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A Turnaround Story

Nick Morin, founder of Iron Duke Brewing

Nick Morin, founder of Iron Duke Brewing, in the old stockhouse at Ludlow Mills that will remain home to his venture.

Nick Morin says he and his team are looking forward to the day when they can devote all their time and energy to just brewing beer and working on the business plan.

They’re getting closer all the time.

Indeed, after several years of court battles involving their lease at the Ludlow Mills complex and another legal fight Morin is trying to avoid involving Duke University and the name currently over the brewery — Iron Duke — there appears to be light at the end of the tunnel.

“We’re looking forward to taking all that money we were spending on lawyers and putting it back into the business and creating an experience here that’s unlike anything else in Western Mass.”

And it is certainly a welcome sight.

“We’re looking forward to being less legal-focused and doing all the fun things for our business here and out in the world that we’ve been wanting to do for years,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re looking forward to taking all that money we were spending on lawyers and putting it back into the business and creating an experience here that’s unlike anything else in Western Mass.”

It’s been more than eight years since Morin, a mechanical engineer by trade who made brewing beer his hobby and then decided to make it his vocation, started walking along the banks of the Chicopee River with his wife after relocating to Ludlow and remarking how the mostly vacant Ludlow Mills would be the ideal place to start and then grow his business.

The Iron Duke name

The Iron Duke name will have to change soon in an effort to avoid another legal battle — this one with Duke University — but the bootprint, and the mailing address, won’t.

He’s now there, expansion plans are on the table and on his computer, and the brewery is positioned to be a permanent, and important, part of the landscape. But getting to this point didn’t exactly go according to plan.

Not even close.

Instead, as mentioned, what seemed like a good story on every level turned dark in many ways as Iron Duke and landlord Westmass Area Development Corp. first had a disagreement over terms in the lease, and then fought for 18 months in court over just what the language in the contract meant.

When a judge eventually ruled that Iron Duke could finish out its lease, which expired earlier this month, what that did was eventually buy everyone some time and allow them to write what two years ago would have seemed like a very unlikely story.

Long story shorter, the two sides came to an agreement whereby Iron Duke would not only stay, but be a vital cog in the ongoing efforts by those at Westmass to make the mills not simply a home for small businesses — and residents as well — but a destination of sorts.

How did this stunning turnaround happen? Morin sums it up this way.

“We found that, although the lawyers served their purpose, just having a person-to-person conversation and understanding where each party was coming from was huge; we found some common ground,” he explained. “It was a kind of a Hail Mary, and it was a tough negotiation because there was a lot of bad blood between the two organizations at that point. But we actually had more in common with our visions than we thought.”

Jeff Daley, who was named executive director of Westmass roughly a year ago and picked up these negotiations from Bryan Nicholas, who served as interim director after the sudden passing of Eric Nelson in the spring of 2019, agreed.

“There were some bitter feelings, but Nick and I quickly agreed to operate without rear-view mirrors,” Daley explained. “We put the seatbelts on, moved forward rapidly to get them in there long term, and have an understanding that we’re going to work together to get the best for the tenant and the landlord.”

As he talked with BusinessWest, Morin grabbed his laptop and clicked his way to an architect’s images of a two-story, permanent structure that will reside where a tented beer garden, erected last summer, now sits. He expects work to start soon and be completed by next spring or summer.

As for Duke University, Morin is in the final stages of changing the company’s name to avoid another expensive court fight, this one with a university with very deep pockets and the willingness to protect its brand — that word ‘Duke’ — from any and all infringement (more on that later).

About the only thing standing in the way of Iron Duke now is COVID-19. And while it poses a series of challenges and has reduced draft sales of the company’s products by roughly 70% because bars and restaurants are not open or have cut hours way back, Morin believes the company can ride out that storm as well.

For this issue, BusinessWest takes a look back at what has been a rough ride for Iron Duke — and ahead to what promises to be, as they say in this business, a smoother pour.

 

Ale’s Well That’s Ends Well

As he talked with BusinessWest at the bar in Iron Duke’s taproom on a quiet Wednesday, Morin, a safe six feet away, referenced the one place at that end, officially outlined with blue tape, at which one could sit because of social-distancing measures forced by COVID-19.

“That space over there is too close to those tables,” he said, gesturing with his hand to another portion of the bar. “And this space here is too close to people sitting over there; it’s a no-fly zone. This is only place you can sit at. It can be a little lonely, I guess, but people still like it.”

The fact that this conversation was taking place where it was — and that there were lines of blue tape all over the bar — could be considered remarkable. And maybe 18 months ago, it would have been, well, pretty much unthinkable.

Back then, it seemed as if what started as a good marriage was going to end up in a messy, very public divorce, with Iron Duke brewing beer in Wilbraham, and Westmass looking to fill a vacancy and move on from what had become a public-relations problem.

And then … things changed.

As we retell the story of how we got here, and where we go from here, we need to go back a little further, to those walks Morin had with his wife along the river.

“My wife and I started a family about a half-mile from here,” he noted. “We used to walk our dog back here and talk about — as most in Ludlow did at the time — how it was a shame that this whole property was in the shape it was. When we put together our business plan, it just made sense to grow it here, in the town where we lived and close to our house.”

Iron Duke Brewing has added a food truck

Iron Duke Brewing has added a food truck and tented beer garden at its Ludlow location, and soon will commence work on a permanent, two-tiered beer garden that will overlook the Chicopee River.

He initiated talks with the previous owner of the sprawling complex in late 2012, and discussions accelerated after Westmass acquired the property, because with that purchase came ambitious talk of redeveloping the mills into a multi-purpose destination that would include residential, business, healthcare, and other uses.

“We wanted to be part of it because we had big plans for our small business,” said Morin, adding that what would eventually become a highly scrutinized and much-debated seven-year lease agreement was inked in late 2013.

What followed was a year and a half of construction in one of the many so-called stockhouses on the property, the century-old, high-ceilinged, 6,000-square-foot facilities in which raw materials — jute plants — were hung and dried for production in the mill complex.

The brewery officially opened on Thanksgiving Eve in 2014.

“We hit the ground running — that first year is a bit of a blur,” he recalled, noting that he quit his job that month as a mechanical engineer and made brewing his vocation — and his passion. The company steadily grew, drawing customers to its taproom in the mill and also putting its various products in cans and bottles, which were available at bars, restaurants, and some package stores.

Things were going pretty much according to the script laid out in the business plan until 2015, when the company started hitting some speed bumps, as Morin called them.

They came in for the form of differences of opinion regarding just what the lease allowed at the premises.

“We found ourselves being backed into a corner regarding our business and a disagreement over what we could do here and what we were doing here at our Ludlow location,” said Morin. “That’s how lawyers got involved — the interpretation of the lease itself.”

Elaborating, he said it all came down to one paragraph and its two sentences regarding the use of the premises and consumption of beer on and off the property. Cutting to the chase, he said Westmass held the view that such consumption would be limited — or at least more limited than what Iron Duke had in mind and needed for its venture to succeed.

“It was a kind of a Hail Mary, and it was a tough negotiation because there was a lot of bad blood between the two organizations at that point. But we actually had more in common with our visions than we thought.”

“That escalated from a conversation to litigation once the lawyers got involved,” he went on, adding that the court fight lasted from January 2016 to the summer of 2017. Westmass wanted Iron Duke evicted from the property, a fate that would have effectively scuttled the business, Morin said.

“We had already leveraged everything we had to open here in Ludlow the first time around,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re self-financed; myself and my family, we put everything we had into this. To build a brewery once was everything we had — to build it twice was something we couldn’t afford.

“We were only left with closing or fighting this thing out to save our business, so that’s what we did — we fought for a good chunk of time,” he went on, adding that the protracted and very expensive legal fight pushed Iron Duke to the very brink financially, and it only survived because of the strong and constant support from its customers.

 

Lager Than Life

That fight ended with a judge ruling that Iron Duke could essentially ride out its lease operating as it was, Morin recalled, adding that, not long after that decision, he bought property in Wilbraham with the intention of moving the company there when the lease expired — right around now, actually.

Instead, the company is staying put in Ludlow. After the passing of Nelson in the spring of 2019, discussions ensued with his immediate successor, Nicholas, who was with Westmass when Iron Duke originally signed its lease in 2013 and played a role in those negotiations. And those talks continued with Daley.

They weren’t easy negotiations, Morin said, noting that there was still considerable baggage to contend with. But, as noted above, both sides concluded they had more to gain by coming together on another lease than they did by parting ways and letting the next chapters of this story develop in Wilbraham.

“We came to common ground realizing that we’re better off with each other than we are apart,” Daley said. “It’s a great relationship now, and I think it’s going to be an even better relationship going forward; I’m excited for their future, and I’m glad they stayed at the Ludlow Mills.”

Morin agreed. From the beginning, he noted, the company wanted to be an integral part of the growth and development of the Ludlow Mills complex, and this mission, if it can be called that, had been somehow lost in the midst of the protracted legal battle.

“We always had envisioned ourselves as a showcase of what they could do with the old property here, and a lot of that, through the litigation and the filtering of what we do through other parties, just got lost,” he explained. “And once we had the opportunity to show them the plans that we had — we were going to spend millions of dollars in Wilbraham to build a showcase facility — both sides started asking, ‘why not just stay where we are?’”

So now, the company is just about at the point where it always wanted to be — focused entirely on business and its expansion plans.

“We always had envisioned ourselves as a showcase of what they could do with the old property here, and a lot of that, through the litigation and the filtering of what we do through other parties, just got lost.”

There is still the matter of Duke University and its demands that the brewery change its name. Morin has decided that, even though he has a good amount invested in ‘Iron Duke’ — literally and figuratively — this is not a fight he’s willing to wage at this time.

“It’s a common thing among these universities that they protect their mark,” he said with some resignation in his voice. “So there’s not a lot of negotiation on that front.”

So instead, he will rebrand. He’s working with a firm to come up with new name, and expects to announce it within the next several weeks. While offering no other hints, he did say the word ‘Duke’ could not be part of the equation, but he expects to be able to work the company’s very recognizable bootprint logo into what comes next.

Meanwhile, since the start of this year, the company has essentially doubled its space within its stockhouse by taking down a wall and expanding into square footage that had been unused since the mid-’90s — something it has long desired to do but couldn’t because of the litigation.

Ongoing changes at the site

Ongoing changes at the site will essentially transform it from a tasting room to more of a full-service brewpub and restaurant.

It also erected the tented beer garden and added a food truck, said Morin, noting that construction of the permanent, two-tiered beer garden, which will overlook the river, is set to commence this coming winter.

“There will be a nice concrete patio, along with the food truck we purchased in June,” he noted. “All this will enable us to essentially transform from just a tasting room to more of a full-service brewpub and restaurant.”

COVID-19 has certainly thrown the brewery some curve balls — the business was closed to on-premise business during the shutdown last March and relied entirely on distribution, delivery, and curbside purchases of its canned products until July — but Morin believes that, after all the hard fights this company has been through, it can handle a pandemic as well.

“We’ve found that, because we’ve been through so much in the past six years, we’re able to handle these larger problems pretty effectively,” he said. “We’ve got a nice, hard callus around us, and we’re pretty flexible about our business.”

 

What’s on Tap?

At the height of the legal battle that ensued between Iron Duke and Westmass, the brewer put out a product called Eviction Notice IPA (India Pale Ale).

It became an immediate hit and one of its best sellers — in part because it was a quality ale with good flavor, but also because drinking it became a way to show support for the company in its quest to stay where it always wanted to be.

“We bring it back every now and then because it is a crowd favorite, but it’s not as bitter of a beer as it once was,” he explained. “It’s a fun beer to tell our story, but we always try to finish off the story on a positive note, rather than a negative one.”

Only 18 months ago, few would have thought this story could possibly sound a positive note, but things changed quickly and profoundly — and both sides seem poised to benefit from this collective change of heart.

 

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

COVID-19 Features

Let There Be Light

Judy Matt says the Spirit of Springfield (SOS) exists for one reason — to entertain residents across the region and create some memories.

It hasn’t been able to do any of that to this point in 2020, obviously, and Matt, the long-time executive director of the nonprofit agency, has been frustrated and disappointed by this reality. Annual events such as the pancake breakfast (long heralded as the world’s largest), the Fourth of July fireworks, and the Big Balloon Parade have been wiped off the calendar due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and there remains uncertainty about whether any of those can be staged in 2021.

Meanwhile, at the SOS, with little revenue coming in other than a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan and the proceeds from the annual golf tournament, the staff — and that includes Matt — have been on unemployment for at least some of this year, although she has continued to come to the office every day.

But there will be one bright spot as a very trying year — for both the region and the SOS — comes to a close, as the necessary approvals (and many of them were required) have been received to stage Bright Nights in Forest Park from Nov. 25 to Jan. 6.

Things won’t be exactly the same — there will be new restrictions on everything from the hours of operation (the front gate will have to be shut at 8:45 p.m.) to how tickets are paid for (no cash, for example) — and the the gift shop in the park will be closed, although a facility will open downtown in the Springfield Visitors Center. And no one will be allowed to get out of their cars under any circumstances.

“Everyone has indicated to us that they think it’s going to be the best one we’ve had.”

But just being able to have Bright Nights will provide a huge boost for the region and the Spirit of Springfield, Matt said. “The region needs Bright Nights, now more than ever. It’s been a long, trying year for everyone.”

Bright Nights will go on in 2020

There will be some new restrictions on hours, method of payment, and other matters, Judy Matt says, but Bright Nights will go on in 2020, a bright spot in an otherwise dark year.

But while the region needs Bright Nights, so too does the Spirit of Springfield, which relies on the income from this signature event to help carry out its mission and present those other annual gatherings listed earlier.

So Matt and others will be keeping their fingers crossed on the weather — past history has shown that a few snowstorms can wreak havoc on the bottom line — while trying to make the most of the opportunity it has been given to stage Bright Nights in the middle of a pandemic.

And early indications are that, despite some restrictions on the hours and other factors, this could be one of the best seasons in the 26-year history of the Bright Nights, given what kind of year it’s been and the need for some kind of relief valve, especially as the holiday season approaches.

“Everyone has indicated to us that they think it’s going to be the best one we’ve had,” she told BusinessWest, adding that, while it might well achieve that status, this year’s Bright Nights will be challenged by the restrictions imposed upon it by city and state officials, especially the shortened hours of operation.

“We are theoretically losing 39 hours during which we could have been selling tickets — in the past, we had a lot of nights where we were open ’til 11,” she said, adding that, with vehicles going through at the rate of 300 per hour, those lost hours will hurt.

The city has allowed Bright Nights to stay open an additional three days, she went on, adding that, while this will help, the volume of traffic through the displays decreases markedly after Jan. 1.

“I can keep talking about what we can’t do and what we won’t have,” she said. “But we’re just very grateful to be able to do this; it’s important that this region has Bright Nights this year.”

As for what comes after Bright Nights … Matt said there are certainly question marks about whether the SOS will be able to get back into the entertainment business full-time next year, but she and her staff have to plan as if that is going to be the case.

But if the current conditions continue well into next year, the agency will be facing some hard questions. In addition to the events being wiped off the slate, COVID-19 also prohibited the agency from staging its annual Bright Nights Ball, which traditionally nets the SOS $50,000 to $60,000 for operating expenses.

Without that revenue, the agency needs a very solid year for Bright Nights and probably other forms of help, such as that small PPP loan it received last spring, which enabled a few of the staff members to remain on the payroll.

“We’re trying to figure it all out,” she told BusinessWest. “We’re hoping we have a good year for Bright Nights; if we have a good Bright Nights, that will take us into March or April. After that … we’ll have to see what happens.”

While the long-term picture is clouded by question marks, the immediate future is bright — or at least brighter — now that the agency has been given the green light to continue what has become a holiday tradition, not just for those in this region, but for those who travel to it to enjoy what has been recognized among the top holiday lighting displays in the country.

The pandemic has turned out the lights on a great many institutions and activities this year, but not these lights.

It won’t be exactly the same — nothing is in the middle of a pandemic — but this impressive show will go on.

 

—George O’Brien

Coronavirus Features Special Coverage

Tightening the Safety Net

 

Andrew Morehouse stands in the warehouse at the Food Bank’s complex in Hatfield.

Andrew Morehouse stands in the warehouse at the Food Bank’s complex in Hatfield.

As Andrew Morehouse conducted his tour of the facilities at the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, the sights and sounds helped tell the story that is emerging at this agency — and within this region — at a critical time.

The first thing to notice was the copious amounts of food of all kinds — from sweet potatoes in huge bins to hundreds of cases of canned tuna — now stored at the complex in Hatfield and in other locations as well, destined for local meal sites and food pantries. Indeed, the Food Bank is “over capacity,” as Morehouse, its executive director, put it, because of the soaring numbers of people who are now facing food insecurity in the wake of the pandemic, and the way government agencies, businesses, and individuals have responded to those numbers.

This capacity issue was clearly in evidence, with pallets of food stacked not only on the shelves and the floor space of the warehouse, but in the hallways leading to it as well.

“The warehouse is jam-packed; we’re storing food off site, and we’re moving it faster,” he explained. “We’ve brought on additional staff, we’ve purchased another van, we’re about to purchase another truck so we can move food as quickly as possible. The pandemic has put us over the top in a big way, so we’re looking at options for expansion.”

As for the sounds … well, the Food Bank was mostly quiet at the hour of this visit — late morning, approaching noon — but the few workers on the floor were talking about what they witnessed in the parking lot of Central High School in Springfield, where a drive-thru food-distribution site, supported in part by the Food Bank, has been established. The staffers were talking about long lines of vehicles, and how this has become a constant, or a new norm, with this initiative.

“The warehouse is jam-packed; we’re storing food off site, and we’re moving it faster. We’ve brought on additional staff, we’ve purchased another van, we’re about to purchase another truck so we can move food as quickly as possible. The pandemic has put us over the top in a big way, so we’re looking at options for expansion.”

Meanwhile, fewer people are working at the Hatfield facility, with many more working remotely because of the pandemic, and a host of safety protocols in place to keep those who do come in — and the public in general — safe.

In many ways, the Food Bank — and the hundreds of sites it serves — has become one of the enduring symbols of this pandemic locally. Indeed, just as the bread lines of the mid-1930s became an indelible image that came to represent the Great Depression, the long lines of motorists picking up food — it can no longer be distributed indoors — have come to symbolize this pandemic.

And as fall continues and winter approaches, need is only expected to grow, said Morehouse, who cited projections from Feeding America showing that, by year’s end, an estimated one in six residents in Western Mass. (perhaps 127,000 people) will be experiencing food insecurity, as opposed to one in 10 before the pandemic began, and one in four children. That would be a 40% increase in the number of people overall, and a more than 60% increase in the number of children.

In many ways, such numbers help tell this story. During the fiscal year that just ended Sept. 30, the Food Bank distributed 14.8 million pounds, or the equivalent of 12 million meals — a 23% increase over the previous year, compared to an average 6% increase year over year. Meanwhile, over the past seven months, the increase has been roughly 30% (from 7.3 million pounds to 9.5 million), much higher than the annual increase, obviously, because of the direct impact of the pandemic, and the highest seven-month spike in the agency’s 38-year history.

Behind the numbers, though, is the inspiring story of how the region and its business community have responded to the crisis, said Morehouse, adding that this response was quick and profound, and it is ongoing.

Sweet potatoes from local farms

Sweet potatoes from local farms are among the many items jamming the shelves and floor space at the Food Bank, which is over capacity due to spiking need.

The biggest question concerns what comes next, and it’s one that’s hard to answer, he noted, adding that many factors will go into determining where these numbers go in the weeks and months to come.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Morehouse about the mounting problem of food insecurity in the wake of the pandemic and how his agency has responded. Overall, he said this response “is how the safety net is supposed to work.”

Elaborating, he noted that the Food Bank has been able to meet soaring need because federal and state agencies have stepped up and put more food into the system, but also because the region has stepped up as well.

 

Food for Thought

As he talked about what has transpired since March, when the pandemic arrived in Western Mass., Morehouse said it’s been a period of adjustment — for area residents, for his agency, and even for area farms.

For many, the pandemic left them unemployed or in a position where they were earning less — although generous unemployment benefits certainly helped large numbers of people impacted by the downturn in the economy. But those unemployment benefits also had the unintended consequence of leaving individuals ineligible for SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) benefits, creating a different kind of problem.

For the Food Bank, the first several weeks of the pandemic were chaotic, he said, as the agency mounted a response to what was happening — but had to do so in the middle of a health crisis.

“There was a lot of uncertainty about how to protect oneself from COVID-19, and suddenly, so many people lost their jobs or were furloughed,” he explained. “There was an outpouring of concern, of wanting to help, from people who don’t know that an emergency food network exists. So we were fielding calls from community groups from all across Western Massachusetts, saying, ‘we want to bring food to the Food Bank,’ or ‘how can we support you?’

“And it took a while for us to connect people to the pantries and meal sites in their communities as a way to support households that were at risk of hunger, because that’s who we work with,” he went on. “We don’t receive individuals who are in need of food assistance at our warehouse, and we don’t deliver food to households; we work through the existing network of about 165 independent pantries and meal sites, plus our own distribution programs to 51 senior centers every month, and on our mobile food bank, which has 26 distribution sites across all four counties on a biweekly or monthly basis.”

When asked how the Food Bank responded to that 30% spike over the past seven months, Morehouse replied with a quick “it wasn’t easy,” before elaborating.

Pallets of food destined for area meal sites and pantries

Pallets of food destined for area meal sites and pantries spills out into the hallways at the Food Bank, clear evidence of soaring need in the region.

“It took us a while to catch up, I’ll be honest,” he told BusinessWest, noting that there were a number of challenges to overcome, starting with disruption to what he called the “supply chain,” meaning donations of food to the agency from individuals and also, and especially, area supermarkets.

“There was a run on those supermarkets, so it was a significant hit,” he recalled, adding that roughly half the food distributed by the agency comes from the private food industry in the form of dry goods, produce, and close to 1 million pounds of meats frozen on the sell-by date.

Beyond this disruption to the supply chain, the Food Bank was impacted by shortages of staff and a loss of many of its distribution sites; several of them closed, including all brown-bag sites for elders and many mobile locations.

Slowly, over time, those sites reopened, while also changing how food was distributed, he noted, adding that as, the spring progressed, the Food Bank adapted to what became a new normal, both in terms of how it operated and with the numbers of people now facing food insecurity.

Indeed, over the period from March to August, the latest information available, the average number of individuals served each month grew to 107,000, Morehouse said, adding that 20,000 of those, or 19%, are people who have never come to a pantry or meal site.

And that percentage of new visitors was much higher, perhaps 40%, in the early weeks of the pandemic, when the layoffs and furloughs started climbing, and before those generous unemployment benefits kicked in. The numbers then leveled off for a time, but they started climbing again, he went on, adding that, when the new six-month numbers come out, the total people being served should far surpass that 107,000 figure.

 

Numbers to Chew On

Behind the numbers is the story of how this rising demand has been met with the help of a number of contributing sources — that safety net Morehouse described earlier.

These include the federal government, state agencies, area businesses, and philanthropic efforts like Jeff Bezos’ $100 million gift to Feeding America’s COVID-19 Response Fund.

“The federal government has stepped up — we’ve received considerably more federal food,” he explained, referring specifically to CARES Act appropriations that enable such agencies to buy more food. “And there was an outpouring of support from individuals, businesses, and regional and state foundations, as well as from Feeding America, the national network of food banks.”

The agency has also received more than $400,000, with another $123,000 coming, from the Massachusetts COVID Relief Fund, he went on, adding that a number of individual businesses, including Big Y and the Antonocci Family Foundation, have made sizable donations as well.

Part of the federal government’s response has come in the form of Farmers to Families Food Boxes, a new program through which the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service is partnering with national, regional, and local distributors, whose workforces have been significantly impacted by the closure of restaurants, hotels, and other food-service businesses, to purchase up to $4.5 billion in fresh produce, dairy, and meat products from American producers of all sizes.

Mapleline Farm in Hadley is one of several local farms in the region that have adjusted with the pandemic, now supplying the Food Bank with milk in family-sized packaging.

This program supplies boxes of fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy products, and meat products, which distributors package into family-sized boxes, then transport them to food banks, community and faith-based organizations, and other nonprofits serving Americans in need.

The program has benefited several area farms, said Morehouse, noting that those supplying the boxes are purchasing products from many area farmers who were severely impacted by their inability to sell to restaurants, colleges, and universities closed by the pandemic.

“It took a while for some of these farms to adapt, but many of them have,” he said, citing, as one example, Mapleline Farm in Hadley, a dairy farm whose name and logo were on countless boxes of quart containers of milk in the Food Bank’s warehouse.

As for the future, Morehouse said the contributions that have poured in from individuals and businesses have left the organization in a solid position financially for this current fiscal year, one in which overall need is expected to continue growing, while the economy is projected to continue struggling.

Meanwhile, question marks remain about the ongoing level of support from state and federal governments, as well as from individual contributors, he said, citing the potential for donor fatigue as the pandemic wears on.

“The state is operating on a month-to-month budget, so we’re not even sure if we’re going to be level-funded for a program that we’ve come to rely on for 30% of our food since 1992,” he told BusinessWest. “And the federal government has not passed another stimulus package, so we’re anticipating a decline in federal support.

“We have a jigsaw puzzle of public and private emergency food resources that rely of federal and state funding and private charitable support,” he went on. “We rely on all those sources of support to get the food we need and the resources we need to keep operations afloat.”

One of the important pieces of that puzzle is Monte’s March, the fundraising walk from Springfield to Greenfield that was launched by radio personality Monte Belmonte to benefit the Food Bank. Belmonte has seen the ranks of people joining him on his late-November trek grow steadily over the years, as well as the amount raised for the agency, but that first trend won’t continue this year, as the pandemic is forcing organizers to encourage individuals to support the march remotely — although the top-performing teams when it comes to generating donations will be able to march.

But, given the urgent need for support, they are hoping the second trend will continue. The goal for this year has been raised from the $333,000 mark set last year — each dollar donated buys three meals, so the goal was to fund 1 million meals — to $365,000, or $1,000 a day, or 4,000 meals a day (one dollar now buys four meals, due to greater efficiency).

 

Hard to Digest

Looking at the projections from Feeding America for the next several months, the ones predicting that one in six area residents will be food-insecure, Morehouse had his doubts initially about whether things would really get that bad here.

But now, he’s thinking they may be realistic — painfully realistic, to be more precise — especially when one ponders the unanswerable questions concerning when the pandemic will subside and to what degree the federal government will keep on printing money.

One thing Morehouse does know is that the Food Bank will continue to pivot and respond proactively to the ongoing crisis — right down to finding more warehouse space.

 

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

Features Special Coverage

A ‘Family Business’

Tom Hebert says his novels are a way of paying back the Marine Corps for all it has given him.

Tom Hebert says his novels are a way of paying back the Marine Corps for all it has given him.

The story sounds like some of the fiction that Tom Hebert now devotes much of his non-working time to writing.

But it’s not.

Flashing back to when he was in high school, Hebert said he and his father, William, were having a talk about what he might do with his life, career-wise. The elder Hebert had just used his last match to light a cigarette, and after doing so, he noticed the ad on the back of the matchbook: ‘Become a CPA.’

“He handed me the matchbook cover, and I said, ‘OK, I’ll look into it,’ said Hebert, who would earn a degree in accounting at American International College. Eventually, he would join what was then one of the ‘Big 8’ accounting firms, Lybrand, Ross Bros. & Montgomery, and subsequently work in a number of other settings in Connecticut and Massachusetts, including Cambridge Credit Counseling, which he currently serves as chief financial officer.

“Discipline and leadership … that’s what I took away from the Marines. It shows in the respect I have for people, including the people who work for me — treating them well, treating them with respect.”

But while the saga of how he wound up in financial services is intriguing and makes for good reading, Herbert’s story is largely about what else he’s done with his life, starting with his time in the Marine Corps, which included a stint in Vietnam in 1970, as that conflict was beginning to wind down in many ways (much more on that later).

More recently, a second career has emerged: writing fiction, specifically about Marines. His first book, The Remains of the Corps, Volume I: Ivy & the Crossing, which he authored under the pseudonym Will Remain (with Remain being an anagram of Marine), came out early this year.

Covering the period from 1899 to 1917, several months before the U.S. entered World War I, it tells the story of Kenneth Remain (Will’s grandfather, who was born in Worcester and educated at Harvard), and the love triangle he enters along with Harvard classmate Lawrence Blakeslee and the “beautiful KatyKay Mulcahy.” The reader is also introduced to the 57 enlisted men of the fictional Fourth Platoon of the 87th Company of the true-to-life Third Battalion of the Sixth Marine Regiment.

“These gentlemen would have used a very large vocabulary, and I had to develop my vocabulary tremendously to have it fit for these two gentlemen .”

“When Kenneth takes KatyKay away from Lawrence, it creates problems between the two families that last for decades,” Hebert said, describing the plotline for the first book and those that will follow. “There’s this interaction between the two families that will last right up ’til the Vietnam War.”

The book is selling fairly well, but Hebert admits to not yet reaching the ‘break-even’ point that all self-publishers aspire to. Originally in hardcover, there’s now a paperback version of Remains of the Corps, as well as an e-book, and an audiobook will soon follow.

A second book is in progress, one that will take the story into the battlefields of France in World War I, with subsequent volumes covering the 1920s and ’30s. Eventually, his fictional characters will fight in World War II, which his father did, having taken part in the epic battle on Iwo Jima.

His father’s service — and his own — helped inspire the books, said Hebert, who told BusinessWest his writing is a way to give back to the Marine Corps, which he said gave him so much.

When asked what, specifically, he said the Corps gave him discipline, something he’s called on in all facets of his intriguing life, as well as some moments he won’t forget.

“Discipline and leadership … that’s what I took away from the Marines,” he explained. “It shows in the respect I have for people, including the people who work for me — treating them well, treating them with respect.”

Thus, Hebert’s saga represents the perfect Veteran’s Day story for this business publication: it’s a tale of military service and a family’s devotion to the Marine Corps, but also one about business — the one Hebert joined with some help from that matchbook cover, as well as the one he’s in now — and the challenging world of publishing.

 

The Write Stuff

“That’s the final straw!” Kenneth Remain said angrily, as he sat down heavily at a table in Jimmy’s Lunch. The melting snow on the brim of his boater and the shoulders of his benny testified to the fact that a sockdologer of a storm had clobbered Boston, an affront to the spring solstice of two days hence; though waning, the storm had not breathed its last.

Those are the first lines of The Remains of the Corps, Volume I: Ivy & the Crossing, and they provide not only a glimpse of Hebert’s mostly self-taught writing style, but also the immense amount of research that goes into writing a book set more than a century ago.

Tom Hebert says his second novel is almost fully researched and one-quarter written

Tom Hebert says his second novel is almost fully researched and one-quarter written. He plans six volumes in all to tell the story of the Remains.

Indeed, before he could pen a story set in 1917, Hebert said he needed to know the vocabulary of 1917 — specifically the vocabulary used by people attending Harvard, hence words like ‘boater,’ a type of straw hat; ‘benny,’ a greatcoat; and ‘sockdologer,’ a synonym for any word connoting ‘whopper’ or ‘defining.’

“People talked much more formally back then — they used the king’s English,” he explained. “These gentlemen would have used a very large vocabulary, and I had to develop my vocabulary tremendously to have it fit for these two gentlemen.

“Any time my wife and I were out at bookstores and flea markets, I would pick up books on vocabulary, idioms, and more,” he went on. “And as part of my training, I went through those books and selected words, phrases, thoughts, and philosophies, and I would say, ‘I could use this in one of my books.’”

Several years of research and work learning how to write fiction went into The Remains of the Corps, Volume 1, said Herbert, noting, again, that his decision to dive into what he expects will become a six-book set was inspired by the service of his own family and a firm desire to give something back to the Corps.

With that, we’ll do what fiction writers often do: we’ll flash back — first to 1945, when William Hebert was ending his lengthy tour of duty with the Marines. He enlisted just after Pearl Harbor and served throughout the war — and even after it ended, as part of the peacekeeping force in Japan. Upon returning home, he built a house in Chicopee and went to work as a pressman for Springfield Newspapers, retiring at age 62.

“I work partly because I enjoy working — I thoroughly enjoy my position here. But also because it enables me to fund the things that I want to do in life — one of which is writing.”

Hebert said his father, like many who fought in World War II, didn’t talk much about his service. “But he was always singing the Marine Corps hymn when I was a boy,” Tom recalled, adding that, while his father never pushed him to join the service or that specific branch, he found himself signing up.

That was in May 1968, just a few months after the Tet Offensive, when the Vietnam War was in some ways at its height. Hebert had just earned that accounting degree at AIC, and attended Office Training School for 10 weeks, and then another five months at a specialty school for officers.

His military occupational specialty was to be a tank officer, so he then went to Camp Pendleton in California for two months. Around that same time, he got married and was told he could spend another 18 months in California.

Tom Hebert began his service in Vietnam a few months after the Tet Offensive

Tom Hebert began his service in Vietnam a few months after the Tet Offensive in 1968, when the conflict was at its height.

But there was a quick change in plans, as he and several other tank officers were told there was an urgent need for their services in Vietnam.

“When we arrived at First Marine Division and met with the personnel officer, he said, ‘I don’t know why they sent you all here — I have three times as many tank officers as I need,’” he recalled. “That’s typical of the military, and my father had warned me about the bureaucratic aspects of being in the service.”

With his background in accounting, Hebert was eventually sent to the Central Service Agency, essentially a supply position — and wasn’t too happy with that assignment.

“After being there a short time, I went to the personnel officer and said, ‘I can’t do this — my father was in the Marines, he served at Iwo Jima … this is not why I joined,” he recalled. “He kicked me out of his office and said, ‘you’ll go where you’re told.’”

So he spent a year in Da Nang as — in the language of that time — an REMF, which stands for rear echelon mother… well, you can fill in the rest. Or, as they also said, ‘in the rear with the gear.’

Still, that time gave him a deep appreciation of the Corps and some valuable life lessons about leadership and teamwork.

When he came back home, he had a case of what was and still is known as ‘survivor guilt,’ which prompted him to publish a Vietnam War newsletter and also sell books through what was known as the Vietnam Book Store, a mostly mail-order operation.

 

Turning the Page

Longing to do more, Hebert eventually settled on the idea of writing about fictional Marines, but with art imitating life in many ways, especially when it comes to the Marine Corps being a generational phenomenon, or what Hebert calls a “family business.” It was that way for his family, and for the one he’s writing about as well, in stories told by the youngest generation.

That would be Will Remain, whose background is similar to Hebert’s, but with some important differences. Remain graduated from Harvard, not AIC, and upon graduation enlisted in the Marines and attended Officer Candidates School and Basic School in Quantico, Va. Instead of serving in the rear with the gear, he fought at Khe Sanh in 1967 and the Battle of Hue City during the Tet Offensive of 1968.

Hebert said he was inspired in many ways by the war novel Once an Eagle, written by Anton Meyer. A New York Times bestseller, it has been a favorite of American military men and women since it was penned in 1968, he noted.

“That book just fascinated me,” he told BusinessWest. “It was about the Army, and it covered several decades of one officer’s time. That book really inspired me to write.” Indeed, Hebert’s first forays into writing were non-fiction works about Meyer and his books.

He then embarked on the first installment of his novel, which wound up taking him a decade or so to write and prepare for publication. It includes dozens of illustrations by Tara Kaz that help bring the individual stories to life.

As for those stories, or the elements of his novels, he said the process of weaving them together is very much like that of putting together a jigsaw puzzle — which happens to be another of his hobbies; he said he’s put together more than 75 of them, with his favorite (unsurprisingly) being an image of the Iwo Jima Memorial in Washington.

“I have tons and tons of research material, and it’s all in pieces,” he went on, adding that, as he read books on history and vocabulary, for example, he would tear out the pages and keep them for future reference. “I take all those pieces — and we’re talking about an incredible amount of information — and put it together in a book.”

His second book is 95% researched and about 25% written, he said, adding that this segment details the battles in France during World War I. Book three, meanwhile, covers the period between the wars, and book four will likely take place on a fictional island in the Pacific during World War II.

Hebert writes when he’s not working, which means nights and weekends, and at age 73, he intends to keep on working — for several reasons.

“I work partly because I enjoy working — I thoroughly enjoy my position here,” he explained. “But also because it enables me to fund the things that I want to do in life — one of which is writing.”

As noted, his first book is off to a decent start, with about 300 copies sold and a far less expensive paperback now available. He’s optimistic, and excited, about the audiobook version, which will be read by noted narrator Grover Gardner, who, coincidentally (or not), has also read Once an Eagle.

“My hope, with the audiobook being read by someone so well-known, is that this will bring some attention to it and sell more books in print — that’s my goal, anyway,” he said, adding that this is far more an enjoyable hobby than a money-making enterprise. “I work to write.”

 

The Last Word

Hebert’s life has taken a number of twists and turns since his father glanced down at that matchbook cover and eventually handed it to him.

As noted at the top, some of it, including that episode, does sound like fiction, which is appropriate, said Hebert, because life really does imitate art in many ways.

