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Cinda Jones Is Building a Community — and More — in North Amherst

As the largest private landowner in Massachusetts, with properties in 30 towns, the Cowls family is especially synonymous with North Amherst, where it has made its headquarters — and an enduring legacy in lumber and conservation — for 279 years. These days, Cinda Jones, the ninth-generation president of W.D. Cowls Inc., and her team are doing nothing short of creating a new town center in North Amherst. Why? Because the family has always transformed the land into what was most beneficial and needed. Today, she says, that’s a sense of community.

The area of North Amherst known as the Mill District has served many purposes over the nearly 300 years the Cowls family has made its name there.

Early on, for example, the farm produced and distributed onions, tobacco, and dairy products. In the 1800s, in a burst of diversified interests, the Cowls family managed a rock quarry, constructed a street railway system, ran two sawmills, built and operated a building supply store, and managed myriad residential and commercial properties, along with thousands of acres of timberland.

In short, each generation of Cowls descendants discontinued enterprises that had become outdated and reinvented the family business to be more relevant for their time — and more personally inspiring to them.

Cinda Jones, along with her brother, Evan, represents the ninth such generation to take on that challenge — and the mixed-use development now emerging in the Mill District, known as North Square, might represent its most dramatic change yet.

It’s that project, but also a rich, two-decade stewardship of the Cowls legacy, that has earned Cinda Jones, president of W.D. Cowls Inc., recognition as BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur for 2019.

“We knew, if we’re creating a new uptown in Amherst, it has to be an experiential place,” Jones told BusinessWest during a lengthy tour of the property earlier this month. “We want retail, and retail doesn’t work unless it’s better than online, and it offers something different. We have 22,000 square feet of retail space around a town square in an already-thriving area, where 45,000 people commute through every day. And that’s going to increase. So we’re really excited about what this can become.”

“We knew, if we’re creating a new uptown in Amherst, it has to be an experiential place. We want retail, and retail doesn’t work unless it’s better than online, and it offers something different.”

In simple terms, Jones envisioned a modern residential community of one-, two-, and three-bedroom units overlooking a commercial center comprised of roughly one-third food establishments (a restaurant and café, Jakes at the Mill, is already thriving there), one-third retail, and one-third “experiential services, like yoga, making your own pottery, things you enjoy doing — not dentists and accountants, because those aren’t so fun,” she explained.

“Everyone wants that,” she went on. “Malls stole our downtowns. Now malls are dying, but the one thing they’re doing to stay alive is to have experiences. That’s the correct thing to do. In addition to making a downtown with a mix of retail, we want to create a place where you want to spend the day.”

At left, the converted barn currently occupied by Atkins Farms. At right, one of the newer buildings housing both commercial and residential space.

Spend a day with Cinda Jones, and the main takeaway is a passion for the many ways land can — and should — be used. And she’s got a lot of land to put to use, and plenty of ideas about what comes next.

Nine Generations

Founded in 1741, W.D. Cowls Inc. is, in fact, Massachusetts’ largest private landowner. In 1741, Jonathan Cowls bought a farm in North Amherst and started the Cowls timber company. His son David built the company’s corporate headquarters in 1768 — in a large house that still serves that purpose today. The land Jonathan began acquiring 279 years ago now includes more than 100 parcels in 30 towns in Hampshire and Franklin counties.

According to the company’s written history, “for the first 100 years, everything the family had was always passed down to the oldest son, who was usually named Jonathan, and the Jonathans didn’t muck it up irreversibly. After that, with a David and a couple Walters in the mix, every generation of the family built what his generation of community needed on the home farm, while continuing to grow Cowls’ timberland base and conduct sustainable forestry operations.”

Jones got her start in the family business at age 10, cutting yellow triangles out of sheets of plastic for foresters to use as boundary markers. She worked her way up by scraping and painting fences and barns, sorting nails, stacking lumber, and helping the company’s administrative assistant.

Hannah Rechtschaffen says young people, in particular, desire the face-to-face culture that mixed-use developments promote.

After graduating from Colby College in 1990 and earning a graduate certificate in business administration from Georgetown University in 1995, she remained in Washington, D.C. for several more years, holding conservation and timber industry-related leadership positions, including marketing director for the Cato Institute, Wood Marketing director for the American Forest & Paper Assoc., vice president of the National Forest Foundation, and Northeast regional director of the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation.

In July 2001, her father joked that she was “so good at managing nonprofit organizations” that she should come home and manage the unprofitable sawmill, timberland, and real-estate divisions of Cowls. She did, and brought a bit of bad fortune with her.

“Within a year, the sawmill burned to the ground when lightning hit it,” she told BusinessWest, adding that she initially balked at plans to rebuild it. “I said, ‘Dad, it loses money. Why are we rebuilding a sawmill? Let’s do something different.’ He said, ‘it’s what we do. People depend on these jobs. It feeds our store. We will rebuild. You don’t know enough to close it down yet. But if it doesn’t work in five years, you can try something different.’”

So it went back up, as a timber-frame specialty mill. “We tried really hard, but it still didn’t work,” Jones said. “So we closed it in 2010.”

“I wanted it to be the Dirty Hands District, but I was told no one would come eat sandwiches in the Dirty Hands District. So I couldn’t name it that.”

She was already starting to envision the next step: developing a new downtown area — actually, uptown — in North Amherst. With her brother, she renovated their great-grandmother’s cow barn, which would house the second site Atkins Market site, and built the Trolley Barn mixed-use building, also on Cowls Road, and partnered with Beacon Communities on the residential components of North Square.

“At first, we tried to market the place — ‘locate here!’ But it was just hard-packed gravel and a closed sawmill,” she recalled. “People were like, ‘there’s no here here. Why would we come to a gravel lot in the middle of North Amherst?’”

Coming up with and marketing the Mill District name helped, although Jones first considered a moniker that had been used in the past for this neighborhood of farms and timberland. “I wanted it to be the Dirty Hands District, but I was told no one would come eat sandwiches in the Dirty Hands District. So I couldn’t name it that. So the Mill District it was.”

The Mill District actually encompasses more than North Square. Riverside Park Stores and Apartments — a former trolley destination that now houses a strip mall and 48 apartments behind it — is part of it, as are Cowls Building Supply and Mill District Depot.

Evan and Cinda Jones represent the ninth generation of leadership in the broad array of Cowls operations.

“We’re building a new uptown in Amherst which is called the Mill District, that incorporates Riverside Park and comes all the way up here,” she explained. “We’re trying to connect the two properties and tell the story of the whole neighborhood. North Square is what we’re doing today, but it’s so much bigger than that.”

Face to Face

Hannah Rechtschaffen grew up in Western Mass. but left more than 17 years ago, most recently attending graduate school and working in the field of urban innovation in Philadelphia. In large cities like that, she said, mixed-use developments are par for the course.

Even outside urban environments, though, after a decade of social media curtailing face-to-face contact, “the pendulum has swung back to wanting to be in person, wanting to live above a coffee shop where you go down in the morning and they know your name,” she told BusinessWest. “At one point, that’s how the world used to be, and now I’m hearing from Millennials that’s what they want. And they don’t just want it, they expect it — to go into a place and not be faceless.”

As director of Placemaking for Cowls, a job she took less than a year ago, part of her job is to create events, art installations, and community programs that bring back personal connections and elevate individual experiences in the neighborhood. To that end, she often reaches out to the community about what they want at North Square.

“Malls stole our downtowns. Now malls are dying, but the one thing they’re doing to stay alive is to have experiences. That’s the correct thing to do. In addition to making a downtown with a mix of retail, we want to create a place where you want to spend the day.”

“We have a clipboard over at Jakes where we say, ‘what do you want to see here? What’s important to you?’ And then we go out and try to find those businesses, ideally locally rooted, so they can come and provide some amenities — because there aren’t a lot of amenities along this corridor to Greenfield. We get a lot of feedback from the community about what they’d like to see, and our hope is that what happens here is in line with their vision and our vision.”

Part of that vision is a focus on the arts and opportunities for artists to connect with the community. One example is an art gallery, which will be connected to a general store and a café, featuring artists who hail from the many communities in which Cowls operates.

Some ideas are cheekier than others; Jones said the general store will feature two “experiential public bathrooms,” one with a jungle theme and the other featuring mirror glass — people can see out, but not in — meaning “you can do your business while you’re watching everyone out here do their business.”

Other tenants of the commercial space might include a distillery and tasting room, a flower and gift shop, and a tea house. Meanwhile, Atkins is moving out in July, but Jones has had interest from other food establishments.

Then there are 130 residential units, 20% of which are classified as affordable housing; residents began moving in back in August. Among the amenities — including a community room, gym, and outdoor play areas — are pet-friendly perks like an outdoor dog park and a mud room where dogs can be hosed off after a muddy time outdoors.

And, of course, a raft of shops, eateries, and experiences a few feet beyond one’s front door, and access to PVTA buses to move about the region without having to drive.

“The Mill District is more than just this one place; it’s touching the entire Valley. We’re trying to set an example of how to live in a community,” Rechtschaffen said. “We have to get creative with the experiential aspect of it. Every potential tenant we are talking to right now, they all have some aspect of their business that’s about teaching workshops, teaching classes, sharing what they do and why they do it with community members. That aspect is just crucial, and it’s fun.”

It’s also critical from an environmental perspective, she added, considering how young people aren’t as keen as previous generations were on long drives to get what they need to go. “There’s a lot more around the climate-change conversation — how we live, how we set our lives up to be able to let go of some of those things that have contributed to climate change, and this is one example.”

Land of Opportunity

As president, Jones oversees the real-estate and timberland and natural-resource management divisions of W.D. Cowls Inc., while her brother, Evan, oversees Cowls Building Supply, the retail store founded by their father, Paul. The Mill District has been a joint effort between the two — and it’s far from the only significant land-use project the company has recently undertaken.

For example, Cinda put an agricultural-preservation restriction on 45 acres of Amherst farmland, and in 2012 dedicated the largest contiguous private conservation project in Massachusetts history, the 3,486-acre Paul C. Jones Working Forest in the towns of Leverett and Shutesbury, which stands, she says, as a legacy to Cowls’ eighth-generation leader and the family’s commitment to sustainable forestry.

The Trolley Barn building hosts a range of businesses, including a restaurant, Jakes at the Mill.

In 2019, Cowls added an adjacent 2,000-acre conservation project in Leverett, Shutesbury, and Pelham, this one named for her grandfather, Walter Cowls Jones. A series of solar farms in the region have provided other opportunities for environment-friendly development.

She had already achieved some success at Cowls when BusinessWest named her to its inaugural 40 Under Forty class in 2007, and the evolution of her work since then was reflected in her Continuing Excellence Award last year, and now the Top Entrepreneur honor; she is one of only two individuals to have won three of the magazine’s six major awards.

