Home Articles posted by George O'Brien
Cover Story

Capturing a Journey

Chris and Missy Thibault

Chris and Missy Thibault

Chris Thibault has spent his professional career helping companies and institutions — from MassMutual to Spirit of Springfield — blend words and pictures to send meaningful and powerful messages. Now, he and his wife and business partner, Missy, are producing one for and about him, and certainly not the one he planned at age 36. It’s about living with, running a business with — and hopefully not dying from — a disease that’s not only attacking his body, but that recently took the life of his brother. They’re going public and telling this story to maybe help Chris and the family, but certainly to help others.

“All I know is that I have been behind on projects for the past six months. It pains me to tell clients, ‘I’m sorry, we just fell a little behind.’ And I have said that over and over again. I not only want to do good work, I want to do great work. And not only that, I want my clients to have the best customer service possible. Excellent work, done on time. I’ve created unique systems within my company to do just that. But cancer is a bitch.”

That’s just one of the many powerful passages from a blog post that Chris Thibault wrote a few weeks back at christeebo.com/.howtocancer.

It came complete with a title — “How to Run a Production Company While Living (or Dying) of Stage 4 Cancer” — that hits the reader right between the eyes and almost compels that person to move on to the next sentence and the next gripping photograph.

And that was the whole idea.

“I haven’t figured that one out yet,” wrote Thibault, 36, president of Chris Teebo Films, in reference to the question posed by that working title. “And to be honest, I wrote the title to get your attention so you actually start reading this thing.”

If one keeps reading, they’ll take in a brutally honest portrayal of what it’s like to be told that one has stage 4 cancer, in this case a return of the breast cancer that struck Chris four years ago, only this time with it spreading to several parts of his body — and then live, and work, with both that knowledge and the disease itself.

The blog post is merely the beginning — the first act, if you will — of a larger presentation intended to capture what Thibault called a “journey,” one where no one really knows what’s ahead, where the current path leads, or even whether he will stay on this path.

Elaborating, Thibault and his wife, Missy — who is also a co-worker and business partner, serving Chris Teebo Films as editor and producer, thus the title ‘preditor’ — said they will soon bring a camera directly into their home in an effort to capture this difficult but also compelling time in the lives of everyone in this family of five.

Chris Thibault titled his blog post “How to Run a Production Company While Living (or Dying) of Stage 4 Cancer.”

Chris Thibault titled his blog post “How to Run a Production Company While Living (or Dying) of Stage 4 Cancer.”

“It will be very weird in the beginning, but if I stick with it, it will become less weird,” he explained. “I’m going to direct it even though I’m going to be living my life.”

Missy agreed about the ‘weird’ part, but said that, ultimately, the family is doing what Chris Teebo Films asks those taking part in its productions to do.

“We’re constantly telling people to ‘just be you and tell us your story,’” she explained. “We tell them to just open up and share their story, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

Before the camera starts rolling, though, Chris and Missy will be getting away for a while to the Vancouver area in Canada. It’s not a vacation, although they may try to relax a bit. Instead, they’re going for some alternative treatments for Chris, specifically hypertherapy (more on that later).

The junket to Canada and the comments you’ll hear about it speak volumes about where the Thibaults are in this journey. They’re searching — for answers, for a possible cure, and for a way a survive the disease that just claimed Chris’ brother, Brandon, a few weeks ago; he ultimately lost a lengthy, difficult fight with melanoma in mid-June.

As noted earlier, they don’t know where the journey will take them. At this point, Chris said the doctors tell him the cancer cannot be stopped; it can only be slowed. His oncologist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute has offered what Chris called a “menu” of options to battle the cancer, and none have produced what anyone would call encouraging results.

As for the ongoing efforts to chronicle this journey and the upcoming film work in the Thibault home, they are being undertaken in part to help the family. Indeed, donations are requested to help offset the costs of treatment and, really, just pay the bills at a time when Chris is forced to miss more time at work.

“We’re constantly telling people to ‘just be you and tell us your story. We tell them to just open up and share their story, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

But this effort is also intended to help others finding themselves in a similar battle by providing them with words and pictures intended to educate, but also inspire.

For this issue and its focus on healthcare, BusinessWest talked with the Thibaults about their journey and their willingness to go public, as in very public, and share their story.

The Big Picture

“Make no mistake, the cancer cells in my body are on a mission from hell to grow and kill me. Is it stage 4? Yes. Is it considered a terminal illness? Yes. Has it spread to my lungs, spine, ribs, hip, and pelvic bone? Check. Do I cough constantly and get winded from simple things like walking up the stairs? Yessir. Is there a known medical cure? Nope.”

This passage, which succinctly summed up both Thibault’s condition and thought pattern as he talked with BusinessWest, represents more of the frank, sometimes blunt commentary in his blog post, which, again, is designed to tell his story but also relay the feelings of all those who have battled or are currently battling the disease.

He said taking on cancer is, all at once, humbling, frustrating, and especially tiring — mentally as well as physically. There are, as almost everyone who has been through it has said, good days and bad days, but eventually the latter start to seriously outnumber the former. Chris said he still has a number of good days — like the one when he and Missy sat for this interview — meaning there was very little of the coughing and the pain that comes with it. But every day is clouded by the huge question marks about the future.

Chris and Missy Thibault, here with their children, Brayden, Sklyar, and Cassidy, will soon bring the cameras into their home to record their journey.

Chris and Missy Thibault, here with their children, Brayden, Sklyar, and Cassidy, will soon bring the cameras into their home to record their journey.

Before we talk about that, though, we need to go back to last fall and a phone call Chris said he won’t ever forget.

The person at the other end of the line wanted to know what Chris was doing at that moment. Specifically, she wanted to know if he was driving. Apparently, those in the healthcare community are trained to ask that question if they’re going to deliver bad news.

“She said the results from the scan ‘didn’t look good,’” recalled Thibault, who was on a shoot in Boston at the time, adding that she didn’t say much of anything else, which was somewhat annoying to him. And really annoying to Missy, who was, in fact, driving when Chris relayed that skimpy yet distressing news to her.

“I get a text from him that says, ‘doctor says scans don’t look good,’” she recalled. “I said, ‘what the heck does that mean?’”

What it meant was that their lives were going to change in a profound way.

The chest scan in question came after Chris started experiencing what he called “weird symptoms” during his recovery from surgery after he tore his biceps while reaching out and grabbing the treadmill he was on after it had started to tip over (a story told in great detail in the blog post).

“One day, I got on the treadmill and just did a light jog. I found that I couldn’t really catch my breath. Strange. I actually thought it was something in the air at the studio. Maybe the air was a little ‘thick’ that day? But in the coming weeks I had more and more symptoms, persistent cough, strange pain in my leg, and some vision problems.”

And with those symptoms came some commentary from the voice inside his head, commentary in the form of questions — about whether the cancer that had rocked his world years earlier might be back.

In fact, it was. It had metastasized, and there were, as those tests indeed revealed, a number of tumors, as Chris relayed in another poignant passage from his blog.

“‘Too many [tumors] to count,’ the doctor said with a sad, straight-face look that I read as ‘you’re fucked, kid.’”

Chris recalled ‘too many to count.’ Missy remembers hearing ‘innumerable.’ One phrase, one word that mean the same heartbreaking thing.

And so this journey began, and it came — not that there’s a good time — at an extremely bad time, professionally and also personally. With regard to the latter, the Thibaults were now a family of five with the birth of their daughter, Cassidy, a year earlier. Meanwhile, Chris’ brother Brandon was losing his fight with cancer.

As for the former, the business, Chris Teebo Films, was really hitting its stride, producing a wide range of work for a host of regional and national clients that included MassMutual, the pharmaceutical giant Novartis, Bay Path University, Spirit of Springfield, FastenMaster in Agawam, Mercedes-Benz of Springfield, BusinessWest (he has produced sponsor videos for many of the magazine’s events), and many others.

As noted earlier, as the cancer has spread, Chris has found it more difficult to work, although he presses on, a task made easier by the support he’s received from his clients, who have been not only understanding of missed deadlines, but willing to send him more work — including a project for Spirit of Springfield’s 25th anniversary — and assist him in his fight. Peter and Michelle Wirth, owners of the Mercedes dealership, even offered to send cars to take him to treatments.

“The support of the business community has been unreal,” said Chris, adding that he was at first reluctant to tell clients about his condition out of fear they may not have faith that he can finish projects he takes on. But those fears proved ungrounded, and he continues to get new work.

Bringing a Cancer Fight into Focus

“My skinny ass lifted weights for the first time in about 7 months the other day. I’m about 35 pounds lighter than I was back then, mostly all of it muscle weight. … I never realized how much muscle I had in my ass! After losing a bunch of weight, I was towel drying out of the shower and noticed … it wasn’t there! This was at a time when I was really feeling the effects of the tumor in my hip and couldn’t bend down at all. The atrophy in that portion of my body was really noticeable. Still is. It sucks because, a mere half a year earlier, I was physically, and probably mentally, the strongest I have ever been.”

This passage from the blog captures some of the observations, thoughts, and raw emotions that are part and parcel to a cancer fight.

So does this one.

Chris Teebo says his doctors have tried a number of steps

Chris Teebo says his doctors have tried a number of steps from a menu of treatment options, but none have succeeded.

“I am bent over on a hospital chair with my right foot on the floor and my left knee resting on the chair. My pants are pulled down just below my butt. I am sitting alone in a room at Dana Farber bent over with my full ass out, waiting for the nurse to come back into the room. Oh, and the room doesn’t have real doors, just one of those thin hospital curtains. So at any point, someone could walk by and catch a glimpse. Is there anything more humiliating?

‘Did it get cold in here?’ I quietly asked myself.

It felt chilly. I might as well be bending over in front of an open fridge.

The nurse finally comes in.

‘How we doing?’ she asked with an over-the-top caring voice, like a firing squad was about to come in and put some bullets in my crack.

‘I’m fine.’

I was anything but fine, of course, mentally and physically, but that’s what you say.”

The nurse in question would proceed to administer what Chris called a large dose of a drug called Fulvestrant, being taken in combination with a newly approved drug called Piqray, made, coincidentally enough, by Novartis.

Ultimately, this combination became the third different set of chemo and hormonal treatments to have been tried, and all have failed. So Chris and Missy — the two are in this fight together, every step of the way, sharing the research, and the hope for something that will work — are on to option number four.

“At this point, they’re really throwing things at the wall; they don’t know what’s going to work, so they’re trying all these things,” said Chris. “They haven’t been able to stop it — there’s no cure for what I have — but there are drugs that will slow it down, basically.

“And these things are toxic — they ship them to me in what amounts to a haz-mat bag,” he went on. “It says ‘keep this away from people — no one can touch it’ — but I have to take it.”

And while battling the cancer with chemo and other regimens, the Thibaults are looking at alternative treatments, like the hyperthermia Chris will receive in Vancouver, designed to generate changes in the cancer cells that can (that’s can) make the cells more likely to be affected by other treatments such as radiation therapy or chemotherapy.

“As I understand it, and I don’t really understand it, cancer cells don’t survive in hot — they don’t like to be heated up, and that’s what this treatment does,” he told BusinessWest. “We did a lot of research on it, and it was recommended by our naturopathic doctor.”

“The support of the business community has been unreal.”

Missy said she understands it better because she’s taken it upon herself to do much of the research and work to understand the many new forms of treatment that are becoming available and which ones hold the most promise.

“I had heard about and read about it,” she said of the hyperthermia treatments, which focus heat on a specific area — in this case, the target will be Chris’ lungs. “I’m immersing myself in that radical-remission, naturopathic world just to inform myself as much as possible.”

Screen Test

“I love creating. If I can’t create, I’ll just load the bullet now. But this is about more than that. It is a way to potentially raise the money needed to actually sustain my life through this journey and at the same time help others going through a similar thing. We will document the process in every way we can.”

That’s how Chris described the ongoing project to chronicle the fight, the journey that he and his family are now taking.

