One memory stands out for him. It involves giving a ride to a young girl and her parents to the city in Poland where he was staying.

“We didn’t notice until they got out that they had nothing,” he recalled. “No bags, no nothing, just the clothes on their backs. The way the man was dressed — he had a nice watch, nice clothes on, nice shoes — you could see that they just left so quickly they didn’t have time to pack a bag. Seeing stuff that like really hit home.

Kozub said he left for Poland with the expectation that he would bring a few thousand dollars to the border, maybe visit once and try to help people as they were coming into Poland during the first days of the war. But those expectations were altered by what he encountered, and also by contributions sent to him in advance of his trip, including $4,000 from his commercial lender, PeoplesBank — the most that can be sent via VENMO.

Paul Kozub, seen here with police officers at the border

Paul Kozub, seen here with police officers at the border, will be returning to Poland next month.

“That contribution really helped — while I was there, I was able to buy so much more,” he recalled, noting that he was able to buy a washer and dryer for an apartment building now housing 80 women and children, and also bring more needed food and water to the border.

He recalled one instance where he tried to help a woman with four young children.

“All these people didn’t want to accept money from me at first,” he recalled. “But I said ‘you have to — that’s why I traveled all this way.’

“That was back when there were tens of thousands of people coming over every day — that’s when most of the need was going on,” he recalled, adding that the sights from those days remain with him even though the scene has changed, as have the needs of the refugees that have made their way to Poland.

While what he saw was disturbing on many levels, so too was what he heard from some of those he encountered, he said, noting that he has come to understand the Polish language, which is very similar to what is spoken in Ukraine.

“As we were driving toward the border, and as we got to within 10 miles of the border, there was nobody … no cars going in our direction; instead, we saw all the buses going in the other direction.”

“We could understand most of what they were saying,” he noted. “We would see the cars of people driving into Poland, and they would have pieces of paper in the window with ‘ditya,’ which is ‘child’ in Russian written on them. We were hearing stories that the Russians were shooting at them; they were bombing these lines of cars as they were leaving.

“The stories of atrocities that we’re now hearing every day … I was hearing them in the beginning,” he went on. “It is so unbelievable that this is going on today; it’s very heartbreaking, and you just don’t want to believe that it’s true.”

While there are still some people leaving Ukraine for Poland, much of the activity is now moving in the other direction, with many returning to the country they fled. Still there are millions still in Poland forging a new life for themselves there, a challenge made simpler by the Polish government’s decision to change its law and allow people from the Ukraine (which is not part of the European Union) to come into that country and work and start businesses.

“In some of the major cities, like Warsaw and Krakow, they’ve seen a 30% to 40% increase in population,” said Kozub, adding that refugees are finding housing in the homes of Polish residents, in churches, camps, and other sites.

Paul Kozub says his trip to the border in March was surreal

Paul Kozub says his trip to the border in March was surreal in many respects and included work as a “war correspondent.”

As for his planned July trip back to Poland, Kozub said he plans to reconnect with some of the individuals and families he met at the start of this conflict, including a young man who renovated a 20-unit apartment building in Zyrzyn that is now home to 80 women and children.

“We’re continuing to raise money for them, so I’ll bring some money for that charity,” he said, adding that he also plans to visit — and bring some money to — an orphanage located near the distillery, one that he has been supporting for several years now, which is now housing orphans from Ukraine.

To further assist refugees, and, specifically, Ukranian Children Foundation, Kozub has created a special label for his original V-One vodka, a project that was fast-tracked, with the label being finalized in just a few months, rather than the full year that it normally takes.

It was undertaken as Kozub was introducing another new flavor — Double Espresso — to his growing portfolio, one that is ever-changing and expanding to keep pace in the ultra-competitive vodka market.

The March trip to the distillery was undertaken to finalize the recipe for that new flavor, he said, adding that the overall process has been slowed by supply-chain issues and huge increases in shipping costs and other expenses — challenges that are making it much more difficult to do business in this industry.

Despite these challenges, Kozub wanted to introduce his new label, a project that was conceived just before his March visit, with the expectation that there would be long-term needs among the refugees.

“It takes about a year to get things done, between the approvals and the printing time, and other issues, but we were able to get it done in three weeks,” he said, adding that the son of one of his employees at the distillery drove 10 hours each way to pick up the labels, which were affixed to 3,000 bottles overnight, in time to get on a container ship.

The special edition bottles should arrive by mid-summer, he said, and he expects them to be sold out by August.

 

His Best Shot

Like most everyone taking in what’s happening in Ukraine — from a few feet from the border or 4,500 miles away — Kozub has no idea when this conflict will end or how it will end.

What he does know is that there are many people still in need. They are an ocean and then a continent away from V-One’s headquarters in Hadley, but only 100 miles or so from where his vodka is made.

Since setting up shop in Poland, he has been active in that ‘community’ and a source of support for orphans and others in need. The landscape there has changed dramatically over the past three months, and Kozub has responded accordingly. As he said, it’s personal for him.

 

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

Daily News

SPRINGFIELD — The Springfield Symphony Orchestra (SSO) has announced a 2022-23 season that will include six classical performances and two “pops” concerts.

The first concert in the new season will be presented on Saturday, October 22 featuring world-renowned conductor JoAnn Falletta, music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra.

“We are extremely pleased to announce this compelling and dynamic season that will include a remarkable series of conductors who we know will bring joy and beautiful music to concert lovers with a combination of six classical concerts and two pops concerts,” said Interim SSO Director Paul Lambert. “We are pleased and excited by the talent and diversity of these conductors including two female conductors as part of the coming season – a first for the SSO.

“We are announcing this concert season at a time when we continue to be without a labor agreement with the musicians’ union,” he went on. “We want to be clear that we remain hopeful for a new agreement and look forward to working together to present this concert season. This concert season will showcase the extraordinary talent of the SSO musicians under the direction of a talented collection of guest conductors.

“We are looking forward to collaborating on these and future concerts with the musicians of the SSO family as we present our first full season coming out of the pandemic,” he continued. “We are thrilled to be re-engaging our patrons and believe we have a compelling lineup of classical and pops music that will attract new audiences into Symphony Hall.”

Two of the guest conductors that will be coming to Symphony Hall in the coming season, Falletta and Theodore Kuchar, have been included in the group of the 10 best living conductors in the world, according to David Hurwitz, a music critic and executive editor of ClassicsToday.com, the first and only classical music daily.

The six classical concerts included in the concert schedule are:

  • Oct. 22, conducted by JoAnn Falletta, featuring Zoltan Kodaly’s Dances of Galanta, Edward Elgar’s Cello Concerto with guest cellist Joshua Roman, and Antonín Dvořák’s Symphony No. 7, considered by many musicologists to be his best symphony;
  • Nov. 5, The Sound of Silence, conducted by Tania Miller, former Music Director of the Victoria (Canada) Symphony Orchestra, featuring “Messenger,” a work by Ukrainian composer Valentin Silvestrov, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s Symphony No. 36  (Linz), and Johannes Brahms; Symphony No. 3, from which Dvořák derived the inspiration for his 7th Symphony;
  • Jan. 14, 2023 Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration with African American guest conductor Kevin Scott, featuring the music of African-American composers, including Florence Price’s Piano Concerto in D minor performed by Artina McCain, and William Grant Still’s Symphony No. 4, the Autochthonous;
  • March 11, a program conducted by Mark Russell Smith featuring the work of female composersJoan Tower in her Fanfare #1 for the Unknown Woman, and Louise Farrenc in her Symphony No. 3; The program concludes with the powerful Piano Concerto #2 of Sergei Prokofiev, performed by Wei Luo;
  • April 15, Asian-American conductor Tian Hui Ng, Music Director of the Pioneer Valley Symphony Orchestra, will conduct a program featuring Benjamin Britten’s Four Sea Interludes, Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto, No. 2, an epic work of Romanticism, performed by Jiayan Sun, and Edward Elgar’s Enigma Variations; 
  • May 13, conductor Theodore Kuchar, Artistic Director and Principal Conductor of the Lviv (Ukraine) National Symphony Orchestra, will lead a program featuring Dvorak’s Carnival Overture, Thomas de Hartmann’s Cello Concerto with guest cellist Matt Haimovitz, and Jean Sibelius’s dramatic and ever popular Symphony No.2.

The first pops concert in the concert schedule is “Holiday Pops” on Dec. 3, 2022 with conductor William Waldrop featuring guest soprano Camille Zamora and the Springfield Symphony Chorus. The program will include some old and some new versions of holiday favorites.

On Feb. 25, 2023 Byron Stripling, who also will perform on trumpet and vocals, will lead the second pops concert, celebrating Mardi Gras. He is a Springfield favorite, and is now the principal Pops conductor of the Pittsburgh Symphony Orchestra.

Banking and Financial Services Special Coverage

Landmark Decision

Country Bank

Country Bank

The property on Main Street

The property on Main Street has always played an important role in the economic vibrancy of the town, and this is expected to continue with its new function as a police station.

Country Bank recently introduced a new marketing slogan — ‘Made to Make a Difference.’ There have been myriad examples of that mindset over the bank’s 172-year history, but perhaps none bigger than the recent announcement that the bank would gift its former headquarters property on Main Street, valued at more than $3 million, to the town, with the intention of it becoming the site of a new police station and perhaps home to other town offices.

 

Paul Scully says that, over the past few years, or since Country Bank started ramping up discussions about what to do with its vacant former headquarters building on Main Street in Ware, there had been talks with various real estate developers about the property.

But they didn’t go very far, said Scully, the bank’s president, noting that those making inquiries were “more speculators than investors,” as he put it.

“And we didn’t want to sell it on a speculative basis and then not have it maintained,” he explained. “Or have someone say ‘we bought this with the intention of having some office move in but it never came to fruition’ and now the property is abandoned.

“Yes, we were approached by some people,” he went on. “But we really weren’t interested. We really were driven by a desire to use this property to make a difference for the town; that was our guiding compass.”

With that, Scully poignantly described the mindset that ultimately led to the announcement on June 1 that the bank was donating the property at 75-79 Main St. to the town with the intention of it becoming the site of its new police station and perhaps other municipal uses.

Elaborating, he said there were multiple objectives in mind as the bank considered what to do with the property that had been its home until it moved its headquarters into renovated mill space on South Street in 2005.

These included a desire to help the police department find larger, better quarters — something it desperately needs — while also “energizing Main Street,” as Scully put it, noting that the town’s central business district has been hit hard by COVID and other factors and needs a spark. He believes that having the police department and perhaps some other town offices in that complex will provide one.

The decision to gift the property to the town comes, coincidentally, as the bank introduced a marketing tagline: ‘Made to Make a Difference.’

This tagline evolved from a series of focus groups with customers, team members, board members, and non-customers who had gathered to discuss their experiences with the bank and their knowledge of its impact on the people and communities it serves, said Scully, adding that the donation of the Main Street building is the latest example of this mindset at work.

“Yes, we were approached by some people. But we really weren’t interested. We really were driven by a desire to use this property to make a difference for the town; that was our guiding compass.”

“It’s what we’ve been doing for 172 years — we’re made to make a difference; make a difference in your loan, make a difference in the community, make a difference in your financial planning,” he said, adding that this mission has been carried out in countless ways over the years, including a recent project in Worcester to build 55 beds for children in conjunction with the Mass. Coalition for the Homeless, at which the new slogan was formally introduced to the bank’s staff.

“That was the first time they’d heard the slogan, and in the previous two hours, they had just made a difference in a child’s life, someone who did have a bed of their own,” he explained, adding that the donation of the Main Street property adds a new and an intriguing chapter to that long-running story of giving back.

 

Building Momentum

As he talked about the decision to gift the property to the community, a donation he described as rare for a private institution, Scully first set the stage in an effort to explain how this came about, why it makes sense for the town, and how it meets the bank’s ongoing commitment to the community embedded in its new marketing slogan.

He started by discussing Main Street and, more specifically, what was largely missing from it — vitality, or energy. Elaborating, he said that many retail businesses had moved over the past several years from Main Street to the new commercial hub on Route 32, near a Wal-mart. And in recent years, several fires, including one at the bank’s Main Street property, prompted more moves by businesses. Meanwhile, COVID and lengthy and very involved reconstruction of Main Street brought additional challenges to that part of downtown.

These forces coincided with Main Street property going quiet, as a result of the pandemic and forces resulting from it.

That property, valued at approximately $3 million, includes the former banking office located on the corner of Main and Bank Street along with the E2E building located at 79 Main St., the rear parking lot and bunker style garage, and rooftop parking situated behind the 65-71 Main Street location that was also donated by Country Bank to the Quaboag Valley Community Development Corporation back in 2016.

Country Bank president Paul Scully

Country Bank president Paul Scully

It has been vacant since the start of the pandemic, when the bank closed its branch there due to staff and customer safety concerns.

“Not maintaining a presence on Main Street was a tough decision that required months of consideration while assessing how this location might be best utilized to support the community,” said Scully. “The effects of the pandemic combined with a significant decrease in customer foot traffic over the years and a shift in banking habits to more customers adopting electronic delivery channels were all a considerable part of the decision. It is a massive building to be sitting empty. The decision to donate the building became evident as we weighed the usage of this location and discussed the opportunities it could provide to the town.”

Elaborating, Scully said that while there have been ongoing discussions about the fate of the building over the years, they took on new urgency with the pandemic and the bank’s decision not to have on presence on Main Street.

However, that urgency coincided with the large-scale construction work undertaken on Main Street, he went on, adding that nothing could really be done while that work was going on.

“Over the past year, and with more earnest, we’ve been saying ‘let’s figure out what we can do with this building a make a difference,” said Scully. “And it somewhat coincided with hearing about the need for a new police station.”

The pricetag for such a facility was pegged at $7 million to $9 million, he said, adding that a new station is clearly needed, with the department having outgrown its current quarters, the town’s former post office.

By gifting the town its former headquarters, the bank can help save the town much of that expense — it will still need to renovate the property for that new use, said Scully — while also helping to bring some new life to a downtown that is poised for a resurgence given the recent roadwork and an easing of the pandemic.

“We knew that now that the roads had been repaved and new sidewalks installed, there was more of an opportunity for a resurgence on Main Street than there had been during that construction process,” said Scully. “And we didn’t want to circumvent that by having someone buy the building who wasn’t going to be able to maintain it or have the financial resources to take care of it.

“We wanted it to be right formula for the town and for the other merchants on Main Street to allow them to get some foot traffic back,” he went on, adding that a police station, and other town offices that might eventually move into that space, will help accomplish many of those goals.

Although there is no specific timeline for the transfer of ownership, which needs approval from the town at a scheduled town meeting, the bank intends to work on a smooth transition with all parties involved and expects the transfer of the location to happen in 2023, said Scully.

 

The Bottom Line

Reflecting on the long history of the Main Street property, Scully said it has housed different banks, including Country, the Ware Trust Company, and Ware Savings, since before World War I.

It has long played a role in the economic vibrancy of the town, he said, adding that even though its function will change, it will continue to do so. This was that guiding compass the bank used as it went about determining a new use for the property.

“We look at this as a great investment in community — this is what community banking is all about,” he said. “We say that we exist for our customers, our community, and our staff, and this really is the community basis of it. We’re really excited that we can help make a difference downtown and help make a difference to the taxpayers.

“We met internally as a board and a senior management team, and our driving focus was to what’s right for the town,” Scully explained. “We’ve been in town since 1850, and we believed we’ve made a difference over all those years and wanted to continue making a difference.

Education Special Coverage

Marking a Milestone

The original home to HCC

The original home to HCC, the former Holyoke High School

The campus today

The campus, and its renovated campus center, today

Holyoke Community College, the state’s first community college, is marking its 75th anniversary this year. This has been a time to reflect on how the school has evolved to meet the changing needs of those living and working in the communities it serves, while remaining loyal to the mission with which it was founded — to open doors to opportunity.

 

It’s called the Itsy Bitsy Child Watch Center.

And the name says it all — if you know about this kind of facility. It’s not a daycare center — there’s already one of those on the Holyoke Community College campus. And it’s not an early education facility — the college has no intention of getting into that business, according to its president, Christina Royal.

Instead, it’s a … child-watch center, a place where students can bring young children for a few minutes or a few hours, while they’re attending classes, taking part in meetings, or perhaps huddling with advisors.

“In daycare, you drop your child off in the morning and you pick it up at the end of the day; it’s generally for full-time working parents,” she explained. “In a child-watch program, you’re dropping the child off for a short-term period that is very specific; you’re coming, you’re taking a class, you need to put your child in a child-watch program for that 50 minutes or an hour and a half that you’re in class.”

The presence of the Itsy Bitzy Child Watch Center is just one example of the profound level of change that has come to the institution now known as Holyoke Community College. There are many others, including the name over the door — the school was originally called the Holyoke Graduate School (a night program), and was later renamed Holyoke Junior College, before becoming HCC in 1964 — as well as the setting. Indeed, the college was originally located in the former Holyoke High School, which was totally destroyed by fire in 1968, to be replaced by the current campus, carved out of a dairy farm, which opened in 1974.

“We were birthed to create opportunities for working adults to be able to get a quality education, and that’s really important still today. Education is accessible to all — that’s the most important piece about community colleges; access is a tenet of a community-college education.”

But for perhaps the most dramatic change we need to juxtapose the picture of the first graduating class in 1948 with some statistics that Royal keeps at the ready, specifically those noting that more than half of the current students are women, and that during the most recent semester, 41 different countries were represented by the study body, and 33 different languages might be heard on the campus.

The first graduating class

The first graduating class (1948) was much smaller, and far less diverse, than the classes today.

But while celebrating all that has changed over the past 75 years, the institution is also marking what hasn’t. And there is quite a bit in that category as well.

Christina Royal, the college’s fourth president

Christina Royal, the college’s fourth president

Indeed, HCC has, seemingly from the beginning, been a place to start for those seeking a college education, but not a final destination, said Royal, noting that many have transferred to four-year schools to obtain bachelor’s degrees and then graduate degrees.

It’s also been a place for those for whom college is certainly not a foregone conclusion.,

“We were birthed to create opportunities for working adults to be able to get a quality education, and that’s really important still today,” said Royal. “Education is accessible to all — that’s the most important piece about community colleges; access is a tenet of a community-college education.

“No matter who you are, or where you’re at in your career, there is a place for you at HCC,” she went on. “This creates doors that open for many students, and it’s also why, when you look at our alumni, we talk about HCC being a family affair; we have many alums who say that either their parents had come here or their siblings or their cousins come here.” because you see many generations of students that continue to come back and have the next generation supported at HCC.”

Meanwhile, the school has always been known for the high levels of support given to its students, many of them being the first in their families to attend college. In 1946, and the years that followed, many of these students were men who had served in World War II and were attending college on the G.I. Bill.

Fire destroyed the college in 1968

Fire destroyed the college in 1968, leaving some to ponder whether HCC had a future.

Today, as noted, more than half are women and far more than half are non-white. Many arrive with specific needs — ranging from food insecurity to transportation to a child-watch facility — and HCC, while helping them earn a degree or certificate, has been steadfast in its efforts to address those needs and “meet students where they are,” as Royal likes to say.

Moving forward, the school is marking its first 75 years with a variety of ceremonies, a commitment to continue its tradition of being accessible, and a refreshed strategic plan, one that has put additional emphasis on academic success and meeting student needs.

“It’s important that we provide equitable opportunities and that there is an equitable chance of success no matter who walks through the door.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked at length with Royal about where HCC has been, where it is today, and where it would like to be in the years to come.

 

School of Thought

As she talked with BusinessWest late last month, Royal was planning for, and very much looking forward to, commencement ceremonies at the MassMutual Center on June 4.

This would be the first in-person ceremony in three years, and members of the classes of 2020 and 2021 were invited to join this year’s graduates in the proceedings. Royal; said several dozen members of those earlier classes accepted the invitation to march.

The new Center for Health Education and Simulation

The new Center for Health Education and Simulation on Jarvis Avenue is one of many recent additions to the HCC landscape in recent years.

“We’ve heard from some members of those classes that they desire to have that traditional pomp-and-circumstance experience,” said Royal, noting that, beyond the canceled in-person commencement ceremonies, the pandemic has tested HCC in myriad other ways, from enrollment to helping students secure access to the Internet.

“We were impacted as intensely as everyone else in the world,” said Royal, adding that this has been a test that has left the school stronger and more resilient, in her estimation.

And looking back on HCC’s 75 years of service to the region, the pandemic is certainly not the first, or only, time the school has faced adversity of the highest order — and persevered.

Indeed, the fire of 1968, which broke out on Jan. 4, just before final exams, left the school shaken to its foundation — quite literally, with some wondering if it even had a future.

“Culturally, we have fewer students who start, finish their education, and then focus on work for the rest of their career.”

“Springfield Technical Community College had just opened,” said Royal, only the fourth president in the school’s history. “And there was a lot of conversation about whether we needed another community college in this region — and if so, do we want to build it in Holyoke? It was amazing that while all this debate and discussion was going on, we inherited the land from the Sheehan family, what was the Sheehan Dairy Farm, and be able to rebuild the college in a place that allowed us to continue to expand and grow to what you see today.”

And since opening its facility off Homestead Avenue in 1974, the college has certainly grown within that space, adding several new facilities, including the Bartley Center for Athletics and Education, the Kittredge Center for Business and Workforce Development, a new health sciences facility, and a renovated campus center. It has also returned to its roots with facilities in downtown Holyoke, including the HCC MGM Culinary Arts Center in the Cubit Building on Race Street, and the Picknelly Adult and Family Education Center.

Meanwhile, it has become far more diverse, said Royal, adding that, overall HCC has changed and evolved as the region, its host city, the local business community, and society in general have.

The Kittredge Center

The Kittredge Center for Business and Workforce Development is another of the many recent additions to the HCC campus.

“We are a reflection of the community,” Royal explained, adding that the Itsy Bitsy Child Watch Center is just one example of this phenomenon.

“When you look at the history of our communities and when you think about how these communities have changed, then we’ve had to grow and change with them to keep up with the changing demographics of our region — both in growth in numbers and in terms of the ‘who’ that we’re serving; we really serve a lot of student populations.”

Elaborating, she said that today, as always, the focus is on inclusion, empowering students, and creating an environment in which they can not only attend school, but achieve success, however they wish to define it.

“We’re really focused on equity,” Royal explained. “It’s important that we provide equitable opportunities and that there is an equitable chance of success no matter who walks through the door. And the data shows us that our BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of Color) students are not succeeding at the same rate as our white students.

“So our equity initiatives look to be able to provide the additional support and services so we can bring those numbers into alignment,” she went on, adding that, overall the school has become far more data-driven as it works to understand the changing demographics of those it serves — and usethat data to determine how it pivots and changes to better serve students and other constituencies.

Summing it all up, Royal said, “We have a reputation of being a place to come, to start your education at an affordable rate, with high-quality faculty, strong academic rigor, plenty of support services, and to set students up to transfer to any of the prestigious four-year institutions in our area or beyond.”

 

Course of Action

Looking at HCC today, and what she projects for tomorrow, Royal said the process of evolution at the school is ongoing. And that’s because change is a constant — change within the communities being served, change in the business community and the workplace, and change when it comes to the needs of the students coming to the Homestead Avenue campus.

The pandemic accelerated this process of change in some respects, said Royal, and it also brought a greater need for reflection on just what students need — and how those needs can be met.

Returning to the subject of the new child-watch center, she said it’s a reflection of how the school has been focusing on the basic needs of students and taking direct steps to address them, work that was part of the latest strategic plan, which was completed in 2017.

“We want to be a college of academic rigor, known for helping students overcome barriers to success,” she explained, adding that when discussions were launched on this matter, there were four barriers that were initially defined — food, housing, transportation, and childcare — with area focal points, such as digital literacy, mental health, and others, identified

Each has been addressed in various ways, she said, citing initiatives ranging from a program to house students in dorms at Westfield State University (which not only provides housing but provides exposure to potential next step in the higher education journey), to another program that provides 3,000 bus passes to students to help them get to and from the campus.

Childcare has taken longer to address, she went on, adding that collected data clearly showed the need for a facility where students could place children while they were attending class or accessing services at the college. With $100,000 in support from the state, HCC was able to become the second community college in the state (Norther Essex is the other) to offer child-watch services.

While addressing these needs, HCC is also focused on the changing world of work, what it will look like in the years and decades to come, and how to prepare students for that world.

“Our focus is on having students create life-long relationships with the college,” she explained. “Culturally, we have fewer students who start, finish their education, and then focus on work for the rest of their career. Now, the world of work has shifted, the future of work has changed a lot, and we know that people make job changes much more rapidly than they did in past decades, and so therefore, there’s a different interconnection and relationship between education and workforce.

“It’s not linear anymore,” she went on. “It’s integrated, and it changes depending on how a student’s path changes in life, how many career changes they make; they’ll come back and retool through short-term training or perhaps another degree, and then they make their way into a new career field.”

 

Class Act

Summing up both the first 75 years and what comes next, Royal said that while there has been tremendous change since HCC was founded, and there is much more to come, there is a constant:

“We believe in transforming communities through education; that is at the core of what we do,” she told BusinessWest. “We believe there are a lot of different ways that people can find their path and contribute to our local economy.”

Helping individuals forge a path is what this institution has been about since it was called the Holyoke Graduate School. And that is what is being celebrated in this milestone year. u

 

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

Special Coverage Women in Businesss

Growing Desire

 

Tina D’Agostino

Tina D’Agostino

For many, the pandemic was a time for introspection, for thinking about what’s important in life, for finding what makes one happy. It was that way for Tina D’Agostino, who, after landing in the corporate world following two decades of work at CityStage, decided she wanted to “pursue a career I could love again.” That pursuit led to Blooms Flower Truck and Studio, a business that brings a passion for flowers and some entrepreneurial fire together in the same mobile venture.

 

 

Tina D’Agostino says she’s always been entrepreneurial, and has long had a desire to start a venture of her own. Until very recently, though, the timing just wasn’t right.

By that she meant that she was either busy raising children and working part time, a period much earlier in her career, or working full time, as in very full time, promoting and staging events for CityStage with Springfield Performing Arts Development Corp., until 2018.

“I think that fire, and that interest, was always there,” she said. “But life did not allow me to test those waters and jump in.”

And when it did allow her to jump in and eventually launch Blooms Flower Truck and Studio, the timing could hardly be considered ideal. Indeed, she opened the doors to the truck in the middle of the pandemic, when operating any business was a stern challenge.

In some important ways, however, the pandemic inspired this entrepreneurial gambit, she said, adding that, for her (and many others) that challenging, unprecedented period brought with it time, and reason, for introspection and a focus on what’s important.

And for her, this meant finding work that … well, isn’t really work. Flowers are more of a passion, she said, and working for herself brings rewards on many different levels.

“COVID forced a lot of people to focus on what motivates them and interests them and makes them happy,” she told BusinessWest. “That’s what happened to me, anyway. That, coupled with losing some friends and some family members and realizing that life sometimes is a lot shorter than it should be, I really just wanted to focus on pursuing a career that I could love again.”

In this case, it meant taking a life-long love of flowers and gardening and coming up with something different, specifically a flower truck — a tricked-out Mercedes Sprinter van to be more precise. It’s not a delivery van, but rather a flower shop on wheels, one that she takes to various locations, like the Longmeadow Shops, to sell flowers but also to stage workshops and other programs.

She opened on Mother’s Day — one of those big days for florists — in 2021, and officially opened her studio in the Mill at Crane Pond in Westfield last November. Just over a year in, she described what’s transpired thus far as a rewarding learning experience, one that has yielded all the emotions encountered by entrepreneurs and the normal amounts of highs, lows, doubts, convictions, and nights where she could have done with more sleep.

“It’s certainly stressful figuring out where the next check is coming from and how I’m going to make the next payment on the van,” she continued. “But it’s worth it; at the end of every day, I’m glad I made this move.”

“COVID forced a lot of people to focus on what motivates them and interests them and makes them happy. That’s what happened to me, anyway. That, coupled with losing some friends and some family members and realizing that life sometimes is a lot shorter than it should be, I really just wanted to focus on pursuing a career that I could love again.”

