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Bringing a Message to Life

From left, Kathryn Taccone, Karen Webb, and Will Colón discuss a project.

From left, Kathryn Taccone, Karen Webb, and Will Colón discuss a project.

Will Colón, Kathryn Taccone, and Karen Webb all took different paths to a career in animation, but when the opportunity arose to launch their own company, they were certainly of one mind. That’s because they’re believers not only in the potential of animation in the business and nonprofit worlds, but that it’s still an underused tool, with plenty of room to grow. Four years after its inception, Open Pixel Studios is proving their conviction to be true.

Remote work might be all the rage right now, but it’s nothing new to the three partners at Open Pixel Studios.

“The future of work is working remotely, having the systems to do that, working with multiple people across different disciplines across the same project — all in a remote environment,” said Will Colón, co-owner of the animation studio he, Kathryn Taccone, and Karen Webb opened in 2017. These days, they work with freelancers across the U.S. to create content for business and nonprofit clients.

“We were doing the remote thing for quite a while before the pandemic hit,” Colón added. “The pandemic really raised the stakes on whether we were doing this correctly — it put us to the test a little bit. But there was almost no shift; our business did not waver at all.”

In some ways, COVID-19 actually provided more opportunity.

“What ended up happening was more people asked us for more work,” he went on. “Normally, a production requires filming and video and people in a studio or on a production set. Those roles diminished overnight, and everyone said, ‘what else can we do? Instead of having people on a screen, or talking heads, let’s do animation instead.’ It was a really big boost to our company.”

And it’s not all remote, even during the pandemic, Taccone was quick to note. “We pride ourselves on being able to communicate with clients in a way that’s comfortable for them. Sometimes clients prefer to be in person, and sometimes it’s totally fine sending e-mails. We try to match how the project is managed, and the way we communicate, to their personalities, so everyone is comfortable.”

Using animation for marketing and messaging is nothing new, Colón said, citing the well-known example of Walt Disney producing animated shorts for every branch of the U.S. military during World War II, putting beloved characters to work rallying support for the war effort.

“I don’t think the things we’re doing are much different than Walt Disney creating content during World War II. Those were ‘explainer videos,’ talking through the points the military wanted to talk about. So this isn’t new technology. What’s new is the application.”

Meaning, while animation has been a mainstay during the internet age — as part of websites, mobile games, and in movies and television — it remains underused by businesses. Colón, Taccone, and Webb are hoping to change that.

At one of Open Pixel’s production stations, well-communicated concepts become animation.

At one of Open Pixel’s production stations, well-communicated concepts become animation.

“A lot of businesses haven’t realized they can do amazing things,” Colón said. “Our job as a studio is to introduce businesses to animation for the first time.”

And do it, for the most part, remotely.

“We have 20 freelancers across the country, and I’ve met only a few in person,” he noted. “We’ve always been remote, always done Zoom calls, always done projects managed through cloud-based solutions. It’s been a breeze, and that’s a testament to our process. We were one of the first ‘pandemic industries’ pre-pandemic. We were ready for it.”

Now, they’re ready to move the needle even further when it comes to the power of animation in the business world.

 

Crossing Paths

Colón’s journey to the world of animation began at Hampshire College, where, during his first year in 2009, he tried to get into an advanced computer animation class, but was rejected by the instructor, Chris Perry, because he had no experience.

But after Colón excelled at an introductory course in the field, Perry — a Pixar veteran who served as a technical director on A Bug’s Life and Finding Nemo — accepted him into the advanced course.

“As I moved from the basics to more advanced stuff, I didn’t know how much I would love it, that I’d lose myself in the work, forget about time, and really enjoy the process more than the results,” Colón recalled. “I knew this was something I could go into.”

After college, he returned to the Boston area and worked at special-effects company Zero VFX, but desired a move back into animation, and landed a job at Anzovin Studio in Florence in 2013.

Characters created for a piece on Behavioral Health Network’s Crisis Healthline.

A project for Amherst College’s bicentennial

Animated messaging advocating for changes in tobacco laws

Webb, who had attended the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan and worked for a time in Los Angeles and San Diego, eventually moved to Western Mass. to work at Perry’s independent studio, Bit Films — and later started working at Anzovin Studio, where she met Colón.

Their company took shape after Anzovin decided to shift his business model into animation tools, while the production team, where Colón and Webb worked, was spun off into a separate entity. The pair then decided to go in a different direction, by launching their own studio.

Taccone’s passion for animation was sparked by a high-school trip to Pixar Animation Studios in California. She later studied animation at UMass Amherst and met Colón while taking class at Hampshire, where he was the teaching assistant. After a stint at HitPoint Studios, she worked at Anzovin from 2014 to 2016, then moved to California to work in the games industry, for EA and Toys for Bob. But in 2017, she returned to Western Mass. to help Colón and Webb launch Open Pixel.

“We decided to go into a different realm, building something new that was going to be ours,” Colón said. “Kathryn came back from California, and that was the beginning of our journey.”

Speaking of journeys, hearing Taccone describe the process of moving a concept to a finished product, it’s striking how much work happens before the actual animation begins.

“A client will come to us with an idea of the message they’re trying to send; typically they’ll have a call to action associated with that message,” she explained. “We take this from the initial script phase — whether we write it ourselves or the client provides it — and bring it into an audio-visual script, which allows us all to be on the same page with what will happen with the story.”

This all happens before visuals are actually created, she added. In other words, clear communication is key — not just with the target audience, but between all the players in creating the animation, and at every stage.

“We make a choice at the concept stage whether or not something should be represented through iconography, text, characters, or just backgrounds,” she added, noting that just using animated words can often be as powerful as talking characters. “Often we’ll use a blend of those things.”

Once the concepts are established, next comes discussion of style, tone, and other elements. Then storyboards are created, laying out the content from start to finish — again, so everyone involved can envision the final piece and make changes before the actual animation begins.

“When we do the animation,” Taccone said, “we hire voice-over artists, we do music and sound effects — again, depending on the client’s needs, but all serving the purpose of matching the tone and style and direction to the story we’re trying to tell.”

While many corporate clients rely on Open Pixel’s work in their employee training videos and modules as well as marketing, a particularly feel-good part of the team’s mission is working with nonprofits on messaging that will draw more attention and support. Nonprofit leaders aren’t always natural salespeople, Colón noted, and he and his team can help them hone their message and educate the public.

“They’re trying to make the world a better place; that’s their mission,” he said. “We’re helping them close the gap between the audience and their mission. We use animation to explain what they’re doing.”

In the end, Taccone said, even the most eye-catching animation isn’t a success if it doesn’t meet the client’s needs. “In a way, the communication is sometimes more important than the art. We’re trying to make sure everyone is on the same page.”

 

Mission Accomplished

For Colón, such work is especially gratifying considering that, early in his career, he never thought about running a business. But his former employer, Raf Anzovin, encouraged that growth — and, in fact, encouraged him and Webb to branch out on their own.

“I feel like the people I met along the way influenced me in continuing this work. If those people weren’t there, we wouldn’t be around,” Colón said.

Achieving the studio’s goals in Western Mass. — a region that has been steadily growing its reputation for innovation and technology — is especially satisfying, he said. Clients run the gamut from large corporations to small outfits, and the remote nature of the work allows Open Pixel to take on projects from Boston to the West Coast.

He’s also particularly proud that the company is certified as a majority women-owned business. Noting that the history of animation has not always been a friendly one for women, he hopes Open Pixel inspires other women to pursue this field.

Through it all, he, Taccone, and Webb hope to continue to expand the work they do, but also become a destination to start a career.

“In the future, we want to be a jumping-off point for folks getting out of college,” he said, noting that it’s natural for talented graduates to depart the Five Colleges and look for jobs in New York, Los Angeles, or Boston. To encourage them to start their careers closer to home, Open Pixel has developed a pipeline of interns from Amherst College and Hampshire College. “Not only can you learn the tools here, this can be an entry point into the field.”

As for those tools, they’re much more affordable and accessible than they once were,” Colón said. “You can get a license and run a studio from your home office. But what makes us special is our process and our back end, our ability to push animation further than where it currently is right now.

“So much of it is in entertainment — games and movies,” he went on, “but we’re seeing a shift toward companies creating advertising campaigns utilizing animation because it’s so limitless. You can create anything you like. That’s what we see — unlimited creative expression.”

And always in the service of the client, Taccone added.

“We pride ourselves on being a studio that takes time to understand the balance between the client’s needs and our artistic identity. That way, we all enjoy the process as we go through it.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Restaurants

Sunny Outlook

Debra Flynn in the alley behind Eastside Grill

Debra Flynn in the alley behind Eastside Grill, which has been transformed into a charming, colorful dining spot.

When COVID-19 arrived 14 months ago, restaurant owners everywhere went into survival mode. Bill Collins was no exception.

Fast-forward to, well, just last week, and the story is a different one.

“We just celebrated our seven-year anniversary,” said Collins, owner of Center Square Grill in East Longmeadow, who marked the milestone by donating 10% of the day’s total sales to Shriners Hospitals for Children in Springfield. “That’s something we would not have been able to do without outdoor seating.”

Reliance on al fresco dining — and gratitude for the return of warm spring weather — is a common theme for restaurants across Massachusetts, at least those that had outdoor dining space available, or the opportunity to create some.

In Collins’ case, he didn’t even wait for spring to return.

“We’ve had outdoor seating since we opened, but we definitely expanded on that,” he said. “In fact, we spent nearly $20,000 ramping up for the fall, installing greenhouses with electric heat. All winter long, we offered single-use lap blankets for people who came in.”

In doing so, he was able to serve diners at something approaching normal capacity through the cold months, even though interior capacity was still limited by public-health mandates. “It was a game changer. Really, for us, it put us in a position where we were not just able to squeak by, but to comfortably pay our bills all year, which was a great thing.”

Customers appreciate — and usually prefer — the outdoor option, too.

“When the phone rings, 90% of the time, it’s with inquiries to sit outside,” he said. “We took down the greenhouses for the summer but plan to bring them back. People are still talking about the greenhouses. They were a hit for us, and they’ll definitely be back in the fall.”

Munich Haus in Chicopee has long served patrons on a large patio known as the Biergarten, with seating for 150 — well, before physical-distancing rules, anyway — and a 24-seat bar area.

“It was a game changer. Really, for us, it put us in a position where we were not just able to squeak by, but to comfortably pay our bills all year, which was a great thing.”

“It’s been great,” owner Patrick Gottschlicht said. “A lot of our customers already knew about it. We didn’t have to put a tent in the parking lot with concrete barriers or anything; we’ve got a fully set-up Biergarten, a true outdoor area. We’ve always said we’ve tried to emulate the experience of sitting in a biergarten in Germany, to make it as authentic as possible.”

At Eastside Grill in Northampton, owner Debra Flynn has taken several approaches to allowing customers to eat outdoors. She converted an alley behind the restaurant into a cozy, colorful space lined with potted plants, colorful murals, and lightbulbs strung above the tables for the evening hours.

This year, while adding even more plants and patio umbrellas to the alley, Eastside Grill is one of a handful of restaurants and retailers set to benefit from Summer on Strong, a city initiative to close a small portion of Strong Avenue to vehicle traffic from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Eastside will be able to seat 32 more customers in the road, almost doubling its outdoor capacity to 70. Live music outdoors will be a feature on many nights as well.

Like others we spoke with — and have been speaking with since restaurants were allowed to partially reopen last spring — Flynn said many folks want to dine out, but still worry about gathering indoors, so outdoor dining is critical for business.

“We get calls every single day about it,” she said, noting that she doesn’t take reservations specifically for outdoor seating, but customers can request it and wait for a spot. “I don’t blame them. We want them to be very comfortable, and if you’re not comfortable inside, we want to make sure we have a table outside.”

 

Taking to the Streets

The barriers between restaurants and roadways that were a mainstay in downtown Northampton last summer have been going up again in preparation for the outdoor dining season. Despite the loss of parking that results from this concession to restaurants, city leaders heard enough positive feedback last year to allow eateries to push out past the curb again along Main Street, Pleasant Street, Pearl Street, Masonic Street, and other spots — and, in cases like Strong Avenue, well beyond the curb.

“The city has been really wonderful to work with,” Flynn said. “Everyone from the City Hall to the DNA [Downtown Northampton Assoc.] to the chamber has been really helpful. I feel really good about the way things are going right now.”

Meanwhile, a recent order by Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle will allow restaurants and retailers on Main, Cottage, and Union streets to expand their seating options and retail spaces into parking spots and other public spaces. Businesses interested in the exemption must first submit detailed plans, including a review for ADA compliance, an exterior lighting plan, and a timeline for how long the outdoor seating will stay in place.

Easthampton allowed a similar outdoor-dining expansion last year from August to November in an effort to support local businesses struggling to navigate the economic impact of the pandemic. But with the accommodation being announced late in the summer season, only one restaurant, the Silver Spoon on Main Street, ended up using parking spaces for seating. The mayor expects interest from many more businesses this year.

Keisha Fortin says the outdoor Biergarten has been a critical part of business

Keisha Fortin says the outdoor Biergarten has been a critical part of business at Munich Haus during the pandemic, and will continue to be well beyond it.

One reason is the still-prevalent sentiment, even after the majority of Massachusetts adults have been vaccinated against COVID, that dining outdoors just feels like a safer option.

“Anyone who’s concerned about coming in, we have the outdoor seating, and they can feel safe outdoors,” Gottschlicht said. “Or indoors, too — but, yeah, there’s plenty of fresh air and open space out there.”

Kiesha Fortin, longtime manager at the Munich Haus, said she looks forward to the day when distancing rules end and she can put more tables on the biergarten patio, due to how popular that option is. Most people are clamoring to eat out, she noted, but many prefer to do it outdoors.

The pent-up desire to eat out has posed another challenge to restaurants, Collins said — staffing up to meet rising demand.

“We’re seeing more and more people coming back to eat, but the biggest challenge for our business, and everyone I’ve talked to in my line of work, is the way unemployment benefits are being handled. We’re having problems getting entry-level employees in the door because everyone is making more staying at home. Typically we run around 95 employees, but we’ve been struggling to stay above 75.”

That said, “hopefully people starting to come back out will have a little patience and realize what things were like a year and a half ago is not the current scenario,” Collins added. “It’s not that we don’t want to hire people back; we just have no people coming through the door to work.”

They are coming to eat, though, especially to restaurants serving up meals outdoors — a development that, for this beleaguered industry, has certainly been a breath of fresh air. u

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Class of 2021

Program Manager, Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts; Age 35

Samantha Bilal is no stranger to making real, street-level change.

For most of her professional life, she did so with Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services in Springfield, where she gradually progressed from lead camp counselor to director of Operations.

In her 15 years there, Bilal supported prevention initiatives around gang violence, substance abuse, and teen dating violence, while training young people who successfully advocated for the passing of laws raising the legal tobacco-use age to 21. She also implemented youth safe-haven programming, education around domestic and dating violence, and annual community-engagement events.

These days, she’s impacting the community in a different way, managing the Live Well Springfield Coalition, a program of the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts, through which she leads the Climate Change and Health Equity initiative, which aims to create strategies to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions, improve health outcomes for those in marginalized communities directly impacted by climate change, and dismantle systemic racism.

She has also led the institute’s Transforming Community initiative, which promotes health equity by targeting issues like nutritious food access and safer streets, and the Age-Friendly City initiative, which focuses on issues of housing, transportation, social services, and health to make Springfield a more livable city for older adults, so they can age in place.

“All these are very different, but they all impact community, and they all engage residents,” Bilal said, emphasizing the social-equity aspects of each. “I’m really passionate about community engagement and making sure residents are uplifted as champions — because we won’t make the biggest changes without their advice and their advocacy.

“I’m always excited to see the fruits of our work manifest into policy changes,” she went on. “That means we’re having a great impact and not just talking about ideas, but finding ways to implement change. That’s my biggest pride at work — seeing the changes in our community over time.”

Away from work, Bilal is the co-founder of A Queen’s Narrative, a personal-enrichment program for women and girls of color, which uses narrative power and storytelling to harness self-empowerment and self-awareness.

“I love youth and empowering young women — there’s so much value in uplifting people and helping them find their voice and making sure they have access to opportunities they normally wouldn’t have gotten,” she said. “When we come together to share these narratives with each other, we find commonality, but also find ways to better collaborate.”

 

—Joseph Bednar

Class of 2021

Supervisor of Science, Technology, and Engineering, Westfield Public Schools; Age 32

Growing up in Westfield, Lauren Figy Cadigan was interested in pursuing medicine or some other field where she was helping people.

“But I had a knack for science,” she said. “What I enjoyed about it was the inquiry, being excited about figuring things out. So I started doubling up on science in high school, taking as many classes as I could.”

It’s a fervor she shares with other young people today as supervisor of Science, Technology, and Engineering for Westfield Public Schools. “I have a passion for helping people and really encouraging students to go into STEM.”

After graduating from Ohio Wesleyan University and working in the Columbus, Ohio school system, Figy Cadigan returned to her home state and taught at the High School of Commerce in Springfield, then went through a master’s in education program focused on organizational management.

That opened a door to an assistant-principal job in Westfield, and eventually her current role, where she has authored or co-authored successful grant applications including $55,000 in partnership with MassHire to get students interested in healthcare professions and obtain their CNA licenses; $30,000 to create a biomedical career pathway in the public schools; and $97,000 for a pilot program in engineering career pathways.

In all of this, she has sought to expose students to science, medical, and engineering careers they might not have considered before, and to cross-pollinate STEM fields that are traditionally male-dominated and healthcare careers that attract mostly women. “We’re making sure kids are getting a sampling of each, instead of society telling them what bucket they should fit into.”

That also goes for underserved demographics like special-education students and English-language learners. “All students can be successful, and we want these opportunities to be available to them as well.”

Figy Cadigan serves her community in other ways, too, volunteering with the YMCA of Greater Westfield, the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Westfield, Amelia Park Arena, Our House, and an annual Thanksgiving food drive.

But she’s especially gratified by the impact her efforts are having on the future leaders of STEM.

“The best part about being in education is five or six years later, when kids write back to you about what they’re doing now,” she said, adding that she’s especially excited about the future of her own daughter, expected to arrive this summer. “This is the education I want for her.”

 

—Joseph Bednar

Class of 2021

Chief of Operations, West Springfield Mayor’s Office; Age 25

Carly Camossi has grown up in West Springfield — in more ways than one.

Yes, it’s her hometown, but she’s also forged a satisfying, multi-faceted career here, starting as a soccer referee for the Park & Recreation department when she was just 14 years old — with her role quickly expanding over the next few years to office intern, gym supervisor, dance staff member, babysitter training course instructor, and more.

Meanwhile, she was helping care for her younger sister, Corey, who would pass away in 2015 from cerebral palsy at age 17. Carly coordinated a fundraiser for the Special Olympics in honor of her sister, which caught the attention of West Springfield Mayor Will Reichelt.

“He was like, ‘I want her to work for me.’ My involvement in his office just stemmed from there,” she recalled. As his outreach coordinator starting in 2017 — when she was still just 21 — she provided professional assistance and advice, represented the mayor at meetings, and performed a host of other tasks.

Meanwhile, in volunteer roles, such as blood-drive coordinator for the Red Cross, she gained keen insight into the ways local nonprofits can connect with the resources available in town, and work in tandem to benefit residents.

This past February, Camossi was promoted again, to chief of Operations in the mayor’s office, where she oversees certain town projects; investigates problem situations; handles marketing, press activity, and advertising for the town; and acts as a liaison among the mayor, town departments, the Town Council, and state officials, just to name a few roles.

“I think very highly of people who live in the community they work for,” she said. “When I’m in the grocery store, I’ll see someone I know who’ll ask me a question — if taxes are going up, or if they’re looking for a service in the community. It’s awesome to have that personal connection.”

She recognizes the same passion for service in her co-workers as well — especially over this past, very challenging year.

“You don’t always hear good things about municipal employees, but in pandemic times, it’s refreshing that we were able to take everything in stride and figure out how to streamline our processes and run our activities under COVID guidelines,” Camossi said. “Everyone stepped up and played key roles in making sure people’s needs were taken care of. We never skipped a beat.”

 

—Joseph Bednar

 

Class of 2021

Director of Business Systems, Clinical & Support Options Inc.; Age 32

Jes Charette-Fallon’s path to her current career has been a winding one; she originally studied political science and thought about becoming an attorney, and eventually earned a degree in art therapy.

But she then enrolled in a graduate program for mental-health counseling at Springfield College, where her time as a resident director laid bare some common needs. “I was responding to a lot of mental-health crises and got really involved in that; it felt like a natural fit.”

As part of her master’s program, she interned at Clinical & Support Options (CSO) in 2012, then came on board as an employee in 2013. “I loved working with the Springfield population; to be able to work with such a diverse population was incredibly meaningful.”

Charette-Fallon moved up quickly in the organization, first as a clinical supervisor and most recently as director of Business Systems, a senior leadership position created out of a need to have someone with a clinical background handling the administration of electronic health records.

“People questioned my transition from the clinical area because I have such a strong calling, but it really is the best of both worlds,” she said. “I’m able to have an impact on a larger scale, helping clients across all services, and also making the lives of our staff easier.

“We probably spend more time in our electronic health records than we spent with our family and friends,” she went on. “If our experience using that interface is not a positive one, we’re probably not going to deliver the best service to clients.”

At the same time, she keeps her hand in the clinical world at CSO, leading a support group for parents who have experienced trauma, and carrying a small caseload as well. “That keeps me connected to our very, very important mission,” she said, adding that she has advanced-practice certification in trauma-informed care, which is the organization’s treatment model in every program.

In her spare time, Charette-Fallon is an avid runner. “I was significantly overweight, and I lost 100 pounds after I started running,” she said. “I never thought I could run a marathon; then I did, and I kept doing it. It’s been one of the most rewarding and stress-relieving experiences, and I’m really passionate about it. If I can do something that hard, I know I can do anything.”

 

—Joseph Bednar

Class of 2021

Director of Communications & Development, Community Action Pioneer Valley; Co-owner, F45 Training Hampshire Meadows, F45 Training Riverdale; Age 33

Jessye Deane often asks her kids a simple question: “how are you going to make the world a better place?”

She lives out her own answer in her dual careers, with the anti-poverty agency Community Action Pioneer Valley and two F45 Training franchises. “We strengthen our communities in different ways, but both are impactful.”

Deane has worked at Community Action for 11 years, wearing a number of hats over that time. Currently responsible for all communications and private fundraising efforts for six departments and 40 programs, she has increased private funding more than 16-fold.

“So many mini-miracles happen every day because of our staff,” she said of an organization that serves 30,000 low-income neighbors each year. “I am so honored to work with people I consider to be heroes and get to help them do that work. It’s something I don’t take for granted.”

Meanwhile, she and her husband, Danny (a 40 Under Forty honoree last year), despite both having other careers and three children under age 4, launched F45 Training Hampshire Meadows in Hadley in 2018, and doubled down in 2020 — yes, during the heart of the pandemic — by opening a second location in West Springfield. Jessye oversees all aspects of member relations; recruitment, hiring, and supervision of 18 employees; and marketing and social-media campaigns.

“At the same time Danny and I founded the F45 franchise, my mom was having open-heart surgery, and it really scared me,” she recalled. “But I wanted our kids to see us prioritizing our health and to create a place where everyone felt supported and encouraged to become the healthiest versions of themselves. F45 really does change lives — mine included. Because of F45, I am now someone who wakes up at 3:50 a.m. to work out — and likes it.”

It’s a busy life, she admits. “But having three hilarious kids, coffee, and a minivan really helps.”

What really keeps her going, however, is passion.

“I’m so lucky to be in a position to help people and see the life-changing impacts of our work,” she said. “At F45, we’ve had people lose more than 100 pounds. At Community Action, we have single moms who are no longer homeless. I’m given opportunities where I’m able to help, which is the reason I wake up every morning.”

 

—Joseph Bednar

 

Class of 2021

Assistant Dean of Student Initiatives, Springfield Technical Community College; Age 35

Once Kiyota Garcia walked onto the Springfield Technical Community College (STCC) campus, she never really left.

Her first exposure was taking summer classes there while working toward a bachelor’s degree at Bay Path University. Then, as a graduate student at American International College, she took a job at STCC in the Academic Advising and Transfer Center. She’s been there ever since.

And it’s her job, she said, to make sure STCC has the same sort of drawing power for today’s students.

“I’m trying to come up with new, fun, and interesting ways to keep students engaged, keep them retained, and get them really focused,” she said of her latest role, as assistant dean of Student Initiatives. “We know how to get the students in — now, how can they be successful? We’re don’t just want to retain them — we want to see completion as well.”

That concept doesn’t apply only to graduation, Garcia added, but to all the smaller goals along the way, from passing a class to simply passing a test. After all, small roadblocks to success can snowball into big ones — and she wants to help students smooth their path.

Her background in psychology — she holds a doctorate of education in educational psychology, a master’s degree in clinical psychology, and a bachelor’s degree in psychology — has been helpful in her approach to working with students, but just as important is a commitment to keeping them connected. That might mean personal check-in calls from a professor or coach, or surveys on what kinds of non-academic supports they might need, which have been especially critical during the pandemic.

Through one program, called Survive and Thrive, “we tap into students when they first arrive at STCC and give them the resources they need to be successful, whether it’s financial aid, meeting their adviser, test-taking strategies — really touching the student at whatever level they need.”

Active in the community, Garcia volunteers with the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts and is a board member for Martin Luther King Jr. Charter School of Excellence, among other roles. But her most gratifying is making sure students succeed at STCC.

“It’s a big family on campus,” she said. “People develop personal connections you don’t get everywhere. And I think the culture at STCC has allowed us to do that.”

 

—Joseph Bednar

Class of 2021

Director of Production and Technology, Focus Springfield Community Television; Age 25

When Comcast ceased offering public-access television a decade ago and Focus Springfield Community Television rose up in its wake, Brendon Holland, then a high-school student, was on the scene, helping dismantle the old Comcast studio and create a new one on Main Street.

When he returned to Springfield after graduating from Brigham Young University — with considerably more production experience under his belt — he started working at Focus Springfield again, as the station was evolving from an old, analog enterprise to a modern, digital media-production facility. He relished the transition.

“At Brigham Young, we had an insane budget for audio-visual equipment, millions of dollars, and we could buy whatever we wanted, top-of-the-line stuff. Back in Springfield, we’ve been able to do high-end production on a smaller budget.”

The station’s impact, however, has been anything but small, especially during the pandemic. Holland designed and maintained the city’s remote municipal meeting system, which helped Springfield become the only community in Massachusetts — out of 351 — to have never stopped any essential municipal business during COVID-19.

Meanwhile, he produced all nine of the city’s virtual high-school graduations last year. During normal years, he helps residents access recordings and streaming of signature events like the Jazz & Roots Festival and the Hoophall Classic. “We put community first and show up when it matters. We’ve really been able to integrate ourselves into a lot of households in the city.”

Two aspects of his job are especially gratifying, he said. “First is when people come into the station to create media and video, when the lightbulb clicks and they understand how all the audio, lighting, video, and editing come together.”

Second, simply put, is providing a community service no one else can. “Without us, no one would hear about some of the positive things happening in Springfield. We’ve been great at changing the perception of a city that needed a facelift, but that I grew up in and love.”

While his wife, Morgan Drewniany Holland (a 40 Under Forty honoree in 2017), is certainly a fan of his work, Brendon is also quick to credit his golden retriever, Cooper.

“I owe pretty much every single thing I do at work to my dog,” he said. “I come up with the best ideas on evening and morning dog walks. When I’m stuck in a rut, I’ll go for a walk, and it totally makes sense.”

 

—Joseph Bednar

Class of 2021

BSEP Program Coordinator and Mobile Health Bus Project Coordinator, Baystate Medical Center; Age 36

Kelly Lamas has always taken a street-level view of healthcare delivery — in some ways, quite literally.

“I grew up wanting to do something to help people,” she said, and that passion eventually led her into the world of public health, most notably her role with the Baystate Springfield Educational Partnership (BSEP), starting in 2017.

“I run most of the high-school programming for students after school,” she said of the 13-year-old partnership between Baystate and Springfield’s public schools, providing career-exploration courses in medicine, nursing, and allied health.

Lamas brought a public-health perspective to the program at a time when Baystate Health was more broadly embracing a population-based healthcare model and building bridges to public-health initiatives in the community.

“We’re having students really look at health through different lenses, root causes, social determinants of health, and we created a couple of project-based classes,” she explained. Specifically, in partnership with Focus Springfield Community Television, students created PSAs on topics like distracted driving and mental health.

Through BSEP, she also developed partnerships with organizations like Gardening in the Community and the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts, and helped develop a community health worker certificate program at Holyoke Community College.

Now Lamas is shifting gears — again, both literally and figuratively — by leading Baystate’s mobile health unit. TD Bank awarded Baystate Health a $1 million grant to fund, outfit, and operate a mobile health clinic that will improve access to preventive care in underserved urban and rural communities.

“Transportation is the biggest barrier to healthcare for people, whether they live in urban or rural areas. So we started thinking about meeting communities where they are,” she said.

The unit will provide prevention, education, and screening services while offering on-the-ground training for hundreds of nurses, medical students, pharmacists, and other health professionals every year. Many individuals are not currently receiving these needed services because of financial and transportation barriers or a lack of providers in their neighborhoods.

“This is all about meeting people where they are,” said Lamas, who was also recently elected to the Ludlow Board of Health. “We’re changing the way education is delivered, too. The students, who will eventually be doctors, nurses, and pharmacists, are working together and communicating in teams to deliver the best care. They’re seeing the vital role each member of the team brings and moving the needle toward healthier outcomes.”

 

—Joseph Bednar

Class of 2021

Author; Associate News Editor for Digital Content, UMass Amherst; Age 32

When Crystal Maldonado was a child, she dreamed of someday writing a book.

“As I got older, I didn’t know if that was possible,” she said. But, even as she began a journalism career, she never let go of that dream. Then, around 2016, “I had this idea for a story that was loosely based on how my husband and I met when we were in high school.”

That idea became her debut novel, Fat Chance, Charlie Vega, a coming-of-age story — and a heavily fictionalized version of her own teen years — published earlier this year by Holiday House Publishing.

“I had never read a story for young adults that featured a fat, Puerto Rican character,” she said. “I wanted, selfishly, to make someone who looks like me the heroine of the story. And I’m really glad I did.”

Recalling her own youth, Maldonado said she faced criticism, shame, and ridicule from her peers and in the media and constantly struggled with her self-image. Over time, however, she learned to come to terms with who she was and to celebrate what makes her … well, her.

