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Defense Mechanism

future site of the SOC and cyber range

STCC’s Mary Kaselouskas tours the future site of the SOC and cyber range with U.S. Rep. Richard Neal and other stakeholders.

 

By now, Mary Kaselouskas says, the vast majority of people understand the importance of cybersecurity.

“Everyone is fully aware of the threats out there, how people become victims of cybercrime and the impact on an organization that’s involved in a breach,” said Kaselouskas, vice president ands chief information officer at Springfield Technical Community College (STCC).

What they might not know, she added, is the critical shortage in the cybersecurity workforce, with an estimated 20,000 more professionals needed in Massachusetts alone, not to mention about 1 million in the U.S. and 3 million around the world.

That’s why she, and other officials at STCC, around the state, and across the region’s IT sector are celebrating a new initiative to promote the development of a diverse cybersecurity workforce locally, with the goal of improving cyber resiliency in the Commonwealth.

U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, state and academic officials, and IT industry leaders were on hand at Union Station in Springfield on Oct. 31 to announce $1,462,995 in state funding will allow STCC to establish a security operation center, or SOC, at Union Station that will provide threat monitoring and other cybersecurity services for Commonwealth municipalities and small business and nonprofit customers. The funds will also establish a cyber range, a new testing lab to mirror real-world IT environments to provide hands-on training opportunities to local companies, universities, and other cyber-focused organizations.

“We’re seeking to establish Massachusetts as the national leader when it comes to cybersecurity infrastructure. We’re bringing together leading academic partners and businesses to support cyber resiliency and workforce development in the Commonwealth.”

“I have been involved with this for quite a while, and a steering committee was established many years ago, looking at how to address a shortage of cybersecurity workers in Springfield and the Pioneer Valley,” Kaselouskas said, noting that partners on the project include the Springfield Redevelopment Authority, a new entity called CyberTrust Massachusetts, the MassCyberCenter, and local colleges and universities, among others.

As the grant recipient, STCC will staff and operate the Union Station facility in partnership with a consortia of area higher-education institutions, including Bay Path University, UMass Amherst, Western New England University, Elms College, and Springfield College, each of which bring a range of undergraduate certificate and degree programs in IT/security, cybersecurity, computer science and programming, digital forensics, and criminal justice.

The SOC, Kaselouskas explained, is “a physical location at Union Station that monitors, detects, and responds to cyber threats 24/7/365, protecting organizations’ assets. A lot of companies don’t have the resources for a fully operational SOC, or can even afford to have managed SOC operations.”

The center will have full-time employees but also offer training opportunities for students at area colleges by way of internships and work-study programs, she added. “This will operate as a business once the grant money is gone. We haven’t discussed fees, but we will have an employee working in business outreach to get customers on board that will utilize the facility.”

Meanwhile, the cyber range will allow both students and employees of companies and municipalities to experience simulated threats in a virtual environment, with hands-on training in live-fire attacks, blue-team/red-team events (in which one team attacks a system and the other defends it), and other training models, potentially leading to certification in security fields for students.

“That’s the training part of this,” Kaselouskas told BusinessWest, noting that area colleges and universities will incorporate the cyber-range software into courses. “If a student is enrolled at STCC in the cybersecurity program, they may take a few courses that use the cyber range — so it’s not a whole course, but a component of a course.”

STCC President John Cook

STCC President John Cook says the cyber project at Union Station will be transformative for the region and higher education.

The grant to STCC will cover renovation and construction of the Union Station space, which is estimated to open in the first half of 2024. The facility will include a classroom and a conference room for up to 60 people, able to accommodate those cyber-related events and to serve as a space for collaboration, in addition to separate classroom space, workstations for use by academic partners, offices for facility staff, a tech-support area, a kitchen, and storage.

As part of a site-based service arrangement, STCC will provide administrative oversight for the facility, including all human-resources functions for employees and hiring of key personnel, plus the establishment of electronic-systems management. The facility will also be overseen by a steering committee of public, private, and academic stakeholders, which will include the Springfield Redevelopment Authority, the owner of Union Station.

 

Dollars and Data

The Union Station project is just one component of a more than $3.7 million outlay to bolster cybersecurity resilience — and the related workforce — across the state. The announcements were made during the sixth Massachusetts Cybersecurity Forum at Bridgewater State University, which brought together 100 executives from companies, municipalities, and leading universities.

The awards included a $1,086,476 grant to support the launch of CyberTrust Massachusetts, a new nonprofit that will work with business and academia statewide to grow the cybersecurity talent pipeline by increasing career pathways for underrepresented groups, and promote security operations to address the day-to-day needs of resource-constrained municipalities, nonprofits, and small businesses.

The Commonwealth also announced the $1,462,995 award to STCC and $1,200,000 to Bridgewater State University to establish SOCs and cyber ranges in the two cities.

“We’re seeking to establish Massachusetts as the national leader when it comes to cybersecurity infrastructure,” Gov. Charlie Baker said during the announcement event, adding that “we’re bringing together leading academic partners and businesses to support cyber resiliency and workforce development in the Commonwealth.”

CyberTrust Massachusetts was launched to address four key imperatives for the state:

• Undersecurity, as organizations across Massachusetts, especially municipalities, small businesses, and nonprofits, are challenged to find affordable resources to defend themselves against growing cybersecurity threats and maintain cyber resiliency;

• Underemployment, highlighted by the aforementioned 20,000 cybersecurity job openings in Massachusetts, and the fact that communities of color and women are underrepresented in the cybersecurity workforce and are frequently overlooked for employment due to a lack of opportunity to obtain hands-on cybersecurity experience;

• Employee training, as businesses across the Commonwealth typically do not have a location to send their employees to receive cybersecurity training at an affordable rate; and

• Business and economic development, specifically a need to convene regional hubs for business development where cybersecurity entrepreneurs can establish and grow startups or where specific industry segments such as defense contractors can receive specialized support.

“This first-of-its-kind collaboration among business, higher ed, and government through CyberTrust Massachusetts could transform our cyber education and training, growing our workforce and creating new opportunities statewide while helping to make our communities more cyber resilient,” said Pete Sherlock, CEO of CyberTrust Massachusetts.

“No organization is successful 100% of the time when it comes to defending against cyberattacks. With the new monitoring capabilities, organizations can increase awareness, detect intrusions faster, and respond more quickly to an incident.”

In February 2022, the MassCyberCenter released a request for responses seeking interest from entities interested in establishing an SOC and/or cyber range to support the dual missions around cybersecurity workforce development and for protection against cyber threats. Seven expressions of interest were received, including the proposals from STCC and Bridgewater State.

“We see these as the initial investments in a cyber-secure future, important investments to build out our plan for a cyber-resilient Massachusetts,” said Stephanie Helm, director of the MassCyberCenter. “The key word is ‘resilient,’ as no organization is successful 100% of the time when it comes to defending against cyberattacks. With the new monitoring capabilities, organizations can increase awareness, detect intrusions faster, and respond more quickly to an incident.”

STCC President John Cook agreed, noting that “this cybersecurity award will be transformative for our region and higher education. As one of the most pervasive liabilities for our businesses and communities, these funds ensure a regional center that will be a nexus for the cyber workforce with hands-on learning, in addition to establishing a resource for protecting our community partners against cybersecurity threats.”

 

Statewide Strategy

The grants are part of the Commonwealth’s ongoing investment in cybersecurity resiliency and workforce development. The award to CyberTrust Massachusetts is from the Massachusetts Cybersecurity Innovation Fund and will support the organization’s operating expenditures for a period of six months and will fund a contract for cyber-range services for one year.

“Leaders in the state’s cybersecurity ecosystem have been contributing to the establishment of CyberTrust Massachusetts because they see the imperative to help protect the undersecured and are passionate about training the next generation of our cyber workforce, including those from currently underrepresented populations,” said Jay Ash, chair of the CyberTrust board of directors and president and CEO of the Massachusetts Competitive Partnership.

Meanwhile, the grants to STCC and Bridgewater State were generated by “An Act Relative to Immediate COVID-19 Recovery Needs,” which provided $15 million to the MassCyberCenter to incentivize the creation of regional SOC services and expand the cyber workforce in the state, including a focus on “underserved and underrepresented populations.”

“Springfield Union Station is a world-class transportation hub that will now be home to a world-class cybersecurity training and security-management center,” Neal said. “The Baker-Polito administration has worked hand in hand with the city of Springfield, the STCC team, and my office to make this a reality.”

Kaselouskas believes the new SOC and cyber range can help Greater Springfield become a key region for the cybersecurity sector in the Northeast.

“Union Station obviously has a long history in Springfield, and the location is really centralized, and we’re hoping it will be a hub,” she said, adding that the facility could also bring in guest speakers for training — IT experts who hail not only from the area colleges and universities, but from large employers such as Baystate Health, MassMutual, and even the military.

“STCC is well-known and right around the corner, with 200 students in these programs right now,” she told BusinessWest. “We’re hopeful this will also boost interest in coming not only to STCC to explore these programs, but also to the other colleges we work with, which have strong programs as well.”

At STCC, she pointed out, many students hail from Western Mass. and then stay here, so any effort on the college’s part to train the future cybersecurity workforce will strengthen the sector locally.

“We’re hoping to make an impact in this area, to give back to local communities by educating students and keeping them close,” Kaselouskas added. “This program is going to be pretty big because not a lot of states do this. We expect to see this grow around the state and for Massachusetts to become a leader in cyber education.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Autos Special Coverage

Leading the Charge

The dates seem … well, close.

Volkswagen wants all its cars to be electric by 2035. Nissan has set a 2030 goal. Volvo? 2025.

“So there’s a strong commitment from different manufacturers to become all electric. And you’re starting to see new models introducing more hybrid electric models across the entire lineup,” said Carla Cosenzi, president of TommyCar Auto Group.

That may seem like a reasonable goal locally, she added, but manufacturers aren’t just building cars for Western Mass.