Previous Top Entrepreneurs

• 2018: Antonacci Family, owners of USA Hauling, GreatHorse, and Sonny’s Place
• 2017: Owners and managers of the Springfield Thunderbirds
• 2016: Paul Kozub, founder and president of V-One Vodka
• 2015: The D’Amour Family, founders of Big Y
• 2014: Delcie Bean, president of Paragus Strategic IT
• 2013: Tim Van Epps, president and CEO of Sandri LLC
• 2012: Rick Crews and Jim Brennan, franchisees of Doctors Express
• 2011: Heriberto Flores, director of the New England Farm Workers’ Council and Partners for Community
• 2010: Bob Bolduc, founder and CEO of Pride
• 2009: Holyoke Gas & Electric
• 2008: Arlene Kelly and Kim Sanborn, founders of Human Resource Solutions and Convergent Solutions Inc.
• 2007: John Maybury, president of Maybury Material Handling
• 2006: Rocco, Jim, and Jayson Falcone, principals of Rocky’s Hardware Stores and Falcone Retail Properties
• 2005: James (Jeb) Balise, president of Balise Motor Sales
• 2004: Craig Melin, then-president and CEO of Cooley Dickinson Hospital
• 2003: Tony Dolphin, president of Springboard Technologies
• 2002: Timm Tobin, then-president of Tobin Systems Inc.
• 2001: Dan Kelley, then-president of Equal Access Partners
• 2000: Jim Ross, Doug Brown, and Richard DiGeronimo, then-principals of Concourse Communications
• 1999: Andrew Scibelli, then-president of Springfield Technical Community College
• 1998: Eric Suher, president of E.S. Sports
• 1997: Peter Rosskothen and Larry Perreault, then-co-owners of the Log Cabin Banquet and Meeting House
• 1996: David Epstein, president and co-founder of JavaNet and the JavaNet Café

“Congratulations to Cinda Jones on this recognition as Top Entrepreneur in our region by BusinessWest,” said Claudia Pazmany, president of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce. “Cinda tires of status quo and consistently asks what more can be done. Each idea generated is followed by yet another. She then uses her allies and matches them to local resources to make change happen.

“The transformation of North Amherst through her creation of the Mill District over the last 10 years has not only preserved some of her rich family history in agriculture and lumber, but tied it to the future of our great town, creating economic mobility tying old generations to new,” she went on. “I am proud to call Cinda a friend and colleague and cannot wait to support her in her next project — because there will always be a ‘next’ with Cinda.”

North Square at the Mill District has been that big ‘next’ lately, and it’s the product of not only her team’s vision, but inspiration from unexpected places.

For example, next to Atkins is a recreational area of sorts, complete with a covered sandbox containing books and construction-themed toys. It’s called Wonderland — for good reason.

At the start of construction on North Square, some of the property’s historic millstones and large pieces of granite were converted to benches, tables, and art structures, meant to be a gathering place for people who bought ice cream and a signal that Atkins welcomed them during construction.

A woman named Kate posted on Facebook that her son, Sam, thought this humble play area was the most magical place on earth, referring to it as a ‘wonderland.’ When Jones offered to dedicate the space to Sam, his mom said her daughter Abbie also enjoys playing there, and so did her other daughter, Mabel — during the seven short months of her life.

Jones said that story broke her heart, but Mabel also became an inspiration to create more experiential spaces and programs that make the Mill District a special and important place for more families to connect. Today, Wonderland is adorned with a plaque dedicating it to Sam, Abbie, and Mabel.

Most people are familiar with the saying, ‘it takes a village to raise a child,’ Jones told BusinessWest, but in this case, it took a child to lend a large dose of inspiration to the creation of an entire village.

Permanent Reminder

That’s not the first time Jones honored one of her inspirations with an indelible mark. She also tells the story of how Cowls transitioned to its ninth generation of leadership. When Jones, then 34, came home from D.C. in 2001, her dad thought the sawmill workers might go around her new authority to speak with him if he were on site, so he tossed her the keys to the office and left, saying, “I’ll see you for coffee every morning, but they need to know you’re in charge, so I’m going to make myself scarce.”

Ten years — and plenty of leadership experience — later, as her father was dying, the family sat with a lawyer at the same kitchen table the kids grew up around, with the company represented by piles of paper being passed down to the ninth generation. As her father was signing documents, she stuck her arm in the way, and he jokingly signed it.

She didn’t wash it off. Instead, she had the signature permanently tattooed there.

A few months later, as she was about to sign off on the Paul C. Jones Working Forest in honor of her father, she rolled up her sleeves, looked down, and saw the signature, and felt like he was still across the table from her in the same house the family has operated from since 1741.

And with the same philosophy, too — one that constantly asks what’s the best use for the land, and the people who live, work, and play there.

“It’s smart growth when you build near jobs and gas stations and schools and population centers, and when you don’t build where there are critical natural resources,” she said. “And Cowls is in the unique position to be able to decide and build in an intelligent way. We have this existing industrial site in North Amherst that we’ve redeveloped for the ninth time, and it’s a new town center, so people who live here can get everything they need. And we do hope they’ll come live here.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Features

Training Ground

In all of the region’s key economic sectors, such as healthcare, education, and manufacturing, organizations say, almost with one voice, that the number-one barrier to growth is finding and keeping talented workers — a task made even more difficult at a time of historically low unemployment. BusinessWest sat down with one of the Pioneer Valley’s leading workforce-development voices to discuss an evolving, long-term blueprint to meet those needs — and grow the economy even further.

Healthcare. Education. Advanced manufacturing.

In any conversation about the economic character of the Pioneer Valley — both its rich past and promising future — those three sectors would be high on the list of key factors.

Indeed, a late-2018 report produced by the MassHire Hampden County Workforce Board and the MassHire Franklin Hampshire Workforce Board calls them ‘priority industries,’ meaning the most important to the region’s economic success, and they form the basis of a comprehensive ‘labor-market blueprint’ which aims to narrow workforce talent gaps and help companies — and the overall economy — grow.

A new report, issued just a few weeks ago, follows up on that blueprint, outlining the many ways employers, economic-development agencies, vocational and technical schools, area colleges, and other entities have partnered to do just that.

Needless to say, it’s a daunting challenge, said David Cruise, president and CEO of MassHire Hampden County.

“What we’re doing at the moment is actually going in and implementing the goals and strategies we laid out in the blueprint,” he explained. “One of the priority works we did was to identify, through looking at both supply and demand data, the three priority industries in Pioneer Valley region.”

Beyond healthcare, education, and manufacturing, however, the blueprint also identifies four other critical industries: business and finance; professional, scientific, and technical, including information technology (IT); food services and accommodation, which takes into account the impact of MGM Springfield; and sustainable food systems, a growing sector particularly in Franklin and Hampshire counties.

“We have been working pretty carefully within those seven industries, trying to collect data, trying to make certain the programs we run are consistent with that data,” Cruise said.

The priority industries have two things in common, he noted: long-term growth opportunities for individual companies and the sectors as a whole, and clear career pathways, where people cannot just land entry-level jobs, but steadily progress in their career from there.

“That’s why we’re spending a significant amount of time — and we’re very excited about the work we’re doing — with our regional education partners to make certain they’re developing programs and courses that align with those occupations, within those priority industries, that will allow someone to take courses and get into programs where there’s a pathway that will allow them to, yes, get a job, earn more money, and take care of their families, but also be able to see some pathway forward. That’s what we’re really focused on.”

It’s another way of looking at the value of retention, he added, which allows companies to avoid the time and cost of losing employees and training replacements, but also helps individuals gain career stability and establish deeper roots in the region.

“How do we put in place opportunities that will allow workers, both new and incumbent, to be able to move forward in these companies and in their occupation?” he asked. “That’s how you drive economic growth.”

Getting Resourceful

In the Pioneer Valley, Cruise noted, job growth isn’t generated by a few massive companies.

“We certainly have some publicly traded companies, some large companies, but the growth in the region is really being driven by small and medium-sized enterprises. And we want to support those companies because they don’t necessarily have all the resources they need. They struggle when they can’t retain folks; it becomes a tremendous cost factor for them, spending all that time recruiting and not being able to retain their recently hired folks. We have a significant commitment to try to work with those small to medium-sized companies throughout the Pioneer Valley.”

One way the MassHires do so is through partnerships with numerous vocational and technical high schools offering a wide variety of programs, most of them aligned with the priority initiatives outlined in the blueprint, he noted — not to mention the three community colleges in the Pioneer Valley.

The more recent report on blueprint progress examines programs at the voke-tech schools and community colleges — and Westfield State University — and how their programs connect with priority industries.

David Cruise says today’s successful small to medium-sized business understands the importance of community partners like colleges and economic-development entities.

“We did an analysis of the educational programs and pathways and courses that are really aligned with these occupations within these priority industries,” Cruise said. “We’re asking, ‘where are the gaps?’”

The blueprint creators took particular interest in specific ‘priority occupations’ currently in demand. In healthcare and social assistance, these include social- and human-service assistants; direct-care workers such as registered nurses, nursing and medical assistants, and personal-care aides; and clinical workers such as dental hygienists, pharmacy technicians, medical records and health IT; physician assistants; and physical and occupational therapists.

In education, priority occupations center on educators at all levels, including vocational-technical, STEM, and trades, as well as teachers’ assistants. In manufacturing, the key jobs include supervisors, production workers such as CNC operators and machinists, and inspectors, testers, and quality-control workers.

The report — which provides plenty of detailed evidence that training and degree programs are available in all these fields — will be updated every two years, with the hope that such programs will continue to expand and adapt to evolving workforce needs.

“We’re trying to fashion a regional workforce response as opposed to trying to fashion a workforce response in Hampden County or in Hampshire-Franklin. We want to look at a regional response,” Cruise said. “We think it makes more sense, and we have a better chance at mitigating the supply gap if we combat it that way.”

One important evolution concerns apprenticeships, he added. “We’ve been very aggressively involved in developing registered apprenticeships in healthcare and advanced manufacturing. We have about 74 apprentices involved in programming in the area right now, which is significant. A year and a half ago, we had 16. We’re being very careful about making certain the funding that we have and how we deploy the money is clearly aligned with where the employers are telling us the demand is.”

The two Pioneer Valley MassHires also connected with the MassHire Berkshire Workforce Board to produce yet another study, this one taking a five-year outlook on workforce needs in manufacturing — again, focusing in on key careers, including machinist, CNC operator, quality control, supervisor, and CNC programmer.

“We did an analysis of the educational programs and pathways and courses that are really aligned with these occupations within these priority industries. We’re asking, ‘where are the gaps?”

“We’re focusing our work — at least in this industry — around two things,” he explained. “One is trying to be certain the incumbent employees in our regional companies have the skills they need to be technologically relevant and be able to work in these spaces. But the ongoing concern is, where do we find entry-level CNC operators? In most of these companies, they’re resourceful enough and do enough internal training and continuous improvement where they can deal with some of these areas, like machinists and CNC programming. Where they really struggle is getting entry-level people, particularly operators, to come in.”

To address that need, MassHire is launching three training programs in February that should yield an additional 45 workers to join local companies.

“Even though we’re excited about it, that, in itself, is certainly not going to solve all the problems of supply and demand,” Cruise went on, noting, again, that manufacturing faces the same supply challenges as healthcare and education. “In all these industries, the demand is there. We’re trying to figure out ways we can increase the supply chain so we can minimize this supply gap in all three of these areas.”

Making Connections

One intriguing development involves making connections with comprehensive high schools in the region, Cruise told BusinessWest, recognizing that the state has been innovative in making career-development opportunities available to non-vocational high schools.

“We’re doing a lot of work with these school districts. They’ve made a decision that they want their students to have career-awareness and career-focus opportunities that will allow their students to look at different career pathways. Whether they’re going on to a two- or four-year college or directly to work, they want them to be more knowledgable about what those requirements are, what the pathways look like.”