“I wrote this story for teens who don’t often see themselves reflected in a lot of media — not just books, but TV and movies, too,” she said. “I want to keep writing stories that often get overlooked by mainstream media, to create stories for teens that are truly relatable and highlight their experience in a way they don’t often see. That’s my big goal — to make people feel seen and heard.”

Meanwhile, in her day job at UMass Amherst, Maldonado manages and executes content, including photography and video, for university accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, Spotify, Giphy, and more, dramatically increasing engagement with the university on these channels. She also mentors students, helping them develop their own portfolios and offering guidance on jobs, writing, and photography.

“Honestly, it’s great fun — I get to be really creative, and I love having the chance to talk to the students,” she said. “They’re so intriguing — they all have incredible stories about how they ended up at UMass. And they’re so busy; they’re launching businesses, doing this and that — they do so much more than I did when I was a student. It’s incredible.”

Young people with big goals — Maldonado can relate to that.

 

—Joseph Bednar

Class of 2021

CEO, Secure Energy Solutions; Age 39

A fire wasn’t going to keep Kevin Mattson down.

Not even an electrical fire that destroyed the East Longmeadow headquarters of his company, Secure Energy Solutions, in 2016.

While neighboring Cartamundi offered temporary space, Mattson went to work finding a new home, and eventually bought the former Biolitec building just down the street. But he didn’t just rebuild larger; he decked it out with a veranda for lunches and cookouts, a gourmet kitchen, a free fitness center, and other amenities.

After all, he said, if employees are going to spend 40 or more hours in a place, why not create an environment that keeps them satisfied and focused?

“When team members are happy, they want to do better not only for the company, but for their own success and personal satisfaction,” he said, adding that he encourages employees to think of their jobs not as work, but as training, an opportunity to learn and grow.

There’s plenty to learn in the field of energy management. Since its inception in 2006, Secure Energy Solutions has helped commercial and industrial clients navigate the volatile energy markets and come up with strategies for electricity and natural-gas procurement, solar development, efficiency projects, sustainability planning, and more.

Mattson — who also co-founded a second company, Custom Homes Development, in 2012 — has grown Secure Energy Solutions to more than 50 employees in East Longmeadow and a second office in New Jersey, but says the sky is the limit. “We’re expanding every year, but I feel we haven’t really accomplished anything yet.”

Meanwhile, he quietly helps the community in different ways, such as financing new sod and soil for local ballfields — and rolling up his sleeves to help repair them. “I don’t have a tremendous amount of time, but any time I do have, I like helping kids. They’re our future.”

Mattson got a real scare — and a dose of unlikely inspiration — when his parents survived the B-17 plane crash at Bradley International Airport in 2019 that killed seven of the 13 people on board.

“Both of them survived by jumping out the window; for me, that was the most inspiring thing in the world,” he said. “I try to teach my kids, and the people I work with, that you’ve got to be resilient; you’ve got to be prepared for absolutely everything that might get thrown your way.”

Again, this isn’t someone who backs down from a fire.

 

—Joseph Bednar

Class of 2021

Co-owner, Mellowship Entertainment, LLC; Age 28

Like many Western Mass. natives, Anne-Alise Pietruska always loved the Big E and looked forward to it every year.

So she was thrilled to be able to intern there while in college and later land a full-time gig, splitting her days between marketing — with roles ranging from social-media strategy, copywriting, and website design to community outreach — and coordinating entertainment alongside John Juliano, who has been booking talent at the Big E for more than 30 years.

“JJ at that point was a one-man band and didn’t think he needed me,” Pietruska said. “But soon, he learned about how passionate I was for music and the ideas I had.”

Eventually, she and Juliano began talking about starting their own company. That enterprise, Mellowship Entertainment, launched in 2017. It provides services ranging from program and event management and production to talent buying, consulting, and artist representation.

While the Big E remains a major part of Mellowship’s work, during a typical year, Pietruska and Juliano are also responsible for more than 1,000 shows; one fair might offer 30 events in a single day. They’re also heavily involved in the automotive entertainment industry, not only representing major shows, but establishing their own Collector Car Live brand.

But note that phrase ‘during a typical year.’ Because the past year has been anything but typical.

“It was March 12 or 13, and we were on a plane to Arizona,” she recalled. “We got to our layover, and my phone was blowing up.”

Within hours, cancellations snowballed, and within a matter of days, nothing was booked through June; before long, the entire year — and beyond — was lost to live events. But Pietruska didn’t just retreat; she joined the RESTART initiative to support the live-event industry, and Mellowship is also working with the biodefense company Synsexis, the security and health monitoring system PatriotOne, and the COVID-19 screening program Virified to help relaunch clients’ events in 2021.

The entertainment industry has been battered, she said, but it is resilient, and people will come back.

“I love creating live experiences; some of my best memories are from attending concerts and festivals,” she said. “The thrill of a live show and the communal power of music has had such a lasting impact on me, I want to create those memories for people. That’s why I think I have the best job. It can be stressful, but I love what I do.”

 

—Joseph Bednar

Class of 2021

Project Manager, Tighe & Bond; Age 30

Joe Popielarczyk always liked math and science, and became exposed to the world of engineering in high school and as a student at UMass Amherst. But it was his uncle, a civil and environmental engineer, who helped him narrow his interest.

“I chose civil engineering and enjoyed it right from the beginning,” he said, adding that he interned at Tighe & Bond as an undergrad and joined the firm full-time upon earning his master’s degree.

Since then, his contributions to the region’s quality of life have included design and construction services for water-system improvements along College Highway in Southwick, design of a wastewater treatment plant conversion in Northampton, improvement design for a wastewater pumping station in West Springfield … the list goes on, really, each project building on — and growing — his expertise.

“I’m a total people person,” he said. “I really enjoy personal interactions, whether it’s with clients, co-workers, or regulators. I enjoy the personal aspect of engineering. And in my role at Tighe & Bond, I’m always learning from people.”

Popielarczyk says he’s fortunate to be in a field where he can constantly learn and grow, but he’s especially grateful for the impact his work has on entire communities.

“I love the idea that it’s helping people, even though it’s not something that gets recognized,” he said, adding that people often don’t think about why they have clean water, reliable sewer service, and streets that don’t flood during rainstorms, the same way shoppers buying food in a grocery store don’t often think about the farming, production, and transportation behind getting it there. “We’re not in the public eye, but we do impact a tremendous amount of people.”

His impact extends outside of work as well, including as a mentor to young people considering a career in engineering. After graduating from UMass Amherst, he returned for several years to speak with the student chapter of the American Society of Civil Engineers, and he regularly volunteers as a judge at local high-school science fairs, taking time to speak with teenagers about his career and where their STEM interests might take them.

“There’s always something to learn at Tighe & Bond, and a lot of great people willing to pass on their knowledge,” he said. “I take the same perspective with mentoring. It’s an opportunity to pass along what I know and pay it forward.”

 

—Joseph Bednar

 

Class of 2021

Staff Attorney, Central West Justice Center; Age 32

Growing up in Los Angeles, Claudia Quintero saw plenty of disparities — by class, race and ethnicity, gender, and more — and wanted to do something about it.

“But I was undocumented,” she said. “So I didn’t know if I could go to college, much less law school.”

In high school, though, she met a lawyer who helped her attain legal status. “I was so inspired by this attorney — who was also a Latina, and was very kind and very effective in her advocacy — that I wanted to go to law school and do for others what she had done for me.”

That law school was at Western New England University, where she knew she wanted to focus on social-justice work. Fittingly, she landed a job with Central West Justice Center immediately after achieving her juris doctorate. “It seemed like the right fit … like work I was meant to do.”

As a subsidiary of Community Legal Aid, Quintero explained, “we provide legal civil services to indigent clients, people who can’t afford lawyers for things like eviction defense, state and federal benefits law, family law, wage-and-hour claims, immigration … that’s just a smattering of the different projects we have.”

Central West’s migrant seasonal farmworker project, her area of focus, provides holistic legal advocacy to farmworkers across Massachusetts on housing, work conditions, and other protections, while advocating for these workers on the state level. “A lot of farms are located in rural parts of the state where the workers might not even know we exist,” she noted.

The performing and visual arts are a big part of Quintero’s identity; she’s a classically trained pianist, was a Mexican folkorico dancer for 15 years, and is an amateur photographer. The work she performs today at Central West has become a critical part of that identity as well — and a continuing tribute to her journey and those who helped her along the way.

“It’s a really gratifying job. I feel like it’s kind of my responsibility, since I was given such an amazing opportunity getting legal status in the United States,” she explained. “That’s not an easy feat; not everyone is eligible to become a lawyer in the United States, and even to be a legal citizen is such a huge privilege for me. So I know I have to do something worthwhile. I know it’s an opportunity I shouldn’t squander.”

 

—Joseph Bednar

Class of 2021

Assistant Professor of Biology, Undergraduate Science Program Research Coordinator, Bay Path University; Age 35

It may have taken Yadilette Rivera Colón a while to find her passion — but she’s certainly been a force in helping other young women find theirs.

Growing up in Puerto Rico, she first enrolled in a nursing program, but soon decided she’d prefer to become a medical doctor. After a tough first semester of study, she worked at a dental office but found the work tedious.

Then she interviewed for a summer internship with Craig Martin, professor of Chemistry at UMass Amherst. The program was already full, but he saw something in her and brought her on anyway. As it turned out, she recalled, “he had wanted to be a dentist, too, and realized it wasn’t for him, and he thought I should have a backup plan.”

Rivera Colón was hooked when she helped conduct and publish research through the program, experiencing the thrill of sharing new knowledge with the world. “I gave everything else up to go into research,” she said, and eventually earned a doctorate at UMass in molecular and cellular biology.

Her role at Bay Path is multi-faceted, and her impact extends well beyond campus. In addition to helping students navigate a path to careers in science, her outreach in the community, especially in Holyoke, helps young people, especially women of color, discover the possibilities of STEM.

“It’s a leaky pipeline,” she said, partly explaining why women remain underrepresented in the sciences. “They don’t always have the support and resources in place. Or they hear, ‘you’re not good at math,’ or ‘you’re not good at science.’ But it’s a skill — you can get better, and I’m going to show you how.”

Rivera Colón creates bridges in other ways, too. She co-advises the Women in STEM organization at Bay Path and co-organizes its speaker series, and also facilitates training sessions that focus on diversity, equity, and inclusion in the STEM field. Through volunteer work with Girls Inc. of the Valley and the Latino Scholarship Fund of Western Massachusetts, she helps girls pursue their college and career goals. And she has led anti-racism trainings for colleagues and students at Bay Path, as well as for staff at MassHire Holyoke.

In short, she’s passionate, and it all started with finding that initial spark. “I tell girls, ‘if you decide to pursue a career in science, you’ll never be bored.’”

 

—Joseph Bednar

Education Special Coverage

Back to Normal?

It’s hard to gauge what ‘normal’ looks like during the era of COVID-19, when normalcy is a moving target. For area colleges and universities, though, getting back to normal means one thing: bringing as many students back to dorms and classrooms as possible. Make no mistake, campus life this fall will still be different from the pre-pandemic college experience, but just opening those classroom and residence-hall doors is a big step — the result of many lessons learned during the most unusual academic year in memory.

Normalcy.

It’s an attractive concept these days, if an elusive one. Just ask the folks planning for the fall 2021 semester at the region’s colleges and universities.

“This fall, we’ll go back to some normalcy, with classes back in person full-time, students in the residence halls, and athletes on the fields,” said Jonathan Scully, vice president of Enrollment Management and Marketing at Elms College. “That’s the plan right now.”

Scully said Elms has long maintained a COVID-19 task force that meets every week to discuss public-health data, on-campus health metrics, current recommendations of the CDC and the state Department of Public Health, and, importantly, how faculty and staff feel about a full return. “That all played a part in making decisions for the fall.”

He noted that students seem excited about coming back to Springfield Street in Chicopee, even though the college’s ElmsFlex hybrid plan, by which students could learn on campus, remotely, or with a combination of both, has been well-received.

“We’re not fully remote; we had that ElmsFlex option, because some students learn better in person, and some did better virtually, and they had the ability to move between the two freely,” Scully said. “But everyone is looking forward to a return to normalcy.”

Western New England University (WNEU) was among just 27% of U.S. colleges and universities that opened to mainly in-person learning and residential living last fall and remained open through the 2020-21 year, having delivered about 75% of courses on campus and the rest through online and hybrid formats, said Bryan Gross, vice president of Enrollment Management and Marketing.

Jonathan Scully

Jonathan Scully

“Because some students learn better in person, and some did better virtually, and they had the ability to move between the two freely. But everyone is looking forward to a return to normalcy.”

Two factors played into that success, he said: a culture of small class sizes (the average student-teacher ratio is 12:1) and plenty of space that made social distancing much easier to implement, and a commitment — a compact, really, among students, faculty, and staff — to make sure the campus could stay open.

“They adhered to that social distancing, we put up tons of signage, we brought in extra cleaning staff, we had plexiglass throughout … all those things contributed to the plan for the past year,” Gross told BusinessWest.

He noted that colleges and universities don’t have the luxury of making their fall opening plans in July or August; the shift on the fly to remote learning that happened last spring is not the preferred model for campus planning. So, while the course of the pandemic might still alter the plans before September, those plans still need to be made and set in motion.

At WNEU, that will mean all courses normally taught on campus will be, indeed, taught in person, with three-foot distancing in place and masks required, at least according to current guidance. While some hybrid options may be available, Gross said, “we feel Western New England is best with face-to-face classwork, and that’s what we’re moving forward with.”

American International College (AIC) is moving in that direction as well, said Matt Scott, vice president for Student Affairs.

For the current year, he explained, residence halls are open, and students are allowed to live on campus, but most classes are remote, and athletics have continued as normal. Surveillance testing for COVID is widespread, and other safety and sanitization protocols are a regular part of life.

For the fall, Scott said, the current plan is to go back to “whatever the new normal will look like,” but the goal being full residence halls and in-person instruction.

“We’re still waiting to see some state guidance — there’s K-12 guidance that came out in terms of desk distancing in classrooms and things of that nature, but they have not come out with specific guidance for colleges yet,” he added. “But that’s the plan.”

Chet Jordan

Chet Jordan

“Safety on our campus is paramount; one of the biggest considerations in our return to campus is how to utilize our space safely.”

The plan at most campuses, it turns out, is for normalcy, or, as Gross noted, whatever that term might mean come September. But optimism is high that college life will finally begin to look like it used to.

 

Safety First

Community colleges, for the most part, were more fully remote than most schools, and are being more cautious with their return to normalcy. For example, Greenfield Community College (GCC) will offer classes in a face-to-face or hybrid format, meeting at least once a week on campus with some possible online instruction as well.

“Safety on our campus is paramount; one of the biggest considerations in our return to campus is how to utilize our space safely,” said Chet Jordan, dean of Social Sciences and Professional Studies at GCC. “Our faculty and staff have been almost entirely remote for the past year, so their input in how we can phase in a slow reopening of the campus was essential to us.”

GCC brought together a group of faculty, staff, and administrators to talk through the complexities of a reopening, eventually crafting a hybrid model. “We want to make sure our faculty and staff feel safe when they return to campus,” Jordan added. “The situation is constantly changing, but we addressed the key questions as best we could.”

Students in GCC’s health-career programs will meet on campus in hands-on courses to best prepare them for essential jobs in the growing healthcare industry. Those in other professional programs, such as business and education, will also have on-campus options. In most programs, students will complete some of their coursework online and will participate in weekly experiential learning opportunities, including lab activities and field trips.

GCC will follow state guidelines on occupancy rates in classrooms and offices, mask requirements, and health screenings, as well as maintaining scrupulous air-quality practices and a thorough sanitizing schedule.

The class schedule is roughly 55% online and 45% in person, Jordan said, which allows time to space out the classes between sections to avoid a bottleneck of students entering and exiting, while maintaining appropriate distancing.

“It gives students who want to be on campus that in-person experience, but also flexibility the rest of the week to finish online,” he said, adding that the library will be available for students to access a virtual class between in-person sessions on any given day. “So they won’t have to jump between campus and home, we’re giving them space to do a remote class and then go to their next class on campus.”

Bryan Gross

Bryan Gross

“The long and short of it is, we’re hopeful to have a more normal, on-the-ground campus experience for our students and families.”

UMass Amherst also expects campus life to return to normal operations in fall 2021. That means an emphasis on face-to-face instruction, full residence halls — an expected 13,000 students will live on campus — and a complement of student events and activities.

Planning for summer orientation is well underway, as new students will be invited to participate in a series of synchronous and asynchronous orientation programs over the summer before they arrive for in-person welcome sessions at the end of August.

This past fall, many first-year students who would have experienced on-campus housing for the first time did not get that opportunity. So, in an effort to support these students, freshmen and sophomores will receive priority consideration to select on-campus spaces this fall. Still, based on current interest, UMass expects to be able to meet all housing requests, including all interested juniors and seniors.

Finally, UMass announced that its renovated Student Union is now open, offering space for events, student organizations, student businesses, and a ballroom.

The campus experience is more than academics, WNEU’s Gross said, noting that the university creative in finding ways to bring students together for small-group activities in the campus center. This fall, he expects larger outdoor activities, including intramural sports, to return, as well as indoor events as long as safety protocols are followed.

“The long and short of it is, we’re hopeful to have a more normal, on-the-ground campus experience for our students and families,” he said, including a big homecoming event inviting back the 2020 graduates, who were unable to have a traditional commencement experience.

 

Learning by Doing

In his first year working at GCC, Jordan said he has been “incredibly warmed and inspired by the creativity of the faculty, who do anything they can do make sure students have the best experience.”

For example, science classes have included more outdoor, experiential learning. Meanwhile, students in the health sciences have been on campus throughout the pandemic, due to the unique, hands-on needs of their training. “They paved the way,” he said. “They’re the ones who figured out how to open as safely as we possibly can.”

At AIC, students in those fields have been diligent about safety protocols and personal protective equipment, Scott said. “Because they’re health-science students, they tend to take it a little further than some of our other students. If they’re getting up close and personal, they’re wearing face shields and masks and such.”

Particularly during the 2020, he noted, constant pivoting was the order of the day for college faculty and administrators, who had to constantly monitor the development of the pandemic and guide a testing and safety plan for their campuses.

“But I think, overall, our plan stayed the same,” he added. “We thought it was safest this year to keep as many students remote as possible and have some in-person experiences that are kind of controlled for the pandemic-related protocols we had in place. That all stayed the same throughout the year, but the way we approached them adjusted as we needed to.”

Some of the lessons learned led to positive developments, said Kerry Cole, vice president for Admissions at AIC. For example, the college used to deliver its certificate of advanced graduate study (CAGS) programs for teachers at 11 physical sites. Once the program was forced online by COVID, administrators began to hear from the grad students that they loved it.

“So, beginning in the fall, we’re moving to a virtual format throughout the state, where we’re able to deliver licensing programs in a virtual format for all the programs we offer,” Cole said. “That came directly from students. They wanted virtual — not online, but virtual, synchronous, so they can communicate with each other.

“We’re very, very excited about it,” she went on. “Our teachers now need more flexibility than ever. They’re rock stars, and we need to be able to support them.”

Scott agreed, noting that there were many instances where he and others said, “wow, we didn’t realize this would work, that students would enjoy this.” One example is online counseling services, which are now much more accessible to commuter students.

That doesn’t mean students don’t want to return to in-person learning, of course; for the most part, they certainly do. But they’ve handled an unusual year well, he said.

“I am amazed every day how well our students are doing with these protocols. You’ll always have the occasional mask below the nose, and that’s going to happen, usually because they have a mask that doesn’t fit them well. But we have not really had any issues with students giving people a hard time when they’re entering the dining commons to get food. We planned for that; we asked, ‘how are we going to deal with the student who shows up and flat-out refuses to wear a mask?’ But we have not had that happen.”

In fact, the worst incidents have been the occasional group of students who head to the mall and don’t wear masks in the car.

“They’re not supposed to do it, but there are far worse things they could be doing and far worse ways they could be violating our protocols,” Scott said. “We try not to have a heavy hand; we try to take an educational approach and make sure they understand the potential impact, the ripple effect those actions can have on the community. But we’ve been very impressed with the way our students have responded this year.”

 

Waiting for the Return

Enrollment dipped last year at many colleges due to uncertainty about what the academic experience and college life would entail, but most area institutions see the application and enrollment numbers on the rise in 2021.

“Along with the rest of the community-college sector, we saw a decline over the past year, but that was an anomaly,” Jordan said. “In most recessions, community colleges do really well, but this was the reverse; this sector was the hardest-hit. The reason is that low-income students and students of color have been unprecedentedly hit by this pandemic, and those are our students.”

It’s especially important, then, for community colleges to offer a flexible model during these times, and that’s what GCC is aiming for, he added.

“We want to be sure we’re reaching students at home with kids, so those students can take classes online, and also opening the campus in such a way that students who need to be on campus will get that in-person instruction. Having more flexible classroom options will invite more people back.”

Cole said AIC successfully implemented the plan it thought best for 2020-21, and will now expand upon that.

“We’re very excited about it,” she said, noting that campus tours have begun again, and the campus hosted its first in-person admissions event of the school year in mid-April. “Graduate students love virtual info sessions and open houses. Undergrads are a mixed bag, but graduate students will take it all day. So we’ll likely keep some of that.”

Scully said nothing is set in stone when it comes to pandemic planning; the past 13 months at the Elms have been proof of that.

“We’re monitoring everything very closely, and our first priority is the safety of students and staff,” he said. “We know things could change on a dime.”

Elms, like many colleges, already offered some programs online before the pandemic, and has since bolstered the technology to conduct those, having purchased new cameras, microphones, and other equipment. “But, like everyone else, we’re looking forward to getting back to normal.”

And doing so safely, Gross said.

“I’ve never been so proud to be part of an organization as I’ve been of our students, faculty, and staff over the last year and a half,” he said. “I can’t stress how many extra hours our faculty and staff put into adjusting curriculum, adjusting extracurriculars, and changing everything we do, from open houses to the way we engage with current students, prospective students, and alumni. It was a group effort in flexibility, agility, determination, and energy.

That said, “the community is tired,” he went on. “We’ve been going non-stop; I can’t tell you how many faculty and staff have told me about the extra hours they’ve put in over the weekends. We’ve all been chipping in to do whatever it takes to keep things safe and enjoyable for students.”

But there’s no time to take a break. Not with the fall semester right around the corner.

“Things are constantly changing,” Gross said. “We’re all learning as we go. But we are a learning organization, after all.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Architecture Special Coverage

A New Environment

The world of development — and all the stakeholders who interact within in, from contractors to engineers; from regulators to municipal officials — have certainly been impacted by COVID-19, mainly because they weren’t able to meet in person anymore. But they adjusted to this new reality, and even learned from it — and continue to grapple with other changes as well, most notably in environmental compliance. To hash out some of these developments (pun intended), five leaders from several interconnected fields spoke with BusinessWest about the lingering effects of the pandemic and how they anticipate pivoting to the next set of changes.

 

When COVID-19 forced a shutdown of the economy 13 months ago, Jeff Daley said, the impact on development was immediate.

“Everything came to a grinding halt,” the president and CEO of Westmass Area Development Corp. told BusinessWest. “The first few days, watching the economy tank, people were scared — they didn’t know where this was going to go.”

It became clear over the next several weeks, however, that projects would continue, and Westmass ramped back up fairly quickly, even as the health implications of the pandemic remained daunting (and, of course, still linger, despite the availability of vaccines).

“It changed the way we did business, though,” Daley added. “Zoom calls with state agencies and local agencies increased from zero to 100% in the first few months. We had to adjust quickly to having meetings and approvals and denials with a different form of communication.

Jeff Daley

Jeff Daley

“We saw some hiccups at the beginning of the pandemic, but when things started ticking up again, it appeared state agencies really had their stuff together, as well as cities and towns.”

“I give credit to towns and cities across the Commonwealth; everyone adapted really quickly,” he went on. “We saw some hiccups at the beginning of the pandemic, but when things started ticking up again, it appeared state agencies really had their stuff together, as well as cities and towns.”

Daley recently took part in a wide-ranging roundtable discussion with BusinessWest about the impact of the pandemic on development and environmental regulation. Also taking part, each bringing a different perspective to the discussion, were David Peter, principal with Site Redevelopment Technologies; Ashley Sullivan, president of O’Reilly, Talbot & Okun Associates (OTO); Mike Gorski, regional director of the Western Regional Office of MassDEP; and environmental attorney Christopher Myhrum.

Peter, whose company cleans up contaminated sites for redevelopment — including, recently, the Games and Lanes brownfields site in Agawam — said the new paradigm of communicating has been a challenge.

“It’s difficult to move forward,” he said. “We rehab sites that have been dormant for many years due to contamination, and it’s very difficult for us right now because a lot of it is interpersonal relationships — meeting with regulators around a table with big maps — and we can’t do that anymore. We’re at a real slowdown for any project still in the planning stages.”

Projects in active development are a different story and, in some cases, have benefited from the pandemic, he added. As one example, last spring, the firm was hauling lightly contaminated soil from Beth Israel Hospital in Boston to a site in Rhode Island, and was able to conduct about twice as many trips as normal due to the lack of traffic on the road during the economic shutdown.

“If you owned, say, a restaurant when this happened, you were severely hit. But many essential businesses benefited, like our trucking situation,” Peter said. “But the biggest impact was not being able to sit down with regulators, politicians, and neighbors. It really slowed us down.”

Sullivan agreed. “In general, we did see a slowdown, and some of the logistics became difficult; there was definitely an adjustment period. But I’ll say we adapted pretty quickly, which was amazing to see,” she said, noting that the company had recently made some investments in technology that eased the transition into a different way of conducting business.

David Peter

David Peter

“It’s very difficult for us right now because a lot of it is interpersonal relationships — meeting with regulators around a table with big maps — and we can’t do that anymore.”

And that transition was happening whether or not everyone was ready for it.

“If you had asked me two years ago if we could our job remotely, I’d have said, ‘absolutely not,’” Gorski said. “But we’ve been remote since St. Patrick’s Day 2020. It took a few weeks to figure things out, with staff working at home, and we made some long-term improvements in technology for certain staff.”

Since then, he added, the process has been smooth, if not ideal. For example, early on, “we were very, very lenient in terms of inspections,” but the office was able to conduct limited risk-based determinations and emergency-response actions. “Staff still needed to visit spills on the highway and other releases.”

MassDEP complemented any necessary in-person visits with virtual inspections through FaceTime video and submitted photos, Gorski added. And after the initial slowdown, the pace of activity has been relatively stable.

“We’ve been on par with past years with the number of inspections in the Western Region, with enforcement numbers being a little bit down,” he said. “I think we’ve done pretty well keeping a presence out there and, more importantly, keeping our staff safe and meeting COVID protocols.”

Myhrum knew any leniency wouldn’t last. “I think clients recognized the likelihood of reductions in inspections at the start of the shutdown order, but they were cautioned, at least by me, that inspections were likely to come back,” he said.

Myhrum, who also serves on the Westmass board, agreed with the other roundtable participants that various stakeholders in the development process, from developers to inspectors to municipal officials, handled the transition to remote operations remarkably well. And he believes the construction and development sector is on the rise after an unusual year.

“Yes, construction was deemed essential, but behind that are a lot of support organizations, and things necessarily slowed down,” he said. “And that has created a lot of potential energy for when things return to some semblance of normal. Beyond that, it has been something of a brave new world, but the adaptability to remote work has been striking.”

 

Holding Pattern

The most distressing pandemic-driven change in Gorski’s job is “the inability to collaborate on certain projects, to sit around a table and push those plans back and forth,” he said, adding that his agency and others have come up with some innovative ways to collaborate remotely. “We’ve become more productive in some ways. And there are some efficiencies with working from home. But we do miss out on the ability to build off collaborative ideas.”

Myhrum agreed. “Screen sharing cannot substitute for a 24-by-36, or larger, exhibit in terms of communicating ideas and demonstrating evidence of what one wants to do. It’s essential to not only understanding what a project is, but also building the trust that’s necessary among the parties to reach a goal together. I believe collaborative efforts within the office are very, very important.”

Some ways business was done in the past won’t completely return, he added, like the idea of people flying to and from California to attend a 15-minute pre-trial conference. “That’s gone; everything is done remotely, through Zoom or Teams or other platforms.”

But to undertake truly effective negotiations and other business, he went on, in-person meetings need to remain an important component.

Ashley Sullivan

Ashley Sullivan

“They were backing off enforcement a little bit, but it was unofficial. Some of it wasn’t clearly communicated.”

Everyone figured out the new normal together, Gorski said, and that included the DEP. “We were very lenient during the first couple months, recognizing that companies were under a tremendous burden in terms of staffing. Once they figured out how to do things remotely, we started getting back into a normal program.

“Now, while we’re certainly not normalized, our inspection numbers here in the Western Region are on par with past years,” he added. “Some of the enforcement penalty numbers were down as well — we were careful how we adjusted penalties because of COVID — but that’s getting back to normal, too.”

Daley noted that any slowdown in regulatory activity was matched by a curtailment of development. “Everyone was trying to figure things out in the first month or two; I don’t think anyone was trying to move projects forward at a rapid pace. It all played in concert; environmental programs were moving forward at the same pace developments were with COVID.”

Sullivan said it was natural for the pace of activity to slow down as the logistics became difficult. She noted that her firm performs many environmental site assessments, doing due diligence about what a project’s environmental concerns may be, which requires communication with fire departments, boards of health, and other municipal departments. “A lot of those were closed for a while, the process would get delayed, and that would, in essence, delay the whole project.”

Reviews on the regulatory side slowed down locally as well, she said, but grace periods became the norm. “They were backing off enforcement a little bit, but it was unofficial. Some of it wasn’t clearly communicated, particularly in the first eight to 12 weeks, and we wondered when things would start up again.”

No one was surprised when it did, Myhrum said. “Massachusetts certainly has a reputation for sound and aggressive environmental enforcement, as well as rigorous regulation, which has gone hand in glove with statutory and regulatory requirements.

“I know, during the pandemic, we had two different cases involving air permits, which can be among the most complicated DEP issues,” he went on. “Those two permit applications were turned around faster than any we’ve worked on. I’d like to think we did a good job on the applications, but the turnaround times were most satisfactory to our clients.”

It’s difficult to gauge how the pandemic has affected regulation on the national level, Myhrum said, adding that a change in presidential administration will likely have a greater impact.

Christopher Myhrum

Christopher Myhrum

“I think one would be in error to believe the EPA’s priorities and activities are going to continue the way they did under the previous administration.”