“We’re in a much different market than a lot of others. In our market, there’s a ton of electric infrastructure and high demand for electric vehicles, but I’m not sure what that looks like in other parts of the state or the country. And I think the infrastructure has to be there to make it realistic.”

Gary Rome, who owns a Hyundai dealership in Holyoke and a Kia dealership in Enfield, said he was the first dealer in the U.S. to deliver an electric vehicle from Hyundai, and his electric vehicle (EV) sales are up 38% over last year.

“There’s are state and federal rebates on these vehicles, which make them more attractive,” he explained. “You’ll pay more for an electric vehicle, but if you drive a lot, an electric vehicle pays for itself in short order. The metric is $1.25 per gallon to pay for electricity, versus $4 a gallon. We’ve had people trade in their gas-guzzling pickup truck, and they’re saving hundreds a month in fuel alone.”

About 15% of Rome’s sales are electric vehicles, which he estimated is about three times the national average, with the hottest model being the Hyundai Ioniq 5, which MotorTrend named the 2023 SUV of the year, among other accolades.

“We’re seeing a trend of manufacturers focusing more on electric vehicles than ‘ICE cars’ — internally combusted engines,” he told BusinessWest, though there’s still some hesitancy among motorists to try one. To that end, Gary Rome Hyundai is one of five dealers in the country offering a subsciption program, allowing customers to rent an electric vehicle for 28 days, including insurance, to see if it fits their lifestyle.

Rob Pion

Rob Pion says the industry’s inventory issues eased in 2022, but it was sometimes challenging to have the right inventory in stock.

“The adoption of electric vehicles is all about educating the client, and a lot of folks have range anxiety; they’re afraid of running out of charge,” he explained. “But you wouldn’t leave the house with an empty tank of gas without thinking, ‘where am I going to get my gas?’

“The range in our vehicles is quite extensive, about 308 miles. That’s plenty of driving time if you have a charger, and most utilities have a $500 or $1,000 rebate that will allow you to offset the cost of putting a charger in your garage. You plug it in, and the car is charged in four hours.”

In addition, EV drivers become familiar with other charging stations; Rome offers six at the Holyoke store, including two ‘superchargers’ that can fill a battery to 80% within 18 minutes.

Bob Pion Buick GMC is getting into the EV game as well, said General Manager Rob Pion, noting that GMC will be introducing an electric Hummer pickup and Hummer SUV by the second quarter of 2023, and an electric Sierra Denali pickup by 2024, while Buick is planning to go all-electric in the near future.

“That’s definitely coming,” he noted. “Electric is hitting our store. We haven’t had any experience with it up to now. In the next three years, we’re going to have a plethora of electric vehicles on the lot here to offer customers.”

Some customers are excited about the electric options, but others have reservations — for instance, what if the electric grid is strained, as it has been in some areas of the country, where people were told not to turn their AC on during certain hours?

“So now I’ve got an electric car charging at the house, taking as much power as that,” Pion said. “I’m looking at electric as a great option, but I share those concerns — is the infrastructure there?

Gary Rome

Gary Rome says customers will become more comfortable with electric cars as they deal with their “range anxiety.”

“But I do think it’s an exciting time, and there’s a future in it, even if it might not be right for everybody,” he added. “It’s definitely a conversation that goes on every day with customers.”

 

Rolling In, Rolling Out

Electric vehicles aren’t the only trend shaking the auto-sales industry lately. Through the latter half of the pandemic, inventory was a major problem as buyers swarmed onto lots much faster than manufacturers ramped up production after 2020’s dramatic slowdown. That problem is easing, to an extent.

“It’s a strange time in the auto industry,” Cosenzi said. “It’s so hard to predict right now, with so many different moving pieces constantly. We have been really fortunate; we have managed to keep a steady supply of inventory, so actually, it’s been a very good year for us. All our brands are doing really well.”

TommyCar’s used inventory has been healthy as well, she said, particularly the certified used inventory that comes with a warranty of three years or 100,000 miles. Because the company relies on market pricing at a time when used vehicles are in demand, both trade-in figures and sales prices are up.

“Business has been better than the past five years,” Cosenzi said, adding that low-but-rising interest rates have been a driver. “A lot of people who wouldn’t have been shopping for a new vehicle have upgraded to new vehicles.”

Pion noted that 2022 wasn’t quite as profitable as 2021, but with a month of business left in the year, sales have been healthy.

The inventory situation has definitely improved, he said, but getting the ideal mix of inventory can be an issue. “There’s more inventory than there was, but the challenge is getting the right inventory — you might have a half-dozen Buicks on the ground that are front-wheel drive, not the all-wheel drive customers might be looking for,” he explained.

“A customer can go online and find the exact car they want, and they can get their payment and interest rates right online. It really helps the customer to gauge what they’re looking for when they come into the dealership. It also helps us, as the dealer, make the best use of the customer’s time. The process becomes very efficient.”

“And this is another year end where the heavy-duty pickups are very, very difficult to come by. A lot of companies are looking for that end-of-year write-off for heavy-duty trucks, but they’re up against it this year. Even though there’s inventory, the inventory out there is a little bit of a hodgepodge, and not always what customers would want. I don’t know that I see that getting better anytime soon.”

Which is challenging at a time when customers often walk into dealerships knowing exactly what they want, with little flexibility, thanks to the information available on the internet.

“We’re very far from the time when a customer walked in the door looking for a $35,000 vehicle, asking, ‘what do you have?’ Instead, they come in and say they’re looking at a 2020 Buick Envision, pre-owned, stock number X, asking to pay Y.”

Cosenzi agreed. “Look how much technology has changed the automobile business — a customer can go online and find the exact car they want, and they can get their payment and interest rates right online. It really helps the customer to gauge what they’re looking for when they come into the dealership. It also helps us, as the dealer, make the best use of the customer’s time. The process becomes very efficient.”

Meanwhile, the used-car market has come down a bit from the low-inventory, high-price times of late 2020 into 2021, Pion said. Not that the values are that much lower.

“If you bought a heavy-duty pickup truck within the last couple of years, you’re able to return that truck today and get almost what you paid for it — if you can find a new one, because there’s such a shortage there,” he noted, adding that used-car inventory has also been affected by rental companies that sold off some of their fleets during the pandemic’s peak and then bought up huge numbers of cars afterward.

Carla Cosenzi

While it’s not easy to predict what the coming year will bring, Carla Cosenzi says, her dealerships posted strong sales in 2022.

“There’s still a lack of used inventory out there, and what is out there is worth more than had the market stayed status quo from three years ago,” he went on. “I would love to say there’s light at the end of the tunnel. We have inventory, don’t I think we are there yet. For the average person, it might not matter. But some businesses are really hurting, not getting the vehicles they need to actually do their jobs.”

Rome said the inventory issue is definitely easing. “We’ve done a very good job the past couple of years pre-selling our inventory, so they sell extremely quickly, and because we sell so many, we get more, and we’ve been selling them all over the country,” he said, citing states as far south as Florida and as far west as Colorado. “Folks have purchased their new cars from us; they either come here to pick them up, or we’ll deliver to them.”

 

Final Plug

All this considered, Rome said the outlook for 2023 is bright. “I think the manufacturers have had a vacation from having to spend money on incentives and rebates, and I think they’ll realize, as inventory accumulates and cars are more available, they need to add an appropriate amount of incentives to all the cars and offset any clients’ concerns about huge interest rates; they may offer a lower rate and rebate.”

His sales figures back up his general optimism, as Gary Rome Hyundai ranks fifth in the region from Maine to Virginia, comprising 169 dealers. “We’re definitely selling cars like crazy.”

Looking ahead, and judging by the plans of manufacturers, more and more of those cars are going to be electric.

“It’s a huge commitment. They’re not looking back — it’s full steam ahead by Hyundai,” Rome said. “They just broke ground outside Savannah, Georgia on $5.4 billion electric vehicle battery plant; it’s going to be employing 8,100 workers.”

He doesn’t worry too much about the public’s adoption of EVs, especially in Western Mass., where there’s a strong level of environmental consciousness and a good number of people who have already driven hybrid and all-electric vehicles.

“There’s already a market for the car out there, from people who are into reducing carbon footprint,” he said. “We’ve had people come from the Leverett area and the Berkshires, who already have solar in their house, a battery-operated lawnmower, a battery-operated bicycle — a lot of people are already in the fold.”

Cosenzi isn’t sure if Americans in general are ready to go fully electric, but she wouldn’t be surprised if more people start to move that way, whether driven by emissions concerns, long-term cost savings, or other reasons.

“If somebody is not ready to make full jump right away, they have the option of a plug-in hybrid,” she said. “I have a plug-in right now — it’s not 100% electric, but I love it.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Health Care

Crisis State

Cristina Rivera and Dr. Katie Krauskopf

Cristina Rivera and Dr. Katie Krauskopf say recovery is often a winding process marked by frustrating times and bumps in the road.

 

Christine Palmieri has read the numbers regarding a spike in overdose deaths in Massachusetts over the past couple years. But to her, they’re not just numbers.

“My role is to oversee our community-based programs that work with people who have experienced mental-health issues, substance-use disorders, and homelessness. As part of that, we run residential recovery programs for people who have a dual diagnosis, and we also run a number of different housing programs for people in recovery,” said Palmieri, vice president of Recovery and Housing at the Mental Health Assoc. (MHA) in Springfield. “And over the past year, maybe two years, we as a program have experienced more deaths by overdose than at any other time in my career.

“That’s troubling. There’s definitely times when it feels very hopeless and very frustrating, but I think our programs have done an excellent job of showing up every day, meeting people where they’re at,” she went on. “One of our programs is called GRIT, and that’s how I would describe what we need to keep coming back every day, and what the people we’re supporting in recovery need to keep coming back every day.”

After several years of decline, the rate of opioid-related overdose deaths in Massachusetts increased by 8.8% in 2021 compared to 2020, according to a June report by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. Drug-overdose deaths in Massachusetts continue to trend lower than nationwide figures, but the statistics are still startling, with the rise in death rates reflecting the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic and an increasingly poisoned drug supply, primarily with the powerful synthetic opioid fentanyl.

