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40 Under 40 Class of 2022

Senior Vice President, UTCA Inc.; Age 37

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

They would be wrong.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

— George O’Brien

 

Banking and Financial Services

Branching Out — Again

Matt Sosik

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

A “survival tactic.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As he said, it’s a survival tactic.

 

— George O’Brien

Nonprofit Management

18 Under 18

Jennifer Connelly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

— George O’Brien

Cover Story

The Next Chapter

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

VVM Executive Director Hope Ross Gibaldi

VVM Executive Director Hope Ross Gibaldi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rick Sullivan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Getting Down to Business ‘Dolphin tank pitches.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Another example would be an initiative called the Western Mass Founders Network, funded by a grant from the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative and launched by the EDC in partnership with other agencies, including Greentown Labs.

The network was designed for companies that are more advanced, are looking for funding, or might already have received funding, said Sullivan, adding that the group meets monthly and hears from speakers on topics chosen by the business owners with the goal of helping them move to the next level.

“There’s also monthly meetings that are happening with resource partners such as SCORE, the Mass. Small Business Development Center, and other organizations that are supporting entrepreneurs,” said Ross Gibaldi, adding that one of her broad goals is to create more awareness of all that is happening within the ecosystem and create more partnerships to better serve the region.

“Supporting a lot of these initiatives and really threading them together to build out and strengthen our regional entrepreneurial ecosystem is one of our priorities.”

“I found that, often, we as organizations are operating in silos and often are unaware of what’s happening with the other agencies,” she explained. “When that happens, we do a disservice to our entrepreneurs because we’re not fully aware of the opportunities in the Valley. And how are we supposed to take advantage of them and encourage our entrepreneurs to take advantage of them if we don’t know about them? So supporting a lot of these initiatives and really threading them together to build out and strengthen our regional entrepreneurial ecosystem is one of our priorities.”

Meanwhile, VVM continues to offer its own broad slate of programs while partnering with other agencies on different initiatives. In that first category are VVM’s community nights, on the second Wednesday of each month. Now back in person after being virtual for two years because of the pandemic, they offer networking, mentoring opportunities, and elevator-pitch presentations. There’s also a weekly roundtable discussion with startup businesses on Tuesday nights, conducted via Zoom.

In that latter category are programs such as RiseUp Springfield, in which VVM partners with the city to provide a six-month program to help small business owners create scale and expand their ventures. There is also the Harold Grinspoon Entrepreneurship Initiative, which involves all 14 area colleges and culminates with an annual spring Celebration of Entrepreneurship Spirit banquet.

There’s also the summer student business-accelerator program, which, because it has been run virtually the past few years, has been able to attract participants from across the country and around the world.

“We’ve found that making the program virtual makes it more accessible to people,” she explained. “Over the past few years, we’ve had people log in from outside the United States, which is really exciting; we’ve had people from Pakistan, France, India, and South Africa, and that’s been an amazing element, to broaden that accessibility for these entrepreneurs.”

And these lessons learned will carry over into the future, she said, adding that many programs will continue to have at least a virtual component to enable that improved accessibility to continue.

 

Venturing Forth

Overall, the new relationship between VVM and the EDC is difficult to put into words or describe with a single word.

In simple terms, it means that VVM now has a better, stronger platform for promoting innovation and entrepreneurship.

Time will tell, but it appears that the new relationship will enable it to take its mission to a different plane while perhaps bringing more continuity and cohesion to the entrepreneurship ecosystem.

As Ross Gibaldi said, it’s a big opportunity for both VVM and the region.

 

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

Sports & Leisure

Not Quite the Real Thing

Jay Nomakeo

Jay Nomakeo, seen here at a simulator he rents out at the Hadley Golf Center, says simulation is booming, and he is confident that current growth patterns will continue.

 

It might be early April, but Jay Nomakeo is already looking forward to November.

That’s because he’s making serious investments — and some inroads — in an emerging subsector of the broad golf business — simulation.

Nomakeo, a serial golf entrepreneur, if you will, is renting space at the Hadley Golf Center, a recreational facility that boasts everything from a driving range to batting cages to a maze, where he operates four simulators that are rented out to individuals, small groups, and even high school and college golf teams for everything from practicing to playing Pebble Beach — sort of.

The simulators provide a way for golfers to keep at their game during the winter months, and for facilities like the Hadley Golf Center, as well as area courses and golf shops, to earn needed revenue during the slow season.

Many area private and semi-private clubs now boast simulators, which provide additional revenue in some cases, but, more importantly, another way to provide value to members who have a number of choices when it comes to which club to join. Meanwhile, a golf-simulation facility called Top Golf has become part of the retail lineup at MGM Springfield, although the facility closed down during COVID and has yet to reopen.

It’s still an emerging business, but it’s catching on, said Nomakeo, noting that bookings were very solid this past winter, and time was often hard to secure, with the simulators in Hadley rented out to individuals, leagues, students, and faculty from nearby colleges, groups from area country clubs, and more.

“All winter long … we don’t lay anyone off because we generate enough revenue with the simulators to cover our payroll.”

“During the winter, it’s crazy,” he told BusinessWest, adding that most enthusiasts are playing courses, with Pebble Beach and St. Andrews the two favorites. “We sold out every weekend. There was one weekend where we were sold out, but I still got 21 calls during one day looking for times. Simulated golf has just exploded; I’ve seen reports showing that it’s growing 45% a year.”

Dave DiRico, owner of Dave DiRico’s Golf Shop in West Springfield, agreed.

“We have a mixed bag — we have guys who just want to practice, so we sell a practice session for the year, where they’ll come in for half-hours at a time; they’ll hit their whole bag of clubs and get their yardages,” he said. “And we have guys who come in who like to play 18 holes with their buddies. We have college teams that rent them all the time; some of their bigger schools have their own, but the smaller ones do not, so they come in and rent ours.

“They’re booked pretty solid — Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays, you need a week to 10 days out to book them,” he went on. “But we noticed this winter that our simulators have been sold every day, every hour, almost every minute. All winter long … we don’t lay anyone off because we generate enough revenue with the simulators to cover our payroll.”

DiRico’s store has several simulators, used for practice, playing any of 18 different courses, and also for the fitting of clubs, an additional use that puts the simulators to work for more of the year, which makes his operation different from most others.

Dave DiRico

Dave DiRico says his simulators are used for everything from playing courses like Pebble Beach to getting fitted for new clubs.

This advantage is important, he said, because simulators, while an important addition to the game and the business, have their limitations, especially when it comes to the calendar.

Indeed, whenever they have the choice, golfers will prefer to practice and play outdoors, which means Nomakeo and others are heading into what is definitely their slow season.

“Some people will still use them during the warmer months, but, for the most part, once April 1 hits and you can see green grass on the golf course, people are going outdoors; they’re not staying indoors,” DiRico said. “The business dries up very quickly.”

“With the way we’re seeing these trends with new golfers coming in and others coming back to the game, we want to make sure we’re not boxing them out or potentially losing them again. Ten to 15 years ago, we saw some similar trends, when golf was at its peak and we were getting new golfers. Prices were going up, and we lost some of those fringe golfers.”

Still, despite these obvious limitations, Nomakeo and others are seeing solid opportunities and enough months of business to warrant additional investments.

Indeed, Nomakeo is partnering with others to bring four new simulators to the MCU Center, a multi-sport facility in Agawam located in a old department store. There are two there now, which will be sold, with new models to arrive by the start of the next simulation season.

“We’re hoping to open November 1,” he said, adding that he fully anticipates this emerging business within the golf sector to continue growing and enable this investment to pay for itself in just a few years. “Just a few years ago, golf was declining, but since COVID … I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s absolutely crazy, and simulation is growing at an even greater rate.”

 

— George O’Brien

Cover Story

Sound Strategy

Barry Roberts and Gabrielle Gould outside the home of the Drake in downtown Amherst

Barry Roberts and Gabrielle Gould outside the home of the Drake in downtown Amherst

You might call it a development of note. That’s one poetic way to describe the transformation of the old High Horse restaurant space in the former First National Bank of Amherst building into a live performance and music space that will be called the Drake in a nod to a former downtown landmark. Like its namesake, a hotel with a famous bar, the new venue is expected to be a destination, a creator of lasting memories, and a key contributor to vibrancy downtown.

Barry Roberts isn’t sure how long the graffiti has been there.

He does know that it’s been a fixture — and a talking point — since long before he bought the property it graces, which now houses the Amherst Cinema, Amherst Coffee, and a number of other businesses in the heart of downtown Amherst, and that was 15 years ago.

And he suspects that this message has been ‘refreshed’ a few times over the years, because it’s as easy to read now as it was years ago.

It says ‘Save the Drake — for Willie, for Humanity,’ a reference to the legendary hotel and bar located in its basement, known as the Rathskeller, and its equally famous bartender, Willie. (Just about every student who attended UMass or Amherst College in the ’60s or ’70s has a Drake story. Or 100 of them.)

Roberts and others collaborating on an ambitious initiative in another property he owns, the former First National Bank of Amherst, are not exactly saving the Drake as most remember it. But they are reviving the name and creating a venue they expect will be just as successful when it comes to making memories that will live on for decades.

Indeed, the Drake is the name going over the door of a live performance and music venue that will go into space last occupied by the High Horse restaurant. The facility, to be operated by the Downtown Amherst Foundation (DAF), a 501(c)(3) that was founded to bring arts and culture to the Amherst area, is due to open April 26. and when it does, it is expected to have an immediate and profound impact on Amherst and its downtown, said Gabrielle Gould, executive director of the town’s Business Improvement District (BID), who played a key role in putting the many pieces of the puzzle together for this project.

She told BusinessWest that repeated studies revealed that what was missing from the landscape in Amherst’s downtown was a venue for live music, one that could compete with several such facilities across the Connecticut River in Northampton and not only keep Amherst residents and area college students in that community, but bring people from across Western Mass. — and perhaps the Northeast — to the town.

“We see people consistently going across the bridge and spending anywhere from $60 to $400 a night because of the amount of entertainment and music that is in that area,” Gould said. “For me, creating a vibrant downtown has to be experience-driven, and if you’re not providing arts and culture and experiences surrounding that, what is there to come here for?”

Roberts agreed.

“This is a game changer — an absolute game changer,” said Roberts, who is also president of the BID, adding that the facility has the potential to become what the Drake was — a landmark, a drawing card, and an attraction that will create memories for generations of people.

While doing that, the Drake will play a key role in an ongoing resurgence, or comeback story for downtown Amherst, said Gould, adding that the district lost a number of businesses — 15 by her count — during the pandemic. Many were restaurants, but there was some retail as well, she noted, adding that almost that many new businesses have been added in recent months, bringing vibrancy and excitement to the area.

The graffiti on the wall outside Amherst Coffee helped inspire the name of Amherst’s new live-performance and music venue.

Overall, she sees the Drake project as one very important chapter in an emerging story involving a new and more vibrant downtown Amherst, one that is well-positioned for what happens post-COVID.

“There’s a future here that is unlike anything that anyone could have envisioned five years ago,” she said, adding that the pieces are falling into place for this community that was so hard-hit by the pandemic.

As the work to ready the Drake for its opening enters its final stages, BusinessWest talked with Roberts and Gould about how this intriguing project came to fruition and what it means for a downtown that has been in search of a spark and now has one.

Landmark Decision

As she talked about the Drake project, Gould noted that it has been a product of good fortune, or good timing, in many respects.

Elaborating, she said ideal space (the former High Horse location) became available at essentially the same time resources, many of them in the form of pandemic-relief monies, were being made available to communities such as Amherst as they sought to recover from COVID and its many side effects.

“Right now, there’s a firehose of funds available — COVID funding, the Build Back Better plan … everything,” she said, adding that she doubts whether this project would have become reality so quickly in more normal times. “We’re not looking for silver linings, but we’ll take what we can get.”

The old Drake hotel

The old Drake hotel and its famous bar were a destination and creator of memories. The same is expected from what could be called the ‘new’ Drake.

But mostly, this project came about because of recognized need for such a facility in Amherst, she said, and a rare opportunity to make it happen. This need is spelled out in large letters — quite literally — on the website devoted to the Drake.

“When COVID hit, it really came to a place where we realized that we had a moment, and we needed to strike when the iron was hot.”

“For decades, the Amherst community as asked for, begged for, and sought out a space for a live performance and music venue,” the passage reads. “The Amherst BID and the Downtown Amherst Foundation have listened and are ready to build for the future. Arts and culture will be the economic and destination driver Amherst needs to head into 2022.”

It goes on to say the Drake is the first project toward building Amherst as a destination for locals and visitors alike, hinting strongly that there will be others, including a performance shell for the south common downtown, an initiative that has been a priority for the BID and the DAF for some time now and is still very much on the drawing board, said Gould.

But for now, the Drake is taking center stage, literally and figuratively.

“When COVID hit, it really came to a place where we realized that we had a moment, and we needed to strike when the iron was hot,” she said, noting, again, that this project is the byproduct of good timing and recognized need. “This was our opportunity; Barry having this space become available was just beyond perfect, because there really is no other available space in the downtown area that would lend itself as perfectly as this space to the concept that we wanted to go forward with.”

With the site secured, a proposal for a performance venue was put together and presented to a number of funding sources, Gould went on, adding that $175,000 in seed money was awarded to the Amherst BID by the Massachusetts Office of Business Development’s Regional Pilot Project. With that money, an attractive lease was secured, the architectural firm Kuhn Riddle was hired “at an incredibly reduced rate,” to design the venue, and additional fundraising efforts were initiated.

Gabrielle Gould says a live-performance venue has long been a priority for Amherst

Gabrielle Gould says a live-performance venue has long been a priority for Amherst, and it should provide a spark for its downtown.

Overall, the buildout costs for the project are a projected $750,000, said Gould, adding that the fundraising goal is $1.3 million, with just over $1 million secured to date.

It has come from a variety of sources, including $250,000 in local, community support in amounts ranging from $10 to $50,000; a $100,000 cash gift plus a Steinway piano from Amherst College; American Rescue Plan Act funds, local and state grants, and other sources. “You name it, we’ve gone after it,” Gould said.

Speaking of naming it, that was another task on the do-to list, said Gould, noting that there were several contenders being considered when someone suggested naming it after the famous bar immortalized in that graffiti, which is asked about on an almost daily basis at Amherst Coffee.

“And I thought, ‘why not play off that nostalgia of a bygone era?’” Gould told BusinessWest. “Another thing that will bring us together again after this pandemic is community and nostalgia, and going back a little bit. So while we’re going forward, let’s pay some homage to the past.”

While construction, fundraising, and naming efforts have been the most visible aspects of the project to date, the BID and DAF have also been putting together an operations plan, said Gould, noting that Laudable Productions, which already works with several area venues, has been hired to book performers for the Drake, which will be operated as a nonprofit, with all proceeds going to future performances.

A soft opening is set for April 26, featuring the Northampton Jazz Workshop, also known as the Green Street Trio, she noted, adding that the lineup for the spring and summer will be announced in early April.

“The idea is to program events for five or six nights a week,” said Roberts, adding that such a hefty slate of shows will have a profound impact on the downtown and the many types of businesses to be found there.

Indeed, while the Drake is about live performances and music, it is really about economic development, said both Roberts and Gould, noting that, while those phrases ‘game changer’ and ‘driving force’ are often used in business and development circles, they both apply here. Indeed, they believe this project will succeed in not only keeping people in Amherst or bringing more people to it, but propel the town forward as various constituencies work to bring a new parking facility to the downtown area.

“If you want retail to thrive, if you want restaurants to thrive, you can’t just be a shopping center — that’s what malls are for; they have free parking there, it’s great. We want to create something in Amherst that positions us as a destination for 300 miles and further from us.”

While Amherst still boasts a number of fine restaurants and a variety of retail, Gould said, it needs more — specifically in the form of arts and entertainment — to be a true destination on par with its neighbor across the Coolidge Bridge.

“If you want retail to thrive, if you want restaurants to thrive, you can’t just be a shopping center — that’s what malls are for; they have free parking there, it’s great,” she explained. “We want to create something in Amherst that positions us as a destination for 300 miles and further from us.

“We will bring performers into this really intimate, beautiful, small space that you will never get to see in a venue like this, and for the ticket price we’ll be able to offer,” she went on. “People will hopefully be coming from New York, Boston, Pennsylvania, and all over.”

Getting the Message

Getting back to that graffiti on the side of the Amherst Cinema building — which will be recreated in neon on one wall in the new Drake — Roberts doesn’t know when it was spray-painted there or by whom.

But he does know that he always wanted to save the message and maintain it for future generations even as he redeveloped the site for new uses. It is a link to the past, he said, and one that has also become an inspiration for those securing a vibrant future for this area.

The Drake, as tens of thousands of students and area residents remember it, isn’t being saved, technically speaking. But the spirit of that landmark, that institution, will live on in an important way.

Not as a name over a door, but as a powerful force in moving Amherst forward and making it a destination and source of memories.

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

Special Coverage Sports & Leisure

Still on a Roll

Dan Burak, owner of Tekoa Country Club.

Dan Burak, owner of Tekoa Country Club.

The game of golf — and the business of golf — has enjoyed a resurgence since the start of the pandemic, with many people picking up the game or returning to it after pausing for one of many reasons. As the new season begins, there is optimism that the momentum gained will carry over into 2022, with an understanding that there are many challenges — from workforce issues and rising prices for just about everything to the very real possibility of a golf-ball shortage — that will have to be overcome.

As the 2022 golf season commences — earlier than what would be considered normal at many facilities — those operating courses are, to borrow language from the game, looking at both scoring opportunities and some potentially heavy rough.

Indeed, as courses across the region start to welcome players to their first tees — some have actually been open for weeks now — they are looking optimistically toward building off some pandemic-generated momentum for a sport (and a business) that was in the tall grass and struggling on many levels just a few years ago.

When the pandemic closed many indoor (and some outdoor) options when it came to sports and recreation, golf became an attractive alternative in the late spring and summer of 2020, and many of those who took up the game or returned to it after pausing for one of many reasons stayed with it in 2021, said Dan Burak, manager of a number of area commercial properties, who added Tekoa Country Club in Westfield to his portfolio in 2009.

“The golf side of the business has been phenomenal the past few years,” he told BusinessWest, adding quickly that the banquet side of the ledger has not recovered as quickly, but there are many positive signs there for 2022, which we’ll get to later. “We were almost too busy on the golf side. We had to say no to a lot of people and tell them that there were just no tee times available. We hated to say no, but it was a good problem to have.”

Jesse Menachem

Jesse Menachem says some courses posted record years in 2021 as golf witnessed a resurgence, and he and others expect that momentum to carry into 2022.

Jesse Menachem, executive director and CEO of the Massachusetts Golf Assoc., said courses across the state have seen significant increases in play over the past two years, with many of them recording record years in 2021, despite frequent rain that closed facilities for several days during the season.

“Last year saw a continuation of the demand, the increased level of interest and activity, from the latter part of 2020, the second half of that year,” he said. “It was really encouraging in terms of tee sheets being very full, merchandise sales being through the roof, and, in some cases, hitting some record numbers — membership levels being high, wait lists at many private clubs that had not experienced that in the past years … across the board, those trends are really solid.”

Looking ahead, course owners, managers, and pros alike are expecting those patterns to continue into 2022. But despite this generally upbeat outlook, there are many formidable challenges to overcome. These include everything from workforce issues — golf operations are in the same boat as almost all businesses in the broad recreation and hospitality category — to simply stocking golf balls in the pro shop; from sharp increases in the price of everything, from gas to food to fertilizer, to deciding how much of these increases can be passed on to the consumer.

The workforce crisis is being handled the same way it is in other sectors — by increasing wages when necessary and casting a wide net when it comes to recruitment, said Mike Fontaine, general manager of the Ledges Golf Club in South Hadley, a muncipally owned, semi-private facility.

“We’re trying to staff up, like everyone else, and the price of staffing is at a level that we’ve never seen before,” he said. “And we have to be creative with how we go about handling that; we’re getting more applicants, which is positive, but it’s still a challenge.”

As for supply matters, they were certainly an issue in 2021, and there are no signs of improvement on the horizon, as we’ll see, with course operators struggling to secure everything from mowers to golf gloves.

Meanwhile, and for all those reasons listed above, those who have taken up the game, returned to it, or kept with it all along will find playing a round to be expensive in 2022. The only question is how much more expensive.

“It’s inevitable,” said Menachem, citing the rising cost of practically everything needed to operate a course, from labor to weed killer. He added quickly, though, that while courses must account for the rising prices they’re facing, they have to be careful not to price out those who are discovering golf — or rediscovering it, as the case may be.

For this issue and its focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest looks at what promises to be another solid year for the industry, but also the many challenges lurking down the fairway.

‘Hole’sale Improvement

Flashing back to the spring of 2020, Burak said it was a curious, challenging time for course owners and managers.

First, courses were allowed to open, and then they were ordered to close, even as many other states allowed them to operate. Then, when they were allowed to reopen, they couldn’t operate their restaurants or even allow customers to use the restrooms in the pro shop.

Courses adapted to the new landscape, and so did players, said Burak, noting that, with the 19th hole closed and players unable to buy alcohol at the course, many adopted a BYOB strategy.

And upon learning that this is a much cheaper option than buying at the course, many kept with that strategy even after the restrictions were limited.

Mike Fontaine

Mike Fontaine says that, while the golf business has been solid, there are stern challenges to be met, including workforce issues.

“When we opened the clubhouse … they were already in the habit of stopping at the package store and getting their beer there,” he said. “Some are a little more flagrant about it, with a cooler that’s visible, but some get very creative. It’s a problem.”

Overall, trying to police those players who ignore the large signs informing them that coolers are prohibited is just one of many challenges facing course owners and operators as the new season begins, and probably one of the minor ones.

The list of bigger concerns starts with workforce matters. Indeed, while Burak said he has had relatively good luck on that front, securing an adequate supply of workers for the course, the kitchen, and the ballroom in 2021, Menachem noted that most course operators were not as fortunate. And the forecast for 2022 is for more of the same.

“It’s a challenge, not only in our industry, but in many others in service, to support operations and fill out your staff for what’s needed to support a consistent and solid operation,” he told BusinessWest, adding that the challenges are not just with jobs at the lower end of the wage scale.

“We’re learning and hearing that clubs are struggling to fill assistant superintendent or assistant professional jobs,” he went on. “There’s many reasons for that, and I think the pandemic exposed it and in some ways expedited it. The days of the golf professional working seven days a week and being obligated and tied to the facility … that’s starting to change. Lifestyle, family activities, balance, quality of life, all that is really top of mind, and it’s something our industry has to be cognizant of.”

Beyond these changes, courses have to contend with a shortage of workers and immense competition for candidates who have no shortage of options.

“You might drive down the road and see a couple of restaurants or stores posting jobs for $18, $20, or even $25 an hour, and that’s competition to our facilities,” said Menachem. “The minimum wage, or the $15-an-hour rate to maintain a golf course and help serve on the maintenance crew, is probably a thing of the past.”

Attilo Cardaropoli

Attilo Cardaropoli says course owners and managers face a number of challenges, including long waits for new equipment and parts for everything from golf carts to refrigerators.

Fontaine concurred, speaking for nearly all course owners and managers when he said recruiting and retaining good help was a formidable, and expensive, challenge in 2021. But as he surveys the scene, he is seeing a somewhat improved hiring landscape for 2022, with the big issue being the price that will have to be paid for that help.

Attilio Cardaropoli, owner of Twin Hills Country Club in Longmeadow, a private club, agreed.

“Last year was a nightmare — we couldn’t find anybody to work,” he told BusinessWest. “Things are somewhat better this year, and we’re hoping it gets better still as the summer comes along with returning college students that we use quite a bit. Overall, it’s starting to ease up a bit, but it’s still not where it should be.”

Par for the Course

Meanwhile, other challenges facing area courses include the rising cost of needed goods — again, that means everything from food to golf balls to landscaping equipment — and the short supplies of all the above. And, of course, these two issues go hand in hand. As supplies shrink (often as demand increases), prices go higher.

Burak put all this perspective by relaying his difficulties in securing a much-needed tractor.

“I want the same brand that I had before, because I have all the attachments for it,” he explained. “I went to the dealer, saw the model I wanted, and I said, ‘what’s the availability?’ He said, ‘I have none in stock, and I have seven on the waiting list that are already sold. The first one that comes in goes to the guy who’s been on the list the longest, and he put his order in last August.’ I probably won’t get the tractor in all season, the list is so long, and that’s just one dealer.”

Cardaropoli told a similar story with his efforts to secure a new fleet of golf carts.

“We were supposed to get them right now, but the dealer says they’re just not available yet,” he said. “We’re hoping that they’re just a few months late, but we just don’t know. We ordered them last year, and we’re still waiting. And for some of the older ones that we’re still using … they break down, and we can’t get parts for them. It’s a struggle.”

Fontaine concurred. “With fertilizer alone, we’re seeing increases from 75% to 135% — and that’s just going to be a huge hit,” he said, noting that some of the materials in those products come from Russia and Ukraine, meaning things are likely to get worse before they get anhy better.

But the problem extends to golf equipment as well, with those we spoke with, noting that it was difficult to keep gloves, bags, and especially balls in stock last year, and similar problems are expected for 2022.

SEE: List of Golf Courses in Western Mass.

“We were very fortunate that we got our big order of golf balls in the spring from Titleist,” said Burak, mentioning the top ball maker in the world as he talked about 2021. “And we ended up with more than we needed, actually, and the rep kept coming back, saying, ‘do you have any we can take back? We have customers begging for them.’”

Dave DiRico, owner of Dave DiRico’s Golf & Racquet, told BusinessWest that such problems are likely to continue into 2022.

“Titleist is saying that by mid-summer, they could be running out of golf balls,” he said, adding that talk within the industry is that the resin needed to manufacture balls comes from China, and it is in increasingly short supply. “That’s what the companies are telling us. With many of these things that come from China, the prices are jumping, or you just can’t get them.”

Golf bags are a good example of this, he said, adding that supplies are limited and prices are skyrocketing, with models that cost $119 last year going now for at least $160.

Going for the Green

Despite these many challenges, golf-course operators are expecting 2022 to be another good year, perhaps a record year.

As noted, many courses are already open, and most anticipate opening sooner than would be considered normal, if recent weather patterns continue. And a good start is always important, Menachem said.

“It’s always a big help because it gets people interested, and you can build momentum,” he explained. “You can also drive some shoulder-season revenue that is not always available.”

Meanwhile, all evidence is pointing toward a continuation of what was seen in 2020 in terms of tee sheets filling up and, at Tekoa at least, having to tell callers that there are no times available.

On the private-course side of the ledger, Cararopoli noted that membership at Twin Hills is at nearly full capacity despite a healthy increase in fees — an indication, he said, that the momentum generated over the past two years is sustainable.

Meanwhile, on the banquet side of the balance sheet — a huge part of the business for many operations — there are many signs of improvement as well. Indeed, after 2020 was almost a complete washout and 2021 saw events but certainly not a full slate, especially later in the year, 2022 looks to be something approaching normal.

“The phone is ringing off the hook on the banquet side,” Burak said. “And that’s been so quiet — it’s been killing us for two years.”

Cardaropoli agreed, noting a slower pace of improvement at Twin Hills, with the phone ringing far more often than it has the past few years, at least with people looking to book events.

“The banquet side is just starting to pick up now,” he said. “Our January and February were terrible, we picked up a few in March, and April looks a little better; it’s really starting to look good for the fall, especially for charity tournaments.”

Returning to the golf side of the business, while the outlook is certainly upbeat, one wild card when it comes to how well these courses do concerns what happens with pricing, said Menachem, noting that, while increases are inevitable, courses need to walk a fine line on this matter.

They no doubt need to raise prices to cover the increases they’re facing, but they should be careful not to raise them to the point where such hikes might discourage those getting into the game or becoming more serious about it.

“There has to be some caution and some balance,” he said. “With the way we’re seeing these trends with new golfers coming in and others coming back to the game, we want to make sure we’re not boxing them out or potentially losing them again. Ten to 15 years ago, we saw some similar trends, when golf was at its peak and we were getting new golfers. Prices were going up, and we lost some of those fringe golfers.”

Those we spoke with said they’ve had no choice but to raise fees given all the price increases they’ve been hit with — on the labor front and every other front, for that matter.

“We have to go up on our membership, and we have to raise our price on greens fees and cart fees just to stay stable and competitive with the market,” Fontaine said. “With COVID and now the war in Ukraine, people have become accustomed to seeing prices going up, but I’m not sure how much higher we can go.”

Burak agreed, noting that Tekoa has increased greens fees $3 across the board, with memberships going up as well. Those hikes, implemented last fall, probably don’t cover all the increases he’s facing, he said, but competition for the golf dollar is steep, and the somewhat modest increase he’s implemented reflects that.

But he was quick to note that further adjustments may be necessary if inflationary trends continue.

“We’re going to have to see what our expenses turn out to be once things really get going,” he said, adding that these sentiments are true on both the golf and banquet sides of the business.

Bottom Line

Summing up the outlook for 2022 and beyond, Menachem said there is plenty of room for optimism within the golf industry, but there are also some bunkers and water hazards, figuratively speaking, that present real challenges to progress — and profitability.

“With all the positivity or demand and interest, there’s definitely, on the flip side, things we need to be focused on,” he said, adding that, in most respects, those within the industry expect to build on the momentum that’s been generated and put up some good numbers.

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

Travel and Tourism

Looking for Better Odds

Chris Kelly

Chris Kelley says MGM Springfield is ready and waiting for the state to give the green light to sports betting.

 

As he talked with BusinessWest for this issue’s focus on travel and tourism, Chris Kelley was lamenting a huge opportunity lost.

He was talking, of course, about March Madness, the college basketball tournaments that grab and hold the nation’s attention for two weeks. Even more specifically, Kelley, president and chief operating officer of MGM Springfield, was referring to the gambling and related activity that goes with that madness — everything that can’t happen at his facility because Massachusetts has yet to legalize sports gambling while most all the states surround it have.

“It’s the largest sports event, bar none, around the country, and to be now literally surrounded by states that offer that experience — most poignantly, in the case of MGM Springfield, Connecticut — is just an extraordinary challenge for the city, for our workforce, for our guests, and for the property,” he explained, adding that, while he continues to have conversations with state legislators about passing a sports-betting bill, when it comes to March Madness, he can only wait until next year.

Fortunately, though, that is not the case with most other aspects of his multi-faceted business.

Indeed, there are plenty of positive developments at the casino complex on Main Street that are creating an optimistic outlook for 2022 as the tourism sector and the region in general look to put COVID in their collective rear view.

For starters, there was the Massachusetts Building Trades Council’s annual convention, staged a few weeks ago at MGM. This was the first large-scale gathering of its kind at the resort casino since before the COVID, said Kelley, adding that there are a number of other events on the calendar as businesses, trade groups and associations, and other entities return to in-person events.

“We hadn’t had an event like that in two years, where we had people engaging with our convention and ballroom areas, staying in the hotel, eating in our restaurants … it was a very positive thing for the property to see us come back to life.”

Such events are a big step in the return to normalcy and, of course, comprise a huge revenue stream for the casino operation.

“We hadn’t had an event like that in two years, where we had people engaging with our convention and ballroom areas, staying in the hotel, eating in our restaurants … it was a very positive thing for the property to see us come back to life,” he explained.

Meanwhile, on the entertainment side of the ledger, there are similar steps toward normalcy, or what was seen prior to the pandemic, said Kelley, noting there are a number of shows slated at the casino, the MassMutual Center, and Symphony Hall, featuring performers such as Jay Leno, Chelsea Handler, John Mulaney, Brit Floyd, and many others.

“Entertainment is coming back in a much bigger way in 2022 than we saw the past few years,” said Kelley, adding that, in addition to those events at the larger venues, MGM Springfield is bringing back its popular Free Music Friday in the casino’s plaza, something that was started last summer.

“It was an opportunity to say ‘thank you’ to folks and give the community a reason to come back together, but it was such a success that we’re going to bring it back again. And, obviously, the price is right,” he said, adding that program provides an opportunity to showcase local talent.

Overall, the past two years have been a difficult, often frustrating time for all those in casino industry, which had to pivot and adjust to new ways of doing business during the pandemic, said Kelley, adding that it was also a learning experience, one that is yielding dividends and will continue to do so as MGM eases back to something approaching normal.

“It’s been a roller-coaster ride in every sense of the word,” he said in summing up the past 24 months. “Our ability to adjust quickly and be agile in the way that we operate, as well as our ability to provide an environment for health and safety that our guests felt comfortable engaging with — those were all unique challenges relative to a business that is not accustomed to closing and had never really experienced the types of changes that COVID required, whether it was six-foot-high pieces of plexiglass or the inability to serve drinks on the floor, or a face-mask policy.

“But all of that being said, I think we’ve come out of this a stronger operation than we were when we went into it,” he went on. “Just look at technology … we’re now able to offer everything from digital menus to digital check-in, our guests’ ability to interact with us through technology has increased exponentially, and that’s just one example of what I mean by coming out of this stronger. We’ve become a much more agile team now, and that’s to the benefit of the guest experience.”

As for sports betting, Kelley said the conversations are ongoing, and he’s optimistic that something can get done — hopefully before March Madness 2023. In anticipation of such a measure, the casino has added new amenities, including a large viewing area, a sports lounge on the floor of the casino, and a VIP viewing area in TAP Sports Bar.

“We’re ready to move forward the minute we see a green light on this issue,” he said, adding that he’s hoping, and expecting, that the light will change soon.

 

— George O’Brien

Cover Story

The Great Return

Chris Viale, president and CEO of Cambridge Credit Counseling

Chris Viale, president and CEO of Cambridge Credit Counseling

Over the past year or so, most companies have set — and then pushed back — the date when workers would return to the offices they left when COVID-19 arrived in March 2020. Now, such a return seems more real. But what’s also real is a commitment to flexibility among area employers, who recognize not only that employees can work effectively from home, but that hybrid, or fully remote, work schedules are becoming ever-more critical when it comes to attracting and retaining a workforce.

There was the Great Depression. And 75 years later, there was the Great Recession. We’re still struggling with what’s being called the Great Resignation, and now … we have what some are referring to as the Great Return.

This would be the return to the office of all those workers — tens of millions of them — who went home to work right around this time two years ago. Some have already returned, but many haven’t. There have been several scheduled returns over the past two years — indeed, most major corporations have moved back their return dates several times due to surges and new variants — but this time, by most all accounts, it seems real. Very real.

And it also seems complicated, or at least far different than most would have thought a return would look like two years ago.

That’s because the world of work has changed in a profound way, with the matter put in its proper perspective by Kristin Morales-Lemieux, senior vice president and chief Human Resources officer at Baystate Health.

“When we first sent everyone home, no one wanted to be there,” she said, adding that roughly 4,000 of the system’s employees were told to work remotely, if they could. “And for the first six months, we spent all of our time trying to hold back the tide of employees and managers who wanted to come back into the building, and, quite frankly, walking around and finding people who should not be there and shooing them back home again.

“As our employees come back together, our goal is to combine the flexibility and convenience we’ve had working remotely with the energy, connection, and collaboration that comes from being together in person.”

“But somewhere around that six-month mark …. there was a shift, and people starting saying, ‘I don’t want to go back,’ or ‘I certainly don’t want to go back full-time,’” she went on. “And in a few areas where we started to transition departments back, we started to notice that, not in large numbers, but here and there, we began losing people who were taking jobs with other organizations that allowed them to work remotely full-time.”

Kristin Morales-Lemieux

When they first went home, Kristin Morales-Lemieux says, employees were clamoring to come back to the office; six months later, most no longer wanted to.

This phenomenon explains why ‘flexibility’ is the watchword as the Great Return commences, and why the hybrid schedule — whereby people work in the office at least a few days of the week and remotely for the remainder — is becoming the norm among employers, and, increasingly, expected when it comes to employees.

At Monson Savings Bank, employees now have a number of options when it comes to working schedules, including a hybrid model that has them in the office at least two days a week, and a four-day work week. MSB President Dan Moriarty said such flexibility, at a time when most have proven they can work effectively from home, is a practical response to the changing work climate.

“We wanted to create some culture for retention for existing employees,” he said, echoing the thoughts of many we spoke with. “And as we compete against other companies in this region, but also well outside, that offer flexibility and remote working, we thought it was a good balance — for the organization and the employee.”

Meanwhile, MassMutual has put in place what it calls a “flexible workplace approach” that is comprised of three work arrangements — full-time in the office, full-time remote, and a hybrid of the two, with the majority of the financial-services giant’s employees working a hybrid arrangement.

“Flexibility is at the heart of our approach,” said Sue Cicco, head of Human Resources and Employee Experience for the company. “As our employees come back together, our goal is to combine the flexibility and convenience we’ve had working remotely with the energy, connection, and collaboration that comes from being together in person.”

Elaborating, she said the flexible-workplace approach has been in place since last summer with employees “testing” it over the past several months. They are now being asked to be at “a more regular cadence” by the beginning of April.

At Cambridge Credit Counseling, Chris Viale, president and CEO of the company, plans to bring employees back to work a hybrid schedule starting later this month. But the longer-term plan is to bring most employees back five days a week, he told BusinessWest, adding that he’s expecting some pushback, will listen to those giving it, and may ultimately change his mind.

“If people thought the labor market was tight going into COVID, we haven’t seen anything yet.”

But for now, that’s the plan, and for reasons that would resonate with many employers across the region.

“We’ve been grappling with this for quite some time,” Viale explained. “Right before the pandemic, we secured a much larger office space with a state-of-the-art call-center environment, and we committed to a seven-year lease, so we have that financial expense baked in to trying to do what’s right for everyone, trying to make sure the company is functioning as we need it to, trying to make sure we’re serving the consumers we’re serving, and meeting the needs of our staff. We’re trying to balance all that — somehow.”

Overall, there are many forces driving the flexibility being exhibited at most workplaces, but perhaps the most significant is common sense when it comes to the matter of attracting and retaining talent, especially at a time when businesses in virtually sector are struggling to do so.

Dan Moriarty says Monson Savings Bank is focusing on flexibility

Dan Moriarty says Monson Savings Bank is focusing on flexibility with its return-to-the-workplace strategies, including hybrid schedules and the option of a four-day work week.

Morales-Lemieux noted that Baystate Health, which regularly employs roughly 13,000 employees, currently has about 1,900 vacancies, three times what might be considered normal and a powerful motivating force when it comes to establishing return-to-the-workplace strategies.

“If people thought the labor market was tight going into COVID,” she said, “we haven’t seen anything yet.”

 

Work in Progress

It’s called ‘Corporate Tuesday.’

That’s the name Monson Savings Bank has attached to the second day of the work week, a day when most, if not all, employees will be in the office, said Moriarty, adding that this is the day, considered better than Monday, or any other day, for that matter, when people would schedule in-person meetings, department meetings, and collaborations.

“The parking lot is pretty full,” he explained, adding that Corporate Tuesday has been in effect since Jan. 1, and has thus far been greeted with a generally positive response.

Beyond Corporate Tuesday and some similar initiatives, there is now unprecedented amounts of flexibility when it comes to work and work schedules, at companies both large and small, a new landscape that has been years (and not just the past two years) in the making.

Indeed, Morales-Lemieux echoed others when she said there was some movement in this direction before the pandemic, especially as the unemployment rate dropped and it became steadily more challenging to attract and retain talent.

Sarah Morgan

Sarah Morgan says employees at Health New England have shown they can be effective working remotely.

“Even pre-COVID, we were really starting to feel the pressure to move into a variety of more flexible work arrangements, even as it relates to our frontline workers,” she told BusinessWest. “As the unemployment rate had dropped over the past decade, coupled with our own unique challenges in Western Massachusetts, such as our aging population and the number of healthcare-related — and non-healthcare-related — companies that we compete with for workers, we had, in the year prior to the pandemic, been talking in earnest about how we needed to change in order to make sure that we could keep a workforce.”

Elaborating, she said this talk involved, among other things, remote-work scenarios not only for attractive job candidates from other states who do not wish to relocate to Massachusetts, but also candidates and existing employees already in the 413.

Suffice it to say the pandemic has served to open more eyes to this need to change and add several layers of urgency to the matter, despite the delayed nature of the return to work.

But change comes hard to many companies, said Meredith Wise, president and CEO of the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast, noting that, in this case, most employers she’s talked with have seen the wisdom of embracing flexibility and not trying to put in place a one-size — or one-schedule, to be more precise — fits-all policy or strategy.

Indeed, even most old-school managers who would certainly prefer to have everyone back in the office eight hours a day, five days a week, are recognizing the need to embrace the changing landscape and not fight it — for a number of very practical reasons, especially those workforce issues, she said.

“We’re advising people to be flexible and talk with employees about what’s going to work for them. And one of the big reasons why is the retention problem that most employers are facing right now.”

“We’re advising people to be flexible and talk with employees about what’s going to work for them,” she explained. “And one of the big reasons why is the retention problem that most employers are facing right now; there are enough employers that are offering hybrid arrangements that you could easily lose people if you put your foot down and say, ‘I need you here five days a week.’ Those workers can easily find someone who will be flexible and more accommodating.”

 

Balance Sheet

Those we spoke with said there have been a number of fits and starts when it comes to returning employees to the workplace. Most were ready to start the process last spring or last fall, but Delta and then Omicron ultimately pushed back those timetables.

Now, most are looking at later this month or early next month as a return date, although it appears the vast majority of workers will still be working remotely at least a few days a week.

At Health New England, Sarah Morgan, director of Human Resources and Organizational Development, said all but a handful of the company’s 385 employees are currently working remotely, and there is no set date for a return. As for a plan, it involves being flexible, giving employees an opportunity to “volunteer” to return if they should desire to do so and if the conditions with regard to the pandemic warrant such a return.

For many reasons, she said, returning everyone to the office full-time — essentially turning back the clock to early March 2020 — is not practical. For starters, even with COVID subsiding in many respects, the company is no rush for a return to pre-pandemic density levels in its office space in Monarch Place. But over the past two years, employees have shown they can effectively work remotely, she went on, which more than justifies flexible or hybrid work schedules.

“Our associates have proven that they’re capable of working remotely for quite some time; they’re meeting the standards and expectations and doing very, very well,” she told BusinessWest. “They’re meeting all the needs of our members, and so we’ve said that people like to work at home, we understand that, and we’re going to enable a certain amount of flexibility within teams and a hybrid approach.”

Like others, she said such flexibility is becoming ever-more critical when it comes to attracting and retaining employees, but also widening the pool of talent to include those from other regions of the country.

“We recognize that flexibility around remote work and hybrid work schedules is a way to honor the needs of people,” she said, using that word ‘needs’ in reference to everything from family matters to physical disabilities. “We’re seeing more people ask for that flexibility when they apply.”

And at the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, which employs roughly 150 people, 100 at the Agawam Corporate Center, there will be similar amounts of flexibility, said Jennifer Murphy, director of Human Resources, adding that the employees now working remotely, and that’s most of them, are slated to return in a hybrid format on April 4.

“Part of our new flexible-work policy involves a hybrid work model; when we return, people will be required to work 60% of the time in the office,” Murphy said, adding that this plan of action has been generally well-received by employees. Overall, it represents acknowledgement of both the emergence of remote work as being popular and effective and the importance of face-to-face interaction when it comes to office culture.

“What COVID has taught us is that, given the nature of our work, we can operate our business successfully remotely,” she explained. “But we also feel it’s important for our culture that we work together and collaborate together; there’s real value in those face-to-face interactions. Overall, we’re trying to balance the value and importance of in-person work and collaboration with employees’ desire to also have that flexibility to work remotely.”

Jennifer Murphy

Jennifer Murphy says the 100 employees working at the offices of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation will be returning on April 4 and working hybrid schedules.

At Cambridge Credit Counseling, Viale said his plan to bring employees back to a hybrid schedule was greeted with a generally positive response. Overall, he’s not expecting the same when it comes to his plans to bring all or most employees (there will be exceptions for health considerations and other factors) back full-time.

Elaborating, and echoing Morales-Lemieux’s comments, he said that, as the months went by, employees became increasingly comfortable with working remotely, and increasingly uncomfortable with the thought of returning to the office.

But after weighing all the factors, including that seven-year lease on a significantly larger footprint and other considerations, he decided that bringing everyone back is the best course. But, as noted earlier, he will listen, and he may be open to changing his plans.

And what may be a deciding factor in his ultimate decision is his ability to maintain his workforce.

“What’s really challenging is just finding people to work,” he said. “I just heard an ad coming in to work this morning that Target is hiring people for $24 an hour; our starting wage is between $16 and $18 an hour.”

At Ware-based Country Bank, most all employees have been back to the office since last fall, said Miriam Siegel, first senior vice president and chief culture officer for the institution, adding that she believes that the bank is among the first, if not the first, business of its kind to put a flexible work policy in place.

The employees who have returned are working three days in the office and two remotely, she said, adding that the new policy, or strategy, is not the result of COVID, necessarily, but rather recognition that times and needs are changing, and flexible schedules are the logical, responsible response to the current landscape.

“One of the big things we’ve learned at the bank is that we have to recognize that we don’t live in a one-size-fits-all working world anymore,” she said. “That has become our mantra in many ways.”

Elaborating, she said the pandemic helped drive home the need to communicate with employees, have them articulate their challenges and needs, and then work with them to the extent possible to accommodate those needs.

“What COVID has taught us is that, given the nature of our work, we can operate our business successfully remotely. But we also feel it’s important for our culture that we work together and collaborate together; there’s real value in those face-to-face interactions.”

This is the right thing to do, Siegel said, but it’s also what many companies are willing to do, which is critical during what could only be called an ongoing workforce crisis.

“When you couple this remote-work situation with the Great Resignation, shifting priorities, and our challenge to retain people … we need to be listening to our employees and accommodate them when we can,” she said. “Because they’ll very quickly go somewhere else right now.”

At Baystate, as Morales-Lemieux noted, efforts to bring back — to the extent they are coming back — those 4,000 employees who left for home two years ago have been underway for some time.