“The EPA under Trump was not known for being particularly aggressive, having a former coal lobbyist as its administrator. So I think one would be in error to believe the EPA’s priorities and activities are going to continue the way they did under the previous administration. I think it will be interesting to see how the situation plays out.”

Another issue impacting developers during the pandemic is the shift by so many companies to remote work, Peter said, noting that he does a lot of work in the seaport district of Boston, and commercial real estate there is worth about 50% of its pre-pandemic value, while suburban locations with plenty of fresh air and space have risen in value.

That trend may not last forever, Daley said, for some of the communication-related factors mentioned earlier.

“Once the pandemic subsides a little bit, I think people will go back to the office, if for nothing more than partnership and collaboration efforts,” he noted. “I know we do a lot of work on 24-by-36 paper and laying things out, and it’s hard to do that in a Zoom meeting, to look at plans and assess the true value of what you’re going to do.

“Not everyone will go back to work — I agree with that — but I do think, as time goes on and the pandemic hopefully subsides and we pass through this, people have to go back to the office, at least on a hybrid basis,” he went on. “I’m a firm believer in working together and collaborating, and Zoom doesn’t really produce that.”

 

Issues of Justice

Last month, Gov. Charlie Baker signed a new climate-change law that codifies a commitment to achieve net-zero emissions in 2050; authorizes the administration to implement a new, voluntary, energy-efficient building code for municipalities; allows the Commonwealth to procure additional offshore wind energy, and — most notably for urban developers — significantly increases protections for ‘environmental justice communities’ across Massachusetts.

EJ communities, as they’re known, are those which have, historically, been overburdened by poor air quality and disproportionately high levels of pollution; they are often low-income. The new law requires an environmental-impact report for all projects that affect air quality within one mile of an EJ neighborhood, and requires the DEP to conduct a stakeholder process to develop a cumulative-impact analysis as a condition of permitting certain projects.

“That’s needed, I think,” Daley said, noting that he hopes the environmental council the law calls for has adequate representation from EJ communities in Western Mass. “It’s important that we have representation on that council. Far too often, Western Mass. has one token person on a committee, and 17 from the Boston area. This is a great start, but our people need to have a say.”

Gorski said the emphasis on environmental justice is positive because people have a right to a meaningful say in what goes on in their neighborhoods.

“The DEP has had an EJ policy for some time, and we’ve had public involvement in the planning process, but the climate bill now makes that law, and we’re going to be proactively reaching out to various community groups to involve them and educate them, so when we have these public hearings for complicated permits and things of that nature, people understand what we’re talking about, and can come at it from a knowledgable viewpoint, rather than just ‘we don’t want that in our neighborhood.’ It’s important to give people a voice.”

Myhrum agreed. “EJ has evolved from policy to statutory law in Massachusetts,” he said. “People will have the opportunity to participate in an interactive way to discuss the impact and specific ways people are affected.”

It’s important to remember, Sullivan noted, that development projects in urban areas often have a positive impact on the environment, especially those that remediate brownfields and other contamination.

“I’d love to see more mixed-use revitalization and really cleaning up some of these issues,” she said. “At OTO, we love working on these projects, and we’re happy when there’s more funding and regulations pointing that way — if a development can be done in a way that could be responsible, with some thought behind it.”

While he believes there’s significant pent-up energy in the development community, Daley understands plenty of changes are coming related to energy and other aspects of doing business. In the short term, though, the way the pandemic has altered business as usual may have a broader effect.

“Is COVID going to be a transitional time for business, or is it transformational? It’s going to be both,” he said, answering his own question. “It’s going to be transitional in the way we do business, whether it’s the regulatory process or the actual development, lease, and sale of properties and the way they go to market. But it’s also transformational — an opportunity to rethink the way we do business, shifting us more into the digital age.

“I don’t think the office space will ever go away,” he went on, “but [technology] allows people to be more creative with their time and productivity and the way they do business.”

 

Moving Forward

Even though MassDEP is still working largely remotely, Gorski said, “we look forward to getting back to hybrid, or something approaching normal operations. We’re still available for technical assistance, and we still want to collaborate to move projects forward.”

Depending on the project, Sullivan said, OTO works with developers, property owners, other civil engineers, structural engineers, attorneys, regulators … the list goes on, and speaks to the importance of communication, and the ways in which it has been altered by COVID.

“Each of those has been impacted similarly during the past year,” she noted. “We did adjust to not being face to face, but there’s so much that can be accomplished face to face, meeting on site. When that goes away, things slow down, and your meetings aren’t as effective.”

But her firm, like everyone else in the broad, complex, cross-disciplinary business of development managed to adjust, and even learned a few lessons about pivoting and melding traditional and remote ways of doing business.

“This is the new way,” she said. “We’ll take the best of both worlds and hopefully move forward.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story The Cannabis Industry

Creating a Buzz

Every week, it seems, brings news of another cannabis establishment opening its doors or planning to set down roots in Western Mass. So, how does one stand out in an increasingly crowded field? For this issue, we talked with three women who own or co-own new enterprises in the region. By emphasizing facets of the business from sustainable growth to community gatherings to social equity, they make it clear that not all ‘pot shops’ are the same — that, in fact, there are many ways to make a mark on an increasingly robust cannabis ecosystem.

Helen Gomez Andrews and Chris Andrews of the High End

Sustaining a Plan

The High End Takes a Natural Approach to Edibles and Much More

Stephanie McNair of Turning Leaf Centers

Budding Connections

Turning Leaf Centers Plants Itself Firmly in the Community

Charlotte Hanna of Community Growth Partners and Rebelle

Charlotte Hanna of Community Growth Partners and Rebelle

Hire Calling

Community Growth Partners Builds on Model of Social Equity

Health Care Special Coverage

Youth in Crisis

Let’s face it — the past year of COVID-19 has probably been tough on you, in any number of ways that weigh on your peace of mind. But what about your kids? How are they doing? And … do you even know? That might seem like a flip or aggressive question, but a group of local teenagers who have been talking to public-health leaders about the issue say their parents aren’t fully hearing them when it comes to the impact of the pandemic. And that impact, in many cases, has been worrisome.

 

Alane Burgess began by stating the obvious.

“It’s not normal for kids to be home all the time.”

As clinic director of the BestLife Emotional Health & Wellness Center, a program of MHA Inc., Burgess is one of many healthcare professionals keenly invested in how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted young people. And the picture is worrisome.

“They like to be out. They like to socialize. Most kids like to be with friends,” she said. “COVID forced isolation on a lot of people; they haven’t been able to go to school, to socialize, to be involved with activities they once loved, like sports. Community spaces haven’t been open.”

It’s not surprising, she added, that this isolation has contributed to an uptick in anxiety, depression, frustration, and a tendency to act out in negative ways.

Indeed, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between April and October 2020, hospital emergency departments saw a rise in the share of total visits from childen for mental-health needs. Nationwide numbers on suicide deaths in 2020 are still unclear, but anecdotal evidence suggests an uptick.

“Kids are excited to go back and see their friends and have some sense of structure, to be in society again. But there are definitely a lot of adjustments to be made.”

But here’s the less obvious reality, Burgess noted: while the pandemic may be (and that’s may be) on its last legs and schools and other gathering places are slowly opening back up, that doesn’t mean the stresses of the past year will just fade away.

“Kids are excited to go back and see their friends and have some sense of structure, to be in society again,” she told BusinessWest. “But there are definitely a lot of adjustments to be made.”

When COVID struck, she noted, the shifts were quick and unplanned — kids were suddenly learning at home, and many of their parents were suddenly working there. It has been a challenging time, particularly for working parents with young children who need help with school.

But transitioning back to whatever will pass for the new normal poses its own challenges, she said. “It was originally going to be two weeks, and weeks turned into months, and months became a year. Now, they’re going back out into a world that’s changed; it’s not going to be the same — there will be masks and social distancing and limitations on clubs and activities.”

Tamera Crenshaw says barriers to accessing mental healthcare are myriad.

Tamera Crenshaw says barriers to accessing mental healthcare are myriad.

Socially, certain young people — those with a more introverted personality — found they thrived in the remote setting, and are anxious about returning to campus, Burgess added. Others found the home setting to be an escape from bullying, and are palpably fearful about going back.

Meanwhile, some students, depending on how rigorous their remote-learning experience was, might find themselves overwhelmed or feeling academically behind as teachers play catch-up. Many students report coasting to passing grades, even very good grades, while feeling they haven’t been learning much.

And the economic struggles affecting many families who lost income or jobs — a definite stressor on kids — certainly aren’t over.

Tamera Crenshaw, a clinical psychologist and founder of Tools for Success Counseling in Longmeadow, said she’s especially passionate about mental health in minority populations, a demographic disproportionately affected by mental-health issues — because, again, those issues tend to be exacerbated by factors like economic stress, which have also landed hard on those populations during COVID-19.

Even remote learning has been a greater problem for communities of color because of issues of technological access and family strife over financial matters, she added. “Home isn’t necessarily the most conducive learning environment — and COVID just exacerbated it.”

An uptick in suicidal ideation is especially concerning, Crenshaw said. “Someone can have a baseline of thought, but when kids are actually expressing a plan or intent, it’s scary. And we’re definitely seeing an increase.”

Some of the factors are typical stressors on teens in any given year, but despondency has certainly been driven by greater economic instability, which can raise tension and anxiety in the home, as well as two competing factors: a longing to end a year of isolation and get back to school, and health fears about the safety of doing so, especially for kids who know someone who has died of COVID.

“These kids have not been forgotten, but even with a vaccine, they’re going to be vaccinated last,” she noted. “I can’t imagine there’s not a fear of going back into the school environment when they haven’t been vaccinated.”

The issues are deep and complex, and solutions aren’t easy. But, like most others in the mental-health field, Crenshaw says the first step to helping young people take charge of mental-health issues is clear and simple.

“You’ve got to name it.”

 

Start the Conversation

That means breaking through societal stigma surrounding these struggles.

“My mission is to destigmatize mental health,” Crenshaw said, noting that several factors contribute to that stigma and the resulting reluctance to seek help. “I want to help debunk that stigma.”

Beyond attitudes toward mental health, another barrier is financial — the challenge of accessing insurance that will pay for treatment, or, for those who don’t have it, navigating out-of-pocket costs while already struggling economically, she added.

“It was originally going to be two weeks, and weeks turned into months, and months became a year. Now, they’re going back out into a world that’s changed; it’s not going to be the same — there will be masks and social distancing and limitations on clubs and activities.”

A third factor is religious belief, specifically a belief by some churchgoers that mental-health professionals are at odds with faith, or that faith makes such help unnecessary. “We’re trying to educate churches and knock down that barrier,” she said. “I’m a woman of faith myself.”

Another factor is the simple fact of how few therapists of color are working today. Crenshaw’s team is largely women of color, but her practice is an exception — which is unfortunate because she knows people of color will often have an easier time trusting someone right off the bat when they can relate to them or see themselves in them.

This last factor might be a long-term struggle to overcome, she added, noting that she teaches classes in her field at Westfield State University, and none of the 17 students currently in one of her classes is a woman of color.

In fact, the mental-health and social-work fields in general are in need of more talent, said Jessica Collins, executive director of the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts (PHIWM). She agreed about the access issue as well, noting that mental health should be a basic support, not something available only for people who can pay for it — especially when families who can’t pay are often in greater need of those supports.

Recognizing the importance of these issues among young people, before the pandemic even began, the Public Health Institute facilitated the formation of a youth mental-health coalition in Springfield — one that brings to the table direct service providers like BHN and Gándara, Springfield Public Schools, local therapists, and, critically, a group of 11 teenagers who meet regularly.

The question at the center of the initiative is simple, Collins said. “How do we best support kids? It might sound basic, but it’s fairly new; there has not been an emphasis on the mental health of kids except in extreme cases, where the kids have to go into inpatient care.”

One takeaway so far is that teens don’t feel fully heard by the distracted adults in their lives.

“What we’re hearing, loud and clear, from our young people is, when they talk to adults, adults are not skilled at supporting them,” Collins said. “Adults are stressed, adults are stretched, and that just adds to this epidemic of young people feeling hopeless and alone and unsupported.”

That’s why the Public Health Institute is talking about what kind of training adults — those who work in preschool and school programs, but also parents — might need to learn how to better listen to young people and work through and respond to what they’re hearing.

Jessica Collins

Jessica Collins says parents sometimes get so stressed, they don’t realize how stressed their kids are, too.

“These big direct-service providers are really competitive, so to get them in a room to talk about how can we work together to better support families, instead of just competing for them, that’s fairly new,” Collins said, adding that Daniel Warwick, Springfield’s superintendent of Schools, has also been on board with efforts like this for a long time.

For example, when he saw a 2017 report by PHIWM about the hopelessness felt by local teens who don’t identify as heterosexual, “he was so upset about that, a few years ago, he mandated some training for all Springfield public-school adults to better support kids who are LGBTQ+.”

 

Take It Seriously

That’s a good example of listening to young people and then taking them seriously — which is one way to normalize mental-health needs, Collins said. “If you can’t talk about it, you can’t figure out for yourself what you need.”

And one thing young people need right now is reconnection. While many kids are tired of the technology-only avenues for connecting with friends, Crenshaw said, Zoom calls, text chats, and the like have been an overall positive in staying in touch. But she also encourages kids and families to take opportunities to see friends and loved ones in person, in a safe manner, when possible.

“You can go to the park; you can go outside with a soccer ball, wear your mask, and connect. Some families have said, ‘we can’t do this alone,’ and became part of each other’s bubble, taking turns doing homeschooling. We encourage these ways of connecting with each other.”

And don’t give up on trying to talk to your kids, Burgess said, even when they don’t feel like talking back.

“The most important thing any parent can do during these times is open a dialogue with their children and allow kids to have open communication,” she said. “What are they thinking? What are they feeling? Then we can guide them and help them through their own resiliency and make adjustments.”

Families can help combat their kids’ isolation, she said, by planning quality family time, even if it’s just having dinner together, around the table, every night, or scheduling a family game night every week. Those moments, she noted, can naturally help kids let their guards down.

“You want to have that quality time, that open communication to talk and listen to your kids and ask, ‘how are you feeling? What’s going on? What can I do to help make things easier?’ Sometimes, as a parent, we’re not able to say ‘yes’ to everything, but we can look for compromises and help kids make some of the decisions.”

The problem in identifying signs of distress, Crenshaw said, is that teenagers, even on their best days, often prefer to be isolated, or present a sullen demeanor. So how can parents separate normal teen ‘attitude’ from real warning signs?

“Are they communicating as much with you, or are they isolating in their rooms moreso than normal? Are they eating normally?” she asked. “Even prior to COVID, parents would say, ‘I didn’t know there was a problem — I thought that’s how kids are.’”

It doesn’t hurt for parents to simply ask their kids, directly, how they’re feeling, what’s working or not working in their lives, how school is going, and if they’re feeling more anxiety than usual. “If a teen is isolated in their room, that could be typical teen behavior, but maybe not.”

Physical signs may be visible, too, Crenshaw said, noting that cutting — what’s referred to in her field as ‘self-injurious behavior’ — and eating disorders are more common than some parents think.

But more often, the signs are subtler. “It’s just really knowing their disposition and what they’re involved in.”

Burgess said it’s important for parents not to go it alone if their gut tells them something is truly wrong.

“If you notice your kid struggling with severe signs of depression — really isolating, really struggling — definitely seek professional help. If your kid is talking about suicide or even just having a hard time getting back into interacting or adjusting, seeking professional help is always key.”

In the end, coming out on the other side mentally healthy — and that goes for parents and children alike — will take patience and resilience, Burgess added.

“There’s no guidebook for this. There’s no ‘COVID for Dummies’ book. We’re all doing the best we can to adapt. We’re all just going through an unprecedented time.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Health Care

Mental Block

The health anxieties, economic stresses, substance abuse, and feelings of isolation exacerbated by COVID-19 aren’t exactly new, Dr. Barry Sarvet says. And they won’t fade when the pandemic does.

“Prior to the pandemic — and it’s easy to forget this now — we had an enormous amount of stress in our communities related to poverty, homelessness, economic struggles … people just facing an enormous amount of stress in their lives,” said the chair of Psychiatry at Baystate Health. “We had underemployment, unemployment, an opioid epidemic. It’s a very distressed community with a lot of long-term struggles, a lot of psychosocial stress. Every psychiatric disorder is influenced by environmental stresses, and those aren’t getting better. We need to pay more attention to them after the pandemic.”

Well before COVID-19, Sarvet noted, the region’s mental-health needs laid bare a shortage of inpatient beds for patients who need more help than outpatient visits can provide. It’s why Baystate announced a joint venture with Kindred Behavioral Health last summer to build and operate a $43 million behavioral-health hospital for the region, set to open in 2022. The hospital will be located on the former Holyoke Geriatric Authority site on Lower Westfield Road in Holyoke.

Dr. Barry Sarvet

“Every psychiatric disorder is influenced by environmental stresses, and those aren’t getting better.”

Holyoke Medical Center (HMC) had revealed a similar proposal in March 2020 to build a $40.6 million, 84-bed behavioral-health facility on its campus. But when Baystate’s plans came online, and the threatened closure of 74 inpatient beds at Providence Behavioral Health Hospital were saved by a change in ownership, HMC reverted to an earlier plan, to repurpose two of its existing units for behavioral health.

“We were concerned about providing a solution to get beds online as the state was developing guidelines for all hospitals to incentivize an increase in behavioral-health beds,” said Spiros Hatiras, president and CEO of HMC and Valley Health Systems.

The process of converting two units to behavioral health — an adult unit and one with a likely geriatric focus — began in October and will be finished by late April, and will add 34 new beds to the existing 20 at the hospital, more than doubling the total to 54. In doing so, it provides a more immediate solution to regional bed shortages, avoiding the need for a lengthy construction period (HMC’s new hospital was also expected to open in late 2022).

The internal repurposing of units had been conceived as a stopgap measure, but when Trinity Health announced the sale of Providence to Health Partners New England (HPNE), which committed to keeping inpatient beds open — and Baystate moved forward with its project — the stopgap made sense as a longer-term solution, although HMC could revisit a standalone behavioral-health hospital at some point in the future, Hatiras said.

Baystate’s project, meanwhile, will include 150 beds — 120 of them part of the original plan. The system has also contracted with the state Department of Mental Health to operate a 30-bed, long-term continuing-care unit for chronically mentally ill people who need a longer time in the hospital to stabilize before returning to the community, Sarvet explained.

This state-funded program, not accessible to regular referrals, was launched after the closures of Northampton State Hospital and other facilities like it. “Some patients need longer-term care, and this offers a length of stay to support people who don’t benefit from short-term hospitalization,” Sarvet said, adding that the DMH unit will be physically connected to the new hospital, but offer its own unique resources.

“New beds will be needed over the long term,” he said, speaking of the project as a whole. “We have had quite a shortage for many years, prior to the potential closure of Providence and prior to the pandemic. This substantial increase in needs is reflected in emergency-room visits from patients with a mental-health crisis. And we certainly see evidence that this isn’t a short-term blip, but part of a longer-term trend that predated the pandemic.”

 

Multiple Pivots

The prospect of any additional behavioral-health beds in the region is certainly a turnaround from a year ago, when Trinity Health announced it would close 74 inpatient beds at Providence Behavioral Health Hospital.

However, two months ago, the health system sold Providence to HPNE, which provided some management services at the facility from 2011 to 2014, and will operate the facility under the name MiraVista Behavioral Health. In doing so, it will resume operations of numerous outpatient programs, as well as including up to 84 inpatient psychiatric beds.

Spiros Hatiras

Spiros Hatiras

“We were concerned about providing a solution to get beds online as the state was developing guidelines for all hospitals to incentivize an increase in behavioral-health beds.”

“At the time we put forth the plan to build a new behavioral-health hospital, everyone else had pretty much abandoned any behavioral-health expansion,” Hatiras told BusinessWest. “People were shrinking programs; Providence was closing down their campus, and Baystate had put their plans on hold indefinitely. We decided we needed to do something to service the region. Since then, Baystate resurrected their plan to develop the old Geriatric Authority site.”

The recent moves come as no surprise at a time when state health officials have been incentivizing hospitals to open up behavioral-health beds in the wake of a sharp increase in cases due partly to the pandemic.

However, “we had a concern that what seemed like no beds could potentally become too many beds,” Hatiras explained. He disagrees with Marylou Sudders, secretary of Health and Human Services for the Commonwealth, who has said there can never be too many beds because the state has so many needs. Rather, he noted, “demand may be greater now than it will be a year from now as we move away from the pandemic spike; we might see demand go down.”

Two other factors, both geographic, also played into the decision to scale down HMC’s behavioral-health expansion. One is that HMC, Baystate, and Providence would have been providing around 225 beds within a three-mile radius of each other, and though the need for services is great statewide, there’s only so far patients and families will be willing or able to go to seek access to treatment — not to mention the difficulty of recruiting more physicians, nurses, and ancillary staff to such a concentrated area.

“We might find ourselves very quickly in a situation where we might not be able to staff those beds. Can we attract staff to this area? That’s always been difficult for Western Mass.,” Hatiras said, another reason why a smaller-scale project makes sense right now.

“I’m optimistic about the units we’re building coming online quickly and providing some relief,” he said. “It’s a good project, and we have a good track record in behavioral health. We know we can run it well, and the state has been very enthusiastic about it. I think we’re in really good shape.”

While the standalone hospital proposal is ‘parked’ for the moment, not abandoned completely, HMC has to be sure something of that scale would be both necessary and practical before moving forward, Hatiras added. “We’re a small community hospital. A project can’t be something that may or may not succeed financially; we can’t take a $45 million risk.”

Baystate currently has 69 behavioral-health beds at three of its affiliate locations: 27 at Baystate Wing Hospital, 22 at Baystate Franklin Medical Center, and 20 at Baystate Noble Hospital. When the new facility opens next fall, these three locations will close. A fourth location, the Adult Psychiatric Treatment Unit at Baystate Medical Center (BMC), which accommodates up to 28 medically complex behavioral-health patients, will remain open. Kindred Healthcare will manage the day-to-day operations of the behavioral hospital.

Sarvet firmly believes Baystate will able to fully staff the new venture.

“We do have a nursing shortage, so this will present a challenge, but I don’t think it’s insurmountable,” he told BusinessWest. “We’ll work very hard to include people from the region and hire locally, but we might need a wider net to bring people in. We are very confident we’ll be able to be successful.”

 

Not Waiting Around

In fact, all the local players in the inpatient realm of behavioral health need to be successful, Sarvet noted. For example, suicide rates are increasing, as are instances of anxiety and depression, including in young people (see story on page 4). Meanwhile, the workforce of psychotherapists and clinicians in outpatient settings haven’t been operating at full capacity — again, partly due to the pandemic and the shift to remote treatment settings.

Like HMC, Baystate isn’t waiting for a new building to expand certain aspects of behavioral care. It will open a 12-bed child unit at Baystate later this month, which will expand to a 24-bed unit in the new hospital next year, in response to a shortage of beds specifically for that population. “We see a large number of kids taken care of on medical floors, waiting for beds, up to several weeks,” Sarvet said.

All this movement is positive, Hatiras noted, though he does wish that leadership from HMC, Baystate, and Providence had engaged in deeper conversations about the region’s long-term behavioral-health needs and how to meet them before the recent rush of project launches and changes, bed closings, and ownership transitions.

“Let’s talk as a regional team and determine what makes sense for the region,” he said. “That still has purpose now. Let’s decide what makes sense in these areas before we build 250 beds and can’t staff them, or half of them sit empty.”

For his part, Sarvet agrees that the meeting the region’s inpatient behavioral-health needs is not a solo effort. “We don’t want to win the battle; we want all hospitals to be staffed. We’re in a friendly competition, and we want everyone to win.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

The Cannabis Industry

Hire Calling

Charlotte Hanna of Community Growth Partners and Rebelle

Charlotte Hanna of Community Growth Partners and Rebelle

 

Charlotte Hanna calls it “moving from bullets to buds.”

That’s how her company, Community Growth Partners (CGP), has characterized the renovation of the former Yankee Hill Machine plant in Northampton, once used to manufacture rifle silencers and accessories, into a cannabis cultivation and manufacturing facility.

But it also signifies something even more powerful, she said — an ongoing partnership between CGP and Roca, an agency that helps young men traumatized by urban violence to build emotional and workplace skills and forge a new path.

CGP has been employing Roca clients for more than a year at its flagship cannabis retail store in Great Barrington known as Rebelle, and will create about 50 more such jobs at the 23,000-square-foot building on Ladd Avenue in Northampton later this year.

It’s a way, Hanna said, to create pathways into a fast-growing industry for populations that were negatively impacted by the marijuana laws of the past.

“I like to call it just and equitable capitalism,” she added. “It’s a for-profit venture, but we’re trying to do things in a way that positively impacts people. I think the cannabis industry is the perfect industry for that. Our country put a lot of people in jail because of cannabis; a lot of wrongs need to be fixed. It seemed like a perfect opportunity to build this social experiment to see if we can have a company that does well, but also does good.”

 

Growth Opportunity

Hanna was seeking a career change when she began researching opportunities in the cannabis field.

“I’m a relative newcomer to the business,” she said. “I started exploring the industry in 2018, figuring out where the licensing opportunities may be. I’m based in New York City, and my home state, at the time, was very restrictive, with no opportunities to get into the business — so I turned my attention to the closest state to my hometown, where licensing was just opening up.”

Early in her career, she worked with grassroots organizations on social-justice issues, but found it difficult to live in New York on a nonprofit salary, so she pivoted to Wall Street, where she worked in finance with Goldman Sachs for a decade, followed by ventures in real-estate development.

Cannabis is what she calls the third phase of her career — and one in which she can once again work for social justice, this time in the form of social equity through employment. She was familiar with Roca from time spent in Boston, but didn’t know the organization was active in Western Mass. until, while driving in downtown Holyoke one day, she spotted a man wearing a Roca T-shirt, pulled over, and asked him about it. As it turned out, Roca had recently opened an office in Holyoke, and she stopped by.

“I’m excited to be very transparent about what we are and what we do, and I hope we find values-driven consumers who want to buy from a company that’s trying to do good.”

“I said, ‘how about entrusting your young people with me to work in the cannabis industry?’” she told BusinessWest. “I was surprised with how enlightened they were. They said, ‘we can’t believe no one has come to us before. We think it’s a great idea for our young people; we don’t have a problem with cannabis.’ That’s how I found them, by coincidence. No, kismet — it was meant to be.”

She’s a believer in supporting diversity in the cannabis business for the same reason the state established social-equity guidelines intended to bring opportunities in the industry to populations hard-hit by the U.S. government’s war on drugs that began in the 1970s.

Charlotte Hanna and members of Roca celebrate

Charlotte Hanna and members of Roca celebrate the start of construction at CGP’s Northampton facility.

“The war on drugs disproportionately impacted people of color,” Hanna said. “Great Barrington isn’t the most diverse place in the world, but I think we have good people who come from all backgrounds.”

For some of the Roca workers, it’s a long commute to that corner of the Berkshires, and some don’t have cars, so Hanna pays the agency to drive them back and forth. Northampton, as a second CGP site in Western Mass., may provide some flexibility in that regard. “The commitment at Roca runs deep,” she said. “They feel good about what we’re doing.”

So does Northampton, she said, praising the city for being especially friendly to cannabis businesses and not requiring a special-use permit as an additional layer of bureaucracy, simply a host-community agreement and a building permit. The site is also located in an opportunity zone, which confers additional tax advantages to businesses that invest economically in low-income neighborhoods.

“We’re going to be creating a lot of jobs here,” she said. “We’ll be staffing up with a lot of entry-level jobs from Roca, but also opportunities for management jobs; we’ll be building up our skilled extraction and manufacturing and processing teams as well.”

 

Taking Control

Hanna said she’s a fan of the Roca model of training, one that puts clients in lengthy, simulated work experiences and stresses job-readiness skills, so they’re ready to enter any work environment for further training in that field. In other words, Roca is teaching young people how to learn and be adaptable, so their opportunities are unlimited.

Cannabis seems to be an industry of unlimited growth as well — or, at least abundant growth, if the continuing proliferation of cultivation, manufacturing, retail, and other types of businesses is any indication.

While COVID-19 slowed the pace of fundraising and business development last year, Hanna said, she’s looking forward to opening the next phase of the CGP network. Besides the Northampton expansion, current growth initiatives include a wholesale and delivery license in Massachusetts, a pending craft-grow license in Illinois, and Rebelle’s new lifestyle-focused line of cannabis products and accessories that will launch in 2021.

“We always wanted to be vertically integrated,” Hanna said of the ability to control her own products from seed to sale. She pointed to the pandemic-fueled supply shortages in many industries last year as a good reason to take control of her own supply chain.

She added that opening the retail side of the business before the production side also helps the company learn what types of products customers want before they start making them.

“We live in a more transparent world than ever, and I hope consumers are more educated than ever,” she said. “I’m excited to be very transparent about what we are and what we do, and I hope we find values-driven consumers who want to buy from a company that’s trying to do good.” u

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

The Cannabis Industry

Budding Connections

Stephanie McNair (left)and Nicole Desjardins say they want customers to stay, learn something, and enjoy the experience of buying cannabis.

It’s called Budstock.

As the first major community event staged at Turning Leaf Centers in Northampton, Stephanie McNair believes the three-day event — slated for April 16-18 and boasting the cheeky tagline ‘stock up on your favorite bud before 4/20’ — will help raise the new dispensary’s profile in a city that has rolled out the welcome mat for numerous cannabis enterprises.

Saturday will feature several music artists, as well as a food truck, in the large parking lot behind the King Street building, while inside, local artist Rodney Madison will display his works, and at the dispensary’s ‘craft bar,’ a series of workshops over the three days will teach visitors the finer points of concentrates, edibles, vapes, joint rolling, and more.

In short, it’s about education, entertainment, and community, said McNair, who opened Turning Leaf along with co-owner Mary Anne Gonzalez last month with the goal of not only inviting customers in, but asking them to stay a while.

“The cannabis industry in Western Mass. is evolving at a record pace, and with more and more cannabis retailers entering the market, it’s time to ‘turn the leaf’ to more of an experience, instead of the cattle-in, cattle-out type of doing business,” McNair told BusinessWest. “That’s why we have the craft bar, which is a place where customers can take time to educate themselves about our ever-changing products, gather with their friends, attend demonstrations, have rolling parties, and so on.”

As more dispensaries and other cannabis-related business spring up throughout Western Mass., McNair said it’s increasingly important for new enterprises to set themselves apart through price, product quality, and in other ways.