To that end, the regional workforce boards have sent information to area superintendents about hiring needs and opportunities in the priority sectors and what students need to do to access them.

“In the next few weeks, we’ll send more information to the schools that will be very helpful to superintendents, counselors, and teachers, to help them provide guidance to their students — and also the parents — around career pathway opportunities. We’re really excited about that, and I’m convinced that, over time, students and parents will be making better career decisions.”

At the end of the day — any day — the main workforce challenge for businesses is simply finding the right talent and hanging onto it.

“The people who are able to work and want to work, in a lot of cases, have found employment, yet that supply gap is still there at our two career centers and the one in Greenfield as well,” Cruise said. “We continue to get customers coming in, but the customers that are approaching us need some additional supports and services before we feel they’re able to secure employment and particularly retain employment.”

Meanwhile, he noted, employers find they’re spending more resources than they’d like onboarding individuals they don’t retain over the long term.

“So we’re trying to find ways at our two one-stop centers to talk with our customers, look at the barriers that are the reasons they are not in the labor force, and try to use our community organizations and resources to do the best we can to mitigate some of those barriers.”

Sometimes it’s a simple lack of soft skills, or employability skills, that cause matches to fail — people not reporting to work, or people not having the ability to work in a team concept, he explained. “We can at least put the job seekers that approach us in a better position for companies to retain them. It’s hard work because many folks who are not in the labor market have more than one barrier that has to be mitigated, and that requires significant allocation of resources and time and staff to be able to do that. But we have to do that; that’s our job.”

Many employers say they can train for aptitude, but not attitude. “The employers we work with are saying to us, ‘send me someone who has the aptitude and willingness to learn, who’s going to be here every day, on time, and is going to be willing to accept the instruction we give them, be able to accept constructive criticism when it’s given,’” Cruise said. “Again, it’s something we’re pretty laser-focused on.”

MassHire is fortunate, he added, to work in a region full of companies, mostly small, that understand the value of partnerships and are willing invest time and resources in working with the workforce boards and colleges.

“The whole concept of going alone isn’t going to work anymore,” he said. “You have to figure out a way to be in some collaborative partnerships where you can leverage resources, look at your assets, identify your gaps, and put in place opportunities and programs that will respond to that. We do that well out here. I’m not suggesting it’s not done well in other places, but we think we have a little bit of a copyright on that.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Health Care

Vision 2020

Few industries change as rapidly — and as dramatically — as the broad, multifaceted realm of healthcare. From oncologists’ use of cancer fingerprinting and gene therapy to facial transplants for accident victims; from cutting-edge protocols to save the lives of stroke and heart-surgery patients to a dizzying array of new treatments to improve vision … the list is seemingly endless, making it impossible to paint a full picture of where healthcare has come in the past decade.

But we at BusinessWest wanted to try anyway — and, at the same time, look ahead at what the next decade might bring. So, appropriately, here at the dawn of 2020, we invited a wide range of healthcare professionals to tell us what has been the most notable evolution in their field of practice in the past 10 years, and what they expect — or hope — will be the most significant development to come in the next decade.

The answers were candid, thoughtful, sometimes surprising, but mostly hopeful. Despite the many challenges healthcare faces in these times of advancing technology, growing cost concerns, and demographic shifts, the main thread is still innovation — smart people working on solutions that help more people access better care. After all, healthcare is, at its core, about improving people’s lives, even when they seek it out during their direst moments.

Innovation and promise. That’s what we believe a new decade will bring to all corners of the healthcare world — that is, if these leaders, and countless others like them, have anything to say about it.

Administration

Joanne Marqusee

President and CEO, Cooley Dickinson Health Care

Joanne Marqusee

The most significant recent development in healthcare administration has been a recognition of the role patients play in their own healthcare. “Crossing the Quality Chasm: A New Health System for the 21st Century,” published in 2001 by the Institute for Healthcare Improvement, called for a massive redesign of the American healthcare system. Specifically, it provided “Six Aims for Improvement,” five of which focused on safety, effectiveness, timeliness, efficiency, and equity. Not talked about as much, the sixth aim was to make healthcare ‘patient-centered.’

While we still have a ways to go to truly be patient-centered, we have witnessed a sea change in the past decade in this regard. Patients are increasingly active participants in their care, questioning their doctors and other providers to ensure that they understand their options, using electronic medical records to engage in their care, and speaking out about what they want from treatment or forgoing treatment at the end of life. The best healthcare providers — both organizations and individuals — embrace these changes, welcoming patients as more than recipients of care, but rather active partners in their own care and decision making.

My hope for the most significant development over the next decade has to do with providing universal healthcare coverage while controlling healthcare costs. While we almost have universal coverage in Massachusetts, too much of the nation does not. A hotly debated topic, universal healthcare has many benefits, including increasing access to preventive and routine medical care, improving health outcomes, and decreasing health inequalities.

Surgical Technology

Dr. Nicholas Jabbour

Chairman, Department of Surgery, Baystate Medical Center

Dr. Nicholas Jabbour

The most significant development in surgery over the past decade has been the move toward less invasive surgical approaches made possible through advanced technology. These approaches include robotic and minimally invasive surgery, including intraluminal surgery in areas such as gastroenterology, cardiology, and neurosurgery — for exemple, the passage of an inflatable catheter along the channel inside of a blood vessel to enable the insertion of a heart valve instead of making a large opening in the chest. As a result, we have seen a big shift from inpatient to outpatient surgery with shorter hospital stays and improved post-op recovery.

In the next decade, we foresee these innovations in less invasive surgery will be enhanced by better computing and software integration. This interaction will include the merging of radiological and potentially pathological information — which is currently available in a digital format — with real-time visualization of anatomical structure during surgery. This will offer surgeons the opportunity to improve the accuracy and speed of a surgical procedure while minimizing the risks.

The next decade will also see major innovation in the area of transplantation with the development of tissues or whole organs through bio-engineering manipulation of animal or a patient’s own cells. The integration of this bio-engineering manipulation with currently available technology, such as 3D printing and 3D imaging, will provide patients with the needed tissue or organ — including valves, bone grafts, hernia mesh, skin, livers, and kidneys — in a timely manner. This development will revolutionize the field of transplantation and surgery in general.

Behavioral Health

Karin Jeffers

President & CEO, Clinical & Support Options Inc.

Karin Jeffers

Over the past 10 years, we’ve seen a growing adoption within the behavioral-health and medical fields of holistic treatment models. While the two disciplines were once treated as different animals, the entire health field is now moving to treat both the body and the mind — together. The next 10 years are likely to bring these two fields even closer.

Today, you’re seeing behavioral-health clinicians being hired into physical health practices. Likewise, physical health providers are cross-training to better understand behavioral issues. Whereas, a decade ago, a behavioral-health client might be assigned a therapist or a psychiatrist, they are now gaining access to more robust set of supports, including nursing, case management, recovery coaching, and peer support from those with lived experience. Government mandates and payment model changes are forcing outcomes-based integration, too. Pediatricians, for example, must now do behavioral-health screenings of all youth under 21. In the mental-health space, you’re seeing clinicians ask about weight, exercise, and other physical factors.

We’re seeing significant movement on both the state and federal levels to value outcomes over volume. It’s reflected in the criteria set by the Excellence in Mental Health Act for certified community behavioral-health clinics, a designation CSO has earned, and in the work we have done with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Our ability to tailor programs, like our grant-funded work at the Friends of the Homeless shelter in Springfield, has literally saved lives among those experiencing homelessness and co-occurring conditions, like substance-use disorders.

In the coming years, we hope to see integrated care models become even more mainstream. Things appear headed in the right direction, but government action establishing payment reform within the behavioral-health field needs to be taken — and the integrated models need to be appropriately funded. Such changes would affirm overall health and wellness to include both physical and behavioral health.

Weight Management

Dr. Yannis Raftopoulos

Director, Holyoke Medical Center Weight Management Program

Dr. Yannis Raftopoulos

Weight management is a rapidly evolving field, and I am fortunate to be part of it. One of the most significant innovations this field has experienced in the last 10 years was the development of a new gastric balloon. Packaged in a small capsule and swallowed with water, the Elipse balloon provides satiety while requiring no procedure or anesthesia for its placement and removal. Together with its excellent safety profile, the Elipse balloon is the least invasive and yet effective weight-loss modality available today. Elipse is manufactured in Massachusetts by Allurion Technologies.

I had the opportunity to be an investigator in the European trial which led to the Elipse market approval in the European Union in 2016. Recently, Holyoke Medical Center was among 10 U.S. sites in which an FDA-regulated trial was conducted. The trial was completed successfully, and Allurion has submitted data requesting FDA approval to market Elipse in the U.S. The balloon’s use in Europe shows that patients can lose more than one-fifth of their initial weight.

A New England Journal of Medicine study reported that 107.7 million children and 603.7 million adults, among 195 countries, were obese in 2015. High body-mass index accounted for 4 million deaths and contributed to 120 million disability-adjusted life-years. Obesity is a chronic disease, and its management requires long-term guidance and close patient-physician communication. Successful collaborations between existing best practices with technology innovations that will allow delivery of effective weight-management care on a massive and global scale could be the most significant evolution in the field in the next 10 years.

Cancer Care

Dr. Hong-Yiou Lin

Radiation Oncologist, Mercy Medical Center

Dr. Hong-Yiou Lin

The advent of new medical oncology drugs has improved control of microscopic and, to a lesser extent, macroscopic disease, allowing local treatments, such as surgery or radiotherapy, to increase survival. To cure cancer, we need to eliminate cancer cells where they started, as well as any microscopic cells traveling through the body. The idea of using immunotherapy to fight cancer has been around for decades, but bringing this idea to the clinic has been hampered by the cleverness of cancer cells knowing how to evade detection by our immune system. Recently FDA-approved immunotherapy either takes away that ‘invisibility cloak’ or wakes up our dormant immune cells to start fighting cancer.

The biggest development in oncology in the next 10 years will be personalized precision medicine, which allows the oncology team to tailor treatment to each patient’s unique cancer biology and life circumstances. Meanwhile, improvements in cancer diagnosis will come from novel PET radiotracers and new MRI sequences that allow for more accurate staging and identification of the best site to biopsy. Pathologists will use novel tools such as genome sequencing to supplement traditional microscopy to subclassify the specific type of cancer within a certain diagnosis instead of grouping into broad categories.

Surgical, medical, and radiation oncologists can then use the above information to decide on the best sequencing between surgery, systemic therapy, and radiotherapy to minimize side effects and maximize cure. Medical oncologists will be able to offer more drugs that target new mutations, overcome drug resistance, increase specificity to a mutation, or better fine-tune immunotherapy, targeting only cancer cells by enlisting gene modification as well as natural killer cells. Radiation oncologists will have new radiomic and genomic tools to personalize the radiation dose and volume, and when to offer radiotherapy.

In short, over the next 10 years, cancer care will continue to move away from the traditional one-size-fits-all model toward a more personalized approach.

Allergy and Immunology

Dr. Jonathan Bayuk

Medical Director, Allergy & Immunology Associates of New England

Dr. Jonathan Bayuk

There have been incredible and exciting advances in allergy and immunology in the last two years. However, the unmet needs of allergic and autoimmune-disease-afflicted patients has grown dramatically in the last 20 years. In response to the increasing prevalence and acuity of allergic diseases and autoimmune diseases, the world has launched products to help address these very severe patients. These medications are indicated for many conditions and work very well. They are generally safe, but are very expensive. These medicines are different than traditional pharmaceutical drugs as they are not chemicals, but biologically derived medicines designed to augment or modify the immune response. As such, they are call biologic medications.