There is now an organization-wide communication plan and strategy that will be launched in early April, she said, adding that there are still 3,000 people working “completely or largely” remotely.

 

Bottom Line

At all the workplaces we talked with, the new policies and strategies are in place for what would be called the time being.

Indeed, each company said it reserved to right to re-evaluate and change what is in place, depending on how things work out.

“The program we put in place — we keep the option open to revise or revoke if we don’t see good results,” Moriarty said. “But so far, so good.”

Murphy concurred. “When we initiated this policy and rolled it out, we said we would try it for one year and see how it works, and that we reserve the right to revisit it,” she said, adding that, while there is general confidence that this strategy will succeed given what’s happened over the past two years, it is still, on some levels, an experiment.

But overall, she’s not expecting many changes to the new policies — or to the current landscape in the workplace, for that matter.

“Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t see the trend turning back to fully in-person work for most people, especially those who work at a computer all day,” she said. “We’ve shown that that the remote model works; I think it’s here to stay.”

Morgan agreed. “We’re trending in that direction; HR professionals are talking about the trends, and the ‘new normal,’ and what will be the future of work,” she explained. “For so many reasons, we’re engaging in work in a different way; we’re fitting it into our lives in a different way than we could if we had a 30-minute commute to the office — and we’re finding that we can be even more productive.”

Those sentiments are among the many that make it clear that work has changed over the past two years — and probably changed forever.

And this will make the much-anticipated Great Return something to watch.

 

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

Special Coverage Women in Businesss

Reimagine the Possibilities

 

In many respects, the Bay Path University Women’s Leadership Conference that will unfold on April 1 at the MassMutual Center is the same one that was put together for early spring 2020 and then canceled by COVID-19 — and then canceled again amid a surge in early 2021.

Indeed, most all the speakers, including keynoter Tyra Banks, the model and media maven, are the same as those originally scheduled probably 30 months ago.

But the day-long event, expected to bring more than 1,300 people to downtown Springfield, simply can’t be the same as the one blueprinted back in 2019, said Sandra Doran, the school’s sixth president, who took the helm just a few months after the 2020 event was canceled.

And that’s because the world has changed so much in the interim, she told BusinessWest, and the conference needs to reflect that.

“Before the pandemic, people talked about being adaptive, they talked about thinking outside the box; the pandemic has changed the way people think about all those things,” said Doran, adding that the changed landscape, and the response to it, is reflected in the new theme for the conference: Reimagine. “What was considered adaptive two years ago is now considered routine today. This concept of really being prepared, with a plan A and a plan B … in the past, we might have had a couple of different strategies; now we have 10 different strategies because we know people’s needs are changing, the needs of employers are changing.”

“Before the pandemic, people talked about being adaptive, they talked about thinking outside the box; the pandemic has changed the way people think about all those things.”

Karen Woods, assistant vice president of Brand Strategy, Marketing, and Integrated Communications at Bay Path, agreed.

The original theme was ‘Own Your Now,’ she explained. “The idea was, ‘wherever you are in your life … own it, move forward, make decisions, and decide what’s next.’ But the pandemic changed a lot for people, so to ask people to ‘own their now’ seemed trite; the past two years not only affected the Women’s Leadership Conference, they affected women.

“And so this year, we have the theme of ‘Reimagine,’ and reimagine is really a gift,” she went on. “Because no matter where you are and what you’ve been through, you have this opportunity to come together, to network, to connect, to be with other women, and really start to think about what is the future, not just for you as an individual, but for our community.”

Sandra Doran, president of Bay Path University

Sandra Doran, president of Bay Path University

That theme, ‘Reimagine,’ will be threaded through a full day of programming that will include Banks’s keynote address at 3:15 p.m.; a luncheon talk featuring Patrice Banks, founder of Girls Auto Clinic; and the morning keynote, featuring Suzy Batiz, founder of Poo~Pourri and supernatural (more on them later). And it will also be incorporated into a series of break-in sessions, with titles ranging from “The Misfit’s Guide to Managing, Surviving, and Thriving at Work” to “Staying Sane with Disruptive Personalities in the Workplace.”

 

Face to Face

The return of the Women’s Leadership Conference (WLC), especially in its in-person format, is an important development for the region, said Doran, noting that, during its 25-year history, it has not only brought provocative speakers and historic figures to Springfield — a list that includes Margaret Thatcher, Madeline Albright, Rita Moreno, and many others — it has given attendees invaluable insight to bring back to their homes and offices.

Doran told BusinessWest that, while some thought had been given over the past two years to staging a WLC remotely, it was quickly determined that such a presentation would simply not be in keeping with the many goals — and expectations — for this conference, which has become a tradition in Western Mass.

“We made the decision that this was an event that was really focused on professional development, networking, and helping senior leaders in the grow,” she explained. “And the real power of this particular conference is in the face-to-face component of it.”

As organizers of the event saw COVID easing, with cases declining across the country, the decision was made to move forward with a live event, one that will have some restrictions, including proof of vaccine or a negative test to enter the MassMutual Center, as well as masking up when not eating or drinking.

Woods said ticket sales have been brisk, and a turnout similar to what has been the norm over the past several years is expected.

“We’ve been following the trends and the local, state, and federal guidelines,” she said. “Normally, we would start our advertising in the fall, and we were really looking at this spring. In speaking with our sponsors, exhibitors, and those buying tickets, we sense that people are feeling comfortable and ready to come back out for a gathering like this.”

As noted earlier, the overall lineup of speakers for the 25th WLC hasn’t changed since that event was originally blueprinted in 2019. But what has changed are the times, and some of the challenges being faced by women — and all those in the workforce.

And the speakers have been asked to reflect on what has transpired and incorporate these changes and mounting challenges into their presentations, said Doran, noting that the 25th WLC, like those before it, will leave attendees with plenty to think about as they consider how to reimagine their own lives and careers.

Indeed, the three keynoters are all successful entrepreneurs and innovators, who took decidedly different paths to success.

“Before the pandemic, people talked about being adaptive, they talked about thinking outside the box; the pandemic has changed the way people think about all those things.”

The day will start with what promises to be an inspirational, and entertaining talk by Batiz, founder of Poo~Pourri and supernatural, brands she has transformed into a more than $500 million business empire.

Featured in Forbes, Fast Company, and Entrepreneur, Batiz has been named one of Forbes’s “Richest Self Made Women in America” (2019) and EY’s Entrepreneur of the Year (2017). But to get there, she had to overcome some of life’s lowest lows — poverty, sexual abuse, depression, two bankruptcies, and a suicide attempt — which led to what she calls “the luxury of losing everything.”

The luncheon keynote speaker, Patrice Banks, is credited with opening up the male-dominated automotive industry and bringing a fresh perspective to that business. Girls Auto Clinic offers automotive buying and repair resources, services, and products by women to women. Prior to establishing GAC, she worked for more than 12 years as an engineer, manager, and leader at DuPont, a science and technology company.

Karen Woods

Karen Woods says the conference was rethemed from the one canceled two years ago to better reflect pandemic realities.

Frustrated with the lack of resources educating women on car care and her inability to find a female mechanic in the Philadelphia area, Banks enrolled in automotive- technology school to learn how to work on cars. Her mission with Girls Auto Clinic was to create a place she wanted to bring her car for repair and maintenance. She has since made it her mission to educate and empower women through their cars.

By telling her story, she continues to make history, through engaging talks, interactive workshops, authoring an informative car-care guide, and the successful running of a repair garage with female mechanics and a nail salon.

The day’s programing will conclude with a keynote talk by Tyra Banks, the supermodel who has become a serial entrepreneur as well. She created and executive produces America’s Next Top Model, has an Emmy Award-winning talk show (The Tyra Banks Show), hosted America’s Got Talent, and is consistently ranked by Time magazine as one of the world’s most influential people.

Banks is CEO of the Tyra Banks Company, a multi-faceted corporation focused on beauty and entertainment. In 2012, she graduated from the Owner/President Management program at Harvard Business School, from which she created her one-of-a-kind cosmetics experience, TYRA Beauty. She recently developed Fierce Capital, the investment arm of the Tyra Banks Company, which invests in early-stage companies, including firms that are female-led or female-focused.

Her passion is the TZONE Foundation, a nonprofit organization that invests in young women to help them realize their ambitions and approach life’s challenges with fierce determination. The TZONE now takes residence at the Lower Eastside Girls Club Center for Community in New York City and focuses on five core pillars: entrepreneurship; financial literacy; elocution and self-presentation; health and wellness; and self-esteem, beauty, and body image.

 

Breaking Out

As noted earlier, the conference will also feature a number of breakout sessions designed to both inform and inspire.

Session 1 takes the title “The Misfit’s Guide to Managing, Surviving, and Thriving at Work,” and will be led by Jennifer Romolini, a writer, speaker, senior digital-media strategist, and author of the book Weird in a World That’s Not: A Career Guide for Misfits.”

She will essentially debunk the theory that office-politicking extroverts are best set up for success. The session will help attendees understand, among other things, how to stop feeling like a freak at work, how to start using one’s misfit nature as a strength in the workplace, and how one’s sensitivity and empathy can make her a boss who not only succeeds, but effects real change.

Session 2 is called “The Power of Meaning: Making Your Life, Work, and Relationships Matter,” and will be led by Emily Esfahani-Smith, author of the book The Power of Meaning, which outlines four pillars essential to living a life that matters: belonging, purpose, transcendence, and storytelling.

In this breakout session, Smith will present the latest in psychology and neuroscience (as well as the wisdom of great philosophers) to help attendees live more satisfying lives, and focus in on those four pillars.

“We made the decision that this was an event that was really focused on professional development, networking, and helping senior leaders in the grow. And the real power of this particular conference is in the face-to-face component of it.”

Session 3, titled “The Real Role of Gut Instinct in Managing Complexity and Extreme Risk,” will be led by Laura Huang, a professor at the Harvard Business School and author of the book EDGE.

In her talk, Huang will discuss her research on decision-making in organizations and why the question shouldn’t be about data-driven decisions versus gut-feel-based decisions. Instead, effective organizational outcomes are the result of understanding the set of rules that are inherent in any complex decision, which dictates whether more data actually helps us make better decisions. Bringing her diverse work and research background (having conducted dozens of interviews with investors and observing pitch meetings with entrepreneurs) to analyzing the role of gut instinct in making choices, Huang developed an in-depth understanding vital role that gut feel plays in managing complexity and risk — and the difference between big wins and playing it safe.

Session 4 is titled “Staying Sane with Disruptive Personalities in the Workplace,” and will be presented by Dr. Ramani Durvasula, a licensed clinical psychologist in Los Angeles and professor of Psychology at California State University, Los Angeles. In 2019, her book, titled Don’t You Know Who I Am: How to Stay Sane in the Era of Narcissism, Entitlement, and Incivility, was released. She is also the author of the modern relationship survival manual Should I Stay or Should I Go: Surviving a Relationship With a Narcissist, and You Are WHY You Eat: Change Your Food Attitude, Change Your Life.

Session objectives include understanding what a disruptive personality style looks like and how it may affect oneself; learning how to manage disruptive personalities in the workplace, and what works (and doesn’t work); understanding how systems and people enable disruptive personalities in the workplace, and becoming familiar with a 10-step plan designed to provide the tools to manage disruptive personalities.

For more information on the conference, visit www.baypath.edu/events-calendar/womens-leadership-conference.

 

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

Cover Story

The Return of a Tradition

Marc Joyce

Marc Joyce, chairman of the 69th Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day Parade

It’s been nearly 1,100 days since Holyoke has staged its St. Patrick’s Day Parade and accompanying road race. That’s way too long for the businesses that depend on those institutions for a large percentage of their annual revenue. And it’s way too long for a community that always gains a huge dose of civic pride when mid-March rolls around. The traditions are back for 2022, and for the city and the region, there is much to celebrate.

 

 

The cover to the program book for the 69th Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day Parade was designed by an artist from Ireland.

Blended with the headline ‘The Season of Green,’ is a collection of the words that identify dozens of shades of green — from pistachio to lime; jade to shamrock — arranged in the shape of the Emerald Isle, and in those various colors.

It’s striking — and, yes, very green. But perhaps the most poignant thing about this publication is the date printed in smaller type to the side: March 22nd, 2020.

Indeed, this program book was published just over two years ago, and except for some minor updates in a supplement that will be inserted into the book, it remains profoundly unchanged. That goes from the date on the cover to all the advertisements inside to the ‘welcome’ from parade President Marc Joyce. In it, he thanks sponsors, the business community, and all those who helped make the parade possible. But there is no mention of the pandemic that kept this tradition from happening for two years.

“Civic engagement and pride in a community, any community, is critical. Any opportunity we can get to keep people excited about feeling good about the city they live in continues to help build on quality of life. That’s why it’s so important to have the parade back.”

Joyce told BusinessWest that the decision was made not to print another book, just that supplement, and to essentially pick up where the world, and Holyoke, left off when the COVID-19 pandemic prompted a shutdown of the state just a week or so before the 69th parade was to step off.

“We like to say that it’s the 2020 parade in 2022,” said Joyce, noting that, in most all respects, the date of the 69th parade has simply been moved up two years. Everything, or almost everything, is as it was then; he is still parade president (his has been a long, grueling three-year stint; normally, it’s one year); John (Jay) Driscoll, a prominent lawyer in Holyoke, is still the grand marshal, and Dave Glidden, president and CEO of Liberty Bank, is still recipient of the prestigious John F. Kennedy Award.

It is as if time has stood still in some ways. Only it hasn’t, obviously.

The program guide for the 69th annual parade

The program guide for the 69th annual parade, or what the event chairman calls “the 2020 parade in 2022.”

Holyoke has been without its greatest tradition for nearly 36 months now, and as it returns, many reflected on all that has been lost — and what has been regained as more than a month of parade-related events and gatherings have returned.

While those in the business community spoke of lost revenue — in some cases more than a third and perhaps even half of what they would generate in an entire year — and lost opportunities to introduce themselves to thousands of patrons (more on that later), all those we spoke with mentioned other, even more important losses, including a sense of identify and feelings of pride in the community.

As for what is being regained … the word that came up over and over and over again is ‘normalcy.’

“There’s a lot of pride in our community when it comes to parade weekend activity, when it comes to the parade and the road race, not just in this community, but across the region,” said Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia. “With quaranteening and all the other things we’ve had to deal with, this will bring back some kind of sense of normalcy.

“And that’s important, because civic engagement and pride in a community, any community, is critical,” he went on. “Any opportunity we can get to keep people excited about feeling good about the city they live in continues to help build on quality of life. That’s why it’s so important to have the parade back.”

Peter Rosskothen, owner of several hospitality-related businesses in Holyoke, including the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House, the Delaney House restaurant, and others, agreed.

“It’s very good for business,” he said of the parade, the road race and the month of events and activities leading up to it. “But it’s also good for the morale of Holyoke; it’s bigger than business, it’s civic pride, it’s the community coming together. Holyoke is a city with some problems, but you kind of forget about that with the parade.”

Joyce concurred, noting that the losses are not restricted to dollars and cents.

“It’s in the mindset and emotions of people who have grown up with this,” he explained. “I’m 71 years old, and I’ve been on the committee for 45 years. And I remember the first parade I went to; my father was marching with the Post Office, and my mother and I would walk about a mile and a half downtown to watch the parade. When I was away at college, I missed a few parades, but other than that, I haven’t missed any.

“It’s a homecoming,” he went on. “People come back to the city, and you see people you haven’t seen since perhaps last year; it’s a wonderful family-oriented event.”

For this issue, BusinessWest puts the lost years of 2020 and 2021 into perspective, and looks ahead to what all are expecting to be a memorable month as Holyoke welcomes back a tradition.

 

Mummers the Word

As he reflected back on March 2020 and the parade that wasn’t, Joyce said he remembers many things from that turbulent, mostly forgettable month, including the weather, which, to all those involved with this tradition, is often a big part of the story.

Mid-March in New England can bring with it all kinds of weather, and the parade has seen just about everything over its long history — snow, cold, rain, sleet, wind, and, occasionally, some sun and spring-like conditions.

In a somewhat cruel bit of irony, there were two such warm, sunny days — for the parade and the accompanying road race — in 2020, said Joyce, adding that it was the same in 2021, a meteorological turn of events that would only add insult to the injury of having to call off the parade two years in a row, he noted.

Turning his attention to 2022, Joyce joked that there is now considerable pressure on Driscoll.

Damien Rivera

Damien Rivera says that, for bars and restaurants in downtown Holyoke, the parade and road race are like the Super Bowl.

“We always kid that the grand marshal is in charge of the weather, one way or the other,” he explained. “I kid with him and say, ‘Jay, you’re two for two; can you pull it off a third time?’ I’m hoping, for all of our sakes, that he can.”

Keeping one’s sense of humor hasn’t been easy for the past two years, but Joyce and others involved with the parade have had little choice. The alternative is too depressing.

Recapping the past two years, Joyce recalled that “all systems were go” for the 2020 parade even as the virus first detected in China made its way to this country.

“We know it was out there, but no one knew how serious it was going to be,” he said. “The parade that was going to be in 2020 was canceled about 10 days before the event. That was really tough; people were saying ‘Oh, you’re babies, don’t cancel it.’ The fact of the matter is, we didn’t cancel it. Alex Morse, who was mayor at the time, called me into his office; we met with the Board of Health, and the DPW, and the police and fire, and they explained clearly the science of this thing and the interconnectedness of everything. The Fire Department was concerned that if they lost half their force to COVID, they wouldn’t be able to protect the city of Holyoke appropriately, and it was the same with the police.

“This is an event when every bar can show off what they can do, and we missed out on that opportunity for two years.”

“That was a hard pill to swallow but we always figured that this would be over soon and we’d be back in 2021,” he went on. “But that didn’t happen, for obvious reasons; we actually approached the city right after the first of the year in 2021 — the directors met, we discussed it long and hard, and we just figured that the same reasons we canceled in 2020 still existed in 2021, and it just made no sense to go forward. We approached the city and said ‘this is just not going to work, and we’ll be back in 2022.’”

Joyce remembers sitting on his front porch on parade day 2021, soaking in the gorgeous weather, drinking a Guinness, and watching a few friends drive down the street honking their horns. “That was the extent of the parade.”

Over the course of the past two years, the parade committee has never really stopped preparing for the 69th parade, he went on, adding that some things have gone on as they normally would, like the annual past president’s raffle and a memorial mass for deceased members of the committee.

Meanwhile, there has been planning — much of it via Zoom — for events this year, such as a gala staged late last month at the Log Cabin, the annual Awards Night, and many others.

Nicole Ortiz, who opened Crave on High Street

Nicole Ortiz, who opened Crave on High Street just over a year ago, is looking forward to her first parade week of activities.

As for the parade itself, it will be roughly the size of previous parades, with 15,000 marchers expected, close to 30 musical units, and 19-20 floats. What Joyce and everyone else expects to be larger this year — as in much larger, is the level of anticipation for both the parade and the race.

“It’s really hard to describe,” said Joyce. “Anywhere I’ve gone over the past few years and especially the past six to eight months, people have walked up and said, ‘Marc, are we having a parade?’ ‘Are we having a parade next year?’ People are excited to have the parade back.”

That’s especially true within the business community and its hospitality sector, which has suffered mightily over the past 24 months, as we’ll see.

 

Glass Half Empty

‘Crazy.’

Wasting no time at all, that’s the word Damien Rivera used to describe road race day at the Unicorn Inn on High Street.

“Really crazy,” he went on, gesturing with his hand around the two rooms that comprise this cozy neighborhood bar, adding that, by late morning on race day both rooms would be crammed with standing patrons — standing because the establishment can fit more people in if there are no tables and chairs on the floor.

Elaborating on ‘crazy,’ Rivera, a long-time employee who once lived above the bar with his father, Bobby Rivera, the establishment’s bar manager, detailed all that goes into race day at the Unicorn, which is even bigger than parade day, because, as he noted, the race ends at that northern stretch of High Street, and that’s where people congregate; the parade, in contrast, is spread out over a larger area, and thus the crowd is more spread out as well.

Peter Rosskothen

Peter Rosskothen

“It’s bigger than business, it’s civic pride, it’s the community coming together.”

He said that extra help is hired, a separate beer station is set up so that bartenders are not slowed by those who simply want a bottle of suds. There’s a DJ, and a deeper menu of food options is created, all in hopes of attracting race fans, who have a number of options when it comes to where to quench their thirst and whet their appetite.

Summing it all up, Rivera said simply “this is our Super Bowl — that’s the best way I can describe it,” meaning it’s the biggest, most lucrative time of the year. How big? Without giving specific numbers, he estimated that St. Patrick’s week — yes, it’s a week to many of those who celebrate it, especially when the holiday falls mid-or even early week and the parade as always, is on a Sunday — generates more than a third and perhaps even half of an entire year’s revenues.

What was it like to be without that week two years a row? Rivera simply shook his head and said “awful.” And by that, he was referencing more than just lost revenue.

“It’s a celebration,” he said of road race day, but also the entire week and beyond. “Holyoke is historically Irish, so when that week happens … it’s timely, it’s cheery, it’s a bright celebration of Irish culture, and for the businesses, this is our most important time.”

He said that establishments like the Unicorn depend on parade-week festivities for more than just revenue. It’s also a great marketing tool, a way to make introductions with potential new patrons.

“It brings people from so many places,” he explained. “If they didn’t know this place was here, they learned that it’s here. So not having the race and the parade meant that new people weren’t learning about this place as much as if we had it; this is an event when every bar can show off what they can do, and we missed out on that opportunity for two years.”

Nicole Ortiz is certainly looking to make some introductions during this year’s parade. She’s the owner of Crave restaurant on High Street, just across the street from City Hall — and the reviewing stand for the parade. She opened the establishment, which specializes in “modern and unique Puerto Rican food,” just over a year ago and missed out on a parade that year. In fact, Ortiz, who started with a food truck in early 2020, hasn’t experienced a parade as a business owner — although she’s heard quite a bit about the tradition from other business owners. She’s looking forward to the opportunity.

“They told me there’s tons of people down here, and they make tons of money,” she explained. “They say there’s tens of thousands of people down here for the race as well as the parade; it sounds pretty crazy.”

Rivera is looking forward to 2022 being a breakout year, and he’s not alone in that assessment.

Indeed, the phrase pent-up demand has been used in almost every context imaginable over the past 24 months, from cars to dining out to vacationing. And when it comes to the parade and the road race, pent-up demand is real.

Mayor Garcia drew parallels between this year’s parade and last year’s Big E. Both marked the return of an institution that the region had to do without, he said, adding that the Big E saw record attendance one Saturday during its run last year, and he’s expecting something similar with the parade.

Rosskothen agreed. “I feel that the parade is going to be bigger and better than it’s been in years,” he said. “I think people are ready to get out and do stuff. We’re handling the road race, and I’m preparing for a record breaker.”

“I feel that the parade is going to be bigger and better than it’s been in years,” he said. “I think people are ready to get out and do stuff. We’re handling the road race, and I’m preparing for a record breaker.”

Rosskothen, like others we spoke with, noted repeatedly that the parade and road race are not one day, or two days, as the case may be, but a week’s worth of celebration and, actually, several weeks’ worth of events, activities, and Irish-related food, drink, and culture leading up to the climax of mid-March.

“It’s a whole month,” he said. “We start playing Irish music at our venues, people go out, and in my case we start selling corned-beef-and-cabbage dinner packages in the beginning of March at Delaney’s Market. It’s all tied into the parade; it puts your Irish mindset on for lack of a better phrase.”

 

Bottom Line

Joyce said that there are only about 500 of the program books left to distribute at the parade. Those already given out have become a kind of dubious collector’s item — a guide to a parade that didn’t happen, or wouldn’t happen for two years.

In a way, they have become a symbol, not of what was lost or of a time that stood still, but of the community’s resilience and of the immense importance of this tradition to the city and the entire region. No one ever really doubted that importance; it was too obvious for that to happen. But three years removed from the last parade, it is now even easier to see all that the parade and the race mean to Holyoke.

It’s not just the revenue for those bars, restaurants, hotels, and banquet halls, although that’s a very big part of it. It’s the sense of community, the feeling of pride, the people coming back to this city year after year. It’s history. It’s tradition. It’s Holyoke.

It’s something else, too. It’s normal, and everyone involved is excited that it has returned.

 

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

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Holyoke Looks to Build on the Momentum from Cannabis, Entrepreneurship

 

Aaron Vega

Aaron Vega says there are many cannabis-related businesses now operating in Holyoke, and many more in the pipeline.

Joshua Garcia, Holyoke’s first Puerto Rican mayor and a lifelong resident of this historic community, says that, in many respects, history is repeating itself in the city.

Elaborating, he said that for the better part of a century, the paper and textile mills on the canals were a symbol of strength, a source of jobs, and, in many ways, the city’s identity (see Sidebar here)

It wasn’t that way through the latter half of the 20th century as most of the mills went south, and into the 21st century, he went on, but it’s becoming that way again, largely because of the booming cannabis industry that is breathing new life into those long-vacant mills.

“Those mills were the economic anchor,” he said. “And it’s interesting to see history repeat itself; but instead of the Paper City, there’s now this ‘Rolling Paper City’ interest. Although it’s a different industry … the impact is the same.”

Indeed, cannabis is changing the landscape in Holyoke, figuratively if not literally, although that, too. Aaron Vega, director of Planning & Economic Development in Holyoke and a former state representative, said there are now eight cannabis operations doing business in Holyoke, and several dozen more in various stages of development.

Just as important as the number of ventures is the broad diversity on display, he said, noting that the city boasts several cultivating operations, dispensaries, a testing lab, and more.

“We continue to see cannabis interest and cannabis companies opening,” said Vega. “There’s a lot in the pipeline.”

But while the emergence of a cannabis cluster in Holyoke — similar to what is happening with biotech in Worcester in many respects — has been impressive, there is much more to what most would call a resurgence in this city than one industry. There has been a surge in entrepreneurship that has brought many new businesses to High Street and other streets. There have been several new restaurants, for example, despite the toll the pandemic has taken on that sector, but many other kinds of ventures as well, said Jordan Hart, executive director of the Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce.

“Over the past year, we’ve had more than a dozen ribbon cuttings, most of them restaurants and all of them small businesses.”

“Over the past year, we’ve had more than a dozen ribbon cuttings, most of them restaurants and all of them small businesses,” she said, noting that her ceremonial scissors have been given a workout. She credits the pandemic and the manner in which it has prompted introspection and, for many, a desire for something different and hopefully more fulfilling than their 9-5 job, as being a catalyst for some of this activity.

Tessa Murphy Romboletti, director of EforAll Holyoke and now also at-large City Councilor — she was elected last November — agreed.

She said the pandemic has helped fuel interest in entrepreneurship across the board, meaning people of all ages and demographic groups. EforAll has been expanding and evolving in ongoing efforts to meet the needs of such individuals, she said, adding that it is now staging its 12th and 13th cohorts of aspiring entrepreneurs, one for English-speaking candidates, and one for Spanish. It is also adding a new program, called E-Forever, a resource for those who are already in business rather than trying to get off the ground.

But beyond COVID, this surge in entrepreneurship is also being fueled by Holyoke’s emergence as a landing spot for those looking for affordability, diversity, a growing cultural economy, and a chance to do something they may not be able to do in a larger, far more expensive municipality.

People like Jay Candelario, who grew up in the city, moved to New York, but eventually returned. Battling heavy doubts and some long odds, he took an historic home on Dwight Street that had been damaged in a lightning strike, and converted it into Jay’s Bed & Breakfast.

Opened in 2016, the facility has certainly been challenged by the pandemic, but it has hung on, through diversification into catering and events, and Candelario’s persistence and belief in not only himself and his concept, but Holyoke itself (more on that, later).

Jay Candelario

Jay Candelario, seen here at the grand staircase at his B&B on Dwight Street, says Holyoke is staging a resurgence and attracting many new residents and businesses.

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Holyoke and the many forces that are shaping progress in the city and, as the mayor noted, enabling history to repeat itself.

 

On a Roll

While there are many developments in Holyoke from a business perspective, cannabis continues to be the story.

And as Vega said, it’s one that involves a large number of businesses, diversity of ventures, and large supply of potential new initiatives in the pipeline.

Providing a quick snapshot of the cannabis cluster in Holyoke, which has a popular destination because of its cheap electricity, location near major interstates, and large supply of old mill buildings, Vega said there are now more than 500 people working within the industry in Holyoke, many of whom have graduated from cannabis programs at area colleges (see related story, page 35), and many different kinds of facilities, from cultivation and manufacturing operations., to dispensaries, to a testing facility, Analytics Labs, which opened last year, on Appleton Street. It’s the first operation of its kind in Western Mass., and provides a vital service to businesses that are required to submit the cannabis to independent labs that run a number of tests, for potency, solvents, pesticides, pathogenic microbes, and more.

“We have several businesses already operating, and another dozen growth and manufacturing facilities that could be up and running by the end of the year,” said Vega.

But there are still many challenges facing those looking to enter this industry, especially the smaller ventures, he went on.

“I think there’s still a lot of challenges for these companies to get their financing,” said Vega. “The MSOs — the multi-state operators — are able to set up shop more easily than the locally owned companies, but they are starting to come to fruition.”

Tessa Murphy-Romboletti

Tessa Murphy-Romboletti, director of EforAll Holyoke, took her involvement in the city to a higher plane with election to the City Council last fall.

One development that may help some of these businesses get over the hump — and help Holyoke as well — is the creation of what Vega called an “incubator” for cannabis businesses in the old National Blank Book property on Cabot Street. There, many smaller businesses are getting support to break into the business and overcome the many hurdles — from financing to licensing to building a workforce — to opening the doors to a new cannabis business.

“We’re really excited about it,” said Vega, adding that there are a number of smaller enterprises occupying spaces in the facility and trying to move ventures forward.

Looking ahead, both Vega and Garcia said that one challenge — and opportunity — for the city is to promote the development of support businesses for the cannabis sector.

Elaborating, Vega said that these businesses must now order lighting, raw materials, and other products from companies on the other side of the country, and would certainly prefer to be able to source them locally.

“They all agree; there could be substantial savings if they didn’t have to order their products from Texas and Florida,” he told BusinessWest. “And we also like to think about the bigger picture — if we get those kinds of companies to land here in Western Mass., not just Holyoke, but Western Mass., there could be tremendous opportunities for the region.”

Elaborating, he said several neighboring states have either already legalized marijuana or are in the process of doing so, and having support businesses that can provide lighting and products in Massachusetts, as opposed to Texas, could facilitate efforts to make this area a hub, not just for Massachusetts, but for all of New England.

 

Getting Down to Business

Murphy-Romboletti said she first started thinking about running for City Council two years ago. A former city employee — she worked in the mayor’s office and, later, the Office of Planning & Economic Development — she said she has always wanted to be involved with the community and knew that the Council was where one could make an impact — on the city, but also its business community.

After consulting with her bosses with EforAll, a national organization with several locations in the Bay State, including two in Western Mass., and getting their blessing, she threw her hat into the ring. She’s only been on the job a few months now, and has spent most of that time reaching out to department heads and talking with them about what they need for their offices to run better and more effectively.

From an economic development perspective, she said she has long understood the Council’s impact on business. “It has the ability to slow down process or speed up process on things,” she said. “And I think permitting, in and of itself, within our local government, is confusing and not always as necessary as it needs to be, and that’s one of the reasons why I ran.”

Elaborating, and without actually using the phrase, she said one of her goals is to help make the city more business-friendly, and especially at a time when there is so much interest in entrepreneurship — both within the cannabis sector but also well beyond it.

Which … brings her back to her day job. EforAll is seeing growing numbers of applications for its cohorts, she said, adding there are 22 participants in the current sessions. The pandemic has brought a regrettable halt to most in-person learning opportunities (although she’s hoping that might change soon), but the agency is carrying on through Zoom.

A number of graduates have gone on to open businesses, many in the downtown area, she said, adding that the ongoing needs of these ventures prompted the creation of E-Forever.

Undertaken in conjunction with Entrepreneurs Forever, the new group is a “resource for those who have gone through the program and are currently in business, rather than those who are just getting started,” she explained.

“These businesses are generating revenue, and they have unique challenges,” she went on, adding that this group of perhaps 8-10 entrepreneurs will meet once a month, share information, and troubleshoot. “The entrepreneurs pick what they want to work on; it’s like having an accountability group that meets each month to support whatever challenges you’re having as an existing business owner.”

The broad goal, she said, is to enable more businesses to weather the many storms they will face as they mature and grow and stay in business, preferably in Holyoke.

A good deal of resilience has already been on display, said Jordan, adding that she couldn’t think of a single business in the city that closed during the pandemic, and, meanwhile, as she noted, many new ones have been opening.

Jordan Hart, executive director of the Greater Holyoke Chamber

Jordan Hart, executive director of the Greater Holyoke Chamber, says the pandemic has helped create a surge of entrepreneurship in the city and a number of new businesses.

“It’s been remarkable to see the perseverance the community has to see Holyoke thrive,” she said, adding that while existing businesses, often with help in the form of local, state, and federal grants, have found what it takes to survive the pandemic, COVID has inspired many others to join their ranks in the business community.

“People began to prioritize not only their personal life and their personal interests, but also their mental health and well-being,” she explained. “And many found that what they wanted was more work-life balance and flexible schedules. And that’s where entrepreneurship came into play … with people finding their true selves, what their purpose is, and what they want their purpose to be; the pandemic really shook things up in that sense.”

She said the roster of new businesses includes restaurants, like Crave, El Paradiso Colombiano, and the Avalon Café, and several cannabis-related businesses, but also a few boutiques. And, as noted, most are in the heart of downtown, bringing many formerly dormant spaces to life.

 

Rooms with a View

That historic home on Dwight Street that Jay Candelario found was more than dormant.

It needed considerable work inside and out, he told BusinessWest, adding that while most were more than willing to consider the property known to most as the Moriarty mansion and ultimately pass, he decided to take a chance.

“I’m a risk taker,” said Candelario, who was born in Puerto Rico, grew up in Holyoke and then Amherst, and moved to New York City as an adult. “And you would have to be a risk taker to take this on.”

Those sentiments reflected more than the condition of the Queen Anne Victorian; they also referenced the time of this acquisition (2009, the height of the Great Recession) and the seemingly long odds against creating a successful B&B in downtown Holyoke.

But Candelario was able to look past the challenges and the doubters and see opportunity. It’s taken a while for the vision to become reality, and the pandemic has certainly put more hurdles in front of him — he admits to coming close to packing it in and moving on to something else — but Candelario, like many business owners in Holyoke, has persevered.

“We have several businesses already operating, and another dozen growth and manufacturing facilities that could be up and running by the end of the year.”

As he gave BusinessWest a tour and pointed out rooms bearing the names of places he’s visited in and lived in — ‘Brazil,’ ‘New York,’ ‘Puerto Rico,’ and ‘Holyoke,’ among others — Candelario said business has been steady if unspectacular, with guests ranging from traveling nurses, to executives for Coca Cola, to “emergencies” in the form of needed beds for those being helped by the nonprofits Roca Holyoke and Women’s Shelter Companeras, now Alianza. Over the years, though, he’s been able to draw guests visiting area colleges, individuals in town on business, and those attending the St. Patrick’s Day parade and road race. His audience is those who want something different than the run-of-the-mill hotel room.

Shut down for the better part of a year by the pandemic starting in March, 2020, he said he’s been able to keep his dream alive by diversifying and expanding his operation into catering and the hosting of events ranging from baby showers to family reunions to nonprofit retreats.

While reflecting on his business and where he can take it, Candelario also ruminated on Holyoke, its present and its future. And he drew many comparisons to the Bronx, another diverse community he believes is also misunderstood and underappreciated. He lived there for some time, and was originally planning to open a B&B near Yankee Stadium until the economic downturn in 2008 scuttled those plans.

“The Bronx and Holyoke have a lot in common,” he said. “It’s the inner city, working class, different cultures; they’re melting pots that many people just don’t appreciate for all that they are.”

Beyond these qualities, the city boasts location and affordability, two important factors in these changing times.

“Holyoke is very affordable for those people who are starting off,” he explained. “They can get better housing for the buck. And if you want to work in Northampton, it’s 10 to 15 minutes away; Springfield is 10 to 15 minutes away; Agawam is 10-15 minutes away.

“I see Holyoke as a very progressive, very upwardly mobile city,” he went on. “You have people from many different areas coming here, not just locally, but from around the country. I run into people from Chicago who moved here, and Florida, California, New York City, and Boston. They come here because they see opportunities. People see the same thing that I see.”

 

View to the Future

Candelario said he assigned the name ‘Holyoke’ to one particular room at his B&B because, if one looks closely, he or she can see City Hall from one of the windows.

As he surveys the scene, though, he sees more than that iconic structure. Much more.

He sees a city that is putting its recent, not so glorious, past, behind it, and becoming something else: a destination of sorts, for travelers, but especially residents seeking affordability and quality of life, and businesses looking for a solid spot to land.

This is what Mayor Garcia had in mind when he said that history is repeating itself in Holyoke, and not just when it comes to the mills as a symbol of jobs and economic might.

Indeed, Holyoke’s past, as an ethnically diverse center of business and culture, is also its future.

 

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

Features

Sidebar

Joshua Garcia

Joshua Garcia

Joshua Garcia says that, among his friends, family, and colleagues at various career stops, there was always an expectation that that he would someday run for mayor of Holyoke. And not just run, but win.

“Even when I was a kid … people would say ‘this young man one day is going to run for mayor, should be mayor,’” he said, adding that it took a while before he eventually started believing — and acting on what people were saying.

Born and raised in Holyoke, he attended city schools and spent much of his time at the Holyoke Boys & Girls Club, where he would later work. Starting at an early age, he got deeply involved in the community.

That involvement included stints on the School Committee, the Fire Commission, Nueva Esperanza, an agency devoted to promoting entrepreneurship and spurring economic development in the city, and other groups. Meanwhile, on the career side, he was gaining experience in the management of municipalities, early on at the Holyoke Housing Authority (while he was also earning a master’s degree in Public Administration), then with the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission, which he served as municipal services coordinator, and later as town manager of Blandford, population 1,200.

That blend of professional growth and community involvement would earn Garcia a 40 Under Forty plaque from BusinessWest in 2015. Meanwhile, each of these stops seemed to bring him closer to that ‘someday’ when his friends and family thought he would run for mayor, and that day came last year, and an election that would determine a successor to Alex Morris, who left Holyoke City Hall to become town manager of Provincetown.

“I started getting the questions again … it was election time, and people were saying ‘why aren’t you running for mayor?’” he recalled. “My answer was that I liked my career track — it was great being a town manager of a town where I could go home at the end of the day and spend time with my family.”

It was with some prodding from his wife, Stefany, (Garcia actually called it an “endorsement”) that he was eventually swayed to become the seventh candidate to declare for the position.

“What many don’t realize is that small towns have their own set of unique challenges that can be just as challenging as a large city.”

“That endorsement really sealed the deal for me,” he told BusinessWest. “She just simply said that, in her opinion, being mayor of the City of Holyoke, knowing who I am, is bigger than her family. I thought that was a very humble and unselfish response. We talked more about what that meant …and felt strongly that if running for mayor to help more people is the sacrifice, then why not?”

He would eventually triumph in that crowded race, becoming the city’s first Puerto Rican mayor. He commenced finishing Morse’s unfinished term in November, and started his own first term in January.

Garcia moves into the corner office at a time when Holyoke is in what most would call a growth mode, especially when it comes to jobs, new business development, housing, and overall vibrancy. As the story on page 14 relates, the city has benefited tremendously from the strong five-year start of the cannabis industry, with many of its long dormant or underutilized mills roaring back to life as homes to a wide array of cannabis-related businesses.

But there is more to the story than this one industry, he said, adding that, even during a pandemic, many new businesses have opened across several sectors, especially hospitality.

“During the pandemic, when restaurants everywhere were shutting down, Holyoke was opening six new ones,” said the mayor, adding that the EforAll Holyoke, the nonprofit created to inspire would-be entrepreneurs and help them get started and to the proverbial ‘next stage,’ has helped create a wave of entrepreneurial energy that is bringing new businesses to the downtown and other areas, and also creating more interest in the city as a place to live.

While all this is positive, said Garcia, these forces are spawning some new and different challenges for Holyoke, especially when it comes to the affordability that has defined it for decades now.

“There’s a tidal wave that’s coming in a very positive way, but it’s going to create a new set of challenges that we’re going to have to figure out,” he told BusinessWest. “One of them is affordability. No one wants to be in a situation where they are priced out of their neighborhood. Costs are rising everywhere, not just in Holyoke but around the region. How to move forward and embrace these new quality-of-life activities that are going on, but also balance that with making sure we’re not pricing people out of the neighborhoods they grew up in. And that’s why affordable housing continues to stay in the forefront.”

While focusing on these issues, Garcia said he will also concentrate on how Holyoke is managed, with an eye toward improvement. And as he goes about that work, he will take some lessons from his last assignment.

Indeed, while Blandford and Holyoke are seemingly worlds apart when it comes to the size and nature of the communities, Garcia said he can draw on his experience serving that hilltown in his new role in the Paper City, especially when it comes to creativity — in management and finding solutions to problems.

“What many don’t realize is that small towns have their own set of unique challenges that can be just as challenging as a large city,” he explained. “The greatest benefit for a city of Holyoke’s size is capacity and resources — you have enough resources to hire full-time department heads and experts to help mitigate liability and meet mandates.

“In a town, you have the same expectation, but you have to be very creative in how you can keep and be competitive, meet needs and mandates, and maintain quality of life,” he went on. “Here, I make a call to a department, and I have someone on a grant, writing and executing it, and doing things. In a town, I’m it, with part-time people or volunteers; so oftentimes, the skill you build working in a small town is the ability to be as creative as you can to meet needs for the community.”

Elaborating, he said that, while Holyoke does have capacity and resources, the growth in new businesses, an unprecedented influx of federal money through ARPA (The American Rescue Plan Act of 2021) and other sources, and a growing mix of challenges and opportunities is putting the city to the test.

“The new challenge internally is the capacity to execute from start to finish,” he said. “In my campaign, I didn’t engage in any of the traditional rhetoric involved in campaigns; instead, I focused on the need for management. My focus with this budget season is to help departments build up so that they’re in a much better position to effectively carry out the responsibilities they’re charged with, and keep up with these projects.

“Holyoke’s form of government, with the mayor as the city manager, is antiquated,” he went on, adding that, overall, he’s working toward reducing or eliminating what he called ‘learning curves’ — in the mayor’s office and elsewhere in City Hall, and perhaps adding a city manager, comptroller, or other positions.

“Whatever model the city decides to go forward with, the idea is to strengthen internal controls and better mitigate harm and liability,” he went on. “Those are some of the longer-term objectives, and it’s going to require the community coming together, between this office, the City Council, and residents, because we’re talking about ordinance and charter changes, potentially.”

 

George O’Brien

Class of 2022

This Unique Nonprofit Helps At-risk Youths Find a Way Out of Darkness

Leah Martin Photography

 

 

Stefan Davis has a scar on his leg.

The mark was left by his stepfather, who lashed at him with a hook of some sort, as he recalls, tearing at the skin. While Davis remembers that physical attack, one of many he endured, he also never forgot what his stepfather then said — and the emotional trauma it created: “if you ever tell anyone about this … you’ll never say anything to anyone again.”

Actually, Davis has several scars. There’s also one above his right eye from when he was beaten out of the gang he joined — the Bloods. And there’s another one on his right wrist from when things became so dark in his life, he attempted suicide.

“I was done … I was ready to give up,” said Davis, now an educator, football coach, and behavioral interventionist for at-risk students and families at Springfield High School of Science and Technology. “And I show this scar to people who are in darkness and think there is no other way out.”

Davis made it out of his dark place — through the help of others, but mostly his own strong will — and into the light. And today, he helps others bearing different types of scars — everything from homelessness to physical, emotional, and sexual abuse, to seemingly insurmountable life challenges — do the same through a nonprofit agency he created called, appropriately enough, I Found Light Against All Odds.

“He always gave me that push that no other teacher would. And he’s been there for hundreds of students. There’s a lot of kids that were in his program who looked at him not as a teacher or as a coach, but as a father figure.”

Its stated mission is to “provide high-risk youth and families with the tools and opportunities to break the cycle of poverty, desperation, and dependence that dominates their lives, enabling them to become contributing members of our society.”

These tools vary, but the most important one is the sheer will and determination it takes to overcome the often very long odds against finding the light. And when you talk to people who have been helped and guided by Davis, or ‘Coach,’ as they all call him, they say he essentially coaxes it out of them, compelling them to find strength and determination they didn’t know they had.

That was certainly the case with Destiny Cortez, who, as she was entering her senior year at Sci-Tech, found out that she was six weeks pregnant. Graduation now became a much steeper climb, she said, but ‘Coach’ helped her find the will to press on and handle all that life was throwing at her.

Stefan Davis is seen here with a group of Sci-Tech students

Stefan Davis is seen here with a group of Sci-Tech students at a recent visit to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield.

“He always gave me that push that no other teacher would,” she recalled. “And he’s been there for hundreds of students. There’s a lot of kids that were in his program who looked at him not as a teacher or as a coach, but as a father figure.”

Ethan Deleon, a current student at Sci-Tech, tells a similar story.

“Coach gives you that little sense of hope,” he said, adding that hope is often a missing ingredient in the lives of many young people having trouble seeing the light.

Before he launched the nonprofit agency, Davis created a the aptly named Fresh Start program, which would eventually draw praise from President Obama for its work to help students on the verge of dropping out of school. And he also hosted a show on Focus Springfield Community TV called Against All Odds. The show allowed young people and families to share encounters they had during a time in their lives when they overcame and conquered serious issues. The goal was to inspire others, and Davis and his guests accomplished that with shows on topics ranging from teen fathers to incarceration to bullying.