His art certainly does. It’s a collection of tales about people. But it’s also about a business — a family business.

That’s what the Marine Corps became for him — and for those in the Remain family — and it’s a success story on a number of levels.

 

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

Women of Impact 2020

President, Chicopee Industrial Contractors

She Leads by Example and Shows Women How to Use Their Voice

Carol Campbell

Carol Campbell

Carol Campbell says she’s been heavily involved in the community for as long as she’s been a business owner — nearly 30 years now.

And she’s long believed it’s the responsibility of anyone in business to lend their time, energy, and talents to efforts and agencies focused on improving quality of life in a given region or specific community. She has backed up this belief with involvement in groups ranging from Rotary International to WestMass Development Corp. to Associated Industries of Massachusetts.

But Campbell, owner and president of Chicopee Industrial Contractors (CIC), a firm that specializes in rigging, millwrighting, machine and plant relocation, and structural steel installation, acknowledged that the nature of her giving back has changed somewhat over the past several years — and specifically since her first grandchild, Julia, was born.

“I held that child up and said, ‘you can be anything you want — a ballerina or the CEO of a rigging company,’” she recalled. “And when the words came out of my mouth, at that exact moment, I thought that I needed to be doing things a little differently — I need to be concentrating on what women and girls can do, today, tomorrow, and in the future.”

So, while Campbell is still active with WestMass, AIM, and other business organizations, over the past several years she has become more involved with groups whose missions involve the growth and development of women and girls — agencies ranging from the Women’s Fund to Dress for Success to Girls Inc.

“I held that child up and said, ‘you can be anything you want — a ballerina or the CEO of a rigging company.’ And when the words came out of my mouth, at that exact moment, I thought that I needed to be doing things a little differently — I need to be concentrating on what women and girls can do, today, tomorrow, and in the future.”

Meanwhile, she has also become a role model and mentor for many women, although she’s far more comfortable with the latter role than the former, as we’ll see. And at her own business — one that was and, in many ways, still is dominated by men — she has made it her mission to change that equation.

In fact, with the recent promotion of Deborah Dart, one of those Campbell has mentored, officially and unofficially, to operations manager, she now has a management team made up entirely of women.

“That was a goal I had, and it’s a goal I’ve achieved,” she said with discernable pride. “This company was all men at the start — we probably had women as file clerks — and now, the entire leadership team is women.”

Speaking of Dart, she nominated Campbell to be a Woman of Impact, and we’ll let her words drive home why she is now a member of the class of 2020.

“Carol’s success at CIC has paved the road and broken down barriers for other women in the industry,” she wrote. “She is now not the only woman in the board room or at the table. Her success at CIC has not come easy, but it has allowed her to pay it forward. Carol is known for sharing her thoughts and opinions, and she has used her voice to help her company, her community, and her friends.”

Indeed she has, and this notion of using one’s voice is something that Campbell stresses often when mentoring others, a sentiment passed down by her mother, and now passed on by her.

It’s just one of reasons why she lives up the name of this BusinessWest recognition program — she continues to have an impact — a deep impact — here in Western Mass.

 

Showing Her Metal

By now, most people know the story of how Campbell came to enter that male-dominated world of rigging and machine relocation. She was working as director of Marketing and Development for the UMass Fine Arts Center in the early ’90s, but looking for an entrepreneurial challenge.

Three area rigging plants had been shut down in the wake of the recession of the early ’90s, and Campbell started CIC as a way to rescue many of those workers, including her now-ex-husband.

Over the past 27 years, she has steered the company through a number of economic ups and downs — the Great Recession hit this company later than most, but very hard — including this latest downturn brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.

For example, when things got slow earlier this year, as manufacturing and other sectors were put in a wait-and-see mode by the pandemic, Campbell used a Paycheck Protection Act loan to keep her people employed, and used the time for training and professional development.

“We didn’t have enough projects to keep everyone working, so we decided to do training,” she recalled. “We did in-house and online training — on our hard skills, our soft skills, and technical skills — and we did that through March, April, and May.”

Those training sessions speak to Campbell’s approach to business and management, one that is employee-focused and perhaps best explained with more commentary from Deb Dart:

“Carol’s core values would not allow her to lead without respect and equality for all, and using the principles of W. Edward Demming and Stephen Covey, she worked to create a paradigm shift in the industry, or at least at CIC, to create a work environment that is more linear, but, most important, a workplace without fear.”

Still, her leadership, entrepreneurial daring, and management philosophies are only some of the reasons why Campbell is being honored as a Woman of Impact. As noted earlier, she has, throughout her career, been very active within the community and, more specifically, with groups and agencies ranging from the Chicopee Chamber of Commerce and that’s city’s Rotary Club; from AIM and WestMass to Health New England, which she continues to serve as a board member.

The management team at Chicopee Industrial Contractors is now all women: from left, Anne Golden, director of Finance; Carol Campbell, president and CEO; Liz Sauer, project manager; and Deb Dart, director of Operations.

The management team at Chicopee Industrial Contractors is now all women: from left, Anne Golden, director of Finance; Carol Campbell, president and CEO; Liz Sauer, project manager; and Deb Dart, director of Operations.

More recently, she has devoted much of her time and energy to groups involved with women and children, and also to some women she is mentoring, with the accent on the present tense. It’s a role she has grown into and is now comfortable with because of what she can share.

“I like the fact that’s it’s an exchange — it’s not teaching,” she told BusinessWest. “It’s working to help individuals determine what their goals are, and then helping them find a path to accomplishing those goals. I’m not an executive coach, by any means, but if they’re on a path that’s similar to mine, which is to be a leader within an organization, I’ve dealt with something similar to what they’re going through.

“For me, it’s an opportunity to show them they’re not alone in this and that it’s not smooth sailing,” she went on. “We’ve all had ups and downs in business, and I’ve seen a number of them myself. The goal is to learn from each other.”

And while successes in business are important, one thing she’s learned — and also tells those she mentors — is that people can learn more from their mistakes, and usually do.

“Some of my worst management experiences have been my biggest assets for learning about who I want to be and how I want to lead,” she explained, adding that this is one of the insights she shares with mentees she’s matched with the WIT (Women Innovators and Trailblazers) program and other initiatives.

As for that phrase ‘role model,’ she is, as noted, less comfortable with it.

Carol Campbell has balanced work in her adopted field with mentoring efforts and contributions of time and energy to many area nonprofits.

Carol Campbell has balanced work in her adopted field with mentoring efforts and contributions of time and energy to many area nonprofits.

“I don’t think I would call myself a role model — when a reference is made, even about my leadership, I’m pretty humble about it, because I’ve always just done what I feel is right,” she explained. “I’ve always thought that, if I could help anyone in any way, I would do it — I always want to give someone a hand up.”

 

Doing the Heavy Work

There’s a pillow on a bookshelf in Campbell’s office with an embroidered message that says simply: “Behind Every Successful Women is … Herself.”

She is living proof of that, obviously, and that’s one of the reasons she’s a Woman of Impact. The other, perhaps even bigger reason is the hard work she’s put into convincing others of that. Her management team is a perfect example of this, but she believes it’s just one.

She intends to keep using her voice to create many more of them.

 

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

 

Women of Impact 2020

President, Holyoke Community College

The Pandemic Provides a Lens Through Which to View Her Leadership Skills

Christina Royal

Christina Royal

As she talked about the COVID-19 pandemic and her administration’s multi-leveled response to it, Christina Royal related a story that speaks volumes about both the impact of the crisis on every aspect of the higher-education experience at Holyoke Community College (HCC) and her own efforts to lead this institution through it — and beyond it.

It also helps explain why she’s been named a Woman of Impact for 2020.

This story is about a student, one of the many who needed some help with learning virtually from home — help that went beyond providing a laptop and internet connectivity.

“Through our student emergency fund, this student put in a request and said, ‘I’m so grateful for the college to provide a laptop for me … but I don’t have a desk,’” she recalled, adding that there were several people in this household suddenly faced with the challenge of trying to learn and work from home. “And that’s just one example of how we had to think about support at a deeper level, really dive into the individual needs of each of our students to support them during this time, and address the inequities that exist in the communities we serve.”

The college would go on to fund a desk for this individual, she went on, adding that this piece of furniture is symbolic of how the school has indeed expanded its view of student emergency needs during this pandemic — but also in general.

“One of the questions I bring up to employees of the college is, ‘what do we want to look like on the other side of this pandemic?’ Because I don’t want to be a person who just felt like I was trying to weather the storm. I want us to emerge stronger from this.”

Royal arrived on campus roughly five years ago with a mindset to do what was needed to address the many needs of students and help enable them to not only grasp the opportunity for a two-year college education, but to open many other doors as well. As a first-generation, low-income, biracial college student herself, she understands the challenges many of HCC’s students face — from food insecurity to lack of adequate housing and transportation — and she commits many of her waking hours thinking about how to help students overcome such barriers and achieve success, however that might be defined.

Meanwhile, as an administrator, she he has put the emphasis on long-term planning and leading for today, as well as tomorrow. This is evidenced by her push for a new strategic plan for the school — the first in its existence — but also the manner in which she is addressing this pandemic.

Instead of something to be merely survived, although that is certainly important enough, she views it as a learning experience and, in many respects, an opportunity.

“One of the questions I bring up to employees of the college is, ‘what do we want to look like on the other side of this pandemic?’” she explained. “Because I don’t want to be a person who just felt like I was trying to weather the storm. I want us to emerge stronger from this, and the work we have to do is so absolutely critical to this community, and we have an opportunity to continually strengthen ourselves.

Christina Royal meets with students at the HCC MGM Culinary Arts Institute, which opened its doors in 2019.

Christina Royal meets with students at the HCC MGM Culinary Arts Institute, which opened its doors in 2019.

“Just like education is a journey, so is continuous improvement,” she went on, adding that this process can — and must — continue, even in the middle of a global pandemic.

Her commitment to this process, and her ability to effectively keep one eye on the present and the other on the future, certainly makes her a Women of Impact.

 

Course of Action

Royal calls them ‘town meetings.’

These are Zoom sessions that she conducts with various audiences — students, faculty, members of the community — to keep them abreast of new developments and initiatives in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, and with the college in general. She’s staged 19 of them since March, including one just a few weeks ago in which the topic of conversation among faculty and staff was the ongoing accreditation process and the comments offered by the team at the New England Commission of Higher Education.

“I really prioritized this as part of our crisis-management plan — we really had to increase communication at the college,” she told BusinessWest. “When people are feeling isolated in their homes, and they’re uncertain about this thing called COVID, and they’re uncertain about their own health and safety, and they’re concerned about the college, I felt it was really important to come together.

“And while it’s really nice when we can come together in the same room, community is community, and we need to bring people together to feel a sense of community through this,” she said, adding that another initiative she’s implemented is the formation of a volunteer team of students and staff tasked with calling every student enrolled at the school every week “just to check in and see how they’re doing.”

These town meetings and weekly check-ins are just some of the ways Royal is providing both stewardship and forward thinking at a time when every college administrator’s abilities are being sternly tested. And the pandemic provides a lens through which her leadership skills and ability to build partnerships and create collaborative initiatives can be seen.

But first, we need to talk about life before anyone had ever heard the phrase COVID-19.

Royal became just the fourth president in HCC’s history in early 2017 after a stint as provost and vice president of Academic Affairs.

In an interview with BusinessWest soon after taking the helm, she provided some clear evidence of both her empathy for students and commitment to creating ever-stronger ties between the school and the communites it serves.

“I have a phrase that I’ve used often during my career — that ‘it takes a village to raise a student,’” she noted at the time. “And I really believe that having partnerships with business and industry and the community is essential for an institution of higher education to thrive. Likewise, for a community with a community college to thrive, it needs to have a strong community college. I look at it as a bi-directional relationship and partnership.”

Since her arrival, there have been a number of significant developments at the school, including a $44 million project to modernize and revitalize an antiquated Campus Center, the so-called ‘heart’ of the college, a new Center for Life Sciences, and the creation of the HCC MGM Culinary Arts Institute in the Cubit building, which opened its doors to considerable fanfare in early 2019.

Christina Royal leads Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker on a tour of HCC

Christina Royal leads Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker on a tour of HCC’s new, $44 million Campus Center earlier this year.

Ironically, the new campus center staged its elaborate grand opening just a few weeks before the pandemic shut down college campuses across the Commonwealth. Meanwhile, the Culinary Arts Institute, while still operating on some levels, has seen a dramatic decrease in interest among prospective students as the pandemic has devastated the hospitality industry.

But while those new facilities are in many ways quiet, they form some of the building blocks that will support continued growth for decades to come.

No one can say with any degree of certainly when a sense of ‘normal’ will return to college campuses — HCC has already announced that most all classes will be taught remotely next spring — but Royal, as noted, is working to have her school ready for that day.

“I want us to look at this moment in time as an opportunity, and focus not just on the things that are outside of our control, but the things that we do have the ability to control,” she explained, noting that the questions and comments offered by students during those aforementioned check-ins are certainly helping in this process of continuous improvement and readying for life after COVID-19.

“When that day arrives, there will be a much-anticipated return to the classroom,” she noted, adding quickly, however, that the pandemic has proven there is certainly a place for remote learning and that it will be a big part of the equation moving forward.

“Distance learning is here to stay. And even if we have a smaller number of students on one end of the spectrum, wanting to take everything online, we have a lot of opportunity in that middle space of how we blend our in-person courses with hybrid learning.

“What’s so great about this time is that we have faculty members who are experimenting with ways to utilize this technology to more effectively reach their students and enable them to complete the work,” she went on. “And when you think about combining that with the pedagogy of the traditional classroom and their expertise in that setting, I imagine there’s going to be some wonderful opportunities to grow the blended student experience.”

 

Career Milestone

In 2021, HCC will celebrate its 75th anniversary.

At this time, no one, including Royal, can say when and how that milestone will be celebrated. But she does know it will be a time to look back at what’s been achieved, but, more importantly, focus on what will come next and how the school can do more to serve its communities and its students.

That’s what Royal has done since she’s arrived in Holyoke. It’s a mindset that has made her a great leader — at all times, and especially during these times.

And it has also made her one of this year’s Women of Impact.

 

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

Women of Impact 2020

Berkshire County District Attorney

She’s Transforming the Criminal Justice System in This Rural Region

Andrea Harrington

Andrea Harrington

Like most who join the legal profession, Andrea Harrington says there’s a story behind her choice of career path.

In her case, it wasn’t a family member in that line of work who inspired her, or even a role  model from the community — meaning the Pittsfield area. Instead, it was the lawyers she saw on TV shows, especially L.A. Law, which was in its prime when she was in high school, and some real-life lawyers, like Anita Hill and Hillary Rodham Clinton, who inspired her to become the first in her family to go college, and eventually earn a law degree.

“Growing up, I didn’t really know many professional people,” she recalled, noting that her parents, like so many others, worked at General Electric’s massive transformer-production complex in Pittsfield. “I would see TV shows with lawyers, and to me, they looked like people who have the power to make change.”

Not all lawyers have used that power, but Harrington certainly has. In two short years after being sworn in as district attorney of Berkshire County, she has introduced a number of important changes to the criminal-justice systems in this rural county — changes that are already having an impact. For example, Harrington has:

• Implemented a no-cash-bail policy for most defendants in county courts;

• Created the county’s first domestic- and sexual-violence task force;

• Assembled a staff of reform-minded individuals that better reflects the makeup of the county’s population;

• Implemented a vertical prosecution model so that crime victims in District Court work with the same assistant district attorney and victim-witness advocate while their cases are resolved; and

• Initiated work to develop a formal Berkshire County DA’s Juvenile Diversion program to reduce juvenile crime and help youths make smart decisions.

Above all, Harrington said she is changing the mindset of criminal justice in the Berkshires, from a system that has focused on punishment to one centered on “problem solving.”

And there are many problems to solve, she told BusinessWest, listing poverty, opioid addiction, domestic violence (Berkshire County has a 33% higher rate of restraining orders than the rest of the state), behavioral-health issues, and many others.

“I saw a criminal-justice system that was stuck in this old model — a punishment model. And given how many resources were being put into it, we were not getting a good return on that investment, and it was just spreading misery throughout our community.”

Harrington’s influence, just two years after triumphing in a hotly contested race, is perhaps best summed up by Noreen Nardi, executive director of the Hampden County Bar Assoc., who nominated her for the Women of Impact award.

“The election of Andrea Harrington to Berkshire district attorney has had a transformational effect on the county, its criminal justice system, and politics,” she wrote. “Andrea has remade operations in the Berkshire District Attorney’s Office with an eye toward modernization, innovation, and integrity. She’s revamping how the staff prosecutes crime and handles court cases, changing its media and communications practices to emphasize complete transparency, and overhauling operations on community outreach, victim-witness advocate, and the Child Abuse Unit so that Berkshire County citizens receive the fair and equitable justice they deserve whenever they come into contact with the Berkshire DA’s Office.”

 

Impact Statement

The race for DA in 2018 wasn’t Harrington’s first bid for public office. Indeed, two years earlier, she ran, unsuccessfully, for a state Senate seat. It was a moment in her life that would in many ways crystalize all that came before — and pave the way for all that has followed.

But before getting to that race, we need to go back further and explain how she got there.

As noted, Harrington, inspired by the characters on L.A. Law and other shows, and those real-life role models as well, graduated from the University of Washington and earned her juris doctor degree from American University Washington College of Law in 2003. One of her early career stops involved work representing convicted death-row inmates in post-conviction appeals in South Florida, which she described as eye-opening.

Andrea Harrington addresses those gathered at a press conference

Andrea Harrington addresses those gathered at a press conference to announce the launch of a juvenile-justice initiative, one of many programs she has introduced.

“That experience drove home for me how much power law enforcement does have over people’s lives,” she noted. “And also, how vital it is that we have prosecutors and police who have a healthy respect for the constitutional rights of defendants, and for civil rights.”

Elaborating, she said her work, which involved both the guilt and penalty phrases of these convictions, often centered on why such heinous and tragic crimes were committed. “And this gave me a different kind of lens — more of a problem-solving lens,” she said. “It’s sad to look back at someone’s life and recognize that, if there had been other kinds of intervention earlier on, then these really terrible crimes could have been prevented.”

After Florida, Harrington amassed more than a dozen years of legal practice, much of it defense work, while also raising a family — and watching her native Berkshire County change, for the worse.

“I was working in the courts, I had two young kids, and I was frustrated by what I was seeing in Berkshire County,” she explained. “In the courts, we see the big societal problems, we see the effects of the economic downturn in high rates of domestic violence, lack of opportunity, and drug use.

“I saw a criminal-justice system that was stuck in this old model — a punishment model,” she went on while explaining her involvement in politics and eventual run for the state Senate. “And given how many resources were being put into it, we were not getting a good return on that investment, and it was just spreading misery throughout our community. I thought that, if anyone was going to address these problems, I was going to be a part of it. I didn’t want to just be a cog in this machine that I didn’t think was working.”

While she lost that race, she was certainly encouraged by those who were telling her she should be running for a different seat — district attorney. And after winning a race ranked the top story of 2018 by the Berkshire Eagle, Harrington immediately went to work, fulfilling campaign promises and, more importantly, changing the criminal-justice system in Berkshire County.

One of her primary initiatives involved essentially eliminating the prosecution’s request for cash bail, which data shows disproportionately penalizes low-income individuals and African-Americans in most District Court cases.

“Who remains incarcerated pre-trial is driven by who can afford to post bail or not,” she explained, adding that this is one of many attempts to bring changes to long-established policies that were — in her estimation, at least — not working.

Another initiative undertaken early on was the formation of the Berkshire County Domestic and Sexual Violence Task Force and Steering Committee, assembled to address a growing public-health crisis in Berkshire communities and build prevention programs, she explained, adding that the Berkshires, like other rural areas, has high rates of these crimes.

Overall, Harrington said, the nature and volume of crime in Berkshire County has changed since she was growing up there, with more violent crime (there are eight homicides currently being prosecuted, a much higher number than in years past), drug-related crime, gang-related crime, and domestic and sexual violence. And her office is responding accordingly.

Andrea Harrington says she’s adjusted the focus of the criminal-justice system

Andrea Harrington says she’s adjusted the focus of the criminal-justice system in the Berkshires from one focused on punishment to one centered on problem solving.

“One of my proudest accomplishments is how we serve victims in this office,” she explained. “Previously, the practice was, once a case is actually arraigned and being prosecuted in court, the office would provide services to victims of crime. But we’ve expanded that; we want to have contact with victims as soon as there is a complaint of a crime — we think that’s really critical in being able to prosecute domestic violence and sexual assault.”

Another important change taking place involves the culture of local law enforcement, she told BusinessWest.

“We’re putting a lot more emphasis on doing high-quality investigations for violent crime,” she noted. “And we’ve out a lot of work into that, building our relationships with small-town police departments and also the State Police.”

 

Making Her Case

Harrington is currently prosecuting her first murder case, a matter that involves the shooting death of a woman in August 2019. COVID-19 has slowed the pace of progress in the courts, she noted, adding that she can’t say when the case will be coming to trial.

She can say that she’s looking forward to the challenge. “I love the law, I love being a lawyer, I love being in court.”

What she loves more, though, is having a bigger impact — an impact that goes beyond a single case, as significant as it might be, and translates into real change, real reform, and lasting significance.

This is what she thought lawyers had the power to do when she was watching those TV shows more than a quarter-century ago. Now, she’s proving they can, and while doing so, she has become a true Woman of Impact.

 

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

Women of Impact 2020

CEO, Girls Scouts of Central & Western Massachusetts

She’s a Role Model and a Strong Advocate for Women and Girls

Pattie Hallberg

Pattie Hallberg

Pattie Hallberg has a large collection of keepsakes scattered about her office on Kelly Street in Holyoke. Together, they effectively tell a story of who she is, what she does, what she believes, and what’s important to her.

There’s the Ruth Bader Ginsburg bobblehead, for example, an indication of whom she draws inspiration from. There’s also the sign siting on her window sill that reads “No Solicitors, Unless You Sell Thin Mints,” a nod to her role as CEO of the Girls Scouts of Central & Western Massachusetts (GSCWM) and one of the programs for which the organization is most noted — cookie sales.

There are also a few framed quotes. One, attributed to Juliette Gordon Low, founder of the Girl Scouts, reads: “The Work of Today is the History of Tomorrow, and We Are Its Makers.” There’s another that’s unattributed and says simply “Do One Thing Every Day That Scares You.”

Hallberg must have been at least a little scared the day she made the decision to leave her job as chief executive of Invent Now Kids Inc., a subsidiary of the National Inventors Hall of Fame, and find a new challenge. Actually, she and her husband took the same plunge, if you will.

“I had four girls, and we were all kind of in transition,” she said while relaying the story. “My oldest was graduating from college, my two youngest were graduating from high school, and Jessica was at Lehigh University. I decided it was time for a transition for me; my husband and I decided that we were going to leave Northeast Ohio, and whoever found a job first — that’s where we were going to go.”

Long story short, she found employment first. Only it wasn’t a job she found, but a passion — or, to be more, precise, a new outlet for an existing passion.

“This is a business about relationships. I spend a lot of time talking to people who were Girl Scouts about what Girl Scouts meant to them. And then I talk to a lot of girls about what they’re doing, what they want to do, and where they want to go.”

This bold career move itself, fueled by ambition, confidence, and some adventurousness as well, makes a Hallberg a fine role model for the thousands of Girl Scouts under her charge. But there are plenty of other reasons why she’s worthy of that descriptive phrase. That list includes her accomplishments with this Girl Scout body, which resulted from a merger, which she managed, of three councils; her advocacy for young women; her work to inspire girls to pursue careers in STEM; her involvement in the community (she’s involved with groups ranging from the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts to the Investing in Girls Alliance in Worcester); and even how she has handled the responsibilities of being a mother and grandmother.

“It’s so important to teach children in general — for me, my job is girls — to learn about the community and to give back to their community,” she said. “That’s the ultimate community service in Girl Scouting, and I try be a role model for that; I try to give back to my community as best I can.”

Mostly, though, she is a role model, and a Woman of Impact, for the way in which she has devoted most of her career to understanding the issues and challenges facing women and girls — and there are many of them — and being proactive in finding ways to address them.

When asked about what her work entails, Hallberg said there is a lengthy job description, as might be expected when managing a $4 million agency. But overall, she said it boils down to two main duties — listening and relationship building.

“This is a business about relationships,” she explained. “I spend a lot of time talking to people who were Girl Scouts about what Girl Scouts meant to them. And then I talk to a lot of girls about what they’re doing, what they want to do, and where they want to go.”

Suffice it to say, during her career advocating for women and girls, she has gone well beyond talk. And that’s why she was nominated for, and is a recipient of, this BusinessWest honor.

 

Moving Stories

Among her many goals and aspirations, Hallberg wants to someday hear someone say, ‘Eagle Scout? Is that the equivalent of being a Gold Scout in the Girl Scouts?’ or words to that effect.

Pattie Hallberg says she enjoys spending time with Girl Scouts, and those who have been Scouts and can talk about what that organization has done for them.

Pattie Hallberg says she enjoys spending time with Girl Scouts, and those who have been Scouts and can talk about what that organization has done for them.

She’s heard the reverse of this question more times than she would care to say or count, because while most everyone has heard references to Eagle Scouts, the highest rank in Boy Scouts and a proud line on any résumé, only those in the know understand its counterpart. Hallberg wants more people to know and thus put an end to those frustrating questions.

But she has more pressing concerns at the moment, especially the many challenges facing girls of all ages today. When asked to give a list, Hallberg put stress at the very top of it.

“Girls are under an incredible amount of stress today,” she explained. “There’s the stress to do well in school, and all those things that we’ve all had, but there’s this added layer to it now that’s really overwhelming.”

Much of this stress is connected to bullying, she went on, adding that, while it has always been an issue, today it is an even deeper concern, for obvious reasons.

“The stories are overwhelming … what can happen to a girl in just a moment, mostly around the internet,” she said. “It’s frightening, and it really takes its toll on these girls.”

For these reasons, the Girls Scouts and especially the GSCWM have always been focused on creating what Hallberg called a “safe space,” one in which they could be different and unique. But beyond that, the agency is devoted to giving them opportunities — and the confidence to realize them.

Pattie Hallberg has devoted much of her life to being an advocate for women and girls, especially in her current role with the Girl Scouts.

Pattie Hallberg has devoted much of her life to being an advocate for women and girls, especially in her current role with the Girl Scouts.

Which brings her back to STEM, and the numbers involving girls in those fields, statistics that in large part fueled her desire to seek a new career challenge.

“I developed a sincere concern about girls and women in the STEM field,” she recalled, flashing back to her days at the Inventors Hall of Fame. “The youth STEM programs we ran … at the elementary-school level, in kindergarten, first, and second grade, half of those kids were girls, and half were boys. Around third or fourth grade, the girl numbers started to drop, and there were more and more programs where there was a disproportionate number of boys.”

Years later, the problem persists to a large degree, she said, adding that changing this equation has been one of her many goals with the GSCWM.

Indeed, since arriving in Western Mass. in 2008, Hallberg has done much more than merge three Girl Scout councils, covering 186 communities, into one, although that was a significant feat in itself. She has shaped the organization into a leader in this region in advocacy for young women and also put in place an aggressive strategic planning process that has sharpened the council’s focus and championed leadership development of young women.

As part of these efforts, the council has instituted a Girl Leadership Board made up of two dozen girls who meet regularly with Hallberg to share ideas, concerns, challenges, hopes, and aspirations. An important aspect of this board is the manner in which she has created space and practice for young women to speak out and experience being heard and empowered to bring their ideas to life through scouting.

“We have 18 middle- and high-school girls, and I meet with them once a month on a Saturday morning,” she told BusinessWest. “They are fantastic at talking about what it’s like to be a girl right now, what they need from programs like the Girls Scouts, and what they want, which is different from what they need. So I get a lot of perspective.”

And this perspective often helps shape programming and the overall direction of this 108-year-old institution, said Hallberg, noting that her job essentially involves a balance of honoring the history and traditions of the Girls Scouts, but also looking to the future as well.

“There’s so much to learn from the past and so much to learn about the future from these girls,” she went on. “What I try to do beyond the job of running this business and organization is to really try to understand the issues for both women and girls in our area and to advocate for them.”

 

Bottom Line

Managing the GSCWM, an agency that covers territory ranging Worcester to the New York border, requires Hallberg to travel extensively. She rolled her eyes when asked how many miles she puts on her car each year.

She spends the time on the road listening to books on tape — and thinking.

Thinking about the many challenges facing young women today — from bullying to financial literacy to having the skills needed to succeed in today’s technology-driven economy.

She’s managed to convert many of these thoughts into effective action, and this helps explain why she is a member of the Women of Impact class of 2020.

 

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

Coronavirus Cover Story

Battle Fatigue

Meyers Brothers Kalicka

Employees at Meyers Brothers Kalicka crowd around a food truck offering gourmet grilled cheese, one of many initiatives on the part of the company to help boost morale during the pandemic — and a long, difficult tax season.

The food truck from the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House pulled into the north parking lot of the PeoplesBank building in Holyoke around 2 p.m. on Oct. 15.

By 2:30, a large number of employees from the accounting and tax-planning firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka had gathered to enjoy gourmet grilled cheese, tomato soup, hard cider, and some pumpkin beers, and to play a little cornhole.

The occasion? The last day of filing for those who sought extensions on their tax returns, and thus another milestone during what has been labeled by those in the accounting realm as the ‘never-ending tax season of 2020.’

But in many ways, the grilled cheese, trimmings, and camaraderie were part of what has become a multi-pronged effort at MBK to help employees cope with all the stress and strain — the battle fatigue, if you will — of what has been the most trying year anyone can remember.

And the company is certainly not alone in this mindset.

Indeed, businesses and nonprofits large and small have been addressing this matter of fatigue and helping employees cope with stress in ways that range from loosened dress codes to those food trucks; from pumpkin-decorating competitions to the ‘concert T-shirt day’ — no explanation needed — staged by MBK.

“There’s a lot of stress, and initially, people were trying to do everything and be 100% in everything, and I think most are now acknowledging that this is not realistic or sustainable.”

Overall, business owners and managers are recognizing that their valued employees — the ones who remain after many others have been furloughed or laid off — are tired, worried about the future, ‘Zoomed out’ (another phrase you hear a lot these days), unable or unwilling to take paid time off, and unable or unwilling to leave work behind when they leave work — whether they’re at the office or at home, said Meredith Wise, president of the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast (EANE).

And they’re responding, as she is responding herself (EANE has 22 people on its payroll), with policies, formal and informal, and action plans focused on providing some stress relief and perhaps a sense of normalcy in a year when some companies and agencies are offering ‘mental-health days’ in the office instead of at home.

“Our team is feeling it,” said Wise, using ‘it’ to refer to the sum of the stress incurred at work and at home. “We’re having a difficult year here, and everyone is pushing for the numbers and pushing for the registrations and pushing to connect with our members and provide the best service. And then, at home, it’s not like they’re going home and then relaxing and getting away from the pressures and having time to rest and refuel. They’re going home, whether they’re working remotely or working at the office, and they’ve got all the stuff in their personal life.”

Elaborating, she said this collective ‘stuff’ constitutes everything from fear of contracting the virus to negativity on the nightly news, to the inability to do the things they want to do and go to places they want to go.

Add it all up, and it’s exhausting and often overwhelming, she said, adding that, as an employer, she considers it her responsibility to help valued employees cope with all this.

Amy Roberts, senior vice president and chief Human Resources officer at PeoplesBank, agreed. She told BusinessWest that the focus for businesses over the past few months has shifted from dealing with an emergency — getting everyone home and making sure they’re safe — and setting up people to work from home if needed, to coping with this fatigue that has settled in.

MP CPAs in Springfield

The dress code has been thrown away at MP CPAs in Springfield, one of many steps taken to help employees feel more comfortable in the office during these uncertain times.

“One of the things we’ve tried to do through the whole situation is be flexible and creative in working with each person as their own needs evolve,” she explained. “You have parents who have kids in school or at home, or a combination of both, and then you have employees with significant others who are exposed or working in situations that put them in potential harm. There’s a lot of stress, and initially, people were trying to do everything and be 100% in everything, and I think most are now acknowledging that this is not realistic or sustainable.”

“We don’t meet with people in the office generally — we’ve closed our doors. So as long as you’re looking good from the waist up on Zoom meetings, it doesn’t really matter what else you’re wearing.”

As companies continue to find ways to assist employees, they acknowledge that, as the pandemic continues, fall turns to winter, the holidays and all the additional stress they bring on approach, and the days get shorter and darker, these efforts will have to continue and probably expand.

 

Forever in Blue Jeans

Doug Theobald says MP CPAs, the Springfield-based accounting firm, has long had a casual-Friday policy, and it has become quite popular.

These days, though, every day is casual as the company tries to make employees feel happier and more comfortable during this stressful time. And allow them to dress like their colleagues, who are working at home.

“We’ve thrown our dress code out — people have been in shorts and sweats since we came back in May,” Theobald, a principal and president of the company, explained. “We’ve always been business casual, and one of my biggest concerns was that people would be nervous coming back to the office; we wanted to make it as comfortable an environment as possible. We don’t meet with people in the office generally — we’ve closed our doors. So as long as you’re looking good from the waist up on Zoom meetings, it doesn’t really matter what else you’re wearing.

“That’s probably been the most beneficial thing we’ve done,” he went on. “If we get back to a new normal at some point, that might be my biggest hurdle — putting business casual back in place once client meetings start again.”

Meagan Tetreault, standing outside Big Y

Meagan Tetreault, standing outside Big Y’s West Springfield store, says the company has taken an individualized approach to helping its thousands of employees cope with the stress and strain of the pandemic.

In some ways, this new dress code, or lack of one, is merely an extension of strategies put in place before the pandemic, aimed at creating a more appealing workplace at a time when attracting and retaining employees, especially in this sector, was becoming increasingly difficult as the job market tightened.

But it’s also part of a broad effort to help employees cope with all that 2020 is throwing at them, including that never-ending tax season, which will soon give way to the next tax season.

“My team is wiped,” Theobald said on Oct. 15 — again, the last day for those who sought extensions, and there were many in that category this year. “They work hard, and we are the one firm in this area that has a really, really busy fall season; it’s almost busier than April.”

He was planning to close the office down for a few days and give his team a break, another attempt to help them get rest and recreation in a year when there has been much less of both.

“There’s so much stress going on in this world right now, we’re just trying to make it as stress-free in the office as we can,” Theobold went on, noting that efforts ranging from the new dress code to flexible hours; from bringing food into the office more often (even if people can’t eat together) to delivering care packages (mostly snacks) to those working remotely, are efforts that will have to continue as the pandemic wears on.

“A lot of places are scaling back on these kinds of things for various reasons, and I don’t think it’s the time to do that. I think it’s time to put a little more gas on the fire because you don’t want to lose engagement or enthusiasm with your organization.”

Wise agreed, noting that, between work and home, many employees simply don’t seem to be able to get a break from the pressure and stress.

This leads to lack of sleep and even more mental and physical fatigue, she said, adding that matters are compounded by the fact that traditional vacations have become far more difficult to undertake. Indeed, trips to Disney World, cruises to Europe, weeks on the Cape, and even visits to relatives in other states have become daunting, if not impossible, because of the pandemic.

As a result, people are vacationing at home, which is good for the region and its tourism venues — the ones that are open, anyway; Six Flags, the Big E, and many others have not been — but the time off is, in many cases, not as relaxing and therapeutic. Meanwhile, with technology and the pandemic both being what they are, time off is usually not time off from many work stresses.

As a result, Wise and others in positions of leadership are strongly encouraging employees to completely unplug when they are taking a day or a week off.

“We try to encourage people to take their time off and to completely disconnect from the office,” she said. “We’re requiring people, when they’re taking a day off or a half-day off or a week off, to put an ‘out-of-office’ message on all of their devices. And that message should say that they will not be responding to e-mails. I don’t necessarily want to cut off people’s access, but we’re saying, ‘put that out-of-office message on, and don’t respond to anything.’ I can’t stop you from checking, but don’t respond.”

Roberts agreed, and said PeoplesBank has been pushing its workers to use their paid time off.

“When there’s nowhere to go, people are inclined to say, ‘I’ll just work,’” she said. “But over the summer, we were encouraging, and in some ways pushing, people to just take a staycation and unplug from work.”

 

Stressing Some Points

Roberts told BusinessWest it was only a few months into the pandemic when upper management at PeoplesBank recognized that fatigue was becoming an issue and needed to be addressed.

“We’ve had some pretty deliberate management conversations where our president, Tom Senecal, has said to team managers, ‘make sure you’re paying attention to the fatigue factor and that you’re communicating with people in a way that they know you understand that this is a very unique and evolving situation.’

“While we want obviously to meet the needs of the customers and do everything we need to do as a business, we recognize that there’s another side to this,” she went on. “Just acknowledging this and having that conversation with managers gives them that awareness and pushes them in a direction where they’re taking a more flexible approach with their people.”