By ‘every way we can,’ he meant videos, blog posts, pictures, and podcasts. Eventually, all of this gathered material will be molded into a feature-length documentary, designed, as noted earlier, to educate and, hopefully, inspire.

There have been many successful and poignant efforts to chronicle a cancer fight in the past, but the Thibaults intend to use their unique and considerable skills in the art of storytelling to do something different — and compelling.

This was something Chris made a plan to do four years ago with his first brush with cancer, a project that took on the working title “Breast Cancer Boy,” an obvious reference to the fact that men rarely contract this form of cancer.

There were a few blog posts and an effort to relate what he was experiencing, he recalled, but this time the effort will be much more comprehensive and personal — because it needs to be.

And, as noted, it will involve a number of vehicles for getting the message across, from blog posts to podcasts, to what Chris called “TV-show-like material.”

“Nick’s going to come in with a camera and hang out with us,” he said, referring to Nick Laroche, an editor and production assistant with Chris Teebo Films. “He’s going to come to our house and hang out.

“It will be weird, because you really put it all out there when you do it like that,” he went on. “We don’t have a big budget — we don’t have any budget — so it’s not going to be like the Kardashians. But it will be a behind-the-scenes look at what goes into this.”

By ‘this,’ he meant everything involved with a cancer fight, from the research of various treatments to the wide range of emotions experienced by all those involved.

“People can see our confusion with medications, our frustration with doctors — they’re going to see all that,” he went on. “And I didn’t want to do this; I’m doing it because I feel it’s time and I need to. It’s not because I want to.”

Missy agreed and said, again, that this bit of storytelling aims to do what they ask their many clients to do.

“We steer away from scripted video content,” she explained, adding that the company has been doing a number of documentary-style productions for clients, including the American Women’s College at Bay Path University and MassMutual, and it will put that experience to good use as they tell their own story.

Things will be much different when the camera is pointed at them, but they both believe this something they need to do.

Indeed, when Missy noted that it will be difficult to find the time to do this, given work, medical treatments locally, and trips to places like Vancouver, Chris replied simply, “we’re going to have to make the time.”

A Message of Hope

“Lastly, I love you. I mean it. The good thing about going through this is that you look at people differently. I am convinced that the majority of humanity is good, regardless of what the news tells you.

OK, get on with your day. You’ll hear from us soon.”

That’s how Chris wrapped up his blog post. Each word, each phrase was chosen carefully, and each one has meaning.

‘You’ll hear from us soon’ makes it clear that the efforts to chronicle this story are only beginning. The words that come before explain why he and Missy are doing this.

In short, it’s a story that needs to be told. And there’s probably no one in the region who can tell any story — let alone this one — in a better, more powerful way.

As for ‘OK, get on with your day’ … well, none of us are likely to take that simple assignment for granted ever again.

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

Banking and Financial Services

Steady Course

President and CEO Michael Tucker

President and CEO Michael Tucker

Like most all bank presidents in the 413, Michael Tucker would concede that a great many of the region’s communities are heavily populated with financial institutions, or “overbanked,” to use the term most would put into play.

He’s inclined to include Greenfield on that list, and gestures out the window of his office to make his point. “They used to call the other end of the street Bank Row,” he said, referring to a stretch of Federal Street now occupied by what once were stately bank offices, many of them redeveloped for other uses. “They really should call this Bank Row now.”

Tucker, president and CEO of Greenfield Cooperative Bank (GCB) and Northampton Cooperative Bank (the two institutions merged in 2015, and the former name was kept) was referencing the number of competitors who call a different stretch of Federal Street home, and it’s a large number.

But, unlike most of the other bank leaders who bemoan the overbanked nature of this region, Tucker sees the landscape through a slightly different lens.

“Some bankers would say we’re overbanked; I would say we have choices,” he explained. “It forces you to be more competitive, and it gives people choices. It doesn’t hurt to have competition — otherwise, you get complacent.”

So perhaps all that competition should get some of the credit for what has been a consistent pattern of growth for the bank, especially since Tucker took the helm at GCB in 2003. Since then, the bank has seen assets rise from roughly $175 million to more than $630 million, its branch count soar from three to 10, and its commercial-lending portfolio take a quantum leap.

Overall, the bank’s strategy has been to gradually expand its footprint in Franklin and Hampshire counties, growing mostly via the organic route (although the merger with Northampton Coop certainly accelerated that process), and achieve more of the size that is needed to thrive in today’s banking landscape.

The plan also calls for seizing opportunities when and where they arise, which brings us to the institution’s latest expansion effort — a branch in South Hadley at the Woodlawn Shopping Plaza that will bear a Northampton Cooperative sign over the door and open next January.

Formerly a Bank of America branch — that institution has been closing a good number of facilities in recent years — the new location gives Greenfield Coop presence in another Hampshire County community, but one that enables it to serve residents of several nearby Hampden County cities, especially Chicopee and Holyoke.

The plan for the foreseeable future is summed up neatly in the bank’s annual report, issued just a few weeks ago.

“Our primary strategy remains to look for prudent and measured organic growth right here in Western Massachusetts,” Tucker wrote in the report, noting that many of those aforementioned competitors have ventured into Central Mass., Connecticut, or both. “We need to remain a lean organization, especially in light of the growth of mobile and electronic banking in today’s world. Our branch strategy recognizes the new world order with the continued growth of the internet.”

Michael Tucker says the GCB branch is just one of many banks located on Federal Street

Michael Tucker says the GCB branch is just one of many banks located on Federal Street, a proliferation that provides competition, which he believes makes his bank better.

For this issue and its focus on banking and financial services, BusinessWest asked Tucker to elaborate on all those points and essentially draft a quick blueprint of the bank’s plans for the future. In a nutshell, it simply calls for more of what of what the bank has been achieving under his leadership — smart growth.

Points of Interest

Tucker said he ventured into banking, if that’s the word for it, while he was in law school at Western New England University.

He took a teller’s job at the institution known then as Springfield Institution for Savings (SIS), while attending night classes, not knowing this would be his employer for some time to come.

He remembers his first boss, John Collins, telling him that his law degree could be put to good use in the banking industry.

“He said, ‘I have a lot MBAs who could use some help, because we have this new thing called compliance,’” he recalled, referring specifically to the Truth in Lending Simplification Act of 1981. “That was my first foray into banking law.”

He took the title ‘counsel and compliance officer,’ and later worked his way up to senior vice president and general counsel. When Peoples Heritage acquired SIS, Tucker, like many others, was soon out of work, but he eventually landed at what is now bankESB for several years before being recruited to lead GCB.

When he arrived in Greenfield, he took over one of the smallest banks in the region with a simple goal — “I told the board I was going to keep this place mutual and hopefully leave it a better bank than I found it” — and set about a course of steady if unspectacular growth, which was by design, as he explained with a little humor.

“Our growth is roughly 4% to 6% a year,” he noted. “If we were a stock bank, they would have thrown me out the door. Because we’re a mutual bank, we can take our time. Where I see banks get in trouble is when they try to grow too fast and lose sight of their basic principles.”

GCB hasn’t done that, and its strategic goal — and operating philosophy — are summed up by its web domain name, www.bestlocalbank.com, and a comment from the annual report. “As I’ve often said before, we’ll probably never be the biggest bank,” Tucker wrote. “But we always strive to be the best bank in Western Massachusetts.”

During Tucker’s tenure, the bank has, as noted, expanded to 10 branches. There are two in Amherst (although they will soon be consolidated; more on that later), one in Florence, another in Northampton, two in Greenfield, as well as a commercial and residential and loan-services facility, and single locations in Northfield, Shelburne Falls, Sunderland, and Turners Falls.

Meanwhile, it has also greatly expanded its commercial-lending team and its commercial portfolio, which, like that at many banks in the region, is dominated by commercial real-estate loans, but also reflects the diversity of the local economy, especially in the bank’s hometown.

Indeed, this is an intriguing time for Greenfield, said Tucker, noting that the community once dominated economically by manufacturing has varied its economy, making great strides in technology and hospitality.

“Our growth is roughly 4% to 6% a year. If we were a stock bank, they would have thrown me out the door. Because we’re a mutual bank, we can take our time. Where I see banks get in trouble is when they try to grow too fast and lose sight of their basic principles.”

“There is a lot of energy in the town,” he said. “We have the new courthouse and the new parking garage; they opened the Olver [Transit Center], and there have been many other new developments.”

Still, this region, and especially Franklin County, where many communities are struggling to maintain population and especially young people, would be considered a low- or no-growth area, he acknowledged, meaning growth is a challenge for any financial institution.

This is why many area banks, as he noted in his annual-report comments, have ventured into Connecticut, Central Mass., or both, and why others have grown through acquisition or merger.

GCB has done some of that with its merger with Northampton Coop, a move that Tucker described as “logical” for both institutions because of that overbanked nature of this sector, and the lack of population growth in Franklin County.

“That’s why we looked at Hampshire County and why I talked to Northampton [Coop],” he explained. “It would have been silly for us to build another branch down in Hampshire County and fight 10 other banks for the money when we can partner with another bank.

“That worked out well for everyone because we didn’t have to lay anyone off,” he went on, adding that he spends one day a week in Northampton at that division of the institution. “It was a smooth transition. We were both very small — and we’re still one of the smaller banks — but we now have more size, and that helps. It was a good merger.”

By All Accounts

As he talked about his bank’s branch strategy, Tucker reached for his cell phone and held it aloft.

“This is our fastest-growing branch,” he said, noting that internet banking is becoming an ever-stronger force in this sector.

But brick-and-mortar branches are obviously still needed, he went on, adding that they probably don’t need to be as large as they once were, and they are far less transaction-oriented than they once were.

But they serve an important purpose in that they give a bank a presence and enable it to better serve customers in a particular region or community.

Which brings us to the new South Hadley branch.

The most logical expansion point for the bank moving forward is probably Hampden County, said Tucker, adding that the South Hadley branch provides an opportunity to make some strides in that direction.

Tucker found the branch while on one of his many drives around the area looking for opportunities.

“We keep our eyes open, and I drive around the area a lot and take a look at the communities,” he explained. “South Hadley was a community that I thought had some upside, and I was surprised when I read that Bank of America was closing that branch because they had a fair amount of deposits in that office.

“With this branch, we can serve some customers that we have already in Springfield and Chicopee,” he went on. “But it also gets us to reach a base in South Hadley that BOA is telling, ‘if you want to bank with us, you have to drive over here.’”

BOA’s departure will ultimately lead to GCB’s arrival, specifically its Northampton Coop division, said Tucker, adding that, while moving into South Hadley, the bank will continue to look for other growth opportunities as well as ways to become the ‘leaner organization’ he mentioned in the annual report.

Toward that end, the bank will consolidate its two branches in Amherst into one, a nod to the fact that specific branches are simply handling fewer transactions these days.

“When I was a teller in Forest Park [for SIS], we had seven or eight tellers plus a manager and an assistant manager,” he noted, turning the clock back four decades or so. “People were lined up out the door — we didn’t have deposit — and everyone came in to cash their Social Security checks on the first of the month.”

Elaborating, he said the branches in Amherst that saw 10,000 transactions a month several years ago were down to 5,000 maybe five years ago, and are now seeing roughly 3,000 a month, thanks to ever-advancing technology.

This phenomenon will eventually lead to fewer branches, and, more immediately, smaller facilities.

“The industry is moving in that direction,” he said while again holding his phone aloft and explaining it is now a branch itself in most all respects. “But I don’t think branches will be obsolete; they will be smaller and leaner.”

As for future expansion geographically, Tucker said GCB will continue to look for potential landing spots. “We’ll continue to look south and possibly east to Worcester County,” he told BusinessWest. “A lot depends on what happens; with some of the branches we’ve opened, I didn’t anticipate doing it at that time, as in Turners Falls, but the opportunity arose.”

Bottom Line

In his annual-report statement, Tucker noted that, over the past 114 years, GCB has had three basic operating slogans.

It’s gone from ‘Traditional, Progressive, Locally Focused,’ to ‘In the Community, for the Community,’ to the current ‘Come on Over to the Coop.’