“Massachusetts and the rest of the country have definitely seen a rise in overdose rates during the pandemic,” said Dr. Katie Krauskopf, medical director of Substance Use Disorder Services at MiraVista Behavioral Health Center in Holyoke. “It looks like Massachusetts’ trend is better than nationally, and there is some indication that 2022 might be better than 2021. But we clearly saw people struggling during the pandemic, and a lot of that probably had to do with difficulty accessing care and the isolation that came along with it.”

In her experience, the pandemic impacted two groups differently: many of those with substance-use disorder who were already in treatment programs did better during the pandemic because the social restrictions helped them avoid some of the triggers they might normally have encountered more frequently. Meanwhile, regulatory changes around access to treatment allowed patients to take home medications they could not previously.

“People are reluctant to hire somebody with an history of opioid addiction; people are reluctant to house somebody with a history of opioid addiction, in lots of ways that aren’t based in reality, but based in fear, based in discrimination, based in stigma.”

“So patients in treatment have done quite well,” she went on. “The real issue was the patients who were not already engaged in treatment and were unable to do so.”

The DPH found clear evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic had a profound impact on mental health and led to increased substance use and poorer mental health across the Commonwealth, especially among BIPOC communities and LGBTQ+ individuals.

“We continue to be relentless in our commitment to increase access to harm-reduction services, low-threshold housing, and treatment,” Health and Human Services Secretary Marylou Sudders said. “By working to destigmatize addiction and meeting people where they’re at, including with an expanded array of harm-reduction tools, we can reverse this negative trend.”

Locally, organizations committed to improving behavioral health — and removing the stigma and barriers that keep people from accessing care — are doing just that.

 

Support System

Palmieri said it’s important to remember that recovery doesn’t happen in a vacuum, but is tied to social determinants like housing and economic stability.

“Whether it’s opioids or anything else, our role is to help people understand what’s getting in the way of their recovery and help fill the void that used to be filled with drugs or alcohol with things they can find meaning in,” she told BusinessWest. “We’re not only interested in sobriety and helping people stop using, but also, what are you going to do instead? Our primary goal in our residential programs and our housing programs is to make sure people have a safe, affordable place to go to live after treatment, someplace that isn’t necessarily the same neighborhood where they started using in the first place, someplace they can afford and sustain — but also to find employment, something that gives their life meaning beyond using, something they can wrap recovery around.”

René Piñero, vice president of Behavioral Health & Clinical Operations at MHA, said the pandemic curtailed some services in the community to counter addiction.

“But I definitely agree that it’s not all about accessible treatment; it’s about having housing and other supports. The state has provided funding for these programs and services, but it’s also about where people go to live after treatment, what supports they have, and opportunities to find employment. Even if we have treatment that is accessible for them, if we can’t find them a home address, it’s going to be more difficult.”

For those lacking access to care, the pandemic-driven isolation people felt didn’t help, Palmieri added — and in some cases increased a sense of stigma around seeking help.

René Piñero and Christine Palmieri

René Piñero and Christine Palmieri say addiction recovery often goes beyond treatment and entails social supports like stable housing.

“People are reluctant to seek support and services because asking for help means admitting there’s a substance-use issue that’s going on, and the stigma that surrounds opioid addiction is sometimes insurmountable,” she said, adding that stigma isn’t a one-way street. “We’re trying to get people connected, but we face barriers all the time. People are reluctant to hire somebody with an history of opioid addiction; people are reluctant to house somebody with a history of opioid addiction, in lots of ways that aren’t based in reality, but based in fear, based in discrimination, based in stigma.”

Krauskopf said the Greater Holyoke area has plenty of resources in place, from increased naloxone distribution to facilities like MiraVista, which offers a full continuum of substance-use programming, from acute inpatient detox to a clinical stabilization service to outpatient programs like an intensive, four-week program that teaches skills ranging from emotional regulation to mindfulness to dealing with triggers. “It’s not one-size-fits-all here at all. We have all these programs, and patients can really fit themselves into what they need at any given time and move through the services depending on where they are.”

The state has been aggressive with programming as well, expanding substance-use-disorder treatment and overdose-prevention initiatives since the start of the pandemic and investing $120 million in prevention programs from 2016 to 2022, as well as distributing well over 150,000 naloxone kits since March 2020 to opioid-treatment programs, community health centers, hospital emergency departments, and houses of correction.

 

Try, Try Again

Cristina Rivera, director of Outpatient Services and Substance Use at MiraVista, said everyone’s addiction-recovery journey is different.

“We know that recovery is ongoing, and there might be bumps in the road. In that sense, we help people wherever they’re at. If you start using substances again, it’s not like we’re not going to accept you into our program and try to get you back on track.”

Piñero said it’s helpful to recognize that mental-health and substance-use challenges require the same attention as any chronic, physical medical issue.

“Recovery has its ups and downs just like other medical issues. Often, with diabetes, cancer, and other medical conditions that aren’t stigmatized, people are more willing to recognize that.”

Krauskopf agreed, citing studies suggesting that rates of relapse and loss of control in addiction recovery are similar to those in people managing diabetes, asthma, and high blood pressure.

“The notion that recovery is a straight line is not realistic; it’s really up and down. Part of the disease is that patients will relapse, and we’ll help them get their footing back,” she told BusinessWest. “People have begun to pivot to understand this condition as a long-term chronic condition that requires people’s full attention at different levels of intensity, and we try to provide that here.

“Recovery is about medication for some, but lifestyle modification, too,” she added. “When you think about diabetes, many people do well with changes in their diet and exercise, and many people do that and need something else at well. It’s all the same goal.”

While the need for more resources is high, she said, especially when it comes to residential programs, the hope is that those struggling with addiction will see past the persistent stigma and seek help from the many resources that are currently available, and that those overdose numbers will start to fall again.

After all, they’re much more than just numbers.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Shop Local

Serving Up a New Reality

Peter Rosskothen

Peter Rosskothen says banquet facilities have had to become more selective about which events they take on.

For an events and catering industry devastated by the pandemic in 2020 and still hampered in 2021, this past year was certainly reason to celebrate.

“It’s been an incredibly strong year post-COVID,” said Seth Mias, owner of Seth Mias Catering in Leeds. “We had quite a few people making up for postponements, and a really robust season overall.”

The problem, said Mias and others we spoke with, is that it can be difficult to meet that demand due to a workforce crunch that has hit this sector hard.

“The challenge is staffing, obviously — getting people to come back to work — and supply-chain issues,” he noted. “Honestly, we were able to work through all that and had a really good season. To me, it seemed like clients were gracious and understanding about some of the challenges we’re facing as opposed to other years, like when certain products were unavailable.”

Peter Rosskothen has faced some of those realities as well, but said the Holyoke businesses he owns — including the Log Cabin, Delaney House, and Log Rolling Catering — have weathered them well.

“It’s been an above-average year — actually, a very good year,” he told BusinessWest. “Business has been very strong. Attendance to events is a little lower than it used to be, but the quantity of events, and the quality of events, has been better.

“The world is different,” he added. “We are much more focused on smart events for us. So we’re not giving stuff away, we’re charging more, and we’re being selective in the process to make sure we have staff and the ability to do something right.”

That selectiveness forced by workforce realities has changed the entire event industry quite a bit, Rosskothen added. “We just don’t say yes to everything anymore.”

Peg Boxold, owner of Elegant Affairs Catering in Springfield, has had to become more selective as well. “Coming out of the pandemic, we’ve got business, no problem, but we don’t have the staff. My staff have other jobs, just like the rest of the world. So we do what we can.”

During one past holiday season, she recalled, the company had a couple of days with 12 different events at different venues. “But now I have to think twice about doing two parties in one day, depending on whether I have staff. Also, it’s tough sometimes getting product for the kitchen, so if I don’t get the menu soon enough, I’ve got to hunt for the product. It’s not an easy world out there, and the profit margin is so much tighter now; we’ve had to go up on prices. It’s a new world.”

Like others we spoke with, Boxold said turning down business is simply a matter of not taking on a job she may not be equipped, because of staffing, to do well; she noted that she’s built up a reputation over more than three decades for quality events, and won’t risk that on understaffed bookings.

“I’ve worked too hard for too many years to jeopardize everything now for something I know I’m not going to be able to handle.”

“I had one lady call in September; she wanted a lunch on a Wednesday for 200 people, a plated meal. I said, ‘I can do a buffet setup the day before, but I don’t have the staff for plated.’ She wanted to be served, so I said, ‘sorry, I can’t.’ I’m not going to take something I don’t feel comfortable with in terms of quality of product and quality of service. I’ve worked too hard for too many years to jeopardize everything now for something I know I’m not going to be able to handle.

Even the events that do go on are more challenging, Boxold added. “Last week, I had a Thursday fashion-show luncheon in Wilbraham for 90 people. I begged, borrowed, and stole people to make it happen.”

 

Picking and Choosing

Rosskothen said he expects the upcoming holiday season to be a bit slower than in past, pre-pandemic years.

“I haven’t read any statistics, but my instinct tells me corporate is still slow to do group parties. So we see them, but we don’t see them to the level we used to. Every Friday and Saturday is booked, but if you go back a few years, we used to be booked five days a week. So it’s a little different than in previous years, and again, the selective process of picking and choosing the business that fits our company also gets rid of a few.”

The Log Cabin won’t be hosting group holiday parties this year, he explained, noting that the Delaney House, with its smaller rooms, is being used for smaller parties, while the Log Cabin focuses on big events.

And events are ‘big’ in different ways, Rosskothen noted. Wedding attendance is down, from an average around 170 years ago to 120 today, partly due to today’s marrying couples being slightly older. But the average per-head charge is up.