Meagan Tetreault, senior Employee Services field manager for Big Y Foods, agreed. She told BusinessWest that, as an essential retail business, the company has obviously been open for customers and focused on their safety. But it has been focused on employees and their various needs as well — everything from steps taken to keep them safe to flexibility with schedules to enable them to successfully balance work and life.

“Our first priority was making sure we’re putting in place different protocols to make sure that the environment is as safe and secure as possible — from sanitizing and cleaning to plastic barriers to maintaining that social distance,” she explained. “And at certain points, we limited our staff to maintain that social distancing; in retail, it’s natural that you have to have that interaction with the public, and that can be scary. How do you support them through that? It starts with safety and wellness, and promoting that wellness.”

But, as noted, support has come in many different forms, she noted, including efforts to help the company’s 12,000 employees manage the pandemic. And as she talked about it, Tetreault stressed the need to address each employee individually and, when possible, customize a response.

“We found that it comes down to each individual employee’s needs and wants, and our store teams are a big part of that,” she said. “Our employee-services representatives are in each store to assist with employee needs, identifying opportunities and having some of those individual conversations to find out what works for that particular individual.”

Elaborating, she said the company amended its attendance policies; established something called ‘COVID leave,’ which enabled employees to take time off without losing their status; and created more flexibility for workers.

“Our store hours are 7 a.m. to 9 p.m., but we have people who come in and work overnight shifts as well,” she explained. “And we’re able to work with employees to find a schedule and position them to support their individual needs, be it childcare or even wishing to limit contact with customers.”

 

COVID Coping

Overall, while morale is an issue some companies address at least some of the time, it has become more of a front-burner topic during the pandemic, out of necessity, said those we spoke with.

“We’re seeing morale dip a bit; people are trying to put a good face on it, but it’s becoming harder and harder to do that,” Wise told BusinessWest. “So we’re trying to find things we can be doing to raise morale.”

Such efforts include e-mails on Wednesday reminding people that they can almost see Friday, and other e-mails on Friday telling people to turn their computers off at 4:30, go home, and not think about work over the weekend, or even watch the news.

PeoplesBank conducted its annual Employee Fest this year, but it was decidedly different, with many of the activities carried out remotely.

PeoplesBank conducted its annual Employee Fest this year, but it was decidedly different, with many of the activities carried out remotely.

Region-wide, morale-building efforts run the gamut from food and games to team-building exercises, either in person or the remote variety.

At PeoplesBank, the week-long event known as Employee Fest was staged as always, but it did look and feel different, said Roberts, noting that many activities were carried out remotely, with gifts delivered to all employees, whether they were working at the office, in one of the branches, or remotely.

At MBK, morale-building has been a year-long priority, said Sarah Rose Stack, Marketing & Recruiting manager, adding that it comes in several forms, from so-called social-media holidays, where people post pictures of pets, children, or travel destinations; to the concert T-shirt day, flip-flops day, and alma-mater day; to food trucks, which have come on several occasions.

The company has traditionally done such things, and it has long had what’s been called the ‘Fun Committee,’ which arranged an axe-throwing competition and visit to a brewery last year, for example. This year, the activities are different, but there are more of them, with good reason.

“A lot of places are scaling back on these kinds of things for various reasons, and I don’t think it’s the time to do that,” she noted. “I think it’s time to put a little more gas on the fire because you don’t want to lose engagement or enthusiasm with your organization.”

Many of the initiatives at MBK and elsewhere fall into the broad category of connectivity, an important ingredient for success at any business, and something that’s been lacking due to the pandemic.

Monica Borgatti, chief operating officer for the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts, said the small staff of three full-time and three part-time employees has mostly been working remotely since March. That means no water-cooler talk — literally, anyway, she said, adding that the nonprofit has tried to incorporate those types of discussions into the regular Zoom meetings in an effort to help people connect in ways beyond what they’re doing for work every day.

“We always, always make sure to start those weekly meetings with a virtual water cooler,” she told BusinessWest. “Everyone takes turns sharing something, whether it’s an article they’ve come across over the past week or something personal — they got a new dog and they want to show off the pictures, or some household project that they’ve finally completed.

“We make sure to create time for that at all those staff meetings, so we’re connecting with each other as people and not just as co-workers,” she went on, adding that the agency also allows for very flexible schedules and encourages employees to stop and step away from their work when they need to, and not stare at a computer screen for hours on end.

At MBK, one of the partners, Jim Krupienski, stages a monthly check-in social, Stack said, during which the company has a cocktail hour of sorts where those working from home can join in remotely. “It’s just really to check in and talk about anything other than work,” she noted. “It’s a mental-health check-in with adult beverages.”

Scanning the landscape, Wise believes many companies are struggling in their efforts to maintain morale among their employees. It’s easier for a smaller business to undertake initiatives in this regard than those with several hundred employees, she noted, but most are trying to do something.

It might be a food truck or two coming to the parking lot — even sharing a large pizza box can be risky during a pandemic — or more communication from the C-suite, she said, adding that there is more ‘management by walking around’ in this environment, or at least there should be.

Meanwhile, employers are pushing people to take time off and providing more one-on-one employee counseling, duties now falling in many cases to human-resources professionals, especially at smaller companies that do not have employee-assistance programs.

“They’ve had to put on their social work, psychologist’s hat,” she noted. “And it’s not something that they’re used to. But some employees just need to vent; they’re saying, ‘I don’t know what to do or where to go.’”

 

Bottom Line

While no one really knows when the pandemic will subside and something approaching normal returns to the workplaces of Western Mass., what most business owners and managers do know is that their valued employees will need some help getting to that point.

At a time when most e-mail messages end with the message ‘stay safe and stay sane,’ or words to that effect, achieving those goals has been anything but easy.

Addressing this battle fatigue has become an important, and ongoing, assignment for many businesses, and the smart ones understand that the fight is far from over, and they need to keep finding ways to be attentive and creative — and even fun.

 

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

Features Special Coverage

A Season on Ice

Nate Costa, president of the Thunderbirds

Nate Costa, president of the Thunderbirds

The wall opposite Nate Costa’s desk is covered in a wrap depicting action from the American Hockey League (AHL) All-Star Classic, played at the MassMutual Center in January 2019 — probably the high point of the five-year re-emergence, and renaissance, of professional hockey in Springfield.

Costa pointed toward that wall several times as he tried to explain just how the Springfield Thunderbirds, which he serves as president, might place spectators so they are at least six feet apart — if, and it’s mighty big if, the governor, the city, and whoever else might need to sign off on such a plan gives the proverbial green light. And he also pointed while talking about the many subtleties and challenges that go into such an exercise.

“It’s almost like a puzzle,” he explained. “We have 6,700 seats, and our season-ticket holders are typically jammed into the best seats. All our center-ice seats are completely taken … so what do you do in a six-foot distancing model? — everyone can’t get the seat they would normally want to have, and that’s just one of the challenges.”

As he talked with BusinessWest on Oct. 15, five days after the 2020-21 season was supposed to start, Costa acknowledged that trying to put together this puzzle is just one of the myriad questions and challenges he and a now considerably smaller staff are working to address.

“The ownership has given a commitment to Springfield — we’re not going anywhere. It’s going to be a challenging year for us, like it is for everyone else, but the commitment is there to get through this year and plan for the long term. We’ll get through this … it’s just going to be tough.”

Indeed, Costa admitted he has no real idea if or when he might be able to put such a plan into action. In reality, he has no idea when or under what circumstances hockey might again be played on Main Street. He was told in July by the National Hockey League, parent to the AHL, that games might be able to commence by early December, but he’s very doubtful about that date.

He believes January or even February is a far more likely start time. But beyond that, he cannot say with any degree of certainty how — and how many — games might be played, and how late into 2021 the season might go. Instead, there are only question marks — many of them, involving everything from if and how many fans can sit in the stands to if and how this team can travel to away games in other states, let alone Canada.

All these questions, most of them difficult if not impossible to answer at this juncture, make this a difficult, very frustrating time for Costa and all those involved with a franchise that had become one of the feel-good stories in Springfield over the past several years.

games might be played in early December

While the AHL is expressing hope that games might be played in early December, Nate Costa, president of the Thunderbirds, believes January or early February is a more likely target for a return to action at the MassMutual Center.

Under Costa’s stewardship and the backing of a large, committed ownership group, Springfield had gone from a city without hockey after the Falcons departed for Arizona more than five years ago, to one with a franchise that was not only filling the MassMutual Center with increasing regularity, but also becoming part of the fabric of the region.

Turning the clock back just seven months or so, although it seems like an eternity, to be sure, Costa said the team was clicking on all or most cylinders, meaning everything from ticket and merchandise sales to creating strong partnerships with a number of area businesses.


Listen to BusinessTalk with Nate Costa Podcast HERE


“We were, fortunately, in a really good position when the season ended last year,” he noted. “We were ahead of budget, we were on track to make a profit, which was three years in the making. We were in great shape — we had nine sellouts through March last year, which was our previous record, and we had three weekends left and were expecting three more sellouts. The business was in great shape.”

In the proverbial blink of an eye, though, everything changed. The season, and the MassMutual Center, were shut down. Initially, the Thunderbirds, like most businesses closed down by the pandemic, thought it might be a matter of several weeks before things went back to something approaching normal. As it became clear this wouldn’t be the case, the team — again, like many other businesses — had to make some hard decisions and eventually furlough several employees; once a staff of 19, it is now down to seven.

“The thing that has been frustrating and challenging — to everyone, but me in particular — is that we don’t have a lot of control over much of anything at this point. You’re beholden to the state and other states and also to the league … you can have all the best plans in the world, but if we don’t have the ability to do it and do it safely, then it’s going to be a challenge.”

Those who remain are trying to carry on as they did seven and half months ago — selling season tickets, planning events, working within the community, and building the team’s foundation. But it’s all different. For the most part, the staff is trying to prepare for contingencies, plan what can be planned, and, perhaps above all, work tirelessly to remain relevant while waiting for games to commence and the pandemic to run its course.

“The ownership has given a commitment to Springfield — we’re not going anywhere,” Costa said. “It’s going to be a challenging year for us, like it is for everyone else, but the commitment is there to get through this year and plan for the long term. We’ll get through this … it’s just going to be tough.”

 

Setting Goals

When asked about how he’s apportioning his time these days, Costa said he spends much of it on the phone.

Many of those calls are to and from other team executives in the AHL — he knows most of them going back to the days when he worked for the league — who are looking to compare notes and share thoughts on how to deal with a situation unlike anything they’ve encountered.

“I’m seeing what other teams are doing, what they’re hearing from their states, and what the temperature is for us to play in the upcoming year,” he explained. “There’s a lot of conversation going on about how we can pull this off and how we can do it the right way. It’s a challenge that none of us have faced in our careers, and there’s no way to really plan for it.”

In addition to other AHL officials, Costa and others within the league are also talking with leaders from other sports, including the National Football League. From these conversations, they’re learning it’s been difficult to sell even those comparatively few tickets that states like Florida, Texas, and Missouri are allowing teams to sell.

Indeed, while the popular notion might be that there is considerable demand for those few seats, and that teams would struggle to figure out who might be awarded them, that is certainly not the case.

“They’re having a hard time selling the limited inventory that they have because people are just not mentally ready for it yet,” Costa said. “Even the Cowboys are facing challenges; they’ve had to comp a lot of tickets. The Dolphins, the same thing. That’s what we’re seeing.”

2019-20 Thunderbirds’ schedule

Signage outside the MassMutual Center still displays the 2019-20 Thunderbirds’ schedule because the slate for this year remains clouded by question marks.

This harsh reality brings yet another layer of intrigue, and questions, to the discussion concerning just when, if, and under what circumstances the AHL might be permitted to carry out its 2020-21 season. Indeed, while the league wants to commence action and get fans back in the arenas, if they start too early, fans will not be eager to come back.

And the harshest reality of all is that this league — and the NHL as well — simply cannot operate for any length of time without fans in the stands.

The AHL is a league with no national television contracts and only some smaller, regional deals. The vast majority of revenues come from sponsorships and sales of tickets, concessions, and merchandise. And without fans in the stands … well, it’s easy to do the math.

Meanwhile, the inability to play in front of fans is also presenting a major challenge to the parent league, the NHL, whose franchises own the bulk of the teams in the AHL, with a dozen or so, including the Thunderbirds, being independently owned.

“Even though the perception is that the NHL is this huge entity that can just sustain losses, with them not having the ability to put fans in the stands, that impacts everything,” he explained. “That’s the trunk to the revenue tree. If you don’t have fans, it’s hard to sell sponsorships, and you can’t sell merchandise and concessions. And at our level, that’s what really drives our business — it’s butts in seats.

“In this league, it’s crucially important to have fans in the arena,” he went on. “And that’s what we spent four years doing — rebuilding the fan base and packing this arena so that our business would be much more financially solvent.”

But playing games without fans in the stands remains one of the options moving forward, said Costa, calling it a last resort, but still a possibility, especially if he can negotiate with one of the local TV stations to televise some of the games. And talks along those lines are ongoing, he told BusinessWest.

The hope, though, is that, by January or February, the state will allow fans in the arenas with a six-foot-distancing model, he said, referring again to that image on his wall.

“It’s not going to be a ton of people, maybe 1,200 to 1,500 people from what we’re doing with our modeling,” Costa continued. “But at least it would get us started, and then the hope would be that, as the spring would move along, we’d be able to bring more bodies into the building.”

That’s the hope. But Costa and his team, as noted, are preparing, as best they can, for a number of contingencies.

“The thing that has been frustrating and challenging — to everyone, but me in particular — is that we don’t have a lot of control over much of anything at this point,” he said. “You’re beholden to the state and other states and also to the league … you can have all the best plans in the world, but if we don’t have the ability to do it and do it safely, then it’s going to be a challenge.”

 

Knowing the Score

Next spring will mark the 50th anniversary of the Calder Cup championship run authored by the team known then as the Springfield Kings, the minor-league affiliate of the then-fledgling Los Angeles Kings.

Costa said the team has been making plans to honor that squad and its accomplishment with a throwback game featuring the Kings’ colors and logos, an on-ice ceremony featuring surviving members of that team, and other events.

Now, most of those plans, as well as those to mark the fifth anniversary of the Thunderbirds themselves, are in limbo, like just about everything else concerning the 2020-21 season.

Indeed, even as Costa and his team try to prepare for the new season, there are still so many things beyond their control, especially the virus itself. By most accounts, a second wave has commenced, with cases on the rise in a number of states. Some of those states, and individual communities, have already put a number of restrictions in place as part of efforts to control the spread of the virus, and there may be even more in the weeks and months to come.

The ones already in place create a number of logistical concerns.

“Rhode Island has a 14-day mandatory quarantine, so if we play Providence, how does that work?” he asked rhetorically. “Meanwhile, the Canadian border is closed; we have Canadian teams, including one in our conference, Toronto. And then, there’s the challenge of air travel — Charlotte is in our division, and we would normally go there once or twice a year. How do you do that, and how do you do it safely?

“There’s a lot of things that we as a league have to work through,” he went on, and while coping with these day-to-day questions and challenges, he stressed the need to think and plan for the long term. He said the pandemic will eventually be something to talk about with the past tense, and he wants to properly position the franchise for that day, even while coping with the present challenges.

This mindset has dominated the team’s actions with regard to everything from refunding tickets sold but not used last season to managing the partnerships that have been developed over the years with corporate sponsors.

“We reached out to every season-ticket holder and gave them a number of options,” he said in reference to the seven games they missed at the end of last season. “They could roll the credit over to the following year, they could donate to our foundation, or, if they didn’t want to do any of those, we would be happy to give them a refund because, at the end of the day, it’s the right thing to do.

“None of us planned for this, so from a business perspective, we thought that any sort of pushback or anything like that is not the way to be,” he went on. “We want to make sure we’re doing the right thing for the people who have supported us from the start, and we’ve been proactive and honest because, at the end of the day, it’s so important for us to be authentic through this process because we’re not the only ones dealing with this — everyone has their own challenges.”

This approach, coupled with the team’s strong track record over the past several years, has helped the organization maintain its strong base of support, said Costa, adding that the Thunderbirds have been able to retain roughly 85% of their season-ticket sales from last year, despite the question marks hovering over the upcoming season.

“It’s been incredible to see the level of support we’ve been given,” he said. “I think people were really seeing what we are able to do in the community and how much of an impact we were having. We’ve been given commitments by people that they’re going to be here when we’re back.”

Looking ahead to the day when the pandemic is over and he can once again focus on selling out the MassMutual Center, Costa is optimistic about his prospects for doing just that.

“I think it’s going to take some time — it might take until the summer for those people who aren’t diehards to come back to our arena, but I think that, by next fall, we’ll be able to pack this place again,” he told BusinessWest. “I think there’s going to be a lot of pent-up demand, and I think we’re positioned well. I think that, when people are ready to get back in the arena again, they’re going to think twice about driving to Boston and paying $300 to $400 for a ticket when they can get the same experience and see really good hockey right here in our area for a fraction of that price.”

 

Taking Their Best Shot

As he walked and talked with BusinessWest while showing off some of the many other wraps adorning the team’s offices on Bruce Landon Way, Costa stopped and reflected on the fact that last year’s schedule is still posted on the wall outside those facilities.

That schedule has become symbolic of how the NHL and the Thunderbirds have become frozen in time in some respects. No one can say when there will be new games on the slate, how the games will be played, or where.

What Costa does know is that, sometime soon — just when, he doesn’t know — there will be a new schedule in that space. Things will be different for some time to come, and the team is certainly not going to pick right up where it left off when the music stopped last March.

But he firmly believes that the solid foundation laid before the pandemic entered everyone’s lives has the team in a good place for when we’re all on the other side of this crisis.

 

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

Special Coverage

The Clock Is Ticking

Jim Hunt

Jim Hunt, Eversource’s vice president of Regulatory Affairs and chief Communications officer.

Jim Hunt has one of those countdown clocks on his computer.

But unlike most of these mechanisms — which will tick down the minutes until a presidential debate starts or the months and days until the next summer Olympics will commence — this one has a very long end date. Or not so long, depending on who you’re talking with.

That would be 2030, the date by which Eversource Energy, which Hunt serves as senior vice president of Regulatory Affairs and chief Communications officer, intends to be carbon-neutral.

It’s an ambitious target, and therefore the next 10 years will certainly go by quickly as a result, said Hunt, noting that, while other utilities, especially those that are still vertically integrated and generate power as well as distribute it, have also set goals for carbon neutrality, most have set their clocks to 2050, 2040, or perhaps 2035.

“This is the most ambitious strategy for any utility in the country,” he told BusinessWest. “But we also have one of the strongest clean-energy and carbon-reduction policies from our state as well. So we think we can demonstrate to other utilities and to the world that, while these may be aggressive, they are attainable, and we’re going to meet them.”

Hunt met with BusinessWest late last month as part of a packed day of stops in the City of Homes. The schedule also included visits with other media outlets, Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno, and Rick Sullivan, executive director of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council.

There was plenty to talk about, including Eversource’s pending acquisition of Columbia Gas operations in Massachusetts — an important deal that was due to receive final approval from the Department of Public Utilities as this issue was going to press — as well as COVID-19 and its impact on the region and the business community, and even a few power outages resulting from a storm that week.

“That last mile is always the roughest. It’s going to be a challenge to squeeze as much as we can out of facilities and out of our vehicles, but we’re committed to doing so because we need to lead by example.”

But the main topic of conversation — in part because Hunt couldn’t talk much about the Columbia Gas purchase until it was final — involved the company’s ongoing efforts to promote clean-energy use and reduce carbon emissions — including its own drive to become carbon-neutral.

It is an ambitious goal, said Hunt, and much will have to go right for it to be attained. Actually, the utility is already roughly 90% of the way there, he noted, but the last 10% will be the most challenging.

“That last mile is always the roughest,” he noted. “It’s going to be a challenge to squeeze as much as we can out of facilities and out of our vehicles, but we’re committed to doing so because we need to lead by example.

“If we’re going to help our region achieve its goals of 80% cardon reduction by 2050, if we’re going to be that clean-energy partner in energy efficiency, renewables, and other solutions for our customers and our state policy makers,” he went on, “then we think we can do more to go above and beyond and lead by example.”

increased reliance on solar and wind power

Jim Hunt says increased reliance on solar and wind power is just one of the ways Eversource has become a catalyst for clean energy.

 

To get there, the company, which serves 4 million customers in Massachusetts, Connecticut, and New Hampshire, will deploy a multi-faceted strategy that includes improving the efficiency of its facilities, reducing fleet emissions, replacing natural-gas mains to eliminate methane leaks, reducing line losses in the electric system, investing in renewable resources, and offsetting any remaining emissions with other earth-friendly emissions.

“We have a plan to do this,” he explained. “It’s about 2 million tons of CO2 that we need to reduce or offset, and we have people throughout our company working on that implementation strategy.”

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Eversource’s ambitious carbon-neutrality goals and what it will take to reach them before the countdown clock on Hunt’s computer reads all zeroes, but also the many initiatives to help homeowners, businesses, municipalities, and the Commonwealth as a whole reduce their own carbon footprints.

Hour Town

‘Range anxiety.’

That’s a phrase Hunt summoned as he discussed why electric vehicles have not become as prevalent as some experts thought they might by this time — and in this place.

Range anxiety is just what it sounds like, he said, adding that some have a persistent fear that they could be on a long drive with no place to charge up. And this helps explain why, while the state has made significant progress in reducing carbon emissions and growing the ‘green economy’ in such realms as energy efficiency, cleaning up power plants, and bringing more solar and wind power onto the grid, the broad transportation sector is lagging behind in terms of overall impact.

“Roughly 43% of greenhouse-gas emissions in Massachusetts come from the transportation sector — the cars that are on our roads, the long-haul vehicles that are bringing commerce … that’s a real challenge,” said Hunt. “Great strides have been made to improve fuel economy, and we’re seeing more and more electrification of vehicles as a valuable solution.

“But while you can go buy an electric vehicle right off the lot, the challenge has been ensuring that there’s enough charging infrastructure throughout our roadway network,” he went on. “Not just in the urban core like Springfield and Boston and Worcester, but to get people to the more remote places, like those in Western Mass.”

“If you’re commuting to work, if you’re going to visit family, if you’re traveling to the Berkshires, you want to have that confidence that you’ll have a charge to get back home or to your destination.”

To this end, Eversource has created what it calls the Make Ready program, through which Eversource will pay the wiring infrastructure costs for thousands of new charging stations across the Commonwealth.

“We work with our customers who are interested in putting in charging stations but can’t pay the cost of that infrastructure,” he explained. “We’ll put in that infrastructure if they’ll agree to put in the charger and make it publicly accessible. This has been a great solution to deal with range anxiety — if you’re commuting to work, if you’re going to visit family, if you’re traveling to the Berkshires, you want to have that confidence that you’ll have a charge to get back home or to your destination.”

The Make Ready program, which has helped add thousands of charge points across the Commonwealth, including ones at the parking garages at Union Station and MGM Springfield, is just one of the ways Eversource has become a catalyst for clean energy, said Hunt, adding that perhaps the biggest component of this broad strategy is perhaps the simplest — helping both residential and commercial customers use less energy through higher efficiency.

solar panel and charging station

The Eversource solar panel and charging station in Westwood, Mass.

“We’ve been consistently ranked the number-one energy-efficiency provider in the nation,” he noted, due in large part to an effective partnership with the Bay State, which, along with California, traditionally has the strongest energy-efficiency policies in the nation, and Connecticut and New Hampshire as well. “We try to reach out to all our customers — residential, industrial, commercial, and communities as well — to espouse the values of energy efficiency; it really is the first fuel. If you can reduce your energy consumption, you’re cutting down on your own bill, but that also provides great benefits for the environment and clean-energy strategy.

“That’s the foundation of our clean-energy strategy,” he went on, adding that, for every dollar invested in energy-efficiency initiatives, the customer receives $3 return on that investment. And this is true across the board, whether it’s a residential customer that undertakes an energy audit and tunes up a furnace for the winter, or a commercial customer that installs more energy-efficient lighting.

Overall, Eversource invests $500 million in energy-efficiency initiatives, which yield $1.5 billion in benefits for those 4 million customers, while also contributing to sharp reductions in greenhouse-gas emissions, from more than 2.5 million metric tons of carbon dioxide in 2014 to roughly 800,000 tons in 2018.

Also contributing to those numbers are initiatives that help customers connect solar and other distributed-generation resources to the grid.

“We’ve made those investments to modernize the electric grid and make it ready for taking distributed energy, whether it’s solar or other distributed-energy resources,” Hunt explained, adding that the company also owns and operates some utility-scale solar operations, such as the one constructed on the brownfield site at the former Chapman Valve complex in Indian Orchard, a facility that he described as a model for the state when it comes to showcasing larger-scale solar energy and forging partnerships with communities to make such projects happen.

Elaborating, he said Eversource is currently working with the Massachusetts legislature to expand the cap on the solar capacity the utility can develop. Currently, that cap is 70 megawatts, and Eversource is at that number through the creation of several sites across the state.

 

Fueling Optimism

There are other components to this clean-energy strategy, said Hunt, listing windpower initiatives — the company is partnering with Orsted, the largest and most successful operator of offshore wind in the world, to develop up to 4,000 megawatts of offshore wind capacity, reducing carbon emissions by millions of tons each year — as well as energy-storage steps that will reduce the need for fossil-fuel-powered generation, while improving power quality and reliability.

These are, of course, part of the company’s own efforts to become carbon-neutral. As noted, this strategy has a number of components, from divesting fossil-fuel plants to offshore wind and solar; from improving efficiency at its many facilities to making its own fleet of vehicles greener, although much work remains in that realm, as we’ll see.

“We’ve made those investments to modernize the electric grid and make it ready for taking distributed energy, whether it’s solar or other distributed-energy resources.”

These efforts, as noted, have put the company more than 90%, and perhaps even 95%, of the way toward its goal of carbon neutrality. But, as Hunt said, the last mile is traditionally the most difficult, although he believes the goal is attainable.

“We’re a leading energy-efficiency provider. We can reduce our consumption in the 150 facilities we own and operate in New England be more efficient with lighting and energy use, procure more clean-energy resources to power those buildings … we’re developing that plan; we’re building smarter buildings to get to net-zero-energy for the buildings we operate.”

As for the fleet, there are electric vehicles in that fleet, mostly lighter models, and there are charging facilities at all of Eversource’s facilities, he noted. But the heavier trucks, including those used to restore power when there are outages, are more difficult to convert to electric.

“But we’re looking at innovations, like hybrid vehicles that might be powered by diesel today, but might be powered down while they’re doing work, with the buckets running on electric only,” Hunt said. “When you think about how these vehicles have operated, they’ve had to be on and idling so you can run the power on that arm. Today, we’re investing in hybrid types of vehicles that we can power down.

“We’re not far off,” he continued. “There’s a lot of research and a lot of investment going into electrification of more heavy-duty vehicles; there will be a day when 18-wheel vehicles are powered electrically and run autonomously.”

Meanwhile, on the gas-business side, the company is working to tighten up its infrastructure, some of it built 100 or more years ago and now prone to leaks. And these efforts will grow in scope with the acquisition of Columbia Gas, which operates in Brockton, Lawrence, and Springfield and boasts some 330,000 customers.

“We’ll be making the same kind of investments in upgrading older infrastructure and reducing leaks in the Columbia Gas system,” he noted. “In making the decision to purchase those assets, we assessed all that, and we’re committed to achieving it. It will make our goal of carbon neutrality even more challenging, but we’re up to the challenge.”

Beyond infrastructure, Eversource is also looking into cleaner, more efficient natural-gas options.

“Natural gas is an important bridge to a clean-energy future,” he explained. “Our customers depend on it, and it’s a cleaner, more cost-effective fuel for home heating and thermal needs than oil or electric. But we’re exploring ways to inject cleaner natural gas — and that might be biogas from agriculture or, further down the road, injecting hydrogen gas into our natural-gas system to further offset methane use; we’re exploring those opportunities.”

 

Powerful Arguments

Returning to the matter of that countdown clock, Hunt said Eversource has set benchmarks for different points over the next decade, and will be developing a scorecard, as well as an offset strategy, for its quest for carbon neutrality.

“We’ve got nine years to get there, but in many respects, that’s right around the corner — that’s not far away,” he noted, adding, again, that the goal is ambitious, but reachable.

In short, a utility that has in many ways set the standard when it comes to energy efficiency and clean-energy use is looking to continue that tradition.

 

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

Healthcare Heroes

Amid the Crisis at the Soldiers’ Home, This Small Army Answered the Call

The Staff of Holyoke Medical Center

The Staff of Holyoke Medical Center

It was coming up to noon on Friday, April 4, and the staff at Holyoke Medical Center was frantically working to ready facilities there for the arrival of residents of the nearby Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, who needed to be relocated in the midst of a tragic COVID-19 disaster that would make headlines across the country.

Carl Cameron, HMC’s chief operating officer, who was overseeing that work, was on the phone with his boss, hospital President and CEO Spiros Hatiras, who was telling him that some promised National Guard personnel would likely soon be arriving from the Soldiers’ Home to help with the massive and complex undertaking.

Cameron’s response more than sets the tone for a truly inspiring story that most still haven’t heard, but certainly should.

“I told him that at that point not to bother,” he recalled. “Because we had our own army of people. And it was absolutely outstanding and amazing how that team came together and got this done.”

“We had our own army of people. And it was absolutely outstanding and amazing how that team came together and got this done.”

Indeed, HMC’s small army, which would grow in numbers in the coming days and weeks, as we’ll see, came together in every way imaginable to bring 39 residents of the home into a hospital that was in the early stages of the COVID-19 fight itself. An acute-care hospital, HMC was not in the business of providing long-term care. But, to borrow a phrase from hockey, it shifted on the fly, and essentially got into that business.

There was a learning curve — staff members were certainly not used to people in HMC’s beds making requests (better make that demands) for their favorite brand of beer — but they did learn, and they made the veterans/patients/residents feel at home at an extremely difficult time.

They decorated the hastily created living spaces with flags and red, white, and blue ornaments. They found the soldiers television sets. They provided much-needed information and comfort to those soldiers’ family members, many of whom had no idea where they were. They’ve helped a few of their guests celebrate 100th birthdays since their arrival. Outpatient physical therapists were taken off furlough to become veterans’ liaisons, helping the Soldiers’ Home residents with daily functions as well as helping them maintain connections with loved ones. Office assistants stepped in to assist with patient care.

Summing it all up, Hatiras said his staff came together, as perhaps never before, amid a crisis that tested the medical center on every level imaginvable — and earned the designation of Healthcare Hero for 2020 not only from BusinessWest, but from the Huron Studer Group, one of only four such awards that organization issued across the entire U.S.

Spiros Hatiras

Spiros Hatiras

“Everyone put their roles aside and said, ‘all hands on deck.”

“Everyone put their roles aside and said, ‘all hands on deck,’” Hatiras noted, summoning still more military language as he praised every department in the hospital, from Plant Operations to Communications to Environmental Services, for the specific roles they played. “And what we’ve learned, aside from all the bonding and being more comfortable in different roles, is that we’ve technically become much more astute. We’ve learned things from a technical standpoint that would allow us to respond to a second wave or other kind of pandemic, because now we’ve got it right; we know how to convert rooms under pressure, we know how to isolate people, we know how to shift things around, we know how to use alternative ways. We’ve learned so much by going through this.”

As several of those involved with this herculean effort talked with BusinessWest about it, much of the discussion focused on that first day and night — and for a reason.

The hard work of setting up spaces for the soldiers — an outpatient cardiac-services unit and a maternity unit that has seen declining volume for several years — had been completed by mid-afternoon — as noted, without the help of the National Guard.

As he talked about the mad dash to get the rooms ready, Angelo Martinez, a member of the Plant Operations team, spoke for everyone in the room when he spoke of those who be staying in those rooms.

“At end of the day, I was tired, but it was a good feeling,” he said. “Because these veterans did a lot for us, and we owe them for all they’ve done.”

Those units were ready by 3 p.m., the end of a shift for many of those involved. But just about everyone stayed until those soldiers finally started arriving by van in the early evening. And they stayed on until the last of them arrived around midnight. And still they stayed on until the soldiers were settled into their new quarters.

Kaitlyn Nadeau, a surgical technologist, was one of them. She told BusinessWest she was unaware that the hospital was taking on the veterans because it had been a busy day in the operating rooms. When she learned, around 3 in the afternoon, she and others went about setting out a welcome mat.

Korean War Veteran Richard Madura, seen here with recreational therapist Mary Argenio, is one of 39 veterans who found a new home at Holyoke Medical Center.

“We made hearts to put on the walls because … it’s a basement, and it’s white walls, and it’s kind of scary when you walk in,” she explained. “So we decorated it like we were going to stay there. Because if it were my grandparents coming in … most of these people are confused as is, and they’re coming to this facility they’ve never been to.

“So we decided we were going to stay there,” she went on. “Hours went by, and they still hadn’t arrived because it’s quite the process to get them here. Finally, I said, ‘let’s get more people down here.’ My boss just started grabbing people from everywhere; people from the command center showed up, and managers from other departments, and CNAs … everyone just came together, including people I’d never met before in my life, to welcome them here and get them settled in.”

This coming together as a team during that first 24 hours or so set the tone, but it was really only the first chapter in a story that, seven months later, is still being written.

Indeed, soon after the veterans arrived, some began showing signs of the virus, meaning more space would have to be readied for these guests, and single rooms would be needed to slow and hopefully stifle any spread.

Also, the hospital, and especially its nursing staff, had to pivot to providing long-term-care services.

“Being an acute-care hospital, we’re not normally planning things out for long-term-care residents,” Nurse Manager Christina Straney said. “But many of our nurses have worked in long-term care, so they stepped up and said, ‘let me take this, let me run with this, let me show you what we do in nursing homes and how we care for patients.’”

Meanwhile, some of the certified nursing assistants had worked at the Soldiers’ Home and recognized some of the patients, she went on, adding that this helped create a fluid, almost seamless transition for the veterans.

Likewise, the furloughed physical therapists stepped into their new roles as veterans’ liaisons, a role that came about out of necessity, Hatiras explained.

“We had the matter of individual preferences,” he said. “I would get on a Zoom call, and I would have family members say, ‘remember, Ed doesn’t eat eggs, and he doesn’t like mayo, and he takes his tuna fish this way, and he likes his newspaper every morning’ … and I’m like, ‘whoa, how am I going to remember all this stuff?’”

The solution was to assign liaisons to each of the veterans. Jeff Ferriss is one of them. He was furloughed on a Friday and called back to work the following Monday to serve in this unique role.

“My father was a veteran — he spent 20 years in the Air Force. My brother spent four. And I’m also a veteran — I was in the National Guard and the Air Force Reserves,” he said. “So this was the perfect transition for me; I was happy to come back and help out. Our job was to keep the family members informed, but being therapists, we tried to goad them into therapy too. Some of them may not have wanted to do that, but over time, they needed to — they were stuck in their rooms, and we were trying to keep their minds going and keep them going physically. It’s been an honor to serve these people.”

Veterans like Richard Madura. A Korean War vet, he will tell you (without much prodding, by the way) that, through his 85 years, he’s been fortunate enough to be in the right place at the right time — on most occasions.

Indeed, the long-time Chicopee resident arrived in Korea just as the truce between the warring factions was being signed. And when it looked like he was ticketed for taking up a gun and maintaining the peace along the DMZ, an officer who noticed on his résumé that he had musical experience and had been part of some polka bands, let him take up a clarinet in an Army band instead. To make a long story shorter, his band entered a string of talent contests, ultimately won first prize, and wound up on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Madura told BusinessWest that this habit of being in the right place extends to his current, but certainly not permanent, mailing address at Holyoke Medical Center.

“They take really good care of you here,” he said, not wanting to compare the facilities to those he left just up the hill at the Soldiers’ Home, although he did hint that the desserts are better — and larger — at HMC. “I’m fortunate to be here; we all are.”

Indeed they are. A small army answered the call last April, and it is still answering the call, making the staff at HMC a true Healthcare Hero in a year when there are many to celebrate.

 

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

Healthcare Heroes

They Moved to the Front Lines at the Height of the Pandemic

Lydia Brisson was out for a hike with her young son on the mountain behind their home late last March. The objective was to get some exercise, but for Brisson, there was another purpose to this trek.

Indeed, while walking, she was also talking … and trying to prepare her son for the very real possibility that she might soon have to go on the road, if you will, and move from behind-the-scenes work as a clinical liaison for Berkshire Healthcare Systems (BHCS) to the front lines of an emerging pandemic.

And within minutes after returning to the house, her cell phone rang.

On the other end was Lisa Gaudet, vice president of Business Development & Marketing for BHCS, who was asking if she would be willing to pack up, travel across the state, and serve for an indeterminate amount of time as a floor nurse at BHCS’s long-term-care facility in Danvers, on the North Shore.

Lydia Brisson

Lydia Brisson

“Then, families are calling constantly because they want to know if their loved ones are OK; things were changing day to day and even moment to moment.”

Brisson didn’t hesitate in responding with a solid ‘of course,’ and that same response was also given by Christopher Savino and Emeline Bean, Western-Mass.-based BHCS clinical liaisons who got similar calls from Gaudet.