The words are different, but they say the same thing, essentially — that this isn’t the biggest bank on a block crowded with other banks, but it strives to be best, and it’s generally successful in that mission.

This is the strategy that has worked since Teddy Roosevelt was in the White House, and there isn’t any sentiment to change it, said Tucker, because it works, not only for the community, but for the institution as well.

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

Sports & Leisure

Star Power

They’re calling it a “pairing party.”

And, as that name suggests, this is a party at which the pairings for the MGM Springfield Basketball Hall of Fame Golf Classic Hosted by Ray Allen!, will be announced.

Most golf tournaments in this region, and there are a great many of them, don’t have a pairing party. This one does, and for a good reason — players are being paired with Hall of Famers and legends of the game. The list of those signed on to participate include players such as Allen, Dominique Wilkins, Gary Payton, Dave Cowens, Rick Barry, Bernard King, Muggsy Bogues, and Alex English. And there are others coming, such as ESPN personality Jackie MacMullan.

The opportunity to play with one of these stars is just one of the intriguing aspects of this tournament, which will benefit both the Hall of Fame and local schools, said Jason Fiddler, vice president of Sales & Marketing for the Hall.

Others include the fact that this is a two-day event, with day one being the pairings party at MGM Springfield, and the second day being all golf — at the Ranch in Southwick, one of the region’s premier courses, and also the fact that, the higher the participation level, the more a group gets to choose the star they’ll play golf with.

The tournament, slated for July 25 and 26, is actually a rebirth of a fundraising tournament staged by the Hall of Fame roughly a decade ago, one that was staged in conjunction with enshrinement weekend in September, said Fiddler, adding that it is now one of three golf events the shrine conducts over the course of a year. The others are in Los Angeles in the fall, and in Phoenix in the spring.

“We wanted to bring a premier event back to Springfield — that was one of our primary missions,” he said, noting that Springfield is the birthplace of the sport and home to its Hall of Fame. “We wanted to do something that would bring our Hall of Fame talent back to Springfield on a regular basis.

“We had long conversations with various Hall of Famers to see who we could get engaged,” he went on, “and then had various conversations with local and regional parties to get a title partner involved in the event, and both kind of came together on the same day.”

Elaborating, he said MGM showed great interest in putting its name on the event, and Ray Allen, the former UConn great and key player in the Boston Celtics 2008 championship run, communicated the same level of interest in doing the same — hence the first annual MGM Springfield Basketball Hall of Fame Golf Classic Hosted by Ray Allen!, complete with exclamation point.

In addition to raising funds for the Hall of Fame, proceeds will, through Ray Allen Charities, be channeled to a Springfield-based school to be determined later.

“We’re trying to raise enough funds to revamp a computer room or robotics program here in the city,” said Fiddler, adding that $40,000 has been earmarked for such a project. “Everyone’s working behind the scenes to select an appropriate school.”

This latest addition to the Hall of Fame golf portfolio will be like the others in that it will enable participating golfers to play with a legend, said Fiddler, adding that there has been a good deal of positive response to the tournament, although there are still a few foursomes to be filled.

Foursomes cost $2,500, and, as noted, there are higher participations levels and other ways to support the endeavor. Sponsorships opportunities are also available. For more information, visit www.hoophall.com/events/mgm-springfield-hall-of-fame-golf-classic/schedule-of-events.

—George O’Brien

Features

Grade Expectations

Trisha Canavan tells the story often, and for a reason — it resonates with everyone who hears it.

United Personnel, the staffing agency she serves as president and CEO, used to make candidates for jobs in warehousing and manufacturing, two of the company’s strongest niches, take and pass what she called a “basic math test” before they could be considered for placement with a client.

That’s ‘used to.’

United stopped the practice some time back, said Canavan, because no one — and she was only slightly exaggerating when she says ‘no one’ — passed the test.

“This was a very, very basic math-skills test, fourth- or fifth-grade level if I had to guess,” said Canavan, a former educator herself (she taught at Berkshire Community College and Cambridge Rindge & Latin School). “We’re talking about basic measurements with a ruler or tape measure, addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, and pretty much everybody, I would say 95% of those who took it, was unable to get a passing grade.

“We had used it as a screening tool but stopped doing that — otherwise, we wouldn’t have any employees,” she went on. “This wasn’t just people from Springfield, but because our headquarters are in Springfield, we’re seeing a lot of Springfield residents who really don’t have the basic knowledge to be successful.”

With these experiences concerning the math test ringing in her head — and filling her with frustration — Canavan offered a resounding ‘yes’ when asked a few years ago if she would like to join a group called Springfield Business Leaders for Education, or SBLE, as it has come to be called, a name that certainly tells all or most of the story.

This is a group of Springfield-area business leaders focused on education in the community and, more specifically, strategies for improving it. John Davis, president of the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation, which helped lead efforts to create the SBLE and now co-chairs it with Canavan, called it “a critical friend of the Springfield public school system.” And by critical, he meant both important and judicious in its assessment of what’s happening — and not happening.

The group’s unofficial mission is to ensure that students not only receive a diploma signifying they have fulfilled the requirements needed to graduate from high school, but that they have the skills needed to succeed in the workplace. One is clearly not the same as the other, said those we spoke with, using one loud, resounding voice.

“This was a very, very basic math-skills test, fourth- or fifth-grade level if I had to guess. We’re taking about basic measurements with a ruler or tape measure, addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, and pretty much everybody, I would say 95% of those who took it, was unable to get a passing grade.”

Put another way — not that Canavan actually said this — the group exists to perhaps create a day when United Personnel can dust off the basic math test it put on the shelf, once again give it to candidates, and see the vast majority of them pass.

That day, unfortunately, seems far off, she said, adding that SBLE is obviously working to bring it closer. It does this through advocacy, enlightenng its members about the issues in education — it recently hosted a well-attended talk by Gov. Charlie Baker on the subject of education reform at the Basketball Hall of Fame — and, most importantly, through partnerships with other advocacy groups.

These include Massachusetts Parents United (MPU), a statewide group comprised of concerned parents, and the Massachusetts Business Alliance for Education (MBAE), which has a mission similar to SBLE, but is also statewide.

Trisha Canavan

Trisha Canavan says too many students are graduating from high school without the basic skills needed to succeed in the workplace.

Keri Rodrigues, founder of Mass. Parents United, now headquartered on Maple Street in Springfield, said the group started as three women meeting in a public library. Today, it has more than 7,000 members and is the largest urban parent-advocacy organization in the Commonwealth.

The work of these groups, individually and collectively, comes at what many describe as a watershed moment for education reform in Massachusetts — when dueling education bills (more than $1 billion apart in overall funding) are being debated in the State House and when those in Gateway cities such as Springfield say students of color are disadvantaged by what they call systemic educational inequity.

Collectively, these groups intend to use this critical moment to press for real and lasting change, adequate funding, far greater accountability when it comes to how education dollars are spent, and, overall, an end to those inequities they cited.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with those involved with SBLE and other advocacy groups about just what is at stake when it comes to education reform in the Commonwealth, but also the broad work of making students workforce-ready when their days in school are over.

School of Thought

It’s called “Defining Our Path: A Strategic Plan for Education in Worcester 2018-2023.”

It’s a 40-plus-page document that, as the name suggests, is a strategic plan for the school system for the next five years. Sections in the document have titles ranging from “Culture of Innovation” to “Investing in Educators” to “Academic Excellence.”

Davis presented BusinessWest with a copy for the sole purpose of pointing out that Springfield doesn’t have such a plan — and it desperately needs one.

“There are three things that have to happen in Springfield, three questions to be asked and answered, and it’s an open discussion among all the players — the parents, the educators, the political establishment, and others,” he said. “First, where are we? We need a real, open, and honest discussion about that, because it’s never really happened. Two, where are we going, and where do we want to go? What skills will our kids need?’ And, three, how do we get there? We have to come up with a plan.”

Work to create such a plan has become a priority for the SBLE, said Davis, adding that, as it goes about such work, it knows it needs to partner with other groups, and especially those that involve parents.

Which brings us to the MPU. Rodrigues said she started the organization out of frustration born from how the system was failing her three children, especially one with special needs.

Keri Rodrigues

Keri Rodrigues says Massachusetts Parents United was formed to give a voice to an important, and often overlooked, constituency.

“I saw that my child was already falling through the cracks in kindergarten,” she told BusinessWest, adding that she knew there were others and that it was time to advocate on their behalf. “I saw all these inequities with my kids and could actually fight a little bit. I decided to use my skills as an organizer to help those who were underserved. But I was also looking around and seeing how parents were being left out of the conversation completely.

“Parents are kind of pushed in when it’s convenient and we want to hear them and their little anecdotes, and then we push them along,” she continued. “But we’re prime stakeholders; we have to be advocates for our kids, who are supposed to be the center of the education conversation. So many of us are survivors of our public education system — I was a foster kid myself and got expelled from a public high school and was lucky to get to college — and then to watch my children, from kindergarten on, be underserved, is really frustrating.”

Not wanting to see that cycle perpetuated, she started MPU, which has steadily grown both its membership and its influence, said Rodrigues, and has been especially visible during the ongoing debate over education reform and school funding.

“A few weeks ago, we had more than 150 parents get on buses and go directly to Beacon Hill and advocate for education funding,” she said, “and making sure there’s some accountability with how this money is spent.”

But as large and powerful a constituency as parents may be, MPU knew early on it needed allies in this ongoing fight, said Rodrigues, adding that MBAE has become such an ally.

“Parents are an important constituency, and so is the business community,” she explained. “We’re both invested in these outcomes in our children because it’s not just about getting them to graduation day and handing them a diploma; we want our kids to have access to these wonderful jobs.”

Ed Lambert, executive director of the MBAE, which has been in existence for nearly 30 years, agreed, and noted that, while significant progress has been achieved since the Education Reform Act was passed in 1993, there are still significant achievement gaps — and opportunity gaps — that exist in this state.

“Our achievement gaps are among the largest in the country,” he told BusinessWest. “Students are passing MCAS and graduating, but many are inadequately prepared for college and a career.”

Thus, MBAE, working in partnership with other groups, has been examining and using data to question and “critically, but diplomatically” challenge the establishment.

“We think that, with this next iteration of education reform, with the new funding that is going to come, particularly to the Gateway cities like Springfield, there is an opportunity to close those achievement gaps,” he said. “But only if there’s continued emphasis on improvement and reform.

“Money alone is not is not going to move the needle for a lot of students,” he went on. “We have data and information showing that, statewide, some school systems, with the same or comparable demographics, are spending much more, sometimes twice as much, per student, and not getting the results.”

Subjects Matter

Returning to the state of public education in Springfield, Davis and others said the city needs a strategic plan — and the state needs to further reform education — because inequities persist, and there are serious ramifications stemming from these inequities.

“I was very, very struck by the inequities that exist,” said Canavan, again speaking from experience as an educator and screener of potential employees. “Kids who are living in the surrounding suburbs have different experiences, different opportunities, and different outcomes than their peers in Springfield and other Gateway cities, and we should all be outraged, frankly.

“There have been improvements in the school system,” she went on. “But they’re too incremental for our kids to get where they need to be fast enough. And this is an economic-development issue; employers will not locate here, and they will not stay here, if they do not have the workers they need.”

Rodrigues agreed, noting that her group was inspired by, and outraged by, recent comments she attributed to Springfield’s school superintendent to the effect that the main problem with the city’s schools wasn’t one of performance or results, but merely one of “public relations.”

“That presentation wasn’t based in reality,” she said. “When you take a look at the numbers, the outcomes we’re getting for children … they show something much different. They were talking about growth percentiles, not proficiency.”

John Davis

John Davis says Springfield lacks a strategic plan for its public school system and needs one moving forward.

Indeed, hard data suggests there are problems, and the numbers come to life in a document prepared for SBLE as it goes about its mission of education and advocacy.