Overall, she has perservered and put down some solid roots in a highly competitive industry. And she has her business on a track to continued growth and new opportunities, while successfully returning to where she was — a place where she loves coming to work every day.

For this issue and its focus on women in business, we talked with D’Agostino about her still relatively new venture, where she wants to take it, and how she intends to get there.

 

Stem Class

D’Agostino calls this the fourth chapter in her career. The first three included an intriguing mix of career stops, all of which in some ways helped her prepare for this latest act.

During that first chapter, she worked for a direct-mail company, a treadmill manufacturer, and an elementary school, when her children were very young. After she divorced, she needed full-time employment with benefits, and found it at CityStage, where she would climb the ladder, advancing from director of marketing to general manager to executive director, the post she was in when the city announced it was closing the nonprofit agency in 2018.

From there, she worked at Mercy Medical Center in the office of Philanthropy, and, later took a community-engagement role with Health New England just days before the pandemic arrived in Western Mass.

“I was at Health New England for four days before we were sent home to work because of COVID, so the community engagement part of that never took off,” she noted, adding that she worked at the company into January of this year as she gradually transitioned out of that phase of her career and into this one.

“I realized that, after enjoying a pretty robust career in a nonprofit in a very unique industry, the entertainment industry, it was hard to make that shift to the corporate environment,” she explained. “I think that this, coupled with COVID, promoted me to pivot to this business and become an entrepreneur. To go to a job every day sent me into a bit of a depression.”

Her chosen field, pun intended, is a hobby and passion that goes back to when she was a child.

“My grandmother had the greenest of all thumbs,” she explained. “She was a gardener and had tons of flowers outside and inside; actually, both sets of grandparents had vegetable gardens. We grew up gardening and paying attention to flowers — when I was a kid, it was big outing to go to Stanley Park and look at the roses, and we used to go to flower shows with my mom and my aunts when I was a kid, so I’ve always been around flowers.

“My father died when I was very young, and after he died, my mom went to work part time in a flower shop, so I had that exposure,” she went on. “It’s always been an interest of mine, and I’ve always arranged my own flowers.”

But making flowers a business is challenging in the current marketplace, she told BusinessWest, adding that there are still plenty of traditional flower shops in the region and supermarkets in nearly every area community with huge floral departments.

Upon surveying this scene, she decided she needed something decidedly different, and by that she meant the experience of choosing and buying flowers. And she decided that a mobile model would set Blooms apart and provide that unique experience.

“Blooms has evolved, and it’s still evolving. I’m rewriting the business plan regularly.”

“It’s kind of like a food truck, but with flowers,” she said, adding that she does pop-ups at the Longmeadow Shops and other locations such as wineries and breweries, and will also appear at events like charity golf tournaments. She has also made appearances at businesses — the Big E was one of them — that are showing appreciation to employees by giving them flowers.

Her first real challenge, and maybe the biggest in her estimation, was simply finding a van in which to operate — a difficult task when inventory is short and prices have skyrocketed.

“When I was looking last year, there were zero; there was nothing out there for a few months,” she recalled, adding that at one point she was in line to get a used model but eventually scored a new one and in less time than she anticipated.

Last November, she went next level and opened the studio at the Mill at Crane Pond in space by the loading dock that was formerly occupied by a machine shop. There, she sees some foot traffic for flowers and also conducts some workshops.

Moving forward, she is shaping and reshaping the business model and working to create enough revenue streams to see the business through the months that don’t have those busy flower days, like Mother’s Day, Valentine’s Day, Easter, and even Thanksgiving, which was more lucrative than she imagined it would be.

Such streams include everything from event planning, something she has done for years, and providing flowers for such gatherings, to an array of gifts she sells at the studio — most of which are intended for marrying couples — to work helping area residents with their home gardens.

“Blooms has evolved, and it’s still evolving,” she explained. “I’m rewriting the business plan regularly; some things have worked, and some things haven’t. The latest incarnation is to focus on as much events business as possible, and try to book as many large events, such as weddings and corporate gatherings, as possible.”

Elaborating, she said she wants to create more added value at such events by providing take-away gifts such as bouquets, or staging workshops for attendees on making arrangements, an interactive experience she calls a “Blooms bar.”

 

Plant Manager

All this is part of an entrepreneurial experience that is, in many ways, what she expected. But in other ways, it’s been much more than she could have imagined.

“I knew it was going to be a lot of work, but it is a lot more work than thought it was going to be because I’m just one person,” she explained. “I have friends and family that help when I need it for larger events, but for the day to day, I’m handling all of it — managing the books, the buying, the marketing, the social media, and the delivery; it’s much more than I thought.

“I do have to remember that it’s good to put things down and put things away,” she went on. “I really have to focus on staying organized, planning my time, and budgeting my time so that it’s not completely taking over. But that’s also the blessing of being an entrepreneur, because you can make your own schedule.”

Overall, the highs and lows, up and downs, have certainly been palatable, because D’Agostino is in a place she wants to be, figuratively, but also quite literally.

“There aren’t really any bad days, but at the end of the worst day, I look next to me, and I’m delivering, or surrounded by, or working with, all this beauty, and that’s really important to me.”

 

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

Alumni Achievement Award

Founder/CEO, the Royal Law Firm

Amy Royal

Amy Royal

Amy Royal is a big believer in that old adage — the one about how if you want something done, give that task to a busy person.

“I’ve seen that happen so much over the course of my career,” she told BusinessWest. “Those busy people — they just make it happen. They’ll return things very quickly; they get things done, and done right.”

For quite some time now, Royal, founder and CEO of the Springfield-based Royal Law Firm, has been the very definition of that proverbial busy person — and that’s probably why people keep asking her to do things, with ‘people’ meaning everything from legal clients to area nonprofits to those running the Springfield Ballers (more on them later).

Indeed, Royal is busy with all kinds of things these days, and the sum of this work inside and outside the office (and on her new office) certainly helps to explain why she is a finalist for the Alumni Achievement Award in 2022.

Let’s start with the office. Back in 2009, when Royal was honored as a member of the third 40 Under Forty class, she was busy putting the law firm she established on a path to consistent, diverse growth. To say that she has succeeded with that assignment would be an understatement.

Indeed, the firm has grown in size — it now boasts a team of 11 — while also greatly expanding its book of business, its geographic footprint, and its service areas.

When the firm was launched, it was focused exclusively on representing employers in labor and employment law matters. It still does a lot of that, but it has pushed into other areas of the law, as Royal explained.

“It was a long time coming before I decided to expand beyond that; we still only represent organizations, but now we do it in other practice areas beyond where we started,” she explained. “I’m representing Merck Corp. in federal court here in a products-liability claim; my litigation has expanded beyond labor and employment law to commercial litigation generally.”

Merck is just one of many national and international clients in the firm’s portfolio. Others include Google, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Macy’s, Panasonic Corp. of North America, and KeyBank.

As for geographic expansion, the firm now has satellite offices in Hartford, Providence, and Bennington, Vt. (the latest facility to open), and Royal has ambitious plans to soon be in all six New England states.

And her entrepreneurial exploits extend beyond her law firm. Indeed, she has been involved in many other business ventures, including the purchase and subsequent expansion of West Side Metal Door Corp., a distributor and fabricator of metal doors and frames. There have been several real estate development projects, the latest being her purchase of the historic Alexander House, just down the street from the federal courthouse.

Royal is in the process of restoring the 6,000-square-foot home, built in 1811, and relocating the law firm’s headquarters there.

Meanwhile, Royal has long been busy outside the office, donating her time and talents to several nonprofits, especially the Center for Human Development. She has served on its board for more than 14 years, and is currently its president. She has also served on other boards, including serving as president of United Way of Hampshire County.

She has also coached many youth sports, from basketball to baseball, and created the 501c3 corporation for the Springfield Ballers, a nonprofit providing opportunities to young people in athletic programs. She serves as clerk of the Ballers board, and has been involved in writing grants to attain the funds to create more opportunities for more young people.

“We serve more than 400 kids in the Greater Springfield area in sports like basketball, both boys and girls, lacrosse, golf, and others,” Royal explained, adding that the initiative started as a girls’ basketball league and has expanded and evolved “massively from there.”

This is a volunteer operation, she went on, where those involved often wear many hats, as she does. She was asked to coach this year, as she has many times in the past, but had to decline — for a good reason.

“This is probably my older son’s last season in AAU, so I really want to watch him play basketball,” she said, adding that this is one example of how she works to balance the many priorities in her life.

When asked where she finds the time for all that she does and is asked to do, Royal said she makes it, because each aspect of her life is important to her — her family, her law career, and her many commitments to this region, which is her life-long home.

“I grew up here, and I care about the community and see that as something that is really important,” she said. “It’s something that both my parents were involved in; they made it a priority, and I’m simply following their example.”

In doing so, she has certainly become one of those busy people from that old adage that others entrust with important tasks — and a finalist for the Alumni Achievement Award.

 

George O’Brien

Alumni Achievement Award

President and Co-founder of the Gleason Johndrow Companies

Anthony Gleason II

Anthony Gleason II

 

You might call it the ‘snowball effect.’

That’s one poetic way to describe what has happened since Anthony Gleason started his own landscaping business when he was 16, and especially since he was honored as a member of the Forty Under 40 Class of 2010.

Things have… well, snowballed. And in all kinds of ways.

The landscaping company he started with a $1,500 pickup truck and a lawnmower has grown into one of the largest snow-removal contractors in the country — the 32nd largest to be exact, at least according to the latest rankings in Snow Magazine, with more than $10 million in revenues in 2021. It now boasts a number of large contracts including the city of Springfield (250 locations), UMass Amherst and its 157 parking lots of various shapes and sizes, Western New England University, and many others, and has extended its geographic reach well beyond Western Mass.

“We’re servicing the entire state of Massachusetts — we’ll go out to Worcester and Boston — and go south into Hartford,” he told BusinessWest. “We just keep trying to grow wherever we can with the kind of work that makes sense.”

Meanwhile, the real estate portfolios of the many companies he’s now involved with continue to grow. The combined portfolio now boasts properties valued at more than $25 million, he said, and it includes office, industrial, self-storage, and other properties.

“We’re servicing the entire state of Massachusetts — we’ll go out to Worcester and Boston — and go south into Hartford. We just keep trying to grow wherever we can with the kind of work that makes sense.”

And Gleason’s involvement in the community — both on a personal and company-wide scale — continues to snowball as well, especially in Springfield. Indeed, both Gleason personally and Gleason Johndrow Landscaping have become huge supporters of the Spirit of Springfield, as both a sponsor and with in-kind donations, as we’ll see, but his work to give back extends well beyond the SOS to several other causes and organizations.

To sum it all up, Gleason, 36, who was also a finalist for the AAA award in 2019, travels back in time to when he was just getting started with that pick up truck while still in high school.

“I started with a few accounts … and I just went after it,” he said, adding that this is the mindset that has propelled his landscaping company — and many other business interests — forward, making it a force not only within its highly competitive industry, but within the community as well.

As he talked about his landscaping company and its status among the largest and most successful in the country, Gleason said it is well-positioned within that competitive market. It is large enough — with 150 employees and more than 75 vehicles — to handle the needs of large-scale clients like the city of Springfield and UMass Amherst, but also nimble enough to handle assignments of any size.

“Snow services is our largest offering and it’s what I think sets us apart,” he explained. “I do believe we’re really good at it, and we’re well-equipped. We’re going to continue to grow, but we’re going to try to do it modestly and do it the right way, with the accounts that make sense for our business model.”

With all this success in business comes a responsibility to give back, said Gleason, and he does this in many ways, perhaps most notably, and visibly, with the Spirit of Springfield and its many endeavors.

Since 2015, Gleason Johndrow Landscaping has been heavily involved with the SOS’s annual pancake breakfast, touted as the largest in the world. A team of 20 from the company provides help with logistics and operations — everything from loading batter onto a refrigerated truck to dispensing supplies to three cooking tents and 10 beverage stations.

Starting that same year, the company has been a sponsor of Bright Nights at Forest Park’s ‘Happy Holidays Springfield’ display. In 2017, the company was the lead sponsor, and Gleason the co-chair, of the City of Bright Nights Ball, the SOS’s largest annual fundraiser. In the years that have followed, it has supported the gala as a Golden Circle Sponsor.

But, as noted earlier, Gleason and the company have given back in many other ways as well. Examples include the donation of labor and resources to Southampton’s Norris Elementary School playground project, support for the Gunnery Sergeant Thomas J. Sullivan Park in Springfield, and ongoing support to a host of agencies, including Empty Arms Bereavement, the Mayflower Marathon, Springfield Cultural Council, Susan G. Komen Foundation, and many others.

While doing all this, Gleason has become an inspiration, role-model, and cheerleader of sorts for employees and others in the community, said Judy Matt, president of the Spirit of Springfield, who is one of many who nominated Gleason for the AAA award.

“He continues to inspire others by meeting with employees, colleagues, and friends to assist them with personal financial management, budgeting, and retirement investments,” she wrote. “He has encouraged employees to purchase homes or multi-family buildings, and often has helped them reach their goals of home ownership. He is always willing to donate his time and knowledge and to share his story of success so that others can achieve even greater accomplishments; this has been one of his main objectives throughout his career.”

You might say this objective is just part of the snow-ball effect, a success story that has many chapters still to be written.

 

George O’Brien

Alumni Achievement Award

Associate Professor of Accounting and Finances, Director of the MBA Program, Elms College

Amanda Garcia

Amanda Garcia

Amanda Garcia has some simple advice for those she counsels in the Entrepreneurship program at Elms College — and pretty much everyone else she mentors at one level or another.

“I tell them not to be afraid to fail, and that you can learn from failure,” Garcia, now a repeat finalist for the Alumni Achievement Award, told BusinessWest. “A lot of times as an entrepreneur, whatever you start with is not what you end up with. So I encourage the students to understand that failure is OK — just learn from the failure and figure out what you can do better next time.”

And this is advice that extends to all those in business, she went on, not simply those who happen to own the business.

“If you’re too afraid to fail at something, you’ll never take the risk to start something new,” she explained. “A new program, a new initiative … any of that is a risk, because you’re putting your name on it, and sometimes things don’t go well.”

Suffice it to say that Garcia practices what she preaches, and that simple philosophy helps explain why she is again a finalist for the AAA award. Indeed, she has demonstrated several times that she is not afraid to fail, taking on new career challenges, new initiatives in the realm of higher education, and even her own entrepreneurial venture, an accounting firm that bears her name.

Most all of that has occurred since she was honored as a member of the 40 Under Forty Class of 2010. At that time, she was vice president of Operations for Junior Achievement of Western MA. And while she’s still heavily involved in JA, as we’ll see later, she has shifted her career path from the nonprofit realm to higher education.

“If you’re too afraid to fail at something, you’ll never take the risk to start something new. A new program, a new initiative … any of that is a risk, because you’re putting your name on it, and sometimes things don’t go well.”

At Elms College, where she started as lecturer in Accounting, she is currently an associate professor of Accounting and Finances and interim director of the MBA program, which she co-founded in 2012. Since then, she’s helped grow that program to include graduate degrees in several areas, including Accounting, Financial Planning, Healthcare Leadership, Management, and many others.

Meanwhile, Garcia helped launch the Entrepreneurship program at the school, and currently oversees that initiative and is co-director of the First-year Seminar and Innovation Challenge for students in that program.

Explaining that initiative, she said it is aptly named — students are placed into teams that are challenged with conceptualizing a product and service and pitching it in a competition that earns the winners some capital to take their venture forward.

“Students learn about design thinking, they learn how to pitch, they learn about innovation and how to tackle big problems that seem to have no answer,” she explained, adding that as an advisor and leader of the program, she also teaches them how to work in teams and be a good team member.

As for those big problems with no answers, she said that over the years, teams have addressed some of them with imagination, determination, and solutions in various phases of development.

“Last year’s winner pitched a roommate-matching app where the students would design the surveys to determine what is important to them in a roommate,” she explained, noting the importance of such a service. “A bad roommate is the number-one reason for a student leaving college or not living on campus.”

As for her own entrepreneurial venture, Amanda Garcia, LLC, launched in 2008, she has grown it from a sole proprietorship to three employees. It specializes in small business, rental properties, and tax planning for individuals with investments.

While the many aspects of her work keep her busy, she makes time for giving back to the community, especially Junior Achievement.

Indeed, she still has strong ties to the organization, serving as its accountant, co-chair of its annual golf tournament, a JA volunteer, and chair of the JA EnTEENpreneur Challenge, where, again, she is helping young people develop ideas and begin the process of transforming them into businesses.

Summing up all that she does, as a college professor, an accountant, and as a JA volunteer, Garcia said she is educating people and helping them succeed, as she has, in business and in life. It’s a role she takes very seriously, said Jennifer Connolly, president of Junior Achievement of Western MA, who nominated Garcia for the AAA award.

“Over the years, Amanda has helped dozens of area students and their families navigate applying for college, and then mentored those students through their college years,” she said. “She maintains close contact with many of her students after graduation, mentoring them as they navigate the world of work. She gives of herself, her time, and her money to support many organizations in the area.”

Overall, Garcia doesn’t have much direct experience with failure, so she can’t exactly speak from experience there. But she has considerable experience when it comes to overcoming fear of failure and accepting new challenges — on the job, with her business, and with everything that life can throw at someone.

Helping people overcome that fear and reach higher is just one of the ways she is making an impact in the region. And it’s just one of many reasons why she is a finalist for the Alumni Achievement Award.

 

George O’Brien

 

Cover Story

Study in Determination

Hubert Benitez

Hubert Benitez

Hubert Benitez is a dentist by trade. He got into that field because he wanted to serve people — and because he wanted to make a difference. He eventually left dentistry for academia because … well, he still wanted to serve people and make a difference, but in an even more profound way, by creating pathways to higher education. This focus has become a passion, one that he brings to his new role as president of American International College.

At the recent commencement ceremonies for American International College, Hubert Benitez, DDS, the school’s president, was at the podium, handing out diplomas, and offering traditional greetings to the graduates — something along the lines of ‘congratulations, and good luck.’

And in what would have to be considered an unusual twist, many of them said the same thing back to him.

Indeed, Benitez had been on the job for only about a month before taking the stage at those ceremonies at the MassMutual Center — and delivering the commencement address while he was at it. Most all of the students accepting their diplomas knew that, and wanted to offer some words of encouragement.

“You don’t learn about an institution until you’ve talked to its people.”

Taking the helm just a few weeks before the end of a spring semester is highly unusual in higher education — most new presidents would prefer to start during the summer, when things are slower and they have time to ramp up, or at the start of a new school year. Benitez said he was given those options, but was also asked to consider starting in April by Board of Directors Chairman Frank Colaccino, a member of AIC’s Class of 1973 and member of the search committee that ultimately offered Benitez the job.

And he said he jumped at the opportunity, essentially because he couldn’t wait to get started with the next chapter in both his intriguing professional career — and in the history of the school, which first welcomed students in 1885.

“That is a non-traditional start date,” he acknowledged. “Because it’s a transitional phase — we’re closing, and also starting a new academic year. In retrospect, I think it’s been beneficial to start when I did, because I had the opportunity to work with my colleagues during a very stressful time — an academic year is ending, we’re close to commencement, we’re close to ending the fiscal year, and now we’re preparing the budget to present to the Board of Directors for approval.

the AIC campus

Hubert Benitez says his first visit to the AIC campus left him convinced that he wanted to be the school’s next president.

“It’s almost unheard of to start at that time, but I wanted to take up the challenge,” he went on. “And, more importantly, my colleagues were willing to welcome a new president in that time of flux.”

Benitez was anxious to start, and before that, he was anxious to apply, because in every way he can imagine, the school’s mission and its ongoing focus on first-generation students and those who may need a second chance to further their education reflects his own resume and his own focus within higher education.

He said that, throughout its history, AIC has created opportunities for many individuals and he wants to continue and build on this mission, making the school ever-more diverse and responsive to the challenges facing both traditional and non-traditional students.

He brings to that assignment an intriguing resume. Indeed, those letters after his name, DDS, indicate that he is a dentist by trade. He had a practice for more than 14 years, but eventually decided he couldn’t see himself “taking care of toothache for the rest of my life.”

Instead, he opted to change course and pursue a career in higher education, or “the academy,” as he called it, because it met a life-long desire to serve others while presenting many different opportunities to grow as an individual and lead others.

“I always saw my colleagues in higher education as individuals who were trying to find new directions, trying to research, trying to find new directions for healthcare for education … and that was something that was intriguing to me,” he said.

In his most recent position, Benitez served as vice president for Strategic Initiatives and Academic Innovation, and as acting chief inclusion officer at Rockhurst University (RU) in Kansas City, MO. Prior to Rockhurst, Benitez served as president and chief executive officer for Saint Luke’s College of Health Sciences for almost five years, where he provided visionary and strategic leadership that included merging the school in Rockhurst (more on that later).

Hubert Benitez, right, was offering congratulations

While Hubert Benitez, right, was offering congratulations to students at commencement, they were offering it right back to him.

In his short but busy time at AIC, he has been “learning and doing,” as he put it and starting the hard work of creating an envisioning plan for the college, an effort involving many individuals and constituencies.

“Many people ask me, ‘what is your vision?’ he said. “I have a vision of what AIC will be, but the vision of AIC will be a shared vision, a vision created by faculty, staff, administrators, because I want to make sure everyone owns that vision.”

 

Something to Sink His Teeth Into

Benitez told BusinessWest that while he was at Rockhurst University, he was encouraged by recruiting firms to apply for various positions, most of them presidencies, across the broad spectrum of higher education. The presidency of AIC was not one of them.

“No one invited me to apply to AIC; I chose AIC, and I was hoping that AIC would choose me,” he said, adding that there were many things about the small, urban school that intrigued him, starting with the three words over the school’s banner: Access, Opportunity, and Diversity.

“When I see an institution that focuses on providing access to demographics of students, providing opportunities to students who haven’t been successful a first time, or a second time, and maybe this is their last opportunity, and when I see an institution that is working on maximizing the diversity of the future workforce … that is absolutely true to who I am, not only as a person, but as a professional.”

Elaborating, he said that the mission of AIC is true to his heart and a reflection of what he has devoted his career to in recent years. To understand those sentiments, we turn the clock back to his decision to transition from dentistry to higher education.

That transition occurred as he was pursuing a post-doctoral fellowship, when Benitez met a fellow DDS who became a mentor and eventually convinced him that his future shouldn’t be in dentistry.

“I believe in the value of mentorship, not only because it helps people move forward with their professional aspirations, but because mentors find in you what you may not have found in yourself,” he explained. “He saw in me a skill set, a desire for professional growth, a desire to work in higher education … he once told me ‘I don’t think you should stay in dental schools — I see you as a holistic administrator.”

This same mentor advised him that he would need a Ph.D., or another one, to be exact, this one in higher education administration, which he earned at Saint Louis University’s College of Education and Public Service.

He then “went through the academic ranks,” as he put in, serving in a number of capacities, including adjunct faculty, full-time faculty, program director, assistant dean, dean, provost, and chief academic officer, before becoming president and CEO of Saint Luke’s College of Health Sciences.

There, as noted earlier, he helped orchestrate a merger with Rockhurst, a union that was different from many of this type because Saint Luke’s was successful at the time, not struggling as many schools are when they look to merge with a larger institution.

“This was the case of two very strong academic institutions, financially healthy academic institutions, coming together with a common vision,” he explained. “Our merger became an example of how two strong institutions can come together, as opposed to traditional mergers, where one institution has troubles and the other one does not, and I was proud to be part of that process.”

As noted, he would go on to vice president for Strategic Initiatives and Academic Innovation, and as acting chief inclusion officer at Rockhurst.

He was in that role, when, without the encouragement of any recruiters, he applied for the position of president at AIC, earned the opportunity to interview for it, and eventually visited the campus in January. It made quite a first impression, as he recalled.

“Sometimes when you visit a campus, and I’ve had the privilege of visiting many, you get a feeling, or you get what I call a vibe when you visit an academic institution,” he said. “My wife and I left this college and we looked at each other, and we knew it felt right.”

During that visit, he said he met with a number of faculty, staff, and students, who collectively presented a picture of what they were looking for in the school’s next president.

“My focus has always been on creating opportunities for access, for diversity, for equity, for inclusion.”

He summed it all up this way: “They said they were looking for someone who could help them and help this institution become prominent in the community while continuing to serve that demographic of student, and continue to provide that access,” he recalled. “If you hear that, and I look back at my story, you can’t be more mission-aligned and vision-aligned; it’s an alignment of the mission to who I am.”

 

Course of Action

Getting back to his unusual start date, Benitez said it has been beneficial in a number of ways, especially in the manner in which it has enabled him to get a head start on his work, and do a lot of that ‘learning and doing’ he mentioned.

The ‘doing’ part concerns everything from commencement to putting the budget together for the new year, he said, adding that the ‘learning’ takes many forms and is ongoing.

For starters, it involves meeting with every employee on the payroll, he said, adding that this is what he did when he was president of Saint Luke’s College of Health Sciences, an exercise that became a tremendous learning experience.

“First and foremost, I need to know my colleagues’ aspirations — what are their needs?” he explained. “I always say that people come first, and if I can learn to understand each and every person’s personal and professional aspirations, I can serve them better. You don’t learn about an institution until you’ve talked to its people.”

Benitez said he’s already met with senior staff and many groups of employees, and has a schedule packed with one-on-one interviews for the next few months.

He’s also meeting with students, taking in events, meeting with the faculty senate and individual faculty members, all in an effort to learn more about the school, where its stakeholders want to take it, and how it will get there.

“But while learning, we’re also doing,” he said, adding that he and team members have been preparing for both the new school year and the first “envisioning exercise,” as he called it.

“We’re already gathering a group of faculty, staff, and administrators in a room and start to envision what the future of AIC is going to look like,” he said.

“There has to be ownership of the vision, “he went on. “It’s not ‘here’s the president’s vision and others will execute it’ — in my mind, that will never work; it will never have ownership. People need to feel that they belong and that they have a sense of ownership.”

As for his own vision for the school, Benitez said he wants an AIC that is heavily involved in the community and responsive to the constantly changing needs of its students, the community, and area businesses.

“It’s not ‘what can the community do for AIC?’ On the contrary; it’s ‘what can AIC do for the community?’” he explained. “I see an AIC that is vibrant, that creates an environment where, when I walk through the corridors of this institution, it feels like home for all. I should be able to walk the campus and say ‘do you feel at home here?’ If I hear everyone saying ‘yes,’ I think we’re doing our job.”

While working on the visioning process, and as part it, Benitez said he will continue and hopefully broaden AIC’s mission of providing access and opportunities, work that has become the focal point of his own career in higher education.

“My focus has always been on creating opportunities for access, for diversity, for equity, for inclusion,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s been on working with minority populations and creating pathways into higher education for demographics of students where higher education is not always seen as a viable option.

“Some of my colleagues will say ‘it makes sense to you — you come from a Latino background, a demographic group under-represented not only in the health professions but in education in general,’” he said. “And I say ‘yes, it does make sense to me, but it’s the right thing to do.’ And that’s why I’ve devoted the majority of my career to that work of creating transitions, pathways, and pipelines for students from under-represented backgrounds to arrive in higher education, earn a degree, and obtain a better way of living for themselves.”

 

Grade Expectations

Benitez said he shook more than 600 hands during those commencement exercises earlier this month, which he described as a humbling experience in many respects.

Most humbling were those wishes for good luck from the students, he said, adding that they certainly resonated with him.

He understands there are many challenges facing the school, from the uncertainties stemming from the pandemic, to ongoing enrollment issues stemming from smaller high school graduating classes and a host of other issues, to that ongoing task of creating more pathways to higher education.

He not only understands them, he embraces them and wants to tackle them head on. That’s why he took this job, and that’s why he took that early start. There’s plenty of work to do, and he wanted to get right to it.

 

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

Features Special Coverage

A Complicated Picture

John Regan says that, in many respects, it is difficult to reconcile the numbers from the latest Business Confidence Index (BCI) released by Associated Industries of Mass. (AIM) with recent headlines and the many strong headwinds facing business owners and managers today.