Desiring to reach, inspire, and help a larger audience, Davis launched I Found Light in 2016. The agency has succeeded in gaining the support — both financially and from a volunteer perspective — from a number of area businesses, including Monson Savings Bank.

MSB President Dan Moriarty said the agency’s mission, to help young people with social, emotional, and economic issues in their lives, resonates with the institution, and fits into its broader strategy for giving back to the community.

“That mission really hits home for us,” he told BusinessWest. “Helping out young people, in general, is important, but also, giving the youths who have a difficult situation an opportunity to overcome that and achieve a capacity to do the best they can — that’s very important to us, and this the difficult and important work that I Found Light Against All Odds is doing.”

Such sentiments certainly help explain why this inspiring, life-changing nonprofit has become a true Difference Maker — for young people, families, and this region.

 

‘I’m Them’

Before telling the story of I Found Light Against All Odds, one must first tell Davis’s story — and for many reasons,

He is the founder of the nonprofit and its heart and soul. But beyond that, his story echoes that of so many others he has helped over the years, from the perspective of how one can move from the darkness and into the light.

“I’m them,” Davis said, adding that he was the victim of physical and emotional abuse in his youth, and was in the foster-care system for two months before being sent to live with his grandparents in Beacon, N.Y. He developed a passion for football — “I hid the trauma through sports,” he said — and eventually won a full scholarship to play at American International College.

The problem was … he didn’t know exactly where the school was located.

“I was leaning toward Syracuse, and my coach called and said, ‘come on up to Springfield,’” he recalled. “I said, ‘Springfield, Illinois?’ and he said, ‘no, Springfield, Massachusetts.’”

Davis eventually found his way to the campus on State Street, but found his way into trouble as well.

“I lost that structure — for whatever reason, my past caught up to me.”

“I lost that structure — for whatever reason, my past caught up to me,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, while he eventually lost his scholarship, he stayed all four years, with his grandmother paying for his education. He left with 69 credits and, later, an associate degree, but in the meantime, the ‘street,’ as he called it, started taking over his life.

“It was really dark,” he explained. “I didn’t want to go back home to live because I felt that my grandmother raised me — she did her job — and it is was up to me to deal with my life on my own. Which wasn’t good.”

He joined the Bloods, and gang life led to many problems, but he eventually moved on from the gang (with the scar over his eye to prove it) and landed a position with the Westover Job Corps working with young people to help them find employment opportunities, and then with Brightside for Families and Children.

“And that’s where I found myself,” he went on, “because those young kids I saw every day, and the abuse, the trauma … reminded me of myself, and there was a connection. When people couldn’t connect with a child who was highly at-risk, I went in, and there was like something from God — the child just felt safe and started talking about their issues with me.”

Fast-forwarding a little, Davis would eventually land at the Center School, an alternative school for at-risk youths. He became a liaison to public schools, going to a number of different districts to work with students who were losing their way. Later, he coached at Cathedral High School and Western New England University (WNE), while still battling depression and eventually attempting suicide.

He fought his way through those dark times and landed more coaching opportunities, first during a two-year internship with the NFL’s Houston Texans, and then at WNE, before taking a job at Springfield’s Sci-Tech as a paraprofessional and coaching the football team.

He was encouraged to go back to school to get the degree he needed to teach — and he did. And while teaching, he continued his work with at-risk young people, launching Fresh Start, a credit-recovery program that successfully turned around dozens of students who were close to dropping out of school.

“The program was based around at-risk youths who were about to get kicked out of high school. I was their last alternative; if they couldn’t make it with me, they were going to be kicked out of mainstream and put into the alternative school,” said Davis, adding that these were young people involved with gangs who were skipping school, getting into fights, and landing in trouble.

 

School of Thought

Fresh Start would eventually evolve and expand into I Found Light Against All Odds, which helps today’s young people address social, emotional, and economic issues. The agency acts as a multi-faceted resource, providing information; referrals to partnering agencies such as Mental Health Associates, the Center for Human Development, Unify Against Bullying, and many others; and assistance that comes in many forms, including:

• Individualized trauma-informed care;

• Education counseling and coaching;

• Assistance with employment opportunities;

• Reinforcement of effective daily-living skills;

• Skill development for financial literacy; and

• Creation of a robust ‘transition plan’ for each individual as they move on with the next steps in life.

The agency steps in to help young people and families in all kinds of ways, from scholarships and help finding employment to providing families with turkeys at Thanksgiving and gifts for children — and even Christmas trees — during the holidays.

As she talked about Davis, I Found Light, and how the agency helps those in need, Jenny Lebron, Ethan’s mother, said the agency has helped both her sons find the motivation to move beyond depression and other issues and get to a better place. For her older son, this place was a high-school degree and, now, a solid job as a corrections officer. For Ethan, it was a place where he simply wanted to go to school to do the work needed to graduate.

“He had no motivation left — I couldn’t get him motivated for school, or anything else,” she recalled. “Every time he went to school, his teachers would call; he felt no one understood him, and in his mind, everyone was against him and didn’t understand what he was going through.”

In part because he did know what Ethan was going through, Davis was able to get him motivated.

“He understands my son, and he’s such a big motivation for him,” Lebron said. “Since Coach has been in his life, he talks differently, he acts differently, and he brings everything that Coach tells him and teaches to others.”

Stefan Davis is seen with recent Sci-Tech graduates

Stefan Davis is seen with recent Sci-Tech graduates Cassandra Rivera, left, and Destiny Cortez.

An emerging next chapter for the agency is the I Found Light Against All Odds Lighthouse project, which will support homeless girls in the region. The goal is to create a transitional home for such girls, while also providing a variety of resources to the residents and assisting in the development of self-sufficiency and independent living, said Davis, adding that there is a story behind Lighthouse — or a story that inspired it, to be more precise.

It’s about a girl he identified only as ‘Faith.’

“She was homeless … a beautiful young girl,” said Davis, pointing her out in a photograph of several young girls on display in his office. “She was living in the port-a-potties at Blunt Park — she was homeless for a year and a half. There’s a Dunkin’ Donuts near Sci-Tech … Faith would crawl in the dumpster there to eat.”

Unfortunately, there are more people like Faith in Springfield and other are communities than most people can imagine, he said, adding that there is a real need for a facility where they can not only live, but get the many other types of support they need.

“There’s another type of pandemic that’s going on right now, and that involves homeless teen girls,” Davis said. “And I wanted to be a beacon, or a voice, for those girls, and give them an opportunity to find their potential in themselves, and not worry about whether they’re going to be able to eat tomorrow. I want to be able to give them a home where they’ll have the proper tools to become successful young women. And that’s what the Lighthouse will do for these young women.”

Plans for the Lighthouse are in the formative stage, he said, adding that I Found Light is looking to partner with other agencies to identify potential participants in the program and with area businesses to secure a site and finance the initiative.

Overall, he said his goal is to continually grow I Found Light and expand both its mission and impact across the region — because there are many now in the dark and looking for a way to bring some light into their lives.

 

Shedding Some Light

Davis, both while while speaking to large audiences during motivational talks or conversing with students one-on-one, will talk about the scar on his leg. All of his scars, actually.

He does so to drive home the point that most young people, and especially those who are at risk, have scars themselves, whether they are visible or not.

Such scars are permanent, he stressed, but they can be overcome. He’s living proof of that, and through I Found Light Against All Odds, he has created considerably more proof.

Overcoming challenge, especially in the form of physical and emotional trauma, is never easy, Davis said in conclusion, and no one can really do it alone. A strong, reliable support system is needed, and I Found Light has become one.

And that’s why it is a Difference Maker.

 

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

Class of 2022

This Unique Program Proves That Meaningful, Lasting Change is Possible

 

 

When BusinessWest first caught up with Trevor Gayle in the winter of 2015, he was a relatively new employee of Chase Management in Springfield.

A recent ‘graduate’ of the Roca program, which helps high-risk individuals — those who have been incarcerated, are in gangs, have substance-abuse issues, or have dropped out of school — Gayle was handling a wide range of duties for Chase, a property-management firm, from painting to snow removal to apartment-turnover work.

He was also learning what it took to be a good employee and putting to work lessons learned while in Roca that would help him keep his past — he spent six months in jail for sitting in the seat next to a friend who shot and wounded an individual as he approached their vehicle — from becoming his future.

Today, he is superintendent of a huge — as in 447-unit — apartment complex in Groton, Conn., and has several people working under his supervision.

As he reflects on his Roca experience and how it helped him get from where he was — behind bars — to where he is today, he said simply, “I learned how to be my own leader.”

Not all Roca stories have such positive trend lines, but many of them do. And it is transformations like this that Molly Baldwin had in mind when she started Roca in Chelsea in 1988 to help transform the lives of young, at-risk men. The concept, as summed up in the marketing slogan “less jail time, more future,” is simple — use street outreach, data-driven case management, stage-based education, and employment training to reduce individuals’ involvement in crime, keep them out of jail, and help them get jobs — and perhaps a career.

In recent years, the program has been expanded to include young mothers facing challenges ranging from a lack of education and work experience to gang involvement, drug and alcohol use, violence, abuse, trauma, and more. And the goals for this constituency are the same — to help participants heal from their hurt and anger and gain the tools needed to achieve success later on.

“Our mothers’ program is really about parenting,” said Christine Judd, the indefatigable director of Roca’s programs in Springfield and Holyoke. “It’s helping them be better parents. It’s helping them overcome substance abuse. Many of them are victims of domestic violence, and some are victims of sexual violence. These are trauma-based services aimed at making them better parents.”

Roca’s official mission is to “disrupt the cycle of incarceration and poverty by helping people transform their lives,” Judd said. And it does this through an intense, three- or four-year intervention model (more on it later) that, at its core, recognizes that meaningful, lasting change does not happen overnight.

Hampden County District Attorney Anthony Gulluni

Hampden County District Attorney Anthony Gulluni says Roca works to help people “disentangle” themselves from the trauma in their lives.

And it also does it through partnerships — with constituencies ranging from law-enforcement officials to private business owners and managers who employ participants — that essentially involve the entire community in the work to keep young people on a path to success.

Hampden County District Attorney Anthony Gulluni is one of those partners. Over the years, and especially through a new program he created, the Emerging Adult Court of Hope (EACH), he has helped many at-risk young people find the Roca program.

And what they find, he said, is a support system like none other in this region, one committed to helping them traverse the whitewater in their lives and get on a course that enables them to be productive members of society.

“Our young people, and the young people in EACH in particular, have had so many disadvantages and so many hurdles put in front of them, from day one — lack of parenting, lack of mentorship, lack of positive role models, lack of opportunity — just tough environments,” Gulluni explained. “They’ve suffered so much trauma, and that’s stuff that lives with people. And Roca works to disentangle that and works to support these young people and help them see better things and do better things.”

As noted, a number of area employers have also become partners with Roca, providing employment opportunities to participants. Several area companies, large and small, have hired graduates or have plans to do so. They include manufacturers such as Meredith Springfield in Ludlow, maker of plastic products, and McKenzie Vault in East Longmeadow, which produces cremation urns; distributors such as J. Polep in Chicopee; landscaping firms; municipal public-works departments; and Baystate Health, which expects to soon have some graduates of the program for young mothers working in its Hospitality Department.

AnnaMarie Golden, director of Community Relations at Baystate Health, said the system was already a partner with Roca, with members of its trauma and social-work teams meeting with participants, including those in the young mothers’ program. Through that involvement, the system became aware of another need — for employment opportunities for these women.

“One of the entry doors at Baystate is our Hospitality department — food services and guest services,” she explained. “Our goal is to have them get their foot in the door at Baystate, but the ultimate goal is to have them think about what the next steps might be and consider career steps within the organization if there is interest to stay in the healthcare field.”

Trevor Gayle

Trevor Gayle says Roca has helped him put his past — and the streets — behind him.

It is sentiments like these that certainly help explain why Roca is worthy of that designation Difference Maker. It is making a huge difference in the lives of participants in its programs, and a huge difference in this region as well.

 

Change Agents

Judd told BusinessWest that, while words can be used to sum up Roca’s mission and its importance to the region, numbers tell the story effectively as well. And she has plenty of them at the ready. Here are some, courtesy of a recent study involving participants:

• While more than 85% of Roca’s young men come to the agency with a violent record, four out of five stop engaging in violent crime;

• Only 33% of Roca’s young men who served from 2012 to 2019 recidivated within three years, compared to the state’s recidivism rate of 47% to 56%;

• 54% who practiced cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) made measurable emotional-regulation gains;

• 74% who completed the first two years were placed in jobs, and 71% held their job for six months or longer; and

• 95% who completed the first two years were not reincarcerated.

As for the programming involving young mothers:

• 52% of open child-welfare (MA-DCF) cases closed;

• 85% demonstrated workforce-readiness gains;

• 74% who completed the first two years placed in outside jobs; and

• In Springfield, between 2010 and 2020, the program served 761 participants and boasts a 78% employment-placement rate; 82 of participants retained employment for three months or longer, 74% had no new arrests, and 88% had no new incarcerations.

Together, these numbers back up what Gulluni, Golden, Judd, and others said about Roca’s ability to make all-important change possible for its participants.

It does this, Judd said, through an intervention model that is rooted in evidence-based practices of community corrections, deep studies of behavior-change models (stages of change and CBT, among others), brain development, and three decades of critical data collection and on-the-ground work with young people.

“They’ve suffered so much trauma, and that’s stuff that lives with people. And Roca works to disentangle that and works to support these young people and help them see better things and do better things.”

The model, she explained, has five core components: relentless outreach, transformational relationships, tailored programming designed to withstand relapse and the comings and goings of young people in traditional learning or work environments, an engaged-institutions strategy to support young people and help them move out of the criminal-justice system, and performance-based management.

One of the keys to the program, Judd said, is that cognitive behavioral theory, which she described as a way to understand how situations affect what people think and say in their heads, what they feel in their bodies, and what they do in response. Practicing CBT helps individuals identify a cycle, stop, use a skill, and make a choice instead of reacting.

Gayle credited CBT with helping him put street reflexes to situations — those that often lead to violence and incarceration — behind him, to be replaced by more measured, reasoned responses. And he continues to practice CBT in his current position in Connecticut.

 

Finding Hope

Perhaps the best way to fully appreciate how Roca is changing lives is to talk with current participants in the program.

People like Tyreice Harper, 25, from Springfield.

He’s actually in his second stint with Roca. The first came when he was 17, and he admits that he just wasn’t ready for the regimen and the “environment” at the time, and wound up reverting back to a life that landed him in several different Department of Youth Services (DYS) facilities across the region.

“I was locked up … for armed robbery,” he said, adding that, after a three-and-a-half-year stint at the state’s maximum-security prison in Shirley, he was ready to give Roca another try, especially after conversations with ‘lifers’ at the ‘max’ — those who would never be going home — left him yearning for another chance.

“My whole mindset is that I’m not a child anymore, so I want to do better, not just for myself, but for the community and for my child,” he told BusinessWest. He’s now part of a work crew at Roca, handling snow removal and other odd jobs, while also working toward his high-school equivalency.

When asked where he can see himself in a few years, he paused and eventually said, “maybe buying a home and working a real good job,” in a voice that revealed that he knows there’s plenty of hard work ahead to achieve those goals.

And he believes the intervention model at Roca can help him get where he wants to go.

“Roca helps us young men after incarceration to not only get back on our feet, but to keep out of trouble by having work programs and having work crews for us to go on,” he said, adding that there are layers of accountability he has never encountered before, and they are helping him to remain focused.

Mabbie Paplardo agreed. She’s a young mother, age 17, from Holyoke, who found out about Roca from some friends already in the program. She said her advisor helps her with everything from getting her to driving lessons to studying for her HiSET test, or simply to get to the store for formula or diapers.

“There really isn’t a program like this,” she said. “I’ve been in a lot of programs that say they’re going to help, but they really don’t; Roca is different — it’s a support network that is helping me be a much better parent.”

One of the keys to creating real, lasting change for people like Paplardo and Harper is securing employment opportunities, said Judd, adding that the Roca offices in Springfield and Holyoke work with a number of area employers to create such opportunities, and anticipate working with more as the workforce crisis in the region continues.

Many of them, like J. Polep in Chicopee and Meredith Springfield, have hired several Roca participants over the years and have had good success, in part because the program strives to prepare these people for the world of work, stressing the importance of both hard and soft skills, starting with showing up on time, ready to work.

Evelyn Arroyo, a recruitment and retention specialist at Meredith Springfield, agreed. She said the company currently has two Roca graduates currently working as inspector/packers.

“What I like about Roca is that it’s there to not only advocate for these men, but to support them and prepare them for the workforce,” she explained. “They prepare them for what to expect in an interview and what do expect on the job. And, for the most part, those they refer to us are better-prepared than other individuals.”

Golden agreed. “Roca has an approach like no other,” she told BusinessWest. “It works to set up the participants for success long-term.”

 

Taking the Lead

Summing up Roca and its impact within the region, Gulluni said it is meeting a critical need at a critical time.

“We have a young population, young adults and juveniles in this region that need a lot of help,” he noted. “And we are not going to incarcerate our way out of the problems we have in cities like Springfield, Holyoke, and elsewhere. We need organizations and leaders to think creatively and put forth the effort and work to help young people find themselves through so many challenges.”

Roca is an organization that has become a leader in these ongoing efforts to provide that needed help. The numbers listed above regarding everything from recidivism to job placement show that Roca is clearly making a difference.

But it’s stories like Trevor Gayle’s that rise above the statistics. As he said, the program has gone beyond keeping him out of trouble and in a good job. It has shown him how to be his own leader, and as a result, he has been able to change his life in profound ways.

 

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

Class of 2022

His Decisions, and His Actions, Have Helped Move Society Forward

Leah Martin Photography

Leah Martin Photography

 

 

It wasn’t the most compelling moment in John Greaney’s long and distinguished career behind the bench. And it certainly wasn’t the most controversial.

But it was poignant, and it spoke volumes about who he is and how he does things.

As the opposing sides in a bitter power struggle for control of the Boston Red Sox gathered in Room 1006 of the Massachusetts Court of Appeals on Feb. 14, 1984, Greaney, the recently appointed chief justice of the Appellate Division, and his fellow justices could feel the tension rising.

“We had practically every major lawyer in Boston there either observing or arguing,” Greaney, currently senior counsel at Bulkley Richardson, recalled. “[Justice] Ami Cutter, who was sitting next to me, said, as the whole thing ended, ‘this was very tense; can you say something?’”

He did. Speaking specifically to the lawyer in front of him, but also all those present, he said, “it may take into the baseball season before a decision is rendered, so I Ieave you with this thought. I urge all of the disputing parties in the meantime to at least get together to do something about the pitching.”

The next day’s story on the court session in the sports section of the Boston Globe carried this headline:

 

May They Please the Court

Judge Offers Red Sox Litigants Advice on Pitching as Appeals Are Heard

 

The episode also found its way into Sports Illustrated, said Greaney, who said that, while his tongue may have been in cheek, he was speaking for all Sox fans thirsty for a pennant, and with a sense of humor that became a trademark.

Indeed, whether it was while he sat on the state Supreme Judicial Court — his next stop after the Appeals Court — or at the table for a meeting of the Noble Hospital board of directors, Greaney usually had a one-liner (or three or four) and a way of relieving tension in whatever courtroom he was serving in. And that’s just one of his many talents.

Only a small percentage of lawyers enter the profession with the hard goal of one day sitting on the bench, but Greaney did. He said he was influenced in a profound way by his experience serving working for Westfield District Court Judge Arthur Garvey the summer after his first year at New York University School of Law.

“I was basically just hanging around, observing the court,” he recalled. “So every morning, I sat and observed the court, and I was bewitched because he seemed to handle the cases that would come in — driving while intoxicated, small burglaries, those kinds of things — with relative ease. And he had a good demeanor about giving defendants a break; usually, if they had a job and had a family, he didn’t want to incarcerate them, so he’d give them warnings, tell them to behave, and maybe give them probation.

“I said ‘jeez, he’s certainly doing something worthwhile here,” he went on, adding that he went back to law school in the fall committed to finding a career path that would enable him to do the same.

And to say that he did would be an understatement. After serving in the military and then working for a decade at the law firm Ely and King in Springfield, Greaney was appointed the presiding judge of the Hampden County Housing Court, the second such court in Massachusetts. In 1976, the was appointed a justice of the Massachusetts Superior Court; in 1978, he was appointed a justice of the Massachusetts Appeals Court; and in 1984, as noted, as that court’s chief justice.

“He had a good demeanor about giving defendants a break; usually, if they had a job and had a family, he didn’t want to incarcerate them … I said, ‘jeez, he’s certainly doing something worthwhile here.’”

In 1989, he was appointed to the Supreme Judicial Court, and during his two decades on the court, during which he famously rode a Peter Pan Bus to work most days so he could work during his commute, he participated in many significant decisions, including the landmark Goodridge v. Department of Health, in which he wrote the concurrence to the opinion establishing Massachusetts as the first state to legalize same-sex marriage (more on that later).

He also wrote many other significant decisions, including the 1993 decision that recognized the rights of gay couples in Massachusetts to adopt children, a 1997 decision affirming the unconstitutionality of a statute prohibiting panhandling, and a 2007 decision upholding a $2 million libel verdict against the Boston Herald.

Slicing through all those cases and work on each of those courts, Greaney said he remembered what he learned back in Westfield District Court in the early ’60s and tried to make the same overall kind of impact on people’s lives.

Daniel Finnegan, managing partner for Bulkley Richardson, who nominated Greaney for the Difference Maker award, summed up Greaney’s career, and his broad impact, this way:

“Throughout each phase of his career, Justice Greaney has earned tremendous respect for his intellect, professional integrity, and commitment to the community. He has demonstrated compassion and understanding as an advocate to so many in need of a voice, influenced our societal values and ways of thinking, and continues to be a valuable mentor, sharing wisdom and insight deemed from his impressive career. Greaney has proven that he is a trailblazer, an agent of social change, and a true difference maker.”

 

Court of Opinion

Long before imploring those fighting for control of the Red Sox to get some pitching help, Greaney was making his mark in a different kind of setting.

That would be this region’s housing court, an assignment that would in many ways set the tone for all that would come later.

Indeed, Greaney would essentially create the Housing Court from scratch, making it into what he called a true ‘Peoples Court,’ with the help of an advisory committee that included another member of this year’s Difference Makers class, Herbie Flores (see story on page 30).

“People who came in were not going to be intimidated, if we could help it,” he recalled. “We were going to design simple, plain-English forms to be used in evictions and other actions, and we were going to print them in two languages, Spanish and English, and we were going to allow people to be pro se as much as we could. And I decided in Small Claims that I would write a decision in every case.

“I then took the court on the road, which was unheard of at the time,” he went on, adding that he had sessions in public buildings, such as city halls, schools, and other facilities, to make the court more accessible. Its home base, though, was the courthouse in Springfield, which had no room at the time, he recalled, noting that a small courtroom was eventually secured, and for a clerk’s office, “a janitor was kicked out, and we took that space — but it was a heck of a fight.”

As noted, that Housing Court assignment would enable Greaney to make his mark and forge a reputation as an imaginative, hard-working, people-oriented jurist. And these were some of the qualities that caught the attention of Mike Dukakis, who would play a huge role in his career trajectory.

The two first met when Dukakis was running for lieutenant governor and Greaney, long active with the state’s Democratic party, was a state delegate. Greaney backed Dukakis in that election, and he won the nomination, but the Democratic ticket lost the election. Two years later, Dukakis ran for governor and won, and not long after appointed Greaney to the state’s Superior Court. Later, he would appoint him to the Appeals Court, where he later became chief justice.

“Then he lost the next election to Ed King, and I thought, ‘that’s the end of that,’ Greaney recalled. “But he was back four years later, and he later appointed me to the Supreme Judicial Court, so I owe a lot to Mike.”

Looking back on his career and his legacy, Greaney said he carried on in the spirit of Judge Garrity, and with the same philosophy that defined his work when building the Housing Court.

“Simple principles of decency dictate that we extend to the plaintiffs, and to their new status, full acceptance, tolerance, and respect. We should do so because it is the right thing to do.”

“I was motivated by helping the little guy and helping society move forward, and the SJC gave me a great opportunity to do that,” he said, referring to several of those groundbreaking cases he heard and helped decide.

One was the 1993 decision that recognized the rights of same-sex couples to adopt children, and another was the historic Goodwin v. Department of Public Health case that led to Massachusetts becoming the first U.S. state to allow same-sex couples to marry, a ruling that has influenced many other states that have followed suit and the U.S. Supreme Court as well.

The wording used in his concurring opinion has not only brought tears to the eyes of many gay-rights activists, but they have reportedly found their way into the wedding vows used by many same-sex couples:

“I am hopeful that our decision will be accepted by those thoughtful citizens who believe that same-sex unions should not be approved by the state,” he wrote. “I am not referring here to acceptance in the sense of grudging acknowledgment of the court’s authority to adjudicate the matter. My hope is more liberating … we share a common humanity and participate together in the social contract that is the foundation of our Commonwealth. Simple principles of decency dictate that we extend to the plaintiffs, and to their new status, full acceptance, tolerance, and respect. We should do so because it is the right thing to do.”

Throughout his career, Greaney has demonstrated the right thing to do, whether it was on the bench or in service to the community — on the board of Noble Hospital and the Westfield Academy or while serving on commissions such as the Massachusetts Housing Partnership, the Alternative Dispute Resolution Task Force, and the Massachusetts Gender Bias Study Committee.

Today, he is back where he started with his career — sort of. As senior counsel at Bulkley Richardson, he’s been involved with a number of cases, including some involving some area colleges; and some mediation, although there is less call for it now with most courts still being closed; and even some work on the firm’s COVID-19 Response Committee to advise clients on the latest status of the law and matters ranging from vaccines to aid from the federal government.

He works two days a week on average, more if he has active projects he’s working on, and even works remotely on occasion, although he much prefers to be in the office. At 83, he’s still committed to staying busy — and making a difference in any way he can.

 

Bottom Line

While Greaney’s request probably wasn’t the reason, Red Sox ownership did eventually do something about the pitching, and the team delivered an American League pennant in 1986.

That plea for help doesn’t have much to do with Greaney being a Difference Maker, but, then again, it does. Looking back, he was able to seize that moment, as he was with so many other moments over the past 60 years, whether they were in Hampden County’s first Housing Court, on the Supreme Judicial Court, or as a professor of law at Suffolk University after his forced retirement from the bench at age 70. Suffice it to say, he wasn’t ready to leave.

As Finnegan noted, Greaney has demonstrated compassion and understanding as an advocate to so many in need of a voice. And that has made him worthy of inclusion in the Difference Makers class of 2022.

 

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

Class of 2022

She’s Put Her ‘Superpowers’ to Use to Help Those in Need

 

Leah Martin Photography

Tara Brewster says she’s probably bought more than 100 copies of the children’s book — and given them all away. She joked that she’s waiting for the author to call and thank her for her consistent support.

It’s called The Three Questions, and it’s based on a story by Leo Tolstoy. It’s about a young boy named Nikolai who sometimes feels uncertain about the right way to act. So he devises three questions to help him know what to do:

• When is the best time to do things?

• Who is the most important one?

• What is the right thing to do?

He then commences asking several different animal characters for the answers, and by book’s end he’s still asking, although one of those characters, a turtle, points out that, through the course of some recent actions — and especially his efforts to save an injured panda and its child — Nikolai had answered the questions himself.

Those answers are: ‘there is only one important time, and that time is now,’ ‘the most important one is always the one you are with,’ and ‘the most important thing is to do good for the one who is standing at your side.’

And these, the turtle notes, are the answers to “what is most important in this world — why we are here.”

Brewster says the book and its message are more than a fun, informational, and inspirational story. The Three Questions sums up quickly and effectively how she has lived her life to this point — and what drives her, if you will, to lend her time and talents to several area nonprofits as a board member, cheerleader, and relentless fundraiser.

“These are questions that I really fall back on a lot in a day,” she explained. “They’re really simple, and they just help me think about what am I doing, who am I impacting, and when am I supposed to be doing the thing that matters most. When I get really stressed out and start thinking, I should do doing this, and I should be doing this, I realize that I can only focus on one thing at a time, and it’s the thing that you’re doing that you should be putting your heart and soul into.”

Brewster, who seems to possess enough energy to power all of Northampton by herself, is involved as a board member with several nonprofits in that area, ranging from the Downtown Northampton Assoc. (DNA) to the Hampshire Regional YMCA; from Double Edge Theatre to Cutchins Programs for Children and Familes.

“I can honestly say that I have never met anyone so dedicated to helping those that are less fortunate in our community than Tara. I’ve seen so many people join local not-for-profit boards for networking opportunities or to strengthen one’s résumé. Unlike anyone I’ve ever met, Tara works tirelessly to gain support and funding for the organizations that she serves.”

But she also volunteers for, and helps fundraise for, the Food Bank of Wester Massachusetts and Monte’s March, Tapestry Development Committee, Safe Passage and its Hot Chocolate Run, and the Cancer Connection and its Mother’s Day Half Marathon.

But it’s not what she does that makes her a Difference Maker, although that’s part of it, but how she does it. Bill Grinnell, president of Webber & Grinnell Insurance, who nominated her for this honor, explained it this way:

“I can honestly say that I have never met anyone so dedicated to helping those that are less fortunate in our community than Tara. I’ve seen so many people join local not-for-profit boards for networking opportunities or to strengthen one’s résumé. Unlike anyone I’ve ever met, Tara works tirelessly to gain support and funding for the organizations that she serves.”

To get some perspective on those comments, one needs only to listen to Brewster as she talks about how she set out to become the top fundraiser for the Hot Chocolate Run, and then made the goal reality.

Tara Brewster, right, poses for a promotional photo for the Treehouse Foundation’s ‘Stir Up Some Love’ fundraiser with A.J. Bresciano

Tara Brewster, right, poses for a promotional photo for the Treehouse Foundation’s ‘Stir Up Some Love’ fundraiser with A.J. Bresciano, first vice president and commercial lender at Greenfield Savings Bank, and Julie Kumble, director of Strategic Partnerships & Development for the foundation.

“Safe Passage has a leaderboard every year, and since I started doing the Hot Chocolate Run in 2009, it’s been my goal to be number one on the leaderboard,” she said. “And two years ago, I finally got there. How did I do that? I asked, and I asked, and I asked people that I knew — friends, family, those in the community — to donate to Safe Passage to help deal with domestic violence.

“That’s what it comes down to: doing what you can, and using your superpowers to help others,” she went on. “And everyone has the power to do something, some good, every day.”

Because she uses her power every single day, it seems, Brewster has earned her place in the Difference Makers class of 2020.

 

Buy the Book

Brewster grew up Florence, not far from where she lives now, which was certainly “not the plan,” she said.

She told BusinessWest that many of those she grew up with were firm of the belief that one had to leave this area to achieve whatever dreams they had made for themselves. And she came to that belief herself.

But her desired next destination was certainly different than most others had in mind.

“I wanted to go to Montana — I think Wyoming and Montana are my two favorites,” she recalled, adding that she had already been to several states by the time she was in high school, and had determined that the Rocky Mountain region was where she wanted to go to college. “I thought I would like Big Sky country and being out in the wilderness; I wanted to be a pediatrician, and I wanted to go the University of Montana Bozeman.”

But fate would keep her closer to home.

Indeed, her mother was diagnosed with stage-4 ovarian cancer when Tara was just 15, a turn of events that would not only alter her plans for college, but inspire her to continuously review how she was living her life, with the goal of reaching higher — professionally, but also in the way she was using her considerable talents to help others who were less fortunate.

“That completely changed the course of my entire life; I have no idea where I would be had that not happened. She fought like hell, and ultimately lost the fight,” she said, adding that, long before her mother died, she gave up the dream of going to Montana, knowing she could not leave her father and brother at that critical time.

Tara Brewster works a United Way annual campaign event with Markus Jones

Tara Brewster works a United Way annual campaign event with Markus Jones, senior Major Gifts officer at Northfield Mount Hermon School.

Brewster would eventually graduate from Smith College, majoring in government and anthropology, and found her way into the men’s clothing business. She started at Taylor Men, which had a store in Thornes Market, while she was at Smith, and would later be regional sales manager for seven stores in the Northeast before moving to Manhattan and working for a men’s wholesale apparel company and becoming what she called a “road warrior.”

Eventually, the road took her back to Northampton and where she started — sort of. Taylor Men in Thornes Marketplace had closed, and she began contemplating owning her own store on that site.

Later, she and partner Candice Connors would open Jackson & Connor, an entrepreneurial venture that would — with her already-significant involvement in the Greater Northampton community — earn Brewster her first honor from BusinessWest: a 40 Under Forty plaque. It would also help set the tone when it comes to how she would be “all in,” as she put it, with both her career and her involvement in the community.

“I call that business my ‘first child,’ because I gave it my all,” she said. “And Jackson & Connor really helped me understand purpose and place of myself as a human, as a community member, and as a business owner; it gave me a clear direction of how I wanted to be in my community and in my region, and how I wanted to use my resources, my influence, and my power to lead and have an impact. And from the epicenter, I’ve grown as a human, as a person, as an employee, as a member of a team.”

 

The Plot Thickens

Eight years after launching Jackson & Connor, the two partners sold the enterprise, which is still operating today, and commenced writing their own next chapters. Brewster segued into consulting before Mark Grumoli, senior vice president and commercial loan officer at Greenfield Savings Bank, who years earlier had helped the partners secure funding to launch Jackson & Connor when he was with Florence Bank, convinced her to become the new vice president of Business Development.

She recalls friends and family members saying she wouldn’t last long in that role, but five years later, she’s still in it. That’s because it gives her what she desires most in a job — a situation where each day is different, a role where she can flex her entrepreneurial muscles, and a position that gives her the time and opportunity to be ‘out in the community,’ in every aspect of that phrase. And it has allowed her to take both her career and her civic endeavors to a bigger stage.

When asked what a typical day is like for her, she said there is no such thing. Each day is different. But each one is filled with conversations — phone calls, e-mails, texts, and some old-fashioned, face-to-face meetings. And only some of them have to do with banking.

“They pertain to connection, encouragement, engagement, assistance, and more,” she explained. “I serve on five boards, and there are probably five boards that I do other things for. So a lot of my conversations are with community members, and nonprofits in particular.

“These nonprofits have a real piece of my heart because I believe that, if you focus on and encourage and support the nonprofits, then more of the people who need help in this world and this region will get the help they need, because they are the helpers,” she went on,” she went on. “The nonprofits, first and foremost, are the ones that are doing the professional helping in a day, so if you want to do something and you don’t feel you have the time or whatever, support a nonprofit — that’s the easiest way to ensure that you’re creating some impact for the people who need it most.”

Brewster has certainly lived by these words, assisting nonprofits in many ways, especially through leadership as board member and with the all-important task of fundraising, which is always critical, but particularly during COVID, when the need is greater and many nonprofits have been hurt financially.

As she does so, she said she draws inspiration from others who, like her, balance work, family, and giving back, and somehow find the time and energy for all three. She mentioned Monte Belmonte, the host and program director at WHMP radio, the creator of Monte’s March, and a Difference Maker himself in 2020.

“He has a job at the radio station that he gets paid for, but then he has this other thing that he doesn’t get paid for — it’s his heart desire, it’s his calling, it’s how he uses his day job to be more and do more, to make a larger stage, to make a greater impact for a call to action,” Brewster said. “I have some people in my life who I’ve looked to for guidance on how to live and how to make a greater social impact with the talents that we have, because we all have these spheres of influence, whether it’s connections, or an employer, or social awareness.

“We all have these superpowers that we have to tap into in order to do greater good, in order to make a difference,” she went on. “And people think, ‘oh, I don’t have anything, I don’t have the time, I don’t have the resources.’ But we do. We all do. We all have connections, we have have these superpowers. We just have to use them.”

 

The Last Word

When asked to list her superpowers, she mentioned ‘connectivity,’ ‘engagement,’ ‘compassion,’ ‘awareness,’ and even ‘caretaking,’ and she traces them to when her mother got sick and after she died.

“For me, I’m acutely aware of sorrow and pain and hardship and loss, and what that means to being a whole self and a whole person — how you show up and how other people show up,” she explained. “It’s impacted the way I serve the community and serve on boards.”

Brewster serves in a way that enables those fundraisers to carry on that work they do and provide the many kinds of help that are needed.

“There’s an old saying … “you only get one life to live, and if you do it right, one is enough,’” she said in conclusion.

She has certainly done it right, and because of that, she has earned her place as a Difference Maker.

 

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

Class of 2022

This Organization Has Harnessed the Exponential Power of Working Together

Leah Martin Photography

Leah Martin Photography

 

 

Convene and connect.

Those are the two words you hear most often when it comes to the mission of the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, and how the agency carries it out.

Together, those words explain how and why this organization — one of hundreds of community foundations across the country — does much more than write checks to nonprofits and provide scholarships and interest-free loans to students — although those are certainly parts of what it does.

More crucially, by convening groups, individuals, and institutions from across the 413, and connecting those constituencies as well as donors with resources and opportunities, the Community Foundation is working to identify the issues and challenges confronting the region, and acting as a leader in ongoing work on matters ranging from helping students complete college to helping children get a solid start to their education; from assisting the creative-arts community to helping agencies addressing issues related to diversity, equity, and inclusion.

Katie Allan Zobel

Katie Allan Zobel

“Our whole mission is to improve quality of life for everyone in the Valley and create opportunity and equity for all members of our community.”

Add another word — partner — and one can understand the full impact of the foundation. It doesn’t merely support nonprofits and students, it partners with them to improve outcomes — and quality of life — on myriad levels to become what its president and CEO, Katie Allan Zobel has called a “catalyst for change.”

“Our whole mission is to improve quality of life for everyone in the Valley and create opportunity and equity for all members of our community,” Zobel said, noting that most of the foundation’s funding comes from individuals, not large entities. They contribute both while they’re alive and in their wills and estate plans because they recognize how this organization’s model of convening and connecting multiplies the impact of their dollars.

“If they want to support an arts organization that’s much beloved by them, they can do that themselves; they don’t need the Community Foundation,” she explained. “But if they want to support reducing poverty in a particular area, well, that’s hard for one person to do on their own; you have to pool resources. And that kind of effort isn’t going to take a year or two; it’s going to take a sustained effort. We provide an option to individuals to do something they can’t do on their own.”

Paul Murphy

Paul Murphy

“We were able to distribute funds without a formal grant-application process because we had to constantly get the money out the door so we could meet those needs.”

Paul Murphy, chair of the Community Foundation’s board of trustees, noted that the pandemic has not changed the agency’s mission, necessarily, but merely spurred it to pivot, as all businesses and nonprofits have, and look at ways to meet new and emerging needs within the community, including food insecurity, eviction prevention, and mental healthcare.

“The foundation had just completed development of a new strategic plan, and it was all set for adoption by the board of trustees in March of 2020, which was just as the pandemic was hitting,” he recalled. “And part of that strategic plan that we wanted to implement was around leadership, flexibility, and community engagement, and suddenly, even before the plan was officially adopted, we had to put all those things into play because of the pandemic.”

Elaborating, he said the Community Foundation was able to secure what he called “an outpouring of funds” from a variety of sources, and it went about calling nonprofits and elected leaders in the region to identify areas in need. Simultaneously, it streamlined its grant-funding process so it was able to manage applications more quickly — and effectively.

“The foundation brings together philanthropists and helps them understand what the needs are in our community.”

The result was a quadrupling of grant funding over a typical, pre-pandemic year, Zobel said, adding that the team called on partners at organizations like the Women’s Fund and the Davis Foundation and borrowed their program officers to help make decisions, while recruiting volunteers to pitch in as well. “This was a huge collaborative effort. But I’ve always felt the work of the Community Foundation is a total team effort, not just with the staff, but volunteers.”

Once the foundation had the information it needed, Murphy explained, “we were able to distribute funds without a formal grant-application process because we had to constantly get the money out the door so we could meet those needs. That was an example of how the pandemic forced us to pivot, act more quickly, listen more closely to the community, and make sure the needs were met.”

Listening has always been one of the more important qualities at the foundation, said all those we spoke with, and it is just one quality that helps it explain why it has been named a Difference Maker for 2022.

“We’re moving away from being transactional and just handing someone a check.”

Beyond listening, it has acted on what has heard, and in many areas, but especially education and the needs of area students, said Christina Royal, president of Holyoke Community College, a trustee of the foundation, and chair of its education committee. But perhaps its greatest quality, she and others noted, is as a connector.

“That’s a huge piece because there are a lot of organizations and a lot of great work happening in our region, and the foundation acts a connector between donors, students, and nonprofit agencies,” she explained. “The foundation brings together philanthropists and helps them understand what the needs are in our community.”

Denise Hurst, the foundation’s vice president for Community Impact and Partnerships, agreed, saying it’s her job, and the foundation’s mission, to not only write checks, but work to make sure such grants are used in ways that are, in a word, “transformational.”

“We’re engaging with nonprofits and having deep conversations about how the work can be more transformative and impactful,” she explained. “We’re moving away from being transactional and just handing someone a check for money but not necessarily ensuring that they have all the tools and the resources they need to make that money transformational for the region.”

“We came to understand that the majority of arts organizations in our region are quite small, they have really small budgets, a fair amount of turnover … and there was, and is, a real need for capacity support.”

Connecting the Dots

The headlines placed atop recent press releases issued by the agency go a long way toward helping to quantify and qualify its impact within Western Mass. and explain why it is a Difference Maker:

• “Community Foundation Awards $1.3 Million in New Grants for Eviction Prevention, Mental Health, Food Insecurity Programs” (Feb. 11, 2021)

• “Community Foundation Awards $860,000 in New Grants for Immigrant Populations Impacted by COVID-19” (March 5, 2021);

• “Over $818,000 in Grants Distributed by Community Foundation in Latest COVID-19 Response Rounds” (June 22, 2021);

• “Community Foundation Deepens Partnership to Support BIPOC Arts and Creativity Across Massachusetts” (Oct. 20, 2021); and

• “Community Foundation Announces $150,000 Grant to Healing Racism Institute” (June 10, 2021).

Funding for these projects and so many others have increased significantly during the pandemic, Zobel said. “It’s an anomaly, but people have really been incredibly generous. We’ve even received a lot of contributions from outside the community.”

The foundation reported that its FY21 contributions to the community, across all endeavors, totaled $24.6 million and involved 1,668 total donors. That number includes $16.7 million in grants and $1.6 million in scholarships and interest-free loans to 848 students.

Becky Packard

Becky Packard

“We’re not just looking at scholarships, but also looking at what kinds of mentoring and supports can help people cross the finish line.”

Beyond these numbers, and those press-release headlines, are copious amounts of convening, connecting, and partnering, said Zobel, adding that, to properly serve the region and responsibly distribute the funds it raises, with an eye on both today and tomorrow, the Community Foundation must do a lot of listening and then acting on what it hears.

This applies to many of the traditional areas of focus for the foundation, especially education, but also some new ones, such as the arts, through creation of the ValleyCreates program, which serves to connect (there’s that word again) the arts and creative communities across Franklin, Hampden, and Hampshire counties.

“We started with a seed, a planning grant from the Barr Foundation, and we did a number of focus groups and surveys and interviews with key stakeholders in the arts sector in our three counties to understand what kind of support they needed, and also how best we can utilize our dollars to support that sector,” said Nicole Bourdon, program officer for ValleyCreates.

Elaborating, she said those research efforts revealed the need for not only grant writing — and the foundation has awarded hundreds of $1,000 grants that are combined with coaching and business-resiliency webinars — but also collaboration, across counties and across disciplines, to build capacity and enable this important sector to speak with a louder, more effective voice.

“We came to understand that the majority of arts organizations in our region are quite small, they have really small budgets, a fair amount of turnover … and there was, and is, a real need for capacity support,” said Bourdon, adding that the foundation continues to monitor and survey the sector to learn what tools it can offer so it can be what she called a “repository for artists and arts organization where they can gather resources and connect and collaborate.”

Zobel said Western Mass. doesn’t have as many large foundations or private philanthropy as the eastern part of the state, so corraling more support from outside Western Mass., such as the Boston-based Barr Foundation, is critical.

“There isn’t a large source of funding for the arts here,” she added. “That was a place the foundation felt we could be useful. We’ve been building that out and supporting not just the arts, but artists, especially artists of color.”

 

Degrees of Success

In many ways, ValleyCreates illustrates just how the Community Foundation works, said Zobel, adding that it first arms itself with information, then works with various constituencies to develop strategies for addressing region-wide issues and challenges.

Perhaps the best example of this process is the Western Mass Completes program, created with the understanding that it’s not enough to help students enter college — the bigger priority, for them and the region, is to see them to the finish line.

Faced with statistics that the average graduation rate at four-year institutions is 60% — and a staggering 25% at two-year institutions — the foundation commissioned a study and recruited Becky Packard, a trustee and professor of Psychology and Education at Mount Holyoke College, and a leading expert in research on factors that contribute to higher-education persistence, to lead it.

Ten local colleges and universities joined the endeavor, delving into the last eight years of student data on Community Foundation scholarship awardees, gathering information on the resources and systems in place at these schools, and collecting findings from national research and articles.

What became clear is that students often need more time and more resources to complete degrees; many are working full-time while in school and taking a reduced course load, while others are balancing school, work, and family responsibilities. Financial roadblocks create barriers that result in ‘stopping out,’ especially for high-need, first-generation students.

One example, Packard told BusinessWest, is a proliferation of “almost nurses” — nursing students who are close to a degree, “but have to sit out because they can’t afford licensing exams or can’t take the last set of courses because someone in their family lost their job. We’re not just looking at scholarships, but also looking at what kinds of mentoring and supports can help people cross the finish line.”

Royal agreed, noting that the foundation’s work to research the issues related to college completion has been critical in ongoing efforts regarding the direction of scholarships and who would benefit most from the scholarships that are awarded.

“You connect people, they apply, they get a scholarship … but then, what happens to them after?” she asked. “Did it contribute to increased retention or persistence within their educational pursuit? Did they go on to graduate? Being able to look at the impact beyond the scholarship is also really critical. That research contribution is also an important piece.”