Titled “A Call to Action: Building a 21st-century Education System,” the report uses numbers and words to paint a disturbing picture. Here are some examples:

• “Only 33% of third graders meet expectations for grade-level reading, which means that two-thirds of Springfield’s third-graders don’t read at grade level. Children who are not proficient readers are more likely to drop out, not attend college, and are more likely to be incarcerated.”

• “By eighth grade, only 22% are reading at grade level; only 19% are at grade level in math. That means nearly 80% of Springfield’s eighth-graders are not at grade level for math or reading.”

• “The graduation rate for Springfield’s Latino population is only 74%, and only 9% of Latinos have a bachelor’s degree.”

• “Springfield’s dropout rate is more than two times higher than the state average.”

• “While 72% of jobs will require a career certificate or college degree by 2020, only 17% of Springfield ninth-graders go on to earn a college degree or certificate within six years of leaving high school.”

The numbers are followed by that call to action, and for formation of a plan that will, among other things, improve the quality of education in Springfield by ensuring the attraction of talented, high-quality teachers; establish universal pre-K; introduce acceleration academies for immediate intervention in schools in critical condition; and lengthen school days for extended learning time with high-quality teachers.

And with that plan, those with SBLE and MPU want more transparency from school leaders and, overall, more accountability.

“We’re not getting the information, and we can’t even agree to the fact there’s a problem,” said Rodrigues. “If we’re lucky enough to get our kids to graduation day, we hand them a piece of paper that says, ‘you have a foundation, and you’re ready to access all of this opportunity in your future.’ And then we find out that the paper means nothing — they have to take two years of remedial courses before they can take a college-level course.”

Canavan agreed, and stressed, again, that lack of proficiency in school translates into both employment issues and economic-development issues.

“We continue to see a persistent skills gap, a persistent gap in work behaviors that would torpedo people’s efforts to be in the workforce,” she said in reference to what she’s observed in her business. “It’s creating more and more challenges for us as a company, but also for employers — we hear over and over again that they don’t have the qualified employees that they need to meet production needs and to meet operational needs.

“We need to look at not just whether people are qualified to get a job,” she went on, “but are they qualified, and do they have the persistence and problem-solving skills to keep a job?”

Doing the Math

Returning to the matter of that very basic math test that United Personnel once gave to candidates, Canavan said the exam had become, toward the end, what she called a “waste of paper.”

“If we used it as a screening tool, we literally would have been unable to run our business,” she said. “But what that means is that, when people go to work, they need much more training and support, and sometimes they can’t even be successful with that support and training.”

But if those tests can, indeed, become part of a movement that brings about real change and an end to the persistent inequities in education that still exist in this state, then they won’t be a waste at all.

That is Canavan’s hope, and the hope of all those in SBLE, MPU, and MBAE, who, as critical friends of the school system, have decided to take on a larger, more impactful role in trying to bring about change.

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Woodlawn Shopping Plaza

An architect’s rendering of the housing project planned for the Woodlawn Shopping Plaza.

Rocco Falcone acknowledged that, when he and fellow partners Andy Yee and Peter Picknelly acquired the Woodlawn Shopping Plaza on Newton Street in South Hadley in 2016, they were making that sizable investment at a time when the world of retail was changing — and shrinking.

And they knew then that the plaza, dominated by a closed Big Y supermarket, might not look like it did years down the road — not that they didn’t try to find a strong retail anchor to fill the role that Big Y played.

“We knew there was going to be an unlikelihood that we’d be able to get another supermarket, although we tried like heck to — we talked to a number of chains, local, national, and international,” said Falcone, manager of South Hadley Plaza LLC, the entity created to acquire the property, and perhaps better known as president and CEO of the Rocky’s Ace Hardware chain. “When we bought it, we kept it in our minds that it might not be a supermarket — or even retail.”

And the Woodlawn Shopping Plaza will, indeed, take on a new look — and role that goes beyond shopping — with the announcement of plans to build 72 mixed-income apartments on a three-acre portion of the plaza where the Big Y once stood; a public hearing is slated on the proposal for June 26 at the South Hadley library.

Town Administrator Mike Sullivan, former mayor of Holyoke, sees the proposed housing project as an opportunity for the community, one that could change the face of an underperforming property (the plaza), perhaps spur new business development at the site and elsewhere, and even boost enrollment at the town’s schools, which have seen their numbers declining in recent years.

“We knew there was going to be an unlikelihood that we’d be able to get another supermarket, although we tried like heck to — we talked to a number of chains, local, national, and international. When we bought it, we kept it in our minds that it might not be a supermarket — or even retail.”

The announced plans for the plaza comprise one of a number of intriguing developments in South Hadley, a community of nearly 18,000 people that has always been an attractive place to live and has been working for decades to balance its strong neighborhoods with new business opportunities.

Others include progress toward an update of the community’s master plan; introduction of a new option for ultra-high-speed internet service, called FiberSonic, to town residents; efforts to work with neighboring Granby to bring more order to a hodgepodge of zoning on the Route 202 corridor; apparent progress in bringing the town’s long-underperforming municipal golf course, the Ledges, to self-sustainability; and even a new dog park on the Ledges property.

“Dog parks have become somewhat of a recreational amenity in many communities, including Northampton, Granby, and many other cities and towns,” said Sullivan. “It’s surprising how many people are really into their dogs; this is a quality-of-life issue, and at least this will put another 100 to 200 South Hadley residents onto property that they’re paying for. They don’t golf, but they have a dog.”

For the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest looks at these various developments in South Hadley and how they are part of ongoing efforts to make the community a better place to work, live, and start a business.

Getting out of the Rough

Golf courses, especially municipal golf courses, usually don’t generate many headlines.

The Ledges has been a notable exception to that rule. Since it opened at the start of this century, it has been in the news often — and for all the wrong reasons. Indeed, conceived and built as Tiger Woods was rocketing to stardom and golf was booming as a sport and a business, the picturesque Ledges, with breathtaking views of the Holyoke Range, was projected to a be a strong revenue generator for the community.

Suffice it to say things haven’t worked out that way. In fact, the course has been a financial drain, racking up deficits of more than $1 million some years, and into six figures most years.

Town Administrator Mike Sullivan

Town Administrator Mike Sullivan says new high-speed Internet service, called FiberSonic might spur more young professionals to move to South Hadley.

Sullivan, who inherited this problem, took the aggressive step of outsourcing not only maintenance of the course, but overall management of the facility, with the goal of turning things around and making the Ledges self-sustaining.

Mike Fontaine, the course’s general manager and an employee of Lakeland, Fla.-based International Golf Maintenance (IGM), which manages more than 30 courses across the country, is optimistic that some kind of corner has been turned at the Ledges. He noted that the shortfall was smaller last year (Sullivan pegged it at roughly $35,000) — despite unrelenting rains that made 2018 a difficult year for every golf course — and that, even with more rain early this year, the course is on track to improve on last year’s numbers and continue on an upward trajectory.

He said IGM’s efforts comprise work in progress, but added that a number of steps have been taken to improve the visitor experience and, thus, generate more revenue for the town. Work has been done to build a management team, place more emphasis on customer service, and give the 19th hole, an important revenue stream for all golf operations, a new look and feel. And even a new name.

“We gave the whole place a facelift, especially the restaurant,” he explained. “It was time for a fresh coat of paint, work behind the bar, new pictures of the golf course on the walls, moving the TVs, changing the name from Valley View restaurant to the Sunset Grille, and going with a whole new brand and marketing campaign.”

The new name highlights one of the course’s hallmarks — dramatic sunsets — and attempts to capitalize on that asset, said Fontaine, who said was inspired by what he saw in Key West, which is famous for its sunsets and people turning out to watch them.

He said the course has generally done well with visitation — 25,000 rounds last year — but needs a break from Mother Nature as well as a break from the negative publicity that hasn’t been good for business.

South Hadley at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1775
Population: 17,791
Area: 18.4 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential and commercial tax rate: $20.15 (Fire District 1); $20.55 (Fire District 2)
Median Household Income: $46,678
Median Family Income: $58,693
Type of government: Town meeting
Largest Employers: Mount Holyoke College; the Loomis Communities; Coveris Advanced Coatings; Big Y
* Latest information available

“We’re beating the numbers from last year, and we’re hitting our revenue goals despite losing three weekends in a row, including Mother’s Day weekend, due to rain — money we’ll never get back,” he said. “We’ll have a much better understanding of where we’re at when this year is over.”

While the picture seems to be improving at the Ledges, the picture is changing on Newton Street, especially at the Woodlawn Shopping Plaza.

While there is still significant retail there — the plaza is home to a Rocky’s, Dunkin’ Donuts, Dollar General, the Egg & I restaurant (a recent addition), the Parthenon restaurant, Mandarin Gourmet, and more — the former Big Y site was proving difficult to redevelop, said Falcone, noting that, after efforts to find a replacement supermarket were exhausted, the building was razed in 2018 with the goal of bringing more options to the fore, including residential.

The proposed 72-unit apartment complex will fill a need within the community for both affordable and market-rate housing, said Falcone, adding that this reuse is consistent with how many malls and shopping plazas are being repurposed at a time when stores are closing at an alarming rate and malls — and communities — are forced to be imaginative in a changing retail landscape.

“We looked at options to possibly subdivide the Big Y property, but we couldn’t get any junior anchors,” said Falcone, adding that the owners spent roughly the past year and half looking for smaller tenants, but to no avail.

“Retail is changing — people are getting away from retail and putting more focus on service and entertainment,” he said, adding that the town created an overlay district within the Newton Street area that allows for mixed-use development and residential space, which brings us to the plans currently on the table.

“We thought this would be a good option and a good opportunity,” said Falcone, adding that research revealed demand for such housing. “If you look at Village Commons, those apartments are always full, and my understanding is there’s a waiting list to get in there. So we think South Hadley is a great community for some additional housing.”

Sullivan agreed. “We’re a vibrant community for condominium development, and there’s considerable demand for them — we have condominiums on the riverfront selling for more than $400,000,” he noted. “But we think this proposed development balances things out; it provides another option for housing.”

The Gig-speed Economy

They’re called ‘fiberhoods.’

That’s the name the South Hadley Electric Light Department (SHELD) has given to areas, or neighborhoods, in the community that will be provided with FiberSonic, which will make gigabit-speed internet available to residential homes; the service is already available to South Hadley businesses.

SHELD is starting in the Ridge Road area — the service will be available there in July — and will proceed to the Old Lyman Road fiberhood in August, and the Hollywood Street area in September. By year’s end, 700 homes should be covered by the project, and the 32 identified fiberhoods will be added in phases over the next five years, said Sean Fitzgerald, SHELD’s general manager.

“Establishing fiber-optic internet service throughout the town will bring added convenience and, more importantly, will accommodate the ever-growing bandwidth need for South Hadley customers,” said Fitzgerald, who described FiberSonic as “home-grown, gig-speed Internet.”

This service should help make South Hadley a more attractive option for a growing number of professionals who essentially call the office home, even as they work for companies in Boston, New York, and Seattle, said Sullivan.

“When you can access a high-paying job in New York City, Boston, Montreal, or even Los Angeles, and you might have to only go to the home office once a month or once a week and the rest of the day work at home, your housing costs are lower and quality of life is higher in Western Mass.,” he explained. “We’re seeing more of this in South Hadley, and the new internet service will make this community even more attractive.”

As the overall pace of change accelerates, the town looks to anticipate what the future might bring — and be prepared for it — with an update to a master plan drafted roughly a decade ago.

That document, the town’s first master plan in more than three decades, included no less than 200 recommended actions, said Town Planner Richard Harris, noting that this represents an obviously unachievable number, although many have been implemented, especially in the realms of housing, recreation, and creation of growth districts.

He expects that the updated plan, to be completed by year’s end, will be more strategic in nature.

“While it will still be broad, because the nature of a master plan is broad, we’re expecting it to be more strategic in focus and more related to the current organizational structure and long-term needs of the community,” he told BusinessWest. “I wouldn’t expect as much focus on zoning and land use as the last plan, and instead more on how to capitalize on what we have done.”