“We wanted to create a place where everyone can feel comfortable and have a good time and stay a while.”

At Turning Leaf, that means an emphasis on community and local connections, from events and craft-bar experiences to partnering with local growers and manufacturers to bring products to customers they can’t get at every shop.

“We’ve gained strong relationships with local craft growers and innovators, who are making more elevated products every day,” she said. “We’ve taken the time to cultivate a very eclectic menu with every product category, at every price point, with every type of cannbis consumer.”

It also means bringing needed exposure to local musicians and artists through indoor and outdoor performances and exhibits.

“Supporting our local community is something that is very important to us as a company,” she added. “We are looking to display and promote local artists and have event demonstrations and educational seminars in our space.”

 

Comfort Level

With a background in real estate and community-relations marketing, McNair found a business partner in Gonzalez with a similar vision for a cannabis business. “Being a Western Mass. native, I knew this was a place I wanted to be. It was just an easy fit for me.”

Central to that vision is a highly personal approach to product sales. “We wanted to create a place where everyone can feel comfortable and have a good time and stay a while. We have great parking, it’s easy to find, you can go sit at the craft bar and talk with our dispensary staff, and we want to make sure every customer leaves feeling completely satisfied with the products they’ve purchased.”

Nicole Desjardins, marketing manager at Turning Leaf, said they want to demystify cannabis use and, for newcomers, take away any anxiety.

“A lot of it is addressing the stigma through community — to find out what you don’t know with other people and have fun,” she said. “You don’t know how to roll a joint? We make that accessible in a fun way. Instead of just walking away with what you purchased, why not walk away with knowledge from some people you shared an experience with?”

McNair said her own experience with the city of Northampton has been a positive one.

“They’ve just been so welcoming for us as a local business coming in, giving us their support,” she said, adding that Mayor David Narkewicz and city boards have been extremely helpful, as has the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce. “Our host-community agreement and our outreach with the city was just a really happy experience for us. Everybody in Northampton really wants to help you make your business successful, and it shows.”

Meanwhile, customer support has come from all over, including visitors from Connecticut and New York, McNair added. “They’re intrigued by looking at our craft bar and our space, talking to us about cannabis and local art … we’ve been well-received in the past few weeks.”

She’s not worried about the number of businesses setting up shop in Northampton and neighboring communities; in fact, she sees it as a plus, generating a growing energy in the local cannabis trade that promises to lift all boats.

“Northampton is definitely making its mark, just as they did with the restaurant industry. More is better, and people want choices. They’re making Northampton a destination for cannabis.”

Desjardins agreed. “Every business has a different profile, a different flavor. I think Stephanie is absolutely right — I don’t see it as competition; there’s enough for everyone. Northampton is a destination city.”

 

What’s on the Menu?

McNail said Turning Leaf will continue to hone its product offerings, always with an eye toward an eclectic menu of options culled largely from area producers — again, in an effort to build a local-first model.

“We’re really committed to supporting our local community,” she noted. “We want to highlight local growers as well as live music and artists, and we also have made a commitment to have all of our sales associates certified with responsible vendor training before day one, which is no small task. And we continue to provide them with education so they can give you the very best service when it comes to what exactly it is you’re looking for, or perhaps not looking for.”

And if you’re not sure, just belly up to the bar and ask.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

The Cannabis Industry

Sustaining a Plan

Chris and Helen Andrews

In Holyoke, Chris and Helen Andrews found a cannabis-friendly city that shares their passions for entrepreneurship and sustainability.

Helen Gomez Andrews and her husband, Chris Gomez, have been, as she tactfully put it, “cannabis enthusiasts for longer than we haven’t.”

But when their 5-year-old daughter was diagnosed with epilepsy in 2015 — and became one of the first medical-marijuana cardholders in New York — their interest in cannabis became intensely personal.

At the same time, Helen was starting to feel uninspired in her finance career; she spent 13 years growing a career in private wealth management at Lehman Brothers, Barclays, and Morgan Stanley.

Inspired by the triple-bottom-line approach to impact investment she had become increasingly aligned with, she was looking for a different sort of investment — and found it in cannabis, where the High End, a cultivation, production, and retail enterprise now under development in Holyoke, became the first cannabis company in Massachusetts to be certified as both a minority business enterprise and a women business enterprise.

During her last few years at Morgan Stanley, “I was looking for passion in my work life, and not finding it,” Andrews said. “The confluence of that and my daughter’s diagnosis, and my husband itching to do something different, really pushed us to take the plunge.”

To call it a major leap would be an understatement; the couple sold their home in Brooklyn to buy the historic Eureka Blank Book building on Winter Street in Holyoke and begin the long process of renovating it. A second site on Dwight Street will become the retail face of the business, as well as a coffee shop.

Oh, and they’re not taking any shortcuts, aiming to use a sustainable growing process known as organic living soil.

“People told us we’re totally crazy to do something so labor-intensive when there’s so much great technology around automatic cultivation, focused on the highest THC and highest yield,” she told BusinessWest. “But that’s a departure from what’s really important to us, which is low impact to the environment and the sustainable, clean growing of a plant, staying away from synthetic nutrients. We’re trying to create as natural an environment as we can.”

 

Feels Like Home

In seeking out a host community with abundant real estate and a business-friendly attitude toward cannabis, Holyoke was an obvious choice.

“It was five times cheaper the next-cheapest town — and then we discovered the history of Holyoke; it was so amazing how it was the first planned industrial city in the country, largely built by Irish immigrants,” Andrews said, which was appealing to her Irish husband. Now, this multi-cultural couple — Helen was born in the Philippines — is feeling right at home.

Also appealing is the city’s abundance of carbon-neutral energy generation. “It makes perfect sense in the cannabis industry, and perfectly aligns with our values. We’re building a truly sustainable company in a welcoming city.”

“As we learned about vertical integration and the economics of cannabis and edibles manufacturing, it made perfect sense to pursue cultivation. So we pursued the full vertical.”

Chris’ background is in restaurants and retail, and the couple’s initial vision centered on marijuana edibles, but has since expanded significantly.

“As we learned about vertical integration and the economics of cannabis and edibles manufacturing, it made perfect sense to pursue cultivation,” she said. “So we pursued the full vertical.”

As for the spacious former mill, “we put all our eggs in this basket,” she said. “We’ve been in Holyoke since January 2019, working to build this business and really embedding ourselves into the Holyoke community, which has such a strong entrepreneurial spirit.”

Indeed, Andrews serves on the EforAll Holyoke advisory board, helping other budding entrepreneurs find their way. “There’s such a rich, diverse history here, and Chris and I both feel very grateful to be a part of this community, and have found this to be a great city to build our business.”

The economic impact of COVID-19 certainly set the project back, but the extended timeline helped the couple streamline and become more “laser-focused” about their priorities. They’re licensed for 30,000 square feet of cultivation, as well as manufacturing and retail, and plan to apply for a research license as well.

“Last year was rough, but it’s finally starting to pick up some momentum,” Andrews said, adding that the hope is to open the dispensary and coffee shop by the end of 2021, and the cultivation and production facility later in 2022, with the first harvest arriving months later.

Until the cultivation and production sides of the business come online, Helen and Chris are pursuing “a very differentiated, curated inventory according to our core values of ethical and sustainable cannabis,” she said. “So we’ve spent the better part of the last year and a half building relationships with individual farmers and small businesses. By the time our doors open, we’ll have some products from some amazing businesses that we can introduce to this market.”

Those products will include commonly sought-after items like cannabis flower to edibles. In regard to the latter, “the plan is to make some things everyone likes — chocolates, gummies, and mints — but also do something more elevated,” Andrews noted. “My husband has a network of culinary talent partners working on limited-edition chocolates. And, of course, we’ll have vapes and pre-rolls and all those other things.”

 

Have a Seat

Another reason for opening a coffee shop, she said, is to avoid the scenario she’s noticed at many dispensaries, with lines of customers circling the building, waiting patiently to get in.

“We thought we wanted to change that experience and be more welcoming with the coffee shop, to give folks in line somewhere welcoming and comfortable to wait, but also provide education.”

She wants the shop to be a place people can find information, as well. “They can stop by, collect some literature, and have a great cup of coffee or a delicious pastry — and Holyoke needs a coffee shop.”

It’s a city that also wants to continue growing its reputation as one of the region’s most cannabis-embracing communities, and this couple is happy to oblige, Helen said. “We’re excited and eager to go.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Special Coverage Tourism & Hospitality

Get Back Here

It’s called ‘revenge spending,’ or ‘vacation retaliation’ — the idea that people who were unable able to spend money on travel last year will go all-out this year. Surveys say it’s a palpable sentiment among Americans right now; the question is whether they will actually follow through on those plans, and how safe they’ll feel doing so. When they’re ready, area tourism and hospitality leaders say, Western Mass. will be an ideal destination, boasting the variety of indoor and outdoor experiences and affordability that travelers seek — an ideal answer to all that pent-up demand.

Gillian Amaral (left) and Stacey Warren

Gillian Amaral (left) and Stacey Warren, co-founders of Three Chics Hospitality.

Mary Kay Wydra learned a couple new phrases over the past few months.

“The buzz term is ‘revenge spending,’” the president of the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau (GSCVB) said. “That is, ‘I’ll spend more on things I was denied because of COVID.’ Things like in-person entertainment, eating at restaurants next to people, and travel.”

The other buzzword making its way around the tourism industry is ‘vacation retaliation,’ and it means roughly the same thing.

She likes those phrases — or, more accurately, what those sentiments portend. “That bodes well for us as a region,” she told BusinessWest. “We are affordable and easily accessible — a destination with a lot to offer.”

Indeed, while COVID-19 has been far from a positive for the region, it did open many people’s eyes to what Western Mass. has to offer, particularly those who migrated here to escape New York City or Boston at the height of the pandemic. That’s evident in the surging real-estate market, but also in the optimism many in the tourism and hospitality sector are beginning to feel about what lies ahead.

It can be detected in Hampden County’s hotel occupancy, which was 39% in January — down from the 49% recorded a year earlier, but significantly higher than the statewide figure of 29%, and on par with national numbers.

“A great number of people are planning to travel, and Western Mass. is well-positioned to get summer travelers. We have that combination of indoor and outdoor attractions and all this green space for recreation.”

It’s also impacting surveys, like a recent ‘sentiment study’ conducted by American Express that found that 84% of Americans have travel plans in the next six months, the highest figure since the earliest days of the pandemic. And 69% of those intend to take advantage of ‘second-city’ destinations, Wydra noted — in other words, those outside of big cities and top tourist spots.

Places, she said, like Western Mass.

“A great number of people are planning to travel, and Western Mass. is well-positioned to get summer travelers,” she added. “We have that combination of indoor and outdoor attractions and all this green space for recreation.”

One more statistic from the survey: 61% of travelers intend to spend more than normal because they couldn’t go anywhere last year.

That’s music to the ears of Stacey Warren and Gillian Amaral, two veterans of the hospitality industry who recently launched their own enterprise, Three Chics Hospitality, which seeks to market its clients to group-tour operators.

“Our clients are group-friendly restaurants and attractions interested in having motorcoach groups come to their establishments or attractions; we offer consulting and marketing for them,” said Warren, who has worked in the hotel field for 17 years.

She called such connections “vital” to the region. “Every single bus that comes in may need 20 or 25 overnight rooms, then you have 20 to 25 dinners at different restaurants, attraction tickets … one bus is really a big impact on the economy.”

Amaral agreed. “Based on multiple tours we can bring in, the economic impact to the region will be huge,” she said. “And just based on conversations I’ve had with people, they’re ready to travel, they’re ready to get out, but they’re also ready to have someone else do that for them. People are like, ‘I just want to go on a tour; tell me where to go, make it easy for me, and take me there.’ That’s our business model. It just makes sense to be ready when the environment is ready for us.”

That moment isn’t far away, Warren added. “People are ready, and we want to be here to help the restaurants and attractions capture that business while they’re here.”

Jonathan Butler, president and CEO of 1Berkshire, noted in a message to that organization’s members last week that sentiment around travel is starting to turn in a way that promises to benefit Western Mass.

“A year ago at this time, we were headed into two or three months of lockdown where nearly all economic activity ceased. A year later, we’re mostly headed in the other direction,” he said. “Vaccinations are finally beginning to add up, public-health metrics have improved, and statewide capacity and operating restrictions continue to be eased on an almost-weekly basis. Out-of-state travelers from neighboring states are now only subject to travel advisories, and within the next couple weeks, even those should continue to be relaxed.”

Sensing a changing tide, Butler noted, organizations like Tanglewood and Jacob’s Pillow (see story on page 39) both recently announced a return to live performances for the upcoming season, and will be joined by other institutions like Barrington Stage Co., Berkshire Theatre Group, and Shakespeare and Co. in bringing performing arts — and, in turn, visitors — back to the region.

“When you combine this exciting news with the continued momentum of the outdoor recreation economy, and our other major cultural properties operating closer to full capacity — now having a year under their belt in learning how to best operate during this pandemic — 2021 starts to feel far more exciting than a year ago.”

 

Taking the Long View

As director of Sales for Hampton Inn Chicopee/Springfield, as well as president of Hampton Inns of New England, Warren has her finger on the pulse of hospitality in the region, as does Amaral, an assistant professor of Management at Bay Path University who also runs Events by Gillian LLC, specializing in event management and consulting, and whose past event experience includes stints at the Eastern States Exposition, MassMutual Financial Group, Enterprise Rent-A-Car, and the Basketball Hall of Fame.

The third ‘chic’ in their new enterprise’s name is, well, hospitality itself, represented by the image of a pineapple. And they feel like Western Mass. has become more of a household name in tourism and hospitality — with the potential for an even broader reach.

Mary Kay Wydra says Western Mass. is well-positioned

Mary Kay Wydra says Western Mass. is well-positioned to raise its profile in the tourism world.

“A lot of the tour operators that have been bringing groups here would just use this as a stopover because they’re from all over the country, and a lot of them just think of Boston and the Cape,” Warren said. “But they’re starting to think of Western Mass., too, and wanting to do things to add on, to offer new and fun ideas for their clients and keep them coming back.

“There are so many great things they can do right here,” she went on. “We can keep them here for a couple of days and reap the rewards, and have their clients leave here happy and wanting to come back.”

Amaral said the two of them have talked about building a business around this concept for years, and felt like this was the right time — even during a pandemic.

“We felt like there was a need. People would come to the Massachusetts area and always go straight to Boston, but what about us here in Western Mass.?” she asked. “Fast-forward to a pandemic we’re almost out of, and we thought, this is the time for us to be positioned for the influx of travel that will come with group tours.”

With their deep knowledge of the region’s tourism industry, she added, they’re able to craft itineraries tour operators can sell to clients, and it’s not too soon to start making those connections, even when the economy isn’t fully opened up.

“Every single bus that comes in may need 20 or 25 overnight rooms, then you have 20 to 25 dinners at different restaurants, attraction tickets … one bus is really a big impact on the economy.”

“Everyone is poised and ready at this point to just go — let’s hit the switch and move forward,” Amaral said. “That’s why now is the time to launch, versus in July, when things are opening up and people are feeling comfortable. At that point, you’re behind.”

Wydra agreed, noting that statistic about 84% of Americans with travel plans in the near future. “People are creating destination wish lists, and simply having a future trip planned makes people happy. We’re optimistic people are going to visit this year. We pushed pause on marketing last year, but hope to start spending again.”

She said the meeting and convention business will be slower to return, simply because large events are often planned years in advance, and an organization that cancels an event here may not be able to return for a few years. Last year, 164 groups canceled or postponed events in the region, with an estimated economic impact of $97 million going unrealized. However, about half those who canceled plan to come back in a future year, she added.

In the meantime, the GSCVB is engaging in some creative sales pitches for the region by planning virtual site visits at destinations like the Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum, MGM Springfield, and the Basketball Hall of Fame.

“We’re showcasing the attractions because these attractions set us apart,” she said, adding that the bureau is equally intent on highlighting the many different meeting spaces available. “We want to make sure Western Mass., as a brand, stays out there in front of meeting planners.”

Lindsey Schmid, vice president of Tourism & Marketing for 1Berkshire, recently told Berkshire Magazine about a multi-pronged marketing approach, promoting all there is to do virtually in the Berkshires, as well as continuing to feed travelers ideas and imagery that will inspire them to plan a Berkshire getaway now and more extensive travel later. Part of that message is the outdoor recreation opportunities that helped the region’s tourism sector stay afloat last summer.

It’s a widely understood selling point; U.S. News & World Report’s recent “Best States” feature ranked Massachusetts the ninth-best state in which to live, based on eight factors ranging from healthcare and education to public safely. In the category of natural environment, the Commonwealth ranked fourth.

“Our region leans on the combination of natural beauty and cultural offerings that serve as anchors to drive economic activity; right now, those anchors are preparing for big things in the summer of 2021,” Butler noted.

He added that “the pandemic has tempted us all to lean on pessimism when thinking about the future, but the progressing conditions around us truly call for more cautious optimism. We shouldn’t be so naïve as to think that the summer of 2021 will mark a return to pre-pandemic activity, but we should absolutely be preparing ourselves for a far more robust season than a year ago.”

 

Up in the Air

Certainly, optimism is in the air, although it’s still mixed with some uncertainty. Gathering limits are still a thing, most live performances remain firmly lodged in the future, and some attractions have given no definitive answers on when they’ll open, and to what extent.

For instance, Six Flags New England held a large hiring event last month to fill 3,000 seasonal positions, but the company has issued no definite opening date yet — though it is expected to decide soon, looking to state guidance and the realities of its own business model.

It will do so with heavily publicized safety protocols, like every other tourist destination — an element of the sector Wydra is particularly proud of.

“We’re climbing out of this with precautions still in place,” she said. “I’m very proud of our attractions, with all the protocols put in place, the cleaning and everything else they’re doing to keep visitors safe. You’ll see a lot of that continue.”

Warren said visitors will want to feel safe before the sector really opens up. “There are still some people who are nervous, but we’re able to show them what we can do — what plans the restaurants and attractions have in place to keep them safe when they come — and that’s making them feel very comfortable and ready to visit.”

Amaral cited research showing that people are more comfortable and apt to travel when adequate protocols are in place.

“Being knowledgeable about what to expect ahead of time puts them at ease,” she added. “And, of course, so many people being vaccinated is helping as well. The apprehension, even from six months ago, is much different than it is now. People are just ready to go — with caution, but nonetheless, they’re saying, ‘let’s go.’”

Wydra agreed. “There’s definitely some optimism as we move forward with the vaccines. We’re always hearing about new ones being introduced, and the government keeps making people eligible for it — that’s great news.”

Butler tempered that optimism with the other side of pandemic reality — which is, we’re not out of it yet, and people shouldn’t just abandon the common-sense behaviors that keep case counts down.

“Any increase in business needs to be done with public health and safety as the foremost consideration,” he said. “But all of the larger-picture conditions that have fueled growing visitor and economic activity throughout the past two decades are aligning well.”

Warren has been in the hospitality field long enough to ride a few economic cycles, but she’s never witnessed anything like last year — “and I never want to see it again,” she said. “I’ve never had to cancel so many groups and lose literally millions of dollars in revenue. So I’m looking forward to coming back strong this year and help everyone to bounce back.”

She’s heard from tour operators that they do, indeed, want to come back. But they’ll be returning to a changed tourist economy, and change isn’t always a bad thing, Amaral said.

“This has been a wake-up call to most businesses to think differently, which is exciting to me. Let’s not wait for a pandemic or tragedy to happen to think about a different way to do business or attract a target market or a different product line. If there’s anything we can take from this, it’s don’t get into the same rut. Think about different ways to improve your business.”

Amid the changes, of course, some normalcy is more than welcome.

“Who would have thought, a year ago, that we couldn’t go into a bar and have a drink?” Wydra said. “I want to meet friends after work for drinks. And I’m excited, because I think we’ve got some positive stuff happening in the future.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Modern Office Special Coverage

Weathering the Storm

Ned Barowsky

Ned Barowsky says flexible leases, as offered in the co-working world, will be more in demand in the future, and rigid, long-term leases less so.

Since launching Click Workspace a decade ago, Mary Yun has seen nothing but growth in one of the region’s first co-working ventures.

That growth led her to abandon her original 1,000-square-foot facility in 2015 and develop a 9,000-square-foot building in downtown Northampton, which, at its peak prior to the pandemic, hosted 80 members and a host of community arts and cultural events.

“That was a good number for us, where we could operate with a full-time member advocate and myself as executive director overseeing all the operations and also working on events,” she said. “We’re mission-driven, bringing in the community through art shows and music; that was my wheelhouse.”

With 80 members, all the private offices and dedicated desks were filled, as was the shared open space, for the most part, while a meeting room holding 24 people was regularly put to use by the community. In short, Click was … well, clicking.

And then COVID-19 arrived.

“We’re finding, now that the vaccine is being distributed and the sun is shining, so to speak, we’re getting a surge of new interest recently as people are starting to feel more comfortable coming back into the world. People are sick of working from home.”

“When the closures happened, we closed down like all businesses, and we still had members supporting us, paying their monthly dues for a while. We had members who were now working remotely from home,” Yun said.

But the erosion began almost immediately.

“We had always maintained a good number of members who had private offices that were being funded by their companies. At their businesses, they were the remote workers,” she went on. “But, because everything was now remote, that benefit went away for a lot of our members, so we lost a handful.”

When Click reopened at the end of May, around 55 members were still supporting the space, paying their dues, even though not everyone was coming in regularly — usually, no more than a dozen at a time through last summer. A few members actually joined during the pandemic — some with their career situations in flux, others who needed a place to work because their homes were suddenly too crowded by partners and kids working and learning remotely.

Mary Yun expects membership to rise to its former high levels

Mary Yun expects membership to rise to its former high levels after the pandemic fades, but it may be a gradual process.

But it wasn’t enough. “Right now, we’re down to less than 30 members, which is a huge drop in revenue,” Yun said. “Right now, our membership is lower than when we first moved into this building almost six years ago.”

The basic concept behind co-working is simple. It’s a workspace where people can share a table or an office; access fast internet service and shared resources like a copier, conference rooms, and audio-visual equipment; and make the kinds of connections that inspire further growth and success.

The pandemic has impacted the model in the short term, but the people operating area co-working spaces believe it’s a model with plenty of potential in the long term, and perhaps even more than before COVID-19.

“Like most businesses, we definitely lost some business,” said Jeff Sauser, who co-owns Greenspace CoWork in downtown Greenfield with Jeremy Goldsher. “No one knew what to expect, and we managed to be as flexible as possible with members; those relationships are important to us. We gave every opportunity to pause membership and make changes.

“We lost a chunk of memberships — not everybody; some stayed on, even though they weren’t coming as often — but we were able to stay afloat and survive,” he went on. “We’re finding, now that the vaccine is being distributed and the sun is shining, so to speak, we’re getting a surge of new interest recently as people are starting to feel more comfortable coming back into the world. People are sick of working from home.”

As a consultant for a Boston-based company that used to have four offices there and now maintains just one, Sauser sees first-hand the way workplaces are evolving — and in a way that may benefit co-working facilities.

“People don’t come into work every day anymore. We expect more people will have more flexible working arrangements with their employees.”

Yun agreed, noting that many of Click’s members left because their kids were learning at home — which is sure to be a temporary situation; in fact, many schools have already invited students back to campus. She believes an increase in membership at Click is inevitable, though it may take some time.

“People are saying, ‘I’m sick of living in the city and running the rat race. I can live where the living is good but keep my big-city job.’ I feel co-working spaces are an early indicator of trends that will benefit towns, especially towns with great, walkable downtowns.”

“I think what’s going to happen is, when kids go back to school in the fall full-time, parents will be like, ‘maybe I can make it work at home,’ and continue to work at home, and in a couple months, they’ll start to get lonely — professionally lonely — and start to come back, which is why they came here in the first place,” she told BusinessWest. “Really, I’m hopeful and optimistic.”

Stroke of Inspiration

Ned Barowsky was certainly optimistic when he launched a franchise of the national co-working company Venture X in Holyoke, right next to the Holyoke Mall.

He’s owned the retail and office complex at 98 Lower Westfield Road for 25 years, and faced a series of vacancies over the past couple of years the departures of Pier One Imports, Kaoud Oriental Rugs, and a series of mattress stores. For six months, two brokers assigned by a large, national real-estate firm had been trying to fill the vacancies, to no avail. That’s when Barowsky was inspired to by the co-working model.

“I had done a couple franchises in the past; I was familiar with franchising, so I started looking at co-working spaces,” he said. “I just knew that everything was being shut down, and when people come back out, they’re not going to go back to these five-year leases, 10-year leases. People aren’t going to do that anymore. They’re going to want flexible plans — ‘I want to be here for a month, three months, six months, a year, and with a smaller footprint.’”

When he started researching a few companies, he was “blown away” by Venture X, which tags itself “the future of workspace.”

“That’s our tagline, but it literally is the future of workspace. It’s flexible — you decide how many of each kind of office you want,” he said, noting that some franchisees opt to emphasize shared space, but his facility includes fewer shared stations and about 65 offices, in several sizes, to house any number of workers. “I wanted more offices, so that’s what I did — I put in more offices.”

Jeremy Goldsher (left) and Jeff Sauser

Jeremy Goldsher (left) and Jeff Sauser say robust co-working spaces can be economic drivers for communities.

Sauser sees the potential, too, in companies downsizing their space and offering more flexible arrangements to workers — partly because of what they learned during the pandemic, when they saw how productive employees could be while working remotely. And that has implications for entire communities.

“I think co-working spaces are very well-positioned to receive those people,” he said. “I’m an urban planner — I’ve been thinking about this stuff long before the pandemic hit. A lot of trends show that, if people can work more flexibly, and make decisions about where they live based on lifestyle and not where the jobs are, people can move where they want to.”

He pointed to surging real-estate sales in Western Mass. and in the suburbs outside large cities like Boston.

“People are saying, ‘I’m sick of living in the city and running the rat race. I can live where the living is good but keep my big-city job,’” Sauser said. “I feel co-working spaces are an early indicator of trends that will benefit towns, especially towns with great, walkable downtowns.”

A lot of towns in Western Mass. offer that already — Greenfield has a walkable downtown, with opportunities to work in a co-working space, so it can be more competitive attracting new residents,” he went on. “I think of it as economic development for communities, not just for businesses like ours.”

Several years ago, Sauser and Goldsher met at a Franklin County Community Development Corp. event and were soon talking about the co-work concept, which Goldsher had seen flourishing while living in New York City. They say members are attracted to co-working for a number of reasons, among them lower prices than traditional office rent, flexible leases, and shared resources ranging from a printer, projector, meeting space, and wi-fi to a kitchen with free tea and coffee.

The pandemic actually revealed new opportunities for co-working spaces, Sauser added, from remote workers who live in rural communities with poor broadband access to college students who needed the space when campuses were closed, to working parents who craved a break from their suddenly bustling house.

“And we were honored to see a lot of members choose to stick with us and extend their membership even when they weren’t using the physical space,” Goldsher added. “Before this, the concept of co-working was a novelty, but we brought an urban concept to a smaller community and showed the model does translate in a different way. Now a lot of other opportunities are presenting themselves.”

Bills, Bills, Bills

Yun had a broader vision as she grew Click — one centered around the arts as an economic driver, with gallery shows, music performances, literary events, and the like, to emphasize Northampton’s cultural heritage while exposing new faces to Click’s eclectic space. That aspect of the complex has been wiped out during the pandemic.

“It’s been a hardship for the people who have been coming in — there’s very little community left right now with so few coming in,” she said. “We’re eking by, but we’re going to make it. I think a lot of it is because we operate as a nonprofit, so we had reserves built up, and we’re dipping into those reserves now.”

PPP loans, a Massachusetts small-business grant, and rent reduction have helped, but the complex will eventually need to boost its membership back up.

“It doesn’t matter whether you have one person here or 50; you have all these fixed expenses,” Yun said. “There may be a little bit of give in the rent, but we have to pull in fiber-optic internet — that’s a huge cost for us, almost $900 a month. All the utilities are fixed. Last summer, I said to myself, we need to be able to sustain ourselves until the summer of 2022 because I felt like that was going to be when the recovery was in full swing for us.”

That timeline seems more accelerated now, but she feels like the return to normalcy will still be a gradual one. “Do all the former members come back? A lot have moved on, and co-working is such that people come and people go all the time.”

The pandemic saw an influx of residents from New York to Western Mass., but many of them have purchased large homes with home offices, so it’s unclear what effect that migration will have on co-working. “It seems daunting, but we’ve been open for over five years here now, and I feel like we’re here to stay. Who knew we’d have a pandemic?”

To counter that still-active pandemic, Click, like every other workspace, has launched a series of safety protocols, from requiring masks when moving about to regular sanitization to pumping in fresh air.

Air quality was a big concern for Barowsky at Venture X as well. “During COVID, I was very cognizant of air-filtration systems. I spent well over $100,000 on seven rooftop units,” he said, in addition to investments in touchless bathrooms, numerous hand-sanitizer stations, and a keyless entry system.

Greenspace takes safety seriously as well, Sauser said. “From a COVID safety standpoint, we follow all the state guidelines and have protocols in place — cleaning, masks, sanitizers.”

Goldsher added that the state’s rules early on made little sense, noting that Greenspace was not designated an essential business, but — unlike Click — stayed open throughout the pandemic anyway because one of the companies it houses was deemed essential, and had to continue using the space.

“While I think we proved that we are a very necessary asset in the community, there’s this strange dichotomy being open for essential business and not being considered an essential business ourselves.”

Here to Stay

But those who own co-working spaces in Western Mass. — other prominent centers include AmherstWorks, 734 Workspace in Longmeadow, and Cubit Coworks in Holyoke, to name just a few — say they are indeed an essential part of the 21st-century economy.

“I think the future of the workplace is very much up in the air. There’s no way to predict what the open concept will look like in five years time, but we have some good ideas,” Goldsher said.

Sauser agreed that the future of the workplace is in flux, but suggested that the office of the future might look much like co-work spaces of today, “where flexibility is the emphasis, in part because office managers and companies dedicate less space to individual employees when employees are not coming in every day.”

Yun added that companies have decisions to make about whether to extend their traditional leases or move toward more flexibility and smaller footprints. That, in turn, could drive the next surge of growth in co-working, and she welcomes more such facilities, because each new complex will raise awareness of the model and its benefits.

“We don’t know how all this will shake out,” she said. “But the more co-working spaces exist, the better.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Construction

Firm Foundation

Mark Sullivan

Mark Sullivan says public work — his firm’s main niche — slowed down in 2020, but activity looks strong for the coming year.