Soon, the three would be together in Danvers — out of their territory, away from their families, and smack in the middle of a crisis; there were nine active cases at the facility on the Saturday when those calls were made, several staff members had become ill, and many others had stepped away from their roles or refused to come to work.

As executive leaders at BHCS worked every possible lead and angle to find more nursing staff, Gaudet put out calls to these three members of her team who were nurses. They all said ‘yes,’ but admitted to having no real idea what they were getting themselves into.

So began a truly inspiring story, one that would bring these three closer together — or even closer, in the case of Savino and Bean, who went to high school together and worked side by side. Over the course of a dozen or so days in Danvers, they would get well-acquainted with Bagel World, become very tired of pizza, recall crying in the shower after watching one of their patients — a phrase that takes on special meaning, to be sure — die from COVID-19; vividly remember taking phone calls from family members desperate for information about a loved one, and come to really appreciate some rest at the Residence Inn in Peabody after 15- or even 18-hour shifts.

Christopher Savino

Christopher Savino

“Berkshire’s mission and values state that we’re here to serve the population that needs us, and that was a population that needed us. We’re clinical liaisons, but we’re also nurses; we went to nursing school for a reason.”

As the three talked about their experiences with BusinessWest at BHCS’s facilities in the Cubit Building in Holyoke, they all stressed that, for them, volunteering for this assignment was a no-brainer; saying ‘no’ wasn’t something that really entered their mind — although, as clinical liaisons, a role in which they focus on evaluating patients for placement at one of BHCS’s facilities, they are a long way from the front lines.

“I didn’t really give my husband much of an option,” said Bean, who has a young child herself, as she recalled that phone call from Gaudet. “The need was there, and this is why you take that oath.”

Savino agreed. “Berkshire’s mission and values state that we’re here to serve the population that needs us, and that was a population that needed us. We’re clinical liaisons, but we’re also nurses; we went to nursing school for a reason.”

Those nearly two weeks on the road were learning and growing experiences on every level imaginable, they said, adding that they will never forget any of this, but especially what they encountered upon arriving.

“There were nurses who wanted to hug us — but couldn’t — because they were desperate for help,” Bean recalled. “And there were scared people; everyone was like, ‘what do we do?’ The state was changing guidelines every day.”

Emeline Bean“This was completely different from what we did every day. And it’s given me a new and different perspective on my job. Since we were on the outside in our day-to-day work, this experience reminded me of what those on the inside are challenged with on a day-to-day basis, when all the cards are stacked against you.”

Savino noted that he and Bean, who followed each other to Danvers, arrived a day ahead of Brisson. Their first assignment was the dementia unit.

“You take a dementia patient — they don’t really know already what’s going on,” he told BusinessWest. “Now you tack on a mask, goggles, and essentially you look like a Ghostbuster that’s coming at them with medications, oxygen … they were terrified. They had no idea what was happening, they couldn’t leave their rooms — it was a very difficult situation.”

And while tending to patients, the three were also trying to assist families, who were often desperate for information about their loved ones.

“We were going into an extremely sad situation — there were a lot of unknowns,” Brisson said. “And then, families are calling constantly because they want to know if their loved ones are OK; things were changing day to day and even moment to moment.”

Savino agreed. “Our first day on the dementia floor, I remember getting a call; a patient’s daughter called and said, ‘how’s mom?’ I said, ‘she’s still negative … I haven’t gone to see her yet, but I’ll get there.’ She ended up testing positive 24 hours later and dying a day after that. I remember just breaking down in the shower.”

The three went over as a team, and they recall supporting each other, and others they were working with, throughout their assignment away from home.

“Every night, the three of us would have dinner together,” Savino said. “Every single night, we would decompress. If one of us had an overnight shift, one of the others would get food and leave it outside that person’s door. We had each other, thankfully.”

When asked to put the experience in perspective and talk about how it impacted them and perhaps changed them, the answers were provocative.

“This experience fueled my fire,” said Brisson. “My real passion is direct-care nursing, and although my boss may not want to hear this, it did make me realize that that’s where I will make the greatest difference and help the most people.”

Added Savino, “we all became nurses for a reason — putting everyone else’s life before our own. This experience just reinforced why I became a nurse and why, no matter what, even if I’m in administration, I will always keep my nursing license.”

For Bean, the experience was somewhat different in that she had been at the bedside before. But those 12 days still had an impact on her, professionally and personally.

“It brought me back and made me miss that aspect of nursing,” she told BusinessWest. “This was completely different from what we did every day. And it’s given me a new and different perspective on my job. Since we were on the outside in our day-to-day work, this experience reminded me of what those on the inside are challenged with on a day-to-day basis, when all the cards are stacked against you.”

Returning to that day last March when she got that phone call, Brisson recalled a conversation afterward with her husband, who was naturally concerned and tried to convince her this was not her job and she didn’t have to go.

She recalled that she agreed — to the extent this wasn’t exactly within her job description at that specific moment in time. But as for not having to go … she respectfully disagreed. This was a big part of her job, a big reason why she chose this profession.

Her argument didn’t exactly persuade her husband, but it clearly explains why she, Bean, and Savino are all Healthcare Heroes.

 

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

Healthcare Heroes

This Administrator Has Become a Calming Voice in the Midst of the Pandemic

Maggie Eboso

Maggie Eboso was in the grocery store when the first text message came in on the evening of March 26.

Soon, there were three more, and as her phone kept pinging, it became increasingly clear that her job as Infection Control coordinator at Mercy Medical Center was about to change substantially, and that she and the hospital were entering uncharted waters.

Indeed, the first suspected COVID-19 patients — two young women who had recently returned to the area from China — had arrived at Mercy, and there were questions that needed to be answered. Lots of them.

So began an ultra-intense period that has tested Eboso in all kinds of ways, but also taken her career to a new and different plane, one in which she has emerged as a Healthcare Hero.

Those frantic first days would set the tone for the weeks and months to come, during which Eboso would take on a number of responsibilities, many of them new — from coaching staff on the proper use of personal protective equipment (PPE) to helping all those at the hospital navigate a rough sea of changing guidelines and constantly changing information; from advocating for adequate supplies of PPE and working with colleagues to be good stewards of that precious equipment to providing a much-needed sense of calm amid a crisis unlike anything Mercy had seen before.

Her work during the early stages of the pandemic took her to every corner of the hospital, and also far outside its walls. Indeed, she taught PPE donning and doffing, hand hygiene, and infection-control practices to staff at the Hampden County Correctional Center in Ludlow.

Summing it all up, she said this has been a learning experience — one that is very much ongoing, and one that has helped her personally and professionally in innumerable ways.

“I’m a better nurse, and I’ve grown my knowledge base,” she explained. “And I now have a closer working relationship with many of the people here. Initially, I was joking that, when COVID is done, I’m going to change my cell-phone number and disable Halo [a messaging system used in healthcare] on my phone, because of all those calls I was getting. But through all those conversations and close meetings, we’ve become closer and have stronger relationships.”

Turning back the clock several years, Eboso said she took a somewhat winding route to her role as Infection Control and Prevention coordinator.

She came to this country from Kenya with the intention of studying business, but quickly segued into healthcare at Springfield Technical Community College and soon landed a summer internship at Mercy. When it was over, she was asked if she wanted to stay on as a nurse’s aide, and replied with a strong ‘absolutely.’ In many ways, she’s never left.

She went from nurse’s aide to nurse to clinical nurse supervisor to administrative nursing supervisor on weekend nights, a position that was eventually eliminated in 2015, prompting her to leave the Mercy system for close to a year.

She was offered a chance to return, and remembers the vice president of Nursing offering her her pick of positions.

Eboso chose Infection Control, something she had never done before, but intrigued her. She recalls her husband noting she was a quick study and saying, “If someone offers you an amazing opportunity and you’re not sure you can do it, say ‘yes’ —then learn how to do it later.” He also sent her an inspirational quote from Richard Branson to the same effect.

But no words, from her husband or Branson, could likely have prepared her for what her role became starting early this year, and especially after she started receiving those texts in the supermarket.

“The biggest thing that we saw with this whole thing was the fear. We were all thinking, ‘yes, we’ll take care of you, and we’ll treat you,’ but at the end of the day, we all had families and children that we were going home to. So while, yes, we all signed up for this, and this is what we do, people were still afraid — they wanted assurances that they could do their jobs and still go home and not bring this back to their families.”

They came from the Emergency Department director, the ED charge nurse, and the nurse tending to the patient directly. She put the shopping aside, was at the hospital in 10 minutes, and began addressing a situation that would become a microcosm of all that would come over the ensuing weeks and months.

“We had to call the Department of Public Health and get approval for testing because hospitals couldn’t do the testing themselves,” she explained. “So it was now calling the epidemiologist, waiting for a call back, talking to the physicians and nurse, looking at the patient, and waiting for DPH to call you back.”

Maggie Eboso’s work during the pandemic

Maggie Eboso’s work during the pandemic took her to every corner of Mercy Medical Center — and far beyond its walls.

“Information was changing almost every day,” she went on, while discussing what those first few weeks and months were like. “So as you’re building systems into your computer, you’re writing policies and going out in front of your staff to educate them on the new and updated information — and that was happening sometimes several times a week.”

One of her primary roles focused on educating staff on how to use PPE and become good stewards of that equipment, but also to help them separate fact from conjecture or assumption on what equipment was needed and, above all, how to keep themselves and their families safe from infection.

“The biggest thing that we saw with this whole thing was the fear,” she explained. “We were all thinking, ‘yes, we’ll take care of you, and we’ll treat you,’ but at the end of the day, we all had families and children that we were going home to. So while, yes, we all signed up for this, and this is what we do, people were still afraid — they wanted assurances that they could do their jobs and still go home and not bring this back to their families.”

And the onslaught of information coming from the media certainly didn’t help, she went on, because this information was often contradicting what she and others were telling staff members.

“When we told them, ‘all you need is a regular mask,’ they’d see people on TV wearing haz-mat suits, and they would ask, ‘why are they wearing haz-mat suits, and all you’re giving us is a mask?’ she recalled, adding that was this was just one of many “clashes and contradictions,” as she called them, that had to be dealt with.

“We had to call the Department of Public Health and get approval for testing because hospitals couldn’t do the testing themselves. So it was now calling the epidemiologist, waiting for a call back, talking to the physicians and nurse, looking at the patient, and waiting for DPH to call you back.”

While taking on this role of educator within the medical center, she also carried it out within the community as well, including several visits to the correctional facility in Ludlow, where she provided lessons in everything from how gloves provide a false sense of security — that’s why hand washing is still very important — to how to don and doff PPE.

Today, one of her concerns involves battling complacency and what she and many others are now calling “battle fatigue” — both inside the medical center and within the larger community.

She used the nurses’ lounges at Mercy as an example. “People are tired … people want to celebrate a birthday with a cake or share a pizza; they want to eat lunch with their friends,” she explained, adding that it’s part of her job to keep these employees diligent — and safe — by keeping the numbers down in those lounges and making sure there is adequate social distancing.

She joked that people are wary of even thinking about letting their guard down because, if and when they do, “Maggie will be walking in the door at just that moment.”

That mindset, real or not, is just one of many ways of explaining why she has become a Healthcare Hero during this very challenging year.

 

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

Healthcare Heroes

She Became a Guiding Light at a Time of Pain and Darkness

Rabbi Devorah Jackson

Rabbi Devorah Jacobson

Rabbi Devorah Jacobson came to JGS Lifecare as its director of Spiritual Life in 2001. And, for the first 19 years or so, she came to work each day knowing exactly what her job was and how it would be carried out.

But when the COVID-19 pandemic reached this facility last March … well, she still knew what her role was, but she had to continually revisit that question about how to carry it out, because the answer had the potential to change seemingly every day.

“Every day, I would ask, ‘what does it mean to be a chaplain in a long-term facility during this time?” she told BusinessWest. “In the midst of the pandemic, when many of our residents are sick, many are going to the hospital, and many are dying, and staff are being called upon to work long hours and do things they weren’t necessarily doing before, like post-mortems, and where they’re risking their own health and lives every day they walked into the building … I’m observing all this and asking myself, ‘what is my role as the spiritual leader of this institution?’”

To say she would find new — and impactful — ways to answer that question would be an understatement.

Indeed, over the course of the past seven months, Jacobson has been a source of comfort to a number of constituencies, including staff members, residents, and their families. And she has done this through a number of means, everything from donning PPE and visiting sick and dying residents with COVID to rallying community organizations to send staff members meals of gratitude; from enlisting crisis therapists and mental-health counselors to offer staff free confidential counseling to creating prayer and inspiration cards for spiritual support; from helping raise awareness and funds for JGS’s Employee Assistance Fund to moving furniture, on at least one occasion.

“I’m part of the team,” she explained. “And I made a pretty quick decision — to be truly part of the team, 365 days a year, we do what we’re called upon to do.”

It is sentiments like this that prompted Susan Halpern, vice president of Development and Communications for JGS, who nominated Jacobson, to write that “our heroes are people we look up to and admire for their extraordinary actions and achievements. They are people we wish to emulate. Devorah’s countless acts of caring and loving-kindness, her concern for others, her efforts seeking justice for all, make her a standout candidate for the prestigious Healthcare Heroes award.”

“I’m part of the team. And I made a pretty quick decision — to be truly part of the team, 365 days a year, we do what we’re called upon to do.”

Indeed, as she talked with BusinessWest at a small table outside the Julian J. Leavitt Family Jewish Nursing Home — a nod to the precautions being taken to keep all those inside the facility safe — Jacobson repeatedly pointed toward the building and said, “the real heroes are in there.”

She was referring to the frontline workers who confronted a ferocious outbreak of COVID-19 in the early spring that would ultimately claim 66 lives and leave staff members fearful of what might happen to them, but still committed to carrying out their jobs.

In many ways, she pivoted within her role, from spending the bulk of her time with residents and families — handling everything from Jewish programming to pastoral care, including one-on-one visits — to now devoting most of it to those staff members fighting the COVID battle but also confronting the many other issues of the day.

A plaque has been placed outside the Julian J. Leavitt Family Jewish Nursing Home

A plaque has been placed outside the Julian J. Leavitt Family Jewish Nursing Home to honor those residents of the facility who lost their lives to COVID-19.

“Yes, I was continuing to meet with residents, although they were very frail and very sick, and yes, I was continuing to be in touch with family members, because they were unable to come into the building — I was able to give them a sense of how their loved ones were doing,” she recalled. “But much of the focus shifted to the staff.”

And it has remained there, months after the height of the tragedy, because the need remains — and is significant.

“I was just involved in a conversation with a nurse,” she said while speaking with BusinessWest. “She took me aside and said, ‘now that COVID has passed, many of us are dealing with PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder]. I’m not sure what kind of help we need, but we need some help.’”

She has been providing such help, and in several ways, one of them being help in securing counseling for the many staff members impacted by the crisis.

“It was quite clear, as I was visiting the units and talking to staff, that there was a lot of trauma,” she recalled. “So what I wound up doing, with the help of a lot of great friends in the therapy world, was put together a therapy initiative for our staff. I had a list of about 30 mental-health counselors, trained in trauma and crisis counseling, who made themselves available for phone, Zoom, or otherwise, to be available for up to six hours, for free.

“I started making matches,” she went on, adding that maybe 20-25 staff members took advantage of the program. “Some of these people got sick, so for some of them, it was when they got back and had gone through all they had gone through with their own illness.”

Each day, she would arrive at the facility and ask herself how she could carry out her role, how she could help. And seemingly each day, there was a different answer.

It might be creating a new prayer and inspiration card — one of them says simply, “be the change that you wish to see in the world.” In response to George Floyd’s death and the Black Lives Matter movement, she held an all-campus moment of silence and urged individuals and the organization as a whole to seek ways to defeat bigotry and racism. In response to an on-campus arson attempt, she spoke up against hate crimes and anti-Semitism. On more than a few occasions, she helped box up the belongings of residents who had died as a result of COVID-19.

While Jacobson’s recollections of the past seven months and thoughts about her work certainly resonate, comments from others about the comfort and support she provided speak volumes about her impact during this time of crisis.

“My only regret was that I could not hold my mother’s hand. Devorah held her hand for me. She let me say goodbye to my mother … she was there to bridge the gap. It is because of Devorah that my journey was so peaceful.”

Halpern forwarded this comment from a family member: “Devorah went in to see my parents every day and she called me every day to give me updates. My only regret was that I could not hold my mother’s hand. Devorah held her hand for me. She let me say goodbye to my mother … she was there to bridge the gap. It is because of Devorah that my journey was so peaceful.”

Halpern also shared an e-mail from Lola White, an LPN and unit manager at the Leavitt Nursing Home, which was sent to her unsolicited. “Throughout this pandemic,” it read, “Devorah has always been there and ready to help in any way she could.

“One day, I was attending to a resident who lost the COVID battle,” it continued. “She immediately asked me, as she always did, if I was OK. Next thing I know, she was suited and booted, by my side, helping me. Before she helped me, I felt defeated. Her acts of compassion for me and every other staff member in the facility made it easier to cope … She set up meals, counselors, and even called and texted staff that were out sick or had a sick family member … I am looking for a way to thank her for everything.”

Needless to say, many people share that sentiment.

 

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

Healthcare Heroes

This College Student Stepped Up and Passed an Important Test

Jennifer Graham

Jennifer Graham

Jennifer Graham enrolled in the pre-medical sciences program — with a minor in psychology — at Bay Path University with the long-range goal of becoming a doctor.

But the events of the past seven months have changed her outlook — and her career pursuit — in a very meaningful way.

“I now want to go into nursing school,” she told BusinessWest. “Dealing with COVID as a whole and seeing what we’re going through as a country, I just want to pursue nursing and help people more. Doctors don’t get that one-on-one all the time, that patient contact, as much as a nurse does. After working with COVID and seeing what people really go through with sickness and even death, I want to be there — I want to be there to support these patients, help them out, and make them feel better as an individual with what they’re going through.”

What prompted this change? Some time on the front lines of the pandemic as a home health aide working for O’Connell Care at Home, a part-time job that became far more than that when she returned from a cruise — yes, a cruise — during spring break in mid-March.

Upon coming back to Western Mass. from that voyage to the Mediterranean, her job with O’Connell changed in a number of ways — everything from how care was provided in the home during a pandemic to where.

Indeed, in addition to going into the homes of the clients assigned to her, she was one of the first (and one of the few) to volunteer to provide care to the homeless at an outdoor COVID-19 triage facility established to care for potential positive cases among the homeless.

When asked why she signed on for this risky, month-long assignment in the middle of a pandemic, she replied simply, “there was an obvious need, and I just thought I could help — I thought I could do my part.”

“After working with COVID and seeing what people really go through with sickness and even death, I want to be there — I want to be there to support these patients, help them out, and make them feel better as an individual with what they’re going through.”

These comments from Michael Hynek, an HR generalist at O’Connell who nominated her to be a Healthcare Hero, echo that sentiment and put her work during the pandemic in its proper perspective.

“Having an aide like her, who is willing to accept any challenge, is vital when servicing our at-risk members in the community,” he wrote. “She makes everyone feel welcome and safe when administering care. Jennifer also enjoys the opportunity to learn about healthcare in many unique settings. Working outside of a hospital or facility can be very challenging, but she has embraced every challenge that has come her way.”

Jennifer Graham says her experiences during the pandemic

Jennifer Graham says her experiences during the pandemic, especially her work with the homeless, has prompted her to change her career goals; her new ambition is to become a nurse.

COVID-19 has provided her the opportunity to learn on many levels, and about many things. And it has also given her a new perspective on everything from the homeless population to her own career aspirations.

To tell this story properly, we need to go back to end of that spring-break cruise, which started and ended in Gotham. Suffice it to say the world, and Graham’s world, were much different places.

“While we were in the Bahamas, my phone was going off like crazy, and I was thinking, ‘look what we’re going home to,’” she recalled. “When we docked, New York was a complete ghost town; they took our temperatures and asked us a series of questions; if you had a fever, you had to stay on the cruise ship for two weeks. But no one had a fever.”

As for Bay Path, the campus was now closed, and it would not reopen for the balance of the spring semester. “There were no labs, no nothing; everything was remote.”

Then there was her day job, as she called it.

Looking for something that would provide both a paycheck and some rewarding work in what was becoming her chosen field, she became intrigued by the comments of some friends who worked at O’Connell’s who told her it was a great place to work. She applied late last fall, and started in December.

By the following March, she had settled in; she had a few clients assigned to her and also filled in when a colleague was out.

When she came back from vacation, that world changed as well. She was still seeing many of the same clients she did before COVID struck, but now, the work was different. It now entailed social distancing, mask wearing, and being extra diligent when it came to keeping the client and family members — and herself — safe.

“It was quite challenging at first — having to wear a mask all day was … different, and it was a new environment,” she recalled. “But after a little bit, you got used to it. And for the clients, it was difficult for them, because it was hard for them to understand what you were saying. I was thinking, ‘now we have to think differently and respond to them differently. I have to be much louder and slow my words; clients don’t like the mask.’

“Having an aide like her, who is willing to accept any challenge, is vital when servicing our at-risk members in the community.”

“I’ve been double-gloving,” she went on, referring to the practice of wearing two sets of gloves in the homes of those clients she has to help physically. “In some cases, they tell you not to double-glove, because it’s easier for your gloves to rip, but double-gloving for me has been a life saver.”

The bigger, even more significant change came with her decision to volunteer for work at the triage center created to care for the homeless population, work that became almost full-time as the spring semester ended and her schedule opened up.

“Anyone who had the virus or felt they had the virus came into these two large tents — they were essentially living there,” she explained, adding that individuals were tested on site and placed in two categories: PUI (patients under investigation), and the “COVID side,” where residents were housed in designated quarters based on whether they tested positive or negative.

Elaborating, she said there was an intake process, testing, and then the aides would bring them into a tent, make up a bed for them, get them something to eat, and help in any way they could. “If they needed anything, we were there for them.”

While a few people volunteered for work at the triage center, Hynek told BusinessWest, Graham’s commitment stood out.

“She really stepped up the plate when it came to transitioning away from the elderly care and into the homeless care and serving that vulnerable population,” he noted. “She took on a brand-new challenge, and I don’t think a lot of people would step up to the plate in that situation.”

As noted earlier, this work was a learning experience on many levels, and it also changed her perspective on the homeless population.

“This experience changed my mind on how I look at them,” she explained. “Being younger, I would look at a homeless person and say, ‘why don’t you just get a job?’ Working with them completely changed how I felt; I got to understand what it’s like for them — how much of a struggle it is for them on a daily basis.

Graham is back in school now, taking classes remotely while returning to the Bay Path campus for labs. She still works at O’Connell at a part-time basis, taking care of a few clients and double-gloving as always. The COVID-19 fight is far from over, but she has already absorbed a number of lessons that have helped her grow personally and professionally and given her that new perspective on what she wants to do with her life.

If this was a test — and she would say it has been, on a number of levels — then she has certainly aced it, becoming, in the process, one of the many Healthcare Heroes of 2020.

 

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

Healthcare Heroes

Dedicated Team Rose to the Occasion and Took Care of Those in Need

The Nutrition Department at GSSSI

The Nutrition Department at GSSSI

Several areas at the Greater Springfield Senior Services Inc. facility on Industry Avenue in Springfield are still sporting St. Patrick’s Day decorations.

They were put up early last March, and they remain there … well, because those who put them up haven’t been back to take them down.

Indeed, as the pandemic closed in and the state-ordered shutdown went into effect just before that holiday, the vast majority of GSSSI’s 250 employees began working remotely — and they have remained off site. But for some, working at home simply wasn’t an option. That’s because it’s their job to essentially provide nutritious home-delivered meals, or HDMs, as they call them, each day.

This small team of 10 essential employees stayed on and weathered the storm, if you will, and devised and executed a comprehensive plan to ensure those who need these meals get them, even though the senior-dining sites that were in operation had to shut down due to restrictions on large gatherings, and all meals have to be delivered to the home or picked up at designated ‘grab-and-go’ sites.

The creation of that new grab-and-go program underscores just how quickly — and effectively — the Nutrition Department at GSSSI was able to respond to this crisis situation.

“We knew we couldn’t leave people behind. There were people in need, and we had to come up with a plan to get them their meals.”

Indeed, the initiative involved everything from securing new caterers, including one that could prepare medically tailored meals, to establishing the sites; from partnering with the PVTA to deliver the meals to putting in place the protocols needed to ensure that meals were picked up safely.

Doing all that might normally take four to six weeks, said Heather Jolicoeur, community coordinator for GSSSI and a member of that team. Instead, they did it all in under two weeks.

All that sounds difficult enough, but remember, this was carried out in the middle of a pandemic, so there additional challenges and assignments on top of those one might expect:

• One of the food resources was shut down due to COVID-19, forcing those at GSSSI to track down a reliable and appropriate food source for Kosher meal recipients;

• A corps of volunteers had to be assembled, with CORI checks run on each individual due to the nature of the work;

• Temporary Meals on Wheels drivers had to be hired to fill in for regular drivers who had pre-existing conditions and couldn’t safely deliver meals every day;

• New policies for delivering meals with the least amount of contact from the drivers were put in place, further complicating the process; and

• As the crisis continued, new needs emerged, and HDM recipients were soon also receiving toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and other items, supplied by those in ‘chase cars’ following those delivering meals.

Jill Keough

Jill Keough

“Each one of us felt very responsible about whom we were serving‚ and we were responsible to one another. So we really took social distancing very seriously. Many of us didn’t go to the supermarket for months because we didn’t want to risk bringing the virus into work.”

“Every day, there are emergencies; every day, the conditions change; every day, new policies and procedures are developed, implemented, and changed,” said Jolicoeur, putting the accent on the present tense. “Every day, all 10 of us work together calmly and focused on serving as many seniors as possible.”

As they talked about their experiences and what it meant to be part of this effort, those who are involved gave some unique perspective on all that has transpired over the past seven months, and underscored why this group is part of the Healthcare Heroes class of 2020.

“We knew we couldn’t leave people behind,” said Jill Keough, executive director of GSSSI, as she summed up the situation that unfolded in mid-March and the Nutrition Department’s detailed, and imaginative, response to the problem — or problems, to be precise. “There were people in need, and we had to come up with a plan to get them their meals.”

Before getting to this plan, though, Mary Jenewin Caplin, the now-retired Area Agency on Aging director, set the stage. Before COVID-19, she explained, GSSSI served more than 900 clients who rely on HMDs each day. Prepared by caterers each day, the meals were delivered to some homes, but also to 14 senior-dining sites across the region, where clients could not only dine, but enjoy one another’s company and camaraderie.

When the pandemic struck, those dining sites had to close, for obvious reasons, but the need remained, and now, meals had to be delivered to the home, requiring the hiring of more volunteer drivers and new ways to get meals into the hands of those who needed them.

The plan that emerged came together very quickly, out of necessity, said Mike Young, an HMD supervisor, and it would have to incorporate a number of changes to how things had been done, but could no longer be done in the age of COVID.

“The biggest concern was that clients didn’t even want to open their doors anymore,” he explained. “We had to worry about how we would see them, how we would get them the meals, how would we keep the clients safe, how would we keep the drivers safe. Our drivers were used to going into someone’s house, putting the meal in the refrigerator, giving it to them on the couch, or putting it on the kitchen table. Now, we’re trying to get a driver to give them a meal, stay six feet apart, and maybe not even have the door open; there were a number of challenges to overcome.”

“None of the drivers could fit all that food into one car. We had some people call and say, ‘stop, I have no more freezer space”

Tracy Landry, another HMD supervisor, agreed, noting that, to keep both drivers and clients safe, a series of new protocols were put in place, including single-use plastic bags for deliveries, masks, hand sanitizer, and other steps.

“We had more meetings than you can imagine when we first this started,” she recalled. “Every day was different, and each day it seemed that there was a new challenge.”

Indeed, and as new challenges emerged, this small but dedicated team found ways to meet them. At the top of the list of challenges was keeping everyone safe, and for this team of 10, that meant taking extraordinary measures themselves.

“Each one of us felt very responsible about whom we were serving‚ and we were responsible to one another,” said Keough. “So we really took social distancing very seriously. Many of us didn’t go to the supermarket for months because we didn’t want to risk bringing the virus into work.”

As noted, one of the real concerns for the Nutrition Department team was keeping the drivers — most all of them older and in the high-risk category — out of harm’s way.

“My concern the whole time was the drivers — they’re all in that danger zone,” Young said. “Every day, they were asking, ‘what’s going on?’ You could tell they were concerned, and I was concerned for them. The last thing I wanted to see was someone catch something. To me, they’re the real heroes in this; they were out there every day doing it.”

At the height of the crisis, additional volunteer drivers had to be hired to handle what became larger deliveries, said Landry, noting that those at GSSSI were determined to help seniors stock up on frozen meals to make sure they had enough food in the home.

“None of the drivers could fit all that food into one car,” she explained, adding quickly that these efforts to help clients stock up were more than successful. “We had some people call and say, ‘stop, I have no more freezer space.’”

And, as noted, the help being provided soon extended beyond food. Indeed, as calls came in from the public asking how they could volunteer and help serve the seniors, some were pressed into service following the food-delivery vehicles in so-called chase cars stockpiled with toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and other items the client might need.

But food was the primary focus, said Kate Senn, Nutrition program director, adding that the creation of a grab-and-go program certainly helped GSSSI effectively meet that growing need. To put the matter in perspective, she noted that, in January, prior to COVID-19, GSSSI was providing 3,352 meals for congregate dining sites. In August, it was providing 4,581 meals via the grab-and-go program.

Those numbers help tell the story, but only a little. The tireless work and dedication to serving clients — while also keeping everyone safe at a time when similar programs in other states and other parts of this state had to shut down because of positive cases — are what really make this story happen.

The 10 that stayed behind have left the St. Patrick’s Day decorations up, perhaps thinking they will be appropriate in a few months again anyway. But more to the point, they just haven’t had any time.

They’ve been too busy getting HDMs to all those who need them. They’ve been too busy doing the work of true Healthcare Heroes.

 

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

Healthcare Heroes

This Administrator Provided a Steady Hand in Rough Seas

Helen Gobeil

Helen Gobeil

Helen Gobeil had recently relocated to Western Mass. from the other side of the state, and was looking for work.

She remembers seeing the small, as in small — maybe two lines — ad in the paper for an administrative assistant at Visiting Angels in West Springfield, a home-care provider, and becoming intrigued enough to apply — and prevail in that search.

She would eventually grow into the position and became adept at handling the many responsibilities within the job description, said her boss, Michele Anstett, president and CEO of the company, adding quickly that this was a good thing because all those talents would be needed when COVID-19 arrived in Western Mass.

Indeed, every aspect of this job, from recruiting caregivers to consulting with new clients; from matching caregivers with these clients to scheduling regular care and coordinating care in emergency situations, would become more difficult. Much more difficult.

And there would be new responsibilities added to that already-long list, including the daunting task of providing PPE for those caregivers and providing a compassionate ear to family members coping with something they would struggle to get both hands around.

Anstett summed up Gobeil’s work during this ultra-challenging time by describing her as a “hidden hero of COVID-19.”

By that, she meant she worked mostly, but not exclusively, behind the scenes and not on the front lines. But her contributions to what is an ongoing fight to carry on business in the middle of a pandemic, while keeping both employees and clients as safe as possible, are worthy of that adjective ‘heroic.’

“Not only has she handled this crisis with extraordinary competence and resilience,” Anstett wrote in her nomination, “she has remained a positive force in the lives of clients, their families, and caregivers.

“Not only has she handled this crisis with extraordinary competence and resilience, she has remained a positive force in the lives of clients, their families, and caregivers.”

“COVID-19 has not only presented physical challenges, but also mental ones, including severe anxiety and depression and exacerbating loneliness, isolation, and sleep problems, particularly in the senior population,” she went on. “To this end, Helen has not only served to protect the health of seniors across Western Massachusetts, but she has also given peace of mind to the families, seniors, and caregivers.”

To put these phrases ‘positive force’ and ‘peace of mind’ in their proper perspective, we turn back the clock to last March 23, when Gov. Charlie Baker imposed his lockdown. At Visiting Angels, staff members packed up and prepared to work remotely for what would be three months. But as they did that, Gobeil, in particular, had to develop detailed plans for providing care in the middle of a pandemic, at a time when people, and especially seniors, were wary about letting people into their homes.

For many, though, home care is an essential need, so they had to let people in. But before anyone went in, Gobeil and Anstett would conduct a risk assessment for both clients and caregivers within a given match.

“We would go down the list, and give each client a number — ‘1’ being the least at risk, and ‘3’ the highest,” Anstett noted, adding that there are more than 60 clients on average at any given time. “We would talk about each caregiver and each client and discuss how to keep them safe; if there was a facility that had COVID, we wouldn’t go into that facility.

“Helen stayed on top of all this,” she went on. “She would talk to every single caregiver and find out where they were going, where they had been, whether they had another job … and she would just cut it right down, every day.”

Helen Gobeil with Michele Anstett, president and CEO of Visiting Angels West Springfield.

Helen Gobeil with Michele Anstett, president and CEO of Visiting Angels West Springfield.

Meanwhile, there would be new protocols concerning cleaning within those homes and other steps to control the spread of the virus.

“These were things we did all the time,” Gobeil explained. “Caregivers just had to be extra, extra cautious about what they did.”

And she had to be extra cautious and extra diligent about who else was going into these homes. With that, she relayed a story that brings this element of her assignment into perspective.

“The daughter of one of our clients showed up from Florida — and that was an event,” she recalled. “She didn’t tell anyone she was coming, and went into the home to a bedbound client with our caregivers in the house. She didn’t quarantine — she went from the plane to this home.

“This was a 24/7 case, and we pulled out of that house immediately,” Gobeil went on. “I said, ‘it’s her or us; until she’s gone, we’re out!’ She went to a hotel that night and left the next morning. Another daughter went in and cleaned top to bottom.”

Beyond delivering some tough love in situations like that, she has also been providing some compassionate outreach to family members of clients, including one who had to cope with the death of a loved one at a time when the grieving process, like everything else, was made different by COVID-19.

“Often, I tried to bring them to a peaceful moment,” she explained. “In this woman’s case, her mother was dying, and she was very anxious about the whole thing. I said to Michele one night, ‘I’m going to see the client, and I’m going to take some time with the daughter,’ and I did. And after her mom passed, she came here, stood in the doorway, said said, ‘please tell me I can come in — I just owe you a big hug.’”

There have been myriad other tasks and challenges as well, including the matter of simply securing needed PPE for her caregivers. It was very difficult to procure items such as masks and gowns in the beginning, and it’s still a challenge, she said, adding that Visiting Angels and other providers have certainly been helped by Gowns 4 Good, the national effort to collect graduation gowns.

“As we started to get them in, the stories that accompanied them … they were incredible,” said Gobeil. “Notes from high-school graduates, class of 2020, including some from West Springfield, who couldn’t have their own ceremonies — they were heartwarming. We were crying.”

“Often, I tried to bring them to a peaceful moment.”

Meanwhile, another stern test, especially after the federal stimulus package was passed, was hiring caregivers. Indeed, many solid candidates for such jobs were in a position where they were making far more in employment than they could as a caregiver — so they stayed unemployed.

“In the beginning, we couldn’t get anyone to answer our ads,” she recalled. “But we made it through that rough patch, and now, a lot of people are eager to get back to work.”

One of her priorities now is to keep both her caregivers and their clients diligent as the pandemic enters its eighth month of impacting virtually all aspects of life as we know it.

Summing up what it was like — and is still like — she said, “it just multiplied the concern and the vigilance, and the stress was unbelievable, every day. And it is still like that. Every day.”

Coping with all this was certainly not in whatever job description was part of that tiny ad she saw more than a dozen years ago now. And it is certainly not what she signed up for.

But as this job changed with COVID, Gobeil rose to the occasion, accepting each new challenge with diligence and ample respect for her ultimate responsibility — the health and well-being of both her caregivers and clients.

Call her a ‘hidden’ hero if you like, but her hard work and dedication are certainly not lost on anyone she has been involved with during this pandemic.

 

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

Cover Story Special Coverage

The Business of Pivoting

Nicole Ortiz, founder and president of Crave Food Truck

Nicole Ortiz, founder and president of Crave Food Truck

Nicole Ortiz remembers a lot of people having some serious doubts about whether she should go forward with her plans to put a food truck into operation late last spring.

After all, it was the middle of a pandemic, people were staying home, the economy was tanking, and the restaurant business, perhaps more than any other, was suffering mightily.

But Ortiz, a graduate of the Culinary Arts program at Holyoke Community College, was determined to make her dream, which she would call Crave, become reality — pandemic or not.

She had already acquired the vehicle itself, and her experience in the accelerator program operated by EforAll Holyoke had given her the confidence (and technical know-how) to get her show — a food truck specializing in Puerto Rican cuisine — on the road … literally.

Problem was, it was not business as usual when it came to securing the needed approvals and permits from city officials.

“It was even difficult to speak with officials from cities because people weren’t working as much, and you couldn’t even get into city halls,” she said. “Everything has to be mailed in, which takes … as long as that takes. Meanwhile, a lot of cities don’t have ways to do this online; you can’t e-mail them or submit a form online. You have to mail it in, and that took a while.”