Indeed, the monthly confidence index continued an upward trend since the start of the year, rising to 58.1, a gain of 0.9 points, putting the index “comfortably within optimistic territory,” according to AIM, which Regan serves as president.

That optimism, though, comes as inflation remains at nearly historic levels, gas prices continue their upward climb, a stubborn workforce crisis continues, supply-chain issues persist, and the stock market is down double digits (almost 20%, in fact) from the start of the year. That’s why Regan acknowledges that the BCI’s trajectory seems illogical, if not contradictory to what’s happening.

“It’s hard to reconcile, but people feel confident,” he said. “And the Business Confidence Index is important because if you’re confident, you’re more willing to make investments in equipment, people, facilities, and new products.”

And a closer look at the landscape might reveal that there are, in fact, reasons for such optimism, he said, starting with a simple comparison to where things were two years ago — and even four months ago — with regard to the pandemic and its many side effects.

John Regan

John Regan

“Massachusetts is on track to end this fiscal year with more than $6 billion in the rainy day fund — it’s just incredible revenue performance.”

And then, there’s those soaring state revenues. The Department of Revenue took in more than $2 billion above what was expected in April, giving Gov. Charlie Baker cause to press his case for the Legislature to take up his proposals to provide roughly $700 million in tax relief to residents.

“Massachusetts is on track to end this fiscal year with more than $6 billion in the rainy day fund — it’s just incredible revenue performance,” he said. “If you match business confidence with the state’s own revenue performance, clearly positive things are happening.”

Overall, there are several factors, competing numbers, and varying opinions relative to just what is causing this record inflation that make it difficult to speculate about what will happen short- and long-term and whether the country is heading for a recession, as many are now projecting. GDP declined by 1.4% in the first quarter, and many economists are projecting that this trend will continue in Q2. And the matter is complicated further by the Fed’s ongoing efforts to slow the pace of inflation by raising interest rates — an aggressive strategy that is fueling speculation about a recession.

As Bob Nakosteen, a semi-retired professor of Economics at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst surveys the scene, he said it is largely without precedent, thus making analysis, let alone predictions, difficult.

“We live in complicated times,” he said, with a large dose of understatement in his voice. “It’s a complicated picture, more complicated than I’ve ever seen it.”

Brian Canina, executive vice president, CFO and treasurer at Holyoke-based PeoplesBank, agreed.

“This is a very unusual period of time,” he told BusinessWest. “Because there are so many different things going on, between supply chain issues driving costs up, the cost of gas being driven up by government regulation … it’s really hard to pinpoint whether it’s true economic growth that’s driving inflation or if it’s purely government-driven. So it’s hard to say exactly what’s going on.”

And even harder to project what will happen. Nakosteen does not anticipate continued decline in GDP for the second quarter, which, if it did happen, would be the technical definition of recession. But he’s not projecting strong growth, either.

Brian Canina

Brian Canina

“This is a very unusual period of time. Because there are so many different things going on, between supply chain issues driving costs up, the cost of gas being driven up by government regulation … it’s really hard to pinpoint whether it’s true economic growth that’s driving inflation or if it’s purely government-driven. So it’s hard to say exactly what’s going on.”

“My prediction is we’ll see growth in the second quarter,” he said. “Not robust growth, maybe 1% or 1.5%, but I don’t think you’ll see GDP decline again.”

Meanwhile, Regan said economists with AIM are projecting that recession is “more likely than not, but it won’t be a terribly long recession.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with these experts and asked them to slice through the complex confluence of issues and try to anticipate what will happen with the economy in the coming months and quarters.

 

On-the-money Analysis

It was the late U.S. Sen. John McCain who, in 2015, described Russia as “a gas station masquerading as a country.” Paying homage to that quote, Nakosteen, echoing others, said Russia is a “a gas station with an army.”

That classification, and the acknowledgment that Russia, and Ukraine, both export large amounts of wheat and fertilizer, speaks volumes about just one of the many forces — most of them unpredictable in nature — that are impacting the national and global economic scene. And they’re also making it difficult to determine what will happen in Q2, Q3, and well beyond, said Nakosteen, who, like Regan, said that despite those aforementioned headwinds, there are many positive signs when it comes to the economy.

Bob Nakosteen

“The job market is strong, retail sales are good … so the economy is actually pretty strong, and the Fed thinks it’s too strong.”

“The GDP decline in both the state and the nation was almost more a technical issue, because all the numbers that went into it, except those regarding inventory, were strong,” he explained. “The job market is strong, retail sales are good … so the economy is actually pretty strong, and the Fed thinks it’s too strong.”

Which prompted two interest-rate hikes this year, including a half-point increase late last month, designed to slow the economy. But with those rate hikes comes talk of inflation, said Nakosteen, adding that, historically, one has led to the other.

These factors add up to a lot of watching and analyzing for people like Canina, who said there is a lot to digest, including current loan activity, or the lack thereof, as well as inflation and the dreaded inverted yield curve — a successful predictor of many recent recessions — and the impact of rising interest rates on consumer spending as the cost of borrowing increases.

Starting with a look at loan activity, he said it has slowed markedly in recent months, with most all refinancing of home mortgages complete and commercial loans in the post-PPP era being relatively stagnant.

“For what should be a very robust economic environment, we’re not seeing the equivalent loan opportunities on either the commercial or residential side,” he said, adding that the rising interest rates, coupled with low inventory and soaring prices, are certainly impacting the latter. “We’re not seeing a lot of loan demand; we’re doing what we can to find it, but it’s challenging for us right now.”

And this lack of loan activity will certainly have an impact on interest paid on deposits, he said, noting that while one might assume that these rates will rise naturally as the Fed increases interest rates, they won’t if loan activity remains stagnant.

“We’re coming off a time when banks have a ton of cash because of all the government stimulus that’s been flooded into the market,” he explained. “So they have a ton of cash on their balance sheet and not a lot of loan demand, so it’s going to be very difficult for them to pay higher rates on deposits unless they can turn that cash into loans.”

And the loan market is just one of the many things to watch moving forward, he went on, adding that the sluggishness in that area is a symptom (one of many) that the inflation being witnessed is a product of government policy and other factors — supply chain issues, workforce shortages and resulting higher wages among them — rather than the economy being hot and in need of being cooled down.

“I don’t think gas prices or the cost of groceries are really being impacted by consumer spending,” he said. “I think those things have been impacted by government regulation, supply chain, and cost of wages — grocery stores paying $17 an hour for kids to bag groceries because they can’t hire people at lower wages because there’s no one to hire.”

“It’s all been reactionary to the pandemic — everything right now seems to be incredibly artificial,” he went on, adding that, for this reason, the Fed’s interest-rate hikes might provide a real, unfiltered look at what’s happening with the economy. “We have artificially driven rates on the short term, and the Fed also manipulating rates on the long end with their bond purchases. If they can start shrinking their balance sheet, and raising interest rates on the low end can normalize the yield curve, and then get out of the markets, then we can see what’s really going on.”

Still another thing to watch is how quickly and profoundly interest rates are increased, he said, adding that, in the past, when rates rise quickly and in large doses, the Fed has had to back off and reverse course in an effort to pick up a slowing economy.

Nakosteen agreed, and noted that there are many factors that go into inflation, some of which are likely to be impacted by rising interest rates — such as the spending spawned by government-awarded money in the wake of the pandemic — and some not.

“It’s a complicated picture,” he said. “And inflation is more complicated than I’ve ever seen it.”

Looking back to see if there was a time to compare all this to, Nakosteen said there were many similar attempts to slow the economy, but perhaps none at a time when there were so many issues clouding the picture.

“It’s a bizarre mixture of factors,” he said. “There’s COVID, the war in Ukraine, the aftermath of all the stimulus … it’s a strange mix.”

And despite this mix of factors, or headwinds, business owners are generally upbeat, as indicated in the upward movement of the BCI, which Regan explained this way:

“When things are going badly, the BCI usually predicts that. Despite all the negative stock market activity and the presence of significant inflation pressures, along with continuing supply chain issues and the challenge of securing a workforce, the index is in significantly positive territory.

“When you look at the BCI and some of the other things that are happening, it’s hard to reconcile, other than to say that the people who are responding to the survey feel very confident about how they are doing and how they perceive conditions for their own operation,” he went on, adding that the next reporting of the BCI will be watched with great interest.

 

The Bottom Line

Looking again at the complicated picture that is the national economy, Nakosteen said that, historically, efforts by the Fed to slow inflation by raising interest rates usually take six months or more to reveal their true efficacy.

But in this case, such initiatives have been designed to speed that process, he said, adding that he’s not at all sure whether they actually succeed in doing that — or whether they will succeed at all, given the many question marks concerning the nature of this historic inflation.

Overall, the always complicated task of projecting what will happen with the economy has become that much more difficult. In other words, stay tuned.

 

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

Home Improvement

Cover Story

Karen Belezarian-Tesini

Karen Belezarian-Tesini says the mood in the ‘coverings’ industry is one of cautious optimism.

Karen Belezarian-Tesini recently returned from Coverings 2022, the largest trade show for the ceramic tile industry in North America.

The four-day event was staged at the Las Vegas Convention Center roughly a month ago, and while there was a good crowd, things weren’t quite back to what they were in 2019, attendance-wise and otherwise, observed Belezarian-Tesini, who has been to quite of few of these as manager of Best Tile’s Springfield location on Belmont Avenue.

Summing up the show, she said that, as always, there were hundreds of thousands of square feet of new products on display, and an opportunity for her and other attendees to get a clear understanding of the latest trends and innovations — which include everything from tile products that “look like wallpaper,” as she put it, to ever-larger sizes of tile for walls and floors — up to 60 inches by 120 inches in some cases, to growing options in porcelain, marble, and glass mosaic products.

“When I started in this business. 8-by-8 was the nominal size, then it was 12-by-12, then 12-by-24,” she explained. “Now, we’re looking at 24-by-24 and 24-by-48; that’s what’s in demand now; it’s not a need, it’s a want, and there’s a lot of want.”

As for the mood at the show … Belezarian-Tesini, described it as one of caution laced with large doses of optimism. The caution part is understandable, she said, given the stories dominating the news lately, everything from runaway inflation and its impact on prices to ongoing supply chain issues; from war in Ukraine to recent talk about the possibility of recession. And then, there’s the stock market and its precipitous decline. In short, there are many colliding factors that may certainly impact large purchases.

“People are cautiously upbeat,” she said. Everyone was so concerned and consumed with COVID — it’s all anyone talked about,” she said. “Then, the economy started to crazy and inflation started to go crazy — so there is caution about what all this means.”

“Overall, 2020 was up and down, but 2021 … was very, very busy. From Jan. 2 on, people were just constantly coming in and calling because they were remodeling. They were stuck at home looking at their four walls. It started picking up in the fall of 2020, and then in 2021, we did crazy business — it was fantastic.”

The accompanying optimism results from ongoing and very upbeat patterns (that’s an industry term) of business, she went on, adding that while the first quarter or two of the pandemic was slow for the broad coverings sector, as both consumers and those in the industry figured things out and waited for some dust to settle, by that fall, things were ‘crazy,’ as she put it. And in many respects, they still are.

“We’re still incredibly busy — things haven’t really slowed down at all,” she told BusinessWest, adding that, despite some gathering clouds, there is general optimism that things will stay this way.

Indeed, the trends, and the mood, on display at the Coverings show in Las Vegas, pretty much echo what Belezarian-Tesini can see and hear at the Belmont Street facility, where the pace of business has been steady since the fall of 2020, when many of those who were essentially trapped at home and not entirely happy with what they were looking at decided to do something about it.

These solid times blend with host of challenges that range from longer wait times for some products to back-ups in the warehouse as ordered products sit and wait as customers wait for other needed items before they proceed with remodeling projects.

Members of the team at Best Tile

Members of the team at Best Tile; from left, Erika Andreson, Ariel Tatsch, Karen Belezarian-Tesini, Alyssa Belanger, and Sarah Rietberg.

“We have some purchase orders that we placed in November, and we still haven’t seen them,” she explained. “But what we have, we have plenty of.”

For this issue and its focus on landscaping and home improvement, BusinessWest talked with Belezarian-Tesini about what she saw in Vegas, what she can see in her own showroom, and what she foresees short and long term.

 

Off-the-wall Comments

The Best Tile location in Springfield is a place where the past, present, and future come together. Sort of. Certainly the past and the present.

This is where Harry Marcus, who, with his wife, Mollie, sold tile out of the back of a car at one point, planted the roots that would eventually grow into a business — known originally as Marcus Tile and eventually as Best Tile — with 28 locations across the Northeast and beyond.

As for the present, this is where those current trends are playing out, and where Belezarian-Tesini and her team are trying to contend with steady demand and those aforementioned challenges mentioned. And as for the future … well, it may not be at this location.

Indeed, Belezarian-Tesini said there has been an ongoing search for a new facility for nearly five years now. It has taken her and other team members across the region and especially to higher-traffic areas, including Riverdale Street in West Springfield and Memorial Avenue in Chicopee.

There have been some “near misses,” as she termed them, especially on Riverdale Street, but a new location has proven elusive. The search continues, because a larger, more modern facility is needed, she said.

Meanwhile, there is also some succession planning going on, said Belezarian-Tesini, adding that she and several other branch managers are approaching retirement, and this proactive, forward-thinking company wants to be ready for that day.

Getting back to the present, and the recent past, Belezarian-Tesini said these are intriguing times for this business and this industry.

Turning the clock back to the start of the pandemic, she said the business managed to stay open, but with some huge adjustments when it came to how business was done.

“We were open, but in the early days, the door was locked,” she explained. “We did everything virtually. Customers would either call in or email; we would gather samples that they saw on our website, we’d put them in a bag, we’d put them outside the front door, the customers would pick up the samples, they’d call in their orders, they’d return their samples back at the door, we’d disinfect everything and put them away, and then we’d start all over.”

Elaborating, she said that because of the reports that COVID could live on surfaces, every piece of tile in the showroom had to be disinfected regularly, at a time when disinfectant was hard to come by. Overall it was a trying time, but unlike many retailers, the company made it through without layoffs and without losing any employees.

“It was crazy,” she went on, adding that by that fall, there would be a different kind of crazy as homeowners, many of them with money to spend because they weren’t spending it on vacations or much of anything else, looked to make some improvements.

“Overall, 2020 was up and down, but 2021 … was very, very busy,” she recalled. “From Jan. 2 on, people were just constantly coming in and calling because they were remodeling. They were stuck at home looking at their four walls. It started picking up in the fall of 2020, and then in 2021, we did crazy business — it was fantastic.”

And, for most part, things have not slowed down to any large degree, she went on, adding that the only thing that has slowed down is the pace of products being shipped from the warehouse to customers, who can’t proceed with a remodeling project until they have everything they need.

“So many of the jobs that we have tile for are sitting in our warehouse, because the customer can’t get the refrigerator or the faucet or tun or the sink or the toilet,” she explained, adding that, overall, this is not a bad problem to have. “The jobs are taking an inordinate amount of time; for a while, it was lumber it was the issue, now it’s things like backer board or the foam board being used for walls now that are on back order. Or, when we get 600 to 700 sheets of it, and within a week, it’s gone — sold out. It’s crazy … we can’t keep up. No one can keep up.”

Because the company is a direct importer, it has not been as hard hit by supply chain issues as some of the smaller companies and stores, she went on, but all players in this industry are being impacted to some extent, whether it’s with delays or the spiraling cost of shipping containers.

“So many of the jobs that we have tile for are sitting in our warehouse, because the customer can’t get the refrigerator or the faucet or tun or the sink or the toilet. The jobs are taking an inordinate amount of time.”

“The cost of shipping has gone through the roof,” she said, uttering each one of those words slowly for emphasis. “What used to cost $4,000 or $5,000 now costs $20,000 to $25,000; it’s crazy.”

Thus far, the company has managed to mostly absorb these increases without passing them on the customer, she said, noting that there has been one increase, while other companies have had several.

 

Flooring Their Customers

As she offered a quick tour of the showroom, Belezarian-Tesini pointed to some of those newer, wall-paper-like patterns, different options in marble and porcelain, and two of those 60-by-120 tile panels that are now in demand — far more on the West Coast than they are here.

‘There are only a few companies around here that could even install something like this,” she told BusinessWest, adding that this may likely change because this is the direction this industry is moving in — or one of them anyway.

For 66 years, Best Tile, and Marcus Tile before that, has been at the forefront of such innovations and trends, she said, adding that this is one pattern that won’t ever change.

As for the rest of them, the company will continue to evolve as it has for the past seven decades and continue to have customers needs … covered.

 

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

Health Care

Seizing the Moment

Dr. Ira Helfand

Dr. Ira Helfand says the war in Ukraine presents an opportunity to gain real progress in ongoing efforts to ban the use of nuclear weapons.

Dr. Ira Helfand notes that, since Russia became the second nation to produce nuclear weapons in the late 1940s, the threat of a global nuclear conflict has always been real.

To most, though, it has never really seemed real, except for the duration of the Cold War, which officially ended more than 30 years ago, and especially that two-week crack in time in 1962 that came to be known as the Cuban Missile Crisis, said Helfand, noting that for many, that event is only something to be read about, not something they lived through.

But the events in Ukraine are changing this narrative, and in a profound — and urgent — way, said Helfand, a retired emergency room physician at Mercy Medical Center and co-chair of the Physicians for Social Responsibility’s Nuclear Weapons Abolition Committee, a name that clearly speaks to its mission.

He told BusinessWest that recent events — not just those in Ukraine but also those in North Korea, as well — have made the threat of nuclear war as real as ever. And while this is certainly a scary time because of these threats, it might also be considered a time of opportunity when it comes to the Nuclear Weapons Abolition Committee and its stated mission.

“If there is to be any good that comes out of this terrible disaster in Ukraine, perhaps it will be an understanding of the need around the world to eliminate nuclear weapons,” he said. “Which will lead to effective political action to achieve that.”

In recent months, Helfand, who has, over the years, spoken to groups ranging from local Rotary clubs to special sessions of the United Nations General Assembly on the subject of preventing nuclear war, has been ramping up such efforts — through speaking engagements, op-ed pieces, and interviews with media out like this one — and using current events to bring more attention to a 75-year-old issue.

“If there is to be any good that comes out of this terrible disaster in Ukraine, perhaps it will be an understanding of the need around the world to eliminate nuclear weapons.”

The initiative is called the ‘Back from the Brink Campaign,’ which is based on the nuclear-freeze campaign of the 1980s, which brought about an end to the Cold War arms race, he said. Except this time, the goal is to get rid of the weapons altogether.

Those behind the effort are “organizing around a simple platform, a simple statement of what U.S. nuclear policy ought to be — a key part of which is a call for the United States to begin now to negotiate with the other eight nuclear-armed countries for a verifiable, enforceable, mutual timetable to eliminate nuclear weapons,” he said. “This is not unilateral disarmament, it’s a call for the United States to lead the negotiations to achieve universal disarmament.”

Organizers have brought resolutions embodying this platform to cities and towns, civic organizations, and faith organizations across the country, he went on, adding that more than 60 municipalities, including Springfield, Worcester, Boston, and others in Massachusetts have signed the statement, as well as several state legislatures.

The goal is to gain a national consensus on the matter, said Helfand, adding that he senses momentum in the ongoing efforts to ban nuclear weapons and the potential for much more.

“The current war in Ukraine is putting this issue before people again in a way that will lead to a good outcome,” he noted. “This issue is back where it ought to have been all this time — on the table and on the public agenda. We’ve been trying to use this occasion to educate people about the danger.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Helfand about Back from the Brink and ongoing efforts to prevent a nuclear war by banning such weapons. He expressed the hope that current events may just provide inspiration to bring change on a truly global scale.

 

Understanding the Consequences

Helfand, who has published studies on the medical consequences of nuclear war in the New England Journal of Medicine, the British Medical Journal, the World Medical Journal, and other publications, said one challenge to banning nuclear weapons is a lack of clear understanding among many people about just what a nuclear conflict would be like.

Indeed, he told BusinessWest that many still think in terms of 1945 and the weapons used then when they contemplate nuclear war.

So, he isn’t at all shy about painting what he said is a much more accurate picture, and he did so for BusinessWest.

“If the United States and Russia go to war today, it’s not going to be one relatively small bomb used on one or two cities, as was the case in 1945; it’s going to be many bombs used against many cities, and these bombs will be 10 to 50 times more powerful than the one that destroyed Hiroshima,” he said. “If that were happen, within a thousandth of a second, a fireball would form reaching out two miles in every direction, four miles across. Within this entire area, everything would be vaporized — buildings, trees, people … the upper level of the Earth itself would disappear.

“To a distance of four miles in every direction, the explosion would generate winds of 600 miles per hour,” he went on. “Mechanical forces of that nature destroy anything that human beings can build. To a distance of six miles in every direction, the heat would be so great that automobiles would melt, and to a distance of 16 miles in every direction, the heat would still be so intense that everything flammable would burn — paper, cloth, wood, gasoline, heating oil, plastic … it would all ignite. There would be hundreds of thousands of fires, which over the next half hour, would coalesce into a giant firestorm 32 miles across, covering more than 800 square miles. Within this entire area, the temperature would rise to 1,400 degrees Fahrenheit, all the oxygen would be consumed, and every living thing would die.

“In the case of Boston, we’re talking about 3 million to 5 million people, depending on the time of day,” he continued. “In the case of New York, 12 million to 15 million people, and if we have a major war with Russia, that’s what’s going to happen to every major city in both countries. In addition, the entire economic infrastructure of the country would be destroyed; we would see 200 million to 400 million dead in the first afternoon, but those who survived would be living in an environment with no electric grid, no healthcare system, no internet, no food-distribution system — none of the things we rely on to survive.”

Beyond all of this, there would be enormous effects on climate, he said, noting that perhaps 150 million tons of soot would be deposited into the atmosphere, blocking out the sun, and dropping temperatures across the planet an average of 18 degrees Fahrenheit “which is much colder than the coldest moment of the last ice age.”

Preventing such a calamity has long been the goal of Physicians for Social Responsibility, a national organization of physicians, other health professionals, and others who are concerned about the medical consequences of nuclear war. Started in 1978, the organization has a stated mission to educate the public and decision makers about those medical consequences, “in the hope that a better-educated public and a better-educated body of decision-makers would make smarter decisions about nuclear weapons than they have been making, unfortunately,” said Helfand.

The group is part of an organization called the International Federation for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IFPNW), which has affiliates in 55 countries. In 1997, the IFPNW started a global campaign to abolish nuclear weapons, which, in collaboration with some state governments, led to the adoption at the United Nations in 2017 of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, which entered into force in January 2021.

 

Marshalling Forces

In recent months, the IFPNW has been increasingly active in pushing toward its goal of bringing an end to nuclear weapons, and as noted earlier, it is using the crush of current events to state its case and bring the issue to the fore — or back to the fore.

“For the past 30 years, since the end of the Cold War, the biggest obstacle we’ve faced in doing our work has been the fact that people had thought the nuclear danger had gone away,” Helfand explained. “Back in the ’80s, everyone understood that nuclear war was a real threat; people were concerned about it, and they took political action to try to end the Cold War, work that was ultimately successful. But when the Cold War ended, everyone assumed that the danger had passed, and they stopped paying attention to the issue.

“If the United States and Russia go to war today, it’s not going to be one relatively small bomb used on one or two cities, as was the case in 1945; it’s going to be many bombs used against many cities, and these bombs will be 10 to 50 times more powerful than the one that destroyed Hiroshima.”

“That has changed dramatically in the past few months since Putin invaded Ukraine and issued a series of very explicit nuclear threats,” he went on. “Which, by the way, were responded to by NATO with equally inappropriate nuclear threats.”

Elaborating, Helfand said the current events in Ukraine bring new meaning to sentiments expressed in a quote he attributed to Robert McNamara, U.S. Defense secretary during the Vietnam War.

“He said, famously, ‘we lucked out — it was only luck that prevented nuclear war,’” noted Helfand, adding that have been countless times over the past 77 years when the world almost experienced nuclear war, but didn’t, for reasons that have little to do with the conventional wisdom regarding these weapons.

“There has been this myth, with enormous power attached to it, that nuclear weapons are so terrible that they will deter their own use — no one will ever make the mistake of using them,” he explained. “We know that over the decades, that has not been true.”

Elaborating, he said that over the years, the United States has threatened to use nuclear weapons repeatedly, in many circumstances involving countries that did not have nuclear weapons, and Russia has as well. And beyond these threats, there has always been the threat of something happening by accident.

“There have been many, many occasions when we have come within minutes of nuclear war because one side or the other received a false alert and believed they were under attack by the other side,” he explained. “On many of these occasions, we came within minutes of all-out nuclear war because of a computer glitch or some similar technical mistake.”

Given the immense amount of tension in the world now, another glitch of this kind may well lead to calamity, he said, bringing even more urgency to the matter of banning such weapons.

That course is the only logical choice for the planet, said Helfand, adding that the alternative, staying the current course, is not sound thinking.

“Our current policy — maintaining these enormous arsenals with the expectation that they will never be used — is nothing more than the hope for continued good luck,” he told BusinessWest. “And this is a fairly insane basis for national security policy. We need to plan for the future based on reality, not hopes and prayers.

 

Looming Questions

Returning to that question about whether he’s sensing any momentum on the IPPNW’s broad mission to prevent nuclear war by eliminating such weapons, Helfand said there are a few narratives that could flow from the present situation.

“Those who build nuclear weapons will argue that we need to have more of them — that argument will gain some traction,” he said. “They’ll say ‘the Russians are really bad — we need to be even stronger, as if the 6,000 nuclear weapons we already have are not enough to do what anyone could possibly want to do with them.

“But there will be another narrative as well,” he went on. “As happened after the Cuban Missile Crisis, when both Kennedy and Khrushchev recoiled in horror from what they had almost done, people around the world are going to look at this moment and say, ‘this was a world-wide near-death experience; we cannot keep rolling the dice and hoping that we’re going to be luck every time — we have to get rid of the weapons.’”

That’s why he looks on this very scary time in the history of the world as something else — an opportunity.

Cover Story

Passing it On

Kasey Corsello

Kasey Corsello, a certified coach and co-owner of the Corsello Butcheria in Easthampton.

There are many components to the region’s entrepreneurship ecosystem, perhaps none more important than the small army of mentors who are passing on what they know to a growing number of people looking to work for themselves instead of someone else. They impart to these entrepreneurs everything from the importance of understanding a spreadsheet to the notion that failure is … well, not unexpected and something to be learned from.

When asked what she tries to impart to entrepreneurs as a mentor, or do for them as she counsels them, Kasey Corsello summed it all up by saying that she tries to “normalize the emotional experience of it all, so they don’t feel like there’s something wrong with them.”

Anyone who has ever owned a business or tried to launch one — or mentored anyone who has, for that matter — knows exactly what she’s talking about.

“It is scary to be in the face of uncertainty, so I help them access their own inner resources, their own wisdom of lift experience to be able to make sound decisions,” said Corsello, a certified coach, co-owner, with her husband, of the Corsello Butcheria in Easthampton, and mentor with participants in EforAll Holyoke’s accelerator programs. “I help pull out their confidence and get them thinking that they can do this.”

With that, she described one of the many ways that mentors work with their clients and, while doing so, contribute in powerful ways to the vibrancy of the region’s business community.

Indeed, there are many components to the entrepreneurship ecosystem in Western Mass., and one of the most important is the small army of mentors who pass on what they know and provide much-needed sets of eyes and ears (especially ears) to those looking to start or grow a business.

And for this issue and its focus on entrepreneurship, BusinessWest talked with several of them.

Individually, and collectively, they spoke of the various kinds of rewards — and there are many of them — that go with mentoring, and about the various ways they try to counsel those on the other side of the desk, or the telephone, as the case may be.

This counsel can be technical in nature, such as how to read a spreadsheet and understand the numbers of business.

“I tell them that numbers really matter — get to know the numbers,” said Bellamy Schmidt, a retired executive who worked for many years at General Electric before moving to Wall Street and the giant investment firms JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs and then Holyoke City Hall, where he served as auditor. “As much as people may find the numbers uncomfortable, they basically tell the story of a business.”