Packard said data is still being gathered, and strategies formulated, to boost those graduation rates. She characterized Western Mass Completes as an economic-development issue at a time when companies of all kinds are in dire need of workers with specialized training.

“Usually foundations are charitable organizations and don’t always try to be catalyzers in the region like this, and that’s what I’m excited about.”

In every case — including its annual Valley Gives initiative, which focuses the region’s attention on nonprofits that need support — the foundation is doing this necessary work of convening and catalyzing, in so many critical areas.

“My role is to help convene the nonprofits in the three counties that we serve to help ensure that we are able to help provide them with funding to strengthen organizations that are doing the important work of helping to mitigate food insecurity, to stabilize housing, to provide our residents with opportunities for education, as well as workforce development training,” Hurst explained. “In addition to that, we are really committed to making sure we’re helping these nonprofits thrive and sustain themselves so they can do that important work.”

 

No Time to Rest

Zobel spends a lot of time thinking about inequity — not only in society, but in the philanthropic landscape of Western Mass.

“This is my life’s work: service to community. So I often see what’s missing and where the gaps are, what we’re not doing,” she told BusinessWest. “I guess it’s my job to keep my eye on who’s not part of this and who needs to be, and how to include others. I’m often thinking that way.”

That’s not to say she’s not gratified by this work. But she’s not satisfied, either, and there’s a difference.

“I’m proud of being a part of something that’s a movement for good, and for improvement and change and equity. I’m really proud of that,” she said. “Yet, I know there’s so much more work to do, so I stay focused on that.”

 

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

Cover Story

Ethics in Business

The two words ‘ethics’ and ‘business’ come together in the same sentence often, although what they mean when they are juxtaposed like that depends on whom you ask. A common refrain is that it means ‘doing the right thing.’ But even that becomes somewhat complicated amid questions concerning who we are doing the right thing for. And then, there’s the matter of profit, and the question of if, when, and under what circumstances it comes ahead of ethics. To get some answers, BusinessWest convened a panel of area business leaders for a virtual roundtable discussion. The comments, as might be expected, are thought-provoking, and lead to more questions. Our panelists include Peter DePergola, chief Ethics officer, senior director of Clinical Ethics, and chief of the Ethics Consultation Service, Baystate Health — and also Shaughness family chair for the study of the Humanities, associate professor of Bioethics and Medical Humanities, and executive director of the St. Augustine Center for Ethics, Religion, and Culture at Elms College; Sandra Doran, president of Bay Path University; Tom Loper, Associate Provost & Dean in the School of Arts, Science and Management, Bay Path University, and former business owner; Mark Cutting, president and CEO of C&D Electronics; Drew DiGiorgio, president and CEO, Wellfleet; and Patrick Leary, partner with MP CPAs.

Watch the video here:

 

BusinessWest: Let’s start with that phrase ‘ethics in business.’ What does that mean to you?

 

DePergola: “For me, ethics is the philosophical study of morality, and morality, at its heart, concerns how the actions we perform contribute to the persons we become. To me, ethics in business is the way we in which we express and articulate or moral character in business transactions — not just with consumers, but with one another on our teams. We’re a little slow in western culture to pay as much attention to ethics in business as we should; there’s the classic Freeman v. Freeman debate where we talk about the distinctions between profit and corporate social responsibility, and whether we should ever sacrifice things like profit in pursuit of greater common good. So I think the opportunity for business to pause and reflect on itself in a new way is somethings that’s evergreen. Ethics is something that’s been discussed and considered for a much longer time in things like medicine, starting with people like Hippocrates. Ethics in business is no less important than ethics at the bedside.”

Peter DePergola

“To me, ethics in business is the way we in which we express and articulate or moral character in business transactions — not just with consumers, but with one another on our teams.”

Doran: “I think any discussion of ethics also has to include a discussion of morals and values, because each one of those has its own place in how we think about things. Most people think of morals as a more personal aspect of their character and how they view things, the lens through which they look at the world. And when we think about ethics, it’s often framed more as an organization; what are the rules, what is the code that people are going to operate within as part of an organization? That’s a really important consideration for any business or organization: what is the lens, what is the framework? And how are we thinking about ethics in that context?”

 

Cutting: “I’m in the aerospace and defense industry; we service a majority of the prime contractors across the world. Ethics for me is … we are a small, minute part of the supply chain in that industry, and our hope is that, as a small business, we can be treated fairly and ethically. We understand our competition, and we understand that, because we’re small, we may be taken advantage of at some level. Those are the things we think about as we strategize and when we work with these big firms and negotiate contracts. We have to hope that the terms and conditions that apply to us apply to others. It’s a concern, and we hope that we’re on a level playing field. We just don’t know. We’re hoping that everyone who supports that industry is ethical at some level.”

Sandra Doran

Sandra Doran

“Most people think of morals as a more personal aspect of their character and how they view things, the lens through which they look at the world. And when we think about ethics, it’s often framed more as an organization; what are the rules, what is the code that people are going to operate within as part of an organization?”

DiGiorgio: “Our business, Wellfleet, provides health insurance, intangible goods; you can’t touch what we produce, so what we produce is a trust, a bond with our members, our clients. It’s all about ethics at the end of the day. Ethics, for us, means doing the right thing, quite simply put. We have contracts and agreements, and if anyone’s looked at a health-insurance policy, it’s 60 pages long; good luck with that. But there’s a lot of faith that you will act ethically about my claim. We’re part of Berkshire Hathaway, and when you’re trying to manage a conglomerate of companies like Warren [Buffett] does, you really just do it through ‘do the right thing.’ That’s the only way to manage at that level.”

 

Loper: “I like to break ethics down into ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ Are we doing something that’s good for folks that are stakeholders? Are we doing things that are not so good? Are we being open and honest? Are we being trustworthy and respectful? All those things are parts of a code of ethics that helps us to deliver on our promise and not come up short. Sometimes we all come up short, we all walk with a limp, as they say, but some people do things intentionally and break those bonds, the contract they’re supposed to have with their stakeholders, and when that’s done, that’s not good at all.”

 

Leary: In public accounting, our job is help other businesses succeed, so we’re privy to a lot of confidential information that is not out in the public realm, and we’ve very cognizant of that. As a public accountant, we’re required to participate in a periodic ethics training specifically on ethics issues, which is interesting because it gives you a chance to pause and look at various scenarios where ethics come into play — not that it doesn’t come into play every day.

“Looking back on my career, and when I’m talking to someone about personal tax planning, I have yet to find someone say, ‘hey, how can I pay the most in taxes?’ Usually, it’s ‘how do I reduce my taxes?’ You need to be careful that you’re playing within the rules, the regulations that are provided out there. There are people that would prefer to skirt those rules, but our job is to make sure that our clients are not doing that, as best we can. We are looking out for our clients, but it’s not just the business owner. It’s the stakeholders as well. Without employees, without customers, without suppliers, you don’t have business. So our business, Mark’s business, Bay Path … everyone here, you’re built on reputation, and it’s easy to lose your reputation and very hard to get it back.”

Tom Loper

“Sometimes we all come up short, we all walk with a limp, as they say, but some people do things intentionally and break those bonds, the contract they’re supposed to have with their stakeholders, and when that’s done, that’s not good at all.”

BusinessWest: We’ve heard the phrase ‘do the right thing’ a few times already. What exactly does that mean? Right for whom?

 

DiGiorgio: “You have to keep things simple from the standpoint of terminology, so people understand. You can talk to someone about ethics, and they may or may not understand how ethics works. But if you say ‘do the right thing,’ you can have a team that focuses on your customer, your member, your team. It’s about doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. It’s about treating people with respect, treating people the way you would want to be treated. There’s a lot of ways at looking at ‘do the right thing,’ but most of us understand that, at the end of the day, the ‘right thing’ is the right thing for the person you’re dealing with. Maybe that’s a member on a call with customer service, or maybe five minutes before your lunch break, and you know the call is going to take 10 minutes. Spend the 10 minutes; do the right thing.”

 

Doran: “At Bay Path, our focus is on the student, so we’re always talking about what’s best for the student. But the way we think about doing what’s best in terms of the customer, the student, is ‘how do we build a strong community?’ Because if we have a strong community that supports each other and is invested in everyone’s success, then people generally make the right decisions. If our students are not successful, we’re not successful; if our registrar isn’t successful, then our students are not successful. We’re really focused on this virtuous cycle of success.”

 

DePergola: “There are many different avenues to try to articulate the ‘right thing to do’ in a given scenario. One of the things we try to do is look at decisions to be made from a variety of different perspectives, understanding that our primary goal in that analysis is very likely, although not exclusively, to try to make the small decision 1,000 times to put someone else’s well-being ahead of our own, without sacrificing who we are as a person, what we stand for, at a base level. In the clinical world, we’re asking questions of whether what we’re doing is reasonable; we’re asking why we’re doing it, how we’re doing it — is it proportionate to the good we’re trying to accomplish? When are we doing it — is it the right time? Where are we doing it — is it the right place? We ask questions about ‘what if?’ — we project the foreseeable consequences of the decision, not just at the end of the day, but where does this leave our patient or our stakeholder or our shareholder six months from now?

“And then, there’s ‘what else?’ This is my favorite question of moral analysis because it’s the question of moral imagination. It helps us understand that, when we make a bad decision in business ethics, it’s not because we’re morally bankrupt in some way, but because we’ve been to unimaginative; we’ve focused on an ‘A’ or a ‘B’ option, and we failed to brainstorm for a ‘C’ or ‘D.’ So there are a variety of ways to get at what’s the right thing to do.”

Mark Cutting

Mark Cutting

“If I ship a bad product to a big customer like Boeing, and there’s failure, I’m destroyed in my business and in my industry. It’s a top-down, flow-down thing to make sure everyone’s on the same page concerning the ethics that you believe in.”

BusinessWest: Smith & Wesson recently announced that it will relocate its corporate headquarters from Springfield to Tennessee, a move that will presumably help the company but hurt families in this area and the region as whole. What does this case tell us about ethics and how it is often difficult deciding what it is the right thing to do?

 

Loper: “Smith & Wesson may have shut doors if it can’t move or cut 500 employees, and the people in Tennessee think it’s a great thing. In Springfield, to someone who just lost their job, it’s a bad thing. What is the right thing? It depends son your perspective.”

 

DePergola: “This is certainly my reality in the world of clinical ethics — that the good thing to do is very often, if not exclusively, the least bad thing to do. And I mean that in a very literal sense. It’s not a clear or easy decision between choosing something clearly good or something clearly bad; you don’t need an ethical analysis for that. It’s often choosing something that will have indirect and unintended consequences that are negative and that are unavoidable in pursuit of something good, like maintaining the structure of the company — somewhere. So, really, finding the good is very often a matter of trying to identify the least bad thing to do, knowing that a perfect solution is not possible.”

Patrick Leary

“You’re built on reputation, and it’s easy to lose your reputation and very hard to get it back.”

Cutting: “For the management staff at Smith & Wesson, it was a tough decision to make; you’re going to have to let some folks go, but you’re going to be able to maintain your stock value to your shareholders, which, under those conditions as a publicly traded company, is part of your mission statement. You’re there to provide the best and most absolute path to success for that company. It’s a slippery slope when we make decisions like that, and I think, unfortunately, maybe we need to look in the mirror in this state and say, ‘was that the right thing for us to? Maybe we should claw that back, re-embrace them, and change the law.’”

 

BusinessWest: Just how does leadership set the tone when it comes to business ethics?

 

Doran: “You have to show, not tell. Everything a leader does is under scrutiny — they’re being watched with a magnifying glass. But it’s equally important to have a written statement. We all have values, personal values, but it’s very important to have an organizational framework … it’s really important that everyone understands where an organization stands when it comes to things like integrity, inclusivity, and dealing honestly with everyone — in our case, students, faculty, staff, everyone in the ecosystem.

“Everyone in our university, whether you’re a trustee or alum, has a social compact to abide by a common value set and code of ethics, and that was really tested through COVID. Everyone had to support this code of conduct; it was testing, it was mask wearing, it was … maybe you have a relative in Rome and you want to visit them, but you can’t do that, because it’s not good for our community. So the code centered not on what’s good for you, but on what’s good for our community at large, and that was a really good example, I think, of this code of conduct and how leaders set the tone.”

 

Cutting: “When it comes to people being ethical or a company being ethical, it has to be top down. It starts at the top, and it has to flow down to everyone in the company. You talk about the reputation in the industry … it doesn’t take long to lose it. If I ship a bad product to a big customer like Boeing, and there’s failure, I’m destroyed in my business and in my industry. It’s a top-down, flow-down thing to make sure everyone’s on the same page concerning the ethics that you believe in.”

Drew DiGiorgio

“It’s about doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. It’s about treating people with respect, treating people the way you would want to be treated.”

Loper: “The recent decision by Smith & Wesson is a great example of how challenging it can be to make decisions in the business world, and by what yardstick. You have to be able to look at yourself in the mirror every day, and there are personal convictions that you have to relate to.

“One of the things I’ve found to be helpful — I’m not sure it’s a solution, but it certainly made it easier for me to look at things when I was in business — is to pull up from the situation that I found myself in as president and think about the different stakeholders and what they were expecting of the organization that I started up or developed, and what responsibilities I had to those stakeholders. That was true whether it was to the city that helped me to get the power that I needed delivered to a place where they had never delivered that much power before, or whether it was the people supplying the material from India, or whether it was putting an ad in the paper to attract people with certain skills to work on a certain piece of equipment — and then seeing people standing in line, waiting for an opportunity to work on that machine, knowing that it hurt other people because I was taking their best.

“I was constantly dealing with matters that bordered on ethical issues, and one of the things that helped me was this concept of conscious capitalism and the idea of thinking more broadly than my own business and trying to take a long view of what value creation is all about, and for whom. And there were constant tradeoffs, and I was always trying to look at bigger issues and make the best decision I could with the information that we had.”

 

DiGiorgio: “We have several keys at our business — security, empathy, honoring commitments, and then, fiscal responsibility. And they all flow together. And if we do those things, that’s going to produce the right results. But you have to establish those keys and set that culture. That’s where it begins.”

 

BusinessWest: Finally, profits and ethics. How do we balance these two important pillars of business?

 

Loper: “You have to take the long view; you can’t just take the short view, as with those quarterly profits. And that quarterly review process that larger corporations, the Fortune 500 companies, have to go through, makes it very difficult to make the right long-term decision. It’s very hard sometimes to make the right decision.

“When you talk about profits, I think you have to understand that there are short-term profits and long-term profits, and it’s not all measured in dollars and cents. Sometimes it’s measured in terms of forests being destroyed that could affect the climate or natural resources being exploited that are not replaceable. This whole concept of conscious capitalism that encourages us to think bigger is not just a theory; there’s a whole collection of major corporations that are part of that whole movement of shared value and conscious capitalism that are doing better on Wall Street than companies that don’t, that historically have focused on a much narrower definition of ‘corporate profit.’ And I think that this is showing the rest of the world that you can do that, and the more global we’ve become, the more influence we’re going to have on that notion of what ‘profit’ really is. We need to have broader measures of success as companies than just profits.”

 

Leary: “I agree. Short-term profits are not indicative of the long-term value of a company. With most companies on Wall Street, you’re looking at quick profits, and some of the biggest frauds that have committed at public companies were for short-term profit for people — and those companies are no longer around.

“When you look at the overall value of what you’ve created as a business owner, it’s not just dollars, or profits — it’s how many families have you helped feed, or how many kids have you sent to college, or what you’ve done for the community — that should all be part of the profit equation. You can do both — you can have profits, and you can have a successful company and an ethical company. You can balance those two; ethics and profits don’t have to be mutually exclusive. In fact, they should be working hand in hand. Ethical companies have a longer-term prospect than those looking at short-term gain, and we’ve seen that through history with companies that have failed. Why did they fail? It’s typically because of some short-term decision that someone made.”

 

Doran: “At Bay Path, our board is very focused on ESG [environmental, social, and governance] investing, and making sure that a company’s values align with our values, and of course we’re also very focused on making sure our portfolio performs, because it’s in the interest off our endowment that funds a large part of our scholarship program. And we’ve been doing some very technical comparisons [between] companies that are more ESG-focused and others that may not have it as a stated part of their practice … and the returns are very similar. That shows that profits and ethics do go hand in hand at many places. It should not be an anomaly, it should not be the exception, and I do not believe that it is.”

 

DePergola: “The real litmus test would be … if the profit started to significantly slow down, would we still do the right thing? I think that confronts us with who we are. And if we’re not sure if we would do the right thing if the profit slows down, then we should take a look at that. Overall, Patrick and Sandra are right: profits and ethics are not mutually exclusive. Doing the right thing consistently over time, getting buy-in, and anchoring things to the mission — what we’re going to stand for no matter what — that’s what people want to be part of. And I think profit follows from that decision to do the right thing.” u

Commercial Real Estate

Fighting the Fight

Evan Plotkin

Evan Plotkin says a mural planned for this wall near Stearns Square will pay homage to that area’s important role in Springfield’s history.

Evan Plokin was joking — well, sort of — about just how well his team seemed to manage while he was home battling mesothelioma and rehabbing from complicated surgery to help rid his body of cancer.

“I learned that this place could function just fine without me,” he said, tongue in cheek, noting that his company, NAI Plotkin, completed several deals during those weeks while he was out, putting a cap on a busy year, despite damage done to the economy by the pandemic. “The four months I was pretty much out of action I was thinking the worst, but when I came back, all the deals that were in the pipeline that I thought were never going to close … things suddenly started to happen.”

Overall, this lengthy, ongoing ordeal — he was officially diagnosed with mesothelioma in March 2021 — has been a learning experience on many levels, starting with the disease itself.

Plotkin confessed to knowing little about it when he was diagnosed, other than the only way to be stricken with it is through prolonged exposure to asbestos — or, as he has learned since, through heavy use of talc. And a “review of his life’s story,” as he called it, revealed that he falls into that category.

“I had rashes when I was a youngster, throughout my elementary schools, and I can always remember my grandmother putting the powder on me,” he recalled. “As I got into sports, when I would sweat a lot, I would break out, and the baby powder helped. And I remember when I was playing football in high school, I would douse my shoulder pads with it before every practice and before every game.”

This review of his life and has led to a different kind of learning experience, this one concerning ongoing legal action against Johnson & Johnson — maker of the baby powder he put on those shoulder pads — which he is now a big part of.

“I’m on the creditor’s committee — we just had a meeting recently; five of us are representing 40,000 claimants in this litigation,” he said, noting that these claimants are pushing back hard on J&J’s efforts to form a separate company to capture all asbestos claims related to its baby powder and then, presumably, file bankruptcy. “Every one of us who has this disease wants our day in court, and not have this piled into a bankruptcy settlement.”

While waging battles on these various fronts, Plotkin, who firmly believes he’s on the road to recovery and is now back in his office several days a week, is continuing another fight — his decades-long struggle to return downtown Springfield to the vibrancy he knew when he was young.

Long a staunch advocate for the city and firm believer in the power of the arts as an economic-development strategy — he’s one of the organizers of the annual summer jazz festival in the city — Plotkin said considerable progress has been made in recent years to make Springfield a more attractive place to live and work, but there is still much to be done.

He talked about the need to become creative with the hundreds of thousands of square feet of vacant office space in the city (again, see the story on page 38), to renew and escalate efforts to revitalize the properties on Main Street across from MGM Springfield, and to continue work to use the city’s open spaces, especially its parks, to draw new residents — and businesses as well.

With that, he turned his attention to his latest project, a giant mural that will occupy a wall facing Stearns Square on Worthington Street.

Working in tandem with John Simpson, an art professor at UMass Amherst whose murals grace Elm Street and the I-91 viaduct, as well as the Springfield Improvement District, Plotkin, through a nonprofit he created called City Mosaic, won a grant to transform that wall — currently featuring faded images of cameras and related products sold at a store there in the 1940s — into a history book of sorts.

“It’s going to be a composition — we’re going to give a nod to many of the historic and important people from Springfield, right up to the present,” he said. “It’s going to be the largest mural in the city.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with Plotkin about the many battles he’s waging, and the progress he’s making with what could be considered the big picture — figuratively, but also quite literally.

 

Joining the Battle

Plotkin, who has long prided himself on taking good care of his body, exercising, and eating the right foods, said his cancer diagnosis nearly a year ago caught him off guard and left him searching for answers.

“To suddenly be told that you have this terrible disease … that was very traumatic,” he said, adding that, while he became consumed with understanding how he contracted mesothelioma, the more immediate concern was confronting the disease.

He underwent what is known as a HIPEC (hyperthermic chemotherapy) procedure in August. After removing visible tumors through standard surgical procedures, a surgeon will administer HIPEC treatment, during which a heated sterile solution — containing a chemotherapeutic agent — is continuously circulated throughout the peritoneal cavity for up to two hours.

The 10-hour procedure was followed by three months of rehabilitation, said Plotkin, noting that he lost more than 50 pounds through the ordeal, suffered a few setbacks while recovering, and endured a few trips to the emergency room.

But he believes the worst is over and that he is on the road to recovery.

“I’m feeling really good right now, so I’m very optimistic about my future,” he said. “I feel almost as good as I did before the surgery; I just have to watch it … but I’m back to normal, and everything is good for me.”

While knocking on the nearest available wood, Plotkin noted there isn’t much available data on HIPEC. “And the doctors and the oncologists — they don’t have any predictions for you,” he went on. “They just say they want to take film every six months and go from there.”

Meanwhile, he said many others in his situation have not been as fortunate in their fight.

“You hear some of the stories from some of the people you meet, and their stories are not as good. I just learned about a 28-year-old boy who had the surgery who died from complications — kidney problems after the surgery.”

Such stories put more emphasis on the ongoing lawsuits against Johnson & Johnson, which, by many accounts, involve more than 38,000 claimants and nearly $4 billion in damages being sought.

At present, that fight is on a pause of sorts after a bankruptcy judge in North Carolina halted the lawsuits against J&J after that company formed a subsidiary in Texas, known as LTL, to absorb the parent company’s asbestos liabilities. LTL promptly filed for bankruptcy in North Carolina.

The move, known as a ‘divisive merger’ as well as a ‘Texas two-step’ (because that’s where LTL was formed) has been slammed by lawmakers, including U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and Plotkin said claimants in the various suits are girding for a protracted battle.

“Everyone is lawyering up, and they’re ready to have hearings,” he said. “All this is going to be hopefully resolved, one way or another, in February.”

While the court fight against J&J is now capturing some of Plotkin’s time, he also has his work — a broad phrase, to be sure — keeping him busy.

He said he worked remotely for some time but is now back in his office at 1350 Main St., the one with the view facing south toward MGM Springfield. And he referenced what he can see out his window when talking about the major challenges still facing Springfield.

He said that, when MGM was originally proposed, the thinking — if not the promise — was that the casino, with its front door on Main Street, would bring more vibrancy, not to mention additional commercial development, to both sides of the street and that broad area.

That hasn’t happened yet, in part because most all casino visitors have been entering and exiting through the parking garage (especially during the pandemic), leaving little foot traffic on Main Street and, therefore, a minimal trickle-down effect.

“People go right back in the garage, and they’re out of here,” he said. “And that needs to be fixed; we need to get those people into the downtown.”

Turning his attention back to Stearns Square, he said that area has seen progress on several fronts in recent years, including the park itself, which underwent major restoration efforts a few years ago. Around it are new businesses, including Dewey’s, a jazz club; the promise of new restaurants; and prospects for that area once again being the centerpiece of a walkable city.

The new mural will be part of all this, he said, adding that it will turn back the clock in many respects.

“In one part of the mural, there’s going to be an image of what Stearns Square looked like more than 100 years ago,” he explained, noting that this look back will show how the ‘Puritan’ statue now at the corner of Chestnut and State streets near the Quadrangle was originally in Stearns Square, with the Puritan facing a globe at the turtle fountain in the south end of the park.

“The narrative behind that is the fountain has a giant globe on it with fish and turtles around it, and there’s water,” he explained. “It was the Puritan looking at the new world, and he knew he had to cross over the water to get there.”

 

Body of Evidence

As he related the history of the park and spoke about his mural project, Plotkin said he’s always believed the Puritan statue should return to its original setting.

He admits he’s probably not alone with that view, but he acknowledges that such a move would certainly be a longshot at this point and an uphill battle.

Speaking of uphill battles … he’s been involved with many of them lately, from his fight against mesothelioma to the drawn-out court skirmishes with Johnson & Johnson, to his campaign to revitalize downtown Springfield.

All of them are ongoing to one extent or another, and Plotkin is waging them the only way he knows how: with passion and determination.

 

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

Cover Story Top Entrepreneur

Towering Achievements

Dinesh Patel and Vid Mitta Are Reimagining a Springfield Landmark

In 1996, BusinessWest introduced a new recognition program, one that pays homage to the entrepreneurial spirit that has long defined this region. Since then, the Top Entrepreneur honor has gone to small-business owners, college and hospital presidents, and even Holyoke’s municipal utility. This year’s recipients are Dinesh Patel and Vid Mitta, true serial entrepreneurs who rolled the dice and purchased Tower Square, the iconic but troubled Springfield landmark, in 2018. Their efforts to change the landscape and reimagine the property have been slowed by COVID, and there are many chapters in this story still left to write. But there are signs of progress, and the partners’ patience, persistence, and entrepreneurial mettle are big reasons why.

Demetrios Panteleakis recalls his company being one of many commercial real-estate brokerage firms that were interviewed to represent the new ownership group at Tower Square as leasing agent.

He also recalls being rather surprised when the Macmillan Group won the contract. That’s because … well, he was rather candid in his assessment of what needed to be done with the downtown Springfield landmark.

Probably too candid, in his mind.

“I think I was pretty brutal when it comes to what needed to change and what types of investments needed to be made in the building,” he said, looking back more than three years. “I sent it to them kind of thinking, ‘they’re going to look at this and probably say, ‘forget this guy — there’s no way we’re doing all this.’

“But to my surprise, and to my surprise ever since, it’s been the complete opposite,” he went on. “They wanted to meet with me again, and they wanted me to go into detail on a marketing plan, they wanted me to go into detail on the improvements … the concept of doing away with traditional retail and doing more of a community-based approach for the tenants of the building and focusing on just the constant improvement of the building.”

Panteleakis said that this response to his “brutal assessment,” and the actions taken since, go a long way toward explaining why partners Vid Mitta and Dinesh Patel have been named BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneurs for 2022, the latest winners of an award first handed out in 1996.

Actually, this is the second time they’ve won the award — sort of. Indeed, they were, and still are, part of the ownership and management team of the Springfield Thunderbirds that took home the Top Entrepreneur award for 2017 for their efforts to not only bring hockey back to the city but make it a force in efforts to reinvigorate the downtown.

The two were already serial entrepreneurs at the time MassMutual was looking to sell the Tower Square complex in 2017, owning everything from hotels to fast-food restaurants; from an information-technology-solutions company to early-education facilities. But this was their first real joint venture and certainly their first class-A office tower, and Panteleakis said they entered this exercise with what he called a “thirst for learning.”

Demetrios Panteleakis stands in the space in Tower Square now occupied by Country Bank

Demetrios Panteleakis stands in the space in Tower Square now occupied by Country Bank, one of many new tenants to arrive since Vid Mitta and Dinesh Patel acquired the downtown Springfield landmark.

“And that’s unusual,” he went on. “Most people who own buildings always think they know more than the broker; it’s rare for them to listen. I was shocked when they started instituting the plan, and they really stuck to it.”

While listening has been a major ingredient in their success at Tower Square — and in business in general — there are many others, the partners told BusinessWest, including patience, especially amid COVID-19, which has certainly slowed the pace of progress. But also watching and learning what has worked elsewhere (we’ll see some examples of that) and applying it to their venture.

Persistence and adherence to the plan are also keys, they said.

“We just keep moving and keep achieving one target at a time,” said Mitta in describing the overall strategy for the property. “Right now, we’re at 70% occupancy, compared to roughly 40% when we took over the building. So we still have another 30% to go, so we’re not there yet, and we work on a day-to-day basis based on the leads that we get. We’ve come this far, and we hope to go all the way to the finish line, to 100%.”

Patel concurred, noting that, while nothing has really been easy with this venture — undertaken mostly during the two years of COVID and made much expensive and complicated because of it (more on that later) — there are encouraging signs. Overall, the project has been a learning experience and has emboldened the partners in many ways.

“I think I was pretty brutal when it comes to what needed to change and what types of investments needed to be made in the building. I sent it to them kind of thinking, ‘they’re going to look at this and probably say, ‘forget this guy — there’s no way we’re doing all this.”

“This project has given us a lot of confidence,” he said. “If there’s a space, and the structure is good, like we have here, we know we can create something in our mind and move forward.”

Tim Sheehan, Springfield’s chief Development officer, lauded the work at Tower Square, saying that, in many respects, the partners’ efforts mirror the original mission of the property and take it a new and higher level at a different point in the city’s history.

“This is a critically important project for Springfield,” he said. “The whole impetus behind the building itself was to enliven the commercial business district of the downtown, and to enliven it by bringing businesses to the heart of the city, workers to the heart of the city, visitors, and supportive retail, and clearly the building has done that.

“When you look back at how this was conceived in the 1960s as part of a large urban-renewal effort, the contemplation of this building really started with a small group of civic and downtown business leaders, and ultimately it was advanced by MassMutual,” Sheehan continued. “So I guess you could say Tower Square continues to attract entrepreneurial investors to the property. And while the vision that those initial investors had was clearly bold, Dinesh and Vid’s vision to reposition the property is as bold, if not bolder.”

 

Background — Check

A quick look at the partners’ résumés and portfolios of business interests reveals why the phrase ‘serial entrepreneur’ applies to both.

A pharmacist by trade, Patel has become a prolific business owner and developer. His portfolio now includes several 99 Restaurant & Pub locations, including one in Greenfield; a Walgreens in Worcester; a CVS in Bridgewater, Conn.; three McDonald’s franchises, including one in Holyoke; several Hampden Inn & Suites locations across New England; a few adult day-care facilities; and even a self-storage operation.

As for Mitta, he started as a software programmer and has, over the past three decades or so, put together a broad and diverse portfolio of business interests known collectively as Mitta’s Group. Like Patel, he has properties in the hospitality realm, including several hotels within the Marriott, Hyatt, Choice, and Wyndham franchises, but also owns several early-education facilities operating under the name the Learning Experience, as well as Synergic Solutions, which provides information-technology solutions to businesses around the globe.

The new façade on the hotel at Tower Square

The new façade on the hotel at Tower Square is symbolic of the changes that have taken place at the property.

And they continue to invest in new ventures, including development of a 14-acre parcel in Windsor, Conn. into a mixed-use complex that will include a hotel, apartments, a gas station, a car wash, and other components. Work on the project, to be called Windsor Crossing, is set to commence next spring.

The top line on each résumé now, though, is Tower Square, and how these two came together to purchase the 50-year-old landmark is an intriguing story, which they summed up as a calculated risk well worth taking.

The two certainly knew each other well — as noted, they both had ownership stakes in the Thunderbirds, and Patel had sold some properties to Mitta — but they had never launched a joint venture together … until Tower Square came on the market in late 2017.

“Most people who own buildings always think they know more than the broker; it’s rare for them to listen.”

“When I came across this particular listing from MassMutual, I approached Dinesh and asked him what his thoughts were,” Mitta said. “He said that if I was interested, he was willing to partner, and that got the ball rolling.”

Patel recalls them having a lengthy discussion concerning the property — which came in two parts, the hotel and the retail/office complex adjoining it — on opening night of the Thunderbirds’ 2017-18 season, which came only a day before the deadline for submitting bids for the Tower Square property.

cover of BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur issue

This is actually the second time Vid Mitta and Dinesh Patel have been on the cover of BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur issue. They’re part of the ownership and management group of the Springfield Thunderbirds that took home the honor in 2017.

“Between 4 and 5 o’clock, I was in Northampton on a bike ride, and I thought to myself, ‘I want to pull the trigger on this,’” he went on, adding that a bid was submitted mere minutes before the 5 p.m. deadline.

Bidding on Tower Square was certainly not a slam-dunk proposition at the time; in fact, it was far from it. While the building, which changed the downtown Springfield skyline in dramatic fashion when it opened in the late ’60s, had some core tenants in its retail space — UMass Amherst, Cambridge College, and a CVS, among others — and several more in its office tower, the complex had certainly seen better days.

MassMutual was soon to be vacating several floors in the office tower, many spaces in the retail portion of the building were vacant or underutilized, and the hotel on the property had lost the Marriott flag that had flown over it for decades and was now known as the Tower Square Hotel.

But while others were looking at a glass half-empty — or far worse — the two partners saw potential, and something else as well: an important property in a city that they had invested in and become part of.

“My wife and I were having lunch together and started talking about Tower Square,” Patel recalled. “She described it as an ‘iconic building’ in Springfield and a ‘once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.’ She said, ‘we need to figure out how to get this building.’”

Mitta recalls having similar thoughts, and noted that, while their initial interest was focused on the hotel, which they successfully bid on first, they eventually pursued the rest of the property as well, paying $17.5 million for both halves of the operation.

And they did so understanding that there would be much larger investments to come.

“We knew what we were getting into,” said Mitta, acknowledging that this comment covers considerable ground, meaning acknowledgement that large amounts of work needed to be done not only to get the Marriott flag back on the hotel, but to renovate the parking garage; repair and upgrade aging equipment, including the elevators; and undertake other improvements to bring new tenants, and new vibrancy, to the property.

 

Building Momentum

Elaborating, the two partners said they entered this joint venture with a plan of sorts, one that would take shape over the coming months and years.

That plan called for focusing less on traditional retail and more on creating something approaching a community, with pieces that would complement one another, said Patel, adding that, even before he and Mitta had finalized their commitment to bid on the property, he was talking with Dexter Johnson, president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Springfield, about moving parts of that operation, specifically the fitness center and childcare facilities, to Tower Square.

“This project has given us a lot of confidence. If there’s a space, and the structure is good, like we have here, we know we can create something in our mind and move forward.”

Those operations would eventually become part of a larger plan that called for attracting businesses that would bring convenience, as well as needed products and services, to those working in the tower, but also the students attending classes there and those living in and around downtown, said the partners, adding that other components have come to include White Lion Brewing Co., a spa (SkinCatering), and even the wine exchange that recently opened in the space next to the Hot Table restaurant.

“We never thought that this would come back as a retail building,” Mitta said. “But when we purchased the property, we knew that MassMutual had already put UMass and Cambridge College into the retail mall, and that gave us a good start toward bringing more semi-retail businesses into the mall, so it would be a win-win situation for all of us.”

Previous Top Entrepreneurs

2020: Golden Years Homecare Services
2019: Cinda Jones, president of W.D. Cowls Inc.
2018: Antonacci Family, owners of USA Hauling, GreatHorse, and Sonny’s Place
2017: Owners and managers of the Springfield Thunderbirds
2016: Paul Kozub, founder and president of V-One Vodka
2015: The D’Amour Family, founders of Big Y
2014: Delcie Bean, president of Paragus Strategic IT
2013: Tim Van Epps, president and CEO of Sandri LLC
2012: Rick Crews and Jim Brennan, franchisees of Doctors Express
2011: Heriberto Flores, director of the New England Farm Workers’ Council and Partners for Community
2010: Bob Bolduc, founder and CEO of Pride
2009: Holyoke Gas & Electric
2008: Arlene Kelly and Kim Sanborn, founders of Human Resource Solutions and Convergent Solutions Inc.
2007: John Maybury, president of Maybury Material Handling
2006: Rocco, Jim, and Jayson Falcone, principals of Rocky’s Hardware Stores and Falcone Retail Properties
2005: James (Jeb) Balise, president of Balise Motor Sales
2004: Craig Melin, then-president and CEO of Cooley Dickinson Hospital
2003: Tony Dolphin, president of Springboard Technologies
2002: Timm Tobin, then-president of Tobin Systems Inc.
2001: Dan Kelley, then-president of Equal Access Partners
2000: Jim Ross, Doug Brown, and Richard DiGeronimo, then-principals of Concourse Communications
1999: Andrew Scibelli, then-president of Springfield Technical Community College
1998: Eric Suher, president of E.S. Sports
1997: Peter Rosskothen and Larry Perreault, then-co-owners of the Log Cabin Banquet and Meeting House
1996: David Epstein, president and co-founder of JavaNet and the JavaNet Café

Patel concurred, noting how he and Mitta have seen the ‘education hub’ concept work in Worcester, and they believe it can work in Springfield as well.

In the office tower, said Panteleakis, the goal has been to take advantage of the attractive class-A space, including the floors vacated by MassMutual, as well as other amenities, such as on-site parking, those aforementioned service businesses, and a safer, more vibrant downtown to bring some of the businesses that had left Springfield back to its central business district while also bringing some new names to that area.

And that has happened with the addition of Wellfleet, which now has its name and logo on the building, as well as Farm Credit Financial Partners, the Hampden County District Attorney’s Office, Country Bank, several state offices, and many other new tenants.

“We’ve replaced 150,000 square feet vacated by MassMutual with 140,000 square feet of new tenants,” Panteleakis said, adding that there is one more full floor to fill and several “smaller pockets” that remain vacant.

The partners said that, while there is certainly a plan in place, the simple objective moving forward is to continue adding complementary pieces and creating a destination — something Tower Square was decades ago but hasn’t been for some time.

“If you look at the building today, it efficiently serves the needs of modern office tenants, and that’s been though significant upgrades to that space,” Sheehan said. “The investment of more than $20 million in completely refurbishing the hotel and restoring the Marriott flag will attract new and more visitors to downtown and enhance the city’s attractiveness as a meeting and convention destination. Additionally, they’ve created a sense of excitement — I don’t think you can use any other word — about what the building’s public space could actually be.”

While progress has been made on many different levels at the Tower Square property, the pandemic has certainly slowed its pace, due to everything from the soaring cost of materials to labor shortages, said the partners, adding that it has also made improvements and enhancements more expensive — and far more expensive, in many cases.

That’s especially true with the ongoing work at the hotel, where supply-chain issues have made it difficult to obtain needed materials in a timely fashion. Overall, the project, with a price tag that has risen past $30 million, is well behind the original schedule, which had the hotel reopening last year, but the partners are confident that the facility will be welcoming guests by the end of the second quarter of this year.

“COVID has hurt us because the cost of construction has shot up, and the cost of raw materials has shot up as well,” Mitta said. “Every time we import things from China or some other country, the container fees alone are almost four to five times what they used to be two or three years back. We don’t want to stop, so we had to pay these higher prices and keep going.”

As just one example, Patel noted that steel prices have risen 48% this year, an increase that could not have been foreseen when they bought the property.

“Increases of 10% or so, you anticipate that; you can factor that in,” he noted. “But 48% to 50%, you can’t plan for that. It’s all about supply and demand.”

Despite the skyrocketing cost of the project, the partners remain optimistic about the hotel and its prospects for the future. They said COVID will eventually relent, and when it does, people — if not businesses — will be ready and willing to travel again.

“People are coming back,” Mitta said. “They’re traveling, they’re using hotels, and the travel industry is coming back — especially when it’s not related to business travel.”

COVID has also brought a halt to any plans to develop the parcel across Main Street from Tower Square, known to many as the ‘Steiger’s lot’ because that’s where the department store once stood.

The rooftop area at Tower Square

The rooftop area at Tower Square is one of many that have a new look.

Original plans called for building a Hyatt on that property, but the pandemic and its deep impact on travel of all kinds put that initiative on ice, said Patel, adding that their plans will be revisited once the Marriott opens.

Meanwhile, they’re advancing plans for Windsor Crossing and continually looking for new entrepreneurial opportunities. That thirst for new opportunities brought them to Tower Square in the first place, and it has seen them through this challenging but ultimately fulfilling time.

“It’s been exciting,” Mitta said. “Every day is a new adventure.”

 

Landmark Decision

Flashing back to when the partners acquired the Tower Square property, Mitta noted that they had both a plan as well as a backup plan, one that called for converting the office tower into residential space if the office market didn’t develop as anticipated.

That backup plan wasn’t needed, obviously, although there have been some struggles, and COVID certainly has brought many unanticipated challenges.

Instead, the partners are moving forward, as Mitta noted, achieving one target at a time. The larger goal is not to turn back the clock and make Tower Square exactly what it was decades ago, but turn it back to the extent that the landmark is a destination and center of vibrancy.

There is still work to do, but if Mitta and Patel have proven anything, it’s that they are persistent and determined to make the plan they put on the drawing board more than four years ago a reality.

They’ve also shown that they’re quite worthy of BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur honor.

 

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

Commercial Real Estate Special Coverage

Activity Report

 

Mitch Bolotin, left, and partner Kevin Morin

Mitch Bolotin, left, and partner Kevin Morin stand near the entrance to 11 Interstate Dr. in West Springfield, which recently welcomed a new tenant, Millipore Sigma, which absorbed 27,000 square feet in the office building.

Looking back, area commercial real-estate brokers, managers, and developers said 2021 was a busy year with activity across all sectors and especially the retail side and the white-hot industrial segment of the market. On the office side, there was less movement and more question marks due to COVID-19 and uncertainty about when and under what circumstances workers will return to the office. The expectation for 2022 is for more of all of the above.

Area commercial real-estate brokers, developers, and property managers spoke with one voice when they told BusinessWest that there can be activity in their sector — and sometimes lots of activity — even when the economy is not hitting on all cylinders.

And this fact of life certainly helps explain why most brokers said 2021, year two of the pandemic, was one of the busiest years they’ve seen recently.

Indeed, there were some business closures and companies moving on from their leases, said those we spoke with, and other businesses downsizing for one of many reasons — all of which created movement in the market.

But there were many other forces contributing to this movement, and most of them were positive, said Mitch Bolotin, a principal and vice president of Springfield-based Colebrook Realty Services.

Listing them, he noted everything from low interest rates to the continued growth of the state’s cannabis industry, which has been absorbing industrial and retail space in communities across the region; from the improved health of the manufacturing sector, which has also contributed to the white-hot market for industrial spaces (more on that later), to the continued growth of delivery and warehousing operations, which has created ever more demand for those spaces. There’s has also been a noticeable increase in the amount of entrepreneurial activity in the region, inspired in part by COVID-19, which has created interest in retail space and some of the restaurants that have fallen victim to the pandemic.

“There is going to be some creative reuse of office space, and retail space, in this region.”

“This past year was one of our busiest years, and there was a lot of activity on all ends of the marketplace,” Bolotin said. “We’ve had deals in the retail world, the industrial market has been very active, the office market has been active, and there have been some development deals. We’ve seen it all across the board.”

Evan Plotkin, president of Springfield-based NAI Plotkin, agreed, noting that some of the movement on the retail side and office side has been as a result of COVID and its ill effects, but there has been positive movement as well, especially on the industrial and multi-family residential sides of the ledger, where the laws of supply and demand have forced prices higher as competition for available properties escalates.

There has even been some movement in the office market, said those we spoke with, but overall, this is the category still clouded by question marks. Large question marks.

Indeed, while all those we spoke with expressed the opinion (and we’ll paraphrase) that many workers now toiling remotely will eventually return to the office because employers realize there is more and better collaboration and more productivity when a team is in one place, there was also something approaching general consensus that things won’t be like they were before the pandemic.

And this means that some office space — just how much comprises one of those question marks — must be repurposed.

“There is going to be some creative reuse of office space, and retail space, in this region,” said Ken Vincunas, president of Agawam-based Development Associates. “I don’t know want it’s going to be or who is going to do it, but the malls and some office buildings are going to turn into something that no one foresaw, something they weren’t designed for.”

Paul Stelzer, president of Holyoke-based Appleton Corp., which currently manages more than 2 million square feet of property in the region, agreed.

Citing a movement to convert large amounts of office space to lab facilities in Boston, Cambridge, and Worcester to feed a biotech sector ravenously hungry for space, he said this might be one possible course for Western Mass. … if it can attract workers for that sector.

“We need to look at how we can maybe take two floors of a building that might never be leased again and convert to some type of bio, some type of medical, some type of related spaces,” he said, “because when you talk about quality of life, we have an incredible quality of life here in Western Mass., and I think there’s some desire for people not to be going up and down a 30-story elevator every day or taking the subway to work.”

For this issue, BusnessWest talked at length with area brokers and property managers about the current scene and what they project for the future, both short- and long-term.

 

Moving Story

As he talked about the commercial real-estate market and the year that was, Bolotin said there was considerable movement across the region — and in all sectors.

And he pointed to properties Colebrook handled in 2021 — and is still handling in many cases — as evidence. The portfolio includes:

• The leasing of 27,000 square feet at 11 Interstate Dr. in West Springfield to Millipore Sigma. The company, a life-sciences R&D firm and subsidiary of Merck, was in a small office in Wilbraham and expanded into the space;

• The sale of the industrial property at 2024 Westover Road in Chicopee, one of many such properties that saw considerable interest, went fast, and sold for a good price;

• The successful leasing of the property at 95 Elm St. in West Springfield, formerly home to United Bank. The large office complex is home to a broad mix of tenants, including Tandem Bagel;

• The sale of 100 Water St. in Holyoke, a large former mill complex, to GFI, one of the many cannabis companies that now call Holyoke home;

• The sale of 5 South Maple St. in Hadley, once a PeoplesBank branch, a sign of continued movement in the retail market;

• The sale of the former Troy Industries property on Capital Drive in West Springfield; and

• The sale of the 68,368-square-foot, fully leased warehouse space at 87-147 Avocado St. in Springfield to Woodrow Studios LLC, a deal that closed roughly a month ago. “That’s an example of an industrial investment property that had a strong amount of activity,” Bolotin said.

Collectively, these transactions speak to those many forces mentioned earlier — everything from the cannabis sector to tremendous growth of warehousing, distribution, and delivery businesses to growth within the manufacturing sector — that made 2021 one of the busiest years the company has seen recently.