There have been a number of community forums staged to solicit commentary and input about the plan and what it should include, as well as smaller, more informal sessions within neighborhoods called “meetings in a box,” said Harris, adding that a draft of a new plan should be ready for additional review by the fall and a final document in place by the end of the year.

Meanwhile, the town isn’t waiting for the new plan to address a long-term concern and probable hindrance to growth — the hodgepodge of zoning along the Route 202 corridor, roughly from Route 33 into Granby Town Commons.

“Both towns have the leftover remnants of a ’60s regional road,” he explained, noting that there are homes next to dinosaur-track stops next to other forms of business. “It’s not very well-organized; there’s a weird mix, and we think there is a real need for conformity.

“If we could get that conformity, there’s enough business traffic going into Belchertown, Ware, and, beyond that, Amherst — and we can harness that traffic,” he went on, adding there have been discussions with officials in Granby about zoning and also infrastructure and perhaps tying properties along that corridor into South Hadley’s sewer system, a development that would benefit both communities.

“We hope this will bring more investment to those commercial properties along 202 in South Hadley,” Harris explained. “That will result in more tax dollars — and it would be great to have more people to share the tax burden with.”

Bottom Line

Those last sentiments accurately reflect a goal, and an ongoing challenge, spanning decades: creating more opportunities to share the tax burden.

South Hadley has always been a great place to live — and now also play golf and walk your dog. Greater balance in the form of new businesses and better use of existing and potential commercial property has always been a goal and priority.

And between the proposed new housing project, faster internet service, and progress along the Route 202 corridor, the community is making more headway toward realizing that goal.

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

Nonprofit Management

Y’s Plan of Action

Dexter Johnson

Dexter Johnson says the Springfield Y’s move downtown is a significant cost savings, but there are other reasons why it makes sense.

The YMCA of Greater Springfield has had a long-standing policy: once someone has logged 50 years of continuous membership, their days of paying to work out are over.

Dexter Johnson, CEO of the nonprofit, told BusinessWest that there are at least a few dozen people currently taking advantage of this benefit, including one who recently crossed that threshold. “He was counting down the days until April 15, and kept reminding us,” said Johnson. “It’s a badge of honor for them.”

Some of those in this exclusive club can trace their membership back to when the YMCA was located a few blocks to the south of its current home on Chestnut Street, in the heart of the city’s downtown. And most all of them will be turning back the clock in a way and staying with the Y when it makes its move back downtown — to Tower Square — in a matter of weeks.

Johnson hasn’t officially polled these long-time members, but he has gathered some feedback on this move, one that has been accompanied by no end of questions concerning everything from where people will park to why this relocation was necessary, to where people might be able to swim a few months from now.

We’ll get to all those later. First, back to Johnson and those in the ‘membership is free’ club.

“We’re hoping that they stay with us through this transition, and most are keeping an open mind,” he said. “They understand that transition has to happen, it has to happen in life in general, and all businesses go through it some point. Our message to them has been, ‘just wait and come check it out; there’s no need to run somewhere else.’”

And this is the mindset — especially that open-minded part — that Johnson hopes all current members, prospective members, and the community at large will take as the Springfield Y, one of the oldest such institutions in the country, embarks on what will certainly be one of the most intriguing chapters in its history.

“We’re hoping that they stay with us through this transition, and most are keeping an open mind … Our message to them has been, ‘just wait and come check it out; there’s no need to run somewhere else.’”

The lease with Tower Square is for 10 years, and the ensuing decade will be spent exploring and perhaps implementing any of a number of options for securing long-term sustainability for the Y, a nonprofit that has struggled financially not only for the past several decades, but most of its existence, said Johnson, who has researched the matter thoroughly.

However, the fiscal picture became even darker in recent years, said Johnson, adding that the Y essentially reached a point where it needed to get out from under a half-century-old facility that had become an untenable money pit.

But while the move to Tower Square will ultimately save the Y roughly $150,000 a year, the relocation and sale of the property on Chestnut Street should be looked upon not merely as a cost-saving measure, but as a real opportunity for the agency.

Indeed, Johnson estimates there are at least 2,000 people working in Tower Square and the other office buildings abutting it, and within those ranks are undoubtedly people who could benefit from having a well-equipped gym just a few hundred feet from their office or cubicle. Likewise, there are parents perhaps looking for day-care services more convenient than the one they’re using.

Meanwhile, the Y will have a front-row seat for, and perhaps play an important role in, the revitalization of Springfield’s downtown.

“There’s a lot of activity happening downtown right now, and this gives us the opportunity to be part of that rejuvenation that’s going on,” he said.

These are just some of the ‘glass-more-than-half-full’ takes that Johnson has concerning the Y’s new home. For this issue and its focus on nonprofits, he offered much more on how and why this step was taken and what it means for this institution.

Positive Steps

As he talked with BusinessWest in his office at the Chestnut Street facility, Johnson said the Y recently received an appraisal ($1.3 million) on the building — or, to be more specific, the non-residential component, with the five-story living quarters having already been acquired by Home City Housing — and said the property will go on the market later this month.

When asked to speculate on possible future uses, potential buyers, and degree of retrofitting likely to be involved, he obliged.

“If it was a school that really wanted a pool and a basketball court, then there wouldn’t be as much repurposing to do,” he explained. “But if someone wanted to turn it into office or retail space, then obviously there would be significantly more repurposing.”

But at present, Johnson has his mind on many other matters beyond what will hopefully be a quick sale, especially the work to get the Y’s new digs, especially the child-care component, ready for primetime, meaning August by his calculations.

But before we go there, we need to go back and discuss the many factors that brought us to this moment. Recapping, albeit quickly, Johnson said a number of factors and circumstances in recent years — everything from escalating competition in the fitness business to the miscalculation that was the Y branch that opened in Agawam in 2014 and subsequently closed less than two years later, to the ever-rising costs of operating and maintaining the Chestnut Street facility — brought the Y to the point where something needed to be done, and soon.

He said a number of options have been considered in recent years, from new construction — pegged at $12 million to $15 million — to renovation of the existing structure, to retrofitting another building. But the numbers didn’t seem to work with any of them.

A different kind of option presented itself when the new owners of Tower Square — even before they actually owned the property — approached Johnson about the prospects of the Y moving there.

“There’s a lot of activity happening downtown right now, and this gives us the opportunity to be part of that rejuvenation that’s going on.”

And the talks quickly escalated to action.

“The opportunity at Tower Square was chosen because it did allow us to make a quicker move than any other options we explored,” he explained, adding that, as those talks continued, a plan emerged that would bring the old Y, or at least most of it, to two different locations within Tower Square. The childcare unit would be relocated to an area on the ground floor, formerly occupied by Valley Venture Mentors, a travel bureau, dry cleaners, and other businesses. Meanwhile, the wellness center would be located in a large space across from the Food Court, perhaps best known in recent years as the home to the Boys and Girls Club’s Festival of Trees.

The two sides came to an official agreement in the spring, and work has been ongoing at the childcare facilities and, more recently, the wellness center. Meanwhile, logistics have been worked out regarding parking — members can park for free in the Tower Square parking garage — and for the dropoff and pickup of children at childcare in a designated area created along Bridge Street.

The Y will be trading its current 85,000 square feet of space for less than half that (35,000 square feet), said Johnson, but a good portion of the existing footprint is unused or underutilized anyway, including the basketball court and squash courts, which in recent years have been put to other uses. And there are options available for adding more space in the future.

The move is somewhat unusual, but not without precedent, he added, noting that, as the retail scene changes and many YMCAs face fiscal challenges and upkeep expenses at aging facilities, some have found new homes in closed malls and supermarkets, and others, like Hartford’s, have found their way back downtown.

Space Exploration

But while a move to Tower Square was the most sensible option on many levels, it obviously comes with a good amount of risk, Johnson acknowledged, noting that the downtown location brings with it questions, challenges, and limitations.

Starting with the obvious lack of a pool.

Johnson said there are a number of members who make use of the pool at the Chestnut Street location — just how many he couldn’t say — but these individuals will certainly be among those who won’t be going with the Y to its new home.

“The question about the pool is the one that’s raised the most, and that’s a loss for us, no question about it — especially for the adults who use the pool for lap swimming,” he noted. “But for us, that’s not a huge number right now. The pool sees more activity from youth swim lessons and exercise classes happening in the pool, and we’re looking to continue those at other sites.”

Elaborating, he said the Y is exploring partnerships with a number of entities, including Boys and Girls Clubs, schools in Springfield, and other facilities.

As for the membership in general, Johnson said there have been a lot of questions and some anxiety about the move, both of which were expected. But he believes when the dust settles — literally and figuratively — most will stay with the Y.

“There are a lot of great members who have been here 40 and 50 years — we have some long-term members who are used to being here,” he said. “Once they’ve seen the renderings of what the new place will look like and they understand that it’s the same great staff … they’ll realize that, if everyone goes over, then the small groups that have formed and the friendships that have formed can continue.

“We’re not looking to change any of that,” he went on. “We’d just like to change the location and create something that’s more attractive to new membership.”

Overall, Johnson is expecting an attrition rate of perhaps 20% among the Springfield Y’s roughly 1,100 members, a number he admits is a calculated guess based on the feedback he’s received.

That’s a big number, but he’s optimistic when it comes to the prospects for recovering those losses with new members, especially from the ranks of those working in and around Tower Square, a number that will climb by roughly 200 with the arrival of Wellfleet in August (see related story, page 39).

Johnson acknowledged there are already a few gyms downtown — one at the Sheraton hotel in Monarch Place and another just a block down the street at 1350 Main St. — but none right in Tower Square. And none that have the far-reaching mission of the YMCA, where dollars spent on a fitness membership ultimately wind up helping fund a number of youth programs within the community.

He’s already reached out to those at the UMass campus located on the second floor of Tower Square and plans to do the same with Cambridge College, located on the ground floor. Meanwhile, the Y is planning a membership drive and grand-opening specials, to help spur interest in the new facility, as well as half-hour classes designed specifically for business people on tight schedules.

The Shape of Things to Come

In discussing the move to Tower Square, Johnson refrained from describing the new mailing address with the term ‘temporary,’ although he hinted strongly that it probably won’t be permanent.

“As we looked to our future, we saw this as a great opportunity for more immediate stability,” he told BusinessWest. “Our options are open to continue once we get this move done and stabilize ourselves a little bit. I wouldn’t call this ‘temporary,’ but I also wouldn’t say it doesn’t mean that we’re not going to explore standalone ownership somewhere else in Springfield down the road.”

In other words, the move buys the Y some precious time and, by all accounts, a much better chance than it previously had of putting itself on better financial footing for the short and long term.

Which means that, in most all respects, this was a gamble worth taking.

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

Cover Story

Bringing the Future into Focus

Tim Brennan has made rail service one of many points of emphasis during his tenure.

Tim Brennan has made rail service one of many points of emphasis during his tenure.

Tim Brennan’s almost-half-century-long career with the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission will draw to a close later this summer. As he pivots into retirement, Brennan talked with BusinessWest about the many ways the landscape has changed over the past four and half decades, and especially the emergence of a more regional focus in the Valley.

Tim Brennan says that planners — good ones, anyway — live in what he calls “two time zones.”

“One is the present, and the other is typically 20 years out,” he told BusinessWest. “You’re dealing with the here and now, but you’re also trying to anticipate a problem that might hurt us and ward it off, or an opportunity that we should grab and not squander — and all that makes for an interesting career.”

Brennan has been living in these two time zones for nearly 50 years now, the past 47 of them with what is now known as the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission (PVPC), and the past 40 as executive director of that agency, which has a mission effectively summed up in its name.

Over those years, Brennan and the PVPC, always working collaboratively with municipalities, state leaders, and other business and economic-development-related agencies, has succeeded in changing the local landscape in all kinds of ways — from cleanup of the Connecticut River to creation of the Western Mass. Economic Development Council; from the building of bike trails across the region to the re-establishment of north-south rail service to a number of Western Mass. communities.