“This generation knows what they want; they’re very specific about their wishes, and it pushes the check average up,” he explained, noting that, once they book the event and set their guest list, they’re willing to pay more for certain things. “Prime rib used to be included in all our prices. Now, if you want prime rib, its $8 a head more. But the people who want it select it.”

The biggest challenge dealing with customers is that the price of everything is up these days.

“When somebody’s booked a long time in advance, which happens mostly on the wedding side of the industry, it’s very frustrating. There’s a budget established, and you kind of have a vision, but if you planned a wedding two years ago, you’re paying 20% more than you were planning. And that’s a big jump, especially if somebody’s on a budget. But there’s no choice; our costs are easily 20% higher versus pre-pandemic.”

For the most part, people have been understanding, Rosskothen added.

“I think most understand, though once in a while we get questions — ‘why this is $5 more a head?’ We go through the process and explain it, but I’d say 99% of the people kind of expect it.”

Mias agreed that this holiday season seems a bit slower than what he’s seen in the past. “I’m booking a solid base now, and just looking to do some fill-in booking at this point.”

Over the years, his business has morphed into a wedding-reception-focused enterprise, with those events gradually shifting from 10% to 15% of his bookings to around 85% today. “But we’re still doing corporate events, retirements, funerals, things like that.”

Many clients postponed events during the pandemic, he noted, which led to a scramble to fit them in with new business once COVID restrictions eased; only a few clients couldn’t make a new date work and had to go elsewhere.

 

Out and About

Rosskothen wonders how his industry will be affected by a trend he’s observed in the younger generation of not wanting to go out as much, and not valuing networking as much as young professionals used to. But he’s especially focused on economic trends.

“I think 2023 is going to be very interesting; I don’t know where it’s going to go. Are we really going into recession? I think people are going to contract and be careful. If the national climate changes, that’s going to affect us. So I’m a little worried about 2023, I really am.”

Still, he added, “it’s too early to tell. We might get out of this. There’s a lot of money in the economy, and a lot of companies have saved money, so it will be interesting to see how that plays out.”

Most people these days are not afraid of COVID when it comes to gatherings, he added. Boxold agreed, but noted that Elegant Affairs has COVID-friendly, individually packaged meal options as well. “For a lot of companies, it’s important for them to be able to stay in business and make sure everything is COVID-friendly, so we can do something for their employees but keep it within the parameters of COVID-friendliness.”

As she noted earlier, demand for events of all kinds is there. Meeting that demand with steady staff, however, is a persistent challenge.

“Hopefully it changes somewhere down the road,” Boxold said. “I’m assuming people have to go back to work at some point; they have to pay the bills. I don’t know whether they’re opting for other jobs or still sitting at home. I just can’t get a good read on everything. But I think it’s coming back, and that people will be coming back to work.”

Mias said 2022 was one of his strongest years — if not financially, then with the quality of events.

“Looking at the product we were able to put out with all the challenges, I thought it was a great year,” he added. “Hopefully the next few weeks continue on that path, and 2023 is looking just as good. We keep plugging along.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Architecture Special Coverage

Food for Thought

Dennis Group project

This aerial photo is of a large Dennis Group project under construction in Ohio.

 

At any given time, the Dennis Group is working on 400 to 500 projects around the world. But you wouldn’t know it by looking around New England.

Sure, it’s worked with Agri-Mark in West Springfield, Pepperidge Farm in Bloomfield, Conn., and a host of other companies locally over the years, but food-production plants — and that’s exclusively what this design-build engineering firm works on — tend to be bunched in certain pockets of the country, and for good reason, said Mike Damiano, head of the company’s process engineering group.

For example, “Pennsylvania supplies the Northeast. That’s a big distribution corridor. All the major players like to be within a stone’s throw of each other,” he noted, adding that other clusters are located in Ohio (serving the Midwest), Georgia (the Southeast), Texas (the South), and California (the West Coast). “We have a lot of work local to our Utah office, which seems abnormal, but it’s a growing area. A lot of it is about logistics, and where they can get to as many places in the U.S. as economically as possible.”

In addition, food-production companies find labor, taxes, and utilities less expensive outside New England, said Chris Siart, head of the firm’s civil, structural, and architectural group.

“We basically design and build food and beverage facilities. We started off doing food and beverage, and we’re still doing food and beverage, for a wide range of products and clients,” he told BusinessWest. “We work with small startup companies all the way up to top-100 companies — Nestlé, Kraft, Pillsbury, and all those other big guys.”

Damiano said the Dennis Group performs full-service engineering for the facility side of the production systems. That involves detailed design work, procurement of equipment and workforce, and management of the construction of the plant. “We don’t self-perform any construction activities, so we’re design-build in the sense that we do construction management.”

 

Up from the Attic

The Dennis Group has witnessed explosive growth since it was launched by founder — and still president — Tom Dennis in his attic in 1987. It now boasts about 200 employees in its headquarters in the Fuller Block building in downtown Springfield, and another 400 in seven satellite offices: in California, Georgia, Michigan, Utah, Brazil, and two in Canada.

Some of this success can be traced to timing — specifically, an explosion in the popularity of convenience-based foods and the recession-proof (and, as it turns out, pandemic-proof) nature of the food industry.

“A lot of it is about logistics, and where they can get to as many places in the U.S. as economically as possible.”

Each project begins with a concept, Siart said — a new product a company wants to develop or an existing product for which it wants to ramp up production. After a definition study, which is a report defining project scope, scale, cost, and schedule, the study is handed off to the food manufacturer for approval, with projects ranging anywhere from $1 million to $1 billion in cost.

“Then we set the engineering — we have all disciplines in house. We have civil engineers, architects, structural engineers … we have everything to do with the building, but also all the internal engineers as well — mechanical engineers, chemical engineers, control engineers, electrical engineers, basically designing all the equipment inside.”

One reason for the Dennis Group’s sustained success — it has topped Engineering News Record’s annual rankings of the top food and beverage engineering firms by revenue in numerous years — is due to its ability to tackle new industry trends, which constantly drive the design and construction of new plants.

For example, Damiano said, “we’ve been doing a lot of vertical farming, which is kind of new — it’s like a warehouse with an indoor greenhouse.”

That has helped stores keep ever-popular bagged salads on shelves longer because they’re arriving in stores sooner, particularly in the Northeast, said Nathan Marcucci, a process engineer and head of the firm’s project management group.

Mike Damiano and Chris Siart

Mike Damiano and Chris Siart say continual innovation in food trends drives robust production of manufacturing facilities.

“Bagged salads were always field harvested, and you had only a few days to get that salad from the field to somebody’s house,” he explained. “Now, with an indoor vertical grow facility in the Northeast in the wintertime, you can get that bagged salad to the consumer in the Northeast quicker, so it lasts longer. So it’s a combination of new technologies that invigorate some of these older products.”

The Dennis Group has also worked with the Impossible brand on alternative meats, ridden a wave of Greek yogurt and alternative milk production when those products became popular, and worked with Ocean Spray on Craisins.

“That used to be a byproduct; they used to pay to have it hauled away,” Damiano said. “Then they turned it into a product that was more profitable than the juice. The juice became a byproduct on the Craisins line. They basically flipped the table.”

Much of the product innovation in supermarkets begins with smaller companies and gets picked up by larger ones when products become popular. Larger companies are often hesitant to step out of their comfort zone, like J.M. Smucker, a repeat client that has long focused on peanut butter and jelly — and premade Uncrustables sandwiches — as well as a line of pet food. The Dennis Group is currently working on its third Smucker factory; a recently opened facility in Colorado was named Food Engineering’s Plant of the Year for 2020.

Sometimes innovation in the way food is packaged drives plant production as well, Marcucci noted, such as a move toward squeezable containers some years back for everything from peanut butter to yogurt.

 

No Slowdown

When the pandemic hit in 2020, Marcucci said, some jobs got put on hold, but the Dennis Group experienced no real downturn. In fact, demand soared for certain food products, like those aforementioned Uncrustables when kids were largely stuck at home.

“When the economy gets tough, people have less money to buy food at restaurants, so they want pre-made grocery food,” Siart said. “That’s when our clients’ orders go through the roof; they can’t keep up with the orders.”

And that’s when they call on the Dennis Group, which has developed a worldwide reputation in its engineering niche.

“There’s nobody with the title ‘salesperson’ in the company,” he added. “The way we look at it here is that everybody’s a salesperson. You’ve got to do good work to bring in repeat customers, and 80% to 90% of our work is repeat customers; basically, large food manufacturers come back to us and do multiple projects.

“A smaller percentage is new clients that are finding us through different ways — people moving from one company to another,” he went on. “Someone might have been working for Nestlé and is now working for another food company, and work comes to us through word of mouth from former clients. Some of it’s cold calling. Some of it’s someone doing a Google search and finding Dennis Group that way. That’s how our sales work: repeat business and word of mouth.”

It’s business the company’s leaders don’t expect to slow any time soon, if the way people shop — and the convenient products they desire — is any indication.

“Food is essential,” Damiano said. “If you go to the grocery store, you have that one section of fresh produce; everything else is processed. The minute people stop buying processed food, we’re in trouble.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Entrepreneurship Special Coverage

Match Makers

Hope Ross Gibaldi, executive director of Valley Venture Mentors (left), and her mentee, entrepreneur Lenore Abare

Hope Ross Gibaldi, executive director of Valley Venture Mentors (left), and her mentee, entrepreneur Lenore Abare.

Lenore Abare was familiar with Valley Venture Mentors (VVM) and even attended one of its events when she was dabbling with the idea of becoming an entrepreneur a few years ago.

“It all stayed in the back of my mind,” she said. “Now that I’m full-blown running my own consulting business, I knew it would be really important to align with other like-minded women who are hopefully beyond me, and learn from other people’s experiences.”

So she reached out to Women Innovators & Trailblazers, a VVM-affiliated program that matches professional women in mentor-mentee relationships. She was accepted into the program and found out last week that she was matched with Hope Ross Gibaldi, VVM’s executive director.