“And 2022 is shaping up to be more of the same,” he told BusinessWest. “There’s a lot of demand, a lot of positive activity; we see the market being resilient, and, overall, there is a good deal of optimism.”

Plotkin agreed, citing his company’s portfolio of activity in 2021 as more evidence of what has been happening, even with some sectors struggling to fully recover from the pandemic and its many side effects.

Paul Stelzer

Paul Stelzer

“We need to look at how we can maybe take two floors of a building that might never be leased again and convert to some type of bio, some type of medical, some type of related spaces, because when you talk about quality of life, we have an incredible quality of life here in Western Mass., and I think there’s some desire for people not to be going up and down a 30-story elevator every day or taking the subway to work.”

On the industrial side, the company handled the sale of a large property in South Deerfield being leased by Yankee Candle, and Plotkin said it continues to receive calls from companies actively seeking warehouse or light manufacturing space with highway access in Springfield and surrounding towns.

On the retail side, it handled a number of transactions, from the former Hafey Funeral Home in Springfield to the former Manchester Hardware store in Easthampton to the Golf Acres recreational facility in Westfield. It is also negotiating the sale of a large shopping center in Pittsfield. There has been less activity on the office side, but the company did handle the sale of 480 Hampden St. in Holyoke to Girls Inc., among other deals, and has handled several leases and a few sales for companies reorganizing or downsizing space.

Overall, the two sectors seeing perhaps the most activity are retail and industrial, said those we spoke with, with cannabis impacting both in a positive way, although there are other factors as well.

Pat Goggins, president of Goggins Realty in Northampton, said the cannabis sector has certainly helped that city’s downtown, one that has seen several stores close due to the retirement of long-time owners, but also complications from COVID. But there have been other types of entrepreneurial activity, including some new restaurants and clothing stores.

Overall, he said it was certainly a much more “nervous time” in Northampton a year or so ago as vacancies started piling up in and around the downtown in a way that hadn’t been seen in decades, and there was uncertainty concerning when and under what circumstances those vacancies would be filled. Now, with many of those storefronts leased or under contract, including the Silverscape Designs property, there is far more stability.

“We’re making some nice progress in the level of activity that we’re seeing downtown, and it’s something that more closely mimics what we had been accustomed to,” he said, adding that, while there are still some vacant storefronts to be addressed, the overall tone is much more positive than it was a year or 18 months ago.

Plotkin agreed, noting that, overall, while retailers are seeing increasingly higher volumes of online sales, most of them still need a bricks-and-mortar presence, and this is contributing to ongoing movement in that segment of the market.

Ken Vincunas says the market for industrial properties is white hot

Ken Vincunas says the market for industrial properties is white hot, with immense competition for available properties pushing prices higher.

“They may shop for something online, but they want to go to the store to try it on,” he explained. “And that’s why I believe retail will remain strong.”

But it is the industrial market that is seeing the most activity, said Bolotin and others — and it would see considerably more if there was inventory.

At present, there isn’t much, said Vincunas, noting that what exists generally goes quickly and at high prices, which makes this category much like the residential real-estate market (see story on page 6).

“The industrial market has very little inventory, and for the few things that come up, there are a lot of takers, and the pricing has increased significantly, because people have products that people want, they’re making money, and they need that new building,” he said. “There’s been a lot of demand, things don’t stay on the market for long, and prices are way up.”

“There’s a lot of demand, a lot of positive activity; we see the market being resilient, and, overall, there is a good deal of optimism.”

As just one example, he cited the former home of Work Opportunity Center in Agawam, an 18,000-square-foot industrial space, which was under contract just a few weeks after it went on the market. Many other properties have moved in similarly quick fashion, and at prices — and here’s another parallel to the residential housing market — that have prompted buyers to also become sellers.

“We’re actually selling properties, which we hardly ever do, because the pricing is so high that you have to take some chips off the table and reposition the properties you want versus the ones that are in your past,” Vincunas said, noting that the company is in the process of selling a multi-tenant property in Chicopee.

“The price seemed right, and we thought it maybe it was time to change that in for something else,” he explained, adding that many property owners are thinking along similar lines to take advantage of the white-hot market.

 

Space Exploration

As noted earlier, it’s the region’s office market that has perhaps struggled the most, and it’s the one confronting an uncertain future.

Vincunas, whose company manages several office facilities, including the Greenfield Corporate Center, said the past 23 months have been a struggle on many levels, especially as companies find new ways to do business, with many employees working remotely.

Like others we spoke with, he believes employers will eventually bring workers back the office, for reasons involving productivity, communication, efficiency, and other factors, and when that day comes, the market will see a surge in activity.

Pat Goggins

Pat Goggins

“We’re making some nice progress in the level of activity that we’re seeing downtown, and it’s something that more closely mimics what we had been accustomed to.”

In the meantime, this will remain a tenants’ market, with many of the companies looking to downsize or just reduce their monthly rent expenditure finding landlords willing to make attractive deals, another trend that is expected to continue into 2022 and perhaps beyond.

As for the longer term, those we spoke with said that some (again, how much remains to be seen) of the traditional office space in the region will need to be repurposed, and it is incumbent upon those who own and manage it to start looking at viable options.

Stelzer noted that biomed is simply one of many possible alternatives.

“We have to do a really good job moving forward of cataloging what we have available, what we can pivot, what’s available for us, what the economic-development agencies can push,” he said, “because the days of the 200-person call center or 300-person call center are probably gone.

“So we have to turn around and figure out where people have to congregate, and lab space is one of them,” he went on. “There’s also an incredible demand for social services and mental-health space, which is partly driven by COVID and partly driven by the large amount of funding available for it; you may see some of these nonprofits that would typically be in a class B space or in space that doesn’t work as nicely for them taking the plunge and coming downtown or coming to a class A building; they can afford to do it, and demand for their workers is high.”

Stelzer said he’s already seeing such movement at one of the properties managed by Appleton, the Technology Park at Springfield Technical Community College. One of its major tenants, Liberty Mutual, has moved out of most of its space in the park (47,000 square feet) — part of a larger movement to have employees work remotely — and new tenants that have moved in include Mental Health Associates and Clinical & Support Options.

Since almost the very beginning of the pandemic, Plotkin has noted that, in this region, where the office market has traditionally had a comparatively high vacancy rate, the additional stress from COVID will force some property owners to think outside the box and find new uses for their square footage.

For the building he co-owns, 1350 Main St. in Springfield, and others, he has proposed housing or perhaps a hybrid concept, what he calls a “remote-work hub,” a facility in which people would live and work.

“There would be a living space, something like a dormitory, but done in an upscale way, with a lot of amenities,” he explained. “And then you have a work hub. The idea is to have a living space and then a floor where you can lease an office, so you’re not working at your kitchen table.”

Whether the remote-work hub is the answer remains to be seen, he went on, adding that, from his view, it’s clear that something — and something imaginative — needs to happen within the office market, especially in downtown Springfield.

“We have to look at the half-million square feet of vacant office space that we have and examine how we repurpose and reposition that,” he went on. “We also need to look at what kind of help we need from MassDevelopment and the state to incentivize business owners — people like me — to take a building like 1350 Main St. and convert half of it to co-living space.”

 

Bottom Line

Looking ahead to the rest of 2022, those we spoke with said that COVID makes it difficult to project exactly what will happen. Stelzer equated the landscape in the sector to “shifting sands,” and said that, until the ground stabilizes, more uncertainty will prevail.

Overall, the experts are predicting more of the same for the foreseeable future, meaning this will continue to be a tenants’ market in the office realm, and the laws of supply demand will create more movement in the industrial and retail segments of the market.

And it means more hard thinking — and some action — when it comes to deciding what can and will happen within the office market.

In other words, it’s shaping up to be another busy year.

 

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

Economic Outlook

The Prognosis Is for Another Year of Stern Challenges in 2022

 

Dr. Robert Roose says he’s deeply optimistic that 2022 will be the year when, as he put it, “COVID no longer rules most aspects of our lives.”

Elaborating, Roose chief medical officer for Mercy Medical Center, said that soon — how soon, he doesn’t know — COVID will reach a point where it is a more endemic infection that has much lower risk for larger numbers of people in the community. He bases that belief on a number of factors, including vaccines, rapid testing, and, soon, an oral, pill-based therapy that can reduce the risk of hospitalization amongst those that are most vulnerable to severe illness.

“The combination of these things has me optimistic that, for the summer, six months from now, and perhaps sooner, we will have lower rates of infection, higher proportions of our population immune to COVID — or at least the most severe effects of COVID — through vaccination or natural infection, and we will have more therapies that are available for those that would be vulnerable,” he said. “And I’m optimistic that will happen this year.”

Lynnette Watkins

Lynnette Watkins

“I’m very much an optimist; I’m a glass-half-full kind of person. I’m optimistic about the year ahead, despite the many challenges we face now and into the future. But 2022 is going to be challenging, especially the first few quarters, because of COVID and the ramifications of both the current surge and previous surges.”

Roose is not alone in that assessment — others we spoke with expressed similar optimism — but for now, all those in healthcare must cope with the present, when COVID still does rule most aspects of our lives, and when there are myriad other challenges stemming from the pandemic.

These include everything from intense workforce shortages that are being felt in this sector perhaps more than any other; high levels of fatigue and burnout among those working in most all healthcare settings, especially hospitals; growing mental-health issues that are impacting people in all age groups; and mounting non-COVID-related health issues stemming from individuals putting off needed care during the pandemic, or simply not being able to get it (see related story on page 41).

The sum of all these challenges and others prompted Dr. Mark Keroack, president and CEO of Baystate Health, to use the word ‘crisis’ early and quite often as he addressed the state of his healthcare system at an hour-long Zoom press conference a few weeks ago. Actually, he used the plural of that word, noting that his system was and is facing four crises: staffing, capacity management, a surging need for behavioral-health services, and, of course, COVID and the skyrocketing increases in cases due to Omicron.

While addressing these issues, Keroack echoed Roose when he said he is optimistic that COVID will become more endemic and, therefore, less controlling in the months and years ahead. But those other issues, and especially the workforce crisis, are expected to linger well into 2022 and probably well beyond.

Lynnette Watkins, who recently took the helm at Cooley Dickinson Hospital in Northampton, agreed, although she, too, was optimistic about 2022 and beyond.

“I’m very much an optimist; I’m a glass-half-full kind of person,” she said. “I’m optimistic about the year ahead, despite the many challenges we face now and into the future. But 2022 is going to be challenging, especially the first few quarters, because of COVID and the ramifications of both the current surge and previous surges.”

Dr. Mark Keroack

“About one in five healthcare workers has left the field since the start of the pandemic, and clearly that has shown up in our institution as well.”

The new year will certainly get off to an ultra-challenging start, she went on, noting that Omicron will test the healthcare system in every way imaginable, from capacity to workforce.

“We’ll get through this, but it’s going to be a challenging, challenging time for the next three to four months,” she told BusinessWest. “We tend to be about three weeks behind our neighboring states, meaning Connecticut, New Hampshire, and New York, in particular, when it comes to this surge in the disease. So January is going to a particularly tough time for this region, but what we’re seeing in the research is that, as quickly as this virus surges, it declines.

“With that, we need to make sure we have the capacity and capability of taking care of those patients who are COVID long-haulers, as well as those who have deferred and delayed care,” she went on. “And that is going to continue to be a challenge.”

Looking forward, those we spoke with said that perhaps the biggest challenge looming over the industry is a workforce crisis that was in evidence before the pandemic, especially among nurses, but has been exacerbated by COVID.

“We’re seeing those gaps just widen,” Roose noted. “The chasm between what we need to close is just wider.”

For the immediate future, hospitals and other providers will be impacted not only by people leaving their jobs, or the industry as a whole, due to retirement, burnout, and other factors, but also workers being infected by the virus and being forced to the sidelines, as well as the huge toll the shortages take on those in the trenches.

“We’ve really put a lot on our people — we’ve asked them to do a lot, like coming in for extra shifts, filling in, and stretching themselves,” Keroack said. “If we were fully staffed with people who were feeling refreshed, we’d feel a lot more confident about what we’re facing in the next few weeks.”

Meanwhile, staffing up during this crisis is a difficult and very expensive proposition, with all hospitals forced to hire what are known as ‘contract nurses,’ often at rates of $5,000 per week or more, Roose noted.

As for workers leaving their jobs, the numbers tell the story; Keroack told the assembled press that Baystate had 1,800 vacancies at that point in time in a total workforce of 13,000, roughly 14% of its workforce. In normal times, the number of vacancies would be closer to 500.

Dr. Robert Roose

Dr. Robert Roose

“Long-term, we could build some strength out of this. But short-term, it’s going to be very challenging.”

“About one in five healthcare workers has left the field since the start of the pandemic, and clearly that has shown up in our institution as well,” he remarked. “It’s been especially hard for bedside caregivers; many nurses have taken early retirement, and it has also affected respiratory therapy and pharmacy, and it’s been hardest for our entry-level employees — medical assistants, various technical positions, nurses’ aides, environmental workers, food-service workers.”

Roose said the numbers are similar at Mercy, with vacancy rates of 10% to 15%, with ‘functional’ vacancy rates, those that take into account open positions but also those employees on leave, being much higher, in some departments as much as 30% or more.

At Cooley Dickinson, Watkins noted, the number fluctuates anywhere between 9% and 12%, with the majority in nursing and nursing support.

In response to these developments, hospitals have made adjustments, said those we spoke with, including higher wages for many positions, expanded benefits eligibility, bonuses, ramped-up recruiting efforts, job fairs, and other steps, all aimed at bringing improvement when it comes to both hiring and retention.

And in some respects, they’re working, said Keroack, noting that these efforts are bringing in between 100 and 150 new workers each week, with the ratio of people coming in to those leaving being roughly 2 to 1.

“So we’re gaining on the problem, but it still quite significant,” he said, adding that, to that point in time, the system had spent roughly $40 million on bonuses and shift differentials, and another $40 million on contract-labor expenses, for calendar year 2021.

Looking ahead, those we spoke with said that, eventually, the laws of supply and demand will being improvement to the staffing crisis, but relief is not likely to come any time soon.

Keroack said part of the problem, especially when it comes to nurses, is simply getting enough people into and then through the pipeline.

“There’s a tremendous shortage of nursing faculty members — we had a number of senior seniors take early retirement — and so the pipeline simply wasn’t fat enough to completely replenish the pool in a quick amount of time,” he said. “We have waiting lists of people wanting to go to nursing school, but they’re limited by the number of clinical placements and the number of faculty.”

Roose agreed. “I think that at some point, a few years from now, things will start to settle out, perhaps sooner if there can be some major interventions at the federal level from a legislative perspective, as well as reconnecting with some of the meaning behind why people get into healthcare in the first place,” he noted. “This can spur people to enter the field as a result of wanting to be part of something so transformative.

“Long-term, we could build some strength out of this,” he went on. “But short-term, it’s going to be very challenging.”

The same can be said the mounting mental-health crisis impacting the region and the entire country, said Watkins, expressing optimism that American Rescue Plan Act funds can and will be put to use to address this emerging issue.

“A lot of what’s coming through this act will definitely help on all fronts and all healthcare providers,” she explained, “but especially our mental-health professionals and building that pipeline to increase access to care — because we’ve all suffered, and if we’re not looking into mental-health support services, we should.”

And while COVID has certainly given all those in healthcare a number of headaches and challenges, it has also given this sector the opportunity, born of necessity, to innovate and find and new and often better ways of doing things and caring for patients, said Watkins, adding that perhaps the best example of this is the rise of telehealth, a trend that will certainly continue in 2022 and beyond.

“While a lot of people might have thought about telehealth before the first wave of the pandemic, now it’s here, and it’s here to stay,” she said, with conviction in her voice. “Whether it’s teleradiology, teleneurology, or other ways of engaging telehealth … this has emerged as one of the key delivery options of the future; there’s more access, without the inconvenience of travel and waiting. The emergence of telehealth has been a real game changer.”

Summing things up, Watkins maintained her glass-half-full outlook, but stressed repeatedly that 2022 will pose the same challenges as the past two years, and they will likely increase in intensity before there is solid improvement.

“We have a very, very depleted workforce,” she said while speaking for all her colleagues in the industry, “and a very, very sick population.”

 

— George O’Brien

Economic Outlook

Region’s Colleges, Universities Face More Stern Tests in 2022

 

Looking ahead to 2022, Sandra Doran projects that this will be what she called “the year of the woman.”

Elaborating, she said many women have put their lives, careers, and educational goals on hold the past few years. And she projects that many will be making up for lost time in the months to come as the region and its large and important higher-education sector look to return to something that has been quite elusive since March 2020: normalcy.

“COVID has had a disproportionate impact on women, both in the workforce and in higher education,” said Doran, president of Bay Path University in Longmeadow, a women’s college, at least at the undergraduate level. “Many people lost their jobs, and many students weren’t able to continue, especially our adult students, those who work and live and go to school, and our graduate students — many of them had to delay their own aspirations. And I see many people saying, ‘I’m not going to put that aside any longer.’”

Sandra Doran

Sandra Doran

“Many people lost their jobs, and many students weren’t able to continue, especially our adult students, those who work and live and go to school, and our graduate students — many of them had to delay their own aspirations. And I see many people saying, ‘I’m not going to put that aside any longer.’”

The area’s colleges certainly need this to be the year of the woman — and a better year all around. Many had been struggling with enrollment before the pandemic, due to smaller high-school graduating classes, but other factors as well. And the pandemic only exacerbated the problem, with enrollment down more than 3% nationally in the fall of 2021.

The region’s community colleges have been the hardest-hit, with double-digit drops in enrollment at all of them over the past two years, but all schools have been impacted by COVID.

“Like every state university in Massachusetts, we’re having enrollment challenges,” said Linda Thompson, who took the helm at Westfield State University last summer, noting that many are still wary about attending college in the midst of a pandemic.

Those we spoke with said ‘normal’ was something they were anticipating would return last fall. Indeed, as COVID cases plummeted over the summer and the economy reopened across the board, there were high expectations for that fall semester, said Harry Dumay, president of Elms College in Chicopee. But the Delta variant showed how quickly the picture, and expectations, can change.

And as the new year dawns, COVID and its Omicron variant loom large over this sector, with some uncertainty about whether schools can open their campuses for the spring semester (several closed their doors as Omicron cases spiked in the middle of December) and under what circumstances they can reopen.

“Fall of 2021 was actually a very good enrollment period for us.”

“We’ll be watching over the break to see how things develop, and we will have contingency plans in place if we need to do anything different,” said Dumay, adding that returning students must be vaccinated and receive their boosters as soon as they are eligible. “We’ll be as cautious and prudent as we were in the fall of 2021, and even more so, given what we’ve seen from Omicron.”

There are other challenges as well, especially a workforce crisis that hasn’t spared any sector, especially higher education.

“We have jobs that are going unfilled; we have jobs where, in the past, we’d have 100 applicants — we’re just not seeing that anymore,” said Thompson, noting this trend involves positions at every level and shows few if any signs of abating any time soon.

But amid the questions, concern, and uncertainty, there is also optimism, expressed by Dumay and others, that 2022, and especially the fall semester, will bring improvement on enrollment numbers and a return to something approaching normal.

Harry Dumay says he’s confident about the way enrollment is trending at the Elms heading into 2022.

Harry Dumay says he’s confident about the way enrollment is trending at the Elms heading into 2022.

Or continued improvement, as the case may be.

“Fall of 2021 was actually a very good enrollment period for us,” said Dumay, adding that, after a slight decline in the fall of 2020, the first semester after COVID made its arrival, the school — bucking those national trends — saw record applications among traditional, first-time freshmen, close to record acceptances, and one of the highest enrollment numbers for first-time freshmen in more than a decade.

Meanwhile, the numbers for transfer students and graduate students were also solid, with the latter helped by the opening of a graduate admissions office, he went on, adding that the only segment that was down was continuing education, the students who transfer from community colleges, a statistic in keeping with the struggles at those schools.

“As we look to the fall of 2022, everything is trending as it was in the fall of 2021,” he went on. “In fact, we’re ahead, year over year, in terms of applications, and all three segments that were good last year continue to look very solid for 2022.”

Doran shared that optimism. “I feel very confident about next fall,” she said. “Many students had an online experience over the past few years in high school, and now, they’re looking for a more personalized, in-person fall experience, and that’s what we’re really good at.

“I really see this as a very strong year for women in education and women in the workforce,” she went on. “And I feel that way for several reasons, starting with the fact that I hear women say, ‘we can no longer put on our lives on hold — we have to move forward aggressively, and part of our life plan is to make sure we have the right education.’

“But we also hear from employers that they’re very eager to fill their talent pipeline,” she went on. “They know our students, that they’re well-qualified and exceptional employees, and we’re working very closely with employers to make sure our curriculum provides our students with the strengths, capabilities, skillsets, and thinking ability to succeed; I see it on both sides of the equation.”

Linda Thompson

Linda Thompson

“We’re looking at more things we can do with community colleges. We need to streamline pathways from high school to community college to four-year institutions. These are the things that are going to much more prevalent moving forward.”

When asked if the phrase ‘pent-up demand,’ which is being heard in many contexts as the economy continues to grow, also pertains to higher education, those we spoke with offered a qualified ‘yes,’ noting that there is demand for education that is career-focused.

“I think we’re going to see increased enrollment in the online space, and I think it’s because women know that, to advance their careers and to realize their career aspirations, many of them need a credential, a bachelor’s degree, a master’s degree — if you’re going to teach in Massachusetts, eventually you’ll need a master’s degree,” Doran said. “There’s a lot of momentum around educational attainment, particularly for our students. That’s because we’re really focused on student services, internship, career development, and making sure our curriculum aligns with workforce needs.”

Thompson agreed, noting that, as the number of high-school graduates continues to decline, colleges and universities need to increase their focus on those who may have tried college and stopped because life got in the way.

“Now, they’re probably looking for opportunities for growth and moving up in their jobs,” she noted. “So we need to do more to reach adult populations; faculty are starting to look at the way they offer courses, and probably will be offering more things in a blended format.

“Also, we’re looking at more things we can do with community colleges,” she went on. “We need to streamline pathways from high school to community college to four-year institutions. These are the things that are going to much more prevalent moving forward.”

Beyond enrollment and a long list or protocols to be followed and updated as necessary, COVID has brought other challenges as well, and these will certainly continue in 2022, said those we spoke with. Dumay told BusinessWest that managing through the pandemic has been difficult and exhausting on many levels.

“Across higher education, and across all industries, for that matter, people are tired,” he said. “If you ask any college president, they would say they and their teams are … fill in your favorite word — they’re on edge, they’re tired, they’re demoralized. And we’re paying attention to all that.”

Elaborating, he said ‘all that’ means paying more attention to the needs of students, obviously, but also faculty and staff, many of whom are coping with pandemic-related issues off the job as well as on it, and also focusing on the mental health of students.

“Students have different ways of coping with the uncertainty of the time,” he said. “And we’re seeing, across all campuses, a lot more students with mental-health issues, and COVID is exacerbating that.

“All of these things have created a whole lot of challenges, and there’s been very little let-up,” Dumay said in conclusion, adding that this trend, in addition to all the others, will almost certainly continue into the new year.”

Thompson agreed. “I think we’re going to be living with this virus for a long time,” she said. “I see it continuing to mutate; I see us having to be vigilant with hand washing, wearing masks, paying attention to our health and well-being, and doing whatever we need to do.”

 

— George O’Brien

Economic Outlook

Many Are Busy, But Challenges Linger as the New Year Dawns

 

Bart Raser says customers, contractors, and homeowners have all felt frustration

Bart Raser says customers, contractors, and homeowners have all felt frustration when their favorite brands aren’t available.

Bart Raser started by stating the obvious: 2021, like 2020, was “a great year to be in the hardware business.”

Indeed, many of those who found themselves working at home, or just spending more time at home because of COVID, found themselves wanting to work on their homes as well, and that certainly brought more customers — contractors and do-it-your-selfers alike — to the doors of the eight Carr Hardware locations, six in Western Mass. and two in Northern Conn., with the flagship store in Pittsfield.

But while business has certainly been good, there have been myriad challenges as well, from workforce shortages — which Raser, the company’s president, has largely been able to avoid, and he’s one of the few who can really say that — to inflation, production, and supply-chain issues, caused in large part by that soaring demand and a workforce crisis that no one in his sector has been able to avoid.

And that’s why large orders of grass seed, bird food, and other spring items will be arriving at those stores in a few days or a few weeks, rather than in mid-March, as is customary, because Raser’s team ordered well in advance to make sure the shelves would be stocked. And that’s also why he’s predicting it will be very difficult to buy a new lawnmower come April, and those forced to do so will pay a steep price for that item.

“Lawnmowers for spring look tricky — really, really tricky,” he told BusinessWest. “Some of the big manufacturers got out, and … there will be fewer choices and significantly higher prices.”

Raser’s story has its own specific nuances, but there are common threads for most all small-business owners in the region. For many, business has been good, although in most cases still not as good as before the pandemic. But there have been — and will continue to be — headwinds, like inflation, shortages of products that consumers want, lingering workforce issues, and the impact of all of the above on the bottom line.

Kris Houghton, a partner with the Holyoke-based accounting firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka, said 2021 was a time when her small-business clients were looking to put COVID behind them. That didn’t happen, obviously, and as they continued to battle the pandemic and many new challenges emerged or escalated, especially the workforce crisis and the rising cost of everything from labor to health insurance.

“There’s definitely an employee shortage, which is causing employers to have to pay more than they would otherwise have paid in the past,” she explained. “And, of course, paying more leads to two things: they either increase prices to their customers, or there is less profit for them in the end. It’s a compounding problem, and the biggest issue is employees.”

But there are others, including supply chain, she said, adding that businesses in many sectors could have done better in 2021, if they only had product to sell or produce. That’s true of auto dealers, obviously, but also hardware chains, restaurants, and manufacturers.

“Supply chain is also a big problem because, if businesses can’t get the product, they can’t sell it,” Houghton noted. “And if they want the product bad enough, they pay increased shipping costs to try to make product available; all this is leading to diminished bottom lines.”

And these dynamics become even more critical in the months ahead, she went on, because most federal support programs, from PPP to the employee-retention credit, have expired or soon will.

“Those were lifelines to try to restore a little bit to their bottom lines,” she said. “So there is concern about the future. In New England, we’re resilient, and some businesses were fortunate enough to have some reserves that can help them carry on. I don’t know about the other businesses. Are they going to be able to borrow? Are they going to run up costly debt? Are business owners going to be relying on credit cards, which come with 18% interest? These are some of the questions that will be answered in 2022.”

“Supply chain is also a big problem because, if businesses can’t get the product, they can’t sell it. And if they want the product bad enough, they pay increased shipping costs to try to make product available; all this is leading to diminished bottom lines.”

As noted, 2021 was a solid year for many small businesses, especially those in manufacturing and related services. Jeanne Bell, controller and co-owner of Westside Finishing Co. in Holyoke, spoke for many when she said her company struggled to keep up with demand from customers who saw a surge in orders themselves.

“We ended up having a really good year,” she said. “It started off rocky, of course — the first two quarters, we were eligible for the employee-retention credit, but the second half of the year has been really, really busy, and it looks like it’s going to continue into next year.”

She said Westside is a job shop that power-coats parts and ships them back out again. Clients, and there are many, include OEMs like East Longmeadow-based Excel Dryer.

“We work for a variety of industries, and all of them are busy right now,” she told BusinessWest. “We’re actually turning down work right now because we can’t do it all; we would have to start a second shift to have more capacity, and we probably wouldn’t mind doing that if we thought we could get the people, but that’s our biggest challenge — workforce.”

Elaborating, she said the company’s labor costs rose in 2021, and one of the big reasons why was the need to hire additional staff to fill in for those out with COVID. And those additional costs kept this past year from being as profitable as others in the past.

Looking back, and ahead, she said overall sales in 2021 were not quite at pre-COVID levels. But she believes the company can get there in 2022, if current trends involving customers continue, if the economy continues to grow, and if some of those issues impacting clients themselves, including production and supply chain, work themselves out.

That’s a good number of ‘ifs,’ but overall, she said there is ample reason to be optimistic about the year ahead.

“We’re actually turning down work right now because we can’t do it all; we would have to start a second shift to have more capacity, and we probably wouldn’t mind doing that if we thought we could get the people, but that’s our biggest challenge — workforce.”

Raser concurred, but noted that most of the issues that came to the surface in 2021, especially when it comes to production and supply-chain woes — due to everything from soaring demand to workforce shortages to that large number of container ships waiting in a queue to be unloaded — are expected to linger well into 2022. He said roughly 3,000 of the 38,000 products his company sells have been impacted by both production and supply-chain issues, with that list including everything from paint and batteries to plumbing supplies and those aforementioned lawnmowers and other types of power equipment.

Paint manufacturers have been especially hard hit, he noted, adding that resin plants in Texas were set back by a succession of natural disasters, including the snow and freezing temperatures last winter and, later, hurricanes, as well as workforce challenges.

“All the big manufacturers of paint — Sherwin Williams, PPG, and Benjamin Moore — are all really struggling,” he noted. “And our painting contractors are very frustrated, as are their customers and homeowners as well. We’re been around a long time and have a lot of brands, so we’re able to pull a lot of levers to keep items in stock, but people have to flexible — they may have to consider moving to a different brand or a different product to get their project done.”

That part about being flexible goes for small businesses as well. This past year was solid for many of them, but business wasn’t the ‘normal’ that people had been hoping for, and expecting, around this time last year.

As we turn the calendars again, there are similar hopes and large doses of optimism, but the reality is that normal, as we knew it 22 months ago, is still an elusive target.

 

— George O’Brien

Economic Outlook

There Were Glimpses of Progress in 2021, and More Are Expected

When asked to project what lies ahead, Rick Sullivan said he believes the region got a taste of what he expects 2022 will be like last summer and early fall — before Delta and Omicron entered the lexicon.

Flashing back, he said the tourism sector was rebounding on many levels, with the Big E on its way to a very solid year, many other attractions across the region open again, and most all restaurants and other types of venues taking full advantage of large amounts of pent-up demand.

Meanwhile, the housing market was (and still is) booming, in part because there was considerable interest in moving to this region among those in Boston, New York, and other markets due to the growing popularity, and availability, of remote work. And the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council, which Sullivan serves as president and CEO, was seeing an uptick in inquiries and site searches involving the region, with much of the interest coming from transportation and distribution companies, but also some manufacturers as well.

Rick Sullivan

Rick Sullivan

“From a retail and from a travel and tourism point of view, the future looks bright, and we had that taste of it.”

“We didn’t quite get to where we thought we’d be when we looked into our crystal balls at the start of 2021, but I thought we caught a glimpse of where we will be in the summer and early fall,” he said. “From a retail and from a travel and tourism point of view, the future looks bright, and we had that taste of it.”

That ‘taste,’ as Sullivan called it, could be a preview of 2022, and there is considerable optimism that it will be. But there are many question marks regarding what’s on the horizon, and most all of them are COVID-related in some way, shape, or form.

That includes a workforce crisis that has impacted every sector of the economy and spawned the term ‘Great Resignation,’ as well as supply-chain issues, enormous stress and strain on healthcare providers, and a host of challenges for small businesses, including, by and large, the end to COVID-generated federal relief measures such as PPP and the employee-retention credit.

As for COVID, itself, its unpredictability — and deep impact on the economy and specific business sectors — were on full display in December, said Tom Senecal, president of Holyoke-based PeoplesBank, citing postponed business conferences, canceled holiday parties (including one scheduled by his company), and the ripple effect all this had on businesses that were projecting a far better end to 2021, as just one example.

“COVID is going to be the impactful event of the beginning of 2022 — it might alter the way we continue to do business,” he said. “It comes down to mandates and whether businesses can stay open. Some colleges are closing; think about how it might affect the Amherst and Northampton market if colleges are closing and maybe not reopening depending upon how COVID goes.”

But despite great uncertainty about COVID and other issues, such as inflation and the fact that is no longer transitory in the eyes of the Fed, there is optimism that soon — how soon no one knows — the region may be see more of what it caught a glimpse of in 2021.

Vince Jackson, executive director of the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce, said many businesses returned to 2019 levels of revenue last year, and many others that didn’t at least came close, with expections that they will in the year ahead. But in many ways, the situation is similar to what the region was experiencing a year ago. As 2021 dawned, there was a general feeling that the worst was over and that ‘normal’ was maybe a quarter or two away. The reality was much different, of course.

“One of the things we learned from 2021 is that things are ever-changing,” he explained. “The outlook could be one way today, but end up being very different. We didn’t know what to expect at the end of 2020 as we headed into 2021, and we were just hoping for the best. And … here we are again, ending the year with a lot of uncertainty, just as much uncertainty going into 2022.”

As the new year starts, Jackson noted, many business owners, especially those in the retail and hospitality sectors that dominate Northampton’s economy, are looking for more consistent statewide direction regarding masking, vaccinations, and other COVID-related matters.

Vince Jackson

Vince JacksonVince Jackson

“One of the things we learned from 2021 is that things are ever-changing. The outlook could be one way today, but end up being very different. We didn’t know what to expect at the end of 2020 as we headed into 2021, and we were just hoping for the best. And … here we are again, ending the year with a lot of uncertainty, just as much uncertainty going into 2022.”

“Most business owners are looking for guidance on masking so that they don’t have to end up being the mask police,” he said, adding that many have questions about whether masks should be mandated or simply advised, because business can be lost depending on the answer.

Like Sullivan and others we spoke with, Jackson said 2021, or at least a short slice of it during the summer, provided a glimpse of what everyone is hoping for in 2022.

“As the year went on, things got better,” he recalled. “Summer came, the economy reopened, and people were ready to get outside and return to a sense of normalcy. We saw that in almost every sector of business, and the response was beyond expectations because of the community’s response, the public’s response, to returning to what was normal for them.

“From a restaurant standpoint, there was outdoor dining for those not quite ready to get out as much, and there was still takeout. But then, there was a whole statewide initiative to push indoor dining because we had the vaccines and things were safe,” he went on. “As I look back, I think we need to learn from history because we’re kind of in the same cycle in most people’s minds.”

Looking back at 2021, Jackson said the dominant limiting factor for most businesses was workforce. It kept many restaurants closed an additional day, or even two, each week, and it kept many types of businesses from realizing their full potential as the economy roared back to life in last spring and summer as COVID restrictions were lifted.

Thus, perhaps the biggest question hanging over 2022, beyond COVID, of course, is whether there will be any improvement on the labor front.

Tom Senecal says COVID is going to be the impactful

Tom Senecal says COVID is going to be the impactful event of early 2022, and might continue to alter the way business is done.

It’s too early to tell, but at present, there are few signs of real progress, said Senecal, who related a recent experience at the bank that speaks volumes about how deep and widespread the problem is.

“We had an open, entry-level position a few months ago that 16 people applied for; 16 people set up an interview, and 16 people didn’t show up the interview,” he recalled. “No phone call, no nothing.”

As alarming as that is, what’s perhaps more disconcerting is a lack of solid answers for what is behind this and similar episodes being recorded at businesses across the region.

“I don’t know what that says,” Senecal said, with a note of exasperation in his voice. “This was a few months ago, after the unemployment benefits ran out. I don’t understand that phenomenon and why it’s happening now.”

Sullivan concurred, and said that what the past few months have clearly shown is that the problem is much deeper than unemployment benefits and also rests with issues such as childcare, elder care, and the retirement of many in the Baby Boom generation.

“Every business has the help-wanted sign out, and you’ve seen things like sign-on bonuses and higher wages, which I think is a healthy thing for the economy,” he told BusinessWest. “Our employers have had to get a little more creative with incentives to keep the employees they have, and they’ve had to do things to bring new workers in. It’s not a regional problem, but a national one, and it’s one we’re going to have to come to grips with in 2022.”

“Our employers have had to get a little more creative with incentives to keep the employees they have, and they’ve had to do things to bring new workers in. It’s not a regional problem, but a national one, and it’s one we’re going to have to come to grips with in 2022.”

Meanwhile, there are other challenges the region must contend with in the weeks, months, and quarters to come.

“Supply chain and inflation are the two biggest economic dampers, both nationally and regionally,” Senecal said. “Core inflation is up 6%, gas is up 33%, cars are up 12% … when you talk inflation, it’s not the 6%, it’s the things outside the core inflation index that are really driving up prices. And the Fed has taken the words ‘temporary’ or ‘transitory’ out of their projections, meaning the Fed believes it’s real inflation.”

But while there are challenges, there are opportunities as well, said those we spoke with, noting that 2021 brought some positive signs when it comes to interest among both individuals and businesses alike to come to Western Mass. to take advantage of its quality of life and lower overall cost of living.

As for individuals, many have decided they can live in the 413 and work essentially wherever they want, said Sullivan, adding that this dynamic certainly impacted the local housing market, driving prices higher as inventory levels fell, following the laws of supply and demand.

And on the business side, there has been an uptick in activity when it comes to site selectors inquiring about the 413.

“We currently have more than 40 site searches going on, and that number has been pretty consistent for us over the past year or two,” he said. “And that’s a healthy number; it’s at the high end of what we’ve traditionally seen. It doesn’t mean that everyone is going to come here, obviously, but it does mean that people are out there looking.

“And the big difference this year, as opposed to perhaps few years ago, is that this interest comes in different sectors,” Sullivan went on. “We’ve always been historically attractive to the transportation and logistics companies because we’re at the crossroads of New England, and businesses can easily serve the Northeast given the Turnpike, I-91, and the other highways here, and rail and the airports. But we’re seeing the sectors increase, everything from manufacturing, which we had not seen a lot of, to cybersecurity and Big Data, such as the proposal for Westfield.”

Overall, Sullivan and others said the trends, both positive and negative, will continue into 2022, which should — and COVID will obviously have a lot to say about this — provide more than just a glimpse, or taste, of better times.

 

— George O’Brien

Economic Outlook

Optimism Abounds, but Many Factors Make It Difficult to Project

Bob Nakosteen started his discussion concerning the regional and national economy with a quick rejoinder that doubled as something to top everyone’s wish list.

“Well, if we put aside COVID…” he started while talking about the year ahead and, more specifically, about inflation and optimism that the Fed’s anticipated actions to raise interest rates will stem the rising tide of the past few quarters and bring it more under control in the months to come.

Overall (COVID notwithstanding), Nakosteen, a semi-retired professor of Economics at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst, said most factors involving the economy are positive — everything from consumer confidence to jobless rates; from a still-white-hot housing market to persistent pent-up demand for goods and services, especially the former.

Of course, you can’t take COVID out of the equation, as much as we all might like to, and that’s why predicting just what will happen in 2022 with regard to the economy and the many forces that drive it is still somewhat of a crapshoot.

Still, there is general optimism when it comes to the big picture and matters such as inflation — even though the Fed and others have dropped the word ‘transitory’ when talking about the issue — confidence, supply chain, the stock market, and perhaps even the workforce crisis, said Nakosteen and others we spoke with.

Karl Petrick

“The Fed wants to make sure it doesn’t jam on the brakes and raise interest rates so fast that they cause the recession they’re trying to avoid. It’s not good to get a recession named after you.”

Indeed, earlier this month, in a note to clients, Marko Kalanovic, JPMorgan’s chief global strategist, wrote, “our view is that 2022 will be a year of a full global recovery, and end of the global pandemic, and return to normal conditions we had prior to the COVID-19 outbreak.”

All that might still happen in the next 12 months, but the events of the past few weeks show that recovery may be slower, and perhaps not as complete as JPMorgan projects.

Karl Petrick, a professor of Economics at Western New England University, told BusinessWest that inflation should ease up in 2022 and retreat from highs of nearly 7% (year over year) in November to below 5% and perhaps to 4% or even 3% in the months ahead.

He said soaring gas prices, triggered by the laws of supply and demand as the economy started to roar back to life roughly a year ago, have been a big factor in soaring inflation, and they have already started to fall.

“It takes time for supply to meet that surge in demand, and as oil suppliers rebound, we expect to see that price come down, and we’re already seeing some moderation,” he said, adding that, if the impact of Omicron on the global economy is substantial — and already there are signs of slowdown and even shutdown in some countries — then demand for energy (and, therefore, the prices for same) will come down.

“Regardless, we expect to see inflation moderate,” he said. “It will still be a little uncomfortable compared to what we’re used to — we had gotten used to prices going up 2% or 1% a year, and that was part of the shock we felt as prices really started to jump the second half of this year — but things will improve.”

One key to what happens with inflation is action on interest rates, said Nakosteen and Petrick, noting that the Fed is certainly paving the way for higher rates. In mid-December, the central bank announced plans to phase out its large-scale bond-buying program faster than initially planned. That will give the Fed more flexibility to raise rates, and 12 of the 18 members of the Fed’s rate-setting committee expect rates to rise by three-quarters of a percentage point or more in 2022.

While such action is expected to keep higher inflation from becoming more entrenched, there are risks and costs to raising rates, said Petrick, adding that the Fed wants to keep inflation in check without slowing the pace of growth or, far worse, putting the country on a course to a recession.

That’s what happened in the early ’80s, he said, when then Fed Chairman Paul Volker elevated interest rates to historic levels, which triggered a recession that, in many historical references, bears his name.

Bob Nakosteen

Bob Nakosteen

“I don’t think the Fed is going to have to raise interest rates to the point where it’s going to dip us into a recession.”

“The Fed wants to make sure it doesn’t jam on the brakes and raise interest rates so fast that they cause the recession they’re trying to avoid,” Petrick said. “It’s not good to get a recession named after you.”

Nakosteen agreed, and said that, overall, he’s in the camp that believes that higher inflation as was seen over the last three quarters of 2021 will be transitory — and not built into the economy, as others predict — but perhaps for a longer period than everyone would like. He also agrees that, while the Fed is talking tough about inflation and the need to keep it in check, its overall response will not be as tough as the talk.

“I don’t think the Fed is going to have to raise interest rates to the point where it’s going to dip us into a recession,” he told BusinessWest. “The economy is going to continue to grow, maybe not as quickly, inflation is going to come down over the next year, and interest rates are going to go up, but not by very much; it will affect the housing market and automobiles.”

Petrick agreed, projecting “pretty reasonable” growth for the year ahead, but adding quickly that events of even the past few weeks — the rise of Omicron and setbacks for President Biden’s Build Back Better program among them — have tempered some of those expectations.

“At the beginning of December, before we knew the Omicron variant was as prevalent as it was internationally, growth projections were pretty high, about 4% to 5% globally, and about 4% in the United States,” he said. “And then … those projections came down to about 3.7% to 3.8%, and now, with the doubts about the Build Back Better agenda getting through Congress, they’ve been downgraded again, to 3% to 3.5% on an annual basis next year — that’s the consensus that I’ve seen.

“But the first quarter will be pretty quiet, with about 2% growth, which was our average, pre-COVID,” he went on. “And that’s a big slowdown from this year, when we saw 5.5% growth overall, which was expected.”

As for the longer-term picture … Petrick said the consensus, if there is one, is that there will be continued growth in 2023, perhaps 2.5% to 2.9%. But as the events of the past few weeks have shown, things can change — and very quickly.

So projecting too far out is obviously difficult. For now, there is widespread if cautious optimism about which way the arrow will point in 2022.

But as Nakosteen noted, the past two long and mostly painful years have shown that there is simply no putting COVID aside. u

 

— George O’Brien

Cover Story

Standing Out in His Field

Myke Connolly is a serial entrepreneur who has always understood — and always preached — the power of marketing.

Myke Connolly is a serial entrepreneur who has always understood — and always preached — the power of marketing.

Myke Connolly, known to some as Mr. Stinky Cakes, is a serial entrepreneur who has always understood — and always preached — the power of marketing. His latest venture is a business that brings that message to light, figuratively but also quite literally. Stand Out Truck has now attracted clients ranging from parents of high-school graduates to the local shop to President Biden — or at least one of his marketing teams. The goal is to make this a national brand, and he’s well down that road.

Myke Connolly says the e-mail found its way into his inbox around 2 that Monday afternoon.

The firm handling some marketing and promotion work for the Biden administration wanted to know if Connolly and his team at Stand Out Truck could have one of his vehicles — pickup trucks outfitted to carry digital wording and imaging — in New Hampshire the next day to present a message promoting the president’s Build Back Better plan of action.

The quick answer, as it almost always is with such inquiries, was ‘yes.’

By early that evening, the message “Better Roads. Better Bridges. Better Jobs. — Brought to you by Joe Biden” — complete with a picture of the 46th president — had been readied, and before dawn the next morning, a crew was on its way to the Granite State.

“We spent some time in Manchester, then we went to Woodstock, where the president spoke in front of that bridge, and then we went back to Manchester, and then back to Springfield — it was an eight-hour campaign,” he noted, adding that, other than the name on the account, this was much like most of his gigs to date.

The assignment from the Biden camp gives Connolly and Stand Out Truck (SOT) a new and impressive top line for its growing list of clients, and a new example of how quickly the company can respond to client needs and present a message to an intended audience.

And since this serial entrepreneur known to some as ‘Mr. Stinky Cakes’ launched this venture just as the pandemic was arriving in this region (more on that later), there have been all kinds of messages — and all kinds of audiences.

In that first category, there’s been everything from birthday wishes and congratulations to a high-school or college graduate to last-minute messages from political candidates; from invites to a pitch contest to welcome messages from a bank with a new branch in the neighborhood. The audiences, meanwhile, have ranged from families to groups attending a VFW-sponsored car show to cities and counties, as in New Hampshire.

Stand Out Truck landed a high-profile assignment helping President Biden promote his Build Back Better plan.

Stand Out Truck landed a high-profile assignment helping President Biden promote his Build Back Better plan.

And while the concept is gathering speed, as well as clients, Connolly believes he’s just getting started. Indeed, while he has one eye on the present and his two trucks on the road, his other is on the future and prospects for taking the business to the regional and even national levels, with perhaps licensing options (there’s already one of those in place) and franchising.