In other cases, it’s practical advice, everything from understanding one’s audience and meeting its needs, to the importance of networking and relationship-building.

“I tell them that networking is the key to building relationships,” said Yadira Pacheco, who owns a real estate agency and is a mentor in EforAll’s Spanish program, EparaTodos. “I tell them to network every chance they get; it doesn’t matter if it’s linked directly to their type of business — they’re going to find somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody who’s going to connect with them because of what they do.”

Yadira Pacheco

Yadira Pacheco says she tells entrepreneurs to network every chance they get, because relationship-building is one of the keys to success.

And then, there’s advice, or counseling, that falls more in the category of psychology, if that’s even the right term, that Corsello referred to.

“I tell them not to be afraid of failing — and for obvious reasons,” said Bill Cole, owner of Tiger Web Designs and a serial entrepreneur himself. “The bottom line is this … if you interview all the super successful people in this world, you’ll find that a common thread is that they failed miserably many times before they got to be successful. And there’s a reason for that; some things you must learn the hard way in order to learn them well.”

How well someone copes with failure, and, overall, how well one can learn from it, will play a larger role in one’s ultimate success in business than any given product or service, said Cole, who told BusinessWest that he focuses on helping those that he mentors become good entrepreneurs much more than he counsels them on any specific idea they may have to change the world as we know it.

 

Getting the Idea

As he talked about his mentoring work, Cole said he “got the bug,” eight to 10 years ago.

That bug, as he called it, is a desire to give back to what is, by all accounts, a growing number of people who would rather work for themselves than for someone else. Or at least try to do just that.

What all who try find out is that this isn’t easy, and if it were, everyone would do it. The fact that not everyone does, speaks to just how hard this is, meaning every aspect of entrepreneurship, from conceptualizing ideas to bringing them to market, to coping with the known — things like competition and the laws of supply and demand — to dealing with the unknown and sometimes what can’t possibly be foreseen … like a global pandemic.

Bill Cole

Bill Cole

“I tell them not to be afraid of failing — and for obvious reasons. The bottom line is this … if you interview all the super successful people in this world, you’ll find that a common thread is that they failed miserably many times before they got to be successful. And there’s a reason for that; some things you must learn the hard way in order to learn them well.”

Overall, entrepreneurship is daunting, said those we spoke with, adding that it’s important to assist those who don’t know what they don’t know with the many important aspects of starting and then running a business, while also helping them deal with the roller-coaster ride that is entrepreneurship and all that comes with it.

“I force them to realize that they’re not alone, that they can rely on their mentors to help them,” said Schmidt. “That creates a sense of comfort; it’s not me against the world — I’ve got people who have my back.”

This ‘having one’s back’ aspect of mentoring is as important as any practical advice on a product or marketing, or reading a balance sheet, said those we spoke with, adding that they want to help people learn about themselves as much as they do about business.

“There’s a lot to learn, and when we’re in a space of learning, self-doubt comes in,” said Corsello. “And that creates an emotional response — ‘I can’t do it,’ or ‘I’m overwhelmed.’ There are some people who have a mindset for entrepreneurship and it’s very easy for them — they’re not afraid to fail, they’re not afraid to take risks; their natural strengths are geared toward entrepreneurship.

“There are others who have a hard time with uncertainty, who have a hard time taking risks, who have a hard time failing,” she went on. “I work with people to break down the steps and celebrate each and every small thing.”

There are many of these small things that are involved with starting a business and taking it to the next level — whatever that might be, said those we spoke with, adding that, overall, they work with their mentees to keep their eye on both the big picture and all the little things that contribute to a business being successful.

And while doing so, as Corsello noted, they try to make these entrepreneurs feel comfortable in their own skin. This in a nutshell, is what she strives to do as a mentor to entrepreneurs, a new role she accepted recently as part of the program known as Blueprint Easthampton, which she helped launch.

She said mentoring is like coaching, in that she’s helping build the confidence needed to get where they desire to go.

“I get to see people in their full light, essentially, and fully believe in them when they can’t believe in themselves,” she explained. “They’re realizing their vision and their dream, and they’re learning about themselves and gaining the tools they need to be resilient.”

Bellamy Schmidt

“I force them to realize that they’re not alone, that they can rely on their mentors to help them. That creates a sense of comfort; it’s not me against the world — I’ve got people who have my back.”

Elaborating, she said that entrepreneurship can be as isolating as it is challenging, and, as Schmidt said, these business owners need to know that they’re not alone. And beyond that, they need to understand that what they’re experiencing — the fears, the self-doubts, the seemingly endless hits to their self-confidence, are not unique.

“They need to understand that they’re not the only ones struggling with this,” she went on. “And that’s why I say that I normalize their experience.”

 

Rewards Program

Over the past decade or so, Cole has been a mentor for several of the agencies that are now part of the region’s entrepreneurship ecosystem, including VVM, EforAll, SCORE, the Small Business Administration, and others. He’s worked with startups, mom-and-pop businesses, and some looking to get to the next level, and, because of his background, he’s often asked for advice on creating a website.

But his broad advice to entrepreneurs comes in many flavors, including that aforementioned counsel on failure, why it should be expected, why it’s normal, and, most importantly, why it shouldn’t bring an end to one’s dreams of owning their own business.

Overall, he said he advises those he mentors to work smart — and not just hard, although that is critically important as well.

“There’s a combination of working hard and working smart that has to happen,” he explained. “You can’t just work hard, you have to be smart, too. And ‘smart’ just means paying attention to what’s going on around you.

“We tend to have tunnel vision on what we’re trying to do — whatever that may be,” he went on. “If it’s a product, you may have tunnel vision on the product itself, when you have to think about things like how are you going to go to market with that product, or organize the business itself — how many people need to be hired, how much is it going to cost? There’s a difference between having a product idea and a business, and the difference is that most people have ideas that are expensive hobbies when it’s all said and done — it’s not really a business.”

Schmidt agreed, and said he stresses the importance of understanding who one’s customers are and what need is being met by their product or service.

“I try to force them to think about what it is the customer really wants,” said Schmidt. “Because often, a businessperson will want to do something that they want to do, and it might not be what the customer wants; if you have a business, it’s all about the customer, it’s not about you.”

Miguel Rivera, co-owner, with his wife, of Rewarding Insurance Agency in Holyoke, and another mentor in the EparaTodos program, concurred.

“Many people don’t have a target market,” he explained. “You ask them who their target market is, and they say ‘everyone.’ Then I try to teach them that their clients are not ‘everyone’; they must identify who their target market is so they can do the right marketing.”

When asked what they enjoy about mentoring, all those we spoke with said there are many kinds of rewards.

One obvious one is the satisfaction that comes from helping someone or some group take an idea and turn it into something successful.

“The first day I went to work after college, my new boss said to me something along the lines of … ‘the most important thing I get out of my job is a sense of accomplishment from helping move young people along in their careers and watching them grow,’” Schmidt recalled. “As naive as I was, I thought that was kind of a ridiculous answer. But as I matured, I realized how right he was; there’s a tremendous sense of accomplishment when you see someone develop that you have helped.”

Rivera agreed. “I’m glad to see business owners doing their ribbon cuttings and grand openings — that’s what I enjoy the most,” he said. “And many of my clients are still in business — they’re doing well, and I take pride in that.”

Said Cole, “I love it when someone is successful and I had something to do with it — it’s a wonderful feeling. But I don’t mind being there when someone is struggling, either; I’ve been there, so I know.”

Pacheco has been there as well, and so she knows first-hand how daunting entrepreneurship is. And that’s why she mentors others.

“When I was starting my business, it was very difficult, because I didn’t have the support, the guidance, or a blueprint — anything,” she recalled. “So, I was literally thrown into it and had to figure it out for myself. And that’s one of the reasons why I help others. I know how difficult and stressful it can be when you’re trying to grow a business.”

 

The Bottom Line

Beyond that, though, mentors say that they inevitably learn from those they are mentoring, and this helps them become both better business owners — and better mentors.

“I’ve learned a tremendous number of things that I never would have learned otherwise,” said Cole. “The reality is I’m smarter for it and I have a lot more experience from it than I ever would have had if I just done my own little thing.

Pacheco agreed.

“You always learn something from each participant,” she told BusinessWest. “Everyone has a story; everyone’s background is different. In the process of me helping others, they are also helping me; it’s a learning experience on both sides.”

Such sentiments explain why mentoring is so rewarding — and why it’s so important, for all those involved.

 

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

Restaurants Special Coverage

Chain of Events

Craig Erlich

Craig Erlich says the mission at Friendly’s is to create positive experiences — and lasting memories.

Craig Erlich can trace his relationship with Friendly’s back to his fifth birthday party at one of the chain’s restaurants.

“I have pictures of me with my life-size balloon,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, over the decades, this relationship has certainly taken many different forms — from customer, to franchisee, to his current role as president and CEO, in which he has the responsibility of, well … creating memories like that of his fifth birthday for future generations of customers.

In other words, Erlich is the latest executive to take on the job of resuscitating a brand that has fallen on some hard times in recent years, as evidenced by the sale price of the Friendly’s chain, then in bankruptcy, to Amici Partners and its affiliate company, Brix Holdings LLC: $1.9 million.

Erlich, president and CEO of Friendly’s, understood that the Friendly’s chain had shrunk dramatically over the years and was struggling to compete with the large number of competitors in the fast-casual family restaurant category, a situation only made worse by the pandemic. But he ultimately saw promise, and a challenge he was willing to take on.

“When the opportunity came around — and the pandemic presented a lot of opportunities for reshuffling of leadership of brands — we were really passionate about Friendly’s and what could happen with this brand,” he said. “When you finally have your chance to put your hands on the steering wheel and go from backseat driver to being the driver … we were really excited about the opportunity.”

Elaborating, he said that he and his partners already had some plans for Friendly’s in mind when they acquired it in December, 2020, and now, some of those plans are coming to fruition.

That includes the new-look of the Friendly’s that recently opened on East Main Street in Westfield. It’s called the Friendly’s Café, and the model is a reflection of the changes in dining habits that have taken place over the past two years, especially when it comes to take out and delivery.

The new model will feature both, as well as on-site dining, with customers ordering food at a counter or at a table using QR technology. There’s also a traditional ice cream fountain area, providing an ice cream parlor feel.

While the concept is quite different from what Friendly’s customers are used to, the goal is to maintain the chain’s overall look and feel — and its capacity for creating lasting moments … like Erlich’s fifth birthday party.

“With Friendly’s, everyone talks about the experience — they talk about memories,” said Erlich. “We wanted to maintain that quality. When you’re restoring an old home, you want to make sure to keep the bones and the structure there, and just enhance the features. That’s the approach we took with this brand, especially the Friendly’s Café.

“We knew it was going to be a bit of a different kind of experience for the customers,” he went on. “But when you think about how people dine today, whether it’s QR technology, off-premise dining, curb-side delivery … we knew there was an opportunity for that.”

“When you finally have your chance to put your hands on the steering wheel and go from backseat driver to being the driver … we were really excited about the opportunity.”

Meanwhile, other changes have been introduced, especially on the menu, which now includes a number of new items, including a variety of appetizers and salads, and offerings like the Doritos Cool Ranch chopped cheeseburger. The goal is to create an appealing mix of new options and old favorites, he told BusinessWest, adding “the menu feels much more balanced than it did before.”

Flashing back to late 2020, as he and his partners were doing their due diligence on Friendly’s as they explored acquisition, Erlich said this research revealed a chain facing many challenges and restaurants in need of repair and revitalization, a situation exacerbated by the pandemic in many respects. But ultimately, what they saw was opportunity.

“The pandemic forced a lot of companies to focus on just keeping the lights on,” he told BusinessWest. “We knew there was going to be a significant amount of repairs and maintenance needed for these buildings; just the equipment in the kitchens alone was in the millions of dollars.

The Friendly’s Café in Westfield

The Friendly’s Café in Westfield opened earlier this year to positive reviews from customers.

“But we saw a big opportunity,” he went on. “And 2021 was really focused on building the infrastructure and putting some technologies and new ideas in place that would build a foundation for what we’re about to do this year.”

Which brings us back to the Friendly’s Café, which opened at the end of February to solid feedback from customers, said Erlich, who acknowledged that while it’s early in the game, the new location is thus far exceeding expectations.

“Customers have been very complimentary, and it has performed very well; we’ve seen a lot of repeat customers, and that’s the true test,” he said, adding that the company is scouting locations for similar facilities.

The location in Westfield is a free-standing building in a shopping plaza, and that is the preferred model, said Erlich, adding that the company is also looking at expanding its drive-through presence at existing restaurants.

“We think there’s a big opportunity there,” he said. “We have about a half-dozen drive-throughs connected to our traditional restaurants; it’s all about the convenience, and we feel that this model is really convenient for the customer.”

Overall, the company is not looking to replace its traditional restaurants with the new model but rather use the café model as a vehicle for growth, bringing Friendly’s to different communities, including some where a Friendly’s location has closed.

“When you’re restoring an old home, you want to make sure to keep the bones and the structure there, and just enhance the features. That’s the approach we took with this brand, especially the Friendly’s Café.”

“I’m looking at some locations on Long Island and across the Northeast — Connecticut, Massachusetts, and other states,” said Erlich. “We’re looking for the right locations; we don’t want to expand too quickly and dilute the quality of the location. I think that happens often — some of the brands will get excited about one success story and then they’ll launch others and they think it will be the same in any location. We’re being very careful to be sure that the locations that we pick have similar demographics and traffic counts, and that we feel good about the potential.”

He said there are many communities in the Northeast that had a Friendly’s location and would like to see that brand back, with many long-time customers lobbying through social media and other platforms for a return

“We’re using that as some of our intelligence to start focusing on some areas,” he said, adding that finding suitable sites is an art and a science, with many factors coming into play, from demographics to the prevalence of other restaurants.

Indeed, competition, in the form of a critical mass of dining options is often desirable, he said, noting the Friendly’s Café in Westfield sits between a new KFC and a McDonald’s in the same shopping plaza. Those are fast-food chains in a different category than Friendly’s, he explained, but they still constitute choices, which in turn generate traffic to a given area.

Looking at what’s happening within the industry, Erlich noted that off-premise dining now accounts for roughly half of all sales volume within the industry, a pattern that has held up even as the pandemic has eased in recent months, an indication that this is more than a passing fancy.

The new café model enables the chain to take advantage of this phenomenon while also catering to those who prefer the traditional sit-down restaurant — albeit with some new technology for ordering and delivery.

“You can focus on two different experiences for the guest,” Erlich explained. “Whether it’s making sure that the person bringing the food home is getting a good, quality meal and also that they’re getting a good experience when they’re in the restaurant. It just adds a new dimension that a lot of brands are focusing on, and I know that we are.”

Looking ahead, and projecting where he wants Friendly’s to be in five years, Erlich said the broad goal since the acquisition has been to stabilize the brand and then commence building that foundation for the future that he spoke of. And this has been accomplished, through the introduction of the café concept, the new menu items, and some more aggressive marketing that was launched this month.

“I would like to see the brand grow, and I think the café model will give us the ability to do that,” he said in conclusion. “There’s a lot of excitement, and it’s my job to keep that excitement going and channel it in the right direction. Everyone is rooting for us, from customers to the team members to the franchisees. Everyone has great memories of Friendly’s, and we want to provide great new memories.”

Features Special Coverage

And All That Jazz

Kenny Lumpkin

Kenny Lumpkin doesn’t like to use that word ‘club’ when it comes to his establishment on Worthington Street, Dewey’s Jazz Lounge. He prefers ‘restaurant, bar, and music venue,’ which really says it all. Those are his passions — in life and now in business. A year after opening, he’s off to a solid start and now looking to make an even greater impact on Springfield’s dining and entertainment scene.

Kenny Lumpkin is the true definition of serial entrepreneur.

Since as long as he can remember, he’s wanted to be in business for himself — and he’s put his name and talents behind many different types of ventures.

One was called Room by Room, an app he developed with a friend that he described as “applying Uber to the cleaning industry — an on-demand way to get your house cleaned.” He eventually sold that venture, took the capital, and segued into real estate, flipping houses, and wholesaling. And while doing that, he also got into consulting, specifically with businesses in the hospitality sector looking for help with marketing, and later, biotech and pharmaceutical consulting, working for a few different firms.

But his real passions — yes, we need the plural here — are music, food, and beverage.

And he and business partner Mark Markarian have brought them all together in an intriguing new venture in the heart of Springfield’s entertainment district, or what many are now calling the Dining District.

“I said to her ‘give me the landlord’s number,’ because this fit the vision; I saw the mezzanine, I saw the elevated stage … I saw some incredible potential.”

It’s called Dewey’s Lounge, with that name chosen to honor Lumpkin’s cousin Dwight ‘Dewey’ Jarrett, who passed away in 2014. It’s been called a club by many, but Lumpkin doesn’t necessarily like that term attached to his establishment. He prefers ‘restaurant, bar, and music venue,’ with ‘restaurant coming first for a reason.

Opened almost a year ago, Dewey’s was obviously conceived and launched before and then during the pandemic, although Lumpkin admits that he’s been working on bringing this concept from the drawing board to reality for many years now. And since it is a product of the pandemic, the business plan for Dewey’s has been revised … well, Lumpkin doesn’t know how many times.

“Maybe 15 or 20 times — I’ve lost track,” he said, adding that many things have changed since the original plans were put down, including (and especially) the location.

Indeed, the original site was on Main Street, the former JT’s tavern. Lumpkin and Markarian had signed a letter of intent and were primed to get started when COVID arrived in March of 2020. The partners quickly put those plans on the shelf for what would be more than a year, but in many respects, the pandemic was somewhat of a blessing.

“I look back on it now, and while it was frustrating in the moment, it was extremely beneficial,” he recalled. “It allowed us to really dig deeper, develop the plan in more detail, and look at other locations.”

But what really hasn’t changed is the broad concept and the desire — make that the mission — to make this all happen in Springfield, where Lumpkin was born and spent his early years.

And over its first 11 or so months in operation, Dewey’s is off to what Lumpkin called a solid start that has been better than expected, especially while dealing with COVID, two different surges, mask mandates, and the corresponding changes in attitude about going out and being in a crowded place.

Deweys Bar

Dewey’s was conceived as a place where food, beverage, and music would come together in a powerful way.

“We’ve seen two dips and two spikes,” he explained, adding that he and Markarian understood the risks of moving ahead with their venture when they eventually did — December of 2020 — but decided these were risks worth taking. “There was really no good time to do it. We took that risk, and, in looking at the cycle of it, understood that we were going to come out of this eventually.”

The goal moving forward is to continue to build on the solid foundation that has been created, he told BusinessWest, while also advancing plans for another new business in the downtown — a sports bar on Dwight Street (more on that later).

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Lumpkin about a host of topics — Dewey’s, the joys (and perils) of entrepreneurship, downtown Springfield and its comeback from COVID, and much more.

 

Sound Investment

Lumpkin told BusinessWest that the chosen location for Dewey’s came about more or less by accident.

As he tells the story, he was helping his sister prepare for the grand opening of her venture, called Ethnic Study, a co-working space and café in a property on Worthington Street, in late summer of 2020, when she asked him to move some paint and other materials to the other side of the divided first floor.

What he found on the other side was what was left (not much, as he recalled) of the former Fat Cat lounge, which had closed years earlier.

As he looked around, Lumpkin concluded that he had found what he was looking for. Sort of.

“I have always said that music, food, and drinks are the one thing that can really unite anybody and everybody. That was my hypothesis before we opened, and seeing it come to fruition has been quite amazing.”

It wasn’t what he could see that intrigued him — although that, too. But rather, it was what he could imagine. And that was the restaurant, bar, and music venue that he had always dreamed of.

“I said to her ‘give me the landlord’s number,’ because this fit the vision; I saw the mezzanine, I saw the elevated stage … I saw some incredible potential,” he said, adding that he signed a lease late that fall and commenced transforming the location in December.

Dewey’s has attracted entertainers

Since it opened, Dewey’s has attracted entertainers from across the region — and across the country.

There was a good deal of work to be done, including the replacement of the bar and moving it from the center of the first floor to one side, new shelving, a new bar and seating on that mezzanine level, and more, and it was completed over the next six months or so, with Dewey’s opening in June 2021.

Before getting more into this intriguing addition to the downtown Springfield landscape and how it came about, we first need to explain how Lumpkin made his way back to the City of Homes and made his dream reality.

We pick up the story at Emmanuel College in Boston, where Lumpkin was studying business management, with a focus on marketing, and working as a barback at a local restaurant. Later, he worked as a server at Joe’s American Bar & Grill on Newbury Street, and then as a server and bartender at the Envoy Hotel in Boston’s Seaport.

While working these jobs, he developed that Room by Room app mentioned earlier, then segued into real estate, and then into various forms of consulting. The money was good and the work was rewarding in many ways.

“But … I wasn’t passionate about it,” Lumpkin recalled. “And what I realized I was passionate about was people, and music — I’m really passionate about music. I love to eat, and I love a good cocktail.

“And that’s where this business idea began to develop, because I really do enjoy connecting with people,” he went on. “And I’ve been the friend who said, ‘everyone come to my house — I’ll cook, let’s drink, let’s hang out all night.’”

So he set out to create a business where he would be the host and people could eat and drink, and also listen to live music.

As noted earlier, the plans for what would become Dewey’s started jelling months before anyone had ever heard the word COVID, and would certainly be impacted by the pandemic in many respects. But while there have been some ups and downs that have coincided with surges and subsequent drops in cases, the venture has come together as things were originally envisioned.

Before and after photographs

Before and after photographs show the dramatic transformation of the former Fat Cat lounge into Dewey’s.

He acknowledged that being a business owner, especially in the hospitality industry, is difficult, and that’s without a global pandemic being thrown in for good measure. But he enjoys the challenges, and even used the word “fun” when talking about how to plan and execute during COVID.

“We would all prefer boring,” he explained. “But challenges like the ones we’ve seen keep you intrigued, keep you interested, and keep you creative. And if you get to the core of what an entrepreneur is, it’s someone who is creative, who can find new ways to problem-solve, and find ways to increase volume or throw out new dishes or cocktails; it keeps it fresh and it keeps it new.”

 

Achievements of Note

It helps to have something new, different, and intriguing, and Dewey’s has those ingredients.

Specifically, this is an appealing mix of food, signature drinks, and music, a combination that has had many guests thinking they’re somewhere other than downtown Springfield when they walk in the door, said Lumpkin, adding that this was the idea when he conceptualized Dewey’s.

And, as noted, he emphasizes that it is a restaurant first, with offerings ranging from Cajun shrimp pasta to baked mac & cheese to fried catfish and grits.

But craft cocktails are an important part of the mix — figuratively but also quite literally — as well, he said, adding that Dewey’s is considered the only craft cocktail bar in downtown Springfield.

“All of our syrups, all of our juices — all of the ingredients that go into our drinks — we make in-house,” he explained. “Everything but the spirit is house; we probably squeeze a couple thousand limes a week.”

The signature cocktails vary with the month and the season, he said, adding that current, spring offerings include ‘Georgia on My Mind,’ a mix of whiskey, iced tea, lemonade, and peach syrup; ‘Louis’ Lemonade,’ which features gin, lemon juice, and lavender simple syrup; and ‘Billie’s Holliday,’ featuring vodka, limoncello, and house-made grenadine, topped with prosecco.

As for the music, when asked how and where he finds performers, Lumpkin said that, in many cases, they find him — because they’re looking for intriguing new places to play.

“You’d be surprised by all the talent that’s here in Western Mass. and Connecticut, and Boston as well,” he told BusinessWest. “The most consistent bookings we receive are within a 100-mile radius; however, we’ve had bands come in from New Orleans, Georgia, D.C., Sacramento … we’ve had bands come in from across the country, but the majority are local.”

Dewey’s is currently booked through July, and it boasts live music five nights a week, he said, adding that each night has a different theme, with vocalists or “a vocal-like instrument” on Wednesdays, with a “throw-back R&B” on Thursday. Friday night is more of a “funky, groovy night,” as he put it, with Saturday devoted to straight-up jazz and Sunday and its brunch reserved for classical or a “more groovy type of band.”

It is the combination of all of the above that has enabled Dewey’s to get off to a good start and attract visitors from across this region and well beyond it, said Lumpkin, noting that he carefully tracks such information and notes that through aggressive, targeted marketing and people simply Googling ‘live music,’ or ‘craft cocktails,’ Dewey’s has drawn patrons from Vermont, New York, and many from Connecticut, New Hampshire and the Boston area, in addition to communities across this area.

Dewey’s a destination.

The combination of food, drink, and music has made Dewey’s a destination.

“I have always said that music, food, and drinks are the one thing that can really unite anybody and everybody,” he noted. “That was my hypothesis before we opened, and seeing it come to fruition has been quite amazing.”

Elaborating, he said Dewey’s has been able to attract a clientele that is diverse in every sense of that word, which is unusual in hospitality — and especially in this region.

“We’re in a community where you don’t really see all demographics in one establishment simultaneously,” he explained. “What surprised me … actually, it didn’t surprise me, because I expected it, and what has made me really happy is to see the eclectic group of people that Dewey’s has attracted.

“You see a range of age, gender, nationality, and ethnicity here every single night,” he went on. “People come in and say ‘I don’t think I’m in Springfield; this has a bigger-city vibe, because you’re seeing so much diversity in one room.’”

Moving forward, Lumpkin wants to build on this momentum, obviously, while also embarking on another venture, that sports bar on Dwight Street.

He is targeting a late-summer opening for that facility, and believes there is ample room in the marketplace for such a facility and also ample motivation for him to fill what he sees as an unmet need.

“There’s no sports bar in the area, and any restaurateur understands that sports bars also produce the best margins when it comes to this industry,” he explained, adding that, overall, he is a firm believer in amassing an abundance of hospitality options and, while doing so, creating a true destination in a city or, in this case, a dining district.

“It sounds crazy to say, but there’s almost no such thing as competition in this industry,” he told BusinessWest. “Patrons don’t go to one establishment; they typically at least go to two. They’ll say ‘let’s grab a drink here, a bite here, and dessert here’ or ‘a bite here, a drink there, and let’s get catch a show.’ People get to two or three places a night, and so the pie grows.”

 

Just Desserts

As he talked with BusinessWest, Lumpkin noted that plans are coming into place for what promises to be an exciting one-year anniversary for Dewey’s.

Indeed, he has a star-studded entertainment lineup coming together, with musicians from New Orleans, Boston, New York, California, and this area as well, signed up to perform.

“It’s going to be quite the party,” he said, adding that there is much to celebrate — with this new venue and what is transpiring along Worthington and elsewhere downtown.

It’s taken a few years, but Lumpkin’s dream has become reality in Springfield. It’s a place where his passions come together under one roof, and where a diverse mix of clients has come together as well.

It hasn’t all gone as planned, but in most all respects, it has gone better than planned.

 

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

40 Under 40 Class of 2022

Community Development Director, Town of West Springfield; Age 25

Stephanie Welch has her own working definition of the phrase that now appears on her business card (or one of them, anyway): community development.

“To me, it means removing equity barriers for those around you,” she told BusinessWest, adding that she goes about this assignment in a number of ways through her role with the town of West Springfield, everything from help administering a down-payment assistance program to those looking to buy a home to work assisting the local food pantry in securing a much-needed new home.

And this same basic goal also defines her work outside of her day job as a consultant and as a controller for a local manufacturer.

“Everyone I work with is tied to the same goal,” she said. “All the organizations, from West Springfield to the private companies I work with — they’re trying to remove equity barriers for people.”

Prior to the pandemic, Welch was working as a project manager for a large consulting firm that specialized in work with small- to medium-sized businesses when she decided she wanted to make a career shift. She saw the position of community developer in West Springfield as a natural fit and a logical move.
“A lot of it is administering grant funding, but it’s also basic accounting and budgeting and doing strategic planning,” she explained. “And I thought, ‘I can do this.’” City officials thought the same thing, and she started just after the pandemic hit.