Mark Sullivan wasn’t unlike countless other business owners, watching the COVID-19 story develop last February and March and wondering how his construction firm, D.A. Sullivan & Sons Inc., would fare.

While no one knew early on what the pandemic’s impact would be, the general consensus was “this isn’t going to go well at all,” he said. But the company, like all others, managed to keep moving forward, with office staff working from home and Zoom meetings a new fact of life.

“Ultimately, we were able to keep people working in whatever format worked best for the individual, and we’re thankful we didn’t have any layoffs in the field,” he went on. “We were able to employ everyone through 2020.”

What makes that notable is that this fourth-generation family business, which opened its doors in Northampton in 1897 and has been headquartered in that city ever since, relies heavily on public work, including some of the highest-profile municipal and collegiate projects in the region at any given time.

“Now it’s to the point where projects we built 30 or 40 years ago are being renovated or being torn down and replaced. It’s all cyclical.”

“We’ve always had a heavy mix of public work — probably half to 60% of what we do has been public work,” said Sullivan, who is the firm’s fifth president, while his brother, Dennis, is chief executive operator. “We certainly have private clients we do a lot of work for, and we look for that private work, but public work over the years has been the most consistent.”

When Gov. Charlie Baker shut down large swaths of the economy just over a year ago, “we were certainly fortunate we were deemed critical, or essential, and we were able to keep some projects going,” Sullivan recalled. “When COVID hit, we did lose some work; some projects were paused and some outright canceled as people tried to figure out what the pandemic was and what it meant in the near-term future.”

Some of the projects the firm completed in 2020 included a fitness center transformation at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, a new administration building at Harriman & West Airport in that city, a renovation of the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority para-transit maintenance and storage facilities in Springfield, and the renovation of a mill building in Easthampton into apartments and office spaces.

“We rely on public work, and the state froze most public work after the first quarter. UMass did, too,” Sullivan said. “We had a backlog going into the year, and we finished up that work, but it was difficult getting new work toward the end of the year because everything had been frozen.”

renovation on Ferry Street in Easthampton

This mill renovation on Ferry Street in Easthampton features a mix of office space and apartments.

However, after the firm’s work volume in 2020 totaled about 20% from the year before, things are looking up. “What we’re seeing now is that, as the vaccine rolls out and people see the light at the end of the tunnel, those projects paused last year are coming back online.”

Considering that, he said, and the fact that new municipal projects are starting to emerge from the drawing board, “it looks to be a busy year.”

 

Plenty to Build On

Indeed, the projects currently underway — the firm typically manages 10 to 15 each year — speak to the breadth of the opportunities available in the municipal, academic, and other realms. They include:

• General-contracting services for the construction of the Newman Catholic Center at UMass Amherst, the UMass Fine Arts Center bridge renovation, a renovation and expansion of the Worcester Public Library, and the Chicopee City Hall renovation;

• Construction-management services for a renovation of Mount Holyoke College’s Gamble Auditorium and the construction of 38 cottage-style homes at Lathrop Community; and

• Owner’s project-management services for the renovation of the Westhampton Public Safety Complex and a renovation of the historic Grafton Public Library.

“It’s cyclical,” Sullivan said of public work. “You might be doing elementary schools for a decade, then find yourself doing middle schools after that. Now it’s to the point where projects we built 30 or 40 years ago are being renovated or being torn down and replaced. It’s all cyclical. We do a lot of work for the Five Colleges, UMass especially. It’s always varied, and it’s always interesting.”

The mill renovation in Easthampton was a fun challenge because of the condition of the building when the project began, he noted, while the Worcester library project is fun in other ways.

“Our partners got a kick out of the high-end millwork installation,” he said, noting details in the children’s room like a rocket ship and an eight-foot-tall book. “Most projects are budget-driven from a carpentry standpoint and may not get a millwork package that’s particularly interesting, so to speak. But every now and then, we get a library project or private-client work — we do a lot of private work for prep schools in the area — and those are projects carpenters can really sink their teeth into; they’re a lot of fun.”

Sullivan noted that construction management is becoming more the norm in the firm’s projects than straight general contracting. What hasn’t changed, however, is a reliance on cultivating relationships with municipalities, colleges, and other types of clients over time.

“It can be difficult to be a contractor of our size in the area we’re in and sustain longevity,” he said. “Every project is different, every client has a different process, and the relationships are unique, too; we value those relationships and rely on those relationships to keep work coming.”

That stability was in direct contrast to the upheaval of COVID-19, and how that affected the way workers were able to do their jobs.

“Initially, everyone was trying to figure it out,” he said. “There was no guidebook to follow; it was being established as we went along. That was true for everyone in our industry and in other industries deemed essential, and we were able to keep some projects moving forward in the field.

“Certainly, productivity took a hit, when we were sanitizing projects twice a day, taking temperatures, and keeping logs,” he went on, noting that, when a delivery person was found to have COVID, a whole job site shut down for a few days.

“In the big picture, we got through the whole year without too many issues,” he added. “It’s literally been a year since this thing hit; everyone has the protocols down pat.”

 

Getting to Work

Now that things seem to be looking up — both in the public-sector construction world and in general, with vaccines generating positive news on the COVID front — Sullivan is ready to tackle what he sees as pent-up demand.

“The need for work didn’t go away,” he told BusinessWest. “I think there’s a lot of liquidity in the market; last year, people held on to figure out a way through the pandemic, and now that they see an end in sight, things are starting to loosen up, and we’re very busy on the building side of things.”

As his family’s business has been for more than 120 years.

“We’ve been around a long time in Western Mass. We work roughly from Pittsfield to Worcester — that’s our zone — and there aren’t many mid-size contractors of our size left in Western Mass.,” he said, noting that the firm generates about $40 million in sales each year. “There are a few bigger firms and several smaller firms out there, but we’re happy with the size we are; it’s a good size. And we’re thankful just to be able to be working every day and be around as long as we have.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services Special Coverage

Creating a Powerhouse

M&T Bank Corp. is no stranger to acquisitions, having broadly expanded its geographic footprint through a series of mergers over the past two decades.

But every acquisition is undertaken with purpose, Chairman and CEO René Jones said, and that includes the recent announcement that M&T will purchase Bridgeport, Conn.-based People’s United Financial Inc. in a $7.6 billion, all-stock transaction.

“The combination of M&T and People’s United will benefit both firms, providing additional growth opportunities beyond what either firm could achieve independently,” Jones said during a recent conference call with investors, adding that the culture of M&T will “resonate” with People’s United customers.

The transaction has already resonated through the region’s banking industry, as it will create a ‘super-regional’ banking franchise (as industry analysts are calling it), with approximately $200 billion in assets and a network of 1,135 branches and more than 2,000 ATMs spanning 12 states from Maine to Virginia and the District of Columbia.

The combined franchise will operate across some of the most populated and attractive banking markets in the U.S., M&T officials note. As part of the transaction, People’s United’s current headquarters in Bridgeport will become the New England regional headquarters for M&T.

Jack Barnes

Jack Barnes

“The merger extends our reach by providing customers access to a larger banking network and an expanded array of services.”

“In People’s United, we have found a partner with an equally long history of serving and supporting customers, businesses, and communities,” said Jones, who will continue to lead the expanded company in his current roles. “Combining our common legacies and our complementary footprints will strengthen our ability to serve our communities and customers, and provide solutions that make a difference in people’s lives. I am incredibly excited about this opportunity and look forward to welcoming new customers and team members to our M&T family.”

In the conference call, Jones recognized the value of People’s United’s footprint and resources.

“In addition to new geography, we expanded the talent and capabilities in our organization as well as the product sets vailable to our combined customers,” he noted, adding that the acquisition will make M&T the 11th-largest commercial-bank holding company in the U.S. by both assets and market capitalization.

In addition, “the combined geographic footprint is concentrated, offering a distribution system across the Northeast and mid-Atlantic states that represents over 20% of the U.S. population and over 25% of GDP, and has attractive levels of household income.”

Indeed, the median household income in People’s United’s footprint is almost $87,000, well above the national median, according to the Wall Street Journal. M&T will also add People’s United’s national equipment-finance business and its mortgage warehouse lending business.

“The density allows us to leverage local market knowledge, our recently bolstered technology infrastructure, and our nationally recognized brand,” Jones added, noting that the two companies have a complementary top-tier deposit share in core markets with a top-three share in most of their respective top-10 markets.

People’s United Bank’s headquarters in Bridgeport, Conn

People’s United Bank’s headquarters in Bridgeport, Conn. will become M&T’s New England regional headquarters.

“And People’s United’s outside proportion of core operating accounts makes it among the most attractive franchises in New England,” he added. “In our view, this is the most important characteristic of a stable, well-run franchise.”

 

Cultural Considerations

Jack Barnes, chairman and CEO of People’s United, noted that the cultures of the two banks are a good fit.

“M&T is a like-minded partner that shares our culture of supporting communities by focusing on building meaningful relationships and providing personalized products, services, and local market expertise to customers, while building on our legacy of excellence in service,” he said. “The merger extends our reach by providing customers access to a larger banking network and an expanded array of services. I am confident our shared community-banking philosophies will provide significant long-term value for our shareholders, employees, and loyal customers.”

M&T leaders note that both companies have been long been recognized for their community commitments and support of civic organizations. Over the past decade, M&T, through The M&T Charitable Foundation, has donated $263.7 million to more than 2,800 nonprofit organizations across eight states and the District of Columbia. M&T Bank has been awarded the highest possible Community Reinvestment Act rating on every examination since 1982 from the Federal Reserve Bank of New York.

Meanwhile, People’s United Community Foundation and People’s United Community Foundation of Eastern Massachusetts have granted $40 million to nonprofits aligned with the foundations’ collective mission since their inception in 2007. Through the foundations, M&T will use $90 million to support charitable activities in the communities currently served by People’s United.

In the Greater Springfield area, People’s United Bank traces its roots to the Bank of Western Massachusetts, which opened in 1987 and grew it into a regional commercial-lending power, one that was acquired by Chittenden Bank in 1995 and then again by People’s United in 2008.

People’s United, with a much longer history (it was founded in 1842), boasts more than 6,000 employees these days, offering commercial and retail banking, as well as weath-management services, through a network of more than 400 retail locations in Connecticut, New York, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine. The company also provides specialized commercial services to customers nationwide. As of Dec. 31, 2020, the institution had total assets of more than $63 billion, loans of $44 billion, and deposits of $52 billion.

René Jones

René Jones

“The density allows us to leverage local market knowledge, our recently bolstered technology infrastructure, and our nationally recognized brand.”

M&T, headquartered in Buffalo, N.Y., operates banking offices in New York, Maryland, New Jersey, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Connecticut, Virginia, West Virginia, and the District of Columbia. It ranks among the largest regional lenders in the Northeast, with $142.6 billion in assets at the end of 2020. Commercial real-estate loans comprise almost 40% of its portfolio, and despite the pandemic’s impact on that sector, loan performance at the bank has been better than expected over the past year.

Under the terms of the agreement, People’s United shareholders will receive 0.118 of a share of M&T common stock for each People’s United share they own. Following completion of the transaction, former People’s United shareholders will collectively own approximately 28% of the combined company.

The merger has been unanimously approved by the boards of directors of each company and is expected to close in the fourth quarter of 2021, subject to customary closing conditions, including receipt of regulatory approvals and approval by the shareholders of each company.

 

Open the Floodgates

The acqusition is just the latest in a series of regional mergers seeking scale in order to better compete with the largest U.S. banks as low interest rates cut into lending profits, Forbes reported.

Last year, for instance, Huntington Bancshares Inc. agreed to merge with TCF Financial Corp., First Citizens Bancshares Inc. announced plans to acquire CIT Group Inc., and PNC Financial Services Group Inc. struck a deal to buy the U.S. arm of Spain’s BBVA. The year before, BB&T and SunTrust merged to become Truist Financial Corp. in the largest bank deal since the financial crisis of 2008 ushered in stricter regulations.

Ultra-low interest rates and meager loan growth have made it difficult for banks to profit from lending, the Wall Street Journal notes. The effect is most pronounced on regional banks, which rely more on lending profits than their national counterparts. Net interest margin, or the difference between what a bank pays its depositors and what it earns from lending, hit a record low for commercial banks in the fourth quarter of 2020.

Tom Michaud, CEO of Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, recently told Barron’s that, if regional banks want to be “relevant and significant,” they need to compete against the ‘Big Four’ of JPMorgan Chase, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, and Bank of America.

Robert Kafafian of the Kafafian Group, a consulting firm in Bethlehem, Pa., told American Banker he expects a surge in bank mergers in 2021, partly due to needed investments in new technology. “Customers have shown they can adapt to changing technology. Adoption may have advanced three to five years faster than what it might have been otherwise without the pandemic. Tech capability is all the more important now.”

Jones agrees, but stressed that many different considerations went into the decision to purchase People’s United and create a new, super-regional bank.

“Not only are our geographics complementary,” he said, “so too are the talent, product sets, and credit cultures, creating a solid platform we can build upon.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Law Special Coverage

A Challenging Docket

Sudha Setty says the field of law continues to evolve

Sudha Setty says the field of law continues to evolve and create new opportunities, even during the pandemic.

It’s been a challenging year for businesses of all kinds, and the profession of law is no exception.

But in many ways, the pandemic set the critical role of lawyers in even sharper relief, says Sudha Setty, dean of the   (WNEU) School of Law.

“I hear, anecdotally, from our alumni that they’re busy; they have a lot of work going on. Frankly, the legal work coming out of the pandemic is substantial,” she told BusinessWest, and it extends far beyond business disruptions.

“The pandemic has hit very unevenly in a lot of communities, including Western Massachusetts, and you have issues of trying to get unemployment benefits or ensuring against foreclosure of homes or eviction,” she noted. “A lot of legal needs have come out of all that. Those needs existed previously, of course, but the pandemic has exacerbated them. So the need for lawyers to help in those capacities has increased exponentially in the past year.”

Or take the growing (literally and figuratively) field of cannabis; a course on “Cannabis and the Law” is hugely popular, Setty said, because students see legal opportunities in an industry that still has plenty of room to expand.

“I hear, anecdotally, from our alumni that they’re busy; they have a lot of work going on. Frankly, the legal work coming out of the pandemic is substantial.”

“It’s a new field, and it’s not going away. It’s a way to think about new opportunities as a lawyer, but you’re also learning nuts and bolts you can apply to other fields as well, like regulatory law and how to navigate state bureaucracy and a lot of other pieces that will be helpful even if your practice isn’t in cannabis law in the long run.”

In short, the world will always need lawyers, and after a very uneven past two decades when it comes to the job market and law-school enrollment, colleges across the U.S. have reported an uptick in applications over the past few years, one that hasn’t been slowed by the pandemic.

WNEU welcomed an incoming class of 130 last fall, well over the 88 who started classes in the fall of 2018, Setty’s first year as dean. While the fall 2021 numbers won’t be finalized until the summer, she hears from Admissions that applications are still strong.

“Nationwide, I know most law-school applications are up significantly,” she added. “In this region, it’s up about 20%, and we’re about the same. So I feel cautiously optimistic.”

Programs she has shepherded have only made WNEU a more attractive destination — for example, the Center for Social Justice, launched in the spring of 2019, has offered a robust series of community conversations, pro bono opportunities, and other initiatives aimed at giving students real-world experience in making a difference, even while in school.

“Students have always been interested in that mission, but now we have this focal point and can shepherd students toward job opportunities, toward scholarships, toward career paths, thinking about what they need to be a social-justice lawyer,” she said, noting, as one example, the Center’s Consumer Debt Initiative, which helps area individuals who are unrepresented in debt collection, sometimes over a few hundred dollars, sometimes a few thousand.

“We’ve heard a lot of discussions over the last few years about income inequality and economic justice, and I think we’re in a really good place in meeting the interests students have when they come into the law school.”

“They can make a difference in someone’s life. It’s a way for students, faculty, and lawyers from the greater community to address this economic-justice issue. We’ve heard a lot of discussions over the last few years about income inequality and economic justice, and I think we’re in a really good place in meeting the interests students have when they come into the law school.”

Add it up, and the WNEU School of Law hasn’t slowed down its pursuit of building a program that will remain relevant in the ever-changing field of law, well after life — and the educational experience — return to something resembling normal.

 

Back to School

Like every college and university, WNEU had to scramble last spring to get students learning remotely, and faculty and staff spent the summer raising their online competencies to make sure courses would be even more effective in the fall.

“Some of them were already ahead of the curve,” Setty said. “For some of us, including me, it was a lot of learning, a lot of training, a lot of mock classrooms we did with each other to build up our ability. This place is about good teaching, and that was the really important thing to drive home — that, by the time we got back in August, everyone had to continue this excellence in teaching as part of the ethos of the law school — in a hybrid format, if they had to.”

The 2020-21 year has, indeed, taken a hybrid form, with students alternating between learning remotely and in classrooms at the Blake Law Center, due to social distancing and capacity limits. “The largest classrooms normally hold more than 100, and now they’re at 40-something. So the students are rotating through,” she added. “Some students, for health reasons, can’t come at all, so they’re fully remote. That’s the way we’ve been operating.”

The law school has long been known for its use of clinics — in areas such as criminal defense, criminal prosecution, elder law, and family-law mediation — in which students blend classroom instruction with work on real cases, under the guidance of local attorneys. The vast majority of students get involved in clinics and externships, understanding the value of developing not only real-world legal knowledge, but the soft skills that will make them more employable.

Those clinics are still operating, Setty said, but they now feature a strong remote component as well.

“Lawyering these days is largely remote,” she noted. “Client counseling is remote. Witness interviews are remote. We have remote hearings in front of judges. So there’s a separate and related set of competencies that our students are learning, which deal with remote client presentation. It’s very different than what they’ve had to do before, and it has its challenges.”

However, she continued, “the flip side is that this is going to be a part of lawyering going forward. Everything’s not going back to fully in person after the pandemic fades. There are going to be some elements of remote trial work and remote client counseling, so I feel like our students are on the cutting edge of learning this stuff, so when they’re out looking for jobs, they can say, ‘not only do I have this skill set, I also have remote competencies in client representation; I’ve been a remote mediator, I’ve represented people in a criminal proceeding remotely.’ These are remarkable experiences they’re having — they’re very different, but absolutely what we need to do.”

Those graduates are entering a job market that has proven resilient during the pandemic, Setty said, noting that the contraction of law-school enrollment nationally a decade ago has gradually increased demand for talent.

“A lot of law schools were fully online for the full year, but we made a commitment and said, ‘we want to see our students in person and make this work.”

“The employment piece for the folks graduating during the pandemic, I think there’s still uncertainty around that,” she said. “But for the most part, our graduates have kept their jobs.”

The school has added some faculty members in the past two years, most recently Jennifer Taub, who specializes in white-collar crime, criminal procedures, and other business-law subjects, and authored the book Big Dirty Money: the Shocking Injustice and Unseen Cost of White Collar Crime.

“We’re on a positive swing,” Setty said. “The energy of our students, our faculty, and our staff has been terrific. Working through a pandemic requires a lot in terms of navigating the uncertainty and the need to adapt, but also all the hours it takes for faculty and staff to dig in and collectively make this work so we can have in-person education here.”

 

Community Focus

Setty took the reins as dean of the School of Law in 2018 after 12 years as a professor at WNEU. She first joined the faculty in 2006 as a professor of Law and associate dean for Faculty Development and Intellectual Life, and has produced notable scholarship in the areas of comparative law, rule of law, and national security.

Through her career, she has maintained that law schools are in a unique position to impact the future of a just society, and she has always seen WNEU as a place that launches the careers of thoughtful lawyers who work for the betterment of both their clients and society as a whole. The Center for Social Justice has been an important part of that philosophy over the past two years.

“I really wanted to establish this center and get it off the ground, and it has been terrific,” she said, crediting grants from MassMutual, individual law firms, and other entities to help fund its programming. “Not only is it a way to help our students and meet the social-justice mission of the law school, but it does such good work in the community. It’s great for attracting new students, but it’s also great for the work it does.”

Areas of focus have included economic justice, racial justice, and a recent effort, funded by a WNEU alum, to create an LGBTQ speaker series and support summer work in that realm for two students each year.

“It draws people in with a lot of interests,” she said of the center. “People come to law school wanting to make the world a better place, and they’re wondering how to do that — this speaks to them in a way that’s really profound.”

In fact, the law school as a whole has taken a hard look at its own efforts toward racial justice and diversity, equity, and inclusion issues, Setty said, from the coursework to how it connects with the outside community on issues like police practices.

“We have made an effort to think more about this and integrate it into our curriculum and how we engage in the larger community, but I want to do it in a sustained fashion so it’s not like, ‘oh, that was the focus for 2020; we don’t have to think about it anymore.’ The idea is to integrate it into who we are as a law school and focus on it going forward as well. It shouldn’t be a flavor-of-the-month issue, and then we move on.”

Setty is, however, more than ready to move past the pandemic and welcome students back on campus full-time, but she’s proud of what has been accomplished during the past unprecedented year.

“A lot of law schools were fully online for the full year, but we made a commitment and said, ‘we want to see our students in person and make this work,’” she told BusinessWest. “And we’ve been relatively successful. I continue to be really grateful to be the dean — particularly at a time when it’s required so much collective effort to make this happen.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Employment Special Coverage

Remote Possibilities

Most of Big Y’s 11,000 employees — those who stock shelves, prepare food, work the cashier lines, and do any number of other tasks — must do their jobs on site, in a specific location. But at Big Y’s 300-employee-strong customer-support center in Springfield, which supports those frontline workers, about 70% of them have worked remotely since the start of the pandemic.

“This past year, we learned that remote work can work, and it allows for a lot of flexibility for individuals,” said Michael Galat, vice president of Employee Services at the supermarket chain. “That being said, we’re a company where we stress collaboration and teamwork, and that has definitely been a challenge at times. Meetings using technology are different than having in-person meetings. It definitely can work, but there are pros and cons to it.”

The company’s pandemic response team was quick to set up safety protocols last spring to protect the thousands of customer-facing, frontline employees, but it also set many employees up with the necessary technology to work from home, put together a best-practices guide for working remotely, and has carefully followed the public-health data to determine when to bring them back.

“As time has gone on, they’ve seen the productivity; they see that the work is getting done, customers are being served, and people are happy. Now they’re saying, ‘maybe we don’t need to have everyone in.”

One important finding? Productivity never flagged — which tracks with accounts from many other area employers over the past 12 months. Thus, many employers feel no rush to bring everyone back before the pandemic is in the rear view — and that poses a question no one expected last March: does every employee really have to come back? And what if they don’t want to?

Meredith Wise

Meredith Wise says employers run the gamut when it comes to bringing back remote workers; some are anxious to do so, while others may see value in changing their model altogether.

Most employers last March thought shutdowns would last a couple months. But a year later, millions of workers are still working from home — and the result has been a national experiment with remote work that has borne some surprising data.

“It’s striking — we’re seeing a little bit of everything,” said Meredith Wise, president of the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast. “We have a number of companies — like manufacturers — that never shut down and had employees come in the whole time. And we have companies starting to have employees coming back on a sporadic basis — maybe not five days a week, but two or three days a week. Then others have said, ‘we aren’t even thinking about having employees back until later in the year.’”

One reason for that hesitancy is the fact that workers have not only adapted to remote work, but have, in most cases, been as productive as they were in the office. So employers are taking their time bringing them back, looking to state guidance and public-health metrics to guide decisions.

“As time has gone on, they’ve seen the productivity; they see that the work is getting done, customers are being served, and people are happy,” Wise said. “Now they’re saying, ‘maybe we don’t need to have everyone in.’”

UMassFive College Federal Credit Union is one example of that phenomenon.

“We moved about 60% of our workforce home last spring, and it continues to be that way,” said Craig Boivin, vice president of Marketing. “We’re developing plans and processes for what this will look like in the post-pandemic world, but we’re not looking to bring people back until the state says it’s safe for large groups to gather indoors.”

During the exodus from office to home last March, he recalled, “I won’t say it was chaotic, but we had to make a lot of quick decisions at the senior level to make sure everyone had the equipment and support they needed at home,” in addition to developing guidelines to ensure accountability and making sure everyone understood new (to them, anyway) communication tools like Zoom and Slack.

“We found there are some real positives with productivity and being able to shut off some of the distractions,” he went on.

Employees — especially those who have grown to appreciate working from home, and even prefer it — are thinking similar thoughts, and that may pose a problem of pushback at some companies when they try to bring their teams back in. For now, in most cases, there’s no rush, but those days won’t last forever.

 

National Conversation

The same story is playing out nationally, with some companies planning to remain 100% remote post-pandemic, while others — including big names like Microsoft — taking a hybrid approach, giving workers more flexibility about where they work. Other companies are clamoring to bring everyone back.

“I see a hybrid approach in the future, finding balance, again, between meeting the needs of the business and allowing people flexibility to take care of their home life.”

“It’s no longer, ‘do you offer remote work?’ but, ‘do you offer it with enough organizational support so I can be as successful as the people who work in the office?’” Andrew Hewitt, senior analyst at market research firm Forrester, told CNN recently. He expects about 60% of companies will offer a hybrid work model, while 30% of companies will be back in the office, and 10% will be fully remote.

Since last summer, Big Y’s support-center workers have been required to be on site at least one day a week, and the company continues to discuss internally what the full transition back will look like.

“Productivity has not been an issue,” Galat said. “But, with our company, the culture is a huge component of it. Collaborating and having discussions on Zoom … you can do that, but it’s not the same.”

By essentially being forced into a mode of flexibility since last March, he believes companies — including Big Y — have learned some important lessons going forward. “I see a hybrid approach in the future, finding balance, again, between meeting the needs of the business and allowing people flexibility to take care of their home life. It’s a constant discussion we’re having with the executive team about what’s working, what’s not working, and what this will look like in the future.”

The fact that the support center is not just an 8-to-5 operation, but requires coverage on nights and weekends, allows for some flexibility of schedules for workers juggling their kids’ remote learning or taking care of parents, he added. “We continue to take care of business, while allowing people the flexibility to take care of home needs as well.”

Another of the region’s largest employers, MassMutual, continues to keep a large swath of workers off campus, and is in the process of evaluating their return to the office, said Chelsea Haraty, communications consultant in Media Relations for the company.

Craig Boivin

Craig Boivin

“At a high level, we expect to have MassMutual employees return to our corporate offices in a slow, phased manner later this year,” she told BusinessWest. “We will continue to monitor and reassess that plan, factoring in a number of considerations — including guidance from medical experts and government officials, a sustained reduction in cases, broader availability of testing and vaccines, as well as our employees’ circumstances and comfort in returning.”

What employers are starting to understand, Wise said, is that employees are also weighing the pros and cons of coming back, and while some are eager, others would rather stay home, and may make that fact known.

“Employers have employees all over the spectrum — some want to get back into the office and don’t feel part of the team when they’re not. Others are saying, ‘I’m not sure I want to come back; I’m not sure about the cleaning protocols and sanitation protocols. Are people wearing masks? I’m not sure I’m comfortable in the office.’”

She noted that some companies are fine pushing those decisions into the future. “They’re saying, ‘things are going pretty smoothly; we don’t have quite as much water-cooler talk, not as much gossip going on, and people are really productive when they’re remote. We don’t have to have people come back to the office and incur the expense of coffee and bathroom supplies. Maybe we can cut some of our expenses.’”

Including some major expenses — most notably the office space itself. “Some of these companies have leases coming up in the next year, so they’re asking, ‘can I reduce my footprint? Do we need as much space as we have?’”

 

Back and Forth

On the other hand, Wise said, questions about workplace culture are very real. “Some companies are looking at their culture, their camaraderie, their teamwork, just the ability to walk down the hall and talk to somebody, and they want to get all their employees back in the office as soon as they can.”

She noted the importance of age-old rituals of the workplace, walking in the door at the start of the day and asking co-workers about their weekend, or their family, or whatever might be going on, whether it’s related to their jobs or not.

“How do you incorporate new personnel into the culture outside of the physical environment? That’s a big challenge.”

“When people are removed from an environment that really is a team, where you’ve gotten to know each other’s family situations and personal life, you really do lose that with a remote connection,” she said. “When people come into an office meeting, they sit down and chit-chat with the person next to them a little. It’s hard to recreate that on a Zoom meeting; you lose some of that personal connection.”

Boivin agreed. “The productivity piece seems to be working out pretty solidly now,” he told BusinessWest. “At the same time, the collaborative, in-person aspect is missed.”

One big topic of conversation is new-employee onboarding, he said, noting that orientation is conducted in person, and video communications are a regular reality, but he wonders if that’s enough to keep them engaged.

Mike Galat

Mike Galat

“I have a new graphic designer in the Marketing department who started at the end of August. She’s been [physically] at UMassFive for just a day or two. How do you incorporate new personnel into the culture outside of the physical environment? That’s a big challenge.”

Also challenging is the way boundaries between work and personal life have blurred, whether it’s juggling job responsibilities with helping kids with remote schoolwork, or simply working too many hours.

“Productivity is up,” Wise said, “but some of it is putting in longer hours — rolling out of bed, having breakfast, and getting right to work instead of commuting, and then at 5, instead of getting in the car and driving home to fix dinner, they keep working. Something we’ve heard is that people need to build in some transition time so they don’t start working at 7 and quit at 6.”

Whatever the reason, many employees will be more than happy to return to the pre-pandemic work world.

“Now that we’re going on a year, a lot of people are saying, ‘I thought I wanted this, but I really want to be back in the office — maybe not five days a week for 52 weeks a year, but maybe in the office three days and at home two days,” she added. “A lot of employees are saying, ‘this isn’t what I thought it was going to be — I need to be back around people; I need to have boundaries by being back in the office.’”

Each industry is different, too, Wise added. For example, companies where creativity is crucial, like marketing firms, probably find it easier to brainstorm when people are together in one physical space, able to immediately bounce ideas off one another.

“I don’t think it’s a one-size-fits-all answer that’s going to fit every organization,” she said. “My guess would be a lot of manufacturers, since they have individuals on the floor who have to be at work, are going to be less likely to have their office staff remain totally remote because that creates an us-and-them mentality. But some other organizations will allow many people to stay totally remote, or there may be that hybrid of people working in the office and then from home.”

Galat agreed, adding that that he’s heard of some companies staying fully remote, but most seem to be moving toward a hybrid approach — which speaks to one way COVID-19 may have permanently altered the American workplace.