“The goal is to build a national brand — eventually, I want to take my company public,” he said, adding that he’s building for the long term and striving for steady growth.

Meanwhile, Connolly, 39, lives by what he encourages his clients to do — aggressively marketing his business. He said the Biden camp found him not by accident, but because he’s visible and always promoting what he does. And he advises businesses — and those politicians — to do the same; indeed, Stand Out Truck is an offshoot, or expansion, of a marketing business he started called Launch and Stand Out Agency. That’s the same title he put on a book he wrote in 2013.

“We make ourselves so visible and so accessible, we have some high-profile people that reach out to us all the time,” he explained, he said, adding that his business model is all about getting a message across — figuratively, but, in the case of his trucks, also quite literally.

“The goal is to build a national brand — eventually, I want to take my company public.”

And this new venture is the culmination of three decades (yes, he started when he was in grammar school) of being in business and marketing himself and his products and services.

“I always tell people … it’s not the truck,” he said. “It’s everything behind it; that’s why it works.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Connolly about his latest venture, a lifetime (almost) of entrepreneurship, and how, in his words, he’s marketing “in slow motion.”

 

Seeing His Name in Lights

Connolly’s relatively new mailing address is a small suite in the Venture X complex — a co-working space — in Holyoke. Along one wall of that space is a collection of more than 100 photos of his Stand Out Trucks in action.

The wall is almost entirely full, and these framed images speak to just how far this venture has come in almost two years. And as he talked, Connolly kept gesturing … to the Biden assignment. To his message to an employee enjoying a birthday — “his phone was ringing all day because people were seeing the truck.” To at least a half-dozen political candidates and their messages. To several corporate clients with various messages. To high-school graduates … the list goes on.

One wall of Myke Connolly’s space at Venture X

One wall of Myke Connolly’s space at Venture X is covered by photos of his Stand Out Trucks in action.

The road to filling that wall has been a long one, with a number of twists and turns.

As noted earlier, Connolly is a serial entrepreneur. He’s been in business and marketing, and also studying business and marketing, to some extent since he was 9.

Connolly grew up in the Bahamas and spent a lot of his time with his stepfather, who owned a pest-control business. He remembers a lot about those days, but especially what he saw on the coffee tables and TVs of clients, especially the wealthy ones. The coffee tables boasted business magazines, and the TVs had shows with the stock-market crawler at the bottom.

“I would go home and watch the TV show with the ticker,” he recalled. “I understood nothing, but I knew enough to know that all these successful people were doing the same thing — and watching that ticker — so there had to be something to that.”

While watching, he did a lot of reading and learned about successful entrepreneurs like Yankee Candle founder Mike Kittredge, Vermont Teddy Bear founder John Sortino, and many others — stories he said he could understand as a young person and draw inspiration from.

When, in 2008, he started his first business, Stinky Cakes, which offered practical gifts to new parents such as cakes shaped from diapers (hence the name), he would call on Kittredge, Sortino, and some of the others to talk about marketing, brand building, and much more.

“In month two, they started canceling graduations. So I said, ‘forget about selling ad space to businesses … I’m just going to go celebrate all these kids that I know.’ I turned it into a graduation truck.”

“These guys were in my phone; when I had questions, I would call them,” he told BusinessWest. “And that’s why I encourage kids today to read and to learn about entrepreneurs, and to reach out to them; truly successful people always want to find a way to help.”

As for marketing, Connolly says he’s been doing that since he was 9, when he would take some of the candy his grandmother would bring back from trips to Florida and sell it to classmates in school.

“I had flavors, like Jolly Ranchers, that the school store didn’t have,” he explained. “I didn’t know it was marketing at the time, but I started giving the candy to kids in my class. That’s how simple marketing is — showing people that would buy what you have that you have what they want.”

As a result of his success in business and marketing, Connolly was asked to do some teaching, guest lecturing, and mentoring of young entrepreneurs by groups like Valley Venture Mentors and EforAll Holyoke.

He focuses heavily on building credit, creating solid cash flow, and sound money management. “If you don’t know how to manage your money, none of this will ever work,” he said. “I say, ‘you can be making $1 million a year, but it you’re spending $1.5 million … then you’re in big trouble.’”

One course he’s taught is called the “100 Grand Plan,” which, as that name suggests, advises those taking it on how to make their first $100,000. Among the keys to doing so, and one that is often overlooked, is marketing.

“In order to make money, you have to understand marketing, but no matter how much we laid it out and taught them, some of them just didn’t get it,” he told BusinessWest. “So some of them started asking me to do their marketing for them.”

This led to the creation of the Launch and Stand Out agency, he went on, adding that one of his clients wanted to feature children on billboards across the country and hired him to do some of the buying of space on those boards.

This experience prompted him to want become part of what’s known as the ‘out-of-home’ advertising business, and, specifically, digital billboards — in this case, ones that move.

“I had a group of really intelligent engineers put together the truck … and we just started,” he said, joking that he could have bought two Ferraris for what he spent on the trucks and the related equipment.

 

The Road to Success

A big component of any business venture is timing, said Connolly, adding that, with Stand Out Truck, his was awful. For the most part, anyway.

He launched on March 9, 2020, a carefully chosen date that coincides with the death (in 1997) of rapper Biggie Smalls. Unfortunately, it also coincided with the arrival of COVID-19. Indeed, just as he was putting his trucks on the road, the state and most all businesses were shutting down, and people across the region were hunkering down.

Myke Connolly’s clients run the gamut

Myke Connolly’s clients run the gamut from local organizations to national brands.

It was a tough time to start, but Connelly, again practicing what he preaches — in lectures to college students, advice to young entrepreneurs, and also in the book he wrote called Launch and Stand Out — made sure he started out with enough capital to withstand what he expected would be a few soft months of getting his name and product out and building up the business.

Business turned out to even softer than he anticipated. But he was helped by some of those connections he made teaching and lecturing in area colleges.

“In month two, they started canceling graduations,” he recalled. “So I said, ‘forget about selling ad space to businesses … I’m just going to go celebrate all these kids that I know.’ I turned it into a graduation truck.”

Elaborating, he said he essentially covered half the cost of hiring one of his trucks to celebrate a graduate himself, charging the rest to families looking for a unique way to honor a son or daughter not able to walk across a stage to pick up a diploma.

“I made it super affordable,” he recalled. “Kids were being celebrated on the truck for $75, and that included photography, editing the photos, everything; we gave them something really special. We probably did more than 500 of those.”

Since that adventurous start, the company has been steadily building its client base, which now includes everything from the local pizza shop to national brands (Texas Roadhouse, for example) to the president, and the goal is the same with all of them — to help get the message out, but in a unique and somewhat powerful way.

The concept caught the attention of PeoplesBank, which first used one of Connolly’s trucks to drive applications to the EforAll Holyoke class last spring. The bank used the company for its own business for the opening of a branch in West Hartford, hiring SOT to generate awareness around the banking-center location prior to its official opening, and also to appear at the grand-opening party and a nearby ‘build day’ undertaken in conjunction with Habitat for Humanity in Hartford.

“Mychal is a ‘hustler’ in the very best sense of the word,” said Matt Bannister, senior vice president of Marketing and Corporate Responsibility for the bank. “He has endless energy and enthusiasm, tremendous work ethic, and a strong focus on getting results for his customers. The SOT allows us to bring our message to places it might not ordinarily reach, and the quality of the images on the truck is a good representation of the brand.”

Moving forward, Connolly, who now boasts a team of 10, including designers, drivers, and those managing the equipment, wants to earn more testimonials like that. With them, he believes his goal of taking the company national — and eventually going public — are perhaps within reach.

“Some people think we’re a guy with a truck. We’re not — we’re a startup, and we’re looking to build the right way,” he said, adding that, while there are digital billboards in virtually every market, his concept is relatively unique. Meanwhile, he brings strong marketing experience to the table that can help clients create a strategy, not merely a message on wheels.

“I’m not just a guy with a truck — I’ve been doing marketing since I was 9 years old,” he went on. “I love marketing, and I respect the craft of marketing, and I love giving that to my clients. It’s not just about putting a picture on a truck and driving around.”

 

To a Higher Gear

In addition to all those framed pictures of his trucks in action, Connolly’s office also sports a small sign that serves to inform and inspire both his students and himself.

It features numbers breaking down what $1 million a year in revenue equates to, as in … $83,333 a month, $19,230 a week, and $2,739 a day. There’s then a poignant tagline: ‘Dreams Don’t Work Unless You Do.’

Connolly has lived by that credo all his life, and Stand Out Truck is the latest example. He doesn’t know where he can go with this concept, but he’s allowing himself to think, and dream, big.

That’s the message he drives home to his students and mentees, and now … well, he’s driving home all kinds of messages. And, in doing so, writing another stirring chapter in the book that is his life.

 

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

Features Special Coverage

The Year in Review

You could have called it ‘COVID — year 2.’ Many people did. It was supposed to be the year the pandemic was put in the rear view. But it didn’t work out that way. Instead, 2021 was a year in which COVID-19 not only stayed with us, but multiplied its impact in numerous ways, especially within the business community. The shutdowns, heavy restrictions, canceled events, and long lines for testing in 2020 gave way to vaccinations, a general reopening of the economy, and the return of many events and institutions — from the Big E to the Thunderbirds to the local chambers’ After-5 gatherings — in 2021. But there was also inflation, supply-chain issues, a workforce crisis, profound changes in how and where work is done, and something that came to be known as the Great Resignation. But it was also a year when the local cannabis industry continued to grow and broaden its already significant impact on the region, Smith & Wesson announced it was moving its headquarters to Tennessee, tourism bounced back in a big way, and the region lost one its iconic entrepreneurs and restaurateurs. It was another year to remember — or forget, depending on your point of view. With that, here’s a look back at the biggest stories of the past year.

 

 

COVID-19

Actually, COVID wasn’t one story; it was perhaps a dozen different stories all happening at once, some of which you’ll read about below. There was the virus itself, which evolved into different variants, including Delta and, most recently, Omicron. But there were many side effects from the pandemic, each one being a big story in its own way.

That list includes vaccinations — and there are several different aspects to that story — and also ongoing changes to the workplace, a workforce crisis spawned in many ways by the pandemic, supply-chain shortages, inflation generated by huge amounts of money being infused into the economy at a time when there were shortages of many items, and much more.

The news that everyone had been waiting for — the lifting of all restrictions placed on businesses as a result of COVID — came just before Memorial Day. BusinessWest announced this critical turn with the cover headline ‘The Next Stage.’ In actuality, the next stage wasn’t all that most businesses thought it would be, as many of them were now facing new challenges, such as severe labor shortages, the inability to order parts and supplies, lingering issues regarding remote work, and, much later, matters regarding vaccination (more on all these later).

“In most all respects, things were much better in 2021 than they were in 2020, but ‘normal,’ as in pre-COVID, was elusive for many businesses, large and small.”

Still, in most all respects, things were much better in 2021 than they were in 2020, but ‘normal,’ as in pre-COVID, was elusive for many businesses, large and small. From car dealerships with very few new cars on the lots — and used cars taking up showroom space — to restaurants having to close an extra day during the week because they couldn’t get enough help, there were many signs that the pandemic wasn’t going to be relegated to the past tense any time soon. And with the number of cases and hospitalizations spiking this month, it seems certain there will be a ‘year 3’ of COVID — and, for now, great uncertainty about what that will bring.

The Workforce Crisis

Perhaps the most enduring image from this past year, at least within the business community, was the help-wanted sign. It appeared in the window of every kind of business imaginable, from restaurants to manufacturing plants; from roofing companies to landscapers; from golf courses to supermarkets. The list goes on. Everyone was looking for help. And most of them still are.

Indeed, what can only be called a workforce crisis shows no signs of letting up, with signs saying ‘Help Wanted,’ ‘Join Our Team,’ and ‘We’re Hiring’ still dominating the landscape. BusinessWest covered the story extensively and from many different angles in 2021, interviewing everyone from law-firm managing partners to hospital administrators to restaurant owners. They were all saying the same thing: good help is very hard to find, and for many reasons.

For much of the year, one of the presumed factors was attractive (many would say too attractive) federal unemployment benefits. But when those benefits ended in September, the problem did not improve appreciably. Meanwhile, the workforce crisis has had a number of side effects of its own, including higher wages, the need for sign-on bonuses and other incentives, and, most importantly, lost business opportunities from simply not having enough help. And the matter of finding help became greatly complicated by the growing need for help.

“Perhaps the most enduring image from this past year, at least within the business community, was the help-wanted sign. It appeared in the window of every kind of business imaginable.”

That’s why the phrase ‘Great Resignation’ entered the lexicon in 2021, a reference to the millions of people who left their jobs over the course of the year for reasons ranging from the ability to retire early to job dissatisfaction to mandated vaccinations. Overall, it was a good year to be looking for work, and a very difficult year for those looking for help.

 

Inflation and the Supply Chain

‘The Rising Cost of Everything.’ That was the headline on a BusinessWest cover story in late May. That same headline could have worked in every month since. Indeed, the price of just about everything, from steak to lumber to used cars, kept heading skyward.

Last month, in fact, inflation hit its highest point in almost 40 years. The Consumer Price Index, which tracks the price of a broad range of goods, rose 0.8% in November and is up 6.8% from a year earlier. The biggest risers included food, housing, cars (both new and used), and gasoline. Energy costs in November were up 33% over a year earlier, food costs were up 6%, and used car and truck prices climbed 31%.

The most recent echo of such severe inflation took place in the 1970s, a situation spurred by disruptions in global oil supplies. Inflation rose from below 3% in 1972 to above 13% in 1979, prompting the Federal Reserve to hike interest rates to as high as 20%. By 1982, inflation had receded, but the experience shaped monetary policy for decades.

“One of the main drivers to the current inflation crisis, of course, has been a broken global supply chain — an issue with so many interlocking factors, it’s hard to see it resolving any time soon.”

One of the main drivers to the current inflation crisis, of course, has been a broken global supply chain — an issue with so many interlocking factors, it’s hard to see it resolving any time soon. The earliest factor was a widespread economic shutdown in the spring of 2020; when the economy began reopening at high speed later that year, supply chains — for products like steel, lumber, and other key supplies — were slow to respond to growing consumer demand, and never caught up.

Add in serious delays in freight shipping, a bottleneck of shipping containers across the globe, and a persistent shortage of workers, and the result is additional strain on businesses and soaring prices all the way down the supply line — which eventually reach consumers in the form of, you guessed it, inflation. Untangling all of this will be one of the big challenges facing policymakers and business leaders in 2022.

 

Changes in the Workplace

If 2020 was the year of remote work, then 2021 was the year of deciding if, when, and under what circumstances people would continue to work remotely. And for many businesses, deciding just what to do became a stern challenge.

Many arrived at a hybrid format as the most common-sense solution, a mixed approach that had employees working remotely most days but in the office at least one or two. However, many employees, citing how well they worked at home, questioned whether the hybrid approach was needed or even effective.

Meanwhile, the changing dynamic created still more challenges for those confronting the ongoing workforce challenge. Indeed, beyond salary, benefits, and workplace culture, many job seekers put the ability to work remotely high on their wish list — or demand list, as the case may be.

Sarah Rose Stack, recruiting director for Holyoke-based Meyers Brothers Kalicka, summed things up poignantly in a piece she wrote for BusinessWest in October. “Employees are actively seeking remote or hybrid work opportunities just as many companies are now demanding that employees return to in-person work,” she explained. “Some have even pre-emptively started seeking flexible work opportunities out of fear that their current remote-work situation might change. Many are expressing that the ability to work from home and have more flexible work schedules in general have helped to prevent burnout. People have enjoyed ditching the morning commute and 5 p.m. rush hour. The returned pockets of time have come with myriad benefits, including more sleep, more time with family before and after work, less wear and tear on vehicles, more time with pets, and an overall more comfortable environment.”

“If 2020 was the year of remote work, then 2021 was the year of deciding if, when, and under what circumstances people would continue to work remotely. And for many businesses, deciding just what to do became a stern challenge.”

But while remote work presents challenges, there are opportunities for businesses as well; managers in many different sectors told BusinessWest that remote work gives them the opportunity to recruit talent from across the country, not simply from within the 413. That same opportunity could be a boon for this region and, especially, rural areas like the Berkshires and Franklin County, which offer quality of life, lower cost of living, and, now, an opportunity to live there and work almost anywhere. Like many of the stories on our list, this one will take some time to play out.

 

Smith & Wesson Heads to Tennessee

The press release found its way into the inbox of area media outlets early in the morning of Sept. 30. And it was a bombshell. Smith & Wesson President Mark Smith was announcing that the company was moving its corporate headquarters — and roughly 500 jobs — from Springfield, where the company was launched more than 150 years ago, to Blount County, Tennessee.

The stated reason was that the company did not want to remain headquartered in a state where legislation had been filed that would ban the manufacturing of more than half the products (specifically assault weapons) made by the company. Smith & Wesson’s new home is a county that bills itself as a ‘Second Amendment sanctuary.’

While the stated case for leaving was greeted with significant skepticism — many elected officials stated that the company was simply taking advantage of huge tax breaks and other incentives — there was considerable discussion about just what Springfield and this region would be losing. The 500 jobs were at the top of that list, obviously, but some were saying the city was also losing some of its business and manufacturing heritage (even if 1,000 of the company’s jobs were staying in the city) and some bragging rights, given that S&W is among the most recognizable brands in the world.

As for the lost jobs, some elected officials, and some area manufacturers as well, see this as an opportunity for the region, given the ongoing workforce crisis and shortage of good help (see how the stories on this list are all interconnected?). One firm, Indian Orchard-based Eastman, actually started advertising directly to those impacted Smith & Wesson workers, welcoming them to seek work at that firm.

 

Cannabis Continues to Flourish

In the three years and one month since NETA opened on Conz Street in Northampton and became the state’s very first dispensary for legal, recreational cannabis, almost 200 cannabis businesses — not just retail shops, but growers, manufacturers, labs, and wholesalers — have cropped up across Massachusetts. Last month, total sales in Massachusetts crossed the $2 billion mark … and the second billion arrived in a much shorter timespan than the first billion.

What this tells industry proponents is that constant expansion of competition isn’t simply spreading out a limited pool of customers; it’s creating more, and many believe there remains a significant well of individuals who haven’t yet turned on, but will eventually, as they hear good things from friends and family and the last barriers of stigma fall.

Locally, that’s good news on a couple of economic fronts: municipal tax revenues and jobs. In Northampton, for instance, which boasts at least 20 cannabis-related businesses, excise taxes have brought in more than $4.3 million over three years, to help pay for much-neede city services. And just down the road in Holyoke, a surge in employment in this new industry — hundreds of jobs and counting in that city alone — has led to new job-training programs to feed the growing demand.

If there has been one hiccup, the Cannabis Control Commission’s stated commitment to social-equity opportunities — with the goal of helping communities and demographics negatively impacted by the war on drugs to access entrepreneurship opportunities in cannabis — has met with inconsistent results. But commissioners have heard those complaints, and the conversation continues.

“Last month, total sales in Massachusetts crossed the $2 billion mark … and the second billion arrived in a much shorter timespan than the first billion.”

Meanwhile, the sheer number of cannabis businesses in Massachusetts is actually making it easier for all players — even small ones — to succeed, because of the cross-pollination making vertical integration less of a necessity these days. It’s an industry of many niches, and every niche is reporting tremendous oppportunity.

 

Tourism Industry Rebounds

While full recovery is still a ways off, the region’s large and vital tourism and hospitality industry staged an inspiring comeback in 2021. The biggest story, on many levels, was the return of the Big E after a one-year hiatus due to COVID. The 17-day fair drew large crowds — nearly 1.5 million in total — and on the final Saturday, it topped the all-time single-day attendance mark with 177,238 visitors.

Meanwhile, the fair boosted the fortunes of a number of other businesses, from hotels and restaurants to tent-renting companies. But there were other signs of progress as well, including solid visitation numbers at a renovated Basketball Hall of Fame, the return of live performances at Jacob’s Pillow and a host of other cultural venues, a steady if unspectacular year for MGM Springfield, and, of course, the return of the Springfield Thunderbirds, which were in first place as of this writing.

As for restaurants, they rebounded as well, with patrons returning in large numbers, especially after the state lifted all restrictions on such businesses just before Memorial Day. But for most all restaurants, reopening came with challenges, especially on the workforce side, with many forced to close more than one day a week (the traditional number) because of a lack of workers.

“While full recovery is still a ways off, the region’s large and vital tourism and hospitality industry staged an inspiring comeback in 2021. The biggest story, on many levels, was the return of the Big E after a one-year hiatus due to COVID.”

As for hotels and event venues, weddings and similar events returned in full force, but the story was different on the corporate side, with travel and events still well below pre-COVID levels. So, while the tourism sector has recovered to some degree, there is still some work to do.

 

The Vaccination Issue

Businesses already facing a number of challenges as a result of COVID were handed another with the arrival of vaccinations to combat the virus.

The efficacy of vaccines isn’t in doubt. While they don’t totally prevent spread or infection, their impact on severity is well-documented, with hospital ICUs reporting that 95% or more of the most severe cases — and deaths — in 2021 have been among the unvaccinated. And those deaths are nothing to scoff at. As the pandemic approaches the end of a second year, the U.S. is about to surpass 800,000 deaths from the virus, hitting the elderly the hardest; roughly one in 100 older Americans has died from the virus, while, for people younger than 65, that ratio is closer to 1 in 1,400.

So it’s natural that business and political leaders have been frustrated by vaccine hesitancy among wide swaths of Americans. While the vaccines have certainly prompted decreases in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths from COVID, they have left employers with hard decisions — and some dilemmas.

“While the vaccines have certainly prompted decreases in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths from COVID, they have left employers with hard decisions — and some dilemmas.”

Many business owners didn’t want to be in a position to require vaccinations, but this fall, the Biden administration made the decision for them, requiring vaccinations for all businesses with more than 100 employees and those working on federal contracts (or subcontracts), healthcare workers, and federal government workers.

Legal challenges have gone back and forth on these vaccination mandates, putting the mandate for federal workers in limbo for a time (though it’s back on for the time being), while private employers moving forward with the mandate must cope with employees leaving because they don’t wish to be vaccinated, adding to an already-difficult workforce environment. It’s another story that will play itself out over the coming weeks and months.

 

Data Center Proposed in Westfield

It’s being called the largest private-sector development proposal in the region’s history. That some of the language attached to a plan to build a $2.7 billion data center on a 165-acre parcel off Servistar Industrial Way in Westfield.

The proposal’s developers, Servistar Industrial Realties, have presented plans calling for a complex of 10 buildings totaling more than 2.74 million square feet, with projected customers expected to include the likes of Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, and Facebook. The project, which still has a number of hurdles to clear before it becomes reality, has received approval from the Planning Board and City Council, with the state now considering a 40-year tax-abatement package.

The developers focused in on Westfield and the large parcel in question — actually, several smaller parcels knitted together — because the site could check a number of boxes, including the ability to draw power, and large amounts of it, directly from the grid, as well as access to a reliable, high-speed fiber communications network. Competitive cost of doing business is also high on the list, as is a skilled workforce and easy access to major markets.

Area economic-development officials note that, while sites for such massive initiatives, called ‘hyperscale’ projects, are rare, there is the potential for smaller-scale data-center ventures, and success with the Westfield project could create other opportunities for the region.

 

Housing Prices Soar

Have you tried to buy a house lately? How frustrating has it been?

Probably plenty frustrating, because of a simple supply-and-demand equation: there are far fewer available houses on the market, especially in Western Mass., than there are buyers, and that’s caused prices to soar. Homes are often publicly on the market for a day or two before they’re snapped up, often at more than the asking price, sometimes without an inspection.

Statistics from the Realtor Assoc. of Pioneer Valley bear this out. Last December, home sales in the Pioneer Valley were up 29.2%, and median price was up 10.1%, from December 2019. And the trend has continued through 2021, with sales down slightly from 12 months earlier, but the median price up another 15%.

A few different factors have been in play. Since the start of the pandemic, especially since the advent of widespread remote work, families have been trying to escape urban areas, driving sales in Berkshire and Franklin counties, but also in more populous Hampden and Hampshire counties as well. Demand has outpaced supply, and home buyers aren’t putting their own houses on the market until they’ve got a new home nailed down.

Meanwhile, interest rates have been at historic lows, even creeping below 3%. “The rates are so low that a lot of people are realizing it’s much cheaper than renting,” Realtor Tanya Vitale-Basile told BusinessWest earlier this year, adding that sellers from the Boston area find they can get much more living space for their money in the Pioneer Valley.

In short, families spending much more time at home have decided they want a different one — and for many, it’s been tough to buy one.

 

Other Stories from 2021

There were many of them, including the death in May of serial entrepreneur and restaurateur Andy Yee. What would have been his 60th birthday a few weeks later was one of the bigger parties of the year. It was a celebration of a life well-lived.

There was a loss of another kind in late November, when a four-alarm fire ravaged the Maple Center Shopping Plaza in Longmeadow, which left five businesses, which collectively employed 74 people, homeless. The community has rallied around the business owners and employees to help them recover.

In news that affects businesses of all kinds, 2021 will be a record-breaking year for data breaches. According to Identity Theft Resource Center research, the total number of data breaches through three quarters has already exceeded the total number of events in 2020 by 17%, with 1,291 breaches from January through September 2021 compared to 1,108 breaches in 2020.

Ambitious proposals for east-west rail, connecting Pittsfield and Boston along the southern half of the state and North Adams and Boston up north, have gained steam, with MassDOT just last week convening stakeholders and launching a study of the latter. Meanwhile, north-south service on the Amtrak Valley Flyer and Vermonter lines was restored over the summer after pandemic cutbacks.

“In news that affects businesses of all kinds, 2021 will be a record-breaking year for data breaches. According to Identity Theft Resource Center research, the total number of data breaches through three quarters has already exceeded the total number of events in 2020 by 17%, with 1,291 breaches from January through September 2021 compared to 1,108 breaches in 2020.”

Plans by Carvana to build a large car-processing facility in Southwick were scuttled over the summer when the company withdrew its proposal hours before a public meeting where residents were expected to oppose it by a wide margin, mainly due to traffic concerns.

One ongoing story from 2021 is an apparent surge in entrepreneurship prompted by COVID and its many side effects. Indeed, the pandemic left many with the time and inclination to move on with their dreams of owning their own businesses, and many of them seized the opportunity, with new ventures ranging from breweries to a Latino marketing agency to a wine-distribution business.

As for BusinessWest, it was a busy year, especially when it came to events. Due to COVID, there were actually six this year, with two slated for late in 2020 rescheduled for this past January. Live events returned with a raucous 40 Under Forty gala at the Log Cabin in September, followed by the Healthcare Heroes and Women of Impact celebrations in October and December, respectively. Nominations are open for these recognition programs for 2022.

 

Features

Picking Up the Pieces

The aftermath of the Nov. 23 fire

The aftermath of the Nov. 23 fire that ravaged the Maple Center shopping plaza.

Alexis Vallides has some experience bouncing back from disaster.

Actually, it was her bother who had that experience. His business, Latino Food Distribution, was one of many in West Springfield that were leveled by the tornado that tore through many area communities in 2011.

Vallides has been leaning hard on her brother, and certainly gaining inspiration from his comeback, as she embarks on one of her own.

Indeed, Vallides is one of many business owners who were left homeless by the massive fire just before Thanksgiving that engulfed the plaza in Longmeadow that unofficially took of the name of her business, Armata’s Market.

She was called early in the morning on Nov. 23 to let her know about a fire in the neighboring liquor store. Less than a few hours later, her store was almost completely leveled.

Like others impacted by the blaze, she is starting to write the next chapter in her business story, and, while there are many emotions attached to this rebuilding process, she is, well, very businesslike about it.

“As a business owner, things happen; we take a lot of risks,” she said. “Every day, we’re susceptible to catastrophes and disasters like that; you have to cope and move on.”

That’s what her team did the morning of the fire — she recalls employees standing and watching the fire, and also conceiving ways to prepare and distribute prepared meals for customers.

Armata’s was one of five businesses impacted by the fire at the Maple Center shopping plaza, which left 74 people unemployed initially. The others are the Bottle Shop liquor store, Iron Chef Asian Cuisine, Longmeadow Salon, and Dream Nail and Salon. Most, if not all, have expressed a desire to reopen — in Longmeadow if they can, said Lyn Simmons, town manager, noting, as others did, that there isn’t a large inventory of retail space, and especially vacant space, in this mostly residential community.

One business, the salon, has already reopened in East Longmeadow, she said, adding that, as these business owners grapple with the many challenges facing them, the town, the state, and several area business and economic-development-focused agencies are bringing resources to bear aiding in the recovery process, and connecting impacted business owners with grants, loans, and whatever else is needed to start anew.

Grace Barone, who leads one of those agencies, the East of the River Five Town Chamber of Commerce, knows firsthand what it’s like to claw back after a fire has destroyed a business and left dreams in a state of perilous limbo. Indeed, she owned Bridal Reflections, one of 20 ventures left homeless by a massive blaze in a retail plaza in Palmer.

She told BusinessWest that, in the wake of such a disaster, business owners go through a wide range of emotions, from the initial shock to what amounts to grief concerning their loss, to the frustration that comes from dealing with insurance companies and the myriad other issues related to getting back on one’s feet.

“As a business owner, things happen; we take a lot of risks. Every day, we’re susceptible to catastrophes and disasters like that; you have to cope and move on.”

“This is a challenging time, and it can be so overwhelming,” she said, adding that, in such a situation, the best her agency and others can do is stand by those impacted by it and provide whatever support they can.

“You go through the shock of ‘oh my gosh, everything I’ve worked for is gone; what do I do next?’” she said. “You try to formulate a plan and determine whether you’re going to rebuild and where you will conduct business in the meantime. And you go forward from there. But every time you think you’ve taken a few steps forward, there’s always something that pops up, and then you have a setback. We want to make sure we’re there for our members when those times come.”

As for Vallides, she is moving forward with plans to find both a temporary location and, if the Maple Center owners rebuild, as she expects they will, return to Shaker Road in the future.

“I’m checking out places in Longmeadow and Enfield for a temporary location, but, unfortunately, Longmeadow doesn’t seem to have anything quite big enough for our needs,” she said, noting that the operation requires roughly 5,000 square feet. “There are a few potential landing spots in February, and maybe by February we can get something up and running.

“We’re in it for the long run, and if we can set up something temporarily, close to our customers, we’ll do that,” she went on. “But, ultimately, we want to be back on Shaker Road.”

As for what she learned from her brother’s experience and is using to help her in her comeback efforts, she said there were many lessons from that story.

“It’s important to be strong and hang in there, not just for myself, but my employees as well,” she said. “Everyone counts here.”

And with that, she spoke for everyone impacted by that fateful fire.

 

—George O’Brien

Cover Story

Changing Course

Susan Beaudry, founder of Beau Co. Wine

Susan Beaudry, founder of Beau Co. Wine

Among the many side effects of COVID and the so-called Great Resignation that has accompanied it has been a recognized surge in entrepreneurial activity. It has manifested itself in many ways, from soaring registration for the “Basics of Starting a Business” course at the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center to the absorption of many vacant storefronts, to area chambers filling their calendars with ribbon cuttings. Each story is different, but there are some common threads, including a desire to use the time and inclination provided by the pandemic to realize what’s important. And in many cases, it’s starting that business that one has always dreamed about.

 

Susan Beaudry says there’s a story behind every wine label she distributes.

That’s certainly the case with one called Sophie, a product of South Africa.

“The locals … their accents couldn’t pronounce sauvignon blanc,” she explained. “And it kept coming out ‘Sophie,’ so they named the wine Sophie. The wife of the husband-and-wife team that own it created this beautiful young woman that’s on the label — Sophie. The tagline is ‘the most beautiful woman that never was.’”

It is these stories — and, again, she has dozens of them — that go a long way toward explaining Beaudry’s fascination for wine, and her dream of creating a business that brings labels like Sophie to the 413.

It’s a dream she’s had for some time now, and one that became real because of COVID-19 — at least in some respects.

Beaudry, as many readers may know, was the executive director of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra, which was essentially shut down by COVID in early 2020, and there are now questions about when and if it will return to the place in regional culture it occupied before COVID arrived.

But that’s another story.

This one is about how Beaudry found the time — and the inclination — during COVID to move ahead and make that dream, called Beau Co. Wine, reality.

“Toward the end of 2020, we started seeing many people who were either laid off or who had left their jobs, for whatever reason, who wanted to start their own businesses.”

The wines she imports can be found, among other places, at the Springfield Wine Exchange, a new storefront in Tower Square owned by Carlo Bonavita, who is part of this movement, if we can call it that, as well. He decided a few years ago to go back into business — the liquor-selling business — for himself and found some additional motivation during the pandemic (more on that later).

Beaudry and Bonavita are far from the only ones to use this crack in time to pause, re-evaluate, and perhaps fulfill an entrepreneurial urge, said Samalid Hogan, executive director of the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center’s Western Mass. office. But not for much longer, which we’ll get to in a minute.

She told BusinessWest that, as a result of a number of colliding factors — from people losing their jobs to individuals losing interest in what they were doing, to remote workers not at all excited about orders to return to the office — there has been a surge in entrepreneurial energy.

“Toward the end of 2020, we started seeing many people who were either laid off or who had left their jobs, for whatever reason, who wanted to start their own businesses,” she explained. “And in 2021, we’re seeing a huge surge in people calling the office looking for help in starting a business. There were so many that we had to create another ‘Basics of Starting a Business’ class; we usually offer one a month, but we had to double up and increase the number of registrations from 30 people to 40 people.”

And now, she is part of this story, although she certainly doesn’t need the “Basics” course.

Indeed, she will be stepping down from her role with the MSBDC later this month to start her own consulting business.

Samalid Hogan

Samalid Hogan says many people reached a crossroads during the pandemic and chose the road to business ownership — and she’s one of them.

She said that, like others during this time of COVID, she did a lot of thinking about what was important and what she wanted to do with her life. And she decided that now was the time to put her own name in the door.

Actually, that name will be Greylock Management Consulting, a nod to the highest mountain in the state, a venture that will be focused on both existing businesses and the agencies providing services to startups, especially minority-owned ventures.

Hogan said she is launching this venture with both eyes open, and full acknowledgement of the fact that consulting is often a challenging way to earn a living and a significant departure from a steady job with a steady paycheck. But it’s a gamble she’s ready to take.

Actually, she’s taking two gambles. In addition to her own business, she has become chief operating officer for the Latino Marketing Agency, launched by Veronica Garcia, who also fits the profile of someone who found time and inspiration during the pandemic to move ahead with an entrepreneurial venture.

A television producer, soap-opera actress, and influencer in the Latino community, she worked for many years at New England Public Media, where she was the host of a popular and award-winning bilingual series named Presencia. In April of this year, when NEPM announced it could no longer produce the show, she left the station to start to Viviendo Sin Limites (Living Without Limits), with the goal of having it become the go-to resource for mental health and emotional well-being for the Spanish-speaking population. She also started the Latino Marketing Agency, in conjunction with Hogan, to help Hispanic-owned businesses with that critical aspect of their operations.

“I now have the privilege to know many entrepreneurs in this region, and I’ve found that marketing is one of the areas where they need assistance, especially Latino businesses,” she said, adding that, like Hogan, she is confident that her change of course career-wise, from steady paycheck to the uncertainty of being a business owner, is the right course.

 

Proof Positive

As noted, Bonavita is no stranger to wines and the liquor business. Indeed, his family owned and operated several liquor stores in the area, including Riverside Liquors in Agawam, and he worked at them for a number of years.

When he left in 2002, he signed a non-compete agreement that was 15 years in duration. It wasn’t long before he started counting the years down, and after a decade or so of working in property management, specifically condominium projects, he was quite ready to go back to working for himself.

COVID only served to accelerate the process further.

Veronica Garcia has launched two new ventures

Veronica Garcia has launched two new ventures, Latino Marketing Agency and a platform called Viviendo Sin Limites — Living Without Limits.

“When COVID hit, it changed the way we did business a zillion percent,” he explained. “It meant more hours, more everything, and at the age I was getting to, I was getting burned out and tired of this. I knew it was time to do what I wanted to do.”

And that was to open another business of his own, one he calls the Wine Exchange. He has a wide variety of labels with price tags from $7.99 to $115, and features a variety of gift baskets as well. He opened in October, good timing considering the approaching holidays, and said he’s off to a good start thanks to those who are returning to the office tower in his building and the others in the downtown area.

As for his decision to strike out on his own?

“I absolutely love it — I really do,” he said. “I’m not a guy who could retire completely, and I couldn’t sit at home. So this is perfect; it’s where I want to be at this point in my life.”

Beaudry, who provides most of the labels on his shelves and in his racks, said essentially the same thing, but her story — her dream of becoming a wine wholesaler, importer, distributor, and ‘enthusiast’ — is much different and took a lot longer to become reality.

“I was getting burned out and tired of this. I knew it was time to do what I wanted to do.”

She said her love of wine developed over time and especially when she was traveling extensively for her former employer, Simplex. Her travels would take her to its various branch offices around this country and other countries, and would inevitably involve visits to local attractions — and restaurants, preferably the ‘hole in the wall’ she asked to be taken to.

The good food she encountered was almost always accompanied by good wine as well. She would attempt to replicate what she encountered, food and beverage-wise, at dinner parties that would grow in size over time, with many of the attendees encouraging her to start her own restaurant or other related business.

She said she long desired to venture into wine importing and distributing, but life and family responsibilities made it difficult to leave a steady paycheck and take that leap.

“I think COVID presented the opportunity, with the symphony not performing and all the employees furloughed,” she explained. “Meanwhile, my daughter had just completed her first year of college, so the stars were aligned for me; I went ahead and got started.”

There are many stories like these being written in the region at this unprecedented time, when many have been sidelined by COVID and others have taken stock of their lives and decided they wanted — and needed — something different. The so-called Great Resignation (Bonavita and others we spoke to could be considered part of that) has prompted some to leave for other jobs, but others to absorb some risk and go into business for themselves, Hogan said.

The phenomenon has manifested itself in many ways, from new beer labels to the absorption of vacant storefronts, to area chambers of commerce giving their giant ceremonial scissors a workout with seemingly non-stop ribbon cuttings.

And also those soaring registration numbers for the MSBDC’s “Basics of Starting a Business” class, which is now offered online because of the pandemic, said Hogan, adding that she has seen a very diverse group of individuals gravitate to that offering.

By that she meant both older and younger men and women, those representing many ethnic groups, and people with varied backgrounds, from professionals to retirees, to some not far removed from the college classroom.

The class, as might be gleaned from its title, focuses on the basics — writing a business plan, legal considerations, licensing, insurance, business entities, and much more.

Many of the labels Susan Beaudry now distributes can be found at the Springfield Wine Exchange, founded by Carlo Bonavita, left.

“We don’t give advice during the class,” she stressed. “The goal is to give information to the attendees so they understand all that is involved with starting a business from an administrative, practical point of view; we don’t get into business models, and we don’t get into whether you have a good idea or not.”

Many who sign up for that class will eventually reach out for one-on-one advisory services from the agency, she said, adding that there has been a decided uptick in the number of people seeking such services.

 

Grape Expectations

As for her own venture, Greylock Consulting, Hogan is confident she has a good idea, one born from a desire help more small-business owners, especially minority-owned businesses. Her plan is to consult for individual businesses and also the various groups assisting such businesses and help streamline and improve the programs they provide.

She said she has several clients in the pipeline and is confident she can succeed in the challenging world of consulting.

“I’ve done consulting before,” she said. “You have to have a good, healthy pipeline of clients, there’s a lot of proposal writing involved, a lot of meetings prior to revenue-generating activities that you have to be willing to do and invest your time in. It’s a different world, but I like it.”

It’s a different world for Beaudry, as well, but one that she long desired to be in.

That said, she acknowledged that starting her importing and distribution company required more than time and inclination. It also requires capital, and a lot of contacts.

“It took a lot of tenacity — finding a warehouse, securing the insurances, the licenses, and everything else you need,” she told BusinessWest. “It’s really just been about working my contacts, people I know who tell me, ‘this is where we buy our great wines; the person who owns it is this … go introduce yourself.’ It’s been typical sales-call daily activity: going out, shaking hands, letting people know who I’m representing and some of the wines that I have available.

“It’s also very new — it’s just starting to gain momentum now,” she went on, adding that there have been distribution issues to contend with and other challenges, but, overall, she is making steady progress.

The next step is to create her own import activities, Beaudry said, adding that she will soon be traveling to Europe to meet with some small, boutique vineyard owners and winemakers, with the goal of importing some labels on her own.

She has a 2,000-square-foot warehouse in Westfield, one she hopes — and expects — to outgrow in only a year or two, and plans to distribute the wines she brings there to restaurants, country clubs, liquor stores, concert arenas, “anywhere you can buy a glass of wine.”

At present, she carries 58 different SKUs, and she’s connected with another distributor who will give her another 100, all them small, boutique winemakers that have a story.

“These are small businesses, family-owned, multiple generations for many of them,” she said. “I want to stick with these family-owned small options that have a lot of historic value — and they have interesting stories; the further back the history of the vineyard goes, the more interesting the story is, and a lot of people who love wines also love the stories.”

As for Garcia’s story, it’s another one where the opportunity and inclination were there to propel her to her current status as business owner.

She said she has long understood that, in general, and within the Hispanic community in particular, mental illness is something that isn’t talked about — or really understood. And she has long desired to create a forum where such issues could be discussed and both information and inspirational stories could be presented. So when NEPM announced that it would no longer produce Presencia, she gave her notice and created Viviendo Sin Limites.

Its stated mission is to “motivate, inspire, educate, and inform in a dynamic environment through interviews, blogs, conferences, sharing personal experiences related to our emotions and well-being, and offer tools to have an open, lively, positive, creative, and joyful mind,” and the goal is to be one of the first talk shows in New England for the Latino community through social media such as Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram.

As for the Latino Marketing Agency, it has already signed on a few clients to provide marketing and consulting services, she said, adding that she believes there is enormous potential for such a venture in this market — for both Hispanic-owned businesses and companies looking to market effectively to the region’s growing Hispanic community.

 

Dream Weavers

Summing up what she’s seeing, hearing — and doing herself, Hogan said that, because of the pandemic and issues springing from it, including those leading to all those resignations, many people are finding themselves at a crossroads.

And increasingly, they’re taking the road to entrepreneurship, one that certainly has its share of dangerous curves, speed bumps, hills, and dips. This road is not for the faint of heart, but in this climate, many people are finding they have what it takes to at least start down that road and pursue a long-held dream.

That’s how it is for Beaudry, who spends a good amount of time telling stories like the one about the Sophie label from South Africa and countless others now in her warehouse and on area shelves.

As for her own story, it’s still being written, and like the many others now generating some entrepreneurial energy, she’s finding each chapter to be everything she hoped it would be, and more.

 

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

Education Special Coverage

A Stern Test Continues

Springfield Technical Community College President John Cook

Springfield Technical Community College President John Cook

 

For the area community’s colleges, the enrollment numbers continue to fall, with annual declines recently in the double digits. There are many reasons for these declines, which actually started well before COVID but were greatly exacerbated by the pandemic. With many students and potential students now in a state of what one college president called “paralysis,” there are hard-to-answer questions about what ‘normal’ will be like moving forward.

 

It’s been a while since anyone has talked about parking at Springfield Technical Community College — or the lack thereof.

John Cook, the school’s president, sometimes yearns for the days when they did.

And that was most days. Indeed, going back decades, parking was a problem at this urban campus that sits on the site of the Springfield Armory, despite numerous efforts to add more. By the time Cook arrived in 2017, the school was still parking cars on the commons (the old parade grounds converted by the school into athletic fields) the first few days of classes to make sure all students had a space. That practice was no longer necessary after a new lot was built near the Pearl Street entrance in 2019.

These days, there’s plenty of space in that lot and all the others as enrollment at the school continues a downward trajectory, a pattern seen at the other community colleges in the area — one that is defying many of the patterns concerning these schools and the economy, but one that was already in evidence before the pandemic and only accelerated by it.

“People are in a state of paralysis. And that fear, uncertainty, and the unknown is a driving factor for a lot of people; they feel stuck, they feel lost, and they don’t have a sense of even what they should be preparing for.”

Indeed, since STCC saw enrollment hit its high-water mark just after the Great Recession of 2008, roughly 7,000 students, the numbers have been declining steadily to the present 4,000 or so.

“We were down 16 or 17% last year, and this fall, we were down another 10%,” said Cook, adding that this pattern has been seen at other schools as well, with COVID-19 adding an exclamation point to the problem. At Holyoke Community College, for example, enrollment saw another double-digit decline in 2021, and President Christina Royal said that, with just six weeks to the start of the spring semester, the numbers are down another 7% or so from this time last year.

While most all colleges are seeing enrollment declines at this time, community colleges are being especially hard-hit, in large part because the students who attend these schools, especially older, non-traditional students, are those most impacted by the pandemic and its many side effects, from unemployment to issues with childcare to overall problems balancing life, work, and school.

Christina Royal

Christina Royal says some students and potential students are stuck in state of what she called ‘paralysis,’ not knowing exactly what kind of career to prepare for.

While many have returned to the classroom, others have remained on the sidelines, and they are in a state of what Royal likened to paralysis, not knowing exactly what to do with their lives or even what course of study to embark upon. And this distinguishes what’s happening now in the economy from almost anything that has happened before.

“A recession, as difficult as it is, is a predictable circumstance — and it has been up to this point,” she noted. “People are familiar with the ebbs and flows of the economy. What we’re dealing with now is fear, uncertainty, and the unknown.

“Now people are in a state of paralysis,” she went on. “And that fear, uncertainty, and the unknown is a driving factor for a lot of people; they feel stuck, they feel lost, and they don’t have a sense of even what they should be preparing for.”