In the field of allergy and immunology, we can now dramatically treat and potentially cure many diseases that in the past were very challenging to manage. The biologic medicines that we have now treat asthma, eczema, allergic disease, and hives. The patient selection is based on severity of their condition, and these medicines are only for moderately to severely affected people. If, as a medical profession, we were to place as many people as possible on these therapies, the cost would be astronomical and not sustainable.

However, is it fair to deny any of these patients access to these treatments who truly need them? I would argue that choice is a very difficult one to make, and as physicians, our primary goal is healing at whatever cost. As a nation, we have a dilemma. Can we afford the medicines we have or not? It is unclear that any serious legislative body is willing to tackle that question. For now, the use of these medicines is changing lives dramatically, and it is an exciting time to be able to use these newer tools to help our patients live better lives.

Eye Care

Dr. David Momnie

Owner, Chicopee Eye Care

Dr. David Momnie

What are the most significant advancements in eye care in the last decade? It depends on whom you ask. Retinal ophthalmologists would probably say it’s the treatment of wet macular degeneration, a leading cause of blindness, with anti-VEGF injections. Cataract surgeons would most likely cite small-incision surgery and new lens implants that often leave patients with 20/20 vision. Glaucoma specialists might tell you it’s the development of MIGS, or minimally invasive glaucoma surgery. These operations to lower the pressure in the eye use miniature devices and significantly reduce the complication rate.

Primary-care optometrists and ophthalmologists would no doubt talk about the advances in optical coherence tomography, a remarkable instrument using light waves that gives cross-sectional pictures of the retina. The technique is painless and non-invasive and is becoming the gold standard in eye care because it has revolutionized the diagnosis and treatment of glaucoma and macular degeneration. For optometrists specializing in contact lenses, using newly designed scleral lenses to restore vision in people with a corneal disease called keratoconus has been a major development. There are many other specialists in eye care, including LASIK surgeons, that have seen remarkable changes in technology.

What will the next decade bring? Artificial intelligence (AI) is becoming more accurate for screening, diagnosing, and treating eye conditions. AI systems can increasingly distinguish normal from abnormal pictures of the retina. Where there is a shortage of ophthalmologists and optometrists, AI screenings combined with telemedicine, providing remote care using communications technology, may be able to find and treat more people who are falling between the cracks of our healthcare system. The term 20/20 is the most common designation in eye care, and the year 2020 will probably usher in another decade of remarkable developments in our field.

Information Technology

Teresa Grogan

Chief Information Officer, VertitechIT

Teresa Grogan

From the perspective of technology that enables healthcare, the biggest game changer of the last decade has been the iPhone — and now, essentially any smartphone.

Steve Jobs introduced the first iPhone in 2007 (a little over a decade ago), and physicians embraced it quickly. It started as a simple tool for doctors (applications like the PDR, or Physicians’ Desk Reference) for looking up drug interactions. Today, it’s a portable EMR, a virtual visit facilitator, and a remote-monitoring device for many healthcare providers, as many patients have embraced — and insisted on — this technology to improve access to care. As the cost decreases and cellular bandwidth improves, the rapid growth of the IoMT (Internet of Medical Things) will place smartphones at the center of the next wave of healthcare technology breakthroughs.

Looking forward, I’d like to see complete elimination of passwords to access electronic information. While there has been some movement toward this with ‘tap and go’ badges and fingerprint readers, a single standard is needed that would work regardless of the software program used. I hope there are greater strides in the creation, deployment, and adoption of other biometric technologies, like iris, face, or voice recognition, so that a healthcare professional could walk into a patient room — or into a hospital — and the computer systems would know his or her identity in immediate and secure fashion. If access to the data needed by a healthcare provider were as easy as turning on a light switch, the improvements in quality of life and efficiency in work for that provider would translate to improved patient outcomes.

Cardiovascular Care

Dr. Aaron Kugelmass

Vice President and Medical Director, Heart and Vascular Program, Baystate Health

Dr. Aaron Kugelmass

We have seen many improvements in cardiovascular care over the last 10 years, but the development, approval for clinical use, and dissemination of transcutaneous aortic valve replacement (TAVR) stands out as the most dramatic. This new technique allows cardiologists and cardiac surgeons, working together, to replace the aortic valve without opening a patient’s chest or utilizing heart-lung bypass, which has been the standard for decades. This less invasive approach is typically performed under X-ray guidance and involves accessing a blood vessel in the leg and guiding a catheter to the heart.

The TAVR procedure was first approved for clinical use in November 2011. It was initially limited to very sick patients, who were not candidates for traditional surgery because of the risk it posed to them. TAVR allowed patients who otherwise could not receive life-saving valve surgery to have their valves replaced with improvement in longevity. With time and experience, the procedure was approved for lower-risk patients as well, and more recently has been approved for the majority of patients, including those with low operative risk. TAVR has been shown to be equivalent or safer than traditional aortic valve-replacement surgery, and is quickly becoming the procedure of choice for most patients who require an aortic valve replacement. Since the procedure typically does not require open-heart surgery, recovery time is much shorter, with some patients going home within a day or two.

In the next 10 years, we expect that similar less-invasive procedures with shorter recovery time will be developed for other heart-valve conditions in patients who otherwise could not receive therapy.

Memory Care

Beth Cardillo

Certified Dementia Practitioner and Executive Director, Armbrook Village

Beth Cardillo

During the last 10 years, neuroscientists have been researching the causes of Alzheimer’s disease. There has been much discussion about which comes first — the amyloid plaque or the fibrillary tangles that develop in the brain, which are roadblocks to cognition, thus causing the difficulties with Alzheimer’s and other related dementia. That question has not been answered yet. Researchers were able to isolate the APOE gene, which is a mutant gene that is found in familial Alzheimer’s disease, helping us to better diagnose it. We have also better understood how diet, exercising both body and brain, and lifestyle contribute to the disease. Currently there are 101 types of dementia, with Alzheimer’s accounting for 75% of cases.

The next 10 years will result in more preventive actions. One major action will be to help people avoid developing type 2 diabetes, which may be labeled the next cause of Alzheimer’s (this type of Alzheimer’s is already being called type 3 diabetes). There has been a major link between sugar in the hippocampus and Alzheimer’s disease. Though there is no cure yet for Alzheimer’s, we are finding more information based on genetics, diet, and PET scans, which can show shrinkage in the brain.

Every year, researchers are more hopeful that a new drug will be developed to eradicate the disease. The last new drug from Biogen was looking hopeful in clinical trials, but that turned out to be not the case. Prevention continues to be at the forefront, as well as participating in clinical trials. More people who do not have dementia or mild cognitive impairment are desperately needed for clinical trials so comparisons of the brain can be made.

Nursing Education

Ellen Furman

Director of Nursing, American International College

Ellen Furman

As in all healthcare, the one thing that can be ascertained is constant change. The same can be said in nursing education today. No longer is the instructor-led lecture method of teaching considered best practice in education, but rather the shift to using class time to apply learned concepts. One way this is done is through the ‘flipped classroom.’ Using this educational modality, students study the concepts being taught preceding the class, followed by class time where students apply these concepts in an interactive activity, thereby developing students’ abilities to think critically, reason, and make healthcare judgements based upon the application of knowledge.

Another change in nursing education is an expanded focus away from pure inpatient (hospital-based) clinical education to outpatient (community-based) clinical education. While hospital-based education remains essential, the realization that most healthcare provided is in outpatient settings has broadened the clinical experiences required to prepare the graduate registered nurse for care provision.

Additionally, with healthcare as complex as it is, nursing students are being taught to be prepared for entry into practice. Education regarding the use of evidence-based practice, how to apply for the licensure examination, preparation to be successful on the National Certification Licensure Exam, nurse residency opportunities, interviewing techniques, transitioning from student nurse to registered nurse, etc. are all taught using a variety of educational modalities based upon the current best available evidence in nursing education.

As we forge ahead in healthcare, nurse educators will continue to evolve to meet healthcare needs through the education of nursing students so as to prepare them to provide care to meet the needs of those we serve well into the future.

Orthotics and Prosthetics

James Haas

Co-owner, Orthotics & Prosthetics Labs Inc.

James Haas

Advances in prosthetic technology have clearly been the most significant development in my field over the past decade. From knees and feet that adapt to different walking speeds and terrains to hands that send sensations of touch to the brain, every aspect of patient care has changed and continues to change at a rapid pace.

Prosthetic feet, knees, and sockets have been greatly impacted. Once made from multi-durometer foams and wood, the prosthetic feet of today are made from carbon, fiberglass, and kevlar laminated with modified epoxy resins. They store energy and adjust to uneven terrain and hills. Microprocessor knees have on-board sensors that detect movement and timing and then adjust a fluid/air control cylinder accordingly. These knees not only make it safer for a person to walk, they also lower the amount of effort amputees must use, resulting in a more natural gait. Sockets once made from stiff materials are now incorporated with soothing gels and flexible adjustable systems that allow a patient to make their own adjustments to improve their comfort.

As for the next decade, I hope to see national insurance fairness. Devices typically last about three to five years. Some people make them last longer, but others, especially growing children, need replacements more often. Many private insurance plans have annual caps and lifetime limits on coverage for orthotics and prosthetics. The Amputee Coalition of America authored insurance-fairness legislation and has lobbied for its implementation for over a decade. This legislation has been ratified in 20 states, including Massachusetts. The Fairness Act requires all insurance policies within the state to provide coverage for prosthetics and orthotics equal to or better than the federal Medicare program and have no coverage caps and lifetime restrictions.

Dental Care

Dr. Lisa Emirzian

Co-owner, EMA Dental

Dr. Lisa Emirzian

The most significant development in the field of dentistry over the past decade has been the integration of digital technology into our daily practices. There are three components of digital dentistry: data acquisition, digital planning, and, finally, the manufacturing of the restoration to be created. Data acquisition today is accomplished with digital radiographs, paperless charting, intra-oral scanners, cone-beam 3D scanners, and video imaging. For the planning process, we now have the ability to merge the data with software that enables computer-aided design and digital smile design, allowing dentists to perform complex procedures, including guided surgical treatments and smile designs, with optimum results. Fabrication and execution of the final restorations can be done in the office or, more often, in laboratories with highly sophisticated digital milling machines, stereolithography, and 3D printing.

In the next decade, we will see data fusion to ultimately create the virtual patient. The next-generation digital workflow will merge intra-oral 3D data with 3D dynamic facial scans, allowing dentists to create 3D smile designs and engineer the dentofacial rehabilitation. The integration of scanners and software will expedite the delivery of ‘teeth in a day.’ In addition, multi-functional intra-oral scanners will allow for early detection of carious lesions and determine risk levels for different patients.

Above and beyond this foreseeable future, artificial intelligence (AI) will be the next paradigm shift. Companies are already looking for big-data collection and deep machine learning to help the practitioner in their everyday chores of diagnosis and treatment. AI cloud-based design platforms will input data, and AI engines in the background will aid in all parts of dental treatment, including diagnosis, design, and fabrication of final restoration.

Let us not forget one thing: the future is all about us — people utilizing technology to enhance the human connection between doctor and patient.