But Ortiz persevered, and opened for business just over a month ago. Her truck, usually parked on Race Street, not far from the Cubit Building and just a few blocks from the computing center, is actually exceeding goals set higher than most everyone she knows thought were reasonable.

Successful launches in the middle of COVID-19 are certainly rare, and for most area entrepreneurs, especially those trying to get a concept off the ground or to the next level, these are challenging times, when the focus is on pivoting and adjusting to meet changing needs and changing ways of doing things.

Juan and Elsie Vasquez, owners of 413 Family Fitness

Juan and Elsie Vasquez, owners of 413 Family Fitness, are like many small-business owners in that they have had to pivot during the pandemic and create new revenue streams.

In most all ways, the same can be said of the region’s entrepreneurship ecosystem itself, which specializes mostly on programs focused on people gathering in large numbers or sitting across a table from one another — things that can’t be done during a pandemic. Agencies within the ecosystem have been pivoting and adjusting as well.

This is especially true of Valley Venture Mentors (VVM), the nonprofit based in Springfield’s Innovation Center, which is in the midst of what interim Director Chris Bignelli, a partner with the Alchemy Fund, calls a ‘reset.’

That’s the word he chose to describe a retrenching after most of the agency’s staff members left within a week of each other last spring, and after COVID prevented it from staging any of the large gatherings for which it became known — not only here, but across the state and beyond.

“Our mentors advise entrepreneurs about the importance of pivoting and changing directions when needed, and we’re doing the same,” he said, adding that the pandemic and other forces are compelling the agency to look inward and find new and perhaps different ways to provide value to entrepreneurs while also providing support to other agencies and initiatives within the ecosystem.

“For a while there, it really felt like we were kind of providing therapy to small-business owners.”

As VVM resets and reinvents, though, work within the ecosystem goes on during these trying times — despite COVID, and in many cases in an effort to help business owners survive it.

People like Juan and Elsie Vasquez. They operate 413 Family Fitness in Holyoke, a business that, like most all gyms, was devastated by the pandemic. With help from those at EforAll Holyoke, the couple has pivoted to everything from outdoor classes to staging quinceañeras, or sweet-15 birthdays (a tradition among Hispanics), and leasing out their space to third parties (more on that later).

Meanwhile, another initiative within the ecosystem, WIT — Women Innovators and Trailblazers — is continuing its mentoring program despite COVID, and is preparing to embark on its third cohort of matches.

Leah Kent

Leah Kent says the mentor she’s been matched with through the WIT program, Melissa Paciulli, has helped her set firm goals for her business and move out of her comfort zone.

The second cohort, featuring 45 teams, up from 20 in the first, was started just before the pandemic shut things down, noted Ann Burke, vice president of the the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts and one of the architects of the program, adding that she had some concerns about whether those matches could withstand COVID and its highly disruptive nature.

But for the most part, the partnerships persevered, and many have the legs to continue even after the formal program is over.

“We were really trying to see what would happen with the cohort and how they would respond with all that was happening,” said Burke. “I thought most of them would just throw up their hands and say, ‘we can’t do this’ amid all the business issues, personal issues, and issues at home. But for the most part, that’s not what happened.”

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the local entrepreneurship ecosystem and how it is carrying on through the pandemic, providing more evidence of its importance to the region.

Keep on Trucking

Flashing back several months and then fast-forwarding to today, Ortiz described the process of opening with a single word — ‘crazy.’

That sentiment applied to everything from getting her truck outfitted for the road — meaning wrapped with her logo and fully equipped — to buying all the supplies she needed (which meant going to the grocery store a number of times), to getting those aforementioned permits and approvals. Work started later than she wanted, and everything was made more difficult by the pandemic.

“Most of March and half of April, I called a halt to everything,” she said, noting that she bought the truck in February, but, because of the pandemic — and also the fact that she was still in school, which was also more complicated — she wasn’t able to advance her plans. “And then I started to feel more comfortable, and by the end of the April, I was going full speed.”

Or at least the speed at which City Hall would allow her to travel.

Now that she’s open, all that craziness seems like a distant memory, and business is, as she noted, exceeding expectations.

“We’ve been busy every day, and we usually sell out by the end of the day,” she said, noting that Craze features tacos, rice bowls, vegetarian and vegan dishes, and more, and uses social media to connect with potential customers. “COVID might actually be helping because people don’t want to go to restaurants.”

She credits EforAll — she was the first-place winner in its recent winter accelerator — with helping her get the doors open, especially with such matters as insurance and accounting, but also focusing on the model she wanted and the service she wanted to provide.

And such work is carrying on in the COVID-19 era, although it’s somewhat different and also in some ways more challenging, said Tessa Murphy-Romboletti, executive director of EforAll.

“We’ve been really fortunate that we can continue to offer a lot of the services that we provided before the pandemic in a virtual format,” she explained. “And we made that pivot very quickly, out of necessity.”

Elaborating, she said the agency was in the final stages of its winter cohort when the pandemic hit, and quickly shifted to not only a virtual platform, but a somewhat different purpose as it helped both those cohort members and other small businesses cope with everything that was happening.

“For a while there, it really felt like we were kind of providing therapy to small-business owners,” she explained. “We felt like there were a lot of things out of our control, but what we did want to do was support them, whether it was with help navigating PPP loans or even just applying for unemployment. We were doing a lot of one-on-one support and just helping people however we could.”

“It gives people a place to come and brainstorm as a group and impose that accountability that can sometimes be missing when you’re running your own venture.”

And such help was certainly needed, she said, adding that, in the case of PPP, many small businesses didn’t know if they were eligible, and if they were, they certainly needed assistance with paperwork that most established businesses turned over to a seasoned accountant. Meanwhile, a number of local, state, and federal grant programs emerged, and small businesses needed help identifying which ones might be appropriate and then navigating the application process.

Beyond that, EforAll also helped some businesses identify ways to pivot and find new revenue streams in the middle of a pandemic, Murphy-Romboletti said, adding that such assistance was provided to restaurants — helping them move beyond takeout and Grubhub, for example — and to other kinds of ventures, like 413 Family Fitness, which is one of those businesses that just ‘graduated’ from the most recent accelerator.

Like all fitness centers across the state, this operation had to shut down back in the spring, said Elsie Vasquez, forcing the company to pivot. It did so by offering classes online, then a shift to outdoor classes, more one-on-one personal training, and finally a reopening of the studio in July, with a host of restrictions.

“We’ve even done some space rental to bring in some revenue,” she told BusinessWest, adding that EforAll has been invaluable in helping to not only identify ways to generate business, but make them reality.

“The biggest thing we learned is that we have to pivot our business,” she explained. “We came in with an idea of what we wanted to do, and it’s been working out OK, but EforAll really opened our eyes to the fact that we have to think differently, and that your beginning result may not be your end result.”

In Good Company

While companies are pivoting, so too are some of the agencies within the ecosystem that serves them. And VVM is probably the best example.

Hope Gibaldi, who was serving the agency in a part-time role when the pandemic hit and is now full-time, serving as engagement manager, told BusinessWest that the agency has had to readjust as a result of the pandemic and its inability to stage the large gatherings it became known for.

Meanwhile, is doing what its mentors advise entrepreneurs to do — assess needs within the community and go about meeting them.

“There were listening sessions prior to the pandemic,” she noted, “and we’ve been taking the priorities identified during those sessions with an eye toward addressing them, while also trying to figure out how we can continue to provide value to entrepreneurs during COVID and what programming might look like when we come out of COVID.”

Elaborating, she said hybrid models blending in-person and remote programming are being considered, while, in the meantime, the agency is creating ways to bring people together on a remote basis to share ideas and work through common problems.

One such program is the introduction — or reintroduction, to be more precise — of ‘Entrepreneurial Roundtables,’ a peer-led “accountability group,” as she called it, that meets via Zoom.

“It’s a place where mentors and entrepreneurs can come and address their challenges,” Gibaldi explained. “It gives people a place to come and brainstorm as a group and impose that accountability that can sometimes be missing when you’re running your own venture.”

Other initiatives already in place or in the planning stages, she said, include everything from the agency’s once-thriving Community Nights (now handled remotely) to expert-in-industry mentorship, to a book club, to be launched in January, focusing on offerings in entrepreneurship, marketing, personal and professional growth, and more.

Overall, VVM looks a little different, but its mission hasn’t changed, Gibaldi said, adding that it is working to partner with other agencies and initiatives within the ecosystem to help them succeed.

One example is WIT, and helping to recruit mentors for that program, which has thus far created dozens of effective matches.

Leah Kent and Melissa Paciulli comprise one such match. The former is a writer and book designer who also helps other writers with the process of getting published, while the latter is director of the STEM Starter Academy at Holyoke Community College. Kent described the relationship as an intriguing, and effective, collision of science and creativity.

“We can understand each other quite well, but we bring different strengths,” she explained. “That complementary pairing has been so fantastic. In my work, she’s really honed in on the way that I help readers finish their manuscripts and get their work published.”

The two were part of the cohort that launched last March; the kickoff gathering was on March 12, and the next day, schools were shut down, and much of the business world ground to a halt. Kent’s original mentor was not able to continue participating because of the pandemic, so she was reassigned, if that’s the right word, to Paciulli, whom she credits with taking her outside her comfort zone and helping her set the bar higher professionally and personally.

Paciulli said Kent is her second match through WIT, and one of many business owners and students she has mentored over the years. She finds the work invigorating and rewarding, especially when the mentee is coachable and open-minded — like Kent.

“When you’re working with entrepreneurs and they’re coachable, and they take action on your direction, because it’s an iterative process of finding your product, getting it to market, and pivoting when you need to … it’s a super-cool experience to be part of one’s journey in that way,” she said. “When they’re coachable and they’re action-oriented — and she is — it’s awesome.”

Where There’s a Will…

Summing up what the past seven months or so have been like for entrepreneurs and small businesses, Murphy-Romboletti said it’s been a continuous run of challenges that have tested them — and her agency — in every way imaginable.

In many ways, COVID-19 and everything it has thrown at these businesses only reinforces what she pretty much already knew.

“What always inspires me about entrepreneurs is that, if you tell them ‘no,’ they just say, ‘OK, let me find out a way to make this work,’” she said.

Many have been doing just that, providing more evidence of their resiliency and more reminders of the importance of the entrepreneurship ecosystem to this region and its future.

The pandemic has slowed some things down and added to the already-long list of hurdles entrepreneurs have to clear, but it certainly hasn’t stopped people like Nicole Ortiz — and countless others — from getting down to business.

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

Commercial Real Estate Coronavirus Special Coverage

A Matter of Speculation

Ned Barowsky

Ned Barowsky is transforming 14,000 square feet of what was retail space into Venture X, a co-working concept, one of many signs of change within the region’s commercial real-estate market.

It was time to face facts, Ned Barowsky recalled.

For six months, two brokers assigned by a large, national real-estate firm had been trying to fill the vacancies left at Barowsky’s property at 98 Lower Westfield Road by the departure of Pier One Imports and Kaoud Oriental Rugs. And they had gotten … nowhere.

“I met with them on the phone weekly, and they sent me a sheet of everyone they talked to and e-mailed, and all the responses they got,” he said. “For six months prior to COVID, not one bite. And they worked it. I felt bad for them; I wanted to pay them, but they didn’t get me anybody.”

Faced with this handwriting on the wall and an uncertain future for the Holyoke property he has owned for nearly 35 years, Barowsky is doing what so many are doing in the midst of COVID-19, and in general. He’s pivoting — big time.

Indeed, he intends to remake those vacated storefronts, and some additional space at the complex, into a franchise for the emerging co-work concept known as Venture X, which bills itself as “the future of workspace” (more on that later).

This intriguing pivot is just one indication that the local commercial real-estate market is in a state of flux, if you will, with perhaps profound changes to come as the pandemic continues and its impact on this sector grows.

Indeed, there is already significant movement in the market when it comes to additional vacancies and properties becoming available. Meanwhile, there is widespread speculation that the office market in particular may see considerable disruption as businesses with some or most of their employees working remotely consider making such arrangements permanent.

“A remote work hub is basically converging living space with working space; you’re allowing people to get out of their house and into a work place that’s safe — and in close proximity to where they live.”

And even if they don’t swing that far when it comes to working arrangements, there are questions about how much of their present space they’ll retain when their lease is up.

“We have lost a few tenants, mostly due to non-renewals as companies look for ways to be more efficient and perhaps consolidate if they had multiple locations,” said Evan Plotkin, president of NAI Plotkin and co-owner of 1350 Main St. in Springfield, noting that Bay Path University, which occupies roughly 12,000 square feet, is one of these tenants.

But as some are downsizing or not renewing, others are actually taking more space to accommodate pandemic-era guidelines on social distancing and keep employees safe, said Plotkin, noting that he’s already seen such upsizing from a few tenants and expects more in the months to come.

In the meantime, new leases are being signed, and properties are being acquired, said Demetrios Panteleakis, a principal with MacMillan Group LLC, which has authored what could certainly be called a stunning turnaround at Tower Square in downtown Springfield.

Over the past 24 months or so, Panteleakis said, MacMillan has successfully backfilled roughly 80% of the 150,000 square feet of office space in the complex that MassMutual vacated, with about a third of that coming in just the past few months.

The latest additions in the office tower include Wellfleet and Farm Credit Financial Partners, which moved into 37,500 square feet on the sixth floor, but also a few law firms and a civil-engineering firm. Meanwhile, on the retail side, the Greater Springfield YMCA moved several of its operations last winter, White Lion Brewery is completing work on its brewery and eatery in the former Spaghetti Freddy’s space, and a nail salon has moved in. And all this is on top of a massive renovation of the hotel on the property into a new Marriott.

“Tower Square is absolutely on fire,” he said, adding that he believes the success at that address has been a function of providing an attractive product in a good location, in this case an urban area in the midst of what has been called a renaissance.

Demetrios Panteleakis says activity has been strong at Tower Square

Demetrios Panteleakis says activity has been strong at Tower Square in recent months, with new leases signed for both retail and office space.

Mitch Bolotin, a principal with Springfield-based Colebrook Realty Services, agreed that there has been activity within the market despite the pandemic, noting that his firm has completed a number of transactions, including the sale of the property at 95 Elm St. in West Springfield formerly occupied by United Bank, the Newman Center on the UMass Amherst campus, and lease of the former Chandler’s restaurant space at the Yankee Candle complex in South Deerfield, among others.

The $64,000 question is … what happens now?

No one really knows the answer. Many brokers are encouraged by numerous stories in recent weeks about both productivity being down as a result of remote working and pent-up desire to return to the office. But these sentiments are juxtaposed against others indicating that remote work has been a success and, as a result, less office space will be leased in the future.

Speaking for others, Panteleakis said there will likely be a lull or pause in the action until perhaps the end of the first quarter of next year as business owners sort some things out.

Work in Progress

Plotkin calls it a “remote work hub.”

That’s a term he borrowed from a request for proposals he’s likely to respond to, and it describes … well, a place where people can both live and work. But not like the current work-from-home environment many are now experiencing.

“A remote work hub is basically converging living space with working space; you’re allowing people to get out of their house and into a work place that’s safe — and in close proximity to where they live,” said Plotkin, adding quickly that he’s thinking hard about whether 1350 Main St. can be shaped into one of these remote work hubs. He thinks it can.

“I have a design here that works great,” he told BusinessWest. “We have some empty floors, and if we created maybe 20 units per floor and used the three floors that are empty, that would be 60 market-rate housing units. And if you had another floor that was a COVID-19 pandemic remote work space, which has yet to be designed, I think you’d have something very attractive.

“The idea is to make people feel that they can go someplace to work and not be in their kitchen, not be in their living room, and actually have some socialization and see other people,” he went on, adding that such a facility would help attract people of all ages, but especially young people, to downtown Springfield.

The fact that Plotkin is thinking about such a dramatic pivot provides more evidence that the commercial real-estate market is changing and there are certainly question marks about how — and how profoundly — the landscape may change.

The remote-work phenomenon, if it can be called that, is certainly at the heart of much of this speculation. Indeed, as more workers toil from home for longer periods — some of the massive tech companies have told employees they won’t be coming back for a year, at least — questions are raised about whether such arrangements will become permanent, and what this means for major urban centers and individual office facilities.

Barowsky, for one, believes that companies will be less likely to want to tie themselves down with long-term leases for large amounts of space. And that’s one of the reasons why he’s moving forward with Venture X.

A Holyoke native who has seen a number of economic cycles and an ongoing evolution of the area’s retail scene, Barowsky believes this co-work space is certainly the right concept at the right time — and especially the right place.

“I don’t think you get this energy that you have when people are working together in one office, and you don’t see the productivity.”

Indeed, the site, just a few hundred yards from the Holyoke Mall, is right off I-91 exit 15 and only minutes off exit 4 of the Mass Pike.

“This is literally the crossroads of New England,” said Barowsky, adding that this address makes the Venture X facility attractive for businesses across a number of sectors.

Add all these factors up, and Barowsky doesn’t see this dramatic pivot — away from retail and into co-working space — as much of a gamble. And if it is a gamble, it’s one he believes will pay off eventually, perhaps sooner than later.

Indeed, he said the current timeline doesn’t have him opening the doors for another six months, but he’s already received a number of inquiries about his concept.

Questions and Answers

While Barowsky doesn’t have any doubts about his new development, there is a growing amount of uncertainty when it comes to the larger commercial real-estate market.

And it crosses many of the sectors within that realm, including retail — which was already under considerable stress before COVID-19 due to online buying and now is under even more — and especially the office market because of questions about the future of work.

“At this point, I think the jury is still out — the verdict is not in yet,” Plotkin said. “There’s been an abrupt change in how we work, and it has required us to work remotely. It’s been a complete lifestyle change, and it’s created a fair amount of fear. And those converging factors may prevail over a long period of time; we just don’t know.”

Panteleakis agreed to some extent, but said he concurs with JPMorgan Chase Chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon, who recently told American Banker that he sees economic and social damage from a longer stretch of working from home.

“Between 2002 and 2005, there was a big movement happening — commercial real estate had become so expensive that everyone was trying remote working,” he recalled. “Jamie Dimon is saying the same thing that everyone was saying back then — that they see a decrease in productivity. So I think real estate is coming back; I don’t think you get this energy that you have when people are working together in one office, and you don’t see the productivity.”

Plotkin concurred. “Today, people can work from anywhere, and it’s appealing to people to work from anywhere. But the reality is that working from home is isolating, and I don’t think that’s a long-term solution.”

Added Bolotin, “there is a lot of speculation on both sides of that fence. I believe that the office market will still have a future — there will still be demand. Working from home is fine on a limited basis, but people will eventually migrate back to an office setting.

“Needs might change,” he went on. “They may need to consolidate, or they may wish to add more space for social-distancing purposes. But what the net effect of this will be … time will tell.”

Returning to the present, those we spoke with said there are certainly some deals getting done, and the market remains active. Panteleakis cited not only Tower Square, but also neighboring 1550 Main St., which he also handles, and which is fully occupied.

Bolotin, citing those recent transactions in West Springfield, Amherst, South Deerfield, and other communities his firm was involved with, said they provide evidence of a resilient economy and an equally resilient commercial real-estate market, one that has seen a number of downturns — and recoveries.

“We’re very active, we’re busy, there are transactions happening,” he said of his firm but also the market overall. “Over the past few months, we’ve had deals close across a number of categories — office, retail, industrial, land, investments. We’ve had activity in all segments.”

Some of these transactions bode well for the region and some of its individual communities, he noted, such as the sale of 95 Elm St. in West Springfield. Considered a key to development of the downtown area, the property is being targeted for a mix of office and retail, said Bolotin, and his firm is currently negotiating several potential leases in that building.

Meanwhile, other deals have been closed involving retail (two Family Dollar stores), industrial (more than 500,000 square feet in total), and even a few church properties.

“It is certainly a challenging time, and there are people who have been negatively impacted,” he stressed. “But there is still activity within the marketplace.”

Bottom Line

As for the immediate future … Panteleakis said a pause, or lull, is common just before presidential elections. And this year, COVID-19 has given business owners and managers more reason to be cautious.

“People are in a wait-and-see mode,” he explained. “Most of the executives that I’ve spoken with are waiting to see what happens in the first quarter of 2021. So I think the jury will be out until that first quarter of next year.”

After that … no one really knows when the jury will actually be back and what the verdict will be.

But some are already anticipating long-term changes to the landscape. That’s why Venture X is taking shape in Holyoke and why Evan Plotkin is drafting plans for a remote work hub.

Plenty of questions remain about the future, and the answers won’t come easily.

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

Cover Story Education Special Coverage

Writing the Next Chapter

Robert Johnson, president of Western New England University

Robert Johnson, president of Western New England University

At least once, and perhaps twice, Robert Johnson strongly considered removing himself from the mix as a search committee narrowed the field of candidates to succeed Anthony Caprio as president of Western New England University (WNEU) in Springfield.

It was early spring, and the COVID-19 pandemic was presenting every institution of higher learning, including UMass-Dartmouth, which he served as chancellor, with a laundry list of stern — and, in some cases, unprecedented — challenges.

Johnson told BusinessWest that the campus needed his full attention and that it might be time to call a halt to his quest for the WNEU job. But he “hung in there,” as he put it, and for the same reason that he eventually decided to pursue the position after at least twice telling a persistent recruiter that he wasn’t really interested.

“We are at an inflection point in higher education,” said Johnson, who arrived on the campus on Aug. 15, just a few weeks before students arrived for the fall semester. “Western New England has a good balance of the liberal arts and the professional schools, along with the law school, that puts it in a unique position to write the next chapter when it comes to what higher education will look like.

“I think it’s fair to say that, when we think about higher education, the last time we’ve seen the level of transformation that is about to happen was just after World War II, with the GI Bill and the creation of more urban public universities, community colleges, and the list goes on,” he continued, as talked through a mask to emphasize the point that they are to be worn at all times on this campus. “As we think about the world of work and the future, colleges and universities will be educating people for jobs that don’t exist yet, utilizing technologies that haven’t been created to solve problems that have yet to be identified.”

Elaborating, he said today’s young people, and he counts his son and daughter in this constituency, are expected to hold upwards of 17 jobs in five different industries (three of which don’t currently exist) during their career. All this begs a question he asked: “what does an institution of higher learning look like in an environment like this, where the pace of change is unlike anything the world has ever seen?”

The short answer — he would give a longer one later — is that this now-101-year-old institution looks a whole lot like WNEU, which, he said, is relatively small, agile, and able to adapt and be nimble, qualities that will certainly be needed as schools of all sizes move to what Johnson called a “clicks and mortar” — or “mortar and clicks” — model of operation that, as those words suggest, blends remote with in-person learning.

The process of changing to this model is clearly being accelerated by the pandemic that accompanies Johnson’s arrival at WNEU, and that has already turned this fall semester upside down and inside out at a number of schools large and small.

“Western New England has a good balance of the liberal arts and the professional schools, along with the law school, that puts it in a unique position to write the next chapter when it comes to what higher education will look like.”

Indeed, a number of schools that opened their campuses to students have already closed them and reverted to remote learning. Meanwhile, others trying to keep campuses open are encountering huge problems — and bad press: Northeastern University recently sent 11 students packing after they violated rules and staged a gathering in one of the living areas, for example, and the University of Alabama has reported more than 1,200 cases on its campus in Tuscaloosa.

It’s very early in the semester, but Johnson is optimistic, even confident, that his new place of employment can avoid such occurrences.

“The decision to go with in-person learning was essentially made before I got here, and I think it was the right decision,” he explained, noting that students are living on campus and only 16% of the courses are being taught fully online, with the rest in-person or a hybrid model. “We’ve tested more than 2,500 individuals, and we’ve had only three positive cases, all asymptomatic. It’s worked out well so far, but this is only the end of the first week.

“We’re cautiously optimistic, and we take it day to day,” he went on, adding that the school’s smaller size and strict set of protocols, such as testing students upon arrival, may help prevent some of those calamities that have visited other institutions. “We’ve been very judicious, and our small size makes us a bit different. We’re kind of like Cheers, where everybody knows your name; we don’t have tens of thousands of students that we have to manage.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked with Johnson about everything from the business of education in this unsettled time to the next chapter in higher education, which he intends to help write.

Screen Test

Flashing back to that aforementioned search for Caprio’s successor, Johnson noted that it was certainly different than anything he’s experienced before — and he’s been through a number of these, as we’ll see shortly.

Indeed, this was a search in the era of COVID-19, which meant pretty much everything was done remotely, including the later rounds of interviews, which usually involve large numbers of people sitting around a table.

Robert Johnson says he’s confident

Robert Johnson says he’s confident that WNEU, a smaller, tight-knit school, can avoid some of the problems larger institutions have had when reopening this fall.

“It was all Zoom, and it was … interesting,” he said of the interview process. “You don’t know if you’re truly connecting or not. As a person being interviewed, you have much more self-awareness of not only what you’re saying but how you’re saying it, and your own non-verbal communication, because you can see yourself on the screen.

“You have to make sure your background is right, the lighting is right, you’re wearing the right colors, all that,” he went on. “It’s like being on TV, literally, because the first impression people get is what they see on screen.”

Those on the search panel were nonetheless obviously impressed, both by what they saw and heard, and also the great depth of experience that Johnson brings to this latest stop in a nearly 30-year career in higher education.

Indeed, Johnson notes, with a discernable amount of pride in his voice, that he has worked at just about every type of higher-education facility.

“I worked in every not-for-profit higher-education sector,” he noted. “Public, private, two-year, four-year, private, Catholic, large, medium, and small — this is my seventh institution. And I think that gives me a unique lens as a leader in higher education.”

Prior to his stint at UMass Dartmouth, he served as president of Becker College in Worcester from 2010 to 2017, and has also held positions at Oakland University in Michigan and Sinclair College, the University of Dayton, and Central State University, all in Ohio.

As noted earlier, when Johnson was invited by a recruiter to consider perhaps making WNEU the next line on his résumé, he was at first reluctant to become a candidate.

“The search consultant, who I happen to know, called me two or three times, and I did not bite,” he noted. “But as she told me more, and I learned more about Western New England University, I began to take a look. I knew about the school, but I had never taken a deep dive into the institution, its history, and what it had to offer.”

He subsequently took this deep dive, liked what he saw, and, as he noted, hung in through the lengthy interview process because of the unique opportunity this job — at this moment in time — presented.

Since arriving on campus, he has made a point of meeting as many staff members and faculty as possible, but this, too, is difficult during the COVID-19 era. Indeed, meetings can involve only a few participants, so, therefore, there must be more of them.

“We can’t have any of those big ‘meet the president’ meetings,” he noted. “So I’ve had six, seven, or eight meetings with small groups or facility and staff, and I probably have another 15 or 20 of those scheduled. I’m getting to know people, and they’re getting to know me; I’m doing a lot of listening and learning.”

Overall, it’s a challenging time in many respects, he said, adding quickly that higher education was challenging before COVID, for reasons ranging from demographics — smaller high-school graduating classes, for starters — to economics and the growing need to provide value at a time when many are questioning the high cost of a college education.

“The business model for higher ed was going to change regardless — I think, by 2025, given demographics and a whole host of other things, colleges and universities were going to have to figure out how to do business differently,” he told BusinessWest. “I think COVID, overnight, expedited that.

“The business model for higher ed was going to change regardless — I think, by 2025, given demographics and a whole host of other things, colleges and universities were going to have to figure out how to do business differently. I think COVID, overnight, expedited that.”

“It was a Monday, and seven to nine days later, every college in the country was teaching remotely and working remotely, in ways we never imagined,” he continued. “So the very idea that colleges and universities will go back to 100% of what that old business model was is a non-starter. So the question is, ‘how do we reinvent ourselves?’”

Courses of Action

As he commenced answering that question, he started by addressing a question that is being asked in every corner of the country. While there is certainly a place for remote learning, he noted, and it will be part of the equation for every institution, it cannot fully replace in-person learning.

“Some would say that online learning is the way, and the path, of the future,” he noted. “I would say online learning is a tool in terms of modality, but it is not the essence of education.”

Elaborating, he said that, for many students, and classes of students, the in-person, on-campus model is one that can not only provide a pathway to a career but also help an individual mature, meet people from different backgrounds, and develop important interpersonal skills.

“Some would say that online learning is the way, and the path, of the future. I would say online learning is a tool in terms of modality, but it is not the essence of education.”

“For the student coming from a wealthy family, I think they need socialization, and they need a face-to-face environment,” he explained. “For the first-generation student whose parents did not go to college, I think they need socialization. And for students who come from poor families, they need socialization.

“My point being that online learning is not a panacea,” he continued. Some would argue that, if you have online learning, it would help poor kids go to college. I would say that the poor kids, the first-generation kids, are the very ones who need to be on that college campus, to socialize and meet people different from themselves. And the same is true for those kids coming from the upper middle class and wealthy families — they need that socialization.

“In my humble opinion, face-to-face never goes away,” he went on. “But does that mean that one might be living on campus five years from now, taking five classes a semester, with maybe one or two of them being online or hybrid? Absolutely. I think the new model is going to be click and mortar, or mortar and click.”

Expanding on that point while explaining what such a model can and ultimately must provide to students, he returned to those numbers he mentioned earlier — 17 jobs in five industries, at least a few of which don’t exist in 2020. Johnson told BusinessWest that a college education will likely only prepare a student for perhaps of the first of these jobs. Beyond that, though, it can provide critical thinking skills and other qualities needed to take on the next 16.

“That very first job that a student gets out of college — they’ve been trained for that. But that fifth job … they have not been trained for that,” he said. “And I think the role of the academy in the 21st century, the new model, is all about giving students and graduates what I call the agile mindset, which is knowledge and the power of learning — giving students essential human skills that cannot be replicated by robots and gives them the mindset to continually add value throughout their professional careers.

“We’re educating people to get that first job, and to create every job after that,” he continued. “We’re making sure that every person who graduates from college is resilient and has social and emotional intelligence and has an entrepreneurial outlook, which is not about being an entrepreneur; it’s about value creation and having those essential human skills. What that means, fundamentally, is that no algorithm will ever put them out of a job.”

To get his point across, he relayed a conversation he had with some students enrolled in a nursing program. “They said, ‘this doesn’t apply to us,’ and I said, ‘yes, it does, because there are robots in Japan that are turning patients over in hospitals. So if you think technology does not impact what you do, you’re mistaken.’”

Summing it all up, he said that, moving forward, and more than ever before, a college education must make the student resilient, something he does not believe can be accomplished solely through online learning.

“How do I put the engineer and the artist together, give them a real-world problem, and say, ‘have at it, go solve it?’” he asked. “They have to be face to face, hands-on. We can come up with alternate reality, virtual reality, and all the technology you want, but at some point, people have to sit down and look each other in the eye.”

Bottom Line

Returning to the subject of the pandemic and the ongoing fall semester, Johnson reiterated his cautious optimism about getting to the finish line without any major incidents, and said simply, “get me to Thanksgiving with everyone still on campus.” That’s when students will be heading for a lengthy break after a semester that started early (late August) and, to steal a line from Bill Belichick, featured no days off — classes were even in session on Labor Day.

But while he wants to get to Thanksgiving, Johnson is, of course, looking much further down the road, to the future of higher education, which is, in some important respects, already here.

He believes WNEU represents that future, and that’s why he “hung in there” during that search process.

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

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Punching Back

Peter Picknelly, left, and Andy Yee

Peter Picknelly, left, and Andy Yee are partnering in a restaurant project at the former Court Square Hotel property.

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno noted that his city is certainly well-versed in dealing with natural and man-made disasters — everything from the tornado in June 2011 to the natural-gas explosion a year and a half later.

“Battle-tested” was the phrase he used to describe a community that has been though a lot over the past few decades.

But the COVID-19 pandemic … this is a different kind of disaster.

The new façade of the Tower Square Hotel, which expects to be under the Marriott flag next spring.

“It’s like shadow boxing in a lot of ways,” he said, using that phrase to essentially describe a foe that’s hard to hit and an exercise that amounts to punching air. “With those other disasters, I knew what hit us, and I knew how to jab back; with COVID-19, we don’t know when it’s going to go away, and we don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

But the city is certainly punching back against the pandemic, said the mayor and Tim Sheehan, the city’s chief Development officer, noting that it has undertaken initiatives aimed at everything from helping small businesses keep the doors open to assisting residents with paying their mortgage, rent, and utility bills.

And while the pandemic has certainly cost the city some vital momentum, the development community, which usually takes a long view, remains bullish on the city, said Sheehan, noting that there has been strong interest in projects ranging from the former School Department headquarters building on State Street to properties in the so-called ‘blast zone’ (damaged by that aforementioned natural-gas explosion), to buildings in the general vicinity of MGM Springfield in the city’s South End.

“One of more positive things we’re seeing is that development interest in Springfield remains strong,” he told BusinessWest. “And for some larger-scale projects, it’s new interest, from outside the area. And that bodes well for the whole effort that’s been made in terms of the downtown renaissance and the casino development; the development community’s message on Springfield is a good one.”

In the meantime, some projects are already moving forward, most notably the conversion of the long-dormant former Court Square Hotel into apartments and retail space, but also the extensive renovations (although that’s not the word being used) at the Tower Square Hotel in anticipation of regaining the Marriott flag that long flew over the facility, the new Wahlburger’s restaurant going up next to MGM Springfield, the new White Lion Brewery in Tower Square, the conversion of the former Willys-Overland building on Chestnut Street into market-rate housing, movement to reinvent the Eastfield Mall, a plan to redevelop Apremont Triangle, and much more.

But despite these projects, and despite the mayor’s confidence that the city will rebound quickly once the pandemic eases, there are certainly concerns about what toll the pandemic will take on existing businesses, especially those in retail, hospitality, and the commercial real-estate sector — specifically, the office towers downtown.

Mayor Domenic Sarno

Mayor Domenic Sarno says he’s confident that the city can make a strong — and quick — rebound from COVID-19.

There is strong speculation that businesses that now have some or most employees working remotely will continue with these arrangements after the pandemic eases, leaving many likely looking for smaller office footprints. Sheehan noted that such potential downsizing might be offset by businesses needing larger spaces for each employee in a world where social distancing might still be the norm, but there is certainly concern that the office buildings that dominate the downtown landscape will need to find new tenants or new uses for that space.

“There’s some conflicting data out there — the average size of a typical commercial office lease was going down prior to COVID, and a big reason was the rise of the communal working space,” he explained. “Well, now, the communal working space isn’t working so well anymore; there are some impacts that are forcing companies to require more space, not less.

“It’s like shadow boxing in a lot of ways. With those other disasters, I knew what hit us, and I knew how to jab back; with COVID-19, we don’t know when it’s going to go away, and we don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

“Still, before COVID, the vacancy rate for commercial real estate was somewhat high,” he went on. “We collectively need to be working with the building owners and businesses to make sure those numbers don’t exacerbate as we come out of COVID. But, clearly, there is concern about the commercial real-estate market.”

For this, the latest installment in BusinessWest’s Community Spotlight series, the focus turns to the unofficial capital of the region, the current battle against COVID-19 and the many forms it takes, and the outlook for the future, both short- and long-term.

View to the Future

As he walked around the former Court Square Hotel while talking with BusinessWest about his involvement with the project to give the landmark a new life, Peter A. Picknelly pointed to the windows in the northwest corner of the sixth floor, and noted that this was where a City Hall employee had just told him she wanted to live as he and business partner Andy Yee were leaving a meeting with the mayor.

But then he quickly corrected himself.

“No, she was referring to that corner,” he noted, pointing toward the windows on the northeast side, the ones with a better overall view of Court Square and Main Street. “That’s the one she said she wanted.”

Talk about actually living in the still-handsome structure that dominates Court Square is now actually real, whereas for the better part of 30 years it had been nothing but a pipe dream. That’s how long people have been talking about renovating this property, and that’s how challenging this initiative has been.

Indeed, like Union Station, another project that took decades to finally move beyond the talk stage, Court Square’s redevelopment became real because of a public-private partnership with a number of players, ranging from Picknelly’s Opal Development and WinnCompanies to MGM Springfield, to the city, the state, and federal government.

“This project was a bear, and that building was an albatross around the neck of a lot of mayors,” Sarno said. “This was all about persistence and not giving up when it would have been easy to do that.”

As for Picknelly, this is a legacy project of a sort, he said, noting that his father, Peter L. Picknelly, had long talked about creating a boutique hotel at the site — which, after its days as a hotel, was home to a number of law offices because of its proximity to the courthouse — as a way to inject some life into a still-struggling downtown.

Chief Development Officer Tim Sheehan

Chief Development Officer Tim Sheehan says the city’s first priority has been to assist businesses and help ensure they’re still in business when the pandemic eases.

The boutique-hotel concept became less viable as new hotels were built in the city, he went on, but the urgent need to convert the property for a new use — identified as the top priority in the Urban Land Institute study completed more than a decade ago — remained.

“How can Springfield really see its full potential if this building is vacant?” asked Picknelly, who again partnered with Yee — the two have resurrected both the Student Prince and the White Hut — to create a restaurant in the northwest corner of the property (more on that in a bit). “This is going to be the centerpiece of Springfield’s renaissance.”