She said these factors help explain why enrollment continues to decline at a time when logic says they should be rising based on previous performance. Indeed, community-college enrollment would normally rise when the country is in recession or something close to it, when unemployment is still higher than average, and, especially, when businesses in every sector, from manufacturing to IT to healthcare, are facing a workforce crisis unlike anything seen before. And it would also be expected to rise when the cost of four-year schools continue to soar and many parents are looking to community colleges as a sound alternative for those first two years.

“A two-year college is just as good as a four-year school, and it can potentially be a feeder to the four-year college, where they will do even better because they have the foundation from us.”

Michelle Coach, campus CEO at Asnuntuck Community College in Enfield, agreed. She said enrollment at ACC (one of 12 schools currently being merged into something called the Connecticut State Community College), which hit its peak of just under 1,000 a few years ago, is now in the mid-700s for full-time equivalents, up from a low of 650. The numbers are down for several reasons, including restrictions due to COVID that kept inmates from four prisons within just a few miles of the school from attending.

Even enrollment in the school’s popular manufacturing program, which has been supplying graduates to area plants in desperate need of workers, is down, she said, adding that many who would be applying are cautious and hesitant for all those reasons mentioned above.

Overall, many factors are contributing to the falling numbers, from COVID to smaller high-school graduating classes. The ongoing challenge for schools, Coach said, is to tap into new pools of students and consistently stress the value — in the many ways it can be defined — of a community-college education.

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked with area community-college leaders about the present and, to the extent they can project, the future as well. In short, these administrators don’t know when, or to what to extent, things will return to normal.

 

Unsteady Course

As she talked about enrollment and the state of community colleges today, Royal, like the others we spoke with, reiterated that the declines in the numbers started well before COVID.

Indeed, if one were to chart the numbers from the past 15 years or so, she explained, there would be a bell curve, or something approximating it, with the numbers slowly rising until they hit their peak just after the Great Recession and then beginning a gradual tumble after that.

“When I came in in 2017, we had already seen seven consecutive years of declining enrollment — this is certainly a long-term trend,” she said, adding that she believes there is some artificiality in comparing today’s numbers to the high-water marks of a decade or so ago. “If you take out the effect of the recession, both the ramp-up and the decline afterwards, it doesn’t look as extreme and bumpy.” 

Michelle Coach says there is general optimism

Michelle Coach says there is general optimism that enrollment numbers at ACC and elsewhere in Connecticut will start to move higher, especially with the many incentives being offered.

But ‘gradual’ turned into something much more pronounced during the pandemic, said those we spoke with, noting that enrollment is off 20% or more from a few years ago, and for a host of reasons.

The declines have become the most pressing topic — after ever-changing COVID protocols — at the regular meetings of the state’s 15 community-college presidents, said Cook, adding that, collectively, the schools are looking for answers, a path forward, and perhaps an understanding of what ‘normal’ will look like in the short and long term.

The answers won’t come easily because COVID has created a situation without precedent, and the current trends, as noted earlier, defy historical patterns, he explained, adding that the overarching question now is “where are the people who would be our students? What are they doing?”

And at the moment, many of them are still trying to simply cope with the pandemic.
“They’re still trying to figure out childcare in many cases,” he went on. “Or they may be reconsidering what their own career process might be. And there’s a lot of people who are standing pat and taking stock of what’s important.”

Cook said there has been growth in some numbers, especially those involving students of color and especially the Hispanic population, and there has been growth in some individual programs, such as health science, which the school didn’t have four years ago.

But numbers are down in many areas, including nursing — at least from a retention standpoint — at a time when demand for people in that profession has perhaps never been greater. It’s another sign that these are certainly not normal times.

Royal agreed. “When we have a typical recession, people don’t like the fact that they can’t find jobs or that they’re laid off,” she noted. “But they know that they have to retool, they go back to college, so that they can be prepared for when the jobs come back and the wages start to go up. Now, people are stuck.

“When you have such a global event as COVID-19 has been for our world, then it has put a lot of people in this state of ‘I don’t even know what a couple of months is going to look like — I might not even know what next week is going to look like. How can I think about going to college and starting a future when I’m not even sure what we’re here for anymore, what my purpose is, and what I want to do?’ All of this is causing people to stay still.”

And it’s prompting those running community colleges to do what they can to get them moving again, understanding this may be difficult given those factors that Royal described and fresh uncertainty in the wake of the Omicron variant and rising COVID cases as the winter months approach.

Indeed, most of the colleges are doing some targeted marketing and putting some of the federal-assistance funds to work helping students with the financial aspects of a community-college education.

“We certainly have used every tool available to us to help us with recruitment and retention,” Cook explained, adding that STCC has issued checks of up to $1,500 to help them defray the costs of their education.

“These are not loans … it’s $1,500 to use as you as you decide,” he said. “We’ve done things like that, and we’ve done it for three semesters. This is a real shot in the arm for people.”

Some are taking advantage of the unique opportunity, but many others remain on the sidelines because of COVID-related issues such as childcare, matters that $1,500 checks cannot fix.

At Asnuntuck, the school is being equally aggressive, especially when it comes to recruiting students from the Bay State. Through its Dare to Cross the Line program, Massachusetts residents can attend ACC for the same price as those in Connecticut.

“Currently, 10% of our students are from Massachusetts, and that has stayed fairly consistent,” Coach explained, adding that many enroll in the manufacturing program and a good number in cosmetology, but there is interest across the board. “We’re trying to get the word out, and we’ve done some additional outreach to Massachusetts high-school students.”

Meanwhile, thanks to a grant from the Hartford Foundation for Public Giving, ACC was able to place ‘smart classrooms’ in each of the nearby prisons to allow inmates to take classes, bringing enrollment numbers up somewhat.

Moving forward, with high-school graduating classes getting consistently smaller, there will be greater outreach to non-traditional students, but also a focus on high-school and even middle-school students — and their parents — with the goal of stressing the many advantages presented by the two-year schools.

“For the high schools, we’re trying to change the perception of community colleges,” Coach explained. “In the past, they’ve always said, ‘this is how many students are going to a four-year university.’ Well, a two-year college is just as good as a four-year school, and it can potentially be a feeder to the four-year college, where they will do even better because they have the foundation from us.”

 

Learning Curves

Overall, Royal and others said it’s clear that community colleges will have to make continual adjustments to bring more people to their schools and see them through to completion of their program. Changes and priorities will likely include everything from a greater emphasis on early college — enabling high-school students to earn credits for college in hopes that this might change their overall career trajectory — to greater flexibility with semester schedules and length of same, to efforts to address the many work/life/school issues challenging students, especially older, non-traditional students.

Royal noted that those who will graduate next spring will have spent their entire time at HCC coping with a global pandemic and everything that has come with it.

These students hung in and persevered, received their degrees, and, in many cases, will be moving on to a four-year school. 

“These are the students that have embraced that uncertainty, and say, ‘I’m going to do something with my life; we don’t know what’s going to happen in the world, but I’m going to further myself and be prepared for when we get to the other side of that.’ That’s who you’re going to see in our graduating class.”

What you won’t see are those who became stuck, as she called it, those who didn’t have the inclination or the ability to plow forward during the pandemic.

Just when people can and will move out of this state of paralysis is still a question mark. Until then, parking will remain a non-issue at STCC — and other schools as well — and the region’s community colleges will remain tested by a situation that is defying trends and their own history.

 

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

Special Coverage Sports & Leisure

Coping with the Conditions

Gary Rome, seen here with ‘Daisy,’ one of his mascots

Gary Rome, seen here with ‘Daisy,’ one of his mascots, says cars are moving off the lot as fast as they come in, with most sold long before they arrive.

For the area’s auto dealers, this will be a year, and a December, unlike most and certainly not anything approaching normal. Lots are barren, and showrooms often have used cars under the bright lights. Dealers are coping as best they can, and so are customers, and while current conditions are expected to continue into next year, there seems to be some light at the end of the tunnel.

 

On one wall in his office at the Hyundai dealership that bears his name, Gary Rome has a large screen that displays images captured by more than two dozen security cameras.

As he talked about the current conditions facing dealers like himself, he gestured toward pictures on that screen of one of the back lots at the massive store on Whiting Farms Road in Holyoke — a barren lot with no cars parked on it.

“Normally … that would be full — four lanes, full,” he said, noting that ‘normal’ was quite some time ago. Now, instead of normal, there is only reality, in the form of inventory shortages that have, as Rome noted, prompted dealers to put used cars in the showrooms, position cars so it looks like there is more inventory than there actually is, and even have employees park in front to provide that same effect.

He’s only taking the first of those steps, and that’s out of necessity, he said with a voice that hints at frustration, which is certainly understandable, but mostly acceptance of a situation that is far beyond dealers’ control and something they will have to live with for at least several more quarters.

“We’re just coming through the second year of the most unprecedented time that the industry has ever faced — and the forecasts for what was going to happen to this industry were far more dire.”

The frustration comes from the knowledge that these dealers could certainly sell a lot more cars if they had them, especially given the pent-up demand and the fact that many consumers have money to spend and are eager to spend it. And also the numbers — most dealers are looking at overall sales volume being down between 20% and 30% from what would be considered a ‘normal’ year. The acceptance part comes from the knowledge that consumers have responded to the situation mostly with patience and understanding, and, overall, dealers are making the best of a bad situation that could actually be worse. Much worse.

“We’re just coming through the second year of the most unprecedented time that the industry has ever faced — and the forecasts for what was going to happen to this industry were far more dire,” said Ben Sullivan, chief operating officer at Balise Motor Sales. “And we’ve actually fared pretty well, and the customers have been accommodating because they can understand; they see the news. Somehow, we’re making it through, and a lot of customers have no issues with doing it this way.”

By ‘this way,’ he meant that, instead of driving onto a lot and choosing from among the dozens of options of the model they want, they’re either ordering what they want and waiting for it arrive in a few weeks (or a few months, as the case may be) or buying something they know is on a truck and on its way — even if it might not be exactly what they want.

Carla Cosenzi, president of TommyCar Auto Group, agreed, noting that her family of dealerships has an appropriately named program that speaks to all this, called Reserve Your Ride.

“People can pick out their vehicle and order it or pick a car out of pipeline,” she said, adding that, while there may be fewer cars to actually choose from on the lots, people can still buy cars, and they are.

Ben Sullivan says there has been some improvement on the inventory front

Ben Sullivan says there has been some improvement on the inventory front, but it might be two more years before dealers see something close to pre-pandemic levels.

Sometimes, because of the inventory issues, it may not be a new car, she went on, adding that, in this environment, some are waiting patiently for the new cars to roll in, while others are opting for used cars, and still others, those with leases that are expiring, are opting to buy those vehicles.

And this is how it will be for the foreseeable future, said those we spoke with, all of whom noted that COVID-19 and its many impacts have made the future — even the immediate future — hard to predict.

As for the present, it’s December, a month that is generally a good one for dealers, and for many reasons, ranging from holiday-gift purchases (especially luxury models) to businesses buying new vehicles before year’s end for tax purposes.

“This is a time of year when people want something new — new cell phones, a new car, a new used car, a new espresso machine,” said Sullivan, adding that this desire for new coincides with a mostly healthy economy, lower unemployment rates, and, overall, higher levels of confidence. “And when people feel confident, they wind up making large purchases because they are not afraid.”

They may not be afraid, but there will certainly be fewer cars to buy, and that means this will be different kind of December, but one that still holds promise for dealers — and customers — waiting for the picture to improve.

 

Dropping Down a Gear

To the untrained eye, Sullivan said, it doesn’t look like much is happening at area dealerships.

Indeed, what most people see in that minute they drive by a store is lots of acreage not being occupied by new or used cars. Indeed, the vacant parking lots have become one of the enduring images of the supply-chain crisis at this stage of the pandemic.

But a closer look would reveal plenty of activity, just not the type that would be considered normal, he said.

“If you put a stop-motion camera at any dealership, you’d see 18-wheelers coming in, you’d see cars coming off of it, you’d see them going through their pre-delivery inspections and service and the salesperson calling the customer to say his vehicle has arrived, and that person picking it up the next day,” he noted. “That’s about how fast this stuff is going right now.”

Carla Cosenzi says dealers and customers alike are adjusting

Carla Cosenzi says dealers and customers alike are adjusting to a landscape that is without precedent in the auto industry.

Other dealers we spoke with echoed those remarks, saying the days of large inventories have been replaced by that new way of doing business described earlier, with the vast majority of cars sold before they reach the lot (70% to 80%, by most estimates) or within days of rolling off the truck.

This new world order is on clear display on a huge board in one of the offices at Gary Rome Hyundai, one that tracks which vehicles have been sold, by whom, and when they will arrive on the lot for the customer to pick up.

“We’re just coming through the second year of the most unprecedented time that the industry has ever faced — and the forecasts for what was going to happen to this industry were far more dire.”

It’s a different landscape, to be sure, said Rome, adding that there would normally be more than 500 cars on the Hyundai lots; currently there are roughly 140, about one-quarter of that total, with only 20 of them being new cars.

It’s the same at the TommyCar dealerships, said Cosenzi, noting that the Hyundai/Genesis dealership in Northampton would normally have 200 new models on the ground. After a shipment arrived the day before she talked with BusinessWest, there were 30 to 35. At the Volkswagen store, also in Northampton, there would usually be 80 new cars. Now, 20 is the norm.

These numbers prompt frustration because they collide with other kinds of numbers, especially the ones pertaining to unemployment, consumer spending, and consumer confidence levels, said Rome, noting, as others did, that pent-up demand remains high for all types of vehicles, but especially new models.

“Our clients, in general, have more money than they had two years ago, they have more savings, they have more equity in their homes,” he explained. “And they also feel like they want to do something good for themselves. They’ve been locked down for the past 20 months, and they’ve been looking at the same car all that time. They want to do something nice for themselves.”

Such dramatic reductions in inventory also make for obvious changes and adjustments, including those that need to be made for the holidays, said Cosenzi, noting that many of those desiring to put a new car in the driveway on Christmas morning understood that, to make that happen, they needed to place their order in November. And they might also have had to settle for their second choice when it came to color.

Meanwhile, more consumers are looking toward used cars, which are in greater abundance but still not in the pre-pandemic numbers, she said, and also at keeping a car that is coming off lease instead of trading it in for a new one.

“And a lot of those buy-out values are under current market values,” she said. “It’s a good deal for the customer.”

While things certainly aren’t normal, in some respects, the picture is actually starting to improve, said Sullivan, noting that arrivals are expected to pick up in December and be ahead of October and November levels and well ahead of months earlier this year, when supply-chain woes peaked.

“There’s cars coming in, and there’s cars going out,” he said, adding that his general managers — and there are nearly 20 of them — have reported as a group that the company should expect a solid December.

Meanwhile, looking down the road, or trying to, anyway, dealers said it is difficult to say when ‘normal’ — as in lots full of cars for people to choose from — will return, or even if they will return.

“I don’t think we’ll see it in 2022,” said Sullivan. “I think it will be 2023 before you drive by a dealership and see a stock full of cars. It’s not until the third quarter of 2022 where you’ll see maybe 65% of what you’d normally see for ground stock.”

Cosenzi concurred, but noted that projections vary with the brand, with some manufacturers responding to the worldwide microchip shortage and supply-chain crisis better than others.

“We’re anticipating that things will get better over the next few months, but it will take a long time for us to recuperate and get back to the inventory levels that we were accustomed to before COVID,” she said. “I think it will take at least a year.”

As for the longer term, Sullivan reiterated comments he made earlier this year when he said some manufacturers may not go back to those days when they built cars and then hoped dealers would sell them. They likely won’t build to order, although that’s possible, he said, but they may build fewer cars and put the hard focus on models they know the customer wants.

“Most of the manufacturers have decided that just ‘build, build, build, build, build’ isn’t that profitable for them,” he explained, “because all the cars end up on our lots, and we have to find a way to get rid of them, and they have to put incentives on them. There is a level of production that makes more sense to them.

“We’re not going to be this order-to-delivery industry, because when people want something, they want it very quickly, and some want it now,” he went on, adding that, despite this, levels of overall ground stock will likely be lower in the years to become, perhaps 75% of their current levels.

 

Bottom Line

But there are still far too many unknowns to make any hard projections about the future, said those we spoke with, adding that, right now, they’re dealing with right now.

And that’s the picture that comes clearly into focus on that screen in Rome’s office. Things are not as they were, and they may not be like that for a while — if ever again, in some respects.

“This is a year unlike anything I’ve seen in all the years I’ve been in this business,” said Cosenzi, who spoke for everyone in the industry with those comments, adding that, while the picture is slowly improving, what would be considered normal is still far down the road.

 

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

Education

A Class Act

Janis Santos

Janis Santos has spent nearly a half-century as an administrator, but she never lost her enthusiasm for being in the classroom and reading to children.

During the early, and darkest, days of the pandemic, Janis Santos recalls, she considered it vitally important to remain positive and find ways to permit her positive attitude to trickle down to every employee and every facet of the Holyoke Chicopee Springfield Head Start operation.

And so, in her daily communications with staff, she would include quotes designed to inspire and uplift others at a time of unprecedented challenge. She borrowed quotes from many, but leaned heavily on Fred Rogers (better known to most as Mister Rogers) — whom she described as a hero for the way he forcefully drove home the message about how very young children learn through play — and also the poet Maya Angelou.

From the latter, there was one passage she remembers using more than a few times: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

But as powerful and effectual as those words were, it was probably some from Santos herself that helped propel her staff through those tumultuous times. 

When asked to recall and paraphrase, she said, “everyone needed to hear that we’ve been through things before, maybe not as bad as this … but we do this for children. Why are we here? What is our purpose? We’re committed and dedicated to America’s most vulnerable children. We have a big challenge to face — we need to keep the children safe and their families safe — so let’s do it together.”

Those comments are quite poignant because they sum up not only what Santos was saying at the height of the pandemic, but what she’s been saying — and doing — during a remarkable, nearly half-century-long career in Head Start that will come to a close — officially, but not in reality — on Dec. 31.

Indeed, from the time she opened a Head Start facility in the basement of the Boys & Girls Club in Ludlow in 1973, she has been dedicated to the country’s, and this region’s, most vulnerable children. But just as important, she’s been dedicated to those who work with and on behalf of those children, working tirelessly to stress the importance of early-childhood education and lobby for appropriate wages for those at the front of the classrooms.

“I will stay connected to Head Start; I’ve devoted my life to advocating for America’s most vulnerable children, and I will continue to do that.”

And, in what could only be considered irony, the pandemic that tested her mettle as no other challenge during her long career has helped reinforce that message and bring it home in ways that seem destined to bring real change to the landscape.

“During COVID, when there was a lack of childcare and no place for parents to leave their children when they went to work, it became a point of focus,” she explained. “The public finally saw that this is important; they saw how important these facilities are to parents, employers, and the economy.”

But while COVID-19 enlightened many on this topic, it also brought attention to another aspect of this profession that has been a career-long priority for Santos — the need to raise the salary levels for preschool educators.

Indeed, at a time when employers in every sector of the economy are struggling to retain workers being tempted by higher wages and better benefits elsewhere, the problem is especially acute in early-childhood education.

“This year, I’ve lost 15 Head Start teachers to public schools,” she noted, adding that, while it has always been a challenge to recruit people to this profession and retain them, at this critical juncture, it is even more so.

As noted, Santos will be retiring at the end of the year, but not leaving the scene when it comes to advocating for early-childhood education and those who provide it.

“I will stay connected to Head Start; I’ve devoted my life to advocating for America’s most vulnerable children, and I will continue to do that,” she said, adding that, while continuing those lobbying efforts, she plans to write a history of Holyoke Chicopee Springfield Head Start.

It’s a rich history, obviously, and Santos, named a Woman of Impact by BusinessWest in 2018, had a hand in most of it. For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked at length with Santos about her career, the changes that have come to early-childhood education, and the changes she believes still need to come.

 

School of Thought

By now, most people in the region know at least some of what we’ll call the Janis Santos story. Most versions begin when she was a mother of three enrolled in night classes at Holyoke Community College, with the dream of being a preschool teacher.

It was there, and then, that a young man in her class who was from Holyoke Chicopee Springfield Head Start encouraged her to start a facility in Ludlow. She did, eventually opening the Parkside Learning Center in that aforementioned basement of the Boys & Girls Club, in 1973. But as she would eventually learn, nothing about getting that facility off the ground — from securing the space to securing the funding — was going to be easy.

Janis Santos, seen here with the late Sen. Edward Kennedy

Janis Santos, seen here with the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, has spent a lifetime preaching the importance of early-childhood education.

She recalls that Head Start was struggling financially as an organization and was not able to actually pay her a salary.

“They offered me $18 a week in Commonwealth Corp. money, and I took it,” she recalled. “I had no benefits, no nothing, and I took that for about three years until my site started to generate some income.”

But what she also learned, rather quickly and much to her dismay, was that there wasn’t much respect within the community, and within the broad realm of education, for what she was doing with her life and her career.

“The perception was that we were babysitters out there, and I felt that people just don’t understand that these are critical learning years for children,” she said. “And the other piece is that children in that age group learn through play; some of my friends would visit and say, ‘why don’t you become a real teacher and go teach kindergarten?’”

Instead of listening to that advice, she spent a lifetime convincing others that she was a real teacher and that early education was vital to young people, their families, and society in general.

“The perception was that we were babysitters out there, and I felt that people just don’t understand that these are critical learning years for children, Some of my friends would visit and say, ‘why don’t you become a real teacher and go teach kindergarten?’”

“I was determined to change those perceptions,” she said. “I wanted people, and educators, and the community to know the importance of those years.”

She would become the director of Holyoke Chicopee Springfield Head Start in 1979 and also go on to serve on the National Head Start Board of Directors for 14 years, which gave her the opportunity to not only advocate for the nation’s most vulnerable children, but make the case for early-childhood education.

Over the years, she would meet three American presidents and lobby countless elected officials on the importance of pre-K and the need to improve the wages of those in that profession. She has pictures of herself with then-U.S. Sen. Edward Kennedy, then-U.S. Sen. Hillary Clinton, U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, several governors, and many other elected leaders.

But as important as her time with those elected leaders has been — and it has been vitally important to moving the needle on early-childhood education — Santos said the most valuable time she spent was with children in the classroom and with teachers and other staff members as a mentor.

She has taken on that role with countless individuals over the years, including the woman chosen in a national search to be her successor at HCS Head Start, Nicole Blais.

To say these two go way back is an understatement. Indeed, Santos was Blais’s preschool teacher in Ludlow in the ’70s.

Santos said she has been working with Blais during the transition, and has some pointed advice for her based on nearly 45 years of being in that job — and also advice provided by those who mentored her.

“One of them told me, ‘you have to take a bold, respectful approach,’ and I’ve never forgotten that,” she told BusinessWest.

She has some other advice for as well — to follow her lead when it comes to taking risks, something one needs to do to succeed as a leader.

“I’m a risk taker,” she told BusinessWest, referring to everything from that first gambit in Ludlow, the one that paid her $18 a week, to her partnership with MGM Springfield on a new facility in Springfield, to her involvement in the new Educare program that opened in 2019. “You can’t sit back; you have to go out there and take risks, and that’s what I tell those that I mentor. I tell them, ‘if you don’t take risks, you will not succeed.’”

 

Learning Experiences

“Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning.  But for children, play is serious learning.”

That’s one of those quotes from Mister Rogers that Santos used to help encourage and inspire staff during the darkest times of the pandemic.

It’s more than that, though. It’s one of the pillars on which early-childhood education is built and one of the critical points Santos has spent a career trying to drive home to a wide range of constituencies.

With a little help from COVID, there is a now a better understanding of the importance of early-childhood education and perhaps better odds for universal pre-K to become policy in this country.

In the meantime, most have stopped referring to early-childhood educators as babysitters. And at a time when Santos is being honored by a number of groups for her many accomplishments, that is probably the biggest.

 

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

Women in Businesss

Taking a Leadership Role

Lora Wondolowski says leadership is constantly changing and evolving

Lora Wondolowski says leadership is constantly changing and evolving, and that’s one of the many intangibles that has kept her at the helm of LPV.

 

When Lora Wondolowski became founding executive director of Leadership Pioneer Valley (LPV), it certainly wasn’t with the expectation that she would one day be hard at work planning 10-year anniversary celebrations.

Indeed, Wondolowski said it was more her style, her pattern, to launch organizations and programs, stabilize and build them, and then move onto something else, probably in four or five years, as she did with her previous assignment, as founding director of the Massachusetts League of Environmental Voters and the Environmental Voters Education Fund in Boston.

“I’m someone who gets restless — who has trouble staying,” she said in reference to the many lines in the ‘work history’ section of her résumé. “My last two organizations, this one and the last one, were startups, and if I look at the trajectory of my career, a lot of the work I’ve done over the years is starting new programs or new organizations. I didn’t see myself able to sustain within an organization; I thought I’d get bored.”

Suffice it to say that, in this job, she hasn’t.

When asked why, she said there are several reasons, starting with the inspiration she gets from the graduates of LPV’s LEAP program and their success stories (a list that includes exactly half of BusinessWest’s eight Women of Impact for 2021 — more on that later).

But there is more to Wondolowski’s lengthy stay with LPV. Much more, as she explained.

“The work we do keeps changing and growing, and that’s because leadership is ever-changing; our curriculum is ever-changing,” she explained. There is a lot to keep me engaged and energized as I look for new opportunities for our organization.”

Over the past decade, Wondolowski has become a leader in her own right. She is currently serving on several boards, including those for the United Way of Pioneer Valley, the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts, and the Connecticut River Conservancy. Meanwhile, at LPV itself, she has managed and grown the organization, expanding its original mission in several different ways that have collectively made it an important addition to the region and its business community.

And, like those at the helm of virtually every business and nonprofit in the region, she has seen her leadership skills tested during COVID-19, a time of extreme challenge for LPV.

“There’s a difference between leadership in crisis, which it was in the beginning — you had to make quick decisions in a certain way — and then this sort of adaptive leadership, which we are now in, which is a lot about resilience and how to get people through change and things that are uncomfortable, because no one wants to do things differently.”

In the spring of 2020, the pandemic forced the agency to offer its programming remotely, make difficult but necessary staff cuts — Wondolowski was a one-person show (and on reduced time) for several months —and eventually take its graduation to a drive-through format similar to what was seen with area high schools.

In 2021, staffing is back to something approaching normal thanks in part to two rounds of PPP, programming has returned to the in-person format, and another class is working its way toward commencement next spring. But some companies are struggling to enroll employees in the program due to staffing constraints and other challenges, and ‘normal,’ as in what existed prior to COVID, is very much a moving target.

Meanwhile, COVID has also made its way into the curriculum. Sort of. Indeed, the pandemic and its side effects have put new emphasis on decision making, conflict resolution, and other matters that have prompted changes to some of the programs, Wondolowski said.

“There’s a difference between leadership in crisis, which it was in the beginning — you had to make quick decisions in a certain way — and then this sort of adaptive leadership, which we are now in, which is a lot about resilience and how to get people through change and things that are uncomfortable, because no one wants to do things differently,” she explained, adding that LPV changed up one of its sessions, from a hard focus on negotiation skills to one recalibrated to center on collaboration and conflict management — out of necessity and the times we’re in.

“I’m seeing more conflict,” she said. “I think some of it is dealing with people remotely, and the communication skills you need are different, and how people are approaching it is different.”

The graduation ceremonies for the LPV class of 2020

The graduation ceremonies for the LPV class of 2020 were drive-through in nature, one of the many challenges to contend with during the pandemic.

For this issue and its focus on women in business, we talked with Wondolowski about LPV as it turns 10, but also about her own leadership role in the region and that notion that leadership is ever-changing and how this still relatively new addition to the local business landscape is helping its participants navigate these changes.

 

Following the Leader

On one wall of her office on the ninth floor of Harrison Place — space LPV is now sharing with Tech Foundry — Wondolowski has put photos of the agency’s graduating classes. A few of the most recent classes are missing, and there are Post-it notes where those images should be — gentle reminders to fill in that space on the wall.

Wondolowski has had a number of other matters on her mind besides those photos lately. Indeed, she has been steering the agency through the whitewater churned up by COVID while also planning for the long term for an agency created to meet a recognized need cited by the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission’s Plan for Progress: to create more programming to give people the skills and confidence they need to become leaders in the community.

Overall, there are now 327 alumni of the LEAP program, a number that is a source of pride in and of itself. But the accomplishments of those graduates and their continued upward movement in terms of success in business and involvement in the community are much bigger sources.

Among those alums are a number of elected officials, including Holyoke’s first Hispanic mayor, Joshua Garcia, class of 2016, who won that office just a month ago, as well as state Sen. Adam Gomez (class of 2018) and a number of city and town councilors and school-committee members across the region.

“There’s still so much more work to do. And that’s the thing I really appreciate about this organization; it allows me to be entrepreneurial and to try new things. Some things work and some things don’t, so we take small risks. Overall, the need for leadership keeps expanding.”

“We’ve had close to two dozen of our graduates run for office since 2017,” Wondolowski noted. “There are several on the City Council in Springfield and school-committee members up and down the Valley.”

There are also a number of business leaders and, therefore, individuals who have graced the pages of BusinessWest — especially, those issues announcing winners of its various awards. Indeed, a number of the 600 individuals possessing 40 Under Forty plaques are LPV alums, with some going through the program before they were honored by BusinessWest, and some after.

Meanwhile, as noted, four of this year’s Women of Impact — Jessica Collins, executive director of the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts; Charlene Elvers, director of the Center for Service and Leadership at Springfield College; Madeline Landrau, Program Engagement manager at MassMutual; and Tracye Whitfield, Springfield city councilor and Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion officer in West Springfield — are also alums.

The most important statistic is that 97% of the alums are still living and working in the Pioneer Valley, Wondolowski said, adding that keeping talent in the region — by getting people engaged in individual cities and towns and the 413 as a whole — was one of the motivating factors for creating LPV.

And the business plan for the organization is simple: to keep growing those numbers and inspiring more people to become leaders and get involved. It does this through a program that, at its core, connects its participants with the community to identify needs and, through the formation of ‘leadership learning lab groups,’ address those needs. In conjunction with local nonprofit partners, Wondolowski explained, teams have developed projects related to children, youth, community and economic development, arts and culture, anti-racism, and much more.

The experience creates a progress of self-discovery and growth, she went on, adding that LEAP participants return to their organizations with stronger relational and leadership skills that they also apply to the communities in which they live and work.

As for her, the decade she has spent at the helm of the agency has likewise been a process of self-discovery and growth.

“There’s still so much more work to do,” she said of LPV and its mission. “And that’s the thing I really appreciate about this organization; it allows me to be entrepreneurial and to try new things. Some things work and some things don’t, so we take small risks. Overall, the need for leadership keeps expanding.”

This need to be entrepreneurial and take small risks was exacerbated by — and in all ways impacted by — guiding LPV through COVID.

Wondolowski said the past 22 months have been a learning experience on all kinds of levels, but especially when it comes to decision making and confronting change on a massive scale.

“It’s been a real a roller coaster,” she said. “In the beginning, it was, ‘OK, we just have to do this,’ and we pulled our board together to make some tough decisions. In the early months, we were meeting very regularly, and in some ways it was hard … but it was in different ways than it is now because there was a sense of purpose, and knowing we were all coming together helped a lot.

“As it dragged on, and it waxes and wanes, there are some days when it can just be really overwhelming and hard,” she went on. “You get decision fatigue.”

These are the same challenges confronted by all business and nonprofit leaders over the past 22 months, she said, adding that COVID and its many side effects have brought changes to how and where work is done, and thus profound changes to the dynamic of the workplace.

And many of these changes are long-term, if not permanent.

“We’re not going to go back to fully in-person workplaces for a long time,” Wondolowski said, adding that many workers have been very productive at home, and many see little, if any, reason to return to the office. And a number of companies large and small see the logic in allowing remote work to continue.

But with this seismic shift comes changes in how people communicate — and how they must lead.

“There are all these questions about work culture and how you create a culture when people aren’t not all in the same place,” she said, adding that this represents just one of new frontiers, if you will, when it comes to managing in these compelling times.

“For our last class, we actually had a session on executive presence and focused a lot on how you communicate effectively virtually, and all the things about body language and how you frame yourself on the camera,” she told BusinessWest. “These are things you would never have thought about, and now you do.”

 

Bottom Line

That’s just one example of how leadership is, as Wondolowski said earlier, ever-changing. And that’s one of many factors that has not only kept her in this job longer than she ever thought she would be in it, but kept her engaged and energized.

As she plans that 10th-anniversary commencement for next spring, she is also thinking about the many springs to follow and the future classes of LPV and what they will need to be impactful leaders in the community and in business.

Filling in those blanks, especially in the era of COVID and the profound changes it has brought to the landscape, is not easy. But if anything, Wondolowski has demonstrated that she not only grooms leaders — she has become one herself.

 

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

Sports & Leisure

On His Own Turf

Christian McCollum says Notre Dame is like the New York Yankees

Christian McCollum says Notre Dame is like the New York Yankees — it’s a team people love or hate, almost in equal numbers.

Christian McCollum says he was just about to jump on his Peloton for his evening workout when the news that had been simmering all day finally came to a boil.

Brian Kelly, the longtime head football coach of Notre Dame, was leaving to take the same job at Louisiana State University (LSU).

That bombshell immediately changed the night, the next day, and the entire landscape for a number of people, including McCollum, a lead writer for the website Irish Sports Daily, which is devoted entirely to Notre Dame sports, with, as might be expected at this time of year, a heavy focus on a football team that has a huge, national following.

Long story short, McCollum, lead recruiting writer for the site, never did get his bike ride that night, and he’s not sure when he will.

Indeed, after the news became official early in the evening on Nov. 29, the writers at Irish Sports Daily went into action, quickly turning out stories on Kelly’s departure, likely successors, and, in McCollum’s case, one on who might be on the sidelines for the Irish if they play in a New Year’s Six bowl game or even one of the playoff games.

There were emergency Zoom meetings for the writers and, for McCollum, a series of calls to recruits to gauge their reaction to what was, for most, a stunning turn of events.

Recruiting has become McCollum’s main point of focus in a career now devoted mostly to Notre Dame sports and especially football. He also has an entrepreneurial venture of his own called Play Action Pools, an office sports pool hosting site that is gaining traction and looking to hit its stride in time for next spring’s March Madness.

For McCollum, Notre Dame sports has become as a much a passion as a job or a career.

After a 10-year stint with the Republican that started when he was in college, he moved to South Bend when he was hired by Frank Publishing, which produces Irish Sports Daily.  His first job was a beat writer for both the football and basketball teams.

“I would go to all the practices, all the press conferences, and all the games, home and away — I would basically cover the team,” he said, adding that he moved back to this area in 2011 and has since focused mostly on recruiting, following the high-school players the team is recruiting seriously and taking their stories right up to signing day and beyond.

“Recruitment starts earlier and earlier these days; sometimes they’re freshmen in high school, sometimes they’re sophomores,” he noted. “I just track them throughout their journey.”

“There was some hard feelings from some of the recruits and their parents, but mostly disbelief; it took a while for it to sink in.”

He acknowledged that the school’s massive fan base has a status in sports that is much like a certain baseball team in New York. He called it a ‘community.’

“They’re the most loved — and the most hated, kind of like the Yankees, as they say, which makes a lot of sense,” he noted, adding that the message-board comments reflect every emotion when it comes to the team, from loyalty to cynicism.

“A lot of members seem to enjoy misery,” he went on. “They claim to be Notre Dame fans, but they’re not just cynical, they almost seem like they’re hoping for the worst thing that can happen. But deep down, I think they’re still Notre Dame fans; they just enjoy pain.”

 

Breaking News

When BusinessWest first talked with McCollum in very late November, after the final game of the season, a win over Stanford, he said much of the discussion on the site’s message boards was about what had to happen for the Irish to become one of the four teams in the FBS playoff — certain teams needed to lose in the week ahead for that to become likely — whether that would happen, and even if it should happen.

Indeed, McCollum acknowledged that some of those cynical fans were wondering out loud if it might be better for a team that has made the playoffs several times, and even the championship game one year, but have been routed in each game, to earn a New Year’s Six bowl game instead. The thinking among some is that latter scenario would actually be better for recruiting.

“That’s a big debate we have on the board all the time,” he told BusinessWest. “People say they would rather not go to the playoffs if they’re going to get beat by 30 by Georgia. I’m of the opposite camp. You’re playing these games to try to win a championship, and you can’t win it if you’re not there.

“Some people say it hurts recruiting when you lose big like that, but this is what happened in recent years, and it doesn’t seem to have hurt recruiting,” he went on. “And it’s just as easy to say it helps recruiting; you can say to a kid, ‘we’re there … we just need to take the next step, and you’re one of the players who can help us take that next step.’”

But then, Kelly dropped his bombshell — a few weeks after dismissing speculation that he might be tempted to take other college jobs, such as the one at the University of Southern California — and everything changed.

McCollum had been planning to do a number of stories on Notre Dame’s coaches, including Kelly, fanning out to different parts of the country — now that their regular season was over and another game wouldn’t be played for at least three weeks and possibly more than a month — to check in with those coming to Notre Dame and try to sway some others to come to South Bend. Now, those trips, the ones that will still happen, will be much different in tone and complexity because so much is uncertain.

As for McCollum, he’s already been working the phones to gauge the reaction of recruits and their parents to what has taken place.

“Initially, the response was disbelief,” he said of his early calls to recruits and their families, during which he was often breaking the news about Kelly. “And then, disbelief turned into frustration. There was some hard feelings from some of the recruits and their parents, but mostly disbelief; it took a while for it to sink in.”

Overall, the Kelly saga presents an intriguing day in the life for McCollum, or, to be more precise, a day unlike any other.

Indeed, when asked where he was when the news broke, he said it was more of a process than a single phone call, text, or tweet.

“I was at home during the day when I started hearing rumbles from people I trust,” he said. “It wasn’t that Kelly was going to LSU, but that LSU was going to make a serious offer, as in money that would be hard to turn down.”

From there, events unfolded relatively slowly, and Kelly’s departure, which earlier in the day still seemed unlikely, became more of a possibility, said McCollum, adding that he kept getting calls and updates all day long, even while attending his daughter’s basketball game.

“When I got home, I still didn’t believe he was going to go because of the culture fit,” he explained. “So I started texting some of my buddies to let them know that this was out there and that it would be just my luck to have this happen now and turn my world upside down.”

And … that’s just what happened. His world turned upside down.

But that’s part of life when you cover this team, one that has such a huge following. One where seemingly small news is big news, and where big news is BIG news.

Big enough to keep him off his Peloton.

Instead of the planned stories on what recruits were thinking as National Signing Day (Dec. 15) approached, now, the focus was on whether they would stay with the Irish if they were already committed — some have already de-committed — or adjust their focus if they were not.

 

Endless Cycle

As noted earlier, talking with recruits and following the high-stakes, often-changing competition to sign top-tier athletes has become more than a job for McCollum.

He’s now one of the foremost, and most trusted, sources on Notre Dame football and especially its recruiting efforts.

He said there is certainly a Groundhog Day nature to his work in that he’s asking the same questions of different people each year, but he noted that each story is different in some respects, and he enjoys following each one to its end — whether the recruit comes to Notre dame or goes somewhere else.

“And it never really ends — it’s always a rolling thing,” he said. “Once this class of ’22 is signed, we’re heavily into ’23 and ’24, to be honest. I enjoy it … it’s my job to really help members understand what’s going on in that young man’s head, what he’s thinking, who’s the competition, what he’s going to value when it comes to making that decision, and keeping our subscribers up to date on what’s likely to happen when it comes to recruiting at Notre Dame.”

 

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

Features Special Coverage

Changing the Script

Jordan Hart

As part of a broad rebranding and rebuilding effort at the Greater Holyoke Chamber, Jordan Hart is working to build a stronger relationship with the Hispanic business community.

 

Area chambers of commerce, like businesses in all sectors, have suffered during the pandemic and faced a number of stern challenges. For the most part, they have come through these tough times — smaller in many cases, with many chambers now one-person shows — having proven their value and relevance after helping their members survive upheaval without precedence. The challenge moving forward is to rebuild their memberships, their financial foundations, and, yes, their staffs, while also creating new and different ways to maintain that relevance they found during the pandemic.

 

Jordan Hart admits to sometimes getting lonely at the Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce’s spacious offices on High Street.

There are still monthly board meetings in the large conference room and an occasional visitor. And the entrepreneur leasing a small office toward the back of the space comes in now and then.

But mostly, it’s just Hart.

Indeed, this chamber is now essentially a one-person operation, the culmination of a trend that started before the pandemic and has only been accelerated by COVID-19.

“I am the chamber,” said Hart, one several relatively new chamber leaders in the region — she became executive director almost a year ago after more than nine years with the agency in various roles, adding that there were five people working in the same space when she first started there.

And Holyoke’s is not the only area chamber to be run by a staff of one. That’s the model now in place at several agencies, including the Springfield Regional Chamber (SRC), which had five staff members just prior to COVID, but now there’s just one computer humming at its suite of offices at the TD Bank Building, a downsizing that happened over time.

“Part of it was attrition, part of its was budgetary as a result of COVID,” said Nancy Creed, president of the SRC, who announced earlier this month that she will be stepping down from her position no later than next spring to care for her elderly mother.

Coping with smaller staffs — and, in some cases, some loneliness — has been just one of the adjustments area chambers have had to make over the last few years, and especially since COVID. There have been some changes in the services they provide and how they are provided, and there has been somewhat of a change in role as well.

“As chambers stepped up, people saw us as a lifeline. We’re in the business of serving businesses, but never did we realize that we would actually be saving businesses.”

Indeed, where once chambers existed to help promote members and connect them to one another and the community, while also providing needed information on matters ranging from new legislation to changes in tax laws, the mission escalated during COVID — up to and including simply helping members survive an unprecedented disruption to their business and their life.

“As chambers stepped up, people saw us as a lifeline,” said Claudia Pazmany, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce. “We’re in the business of serving businesses, but never did we realize that we would actually be saving businesses.”

Overall, the chamber members we spoke with summarized what’s happened over the past 21 months or so by saying chambers became more relevant during the pandemic, as evidenced by the fact that membership didn’t decrease for many of them at a time of extreme financial duress for many of their members. In some cases, it actually increased.

“Throughout all of this, chambers have really shown their relevance,” Creed said. “It’s like having health insurance in some respects; you don’t ever want to use it, but you’re glad that it’s there when you need to use it, and we’ve shown what we can do and what our value proposition is.”

Now, the challenge is to remain relevant, they said with one voice, noting that they’re going about this assignment in many different ways.

At the Holyoke Chamber, for example, there has been a rebranding — a new logo and a new website, for starters — but also some strong outreach to Hispanic business owners, said Hart, adding that, historically, that population hasn’t felt as if the chamber represented them.

“It was really important to me to become a more inclusive organization, fostering not only our current members, but growing that and extending that into the Hispanic business community, which has really not had the same opportunities that the chamber has offered to other businesses,” she told BusinessWest, adding that she considers 2021 to be a comeback year for a beleaguered chamber. “I don’t want to continue to segregate the two different business communities, but instead find ways to become more unified and be the business community of Holyoke.”

Grace Barone

Grace Barone says the East of the River Five Town Chamber has brought back many of its events, but with adjustments due to COVID.

At the East of the River Five Town Chamber of Commerce, which includes Longmeadow, East Longmeadow, Ludlow, and other communities south and east of Springfield, there has been a return to many of the gatherings staged before COVID, including the popular breakfasts, an important value-added service for members.

“There’s definitely a need for these kinds of networking events,” said Grace Barone, who came on as executive director of the chamber in June. “Everyone needed to know how folks were doing, how to adjust sales, and how to move forward in this world, so we set out to do that, to bring people together again.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with several chamber leaders about this process of ‘moving forward,’ and all that this phrase entails. As with businesses in every sector of the economy, it means pivoting when necessary and finding new and sometimes different ways to be relevant and present value to members.

 

Meeting Expectations

As she talked about her chamber’s recent trade show and fundraising event, the ERC5 Talkin’ Turkey Table Top 2021, Barone said she took a page from the playbook BusinessWest used at its 40 Under Forty gala in September — the one that called for spreading people out to help reduce risks during a surge in COVID.

“We utilized all the different spaces at Twin Hills Country Club that we could,” she explained. “We had some vendors outside and in the lobby — we provided people with more room. People had to do a little more traveling through Twin Hills, but it happened, and it was a success, and everyone was very happy.”

It was the same at an earlier networking event, staged outdoors in another nod to COVID, at the Apple Place in East Longmeadow, which boasts a creamery and a number of farm animals. It wasn’t your typical networking event setting, but it worked, serving as an example of thinking outside the box and making needed adjustments to how things are normally done, Barone said.

“Throughout all of this, chambers have really shown their relevance. It’s like having health insurance in some respects; you don’t ever want to use it, but you’re glad that it’s there when you need to use it, and we’ve shown what we can do and what our value proposition is.”

Making adjustments at events — and conducting fewer events overall — while also making due with smaller staffs, and often one person, are just some of the changes area chambers have been making since COVID changed the landscape.

“It has certainly not been easy, and chambers have to do more with less now,” Creed said. “But that’s not necessarily a bad thing — I think that’s just business, and everyone needs to learn how to do that.”

Overall, most chambers have handled the adjustments they’ve had to make. There have been cutbacks in staffing for many of the agencies — again, through attrition and some cuts — and other forms of downsizing. But while chambers have closed and merged in other parts of the country and even other parts of this state, all of the chambers in the 413 have kept their names and their identities.

That’s not to say there weren’t some precarious times. Indeed, when Kate Phelon, the long-time executive director of the Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce, announced she would retire at the end of 2020, a search for a successor commenced that September. It was halted a few months later amid some concerns about the chamber’s future — and fiscal concerns stemming from the pandemic — but then started again as arrangements were made to collect past-due membership fees and take other steps to put the agency on solid financial footing.

“Dues started coming in, and people started getting creative about getting businesses into the chamber,” said Eric Oulette, who would eventually become that successor, adding that, today, membership is solid, at nearly 240 members, or roughly where things stood before the pandemic, with the ambitious goal of getting to 300 in the months to come.