Since arriving, she’s been involved in the multi-phase renovation of the West Springfield Boys & Girls Club, which she calls her “pride and joy,” as well as a number of paving projects, job-training initiatives for non-English-speaking residents (there are many in this community), and that aforementioned down-payment assistance project, administered in conjunction with Way Finders, which is helping many city residents become homeowners.

“Many people will say, ‘I can afford the mortgage, but I can just never get caught up to make the down payment,” she explained, adding that the program provides $5,000 to those who quality to get them over that hump.

That’s just one example of barrier removal, she said, reiterating that her work outside of Town Hall usually takes a similar course. Indeed, she serves as controller to the Coating House, a manufacturer working to bring more women into that industry.

Outside of her many kinds of work, Welch skis, hikes, and hangs out with her rescue dog, Whiskey.

 

— George O’Brien

40 Under 40 Class of 2022

Marketing & Recruiting Manager, Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.; Age 38

Choreography is the art of planning and arranging movements, as in a ballet or musical, so they come together in a cohesive and powerful way.

Sarah Rose Stack handles choreography in what would be considered the traditional sense — leading recent productions for the Opera House Players in Enfield and Little Theater of Manchester that include Shrek, Something Rotten, Legally Blonde: the Musical, and her latest, In the Heights.

But her multi-faceted work as marketing manager for the Holyoke-based accounting firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka, her day job, would also be considered choreography. There, she handles the firm’s marketing, digital presence, community outreach, public relations, business development, and communications, and brings all that together in many powerful ways that are yielding results on several different levels.

These include everything from a new, responsive website that has spawned a more than 200% increase in active users to a social-media strategy that has generated a nearly 900% increase in impressions and a 530% increase in engagements, to new diversity, equity, and inclusion initiatives. She also co-leads and champions the firm’s community-outreach program, coordinating drives, awareness campaigns, and service for a wide range of organizations.

Looking at the many sides of her life, Stack said they complement one another and ultimately make her better at each one.

“My formal training in music and dance has made me really good at my job in communications because music and dance is the ultimate expression of feeling,” she said. “And I really believe my career landed where it is because of that training … it’s the weird secret sauce in my background.”

Perhaps the most difficult assignment for Stack when it comes to choreography is her own schedule. Indeed, the retired professional dancer for the Boston Cannons of Major League Lacrosse currently teaches multiple styles of dance at Nutmegs Dance and Theatre Company (while also managing the studio’s website). She’s also a seasonal choreographer for the Opera House Players; marketing co-chair for the Massachusetts Society of CPAs; contributing writer for publications ranging from BusinessWest to UFO Magazine; frequent public speaker on topics ranging from business development to marketing; active volunteer for several nonprofits, including Boston Children’s Hospital and the Boston Cannons Foundation; and devoted mother of two boys.

On top of all that, she’s pursuing a master’s degree in communications online at Johns Hopkins University.

Asked where she finds the time, she said she makes it, because all of those aspects of her life are important to her and contribute to who she is.

 

— George O’Brien

40 Under 40 Class of 2022

Assistant District Attorney, Northwestern District Attorney’s Office; Age 34

Veronice Santana keeps a busy schedule.

As an assistant district attorney in the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office, she’s handling a full load of cases. She’s also an adjunct professor at both Bay Path University, where she earned a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice, and Western New England University School of Law, where she earned her juris doctor. She’s also active in the community, as we’ll see.

But she makes sure to reserve time to mentor those involved with Girls Inc. of the Valley and provide support to high-school girls preparing for college, especially those thinking about careers in law. This mentoring takes many forms and includes simply being a role model and showing them that no career, including the path she took, is beyond their reach if they work hard.

“I’m one of very few women of color in my profession, and so one of the things I enjoy doing is being a representative of the legal field and showing young women, young people of color, that this is something they can also achieve,” she said. “You can’t be what you can’t see.”

What those girls see when Santana is in the room is a rising star in the Northwestern District Attorney’s Office, one who was the first in her family to attend college, and someone who was firm of the belief that she would become a defense attorney until her last semester in law school, when a judge told her she could become more of a change agent, and impact more lives, as a prosecutor, especially in the Northwestern DA’s office.

She has come to believe those words, and in her role as assistant DA, she stresses that not all crimes need to be prosecuted and not all offenders need to be incarcerated.

“There are a lot of reasons why people commit crimes,” she told BusinessWest. Sometimes, they just need substance-abuse or mental-health treatment. I very quickly learned that this office is focused on alternatives to incarceration, restorative justice, rehabilitation, and treatment. And this is what I believe in.”

As noted, Santana, who recently rescued a dog which is now the “light of her life,” is active in the community. In addition to her work with Girls Inc., she’s a member of Zonta International and also serves as a member of Bay Path University’s paralegal advisory committee and as a board member of the WNE Law Alumni Assoc. She’s also on the Puerto Rican Parade committee.

 

— George O’Brien

40 Under 40 Class of 2022

Director of Behavioral Health, Trinity Health Of New England; Age 36

Dr. Edna Rodriguez says there are few, if any, silver linings attached to the COVID-19 pandemic, especially when it comes to healthcare and those who provide it.

But if there is one, she believes it is the way the pandemic has brought much-needed attention to the broad subject of behavioral health, attention that may bring some positive results in the years and decades to come.

“The past 24 months have shone a bright spotlight on a problem that was already there,” she explained. “We already had issues with access to care; we already had issues with people contemplating whether to seek behavioral-health services because of stigma and fears of how the system can play out for them.

“COVID has given a different level of importance to behavioral health,” she went on. “I’m hearing more senators, more legislators talking about behavioral health and budgeting for behavioral health … in a way, this crisis has humanized behavioral health.”

Rodriguez should know. She’s spent her professional career working in behavioral health, starting at the Gandara Center in 2013, after earning her doctorate in clinical psychology in Puerto Rico. There, she worked with the Latinx population in Springfield’s North End. She joined the staff of the former Providence Hospital (then an affiliate of Mercy Medical Center) in 2016, and was named to several leadership positions, serving as clinical supervisor of the Clinical Stabilization Unit, director of Clinical Programming and Social Work, and director of the Clinical Assessment Center and Ambulatory programs. She was named to her current position, in which she also directs Brightside for Families and Children, in 2021.

In that position, she oversees collaborations with Behavioral Health Network for crisis management in Mercy’s Emergency Department, manages psychiatric and addiction consultation teams, and ensures that resources are utilized effectively to treat patients and help them transfer to appropriate levels of care.

She also manages grants received by Mercy to help improve and expand access to care for those struggling with a substance-abuse disorder, and also oversees the overall operations of Brightside for Families and Children, an outpatient service offering counseling and family-support programs.

Rodriguez, a mother of two, is also active in the community, serving as a member of the Western Mass. Area Board for the Department of Mental Health; as a parent member of the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee for East Longmeadow Public Schools; and as a leadership member of the Hampden County Addiction Taskforce.

 

— George O’Brien

40 Under 40 Class of 2022

Medicaid Program Manager, Health New England; Age 29

Preeti Nakrani described it as a classic case of being in the right place at the right time. That would be an understatement.

She was talking about her internship at Baystate Health while she was working toward her master’s degree in Public Health at UMass Amherst. At the time, Baystate was getting ready to roll out its BeHealthy Partnership ACO (accountable-care organization), and as an intern, Nakrani was heavily involved with many aspects of that initiative.

So much so that the health system hired her as program manager for the ACO upon graduation. She provided daily management and support of the program, including establishing programmatic goals, care management for inpatient and outpatient workflows, tracking performance, and generating reports.

“I don’t think a lot of people get lucky enough to manage this type of an innovative model right out of grad school,” she said. “I see it as a blessing.”

Today, she handles many of those same responsibilities in a different setting and with a different title — as Medicaid Program manager for Health New England, an affiliate of Baystate Health.

Providing a quick job description, she said, “I’m essentially trying to help patients get the right care at the right time and try to help them use appropriate care settings and support them through whatever social, medical, and behavioral-health concerns they may have. The intention is that this [ACO] model will help people through a population-health approach and control some costs in our Medicaid line of business.”

Nakrani, who earned her bachelor’s degree in health policy analysis from Brandeis University, said she always wanted to work in healthcare — and especially in the public-health realm, where, as she put it, she could look at healthcare not from an individual perspective, but from a population perspective, and help underserved individuals. And she has essentially made this her career.

It’s a career marked by thoughtful and innovative approaches to the task of bringing down the cost of healthcare by focusing on improving the overall health of the region. And it’s a career that’s really just getting started.

Within the community, Nakrani is involved with a number of initiatives that are in line with her passion for healthcare and public health. She has been a facilitator of the ACO Patient and Family Advisory Council, a facilitator of Baystate Community Faculty meetings, an advisor for Baystate’s PURCH (Population-based Urban and Rural Community Health) program, and a volunteer for Baystate Health’s ‘poverty simulations.’

 

— George O’Brien

40 Under 40 Class of 2022

Executive Director, EforAll Holyoke/EparaTodos; Holyoke City Councilor; Age 32

Tessa Murphy-Romboletti says she was just 8 years old when she had her first experience with effecting change in Holyoke.
Telling the story, she said she had a real affection for Friendly’s ice-cream treats. To get to the Friendly’s, she had to cross busy Route 5, which wasn’t a problem until a certain traffic light stopped working as it should.

Missing her ice cream compelled her to ask her grandfather what could be done to get the light fixed, and upon being told that she should call the mayor’s office … she did just that. And her phone call promoted some action.

And it did more than that. Much more. It empowered her, and, in many ways, it put her on a path to occupying an at-large seat on her hometown’s City Council; she won election last fall.

“From that traffic-light experience, I was like, ‘what else can I fix?’” she recalled, adding that she quickly moved on to the vacant field across from her house. When a candidate for City Council knocked on the door, she informed him that she would like to see it turned into a park. It took a while, but that’s just what that space became.

“I always had a deep love for local government, and I’ve always cared about improving my neighborhood,” said Murphy-Romboletti, adding that this passion eventually led to taking an internship with then-mayor Mike Sullivan while she was in college, which led to a job in the mayor’s office and, later, another job with the Planning and Economic Development department.

Her love of Holyoke and desire to build its business community took a different path when, in 2016, she became director of SPARK, a nonprofit that was part of the region’s entrepreneurship ecosystem, and merged it into EforAll, now a national organization.

In just over five years, she’s helped more than 50 businesses launch and expanded EforAll Holyoke with a program in Spanish, EparaTodos. Her work to build EforAll earned the organization recognition as one of BusinessWest’s Difference Makers in 2021.

But her passion for Holyoke runs even deeper. Indeed, for many years now, she has been a member of the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day Parade Committee, and has served as chair of MassHire Holyoke.

Two dozen years after getting that traffic light working, she’s still looking for things to fix, and for ways to make her city a better place to live, work, and operate a business.

 

— George O’Brien

40 Under 40 Class of 2022

Executive Director of Diversity and Inclusion, Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst; Age 29

When asked why there are now so many colleges, municipalities, and businesses that employ administrators focused on diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), Alaina Macaulay gave a quick but direct answer.

“To be quite honest, many of the ways in which society operates are designed to promote some and exclude others,” she explained. “We need these positions so that we have advocacy for people, but then we’re also dismantling systems that have been oppressive and have kept people out.”

And among area DEI professionals, Macaulay has become a true leader. Formerly the director of DEI at Elms College, she has served for three years now as executive director of Diversity and Inclusion at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst, and is the first person to hold that title.

A graduate of Western Illinois University, where she earned both bachelor’s and master’s degrees while playing on the volleyball team, Macaulay said each day is different, which is what she likes most about her work. But overall, she works with the Admissions team on encouraging ways to attract and connect with students from all backgrounds “so they see Isenberg is a destination that they want to be a part of and that they feel they can belong in.”

For students already enrolled, she works on programming and creating curriculum that centers the experiences of students that have historically come from the most marginalized backgrounds.

“I advise student groups; work with students, faculty, and staff closely on DEI initiatives; and I also help with training to make sure we’re all operating from an inclusive and equitable practice,” she explained.

Since arriving at Isenberg, Macaulay has many accomplishments and new initiatives to her credit, including:

• Creating and chairing Isenberg’s diversity, equity, and inclusion committee;

• Launching Isenberg’s first Diversity and Inclusion Education Week;

• Creation of Isenberg’s “Many Minds” workshop series dedicated to discussions on diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging; and

• Building and maintaining relationships with K-12 organizations to create a pipeline of students from the most marginalized backgrounds.

In addition to her work at Isenberg, Macaulay is also very involved in the community. She serves on the board of the Young Professional Society of Greater Springfield and the Chester Theater. She’s also an active volunteer with Sisters of St. Joseph, specifically serving on its peace and justice committee, which is committed to centering racial justice and equity in the congregation.

 

— George O’Brien

40 Under 40 Class of 2022

Co-owner, Kelley and Katzer Real Estate, LLC; Age 38

Joe Kelley says it all started with a hard read of Donald Trump’s The Art of the Deal while on a family trip to West Palm Beach when he was in high school.

“My mother was always looking for something to light my fire,” he recalled. “So she got me that book; I read it cover to cover.”

Actually, that book only solidified plans he’d mapped out years earlier — plans to get into real estate, to own his own business, and to make some significant deals of his own.

At age 38, Kelley can say that pretty much every one of those goals has not only been met, but exceeded. He got into real estate soon after graduating from college, and before he was 30 he had launched his own real-estate company. A few years later, he partnered with Christine Katzer to create Kelley and Katzer Real Estate, LLC, a firm that has grown to two offices (in West Springfield and Feeding Hills), 10 agents, two administrators, and $52 million in sales in 2020.

As for deals … Kelley has been managing partner in several investment firms that oversee residential and business rental properties, new construction of residential homes, and renovation and resale of homes. Recent development initiatives have included everything from residential subdivisions — Angelica Estates in Westfield and Somerset Heights in West Springfield — to a medical office facility in what was a Knights of Columbus hall in Palmer.

But the success story Kelley is authoring himself includes much more than achievements in business.

Inspired by his parents and their strong track record of giving back, Kelley has been very involved in the community, supporting everything from the West Springfield Boys & Girls Club to Rays of Hope; from the Sister Caritas Cancer Center to local Little League teams.

Maybe the best example of his commitment to helping others, though, was an initiative he and the team at Kelley and Katzer launched during the height of the pandemic called Friends Helping Friends in the Community, created to assist struggling residents and businesses alike. Businesses were asked to partner with Kelley and Katzer and sponsor a restaurant that would supply bag lunches to the Parish Cupboard to give out.

When not working or helping in the community, Kelley said he’s spending time with his family — his wife Keri and sons Teddy (2) and Harrison (11 months). They enjoy going on walks and playing in the backyard.

 

— George O’Brien

40 Under 40 Class of 2022

Owner, Sweet Lucy’s Bakeshop; Age 39

Lucy Damkoehler has always blended (that’s an industry term) her passion for baking with a desire to give back to the community.

But during the pandemic, these twin forces came together as never before, and in a very powerful way.

The program was called Take & Bake Meals. It started small, right after the lockdown in mid-March 2020, with Damkoehler, chef and owner of the suddenly sidelined Sweet Lucy’s Bakeshop in Bernardston, making six chicken pot pies with the belief that elderly individuals and families coping with COVID could use them. Suffice it to say, she was right.

“I had these pies … I said, ‘I’m going to put this on Facebook, and maybe one or two people will want one.’ Within a half-hour, every one of them was sold, and I had 10 more people calling for them,” she said, adding that the pot pies, mac-and-cheese dinners, and other offerings would be dropped off on neighbors’ doorsteps, sent off to colleges, and brought to others in need of quick, nutritious meals. At the height of the program, she was making 50 to 60 meals a day.

And while Take & Bake Meals certainly helped those in the community, it gave a new and improved lease on life to Sweet Lucy’s Bakeshop as well. Indeed, the pot pies have now become a staple for the business, and they have introduced it to new audiences that have become steady clients, enabling Damkoehler to add employees and grow her venture.

Take & Bake helps explain why Damkoehler is a 40 Under Forty honoree, but there is so much more to the story. She started baking at a very young age and took her first job at a bakery in Deerfield. She earned an associate of occupational studies degree at New England Culinary Institute, then moved to New York to work under Claudia Fleming at the Gramercy Tavern. She eventually settled in Washington and spent the next 12 years building her reputation as an industry leader.

Desiring to return home — and fulfill her dream of opening her own business, she launched Sweet Lucy’s Bakeshop. In addition to those pot pies, it specializes in croissants, muffins, scones, cookies, and more.

As noted, Damkoehler is also active in the community, serving on the board of trustees for the Cushman Library in Bernardson. She’s also involved with the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, Franklin County Community Meals, and Empty Arms Bereavement Support.

 

— George O’Brien

40 Under 40 Class of 2022

Director of Development & Communications, Girls Inc. of the Valley

Jessica Colson was looking for a new and different career challenge — a position where she could utilize her skills in fundraising and digital marketing, and in a setting where her personal mission aligned with her work.

She found all that after a quick visit to the Girls Inc. of the Valley website.

“A pro-girl environment is something I experienced as a softball player growing up and playing for various teams,” she explained. “I was able to thrive in that environment, so I could clearly see the need for such an organization in the community. It was a very easy decision to apply for the job there.”

We’ll get back to the softball in a minute, because it’s a big part of this story. But first, that job she took. It put her on a path to becoming the director of Development & Communications for the Holyoke-based nonprofit, a position with many responsibilities in both marketing and development, from events to mail appeals; from writing newsletters to coordinating the May 5 Spirit of Girls fundraiser, a drive-in event at the Big E with a goal of raising $100,000.

Summing it all up, she said it’s her job to make sure the Western Mass. community knows about Girls Inc. and its many programs — and that these programs have the funding they need to continue.

It’s a big job, one in which she works closely with other team members to achieve the organization’s stated goals — and set some new ones for the future. Which is what she’s always done while playing, coaching, and teaching softball, which is her other passion.

A long-time player — at Agawam High School and then Elms College, where she earned both a bachelor’s degree in sports management and an MBA — she is now a volunteer assistant coach at Elms, working specifically with pitchers. She’s also the head coach of the JV girls volleyball team at Agawam High School.

But softball is more than a pastime for her — it’s also a business. Indeed, Colson launched NWS Fastpitch, where she focuses on providing instruction to pitchers.

“It started as a real desire to give back to the sport that gave me so many life skills — communication, teamwork, pushing through adversity,” she explained. “I was really looking for an outlet to pass on my knowledge to the next generation.”

Active in the community, she is a board member for Young Professional Society of Greater Springfield, and has been a team captain for the Walk to End Alzheimer’s for several years.

 

— George O’Brien

 

40 Under 40 Class of 2022

Resource Development Director, West Springfield Boys & Girls Club; Age 30

You might call it coming full circle. Sort of. But not really.

When she comes to the stage to collect her 40 Under Forty plaque in mid-June, it won’t be the first time Sarah Calabrese has touched such an award.

Indeed, back in 2012, the West Springfield native, then a student at Holyoke Community College, was a communications intern at BusinessWest. One of her many duties that summer was to help coordinate and execute the 40 Under Forty event. She remembers handling a number of assignments, from helping with marketing pre-event to working the check-in desk and arranging the honoree plaques on the big night. She recalls something else, too.

“I remember saying, ‘wow, I hope I get this award someday,’” she told BusinessWest, adding that her experience during that internship helped propel her into what has become a career working in marketing, events, and fundraising.

She now wears all those hats and even a few more for the West Springfield Boys & Girls Club, which she serves as Resource Development director. She arrived at the club after stints with Western Mass News and later Comcast Spotlight, and said the shift to the nonprofit realm was sparked by a long-held passion to serve the community and help others.

“Working for corporate America was different, and I really enjoyed my position, but I missed my local connection; I missed my community and giving back to the community that I was a lifelong resident of, and that I live in,” she explained. “So it was a no-brainer when I saw the position open at the Boys & Girls Club. I have a huge, huge passion for working with youth.”

As noted, she wears many hats in this role, including marketing and the coordination of events, with both responsibilities becoming far more challenging during the pandemic. Displaying creativity and perseverance, she conducted many events virtually, enabling them to continue, successfully, in very challenging times.

Meanwhile, she carries out many of these same responsibilities for the West Springfield Rotary Club, which she currently serves as vice president. She is also involved with YPS and the West of the River Chamber.

And speaking of event planning, there’s one more big one she’s working on — her own destination wedding in Sicily, slated for July 2023, when she will tie the knot with Jack Dunphy, a West Springfield firefighter and paramedic.

 

— George O’Brien

40 Under 40 Class of 2022

Communications Director, Office of U.S. Rep. Richard Neal; Age 31

Margaret Boyle remembers her first real taste of politics — and it didn’t exactly go down well.

When she was very young, her father was a Springfield city councilor. She would go along with him to campaign events and even appeared, somewhat reluctantly, in a few of his TV commercials.

“I always said, ‘this is not the life for me,’ she recalled, adding that things changed in a profound way when she arrived at Smith College, and especially when she enrolled in a class at UMass Amherst through the Five College Consortium.

It was called “The Politician and the Journalist,” and it was taught by Congressman Richard Neal. By the end of that semester, Boyle was asking Neal if she could intern in his office. He said ‘yes,’ and that put her on a path that has taken her to the position of Communications director in that office.

This is a big job with many different responsibilities, from issuing press releases to updating Neal’s website on a daily basis; from handling all the social media for the congressman to following up with members of the press doing stories on matters Neal is involved with.

“No two days are alike, which is what I like about this job,” she said, adding that she’s in Washington at least a day or two or month and spends considerable time with Neal visiting some of the 87 cities and towns that make up a massive district that covers parts of five counties.

In addition to her work with Neal, Boyle is very active in the community, especially in ways that honor the memory and legacy of her father, William J. Boyle, who eventually became first justice of the Springfield District Court.

Indeed, with her mother, Rose, brother Martin, and lifelong friends of her father, she founded the William J. Boyle Scholarship Fund to advance educational opportunities for Springfield high-school students. She also played a lead role in creating the annual Run Billy Run 5K road race and one-mile walk, which last year raised more than $35,000 for scholarships. She not only organizes it, she runs in it, thus honoring another legacy — going for runs with her father years ago.

Recently, Boyle joined the board of directors of the Springfield Boys & Girls Club, and she is actively involved in fundraising efforts for the Susie Foundation, which provides families living with ALS with compassionate and enduring support services.

 

— George O’Brien

40 Under 40 Class of 2022

Vice President of Family Support Services, Square One; Age 37

Melissa Blissett brought a lot of personal items along for her 40 Under Forty photo shoot, and for a reason.

There are many things that are important to her, and she wanted to try to represent them all with one image.

She’s big into plants, and also reading. Family is a huge part of her life, and she brought along a portrait of the group, as well as a framed copy of one of her favorite quotes, and a pink elephant, which represents the sorority she belongs to — Delta Sigma Theta, an organization of college-educated women “committed to constructive development of its members and to public service, with a primary focus on the black community.”

There isn’t anything that directly represents her work as vice president of Family Support Services at Square One, but then again, all or at least most of those other items reflect what she does.

In short, her work is all about family, education, service to others, and helping others live the life they’ve always dreamed of while, as that quote goes, “remembering where you came from but never losing sight of where you are going.”

Blissett, who earned a bachelor’s degree at the University of Lowell and a master’s degree in social work at Springfield College, told BusinessWest that while Square One is most associated with early-childhood education, the nonprofit has long understood the importance of supporting families. And it is her job to essentially coordinate and deliver that support, which comes in many forms.

“The parent is the child’s first teacher in general, so the goal is to provide educational support,” she explained. “We also want to provide and help them access resources within the community. We want to make sure that the child is safe, that the child is receiving adequate education, and that the family is getting the resources it needs to grow healthy children.”

Blissett first worked at Square One as an intern while working toward her master’s at Springfield College, and later joined the agency as Healthy Families and Supervised Visitation supervisor. She was later promoted to assistant vice president of Family Support Services and is now vice president of that department.

She is also an adjunct professor at Springfield College in the graduate department of Social Work and, as noted, very active with Delta Sigma Theta. She is also active at her church, Shiloh Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Springfield.

 

— George O’Brien

40 Under 40 Class of 2022

Senior Vice President, UTCA Inc.; Age 37

Meghan Avery says that most people assume the name given the brewing company she co-owns with her husband, Mark, stems from what would be considered her day job as senior vice president with West Springfield-based Unemployment Tax Control Associates.

They would be wrong.

“My husband came up with the name Two Weeks Notice Brewing Company because, quite literally, he wanted the brewery to be a success so he could quit the job that he had,” she explained, adding that he was able to do just that and pursue his passion full-time.

But while her work in the unemployment tax realm wasn’t the source of a corporate name, it has become her passion, and her career, one in which she is following the lead of her mother — Suzanne Murphy, the company’s founder — in all kinds of ways, from her entrepreneurial energy to her commitment to giving back to the community.

At UTCA, Avery handles a wide range of responsibilities, including client services, all aspects of the Claims department, various HR functions, and management-education seminars offered to every client. She also supports the business-development side of the organization.

Meanwhile, at Two Weeks Notice Brewing in West Springfield, she wears an equally large number of important hats, handling finances, marketing, event planning, and brand development. And while all aspects of the company are in a growth mode, the event side of the ledger is really taking off, with the West Springfield location hosting gatherings for YPS, Toys for Tots, Parish Cupboard, the West Springfield Police Department, and the Susan B. Anthony Project, which offers services to those affected by domestic violence and sexual assault. It has even hosted an “adult prom do-over,” which was … well, just what it sounds like — adults doing their prom over.

Sometimes, Avery’s two worlds come together, such as when she organized a free training for local breweries in Massachusetts and Connecticut to educate them about effective sexual-harassment policy and management of these issues in the brewery setting, training that was conducted with the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast, an agency she partners with frequently in her role at UTCA.

Within the community, Avery is a certified victims advocate for those experiencing domestic and sexual violence. She and Mark have also recently partnered with Brave Noise, an organization geared toward eliminating sexism, sexual harassment, and gender discrimination in the brewing industry.

 

— George O’Brien

 

Banking and Financial Services

Branching Out — Again

Matt Sosik

Matt Sosik says Hometown Financial Group’s latest acquisition, like those that came before it, is all about creating scale at a time when that quality is critical to growth and even survival.

A “survival tactic.”

That’s one of the phrases Matt Sosik, CEO of Hometown Financial Group Inc., the parent of bankESB, used to describe Hometown’s announced plans to acquire Randolph Bancorp Inc., the latest in a series of moves by Hometown to expand through acquisition.

Elaborating, Sosik said this acquisition will certainly give Hometown, the multi-bank holding company for Abington Bank as well as bankESB, a larger, stronger footprint on the state’s South Shore. Indeed, Randolph Bancorp is the holding company for Envision Bank, which will merge with and into Abington Bank to create a $1.4 billion institution with 11 full-service retail locations across the South Shore, including the towns of Abington, Avon, Braintree, Cohassett, Holbrook, Marion, Randolph, and Stoughton.

But the primary reason for this acquisition, as well as the other five undertaken in just the past seven years, he told BusinessWest, is to achieve something that is becoming ever-more critical in today’s banking climate: scale.

“Banking has become such a low-margin business that scale is absolutely critical,” Sosik explained. “We aren’t running our company to survive three years or five years; we’re running to survive 20 and 30 years. We want to be a relevant player in all our markets, and we want to ensure our long-term survival, and to do that, scale is the name of the game.

“We’re not seeking this growth because it makes us feel better or because it allows us to pump our chest out,” he went on. “This is a survival tactic in this business.”

With this latest acquisition, which is expected to be finalized by the fourth quarter of this year, Hometown will have consolidated assets of approximately $4.4 billion and a branch network of 38 full-service offices across Massachusetts and the northeastern part of Connecticut. The move will make Hometown the 10th-largest mutual banking company in the country.

“We aren’t running our company to survive three years or five years; we’re running to survive 20 and 30 years. We want to be a relevant player in all our markets, and we want to ensure our long-term survival, and to do that, scale is the name of the game.”