The Court Square project is just one example of how things are moving forward in the city, even in the midst of the pandemic, said Sheehan, noting that, in the larger scheme of things, Springfield remains an attractive target for the development community — and for the same reasons that existed before the pandemic, namely an abundance of opportunities, growing momentum in the central business district, the casino, Union Station, the burgeoning cannabis industry, and more.

Still, the the pandemic has certainly been a major disruptive force in that it has imperiled small businesses across many sectors, especially hospitality; brought a relative stillness to the downtown area as many employees continue to work at home; closed the casino for nearly four months and forced it to reopen at one-third capacity; cancelled all shows, sports, and other gatherings at the casino, the MassMutual Center, Symphony Hall, and elsewhere; and even forced the Basketball Hall of Fame to reschedule its induction ceremonies (normally held this month) to the spring and move them to Mohegan Sun.

So the first order of business for the city has been to try to control, or limit, the damage, said Sarno and Sheehan, adding that it has been doing this in a number of ways, including its Prime the Pump initiative.

The Court Square project

The Court Square project, roughly 30 years in the making, was made possible by a comprehensive public-private partnership.

The program, using Community Development Block Grant monies, has provided small grants to city businesses in amounts up to $15,000. The awards have come over several rounds, with the first focused on restaurants, perhaps the hardest-hit individual sector, with subsequent rounds having a broader focus that includes more business sectors and nonprofits. Sheehan said businesses receiving grant funds have also represented a diversity of ownership.

“Prime the Pump numbers in terms of minority representation were huge — more than 72% of the awards were to minority-owned, women-owned, or veterans, and all of the nonprofits we supported had 30% or more minority participation on their board of directors,” he explained, adding that these numbers are significant because many minority-owned businesses had difficulty attaining other forms of support, such as Paycheck Protection Program loans.

In addition to helping businesses weather the storm, the city has also provided financial assistance to residents, said the mayor, noting that this aid has gone toward paying mortgages, utility bills, and rent, assistance that also helps the city’s many landlords.

“In this region, I don’t think any community has done more to help their businesses and their residents,” Sarno noted. “We have put out well over $5 million, and perhaps $6 million. We’ve been very proactive, and we’re going to continue working with businesses, such as our restaurants, to help them stay open.”

Such support is critical, said Sheehan, because in order to rebound sufficiently once the pandemic subsides, consumers will need to find outlets for that pent-up demand the mayor mentioned.

“How can Springfield really see its full potential if this building is vacant? This is going to be the centerpiece of Springfield’s renaissance.”

“When there is a vaccine, or when our numbers are so low that people feel safe and feel willing to go back out, the responsiveness will be there,” he noted. “My concern is making sure that the businesses we have are still in business when we get there.”

When We Meet Again

While he talked about COVID-19 using mostly the present tense, Sarno also spent a good deal of time talking about the future.

He said the pandemic will — eventually and somehow — relent. And, as he said earlier, he is confident the city will rebound, and quickly, and perhaps return to where it was before ‘COVID’ became part of the lexicon. For a reference point, he chose Red Sox Winter Weekend in January, an event staged by the team but hosted by MGM Springfield. It brought thousands of people to the city, filling hotels and restaurants and creating traffic jams downtown as motorists tried to maneuver around closed streets and various gatherings.

In many ways, Red Sox Winter Weekend is emblematic of all that’s been lost due to the pandemic. It won’t all come back overnight, Sarno and Sheehan noted, but the vibrancy will return.

“COVID-19 has really knocked us for a bit of a loop,” the mayor said, stating the obvious. “But I think there there’s a lot of pent-up … not only frustration, but desire to get back out there, so when we defeat this, I really think we’re going to rebound very nicely, and even quickly, because we continue to move projects forward and put new projects on the board.”

Tower Square Hotel

These renderings show what the front lobby (above) and ballroom will look like in the Tower Square Hotel that is being ‘reimagined’ and ‘redesigned’ and will soon be flying the Marriott flag.

This optimism extends to MGM, which had been struggling to meet projections (made years ago) for gross gambling revenue before the pandemic, and has, as noted, been operating at one-third capacity since early summer, with the hotel and banquet facilities closed.

“When MGM was hustling and bustling, with shows coming in, downtown was thriving,” Sarno said. “I’m hoping that, as we head into the last quarter and eventually the holiday season, if people can regain their confidence in going out to places like this, we see things pick up.”

And there will be some positive changes to greet visitors as they return, starting with a new Marriott.

Indeed, work continues on a massive project that Peter Marks, general manager of the hotel, insists is not a renovation, because that word doesn’t do justice to the massive overhaul. He instead said the hotel has been “reimagined” and “redesigned.”

Indeed, slated to open — or reopen, as the case may be — next spring or summer, the 266-room facility is getting a new look from top to bottom, inside and out. The most visible sign of the change is a new, more modern façade that greets visitors coming over the Memorial Bridge. But the entire hotel is being made over to new and stringent standards set by Marriott.

“This is not a reflagging; it’s a new build, and that’s why the work is so extensive,” he explained. “Everything that that a guest could see or touch is being replaced. Beyond that, we’ve moved walls, we’ve moved emergency staircases in the building to accomplish higher ceilings … it’s impressive what has been done.”

The timing of the project — during the middle of a pandemic — has been beneficial in one respect: there was minimal displacement of guests due to the ongoing work and, therefore, not a significant loss of overall business. But the pandemic has also been a hindrance because it’s made getting needed construction materials much more difficult, causing delays in the work and uncertainty about when it can all be completed.

“You might get a shower wall in, but not the shower tub,” Marks explained. “And you can’t do the wall without the tub, so you have to wait, and this happens all the time. If everything goes smoothly from here, it might be April when we reopen, or it could also be summer.”

By then, he thinks the world, and downtown Springfield, will look considerably different, and there will be a considerable amount of pent-up demand.

“Especially for the leisure travelers,” he said. “People are really itching to get out; they’re all waiting to go somewhere, and also go to events, weddings, family reunions, and other celebrations. I’m hopeful that we’ll be opening right when the pent-up demand is coming.”

As for the restaurant planned for the Court Square property, Picknelly and Yee project it will be open for business by the fall of 2022, and that, when it does debut, it will be an important addition to a downtown that may look somewhat different, but will likely still be a destination and a place people not only want to visit, but live in.

“Winn has done 100 renovation projects like this around the country,” Picknelly said. “They are 100% convinced that this building will be fully occupied by the time we open — there’s no doubt in their minds, based on the projections. I think that says a lot about people still wanting to live in urban areas, and I think it says a lot about Springfield and what people think of this city.”

Fighting Spirit

Returning to his analogy about shadow boxing, Sarno said COVID-19 has certainly proven to be a difficult sparring partner.

Unlike the tornado, which passed through quickly and left a trail of destruction to be cleaned up, COVID has already lingered far longer than most thought it would, and no one really knows for sure how much longer we’ll be living with it.

Meanwhile, as for the damage it will cause, there is simply no way of knowing that, either, and the toll creeps higher with each passing week.

But, as the mayor noted, the city is already punching back, and it intends to keep on punching with the goal of regaining the momentum it has lost and turning back the clock — even if it’s only six or seven months.

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

Berkshire County Special Coverage

Delivering the Message

A team from Graphic Impact Signs installs a sign for Berkshire Bank.

A team from Graphic Impact Signs installs a sign for Berkshire Bank.

John Renzi says that, when the pandemic arrived in mid-March, the sign industry, like most all others, was hit hard.

Indeed, as a sector that has always been a good barometer of the economy and one that suffers greatly during downturns, the sign business was impacted by the pandemic in a number of ways, said Renzi, a principal and account executive with Pittsfield-based Graphic Impact Signs (GIS). He listed everything from the prompt shutdown of the events, sports, and entertainment industries and a halt to orders from those solid customers, to disruptions in the supply chain that have hindered many players in this large and diverse field from completing orders they do have.

GIS has certainly not been immune from any of this, said Renzi, but he believes the company acquired by his father 33 years ago has fared better than most because of the two traits that have defined it from the beginning: flexibility and resiliency.

They have been displayed in everything from how the company has pivoted and started making new lines of products, such as the plexiglass barriers now seen in all kinds of businesses, to how it has maneuvered its way through those supply-chain issues by working with suppliers and stockpiling essential materials that are now in very short supply.

Regarding those barriers, or shields, the company tacked in that direction as the business world paused and sign work all but stopped as the pandemic arrived, he noted, and very quickly had product moving out the doors of the Pittsfield plant.

“We had the equipment, and we had the supply,” he told BusinessWest. “So we were able to move from idea to prototype to our first order, which was a $138,000 order, in seven working days. That’s the flexibility we have, and it has allowed us to be successful.”

That same flexibility is effectively serving the company as it transitions back to making signage, said Dan Renzi, John’s brother and partner, especially when it comes to supply-chain issues.

“Many of our suppliers just stopped delivering for quite some time, and then, when they started up again, the manufacturers just could not get the product to us,” he explained, referring specifically to the white polycarbonate needed in most sign projects. Working with existing and new suppliers, GIS has been able to stockpile and warehouse this essential product while some competitors are waiting for what could be three or four months to get what they need.

Thus, the company is well-positioned, even in the middle of a pandemic, to broaden an already-impressive portfolio that includes clients such as Big Y, General Dynamics, and a host of banks and credit unions, especially those installing interactive teller machines (ITMs).

GIS has become an industry leader in making the surrounds, or canopies (see photo, page XX), for these devices, and it is now making them for Berkshire Bank, PeoplesBank, Country Bank, bankESB, and several other institutions.

“The ATMS are on their way out, and the ITMs are moving in,” John noted. “More banks are expanding into this because it’s clearly the future, and we’re one of the leaders in making signage and surrounds for these ITMs.”

Dan Renzi, left, and his brother, John, stand in front of a new sign made for Big Y.

Dan Renzi, left, and his brother, John, stand in front of a new sign made for Big Y.

This status, coupled with the company’s flexibility and its ability to work with clients to design, develop, and install signage that is indeed impactful, has it very well-positioned for the future.

“Over the years, we’ve seen people come in with, literally, something scribbled on a piece of paper,” said Dan, explaining how GIS is involved with the client from start to finish. “We’ll take things from that really rough sketch to a complete, finished product all in one building; we can take a dream and turn it into reality.”

For this issue and its focus on Berkshire County, BusinessWest turns its lens on GIS and how it has been able to use its flexibility and resiliency to not only ride out the pandemic, but take new and meaningful steps forward.

More Signs of Progress

It’s not an official indicator of how a sign business, or any other business, for that matter, is faring. But the Renzi brothers consider it one, and they’re quite proud of it.

They were referring to how signs that have the company’s name on it — albeit in small letters that you probably wouldn’t notice (although the brothers do) — have shown up in some recent movies and TV series coming out of Hollywood.

“We had the equipment, and we had the supply. So we were able to move from idea to prototype to our first order, which was a $138,000 order, in seven working days.”

“That’s pretty cool when you’re sitting there at a movie, either on Netflix or on the big screen, and you see one of your signs,” said John, noting that some of the company’s installations have become backdrops recently in the movies Knives Out and Behind the Woods, and the true-crime TV series Dirty John.

These recent on-screen appearances are merely the latest … well, signs of continued growth and prosperity for a company that has been part of the landscape in the Berkshires for more than 60 years. Known first as Alfie Sign Co., the business caught the eye of John Renzi Sr., a painter whose portfolio was dominated by commercial clients at a time when Pittsfield was certainly seeing its fortunes wane as its main employer, General Electric, was closing its massive complex.

“GE was moving out, and his painting business was commercial business only,” said John Jr. “So when you had large businesses moving out of Pittsfield, he was trying to set up a future for my brother and me.”

The company had a solid reputation and an impressive client list, he went on, noting that it had created signs for Fayva Shoes, Subway — it was involved in the first-generation logo for that chain — and D’Angelo’s, among others. But it wasn’t exactly well-run.

“He knew that things needed change — it was a dollar-in, dollar-out company, and it had its challenges; it took a while to get the company on its feet,” John went on, adding that his father brought some discipline and direction to the venture and put it on more solid ground, with the intention of eventually passing it on to the next generation. Which he did, but not before that generation was fully prepared to lead.

One of the many ITM canopies

One of the many ITM canopies that GIS is making for a growing list of bank clients

“Dad didn’t just hand over the business — he wanted to make sure we could handle it,” said John, noting that he and Dan officially became owners five years ago, but they’ve been managing it for the past 15. “And he did it right — we learned right from the bottom, cleaning toilets, sweeping floors, counting bolts, and getting dirty.”

In recent years, the company has, perhaps without knowing it, steeled itself against downturns — and, yes, even a pandemic — by broadening and diversifying the portfolio of clients and creating a culture grounded in the flexibility and nimbleness noted earlier.

Which brings us back to March, and the arrival of COVID-19.

“We had some really good things moving in the right direction right at the beginning of the year,” John said. “We had a good winter, things were lining up well, and we were really excited about this year.

“But when COVID hit, it hit with a jolt,” he went on. “We weren’t certain what was going to happen or how we were going about things, but if there’s one thing that my brother and I believe in — pre-COVID, during COVID, or post-COVID — it’s that, the more flexible you are as a business, the more successful you can make yourself. And what we found is that, due to our flexibility with working with our supply chain and working with our clients, we were able to manage this crisis effectively.

One of the best examples of this flexibility was the company’s ability to pivot and begin making the plexiglass shields now seen in restaurants, banks, retail outlets, and countless other businesses.

“We reached out to suppliers and started ordering clear acrylic, clear polycarbonate, and started making these custom guards that could be adapted for bank-teller lanes, tabletops, and other uses,” Dan explained, noting that GIS made this adjustment as a way to bring employees back to work after the pandemic hit and sign work ground to a near-halt. “There was a little bit of a learning curve, but overall, it was an almost seamless transition.”

John agreed, noting that the company didn’t have to make any additional investments or find any new suppliers.

“It was just a matter of quickly training employees to make shields instead of signage,” he said, noting that, while GIS is still making these shields for a few hospitals and office buildings, it is increasingly turning its focus back to making signs.

A Bright Future

While many sectors of the economy have slowed because of the pandemic, there are still growth opportunities for companies positioned to take advantage of them, said John, noting that banks, with the emergence of the ITM, clearly represent one of those opportunities.

A new sign the company created for General Dynamics.

A new sign the company created for General Dynamics.

He noted that banks were already moving in this direction, and the pandemic, which closed bank lobbies for months and all but forced customers to use drive-up windows for most all transactions, has only accelerated the process.

“Banks are adding them at their branches, and we’ve also seen an increase in free-standing ITMs that are not at branches,” he explained. “Chase Bank is the first one to do this; they’re looking to close 1,000 locations — downtown locations that don’t have drive-up service — and buy remote sites just outside cities, and put up these free-standing ITMs.

“We’re one of the few companies in the United States building these free-standing ITM canopies,” he went on. “It’s a very interesting development and a great opportunity for us, and we saw it happening pre-COVID; it’s 100% the future.”

As for the future of the sign business … that picture is certainly not as clear, said the brothers Renzi, noting, again, that the pandemic has hit this sector very hard, and there was already a good deal of consolidation before COVID-19 arrived as Baby Boomers retired and sold their ventures to employees or larger players from outside the region.

And since the pandemic, some of the smaller players have closed down, they said, noting they didn’t have the wherewithal to withstand the loss of business and the many other challenges that visited the industry. And many mid-sized companies have struggled with everything from retaining employees to finding the materials they need to complete orders.

GIS, again, is not immune from these challenges, but it certainly seems well-positioned to not only survive but thrive in the post-COVID world.

If you look closely — and you don’t even have to look closely — you can see the signs.

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

Features

This Nonprofit Is Finding New Ways to Provide a ‘Safe Place’

Kelsey Andrews (third from left, with Therese Ross, program director; Bill Scatolini, board president; and Diane Murray, executive director) calls Rick’s Place “a wonderful support system” — and much more.

Diane Murray says that, like most nonprofits, Rick’s Place is responding to the pandemic in a proactive fashion.

In other words, this agency, founded to provide peer support to grieving families, and especially children, has, out of necessity, changed, pivoted, and in some ways reinvented itself, said Murray, its executive director, noting that much of this involves carrying out its mission in a virtual manner.

“As soon as we became aware that it wasn’t safe to have in-person meetings, we moved to a virtual format for all our peer-support groups,” she told BusinessWest. And that was very successful. We were surprised at how well children made that transition; it’s hard enough to be grieving and talk about it in person with your peers, but looking at a screen can be tricky. But we sent them activities, and they would complete them and bring them to the meeting. It’s worked quite well.”

As she noted, grieving and talking about loss among a group of peers is hard, but it has become a proven method for helping children and families cope with the loss of a loved one. And Rick’s Place has been bringing people together in this way and providing what many call a ‘safe place’ since 2007.

Its mission, and its success in carrying it out — which made the agency the latest of several nonprofits to be named Difference Makers by BusinessWest — was summed up succinctly and effectively by Program Director Therese Ross when we spoke with her back in February.

“It’s a unique grief journey, but it’s also a universal experience,” she noted. “To hear from other people how they manage when their child says this or does that, it’s real boots on the ground, people living it, and it’s really helpful.”

Providing such help was the overarching goal for the many friends of Rick Thorpe, the former football star and 1984 graduate at Minnechaug High School who was among the more than 1,100 people who died in the South Tower of the World Trade Center on 9/11. He left behind his wife, Linda, and newborn daughter, Alexis. Searching for ways to memorialize Rick, friends and family members eventually turned to Alexis for inspiration and created a bereavement center in her honor.

In 2020, the work of this agency goes on, but obviously many things have changed, and in the meantime, new and different needs have emerged, said Murray, noting, as just one example, the restrictions placed on funeral services for the first several months of the pandemic.

“Deaths during the COVID era are so much more complicated for kids,” she explained. “Losing a grandparent or parent — and not being able to have the usual services you would have and seeing a large number of family and friends — has impacted the grief and made it more complicated. Also, in many cases, they didn’t get a chance to say goodbye, and that makes the process so much more difficult. We’re focusing on these COVID-era issues with families and giving them information on how to start that grief journey.”

Overall, though, a movement to virtual services has been the biggest change brought about by COVID-19, Murray noted, adding that, in addition to virtual peer sessions, the agency is also conducting virtual training sessions with local school systems on the impact of grief on students. Meanwhile, she and others at the agency are talking with area schools about taking the popular eight-week ‘grief groups’ it had been offering to a virtual format now that school has started up again.

“The schools are where we see our most diverse population and students with the greatest economic need,” she explained. “Finding a way to continue those virtually is very important to us. We’re talking to some school counselors who are very invested in getting our programs into the schools virtually.”

Since 2007, Rick’s Place and its loyal supporters — and there are many of them — have been invested in providing much-needed support to those who are grieving. In the COVID-19 era, the word ‘place’ has taken on new meeting. Now, in many cases, it’s not an actual, physical place, but rather … well, a computer screen where people can still gather. And where they can share, cope, and learn together.

As Murray said, the agency has had to pivot and in some cases reinvent. But its vital mission, one that has made it a Difference Maker, remains unchanged.

—George O’Brien

Features

This Advocate and Cheerleader Remains Active on Many Fronts

Photo by Leah Martin Photography

When we first introduced Dianne Fuller Doherty back in February, we used the term ‘semi-retired’ to describe her status — and it’s the appropriate phrase to use.

Indeed, while she has stepped down from her role as director of the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center Network’s Western Mass. office, she remains heavily involved in this region, and on a number of fronts — everything from mentoring young people, especially women, to serving on several boards and being part of a few prominent search committees, such as the one that eventually chose Robert Johnson to be the sixth president of Western New England University (see story, page 29).

And most, if not all, of her work has been in some way impacted by COVID-19, including that search at WNEU, and another at Tech Foundry.

“We never met any of the candidates — only the winner after he had been given the position,” she said of the WNEU search, noting that all interviews were conducted remotely, a process she didn’t think would be very effective, but ultimately proved to be. “When we started both these searches, I said, ‘how can we not meet these people?’ It turned out it was incredibly effective — you really got to know these candidates.”

Fuller Doherty’s commitment to remain involved in this region and be, in some respects, a cheerleader for it comes naturally. She’s been doing this she came to Western Mass. in the early ’70s after marrying attorney Paul Doherty, a community leader himself, who passed away several years ago. And she become involved with everything from the creation of the Women’s Fund — she was one of the original founders — to the growth and maturation and the region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Over the course of her lengthy career, she was a business owner — she and partner Marsha Tzoumas started a marketing firm that bore their last names — and, as director of the Small Business Development Center, one who helped countless small businesses get off the ground and to that proverbial next level.

She has a great deal of experience in all matters of launching and operating a business, and she’s never been shy about sharing it with others.

As she told us in February, her MO has always been to provide a kind of tough love to entrepreneurs — in other words, be supportive whenever possible, but also honest and realistic, telling people what they needed to hear, not what they wanted to hear.

“The best advice I give to people is to ask enough questions so that they can come to the right conclusion on whether this is the right time, or the right place, or the right financial backing to go forward,” she said when we first spoke with her. “You let them come to the decision about whether it’s a ‘no.’ And if it’s a ‘yes,’ then you just try to be as supportive as possible and it them know that there are going to be highs and lows in any business, and the challenges will come. But the rewards will come also.”

For Fuller Doherty, the biggest reward has been to see the region continue to grow, prosper, and meet the enormous potential she has always thought it possessed. Progress has come on a number of fronts, she said, listing everything from the advancement of women, thanks to groups like the Women’s Fund, to that entrepreneurial ecosystem, to the capital of the region, the city of Springfield.

She told BusinessWest she has always been focused on ‘what’s next’ for the region, and especially Springfield, and believes the answer may lie in housing.

“Education requirements dictate housing investment,” she explained. “And I think we can do a lot with housing; Springfield used to be the City of Homes, and I think it can come back to that.”

But there is work still to do on all these fronts, she acknowledged, and she wants to continue playing a meaningful role in all of it.

In other words, she has no intention of slowing down, even in the era of COVID-19, and this attitude, this mindset, certainly explains why she is a member of the Difference Makers class of 2020.

—George O’Brien

Features

COVID Has Brought New Challenges to an Already-intense Cancer Fight

Photo by Leah Martin Photography

Sandy Cassanelli has always been a fighter.

Which is good, because these first nine months of 2020, the year of COVID, have tested her in every way imaginable.

Let’s start with her health. As most know, she was diagnosed with stage-4 breast cancer four years ago, and has been not only fighting that fight, but helping others fight it as well through the Breast Friends Fund, a charity that raises funds that go directly to metastatic breast-cancer research at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Having a terminal illness in the middle of a pandemic, though, brings even more challenges to the fore.

“There was the realization that this virus could kill me,” she said, noting that, for obvious reasons, she began working at home back in March. “And my husband, Craig, had to be careful to make sure he wasn’t bringing anything home to me; he would take off his clothes in the garage and run up to the shower every day. He jokes that I would spray Lysol on him before I would let him in the house.”

Meanwhile, as she started a new treatment regimen and underwent tests and biopsies, the protocols were much different.

“At Dana-Farber, my husband always comes with me — he’s never missed an appointment,” she explained. “But once everyone started locking down, only the patients could go, so I had to go from my first scans to see if my new treatment was working by myself. And since March, I’ve had to go to every appointment by myself. It’s been very challenging not to have the support of my husband.”

Let’s move on to her business that she manages with Craig — Greeno Supply. Near the top of the list of the products it supplies to a wide range of customers are a number of items in high demand but short supply during the pandemic — paper towels, toilet paper, cleaning supplies … all those things. Getting them — and meeting the needs of customers — has been daunting, to say the least.

“It was very challenging — it was hard to get these things from our suppliers,” she said of products that ranged from those paper goods to gloves, masks, and other PPE. “We had to reinvent the wheel and go out to different suppliers just to get these items. And we’re still struggling — we’re still reinventing the wheel.”

And then, there’s family, or life at home, a phrase that has certainly taken on new meaning during this pandemic.

Cassanelli, like many parents, and especially many women, has been working at home and helping her children with school at home. In this case, the children were in eighth and 12th grade, respectively — big years, graduation years. Not a year one would want to spend confined at home.

“I’ve been battling for seven years, so my daughters are used to adversity and things not going the way normal life goes,” she explained. “They’ve been dealing with a lot, and they actually did really well because they know how to deal with adversity. But I’d have to say that when the final announcement came that they wouldn’t be going back to school and there was no graduation — that was probably the only time that tears flowed in my house.

“When I was first diagnosed with stage-4 cancer, the doctor set a goal for me and my older daughter Samantha — that I would get to see her graduate and walk across the stage” she went on. “So it was a double whammy — but we moved on.”

Overall, Cassanelli’s ability to meet all these challenges head on helps explain why she’s a Difference Maker in this memorable year.

It’s a mindset summed up perfectly by something she said to BusinessWest back in February while discussing her diagnosis and her approach to life.

“Does it suck? Yeah, it totally sucks. But me crawling up in a ball and putting the sheets up over my head is not going to fix anything, so I might as well just get up and go,” she said. “I try not to sweat the small stuff. I believe that every day is a gift, and I’m going to make the best of that day, and I’m going to be positive, because if I’m positive, then everyone around me is going to be positive.”

COVID-19 — and all that has thrown at her — isn’t small stuff. But she doesn’t seem to be sweating it, either.

—George O’Brien

Features

Former Family Business Center Leader Is Still Delivering Frank Talk

Ira Bryck spent 25 years as the executive director of the Family Business Center of the Pioneer Valley. And over that quarter-century, he left an indelible mark on those he helped through his rather unique style and ability to create impactful learning experiences.

These included plays he authored, dinner meetings with provocative speakers, and, quite often, frank talks about family businesses and whether people should be part of them or not.

And he continues to make a mark, even though he’s retired from the FBC, as it was called, and the center itself has gone out of business. He does it through a radio show with WHMP called The Western Mass. Business Show a variety of consulting work, and even his work in the COVID-19 era to help keep the residents of Amherst, where he has lived for some time, safe as college students return to campuses.

In all these settings and circumstances, Bryck speaks his mind, creates dialogue, and helps to generate progress in many forms. And that, in a nutshell — and he wrote a play called A Tough Nut to Crack — is why he is a member of the Difference Makers class of 2020.

He has decided not to join his fellow classmates for the ceremony on Sept. 24 due to a strong desire to help keep his family safe during this pandemic — two adult children and their families with New York addresses have moved in with him as they seek what amounts to higher ground during the pandemic — but he has definitely earned his place on the podium, even if he’ll be addressing his audience remotely.

That’s because, since being named director of the fledgling FBC in 1994, he has done things his way — and in an ultimately effective way. And he has helped educate and inspire an important, if often unrecognized, segment of the local economy — its family businesses.

They come in various shapes and sizes and cross a variety of sectors, but they share common issues and challenges. When we talked with Bryck in February, he compared small businesses to snowflakes in that no two are alike, and summoned that famous opening line from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Bryck has addressed these issues and challenges in a manner that had members of the FBC describe him, alternately, as ‘communicator,’ ‘connector,’ ‘facilitator,’ and even ‘entertainer.’

One long-time member described his style and his approach this way: “He can take things that are very theoretical and make them realistic. It’s one thing to read a paper from a professor who deals in theory, but it that reality? Can that be applied to the everyday businessperson? Ira was able to translate those kinds of things.”

And he’s still doing all that, just in different settings and with different audiences. With his radio show, he just passed a milestone — his 300th interview.

“It’s a nice exercise to meet and interview someone every week,” he said. “It’s been a lot of fun and a tremendous learning experience.”

Meanwhile, he’s also working with Giombetti Associates as a senior advisor working on personality assessments, coaching, and organizational development. He’s involved in several projects, including one with a private school in Springfield that is undergoing a change in leadership.

“We’re restructuring and creating much more of an idea system within their leadership team,” he explained, adding that he’s working on another project involving a Connecticut grower of plants and trees that is seeking to make structural changes and increase self-awareness and self-management.

He’s also coordinating a roundtable for area business owners. “We meet monthly and just explore people’s challenges and help each other think things through, and that also involves coaching,” he said, adding that he’s also involved with the family business center at Cornell University, participating in what he called a “speed-dating event involving mentors and mentees.”

“All this keeps me busy, but I’m only working about half as much as I used to,” he explained. “Which leaves me plenty of time of walk five to 10 miles a day, so I’ve lost 45 pounds.”

Overall, he’s still finding ways to educate — and also entertain, in some cases — while also making a mark on those he’s working with.

In short, he’s still very much making a difference in this region — and well beyond it.

—George O’Brien

Features

His March Will Go On … but with Fewer Marchers

Monte Belmonte says the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about some changes in what he does on the radio each day.

Like helping his listeners know what day it is — a simple assignment that has become a good deal more difficult as the days blend together and the things that make them different are increasingly removed from the equation.

“I would come in and do my show the same way I’d been doing it, except I introduced what I call ‘quaran-themes’ — a different musical theme for each day of the week,” explained Belmonte, a DJ with WRSI the River Radio in Northampton. “Wednesday, for example, is wanderlust Wednesday, where I take people musically to places they couldn’t otherwise go — like the ukulele version of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ to make them feel like they could go on that trip to Hawaii they were supposed to go on but couldn’t.”

Like everyone else, Belmonte is making needed adjustments because of the pandemic — at home, at work, on the air — and especially with the fundraiser to combat food insecurity that now bears his name: Monte’s March.

Indeed, the march, which takes place in November and has grown exponentially — in every way — since he started it back in 2010, has, in recent years, attracted hundreds of marchers who have joined Belmonte on his two-day trek from Springfield to Greenfield. This year, in the name of social distancing, those marchers will be encouraged to stay home and support the effort virtually, something many supporters have already been doing.

“It’s such a long walk that people have participated virtually over the years — where they create a fundraising team and set up a fundraising page — so at least there some institutional knowledge,” he explained, noting that specific details of this year’s march are coming together and will be announced soon. “But now, with everyone doing almost everything virtually, I think people will want to participate.”

And they certainly need to participate, he went on, because need has never been greater. That’s because the pandemic is leaving many in this area unemployed and in need of help — bringing the broad issue of food insecurity to the forefront as perhaps never before.

Nightly newscasts show long lines of cars at designated locations to pick up donations of food. Many of those being interviewed say this is the first time they’ve ever needed such help and that they never imagined they would be in such a situation. It’s a scenario playing itself out in California, Florida, Texas — and the Pioneer Valley.

“Because of the pandemic, hunger has been in the forefront of people’s minds in a different way,” Belmonte told BusinessWest. “I’ve talked with some of the survival centers, and the need has definitely grown.”

Getting back to his day … Belmonte said the pandemic has certainly impacted that as well — in ways beyond his song to signal what day it is.

Indeed, he noted that, in many ways, radio, and his work on the air, have more become more important and more appreciated in the era of COVID-19 as people look for some normalcy and comfort in their lives.

“Especially in the beginning, the pandemic reinforced how important radio is to people at a time like this,” he noted. “It’s a medium that feels more personal and intimate than some others; maybe the commuting times have changed, but people are still going places in their car, so most of the time it’s just you and your radio in your car together. When people needed a listening ear and a voice and some kind of sense of normalcy that might have been lost, they turned to radio in a different way.”

Meanwhile, he has used his show, his platform, to provide needed information and also try to help the businesses that have been impacted by the pandemic, especially restaurants.

“We offered to the restaurant community what amounted to public-service announcements,” he explained. “We said, ‘let us know what you’re doing, whether it’s takeout or whatever,’ and we called it the ‘takeout menu.’ It let people know what different restaurants were doing at different times.”

Overall, Belmonte said some things are starting to feel a least a little more like normal. But the pandemic is still impacting lives in all kinds of ways — which is why he’s still helping people understand what day it is.

And also why he’s hoping his next march will be among his most successful — even if supporters are not actually on the road with him.

—George O’Brien

Features

He Has Plans to Retire, but No Plans to Scale Back His Involvement

Photo by Leah Martin Photography

When we talked with Steve Lowell back in January, he related just how familiar he became with the commute from Cape Cod to Upton in the middle of the state, where he lived, earlier in his career.

That’s because, while he was working for a bank on the Cape, he also became heavily involved in the community there — as part of his work, but mostly because giving back is his MO. He recalled that he was on the Cape so much, many people thought he lived there.

When we reconnected several days ago, Lowell was again talking about this commute, but from a different perspective.

Indeed, only days after he was introduced as a member of the Difference Makers class of 2020 in February, Lowell announced he would be retiring as president and CEO of Monson Savings Bank, effective early next year, and stepping into a role new for this institution — chairman of the board. He and his wife, Anne, are in the process of relocating to the Cape, but he now keeps a small apartment in Brookfield and is there three or four nights a week, because he’s not only neck-deep in the transition of leadership at the bank (Dan Moriarty, the long-time CFO at the bank, has been named his successor), he’s still active in this region. Make that very active.

And he intends to remain involved with a number of organizations in this region, which means he’ll doing that commuting thing again.

“I’ll be around,” he said with conviction, he said, noting that’s not certain how long he will continue those living arrangements in Brookfield. “One way or another, I’ll be around.”

And while his work and that of his team at MSB has been somewhat different because of the COVID-19 pandemic, such as handling PPP loan applications, the basic formula hasn’t changed, he said, meaning Monson continues to fill the many roles of a community bank — and continues to search for new growth opportunities in a heavily banked region.

“In spite of COVID, we’ve moving forward, and we’re looking to the future,” he told BusinessWest, noting that the institution recently opened a new branch in East Longmeadow. “We’re trying to build an organization that is resilient enough to withstand not only this but anything else that might happen.”

While working to build this organization, Lowell is transitioning into his new role as chairman, one that will translate into a good deal of mentoring and also helping to guide the bank through a period that will likely be much more difficult than the one it just went through.

“I think 2021 is going to be an extremely challenging year, so I’m happy to stay involved and lend whatever expertise I can to them to make sure we keep things going in a really positive way,” he said. “I’m excited about that; I’m honored that they thought that this would be helpful, and I’m looking forward to it; I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

Meanwhile, as noted earlier, he will continue a career-long pattern of being heavily involved in the community, work that has involved nonprofits and institutions ranging from the United Way of Pioneer Valley to Link to Libraries; Baystate Health’s Eastern Region (Wing Memorial and Mary Lane hospitals) to the Western Mass. Economic Development Council (EDC).

“They’ve asked me to stay on for another year as chairman of the board of the Baystate Health Eastern Region,” he said. “And I just got asked by Rick Sullivan [president and CEO of the EDC] to continue on as treasurer — he said, ‘even though you’re going to be down on the Cape, can you stay on as treasurer?’ And I said, ‘as long as you’ll have me.’”

That request, and his answer in the affirmative, both speak to why Lowell is a member of this Difference Makers class of 2020. He’s almost always said ‘yes’ when asked to serve, and, more importantly, he usually didn’t wait to be asked.

He noted that, as he was arriving in this region in the late spring of 2011, the region — and Main Street in Monson — were hit, and hit hard, by a tornado. And as he’s retiring — at least from his role as president and CEO — the world, and Main Street in Monson, are being hit, and hit hard, by a pandemic.

“People might be happy to see me go,” he joked.

That’s certainly not the case. Even more to the point, he won’t be going anywhere soon, except for that commute he knows all too well.

—George O’Brien

Features Special Coverage

On the Right Track

Jeremy Levine

Jeremy Levine says Pioneer Valley Railroad and Railroad Distribution Services have a unique business model that has led to decades of success and steady growth.

When it comes to moving freight, Jeremy Levine says, many business owners believe it comes down to a choice between rail — if it’s available — or trucks.

But in many cases, he believes, the best answer might be rail and trucks.

And this is the answer that has enabled Westfield-based sister businesses Pioneer Valley Railroad (PVRR) and its wholly owned subsidiary Railroad Distribution Services (RDS) — both Pinsly Railroad companies — to thrive for the past 35 years and remain on a steady growth trajectory.

“Railroads and trucking … they have their lobbyists in D.C. on opposite sides of the aisle trying to argue against one another,” said Levine, who is awaiting new business cards that will identify him as the company’s business-development coordinator. “But the truth is, for a short-line railroad like us, we use trucking all the time — we’re sending out hundreds of trucks a year to do the last-mile transit for our customers, either here in Westfield or all across the Northeast.”

As a short-line railroad, PVRR, as it’s known to many in this area, moves on 17 miles of operable track running north from Westfield, said Levine, the fourth-generation administrator of the company started by his great-grandfather, Samuel Pinsly. There is a branch running roughly four miles in Westfield and another branch running 13 miles into Holyoke.

The company interchanges with two class-1 railroads — Norfolk Southern and CSX — and takes freight that last mile, as Levine put it, referring to the last leg of a journey that might begin several states away or even on the other end of the country.

“The number you’ll hear is that four trucks equals one rail car. So if you looking to ship a distance or something that’s very heavy, that’s where we provide economies of scale.”

“If you want to get lumber from Louisiana, a large class-1 railroad such as CSX will bring that up, interchange with us at our yard in Westfield, and we’ll take it the last mile or miles to our customers, if they’re located directly on our line,” he explained, adding that, for customers not on the line — those without a rail siding — RDS will take it the last leg by truck via two warehouses it operates in Westfield.