Nancy Creed

Nancy Creed says area chambers certainly proved their relevance during COVID, and the challenge now is to maintain that relevance.

He’s confident the chamber can continue adding members and perhaps reach that lofty goal because of the value it has put on display during the pandemic, especially as a resource to members looking for needed information and guidance on relief programs.

Barone agreed. “We’ve been climbing higher and adding new members since I’ve come onboard,” she said, adding that the numbers have been steady and the chamber is on solid ground moving forward.

At the Holyoke Chamber, amid several changes in leadership, the agency fell out of view of many business owners and needed to not only rebrand but reintroduce itself to the business community and in some ways even reinvent itself. And Hart, because of her long tenure with the organization and familiarity with many of the business owners, thought she was in a position to orchestrate what could be called a turnaround.

“I thought I was in a position to really rebrand us and make it known that we’re here to help the community, because there was talk that the chamber was idle,” she told BusinessWest. “We were administering grants, but other than that, we had a very idle pandemic, so I took that opportunity last spring to rebrand us, with a new logo, new website, and new dues structure.”

The more significant aspect of what she is calling a ‘renaissance’ for this chamber is its efforts to promote inclusion and broaden the membership base by putting out a proverbial welcome mat to Hispanic business owners. It is doing this through a number of vehicles, including everything from diversity, equity, and inclusion seminars to complementary Spanish classes (Hart is taking one herself) and English classes as well.

“What I’ve noticed from working here almost a decade is that there are a lot of roadblocks preventing unification within our business community,” she said. “So if can we cross-pollinate and promote one another and highlight one another, using the power of the chamber to become an ally with everyone in our community, we can see tremendous growth. The potential is really endless, in my opinion.”

 

Getting Down to Business

As he talked with BusinessWest, Oulette was just returning from a ribbon-cutting ceremony, one of many he’s been part of over the past few months.

The giant scissors have been given a workout, he said, thanks in part to a surge in entrepreneurship fueled in some ways by the pandemic and the time it gave people to think about, and act on, their dreams of owning their own business.

“It was really important to me to become a more inclusive organization, fostering not only our current members, but growing that and extending that into the Hispanic business community, which has really not had the same opportunities that the chamber has offered to other businesses.”

“More than 20 businesses have opened up in the Greater Westfield area this year alone,” he said, adding that, from what he can gather, most area chambers are equally busy with those ribbon cuttings, and they represent just one of many ways chambers are showing up during these still-challenging times.

Indeed, with federal PPP money and other sources of funding, such as a large grant the Holyoke chamber has secured through its partnership with EforAll Holyoke, area chambers have been able to carry on — in somewhat different fashion, in some cases, and with a somewhat different mentality in others. And, yes, with fewer people at many agencies.

“We’ve transitioned to be more of a mission-driven organization than an events-driven organization,” said Creed, noting quickly that spending less time on events, such as those monthly or quarterly breakfasts that so many area chambers are known for, has freed up time for “things that truly matter.”

Using different words and phrases, all those we spoke with said essentially the same thing — although, for many, those events are still critical as ways to serve members and raise needed operating revenue.

But the pandemic has inspired all the chambers to look beyond those events and at different ways to help members, especially as they continue to battle not only the pandemic, but also a workforce crisis that is without precedent, and now new challenges to their existence, such as inflation and supply-chain woes.

Eric Oulette says he has been busy at ribbon cuttings

Eric Oulette says he has been busy at ribbon cuttings, one of the many ways the Greater Westfield Chamber has been visible and involved.

While the pandemic has eased in some ways, said Pazmany, area chambers are still working to not only serve but save area businesses. And this work takes many forms, from supporting the Amherst BID’s proposal to build a new parking garage downtown to more global efforts to inspire people to buy local.

But the biggest issues, one that chambers are struggling to help with, are the supply-chain woes and the workforce crisis. And they have Pazmany worried because they are preventing businesses from fully bouncing back from the pandemic, and in some ways still threatening their existence.

“I’m worried that, though our business are performing and they’re still open … they’re often just hanging on because of staffing and because of supply-chain issues,” she said. “Look at restaurants; they can’t stay open and serve the same number of people they used to. Most restaurants are busy, but they have to close two days a week, and if a restaurant has to close two days a week, they’re not doing what they were doing before the pandemic.”

And because a chamber’s fortunes are tied to the relative health of the business community it serves, there is understandable cause for concern, she went on.

“I’m a chamber, I’m a member-driven organization, all my support comes from my members and dues and sponsorships,” she explained. “I certainly have a right to worry; we’ve certainly proven ourselves in terms of our value, but if you’re not making the money, you’re going to cut somewhere. And what we don’t know is how long this staffing shortage and these other issues are going to go on.”

“It has certainly not been easy, and chambers have to do more with less now. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing — I think that’s just business, and everyone needs to learn how to do that.”

Barone agreed, but noted that one of the enduring lessons from the pandemic is that challenges can be met if groups and individuals work together and think outside the box.

“If we learned anything from this, it’s that the community comes together; if it weren’t for the residents in our small towns, a lot of businesses, a lot of restaurants, would not have survived,” she said. “But the community rallied, and that’s the piece that we’ve got to take forward — not that we didn’t before, but we need to focus on that with chambers. If our businesses are doing well and they’re successful, they give back to the communities they’re in, and everyone thrives.”

Bottom Line

As she walked and talked with BusinessWest during a visit to the space on High Street, Hart pointed to the desk positioned in the front lobby, the one she occupied when she started with the agency a decade or so ago.

When she became executive director, she recalled, she sat at that desk for some time, partly because of the familiarity, but also, as a one-person show, she wanted to be out front, greeting whoever came through the front door.

She has since settled into her office located behind the conference room, her “zen space,” as she called it. The broad goal for 2022 is to rebuild the chamber’s finances and, hopefully, place another employee at that desk out front — or one of the other unoccupied workstations.

Getting Hart some company is just one of the many challenges to address, and hopefully overcome, as chambers — like the businesses they serve — move on from surviving the pandemic to life after it.

 

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

Commercial Real Estate Special Coverage

A Time to Think Big

 

With more than $3 billion being directed to area cities and towns through the American Rescue Plan Act, there is no end to speculation about these funds should be put to use. While infrastructure projects and other municipal needs certainly need to be addressed, area economic leaders and developers are urging communities to think big and make investments that will spur additional private-sector development and allow these cities and towns to take full advantage of the changing times and the opportunities they present.

‘Unprecedented.’ ‘Once in a lifetime.’ ‘Once in a generation.’ ‘Transformative.’ ‘Totally unique.’

These are just some of the words and phrases people are using to describe the federal money now flowing into the state and its individual cities and towns from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to help them, their residents, and their businesses recover from the hard sting of COVID-19. Area communities are in line for windfalls ranging from hundreds of thousands of dollars for the smallest of towns in Franklin and Hampshire Counties to more than $130 million for Springfield. And the state itself is receiving more than $5 billion.

By and large, there are few strings attached to this money, so the $64,000 question (or the ‘fill in an amount’ question, as the case may be with individual communities) concerns how this windfall will be spent.

Keith Nesbitt

Keith Nesbitt

“There are very safe investments that can be made, and everyone would benefit. But there are game-changing investments that can be made, and I hope that they are.”

The debate is continuing on Beacon Hill and all across the region as mayors, city and town councilors, selectmen, and town administrators mull myriad options for spending these funds — and how other federal money, such as that included in the infrastructure bill recently passed into law, might be put to use.

Much of the talk on the local level concerns infrastructure — roads, bridges, sewer and water lines — as well as new roofs, HVAC systems, and more for municipal buildings, new parking garages, parks, etc., etc., etc.

And while these options have merit, those who spoke with BusinessWest on the broad subject of how this spending spree, especially the ARPA money, should be conducted said that, from an economic-development standpoint, area cities and towns — and the state itself — would do well to think bigger, and more long-term, with an eye toward using this money in ways that justify that word ‘transformative,’ and also spark private-sector development in housing (especially market-rate housing), new businesses, and more.

“These can’t be ‘bridge-to-nowhere’ kinds of investment — they have to be meaningful investments that all of us can benefit from,” said Jeff Daley, president and CEO of Westmass Development Corp., who also warned against a rush to commission studies that would likely yield reports that sit on shelves for years.

Keith Nesbitt, Berkshire Bank’s senior vice president for Business Banking for the Pioneer Valley and Connecticut, agreed.

“There are investments that are needed, and I think they come in a variety of forms,” he said. “I don’t know how we’re going to attract significant private investment without that pump priming that government resources are going to provide. I think this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity, and I really hope that local leaders are bold enough to dream big when it comes to how we use these funds.

“There are very safe investments that can be made, and everyone would benefit,” he went on. “But there are game-changing investments that can be made, and I hope that they are.”

What falls in that category? Nesbitt, who is also hiring manager for the bank and understands the workforce issues facing area businesses and the lack of qualified talent across the board, cited a community in Minnesota that is earmarking some of its federal money to ensure that all high-school graduates can attend community college.

Joy Martin

Joy Martin

“You do have a unique opportunity that you didn’t before because you have money to offer people to come in and develop in your area.”

“They recognized that need to prepare our young people for the jobs of the future,” he said. “The investment in free, two-year community college is what they’ve decided to do, and I’d love to see something that like here.”

Meanwhile, Joy Martin, director of Asset Management with Davenport Companies, which has worked on MGM Springfield, recently converted the former Willys-Overland property on Chestnut Street into market-rate apartments and is redeveloping the former Registry of Motor Vehicles building on Liberty Street, said Springfield and other communities need to think about investing the federal money in ways that would make it easier to undertake such projects.

“You do have a unique opportunity that you didn’t before because you have money to offer people to come in and develop in your area,” she said, adding that many projects need help from state and local government to make the numbers work for developers.

Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council, who can speak to this subject from various perspectives (he’s the former mayor of Springfield and a current city councilor), concurred, and also stressed the need to invest the money and not just spend it.

“I do think it’s a chance to look at the bigger picture and look down the road,” he told BusinessWest. “And not just fill a gap that might exist today, or not just make some repair that might be necessary, but really further your economy or the quality of life in your community you’re living in.”

 

Money Talks

While certainly advocating for longer-term thinking when it comes to how the ARPA money should be apportioned, Sullivan and others noted there are some immediate concerns that may also have some ramifications down the road.

That’s especially true when it comes to existing businesses and especially the smaller ventures across many sectors that are still struggling from the effects of not only COVID but some of the side effects from treating it as well.

“With the pandemic, the small, mom-and-pop, downtown, core-district businesses are still hurting,” he told BusinessWest. “They have supply-chain issues, they have employment issues … so I think some of these monies should go to the small, the really small businesses that make up the fabric, the fiber of your downtowns and your communities.

“And it can’t be loans because loans come with interest,” he went on. “It has to be either grants or no-interest loans that have a forgiveness provision — it goes away after a short period of time, be it two years or three years or five years; if you stay open and you’re moving forward, the obligation to pay goes away. Some of this money needs to go to your smallest businesses.”

Rick Sullivan

Rick Sullivan

“With the pandemic, the small, mom-and-pop, downtown, core-district businesses are still hurting. They have supply-chain issues, they have employment issues … so I think some of these monies should go to the small, the really small businesses that make up the fabric, the fiber of your downtowns and your communities.”

That said, Sullivan and others stressed repeatedly the need to think big when it comes to ARPA, meaning a focus on investments that will pay off the long term, with benefits for generations of residents of a given city or town. That could mean investments in everything from education and training initiatives to faster and more reliable internet, to initiatives that will unlock the development potential of unused and underutilized properties.

Seth Stratton, a business lawyer and managing partner of East Longmeadow-based Fitzgerald Attorneys at Law, said the focus should be on economic-development-related investments, a broad term to be sure.

“The programs and initiatives that should be funded with these resources should be intentional, impactful, and innovative — all with an eye toward a continuing spark; it has to be transformative,” he said, putting support for new housing projects high on his list of priorities. “We want to see economic development and a rising tide that lifts all boats. If we just do one-off projects here and there, that can be helpful, but it won’t have this comprehensive effect of economic development in what many of us see as somewhat of a new economy.

“What do restaurant, food and beverage, and entertainment venues look like going forward?” he continued. “We ought to be thinking about what they look like moving forward and how to embrace that and use funds in a smart way that would have exponential impact, rather than talking about one-off items.”

Daley agreed, and mentioned, as one example, Ludlow Mills, the sprawling former jute-making complex along the Chicopee River that Westmass now owns. He said investments made there by the state and perhaps the town of Ludlow could bring property in line for development and create jobs for several generations of area residents.

“We have several under-underutilized and undevelopable properties, and I think this one-time type of money coming in could help put us over the top to redevelop Ludlow Mills and other projects,” he said, adding that he hopes the ARPA money and funds in other federal programs, such as the infrastructure bill that was recently signed into law, trickle down to Western Mass. and help it attract the attention of the development community, which has often found it difficult to take on projects here for a number of reasons, including the market lease rates and the costs of renovating old mills and other properties.

“With a small investment — small relative to the numbers they’re talking about Congress and feds giving the state — we could recapitalize those dollars and give a return on investment that would be a million times what they would give us,” Daley said. “We have very, very large properties in Ludlow, specifically, that, without an infusion of cash, it’s going to hard to redevelop. With a small infusion of cash, several million dollars, we can generate a return on investment of $300 million or $400 million, realistically, within five to 10 years — and create a lot of jobs and tax dollars; there are three or four projects we could do that would change the face of Ludlow.”

Jeff Daley

Jeff Daley

“We have several under-underutilized and undevelopable properties, and I think this one-time type of money coming in could help put us over the top to redevelop Ludlow Mills and other projects.”

Martin concurred, noting that this infusion of federal money comes at an intriguing time, as many forces are coming together to make Western Mass. a more attractive option for individuals and businesses alike. These include the much higher cost of living in other areas such as Boston and New York and the opportunity to now work in those areas but live in a lower-cost region like the 413.

“Western Mass. is getting more attractive to investors and to people in general. Overland Lofts is 97% leased, and it has been 97% leased for some time,” she told BusinessWest. “We thought we were going to have a problem leasing these apartments, and we have not, and what surprised us is that we’ve attracted a lot of residents from the Worcester and Boston areas, because this location is near things that are about to happen — it’s not far from the casino, it’s near the train station … it checks a lot of boxes for urban living at a much lower cost than living in Boston or Worcester.”

Elaborating, she said one of the units is being leased by an executive with a Boston-based firm who is now able to work remotely, and chose to do so in downtown Springfield.

With these trends, or developments, in mind, those we spoke with said area cities and towns need to be thinking about ways to utilize the ARPA funds to take full advantage of the opportunities currently presenting themselves.

 

Impact Statement

Returning to that town in Minnesota using ARPA money to send young people to community college, Nesbitt said this is the kind of long-term, high-impact investing that state and area leaders should be thinking about as they consider options for allocating funds in the broad realm of economic development.

“These kinds of human-capital investments need to be prioritized,” he said, adding that the workforce crisis now impacting every sector of the economy must be considered a long-term problem and not one that will correct itself in a quarter or two or with the end of additional unemployment benefits.

Seth Stratton

Seth Stratton

“We have to have more market-rate housing in the region and be creative about it, and that’s where we talk about downtown developments. We can leverage Western Mass. and our lower cost of living by investing in market-rate housing, and such investments will help our businesses, because they are struggling to find and keep employees, and if we have robust market-rate housing, that will certainly help.”

Stratton agreed, noting that expanding vocational-education programs to assist the trades and the region’s large manufacturing sector should also be a priority. Meanwhile, he noted that other forces are converging that might bring more people into the local workforce, such as the ability to work remotely. He said there are more individuals like that executive now living in Overland Lofts, and, moving forward, they will need places to live.

“We have to have more market-rate housing in the region and be creative about it, and that’s where we talk about downtown developments,” he said. “We can leverage Western Mass. and our lower cost of living by investing in market-rate housing, and such investments will help our businesses, because they are struggling to find and keep employees, and if we have robust market-rate housing, that will certainly help.”

Meanwhile, with these changes in how and where people work, communities like Springfield have to think about the large amounts of office space currently unleased and the potential for those numbers to climb, he went on, adding that some thought should go into repurposing some of this space into flexible workplaces.

Getting projects like these off the ground is often difficult because it’s not easy to make redevelopment projects like the Overland initiative “pencil out,” as developers say, meaning make the numbers work. Often, historical tax credits or other forms of funding are needed to bridge gaps, said Martin, adding that the state and individual communities should look at using the federal funds flowing to them to make such projects more feasible and doable.

“We thought we were going to have a problem leasing these apartments, and we have not, and what surprised us is that we’ve attracted a lot of residents from the Worcester and Boston areas, because this location is near things that are about to happen — it’s not far from the casino, it’s near the train station … it checks a lot of boxes for urban living at a much lower cost than living in Boston or Worcester.”

“We run into a gap between the cost to build something and the actual asking price for something,” she said, citing the Overland project as an example. “We got 60 apartments out of it and rents that fit the area, but none of that would have happened without historical funds and state housing funds. So if the city had something that could bridge some of the financial gap between new-build and the current economic conditions in Springfield, that will help to bring developers here.

“It’s hard to justify an $18 million project with $2-per-square-foot rent,” she went on. “But if there’s some way to help bridge that gap, I think you’d see more developers willing to come in and give you a good product.”

Daley agreed, noting that the developers of the so-called Clocktower Building at Ludlow Mills, another housing project, have had to wait the better part of six years for the historical tax credits needed to move that initiative off the drawing board.

“We have another mill that’s 600,000 square feet; if we were to start today and try to get those kinds of tax credits, it would be 12 to 15 years before they were all distributed,” he said. “If the state wanted to have an impact on development of those kinds of projects, it should make more money available for good projects that are shovel-ready.”

Martin said the gap in funding facing those looking to develop existing but older and challenged buildings is one of the key factors impeding redevelopment of the buildings across Main Street from MGM Springfield.

“It’s not that people don’t want to be there,” she said. “It costs a lot to redevelop these buildings, and then to charge a rent that fits the community … it doesn’t pencil out without some kind of help,” she said. “Using these funds in a smart way like that would help bring back the Main Streets in Western Mass.”

Sullivan agreed, and said such investments are part of that process of looking beyond today and to tomorrow, and what communities want and need to look like in a rapidly changing landscape.

“I do think this is an opportunity for communities to look at the bigger picture regarding where they want their communities to be 10 years down the road, what they want their downtowns to look like, and what sectors — be it a restaurant district or an entertainment sector, travel and tourism, for example — they want to attract,” he said. “It’s about determining what you want your future to look like, and investing in it.”

 

Paying It Forward

Summing things up, Sullivan said these are what he hopes are once-in-a-lifetime windfalls that have come to area cities and towns.

“Hopefully, we won’t ever have to go through this again,” he noted, adding quickly that this unique moment in time represents an opportunity to pause, think about the future, and make some investments in it.

Fixing a bridge or putting a new roof on the fire station might be a suitable use for some of the money, he went on, but overall, cities and towns have to think bigger. Much bigger.

 

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

Features Special Coverage

A Changing Dynamic

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the business landscape in countless ways — from where and how employees work to how people communicate. It has also prompted businesses large and small to stop, think about that phrase ‘corporate stewardship’ and what it means to them, and perhaps re-evaluate this all-important concept. We put together a panel of local business and nonprofit managers to discuss the broad topic of corporate stewardship and how COVID may have provided new definition — in every aspect of that phrase — to this issue. For businesses, the pandemic has provided an opportunity to revisit the matter of community involvement and often find new and different ways to give back.
For nonprofits, missions have been broadened, and there has some been pivoting, out of both necessity and a desire to serve in different ways. The panelists are: Paul Scully, president and CEO of Country Bank; Theresa Jasmin, chief financial officer at Big Y Foods; Amy Scribner, partnership director at East School-to-Career Inc., a nonprofit that provides internships, or work-based learning opportunities and other career-education initiatives, for students; Jack Verducci, vice president of Corporate Partnership for the Worcester Red Sox; Dexter Johnson, president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Springfield; and Michelle D’Amore, executive director of Ronald McDonald House. Scully may have set the tone for the discission when he said, “I think the pandemic has been exhausting and aging, but it’s also been reflective, and I think it’s prompting people to be reflective about how to live your life and how to make a difference.”

BusinessWest: Let’s start by getting your take on — and your working definition of — those phrases ‘corporate stewardship’ and ‘being a good corporate citizen.’

Scully: “Country Bank has been around for 172 years, and its legacy for all those years has been the belief that healthy communities thrive. We’re all in business for our companies to do well, but from a community perspective, we need communities that are healthy — healthy economically, heathy demographically, educationally, with regard to healthcare. So giving back has always been a focus here, and in recent years we’ve taken it to a higher level, both with writing checks and having people on the street giving back and being part of the community. And it differs, depending on what the needs are. There can be very significant multi-year pledges — we just pledged $1 million for hunger awareness in June, with $500,000 for food banks in both Central and Western Mass., because if people have good nutrition, healthy communities will thrive — or having 14 people at Habitat for Humanity helping to build a house. It’s a focus that we do big and small.”

Jasmin: “Being involved in the community is part of the fabric of our company; we consider ourselves a family, we have a culture of caring, and we focus on personal connection, whether that’s with our customers, our employees, or throughout the community. And that manifests itself in many different ways, from large donations to capital campaigns to investments in time and talent. For us, though, it’s about relationships and creating strong vibrant communities; that’s what corporate stewardship means to us.”

Scribner: “For our organization, it’s not so much the money; it’s about organizations allowing these students to come in for semester and do a work-based learning opportunity, and that has long been a challenge for us. We’re trying to create a pipeline for employment, and to do that, we need businesses to assist us and open their doors to students. Often, it’s not about just writing a check, but getting involved on a deeper level.”

D’Amore: “We as a nonprofit are always seeking — and grateful to receive — financial support from the community. But we also rely on our volunteer base. Our organization was built on volunteers; it is the foundation of what we do. For us, we’re continuing our outreach and working with the community to ensure that what we receive is supporting the families who are with us — and there are many forms that this support can take.”

Verducci: “Our WooSox Foundation is a new foundation and not heavily funded, but what we do have is a platform to provide valuable and equitable experiences to the community; specifically, we tend to focus on pediatric oncology, recreation, education, and social justice. So while we love to donate the funds that we do have, we tend to be able to do the most good through corporate partners and partnerships within the community.”

BusinessWest: Has the pandemic changed the dynamic when it comes to corporate stewardship, and if so, how?

Jasmin: “What changed was how urgent the need was and the need to move quickly to respond to those needs. We have a pretty structured mechanism for people who are looking for financial assistance. But during the pandemic, that was accelerated because there was a high sense of urgency. For example, within a week of the shelter-in-place order in March of 2020, we gave some sizable donations to each of the five food banks in our operating area because businesses were shutting down, and people were out of work; the social structure to support those people was not in place yet, so food banks were being taxed. We made that gift quickly, and we made a second gift four weeks later when the need was continuing. That’s one of the ways we adjusted — moving more quickly to meet needs.”

Theresa Jasmin

Theresa Jasmin

“What changed was how urgent the need was and the need to move quickly to respond to those needs.”

Scully: “The urgency absolutely was escalated, but so has the dynamic. When I think of the nonprofits I sit on, so many of them rely on not only corporate giving, but some type of event or two over the course of the year. We’ve all been to a million chicken dinners; what I say to my group is that, when the auction is there, bid high and bid often, because that’s what it’s all about. The big piece that we saw was that people weren’t going to events because they weren’t being held. And it was a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ unfortunately. The money was needed, the funding was needed, but the money wasn’t coming in, and yet all of those organizations had a more dire need than is typical because there were so many people impacted by the pandemic. We looked at it and said, ‘yeah, we can stay with our traditional model of what we do, but there’s a big need to step in here.’ When we look at corporate stewardship and how things have changed over the past 20 months, the need has increased exponentially. So many were hoping that this was the year — we all had our calendars ready for events, and then, they had to switch to virtual events, which don’t raise enough money. So the corporate community needs to realize that, even if there isn’t an event, the needs are so great, and they need to get out there and make a difference.”

D’Amore: “From a nonprofit perspective, we had to figure out how we could support our mission differently. When the pandemic was creeping, we were mandated by our global entity, which holds our licensing agreement, that we could no longer accept new families. And when the last of the families went home, we actually turned it around to provide support to frontline healthcare workers. We opened the house to workers at Baystate to give them an opportunity — if they needed a place to stay, if they needed to take a shower or get a cup of coffee. So our team was committed to support healthcare and support our partner hospitals who are there for us all the time. The tables turned a little bit, but we are able to continue to support our mission in this time of need, and you saw many organizations doing similar things. We pivoted and reinvented ourselves.”

Scribner: “Last year was a real struggle for students; 20% of those students in the Commonwealth just fell off the radar. So we had to change our mindset and pivot, just to help these students communicate how they were feeling. We would have speakers come in an talk about that — how they’re dealing with it, how their companies and themselves personally are dealing with COVID and being on Zoom meetings and not being in school and not being at work. Kids, while resilient, really had a tough time; they missed going to work and interacting with people. It’s those little things that we don’t think about — like going to a company or going to UMass on a field trip. We’re slowly getting back to whatever the new normal is. But last year, we had to have an open mindset and be really flexible about what we could do for the students and also about what we can learn from all these experiences and take those best practices.”

Amy Scribner

Amy Scribner

“Last year, we had to have an open mindset and be really flexible about what we could do for the students and also about what we can learn from all these experiences and take those best practices.”

Johnson: “With the pivot in funding that happened when a lot of companies started steering dollars toward COVID-related things, we also steered a lot of what we were doing toward COVID-related things; we were one of the few places that didn’t really close. When childcare was shut down for the Commonwealth essentially, and then an emergency first-responder-type childcare reopened for those working in retail or transportation or hospitals, we pivoted; our centers closed for one week and then reopened as an emergency childcare facility. We did continue to operate during that time, and on the youth-development side, there were still a lot of great opportunities from a funding standpoint to continue to be involved with some of our corporate sponsors that were changing direction and focusing on COVID.”

Verducci: “We essentially became volunteers; we turned our ballpark in Rhode Island, where we were still based until May, into a food-distribution network. Food insecurity became a huge issue in the region, so we were able to partner with Ocean State Job Lot, which would donate the food, and we would use McCoy Stadium as a vehicle to get that food to people who needed it. We also did coat drives, and we turned the park over to the state to become a testing facility. We tried to use our resources to help where it would do the most good. And once we transitioned to Worcester, we again became volunteers, going to Worcester State University to do food drives and coat drives, and most of those partnerships were with our corporate partners that we’ve had long-time relationships with. We all came together and said, ‘how can we do the best thing for the community, and what do we have at our disposal to move quickly in this challenging environment?’”

Jack Verducci

Jack Verducci

“We all came together and said, ‘how can we do the best thing for the community, and what do we have at our disposal to move quickly in this challenging environment?’”

Scully: “It was suddenly about putting on a different pair of glasses and switching gears when it comes to how you do things. It’s all about, as everyone has talked about, switching gears and saying ‘how do we adapt?’ much like we’ve all had to adapt to how we run our businesses remotely and attend meetings via Zoom.”

BusinessWest: What are the lessons we’ve learned from all this, from having to put a different pair of glasses, and how will this carry over into the future in terms of how we look at corporate stewardship and giving back?

Scully: “If we say that this is the end of the pandemic — and that’s a stretch, certainly — I think what all this has done for us is provide reassurance about how just how good people are and that everyone wants to be a part of something greater. We have a big building here, and for a while there, about four of us were here. You weren’t connecting with people. But as soon as the opportunity came for people to come back, not only to the office, but to get involved with volunteering again, they really wanted to. I think the pandemic has been exhausting and aging, but it’s also been reflective, and I think it’s prompting people to be reflective about how to live your life and how to make a difference. I think people want to be part of something greater, so I think that stewardship will be stronger than ever because this has almost been that switch that has prompted us all to rethink what’s important. There’s a silver lining to everything, and sometimes it’s hard to find, but I think this is it.”

Paul Scully

Paul Scully

“If we say that this is the end of the pandemic — and that’s a stretch, certainly — I think what all this has done for us is provide reassurance about how just how good people are and that everyone wants to be a part of something greater.”

Jasmin: “It was reinforcing for us in terms of our viewpoint on our being involved in the community. We took a look at what our philosophy was and really came out with an even greater understanding that these are the pillars we want to focus on. We’re a food company, first and foremost, and one of our pillars is hunger relief and helping with food insecurity. And that was reinforced for us — this is a continuing need, and we should be involved with it. And just in general, it’s also reinforced that we should continue to be involved — that our investment that we’re making in time and money and people is needed and is valuable. What this has taught us is that we need to be invested continuously, so when a crisis occurs, you can react quickly. It’s not something you can develop from scratch. Overall, it was reinforcing.”

Verducci: “I think the pandemic was a catalyst for empathy amongst companies; it was shared experience that was totally unprecedented, so people were empathetic with each other, and they really did understand what was happening with everyone. Instead of people saying ‘maybe not this year’ when we reached out, everyone we contacted over the past 18 months was willing to help in some way. The other thing we realized was that even the best-laid plans are not going to go the way we anticipate, so you need to be flexible and, more importantly, creative, and this will carry forward.”

D’Amore: “As challenging as the pandemic has been, I think a lot of good has come from it in terms of pausing. Whether as an individual, business, or nonprofit, we all took the time to pause, re-evaluate, and say, ‘what’s the need? How can we help each other?’ Sometimes, prior to the pandemic, we were very focused on our own business model or our own mission, and where it was going. But we were all in the same boat essentially wanting to row in the same direction, so we collectively said, ‘how can we do this together?’”

Michelle D’Amour

Michelle D’Amore

“As challenging as the pandemic has been, I think a lot of good has come from it in terms of pausing. Whether as an individual, business, or nonprofit, we all took the time to pause, re-evaluate, and say, ‘what’s the need? How can we help each other?’”

Johnson: “I think the pandemic pushed us [nonprofits] to work closer together in different ways, such as going after joint funding as one large organization rather than individually, so it has definitely had that benefit.”

BusinessWest: Going forward, how do we maintain this new spirit of cooperation, this new sense of urgency, when it comes to giving back?

Jasmin: “One of the things we lost during the pandemic was that personal connection. We missed seeing our colleagues, our families, and people in the community at large; through corporate stewardship and giving back, we can create those personal connections, and people are recognizing how important this is. The community is us, so when you’re giving back to the community, you’re giving back to yourself, your family, your friends, and your co-workers.”

Scully: It starts with all of us — the leaders or organizations — to set the pace. The pandemic may not be over, but I think that what is over is the hunker-down mentality of being locked up at home in the basement on a computer talking to your colleagues all day. It’s time to get on with life. It won’t be the old normal, it will be the new normal, and the new normal is going to be dependent on so many of us to set that tone — that it’s time to get back out there for a Habitat event, with getting over to the Ronald McDonald House to help prepare a dinner when that becomes available to do. It’s dependent on the leadership or organizations to reinforce that tone.”

Scribner: “This pandemic has really allowed people to take time to reflect on their own lives and what’s important to them and their priorities. And when you’re given that time, I think you realize what’s important in life. When it comes to being hunkered down, I think the pandemic provided time and opportunity for people to say, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore; I want to get out, and I want to be part of my community. I want to be part of making a difference.’ People are realizing just how precious things are now, whether it’s shoveling the sidewalk for a neighbor or providing food for a food bank.”

Dexter Johnson

Dexter Johnson

“I think the pandemic pushed us [nonprofits] to work closer together in different ways, such as going after joint funding as one large organization rather than individually, so it has definitely had that benefit.”

Johnson: “In the normal ebb and flow of things, we get hyped up because something’s happened, whether it’s 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina or the tornado — things that bring us together for a short time. And then, life gets back to normal, and human nature tends to make us drift back to how we were. I think COVID is very different … it impacted everyone, every state, every city — we all know someone who has lost their life or lost their job because of it. It’s had a more far-reaching impact than any of those other tragedies, and, hopefully, that will allow it to stick with us and keep that mentality of realizing how fragile life can be.”

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

Law Special Coverage

A Changing Dynamic

Like all businesses, law firms have had to make adjustments in the wake of the pandemic, which has created both new opportunities and new challenges. Overall, firms have seen obvious changes in where people work and how. But there also may be new dynamics when it comes to recruiting and from where firms can attract new business.

Tim Mulhern in the ‘Zoom room’ at Shatz, Schwartz & Fentin.

Tim Mulhern in the ‘Zoom room’ at Shatz, Schwartz & Fentin.

 

They call it the ‘Zoom room.’ And for obvious reasons.

It’s the office of a retired partner with the Springfield-based law firm Shatz, Schwartz and Fentin that’s been converted into a small conference room equipped with a 60-inch screen for, or mostly for, Zoom meetings with clients that involve at least a few of the firm’s attorneys.

“If we have several of us who want to meet with a client or a couple of clients, we can have a multi-person meeting and have a few people in the room,” said Tim Mulhern, the firm’s managing partner, who said that, prior to the pandemic, there was obviously no need for a Zoom room. And the creation of one is just one of the many adjustments — that’s a word he and others we spoke with would use early and often — that law firms have made over the past 20 or so months. And some of them are more permanent in nature than temporary.

That can likely be said of the receptionist at Shatz — or the lack thereof, to be more precise. No one sits at that desk any longer, and, in fact, the door that leads to the reception area is now locked; a sign taped to it provides a number to call for people with inquiries.

The biggest change, though, is the number of lawyers to be found on the other side of the door — roughly half that from the days before the pandemic.

The rest are working remotely all or most of the time, something that took some getting used to — lawyers, especially, like the office setting, said Mulhern — but most have gotten over that hump.

“A number of our lawyers have learned how to work at home, myself included — I couldn’t have worked at home at all before, and I figured it out now. We’ve made that adjustment, and we have some lawyers who, either because of compromised health issues or simply because they have a long commute, are working predominantly from home.”

Ken Albano, managing partner at Springfield-based Bacon Wilson, agreed. He noted that it’s not uncommon to check his phone in the morning and hear from one or more of the firm’s attorneys letting him know they will be working remotely that day. As other firms have, Bacon Wilson has adjusted — there’s that word again — and become more flexible out of necessity, he said, adding quickly that the firm wants its lawyers and paralegals in the office at least some of the time.

“I’m old school,” he said. “I like the idea of being with a young lawyer or a young paralegal who needs mentoring and advice and has questions. It’s better for me to meet with them one-on-one, in person, with a mask on, as opposed to doing it via Zoom.”

In the grander scheme of things, though, where lawyers work, and whether there’s a receptionist or not, may well turn out to be some of the less significant adjustments, or changes, to result from the pandemic. The larger ones could involve recruiting young lawyers and the potential to add business as a result of the changing landscape.

Ken Albano says the pandemic has exacerbated an already-difficult situation

Ken Albano says the pandemic has exacerbated an already-difficult situation when it comes to hiring lawyers and paralegals.

Starting with the latter, Seth Stratton, managing partner of East Longmeadow-based Fitzgerald Attorneys at Law, summed things up effectively and succinctly when he said “we sell time.” And with some of the changes brought about by the pandemic — including less time commuting to work and less time traveling to meet clients — there is, in theory, at least, more time to sell.

Also, now that clients of all kinds, but especially business clients, have become accustomed to meeting with clients via Zoom and the telephone, there is potential to have such sessions with law firms based in the 413, which charge, on average, anywhere from one-half to two-thirds what lawyers in Boston and New York charge, and less than those in Hartford as well.

“COVID has resulted in more efficiencies, and, generally, efficiencies mean things take less time, and we sell time, so that means we’re selling less per client,” Stratton explained. “But it allows us to potentially work with more clients and work with clients who are more distant — we can expand the footprint of who we’re comfortable working with and who’s comfortable working with us.”

As for recruiting … the pandemic brings both opportunity and challenge, said Betsey Quick, executive director of Springfield-based Bulkley Richardson. She noted, as others have over the years, that it is difficult to recruit young lawyers to Western Mass. law firms, and it often takes a family connection to do so. With the pandemic and the ability to work remotely, there is now the possibility of recruiting lawyers not to Western Mass., necessarily, but to firms based here — and the young lawyers can live where they want.

But — and this is a significant ‘but’ — young lawyers who might want to come to Western Mass. because of the quality of life and comparatively low cost of living can now come here, but not necessarily to work for a firm based here — again, because of the options now available to them.

“Remote working options can help and hurt recruiting efforts,” Quick said. “We are now hearing from attorneys with great résumés who prefer more of a remote schedule. It has opened the doors to new prospects. The concept of urban flight is real, and professionals are considering their options. On the other hand, with remote work, attorneys who once flocked to big-city firms may now have the option to remain at that firm, with the big city salary, and relocated to a rural area.”

Seth Stratton says the changing dynamics

Seth Stratton says the changing dynamics presented by the pandemic could provide area firms with more opportunities to secure work from clients based outside the 413.

For this issue and its focus on law, BusinessWest looks at all of the various ways the pandemic has brought change to a sector that hasn’t seen very much of it over the past several decades.

 

Case in Point

Mulhern remembers when, at the height of the pandemic in mid-2020, he used to carry a small, foldable table in his car. It was for what came to be known as ‘driveway signings,’ among other names — the inking of documents in outdoor settings, including driveways, but also parking lots and parking garages, where each party would bring their own pen and bottle of hand sanitizer.

Those days seem like a long time ago, and in many respects they are, he said, adding that a large degree of normalcy has returned to the practice of law, although things are, in many ways, not at all like they were in February 2020.

As an example, Albano noted the recent end to Springfield’s mask mandate. While the city took that course, Bacon Wilson has decided to still require masks within its offices, a difference of opinion that has resulted in some confusion and even some harsh words for the receptionist from visitors not inclined to mask up.

Overall, changes have come to where lawyers work, how firms communicate (with clients and employees alike), how and to what extent they use paper (much less now), and how they show community support and engagement (turning out for auctions and golf tournaments has been replaced by other, more pandemic-friendly methods).

Changes have come to where lawyers work, how firms communicate (with clients and employees alike), how and to what extent they use paper (much less now), and how they show community support and engagement (turning out for auctions and golf tournaments has been replaced by other, more pandemic-friendly methods).

“You need to be in the office if you’re going to work in Springfield; if you’re a full-time person working remotely, it doesn’t work out, and it wouldn’t work out — not for us.”

Going back to that word used earlier, firms have been adjusting to a changed world, and the adjustment process is ongoing, especially when it comes to where and how people work.

At Shatz, Schwartz and Fentin, as noted, maybe half the lawyers continue to work remotely, said Mulhern, adding that the firm has not rushed anyone back, and it won’t, at least for the foreseeable future, in large part because the current work policies, if they can be called that, are working.

“A number of our lawyers have learned how to work at home, myself included — I couldn’t have worked at home at all before, and I figured it out now,” he told BusinessWest. “We’ve made that adjustment, and we have some lawyers who, either because of compromised health issues or simply because they have a long commute, are working predominantly from home.”

And there are variations on the theme, he said, noting that some lawyers work a portion of their day at the office and the rest at home.

At other firms, most if not all lawyers are back in the office. That’s certainly the case at Bulkley Richardson, which implemented a vaccine policy on Oct. 1, said Quick, noting that the firm recognizes the importance of in-person interaction with colleagues and the need for human connection.

That said, Bulkley Richardson and other firms have learned that remote working can and does work, and there is certainly room for — and, even more importantly, a need for — flexibility.

Betsey Quick says there has been a “transformation of the practice of law”

Betsey Quick says there has been a “transformation of the practice of law” because of COVID, and she believes there are many positives amid a host of disruptions.

“The transition to remote work was unprecedented, but what we learned by the unexpected lockdown was that flexibility is a viable option,” Quick said. “We have always offered attorneys some degree of flexibility and have worked with them to find an agreeable working model; until the pandemic, most attorneys worked traditional hours within a traditional office setting. But now, with the remote working more acceptable, and sometimes necessary, we have seen no change in productivity or efficiency doing work.”

Stratton agreed, noting that his firm, like most, had a degree of flexibility when it came to working remotely and allowed lawyers to do so; most didn’t, except when they had to (during snowstorms or when they were home sick), because they preferred to be in the office. Now that they’re used to it, and like it, more are taking advantage of the flexibility they have.

Indeed, before COVID, perhaps 10% to 15% of work was done remotely, and now the number is perhaps 25%, said Stratton, adding that this represents a new normal.

And the new ways of doing things have produced greater efficiency, he added, a dynamic that creates the potential for more billable hours in a business that, as he said, sells time.

Meanwhile, the pandemic and the resulting changes in how lawyers interact with clients present new opportunities for firms in the 413 to do business with those well outside it, Stratton noted.

Before, to get such business, firms would need a physical office in Worcester or Boston. Now, for many types of business law, where personal interaction is less necessary, services could be secured from lawyers in this market at rates far below those charged in those larger markets.

“With the increased use of remote communication and remote meetings, you can more easily tap those markets,” he said, adding that the firm is starting to market itself to such clients through professional networking.

 

Moving Target

Beyond where and how people work, the pandemic may have changed another important dynamic for local firms — the all-important work to attract and retain young talent.

As noted, it has long been a challenge to bring young lawyers to this market unless there is a connection, said Stratton, who offered himself as an example. He and his wife are both from this area, and it was a desire to return here (especially on his wife’s part) after some time spent in Boston that eventually brought him back to the 413.

Summing up the landscape as it has existed for some time, Stratton said the region has long faced what he called “depth of bench” challenges.

Elaborating, he said this is a “top-heavy” market when it comes to lawyers, with many of the leading players in their 60s or even their 70s. There are some rising stars coming up behind them, but not as many as the firms would like.

The reasons for this are many, said those we spoke with, but largely, it comes down to the fact that this market is not the big city — which means it doesn’t have the big-city lifestyle and, more importantly to most young lawyers, it doesn’t have big-city rates for legal services — or big-city salaries.

“Like many cities, Springfield is a proud community with historic charm and continued growth.  And yet, it is not Boston, New York, or Washington, D.C., and in most circumstances, one major difference may be the salaries,” Quick said. “As a Western Mass. firm, we are able to offer a healthier work/life balance and a unique geographic landscape. The challenge is communicating this value to candidates because, if they are not familiar with the business climate in Western Mass. and all it has to offer, attracting new talent to the area can be difficult.”

Stratton agreed. “If I were to have a job posting tomorrow for a junior lawyer with one to three years of experience that fits our practice and say, ‘you come to East Longmeadow, Mass., Monday through Friday, 9 to 5,’ I would get zero applications of qualified attorneys. That might be an exaggeration, but it would be close to zero.”

Albano agreed. He said the pandemic has exacerbated an already-difficult situation when it comes to attracting lawyers to Western Mass. He told BusinessWest the same thing he told Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly when it asked him the same question.

“It’s been very difficult to hire quality lawyers and paralegals during this COVID pandemic,” he explained. “The quality of résumés we’re getting in from people in Western Massachusetts and also outside the area is very weak.”

Moving forward, he noted, the number could be much higher because that lawyer doesn’t need to be in East Longmeadow, at least not Monday through Friday, 9-5, meaning recruiting might become easier — that’s might — because of the pandemic and the manner in which it has changed how people work. It’s also changed some opinions about urban living.

“Many lawyers are growing tired of the city life,” Quick noted. “They want to find a reputable firm where they can advance their career and continue to work with high-level clients. At the same time, they are realizing that work/life balance matters. Western Mass. offers the best of both worlds — a growing, professional city surrounded by the landscape of mountains, rivers, and forests right at your fingertips.”

These qualities may well help attract people to Western Mass., but will it attract them to Western Mass. firms? This is a big question moving forward as remote work becomes plausible and more attractive for those toting law degrees in their briefcases.

“You need to compete with markets that you didn’t have to compete with before for talent,” said Stratton, noting that someone drawn to the Western Mass. lifestyle, or who has family here and wants to stay here, no longer has to limit his or her options to Western Mass. firms. “As a young lawyer, you can, potentially, work out of the Boston or Washington, D.C. markets primarily, and the legal rates charged in those markets are higher, and the pay is higher.”

That’s the downside of the changing dynamic, he went on, adding that there is plenty of upside as well, including the ability to look well beyond the 25-mile circle around Springfield that most young lawyers are currently recruited from.

Much of this is speculation right now, he went on, adding that, over the next six to 12 months, firms like his will have a far better understanding of just how — and how much — the recruiting picture has changed.

Albano agreed, noting that, overall, Bacon Wilson will entertain a hybrid schedule, to one degree or another, but it would certainly prefer its lawyers and paralegals to be in this market.

“I got an e-mail with a résumé from a young man in New York, indicating that he was looking to apply for a job here, but he plans on living in Boston,” he recalled. “First of all, his résumé didn’t coincide with what we were advertising — and we’re seeing a lot of that — and, number two, there needs to be that one-on-one connection. You need to be in the office if you’re going to work in Springfield; if you’re a full-time person working remotely, it doesn’t work out, and it wouldn’t work out — not for us.”

 

Bottom Line

Looking ahead, those we spoke with said the process of adjusting to everything COVID-19 has wrought is ongoing. That includes looking at the amount of space being rented and whether downsizing might be in order.

“We’re talking about what the future looks like in terms of physical space,” Mulhern said. “And that’s one of the things we’ll talk about — do we still still need all the space we have?”

The firm has more than two years left on its lease, he went on, adding that the answer to that question will come at another time. The answers to some of the questions, especially those regarding recruitment and gaining additional business, including some from other markets, might be answered much sooner.

Overall, this is a time of change and looking at things differently than they been looked at for decades.

“There has undoubtedly been a transformation of the practice of law, and we believe that there are many positives amid all of the disruption,” said Quick, referring to those at Bulkely Richardson while also speaking effectively for all those we spoke with. “The pandemic taught us many things, including how to work more efficiently, utilize available resources, and communicate better to keep teams connected. I anticipate many changes will remain with us in a post-pandemic world.”

 

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

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