“That’s scale — that’s about us being one of the survivors when the dust eventually settles,” said Sosik, reiterating, again, the need for size in a changing, still consolidating banking and financial-services sector, where competition is growing — and evolving.

“I talk about low margins and scale, but there’s a dynamic that’s ever-increasing; we now have competitors that aren’t just credit unions or banks,” he went on, listing players such as SoFi, Chime, and others. “The non-bank competition is out to steal our lunch, and to an extent, they will be successful. But we need to be able to play in their space, and that takes scale, too.”

Hometown’s acquisition of publicly traded Randolph Bancorp will provide more of that scale, said Sosik, noting that talks between the institutions started last fall and quickly intensified.

Under the terms of the merger agreement, which has been unanimously approved by both boards of directors, Randolph shareholders will receive $27 in cash for each share of Randolph common stock. The total transaction value is approximately $146.5 million.

This transaction will be the sixth strategic merger for Hometown in the last seven years. In 2015, Hometown acquired Citizens National Bancorp Inc., based in Putnam, Conn., and then merged with Hometown Community Bancorp. MHC, the holding company for Hometown Bank, in 2016. It then acquired Pilgrim Bancshares Inc. and Abington Bank in 2019, and later that same year merged Millbury Savings Bank with and into bankHometown.

Like those other acquisitions, this one will enable Hometown to achieve needed additional growth quickly and effectively, Sosik said.

“From the Hometown Financial Group perspective, this is a move that allows us to grow with very little additional cost,” he told BusinessWest. “This particular acquisition is going to be extremely efficient for Hometown.”

And, as noted, it will give Hometown a much larger and stronger position in a very competitive banking climate on the South Shore.

“With the addition of Envision Bank, we more than double our full-service locations and assets in Eastern Massachusetts,” he explained. “This dramatically increases the branding power we have on the South Shore, as well as market share.”

One matter still to be determined — and there is time to make this decision — is what name will go on the new entity, said Sosik, adding that both brands (Envision and Abington) have value and cache in that market.

“We’ll try to figure out what’s the best brand in that market for that combined bank,” he said. “We want to be thoughtful about that, and we’ll give it some thought.”

Meanwhile, the search for additional strategic acquisitions and partnerships with like-minded acquisitions will continue, he added, because scale will only become more important in the years and decades to come.

As he said, it’s a survival tactic.

 

— George O’Brien

Nonprofit Management

18 Under 18

Jennifer Connelly

Jennifer Connelly says JA’s 18 Under 18 program will recognize young people in three areas — innovative spirit, leadership, and community involvement.

Jennifer Connelly says that, in many ways, the new recognition program created by Junior Achievement (JA) of Western Massachusetts was inspired by the pandemic and a recognized need to bring attention to the manner in which young people, who were impacted by COVID-19 in many different ways, stepped up and displayed true leadership and community involvement at a turbulent time.

“The past few years have been tough on everybody, but they’ve been even tougher on young people,” said Connelly, the agency’s president and CEO. “I think that being isolated, doing remote learning, having to wear masks, not being able to interact with people like they used to, like our volunteers … has challenged many of them, and they’ve felt isolated and removed from being part of the community. We wanted to do something to recognize them to help their self-esteem, but also for the community to realize what a bright future we have with these young people who are doing so much already and celebrate them.”

But these are qualities worthy of recognition at any time, she went on, noting that JA’s new initiative, called 18 Under 18 — in a nod to many regional and national recognition programs, including BusinessWest’s 40 Under Forty — and presented by Teddy Bear Pools, will hopefully become a permanent fixture in the region. That is certainly the plan.

“We wanted to do something to recognize them to help their self-esteem, but also for the community to realize what a bright future we have with these young people who are doing so much already and celebrate them.”

The program, as its name connotes, will recognize 18 young people from across the region in both middle and high school. Nominees must attend school in Hampden, Hampshire, Franklin, or Berkshire County, and while involvement in JA programs is not required, it is considered favorably during the evaluation process, which is now underway. The class of 2022 will be introduced later this month, and they will be honored at ceremonies in the Tower Square food court on May 19.

Candidates will be judged in three areas, said Connelly — innovative spirit, leadership, and community involvement — and the nominations that have been received, mostly from teachers, principals, guidance counselors, parents, and other students, show all of those qualities.

Connelly said the program is modeled after initiatives launched in recent years by JA chapters in Arizona and Pennsylvania, and is designed to bring attention to the accomplishments of young people, their leadership skills, and the manner in which they are inspiring others.

She said finalists for the program will be required to attend a 30-minute virtual interview with judges who will ultimately select the 18 to be honored this year.

Those who are nominated are asked to submit something “creative,” she added, be it a photo, a video, a poem or story they wrote, or, in the case of students from the Springfield Conservatory of Music who were nominated, YouTube videos.

“We’re asking these students to display leadership and entrepreneurship, but in the sense that entrepreneurship is creative thinking, the skills it takes to be an entrepreneur, the ability to think outside the box, and problem solving.”

“We’re asking these students to display leadership and entrepreneurship, but in the sense that entrepreneurship is creative thinking, the skills it takes to be an entrepreneur, the ability to think outside the box, and problem solving,” she explained, adding that the exercise in creativity should certainly give the judges some things to think about.

Elaborating on that concept of leadership, Connelly said it can come in many forms and many forums, and the 18 Under 18 program should bring this out.

“You don’t have to the student president of a particular grade,” she explained. “You can be demonstrating leadership in a class, for example, stepping up when you see someone having problems in class and helping them.”

Community service is the third leg of the triangle, she said, adding that, even during the pandemic — or especially during the pandemic, as the case may be — young people across the region have found ways to help others and serve their community.

The chosen 18 will be recognized in many different ways, which is one of the hallmarks of the initiative, said Connelly, adding that she is expecting several local media outlets to introduce the honorees to the region. At the May 19 event, there will be a reception for the honorees, with 250 to 300 attendees expected, and awards given out (Country Bank is the award sponsor). There will be even be ‘18 Under 18’ lawn signs to identify the homes of the 18 honorees.

Eventually, the goal is to award college scholarships to the honorees, said Connelly, adding that this goal can be realized if the program catches on as expected and additional sponsors can be secured.

Ted Hebert, owner and founder of Chicopee-based Teddy Bear Pools and, coincidentally, one of BusinessWest’s Difference Makers for 2022, said he was approached by JA several months ago to be a sponsor of 18 Under 18. A strong supporter of youth programs and organizations committed to serving young people, from youth sports leagues to Boys and Girls Clubs to YMCAs, Hebert said he attached the Teddy Bear name to the initiative because it dovetails with other work he and his wife, Barbara, are involved with, and meshes with his values when it comes to how such agencies should serve young people.

“I like to help organizations that don’t enable people,” he explained. “I like organizations that help people, give them a helping hand, to guide them and help them through whatever they’re going to go through to make it better for them and our society. I’m looking to assist people, and this program seemed to be something that would be assisting young people in their personal lives and, potentially, their business lives. And I liked that idea.”

As with other recognition programs of this kind, Connelly said 18 Under 18 will take some time to become part of the fabric of the region. As it gains visibility and the students are recognized for their accomplishments and talents, she expects the number of nominations to steadily grow.

Over the coming years, she believes, this recognition, a word she chose over ‘award,’ is something that students and those that they inspire will come to value and strive for.

“We’re really excited about this,” she said in conclusion, adding that such a recognition program for young people has been a missing ingredient locally. “We know how special these students are. We need to let everyone know.”

 

— George O’Brien

Cover Story

The Next Chapter

Valley Venture Mentors has long had a singular but multi-faceted mission — to promote entrepreneurship in the region and provide various forms of assistance to help business owners take their venture to the next stage. Through a new and broader affiliation with the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council, the agency has an opportunity to become, in the words of its director, even more of an advocate, a champion, and a “convener” within the region’s broad, and growing, entrepreneurship ecosystem.

VVM Executive Director Hope Ross Gibaldi

VVM Executive Director Hope Ross Gibaldi

As she talked about the new, broader, stronger relationship between Valley Venture Mentors and the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council (EDC), Hope Ross Gibaldi, VVM’s executive director, used the word ‘opportunity’ early and quite often.

She said the affiliation between the two agencies, or the deeper affiliation, as the case may be, gives VVM access to a larger pool of funding sources, some of them stemming from COVID-relief efforts, and, in general, a stronger platform from which to conduct its many programs — from its weekly ‘community nights’ to its student business accelerator to its entrepreneurial roundtables — and become an even more vital component of the region’s entrepreneurship ecosystem.

“VVM has gone through a lot of evolution and many iterations, and with the course of the pandemic, that has really provided us with a chance to do some reflection,” Ross Gibaldi explained. “I think this new alignment with the EDC really positions VVM to be a convener regionally for the entrepreneurial ecosystem and be an advocate and a champion for entrepreneurship in the Western Mass. region. It’s a tremendous opportunity — for VVM and the region.”

Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the EDC, agreed. He told BusinessWest that VVM, which will continue to be its own 501(c)(3) nonprofit and rely on many of its traditional funding sources, ranging from area foundations to long-time supporter Berkshire Bank, is now a “program” of the EDC, one that must ultimately pay for itself through fundraising, grants, program fees, and more, while taking full advantage of networking and funding opportunities presented by the EDC.

“Our economy here is really reliant on small and medium-sized businesses, many of which are generationally owned — the ownership is here in Western Massachusetts. And that’s what the future is going to be.”

Sullivan noted that entrepreneurship has always been one of planks, if you will, of the EDC’s platform when it comes to economic development. Elaborating, he said regions like Western Mass. can certainly hope to add all-important jobs by attracting major corporations. But a far more realistic strategy is to grow organically, by encouraging entrepreneurship and providing mentorship and several forms of assistance to companies at various stages of development and maturity.

“Our economy here is really reliant on small and medium-sized businesses, many of which are generationally owned — the ownership is here in Western Massachusetts,” he said. “And that’s what the future is going to be. A Fortune 50 company is not likely to build its headquarters here — our strength is the small-to medium-sized company that stays local, invests local, hires local, uses a supply chain that is also local. Do we all sit and hope that one of these companies that goes through VVM gets really big and stays here? Sure, but that is not the model.”

This explains why the EDC has always maintained a healthy relationship with VVM and why it has now made the agency one of its programs, or affiliates.

Rick Sullivan

Rick Sullivan says that promoting entrepreneurship and supporting the startup community is vital to the Western Mass. economy, which explains the affiliation between VVM and the EDC.

“The founders of VVM did a masterful job of getting it here and recognizing the importance of the startup community and small-business growth and the importance of that to the Western Mass. economy,” Sullivan told BusinessWest. “We’re building off that leadership and vision and bringing in here. And I think it does align perfectly with the EDC, because it [VVM] is really looking to bring all the resources together for a common goal and put everyone under one umbrella. So I’m optimistic about the future of VVM.”

VVM now joins several other affiliates of the EDC, including the Springfield Regional Chamber, the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Westmass Area Development Corp., the Springfield Business Improvement District, the Amherst Business Improvement District, Westover Airport, and the East of the River Five Town Chamber of Commerce.

The new affiliation agreement provides a good opportunity (there’s that word again) to revisit the mission of VVM, which has entered another intriguing chapter in its history, and how it will carry that mission out.

Indeed, the stronger relationship with the EDC comes as the agency continues what Ross Gibaldi, who joined the agency two years ago and has grown into her current role, described as an evolutionary process, one impacted in many ways by the pandemic, and sometimes in a positive way.

Indeed, programs that were once limited to those who could attend in person are now accessible to anyone who can join via Zoom, which has greatly increased attendance in some cases and brought some new and different voices to the discussions.

“I see VVM stepping in to support a lot of these amazing initiatives that are helping to build that ecosystem.”

Meanwhile, as she noted, the new affiliation provides VVM with an opportunity to create more and stronger partnerships with other agencies in the ecosystem and enable that larger entity to better serve the region and its business community.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with Ross Gibaldi and Sullivan about not only the new/old affiliation between the EDC and VVM, but also about the business plan moving forward for an agency that has been at the forefront of efforts to promote entrepreneurship and assist businesses as they work to get to that next level — whatever it might be.

 

Getting Down to Business ‘Dolphin tank pitches.’

That’s the very unofficial name given to one of the more intriguing elements of a summer student business-accelerator program VVM operates in conjunction with the Berthiaume Center at UMass Amherst.

And, yes, it’s a derivative of sorts of the popular television show Shark Tank.

Actually, “it’s a softer version of what you see on TV — it’s, well, not as sharky,” Ross Gibaldi told BusinesWest. “We’re lovingly critical … we’re not vicious. It’s not that we don’t want these entrepreneurs to get real feedback, because that’s an important part of building a venture — getting real, honest, transparent feedback from judges and mentors. But you also don’t want to break their spirit, so we’re trying to find a loving way to do it.”

The dolphin tank, even if it’s not really called that, is part of a broad network of programs that VVM conducts or is part of, all aimed at helping those in business or looking to start one clear hurdles and get to the next level. And it is just one example of how the agency is working to refine and strengthen all those roles Ross Gibaldi described earlier — from convener to advocate to champion of entrepreneurs.

Elaborating on these thoughts, Ross Gibaldi said that, as the entrepreneurship ecosystem continues to grow and evolve, VVM looks to play a broader role in forging partnerships with various players, create more awareness of specific initiatives (and the system itself), and bring a more unified, cohesive approach to the mission shared by these agencies.

“We’re all building a unified front for innovation and entrepreneurship across the region, and I think that fits very nicely with the Western Mass. Economic Development Council, and this new alignment puts VVM in a position to support some these ecosystem initiatives that are so drastically needed,” she explained. “But, as organizations and nonprofits that are so strapped, everyone is working with blinders on, which creates silos that people are working in and duplication of efforts. So when we’re able to clearly map out our regional entrepreneurial ecosystem, we can highlight where the gaps are and where we are not serving our entrepreneurs.

“What VVM’s programs will do from there is pull together the stakeholders, be the advocate to figure out how we get funding to support indepth initiatives that can really address the challenges and barriers for our entrepreneurs,” she went on. “I’ve been working very hard over the past few years to strengthen the relationship with other organizations in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, other technical-assistance providers, and all of the others operating in the space supporting entrepreneurs. I see VVM stepping in to support a lot of these amazing initiatives that are helping to build that ecosystem.”

As just one example, she cited the Blueprint Easthampton entrepreneurship program, an regional resource-mapping initiative launched by the city’s mayor, Nicole LaChapelle, to promote innovation, entrepreneurship, and STEM education.

And there are countless others, she noted, adding that they often target specific communities or regions, sectors of the economy, or stages of starting and scaling a business.

Another example would be an initiative called the Western Mass Founders Network, funded by a grant from the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative and launched by the EDC in partnership with other agencies, including Greentown Labs.

The network was designed for companies that are more advanced, are looking for funding, or might already have received funding, said Sullivan, adding that the group meets monthly and hears from speakers on topics chosen by the business owners with the goal of helping them move to the next level.

“There’s also monthly meetings that are happening with resource partners such as SCORE, the Mass. Small Business Development Center, and other organizations that are supporting entrepreneurs,” said Ross Gibaldi, adding that one of her broad goals is to create more awareness of all that is happening within the ecosystem and create more partnerships to better serve the region.

“Supporting a lot of these initiatives and really threading them together to build out and strengthen our regional entrepreneurial ecosystem is one of our priorities.”

“I found that, often, we as organizations are operating in silos and often are unaware of what’s happening with the other agencies,” she explained. “When that happens, we do a disservice to our entrepreneurs because we’re not fully aware of the opportunities in the Valley. And how are we supposed to take advantage of them and encourage our entrepreneurs to take advantage of them if we don’t know about them? So supporting a lot of these initiatives and really threading them together to build out and strengthen our regional entrepreneurial ecosystem is one of our priorities.”

Meanwhile, VVM continues to offer its own broad slate of programs while partnering with other agencies on different initiatives. In that first category are VVM’s community nights, on the second Wednesday of each month. Now back in person after being virtual for two years because of the pandemic, they offer networking, mentoring opportunities, and elevator-pitch presentations. There’s also a weekly roundtable discussion with startup businesses on Tuesday nights, conducted via Zoom.

In that latter category are programs such as RiseUp Springfield, in which VVM partners with the city to provide a six-month program to help small business owners create scale and expand their ventures. There is also the Harold Grinspoon Entrepreneurship Initiative, which involves all 14 area colleges and culminates with an annual spring Celebration of Entrepreneurship Spirit banquet.

There’s also the summer student business-accelerator program, which, because it has been run virtually the past few years, has been able to attract participants from across the country and around the world.

“We’ve found that making the program virtual makes it more accessible to people,” she explained. “Over the past few years, we’ve had people log in from outside the United States, which is really exciting; we’ve had people from Pakistan, France, India, and South Africa, and that’s been an amazing element, to broaden that accessibility for these entrepreneurs.”

And these lessons learned will carry over into the future, she said, adding that many programs will continue to have at least a virtual component to enable that improved accessibility to continue.

 

Venturing Forth

Overall, the new relationship between VVM and the EDC is difficult to put into words or describe with a single word.

In simple terms, it means that VVM now has a better, stronger platform for promoting innovation and entrepreneurship.

Time will tell, but it appears that the new relationship will enable it to take its mission to a different plane while perhaps bringing more continuity and cohesion to the entrepreneurship ecosystem.

As Ross Gibaldi said, it’s a big opportunity for both VVM and the region.

 

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

Sports & Leisure

Not Quite the Real Thing

Jay Nomakeo

Jay Nomakeo, seen here at a simulator he rents out at the Hadley Golf Center, says simulation is booming, and he is confident that current growth patterns will continue.

 

It might be early April, but Jay Nomakeo is already looking forward to November.

That’s because he’s making serious investments — and some inroads — in an emerging subsector of the broad golf business — simulation.

Nomakeo, a serial golf entrepreneur, if you will, is renting space at the Hadley Golf Center, a recreational facility that boasts everything from a driving range to batting cages to a maze, where he operates four simulators that are rented out to individuals, small groups, and even high school and college golf teams for everything from practicing to playing Pebble Beach — sort of.

The simulators provide a way for golfers to keep at their game during the winter months, and for facilities like the Hadley Golf Center, as well as area courses and golf shops, to earn needed revenue during the slow season.

Many area private and semi-private clubs now boast simulators, which provide additional revenue in some cases, but, more importantly, another way to provide value to members who have a number of choices when it comes to which club to join. Meanwhile, a golf-simulation facility called Top Golf has become part of the retail lineup at MGM Springfield, although the facility closed down during COVID and has yet to reopen.

It’s still an emerging business, but it’s catching on, said Nomakeo, noting that bookings were very solid this past winter, and time was often hard to secure, with the simulators in Hadley rented out to individuals, leagues, students, and faculty from nearby colleges, groups from area country clubs, and more.

“All winter long … we don’t lay anyone off because we generate enough revenue with the simulators to cover our payroll.”

“During the winter, it’s crazy,” he told BusinessWest, adding that most enthusiasts are playing courses, with Pebble Beach and St. Andrews the two favorites. “We sold out every weekend. There was one weekend where we were sold out, but I still got 21 calls during one day looking for times. Simulated golf has just exploded; I’ve seen reports showing that it’s growing 45% a year.”

Dave DiRico, owner of Dave DiRico’s Golf Shop in West Springfield, agreed.

“We have a mixed bag — we have guys who just want to practice, so we sell a practice session for the year, where they’ll come in for half-hours at a time; they’ll hit their whole bag of clubs and get their yardages,” he said. “And we have guys who come in who like to play 18 holes with their buddies. We have college teams that rent them all the time; some of their bigger schools have their own, but the smaller ones do not, so they come in and rent ours.

“They’re booked pretty solid — Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, you need a week to 10 days out to book them,” he went on. “But we noticed this winter that our simulators have been sold every day, every hour, almost every minute. All winter long … we don’t lay anyone off because we generate enough revenue with the simulators to cover our payroll.”

DiRico’s store has several simulators, used for practice, playing any of 18 different courses, and also for the fitting of clubs, an additional use that puts the simulators to work for more of the year, which makes his operation different from most others.

Dave DiRico

Dave DiRico says his simulators are used for everything from playing courses like Pebble Beach to getting fitted for new clubs.

This advantage is important, he said, because simulators, while an important addition to the game and the business, have their limitations, especially when it comes to the calendar.

Indeed, whenever they have the choice, golfers will prefer to practice and play outdoors, which means Nomakeo and others are heading into what is definitely their slow season.

“Some people will still use them during the warmer months, but, for the most part, once April 1 hits and you can see green grass on the golf course, people are going outdoors; they’re not staying indoors,” DiRico said. “The business dries up very quickly.”

“With the way we’re seeing these trends with new golfers coming in and others coming back to the game, we want to make sure we’re not boxing them out or potentially losing them again. Ten to 15 years ago, we saw some similar trends, when golf was at its peak and we were getting new golfers. Prices were going up, and we lost some of those fringe golfers.”

Still, despite these obvious limitations, Nomakeo and others are seeing solid opportunities and enough months of business to warrant additional investments.

Indeed, Nomakeo is partnering with others to bring four new simulators to the MCU Center, a multi-sport facility in Agawam located in a old department store. There are two there now, which will be sold, with new models to arrive by the start of the next simulation season.

“We’re hoping to open November 1,” he said, adding that he fully anticipates this emerging business within the golf sector to continue growing and enable this investment to pay for itself in just a few years. “Just a few years ago, golf was declining, but since COVID … I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s absolutely crazy, and simulation is growing at an even greater rate.”

 

— George O’Brien

Cover Story

Sound Strategy

Barry Roberts and Gabrielle Gould outside the home of the Drake in downtown Amherst

Barry Roberts and Gabrielle Gould outside the home of the Drake in downtown Amherst

You might call it a development of note. That’s one poetic way to describe the transformation of the old High Horse restaurant space in the former First National Bank of Amherst building into a live performance and music space that will be called the Drake in a nod to a former downtown landmark. Like its namesake, a hotel with a famous bar, the new venue is expected to be a destination, a creator of lasting memories, and a key contributor to vibrancy downtown.

Barry Roberts isn’t sure how long the graffiti has been there.

He does know that it’s been a fixture — and a talking point — since long before he bought the property it graces, which now houses the Amherst Cinema, Amherst Coffee, and a number of other businesses in the heart of downtown Amherst, and that was 15 years ago.

And he suspects that this message has been ‘refreshed’ a few times over the years, because it’s as easy to read now as it was years ago.

It says ‘Save the Drake — for Willie, for Humanity,’ a reference to the legendary hotel and bar located in its basement, known as the Rathskeller, and its equally famous bartender, Willie. (Just about every student who attended UMass or Amherst College in the ’60s or ’70s has a Drake story. Or 100 of them.)

Roberts and others collaborating on an ambitious initiative in another property he owns, the former First National Bank of Amherst, are not exactly saving the Drake as most remember it. But they are reviving the name and creating a venue they expect will be just as successful when it comes to making memories that will live on for decades.

Indeed, the Drake is the name going over the door of a live performance and music venue that will go into space last occupied by the High Horse restaurant. The facility, to be operated by the Downtown Amherst Foundation (DAF), a 501(c)(3) that was founded to bring arts and culture to the Amherst area, is due to open April 26. and when it does, it is expected to have an immediate and profound impact on Amherst and its downtown, said Gabrielle Gould, executive director of the town’s Business Improvement District (BID), who played a key role in putting the many pieces of the puzzle together for this project.

She told BusinessWest that repeated studies revealed that what was missing from the landscape in Amherst’s downtown was a venue for live music, one that could compete with several such facilities across the Connecticut River in Northampton and not only keep Amherst residents and area college students in that community, but bring people from across Western Mass. — and perhaps the Northeast — to the town.

“We see people consistently going across the bridge and spending anywhere from $60 to $400 a night because of the amount of entertainment and music that is in that area,” Gould said. “For me, creating a vibrant downtown has to be experience-driven, and if you’re not providing arts and culture and experiences surrounding that, what is there to come here for?”

Roberts agreed.

“This is a game changer — an absolute game changer,” said Roberts, who is also president of the BID, adding that the facility has the potential to become what the Drake was — a landmark, a drawing card, and an attraction that will create memories for generations of people.

While doing that, the Drake will play a key role in an ongoing resurgence, or comeback story for downtown Amherst, said Gould, adding that the district lost a number of businesses — 15 by her count — during the pandemic. Many were restaurants, but there was some retail as well, she noted, adding that almost that many new businesses have been added in recent months, bringing vibrancy and excitement to the area.

The graffiti on the wall outside Amherst Coffee helped inspire the name of Amherst’s new live-performance and music venue.

Overall, she sees the Drake project as one very important chapter in an emerging story involving a new and more vibrant downtown Amherst, one that is well-positioned for what happens post-COVID.

“There’s a future here that is unlike anything that anyone could have envisioned five years ago,” she said, adding that the pieces are falling into place for this community that was so hard-hit by the pandemic.

As the work to ready the Drake for its opening enters its final stages, BusinessWest talked with Roberts and Gould about how this intriguing project came to fruition and what it means for a downtown that has been in search of a spark and now has one.

Landmark Decision

As she talked about the Drake project, Gould noted that it has been a product of good fortune, or good timing, in many respects.

Elaborating, she said ideal space (the former High Horse location) became available at essentially the same time resources, many of them in the form of pandemic-relief monies, were being made available to communities such as Amherst as they sought to recover from COVID and its many side effects.

“Right now, there’s a firehose of funds available — COVID funding, the Build Back Better plan … everything,” she said, adding that she doubts whether this project would have become reality so quickly in more normal times. “We’re not looking for silver linings, but we’ll take what we can get.”

The old Drake hotel

The old Drake hotel and its famous bar were a destination and creator of memories. The same is expected from what could be called the ‘new’ Drake.

But mostly, this project came about because of recognized need for such a facility in Amherst, she said, and a rare opportunity to make it happen. This need is spelled out in large letters — quite literally — on the website devoted to the Drake.

“When COVID hit, it really came to a place where we realized that we had a moment, and we needed to strike when the iron was hot.”

“For decades, the Amherst community as asked for, begged for, and sought out a space for a live performance and music venue,” the passage reads. “The Amherst BID and the Downtown Amherst Foundation have listened and are ready to build for the future. Arts and culture will be the economic and destination driver Amherst needs to head into 2022.”

It goes on to say the Drake is the first project toward building Amherst as a destination for locals and visitors alike, hinting strongly that there will be others, including a performance shell for the south common downtown, an initiative that has been a priority for the BID and the DAF for some time now and is still very much on the drawing board, said Gould.

But for now, the Drake is taking center stage, literally and figuratively.

“When COVID hit, it really came to a place where we realized that we had a moment, and we needed to strike when the iron was hot,” she said, noting, again, that this project is the byproduct of good timing and recognized need. “This was our opportunity; Barry having this space become available was just beyond perfect, because there really is no other available space in the downtown area that would lend itself as perfectly as this space to the concept that we wanted to go forward with.”

With the site secured, a proposal for a performance venue was put together and presented to a number of funding sources, Gould went on, adding that $175,000 in seed money was awarded to the Amherst BID by the Massachusetts Office of Business Development’s Regional Pilot Project. With that money, an attractive lease was secured, the architectural firm Kuhn Riddle was hired “at an incredibly reduced rate,” to design the venue, and additional fundraising efforts were initiated.

Gabrielle Gould says a live-performance venue has long been a priority for Amherst

Gabrielle Gould says a live-performance venue has long been a priority for Amherst, and it should provide a spark for its downtown.

Overall, the buildout costs for the project are a projected $750,000, said Gould, adding that the fundraising goal is $1.3 million, with just over $1 million secured to date.

It has come from a variety of sources, including $250,000 in local, community support in amounts ranging from $10 to $50,000; a $100,000 cash gift plus a Steinway piano from Amherst College; American Rescue Plan Act funds, local and state grants, and other sources. “You name it, we’ve gone after it,” Gould said.

Speaking of naming it, that was another task on the do-to list, said Gould, noting that there were several contenders being considered when someone suggested naming it after the famous bar immortalized in that graffiti, which is asked about on an almost daily basis at Amherst Coffee.