Seven years ago, WIT was the brainchild of Liz Roberts, then-CEO of VVM; Ann Burke, vice president of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council, and a number of other women, Gibaldi told BusinessWest.

“It arose out of the need for female-based mentorships and knowing there’s such great human capital here in the Valley. There are so many women who are seeking mentorship. And it’s not that we feel women can’t benefit from male mentorship, but there’s a unique connection and bond when women are mentoring women — women understand the struggles, the unique challenges, and the system under which all of us are operating. There’s something unique about that relationship.”

The initial cohort in 2019 included 12 mentor-mentee matches, which has increased to 25 pairings in the just-announced fifth iteration, with specific matches based on shared interest, mentor experience, and mentee need. In Abare’s case, Gibaldi can help her with various entrepreneurship challenges as Abare builds Vircilitation Impact (the name is a play on ‘virtual facilitation’), a consulting business that works with training providers in the business world.

“I was really excited to be matched to her,” Abare said, minutes after meeting Gibaldi for the first time at a WIT mentor-match kickoff event on Nov. 2, adding that she’s excited about Gibaldi’s work with VVM on starting organizations, business acceleration, and more. “I’m definitely going to tap into that experience.”

Paulette Piñero, a leadership coach and CEO of Unstoppable Latina, was another mentor on hand at the kickoff to meet her new mentee and network with the group. Her main focus is building a strategic plan for a business, “and then building a brand to attract the right clients, the right opportunities, and the right partners, with a strong brand voice,” as she explained to BusinessWest.

“It’s very refreshing to be able to be vulnerable and talk to other women and realize that you’re not alone, and that we’re all trying to figure it out.”

“I’ve been part of other Valley Venture Mentors programs, and I’m very involved with the work they do — and I do mentoring for entrepreneurs for other programs, like EforAll and the Center for Women & Enterprise,” she said. “So when I had the opportunity to mentor with women and be part of an ecosystem of local entrepreneurs, of course I had to say yes.”

 

Lighting a Spark

The tagline of WIT is “igniting a women-led economy,” and the program is essentially a community of female innovators and trailblazers with the common goal of supporting other women in their professional and entrepreneurial aspirations. Members include entrepreneurs, professionals, students, educators, and business leaders at all stages of their careers. From the initial meetings of 30 women in 2015, WIT has grown to encompass more than 350 women.

The mentor-match program aims to provide mentoring that helps women navigate their business or career, develop key competencies, and/or grow their professional network. New cohorts begin each fall and run through the spring — typically seven to eight months.

Paulette Piñero

Paulette Piñero says women feel more at ease being vulnerable around other women.

“The program grew over time, and we’ve had a series of other offerings, like networking brunches and educational offerings and workshops,” Gibaldi said. “But over time, we’ve really focused on the mentor-match part of the program.”

WIT leaders spend a month recruiting mentors and mentees. First, the mentors rank several categories — including entrepreneurship, career development, networking, finance, executive presence, and work-life balance — based on their interest and experience.

“I would like to mentor somebody in my biggest background, entrepreneurship,” Gibaldi said a few days before her pairing with Abare was finalized. “I’m also great at networking, so I put that as my second category. The mentees then fill out a form that is basically a mirrored version of that, but they focus on the interests they have and where their biggest mentorship need is. Then we pair them.”

Once the matches are created, WIT gives little specific guidance to the pairs, beyond asking them to meet at least once a month, for at least an hour, in person or virtually — though the interactions can occur as often as they like.

“Once we’ve created the pair, it’s hands-off. There’s not a specific curriculum we follow; it’s based on the needs of the mentee,” Gibaldi said. “We do encourage the pair in the first meeting to create a set of goals and outline what they plan to work on over the next couple of months.”

Abare said the program’s women-mentoring-women model is a valuable one.

“I think, in general, there are unique challenges that are presented to women in our culture, in our society, and when we can understand that context with each other, I think it helps us provide more valuable insight so we can empower each other — because we know, even when it’s not said, some of the struggles and inhibitors, the things that might prevent us from taking a chance or taking a risk or asserting ourselves.”

That latter point is a key one, Abare noted, because women sometimes are not as assertive as men when it comes to stating their value proposition — charging a high-enough fee for their work, for example.

“Research shows that men see themselves as qualified even if they check two boxes,” she added. “Women think they’ve got to have everything checked before they take the initiative.”

Working through that process requires being vulnerable, Piñero added, and women often feel more at ease among their female peers.

“It’s very important to be able to have conversations where we’re vulnerable with other women, so that they can understand what we’re going through, what are some of the obstacles that we face, what are some of the barriers that we face, and hear stories about how we were able to overcome those obstacles so they don’t feel so alone,” she said.

“In my experience, you’re in so many spaces where you feel like you have to be perfect, and there’s this perception that, when you go into entrepreneurship, you should have it all figured out,” she went on. “And it’s very refreshing to be able to be vulnerable and talk to other women and realize that you’re not alone, and that we’re all trying to figure it out.”

Abare agreed. “I think that’s the unique thing about bringing women together in a space. We understand these things from an experiential perspective, so we can empower each other.”

 

From Mentee to Mentor

Gibaldi said WIT has evolved over time, and even though it’s under the umbrella of VVM, it boasts its own community and serves its own unique need.

“It’s always been received really well, and we have increased the mentor and mentee participation in the program; we have people with a lot of experience with social and intellectual capital participating,” she added. “It goes to show mentors want to give back, and mentees want to get tapped into this network.”

One gratifying element is the number of pairs from previous cohorts who continue to work together, Gibaldi noted. “I think that’s a good reflection on how that curated mentor-match process really works. We take good care pairing people up, and it shows when we have people continue to work together outside the cohort.”

In addition, “another great indicator of success is the number of people who participate as mentees and then return as mentors. We encourage people to go on that journey as well,” she added. “To be able to grow people and transition them from mentees to mentors is very powerful.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Construction Special Coverage

Managing Change

As Bryan Hughes listed off some recent projects at Western Builders, where he took the reins as president on Oct. 3, he mentioned the new Girls Inc. of the Valley headquarters on Hampden Street in Holyoke.

“I’m excited to see that project, how they’re doing in that building,” he said, “because I have some memories there.”

He certainly does, as the property was previously the headquarters of the O’Connell Companies, of which Western is one of five divisions. The main construction division, Daniel O’Connell’s Sons (DOC), is where Hughes cut his teeth in the industry and then built his experience and skillset for nine years.

While at DOC, Hughes filled numerous roles over the years, most notably as a project manager on several college and university campuses, overseeing projects that ranged between $30 million to $80 million in overall construction cost, including Dartmouth College’s Hood Museum and the UConn Athletic Village.

“We had a lot of diverse projects, and I was able to learn a lot just being in the field,” he told BusinessWest.

Construction management wasn’t his first career path, however. “I’m math- and science-based for the most part; that’s how my mind works,” he said of his enrollment at Lehigh University to study engineering.

East Gables in Amherst

East Gables in Amherst is a passive-house project, a voluntary standard for energy efficiency.

“I landed on civil engineering because I was interested in the building side of things and heavy, highway-type construction. But when I graduated, I realized I have people skills as well that would go underutilized if I stayed in the engineering field. So construction management was a perfect fit in terms of combining the technical and personal aspects of the the construction field. And I really fell in love with it when I started with DOC.”

During his time at O’Connell, Hughes attended a hybrid program at Worcester Polytechnic Institute to earn his MBA. “That further honed my interest in the business side of things and ultimately got me interested and inspired to lead a company.”

When the opportunity came up to lead the 26-employee team at Western Builders, both Hughes and O’Connell leadership felt it was a good fit. “What led me to Western was my experience, just having a passion for construction and getting into the details of a project, both techically and in terms of relationships with clients and the community.”

“Part of what we provide as a service is to understand the issues with the supply chain and try to react to them as best we can, or at least propose solutions to owners to work around those challenges.”

James Sullivan, president of the O’Connell Companies, agreed. “We are very fortunate to have someone of Mr. Hughes’ caliber and experience, and I am very confident that Bryan will successfully lead Western and will do so with a clear understanding of our culture and reputation,” he said at the time of the hiring.

“He has exceptional operational and communication skills and is client- and employee-focused with deep leadership capabilities, proven to me in his nine-year tenure in another subsidiary company, Daniel O’Connell’s Sons,” Sullivan added. “With this renewed leadership, I am confident our best years lie ahead of us, and that Western will continue to be the builder of choice in the communities we serve.”

 

Learning by Doing

Hughes’s final job for DOC was managing a project in Rhode Island with the Narragansett Bay Commission, which followed a design-build project-delivery method.

“We were in control of the design process for two new buildings — the administration and maintenance buildings,” he explained. “I think design-build is a method that could be more ubiquitous in the future, combining our talents as construction managers to include the design team in that process.”

While his role will certainly change as the president of Western, his experience as a project manager on multiple large projects helped him hone his organizational and leadership skills.

Western’s 26 Spring development

Western’s 26 Spring development is among the projects in Amherst aimed at mitigating the town’s housing shortage.

“As a PM, it’s a lot of correspondence with the design team, building a relationship with the owner so there’s a trust factor there, and just bringing the team together — working with the superintendent to nail down a schedule and keeping subcontractors accountable.

“Inevitably in the construction industry, things come up, so PMs manage the change-order process as well and how to solve problems on behalf of the owner, and come up with solutions to those problems,” he added. “We provide the service for the owner so they feel a comfort level going into a project and through that project — we’re kind of looking out for their best interest.”

Hughes takes over at a company that has built a strong reputation in recent years in commercial housing projects, including two in downtown Amherst in partnership with Archipelago Investments that are attempting to fill a critical shortage of housing in town — an issue many municipalities are facing.

“There’s a lot in the pipeline in the housing sector,” he added. “That’s one thing people come to us with — people trust us based on past performance in the housing market, or the commercial-housing space,” he said. “We’re working with some developers now on some other potential properties, all in Western Mass. or Connecticut.”