“You’re dealing with the here and now, but you’re also trying to anticipate a problem that might hurt us and ward it off, or an opportunity that we should grab and not squander — and all that makes for an interesting career.”

It was primarily a desire to continue working on the front lines to expand that north-south rail service, among other pressing projects, that has kept Brennan in this job into his 70s (he’s now 71), although he is coming to the end of the line, as they say in the rail industry, when it comes to this phase of his life.

Indeed, Brennan will be officially retiring toward the end of August, handing over the reins of the PVPC to a successor to be chosen in a matter of days.

So, for this issue, we conducted what amounts to an exit interview with Brennan, whose work has been spotlighted in this magazine on countless occasions, perhaps most notably when BusinessWest bestowed its coveted Difference Makers award upon him in 2011.

Looking back on his career, Brennan said there have been a number of success stories, none of which were scripted quickly or easily. In fact, he said, over the course of his nearly 50-year career, patience and tenacity have been his (and his agency’s) best virtues — out of necessity.

the Connecticut River is no longer the “best-landscaped sewer in the country.”

Tim Brennan says there’s still work to do, but the Connecticut River is no longer the “best-landscaped sewer in the country.”

“One of the hardest lessons I learned, and I learned it early on, is that oftentimes, you can make the best of plans, but that doesn’t guarantee they’ll get implemented,” he noted. “You’ve got to stay with it because the planner is frequently not the implementer; you have to keep trying if it’s a good idea.”

As an example of this phenomenon, he cited the PVPC’s long and hard work to create bike trails.

“Back in the ’70s, a concept that came up was the Five College Bikeway; it got a lot of attention and a lot of buzz,” he explained. “But after the buzz wore off, everyone abandoned it. I thought, ‘this has merit; we ought not let it drop.’ It took us 20 years, but I was up cutting the ribbon for the Norwottuck Trail.

“My mantra here is, ‘we plan, we do, and we measure what we do,’” he went on. “And with the doing, you always have to have partners, whether it’s communities at town meeting, a City Council, the state Legislature, MassDOT — whoever the implementers are, we have to tag-team to get our plans to fruition.”

As he winds down his career in planning, Brennan noted that, in many ways, things have come full circle — for both himself and this region.

Elaborating, he said one of the first projects he embraced was cleaning up the Connecticut River, a discussion he introduced by citing that often-quoted line from the early ’70s (he believes it’s from the New York Times) about the river being the “best-landscaped sewer in the country.”

“It’s not a sewer anymore,” said Brennan. “We now have class-B water above the Holyoke Dam; we’ve been working at it for more than 30 years, and we’ve cut the pollution levels by more than 50%. We still have a long way to go, but it’s not a landscaped sewer anymore, and above the Holyoke Dam, it’s a real treasure.

“One of the hardest lessons I learned, and I learned it early on, is that oftentimes, you can make the best of plans, but that doesn’t guarantee they’ll get implemented. You’ve got to stay with it because the planner is frequently not the implementer; you have to keep trying if it’s a good idea.”

As prepares to step away from the PVPC and shift his focus to travel, working for his daughter’s flower-growing business, traveling, and perhaps sailing (more on all that later), Brennan said the environment is once again perhaps the top focus of the agency’s energy.

That’s made clear by the title on the program for the organization’s annual meeting on June 13 in Northampton — “Combating Climate Change” — and the accompanying artwork, a thermometer positioned over a globe taking on a decidedly reddish hue.

Regionally, Brennan and the PVPC have helped changed the climate in this region in a figurative sense. For this issue, we take a look back and, in the spirit of working in two time zones, ahead.

On the Right Track

Brennan told BusinessWest that his daughter first started asking him when he might retire maybe six or seven years ago. His standard response — and he obviously gave it more than a few times — was “in a few years.”

A few became more than a few, and he pressed on well beyond what is considered traditional retirement age (if there is still such a thing) because he found his work in those two time zones “intoxicating,” a word he would use at least a few times.

Besides, he wanted to help steer those efforts to expand north-south rail to a successful conclusion. And it appears he has.

Indeed, the state is close to finalizing an agreement to increase the runs from Springfield north to such communities as Holyoke, Northampton, and Greenfield from the current one a day (the Vermonter) to two a day in the morning and two more in the afternoon, in addition to the Vermonter, on a two-year trial basis.

The additional runs will become permanent, said Brennan, if 24,000 net new riders can be added over the next two years. And he’s confident that threshold can be met.

“Every single year since we moved the train back onto the main line, there’s been steady growth, double-digit growth,” he said. “Northampton has been the standout, but overall, the service has worked as we had imagined — ‘put the train where the people are, and if you have a service that’s attractive, they’ll use it.’ But the service is lean north of Springfield, and we think we can attract those 24,000 riders if we can offer more variety.”

Work to secure this expansion of rail service would be a fitting bookend to a career with the PVPC that saw a young Brennan accept, as one of his first assignments with the agency, creation of the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority.

Tim Brennan says it has taken time to materialize, but the Springfield renaissance is real.

Tim Brennan says it has taken time to materialize, but the Springfield renaissance is real.

“The state Legislature, then led in the House by David Bartley from Holyoke, created regional-transit-enabling legislation, and my boss got the job and essentially said to me, ‘go make it happen,’” recalled Brennan, who said his career has been marked by, and really prolonged by, a string of intriguing projects like that one.

He traces his love affair with the region to the many times he drove across the state while moving his sister to a succession of new residences while she was attending Northeastern University.

Those rides coincided with a search for graduate schools as he was wrapping up his bachelor’s degree work at SUNY Buffalo.

“I just sort of become fascinated with New England,” he explained. “And that’s when I narrowed my search for graduate schools. I came out here to visit UMass, and I just loved the region from the get-go.”

Near the end of his graduate training at UMass, Brennan had the opportunity to work in Northampton under Mayor Shaun Dunphy, at the time the youngest mayor in the Commonwealth.

“He was incredible mentor — I really enjoyed working for him,” said Brennan, adding that his time in the city coincided with the beginning of what become a meteoric rise that has in many ways sustained itself for more than four decades.

“He had me working in solid-waste management,” Brennan said of Dunphy. “And then two projects bubbled up downtown; one was Fitzwilly’s, and the other was Thornes Marketplace, and it was with those two that the resurgence of Northampton really began, and it goes on to this day.”

On a more gradual pace, he believes progress has spread across the region over the past four decades, and the planners at the PVPC have had a lot to do with that.

Brennan joined the agency in 1973, and was one of a handful of staffers. He took the helm in late 1980 and has presided over continuous growth of the PVPC to a staff of more than 50.

Current Events

When asked to compare things in the Pioneer Valley today to the way they were when he took the helm at the PVPC (when Jimmy Carter patrolled the White House), Brennan said the picture has improved in a number of ways.

Progress in and on the Connecticut River is one of the most obvious, he noted, but the cities are, by and large, healthier and more vibrant, and the region as a whole is in many ways more competitive from an economic-development standpoint than it was all those years ago.

And one of the reasons for that is a … well, more regional approach to doing things, something the PVPC helped inspire through another of Brennan’s many success stories — the Plan for Progress.

First drafted a quarter-century ago, the plan was intended to be a blueprint, or road map, for progress, with a focus on both the present and especially the future, said Brennan, adding that one of its first main thrusts was for the creation of a regional economic-development council. Two years later, the EDC was born.

“There was sort of a breakthrough in Boston — for the first time, an administration acknowledged, ‘hey, wait a minute, Massachusetts is not one homogenous economy, it’s a set of discrete regional economies,’” he recalled, referring specifically to the administration of then-Gov. William Weld. “The state realized it needed to set the big table for the entire state — policies, regulations, and programs — but it really needed the regions to do the nitty-gritty details of the economy of the Pioneer Valley versus the Cape or the Berkshires.

“It was sort of a challenge, and we took on the challenge — we went after this,” he went on, adding that the Pioneer Valley was really the first region to take on the assignment of creating a plan for progress.

Over the years, this plan has seen a number of updates — major revisions every 10 years and smaller ones every five years — that have added new points of emphasis, everything from pre-K-to-12 education to workforce building (work prompted by the mass retirement of the Baby Boom generation); from the arrival of MGM Springfield and its impact on traffic to creating a new generation of leaders, a movement that sparked creation of the Pioneer Valley Leadership Council.

“Every year, we actually take a look and do an annual report that the feds look for,” Brennan told BusinessWest. “But the five-year and the 10-year updates … those are the real opportunities to take the car into the garage and really tear the engine apart and make sure it can run for another five years.”

“Overall, the service has worked as we had imagined — ‘put the train where the people are, and if you have a service that’s attractive, they’ll use it.”

As for the EDC, it came about out of recognition that the private sector needed to play a role in economic-development efforts, he noted, adding that the regional-planning mindset has been taken to a new, higher, and, in his view, necessary plane, with creation of the Knowledge Corridor, which packages the area between Greenfield and New Haven into one “super region.”

“The geography of the region is not municipal,” he said. “You have to operate at a regional level in order to be consequential when it comes to the economy. And we’ve actually tried, in an informal way and with some modest success, to go interstate with that with the Knowledge Corridor partnership — you have to be super-regional.”

The Heat Is On

Brennan told BusinessWest that, while a regional approach is critical, healthy cities, and especially a healthy capital city — and Springfield is considered the capital of the Valley — are critical.

And that’s why the progress the City of Homes has enjoyed over the past decade in particular is so important for the region.

“It’s taking a long time, but the renaissance in Springfield is real, and there’s evidence of it everywhere you look,” he said. “Some of it has come through work that we’ve helped with, like Union Station and the rail projects, but much of it has come from the work of the city itself through projects like MGM, CRRC, and work that’s starting to happen with housing.

“They’ve come from a place that’s pretty dark,” we went on, referring to Springfield’s leaders, “to a place that’s pretty interesting, exciting, and building momentum as time goes on.”

ValleyBike, a regional bike-sharing program, represents just one of the many ways the landscape has changed during Tim Brennan’s tenure leading the PVPC.

ValleyBike, a regional bike-sharing program, represents just one of the many ways the landscape has changed during Tim Brennan’s tenure leading the PVPC.

Surveying the scene in Springfield, and the region as a whole, Brennan said the linchpin to further progress and taking the renaissance to a much higher level is attracting young people.

“I hear this refrain all the time — when young people are prepared to settle down and have kids, they return to the Valley,” he said. “But many leave in the first stage of their career to chase bright lights, whether it be Boston, Atlanta, or Austin, Texas. We have to continue to look for ways to get into that vibrant mid-city niche.”

And one of the obvious keys to attracting young people is jobs, he went on, adding that this brings him to one project he knew he couldn’t finish before he left the PVPC, but wanted to at least see into the implementation stage — a high-speed east-west rail line.

He hasn’t been able to do that, either, but the planning commission, again, working with other agencies and individuals such as state Sen. Eric Lesser, has at least swayed the state to again study the concept.

“We did manage to convince the state not to throw the idea away entirely,” he noted, adding that the ongoing study will likely be wrapped up in a year or so.

East-west rail is critical to this region, he said, noting specifically the plight of many rural communities seeing their populations age and decline — a dangerous double whammy — and looking toward high-speed rail as one way to put their communities back on the map, especially as potential homes to young professionals who could work in the eastern part of the state, where the preponderance of good jobs are.

But Boston needs it as well, he said, adding that the Hub, while exploding economically, is suffering from a number of growing pains, including choking traffic and sky-high real-estate prices that threaten to limit its ceiling.

“It’s about 90 miles to Boston; if you equip the train with state-of-the-art wi-fi, we can replicate what my colleagues in California have talked to me about for years,” Brennan explained. “You get employers to allow their staff to log on to work while they’re on the train, so their commute time is work time. And they don’t necessarily have to go to work every day the way the world works now.”

However, Boston is facing what he sees as a much bigger problem — potentially devastating consequences from climate change.

“I’ve read the reports from the fourth climate assessment, and that was pretty startling in terms of what the scientists are saying,” he noted. “They’re saying, ‘folks, we don’t have a lot of time; get on this now.’”