“And I thought, ‘why not play off that nostalgia of a bygone era?’” Gould told BusinessWest. “Another thing that will bring us together again after this pandemic is community and nostalgia, and going back a little bit. So while we’re going forward, let’s pay some homage to the past.”

While construction, fundraising, and naming efforts have been the most visible aspects of the project to date, the BID and DAF have also been putting together an operations plan, said Gould, noting that Laudable Productions, which already works with several area venues, has been hired to book performers for the Drake, which will be operated as a nonprofit, with all proceeds going to future performances.

A soft opening is set for April 26, featuring the Northampton Jazz Workshop, also known as the Green Street Trio, she noted, adding that the lineup for the spring and summer will be announced in early April.

“The idea is to program events for five or six nights a week,” said Roberts, adding that such a hefty slate of shows will have a profound impact on the downtown and the many types of businesses to be found there.

Indeed, while the Drake is about live performances and music, it is really about economic development, said both Roberts and Gould, noting that, while those phrases ‘game changer’ and ‘driving force’ are often used in business and development circles, they both apply here. Indeed, they believe this project will succeed in not only keeping people in Amherst or bringing more people to it, but propel the town forward as various constituencies work to bring a new parking facility to the downtown area.

“If you want retail to thrive, if you want restaurants to thrive, you can’t just be a shopping center — that’s what malls are for; they have free parking there, it’s great. We want to create something in Amherst that positions us as a destination for 300 miles and further from us.”

While Amherst still boasts a number of fine restaurants and a variety of retail, Gould said, it needs more — specifically in the form of arts and entertainment — to be a true destination on par with its neighbor across the Coolidge Bridge.

“If you want retail to thrive, if you want restaurants to thrive, you can’t just be a shopping center — that’s what malls are for; they have free parking there, it’s great,” she explained. “We want to create something in Amherst that positions us as a destination for 300 miles and further from us.

“We will bring performers into this really intimate, beautiful, small space that you will never get to see in a venue like this, and for the ticket price we’ll be able to offer,” she went on. “People will hopefully be coming from New York, Boston, Pennsylvania, and all over.”

Getting the Message

Getting back to that graffiti on the side of the Amherst Cinema building — which will be recreated in neon on one wall in the new Drake — Roberts doesn’t know when it was spray-painted there or by whom.

But he does know that he always wanted to save the message and maintain it for future generations even as he redeveloped the site for new uses. It is a link to the past, he said, and one that has also become an inspiration for those securing a vibrant future for this area.

The Drake, as tens of thousands of students and area residents remember it, isn’t being saved, technically speaking. But the spirit of that landmark, that institution, will live on in an important way.

Not as a name over a door, but as a powerful force in moving Amherst forward and making it a destination and source of memories.

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

Special Coverage Sports & Leisure

Still on a Roll

Dan Burak, owner of Tekoa Country Club.

Dan Burak, owner of Tekoa Country Club.

The game of golf — and the business of golf — has enjoyed a resurgence since the start of the pandemic, with many people picking up the game or returning to it after pausing for one of many reasons. As the new season begins, there is optimism that the momentum gained will carry over into 2022, with an understanding that there are many challenges — from workforce issues and rising prices for just about everything to the very real possibility of a golf-ball shortage — that will have to be overcome.

As the 2022 golf season commences — earlier than what would be considered normal at many facilities — those operating courses are, to borrow language from the game, looking at both scoring opportunities and some potentially heavy rough.

Indeed, as courses across the region start to welcome players to their first tees — some have actually been open for weeks now — they are looking optimistically toward building off some pandemic-generated momentum for a sport (and a business) that was in the tall grass and struggling on many levels just a few years ago.

When the pandemic closed many indoor (and some outdoor) options when it came to sports and recreation, golf became an attractive alternative in the late spring and summer of 2020, and many of those who took up the game or returned to it after pausing for one of many reasons stayed with it in 2021, said Dan Burak, manager of a number of area commercial properties, who added Tekoa Country Club in Westfield to his portfolio in 2009.

“The golf side of the business has been phenomenal the past few years,” he told BusinessWest, adding quickly that the banquet side of the ledger has not recovered as quickly, but there are many positive signs there for 2022, which we’ll get to later. “We were almost too busy on the golf side. We had to say no to a lot of people and tell them that there were just no tee times available. We hated to say no, but it was a good problem to have.”

Jesse Menachem

Jesse Menachem says some courses posted record years in 2021 as golf witnessed a resurgence, and he and others expect that momentum to carry into 2022.

Jesse Menachem, executive director and CEO of the Massachusetts Golf Assoc., said courses across the state have seen significant increases in play over the past two years, with many of them recording record years in 2021, despite frequent rain that closed facilities for several days during the season.

“Last year saw a continuation of the demand, the increased level of interest and activity, from the latter part of 2020, the second half of that year,” he said. “It was really encouraging in terms of tee sheets being very full, merchandise sales being through the roof, and, in some cases, hitting some record numbers — membership levels being high, wait lists at many private clubs that had not experienced that in the past years … across the board, those trends are really solid.”

Looking ahead, course owners, managers, and pros alike are expecting those patterns to continue into 2022. But despite this generally upbeat outlook, there are many formidable challenges to overcome. These include everything from workforce issues — golf operations are in the same boat as almost all businesses in the broad recreation and hospitality category — to simply stocking golf balls in the pro shop; from sharp increases in the price of everything, from gas to food to fertilizer, to deciding how much of these increases can be passed on to the consumer.

The workforce crisis is being handled the same way it is in other sectors — by increasing wages when necessary and casting a wide net when it comes to recruitment, said Mike Fontaine, general manager of the Ledges Golf Club in South Hadley, a muncipally owned, semi-private facility.

“We’re trying to staff up, like everyone else, and the price of staffing is at a level that we’ve never seen before,” he said. “And we have to be creative with how we go about handling that; we’re getting more applicants, which is positive, but it’s still a challenge.”

As for supply matters, they were certainly an issue in 2021, and there are no signs of improvement on the horizon, as we’ll see, with course operators struggling to secure everything from mowers to golf gloves.

Meanwhile, and for all those reasons listed above, those who have taken up the game, returned to it, or kept with it all along will find playing a round to be expensive in 2022. The only question is how much more expensive.

“It’s inevitable,” said Menachem, citing the rising cost of practically everything needed to operate a course, from labor to weed killer. He added quickly, though, that while courses must account for the rising prices they’re facing, they have to be careful not to price out those who are discovering golf — or rediscovering it, as the case may be.

For this issue and its focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest looks at what promises to be another solid year for the industry, but also the many challenges lurking down the fairway.

‘Hole’sale Improvement

Flashing back to the spring of 2020, Burak said it was a curious, challenging time for course owners and managers.

First, courses were allowed to open, and then they were ordered to close, even as many other states allowed them to operate. Then, when they were allowed to reopen, they couldn’t operate their restaurants or even allow customers to use the restrooms in the pro shop.

Courses adapted to the new landscape, and so did players, said Burak, noting that, with the 19th hole closed and players unable to buy alcohol at the course, many adopted a BYOB strategy.

And upon learning that this is a much cheaper option than buying at the course, many kept with that strategy even after the restrictions were limited.

Mike Fontaine

Mike Fontaine says that, while the golf business has been solid, there are stern challenges to be met, including workforce issues.

“When we opened the clubhouse … they were already in the habit of stopping at the package store and getting their beer there,” he said. “Some are a little more flagrant about it, with a cooler that’s visible, but some get very creative. It’s a problem.”

Overall, trying to police those players who ignore the large signs informing them that coolers are prohibited is just one of many challenges facing course owners and operators as the new season begins, and probably one of the minor ones.

The list of bigger concerns starts with workforce matters. Indeed, while Burak said he has had relatively good luck on that front, securing an adequate supply of workers for the course, the kitchen, and the ballroom in 2021, Menachem noted that most course operators were not as fortunate. And the forecast for 2022 is for more of the same.

“It’s a challenge, not only in our industry, but in many others in service, to support operations and fill out your staff for what’s needed to support a consistent and solid operation,” he told BusinessWest, adding that the challenges are not just with jobs at the lower end of the wage scale.

“We’re learning and hearing that clubs are struggling to fill assistant superintendent or assistant professional jobs,” he went on. “There’s many reasons for that, and I think the pandemic exposed it and in some ways expedited it. The days of the golf professional working seven days a week and being obligated and tied to the facility … that’s starting to change. Lifestyle, family activities, balance, quality of life, all that is really top of mind, and it’s something our industry has to be cognizant of.”

Beyond these changes, courses have to contend with a shortage of workers and immense competition for candidates who have no shortage of options.

“You might drive down the road and see a couple of restaurants or stores posting jobs for $18, $20, or even $25 an hour, and that’s competition to our facilities,” said Menachem. “The minimum wage, or the $15-an-hour rate to maintain a golf course and help serve on the maintenance crew, is probably a thing of the past.”

Attilo Cardaropoli

Attilo Cardaropoli says course owners and managers face a number of challenges, including long waits for new equipment and parts for everything from golf carts to refrigerators.

Fontaine concurred, speaking for nearly all course owners and managers when he said recruiting and retaining good help was a formidable, and expensive, challenge in 2021. But as he surveys the scene, he is seeing a somewhat improved hiring landscape for 2022, with the big issue being the price that will have to be paid for that help.

Attilio Cardaropoli, owner of Twin Hills Country Club in Longmeadow, a private club, agreed.

“Last year was a nightmare — we couldn’t find anybody to work,” he told BusinessWest. “Things are somewhat better this year, and we’re hoping it gets better still as the summer comes along with returning college students that we use quite a bit. Overall, it’s starting to ease up a bit, but it’s still not where it should be.”

Par for the Course

Meanwhile, other challenges facing area courses include the rising cost of needed goods — again, that means everything from food to golf balls to landscaping equipment — and the short supplies of all the above. And, of course, these two issues go hand in hand. As supplies shrink (often as demand increases), prices go higher.

Burak put all this perspective by relaying his difficulties in securing a much-needed tractor.

“I want the same brand that I had before, because I have all the attachments for it,” he explained. “I went to the dealer, saw the model I wanted, and I said, ‘what’s the availability?’ He said, ‘I have none in stock, and I have seven on the waiting list that are already sold. The first one that comes in goes to the guy who’s been on the list the longest, and he put his order in last August.’ I probably won’t get the tractor in all season, the list is so long, and that’s just one dealer.”

Cardaropoli told a similar story with his efforts to secure a new fleet of golf carts.

“We were supposed to get them right now, but the dealer says they’re just not available yet,” he said. “We’re hoping that they’re just a few months late, but we just don’t know. We ordered them last year, and we’re still waiting. And for some of the older ones that we’re still using … they break down, and we can’t get parts for them. It’s a struggle.”

Fontaine concurred. “With fertilizer alone, we’re seeing increases from 75% to 135% — and that’s just going to be a huge hit,” he said, noting that some of the materials in those products come from Russia and Ukraine, meaning things are likely to get worse before they get anhy better.

But the problem extends to golf equipment as well, with those we spoke with, noting that it was difficult to keep gloves, bags, and especially balls in stock last year, and similar problems are expected for 2022.

SEE: List of Golf Courses in Western Mass.

“We were very fortunate that we got our big order of golf balls in the spring from Titleist,” said Burak, mentioning the top ball maker in the world as he talked about 2021. “And we ended up with more than we needed, actually, and the rep kept coming back, saying, ‘do you have any we can take back? We have customers begging for them.’”

Dave DiRico, owner of Dave DiRico’s Golf & Racquet, told BusinessWest that such problems are likely to continue into 2022.

“Titleist is saying that by mid-summer, they could be running out of golf balls,” he said, adding that talk within the industry is that the resin needed to manufacture balls comes from China, and it is in increasingly short supply. “That’s what the companies are telling us. With many of these things that come from China, the prices are jumping, or you just can’t get them.”

Golf bags are a good example of this, he said, adding that supplies are limited and prices are skyrocketing, with models that cost $119 last year going now for at least $160.

Going for the Green

Despite these many challenges, golf-course operators are expecting 2022 to be another good year, perhaps a record year.

As noted, many courses are already open, and most anticipate opening sooner than would be considered normal, if recent weather patterns continue. And a good start is always important, Menachem said.

“It’s always a big help because it gets people interested, and you can build momentum,” he explained. “You can also drive some shoulder-season revenue that is not always available.”

Meanwhile, all evidence is pointing toward a continuation of what was seen in 2020 in terms of tee sheets filling up and, at Tekoa at least, having to tell callers that there are no times available.

On the private-course side of the ledger, Cararopoli noted that membership at Twin Hills is at nearly full capacity despite a healthy increase in fees — an indication, he said, that the momentum generated over the past two years is sustainable.

Meanwhile, on the banquet side of the balance sheet — a huge part of the business for many operations — there are many signs of improvement as well. Indeed, after 2020 was almost a complete washout and 2021 saw events but certainly not a full slate, especially later in the year, 2022 looks to be something approaching normal.

“The phone is ringing off the hook on the banquet side,” Burak said. “And that’s been so quiet — it’s been killing us for two years.”

Cardaropoli agreed, noting a slower pace of improvement at Twin Hills, with the phone ringing far more often than it has the past few years, at least with people looking to book events.

“The banquet side is just starting to pick up now,” he said. “Our January and February were terrible, we picked up a few in March, and April looks a little better; it’s really starting to look good for the fall, especially for charity tournaments.”

Returning to the golf side of the business, while the outlook is certainly upbeat, one wild card when it comes to how well these courses do concerns what happens with pricing, said Menachem, noting that, while increases are inevitable, courses need to walk a fine line on this matter.

They no doubt need to raise prices to cover the increases they’re facing, but they should be careful not to raise them to the point where such hikes might discourage those getting into the game or becoming more serious about it.

“There has to be some caution and some balance,” he said. “With the way we’re seeing these trends with new golfers coming in and others coming back to the game, we want to make sure we’re not boxing them out or potentially losing them again. Ten to 15 years ago, we saw some similar trends, when golf was at its peak and we were getting new golfers. Prices were going up, and we lost some of those fringe golfers.”

Those we spoke with said they’ve had no choice but to raise fees given all the price increases they’ve been hit with — on the labor front and every other front, for that matter.

“We have to go up on our membership, and we have to raise our price on greens fees and cart fees just to stay stable and competitive with the market,” Fontaine said. “With COVID and now the war in Ukraine, people have become accustomed to seeing prices going up, but I’m not sure how much higher we can go.”

Burak agreed, noting that Tekoa has increased greens fees $3 across the board, with memberships going up as well. Those hikes, implemented last fall, probably don’t cover all the increases he’s facing, he said, but competition for the golf dollar is steep, and the somewhat modest increase he’s implemented reflects that.

But he was quick to note that further adjustments may be necessary if inflationary trends continue.

“We’re going to have to see what our expenses turn out to be once things really get going,” he said, adding that these sentiments are true on both the golf and banquet sides of the business.

Bottom Line

Summing up the outlook for 2022 and beyond, Menachem said there is plenty of room for optimism within the golf industry, but there are also some bunkers and water hazards, figuratively speaking, that present real challenges to progress — and profitability.

“With all the positivity or demand and interest, there’s definitely, on the flip side, things we need to be focused on,” he said, adding that, in most respects, those within the industry expect to build on the momentum that’s been generated and put up some good numbers.

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

Travel and Tourism

Looking for Better Odds

Chris Kelly

Chris Kelley says MGM Springfield is ready and waiting for the state to give the green light to sports betting.

 

As he talked with BusinessWest for this issue’s focus on travel and tourism, Chris Kelley was lamenting a huge opportunity lost.

He was talking, of course, about March Madness, the college basketball tournaments that grab and hold the nation’s attention for two weeks. Even more specifically, Kelley, president and chief operating officer of MGM Springfield, was referring to the gambling and related activity that goes with that madness — everything that can’t happen at his facility because Massachusetts has yet to legalize sports gambling while most all the states surround it have.

“It’s the largest sports event, bar none, around the country, and to be now literally surrounded by states that offer that experience — most poignantly, in the case of MGM Springfield, Connecticut — is just an extraordinary challenge for the city, for our workforce, for our guests, and for the property,” he explained, adding that, while he continues to have conversations with state legislators about passing a sports-betting bill, when it comes to March Madness, he can only wait until next year.

Fortunately, though, that is not the case with most other aspects of his multi-faceted business.

Indeed, there are plenty of positive developments at the casino complex on Main Street that are creating an optimistic outlook for 2022 as the tourism sector and the region in general look to put COVID in their collective rear view.

For starters, there was the Massachusetts Building Trades Council’s annual convention, staged a few weeks ago at MGM. This was the first large-scale gathering of its kind at the resort casino since before the COVID, said Kelley, adding that there are a number of other events on the calendar as businesses, trade groups and associations, and other entities return to in-person events.

“We hadn’t had an event like that in two years, where we had people engaging with our convention and ballroom areas, staying in the hotel, eating in our restaurants … it was a very positive thing for the property to see us come back to life.”

Such events are a big step in the return to normalcy and, of course, comprise a huge revenue stream for the casino operation.

“We hadn’t had an event like that in two years, where we had people engaging with our convention and ballroom areas, staying in the hotel, eating in our restaurants … it was a very positive thing for the property to see us come back to life,” he explained.

Meanwhile, on the entertainment side of the ledger, there are similar steps toward normalcy, or what was seen prior to the pandemic, said Kelley, noting there are a number of shows slated at the casino, the MassMutual Center, and Symphony Hall, featuring performers such as Jay Leno, Chelsea Handler, John Mulaney, Brit Floyd, and many others.

“Entertainment is coming back in a much bigger way in 2022 than we saw the past few years,” said Kelley, adding that, in addition to those events at the larger venues, MGM Springfield is bringing back its popular Free Music Friday in the casino’s plaza, something that was started last summer.

“It was an opportunity to say ‘thank you’ to folks and give the community a reason to come back together, but it was such a success that we’re going to bring it back again. And, obviously, the price is right,” he said, adding that program provides an opportunity to showcase local talent.

Overall, the past two years have been a difficult, often frustrating time for all those in casino industry, which had to pivot and adjust to new ways of doing business during the pandemic, said Kelley, adding that it was also a learning experience, one that is yielding dividends and will continue to do so as MGM eases back to something approaching normal.

“It’s been a roller-coaster ride in every sense of the word,” he said in summing up the past 24 months. “Our ability to adjust quickly and be agile in the way that we operate, as well as our ability to provide an environment for health and safety that our guests felt comfortable engaging with — those were all unique challenges relative to a business that is not accustomed to closing and had never really experienced the types of changes that COVID required, whether it was six-foot-high pieces of plexiglass or the inability to serve drinks on the floor, or a face-mask policy.

“But all of that being said, I think we’ve come out of this a stronger operation than we were when we went into it,” he went on. “Just look at technology … we’re now able to offer everything from digital menus to digital check-in, our guests’ ability to interact with us through technology has increased exponentially, and that’s just one example of what I mean by coming out of this stronger. We’ve become a much more agile team now, and that’s to the benefit of the guest experience.”

As for sports betting, Kelley said the conversations are ongoing, and he’s optimistic that something can get done — hopefully before March Madness 2023. In anticipation of such a measure, the casino has added new amenities, including a large viewing area, a sports lounge on the floor of the casino, and a VIP viewing area in TAP Sports Bar.

“We’re ready to move forward the minute we see a green light on this issue,” he said, adding that he’s hoping, and expecting, that the light will change soon.

 

— George O’Brien

Cover Story

The Great Return

Chris Viale, president and CEO of Cambridge Credit Counseling

Chris Viale, president and CEO of Cambridge Credit Counseling

Over the past year or so, most companies have set — and then pushed back — the date when workers would return to the offices they left when COVID-19 arrived in March 2020. Now, such a return seems more real. But what’s also real is a commitment to flexibility among area employers, who recognize not only that employees can work effectively from home, but that hybrid, or fully remote, work schedules are becoming ever-more critical when it comes to attracting and retaining a workforce.

There was the Great Depression. And 75 years later, there was the Great Recession. We’re still struggling with what’s being called the Great Resignation, and now … we have what some are referring to as the Great Return.

This would be the return to the office of all those workers — tens of millions of them — who went home to work right around this time two years ago. Some have already returned, but many haven’t. There have been several scheduled returns over the past two years — indeed, most major corporations have moved back their return dates several times due to surges and new variants — but this time, by most all accounts, it seems real. Very real.

And it also seems complicated, or at least far different than most would have thought a return would look like two years ago.

That’s because the world of work has changed in a profound way, with the matter put in its proper perspective by Kristin Morales-Lemieux, senior vice president and chief Human Resources officer at Baystate Health.

“When we first sent everyone home, no one wanted to be there,” she said, adding that roughly 4,000 of the system’s employees were told to work remotely, if they could. “And for the first six months, we spent all of our time trying to hold back the tide of employees and managers who wanted to come back into the building, and, quite frankly, walking around and finding people who should not be there and shooing them back home again.

“As our employees come back together, our goal is to combine the flexibility and convenience we’ve had working remotely with the energy, connection, and collaboration that comes from being together in person.”

“But somewhere around that six-month mark …. there was a shift, and people starting saying, ‘I don’t want to go back,’ or ‘I certainly don’t want to go back full-time,’” she went on. “And in a few areas where we started to transition departments back, we started to notice that, not in large numbers, but here and there, we began losing people who were taking jobs with other organizations that allowed them to work remotely full-time.”

Kristin Morales-Lemieux

When they first went home, Kristin Morales-Lemieux says, employees were clamoring to come back to the office; six months later, most no longer wanted to.

This phenomenon explains why ‘flexibility’ is the watchword as the Great Return commences, and why the hybrid schedule — whereby people work in the office at least a few days of the week and remotely for the remainder — is becoming the norm among employers, and, increasingly, expected when it comes to employees.

At Monson Savings Bank, employees now have a number of options when it comes to working schedules, including a hybrid model that has them in the office at least two days a week, and a four-day work week. MSB President Dan Moriarty said such flexibility, at a time when most have proven they can work effectively from home, is a practical response to the changing work climate.

“We wanted to create some culture for retention for existing employees,” he said, echoing the thoughts of many we spoke with. “And as we compete against other companies in this region, but also well outside, that offer flexibility and remote working, we thought it was a good balance — for the organization and the employee.”

Meanwhile, MassMutual has put in place what it calls a “flexible workplace approach” that is comprised of three work arrangements — full-time in the office, full-time remote, and a hybrid of the two, with the majority of the financial-services giant’s employees working a hybrid arrangement.

“Flexibility is at the heart of our approach,” said Sue Cicco, head of Human Resources and Employee Experience for the company. “As our employees come back together, our goal is to combine the flexibility and convenience we’ve had working remotely with the energy, connection, and collaboration that comes from being together in person.”

Elaborating, she said the flexible-workplace approach has been in place since last summer with employees “testing” it over the past several months. They are now being asked to be at “a more regular cadence” by the beginning of April.

At Cambridge Credit Counseling, Chris Viale, president and CEO of the company, plans to bring employees back to work a hybrid schedule starting later this month. But the longer-term plan is to bring most employees back five days a week, he told BusinessWest, adding that he’s expecting some pushback, will listen to those giving it, and may ultimately change his mind.

“If people thought the labor market was tight going into COVID, we haven’t seen anything yet.”

But for now, that’s the plan, and for reasons that would resonate with many employers across the region.

“We’ve been grappling with this for quite some time,” Viale explained. “Right before the pandemic, we secured a much larger office space with a state-of-the-art call-center environment, and we committed to a seven-year lease, so we have that financial expense baked in to trying to do what’s right for everyone, trying to make sure the company is functioning as we need it to, trying to make sure we’re serving the consumers we’re serving, and meeting the needs of our staff. We’re trying to balance all that — somehow.”

Overall, there are many forces driving the flexibility being exhibited at most workplaces, but perhaps the most significant is common sense when it comes to the matter of attracting and retaining talent, especially at a time when businesses in virtually sector are struggling to do so.

Dan Moriarty says Monson Savings Bank is focusing on flexibility

Dan Moriarty says Monson Savings Bank is focusing on flexibility with its return-to-the-workplace strategies, including hybrid schedules and the option of a four-day work week.

Morales-Lemieux noted that Baystate Health, which regularly employs roughly 13,000 employees, currently has about 1,900 vacancies, three times what might be considered normal and a powerful motivating force when it comes to establishing return-to-the-workplace strategies.

“If people thought the labor market was tight going into COVID,” she said, “we haven’t seen anything yet.”

 

Work in Progress

It’s called ‘Corporate Tuesday.’

That’s the name Monson Savings Bank has attached to the second day of the work week, a day when most, if not all, employees will be in the office, said Moriarty, adding that this is the day, considered better than Monday, or any other day, for that matter, when people would schedule in-person meetings, department meetings, and collaborations.

“The parking lot is pretty full,” he explained, adding that Corporate Tuesday has been in effect since Jan. 1, and has thus far been greeted with a generally positive response.

Beyond Corporate Tuesday and some similar initiatives, there is now unprecedented amounts of flexibility when it comes to work and work schedules, at companies both large and small, a new landscape that has been years (and not just the past two years) in the making.

Indeed, Morales-Lemieux echoed others when she said there was some movement in this direction before the pandemic, especially as the unemployment rate dropped and it became steadily more challenging to attract and retain talent.

Sarah Morgan

Sarah Morgan says employees at Health New England have shown they can be effective working remotely.

“Even pre-COVID, we were really starting to feel the pressure to move into a variety of more flexible work arrangements, even as it relates to our frontline workers,” she told BusinessWest. “As the unemployment rate had dropped over the past decade, coupled with our own unique challenges in Western Massachusetts, such as our aging population and the number of healthcare-related — and non-healthcare-related — companies that we compete with for workers, we had, in the year prior to the pandemic, been talking in earnest about how we needed to change in order to make sure that we could keep a workforce.”

Elaborating, she said this talk involved, among other things, remote-work scenarios not only for attractive job candidates from other states who do not wish to relocate to Massachusetts, but also candidates and existing employees already in the 413.

Suffice it to say the pandemic has served to open more eyes to this need to change and add several layers of urgency to the matter, despite the delayed nature of the return to work.

But change comes hard to many companies, said Meredith Wise, president and CEO of the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast, noting that, in this case, most employers she’s talked with have seen the wisdom of embracing flexibility and not trying to put in place a one-size — or one-schedule, to be more precise — fits-all policy or strategy.

Indeed, even most old-school managers who would certainly prefer to have everyone back in the office eight hours a day, five days a week, are recognizing the need to embrace the changing landscape and not fight it — for a number of very practical reasons, especially those workforce issues, she said.

“We’re advising people to be flexible and talk with employees about what’s going to work for them. And one of the big reasons why is the retention problem that most employers are facing right now.”

“We’re advising people to be flexible and talk with employees about what’s going to work for them,” she explained. “And one of the big reasons why is the retention problem that most employers are facing right now; there are enough employers that are offering hybrid arrangements that you could easily lose people if you put your foot down and say, ‘I need you here five days a week.’ Those workers can easily find someone who will be flexible and more accommodating.”

 

Balance Sheet

Those we spoke with said there have been a number of fits and starts when it comes to returning employees to the workplace. Most were ready to start the process last spring or last fall, but Delta and then Omicron ultimately pushed back those timetables.

Now, most are looking at later this month or early next month as a return date, although it appears the vast majority of workers will still be working remotely at least a few days a week.

At Health New England, Sarah Morgan, director of Human Resources and Organizational Development, said all but a handful of the company’s 385 employees are currently working remotely, and there is no set date for a return. As for a plan, it involves being flexible, giving employees an opportunity to “volunteer” to return if they should desire to do so and if the conditions with regard to the pandemic warrant such a return.

For many reasons, she said, returning everyone to the office full-time — essentially turning back the clock to early March 2020 — is not practical. For starters, even with COVID subsiding in many respects, the company is no rush for a return to pre-pandemic density levels in its office space in Monarch Place. But over the past two years, employees have shown they can effectively work remotely, she went on, which more than justifies flexible or hybrid work schedules.