While Western boasts a wheelhouse of sorts in housing, “we have the capability and the capacity to broaden those horizons and take on more challenging projects because of the experience level of our people,” he added, noting, as examples, a current project to build a PeoplesBank branch in South Windsor, Conn., and the firm’s work a few years ago to renovate the Basketball Hall of Fame and update the weatherproofing of its signature sphere, panel by panel.

“Developers and owners come to Western and ask us to help them with their projects because we have close-knit roots in the area,” Hughes went on. “And what I’ve really learned to love about Western is the sense of feeling comfortable and at home and part of the community. That makes Western more attractive to a lot of developers who are coming from New York City or Boston or all over the country to develop Western Mass. And I think we’re ready to take on the challenges of guiding those folks through that journey to develop the area.”

“If we have a plan to grow as a company and take on some of these challenging projects, we’re going to need more people to do that, especially as some of our highly talented, very experienced people start to retire. In terms of age demographics, there are more people going out than people coming in. So that’s a tide that’s working against us too.”

An increasing number of such projects involve passive housing, which is a voluntary standard for energy-efficiency in a building, he added. “We see that as a space that’s going to continue to grow. So, when I mention developing Western Mass., there’s a smart and climate-conscious way of doing that.”

 

Supply and Demand

While Hughes sees opportunities to grow the business at Western, he’s also dealing with the same inflation and supply-chain issues plaguing all other companies in this sector.

“The supply chain has been a challenge for us and for a lot of our competitors for sure,” he told BusinessWest. “Part of what we provide as a service is to understand the issues with the supply chain and try to react to them as best we can, or at least propose solutions to owners to work around those challenges. It’s nobody’s fault … it’s just another thing that has come up in the industry, like everything Western has dealt with for the past 45 years or so — just another bump in the road. It too shall pass.”

The hope is that price pressures will ease sooner than later, of course. “I think there will be some level of plateau, especially with interest rates going up, and hopefully the broader industry can find that balance of prices that are acceptable for everyone so that owners and developers still want to do business, still want to proceed with their projects. And I think we’re on that path for sure.”

As he looks to future growth, Hughes faces another national headwind — the challenge of hiring and retaining a workforce in a tight market for employers.

“Just like every other company around, we can always use more good people; it’s hard to find help,” he said. “If we have a plan to grow as a company and take on some of these challenging projects, we’re going to need more people to do that, especially as some of our highly talented, very experienced people start to retire. In terms of age demographics, there are more people going out than people coming in. So that’s a tide that’s working against us too.”

But he’s hopeful about the younger generation, noting that he attended an awards gala at Springfield Technical Community College earlier this month, and “we heard some stories about the students there and their willingness and excitement to get out into the industry. I think there are a lot of good opportunities for young people — at STCC, Bay Path, Westfield State, Putnam, even up at UMass there’s a building and construction technology program. That’s a lot of young people I hope are willing and excited to stick around Western Mass.”

Originally from Rhode Island, Hughes chose this region as well, as did his fiancee, an Ohio native whom he met playing dodgeball in Northampton seven years ago; they’ll marry in April.

“When I started working with DOC, I was able to find a home in Western Mass.,” he said. “I really enjoy this area of the country and hope to stay here for many years to come.”

He remembers first settling down here and those early days at O’Connell, when he was one of those young people excited to get started in construction.

“I really considered the older, more experienced people role models for me, listening to their stories. Coming up through the ranks as a laborer doing physical manual labor and working up to being a superintendent, those types of stories really inspired me; I knew I could learn a lot from those people. So while a lot of our more experienced people are on the way out the door, the more people we can bring in to learn from them before they’re gone, the better-positioned Western will be for the future.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Women of Impact 2022

President, O’Reilly, Talbot & Okun

She’s Engineering Opportunities for Many in a Dynamic Field

Ashley Sullivan
Photo by Leah Martin Photography

When asked about being a leader and role model in her company and in her industry, Ashley Sullivan sums it up simply: “I like to help people, and a lot of people have helped me.”

And she knows the value of helping and encouraging others. During her college days and into her long engineering career at O’Reilly, Talbot & Okun (OTO) — after 20 years with the firm, she was named president at the start of 2020 — she sometimes questioned whether she knew enough, whether she measured up to her responsibilities, and to her peers.

It’s why events like a recent after-work gathering between OTO and Fuss & O’Neill, another civil-engineering firm headquartered in downtown Springfield, are valuable, she said, in that they help young engineers, and especially young women, not only network, but recognize their place in the field.

“I was intimidated to be in a room with a lot of people who had 20-plus years of experience on me. I always thought I had more to learn; I always thought I didn’t have as much experience as I needed,” she recalled. “But if you put me in a room with my peers, I would have been like, ‘oh, I can do this; I want to get them in situations where they see they’re good.”

“The big thing I stressed was, we all have value, and we’re all part of a team, and we need to be rowing the same way.”

Joining a small, newish engineering firm in 2000, Sullivan didn’t network much outside the company, but she sees the value in it now. “I didn’t know my path, and that’s something that’s true with a lot of people. But once they see you out there and you see yourself in that role, it just happens.”

The passion for inspiring younger engineers is what also drives Sullivan to be a mentor, not only by teaching a civil-engineering capstone design course at Western New England University, where she guides graduating students through a mock building project, but by encouraging OTO’s team members to seek any professional-development opportunities that will help them learn and advance, like she did.

“I think we should be mentors. I think it’s very important to give back to the industry,” she said. “We want to hire, and sometimes you hear complaints that there’s nobody great to hire, but is anyone helping them succeed? I think it’s our responsibility to do it.

Ashley Sullivan discusses a project at One Ferry Street in Easthampton
Ashley Sullivan discusses a project at One Ferry Street in Easthampton with OTO field engineer Dustin Humphrey and client Mike Michon.

“If you give people a lot of opportunity and the skills to help them move up, I feel that benefits the company itself,” she added. “The company needs to support the development of those skills.”

And hiring and recruitment are definitely a challenge now, Sullivan said, adding that the firm saw some turnover during the pandemic but has hired seven employees since January. “We’ve been able to navigate it so far. That’s why I also think it’s important to be a mentor and reach out to students and to have the kind of culture that appeals to them.”

Sullivan has certainly navigated some transitions over the past few years, from taking the reins at OTO to almost immediately having to steer it through a pandemic. For successfully leading in what is still a male-dominated field, and for being a mentor, role model, and inspiration to the next generation of civil engineers, Sullivan is certainly a Woman of Impact.

Ninth Time’s the Charm

Engineering runs in Sullivan’s family — sort of. She said her grandmother always had a lot of respect for engineers, and her father is one of eight siblings who tried engineering but didn’t stick with it. “My grandmother really wanted one, so I said I’ll try it.”

The truth is, Sullivan had already cultivated an interest in chemistry in high school and was considering studying environmental engineering at UMass Amherst — a place where, again, her insecurity nagged at her.

“I want to set us up to the next transition, and that means giving people the skills to manage and lead — not just engineering skills, but all those other things that have to happen. Communication is a big thing we work on, and so is trust.”

“I did very well in high school, but I was nervous about going to a challenging school, or a school where there were others who would do really well too. That plays into why I like to give people confidence and why I do what I do. On the outside, I did well and came across like I had a lot of confidence. But inside, I was like, ‘I don’t know what I’m doing. I have no idea.’”

She had a positive experience at UMass, though she shifted gears toward civil engineering, “mainly because I found that chemical engineering students ended up in a dark lab, and civil engineering students were outside in the quad, and that just looked a lot more enjoyable to me.”

When she graduated in 1998, a lot of the jobs being offered at the time were at the Big Dig in Boston, and she wasn’t interested in heavy construction, so she stayed in graduate school, where she gained the experience she would put to use at OTO two years later.

“I was working for a Mass Highway project where we were installing wells, doing groundwater sampling, modeling groundwater flow, looking at contamination, and two years later I had my master’s in environmental engineering,” she said. “I interviewed at OTO because they were local, in Springfield, and halfway through the interview with Jim Okun and Mike Talbot, I thought I’d like to work there. It was a small firm, everybody seemed very nice, and it seemed to suit my personality.”

OTO’s services over the years have included testing commercial properties for hazardous materials and overseeing cleanup, asbestos management in schools and offices, brownfield redevelopment, indoor air-quality assessments, and geotechnical engineering, a broad term encompassing everything from helping developers assess how much force and weight the ground under a proposed structure can stand to determining the strength of a building’s foundation and surrounding topography.

“I enjoyed working for a small company, working directly with the principals,” Sullivan said, the third being Kevin O’Reilly. “I learned a lot. I also enjoyed working in my own community. It’s been fun over the years driving around the neighborhoods, whether I go to Baystate for a doctor’s appointment or a library, or take my kids to a park, and see projects that I worked on. Rather than working on a high-profile job in another city, I really liked that the jobs were near where I work.”

The other positive experience — one that would later color the kind of president she would be —was being allowed a flexible schedule when she started a family in 2005.

“That was not industry-wide; it’s just not something that was offered,” she explained. “I went down to 24 hours with my first daughter, and I stayed there until they were both in school, then went to 32 hours. But I was still allowed to progress in management.”

That was the key, she said — being able to have work-life balance without sacrificing future opportunities.

“It’s a two-way street. I got some flexibility, but there was accountability and good communication, and I would try to be available when I absolutely needed to; my kids went to some job sites. That was something you couldn’t easily find at other engineering firms. And I also kept progressing; I was allowed to manage projects and manage staff that way. So that kept me going here, to the point where we transitioned.”

Ashley Sullivan performs a phase-1 dam inspection.
Ashley Sullivan performs a phase-1 dam inspection.

In fact, when the three founders started talking about the next generation of leadership, they discussed selling OTO to an outsider, but they preferred an internal transition, and felt they had the right individual in Sullivan.

“We had a good business, we had a good foundation, and I just said, ‘I want to be part of it … I like what I do, I like the people I work with, we have a good company, let’s just try to make this work.’”