“We’ve learned a lot through the year,” he said. “We miss that component of teamwork and collaboration; not having that makes it more challenging. But I think the hybrid approach might be the approach we look at going forward. We’ll evaluate and fine-tune it as we go.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Special Coverage Technology

A Critical Gap

 

Margaret Tantillo clearly remembers — honestly, who doesn’t? — the day Gov. Charlie Baker started shutting down the economy a year ago this month.

As the executive director of Dress for Success Western Massachusetts, an organization dedicated to the economic empowerment of women, she started calling participants in the days that followed, asking what issues they were having. One that kept coming up was access to the internet.

“If people are not connected, they’re going to be left behind in terms of being able to participate in the workforce,” Tantillo said.

So, identifying digital equity as connectivity, access to equipment, and the knowledge and ability to use software, Dress for Success enlisted a group of volunteers to form a digital task force, providing one-on-one coaching for about 40 women and providing more than 250 hours on the phone coaching.

“For the most part, we’re helping people operate on Zoom so they can participate in training and apply for jobs and interview virtually,” she said — just one way internet connectivity is a lifeline for people in these times.

Or, conversely, how lack of it can have a crushing impact.

It’s an issue that has received more attention during the pandemic, as tens of millions of Americans have struggled with remote learning, telehealth, and the ability to work from home because they lack access to fast, reliable internet service.

This ‘digital divide,’ as its commonly known, is not a new phenomenon, but the way COVID-19 has laid bare the problem is forcing lawmakers and others to see it in a new light.

“There are still communities in Western Mass. that don’t have high-speed internet access, or internet at all,” said state Sen. Eric Lesser, who has long championed this cause. “Frankly, in the year 2021, that’s a national embarrassment.”

State leaders haven’t ignored the issue, including tens of millions of dollars for infrastructure in bond authorizations over multiple budgets and economic-development bills, Lesser said, and Gov. Baker has set a goal to reach every community.

State Sen. Eric Lesser

State Sen. Eric Lesser calls the lack of connectivity in some Bay State towns “a national embarrassment.”

“But, frankly, the fact that we have communities that don’t have broadband internet access raises very profound questions about how a high-tech state like Massachusetts, in this day and age, can allow that to happen.”

As president and CEO of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council, Rick Sullivan said the EDC has long taken the position — even before COVID-19 made it a more pressing issue — that the state needs to bring internet connectivity into every city and town. He noted that Gov. Deval Patrick’s administration started building the backbone, and the Baker administration has been diligent in making sure communities get financing to execute plans to bring broadband to their residents.

“For a lot of the smaller communities, that is probably the single biggest opportunity they have for economic development in the region,” Sullivan said. “People can choose to work from home, but they need to have the access that helps people choose to live in those communities, and it makes it easier to sell your properties, and that increases values in small towns.”

But even large cities have a digital divide, he added, which has been exposed to a greater extent by COVID-19.

Tantillo noted that, according to Census data from last year, 31% of households in Springfield have no internet access, and 37% don’t even have a computer. That means no remote work, no remote education, no telehealth, no … well, the list goes on.

These digital-divide issue arose during a public hearing last week in Springfield on the relicensing of Comcast. “Parts of Springfield need better connection,” Sullivan said. “The mayor was clear in his opening statements that this was an issue they would be taking a look at. But in every city and town, there are some connectivity issues that clearly need to be addressed.”

Learning Lessons

Yves Salomon-Fernández, president of Greenfield Community College (GCC), understood the need for connectivity before students began attending classes remotely last spring, but that move more clearly exposed the scope of the issue.

“The digital divide is real, especially in certain areas of Franklin County and in the hilltowns. Even in the city of Greenfield, there are places with spotty internet access, and with all of us being on Zoom right now, it slows down the connectivity we have for our faculty, staff, and students,” she added, noting that GCC had to purchase technology for many of them to teach and learn remotely.

“We also have students who are housing-insecure and may not have access to the internet. We gave them a hotspot if they have no cellphone service, and we have accommodated them on campus in various ways.”

She noted that even parts of the GCC campus contain dead zones where cellphones won’t work; the college has a phone tree set up for emergency alerts because cellular connectivity isn’t a given everywhere.

“If the college, a critical institution and a community asset, has these issues,” she said, “imagine what it’s like for small businesses and individuals.”

The flawed vaccine rollout in Massachusetts (see story on page 40) has laid bare another impact of the digital divide: access to vaccination appointments. Even if the state’s website wasn’t confusing or prone to crashing early on, Lesser said, it still wasn’t acceptable to make it the only option to sign up, which is why he and other legislators have pushed for a phone option, which was implented last month.

“You were pretty much shutting out a whole community of people, especially the 75-and-older category, when you set up a system that’s website-only,” he noted.

But vaccine distribution will be completed over the coming months; what won’t change are the other reasons people need to access the internet from home. Solving the issue won’t be easy with the patchwork of different levels of responsibility — towns, the state, FCC regulators on the federal level — when it comes to regulating contracts and service arrangements.

That’s why Lesser is high on municipal broadband, offered by a city to its residents like a public utility — an initiative that Chicopee and Westfield have undertaken, to name two local projects. “It really is like the water or electricity of the 21st century, that’s delivered by the city as well.”

More such municipal projects will also increase competition, he said, which could force other providers to lower their prices and boost speed.

Even people who have internet access through large companies often deal with higher costs than they can easily afford, Lesser said. “The costs are astronomical in the U.S. — people pay much more per month than in Europe or Asia.”

Therefore, “the state needs to look at ways to open the market more and create more competition,” he added, and that could simply entail putting more pressure on big internet companies.

“The problem is, internet service is left to the private sector when it’s a public good,” he said. “It doesn’t make economic sense for big companies to invest in infrastructure to get the internet turned on in small communities. The state may have to mandate they have to make those investments if they want to provide service for bigger locations.”

An Issue of Equity

Tantillo agrees with Lesser that society should be looking at connectivity as a utility and a basic, affordable service, but goes a step further.

Margaret Tantillo says the digital divide, if not rectified, could leave generations behind when it comes to economic opportunity.

Margaret Tantillo says the digital divide, if not rectified, could leave generations behind when it comes to economic opportunity.

“From an equity perspective, this disproportionately impacts women and people of color, so it’s also a social-justice issue,” she said. “But a crisis like this is also a big opportunity to be transformative. Springfield is considered the city of innovation. With a bold solution and reallocating resources, who knows what this community can transform into, if everyone has the opportunity to participate equally in online banking, telehealth, access to jobs, even to engage civically?”

Salomon-Fernández agreed. “In this day and age, it’s also an equity issue when you have people disconnected from the rest of the world. In the United States of America, and in one of the most technologically advanced states in the country, that’s a concern.”

And a particularly acute one, she added, in Franklin County, which contains some of the more rural and economically marginalized towns in the state. The impact isn’t just a problem in the present — it can have long-term effects.

“The world is increasingly globalized, and not being connected has negative repercussions on communities,” she added. “We are creating an underclass of people not able to take full advantage of economic possibilities through digitalization and connectivity. That has real effects, not just on teaching and learning, but also on the vibrancy of our whole region.”

The Federal Communications Commission’s latest broadband deployment report concluded that the “digital divide is rapidly closing.” But some voices in that agency are more hesitant.

“If this crisis has revealed anything, it is the hard truth that the digital divide is very real and very big,” FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement released along with the report last month. “It confounds logic that today the FCC decides to release a report that says that broadband is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.”

The most recent available data from Pew Research, published in 2019, found that around 27% of Americans don’t have home broadband. That percentage is higher for Americans whose annual income is less than $30,000 (44%), black and Hispanic Americans (34% and 39%, respectively), rural Americans (37%), and those with a high-school education or less (44%).

Pew also reported, from a survey conducted last April, that 22% of parents — 40% in low-income families — whose children were learning remotely say they have to use public wi-fi because they lack a reliable internet connection at home.

Sullivan noted that some companies, like Comcast, and municipal utilities in cities like Holyoke and Westfield have made connectivity available to school children during the pandemic, which has been important.

“But going forward, it needs to be universal, and everyone needs to be able to have access,” he said. “It’s so important for education and for economic-development opportunities in every city and town. If we had that, combined with our quality of life and the cost of living we have here in Western Mass., we could be a place where people choose to live and work from home.”

Opening Eyes

Proponents of improved internet access in Massachusetts say COVID-19 certainly made the digital divide more evident, but it certainly didn’t cause it.

“I think it exacerbated that problem,” Tantillo said. “The digital divide has now become a chasm. And if we don’t solve it, generations will be left behind. I think people are more aware of that, so people are more invested in solving it.”

That awareness is critical, she said, in generating the kind of momentum that will move decision makers.

“It’s the plumbing of the 21st century, and the pandemic showed this,” Lesser said. “Vital services like education and, increasingly, healthcare, with the rise of telehealth, are critical services delivered to people through the internet. We’ve operated through a prism of treating this like DirecTV or cable television, like entertainment, an extra in your house. And that’s just not the case anymore.”

For many Americans, Tantillo added, connectivity is something to be taken for granted, but more people are realizing that’s just not the case.

“If I’m sitting there with my laptop, I’m not thinking about the 50,000 residents in Springfield without connectivity — I’m thinking about my own needs. But this is being exposed on a broader level.”

She understands — and has expressed — the negative impact of not being connected, but prefers to couch the issue in a more hopeful, visionary way.

“We know what the ramifications are if we don’t fix the problem of the digital divide,” Tantillo said. “But here’s the amazing thing: we don’t know all the opportunities and how we can transform communities when we fix this and provide digital equity for everyone.”

Salomon-Fernández certainly hopes that happens.

“I think the pandemic has laid bare a lot of the fissures, the inaccessibility and inequity in our democracy, and also the ability of different folks in different regions to reach the same levels of economic prosperity,” she said. “While many people may not have been concerned about them pre-pandemic, it’s obvious now that the cracks are wide open. Hopefully it’s an opportunity for us.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Manufacturing Special Coverage

Machine Learning

Mary Bidwell says hands-on training will always be critical, but the pandemic taught ACC about what can be accomplished remotely as well.

 

As pivots go, this one was pretty smooth, Mary Bidwell says.

But that’s fitting for an academic program built on precision.

It was almost a year ago — March 13, to be exact — when Asnuntuck Community College (ACC) sent everyone home, including students in its Advanced Manufacturing Technology program, which Bidwell serves as interim dean.

“We finished online through April and the end of May, and by the beginning of June, we were able to open back up,” she said, adding that students were able to finish their hands-on training in fields like welding and mechatronics on campus through the summer. “We were one of the first departments back on the ground.”

In the meantime, the program reinvented itself in some ways, turning to online content in ways professors and administrators hadn’t considered before, not only in classwork for the student body, but in community-focused courses for area workers seeking to boost their skills.

“We’ve pivoted well and created online content, we created hybrid models, we got students back in, and we’ve got good safety protocols in play — and we’re looking forward to getting even more students on the ground,” she told BusinessWest. “And now we have this whole portfolio of online opportunities we didn’t have before, and we’ve diversified what we can offer the community, which is great.”

Innovation and adaptation are not foreign concepts in the field of advanced manufacturing, or at ACC, which has become a robust collegiate pipeline into the manufacturing workforce.

The Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center at ACC has been around for almost a quarter-century, but it received a major overhaul four years ago with the opening of a 27,000-square-foot addition, more than doubling its space to about 50,000 square feet. It includes an 11,000-square-foot machining lab with 90 computerized numeric control (CNC) and manual machines, an additive-manufacturing lab equipped for both plastic and metal 3D printing, a metrology lab featuring computerized measuring machines, state-of-the-art computer labs — and a whole lot more.

But the center’s most impressive offering may be its partnerships with area manufacturers, who have guided ACC in crafting its certificate program as a way to get skilled workers in their doors quickly — typically at salaries starting around $50,000 or higher.

The program has created work opportunities for both young people and career changers, and addressed what has been a persistent lack of qualified employees these companies need to grow. Normally, advanced manufacturers are looking for people with three to five years of experience. But ACC students are interning during their second semester and being hired for jobs immediately after, at good salaries. The reason is that the curriculum is customized according to industry needs.

Companies can then build on that training, hiring certificate holders, further training them up, and often providing additional education opportunities along with that full-time paycheck.

“People are always thinking about four-year degrees, but if your pathway is through community college, your debt can be so much less,” Bidwell said. “That’s such an opportunity: to start a career and have someone else pay for it.”

Even though the pandemic has temporarily slowed demand for workers at some companies, Bidwell and her team — and the industry in general — believe that’s not likely to continue, especially with an aging workforce in many corners.

“You still hear about the silver tsunami,” she said. “We need to have people ready when they’re needed.”

 

Working Through It

The pandemic has slowed the pace of business in industries like aerospace and at regional anchor companies like Sikorsky Aircraft, mainly due to supply-chain issues dating back to last spring, but students in all three of ACC’s advanced-manufacturing areas — welding, machining, and robotics/mechatronics — are finding jobs, Bidwell said.

“It seems like the staffing agencies have been a source lately that, at times in the past, we didn’t use as much because of our direct contacts,” she said. “But students are getting placed; they’re still going into companies we’ve always worked with.”

Enrollment in the program is about 60% what it usually is, she added. “We did lose students because people just don’t want to go online at all — they want to get back on the ground. Hopefully we’ll see that return for the fall and definitely next spring as vaccines roll out further.”

The numbers aren’t really a problem, though, because of capacity and social-distancing rules on campus. Students have engaged in a hybrid model this year, with some remote instruction and the necessary hands-on training on campus. As expanded vaccination hopefully leads to herd immunity, Bidwell is confident that those limits can be lifted next year, but the college will plan for all contingencies, including more hybrid learning.

The Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center at ACC has 50,000 square feet of space devoted to robotics and mechatronics, machining, and welding.

The Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center at ACC has 50,000 square feet of space devoted to robotics and mechatronics, machining, and welding.

“We’ve proven we can do it, and people have been successful,” she said, adding that the marketing message has been, “people wear their mask and social distance, and you don’t have to stop your education. We’re here for you, and jobs are waiting. As we head into summer and fall, people who want to go to school and get that education, they can.”

While student ages can range from 18 to 65, the average age at the Advanced Manufacturing Technology Center during the Great Recession, when many more people were looking to switch careers, was around 45. Today, it’s under 30, but no matter the age, the idea is to equip students with a strong foundation from which they can grow into any number of careers.

That foundation begins with a hands-on approach to learning the machinery and techniques, from 3D printers, lathes, and surface grinders to welding and robotics labs — a healthy mix of manual and CNC machines.

Mary Bidwell with one of the center’s 3-D printers.

Mary Bidwell with one of the center’s 3-D printers.

Even in a healthy economy, the program still attracts a good number of mid-life career changers who see opportunities they don’t have in their current jobs. Meanwhile, high-school students can take classes at ACC to gain manufacturing credits before they enroll, and a second-chance program gives incarcerated individuals hands-on experience to secure employment once they’re eligible for parole.

It all adds up to a manufacturing resource, and an economic driver, that has attracted plenty of public funding from the state and from private foundations, such as the Gene Haas Foundation, which aims to build skills in the machining industry, and recently awarded the program a $15,000 grant to use for student scholarships for tuition and books.

 

Mind the Gaps

The program has also attracted attention of other kinds. The center was recently featured in the new book Workforce Education: A New Roadmap, written by MIT Professors William Bonvillian and Sanjay Sarma. The book explores the gaps and problems in the U.S. workforce education system, while also spotlighting how programs, including ACC’s Advanced Manufacturing Technology program, help to mitigate deficiencies across the country to build a stronger workforce.

“We spent time visiting and learning about apprenticeship programs, about new employer training programs, and visiting lots of community colleges,” Bonvillian said. “We found that our community colleges are our critical, not-so-secret weapon in educating our workforce, so we spent time at many.”

While the two were researching programs, they learned from an MIT friend, who grew up in Enfield, about Asnuntuck’s program, and Bonvillian set up a visit to the college.

“I was very impressed by the programs they presented in advanced-manufacturing skills that reached not only community-college students, but students from area high schools and incumbent workers at area companies,” he said. “In the book, we called this the ‘trifecta’ — Asnuntuck was using its flexible programs, its year-round schedule, and its new advanced-manufacturing center with its up-to-date equipment to reach three groups: workers and high-school students, as well as more traditional community-college students.”

That outreach is a constant challenge, Bidwell said, noting that, while outdated perceptions about today’s manufacturing floors — which many older people believe are dirty and unsafe — are changing, they do persist, and work needs to be done to get young people interested.

“I think it’s better than it was, but we’re not there 100%,” she said of the perception problem, adding that many companies market themselves online with videos taken on their clean, high-tech floors. “We are getting a younger population than we did years ago, but we’re still going around the state, trying to educate as much as we can. Guidance counselors are a big piece in high school. We need guidance counselors talking up manufacturing, and they have to understand it themselves. We’ve definitely made strides in that.”

Educating parents about what these careers really entail is part of the process as well, she added.

ACC has had students on campus part-time in a hybrid model since the fall.

ACC has had students on campus part-time in a hybrid model since the fall.

“There’s a big push in high school now, but we want to get the middle schools, to get young people aware of manufacturing and create those career pathways. We’re looking at the inner cities, where there’s a lot of population, and the message is, ‘these are viable careers where you can sustain a family and have a good, livable wage.’”

Bonvillian believes Asnuntuck and similar programs can help satisfy the demand for educating a workforce that has been impacted this past year, and not just in manufacturing.

“The COVID crisis is hitting hard at some important sectors like retail and hospitality, and workers there may well need to find new work,” he said. “The U.S. needs to prioritize training more workers more quickly than the country’s current disconnected approach to workforce education allows.”

 

Opportunity Awaits

The connection that First Lady Jill Biden has to community colleges — and her advocacy for them — is important, too, in changing perceptions and helping people understand college and career opportunities they might not have considered, Bidwell said.

“We want more people to take advantage of all that community colleges have available. We see it in manufacturing, but also IT — there’s a big need for IT professionals, and for healthcare professionals.”

And she doesn’t expect any dip in opportunity for students — young or older — who want to explore the modern manufacturing world.

“There’s really a lot of energy in Connecticut, and in Western Mass., right over the border,” Bidwell said. “The plan is to get out of this [pandemic] and keep growing, and be ready for the demand when things turn around.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Business of Aging Special Coverage

Taking Shots

Rob Whitten, executive director of the Leavitt Family Jewish Home

Rob Whitten, executive director of the Leavitt Family Jewish Home, gets vaccinated in January. For the public, the process has been thornier.

February was the month all seniors in Massachusetts would finally be able to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Instead, it was a month of frustration.

“It’s simply inexcusable, in a state with the healthcare infrastructure and high-tech reputation we have, that the vaccine rollout was allowed to fall behind every other state so quickly,” state Sen. Eric Lesser told BusinessWest, calling the state’s scheduling website “an obstacle course with all these links and hoops to go through, instead of making it simple, like Travelocity or KAYAK or Open Table.”

That’s when it wasn’t crashing altogether, like it did two weeks ago, when the state opened up vaccine appointments to all individuals 65 and over, as well as individuals age 16 and older with two or more co-morbidities, from a list that includes asthma, cancer, obesity, diabetes, and a host of other conditions.

Later in phase 2, access will roll out to workers in the fields of education, transit, grocery stores, utilities, agriculture, public works, and public health, as well as individuals with one co-morbidity. Phase 3, expected to begin in April, will include everyone else.

Lesser hopes the process — not just to schedule a vaccination, but to get one — improves well before then. One positive was the establishment of a 24/7 call center for the many people who lack internet access (see related story on page 30), something he and dozens of other state lawmakers demanded.

Before that, with online-only signup, “you were locking out whole categories of people,” he noted. As for the website, “it is improving, but it’s still far too confusing and far too hard for people.”

In an address to the public last Thursday, Gov. Charlie Baker acknowledged the frustration around scheduling appointments, but noted that most of it comes down to supply and demand.

“I know how frustrated people are with the pace of the vaccine rollout and how anxious they are to get themselves and their loved ones vaccinated,” he said, but noted that about 450,000 requests for first-dose vaccines arrive each week from hospitals, community health centers, and other entities, but the state receives only 130,000 first doses of vaccine weekly from the federal government.

“We’re putting every dose we get to work each week,” Baker said. “But we don’t receive anywhere near enough vaccine each week from the feds to provide our existing vaccinators with what they request, or to work through most of the currently eligible population that wants a vaccine now. We want people to get vaccinated. We want people to be safe.”

In a hearing with legislators that day, the governor noted that residents have been able to book more than 300,000 appointments through the system despite its flaws, and that Massachusetts is first state in the nation in first doses administered per capita among the 24 states with more than 5 million residents.

While she understands the supply-and-demand issues, Dr. Nahid Bhadelia says the state’s website troubles have still been “a bit of a disappointment.”

While she understands the supply-and-demand issues, Dr. Nahid Bhadelia says the state’s website troubles have still been “a bit of a disappointment.”

State Rep. William Driscoll, the House chairman of the Joint Committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness and Management, was having none of it. “I just really want to stress that I think you’re missing how broken the system is right now,” he told Baker, “and the approach is not working for the citizens of the Commonwealth. It needs to be addressed.”

Baker’s hopes for more vaccine entering the state may get a boost from Pfizer and Moderna both annoucing plans to double production in March from February’s levels, and by the Johnson & Johnson vaccine nearing emergency authorization.

“They have some very good efficacy data, and they said they’ll deliver another 20 million doses. That’s a one-dose vaccine, so that’s 20 million more people, hopefully, immunized by the end of March,” said Dr. Nahid Bhadelia, infectious-disease physician and medical director of the Special Pathogens Unit at Boston Medical Center, in a Facebook Live conversation with state Sen. Adam Hines, also on Thursday.

Bhadelia understands Baker’s frustration with supply … to a point. “Demand really outweighs supply, still. But last week’s challenges with the website were kind of drastic,” she said. “That was a bit of a disappointment.”

She and Hinds agreed that a waiting list for a vaccine is one thing, but a waiting room just to get on the site is understandably frustrating for people.

However, she also noted some positives, like a movement at the state level toward delivering more doses to pharmacies and local clinics, after perhaps over-emphasizing the mass-vaccination sites (of which Western Mass., to date, hosts only one).

“I’m glad the governor is going back to clinics. We have to get them where people can access them,” Bhadelia said, adding that distribution through doctors’ offices and pharmacies is a tougher organizational challenge, but worth the effort to help people go to providers they trust.

She didn’t deny the website problems, however. “If they try and can’t access it, one day they will give up.”

 

Confidence Boost

And if there’s one thing healthcare professionals don’t want, it’s for people to lose their enthusiasm for getting vaccinated. That’s why the state and various health organizations have rolled out public messaging around the benefits of the vaccine, especially targeting people who might be skeptical of its benefits.

“We recognize it’s a journey, and folks might not feel comfortable with it today, but maybe you’ll feel comfortable tomorrow,” said Lindsey Tucker, associate commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH). “We want to be sure that, when you’re eligible for the vaccine, you can access it when you’re ready for it.”

“Even though you’re vaccinated, you still need to wear a mask, stay six feet apart, avoid crowds, and wash your hands frequently.”

Tucker said those words during a webinar held last month by the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts, which also featured input from Dr. Sarah Haessler, lead epidemiologist and infectious-disease specialist at Baystate Health, who has emerged as a leading local voice in public information around COVID-19.

Haessler detailed the amount of data that emerged from clinical trials for the vaccines, and noted that the FDA will approve one only if the expected benefits outweigh potential risks.

“The FDA reviewed all the data — it’s pages and pages and pages of data — around every single thing they did in these clinical trials to be sure of the safety and efficacy of the vaccination,” she said, noting that multiple mechanisms are currently in place to track instances of side effects.

While significant side effects are rare — anaphylaxis is one, which is why individuals receiving the shots must remain at the vaccination site for 15 to 30 minutes — most people experience nothing more than arm soreness, fever, chills, tiredness, and headache; most symptoms fade after a day or two, although they last longer in rare cases. Many people feel no effects at all.

“It’s certainly a lot safer to get the vaccine knowing there are just minor side effects than to take your chances getting infected with COVID-19,” Haessler added. “The more people we vaccinate, the closer we get to herd immunity, and the closer we get to going back to life, where we can see our family and friends and return to pre-pandemic activity.”

Also in February, during the Massachusetts Medical Society’s monthly COVID-19 conference call with DPH physicians, State Epidemiologist Dr. Catherine Brown talked about the DPH’s public vaccine-confidence campaign.

“The campaign recognizes that there are particular populations, especially people of color and other minority populations, that may have understandable increased concern about receiving the vaccine,” Brown said, noting that Public Health Commissioner Dr. Monica Bharel considers health equity to be a primary priority. “Therefore, DPH is having additional, ongoing conversations about the best ways to try to improve vaccine confidence among some of these groups that are harder to reach.”

At the same time, Haessler was quick to note that the vaccine is not a license to stop doing the things that slow the viral spread. It takes about 10 days for someone to begin developing immunity after the first dose, and full protection doesn’t arrive until about 14 days after the second dose. But it’s still unknown how easily vaccinated individuals can spread the virus to others.

“The bottom line is, even though you’re vaccinated, you still need to wear a mask, stay six feet apart, avoid crowds, and wash your hands frequently,” she explained, noting that vaccination is the last layer of protection, but far from the only one.

It is, of course, a critical one, and that’s a message she continues to spread to those who might be anxious about making an appointment.

“Educate yourself about vaccine safety and talk to trusted sources — your own personal healthcare provider as well as people you know who have been vaccinated,” Haessler said. “Many, many healthcare workers in our community are vaccinated now because we went first.

“I think a lot of our healthcare workers were anxious at first, but as they saw their colleagues getting the vaccine and doing fine with it, they were excited, because now there’s a light at the end of the tunnel — there’s some hope that helped bolster confidence in it,” she went on. “The more we know about this, the more people will feel comfortable with it. Knowledge is power.”

 

Better Days?

Bhadelia, who is also an assistant professor at Boston University School of Medicine and has spoken on CNN and MSNBC about the pandemic, said she’s optimistic about the fact that COVID cases in Massachusetts have been trending down, while acknowledging that testing has also gone down in the Bay State during the vaccine rollout.

Still, she added, “there is a general consensus that it’s not only the testing that’s gone down; it seems there is truly a drop in cases.”

Concern lingers about the COVID-19 variants, which are currently circulating in Massachusetts, particularly the South African variant, which may affect the efficacy of vaccines. But she noted that, even against that variant, vaccination will reduce the risk of severe hospitalization and death.

Taking a federal perspective, Bhadelia also praised the Biden administration’s approach to the vaccine rollout, which she said is science-based and features regular briefings. “The science is always changing, so it’s really great to stay on top of it instead of just guessing at what’s behind the curtain.”

Most Americans, of course, just want to know what’s down the road. So does the governor.

“We want people to turn the corner on COVID, and I can’t tell you how much we would like to see that happen faster,” Baker said. “But to put to work all the folks who are available today to vaccinate our residents and dramatically increase the number of people able to get vaccinated each week here in the Commonwealth, we’re going to need to see a dramatic increase in federal supply coming to Massachusetts.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Special Coverage

Taking Shots

By Joseph Bednar

February was the month all seniors in Massachusetts would finally be able to get the COVID-19 vaccine.

Instead, it was a month of frustration.

“It’s simply inexcusable, in a state with the healthcare infrastructure and high-tech reputation we have, that the vaccine rollout was allowed to fall behind every other state so quickly,” state Sen. Eric Lesser told BusinessWest, calling the state’s scheduling website “an obstacle course with all these links and hoops to go through, instead of making it simple, like Travelocity or KAYAK or Open Table.”

That’s when it wasn’t crashing altogether, like it did two weeks ago, when the state opened up vaccine appointments to all individuals 65 and over, as well as individuals age 16 and older with two or more co-morbidities, from a list that includes asthma, cancer, obesity, diabetes, and a host of other conditions.

Later in phase 2, access will roll out to workers in the fields of education, transit, grocery stores, utilities, agriculture, public works, and public health, as well as individuals with one co-morbidity. Phase 3, expected to begin in April, will include everyone else.

Lesser hopes the process — not just to schedule a vaccination, but to get one — improves well before then. One positive was the establishment of a 24/7 call center for the many people who lack internet access (see related story on page 30), something he and dozens of other state lawmakers demanded.

Before that, with online-only signup, “you were locking out whole categories of people,” he noted. As for the website, “it is improving, but it’s still far too confusing and far too hard for people.”

In an address to the public last Thursday, Gov. Charlie Baker acknowledged the frustration around scheduling appointments, but noted that most of it comes down to supply and demand.

“I know how frustrated people are with the pace of the vaccine rollout and how anxious they are to get themselves and their loved ones vaccinated,” he said, but noted that about 450,000 requests for first-dose vaccines arrive each week from hospitals, community health centers, and other entities, but the state receives only 130,000 first doses of vaccine weekly from the federal government.

“We’re putting every dose we get to work each week,” Baker said. “But we don’t receive anywhere near enough vaccine each week from the feds to provide our existing vaccinators with what they request, or to work through most of the currently eligible population that wants a vaccine now. We want people to get vaccinated. We want people to be safe.”

In a hearing with legislators that day, the governor noted that residents have been able to book more than 300,000 appointments through the system despite its flaws, and that Massachusetts is first state in the nation in first doses administered per capita among the 24 states with more than 5 million residents.

State Rep. William Driscoll, the House chairman of the Joint Committee on COVID-19 and Emergency Preparedness and Management, was having none of it. “I just really want to stress that I think you’re missing how broken the system is right now,” he told Baker, “and the approach is not working for the citizens of the Commonwealth. It needs to be addressed.”

Baker’s hopes for more vaccine entering the state may get a boost from Pfizer and Moderna both annoucing plans to double production in March from February’s levels, and by the Johnson & Johnson vaccine nearing emergency authorization.

“They have some very good efficacy data, and they said they’ll deliver another 20 million doses. That’s a one-dose vaccine, so that’s 20 million more people, hopefully, immunized by the end of March,” said Dr. Nahid Bhadelia, infectious-disease physician and medical director of the Special Pathogens Unit at Boston Medical Center, in a Facebook Live conversation with state Sen. Adam Hines, also on Thursday.

Bhadelia understands Baker’s frustration with supply … to a point. “Demand really outweighs supply, still. But last week’s challenges with the website were kind of drastic,” she said. “That was a bit of a disappointment.”

She and Hinds agreed that a waiting list for a vaccine is one thing, but a waiting room just to get on the site is understandably frustrating for people.

However, she also noted some positives, like a movement at the state level toward delivering more doses to pharmacies and local clinics, after perhaps over-emphasizing the mass-vaccination sites (of which Western Mass., to date, hosts only one).