“Our associates have proven that they’re capable of working remotely for quite some time; they’re meeting the standards and expectations and doing very, very well,” she told BusinessWest. “They’re meeting all the needs of our members, and so we’ve said that people like to work at home, we understand that, and we’re going to enable a certain amount of flexibility within teams and a hybrid approach.”

Like others, she said such flexibility is becoming ever-more critical when it comes to attracting and retaining employees, but also widening the pool of talent to include those from other regions of the country.

“We recognize that flexibility around remote work and hybrid work schedules is a way to honor the needs of people,” she said, using that word ‘needs’ in reference to everything from family matters to physical disabilities. “We’re seeing more people ask for that flexibility when they apply.”

And at the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, which employs roughly 150 people, 100 at the Agawam Corporate Center, there will be similar amounts of flexibility, said Jennifer Murphy, director of Human Resources, adding that the employees now working remotely, and that’s most of them, are slated to return in a hybrid format on April 4.

“Part of our new flexible-work policy involves a hybrid work model; when we return, people will be required to work 60% of the time in the office,” Murphy said, adding that this plan of action has been generally well-received by employees. Overall, it represents acknowledgement of both the emergence of remote work as being popular and effective and the importance of face-to-face interaction when it comes to office culture.

“What COVID has taught us is that, given the nature of our work, we can operate our business successfully remotely,” she explained. “But we also feel it’s important for our culture that we work together and collaborate together; there’s real value in those face-to-face interactions. Overall, we’re trying to balance the value and importance of in-person work and collaboration with employees’ desire to also have that flexibility to work remotely.”

Jennifer Murphy

Jennifer Murphy says the 100 employees working at the offices of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation will be returning on April 4 and working hybrid schedules.

At Cambridge Credit Counseling, Viale said his plan to bring employees back to a hybrid schedule was greeted with a generally positive response. Overall, he’s not expecting the same when it comes to his plans to bring all or most employees (there will be exceptions for health considerations and other factors) back full-time.

Elaborating, and echoing Morales-Lemieux’s comments, he said that, as the months went by, employees became increasingly comfortable with working remotely, and increasingly uncomfortable with the thought of returning to the office.

But after weighing all the factors, including that seven-year lease on a significantly larger footprint and other considerations, he decided that bringing everyone back is the best course. But, as noted earlier, he will listen, and he may be open to changing his plans.

And what may be a deciding factor in his ultimate decision is his ability to maintain his workforce.

“What’s really challenging is just finding people to work,” he said. “I just heard an ad coming in to work this morning that Target is hiring people for $24 an hour; our starting wage is between $16 and $18 an hour.”

At Ware-based Country Bank, most all employees have been back to the office since last fall, said Miriam Siegel, first senior vice president and chief culture officer for the institution, adding that she believes that the bank is among the first, if not the first, business of its kind to put a flexible work policy in place.

The employees who have returned are working three days in the office and two remotely, she said, adding that the new policy, or strategy, is not the result of COVID, necessarily, but rather recognition that times and needs are changing, and flexible schedules are the logical, responsible response to the current landscape.

“One of the big things we’ve learned at the bank is that we have to recognize that we don’t live in a one-size-fits-all working world anymore,” she said. “That has become our mantra in many ways.”

Elaborating, she said the pandemic helped drive home the need to communicate with employees, have them articulate their challenges and needs, and then work with them to the extent possible to accommodate those needs.

“What COVID has taught us is that, given the nature of our work, we can operate our business successfully remotely. But we also feel it’s important for our culture that we work together and collaborate together; there’s real value in those face-to-face interactions.”

This is the right thing to do, Siegel said, but it’s also what many companies are willing to do, which is critical during what could only be called an ongoing workforce crisis.

“When you couple this remote-work situation with the Great Resignation, shifting priorities, and our challenge to retain people … we need to be listening to our employees and accommodate them when we can,” she said. “Because they’ll very quickly go somewhere else right now.”

At Baystate, as Morales-Lemieux noted, efforts to bring back — to the extent they are coming back — those 4,000 employees who left for home two years ago have been underway for some time.

There is now an organization-wide communication plan and strategy that will be launched in early April, she said, adding that there are still 3,000 people working “completely or largely” remotely.

 

Bottom Line

At all the workplaces we talked with, the new policies and strategies are in place for what would be called the time being.

Indeed, each company said it reserved to right to re-evaluate and change what is in place, depending on how things work out.

“The program we put in place — we keep the option open to revise or revoke if we don’t see good results,” Moriarty said. “But so far, so good.”

Murphy concurred. “When we initiated this policy and rolled it out, we said we would try it for one year and see how it works, and that we reserve the right to revisit it,” she said, adding that, while there is general confidence that this strategy will succeed given what’s happened over the past two years, it is still, on some levels, an experiment.

But overall, she’s not expecting many changes to the new policies — or to the current landscape in the workplace, for that matter.

“Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t see the trend turning back to fully in-person work for most people, especially those who work at a computer all day,” she said. “We’ve shown that that the remote model works; I think it’s here to stay.”

Morgan agreed. “We’re trending in that direction; HR professionals are talking about the trends, and the ‘new normal,’ and what will be the future of work,” she explained. “For so many reasons, we’re engaging in work in a different way; we’re fitting it into our lives in a different way than we could if we had a 30-minute commute to the office — and we’re finding that we can be even more productive.”

Those sentiments are among the many that make it clear that work has changed over the past two years — and probably changed forever.

And this will make the much-anticipated Great Return something to watch.

 

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

Special Coverage Women in Businesss

Reimagine the Possibilities

 

In many respects, the Bay Path University Women’s Leadership Conference that will unfold on April 1 at the MassMutual Center is the same one that was put together for early spring 2020 and then canceled by COVID-19 — and then canceled again amid a surge in early 2021.

Indeed, most all the speakers, including keynoter Tyra Banks, the model and media maven, are the same as those originally scheduled probably 30 months ago.

But the day-long event, expected to bring more than 1,300 people to downtown Springfield, simply can’t be the same as the one blueprinted back in 2019, said Sandra Doran, the school’s sixth president, who took the helm just a few months after the 2020 event was canceled.

And that’s because the world has changed so much in the interim, she told BusinessWest, and the conference needs to reflect that.

“Before the pandemic, people talked about being adaptive, they talked about thinking outside the box; the pandemic has changed the way people think about all those things,” said Doran, adding that the changed landscape, and the response to it, is reflected in the new theme for the conference: Reimagine. “What was considered adaptive two years ago is now considered routine today. This concept of really being prepared, with a plan A and a plan B … in the past, we might have had a couple of different strategies; now we have 10 different strategies because we know people’s needs are changing, the needs of employers are changing.”

“Before the pandemic, people talked about being adaptive, they talked about thinking outside the box; the pandemic has changed the way people think about all those things.”

Karen Woods, assistant vice president of Brand Strategy, Marketing, and Integrated Communications at Bay Path, agreed.

The original theme was ‘Own Your Now,’ she explained. “The idea was, ‘wherever you are in your life … own it, move forward, make decisions, and decide what’s next.’ But the pandemic changed a lot for people, so to ask people to ‘own their now’ seemed trite; the past two years not only affected the Women’s Leadership Conference, they affected women.

“And so this year, we have the theme of ‘Reimagine,’ and reimagine is really a gift,” she went on. “Because no matter where you are and what you’ve been through, you have this opportunity to come together, to network, to connect, to be with other women, and really start to think about what is the future, not just for you as an individual, but for our community.”

Sandra Doran, president of Bay Path University

Sandra Doran, president of Bay Path University

That theme, ‘Reimagine,’ will be threaded through a full day of programming that will include Banks’s keynote address at 3:15 p.m.; a luncheon talk featuring Patrice Banks, founder of Girls Auto Clinic; and the morning keynote, featuring Suzy Batiz, founder of Poo~Pourri and supernatural (more on them later). And it will also be incorporated into a series of break-in sessions, with titles ranging from “The Misfit’s Guide to Managing, Surviving, and Thriving at Work” to “Staying Sane with Disruptive Personalities in the Workplace.”

 

Face to Face

The return of the Women’s Leadership Conference (WLC), especially in its in-person format, is an important development for the region, said Doran, noting that, during its 25-year history, it has not only brought provocative speakers and historic figures to Springfield — a list that includes Margaret Thatcher, Madeline Albright, Rita Moreno, and many others — it has given attendees invaluable insight to bring back to their homes and offices.

Doran told BusinessWest that, while some thought had been given over the past two years to staging a WLC remotely, it was quickly determined that such a presentation would simply not be in keeping with the many goals — and expectations — for this conference, which has become a tradition in Western Mass.

“We made the decision that this was an event that was really focused on professional development, networking, and helping senior leaders in the grow,” she explained. “And the real power of this particular conference is in the face-to-face component of it.”

As organizers of the event saw COVID easing, with cases declining across the country, the decision was made to move forward with a live event, one that will have some restrictions, including proof of vaccine or a negative test to enter the MassMutual Center, as well as masking up when not eating or drinking.

Woods said ticket sales have been brisk, and a turnout similar to what has been the norm over the past several years is expected.

“We’ve been following the trends and the local, state, and federal guidelines,” she said. “Normally, we would start our advertising in the fall, and we were really looking at this spring. In speaking with our sponsors, exhibitors, and those buying tickets, we sense that people are feeling comfortable and ready to come back out for a gathering like this.”

As noted earlier, the overall lineup of speakers for the 25th WLC hasn’t changed since that event was originally blueprinted in 2019. But what has changed are the times, and some of the challenges being faced by women — and all those in the workforce.

And the speakers have been asked to reflect on what has transpired and incorporate these changes and mounting challenges into their presentations, said Doran, noting that the 25th WLC, like those before it, will leave attendees with plenty to think about as they consider how to reimagine their own lives and careers.

Indeed, the three keynoters are all successful entrepreneurs and innovators, who took decidedly different paths to success.

“Before the pandemic, people talked about being adaptive, they talked about thinking outside the box; the pandemic has changed the way people think about all those things.”

The day will start with what promises to be an inspirational, and entertaining talk by Batiz, founder of Poo~Pourri and supernatural, brands she has transformed into a more than $500 million business empire.

Featured in Forbes, Fast Company, and Entrepreneur, Batiz has been named one of Forbes’s “Richest Self Made Women in America” (2019) and EY’s Entrepreneur of the Year (2017). But to get there, she had to overcome some of life’s lowest lows — poverty, sexual abuse, depression, two bankruptcies, and a suicide attempt — which led to what she calls “the luxury of losing everything.”

The luncheon keynote speaker, Patrice Banks, is credited with opening up the male-dominated automotive industry and bringing a fresh perspective to that business. Girls Auto Clinic offers automotive buying and repair resources, services, and products by women to women. Prior to establishing GAC, she worked for more than 12 years as an engineer, manager, and leader at DuPont, a science and technology company.

Karen Woods

Karen Woods says the conference was rethemed from the one canceled two years ago to better reflect pandemic realities.

Frustrated with the lack of resources educating women on car care and her inability to find a female mechanic in the Philadelphia area, Banks enrolled in automotive- technology school to learn how to work on cars. Her mission with Girls Auto Clinic was to create a place she wanted to bring her car for repair and maintenance. She has since made it her mission to educate and empower women through their cars.

By telling her story, she continues to make history, through engaging talks, interactive workshops, authoring an informative car-care guide, and the successful running of a repair garage with female mechanics and a nail salon.

The day’s programing will conclude with a keynote talk by Tyra Banks, the supermodel who has become a serial entrepreneur as well. She created and executive produces America’s Next Top Model, has an Emmy Award-winning talk show (The Tyra Banks Show), hosted America’s Got Talent, and is consistently ranked by Time magazine as one of the world’s most influential people.

Banks is CEO of the Tyra Banks Company, a multi-faceted corporation focused on beauty and entertainment. In 2012, she graduated from the Owner/President Management program at Harvard Business School, from which she created her one-of-a-kind cosmetics experience, TYRA Beauty. She recently developed Fierce Capital, the investment arm of the Tyra Banks Company, which invests in early-stage companies, including firms that are female-led or female-focused.

Her passion is the TZONE Foundation, a nonprofit organization that invests in young women to help them realize their ambitions and approach life’s challenges with fierce determination. The TZONE now takes residence at the Lower Eastside Girls Club Center for Community in New York City and focuses on five core pillars: entrepreneurship; financial literacy; elocution and self-presentation; health and wellness; and self-esteem, beauty, and body image.

 

Breaking Out

As noted earlier, the conference will also feature a number of breakout sessions designed to both inform and inspire.

Session 1 takes the title “The Misfit’s Guide to Managing, Surviving, and Thriving at Work,” and will be led by Jennifer Romolini, a writer, speaker, senior digital-media strategist, and author of the book Weird in a World That’s Not: A Career Guide for Misfits.”

She will essentially debunk the theory that office-politicking extroverts are best set up for success. The session will help attendees understand, among other things, how to stop feeling like a freak at work, how to start using one’s misfit nature as a strength in the workplace, and how one’s sensitivity and empathy can make her a boss who not only succeeds, but effects real change.

Session 2 is called “The Power of Meaning: Making Your Life, Work, and Relationships Matter,” and will be led by Emily Esfahani-Smith, author of the book The Power of Meaning, which outlines four pillars essential to living a life that matters: belonging, purpose, transcendence, and storytelling.

In this breakout session, Smith will present the latest in psychology and neuroscience (as well as the wisdom of great philosophers) to help attendees live more satisfying lives, and focus in on those four pillars.

“We made the decision that this was an event that was really focused on professional development, networking, and helping senior leaders in the grow. And the real power of this particular conference is in the face-to-face component of it.”

Session 3, titled “The Real Role of Gut Instinct in Managing Complexity and Extreme Risk,” will be led by Laura Huang, a professor at the Harvard Business School and author of the book EDGE.

In her talk, Huang will discuss her research on decision-making in organizations and why the question shouldn’t be about data-driven decisions versus gut-feel-based decisions. Instead, effective organizational outcomes are the result of understanding the set of rules that are inherent in any complex decision, which dictates whether more data actually helps us make better decisions. Bringing her diverse work and research background (having conducted dozens of interviews with investors and observing pitch meetings with entrepreneurs) to analyzing the role of gut instinct in making choices, Huang developed an in-depth understanding vital role that gut feel plays in managing complexity and risk — and the difference between big wins and playing it safe.

Session 4 is titled “Staying Sane with Disruptive Personalities in the Workplace,” and will be presented by Dr. Ramani Durvasula, a licensed clinical psychologist in Los Angeles and professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles. In 2019, her book, titled Don’t You Know Who I Am: How to Stay Sane in the Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility, was released. She is also the author of the modern relationship survival manual Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and You Are WHY You Eat: Change Your Food Attitude, Change Your Life.

Session objectives include understanding what a disruptive personality style looks like and how it may affect oneself; learning how to manage disruptive personalities in the workplace, and what works (and doesn’t work); understanding how systems and people enable disruptive personalities in the workplace, and becoming familiar with a 10-step plan designed to provide the tools to manage disruptive personalities.

For more information on the conference, visit www.baypath.edu/events-calendar/womens-leadership-conference.

 

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

Cover Story

The Return of a Tradition

Marc Joyce

Marc Joyce, chairman of the 69th Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day Parade

It’s been nearly 1,100 days since Holyoke has staged its St. Patrick’s Day Parade and accompanying road race. That’s way too long for the businesses that depend on those institutions for a large percentage of their annual revenue. And it’s way too long for a community that always gains a huge dose of civic pride when mid-March rolls around. The traditions are back for 2022, and for the city and the region, there is much to celebrate.

 

 

The cover to the program book for the 69th Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day Parade was designed by an artist from Ireland.

Blended with the headline ‘The Season of Green,’ is a collection of the words that identify dozens of shades of green — from pistachio to lime; jade to shamrock — arranged in the shape of the Emerald Isle, and in those various colors.

It’s striking — and, yes, very green. But perhaps the most poignant thing about this publication is the date printed in smaller type to the side: March 22nd, 2020.

Indeed, this program book was published just over two years ago, and except for some minor updates in a supplement that will be inserted into the book, it remains profoundly unchanged. That goes from the date on the cover to all the advertisements inside to the ‘welcome’ from parade President Marc Joyce. In it, he thanks sponsors, the business community, and all those who helped make the parade possible. But there is no mention of the pandemic that kept this tradition from happening for two years.

“Civic engagement and pride in a community, any community, is critical. Any opportunity we can get to keep people excited about feeling good about the city they live in continues to help build on quality of life. That’s why it’s so important to have the parade back.”

Joyce told BusinessWest that the decision was made not to print another book, just that supplement, and to essentially pick up where the world, and Holyoke, left off when the COVID-19 pandemic prompted a shutdown of the state just a week or so before the 69th parade was to step off.

“We like to say that it’s the 2020 parade in 2022,” said Joyce, noting that, in most all respects, the date of the 69th parade has simply been moved up two years. Everything, or almost everything, is as it was then; he is still parade president (his has been a long, grueling three-year stint; normally, it’s one year); John (Jay) Driscoll, a prominent lawyer in Holyoke, is still the grand marshal, and Dave Glidden, president and CEO of Liberty Bank, is still recipient of the prestigious John F. Kennedy Award.

It is as if time has stood still in some ways. Only it hasn’t, obviously.

The program guide for the 69th annual parade

The program guide for the 69th annual parade, or what the event chairman calls “the 2020 parade in 2022.”

Holyoke has been without its greatest tradition for nearly 36 months now, and as it returns, many reflected on all that has been lost — and what has been regained as more than a month of parade-related events and gatherings have returned.

While those in the business community spoke of lost revenue — in some cases more than a third and perhaps even half of what they would generate in an entire year — and lost opportunities to introduce themselves to thousands of patrons (more on that later), all those we spoke with mentioned other, even more important losses, including a sense of identify and feelings of pride in the community.

As for what is being regained … the word that came up over and over and over again is ‘normalcy.’

“There’s a lot of pride in our community when it comes to parade weekend activity, when it comes to the parade and the road race, not just in this community, but across the region,” said Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia. “With quaranteening and all the other things we’ve had to deal with, this will bring back some kind of sense of normalcy.

“And that’s important, because civic engagement and pride in a community, any community, is critical,” he went on. “Any opportunity we can get to keep people excited about feeling good about the city they live in continues to help build on quality of life. That’s why it’s so important to have the parade back.”

Peter Rosskothen, owner of several hospitality-related businesses in Holyoke, including the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House, the Delaney House restaurant, and others, agreed.

“It’s very good for business,” he said of the parade, the road race and the month of events and activities leading up to it. “But it’s also good for the morale of Holyoke; it’s bigger than business, it’s civic pride, it’s the community coming together. Holyoke is a city with some problems, but you kind of forget about that with the parade.”

Joyce concurred, noting that the losses are not restricted to dollars and cents.

“It’s in the mindset and emotions of people who have grown up with this,” he explained. “I’m 71 years old, and I’ve been on the committee for 45 years. And I remember the first parade I went to; my father was marching with the Post Office, and my mother and I would walk about a mile and a half downtown to watch the parade. When I was away at college, I missed a few parades, but other than that, I haven’t missed any.

“It’s a homecoming,” he went on. “People come back to the city, and you see people you haven’t seen since perhaps last year; it’s a wonderful family-oriented event.”

For this issue, BusinessWest puts the lost years of 2020 and 2021 into perspective, and looks ahead to what all are expecting to be a memorable month as Holyoke welcomes back a tradition.

 

Mummers the Word

As he reflected back on March 2020 and the parade that wasn’t, Joyce said he remembers many things from that turbulent, mostly forgettable month, including the weather, which, to all those involved with this tradition, is often a big part of the story.

Mid-March in New England can bring with it all kinds of weather, and the parade has seen just about everything over its long history — snow, cold, rain, sleet, wind, and, occasionally, some sun and spring-like conditions.

In a somewhat cruel bit of irony, there were two such warm, sunny days — for the parade and the accompanying road race — in 2020, said Joyce, adding that it was the same in 2021, a meteorological turn of events that would only add insult to the injury of having to call off the parade two years in a row, he noted.

Turning his attention to 2022, Joyce joked that there is now considerable pressure on Driscoll.

Damien Rivera

Damien Rivera says that, for bars and restaurants in downtown Holyoke, the parade and road race are like the Super Bowl.

“We always kid that the grand marshal is in charge of the weather, one way or the other,” he explained. “I kid with him and say, ‘Jay, you’re two for two; can you pull it off a third time?’ I’m hoping, for all of our sakes, that he can.”

Keeping one’s sense of humor hasn’t been easy for the past two years, but Joyce and others involved with the parade have had little choice. The alternative is too depressing.

Recapping the past two years, Joyce recalled that “all systems were go” for the 2020 parade even as the virus first detected in China made its way to this country.

“We know it was out there, but no one knew how serious it was going to be,” he said. “The parade that was going to be in 2020 was canceled about 10 days before the event. That was really tough; people were saying ‘Oh, you’re babies, don’t cancel it.’ The fact of the matter is, we didn’t cancel it. Alex Morse, who was mayor at the time, called me into his office; we met with the Board of Health, and the DPW, and the police and fire, and they explained clearly the science of this thing and the interconnectedness of everything. The Fire Department was concerned that if they lost half their force to COVID, they wouldn’t be able to protect the city of Holyoke appropriately, and it was the same with the police.

“This is an event when every bar can show off what they can do, and we missed out on that opportunity for two years.”

“That was a hard pill to swallow but we always figured that this would be over soon and we’d be back in 2021,” he went on. “But that didn’t happen, for obvious reasons; we actually approached the city right after the first of the year in 2021 — the directors met, we discussed it long and hard, and we just figured that the same reasons we canceled in 2020 still existed in 2021, and it just made no sense to go forward. We approached the city and said ‘this is just not going to work, and we’ll be back in 2022.’”

Joyce remembers sitting on his front porch on parade day 2021, soaking in the gorgeous weather, drinking a Guinness, and watching a few friends drive down the street honking their horns. “That was the extent of the parade.”

Over the course of the past two years, the parade committee has never really stopped preparing for the 69th parade, he went on, adding that some things have gone on as they normally would, like the annual past president’s raffle and a memorial mass for deceased members of the committee.

Meanwhile, there has been planning — much of it via Zoom — for events this year, such as a gala staged late last month at the Log Cabin, the annual Awards Night, and many others.

Nicole Ortiz, who opened Crave on High Street

Nicole Ortiz, who opened Crave on High Street just over a year ago, is looking forward to her first parade week of activities.

As for the parade itself, it will be roughly the size of previous parades, with 15,000 marchers expected, close to 30 musical units, and 19-20 floats. What Joyce and everyone else expects to be larger this year — as in much larger, is the level of anticipation for both the parade and the race.

“It’s really hard to describe,” said Joyce. “Anywhere I’ve gone over the past few years and especially the past six to eight months, people have walked up and said, ‘Marc, are we having a parade?’ ‘Are we having a parade next year?’ People are excited to have the parade back.”

That’s especially true within the business community and its hospitality sector, which has suffered mightily over the past 24 months, as we’ll see.

 

Glass Half Empty

‘Crazy.’

Wasting no time at all, that’s the word Damien Rivera used to describe road race day at the Unicorn Inn on High Street.

“Really crazy,” he went on, gesturing with his hand around the two rooms that comprise this cozy neighborhood bar, adding that, by late morning on race day both rooms would be crammed with standing patrons — standing because the establishment can fit more people in if there are no tables and chairs on the floor.

Elaborating on ‘crazy,’ Rivera, a long-time employee who once lived above the bar with his father, Bobby Rivera, the establishment’s bar manager, detailed all that goes into race day at the Unicorn, which is even bigger than parade day, because, as he noted, the race ends at that northern stretch of High Street, and that’s where people congregate; the parade, in contrast, is spread out over a larger area, and thus the crowd is more spread out as well.

Peter Rosskothen

Peter Rosskothen

“It’s bigger than business, it’s civic pride, it’s the community coming together.”

He said that extra help is hired, a separate beer station is set up so that bartenders are not slowed by those who simply want a bottle of suds. There’s a DJ, and a deeper menu of food options is created, all in hopes of attracting race fans, who have a number of options when it comes to where to quench their thirst and whet their appetite.

Summing it all up, Rivera said simply “this is our Super Bowl — that’s the best way I can describe it,” meaning it’s the biggest, most lucrative time of the year. How big? Without giving specific numbers, he estimated that St. Patrick’s week — yes, it’s a week to many of those who celebrate it, especially when the holiday falls mid-or even early week and the parade as always, is on a Sunday — generates more than a third and perhaps even half of an entire year’s revenues.

What was it like to be without that week two years a row? Rivera simply shook his head and said “awful.” And by that, he was referencing more than just lost revenue.

“It’s a celebration,” he said of road race day, but also the entire week and beyond. “Holyoke is historically Irish, so when that week happens … it’s timely, it’s cheery, it’s a bright celebration of Irish culture, and for the businesses, this is our most important time.”

He said that establishments like the Unicorn depend on parade-week festivities for more than just revenue. It’s also a great marketing tool, a way to make introductions with potential new patrons.

“It brings people from so many places,” he explained. “If they didn’t know this place was here, they learned that it’s here. So not having the race and the parade meant that new people weren’t learning about this place as much as if we had it; this is an event when every bar can show off what they can do, and we missed out on that opportunity for two years.”

Nicole Ortiz is certainly looking to make some introductions during this year’s parade. She’s the owner of Crave restaurant on High Street, just across the street from City Hall — and the reviewing stand for the parade. She opened the establishment, which specializes in “modern and unique Puerto Rican food,” just over a year ago and missed out on a parade that year. In fact, Ortiz, who started with a food truck in early 2020, hasn’t experienced a parade as a business owner — although she’s heard quite a bit about the tradition from other business owners. She’s looking forward to the opportunity.

“They told me there’s tons of people down here, and they make tons of money,” she explained. “They say there’s tens of thousands of people down here for the race as well as the parade; it sounds pretty crazy.”

Rivera is looking forward to 2022 being a breakout year, and he’s not alone in that assessment.

Indeed, the phrase pent-up demand has been used in almost every context imaginable over the past 24 months, from cars to dining out to vacationing. And when it comes to the parade and the road race, pent-up demand is real.

Mayor Garcia drew parallels between this year’s parade and last year’s Big E. Both marked the return of an institution that the region had to do without, he said, adding that the Big E saw record attendance one Saturday during its run last year, and he’s expecting something similar with the parade.

Rosskothen agreed. “I feel that the parade is going to be bigger and better than it’s been in years,” he said. “I think people are ready to get out and do stuff. We’re handling the road race, and I’m preparing for a record breaker.”

“I feel that the parade is going to be bigger and better than it’s been in years,” he said. “I think people are ready to get out and do stuff. We’re handling the road race, and I’m preparing for a record breaker.”

Rosskothen, like others we spoke with, noted repeatedly that the parade and road race are not one day, or two days, as the case may be, but a week’s worth of celebration and, actually, several weeks’ worth of events, activities, and Irish-related food, drink, and culture leading up to the climax of mid-March.

“It’s a whole month,” he said. “We start playing Irish music at our venues, people go out, and in my case we start selling corned-beef-and-cabbage dinner packages in the beginning of March at Delaney’s Market. It’s all tied into the parade; it puts your Irish mindset on for lack of a better phrase.”

 

Bottom Line

Joyce said that there are only about 500 of the program books left to distribute at the parade. Those already given out have become a kind of dubious collector’s item — a guide to a parade that didn’t happen, or wouldn’t happen for two years.

In a way, they have become a symbol, not of what was lost or of a time that stood still, but of the community’s resilience and of the immense importance of this tradition to the city and the entire region. No one ever really doubted that importance; it was too obvious for that to happen. But three years removed from the last parade, it is now even easier to see all that the parade and the race mean to Holyoke.

It’s not just the revenue for those bars, restaurants, hotels, and banquet halls, although that’s a very big part of it. It’s the sense of community, the feeling of pride, the people coming back to this city year after year. It’s history. It’s tradition. It’s Holyoke.

It’s something else, too. It’s normal, and everyone involved is excited that it has returned.

 

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

buy ivermectin for humans buy ivermectin online buy generic cialis buy cialis payday loans online same day deposit 1 hour payday loans no credit check