Sullivan has taken lessons from her own experience and saw how offering flexibility in different ways to employees could benefit both them and the company, although COVID, admittedly, helped that process along. “I wanted to make sure people, whether managers or other individuals, had the skills and knew the expectations to make that kind of work more widespread.”

She has led her team, she noted, according to the company’s core values, three of which are transparency, respect, and togetherness.

“The big thing I stressed was, we all have value, and we’re all part of a team, and we need to be rowing the same way,” she told BusinessWest. “That was really important, and it was something I learned here but I saw fall away a little bit when we were going through the transition, because when times get hard, it becomes very individual: ‘what does this mean for me? Is this going to be good or bad? I’ve got to fight for my own.’ We needed to come back together.”

So she conducted sessions where she asked employees what kind of culture they want and what keeps them at OTO. “I asked, ‘what are some of the great things we can build upon? What can we do better?’ I think that was important. I like to hear what others want, and then see if I can help make that happen. So, really, one of the big things I wanted to do was to hear from more voices.

“And there was a good foundation,” she added. “My experience here was something I thought I could build upon and then bring to the next level.”

Reaching New Heights

The mission statement posted in the conference room attests that “we will elevate our industry to create and deliver the best solutions for natural and built environments.”

And to elevate an industry, Sullivan believes she must first elevate her people. “I want to set us up to the next transition, and that means giving people the skills to manage and lead — not just engineering skills, but all those other things that have to happen. Communication is a big thing we work on, and so is trust.”

When she talks to young people about a career in civil engineering, she’s quick to explain how much variety and opportunity they will encounter. “You can go into transportation or structural or geotech or environmental. You can do public work at the state or municipal level, or even the federal level. You can work in private consulting or go into technical sales. You can go into a testing lab. You can work for a contractor. That allows for some flexibility because you don’t always know when you’re right out of school and you have to make all these decisions.”

At the same time, “going into a field like civil engineering, you’re going to be needed forever. We do important projects for people. It’s important for people to have that job security and know there are so many different things you can do with that.”

The message is rersonating, especially with young women. A few weeks ago, Sullivan attended a geotechnical conference in Connecticut and was “blown away” by the number of women she saw, compared to, say, five years ago. And on a heavy construction site on Boston Road recently, she walked the grounds alongside a female field engineer and a female quality-control engineer, all from different firms.

“That was something that I hadn’t seen, to see three women working together on a project with a big rig installing ground improvement. It was really neat. Sometimes I think, ‘wow, this is happening.’

It’s happening because of the impact of women like Sullivan, who knows the value of being helped and inspired, and wants to do the same for others.

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

Women of Impact 2022

Amherst Town Councilor; President, Ancestral Bridges

By Connecting Past with Present, She’s Changing the Narrative of Amherst’s History

Anika Lopes
Photo by Leah Martin Photography

While showing off her extensive collection of hat blocks in her Amherst home, Anika Lopes explained how they tell a story of her time in New York City, but, more importantly, of generations before her.

“Hats really are a universal connector. You’d be hard-pressed to find any culture in the world that doesn’t have traditions with some sort of headwear, whether that’s a feather, bones, a traditional hat, or just something to keep people warm. It’s a space of universal connection.”

Lopes has dedicated much of her life to making connections, particularly involving the long, often-undertold history of Black and Indigenous communities in and around Amherst. It’s work she took up in earnest after returning to her hometown in 2019.

But let’s start with the hats.

As an artist and sculptor who graduated from the New School University, she found herself interning with Horace Weeks, one of the first Black men to own a hat factory, Peter & Irving, in the Garment District of New York City. “Millinery chose me,” she said, using the proper name for hat design. “I was fascinated by Mr. Weeks, and walking into that space felt like walking back in time. I had always had a passion for sculpting, and hand-blocking hats was very much like sculpting.”

Lopes and an ex-partner eventually took over the factory and revamped it, and she found overnight attention when the R&B artist Usher commissioned a hat from her in 2005 and wore it on a popular MTV show. “Pretty much overnight, that hat was on billboards in Times Square, and I had buyers from all over the world calling in,” Lopes said. “I thought, now what do I do? And I looked at it for the opportunity it was.”

As her profile grew, she made commissioned designer hats for Madonna, Gossip Girl, Sex and the City, numerous films and celebrities, and exclusive boutiques in New York and Japan, including Isetan in Tokyo and Bergdorf Goodman.

“It was a whirlwind experience being in the fashion industry, but I got to the point where my passion for connecting people and wanting to help people, which has always been something in me, made me feel like I needed more,” she recalled. “I was able to reach out and work with different internship programs and different corporations where I was able to merge the business of fashion with having an impact on marginalized communities, with disadvantaged youth, and also with adults coming into second-chance programs dealing with harm reduction.”

When she returned to Amherst three years ago, Lopes began directing that passion for connecting people to a different purpose: to uncover and bring to light the Black and Indigenous history of generations of Amherst residents, including some who played a direct role in the events that were eventually commemorated as Juneteenth.

The Ancestral Bridges exhibit of historical photographs and artifacts
The Ancestral Bridges exhibit of historical photographs and artifacts will be on view at the Amherst History Museum for two more Saturdays, Oct. 29 and Nov. 5, from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.

Through efforts to “daylight” some of that long-neglected history — through historical events, museum exhibits, her role on the Amherst Town Council, and especially a foundation she calls Ancestral Bridges — Lopes is connecting past with present and providing not just a clearer sense of history, but new opportunities for young BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) individuals today.

“I have to pinch myself,” she told BusinessWest. “There have been few times in my life where I’ve been so excited about something and feel such a connection. Ancestral Bridges is part of my life’s work, part of my purpose.”

Deep Roots

Growing up in Amherst, Lopes said, she was close to her family — parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents — and when she returned, she found herself revisiting spaces and connecting with the past. She looked up to her grandfather, Dudley Bridges, who had launched an initiative in the late 1990s to restore and publicly display Civil War tablets that told the story of Indigenous and Black soldiers.

Due to the efforts of Dudley and his family, important aspects of Amherst’s history were brought to light, she explained. As a board member of the Amherst Historical Society, he worked to obtain National Historic Register status for Amherst’s Westside District of Snell Street, Hazel Avenue, and Baker Street — one of several neighborhoods in Amherst with significant cultural history for BIPOC people.

But, while he funded the restoration of the tablets, they remained in storage when he passed away in 2004. So Lopes took up her grandfather’s mission to bring them into the light.

“The tablets were given to the town in 1893 by the Grand Army of the Republic to honor more than 300 Union soldiers and sailors from Amherst. Many of the names are familiar ones in Amherst: Dickinson, Cowls, Kellogg,” she explained. “Each man and his family made a difficult choice and great sacrifice to enlist — perhaps none so much as the Black soldiers from the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment and 5th Cavalry who traveled through and to very hostile territory in 1865 to notify residents of Texas that the Civil War had ended and that the Emancipation Proclamation made slavery illegal in the Confederate states.”

“It was a whirlwind experience being in the fashion industry, but I got to the point where my passion for connecting people and wanting to help people, which has always been something in me, made me feel like I needed more.”

Cinda Jones, the ninth-generation president of W.D. Cowls Inc., was inspired by this work, among other things, in nominating Lopes as a Woman of Impact. “Anika Lopes demanded that her ancestors’ names on the town of Amherst Civil War tablets be on permanent exhibit. That they be seen. That the total history of Amherst be seen for the first time. That Black and Indigenous residents, heretofore invisible, be recognized. She asked for inclusivity.”

She got it; the Civil War tablet exhibit is now on display at the Bangs Community Center. The exhibit debuted on June 19, 2021 and served as the inspiration for the first townwide Juneteenth celebration. For the 2022 Juneteenth event, Lopes curated and led a walk of Black historical sites in Amherst.

“For the first time, hundreds of residents saw and recognized where Black history occurred,” Jones wrote. “Coinciding with the walk was a first-ever Amherst History Museum exhibit curated, owned, and presented by Ancestral Bridges. It is still going. It represents the very first time that Amherst’s Blacks and Indigenous people have ever been represented in the Amherst History Museum. Anika Lopes made this happen.”

Indeed, Lopes founded Ancestral Bridges in June 2022 to bring together stakeholders to elevate economic and cultural opportunities and build a more equitable future for regional BIPOC individuals. According to its mission statement, Ancestral Bridges receives grants of money and land and leverages these to celebrate BIPOC arts and culture, enable first-time home-ownership opportunities, and raise the potential of BIPOC and disadvantaged youth. Some of the activities it supports include telling the stories of local ancestors through interactive history walks, art exhibits, and music events; educating about wealth generation and developing internships, programs, and workshops for BIPOC youth and families; and enabling local BIPOC wealth generation by receiving gifts, grants, and other resources to benefit BIPOC futures.

“Ancestral Bridges serves as the bridge between past and present, between elder and youth, between diverse populations, connecting all who seek to learn and grow through meaningful engagements that educate, empower, and nurture long-lasting growth,” Lopes added.

The Ancestral Bridges exhibit of historical photographs and artifacts at the Amherst History Museum features Black and Indigenous families who lived in Amherst for centuries, were integral to the fabric and character of Amherst and surrounding towns, served in the Massachusetts 54th Infantry Regiment and 5th Cavalry Regiment during the Civil War, built and founded the first black churches in Amherst, facilitated the smooth functioning of commerce and institutional education, and provided living quarters for those otherwise denied, including newly arrived Black people from the South.

Anika Lopes’ mother, Debora Bridges
Anika Lopes’ mother, Debora Bridges (third from right), gives a narrative tour of the Civil War tablet exhibit as a highlight of her 50th Amherst High School reunion.

But that wasn’t the extent of Lopes’ daylighting efforts. “When I came on the Council, one of the first things I noticed was the list of proclamations for celebratory days. Both Indigenous Peoples Day and Native American History Month weren’t on the list. That really floored me, because just about everyone else was there.”