“I’m glad the governor is going back to clinics. We have to get them where people can access them,” Bhadelia said, adding that distribution through doctors’ offices and pharmacies is a tougher organizational challenge, but worth the effort to help people go to providers they trust.

She didn’t deny the website problems, however. “If they try and can’t access it, one day they will give up.”

Confidence Boost

And if there’s one thing healthcare professionals don’t want, it’s for people to lose their enthusiasm for getting vaccinated. That’s why the state and various health organizations have rolled out public messaging around the benefits of the vaccine, especially targeting people who might be skeptical of its benefits.

“We recognize it’s a journey, and folks might not feel comfortable with it today, but maybe you’ll feel comfortable tomorrow,” said Lindsey Tucker, associate commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH). “We want to be sure that, when you’re eligible for the vaccine, you can access it when you’re ready for it.”

Tucker said those words during a webinar held last month by the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts, which also featured input from Dr. Sarah Haessler, lead epidemiologist and infectious-disease specialist at Baystate Health, who has emerged as a leading local voice in public information around COVID-19.

Haessler detailed the amount of data that emerged from clinical trials for the vaccines, and noted that the FDA will approve one only if the expected benefits outweigh potential risks.

“The FDA reviewed all the data — it’s pages and pages and pages of data — around every single thing they did in these clinical trials to be sure of the safety and efficacy of the vaccination,” she said, noting that multiple mechanisms are currently in place to track instances of side effects.

While significant side effects are rare — anaphylaxis is one, which is why individuals receiving the shots must remain at the vaccination site for 15 to 30 minutes — most people experience nothing more than arm soreness, fever, chills, tiredness, and headache; most symptoms fade after a day or two, although they last longer in rare cases. Many people feel no effects at all.

“It’s certainly a lot safer to get the vaccine knowing there are just minor side effects than to take your chances getting infected with COVID-19,” Haessler added. “The more people we vaccinate, the closer we get to herd immunity, and the closer we get to going back to life, where we can see our family and friends and return to pre-pandemic activity.”

Also in February, during the Massachusetts Medical Society’s monthly COVID-19 conference call with DPH physicians, State Epidemiologist Dr. Catherine Brown talked about the DPH’s public vaccine-confidence campaign.

“The campaign recognizes that there are particular populations, especially people of color and other minority populations, that may have understandable increased concern about receiving the vaccine,” Brown said, noting that Public Health Commissioner Dr. Monica Bharel considers health equity to be a primary priority. “Therefore, DPH is having additional, ongoing conversations about the best ways to try to improve vaccine confidence among some of these groups that are harder to reach.”

At the same time, Haessler was quick to note that the vaccine is not a license to stop doing the things that slow the viral spread. It takes about 10 days for someone to begin developing immunity after the first dose, and full protection doesn’t arrive until about 14 days after the second dose. But it’s still unknown how easily vaccinated individuals can spread the virus to others.

“The bottom line is, even though you’re vaccinated, you still need to wear a mask, stay six feet apart, avoid crowds, and wash your hands frequently,” she explained, noting that vaccination is the last layer of protection, but far from the only one.

It is, of course, a critical one, and that’s a message she continues to spread to those who might be anxious about making an appointment.

“Educate yourself about vaccine safety and talk to trusted sources — your own personal healthcare provider as well as people you know who have been vaccinated,” Haessler said. “Many, many healthcare workers in our community are vaccinated now because we went first.

“I think a lot of our healthcare workers were anxious at first, but as they saw their colleagues getting the vaccine and doing fine with it, they were excited, because now there’s a light at the end of the tunnel — there’s some hope that helped bolster confidence in it,” she went on. “The more we know about this, the more people will feel comfortable with it. Knowledge is power.”

Better Days?

Bhadelia, who is also an assistant professor at Boston University School of Medicine and has spoken on CNN and MSNBC about the pandemic, said she’s optimistic about the fact that COVID cases in Massachusetts have been trending down, while acknowledging that testing has also gone down in the Bay State during the vaccine rollout.

Still, she added, “there is a general consensus that it’s not only the testing that’s gone down; it seems there is truly a drop in cases.”

Concern lingers about the COVID-19 variants, which are currently circulating in Massachusetts, particularly the South African variant, which may affect the efficacy of vaccines. But she noted that, even against that variant, vaccination will reduce the risk of severe hospitalization and death.

Taking a federal perspective, Bhadelia also praised the Biden administration’s approach to the vaccine rollout, which she said is science-based and features regular briefings. “The science is always changing, so it’s really great to stay on top of it instead of just guessing at what’s behind the curtain.”

Most Americans, of course, just want to know what’s down the road. So does the governor.

“We want people to turn the corner on COVID, and I can’t tell you how much we would like to see that happen faster,” Baker said. “But to put to work all the folks who are available today to vaccinate our residents and dramatically increase the number of people able to get vaccinated each week here in the Commonwealth, we’re going to need to see a dramatic increase in federal supply coming to Massachusetts.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at bednar at businesswest.com

Coronavirus Features Special Coverage

Welcome Mat

At the practice she owns in Wilbraham, Excel Therapy & Conditioning, Dr. Sara Hulseberg is used to multiple physical therapists and coaches treating a host of patients each day, and for the center’s gym to be a hive of activity for members recovering from injury or improving their performance.

It’s quieter now, with a fraction of the usual patients in treatment rooms and in the gym at a time, and plenty of space between everyone.

That’s life in the capacity-limited world of doing business in the age COVID-19, but Hulseberg has rolled with the punches because … what choice does she have?

“With the way things are going for some of my friends who have closed down, I’m thrilled we’re still open,” she told BusinessWest. “I’ve had to take advantage of PPP loans and disaster-relief loans in order to make sure we can stay open, but we are still able to serve our patients and clients, and they’re excited to be coming in.”

That said, she added, it’s difficult to make a profit in survival mode, when the first priority is keeping the doors open and keeping employees paid.

“Those are small victories, and it’s a testament to the fact that we’re doing something right, because people feel safe coming in for group classes. In so many places, group classes have all but disappeared. I’ll take the small victories, and hopefully, we’ll find a way to combat this season and actually start making money again. The goal is to serve people, but it would be nice to make money while doing it.”

On the other hand, Nick Noblit, general manager of Yankee Mattress in Agawam, hasn’t struggled too badly with the past eight months of forced 25% capacity, because that capacity isn’t too onerous in a store with more floor space per customer than most.

“With the way things are going for some of my friends who have closed down, I’m thrilled we’re still open. I’ve had to take advantage of PPP loans and disaster-relief loans in order to make sure we can stay open, but we are still able to serve our patients and clients, and they’re excited to be coming in.”

He did feel the weight of the restrictions during the state’s tax-free holiday back in August — when the store typically does about two months of business in one weekend.

“At that point, we were still at minimum capacity, and we did have to have a greeter at the door monitoring how many people were in the store at one time. We had some folks waiting outside or in their cars, and we had water for them.”

Still, Noblit added, “it wasn’t a huge issue for us, to be honest. I can imagine a retail store that sees a lot more foot traffic, like a small grocery store or a small drugstore — they’re more affected.”

No matter to what extent each business is affected by capacity limits, they collectively cheered Gov. Charlie Baker’s raising of those limits from 25% to 40% on Feb. 8.

For many operations just trying to survive, every bit helps, especially when they’ve not only followed state mandates for keeping their workplaces safe, but in many ways gone above and beyond, said Nancy Creed, president of the Springfield Regional Chamber.

Nancy Creed says businesses have become adept at pivoting

Nancy Creed says businesses have become adept at pivoting and dealing with state mandates, but some, like restaurants, have been especially challenged economically.

“I have to give our business community a lot of credit because when sector-specific protocols came out, and everyone needed to sanitize all these things to keep people safe, they stepped up to the plate, and did that at a lot of expense to themselves. They deserve a lot of credit.

“I really think it’s a testament to our community that the business community said, ‘we want to be part of the solution and not part of the problem,’” she added. “I give them a lot of credit because they could have thrown in the towel if they wanted to.”

Raising capacity limits isn’t a cure-all to businesses’ struggles, of course, especially when the governor has moved in both directions in the past year, loosening restrictions only to tighten them again. But it’s a start.

 

Traffic Report

Businesses affected by the capacity change include restaurants, arcades and recreational businesses, driving and flight schools, gyms and health clubs, libraries, museums, retail stores, offices, places of worship, and movie theaters, to name a few. Workers and staff do not count toward the occupancy count for restaurants and close-contact personal services.

“Clearly, the restaurant industry has been the most impacted,” Creed said. “With other business sectors and office workers, it’s easier for them to reduce their capacity limits because they can work remotely. And small restaurants have struggled the most — when you have six or eight tables to begin with, it’s not worth doing in-person dining if you have to scale down to one or two tables.”

While some sectors are struggling more than others, she added, most members she’s heard from understand the reasons for the state’s mandates, even when they feel they’re too strict.

“I’m not hearing people complain as much; I think they’re now used to it and able to figure out what to do. I’m hearing a lot of stories of restaurants that are doing well with takeout, which helps make up for the low capacity, but it’s still not easy.”

The same goes for outdoor dining — like takeout, a feature many restaurants either launched or vastly expanded out of necessity, but plan to stick with post-pandemic.

“A lot of places will continue with that because they can expand their capacity with outdoor dining and had such success with it,” Creed said. “Customers are telling them, ‘we’ve always wanted outdoor dining, and we hope you keep it.’”

Yankee Mattress saw intriguing changes in customer behavior as well.

“The number of people who don’t want to stop in, we made up for over the phones,” Noblit said, noting that 2020 was a strong year for online sales as well. “Because of the shutdown, we were closed almost three months, and during that period of time, the only way you could get a mattress was online.”

Nick Noblit says he’s had to manage overflow lines rarely during the pandemic, most notably during tax-free weekend in August.

Even after stores were allowed to open later that spring, many customers continued to use the online option, which was a bit surprising, he added. “This is definitely an item, I believe, you should try before, so you know what’s comfortable for you. But it was a sign that our customers in this area took the pandemic very seriously and are taking precautions, and if that meant calling over the phone and making decisions based on our products and our name, that’s OK too.”

While companies have rolled with the capacity changes, and, as noted, honed new ways to do business in the long term, what they don’t like is sudden change, like what happened in Amherst and Hadley last week.

On Feb. 8 — the morning the 40% capacity change went into effect statewide — the Amherst Board of Health issued an emergency order that will continue the 25% limit in town, as well as an early-closing order, due to an outbreak of COVID-19 on the UMass Amherst campus that, at press time, had risen to 540 cases. The town of Hadley followed, also keeping capacity levels at 25%.

“This is not the direction that we, as a town, nor our businesses, want to go, but it is imperative that the town take decisive action immediately to address this increase in cases,” Amherst Town Manager Paul Bockelman said.

Claudia Pazmany, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, which has members in both towns, said some businesses chose to close completely for two weeks, either for safety or because UMass students are quarantined to their rooms for the time being, cutting off a supply of customers and, in many cases, employees.

“They’re crushed. They were finally opening at 40%,” Pazmany said, adding that some businesses consider the move unfair, especially the ones that have a strong track record in safety, sanitization, and keeping exposure down over the past year.

“As a chamber, we’re so concerned for everyone’s safety, and a lot of businesses are choosing to close temporarily for the safety of their staff,” she added. “Personally, I don’t want to see anyone struggling, but we want to keep the safety of businesses and the community paramount. It’s tricky; it’s such a layered issue.”

Even as the extension order went down, Amherst Public Health Director Emma Dragon emphasized that “it is in the interest of the health of our entire community that we continue the restrictions that are currently in place. Never has it been more important to follow those key public-health protocols of wearing a mask, washing hands, and maintaining social distance.”

 

Doing Their Part

Mention those tips to many business owners, and they’ll say they’ve been insisting on all that — and much more — from the beginning. “The biggest thing, early on, was the uncertainty, not knowing how the surge was going to affect us,” said Dr. K. Francis Lee, owner of Advanced Vein Care Center in Springfield.

But there are lessons, he says, in how his office responded to the pandemic — and continue to respond — that apply to many places of business. The first was making sure employees understood safety protocols and the importance of keeping themselves out of harm’s way.

“We immediately talked to our staff about their concerns, and our staff came to understand that this pandemic was real, and something that affects everyone’s bottom line — not just the business bottom line, but each person’s bottom line,” he said. “Our people took this very seriously, and everyone knew they had to behave in a way that minimized exposure and minimized transmission, to not bring it into the office and spread it amongst each other.”

The second step was communicating with patients, who were screened twice by phone before appointments — with questions about possible COVID exposure — and then again on the day of the appointment. If there was any doubt, patients were rescheduled or moved to telehealth visits.

“This is something that hits close to home for each individual; at the end of the day, it’s all about their jobs and our business functioning, and people are responsible for doing their part.”

Finally, Lee put in physical safeguards in the office, from PPE — he collected so much, he was able to donate 1,000 facemasks to Baystate Health last April — to installing 22 HEPA-filter air purifiers, at least one for every room. “We have a 50-page COVID safety protocol,” he added.

For customers who visit Yankee Mattress, Noblit said, the store is completely sanitized multiple times a day, with attention paid to common touch points like door handles and surfaces, while customers are given a sanitary sheet — he calls it a ‘comfort test guard’ — to lay on as they try various mattresses. Plastic barriers also went up at counters to separate customers from staff.

“We wanted customers to feel safe and come in and do what they needed to do, and not have to worry about any issues with that,” he noted.

Making people feel confident to go about their business should be a community-wide effort, Lee suggested.

“It comes down to normalizing people’s behavior. That involves dealing with the COVID virus itself, which involves paying a lot of attention to science, and that’s what we did in the first place. We started inside people’s heads — we helped our people understand that this is real, and if people screw up, the whole office could shut down. But we never had to shut down — except for April and May, when everyone was shut down.

“Everyone understood this was their own job security at stake,” he continued. “Major workplaces have been shut down because of this. This is something that hits close to home for each individual; at the end of the day, it’s all about their jobs and our business functioning, and people are responsible for doing their part.”

For just about every customer-facing business, there’s a balance to strike between commerce and safety. Because Excel isn’t just a gym, but a full therapy practice, Hulseberg doesn’t have to maintain a laser focus on gym membership. “Our gym, at its core, is a love note to our patients,” she said. “We tend to run our gym differently than the big chain conglomerates, so the limits have hurt us less.”

Specifically, during the past several months of 25% capacity, she sold memberships only up to that level.

“I don’t want people buying memberships and then finding it too occupied or they don’t feel safe,” she said, adding that she implemented a timed appointment platform online, but members can also call last minute to check on availability. “It gives everyone peace of mind that we’re here for a massage or a group class, but everything has a cap on it, and we have safety requirements in mind.”

 

Winds of Change

In fact, even though the state has raised the capacity limit to 40%, Hulseberg is keeping it at 25% — for now.

“We’ve had a year’s experience with this,” she said. “We’re going to wait to implement any of their changes because they tend to roll back on us, and we end up spending time and money implementing new changes, just to have them roll back in a week or two.”

Besides, she said, she doesn’t want to be part of the problem that leads to a spike — although gyms and wellness practices, by and large, have not been identified as viral-spread locations. “We’re just happy we’re hanging on thus far and people are enthusiastic about what we’re doing, so we don’t have to close our doors.”

The worry that loosened restrictions can just as easily be re-tightened is common to most businesses, Pazmany said.

“The one guarantee this year is that whatever we’re dealing with today will change tomorrow,” she said, and that reality has worn on business owners, especially those in Amherst and Hadley, who can’t seem to catch a break right now — and who continue to remind customers that they’re still open for business.

“They are exhausted,” she added. “They’ve implemented safety protocols, they’ve kept everyone safe, they’re building confidence because they want everyone back. They’ve proven you can trust them, and trust is everything to a small business. So they were excited to expand to 40%. I can tell you, if this is prolonged, it could mean more closures. They need to get to 40%.”

It’s a reminder that all these numbers — case counts, capacity limits, profit-and-loss statements — add up to something significant for a regional business community that’s just trying to get back to normal … or, whatever capacity level passes for normal these days.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Class of 2021

By Highlighting and Supporting the Under-recognized, He’s Changing Lives

Leah Martin Photography

For almost three decades, Harold Grinspoon has built an impressive network of philanthropic endeavors by asking a key question: who deserves more help and recognition than they’re currently receiving?

The most recent major piece of that network, the Local Farmer Awards, are a perfect example.

“Farmers have a really hard time making a living, and they work so hard,” he told BusinessWest, citing, as an example, a farmstand he frequents in the Berkshires, whose proprietor once told him about her difficulties getting water from a nearby mountain to her farm.

“Selling corn at fifty cents an ear doesn’t leave too much extra for a pipeline,” he said. “She gave me an idea — what can we do for the farmers? Farmers need help. Farmers never ask for help. They’re the most humble, hardworking people in the world. And this idea came to me to help them with capital improvements.”

Since the 2015 launch of the Local Farmer Awards, the Harold Grinspoon Charitable Foundation (HGCF) has given 375 awards — of up to $2,500 — to about 200 farmers in Western Mass. to aid with capital projects. In doing so, the foundation and its team of corporate partners has invested more than $885,000 in local farming.

“Farmers need help. Farmers never ask for help. They’re the most humble, hardworking people in the world. And this idea came to me to help them with capital improvements.”

“We don’t do anything alone,” said Cari Carpenter, director of the Local Farmer Awards and the Entrepreneurship Initiative, two key programs of the HGCF. “Big Y came on board right at the start because they’re such advocates for local products and wanted to support the local farmers.”

Other program partners — Baystate Health, Ann and Steve Davis, Farm Credit East, HP Hood, and PeoplesBank — have signed on over the years as well, making the Local Farmer Awards an ideal representation of what Grinspoon tries to accomplish with each of his charitable programs (and we’ll talk about several of them in a bit). That is, partnering with like-minded individuals, foundations, and businesses to not only support worthy causes, but stimulate philanthropy across the region.

In other words, making a difference shouldn’t be a solo performance.

“From my point of view, if you made the money in the Valley, you’d better give it back to the Valley,” he said. “You have to give back. This is where you made your living, and these are the people you need to support.”

In the case of farmers, that support is more critical now than ever.

“To show you just how significant the need is, we just closed out our application cycle on January 31, and we had 170 applications,” Carpenter said. “These are 170 unique projects in our region, and when you read through them, the words ‘COVID’ and ‘pandemic’ were repeatedly mentioned, and how they’ve really had to change their whole strategy of ‘how do I even deliver products to customers?’

“We just feel we’ve met a need in good times, and it’s even more of a need now during this pandemic,” she went on. “We really want to help the farmers reach their full potential. It’s a hard business, and by giving them these awards to help them purchase a tractor implement or netting to cover their blueberry bushes so birds won’t get at them, or whatever the project is, it’s to help the farm reach their full potential.”

Harold Grinspoon congratulates honorees at the Local Farmer Awards (top) and the Excellence in Teaching Awards.

Harold Grinspoon, now 91 years old, has been helping people — and communities — reach their potential in myriad ways for decades now. He’s a Difference Maker not only for where he directs his money, but for the thought and passion he puts behind each initiative — and for planting the seed for others to get involved, too.

 

Giving Back

Grinspoon made his fortune as a real-estate entrepreneur, founding Aspen Square Management almost 60 years ago and watching the company bloom into a nationally recognized housing group managing more than 15,000 properties across the country.

In 1991, he established the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, focused on enhancing and improving Jewish life and culture. The Harold Grinspoon Charitable Foundation, which raises funds and awareness for a number of educational and entrepreneurial activities in the Western Mass. region, followed soon after.

As he worked his way up in real estate, he told BusinessWest in a 2008 interview, he developed a great sense of appreciation for the average blue-collar worker, and for the opportunities this country has afforded him, and felt a real responsibility to give back.

“I always knew, if I made it, I was going to give it away. I didn’t want to spend the entirety of my life making money,” he said at the time. “Philanthropy has, in many respects, set me free.”

Perhaps the best way to examine his collective impact is through his foundations’ individual programs, such as the Grinspoon Entrepreneurship Initiative, a collaboration among 14 area colleges and universities.

Behind Harold Grinspoon are photos

Behind Harold Grinspoon are photos of his large, colorful sculptures created from dead trees, many of which can be seen around the region.

Since 2003, the program has recognized and awarded more than 1,000 students for their entrepreneurial spirit and business ideas, while its entrepreneurship education, competition, and celebration events have reached well over 10,000 students and members of the community.

“That’s very close to my heart,” he noted. “Every college and university in the Valley is involved with that.”

The program actually offers four awards each year, each aimed at a different stage of the startup experience: elevator-pitch awards for compelling ideas, concept awards for startups in the pre-revenue stage, Entrepreneurial Spirit awards for companies that have begun to generate revenue, and alumni awards for later-stage successes.

“Elevating the stature of entrepreneurs has been incredibly impactful among these college students,” Carpenter said. “It gives them the sense this could be a viable career option. On top of that, it recognizes the importance of creative thinking — one of Harold’s beliefs — to help people realize the importance of being curious and using their creativity, and that’s what these entrepreneurs are doing.”

The Pioneer Valley Excellence in Teaching Awards debuted the same year, and with the same idea: to recognize, inspire, and help a critically important group of people.

“Financially, because I’m a businessman, I can afford to financially give. But I know people who are very humble financially, but are very giving of their time and energy and their spirit, and their legacy is so important to them.”

“To be a great teacher is amazing,” Grinspoon said. “They’re molding children at a very impressionable age, and we’re recognizing them for the outstanding work they do. I think someone should stand up and applaud the teachers.”

Applaud he does, at three separate banquets each year, to accommodate all the winners and the friends, families, and colleagues who come out to support them.

“If you know anything about Harold, he wants to recognize under-recognized people,” said Sue Kline, who spearheaded the Excellence in Teaching Awards for many years. “He thinks of his own path and the difference that teachers made in his own life, and he saw an opportunity where not enough was being done.”

These days, the program recognizes more than 100 teachers each year from about 45 school districts. “Like everything he does, it has evolved over time,” Kline said, noting that, in addition to the $250 cash prize, each honoree has the opportunity to apply for a Classroom Innovator Prize to bring some form of project-based learning into the classroom.

Harold Grinspoon in his art workshop

Harold Grinspoon in his art workshop with fellow artist Alicia Renadette.

“This isn’t really intended for teachers about to retire, although districts can nominate anyone they feel is outstanding,” Kline said. “It’s meant to encourage mid-level teachers who want to do more. That’s what the project-based learning part does — to help them do something they’ve always wanted to try.”

It’s an extra touch that separates these awards from other recognition programs, just as the Local Farmer Awards ceremony invites each winner to bring $50 worth of products, to create ‘harvest swap bags’ that all guests receive at the end.

“These things represent his own creative thinking, his own energy — the way he cares about children and teachers, or about farmers not being well-supported,” Kline said. “That depth doesn’t come from every ordinary philanthropist, but it is reflected in everything his foundation and his charitable foundation do.”

 

Global Impact

Though Grinspoon, understandably, wanted to focus his recent interview with BusinessWest on the local efforts of the charitable foundation, the Harold Grinspoon Foundation — the arm that focuses on Jewish life — has quietly become a powerhouse across the country and around the world. For example:

• JCamp 180, launched in 2004, helps build the capacity of nonprofit Jewish camps through mentorship, professional-development opportunities, and challenge grants;

• PJ Library (2005) connects people to a colorful world of Jewish history, tradition, and values by delivering Jewish-themed books to hundreds of thousands of children and their families around the world each month;

• Voices & Visions (2010) is a poster series eliciting the power of art to interpret the words of great Jewish thinkers;

• Life & Legacy (2010) helps Jewish day schools, synagogues, social-service organizations, and other Jewish entities across North America build endowments that will provide financial stability; and

• PJ Our Way (2014), the ‘next chapter’ of PJ Library, provides tweens (ages 9-12) the gift of Jewish chapter books and graphic novels.

Several years ago, Grinspoon’s vast array of work attracted the attention of Warren Buffett, who invited Grinspoon and his wife, Diane Troderman, to join the Giving Pledge, a commitment by the world’s wealthiest indivduals to dedicate at least half their wealth to philanthropy.

“I met some fantastic people through the Giving Pledge,” he said, and reiterated why he was already well on his way to fulfilling the pledge even before joining it. “I don’t understand how people with wealth don’t give it back. It’s foreign to me. And I’m not just talking about giving serious dollars; I’m talking about giving your time and energy.”

These days, Grinspoon has more time to work on his art — his large, colorful sculptures created from dead, reassembled trees can be seen throughout the region — while he enjoys seeing decades of work in philanthropy take root in other, very real ways.

“For me, it’s about developing your legacy,” he said. “Who do you want to be known as? Financially, because I’m a businessman, I can afford to financially give. But I know people who are very humble financially, but are very giving of their time and energy and their spirit, and their legacy is so important to them.”

In other words, anyone can be a Difference Maker — just look to Harold Grinspoon for inspiration, and get to work.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Class of 2021

He Helps People with Parkinson’s Disease Live Healthier, More Confident Lives

Leah Martin Photography

Chad Moir calls his mother his greatest teacher.

“She really, truly lived by the mantra that you never look down on someone, and that you always stick your hand out to help them,” he said. “I’ve been lucky enough to be put in a position where I can help people while honoring my mother, and I can do it in a fun and exciting way.”

He’s referring to DopaFit Parkinson’s Movement Center, the business he started six years ago as the culmination of a tragic event — the premature passing of his greatest teacher, who was stricken with an aggressive form of Parkinson’s and was gone five years after her diagnosis.

Moir took his mother’s death hard. “I fell into a bit of a depression,” he told BusinessWest when we first spoke with him two years ago. “I hated Parkinson’s disease and everything to do with it. I didn’t even want to hear the word ‘Parkinson’s.’ But one day, something clicked, and I decided I was going to use my resentment toward Parkinson’s in a positive way and start to fight back.”

Today, DopaFit members, all of whom are at various stages of the disease, engage in numerous forms of exercise, from cardio work to yoga; from spinning to punching bags, and much more. On one level, activities are designed to help Parkinson’s patients live a more active life by improving their mobility, gait, balance, and motor skills.

“It has been proven through science that, when you do vigorous exercise while living with Parkinson’s disease, your symptoms won’t progress as quickly, and sometimes they are halted for a while as well. We have seen people whose symptoms have regressed.”

But research has shown, Moir said, that it does more than that: exercise releases the neurotransmitter dopamine into the brain, slowing the progress of Parkinson’s symptoms.

“Exercise is the only proven method to slow down the progression of Parkinson’s disease,” he told BusinessWest. “It has been proven through science that, when you do vigorous exercise while living with Parkinson’s disease, your symptoms won’t progress as quickly, and sometimes they are halted for a while as well. We have seen people whose symptoms have regressed. The goal is for people not to progress, or progress slowly, but if we can reverse some of those symptoms, that’s a big win.”

Members are typically referred to Moir from their movement-disorder specialist, neurologist, or physical therapist. “A lot of times, for our older members, it can be one of their kids who finds us; their parent was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, they want to do anything they can to help, and they come across us online.”

Whatever the case, Moir and his team will meet with the individual and often a family member and discuss symptoms, their story, and how DopaFit might help.

“We have about a 99% success rate of people who try it and stay,” he said. But getting in the door — or online, as the case may be in this challenging time — is only the beginning.

 

Recognizing a Need

Moir’s own beginnings in a career focused on this deadly disease was a half-marathon in New York City to raise some money for the Parkinson’s Disease Foundation. He ended up collecting about $6,000, and started to think about what else he could do for the Parkinson’s community.

Chad Moir says membership was climbing

Chad Moir says membership was climbing steadily before the pandemic, and it has been a challenge to keep everyone engaged, whether in person or virtually, over the past year.

While attending classes at American International College, he saw a need for a Parkinson’s exercise group in the area. “There is a lack of Parkinson’s services in general. I really, truly believed that if I built it, they would come. That was our motto, and I stuck to that motto through the hard times, and it certainly has brought us here. We thought there was a need, and we’ve proven there was a need.”

He started working with individuals in their homes, then opened the first DopaFit gym in Feeding Hills in 2015. He moved to the Eastworks building in Easthampton a year later, and then to the current location, at the Red Rock Plaza in Southampton, in 2018 — a site with more space, ample parking, and a handicapped-accessible entrance. He also launched a second, smaller DopaFit location in West Boylston.

When they first arrive at DopaFit, members undergo an assessment of where they are physically and where they would like to be in six months. Then they’re assigned to one of two exercise groups. One includes people who don’t need assistance getting in and out of chairs and can move about freely with no assistive equipment, like canes, walkers, or wheelchairs. The second group requires a little more assistance.

“With the group-exercise portion, that’s where we have to be very imaginative and come up with fun and different ways to work with you because there are different levels of disease progression,” he explained.

Programming has continued to expand. “Our goal is to provide every non-pharmalogical therapy that you can in one place for people with Parkinson’s disease,” Moir said. “So we have yoga, tai chi, our exercise classes and movement program, and the Art Cart.”

That latter piece, a nationally recognized creativity and movement program for individuals with Parkinson’s disease, was launched by Moir’s wife, Saba Shahid, who nominated him for the Difference Makers award.

The Southampton center is DopaFit’s third Western Mass. location, but Chad Moir envisions a larger space down the line, with more Parkinson’s treatment services in house.

“Chad is truly the definition of a Difference Maker,” Shahid wrote. “He has provided countless hours of free educational services for patients and assisted-living and nursing centers that provide support to people with Parkinson’s, and has spoken at a variety of seminars with the simple goal of spreading awareness about Parkinson’s and the importance of exercising for disease management. His dedication and love for others is seen in his daily efforts.”

Moir is always open to new modalities as well, such as a recent addition, ‘laughter yoga.’ A member brought the idea to him, and it turned out one of the practice’s leading instructors lives in East Longmeadow, and was happy to teach a class.

“Everybody loved it,” Moir said. “People said it made a difference that day, and in the days after, to be able to laugh again.”

Indeed, the past year has brought unforeseen stress to the lives of everyone, including business owners like Moir and the folks with Parkinson’s disease he serves.

“We had been growing exponentially prior to the pandemic; we had a little over 100 members, and we’d see about 80 of those members every week, at different sessions,” he recalled. And when COVID-19 shut down the economy, including DopaFit’s facilities, Moir had to pivot — fast.

“Yes, we do exercise, but we also educate, and then we empower. So we had to move the education online as well. Even though we couldn’t be in the space, we were able to support them physically and mentally.”

He quickly moved to an online model, starting with prerecorded exercise videos, daily e-mails, and phone calls. Zoom classes followed, which were more engaging and interactive than the videos, and trainers could work with members to make sure they were doing everything correctly.