Rehabilitation

John Hunt

CEO, Encompass Health Rehabilitation Hospital of Western Massachusetts

John Hunt

A significant rehabilitation development from the past includes one that may surprise you. Time. A luxury we once knew, time meant patients could recover in a hospital longer after a surgery, an accident, or an illness. Nurses had more time to assess patients to know exactly what they needed. Insurance companies approved longer patient stays through lengthy consideration. Ten years ago, a stroke survivor could recover for two weeks in a hospital and then join us for a rehabilitation stay that would last several weeks.

Today, a three- to five-day stay in the referring hospital, followed by a two-week stay in rehabilitation, is the norm. We are seeing significant decreases in the age of stroke survivors as well as an increase in the number patients who survive with cognitive and physical disabilities. Yet, we also see medical breakthroughs, including the discovery of tissue plasminogen activator (TPA) — nothing short of a miracle. TPA actually reverses the effects of an evolving stroke in patients when used early on, making recoveries easier.

With new advanced technologies being introduced every year, rehabilitation continues to progress at a rapid speed. Looking into the future, evidence-based research will continue to grow to help us make knowledgeable decisions that ultimately impact patient outcomes. Increased clinical expertise will lead to higher functional gains in shorter amounts of time. As a result, acute inpatient rehabilitation will impact the lives of patients like we’ve never seen before.

Hearing Care

Dr. Susan Bankoski Chunyk

Doctor of Audiology, Hampden Hearing Center

Dr. Susan Bankoski Chunyk

The most common treatment for hearing loss is hearing aids. Although digital processing has been available in hearing aids since 1996, the past 10 years have offered great leaps in technology for people with hearing loss. Each generation of computer chip provides faster and ‘smarter’ processing of sound. Artificial intelligence allows the hearing-aid chip to adjust automatically as the listening environment changes, control acoustic feedback, and provide the best speech signal possible. People enjoy the convenience of current hearing aids’ Bluetooth streaming, smartphone apps, and rechargeable batteries.

These features are ‘the icing on the cake,’ but the real ‘cake’ is preservation of the speech signal, even in challenging listening situations. Since the primary complaint of people with hearing loss is understanding in noise, new hearing-aid technology works toward improving speech understanding while reducing listening effort in all environments. This significantly improves the individual’s quality of life.

The negative effects of untreated hearing loss on quality of life are well-documented. Recent research has also confirmed a connection between many chronic health conditions — including diabetes, cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, balance disorders, depression, and early-onset dementia — and hearing loss. This research shows that hearing loss is not just an inevitable consequence of aging, but a health concern that should be treated as early as possible. My hope for the future is that all healthcare providers will recognize the value of optimal hearing in their patients’ overall health and well-being and, just as they monitor and treat other chronic health conditions, they will recommend early diagnosis and treatment of hearing loss.

Economic Outlook

Higher Ground

Scott Foster says small cannabis businesses are being assailed with offers from large, out-of-state players.

The cannabis industry is in full swing in Massachusetts, with about three dozen dispensaries currently selling products for recreational and medicinal use — about a third of them in Western Mass. — not to mention cultivators, product developers, and a host of other related enterprises.

With 17% of cannabis sales going back to the state as taxes, and communities collecting at least 3% more — usually higher — it’s easy to recognize the financial impact.

But Scott Foster says said it’s important to remember the jobs being generated.

“You can get good employment in this field. A shop might have 20-plus employees working there,” said Foster, a partner at Bulkley Richardson, the Springfield-based law firm that launched a specialty cannabis practice last year to provide guidance for individuals, companies, and municipalities entering this very young industry. “These aren’t small businesses in the sense of 200 or 300 employees, but it’s not just four or five people working, either. It’s a pretty steady base of employment.”

And it adds up, said Jeff Hayden, vice president of Business and Community Services at Holyoke Community College (HCC), which recently launched a Cannabis Education Center to provide needed training and resources for people who want to enter this burgeoning industry.

“In Holyoke, 13 companies have applied for 21 different licenses,” Hayden told BusinessWest. “At present, 50 to 75 people are employed in cannabis-related businesses in Holyoke, but the anticipation is, within a year or two, that will be in the range of 400 to 500 people. It’s potentially a significant occupational opportunity for people. And if Holyoke is looking at 400 to 500, what is Springfield looking at? What about Northampton, Easthampton, Chicopee?”

This career potential is what inspired HCC to partner with the Worcester-based Cannabis Community Care and Research Network (C3RN) on the Cannabis Education Center.

“In Holyoke, 13 companies have applied for 21 different licenses. At present, 50 to 75 people are employed in cannabis-related businesses in Holyoke, but the anticipation is, within a year or two, that will be in the range of 400 to 500 people.”

“At HCC, we focus on what kinds of job skills people need in order to get jobs, whether entry-level or skills to do their job better. The fact that there is so much potential in this new industry in Massachusetts piqued my interest.”

No economic outlook is complete without touching on the early expansion of the cannabis industry in Massachusetts — and its immense promise for further growth, especially as dozens more shops plan to open their doors in 2020. Whether they’ll be able to maintain the sector’s early momentum remains to be seen — but most analysts agree the potential is certainly there.

On Fire

Foster recently came across an article that listed cannabis among the top four new legal practice areas, among heavyweights like cybersecurity.

“It’s interesting that cannabis has become a front-and-center legal issue across all the U.S., not just Massachusetts,” he said. “It’s becoming more recognized as a legitimate industry. Even though federal law hasn’t changed, it seems to be moving in that direction.”

Indeed, with Illinois joining the list this month, 11 states have now legalized recreational marijuana, and 19 others allow medicinal marijuana. With others set to follow this year, it’s not hard to imagine an eventual shift at the federal level, even if that doesn’t appear imminent.

As one step in that direction, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill in 2019 allowing banks to handle marijuana accounts; currently, most cannabis businesses are all-cash enterprises since they can’t use banks.

“Will banks ever start lending to the industry?” Foster asked. “I think yes, but most people in the industry think it probably won’t be in 2020. Maybe, but probably not. They’re expecting it to stall in the Senate, and Washington is occupied at the moment with lots of other stuff.”

For now, communities that have embraced this new world — like Holyoke, which is starting to fill its former mills along the canals with a mix of cannabis-related businesses — appreciate the additional tax revenue and retail traffic in town, but also, as Hayden notes, those jobs.

“Will cannabis provide thousands of jobs, like the state has predicted? Who knows, but 300, 400, 500 new jobs is significant,” he said. “More than 90% of the businesses in the Valley are small businesses — not by the definition of the Small Business Association, with 500 employees or fewer, but with 50 or fewer.”

Collectively, that’s a lot of positions to fill, especially as more of those small businesses come online.

“This is like any other business in the sense that they need people ready to work and have some skills to do the jobs they want to hire for,” Hayden said. “The more we can work as a community college on skills training that gets people ready for work, the better.”

In many cases, shops are hiring people who may face skill barriers to other types of employment; it’s a relatively even playing field in that, because the industry is so new, almost everyone needs training. HCC’s Cannabis Education Center is doing its part, both through courses and one-day programs like an upcoming workshop series on planning and starting a cannabis business, as well as getting into medical marijuana.

“Our goal is to get people into jobs, but in the context of a career,” Hayden said. “A job is a great thing, but if it’s just a 15- or 20-hour job, that’s not going to support you or your family for long. We want to get people on a career pathway through skills training.”

For example, he went on, “in cultivation, someone might come in trimming plants, working with growers, learning what the process is, and might become a cultivation technician, an assistant grower, even a master grower. There are definitely steps along the way to get not just a job, but a career in cannabis.”

Maturing Industry

Foster said he doesn’t have a crystal ball when it comes to the cannabis industry, but he does have his eye on some intriguing trends.

“We’re already seeing consolidation. Many of our clients are receiving unsolicited offers to buy them out. They’re not actively soliciting offers; people are contacting them. It’s mostly out-of-state money — and it’s not small money. That will be interesting to see, if the industry changes from being completely locally owned to being owned by out-of-state players, creating national cannabis businesses.”

Another murky area right now is the effectiveness of the state’s social-equity piece, which aims to provide priority access, training, and technical assistance to individuals and communities negatively affected by the drug war — a key target audience for HCC’s training efforts. “That’s another big unknown which may get some clarity in 2020,” Foster said.

What is clear is that the market, as it stands now, is humming along — and creating those jobs.

“All the folks I’m seeing are still trying to keep up with customer demand. At least from what I’m hearing, competition hasn’t slowed business. Will that change if New York and Connecticut were to legalize? Possibly,” he noted, citing casinos as a case study; there’s no doubt Foxwoods and Mohegan Sun have lost some business to their northern neighbor since the Bay State got into that business. “But for the moment, Massachusetts is the only game in town when it comes to cannabis.”

It’s a game with lofty goals and an uncertain — but undoubtedly promising — future.

“It’s a maturing industry,” Foster said. “So it’s going to have maturing-industry challenges.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Construction

Beneath the Surface

Jeff Weinman stands on the former York Street Jail site, where a new, state-of-the-art pump station is being built.

The wastewater pump station at Springfield’s riverfront has done its job for more than 80 years, but it’s nearing the end of its useful life and lacks the capacity to keep up with the region’s growth — which threatens the cleanliness of the Connecticut River itself. That’s why the Springfield Water & Commission has launched a $115 million project to build a new station and three new pipelines across the river — a project that comes with some intriguing challenges and equally innovative solutions, including something called microtunneling.

When the wastewater pump station on York Street in Springfield was built 81 years ago, the city’s infrastructure was much different — and so were its sewage-treatment needs.

“The existing pump station is pretty old, though it’s still functional,” said Jeff Weinman, senior project manager Daniel O’Connell’s Sons (DOC), the contractor overseeing the construction of a new, much larger pump station at the site. “The capacity is the issue. As the city has expanded over the years, it’s kind of at its capacity right now, so they need to create additional pumping capacity there. In order to that, they needed to build a bigger pump station with bigger pumps, bigger piping, bigger everything.”

The $115 million project will serve 70% of the region’s population by conveying wastewater from Springfield, Ludlow, Wilbraham, and East Longmeadow across the Connecticut River to the Springfield Regional Wastewater Treatment Facility on Bondi’s Island. A new, higher-capacity wastewater pump station will be constructed, as well as three new wastewater-conveyance pipes across the Connecticut River.

The project is a cornerstone of the Springfield Water & Sewer Commission’s efforts to comprehensively plan projects that will meet multiple pressing needs such as combined sewer overflow reduction, climate resiliency, system redundancy, and infrastructure renewal. Construction is expected to last well into 2022.

“It’s part of a capital investment on the part of the commission to both increase their infrastructure and enhance water quality in the Connecticut River,” Weinman told BusinessWest. “It can reduce the potential for severe storms to impact water quality in the Connecticut River by having storm runoff or having the city’s sewer system overflow.”

A rendering shows the future pump station’s footprint both above and well below the ground.

The innovative project, expected to create about 150 construction jobs over the next three years, is designed to address four key issues, including:

• Infrastructure renewal (the new, modern station will replace an aging station nearing the end of its useful life and accommodating future growth in the region);

• Environmental protection (increased pumping capacity will prevent an additional 100 million gallons of combined sewer overflows from entering the Connecticut River in a typical year);

• System redundancy (three new pipes under the Connecticut River will add redundancy and improve service reliability for customers in Springfield, Ludlow, East Longmeadow, and Wilbraham); and

• Climate resiliency (flood-control protection will be increased by repurposing the old pump station).