Thus, it’s with those warnings that Brennan is coming full circle, as he noted, with the focus on the environment. Specifically, the annual meeting will feature a keynote address from Kenneth Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists. The title of the program? “The Heat Is On: The Compelling Case for Confronting Climate Change and Realizing a Better Future.”

“I’m trying to leave here saying, in a backhanded way, ‘I came in here to this office, and the biggest challenge was the Connecticut River cleanup,’” Brennan said. “And I’m leaving with this — a warning about something that could kill people and create economic and other forms of devastation. We really do need to get on it.”

Living in the Present

As noted, climate-change work and helping to bring east-west rail service to fruition are assignments that will fall to the next director of the PVPC.

As for Brennan, the planning he’ll be focused on concerns his retirement, and he intends to carefully plan that as well.

He said there won’t be any consulting work for him — even though there would undoubtedly be many opportunities to do that. He plans to work for his daughter, do some traveling — he’s thinking about a trip to Spain and Portugal — and maybe learn how to sail. He has his pilot’s license but intends to keep his feet firmly on the ground.

He’ll also do something he hasn’t done in close to 50 years — work in one time zone. His goal is to find that equally intoxicating.

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

Entrepreneurship

Stout Measures

Ray Berry and business partner Ashley Clark

Ray Berry and business partner Ashley Clark at the company’s beer garden in Tower Square Park.

Ray Berry said he recently delivered what amounted to the commencement address for the most recent accelerator class at SPARK EforAll Holyoke.

When asked for a synopsis of that speech, Berry, founder and general manager of Springfield-based White Lion Brewing Co., said he talked to the fledgling business owners about the roller-coaster ride that is entrepreneurship — the ups and downs, successes, failures, and inevitable pivots.

“They’re traveling the same journey I traveled,” he said of his time working with Valley Venture Mentors and taking part in its accelerator program. “I talked about what worked and what didn’t work, what I would do if I had the opportunity to change something, and how, at the end the day, you win some along the way and you lose some, and that just makes your company stronger and the team around you stronger; you ride that wave of experience.”

He was speaking, of course, from experience — lots of wave riding, in fact, as he’s taken White Lion from a part-time pursuit, a concept he launched while working for the United Way of Pioneer Valley, to a full-time passion.

“At the end the day, you win some along the way and you lose some, and that just makes your company stronger and the team around you stronger; you ride that wave of experience.”

Indeed, he told BusinessWest that the casual observer might not be aware of those turns, dips, challenging times, and pivots, but there have been many of each on this ride, which started in 2011.

“A lot of people see what’s on the surface, but they rarely get a glimpse of what’s going on behind the scenes,” he explained. “The late nights, a lot of conversation, a lot of strategy … and during that process, there are some wins, and there are some losses. In our business, it’s about sales, and through that journey, you gain accounts, and you lose some accounts.”

For White Lion, the journey has come to an intriguing place — one where the venture is taking dramatic steps to expand its footprint geographically, while also increasing its presence in the region and playing an ever-larger role in the ongoing renaissance in Springfield.

These efforts take several forms, especially the ongoing plans to create a brewery and taproom in Tower Square, specifically at the long-vacant site of the former Spaghetti Freddy’s restaurant.

Berry and other partners recently appeared before the Armory Quadrangle Civic Assoc. to talk about their plans and what they might mean for the city and Tower Square, and in a few weeks they’ll do the same before the City Council, which must grant a special permit for the project to move forward.

Meanwhile, the company has moved forward with plans for a beer garden in Tower Square Park, the small park across Main Street from the office/retail complex. Actually, Berry likes to call this “an outdoor beer, music, food, and family venue,” a phrase that certainly captures what it’s all about.

Indeed, there’s White Lion on tap, but there’s also music — the Standing Bear Band and the Buddy McEarns Band were among the first acts booked — as well as rotating food trucks and other food providers, and activities for the entire family.

The venture is a logical extension of the White Lion Wednesdays pop-up beer gardens that drew a popular response, said Ashley Clark, a cash-management officer at Berkshire Bank, part of the White Lion team for several years, and now a managing partner. And it is an important step forward as the company works to build its brand while also being part of the efforts to bring more vibrancy to Springfield and its central business district.

“The White Lion Wednesdays were created so that everyone could leave work, stop, have a beer, hang out for a little bit, and be on their way,” said Clark. “Now, with the beer garden stationary in one place, the event is created not just for people leaving work, but also for families.”

White Lion’s new beer garden was designed to be enjoyed by the whole family.

White Lion’s new beer garden was designed to be enjoyed by the whole family.

Combined, these ambitious steps add up to a critical moment in the company’s brief history and represent an intriguing new chapter in the story.

“We’re at a pivotal stage of growth — we have strong programming, we have strong community engagement, we’re in the midst of building a brewery, and we’re clearly growing by way of volume and the amount of sales that are hitting the market,” Berry said, adding that, once the downtown brewery opens, the company will add another six to 12 employees, taking growth to another, much higher plane.

For this issue’s focus on entrepreneurship, BusinessWest talked with Berry and Clark about White Lion and the latest strategic initiatives in its business plan — but also about those basic tenets of business that Berry passed on in his recent address — especially the part about riding that wave of experience.

Lager Than Life

Returning to that address at the SPARK EforAll event, Berry said he spent a good deal of time talking about pivoting, how natural it is, and how important it is.

“I talked about how people in business often get stuck in their lane — we don’t want to venture out, for whatever reason,” he explained. “So I was very strong in touching on fear of failure, the risk quotient, the need to pivot, the need to listen … but how also, at the end of the day, you’re responsible for the decisions you make, and you have to live by them.

“To change course is a natural part of a growing business,” he went on. “And sometimes, those forces are financial, demand, supply, government regulation, and more, so you always have to be aware of all of those fronts.”

Listening, pivoting, and moving out of the lane pretty much sum up what is approaching a decade of business for White Lion, a brand that now boasts several different labels and has made the White Lion imagery part of the landscape in Springfield — and beyond.

But none of it has been easy, said Berry, who cited his plans — first envisioned several years ago — for building a brewery downtown as a solid example.

“It’s been a journey, and we’ve really come full circle,” he told BusinessWest. “From day one, we wanted the brewery to be part of the downtown fabric; we wanted to be in the heart of what was being called a renaissance, a resurgence in downtown Springfield.”

While many breweries are located in more rural areas, in old mills along rivers and streams, Berry said some have set up shop in the central business district and been part of downtown revitalization efforts.

He noted Brooklyn Brewery — a venture that has played an important role in the meteoric rise of that New York borough in recent years — as an example he’s in many ways trying to emulate.

“They took it upon themselves to invest in a highly dilapidated area in Brooklyn,” he said. “And since that investment, that entire area has been redeveloped, and it’s become a destination.

“White Lion is anchored in the heart of a metropolitan area,” he went on, adding that he was determined to build a brewery somewhere downtown.

But the search became more complex than he could have anticipated.

“I think that, in the beginning, I might have been a little naïve, feeling right from the onset that there would be a lot of opportunity, and space, for a brewery, and that was just not the case,” he said, adding that it soon became clear that the company was going to have to fit, or “mold,” itself into a suitable location downtown.

He looked at a number of options, including the old Rain nightclub building in Stearns Square, a property in Market Place that was eventually deemed more expensive to rehab than new construction, and 1350 Main St., also known as One Financial Plaza, before the focus shifted to Tower Square.

Actually, it was the new ownership of that landmark property that approached him.

White Lion partners

White Lion partners Ashley Clark and Ray Berry with brand ambassadors Scott Freniere, second from left, and Jeremy Eickelberg at the beer garden.

“They wanted us to be part of their plans to make Tower Square a destination of its own,” he said. “We were intrigued and felt very comfortable in those discussions.”

One of the new owners of Tower Square, Vid Mitta, has also become an equity partner in White Lion, said Berry, adding that the ownership team has expanded in recent months and now includes several managing partners, including Clark and brewer Mike Yates.

What’s on Tap?

It was this expanded team that appeared before the Armory Quadrangle Civic Assoc. last week, and is slated to make its case to the City Council later this month (they certainly believe they have a strong one).

If all goes as planned — and the brewing equipment has already been moved in — roughly 98% of production will take place in downtown Springfield, said Berry, adding that the remaining 2% — the bottles supplied to MGM Springfield (the rest are cans) — will be contracted out.

And while pressing on with the plans for the brewery, the owners are taking bold steps to build the brand and expand its footprint.

The beer garden is one of these steps, said Clark, adding that a permanent location for the beer garden and an expansion from Wednesdays to Wednesday through Saturday was a logical progression, and one that made this a family event.

“We’ve created an environment where, if you’re a mother and father with two young kids, everyone can come down on Saturday afternoon or Friday night and listen to some music and play games, and all have a good time,” she said, adding that the garden is open from 4 to 9 p.m.

Meanwhile, outside the city, the brand, which self-distributes, has now extended its reach across the state to Cape Cod and continues to look for new growth opportunities, said Berry, adding that it now has more than 750 accounts — and counting.

“We’ve been able to grow in Central and Eastern Mass. through hard work and forging relationships,” said Berry, who credits another fairly recent addition to the team, Blair Landry, a veteran of the craft-beer industry who had already forged a number of relationships on the distribution side within the industry with another label, and has been re-engaging with the White Lion brand. “Locally, it’s a much cleaner and clearer conversation because we’re local. Through the relationships that all of us have, we’ve been able to onboard a number of accounts that have enabled us to grow considerably over the past two years.”

He said the decision to self-distribute, while somewhat unusual, is a pivot— again, one of many — that has benefited the company in a number of ways.

“Early on, we relied too heavily on distribution partners,” he explained. “Those distribution partners can open doors, but they’re also managing another 100 to 150 brands, and that led us to make a pivot; we felt we could have a stronger level of engagement by doing it on our own, and we’ve been able to demonstrate that by opening up many more accounts and strengthening our outlook going forward.”

He acknowledged there is a tremendous amount of competition within the craft-beer industry, and new brands enter the market seemingly every week. But he said this competition provides both challenges and opportunities, with the latter coming to those willing to put in the work and make their brand stand out in a crowded marketplace.

“Craft is about local; craft is about conversation and fostering relationships,” he explained. “If you can engage and foster relationships and have good beer and be true to your word, you’re going to be able to open some doors, and we’ve done that.”

Hip Hops

Berry told BusinessWest that, if all goes smoothly — and what he told the accelerator graduates at commencement is that things certainly don’t always go smoothly — the first can of White Lion will be rolling off the line at the facility in Tower Square late this summer.

It will be an important moment for the company given the stage in its development and the location of the brewery — the heart of downtown Springfield.

But, in reality, it’s just the latest in a number of big moments, with many more likely to come as the team at White Lion continues to ride that wave of experience and continue its remarkable journey.

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

Features

Fabulous Five

With a whopping 480 past 40 Under Forty winners, it’s no easy task to choose the one who has accomplished the most since his or her selection. But, for the fifth straight year, our judges are giving it a try.

“So many 40 Under Forty honorees have refused to rest on their laurels,” said Kate Campiti, associate publisher of BusinessWest. “Once again, we want to honor those who continue to build upon their strong records of service in business, within the community, and as regional leaders. And, like previous years’ finalists, these five individuals have certainly done that.”

This year’s crop of finalists were chosen from a field of 60 nominations by three independent judges: Elizabeth Cardona, executive director of Multicultural Affairs and International Student Life at Bay Path University; Scott Foster, partner with Bulkley, Richardson and Gelinas; and Susan O’Connor, vice president and general counsel at Health New England.

Four years ago, BusinessWest inaugurated the award to recognize past 40 Under Forty honorees who had significantly built on their achievements since they were honored.