And in some cases, that last leg might be dozens or even hundreds of miles, he noted, adding that rail is a less expensive, more effective way to move material, and RDS enables customers to take advantage of it, at least for part of the journey.

“The number you’ll hear is that four trucks equals one rail car’s worth of capacity,” he explained. “So if you looking to ship a distance or something that’s very heavy, that’s where we provide economies of scale.”

This has been a successful business model since 1982, and the company continues to look for growth opportunities in this region, he noted, adding that such growth can come organically, from more existing companies using this unique model, or from new companies moving into the region to take advantage of its many amenities — including infrastructure. And Pinsley Railroad owns several tracts of land along its tracks that are suitable for development, he noted.

For this issue and its focus on transportation, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at PVRR and RDS, and how those letters can add up to growth potential — for the company and the region itself.

Train of Thought

Levine told BusinessWest that, while he didn’t work at what he called the “family business” in his youth, he was around it at times, well aware of it, and always intrigued by it.

“When my grandmother was running the business, that’s when they moved the headquarters from Boston to Westfield,” said Levine, who grew up in nearby Granby. “You grow up going to the rail yard, and you’re around these people; you’re definitely going to be inclined to the business.”

But he didn’t take a direct route, as they might say in this industry, to PVRR’s headquarters on Lockhouse Road. Indeed, after graduating from George Washington University in 2015, he stayed in D.C. and worked on Capitol Hill, specifically on transportation policy. He later moved to the private sector and worked at a firm advocating for railroads.

Eventually, he decided he wanted to be a part of the family’s business and relocated to Western Mass. “It’s been quite a ride,” he said while borrowing more language from the industry, noting that he started at PVRR and RDS roughly a year ago.

He came to a company that had a small, steady, and diverse group of rail customers, some that receive thousands of rail cars of material a year and others merely a handful of cars, and more than three dozen RDS customers.

He said his new job description is essentially to generate new business, and he believes there is enormous potential to do just that — again, because of the unique business model these companies have developed and the benefits that rail (or a combination of rail and trucks known as ‘transloading’) brings to potential customers.

As Levine talked about the sister companies and how they operate together, one could hear the drone of forklifts operating in the warehouse outside his office, which led to an explanation of how it all works.

“We have some rail cars here this morning,” he explained. “They got dropped off by CSX late last night; early morning, or 3 a.m. crew [at PVRR] dropped them off here. The crews have been unloading them, staging them, and placing them outbound on trucks to head off to our various customers.”

There are other operations like this, or somewhat like this, in the Northeast, he explained, but what sets this operation apart, beyond the interchange with the two class-1 railroads, is the fact that the company owns both its railroad and distribution services.

“There are companies like our Railroad Distribution Services that are directly on CSX’s line,” he noted. “But the difference there is they don’t control the trains; I can pick up the phone and call the train operator and ask him when he’s going to be here with my rail cars, and with that comes a lot of security that your stuff is not going to backlogged or jammed up and that your deliveries are going to come on time.”

It is this security — and these benefits — that Levine is selling to potential customers. And as he goes about that task, he has the Pinsly team, if you will, focused solely on the Westfield operation and its future. Indeed, the company, which operated short-line railroads in Florida and Arkansas, has divested itself of those operations, with PVRR and RDS being the only holdings in the portfolio.

“What that has allowed us to do is reinvest and recalibrate,” he explained. “We had a very large team throughout the years and a lot of focus on Florida, where we had 250 miles of track; we can now take that talent and focus on our operations here.

“My go-to line is that ‘even you don’t have rail siding, that doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from railroading,’” he continued, adding that he can back up those words with numbers, and he intends to use them to build the company’s portfolio of customers.

PVRR owns a 1930s-era passenger rail car that it calls the ‘dinner train.’ As that name suggests, it’s used for fundraising events, a customer-appreciation gathering, and even as a means to transport Santa Claus to Holyoke Heritage State Park for annual festivities there.

It hasn’t been out of the yard much in the era of COVID-19, but U.S. Rep. Richard Neal recently used it as a backdrop for an event, said Levine, adding that the dinner train has become a highly visible part of this company for decades now.

But the bottom line — in virtually every respect — is that PVRR and RDS are about getting freight, not people, from one place to another.

It’s a moving story, and one that could well add a number of new chapters in the years to come as the company tries to get customers on the right track when it comes to freight — literally and figuratively.

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

Alumni Achievement Award

President, TommyCar Auto Group

She’s Driven to Succeed — in Business and in the Community

Carla Cosenzi

Carla Cosenzi has become a solid role model for her children, Niko and Talia, when it comes to getting involved in the community.

Carla Cosenzi moved into her new office at Northampton Volkswagen some time ago.

But she’s never quite found the time to fully decorate.

Indeed, there are a number of drawings created by her children that haven’t found their way on to the walls yet, and, likewise, there are several plaques, photos, BusinessWest awards (in the plural), and assorted pieces of memorabilia still waiting to be hung.

Among them is a popular framed poster featuring an image of legendary Green Bay Packers head coach Vince Lombardi above the words ‘What it takes to be Number One,’ and a quote that has become one of her favorites:

“Winning is not a sometime thing; it’s an all the time thing. You don’t win once in a while; you don’t do things right once in a while; you do them right all of the time. Winning is a habit.”

The poster once belonged to her father, Tom, and she more or less inherited it from him — along with a number of other things. She said her father lived by the words in that quote — especially the part about doing things right all the time — and, not surprisingly, she does as well.

“I try to instill in my children — and especially my daughter, because she’s older — the importance of community and giving back to the community. And she will often attend events with me; it’s important for her to be there with me to see that it’s not just about giving money — it’s about getting involved.”

She’s inherited his entrepreneurial spirit — she and her brother, Tom Jr., have greatly expanded the business, adding several dealerships in recent years — as well as his commitment to serve the community, especially with the Tom Cosenzi Driving for the Cure Charity Golf Tournament, staged each year to raise funds to battle brain cancer, which claimed her father when he was just 52 years old. Since it was launched in 2009, the tournament has raised more than $1 million to support brain-tumor research at the Dana Farber Center for Neuro-Oncology.

But also through the Carla Cares Program, which could be called the philanthropic arm of TommyCar Auto Group. The program assists charitable and nonprofit organizations across Western Mass., Southern Vermont, Southern New Hampshire, and Northern Connecticut. Just a partial list of organizations it has supported through donations and other forms of support includes Baystate Children’s Hospital, Big Brothers Big Sisters, the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, Unify Against Bullying, NoHo Pride, Cooley Dickinson Hospital, Dress for Success Western Massachusetts, and many others.

This desire to serve the community — and to do things right all the time — is an operating mindset, if you will, that has earned Cosenzi not only her 40 Under Forty plaque (class of 2012), but another BusinessWest honor as well — the Difference Makers award in 2019. And it was on display the day BusinessWest visited Cosenzi. The golf tournament was just a few days away, and, as always, she was involved with every detail, right down to the gift baskets for the silent auction and raffle.

“I like to get involved in every aspect of this — it’s who I am,” she said. “It’s been that way from the beginning.”

But the fact there was a tournament at all is testimony to Cosenzi’s competitive spirit and desire to continue the fight against brain cancer.

Indeed, in the year of COVID-19, a number of fundraising events such as this one have been canceled or gone virtual — not that you can play a virtual golf tournament. But Cosenzi, after a number of discussions with tournament committee members — and talks with Twin Hills Country Club, where it took place — decided to press ahead and make something happen.

And they did. It wasn’t as large as in recent years — one course instead of two and, therefore, perhaps half the number of golfers — but it was a memorable start to the drive to get to the second million dollars in donations.

And while Cosenzi was busy helping with last-minute details of the tournament, so too were her children, especially her daughter, Talia, who has become a fixture at the event in recent years. Indeed, she has her own tent, Talia’s Tent, from which she sells lemonade for the cause. Because of the pandemic, she won’t be able to do that this year, so she’s making bracelets and sugar scrubs to sell online the day of the tournament.

“I’m proud to say that they know what they’re raising money for, and they’re very excited to help,” she said. “They feel like they’re part of making the difference, which is really exciting for me to see in my children.

“I try to instill in my children — and especially my daughter, because she’s older — the importance of community and giving back to the community,” she went on. “And she will often attend events with me; it’s important for her to be there with me to see that it’s not just about giving money — it’s about getting involved.”

Thus, the words on that Vince Lombardi poster have been passed down to a third generation of the Cosenzi family. They all live by the notion that you don’t do things right only once in a while.

—George O’Brien

Alumni Achievement Award

Director of Clinical Ethics, Baystate Health

This Pioneer Remains on the Leading Edge in the Field of Bioethics

Peter DePergola

Peter DePergola, wearing his mask outside Baystate Medical Center, a new requirement, has become a national leader in the emerging field of bioethics.

Peter DePergola described it as a “haunting experience.”

He then amended that statement slightly — but poignantly.

“It was incredibly haunting,” he told BusinessWest while retelling his experiences writing a white paper eventually to be titled “Ethical Guidelines for the Treatment of Patients with Suspected or Confirmed Novel Coronavirus Disease (COVID-19),” published in the Online Journal of Health Ethics.

As that title suggests, this is a guide to help medical professionals and healthcare facilities decide who would be treated for the virus and how; specifically, it addresses how limited resources are to be expended and in what circumstances. It was a guide that kept him up nights while he was writing it, and one he truly hoped no one would ever have to use.

But when he wrote it — at the height of the surge that hit the eastern part of the state in April — it seemed likely, if not almost certain, that his own employer, Baystate Health, would be putting it to use.

“I really thought — I truly believed — that we would be using this policy within weeks,” he said, adding that he was working with administrators at Baystate who were preparing to become overwhelmed and would need guidance on, among other things, how to proceed when the number of patients who needed a ventilator exceeded the number of machines available.

It never came to that, and DePergola hopes it never does, but his white paper is there for use if the circumstances arise.

As for why it was so haunting, he said he was writing guidelines, or thresholds, for receiving care that he knew his own loved ones would not meet.

“As I wrote it, I realized that people that I cared about, even my own mother, may not qualify, or meet the criteria, that I have developed in collaboration with my colleagues, to receive a life-sustaining resource,” he said. “It was incredibly difficult to separate my own personal feelings and moral responsibilities to my family from the greater good of the public.”

DePergola’s white paper goes a long way toward explaining why he has become a leading voice in the emerging field of bioethics, not only in this region, but across the state and the nation. And also why he has, for the first time, become a finalist for the Alumni Achievement Award, five years after receiving his 40 Under Forty plaque, and two years after receiving another of BusinessWest’s honors — its coveted Healthcare Heroes award in the category of Emerging Leader.

But there are many other examples, including his steady, if not meteoric, rise within the ranks of experts in the bioethics field.

When he joined the other members of the 40 Under Forty class of 2015 at the Log Cabin, he was a staff ethicist at Baystate and the only person to hold that title in Western Mass. Now a professor of Bioethics and Medical Humanities at Elms College, he’s still the only ethicist in the 413, but his influence now extends well beyond this region.

This was evidenced by his appointment to the Commonwealth’s Crisis Standards of Care (CSC) Advisory Committee in the spring.

The 17-member panel, which in April produced a document titled “Crisis Standards of Care Planning for the COVID-19 Pandemic,” was comprised mostly of noted experts from institutions in the eastern part of the state, including Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts General Hospital, and Boston’s Children’s Hospital. And DePergola was, by his estimate, 20 years younger than any other member.

He remembers a number of heated discussions among the members of the panel, including one that involved whether healthcare providers should receive primary access to scarce resources.

“For a while, I was the minority on that subject, saying that I did think that healthcare providers should get priority because they are the means by which we can care for many more people,” he told BusinessWest. “So even on just utilitarian grounds, which is not the best way to make moral decisions, it just made sense that, if we didn’t take care of the individuals who are, in essence, the tools by which we could heal the general public, then there would be no one else. If we didn’t prioritize them, what incentive would they have to come to work?”

A revised version of the committee’s “Crisis Standards of Care Planning” eventually did stipulate that healthcare workers would get priority, and it included a number of other measures contained in DePergola’s white paper.

The fact that the two documents are now very similar speaks to just how quickly and profoundly DePergola his risen to the status of national, and even global, leader in the field of bioethics.

And also why he is one of the five finalists for the Alumni Achievement Award.

—George O’Brien

Alumni Achievement Award

Attorney, Shatz, Schwartz and Fentin; Springfield City Councilor

He Has a Passion for the Law, and for Serving His Constituents

Mike Fenton

Mike Fenton has now spent more than a decade representing Springfield’s Ward 2.

When he was running for the Ward 2 Springfield City Council seat in 2009 while attending law school at Western New England University, Mike Fenton, who was competing in a deep, well-credentialed field, didn’t think he’d win.

“And when I did win … I didn’t think I’d stay,” he told BusinessWest, figuring that, in time, maybe a few years, he would be immersed in his law career and essentially done with his service to the city.

Suffice it to say Fenton was wrong with both of his projections. Indeed, 11 years later, he is still representing Ward 2 while still building that law practice — he’s a partner with the Springfield-based law firm Shatz, Schwartz, and Fentin, specializing in commercial real estate, business planning, commercial finance, and estate planning.

“A few years into it, I just fell in love with it,” he said of his multi-faceted work with the City Council. “I fell in love with all of it — with helping constituents, the city budget, and some of the more complicated aspects of city government; it’s very rewarding work.”

These sentiments explain why Fenton is now a multiple-year finalist for the Alumni Achievement Award, previously known as the Continued Excellence Award. He hopes that 2020 will be the year he’ll break through, but he admits to having other things on his mind right now.

“I fell in love with all of it — with helping constituents, the city budget, and some of the more complicated aspects of city government; it’s very rewarding work.”

That list includes the now nationwide focus on police-community relations — “we’re taking steps to increase accountability and transparency within the department” — and especially COVID-19. The pandemic is impacting both his law practice — there’s been a general slowing of the commercial real-estate market, but an understandable surge in estate-planning work — and the city of Springfield, which is impacted in many ways, especially within its business community.

As Fenton talked about the changing landscape, one can hear the concern in his voice and the passion he has for serving the city he grew up in.

“The biggest casualty to this pandemic, after you take in the public-health and human cost, which is obviously first and foremost, is commercial real estate and the economy,” he noted. “The commercial real-estate market was doing much better than it had in the decades leading up to 2020, and then the pandemic hit, and like every other place, not only this country but around the globe, it’s a completely different environment now.

“There’s no doubting that Springfield was hitting its stride, and the pandemic has thrown us a curveball,” he went on. “Everything from stalled progress at MGM to questions now about development in the area around the casino, to Worthington Street and what’s going to happen there, to losing Big Mamou’s … there’s a lot of losses that will have to be made up when we get to the other end of this pandemic.”

Fenton said he’s looking forward to serving the city as it works to recover from those losses. To explain this passion, he flashed back to 2009 and his decision to seek public office. Actually, he started the discussion with a different decision — the one to attend law school at Western New England, which offered him a full scholarship, instead of Boston College, where he thought he was headed.

That decision, which he now counts among the most important (and best) of his life, brought him back home. And as he was making that decision, his cousin sent him a news article detailing how Springfield was going through a change in its charter, moving from nine at-large city councilors to a 13-member board, with eight of them representing wards. And this started talk of a possible run for one of those seats.

“I was a political science major, but I never thought about a career in politics — I didn’t want a career in politics,” he explained, adding that a City Council seat wasn’t a career, but it was “a great opportunity to meet people and serve the city I love.”

So he ran, launching his career just a few weeks after graduating from Providence College. And again, to his surprise, he prevailed against a number of opponents with better name recognition and better credentials.

He now represents Ward 2, which includes Hungry Hill, East Springfield, and Atwater Park, balancing a long list of city responsibilities with an equally hectic schedule within his law practice. “I’ve been successful at balancing the two because I’m extremely passionate about both of them,” he told BusinessWest. “Politics, and elected office, is not my career, and it will never be my career — but I really enjoy serving my city in this capacity.”

With that, he explained not just why he’s a finalist for the Alumni Achievement Award, but why he’s now been a finalist several times.

—George O’Brien

Alumni Achievement Award

Founder, V-One Vodka

This Entrepreneur — and His Label — Have Come a Long Way in 15 Years

Paul Kozub, left

Paul Kozub, left, seen here with business partner and former Patriots star Ty Law, is growing V-One into a national brand.

When BusinessWest caught up with Paul Kozub recently, he had just wrapped up some promotional video work with Ty Law, former New England Patriots standout cornerback and member of the Pro Football Hall of Fame class of 2019.

Law is now a partner with Kozub in his venture, V-One Vodka, and the videos being shot were at the Hall of Fame in Canton, Ohio. That’s because V-One has been named the official vodka of the Hall for this year — when most all activities, including the induction ceremony, have been postponed because of the pandemic — and next.

The juxtaposition of all this — official vodka of the Hall of Fame, Ty Law as spokesperson — help show just how far Kozub and his label have come since he became part of the very first 40 Under Forty class in 2007. Back then, he was struggling to get his brand off the ground and into bars, restaurants, and package stores in the 413. It wasn’t exactly a one-man show, but it was very close, with Kozub making most of the deliveries himself.

Today, he’s in four states — Massachusetts, Connecticut, Rhode Island, and New Hampshire — and he’s poised to enter four more, including Ohio. He had plans to be in roughly 30 by this fall, and signed on with a distributor to make that happen, but COVID-19 has put many of the plans … well, on ice.

“In Florida, Texas, and some of these other states, there are so many problems that it’s not a good time to launch a new brand,” he noted. “Are the bars and restaurants open? Are the bars closed? That’s typically half our business.”

But Kozub, who was named BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur in 2016 and thus has a few pieces of hardware from the magazine on display somewhere, has certainly come a long way in the 15 years since he started this journey in his basement, using a few thousand dollars left to him by his uncle to create his own vodka.

“You have to have that perseverance; there are so many hurdles when you’re running a business — and in today’s present moment, there are even more. You have to love what you do and have the passion for it. If there’s a roadblock or wall, you have to figure out a way around it or through it.”

Indeed, he now has his own distillery in Poland; work continues to expand his footprint geographically; he’s spent $500,000 to create a new bottle — an important part of the puzzle in this industry; and he continues to defy the odds when it comes to making a vodka label stand out and be successful in an immensely crowded field.

“About 97% of new vodkas fail within the first three years,” said Kozub, who used that statistic to segue his way back to the pro football Hall of Fame and a discussion he had recently with its president, Dave Baker.

“We talked about the 33 million people who have played football, the 27,000 who have played in the NFL, and the 300 who are in the Hall of Fame. What did it take for those people? What qualities did they have to have to be one of those 300?” he asked rhetorically, drawing a parallel to those who get to the top of their field in any business, and especially his.

“You have to have that perseverance; there are so many hurdles when you’re running a business — and in today’s present moment, there are even more,” he said while answering his own question. “You have to love what you do and have the passion for it. If there’s a roadblock or wall, you have to figure out a way around it or through it. When it comes to vodka … yes, you have to have a great product, but you have to be willing to work very hard.”

Kozub’s been doing that since he first launched V-One in 2006, trading in life as a loan officer at a local bank for the life he’s always dreamed of — one as an entrepreneur.

It’s not an easy life, certainly, but it’s the one he certainly prefers.

“When you run a small business, it has to be your life,” he said in conclusion. “I don’t know many small-business owners who are playing a lot of golf or have a lot of time on their hands. For me, it’s all about my family and about my business.

“To be successful, you have to love it,” he went on. “Like I told Dave Baker … my worst day at V-One was better than my best day of being a banker. But that doesn’t mean it’s easy. The challenges that come up — the financial challenges, the HR challenges, the legal challenges … all those things don’t end. And we’re still a very small brand; if we do get bigger and become a national brand, the challenge then becomes how do you stay successful — how do you stay on top?”

As Kozub said, the challenges — the roadblocks and the walls — keep coming. And he rather enjoys finding ways to get through them or around them.

—George O’Brien

Alumni Achievement Award

Assistant Director of Business Development and Promotion Sales, Massachusetts State Lottery; Holyoke City Councilor

This City Leader Has Always Been an Ambassador — and a Connector

James Leahy

James Leahy, seen outside City Hall, has become involved a wide array of Holyoke institutions.

James Leahy joked that being an at-large city councilor is not a reference to his size.

The six-foot, four-inch Leahy has had a lot of experience retelling that one-liner — more than 20 years worth, actually. Indeed, he was first elected to that body in 1999, when he was only 26, after a run very much inspired by his father (more on that later).

He admits to not expecting to spend two decades in that post, but he has, and in the meantime, he has become involved in, well … all things Holyoke, or almost all things. Indeed, he has devoted considerable time, energy, and expertise to the Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day Parade, and also been involved with everything from the Holyoke YMCA to the Volleyball Hall of Fame; from the Holyoke Children’s Museum to the Westfield State University board of trustees (he’s an alum), as well as Holyoke’s famous merry-go-round.

And recently, he started and still maintains the Hello Holyoke Community Forum.

He does all this while keeping a day job as assistant director of Business Development and Promotion Sales for the Massachusetts State Lottery, a position that requires him to rotate between offices in Springfield and Worcester.

When asked how he finds time for all this, Leahy, who is often described as an ambassador for the city and a ‘connector’ for people looking for help with a problem or issue, gave an answer that speaks volumes about why, a decade after earning his 40 Under Forty plaque, he is a finalist for the coveted Alumni Achievement Award.

“I find the time,” he said. “But more importantly, I find the right amount of time. One of my strong suits is organizational skills, and I try to teach my children that. I think some of them have it, and some of them don’t. I tell them that they have to put the right amount of quality time into whatever they’re doing. If I can’t give 100%, then I’m not doing it.”

Suffice it to say he’s given 100% to Holyoke, and to ascertain how and why that is, we return the subject of Leahy’s father, Thomas, who emigrated to this country from Ireland, arrived with a strong work ethic, and passed on to his children some strong advice about service to the community.

“When my father arrived here, he worked in Boston, and he heard stories about [former Mayor] James Michael Curley and other politicians,” Leahy explained. “He was always talking about politics, and he loved politics. I was named James Michael Leahy, and I’m pretty sure that has something to do with James Michael Curley.

“My dad always talked about giving back and how America gave him what he has,” Leahy went on. “He was always stressing two things — one, that you had to give back, and two, if you’re going to live somewhere and raise your family there, you should be a cog in the wheel; you should be part of the community.”

That mindset was reinforced by his mother, Mary Ellen, a prolific volunteer, he continued, adding that it was only a few years after graduating from Westfield State that he first decided to seek one of Holyoke’s at-large council seats. He remembers the time well; he was not only running for office that November, but getting married that same month. And his birthday and his his fiancée’s birthday were the same day, Nov. 19.

“I was thinking, ‘this could be the best month of my life,’” he recalled. “And then I thought, ‘if I lose the election, that will put a damper on things.’”

But he didn’t lose, and he’s gone on to win every two years since. But, as noted, his work within the city goes far beyond City Council chambers and City Hall — and to institutions like the merry-go-round, the children’s museum, the YMCA, and especially the parade, which he became involved at the behest, if one can call it that, of his father-in-law, attorney Peter Brady.

“He was very active on the parade committee,” Leahy recalled. “I was still in college when I started dating his daughter; I can remember him handing me an application and saying, ‘fill this out — if you’re going to be part of this family, you’re going to be part of the parade committee.’”

And he has been, serving in a number of capacities, from board president to his current assignment, co-marketing director. He is one of many working hard to help the parade bounce back from a year when it had to be canceled — for the first time anyone can remember — because of the pandemic.

No, ‘at-large’ has nothing to do with Leahy’s size. But you could say it has everything to do with his involvement in — and impact on — this historic city, which continues to be very large indeed.

—George O’Brien

Coronavirus Manufacturing Special Coverage

Making Do

Kristin Carlson

Kristin Carlson says the pandemic has actually helped business at Peerless Precision, especially when it comes to making parts for defense and law-enforcement-related products.

Mark Borsari says he hasn’t been on a plane since a vacation in early March.

By his reckoning, that’s by far the longest stretch he can remember when he hasn’t been flying somewhere, especially in his role as president of Palmer-based Sanderson MacLeod, a maker of fine wire brushes for everything from makeup kits to gun cleaning.

The six months on the ground has been a time of reflection — and even humor.

“I’m sure my wife’s probably thinking I should be on a plane more,” said Borsari with a laugh, adding that he’s not at all sure when he actually will.

But being effectively grounded from air travel is just one of the many ways COVID-19 has shaken things up for manufacturers, and, in the larger scheme of things, perhaps one of the least consequential given the way Zoom has become the preferred method for communicating with clients and employees alike.

Indeed, the pandemic has prompted everything from weeks-long shutdowns to scrambling for needed parts; from strategies for keeping employees safe to the need to manufacture different products — often PPE — to keep workers busy because demand for the products that were being produced has slowed or stopped.

Much has hinged on the word ‘essential’ — a status bestowed on many manufacturers in the 413, an area with a large number of shops making parts for aerospace, defense, or the broad healthcare sector.

Sanderson MacLeod makes products for all those fields, said Borsari, noting that, after a short but still tension-filled time of uncertainty regarding the company’s status, it was declared essential. The same with Westfield-based Peerless Precision, a company that makes, among other things, products used in the cryogenic cooling systems for thermal imaging, night vision, and infrared cameras — items that are actually in greater demand because of all the tension in the world at the moment.

Mark Borsari

Mark Borsari says being deemed ‘essential’ certainly helps, but there is too much uncertainty with this pandemic for any company to feel secure about the future.

“Any time there’s any trouble going on in the world and more money is being put into the defense budget, we benefit from that,” said Kristin Carlson, the company’s president. “We’re getting new engine parts, new fuel-injection parts … things we’ve never made before. Any time there’s unrest in our country or anywhere in the world, the Defense Department spends more money.”

But not all area manufacturers have been so fortunate. Indeed, while golf balls are important to many, they are not ‘essential’ in the eyes of the state’s governor, so the Callaway plant in Chicopee was shut down as it was heading into its busiest time of the year — the start of the golf season in the Northeast and other colder climes. And shutting down a plant that size, which was running three shifts six days a week, is a complicated undertaking, said Vince Simonds, the company’s director of Global Golf Ball Operations.

“It’s difficult to shut it down so abruptly and then wind it back up again,” he said, noting that the massive plant was shut down from March 25 until May 18, when the first phase of the state’s reopening plan went into effect. “But overall, we’ve done very well.”

Fortunately, the company has been helped by something that could not have been foreseen in those dark days of March — a surge in popularity in the game of golf resulting from the fact that it is one of the few sports people can play while also socially distancing themselves from others.

“It’s difficult to shut it down so abruptly and then wind it back up again. But overall, we’ve done very well.”

This surge now has the company running three shifts seven days a week, said Simonds, adding that Callaway is now struggling to meet global demand, especially for its lower-priced, entry-level products (more on that later).

But even for those companies that were not shut down, have not seen shrinking demand for the products they make, or been helped by the rush to take up golf, the pandemic has led to a time of challenge, uncertainty, and questions about what will, and won’t, come next. And this is a difficult climate to operate in, said Borsari, who tried to put things in perspective for BusinessWest.

“The biggest challenge is that there is no playbook for what we’re dealing with,” he explained. “This thing has come through and almost indiscriminately picked out specific companies and industries and devastated them and left others somewhat unscathed. It depends on who their market is, where they are on the supply chain, who their vendors are, who their customers are … there are so many variables.

“Normally, when you run into these challenges in business, you can at least do some research or talk to some people who have been through it before to get a gauge for what was successful,” he went on. “With this, there is none of that.”

Parts of the Whole

Flashing back to early March, Carlson noted that, at least in one respect, the company was ready for what was coming.

“We had just put in a very large order for toilet paper and other supplies from Staples,” she recalled, adding that, soon thereafter, such essentials were certainly hard to come by. “I was telling everyone that I had something like 180 single rolls of toilet paper … so if you guys can’t find any, we’ll sell it to you for cost.”

But beyond that, there was little way to anticipate, let alone prepare for, the pandemic and the many ways it was going to change the landscape for all businesses, and especially manufacturers. And for many, there was uncertainty about whether the doors would remain open as the state began to shut down businesses to help slow the spread of the virus.

Fortunately, for many, this uncertainty was short-lived.

Vince Simonds

Vince Simonds says a pandemic-related surge in the game of golf has helped take the sting out of being shut down for two months this past spring, Callaway’s busiest time for making golf balls.

“We’re the largest medical and surgical manufacturer in the country, and we also do a lot of work for government agencies and the military with gun-cleaning products,” said Borsari, adding that Sanderson MacLeod was able to get the green light from the state and the town of Palmer to remain open for business.

“Getting deemed essential was important for us,” he recalled. “One of the concerns for the people was whether they’d have a job; they were seeing all these companies shut down around them, and that was the biggest concern they had from the beginning — whether we would be allowed to stay open.”

The company has been fortunate in other ways as well, he said, noting it had undertaken catastrophic planning and redundant sourcing before the pandemic, so there were few if any supply-chain issues once COVID struck. And its supply needs are relatively simple.

“Some of these companies are putting together computers with 4,000 parts,” he explained. “We’re really working with wire fiber and attachment components; it’s not nearly a deep a supply issue as other companies had.”

Meanwhile, demand for many of the products made by the company, especially those in the gun-cleaning realm, has actually grown, again because of the growing levels of turmoil in the world.

“One of the concerns for the people was whether they’d have a job; they were seeing all these companies shut down around them.”

Carlson sounded similar tones, noting that, in many respects, the pandemic hasn’t impacted the overall bottom line; in fact, it has helped generate more business with some clients.

It didn’t look that way back in the spring, when the state’s shutdown, which most thought would last a few weeks, instead stretched to nearly two months. “At that point,” she said, “I was pretty confident that 2020 was going to be a bust.”

Instead, it’s shaping up to be better than last year — which was quite solid.

“We’re not just steady, we’re busy, and we’re getting busier,” she told BusinessWest, adding that the company had a record July, usually one of its slower months. “A lot of that’s on the defense, not aerospace, side, but also our defense aerospace has picked up a lot as well.”

But in addition to creating more work, the pandemic has also changed how work is carried out, creating a number of challenges for those managing plants, especially early on in the pandemic, when there was little guidance on how to keep workers safe — and also little hand sanitizer to be found.

“We had to get people to understand that they can’t stand shoulder to shoulder with one another — you have to maintain that six feet,” Carlson said. “I had put limits on the number of people who could be in rooms with closed doors; we’d take turns disinfecting the entire shop. In the morning, one guy does the shop floor, at lunchtime, another one does it, and at the end of the day, they do it again.”

Simonds agreed, and noted that, by strictly enforcing the rules and following the protocols, the plant has seen no cases, and no interruptions, since reopening.

“We’re sticking to the CDC protocols, and it’s worked for us,” he said. “Everyone is temperature-screened; everyone wears a mask at all times; we’re restricting meeting rooms based on square footage and number of people in the rooms; no employee gatherings beyond the number cited by the state; anyone who goes on vacation and travels outside of Massachusetts to a restricted area has to follow protocols coming back in.

“One of the challenges was just getting used to things,” he went on. “Wearing a mask, especially in the summertime, is difficult, but people have been great, and we’re all used to it now; it’s just a matter of practice.”

Round Numbers

For Simonds and his team, the state-ordered shutdown came, as noted earlier, during the busiest time of the year for the facility, which has enjoyed a resurgence over the past few years as Callaway has made huge strides in gaining market share within the golf-ball industry.

And turning everything off is, as he said, a somewhat complicated undertaking.

“For any machines that have materials in them, they have to be purged properly,” he explained. “We need to take all the raw materials that are sensitive to environmental conditions and put them in environmentally controlled areas. We need to take care of WIP — work in process — and try to process as much as possible so we don’t have time-sensitive WIP sitting on the production floor.

“It’s a matter of systematically shutting down operations so we don’t have inventory sitting in the wrong places,” he went on, adding that the process was made more complicated by the fact that no one really knew for how long the plant would be dark.

Meanwhile, on the personnel side, most all employees were furloughed — and nearly all of them came back, he went on, adding that the operation slowly wound back up, but since then, activity has sped up dramatically, with many of those employees securing large amounts of overtime.

“We’ve gone from zero to 100 as quickly as we could. Once the golf courses started opening up, the demand for product was almost unprecedented — there was so much golf being played,” Simonds said, adding that courses in most all states were open several weeks before the plant was reopened — if they had closed at all. “And the golf business has remained pretty strong; we’re chasing demand.”

The same is true at Peerless and Sanderson MacLeod, where, in addition to meeting orders, the plants are coping with new ways of communicating, meeting as teams, and planning, as much as possible, for what might come next.

And also learning and growing from the shared experience of not only coping with a pandemic and all the challenges it has brought, but in some cases thriving.

Indeed, Carlson said the past several months have brought a close workforce even closer together as they contend with the protocols, the surge in business, and a shared desire to be prepared for the worst-case scenario while hoping for something much better.

Borsari agreed, and said some of the real ‘opportunities,’ a word he’s hesitant to use in this climate, come in the broad area of relationship building when it comes to both clients and the team at Sanderson-MacLeod.

“It’s been a unique opportunity to connect with our client base in a way we haven’t done before,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s all about collaboratively figuring out the best way to keep both companies open; we’re really had a lot of good relationships become even better because we realize how dependent we are on one another.

“And as an organization, finding our way through this together has made us stronger,” he went on. “We’ve done everything we can as a company to make this a place of normalcy. Everything else around them was going crazy, and one of the key points we made in March was to do everything we can to follow the mandates and make sure our people are safe, but we also want to make sure to maintain normalcy as much as we can.”

Up Off the Floor

Looking ahead, Carlson said her company has taken what steps it can to be prepared for what might come next.

Yes, that means stocking up on toilet paper, hand sanitizer, and other pandemic-related needs that were in such short supply when the first wave hit six months ago.

“I’m ready for us to keep moving the way we’re moving,” she explained. “Even if we did walk back any of the phases of the reopening or went back into a shutdown, we’d still be open and still going at the pace we’re going, and perhaps be even busier; we’re prepared.”

But, as Borsari noted, even for manufacturers in the coveted ‘essential’ category, there is too much uncertainty to ever be comfortable, or fully prepared.

“Nothing is stable,” he said. “Just because we’re essential doesn’t mean anything’s safe or easy; so much is dependent on the attitude of the state, or the people who decide to come to work or not come into work, tariff measures, travel bans … all of these could have an impact.”

Such is life in a sector that, like most others, has seen COVID-19 change almost everything and create conditions that are anything but business as usual.

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

Law Special Coverage

Red Ink

Steve Weiss

Steve Weiss says he’s getting a steady volume of calls from business owners with questions about bankruptcy or liquidation.

Steve Weiss says the wave of bankruptcies that he and others in his line of work are expecting certainly hasn’t reached shore yet, to use a phrase appropriate for this time of year.

“But you can definitely see it building out there — it’s coming; you can see it rolling in,” said Weiss, who specializes in bankruptcies and workouts for the Springfield-based law firm Shatz, Schwartz & Fentin.

This wave is comprised of both corporate and consumer (personal) bankruptcies, and it will be large and hit with considerable force, he went on, adding that a number of factors are colliding that will make it so.

On the corporate side, while many companies have been able to hang on and survive the pandemic to date, they have done so thanks largely to government stimulus initiatives that are due to be exhausted soon, leaving business owners and managers wondering how they will pay people and all their bills. And on the consumer side … it’s a very similar story.

Indeed, unemployment benefits and stimulus checks have helped many make ends meet, but those checks are projected to end soon for large numbers of people, if they haven’t ended already.

“My phone is starting to ring more with business owners who are either unsure how they’re going to make it, or are sure they can’t — the virus has just clobbered their business,” said Weiss, who said his next phone call after the one with BusinessWest was with a business owner looking to talk about bankruptcy or perhaps liquidation.

“My phone is starting to ring more with business owners who are either unsure how they’re going to make it, or are sure they can’t.”

Such calls are starting to come in with increasing frequency, said Mike Katz, a partner with the Springfield-based firm Bacon Wilson and one of the region’s pre-eminent bankruptcy specialists. He used a different, though similar, metaphor to describe what’s coming.

“I think the dam is about to break — we’re on the cusp of a tsunami of bankruptcies,” he said. “It hasn’t happened yet, but it’s going to happen.”

There have already been many, especially on the corporate side, he went on, noting that many large and famous names, many from the retail sector, have filed for Chapter 11 protection. That list, which continues to grow, includes Lord & Taylor, J. Crew, Brooks Brothers, Gold’s Gym, Neiman Marcus, JCPenney, Hertz, 24-Hour Fitness, Chuck E. Cheese, California Pizza Kitchen, and Men’s Wearhouse.

Those names reveal the types of businesses that are most in jeopardy, Katz continued, adding that, locally, many small businesses in the hospitality, retail, and fitness realms — but many other sectors as well — face severe challenges as they try to survive the pandemic.

For some in this category, an emerging option is what’s being called the ‘fast-pass’ small-business bankruptcy process, otherwise known as Subchapter V of Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code. This new subsection, which became effective in February, is not a response to COVID-19, but certainly seems to be tailor-made for the economic crisis the pandemic has created.