The project is a culmination of years of planning — specifically through the commission’s Integrated Wastewater Plan (IWP). Adopted in 2014, the IWP was one of the first such plans in the country to integrate project planning for regulatory compliance — specifically, projects that fulfill an unfunded federal mandate to eliminate combined sewer overflows — and for renewal of aging infrastructure.

A Question of Capacity

The new station is being built on the former site of the York Street Jail and will connect to the Springfield Regional Wastewater Treatment Facility on Bondi’s Island through three new, 1,200-foot river crossing pipes. The additional pipes will supplement the two 80- and 50-year-old pipes under the river now, allowing for more regular maintenance and alternatives during emergencies.

“It can reduce the potential for severe storms to impact water quality in the Connecticut River by having storm runoff or having the city’s sewer system overflow.”

A $100 million low-interest loan from the Massachusetts Clean Water Trust State Revolving Fund (SRF) is the source of funding for the majority of the project. The SRF is administered by the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection with funding from the federal Environmental Protection Agency and from repayment of past loans.

The project also utilizes an innovative form of construction called ‘construction manager at risk’ (CMAR). Rather than designing a project and then sending it to bid for construction, CMAR incorporates the construction manager earlier in the process to help identify risks that may arise in the construction phase due to design. This garners more price certainty and minimizes project delays due to unforeseen circumstances.

“The delivery method is a little different,” Weinman said. “We did a technical proposal for the job, and based on that we were awarded the contract, then we worked with the design team during the final stages of development of construction documents, providing budgeting support and working with design team as they finalized documents and tailored them to the approach to the work that we thought best.”

The current, 81-year-old pump station is much smaller — and can thus handle much less wastewater — than the one coming online in 2022.

One of the interesting challenges of the project is where it’s sited, shoehorned between West Columbus Avenue and the flood-control wall and the infrastructure on York Street, including the main interceptor pipe for the city of Springfield.

“The pump station needs to be deep enough to work with the existing elevations of the infrastructure and also be able to have the capacity to handle the flow that it needs to handle,” Weinman said. “The bottom elevation of the pump station is 50 feet below existing grade. The site is so small, you have to go pretty much straight down with excavation to build the pump station.”

So, in a move uncommon in Western Mass., DOC will use a slurry wall for supportive excavation. “It’s a type of system usually used in downtown Boston and urban settings where you don’t have a lot of real estate. A concrete wall is built in the ground without using formwork,” he explained. “It’s kind of a unique process — the first time I’ve been involved with a project that employs that system.”

Another challenge involves running the new pipelines under the Amtrak tracks, Weinman noted. “So they’re going to be microtunneling under the tracks. We did a smaller supportive excavation for the launch pit for the microtunneling. That’ll be going on hopefully next summer — boring a hole beneath the flood wall and the railroad tracks out to the other side of the tracks down toward the river.”

Next summer will also see the start of the underwater pipe installation. That phase of the project should take about 12 months, as will DOC’s infrastructure upgrades at Bondi’s Island to expand the capacity of the sewage intake there. The construction of the pump station itself is the most involved part of the project; a groundbreaking took place in the spring, and it should be complete in May 2022.

Water Works

The river-spanning pipe installation — which DOC will subcontract to a firm that specializes in such work — is a relatively straightforward job, but the process of completing the work has become more difficult in terms of the regulatory aspects, Weinman told BusinessWest.

“There’s a lot more awareness now of the potential environmental impacts, so the planning of it becomes a lot more intensive. You work with regulators, MassDEP, the Army Corps of Engineers, and other regulatory agencies involved, making sure you’re tailoring your work in a way that complies with all the regulations and minimizes the impact,” he explained. “It’s an arduous process, and I understand why it’s there.”

Still, the entire project itself will have a major environmental benefit, and that’s keeping the Connecticut River cleaner while better meeting the region’s growing wastewater needs.

“The York Street Pump Station and Connecticut River Crossing Project is a sign of the commission’s smart and future-oriented approach to stewarding the region’s water and wastewater infrastructure,” Commission Executive Director Josh Schimmel said at the spring groundbreaking. “These types of projects may not always be the most glamourous, but they are critical to maintaining public health, service reliability, and environmental protection in the region for the 21st century. We are proud to initiate this project that will maximize ratepayer dollars by meeting multiple needs.”

To Weinman and his team at DOC, it’s another rewarding challenge, particularly in terms of innovative methods like the slurry wall and the trenchless tunneling under the railroad tracks, that promises to lead to a positive outcome.

“That’s the nature of construction,” he said. “There are so many different systems out there, and every job has different challenges and different solutions.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services

Local Approach

Jeff Sullivan says customers use branches in different ways than they used to, but that physical presence is still important.

Every morning, Jeff Sullivan signs new-account letters for the most recent depositors at New Valley Bank. “We like to send a thank-you note to people for opening an account,” he told BusinessWest.

But that task also allows Sullivan, the bank’s president and CEO, to gauge how New Valley is doing, at least by that one metric. “Week by week, the volume goes up. Every morning when I come in, there’s a stack of letters that kind of tells me how the day went yesterday. Sometimes it’s just a couple, sometimes eight or 10.”

The story those piles tell is of a bank — the first new Springfield-based bank to open in 11 years — that is indeed growing, and not just in deposits, but in commercial lending, the niche on which its founders want to focus considerable energy.

“In general, things are going well,” Sullivan said, noting that, at the end of the second quarter, just a month after opening, New Valley reported $34 million in assets. That number rose to $45 million at the end of September, is over $55 million now, and is expected to top $60 million by the end of the year. “So we’re starting to grow.”

While the last bank launched in Springfield, NUVO Bank (since acquired by Community Bank), focused on a mostly digital banking model, New Valley will have slightly more of a brick-and-mortar foundation, Sullivan explained. It currently has two branches — its headquarters on the ninth floor of Monarch Place in downtown Springfield, and a stand-alone branch on Wilbraham Road in Sixteen Acres. A third branch will follow in the second half of 2020, although the location hasn’t been determined.

“We’re a hybrid model, and people use branches in different ways now,” he said. “One of our customers, who opened his accounts here and doesn’t have a lot of need to go to a branch, went into a branch to have them help him figure out the online stuff. He wanted to download the mobile app and get everything enrolled and get bill pay set up, so our staff spent an hour with this gentleman, helping him set it up so he doesn’t have to come to the branch. But he was glad to know it was there so he could go and get some assistance when he needed it.”

On the commercial side, the bank will focus on smaller loans and quick turnaround times, said Sullivan, adding that the merger culture in recent years has created opportunities to serve small to medium-sized businesses in a high-touch way they don’t necessarily experience at large institutions.

“There’s definitely a big learning curve, of trying to educate the broader public about who we are and what we’re trying to do,” he noted. “We do have kind of a captive audience in the 300 shareholders who have invested in us. They know our story. As we convert those shareholders into customers, we want them to have a good experience because they’re very important to us. Then, if we provide good first impressions, they’ll become a sales force for the bank; they’ll tell their friends and business networking groups that we’re doing a good job.”

That’s the challenge for any new bank — to answer the question, ‘why this bank?’ when so many other institutions dot what many have called an overbanked landscape in Western Mass. But Sullivan hopes New Valley’s combination of local, quick-response lending and a retail model built on strong personal service will resonate with people looking for a change.

“We’ve looked at our shareholders and some people we’ve done business with before as our first wave of customers. And they’ve been patient with us because, as a new bank, not everything goes completely smoothly,” he added. “Our branch took a little bit longer than we thought to get open — it opened in September, and it’s doing great.”

New Valley is also in the final stages of testing and rolling out online account opening and other technology by the end of the year, as well as an online lending platform where people can apply for commercial loans up to $250,000 and get an answer quickly. “That’ll be up by the end of the first quarter of next year. We’re working hard on all those things while we’re trying to grow the balance sheet at the same time.”

Successful Connections

The founders of the bank — including Sullivan; Chairman Frank Fitzgerald; Jim Garvey, president of St. James Check Cashing; and Dennis Murphy of Ventry Associates — set several goals early on, first being a high level of engagement with customers, which Sullivan said has been missing at many banks. Second, they hope the bank will build off the recent successes in Springfield and connect the small-business community to that success.

Sullivan, who has spent more than 30 years working in and around the region’s banking community, most recently as chief operating officer for United Bank, told BusinessWest he’s come to understand that, just because there are branches on almost every corner in some cities and towns, that doesn’t mean the region’s population — and especially certain segments of it — are adequately served.

“We’ve got to make sure we make good first impressions with people. Our calling card’s going to be that we’re small, we’re nimble, we’re local, we can turn stuff around quickly. So we just have to live up to that, do a good job of it, and then the word will spread.”

In fact, research continues to show that the volume of business at check-cashing establishments has remained fairly stable — and comparatively high — in this region, despite considerable improvement in the economy over the past decade. Sullivan estimates there are some 20,000 households in Hampden County alone that use a bank sparingly, if at all.

“A lot of people are not well-served on the retail side. They need financial education, low-fee and no-fee accounts, and also a lot of financial-literacy tools,” he said.

“Several companies we’ve talked to say, ‘that profile is my employee base. I’ve got a lot of hourly employees, high-school kids getting their first job with us, people who are coming out of the military, or out of jail,’” he went on. “The employer is saying, ‘if I can cut down on the turnover, if I can make these people more stable, they’re going to be better employees, and that’s better for my business.’ They’re interested in working through their HR departments to make these kinds of accounts and tools available to people. It’s a win-win — lower turnover making for better employees, but they also recognize the challenges people are going through.”

But he also came back repeatedly to the commercial-lending focus New Valley wants to become known for during a time when many banks have been involved in mergers and acquisitions, and longtime community banks have grown significantly and put more emphasis on very large loans.

“As we come to the end of this long expansion cycle we’ve been in for 10 years and we’re seeing a lot of consolidation in the marketplace, banks and credit unions are readjusting their portfolios a little bit. We’re coming to the marketplace and saying, ‘hey, we’re turning stuff around quickly, and it doesn’t take us as long as it takes some of the other banks to go through the process.’ So I think delivering on quick decision making, local decision making, and just rapid service is what defines us at this point.”

One unexpected development has been strong demand for residential mortgages, which was not a big part of the initial business plan, Sullivan said. It’s just one way a new bank has to adjust to market demands — one of many challenges during that first year.

“By making sure all of our systems are in place, working with our regulators to make sure that we’re growing the right way, that our procedures and policies are right for the size of our bank, we’re building a good foundation for the future,” he told BusinessWest. “I’m champing at the bit to scale up and unveil some of these new products and new technologies we’re thinking about.”

To serve the public, he added, “you have to meet them where they want to meet you. Increasingly today, that’s having a good app, having some good social media, being able to reach people through online marketing.”

Spreading the Word

New Valley’s business plan calls opening one more branch in the second half of 2020. Sullivan knows it will be one of many local stories in an industry constantly defined by change.

“A lot of branches are available right now in Greater Springfield and Northern Connecticut. By this time next year, new banks will be coming into the marketplace, and we’ll see some expansion; I think some of the Hampshire County banks will push down, and some banks out of New York are making a lot of noise that they’re coming into Connecticut. So the landscape will continue to change.”

It’s been an exciting first six months, he added, and he and his team intend to keep up the momentum.