The first two winners were Delcie Bean, president of Paragus Strategic IT, and Dr. Jonathan Bayuk, president of Allergy and Immunology Associates of Western Mass. and chief of Allergy and Immunology at Baystate Medical Center. Both were originally named to the 40 Under Forty class of 2008. The judges chose two winners in 2017: Foster (class of 2011); and Nicole Griffin, owner of Griffin Staffing Network (class of 2014). Last year, Samalid Hogan, regional director of the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center (class of 2013), took home the honor.

The winner of the fifth annual Continued Excellence Award will be announced at this year’s 40 Under Forty Gala, slated for Thursday, June 20 at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House in Holyoke. The nominees are:

Michael Fenton

Michael Fenton

Michael Fenton

When Fenton was named to the 40 Under Forty in 2012, he was serving his second term on Springfield’s City Council and preparing to graduate from law school. He was also a trustee at his alma mater, Cathedral High School, where he dedicated countless hours to help rebuild the school following the 2011 tornado.

Since then, Fenton continues to serve on the City Council — including as its president from 2014 to 2016 — and is a shareholder at Shatz, Schwartz & Fentin, P.C., practicing in the areas of business planning, commercial real estate, commercial finance, and estate planning. He received an Excellence in the Law honor from Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly and was named a Super Lawyers Rising Star from 2014 through 2017.

Meanwhile, in the community, he is a founding member of Suit Up Springfield; a corporator with Mason Wright Foundation; a volunteer teacher at Junior Achievement; a member of the Hungry Hill, Atwater Park, and East Springfield civic associations; and an advisory board member at Roca Inc., which helps high-risk young people transform their lives.

Anthony Gleason II

Anthony Gleason II

Anthony Gleason II

Gleason was just 24 when he earned the 40 Under Forty designation in 2010. At the time, he was commercial sales manager at Roger Sitterly and Son, overseeing about 20 people, while also managing the operations of his own company, Gleason Landscaping, which at the time was bringing in $500,000 in annual revenues.

Today, he’s no longer affiliated with Sitterly, as his landscaping and snow-removal outfit now services all of New England, employing more than 100 people during the landscaping season and 300 during the winter. The firm grosses more than $10 million annually and is the 32nd-largest snow-removal company in the country. He also co-owns Gleason Johndrow Rentals, which has a portfolio of properties valued at $10 million. He’s also a co-owner of MAPAM-1, LLC and a director of Gleason Brothers Inc.

Meanwhile, Gleason is active with Spirit of Springfield, leading the largest cadre of volunteers for the annual World’s Largest Pancake Breakfast, serving on the organization’s golf committee, and sponsoring Bright Nights and the Bright Nights Ball. He has also donated landscaping services to a number of municipal and nonprofit projects.

Cinda Jones

Cinda Jones

Cinda Jones

Jones was a member of the inaugural 40 Under Forty class of 2007, chosen not just for her role as president of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce board of directors, but for her ninth-generation leadership of WD Cowls Inc., which managed timberland in 31 communities. At the time, she managed the company’s real-estate division and oversaw its sawmill and planing mill.

Since then, Jones has grown Cowls’ timberland base by more than 1,000 acres, closed the unprofitable sawmill, and built nothing short of a new town center, called North Square, in its place. She also hosts two major solar farms and is planning more, and sold the largest conservation restriction in state history; the 3,486-acre Paul C. Jones Working Forest raised $8.8 million and was named for her father. This year, she will add 2,000 more across to her conservation legacy.

Jones also stays active in the community with the Amherst Survival Center, donating her contractors’ time to mow and plow for this food bank and sponsoring community food-collection programs.

Eric Lesser

Lesser was chosen for the 40 Under Forty class of 2015 following his election to the state Senate in November 2014. Elected at just 29 years old, he represents nine communities in the First Hampden & Hampshire District. His legislative agenda focuses on the fight for greater economic opportunity and quality of life for Western Mass., with initiatives around high-speed rail, a high-tech economy, job training, and innovation in government. He also spearheads the Senate’s agenda on millennial issues, including technology policy, student debt, and greater youth engagement in public affairs.

Since 2015, in addition to securing several leadership positions in the Legislature, Lesser has been overwhelmingly re-elected senator twice, and has authored several pieces of successful legislation, including lowering the cost of Narcan for first responders, which has contributed to a decrease in the Commonwealth’s overall opioid deaths for two straight years.

Lesser has also supported economic programs that bridge the gap between Boston and Springfield and has secured hundreds of thousands of dollars for area organizations, including Valley Venture Mentors, the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts, Greentown Labs, and more.

Meghan Rothschild

Rothschild, then development and marketing manager for the Food Bank of Western Mass., was named to the 40 Under Forty class of 2011 mainly for her tireless work in melanoma awareness. A survivor herself, she began organizing local events to raise funds for the fight against this common killer, and launched a website, SurvivingSkin.org, and TV show, Skin Talk, that brought wider attention to her work.

Since then, Rothschild has stayed busy, increasing her profile with the Melanoma Foundation of New England and IMPACT Melanoma, and hosting a community talk show on 94.3 FM. Most notably, however, she has grown Chikmedia, a woman-focused marketing firm, into a true regional force. The firm recently marked its fifth anniversary and continues to expand its roster of clients, community workshops, branded events, and social-media impact.

Rothschild also teaches at Springfield College and is a board member at the Zoo at Forest Park, donating her time to its marketing and PR initiatives. She has also participated in events benefiting the Holyoke Children’s Museum, Junior Achievement, and a host of other groups.

Health Care

Leveling the Playing Field

Spiros Hatiras

Spiros Hatiras says the Massachusetts Value Alliance has created what he called a “virtual system” for the state’s independent hospitals.

Spiros Hatiras was asked about the Massachusetts Value Alliance and, more specifically, how it improves the buying power of its members, including the one he serves as president and CEO — Holyoke Medical Center (HMC).

He handled the assignment by referencing the hospital’s ongoing work to implement a new electronic medical record (EMR) system, and with an analogy that puts this concept in its proper perspective.

“Let’s say you went to Ford and asked them to build you a car, but told them that, instead of putting the power-switch buttons on the window side, you wanted them on the center console — the cost to customize the car the way you wanted it would be enormous,” he explained. “It’s the same with EMR; what hospitals used to do, and still do, is go to an EMR vendor and ask them to come in and build and install a system for that hospital.”

The Massachusetts Value Alliance, or MVA, as it’s called, is a coalition that is enabling its members to depart from that expensive scenario.

Indeed, several members of the alliance, which now includes 14 community hospitals, have come together to order an EMR system that will be customized for a group — with minor tweaks for each specific facility — and not one hospital. The savings will be substantial — in fact, Hatiras pegs the cost at roughly $5 million for HMC, close to half of what the cost might have been.

“Instead of us individually customizing, we get three hospitals to come together and say, ‘what are the features that make sense for all of us, and let’s build it one time and implement it in three locations.’”

“Our patients are not that different; in fact, they’re not different at all from the other hospitals, and the processes that we use are very similar — the order set, the treatment protocols, are all very similar,” he told BusinessWest. “So, instead of us individually customizing, we get three hospitals to come together and say, ‘what are the features that make sense for all of us, and let’s build it one time and implement it in three locations.’”

This is the very essence of the MVA, which was formed three years ago by founding members Emerson Hospital in Concord, Sturdy Memorial Hospital in Attleboro, and South Shore Health in South Weymouth. It has added new members steadily since then, and the alliance now also includes HMC, Berkshire Medical System, Harington Healthcare System, Heywood Healthcare, Lawrence General Hospital, Signature Healthcare, and Southcoast Health.

These are smaller, independent hospitals that enjoy the benefits of being independent and the ability that gives them to be focused on the needs of their respective communities, said Dr. Gene Green, president of the MVA board of trustees and president and CEO of South Shore Health. But they don’t enjoy the buying power and other cost-saving benefits of being in a larger healthcare system.

Dr. Gene Green

Dr. Gene Green says the MVA gives its members a very potent commodity in these challenging times — buying power.

The MVA, operating under the slogan “Health Care Is Better When We Work Together,” was created to level the playing field in at least some ways.

“There’s always greater bargaining power with numbers,” Green explained, adding that the MVA has helped its members reduce the cost of everything from laboratory services for their patients to health insurance for their employees. “Although a lot of people do group purchasing on common things, there are other things, especially within hospitals and healthcare systems, that are specialized, and so the question was, ‘how do we help each other bring our numbers together and help each have more bargaining power with third-party vendors?’”

The MVA was the answer to the question. It was in many ways inspired by a similar system in Connecticut called the Value Care Alliance (VCA), said Green, and today, the two alliances are collaborating to create additional economies of scale.

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the Massachusetts Value Alliance and at how it is benefiting its members across the state during what remains a very challenging time for all hospitals, but especially the smaller, independent institutions.

Group Rates

Hatiras told BusinessWest that he was approached by the president of Sturdy Memorial not long after the MVA was created and encouraged to become part of the new group.

As he recalls the conversations, it wasn’t a very hard sell.

That’s because the value — yes, you’ll be reading that word a lot during this discussion — was readily apparent. And value is something these hospitals certainly need.

“We were quick to join — we’ve been a member almost from the beginning,” said Hatiras. “This is something we ought to be doing because, as independent hospitals, our resources are much more limited.

“This was a way to bring these hospitals together and join forces in terms of acquiring resources without merging assets or governance,” he went on, recounting two of the obvious downsides to becoming part of a large healthcare system. “We’re creating an almost virtual system.”

And within this virtual system, there exists that all-important commodity of businesses of all kinds, but especially hospitals that purchase a seemingly endless array of products and services — buying power. The alliance uses it with everything from laboratory services — there’s a contract with Quest Diagnostics — to elevator services, Green explained.

“The question was, ‘how do we help each other bring our numbers together and help each have more bargaining power with third-party vendors?’”

“It was a way for us to help each other find cost reductions and efficiencies to help drive down the cost of care, hopefully — unfortunately, revenues are declining at the same time we’re doing the cost cutting — and serve our communities.”

Hatiras agreed.

“We don’t have the benefits of a, quote-unquote, system,” he said, referring to the independent hospitals in the MVA. “But we replicated a lot of the those benefits with this alliance.

“We don’t have a mothership that can come to the rescue if one of its members isn’t doing so well — we don’t have that backup,” he went on. “But aside from that, all the other benefits of a system are there — the sharing of information, the sharing of best practices, collaboration, shared negotiation on resources, and more.”

And the alliance enables its members to enjoy greater buying power while also remaining independent, meaning decisions are made locally, a quality these hospitals covet.

“As independents, we’re very focused on our communities, and we’re very proud of that,” said Green. “That’s one of the reasons we came together — to see how we could help one another through cost-effective measures to be able to carry on our missions. We all have the same mission and focus on patient care, patient experience, and high quality.

“All of us are good at partnering with people in our own communities,” he went on, “which made us naturals to be able to partner with one another.”

Green said the group will collectively decide where opportunities to collaborate may exist, and then individual members have the opportunity to opt in or not, an operating mindset that provides members with a good deal of flexibility.

“We didn’t want to force anyone into doing something,” he explained. “If you had a contract that was good for five years, when that expires — and we have one — you can opt in, or you can stay with your own, depending on the relationship.

Which brings us back to that example of EMR that Hatiras mentioned. It’s a perfect example of just how and why the alliance works.

This is a project that involves HMC, Harrington Healthcare System, and Heywood Healthcare, all working with EMR-system designer Meditech.

“This allows to take advantage of tremendous economies of scale because we work on a common build and share common resources, which allows to do this build at a significantly lower cost than if we did it alone,” said Hatiras, adding that HMC will go first, with the other hospitals to follow, with an August 2020 ‘go live’ date for the system.

Bottom Line

Green told BusinessWest that, as reimbursement rates for care decrease, or hold steady, and as the price of technology and everything else hospitals buy continues to increase — the savings generated by the MVA are even more important.

“They enable us to stay afloat,” he said in a voice that clearly conveyed just how challenging these times are for all hospitals, but especially those who have chosen to remain independent.

That choice has left them without a safety net, if you will, but in the MVA, they have something that replicates a system in so many ways.

As that chosen slogan suggests, healthcare is better when people work together.

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