“We did our best to keep our members engaged,” he added, through efforts like webinars with movement-disorder specialists to make sure members stayed current with the latest information. “Yes, we do exercise, but we also educate, and then we empower. So we had to move the education online as well. Even though we couldn’t be in the space, we were able to support them physically and mentally.”

While the West Boylston facility remains shuttered and programs are run completely virtually, DopaFit’s Easthampton site opened about four months ago to small, scaled-down classes — two groups of no more than four people each — who work out separated by distance and dividers, and all surfaces and equipment are sanitized between each use.

“People who come say they feel 10 times safer here than they do going to the grocery store,” Moir said.

Through it all, he had his worries about surviving such a difficult time.

“The rent didn’t stop. The space was closed, but the bills were still here. But we’re blessed with a tremendous community,” he said, noting that local groups ran fundraisers to support DopaFit, and he was able to keep the business in operation and pay employees through the pandemic. “You truly see the impact when it’s taken away. Even people who don’t come here but know what we do wanted this service to stay available to the people in this community.”

 

Moving Ahead

Through it all — the expanded membership, and then the obstacles posed by COVID-19 — DopaFit’s outreach in the community has only grown, Moir said. “We’ve made some great connections with the local physical therapists and neurologists in the area, which has helped tremendously. We are now well-known as a very viable and necessary option for someone with Parkinson’s disease.

“When it comes to being innovative and trying new things, that is something we will always do,” he added. “The world is ever-changing, and there are so many great people who do so many great things that can help someone with Parkinson’s disease.”

With that in mind, the next goal is a larger, standalone building that offers not just a big exercise room, but plenty of rooms for other services, from education to support groups to social work. In short, Moir wants to take what he’s learned in the past six years and build a truly one-stop destination for people with Parkinson’s disease to access the resources they need.

Some things he’s learned have been unexpected — like mastering Zoom.

“I helped so many people navigate Zoom, many of them older people,” he said. “I figure, if this doesn’t work out, I can go to Zoom and work for their technical support. I’ve got that down.”

Fortunately for so many, his day job seems to be working out just fine, despite the recent challenges. And he’s grateful his members have a place where they can come and, well, just be themselves.

“It pains me to hear someone stopped talking to their friends because ‘I don’t want them to pity me.’ Or, ‘we used to go out to dinner every Thursday, but I stopped going because I shake too much and don’t want people looking at me.’

“But after spending time here with other people with Parkinson’s disease, they come back and say, ‘you know what? I felt confident to go out and have dinner with my friends, and I felt better than I’ve felt in 10 years,’” he said. “So the exercise is a beneficial part of this; it can physically make someone better. But being able to feel better and be more confident gives them so much empowerment in other ways.”

That’s yet another difference Moir wants to make in people’s lives, as he continues to honor the legacy of one great teacher.

“Knowing that I can make a difference in someone’s life, just a little bit of difference, means the world to me,” he said. “It’s the fuel that keeps me going through the day. And that we’ve been able to figure out how to do it on a bigger scale is just very exciting.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

In Demand

Tanya Vital-Basile

Tanya Vital-Basile with a common sight — a ‘sold’ sign.

Tanya Vital-Basile recently sold a house in Longmeadow to someone who might not have considered buying it a year ago.

But life changed — and so did the residential real-estate market. Considerably, in both cases.

Specifically, the buyer had lived in Boston for many years, and still has a job there, but she has been working remotely, and plans — like so many others these days — to continue doing so.

“She was paying $2,900 a month to rent in Boston, and here, she’s paying a $2,000 mortgage, and owning it,” said Vital-Basile, who heads a team at Executive Real Estate. “We’ve seen a lot of people moving out of Boston just because they don’t need to be out there anymore.”

It’s a story BusinessWest heard multiple times from area Realtors.

“It’s not unlike what we saw after 9/11 — a migration from the city to smaller towns and villages, a more rural environment,” said Kathy Zeamer of Jones Realty. “A lot of people today are looking for a place that gives them a little more space, private outdoor areas, home-office space, a place for their kids to do their schooling from home.”

“She was paying $2,900 a month to rent in Boston, and here, she’s paying a $2,000 mortgage, and owning it. We’ve seen a lot of people moving out of Boston just because they don’t need to be out there anymore.”

Call it the new normal wrought by a still-raging pandemic.

“COVID has a lot to do with it,” said Lesley Lambert of Park Square Realty. “People are working from home, and they’re realizing their home doesn’t work for their life. I’ve spoken to so many clients who want to continue working from home, even once all this clears, and they’re looking at their space and saying, ‘we thought we wanted a big, open floor plan, but what we actually want is a music room, a study, a home office.’”

All this demand — for a different home, but especially one far outside the metro areas — has created a serious imbalance with supply in Western Mass., creating a seller’s market like few this industry has experienced in recent decades.

“In Hampden County, the average days a house spends on the market is three. It’s crazy,” Vital-Basile said.

The most recent statistics from the Realtor Assoc. of Pioneer Valley bear this out. In December, home sales in the Pioneer Valley were up 29.2%, and median price was up 10.1%, from December 2019. Hampden County led the way (sales up 32.0% and median price up 11.5% from the previous year), but Franklin County (26% and 10.6%) and Hampshire County (20.4% and 9.1%) weren’t far behind.

Kathy Zeamer

Kathy Zeamer says the current climate is a supply-and-demand issue — with several factors driving that demand.

“It’s definitely a seller’s market, Zeamer said. “It’s all about supply and demand. The inventory is really low, and we have new people coming into the area, so we don’t have enough inventory to meet the demand we’re seeing.”

A few factors play into the supply challenge. Many families who might be thinking about moving out of the region are hunkering down instead because of uncertainties related to the pandemic. Meanwhile, home buyers aren’t putting their own houses on the market until they’ve got a new home nailed down.

As for demand, “I think people are trying to escape more urban areas,” she added. “We have people coming in from other parts of Massachusetts, including the Boston area. Most of my sales this year involve people from New York, California, Las Vegas, Chicago — more so than ever before. I’ve had several New York sales this year, which is more than I would typically see.”

 

Escaping the City

The lifestyle shifts driven by the pandemic aren’t the only factor driving demand, Vital-Basile said, noting that interest rates are still at historic lows, creeping below 3%.

“The rates are so low that a lot of people are realizing it’s much cheaper than renting,” she told BusinessWest, adding that sellers from the Hub find they can get much more living space for their money in the Pioneer Valley.

“It’s not unlike what we saw after 9/11 — a migration from the city to smaller towns and villages, a more rural environment. A lot of people today are looking for a place that gives them a little more space, private outdoor areas, home-office space, a place for their kids to do their schooling from home.”

“We’ve had a lot of buyers from Boston. My last three sales were from Boston — cash buyers. A lot of people are realizing they don’t have to work at their company’s location any longer; a lot of companies are letting them work from home. And this is a cheaper area — instead of a little condo for $700,000, you can get a good-sized house for $700,000.”

Zeamer said she’s also seeing an increased desire for multi-generational living experiences, which typically require a larger home than the buyer currently occupies. “They might have older parents or grown children, and they need more living space or in-law apartments.”

But the main driver for more space is simply the fact that families are spending much more time at home. “Because of the pandemic, they want more space, and different types of space,” Zeamer said. “Some people are moving because they feel cooped up in their existing homes; it’s too tight with the kids being home and partners working remotely from home.”

The pandemic has also generated a desire in some people to live more sustainably — to grow more food at home, for example, instead of relying totally on grocery stores, she noted. “They want to have a nice garden, and they’re thinking more about providing their own food sources.

“And I do think people are looking for more private outdoor space, where they can gather with their people, in their pod, without exposure from the neighbors,” she went on. “A lot of condos are coming on the market, perhaps because people in close living arrangements are looking to be more isolated.”

Lesley Lambert (center, celebrating another sale)

Lesley Lambert (center, celebrating another sale) says prime properties can get dozens of offers quickly — and over the asking price.

 

Lambert said the Berkshires and the Northampton/Easthampton area are both notable hotspots right now, but all of Western Mass., much like Cape Cod, is being seen as an attractive alternative to life in a metroplex.

“If they want to get out of their cities, it’s a good time, as a lot of companies are going with mobile workers. I think the brick-and-mortar concept is going to take a hit, and we’ll see more people realizing they don’t have to live where they work.”

Zeamer agreed. “I think Western Mass. is really appealing to a lot of urban types of buyers,” she said, noting, as tourism boards and chambers of commerce have for generations, that this region offers an urbane, progressive mindset in many corners, plus the kinds of cultural and recreational amenities city dwellers appreciate, but in a quieter, morte scenic setting with myriad ways to enjoy the great outdoors.

And, as noted, there are more seekers of such homes right now than sellers. As an example, Lambert recalled one house she sold last fall. “It was a lovely house, not a crazy McMansion. I had 50 showings in two days, and 15 offers — all over the asking price. From what I’m hearing from my teammates and fellow Realtors, it’s like that for everybody.”

 

Buying Time

While that makes for an exciting home-selling experience, it can be frustrating on the other side.

“There’s so much competition that people are struggling to secure a home,” Zeamer said. “And that’s keeping them from putting their own home on the market. It’s a great time to sell, but then you have to buy, and that part is very challenging right now.”

One of her colleagues at Jones recently got 18 offers on a property, some with cash in hand. “It’s hard to compete if there’s a cash offer in the mix. In urban areas, people are liquidating properties and have lots of cash in hand, and the prices here look pretty attractive compared to what they’re used to.”

“In Hampden County, the average days a house spends on the market is three .”

Also suppressing supply is the fact that some homeowners eyeing a move simply don’t want people in their houses during the pandemic, so they’re delaying a move, Vital-Basile said. “I ask sellers, ‘what makes you comfortable? Do you want a one-time showing, an open house with three families at a time, and after that, I’ll go and clean everything?’ It depends on the client.” Meanwhile, it can be especially tricky to sell a house with tenants if those tenants don’t want visitors due to COVID-19.

“Very rarely are you seeing open houses anymore. I can’t speak for all Realtors, but I switched to doing 3D home tours, where you can sit at your desktop and ‘walk’ through the house,” Lambert said, noting that in-person walk-throughs are reserved for houses the buyer is especially interested in.

In addition, “we can’t meet with clients like we used to,” she said. “We have to do a lot more remotely, talking on a phone call of Zoom call.”

The challenges of buying a house right now — both logistical and competitive — reinforce the need to have strong representation, said all the Realtors we spoke with. And to use common sense.

For instance, Vital-Basile said, some potential buyers are waiving appraisals and inspections to get a leg up, but she doesn’t recommend that. “I tell everyone, ‘don’t force the buy; you don’t want to be in a bad situation. Even if it’s the right house at the right price, don’t force it. Always have the agent negotiate.”

Lambert is certainly an advocate for the agent-client relationship — and not just any agent. “I tell them they need the strongest buyer’s agent they can find, and not just work with your cousin because he got his license six months ago. Sometimes that’s fine, but in this market, you have to know what you’re doing.”

That includes securing preapprovals and discussing beforehand what a competitive offer should looks like. “If the first time you talk to a buyer is when the boots are hitting the road, they’re going to freak out. It’s got to be a strategy you’ve developed with them regardless of the house they find.”

And it means, in many cases these days, being prepared to offer more than the asking price right off the bat, before someone else invariably does.

“I have a team of trusted affiliates who take great care of my clients, and when my clients listen to my well-erned advice, we have smooth sailing,” Lambert said. “I’m not the only realty team like that, of course. But it’s important to have advocates on your side right now.”

That said, the “crazy prices” sellers are getting don’t seem to be slowing up, Vital-Basile said. “I don’t think the market will tank anytime soon,” she said. “But a $180,000 house going for $275,000 … it can’t continue this way, or else the average homeowner won’t be able to afford a mortgage, and then the market will have to stabilize. Right now, though, there are too many buyers out there, ready to move.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Hampshire County Special Coverage

Uncertainty on the Menu

Fred Gohr says Fitzwilly’s shifted gears in a few ways last year, from expanded takeout service to outdoor dining under a large tent.

Fred Gohr says Fitzwilly’s shifted gears in a few ways last year, from expanded takeout service to outdoor dining under a large tent.

The weekend before March 17, Fitzwilly’s was gearing up for a great St. Patrick’s Day. That’s the day the Northampton St. Patrick’s Assoc. gathers for its annual breakfast, and then about 200 of them march on down to Fitzwilly’s and spend most of the day there.

“We have Irish bands, and we were sitting on 20 kegs of Guinness beer and a couple cases of Jameson’s Irish whiskey for a great big party — and it got pulled right out from under us,” owner Fred Gohr said.

Remember March 16? That’s the day restaurants — and most other businesses in the Commonwealth — were forced to shut down, on just two days notice, by order of Gov. Charlie Baker.

“It was awful,” Gohr went on. “We had a staff of about 75 people, and I had to tell them all, ‘we’re closed, and you guys have to go on unemployment for a while, and we’ll see what happens.’”

What happened, all across Hampshire County’s robust dining scene, has been a series of starts and stops, hope and despair, and especially two themes that kept coming up as BusinessWest sat with area proprietors: uncertainty, but also evolution.

“We were closed completely for a month or so, then we opened and started doing a little bit of curbside,” Gohr said. “And, honestly, when that’s all you’re doing — at least for us — it’s not very profitable.”

But takeout service, never a major factor in the business, has since morphed into a significant part of the model, accounting for about 25% of sales. Other restaurants have relied even more on pick-up service, because they don’t have the interior space or outdoor-dining opportunities that Fitzwilly’s has (more on those later).

“Last year, it felt like you were opening a new restaurant every single week. You had no historical data to compare; you couldn’t look at sales and ask, ‘how did we do this last time?’”

“It’s been such a whirlwind for small businesses the past 10 months, trying to get our bearings with all the changes,” said Alex Washut, who owns two Jake’s restaurants in Northampton and Amherst. “Last year, it felt like you were opening a new restaurant every single week. You had no historical data to compare; you couldn’t look at sales and ask, ‘how did we do this last time?’

That’s because there was no ‘last time’ — no comparable pandemic in the past century, anyway. “Everything was out the window,” Washut said. “We asked, ‘who are we going to be this week?’ Then there was a bunch of changes, and we had to conform to those, and then it was a new restaurant the next week.”

Like Fitzwilly’s, evolving to a takeout model early on was new territory for Jake’s. “We were never a takeout restaurant; maybe 3% of our gross was takeout food,” he said. “So we had no system for it.”

The various systems that area eateries developed, in the weeks last spring when takeout was the only option, involved details ranging from what containers to use to how to present food attractively and, for restaurants that opted for delivery, how to keep it warm in transit.

Casey Douglass

Casey Douglass with some of the supplies used in Galaxy’s takeout business, which has been its dominant model for almost a year.

“We were able to pivot quickly,” Washut noted. “From there, we moved to outdoor dining when that was allowed, but we had never had outdoor dining before” — and questions had to be answered regarding permitting, staffing, health and safety factors.

The positive, he noted, is that, if 2021 follows a similarly bumpy trajectory, “we know what’s expected, and we know how we’ll react in the spring, how we’ll react in the summer, and how we’ll react once the fall and winter come along.”

Indeed, the establishments that survived last year’s storm are, if not stronger for the experience, at least a little wiser, even as many are barely hanging on. The hope, of course, is that 2021 is nothing like 2020. But in this industry, so critical to the economy and cultural life of Hampshire County, nothing is certain.

 

Survival of the Fittest

“We’ve evolved a lot.”

Those were Casey Douglass’ first words when asked what this year has been like at Galaxy, the restaurant he’s operated in downtown Easthampton for the past five years.
The first evolution had to do with meeting customer needs. “We’re part of the food chain,” he said. “We have a lot of customers who don’t go to the supermarket. And we were like, ‘they’re going to be putting themselves at risk going to the supermarket as opposed to getting to-go.’

“So we went to the radio station and created an ad talking about ‘Casey’s comfort food,’” he went on. “And we switched to all a la carte, basic stuff — mac and cheese, mashed potatoes, roasted chicken, meatloaf — and we were cranking.”

So much that, when he secured a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan, he first thought he wouldn’t need it. “Then a couple weeks went by, and we said, ‘thank goodness we got that.’ It changed so quickly.”

Sales dropped to about 45% of what they once were, but he kept 70% of the labor on board, because that’s the main purpose of the PPP program. That money got Galaxy through the end of June. Then things got rough.

Jake’s owner Alex Washut

Jake’s owner Alex Washut says it might be a while before his two locations (this one in Amherst) are packed with patrons again.

After losing a couple of cooks to unemployment, the restaurant cut back from five days a week to four, and when summer rolled around, fewer customers wanted takeout, but outdoor dining wasn’t a draw, either.

Fall brought a reprieve of sorts, with the milder, less-humid weather boosting outdoor dining, but the winter has been exceptionally tricky. Indoor dining didn’t prove to be a workable option; in a space that seats fewer than 50, the governor’s current 25% capacity mandate is especially onerous, and Douglass and his team also felt indoor dining might not be safe — or, at least, feel safe — for a clientele that skews older than some restaurants.

So as winter wears on, Douglass is pressing on with takeout only — now a hybrid of the comfort-food concept and the creative American meals he’s known for — a bank loan, and plenty of grit.

“We’re just looking at survival at this point,” he said, noting that costs like food, loan interest, utilities, and equipment leases don’t just go away when sales are down. “We’re efficient at what we do, but we’re losing about $15,000 a month. And that’s not going to be able to continue.”

However, he insisted, “I do think the spring will increase sales a couple thousand dollars a week, and that’s all it takes. We’ll be fine.”

Evolving to a takeout model was jarring at first to Washut, especially since his two locations — an 1800s-era building in Northampton and a new, modern structure in North Amherst’s Mill District — are so different, with a different set of clientele, and not cookie-cutter businesses like quick-service chains.

“We’re just looking at survival at this point. We’re efficient at what we do, but we’re losing about $15,000 a month. And that’s not going to be able to continue.”

“We didn’t know how to be a takeout restaurant. We were making $50 in sales a day — we were in shock,” he recalled. So he shut things down completely through April, secured a PPP loan and other grant funds, and reopened for takeout in early May, then outdoor seating a couple months later. Armed with the PPP, he was able to bring back the whole staff, and the breakfast-and-lunch establishment added dinners to generate more business. When funds ran dry, dinner went away.

These days, with takeout and limited indoor seating, Washut is bringing in about 30% of typical sales, and the combined staff is down from close to 50 to around 15.

Throughout all the changes, he has prioritized safety. Even if the governor’s 25% seating rule changes tomorrow, he said, “I’m not going to increase my dining room beyond 25%; my staff and I don’t feel that’s appropriate right now. There may be things we’re allowed to do but, in reality, we choose not to do.”

Gohr had a few advantages last year when it came to keeping people safe while generating business. One was a large parking lot next to Fitzwilly’s that he rented from its owner for tented outdoor dining. He could seat 70 there, while the city of Northampton’s decision to turn parking spaces on Main Street into dining space added about eight more tables to the restaurant’s existing sidewalk seating.

“We really had a great summer,” he told BusinessWest. “Through the summer, we had a capacity of 100-plus guests, the majority of them outdoors.”

Gohr’s other advantage is a large indoor space with a normal capacity of 280. The 25% mandate has hurt this winter, for sure, as did Baker’s 9:30 p.m. curfew, which was only recently lifted. But seating 70 — separated by plexiglass barriers — is better than seating a dozen.

“We’re very fortunate to have a lot of room in here, and we’re able to distance people. These places that have even 50 seats — and there’s a lot of places in town with just six tables — but even the ones with 50 seats, now you’re down to letting 12 people in. You can’t survive. So we’re fortunate given the size we have. Seventy people gets us by. We can survive on that if it doesn’t change.”

Casey Douglass is confident Galaxy will return

Casey Douglass is confident Galaxy will return to its go-to dining status in Easthampton once it’s safe to eat out again.

A mild winter, weather-wise, helps as well. “If you start getting snowstorms on weekends on top of all the other stuff, then we’d be in trouble. But we’ve had pretty good weekends.”

A PPP loan and other grants also helped, and he’s applied for a second PPP loan, with this round capping the disbursement for certain hard-hit industries, including restaurants, higher than the first, so he’s hopeful for another influx to carry him to the spring. He’s already in talks about renting the parking lot again, and the city has discussed moving outdoor seating into Main Street again as well.

 

Pressing Through

Still, Gohr, like every other restaurant owner, knows 2021 could be another year of upheaval. “We’re hoping everyone gets the vaccine and we get back to normal. But I don’t think it’s going to be real quick.”

He’s appreciative of customers eating in the restaurant, and said gift-card sales were strong over the holidays, although not to the level of a typical year, when more people are out shopping. And he does believe outdoor dining will be a hit again. But it’s harder to pin down when customers will flock to restaurants at pre-2020 levels.

“My gut tells me it’s not going to be in the spring; it’ll be late summer or fall before we get to that point,” he said. “The mindset that I see in the public is all over the place. I know people — friends and some of my regular customers — that have not been anywhere since March. And then there are others, the minute we opened the doors, they were back. Everybody’s obviously more careful, but everyone’s comfort level is completely different. It’s a wide spectrum.”

Douglass senses real community support for Galaxy, noting that some regulars stop by three times a week, and others drop big tips and cheerlead for the establishment among their peers.

“I feel like, at least in this community, [the pandemic] hasn’t hurt on a big scale economically,” he said. “We haven’t had factories shut down. I’ve heard people are paying their rents. And I think, come the spring, people are going to be pouring out. As much as people are still nervous, if the service staff has been vaccinated, if a majority of customers have been vaccinated, people will be coming out in droves. I think people are going to hunker down all February, and then in March, with the outdoor dining, people are going to be like, ‘sign me up.’”

If that’s especially optimistic, Douglass balances the thought by saying he’s had some dark days as well, wondering if it’s worth the effort to stay open right now, and fretting over the possibility of a snowy weekend that could wipe out almost an entire week’s worth of revenues. It’s his staff who have been most enthusiastic about staying open, believing it’s important to stay in the public eye, so that Galaxy is a go-to destination when people start emerging from winter hibernation.

Still, he said, “everyone wants to go back to what normal is, but if this goes on long enough, does normal shift?”

It’s a good question, and one Washut asks himself as well. “Every day, I’m thinking about my business, trying to find that crystal ball,” he said, meaning no one really knows how 2021 will go. But he’s hopeful.

“Once it gets warm again, once the outdoor dining opens up for food-service establishments, I think the initial rush of business will be great. Unfortunately, with restaurants, it’s really hard to be proactive; we’re constantly in a reactive mode.”

Specifically, it’s tough to staff up for a rush that might be around the corner, but restaurants also don’t want to be caught flat-footed if things pick up quickly. And things might not pick up much at all in 2021.

“This will be with us for a lot longer than we want to tell ourselves, and at some level, we have to come to terms with that,” he said. “I don’t think we’ll be hosting 60 to 80 people in our dining rooms this year; we won’t have that level of business for a while.”

Yes, the combination of warm weather — and outdoor dining — come spring, and the prospect of rising herd immunity from the vaccines, might inject some life into the industry, but next winter could be just as difficult as this one, depending on how the pandemic’s endgame goes — if an endgame even materializes in 2021.

Meanwhile, Washut appreciates any community support he gets. “If you only come in for gift cards, awesome. If you only get takeout, awesome. Maybe we’re not in a financial position to pass that goodwill on in an equal manner, but I’ll be damned if we won’t later on. If we all keep that attitude in every level of our life, we’ll get through this for sure.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Hampshire County

Growth Market

Elly Vaughan

Elly Vaughan with some of the trees that will blossom with life — and fruit — when the weather warms up.

Elly Vaughan knows a lot about the global food system — and the myriad problems it has posed over the decades.

“Local food is so important for so many reasons,” she said. “The global food system has a lot of issues — environmental issues, workers’ human-rights violations, the way the global agricultural food system tends to strip people of their water rights in some countries.

“Globalized food — a large, centralized food system — can really damage the environment and communities, and when we buy local, we break that cycle,” she added. And, as owner of Phoenix Fruit Farm in Belchertown, she’s certainly doing her part.

“We’re delivering money directly from the consumer to the farmer, so that eliminates the middleman — the consumer gets a fresher product, and the farmer gets a better price point,” she said. “The farmer can pay their workers living wages and can be conservative about environmental resources, which affects climate change, while offering affordable, high-quality food to local communities and families. That’s what a local food system does.”

Taking notice of how Vaughan has grown and diversified Phoenix since purchasing the property in 2017, the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce gave her the Leader in Innovation Award at its 2020 A+ Awards, “for being instrumental in cultivating relationships with other local businesses to improve the economic climate of Belchertown.”

That’s gratifying for someone whose business motto is “fruit with a conscience.”

“Small farms are disappearing all the time in this country — it’s been a perennial struggle for the last 30 or 40 years,” she told BusinessWest. “You keep seeing more and more small farms going out of business as they succumb to the pressures of trying to compete with large agribusinesses that are the worst offenders in terms of environmental damage and pollinator collapse and workers’-rights violations.

“But I think that local food is a model for an alternative to that,” she went on. “Producing food and feeding people doesn’t like to look like this. It does not have to be actively harming the environment; it does not have to be actively exploiting workers and excluding low-income families from being able to afford healthy food. Small farms don’t have to struggle to compete in a wholesale marketplace when they can deliver directly to their community.”

 

Community Focus

Vaughan became interested in farming as a career while in college, and she worked on various organic vegetable farms for about a decade before becoming the orchard manager for Phoenix, which was then owned and operated by Amherst-based Atkins Farms.

When Atkins decided to sell the Belchertown property, Vaughan bought it, and renovated the 1935 horse barn on the property as her residence.

“When I first bought it, it was apples and peaches — and those are still my largest crops,” she said. “But I have replanted and started diversifying.”

New crops include more varieties of apples, as well as table grapes, strawberries, and other fruits. In 2018, she planted new blocks of peach, nectarine, and pear trees, and she’ll see the first harvest of peaches and nectarines from those trees this spring, with the pears coming along in subsequent years. She’s also begun planting more vegetables, including asparagus, tomatoes, kale, onions, and basil. “I want to ramp all that up, now that I have a store and an outlet for a diverse market garden.”

The nearby store on Route 181 was a dilapidated garage with no foundation, plumbing, or … well, much else, actually, when she decided to turn it into a country store.

“Small farms are disappearing all the time in this country — it’s been a perennial struggle for the last 30 or 40 years. You keep seeing more and more small farms going out of business as they succumb to the pressures of trying to compete with large agribusinesses that are the worst offenders in terms of environmental damage and pollinator collapse and workers’-rights violations.”

“It was just a shell of a garage,” Vaughan said. “It was a major, major undertaking to get it to where it is now. But it’s really starting to catch on, I think.”

Since opening in July 2019, the store sells locally produced fruits and vegetables, meats, dairy, eggs, bread, baked goods, and coffee, as well as prepared foods, like grab-and-go wraps, side dishes and soups to heat up at home, and plenty of pantry staples. “You can grab everything you need to make a meal for your family in the store.”

That’s been a plus for patrons who don’t want to go in supermarkets these days; in response to COVID-19 anxieties, the store launched curbside pickup last year and expanded its product lines — with items like cleaning supplies, toilet paper, and more staple foods — to minimize the need for shoppers to visit large stores.

Phoenix Fruit Farm’s country store

Phoenix Fruit Farm’s country store has been growing in popularity since its opening in July 2019.

“It was an effort to create a more comprehensive, one-stop grocery experience. They could get a lot of what they needed from us,” Vaughan said. “I think people really appreciated that.”

While offering an outlet for other local food producers, the country store is a critical element — along with a growing business in pick-your-own apples and peaches — in selling Phoenix’s own products directly to customers.

Vaughan wholesales apples to Big Y and a couple of smaller stores, for about $30 a bushel, because she produces too many — on more than 20 acres of apple trees — to sell on her own.

“But when I sell them in my store, I can get $50 to $60 for that same case because I’m eliminating the middleman, selling direct to the consumer, all while giving them a reasonable price point; it’s not a super expensive apple,” she explained. Direct consumer sales, in fact, are “the difference between me paying my bills and not paying my bills. As a medium to small-sized farm, it’s important to be able to market directly to people in a community-based system like this.”

Not that people should abandon the supermarket, she added. “You need to go to the supermarket for some things. You need paper towels; you need a big case of ramen noodles or whatever. But if you go to a local farmstand and get as many items as you can there instead of the store as part of your weekly or monthly routine, that makes a huge difference. And I wish people knew how much impact they can have just by including more locally oriented shopping in their routine.”

One benefit, of course, is fresher produce; while local chains like Big Y do buy from local farms, many of the fruits and vegetables they sell are not local, and, in many cases, not even in season in Massachusetts. So people are eating produce that’s been in transit for a week or two.

Switching exclusively to local produce requires some changed habits from consumers, she added, and occasionally some sacrifice.

“Part of it is people learning to eat in season and not expecting to have strawberries year-round and not expecting to have perfect, flawless-looking fruit if they want to eat organic; something grown with less chemicals is not going to look as picture-perfect,” she explained. “There needs to be somewhat of a shift with the way that people view what kind of produce they should have, and in exchange for making that shift, they can have high-quality, locally grown food that doesn’t break the bank and can support local farmers.”

While that education process is ongoing, it’s a culture that has taken root (literally and figuratively) in Western Mass. more than in many regions of the country.

“I think we are very fortunate in this community — people are really hip to local foods, and we have so much great local food in this region, and you don’t have to look very far to find everything you need to feed your family just with food produced in the Pioneer Valley,” Vaughan said. “There’s such a wealth of really great, locally produced foods around here. I’m really proud to be a part of that.”

 

Looking Ahead

Now in her fourth year running the farm, Vaughan has no intention of slowing down. As she waits for the first harvests from those new peach, nectarine, and pear trees and diversifies into vegetables, she’s also looking into new business opportunities, like making hard cider. For that, she’s been gathering equipment and trying to nail down the right recipe.

The store continues to grow, too. “It typically takes a few years for a business like that to optimize and settle into what it’s going to be like,” she said, adding that she also wants to expand the pick-your-own business.

“That’s another necessary piece of the business. Our fruit is the difference between being in the red and being in the black. We need direct markets through the store and pick-your-own to survive, and we’re still building those things up. Both need to continue to grow if the business will be sustainable.”

But, as evidenced by that A+ Award and, more importantly, the growing number of locals heading to Phoenix for something fresh, she’s on the right track.

“We’re not there yet,” Vaughan said. “It’s going to be a lifelong journey, shaping this place into what it’s going to be for the future.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]