“We’ve got to make sure we make good first impressions with people. Our calling card’s going to be that we’re small, we’re nimble, we’re local, we can turn stuff around quickly. So we just have to live up to that, do a good job of it, and then the word will spread.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Construction

Training Ground

Jeff Napolitano says he hears from contractors weekly that they need more skilled workers to grow.

Every week, Jeff Napolitano hears from contractors, and the message is always the same: We need more help.

“Contractors are always looking for skilled labor,” said Napolitano, project director of Community Works, an innovative arm of the Worker Education Program at UMass Amherst funded by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation.

“With the building trades, you have an older, whiter, maler workforce that has been retiring because, really, the biggest push for the trades ended in the ’70s,” he explained. “Back then, the mantra was, ‘after you graduate high school, you go to college.’ Going into the trades has been less and less common. But we’re finding now that, whether it’s electricians to wire things or laborers to work on job sites or carpenters to construct things, there’s a need for skilled trades. That’s where our programs come in.”

Community Works is an adult pre-apprenticeship program for the construction trades and the transportation and highway industry, with a specific focus on women, people of color, and veterans, although people of all demographics may participate.

A six‐week course offered in Springfield and Holyoke to prepare qualified applicants for an apprenticeship in the building and transportation industry, Community Works uses classroom and hands‐on learning experiences to equip participants with the skills needed to be accepted into a state‐registered apprenticeship program or transportation-industry employment, from which they can build a career. Participants also receive case-management and placement services to help achieve their career goals.

Even though he works on a university campus, Napolitano admitted the program is, from a financial perspective, much different than the college pathway.

“There’s almost no debt that you really have to rack up,” he told BusinessWest from his office at UMass Amherst. “We call it the inverse four-year degree because apprenticeship programs generally take three to five years on average. And unlike going to college, where you need to take out a bundle of money in order to go, you get paid while you train, while you’re working, while you’re waiting to become a full plumber or full electrician or whatever. So people don’t have to take any debt; in fact, they get paid, with benefits, to train to become a journey-level tradesperson. That’s a lot better deal than college.”

The training — delivered by instructors experienced in the trades as well as guest presenters who have expertise in their field — replicates an actual work experience to increase the likelihood of successful placement into apprenticeship. Classes run Monday through Friday, from 7 a.m. to 3:30 p.m., to mirror a typical construction workday.

“We’re a workforce-development program on steroids, Napolitano said. “A lot of programs have a very narrow niche — afternoon training for a week to do one particular technique in one part of the industry. Our program is six weeks, five days a week, eight hours a day.

“We call it the inverse four-year degree because apprenticeship programs generally take three to five years on average. And unlike going to college, where you need to take out a bundle of money in order to go, you get paid while you train, while you’re working, while you’re waiting to become a full plumber or full electrician or whatever.”

“So our program is way more intensive, and people graduate with OSHA 10 certification, first-aid/CPR certification, highway flagger certification, and other certifications that are, by themselves, extremely valuable,” he went on. “Over those six weeks, it isn’t just classroom training, things like blueprint reading and construction math, but also a lot of hands-on training.”

For instance, last year, 14 participants spent a day at a Habitat for Humanity site in Holyoke and insulated the whole house, he noted. “Folks also spend a whole week at the official carpenters’ apprenticeship training facility in Millbury, learning, as other carpenter apprentices learn, how to hang drywall and do flooring and that sort of thing. So they get exposed to a wide range of tools and equipment and techniques.”

And not just in carpentry, as they also visit electricians, sheet-metal workers, and others who can provide hands-on training experience.

“Instead of this being a program that just narrowly focuses on ‘you need to manufacture these widgets, and this is how you do it,’ we actually train folks in a wide variety of things. We bring in the folks from the ironworkers, the plumbers, the glaziers, the operating engineers, the elevator constructors, to basically explain these specific trades and what’s involved in getting into them. We have a very broad focus, and despite having that larger focus, it’s still a very intensive program in terms of amount of time and detail and exposure to the work.”

Immediate Success

Community Works began in 2009 as Springfield Works, a 20-member employer/union partnership to address a gap in the regional workforce-development system: too many Springfield residents were in need of additional skills training for entry into apprenticeship programs. Within a year, the program had the highest job-placement rate in the state among pre-apprenticeship graduates.

The program was rebranded in 2013 with an expansion into Holyoke, and continues to target underserved populations in the construction and transportation trades, including women, people of color, and veterans.

“Our focus is on closing the demographic gaps. These industries are heavily male, heavily white,” Napolitano said, noting that some public-works projects mandate 5% or higher percentages of women on the job.

Beyond that, Community Works applicants must be at least 18 years old; have a high-school degree or equivalent; be authorized to work in the U.S.; pass a drug test; pass a physical test, consisting of a ladder climb and other tasks; be a proficient (if not perfect) English speaker; and have a valid driver’s license and a registered, working vehicle.

“You don’t need to have any experience,” he said. “It can definitely be a plus, but you don’t need any. I’ve had people who weren’t even familiar with a measuring tape go on to construction careers. We presume that folks don’t have that experience. At the end of the class, everyone’s in roughly the same place, ready to go.”

After the six-week course (the next one runs from Feb. 24 to April 3) comes the apprenticeship placement phase, and that’s where Napolitano comes in.

“When they graduate, I help them figure out where they want to apply, what jobs they want to do,” he said. “Our partners commit to taking a look at people. After MGM was finalized, there was a dip in the labor market, but it’s coming back now. Contractors are calling me in a weekly basis looking for graduates to be put to work.”

The goal is to place graduates into apprenticeships in the building trades or into careers in the transportation industry, and sometimes both, he explained. The skills required for most trades take years to learn and are usually developed through apprenticeships, which combine classroom instruction and paid on-the-job training under the supervision of an experienced tradesperson. The sponsoring apprenticeship program pays the costs of apprenticeship training, and, upon successful completion of the apprenticeship, the participant is credentialed as a journey-level tradesperson.

In fact, all the training is free, starting with the six-week Community Works course, Napolitano added, and people receiving unemployment benefits are not required to search for a job during the program to maintain those benefits. Furthermore, all participants — there are between 20 and 25 slots in each annual class — also receive a basic set of tools and equipment.

It’s the kind of opportunity that has some college graduates rethinking that degree.

“Apprentice program directors are seeing more and more people with college degrees, who have a lot of debt and can’t get a good enough job with just a college degree,” he noted. “I had a couple of people with master’s degrees in my program last year. So it’s pretty remarkable.”

Do Your Job

After listing the requirements to apply for Community Works — things like English proficiency and the ability to drive — Napolitano remembered the most important one.

“The thing that’s required the most is the enthusiasm and initiative to want to get into the construction industry,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s a physical job, and it requires some hustle. That’s really what we’re looking for in people.”

That’s why participants are bounced from the program for multiple absences and tardies. “We’ve been told that 95% of the industry is showing up on time. The other 5% is having a good attitude and being willing to learn something.”

After all, the construction and transportation industries, in dire need of new blood to replace an aging workforce, are certainly willing to teach a few things.

“It’s definitely an issue, particularly for the larger companies that are trying to expand their base of work,” he said. “They need an expanding group of workers who can do the job.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Travel and Tourism

Taking Flight

When the Connecticut Airport Authority (CAA) launched nonstop flights on Frontier Airlines from Bradley International Airport to Miami on Nov. 14, it marked yet another success in the airport’s goal of expanding destinations for customers, particularly budget, non-stop flights.

“We are excited to launch Frontier Airlines’ non-stop to Miami from Bradley International Airport,” said Kevin Dillon, executive director of the CAA.  “Frontier Airlines’ low-cost model is a key addition to our route structure. We are pleased to offer our passengers this additional travel option along with the high level of customer service that Frontier offers to its customers.”

The non-stop service will operate seasonally starting through April 2020 on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays, aboard an A320 Neo aircraft. The outbound flight departs from Bradley at 8 p.m. and arrives at Miami International Airport at 11:23 p.m. The inbound flight leaves Miami at 3:55 p.m. and arrives at Bradley at 7:04 p.m. 

Frontier Airlines also operates non-stop flights from Bradley to Denver, Orlando, and Raleigh-Durham. Non-stop flights to Orlando operate year-round, and the non-stop flights to Denver and Raleigh-Durham operate seasonally.

“We’re happy to expand our service at Bradley International Airport with non-stop flights to Miami,” said Daniel Shurz, senior vice president of Commercial for Frontier Airlines. “These new flights are an affordable and convenient option for travel to South Florida to explore the unique dining, sunny beaches, and endless activities. We appreciate the support of the community and look forward to continuing our outstanding partnership with the airport where we now offer four non-stop destinations.”

When the CAA took over operations at Bradley in 2013, it was handling roughly 5.5 million passengers a year. Now, that figure is more than 6.6 million.

Recent years have seen Bradley launch low-cost, non-stop service to Pittsburgh on Via Airlines, and to St. Louis on Southwest Airlines. Meanwhile, internationally, the daily Aer Lingus flight to Dublin introduced in 2016 has becoming increasingly popular with business and leisure flyers, and last year the airline committed to another four years at Bradley.

Passenger Experience

These developments, among others, have contributed to six straight years of passenger growth since the CAA began managing the airport in Windsor Locks in 2013. When the CAA took over operations at Bradley in 2013, it was handling roughly 5.5 million passengers a year. Now, that figure is more than 6.6 million.

And it’s not just flight expansion, but improvement in amenities as well. Bradley has added new eateries in recent years, such as Phillips Seafood and Two Roads Brewery. It also saw the opening earlier this month of Natalie’s Candy Jar, a self-serve candy store with more than 400 different sweet treats, beverages, and candy-related gift items.

“Natalie’s Candy Jar is a popular brand with a national footprint, making it a key addition to Bradley’s customer experience,” Dillon said. “The store’s unique and fun atmosphere, coupled with the high quality of candy, sugar-free treats, and gifts, will be well-received by travelers of all ages.”

Meanwhile, Travelers Aid International has begun serving Bradley’s passengers with a guest-service volunteer program. Travelers Aid currently operates similar guest-service volunteer programs at four other airports: New York JFK, Newark Liberty, Washington Dulles, and Washington Reagan.

These service-focused improvements have all helped Bradley International Airport earn a spot in the prestigious ranking of five best airports in the U.S. by Condé Nast Traveler three years in a row.

Dillon hopes readers keep the accolades coming for Bradley’s planned, $210 million ground transportation center, which recently broke ground for construction. When it’s open, passengers will be able to fly into Bradley and connect to the transportation center via a walkway from the terminal. All the rental-car companies serving Bradley will be located there, as well as 830 spaces of public parking.

The transportation facility will also serve as a transit hub for the various bus services into and out of Bradley, as a connecting point to the rail line that now connects New Haven with Springfield.

—Joseph Bednar

Workforce Development

Life’s Work

Fern Selesnick says ageism does exist in the work world, but sometimes people also fall prey to harmful self-stereotypes.

Fern Selesnick says older job seekers have clear advantages over younger applicants — most notably, a lifetime of experience.

“You can say, ‘I have experience in this field, and I pretty much know what’s coming around the bend and can solve problems, and nothing can throw me,’” she told attendees of a recent workshop for mature workers at the MassHire Springfield Career Center.

“The people out there who are younger than you cannot say that,” she went on. “And the only reason you can say you know the problems that come up and you know how to solve them and you are unflappable is your age. That translates to an employer saying, ‘this person is going to save me time, money, and headaches. I won’t have to work so hard.’”