Mike Katz

Mike Katz is expecting a “tsunami” of bankruptcy filings. What he doesn’t know is when this wave will hit.

That’s because, as the name suggests, it is a faster, less expensive Chapter 11 reorganization path, designed specifically for much smaller businesses than those that seek the Chapter 11 route. To be eligible for Subchapter V, an entity or an individual must be engaged in commercial activity, and its total debts — secured and unsecured — must be less than $7.5 million, a new number (the old one was $2.725 million) resulting from provisions of the COVID-inspired CARES Act. At least half of those debts must come from business activity.

Katz and others we spoke with said the fast-pass option holds potential for some businesses, but there are challenges within its many provisions, including the need to come up with a reorganization plan within 90 days of the filing. Such plans may be difficult to develop given how difficult it is to see even a few weeks down the road, let alone several months, because of the pandemic.

“The one downside is you file your bankruptcy papers, and you’re required, within 90 days, to put a plan in place,” said Mark Cress, a bankruptcy specialist with the Springfield-based firm Bulkley Richardson. “That’s a short window, and a lot of small businesses are barely holding their own.”

For this issue and its focus on law, BusinessWest talked with these bankruptcy lawyers about what they can already see coming. They can’t predict when this particular surge will begin, but they say it’s almost unavoidable.

Chapter and Verse

While Katz and Weiss were crafting analogies to waves and tsunamis, Cress wanted to draw parallels to the Great Depression.

Indeed, he told BusinessWest that the current conditions rival, and in some cases (such as the quarterly decline in GPD) actually exceed those of the Great Depression that started roughly 90 years ago.

“This is worse than the Great Depression in a lot of ways,” he said. “The dip in the economy — it dropped by a third — was something we’ve never seen before. And but for the way the Fed has handled this, it would be devastating; those multi-trillion-dollar programs … they’re the only thing that’s sustaining us. Without that, the whole house of cards would collapse.”

To further state his case — that’s an industry term — Cress pointed to numbers contained in an analysis authored by Morning Consult economist John Leer, who noted that, without additional funding, millions of unemployed Americans are at risk of financial insolvency by the end of this month.

“The personal finances of workers who have been laid off or placed on temporary leave since the onset of the pandemic deteriorated in July,” Leer wrote. “The July survey found that 29% of unemployed and furloughed workers lacked adequate savings to pay for their basic living expenses for the month, up 16% in June. This monthly change contrasts with June, when the finances of laid-off and furloughed workers improved. At that point in time, many renters and homeowners took advantage of the rent-deferral and mortgage-forbearance options included in the CARES Act, thereby driving down their monthly expenses.”

Mark Cress

Mark Cress says the new ‘fast-pass’ bankruptcy process may be a viable option for some, but the process doesn’t leave business owners much time to create a reorganization plan.

Cress backed up that commentary with some other, very sobering numbers regarding renters.

“One-third of all renters weren’t able to make their July rent,” he noted. “And more than 60% were concerned they won’t make August. So you can imagine the ripple effects this will have … many small-time landlords, with one or two tenants, may not be able to pay their mortgage.

“And you if get enough defaulted mortgages … then banks start to pull in their horns, and all of a sudden the credit markets freeze up, and you have a real disaster,” he went on, drawing analogies, again, to what happened nine decades ago.

Looking at these statistics and possible scenarios, it’s easy to see why bankruptcy lawyers are expecting a wave, or tsunami, of personal bankruptcies to hit this area — and the nation as a whole — soon, with ‘soon’ being a relative term.

“Some people are getting unemployment benefits, but it looks like that’s ending,” said Weiss. “There’s a foreclosure and eviction moratorium that’s ending in October, and there are already people living on credit cards and exhausting their savings just trying to get through this — and it’s going to be a while before jobs come back.

“So it’s a matter of sooner than later,” he went on. “And bankruptcy is something of a trailing indicator; it takes people a while to get the point where they need to file for bankruptcy — the credit-card bills don’t become unmanageable until several months go by.”

By the Numbers

But the wave will almost certainly involve corporate bankruptcies as well, said those we spoke with, noting that many businesses have struggled to merely survive the past five months. And with the state already pumping the brakes on its reopening plan as reported cases increase, and ever more uncertainty about the future, survival is becoming more of a question mark for many businesses.

That’s especially true within the restaurant sector, said those we spoke with, noting that, while many have been able to reopen, their revenues are still a fraction of what they were pre-COVID. And with fall and then winter coming — meaning far fewer opportunities to serve outdoors — some in this sector are wondering if, and for how long, they can hang on.

“I think the dam is about to break — we’re on the cusp of a tsunami of bankruptcies. It hasn’t happened yet, but it’s going to happen.”

“I’ve been contacted by a number of restaurants, in particular, over the past few months,” said Katz, adding that there have been inquiries from those in other sectors as well. “Some of these have managed to hold on, some have closed some locations while keeping others open … but the number of people I’ve talked to just today tells me that the dam is just teetering, and I think there’s going to be unprecedented times in the bankruptcy field.”

This speculation leads him back to the new fast-pass small-business bankruptcy process, and questions about just how many businesses may try to take advantage of this emerging option, and whether they can be successful with such bids.

“I think a lot of businesses will try doing this because you have a 90-day maximum to get in and get out — that’s how fast this Chapter 11 is going to go,” he explained. “And the whole thing is predicated upon the fact that you only have to propose a plan that provides more to the creditors than they would receive in a liquidation, with no voting.

“Under the current Chapter 11 process, there’s a whole voting process, where you have to get two-thirds of the dollar amount and a majority of the number of creditors to vote in favor of it,” he went on. “But with this process, there’s no voting — it’s a much more streamlined process, and it’s far less expensive.”

With the new ceiling of $7.5 million, many more businesses are now eligible to take this route. But that same 90-day in-and-out period, while attractive in one respect, is daunting when it comes to actually putting a reorganization plan in place.

“I’ve talked with a number of people about it because people are still trying to figure how it works — there isn’t a lot of legal guidance or precedence,” said Cress. “But having to put a plan together in 90 days is going to be very difficult for many small businesses. If you don’t have any profits or any cash and you’re living hand to mouth, it really places an undue burden on you to figure it all out and get creditor sign-off in 90 days.”

Katz agreed. “Most traditional Chapter 11 cases are multi-year, and reorganization is based in projections,” he told BusinessWest. “How do you project when this COVID situation is going to change? If you’re a restaurant, how can you project when people are going to come back to your restaurant and you can go back to something approaching capacity?”

The Bottom Line Is the Bottom Line

Those lawyers we spoke with all expressed a desire not to sound like an alarmist.

But as they talked about what they’re seeing, reading, and hearing on the phone calls they’ve already taken, they admit it’s difficult not to take that tone.

“For many businesses, it’s a matter of survival at this point,” said Cress, noting that survival is becoming more difficult in some sectors with each passing month. “It’s becoming apparent that the recovery is not going to happen as quickly as some had originally hoped, and the effect is going to be much deeper and longer-lasting than people are even letting on.”

And one seemingly unavoidable consequence of all this is bankruptcies, on both the corporate and consumer sides of the ledger.

As Weiss said, the wave hasn’t crashed ashore yet, but if you look — and you don’t have to look hard — you can see it building.

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

Coronavirus Manufacturing

Current Events

Tony Contrino

Tony Contrino says his utility’s extensive practice with preparing for weather events has certainly helped in its efforts to cope with the pandemic.

 

Tony Contrino says Westfield Gas & Electric, like all utilities, has considerable practice watching storms develop, getting ready for possible damage, and, as the old saying goes, hoping for the best but preparing for the worst.

The COVID-19 pandemic has been like that — sort of, said Contrino, general manager of Westfield G&E. It could be seen coming, and there were certainly efforts to prepare for it. But the pandemic is, in most all ways, not like weather events like Tropical Storm Isaias, which barreled through Western Mass. earlier this month, leaving sometimes days-long power outages up and down the Valley and creating huge headaches for utilities — and the customers they serve.

Indeed, those storms come and go, the damage is repaired, and life goes — until the next storm. This crisis is different, not only in its duration, but in its far-reaching effects — everything from a significant drop in electricity use (7% to 10% are the most often-given estimates), and its impact on the bottom line, to an equally sharp rise in delinquent payments, which also affects the bottom line, to changes in how work is carried out — right down to putting one person in each truck, rather than two.

But as with those weather events, area energy providers are working their way through this crisis, adapting and pivoting, as businesses in all sectors have, and encountering challenges and opportunities — again, like most all other businesses have. But, unlike many businesses, they’re providing a vital service, and thus they’re being diligent about working with, and communicating with, those they serve.

“It’s certainly a different, and very challenging, time — for us, but also for all our customers,” said Contrino. “We’ve made a real effort to communicate through all this, not only with employees but customers as well. We’re trying to keep people aware of what’s going on and what our plans are, and try to give them some assurance that we want to work with them.”

Craig Hallstrom, Eversource’s president of Regional Electric Operations for Massachusetts and Connecticut, agreed. He said the investor-owned utility has been working to keep the power on — yes, Isaias has certainly impacted those efforts — while keeping employees and customers safe.

“It’s been a very different year for us and for all utilities,” he told BusinessWest. “We have half our workforce working at home, and people have been very creative and able to adapt to their work at home. We’ve been able to work differently to do the things we need to get done. Everyone’s working differently — we’ve learned how to use videoconferencing very well — and, for the most part, we’re getting our work done.”

Craig Hallstrom

Craig Hallstrom

“It’s been a very different year for us and for all utilities.”

While making adjustments within their own operations, the utilities we spoke with said they’re working with clients, both commercial and residential, to help during this time of crisis.

Jim Lavelle, general manager of Holyoke Gas & Electric, observed that, while his utility is facing declines in revenue and sharp rises in delinquent payments — further impacting cash flow — these problems often pale in comparison to what customers are facing.

“If we were looking at our losses in isolation, we would be very alarmed, and we are concerned about the numbers,” he noted. “But when we look at the impact to the overall economy and what many of our customers are going through … we’ll figure out a way to manage and get through this.”

For this issue and our ongoing coverage of the COVID-19 crisis, BusinessWest shines a light, pun intended, on how the pandemic has impacted those in the energy business — and how they are responding.

Hitting the Switch

As he talked with BusinessWest, Contrino was just returning from a vacation — only he didn’t get as much relaxation time as he planned, or hoped. Isaias saw to that.

“I was very involved in the storm activity — I just took care of it all remotely,” he said nearly a week after the storm came through, leaving tens of thousands across the region without power for long stretches and “hitting Westfield hard,” as he put it.

That phrase is appropriate for the pandemic as well, obviously, and it applies to every community across the region. Indeed, large numbers of businesses, including some large users of electricity, such as colleges and universities and some manufacturing facilities, but mostly smaller ventures in the hospitality and service sectors, have been shut down for long stretches. And some, like the colleges, are, for the most part, still closed.

Jim Lavelle says Holyoke G&E

Jim Lavelle says Holyoke G&E was thinking about consolidating some facilities, but COVID-19 and a need to socially distance has prompted a re-evaluation of those plans.

Meanwhile, many businesses that are open are struggling and finding it difficult to pay all the bills, including the one from the utility company. And many individuals working for these businesses — or not, as the case may be — are in the same boat, with matters likely to get worse before they get any better (see related story on page 53).

All this has presented a number of challenges for utilities, who are responding, as all businesses are, with use of reserves, belt tightening, and sometimes delaying planned expenditures when possible.

While estimates on the decline in power usage vary — Lavelle also put it at roughly 10% — and the overall drop in demand has been mitigated to some degree by a very hot summer that has commanded more use of air conditioners, said Hallstrom, the bite is significant.

“Over the course of a year, a 10% reduction would mean an impact to us in the vicinity of $4 million to $5 million — and that’s a big number,” Contrino noted. “We’re cutting back, we’re not doing some of the work we would typically be doing, and we’re trying to control expenses as best we can and work our way through this.

“We anticipate that we’re going to be hit on the receivables side, and we’re planning for that,” he went on. “We’ve got funds in place to help us with that, and we’re thinking long-term — I don’t think this is going to end that quickly; I’m sure it’s going to extend into next year to some degree.”

Lavelle agreed, noting that, while Holyoke G&E is looking at a similar hit, it has been helped by some new businesses coming online, including a few involved in cannabis cultivation, which are typically large users of power.

“We’re seeing a few of those businesses start to ramp up, and that will offset some of the COVID impact,” he explained. “But the COVID impact is about 10% overall.”

And while that is, as Contrino said, a big number, it pales in comparison to what businesses across a number of sectors are facing, said Lavelle, adding that it’s important to keep things in perspective.

“We can’t compare to what some of the businesses and some of our residential customers are dealing with,” he went on. “Many of our business customers have shut down for months, and that’s been one of the frustrating things about this pandemic — seeing the customers we’ve worked with and that have worked so hard to build up their businesses go through this type of economic challenge.”

To help these businesses — and residential customers as well — Holyoke G&E, like other utilities, has been working with customers to help them through the crisis.

“Many of our business customers have shut down for months, and that’s been one of the frustrating things about this pandemic — seeing the customers we’ve worked with and that have worked so hard to build up their businesses go through this type of economic challenge.”

There is a moratorium on shutoffs for late payments — the governor put one in place for investor-owned utilities, and municipally owned operations have followed suit — and Holyoke G&E is working with individual customers to create payment plans, said Lavelle, adding that, overall, the utility has seen a 25% rise, roughly $1 million to date, in delinquent payments.

Like Contrino, Lavelle said his utility is handling the decline in revenue through reserves and some reductions in expenses, many of which are coming naturally as a result of the pandemic, such as those involving travel, training (some programs cannot be carried out remotely), and other areas.

Lines of Communication

While coping with the pandemic’s impact to their customers, and the bottom line, area utilities have, like other businesses, been forced to adjust and change how they do things.

This means everything from having some employees who can work remotely do just that, to putting one person in each service truck, instead of two; from closing offices, thereby compelling customers to pay online, to taking steps to make sure those in the pivotal control rooms are at minimal risk of exposure to the virus.

Overall, the goal, said those we spoke with, has been to keep people apart as much possible in order to keep operations moving as efficiently as possible. In fact, Holyoke G&E was thinking about consolidating some of its operations prior to the pandemic, and now, it is certainly rethinking that strategy.

“For a fairly small utility, we have several different buildings, and we had been looking at a consolidation plan,” Lavelle said. “But the distance between facilities and the number of facilities has actually helped us comply with social distancing and other recommendations associated with good COVID hygiene. So we’re revising that whole consolidation plan at present.”

Contrino said his utility’s experience in preparing for weather events like Isaias has been beneficial as it continually adjusts to life during the pandemic.

“We’ve had quite a bit of experience working through numerous storms and large-scale electric outages in the past, and have conducted various emergency-response drills over the years,” he explained. “So we were somewhat prepared to take action — although the duration of this pandemic is something we’ve never experienced before.”

Elaborating, he recalled that, as it became clear the pandemic was coming and there would be a significant impact, the Westfield G&E implemented an emergency-management plan, designated a COVID-compliance officer, and formed an incident-response team of key management personnel — a team that continues to meet regularly to discuss what’s happening and what is likely to happen in the weeks and months to come, although looking far down the road is extremely difficult.

“During this pandemic, we’re always concerned about the health and safety of our employees, our customers, and the general public,” Contrino told BusinessWest. “Although we have essential services to provide, we want to keep everyone safe; we have that balancing act going on — while we’re trying to provide our services, we’re also going to keep everyone healthy.”

Hallstrom concurred, also using the phrase ‘balancing act’ to describe how Eversource is working to keep the power flowing while keeping employees and customers safe.

He said roughly half the utility’s 8,000 employees‚ including those in finance, HR, accounting, and other business functions, have been working at home the past 20 weeks or so. Most of ‘his’ 2,800 employees, those who work to directly provide power and maintain service, have been coming to the office — in whatever shape it takes — every day.

Keeping these individuals safe has become a top priority.

“We’ve implanted many safety protocols — we promote face masks and washing hands, and instead of crews going out two per truck, we’ve had them going out one per truck,” he explained. “We’ve actually bought trucks and taken vehicles out of retirement to increase our fleet so that people can go out by themselves in a vehicle.”

Precautions also extend to service in individual homes and businesses — crews will go in only after ensuring there are no COVID-related issues at the address in question — and to the control centers, which are vital to managing the electric system.

“Day to day, we have a sufficient number of people to manage these facilities, but one of the fears from the pandemic is that if someone got sick and they passed it to fellow employees, that might quickly impact our people and make it so we couldn’t operate that system,” Hallstrom explained. “Those people are highly trained, and in the case of transmission, they’re certified, so that was a big concern.”

While some utilities had control-room personnel quarantine and stay in what amounts to a bubble, he noted, Eversource, which has several smaller control rooms, has been able to spread out its people so there are fewer individuals in a given control room, while some of these facilities were set aside as ‘sterile environments’ that employees not infected with the virus could be moved to in order to keep the system running properly.

Meanwhile, like banks, utilities have had to close their doors to their main offices, which have traditionally seen large amounts of traffic involving customers paying their bills or conducting other business. This business has now shifted online in many cases, said Lavelle, and for some customers, it’s been a big change.

“Being shut down has really impacted how we conduct business,” he explained. “We’ve had online services for some time, so a lot of it has been training customers how to pay online or sign up for a new account online; we’ve seen an uptick of more than 200% in online transactions.

“It’s been pretty seamless,” he went on. “There’s been a little bit of hand holding with some customers, but other than that, it’s gone quite well.”

Watt’s Next

Drawing one more analogy to Isaias — and all the other storms his utility has confronted over the years — Contrino said that, when it came to the pandemic, Westfield G&E prepared for the worst.

And this is the mindset that will continue as the crisis plays itself out, with certainly more questions about what’s on the horizon than answers.

“It’s been a difficult time for everybody,” he told BusinessWest. “However, we’ve put a lot of thought and effort into working through this and moving forward in a disciplined and measured manner.”

With that, he spoke for all the utilities that have been working to keep the power on — tropical storms and all — during a crisis that is testing them in every way and on every level.

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

Features Special Coverage

Mission: Accepted

Paul Belsito

Paul Belsito

Paul Belsito admits he’s struggling somewhat with Zoom and conference calls — not the technology, but the nature of those forms of communication.

He’s a people person, and he likes meeting them face to face — and not on screen or over the phone.

“I enjoy going to events and networking — that’s how I meet people,” he said, noting that there haven’t been any opportunities like that since he’s arrived, and he’s looking to the day when they return. “Zoom is OK, and I’m getting good at it, but it’s not the same.”

But it is reality in the summer of 2020, and this is how Belsito, chosen late this spring to fill the rather large shoes of Mary Walachy as executive director of the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation, has been going about what will remain his primary assignment for the foreseeable future.

And that is to ‘meet’ as many people as possible and come to fully understand the many issues and challenges facing the Western Mass. community.

“This is a world built on relationships, and you have to understand people’s perspectives and listen actively so you can help build on the foundation that’s been laid,” he explained, adding that, since arriving in early June, he’s been doing a lot of listening, with the intention of acting — and collaborating with others — on what he’s hearing.

It’s an assignment he accepts with considerable enthusiasm, and one to which he brings an intriguing background, blending work in financial services, government (he was district director for state Sen. Edward Augustus), higher education (he was executive assistant to the president at Assumption College in Worcester, his alma mater), and philanthropy; most recently he served as president of the Hanover Insurance Group Foundation in Worcester and assistant vice president for Community Relations.

And he intends to draw on all that experience in a role that involves everything from community outreach to regional problem solving, but mostly comes down to what Belsito calls “impact philanthropy.”

“A lot of my work has been grounded in community work,” he said, using that phrase to describe many of his career stops. “Getting involved and influencing has always been part of my DNA, and it’s generational in many ways — my family was very involved in the community in Worcester.”

This devotion to community work, as well as an opportunity to continue and build on Davis Foundation initiatives in literacy, early-childhood education, improving the Springfield Public Schools, and other endeavors, drew him to the Davis Foundation, created by George Davis, founder of American Saw & Manufacturing, and his wife Irene, and the opportunity to succeed Walachy, whose work he has admired from Worcester.

“The work that Davis has done in literacy and specifically early education is well-known throughout the Commonwealth,” he noted. “I had known them from that lens of an active member in a peer community trying to work on the same issues; Mary is a household name in the early-education space throughout the Commonwealth, and her name is often brought up as someone to model in her guidance on how to pull these programs together.”

Coming to Springfield from Worcester, Belsito said there are many similarities between the state’s second- and third-largest cities (with Worcester being the former), and common challenges. These include everything from education to economic development and job creation. But they are different and unique communities with their own “personalities,” as he called them.

“This is a world built on relationships, and you have to understand people’s perspectives and listen actively so you can help build on the foundation that’s been laid.”

“Worcester and Springfield are not the same, although they do have similar traits,” he noted. “It’s my job to listen and maybe take some of my experiences from Worcester and share those with folks in Springfield. Maybe one in 20 will catch and improve the lives of children and families.”

Meanwhile, recent events have brought other priorities to the fore, including the plight of the region’s nonprofits, many of which have been severely impacted by the pandemic from the standpoints of revenue and sustainability, and the broad issue of racial justice, which the foundation has helped address through creation of the Healing Racism Institute, now a separate 501(c)(3), but still very much affiliated with the Davis Foundation.

Educare Springfield

Paul Belsito says his primary goal is to build on the foundation created by the Davis Foundation with initiatives such as Educare Springfield, a unique early-education facility that opened its doors last fall.

And these emerging issues are dominating many of those discussions he’s been having as he goes about listening and building relationships.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Belsito about his new role, but especially about the challenges facing Springfield, the region, and its large core of nonprofits — all of which have looked to the Davis Foundation over the years for not simply financial support, but also direction and leadership.

Moving forward, he said the foundation will be continuing in those roles and constantly looking for new ways in which to make an impact and move the needle.

Background: Check

Tracing the steps that brought him to the Davis Foundation’s suite of offices in Monarch Place, Belsito said his professional career started at Flagship Bank and Trust Co. in Worcester, where he served as a trust administrator, working with families to help manage their assets and trusts.

While in that role, he started doing volunteer work within the community, and before long, his career aspirations changed.

“All of a sudden, everything flipped, and the volunteer work became a career,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, in 2005, he started working for Augustus, now the city manager in Worcester. After a stint as a private consultant, he became executive assistant to the president at Assumption, which was, in many ways, a continuation of the work he did at the State House.

“I worked for a state senator who was very driven by policy, not politics,” he explained. “His mindset was, while we were in that building, how could we improve the lives of people not only in that district, but across the Commonwealth? The policy piece was very important to me, and it carried over to the higher-education piece.”

From Assumption, he went to Hanover Insurance, which, like MassMutual in this market, has historically been deeply involved in the community, often serving as a “catalyst for change,” as he put it.

He started in community relations and eventually became president of the Hanover Insurance Group Foundation.

“As we began to pivot on how to not only make the company a world-class company but also the city in which it was headquartered, I did a lot of work with the Worcester Public Schools, with the Hanover Theater, and various organizations within the community that really helped to round out the experience for children and families so that they would be successful out in the community,” he said, noting that perhaps the most significant initiative launched by the Hanover Foundation is the Advancement Via Individualized Determination (AVID) college-readiness program in the Worcester Public Schools.

“It was an honor to work for a company that was so committed to impact philanthropy,” he went on, “which is trying to move the needle and have outcomes and data that support the investment that you’re making.”

Slicing through his job description at Davis, he said it’s to generate this type of needle-moving philanthropy — or more of it, because the foundation has been involved in a number of potentially game-changing initiatives, including Cherish Every Child, a nationally recognized Reading Success by 4th Grade program, the advocacy group Springfield Business Leaders for Education, and, most recently, the effort to establish the innovative Educare Springfield early-education center, which opened last fall near the campus of Springfield College.

“One of the things that struck me about the Davis family was the humility with which they do their work. They want to be sure they’re supporting things that generate outcomes and improve the quality of education and quality of life for children and families in the region.”

The desire to continue such initiatives and create more of them brought Belsito to Springfield (via Zoom) to interview for the Davis job, a job posting that came about as he was looking for a new challenge after spending a short stint working for the city of Worcester on its COVID-19 response.

“I had known of Davis for a long time — and we actually used Davis and the work that Springfield was doing as one of the models as we were developing a reading-for-success program what would work best for our community.”

Forward Thinking

Looking ahead, Belsito said that, as the Davis Foundation continues its mission of service to the community, the specific direction of its initiatives will be determined by recognized needs within area cities and towns.

But he’s certain that education and a hard focus on young people will be at the heart of those discussions.

“One of the things that struck me about the Davis family was the humility with which they do their work,” he explained. “They want to be sure they’re supporting things that generate outcomes and improve the quality of education and quality of life for children and families in the region.

“And if you look at the legacy of the family, that’s been a consistent theme,” he went on. “And as we look to the next phase of where the Davis family’s impact will be, I believe that it will consistently be in education and literacy, but we also have a new generation of family members who are getting more active within the community, so how do we integrate some of their perspectives in making sure that we have a consistent, shared goal of improving the lives of children and families in Hampden County?”

Beyond this shared goal, there are new and emerging needs within the community, he said, noting, as one example, the mounting challenges facing the region’s large core of nonprofit organizations, many of which were struggling with finances before COVID-19.

“Many nonprofits are in a vulnerable state from a financial perspective,” he noted. “And this experience from the past few months has only exacerbated that. So we want to look at how Davis and organizations like the Community Foundation of Western Mass. can come together to help ensure that the mission-driven organizations that are needed for the community to be successful can thrive and be able to provide the services they need.

“Even from the start of my interview process at Davis to today, a lot has changed,” Belsito went on, referring not only to the pandemic and its repercussions, but also George Floyd’s death and the resulting focus on racial justice. “Perspectives have changed, and priorities have changed, and so we need to convene people at the local level and ask, ‘what does this community need to be successful?’”

What hasn’t changed are the many social determinants of health — from housing and transportation to food insecurity and job losses — that are impacting quality of life in the region, he continued, adding that COVID-19 has helped shine a light on inequities in the system and the need to initiate steps to address them.

And when it comes to such efforts and other initiatives, the key is listening to members of the community and creating a dialogue about to address these problems, he said, adding that the Davis Foundation has historically been a leader in such discussions, and it will continue to play that role into the future.

“I’m a believer that, when you pull people together, there’s usually a solution that can be found,” he said, using that phrase to refer to everything from the sustainability of nonprofits to improving public education.

‘Meeting’ the Challenge

Left with what he says is little choice, Belsito has become quite savvy with Zoom and other virtual methods for meeting and getting to know people.

It’s not as he would want it, but it is indeed reality. And so are the many challenges confronting Springfield and the region, many of them amplified or accelerated by a pandemic that has been relentless.

Belsito said his first assignment is to understand what makes Springfield Springfield, and it is ongoing. From there, his job is to pull people together — something the Davis Foundation has always been good at it — and, when possible, move the needle.

He’s made it a career to take on such work, and he’s more than excited about what the next chapter might bring.

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Mayor John Vieau

Mayor John Vieau says COVID-19 has put a damper on many of his plans for Chicopee, but he remains optimistic about the city and its future.

John Vieau wasn’t exactly planning on running for mayor last summer.

That’s because he was reasonably sure that incumbent and two-time Mayor Richard Kos would be seeking another two-year term — and Kos eventually did take out papers for re-election. And when Kos ultimately decided in February 2019 to return to his law practice instead of the corner office, Vieau, a Willimansett native and long-time alderman from Ward 3, didn’t exactly jump into the race.

Indeed, he had to think long and hard about this decision, especially the prospect of leaving a well-paying job with the Commonwealth — specifically, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) — and take a pay cut to serve as mayor.

“I’m not a gambler,” said Vieau with a laugh, adding that he ultimately decided to run for mayor — and prevail over a crowded field — but take a leave of absence from his job with MassDOT so he can ultimately return when he’s finished with City Hall.

That careful due diligence notwithstanding, being mayor has been a long-time goal, if not a dream job, for Vieau, who said he fully understood everything that came with the territory … except maybe a global pandemic.

COVID-19 has changed virtually every aspect of municipal management — from greeting guests at City Hall (elbow bumps instead of handshakes) to making a budget — and made just about every facet of economic development, from maintaining the momentum that was building downtown to beginning the next stage in the life of the massive Cabotville Industrial Park, that much more difficult.

“It’s put a lot of things on pause,” said Vieau, who put the accent on ‘lot,’ noting that the pandemic has impacted municipalities as hard as it has hit specific economic sectors and individual businesses. It has affected how city business is conducted, sharply reduced revenues, and, as noted, put a number of projects on ice.

“We put guidelines in place that were more strict than what the governor rolled out initially with regard to stores. And other states, and businesses like Walmart, were adopting our rules, our guidance, and our procedures. We acted swiftly, and we saved lives.”

“All the ideas and things that were happening are sitting on the back burner as we combat this time of uncertainty and crisis,” he said while summing things up succinctly, before amending to say ‘most all’ the ideas and projects.

Indeed, there are some things happening, from a new Florence Bank branch at the site of the old Hu Ke Lau on Memorial Avenue to a new restaurant, Jaad, located downtown. But, as he said, the pandemic has certainly slowed the pace of progress at a time when he thought the downtown, and the city as a whole, were seeing a renaissance of sorts.

But Vieau, while not exactly welcoming the challenge of COVID-19, is embracing it to some extent and looking upon it as a stern test of his management and leadership capabilities — a trial by extreme fire, if you will.

He noted that he took his first full weekend off since March early last month, and said it felt good to get some rest. But he fully understands that the future is a very large question mark, and the pandemic certainly isn’t done making life difficult for the residents and leaders of the region’s second-largest city.

“We have to remain diligent,” he said, echoing the governor when it comes to the pandemic and how the city, the state, and the country, are far from out of the woods. “We have to do everything we can to keep this under control.”

For this, the latest installment if its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest talked at length with the city’s relatively new mayor about life in the age of COVID-19 and how he’s trying to see his community through to the other side of this crisis.

Numbers Game

At one point in his talk with BusinessWest, Vieau paused and reached for some papers on his desk — the latest reports on the state of the pandemic in his city.

He didn’t have to consult the paperwork to know the numbers — he had already pretty much committed them to memory — but he did so to show just how much data he and others in municipal management have to keep track of, and just how committed he is to understanding everything he can about the spread of the virus on any given day — or moment, for that matter.

“I look at the numbers every day,” he said. “Unfortunately, we’ve had 10 deaths in the city, people with underlying conditions, ages 58 to 100. We have, today, 41 open cases of COVID-19, 399 people who have recovered, and we have 45 people in the N/A group, meaning they’re probably residents of the city that are now in assisted living, some form of nursing home, or other facility that’s not in Chicopee.”

This attention to detail is just part of managing the pandemic, or managing during the pandemic, to be more precise, he said, adding that he has a 10 a.m. conference call with his ‘COVID team’ every day, and these calls have led to some aggressive and ultimately effective efforts to slow the spread of the virus.

Indeed, Chicopee was among the first, and most vigilant, cities when it came to requiring masks in stores and other public places and putting other measures in place to slow the spread of the virus.

“We put guidelines in place that were more strict than what the governor rolled out initially with regard to stores,” he noted. “And other states, and businesses like Walmart, were adopting our rules, our guidance, and our procedures. We acted swiftly, and we saved lives.”

Redevelopment of the massive former Cabotville Industrial Park

Redevelopment of the massive former Cabotville Industrial Park into apartments is one of many projects in Chicopee now clouded by question marks as a result of the pandemic.

This is not exactly what Vieau signed on for when he took out papers for mayor last winter, soon after Kos opted not to seek re-election. What he did sign up for was a chance to take what has become a career of service to the city to a higher level.

That career started with a stint on the Planning Board — he was appointed by Kos during his first stint as mayor — and went to a different plane when he was talked into running for the open Ward 3 seat on the Board of Aldermen 16 years ago, not long after he took a job at MassDOT handling eminent-domain work.

“I saw this an opportunity to get more involved,” he told BusinessWest. “This was the area where I grew up; to have a chance to represent it as an alderman was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.”

Vieau spent the last four of those 16 years as president of the board, and was content to go on representing his ward until Kos decided not to seek another term. Vieau said he received calls from the media within an hour of Kos’s announcement asking if he was going to run, and his quick answer was ‘no,’ for those reasons stated earlier. But after talking with family, friends, constituents, and his employer, and after learning he could take a leave of absence, he ultimately decided to run.

There were many planks to his campaign, from public safety to downtown revitalization to new-business development, and the pandemic has certainly made it more difficult to address any of them.

“Everything I ran on, all the ideas and things that we were hopeful to accomplish here in the city of Chicopee, have been put on hold as we get through this,” he said. “Instead, we’ve been focused on keeping people safe, first and foremost, and how you’re going to handle the budget gaps. It’s not something I’m unfamiliar with — I’ve been involved in the approval of 16 mayor’s budgets — but this is different.”

Elaborating, he said his administration has devoted considerable time and energy to assisting the small businesses that have been impacted by the pandemic — and there have been many of them.

For example, $150,000 in Community Development Block Grant monies were directed toward impacted businesses early on in the pandemic, said the mayor, and later, an additional CDBG grant of $706,000 was received and will be used to “turn the lights back on,” as the mayor put it, at businesses that have been forced to close in the wake of the crisis.

Holding Patterns

One of Vieau’s stated goals for his first term as mayor was to build on the recognizable progress registered in the central business district, where, through initiatives such as regular Friday-night ‘Lights On’ programs and other initiatives, downtown businesses were put in the spotlight, and area residents responded by turning out in large numbers.

The pandemic, which has hit hospitality-related businesses and retail especially hard, took a good amount of wind out of those sails, said the mayor.

“Things were progressively looking better for the future of our downtown — for reviving it. We want to continue these efforts — we just need to get through this period of uncertainty. We’re excited about what can happen, and I think everyone is.”

“We had the Cultural Council firing on all cylinders — we were going to have this amazing, new, energetic downtown that everyone would want to come to,” he said. “We were having Lights On events on Friday nights and had food trucks … all these fun things were happening, and … COVID-19 just put the brakes on it all.”

The hope is that businesses downtown can weather what could be a lengthy storm and emerge stronger on the other side, said Vieau, adding that, if they can, some building blocks can be put into place that might bring additional vibrancy to that once-thriving area.

These building blocks include the Mass Development-funded Transformational Development Initiative (TDI) grant that brought a TDI fellow, Andrea Moson, to the city for a two-year assignment to be dominated by downtown-revitalization efforts, a C3 Policing program aimed at making the area more safe and improving the overall perception of the downtown, and development projects, such as two planned housing initiatives downtown.

One involves the former Cabotville Industrial Park, where 234 units of one-bedroom and efficiency units of affordable housing comprise the first phase of that massive project, and the other involves an additional 100 units at Lyman Mills.

Chicopee at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1848
Population: 55,298
Area: 23.9 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $17.46
Commercial Tax Rate: $33.93
Median Household Income: $35,672
Median Family Income: $44,136
Type of Government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: Westover Air Reserve Base; J. Polep Distribution Services; Callaway Golf Ball Operations; Dielectrics; MicroTek

* Latest information available

These projects, which the mayor expects to proceed, are considered critical to the revitalization of the downtown area because of the vibrancy and foot traffic they will potentially create.

“We’re looking at young professionals and empty-nesters moving into these units,” he noted. “That influx of people will need goods and services.”

As for the TDI grant, it will be used to help new businesses locate in the downtown, fund tenant improvements, and, in general, bring more vibrancy to the area. Earlier this year, grant monies were funneled in $5,000 amounts to businesses impacted by the pandemic to help them through those perilous first several weeks.

“Things were progressively looking better for the future of our downtown — for reviving it,” he continued. “We want to continue these efforts — we just need to get through this period of uncertainty. We’re excited about what can happen, and I think everyone is.”

While most projects are being talked about in the future tense, some developments are already taking place downtown, said the mayor, noting the arrival of Jaad, a Jamaican restaurant; the pending relocation of the Koffee Kup bakery from the Springfield Plaza to East Main Street in Chicopee, and ongoing work to restore and modernize perhaps the city’s most recognizable landmark, City Hall.

Phase 1 of that project, which involves restoration of the auditorium, is ongoing, said the mayor, adding that this $16 million initiative also includes new windows, roof work, and other work to the shell of the historic structure. Phase 2, which is on hold, will involve interior renovations, modernizing the structure, and making it what Vieau called “active-shooter safe.”

Managing the Situation

As noted earlier, Vieau was happy to finally to get a full weekend off — not that mayors actually get weekends off, given the many events they must attend and functions they carry out.

But the weekends from March through early July were filled with more than ribbon cuttings, dinners, and school graduations. There was hard work to do to manage the pandemic and help control the many forms of damage it has caused.

This wasn’t exactly what he signed up for, and it has put a real damper on many of his plans for his first term. But COVID-19 is reality, and seeing his city through the crisis has become Vieau’s primary job responsibility. There’s no manual to turn to, but he feels he has the experience to lead in these times of crisis.

After all, he has made public service a second career.

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