It’s a message she’s shared many times with clients of Fern Selesnick Consulting in Hatfield, which specializes in career decisions and job-search skills like interviewing and résumé writing for clients ranging from students to, yes, mature workers and career changers.

But she’s also realistic about the attitudes older job seekers will face during their search, and noted that ‘old’ means different things in different fields. For example, professional athletes are considered old by their 30s, airline pilots by their 50s, and Supreme Court justices not until their 80s. But anyone, in any field, can encounter ageism.

“The interesting thing about ageism is that it’s the only form of discrimination that people can practice on others when they’re young and become a victim of when they’re old. It’s a very weird ‘ism’ in that way.”

“It can also vary by industry,” she said. “In the United States today, there is ageism, and there is age discrimination — not across the board, but it is a strong enough force to be aware of.

“The interesting thing about ageism is that it’s the only form of discrimination that people can practice on others when they’re young and become a victim of when they’re old. It’s a very weird ‘ism’ in that way,” she added. “But there are laws that protect mature workers.”

Among these is the 1967 Age Discrimination in Employment Act, which protects workers and job applicants above age 40 from discrimination based on age. States have incorporated their own laws — but none of these guarantees that older job seekers won’t run into outdated attitudes, whether blatant or subtle, Selesnick said.

“But there are also opportunities,” she went on, noting that it’s important for mature workers to understand their worth, while doing what they can to boost their skills and readiness for a new job or career change. “It’s critically important to not believe the myths about ageism. Those myths impact finances and health, as well as quality of life.”

Why Not Retire?

There are many reasons why someone chooses to remain in the job market past traditional retirement age. Finances are a major factor: 40% of Americans, including a large swath of older workers, have amassed retirement savings of less than $10,000.

But older workers bring plenty of adaptability to the table, Selesnick added, as they seek to extend their working years. Many are self-employed; in fact, according to the AARP, more than half of all new businesses are started by people over age 50. Meanwhile, people over age 75 have the highest rate of self-employment of any age group.

Being one’s own boss, of course, means not losing a job to age discrimination. But it can also mean long hours, and it’s risky — half of small businesses fail in the first five years. She recommended accessing resources like the Senior Corps of Retired Executives and the UMass Small Business Development Center for free advising on self-employment matters.

For those seeking to work well into retirement, whether for themselves or a boss, she listed a number of essential tasks, including learning how Social Security works, updating one’s résumé, researching occupational requirements, and even taking care of one’s health and managing chronic conditions. She was quick to add, however, that even people dealing with chronic illness can bring much to a job, from intelligence and wisdom to interpersonal skills and a keen sense of humor.

“Remember, a person is not their illness, even though it can be traumatic when a person is diagnosed with a chronic illness,” she added. “It’s important to remember that’s not all of who a person is, and a person can still have tremendous functioning with a chronic illness.”

Selesnick encouraged workshop attendees to avoid ‘internalized ageism,’ which are self-stereotypes often developed at a young age, and instead focus on positive qualities of aging, such as good judgment and impulse control developed over a lifetime.

“It’s important to consider what’s been gained rather than what’s been lost,” she said. “A lot of things my friends would do in their 20s, they would never do now. Which is not to say something negative about youth, because I don’t want to reverse age discriminate. But the judgment and ability to evaluate situations is something that develops with age. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

And it’s something employers value, she added. But more important is the ability to do the job, and it when it comes to changing careers, people need to consider what kind of retraining that might entail — a certificate that can be earned in a few months, perhaps online, or a full degree program they may not have the time or money to pursue.

“So, if you’re going to need to be retrained, is it a retraining you can take on? Or do you have transferrable skills, so you can just switch gears?”

Sometimes all it takes is an upgrade in technology skills, and MassHire Springfield is one of many agencies offering classes in computer use and specific programs. She said one positive stereotype of Baby Boomers is their work ethic, and that often manifests as a willingness to learn new technology if it’s needed for work.

But it’s equally important, she added, to be enthusiastic and confident with that technology, because those who seem hesitant or reluctant may be screened out by recruiters without a second thought.

Selesnick also went over the basics of résumé preparation with workshop attendees, noting that applicant-tracking software will filter out applications without certain keywords before they ever make it to an HR manager’s desk. In effect, applicants are writing a résumé for two audiences — the software and an actual human being.

OK, Boomer (No, Really, It’s OK)

From there, hopefully, it’s on to the interview, which allows applicants to showcase their skills, confidence, and, yes, wisdom and good judgment collected through the years.

But it also helps to know someone, which is why Selesnick encouraged her audience to network as much as possible. “Research has shown that, if an employer receives a tip from someone they trust about a potential candidate, they’re going to trust that more than the résumé.”

Still, if the playing field is even — and it sometimes isn’t, because ageism is still a fact of life — an interview should provide an opportunity to connect on a personal level and to prove that age is no liability.

“Remember, when you’re walking into that interview, that’s your ace in the hole,” she concluded. “Your age is not your downfall — it’s your plus.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Workforce Development

Meeting the Need

Dawn Creighton says she’s excited about finding solutions to area employers’ needs.

During her decade-long tenure as regional director for Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM), Dawn Creighton’s role was basically to support member businesses in the 413.

“I went out and met with member companies, with their executive directors, and they would tell me what their biggest business challenges are, and I would try to find them a solution,” she told BusinessWest. “Sure enough, every single one of them said, ‘Dawn, if you could get me the bodies, I could double my workforce.’ No matter what the industry was, I’d meet with the HR person, and she’d say, ‘oh my God, Dawn, help me find somebody.’”

In those years, she formed connections between companies and resources like the region’s colleges and universities, but she wanted to be more than a connector.

And now she is. In her new position, as chief Workforce Development officer for Greenfield Community College (GCC), she can actually help build the programs that create that worker pipeline — and she’s excited about the possibilities.

“This opportunity became available, and I was like, ‘wait — I actually get to do something about this.’ It’s really exciting.”

Creighton, who works at GCC’s Downtown Center at 270 Main St. in Greenfield, had been on the job only three weeks when she sat down with BusinessWest to share that excitement, although she described her job in vague terms for a reason: at the moment, she’s mostly listening — and learning.

“What’s the purpose of higher education if we’re not building the student for the workforce they’re entering? We get it, and want to be able to do that.”

“My first 30 days have been really meeting with the employees at GCC and what they’re doing in the community. Then I’m spending the next 30 days meeting with the employers in the community, finding out what their needs are to make sure we’re building the programs they need. Then the next 30 days will be spent with our community partners, finding out how we can build programs together,” she explained.

“Once all that comes together, we’ll be figuring out what we’re already doing and doing well, and building new programs,” she went on. “What does that look like? Do we need to add more technology training? What are the needs of the community?”

Creighton is no stranger to GCC — she’s a 2005 graduate of the college who began her career as an employment specialist at MassLive before becoming AIM’s regional director for Western Mass. in 2009. During her tenure at AIM, she served thousands of employer members, uniting them around issues ranging from healthcare and employment law to sustainability, budgeting, and hiring.

In doing so, she developed an understanding of the diverse needs of employers across the region, including manufacturing, but she is also invested in furthering innovation and bolstering the creative economy. Thus, she’s in a good position to help GCC integrate the liberal arts and technical education it offers, said college President Yves Salomon-Fernandez.

“As an alumna, we are especially proud of Dawn’s professional achievements and are delighted that she wants to serve her alma mater and community this way,” Salomon-Fernandez said. “She rose to the top in the search process. There is much anticipation for her to lead us to new heights.”

Growth Potential

Among her responsibilities, Creighton oversees the college’s non-credit programs, from manufacturing to personal enrichment — “you’d be amazed how many people are interested in taking ukulele lessons and salsa dancing and tango.”

But when it comes to crafting programs that better train students for fertile career opportunities — thus helping companies grow — “there’s always more potential, and that’s why I’m here,” she said.

“Many, many moons ago, the impression [of community colleges] from the business world was, ‘here’s our student, take it.’ Now the business community has a chance to be the model for the student,” she went on. “What’s the purpose of higher education if we’re not building the student for the workforce they’re entering? We get it, and want to be able to do that.”

The college is currently crafting a strategic plan, seeking input from the community and companies of all types and sizes, to better hone and respond to those workforce needs, she explained. “It’s an exciting time, and the vision for what people want to see from the community college is huge. We’re reaching out to people and asking for their time to help us build the product they need — the student.

“They’re so excited to have their voice heard,” she added. “They’re calling me and telling me what they need, and they want to be a part of it — ‘how can I help?’ It’s this contagious vibe of getting involved. I’ve had people say, ‘if you build this program or do this training, I’ll even send some of my people in to talk about it in a real-world context. I’ll even do apprenticeships; I’ll do internships.’ They’re not interested in a handoff; they want to be hands-on.”

The goal, Creighton noted, is to get those ‘bodies’ in positions of need — actually, not just any bodies, but well-trained individuals — and help companies grow, at the same time establishing Western Mass. as a strong job market, attracting still more talent, which helps companies grow more, and it becomes a snowball effect.

“Every industry has a shortage of people,” she said, but specifically people with essential life skills — what some call soft skills, though she doesn’t like that term. “It sounds fluffy — but it’s real.”

For example, many employees and job seekers simply don’t understand the need to be punctual, or to stay off their smartphone during work hours, or that a 9-to-5 job means actually working 9 to 5. “To some people, it’s common sense; to others, it’s not. It’s just not an environment they’ve been in.”

And while Millennials have gotten a bad rap, this soft-skills gap spans the generations, Creighton said. In fact, in many ways, Millennials are a positive force, forcing companies to rethink old ways of doing business.

“With all this new leadership in the community, it’s just a fun, exciting buzz and vibe in Franklin County.”

She recalled participating on a panel with a banker who told her about a job he had early in his career. He was so savvy with technology, he’d get a day’s work done in five hours, but his boss wouldn’t give him additional duties, as not to show up his co-workers, so once his day’s work was complete, he’d sit at his desk, buried in his phone.

“Everyone looks at him like he’s this slacker,” she said. “He ended up leaving — no surprise there. And how many other people are leaving because they’re underutilized?”

The bottom line is that companies and their employees can learn from each other to help each other succeed, she explained — and that’s another way organizations can grow.

New Blood

As the former board president of Dress for Success, Creighton also built Foot in the Door, a workforce-readiness program dedicated to helping women develop critical skills for entering and re-entering the workforce. So she’s no stranger to these issues.

And she’s energized by all the new blood in regional leadership. For example, Salomon-Fernandez has been on the job just a year, and so has Diana Szynal, executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce.

“With all this new leadership in the community, it’s just a fun, exciting buzz and vibe in Franklin County,” Creighton said. “Everyone’s saying, ‘let’s try it this way,’ and nobody’s saying, ‘no, we did that before.’ And we’re working collaboratively together.”

While touring manufacturers and other businesses to determine what they need to grow, she added, it’s important to understand that many tools and programs are already in place. “We just need to package them differently. I’m excited when I hear the things people want and realize we’re already doing it and we could just do it in a more robust way.”

Finally, Creighton wants to celebrate the region’s economic successes while striving to add to them — and make sure GCC has a key role in doing so.

“So many people talk about how many people leave the region. OK, people leave — we get that,” she said. “But let’s focus on how many people stay, and what their economic impact is on our community. That’s where our focus should be.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]