Proclamations, tablets, museum displays, and history walks won’t by themselves reverse the centuries-long trend of downplaying BIPOC contributions in Amherst, but each effort is another positive step — and Lopes is by no means done.

Telling a New Story

The fact that Amherst itself is named after a British military officer who supported the extermination of Native Americans is not lost on Lopes. Rather, it’s perhaps the most glaring example of those whose stories have been allowed to be told and celebrated over the centuries. On display at the museum exhibit, in fact, is a full set of Amherst College china designed by the college’s president in the 1940s, depicting Lord Jeffrey Amherst massacring Indigenous people. Meals were served on that china to Amherst College professors, staff, and students between 1940 and 1970.

That’s not that long ago, so these wounds are still fresh.

“You’re talking about two cultures [Black and Indigenous] that are connected by a certain type of trauma and displacement and erasure,” Lopes said. “In a lot of places, you can’t see and document this history, but we can.”

Which is why she brings to light stories like Christopher and Charles Thompson, direct ancestors of Lopes who were among the black soldiers to arrive in Texas in 1865 to christen the now-federal holiday of Juneteenth. “These Amherst men — the Thompsons, Josiah Hasbrook, James Finnemore — may not yet have streets named after them, but should be remembered for enlisting to advance the belief that all men are created equal,” she noted.

So as she serves on Amherst’s Town Council, where she chairs the town services and outreach committee and sits on the governance, organization, and legislation committee; serves as a board member of Family Outreach of Amherst, assuring that Amherst’s most vulnerable families are safe; and works as a member of the Jones Library building committee, among other efforts, Lopes is putting time and energy into improving her hometown.

But just as importantly, she’s inspiring others to appreciate the town’s history and, more importantly, draw on it.

“We’re able to bring something forward for youth in Amherst who maybe have never heard about the Black history of Amherst, did not know that we had soldiers right here who fought for their freedom, people who were participating in banking before there were banks here, who brought business here … these are all stories that are inspiring for youth to know about,” she said. “They can say, ‘this what my ancestors did; these are the shoulders I stand on — what can I do? I’m empowered. I am going to be able to take this world so much further than they did’ — and really realize that we are our ancestors’ wildest dreams.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services

Uncertain Times

 

Another month, another rate increase from the Fed. The moves aren’t unexpected, and are needed to slow inflation, but they are concerning, especially to borrowers.

“We haven’t seen inflation like this since the ’80s. To anyone who remembers the late ’70s and early ’80s, when inflation was running really high, the dangers that represents are self-evident,” said Kevin Day, president and CEO of Florence Bank.

“The Fed responds immediately to a heated economy, and when the economy is overheated, that’s when they raise rates” in an effort to slow inflation, he told BusinessWest. “This time is a little different; inflation already showed up, and now they’re having to calm it down. So it’s a different environment than we’ve seen in the last 40 years, and that has created a great deal of uncertainty. And no one likes uncertainty.

“But they’ve been pretty consistent in that they’re going to raise rates to bring inflation under control, and they’re going to continue to raise them more until they get it under control,” Day added. “How far do they have to go? No one knows that, of course, and that’s what breeds the uncertainty.”

The Federal Reserve’s mission is to keep the U.S. economy humming, but not too hot or too cold. So when the economy booms and distortions like inflation and asset bubbles get out of hand, threatening economic stability, the Fed can step in and raise interest rates, cooling down the economy and keeping growth on track.

Kevin Day

Kevin Day

“It’s a different environment than we’ve seen in the last 40 years, and that has created a great deal of uncertainty. And no one likes uncertainty.”

On Sept. 21, the federal funds rate was raised by 75 basis points, to a range of 3% to 3.25%. The move followed 75-basis-point hikes in June and July, and two smaller rate hikes in March and May. The Federal Open Market Committee will meet twice more in 2022 to decide if further hikes are necessary in the fight against high inflation.

Still, “not everyone thinks higher mortgage rates are a terrible thing,” Forbes notes. “Some real-estate professionals see higher rates as one way to cool an overheated housing market. Others think it’s time to get back to normalcy after two years of artificially low borrowing costs.”

In addition, rising rates are not a bad thing for banks in general. When interest interest rates are higher, banks make more money due to the difference between the interest banks pay to customers and the interest the bank can earn by investing.

Still, banks also worry about recessionary environment when rates spike, an environment that opens the door to financial struggles, bankruptcies for individuals, and business failures, Day said. “Rates rising a bit is usually good for banks, but when it starts going too fast, it creates other problems no one likes to see.”

 

Historical Perspective

While inflation is at 40-year highs, interest rates are nowhere near the 6.5% seen in 2000, not to mention the record high of nearly 20% in 1980. Instead, rates have simply returned to pre-pandemic levels, which are historically on the low side.

“In terms of absolute levels, and in view of history, current interest rates are still at attractive levels,” said Mike Kraft, head of CRE Treasury at JPMorgan Chase. “Generally, I would say this is a great time to do business — before additional rate movements kick in.”

However, while historical trends favor current borrowers, people tend to think in the short term, and any rate increase dampens enthusiasm to borrow — which, after all, is the Fed’s intention: to slow the economy.

“Borrower behavior is always impacted by rising rates,” Day said. “People just tend to borrow less money, unless you’re in the credit-card business, which we’re not. We deal with mortgages and commercial loans, and borrowers are more hesitant as rates rise; they don’t want to commit until they have to. As rates rise, what happens is businesses take less risks — they don’t necessarily build or open that next location. Borrowing definitely declines as rates rise faster.

“In a perfect world, if it’s done at a moderate pace, nobody gets hurt too badly,” he went on. “It might slow a little bit, but businesses still make investments in property and equipment. But if it goes rapidly, it’s kind of an unknown. ‘Will this impact my business? Should I open that location? Will there be no business in six months?’ It makes businesses hesitant.”

On the other hand, people more focused on saving money than borrowing it may find the rate hikes a breath of fresh air, even if savings interest still lags behind interest on loans.

“How quickly you’ll see higher APYs on deposits depends on where you bank,” Forbes notes. “Online banks, smaller banks, and credit unions typically offer more attractive yields than big banks and have generally been increasing rates faster because they have to compete more for deposits.”

Day agreed that competition puts pressure on banks to raise deposit interest rates, while the gains are most prevalent in the CD market. “You can get 4%, where years ago, it was hard to get 25 basis points.

“So rising rates are generally beneficial to consumers who save money,” he added. “Borrowers usually don’t like them, but retirees on a fixed income might have assets in investments, and rising rates should help them have alternative ways to earn more money. So there’s two sides to this.”

 

Stay Tuned

The bottom line is that inflation is the highest it’s been since the early ’80s, and that makes everyone skittish, even if one of the remedies — rising interest rates — isn’t welcomed by everyone.

“We’re in uncharted territory,” said Ginger Chambless, head of Research for Commercial Banking at JPMorgan Chase. “By raising rates through this year, the Fed is trying to get a handle on inflation and slowly pull some of the excess liquidity out of the economy. I think it makes sense for the Fed to take a gradual approach. This way, they can see how the economy holds up along the way, as opposed to a more drastic increase, which might cause undue panic in the markets.”

Panic may be a strong word, but the word Day used — uncertainty — is definitely apt for banks, borrowers, and the financial industry as a whole. And with more decisions yet to be made by the Fed, the volatility may not be over.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Education

What’s the Word?

Caroline Gear says the pandemic brought challenges

Caroline Gear says the pandemic brought challenges to ILI, but also new ways of connecting with language learners.

 

A global pandemic hit businesses and nonprofits in different ways. For the International Language Institute of Massachusetts (ILI), which relies on a steady flow of international students, the impact was especially great, as global travel slowed and those connections quickly dried up.

“We went from close to $350,000 a year in our Intensive English programs to $86,000,” said Caroline Gear, the institute’s executive director since 2015. She noted that the CARES Act and other emergency COVID relief, PPP loans, and an employee-retention tax credit helped ILI over the roughest whitewater, and international students are coming back … to an extent.

“I don’t think it’s ever going to come back to pre-pandemic times, but I like to say that we’re emerging anew,” Gear said. “I wouldn’t call it a recovery, because I don’t think we’ll ever recover to those numbers.”

The headwinds include a strong U.S. dollar making it expensive to travel to the States for study, as well as more competition from other countries with programs that teach English and other languages. “Canada opened up much quicker than us after the pandemic, so a lot of students went to the Canadian market and not to the United States. With Brexit, the U.K. lost a lot of international students, too.”

Still, Gear said, “I believe the United States academic culture and expertise and prestige is number one, but we have to make sure that we stay that way and continue to be welcoming. When you’re looking at where our students are coming from, I love the fact that we’re so diverse.”

The numbers bear that out. ILI’s Free English program alone — just one of several major programs at the institute (more on them later) — boasts 120 students from 27 different countries, ranging in age from 17 to 80. In one change from before COVID, five of the six sections are online, though the Intensive English program, because of its immersive aspect, is delivered in-house.

“We’ve all put in extra time because we all believe in this mission of promoting intercultural understanding and diverse communities through high-quality language and teacher training.”

“When the pandemic hit, we thought we would be back in a few months, but we wound up moving all of our classes online,” Gear said, adding that the Intensive English students were the first to return to face-to-face instruction, in August 2021. “Other than that, most of the classes were still meeting online. Our teachers are amazing; they went from emergency teaching to really creating an amazing curriculum online. Online teaching is another revenue stream, which is important for a nonprofit, but I really didn’t want to do it that way.”

But while much of the live instruction has returned to New South Street in Northampton, remote learning will remain part of the plan going forward, which allows ILI to reach students anywhere.

With nine full-time and 23 part-time instructors and staff at the moment, Gear said, “we’ve all put in extra time because we all believe in this mission of promoting intercultural understanding and diverse communities through high-quality language and teacher training.”

 

An Idea Takes Root

In 1984, Alexis Johnson was a language teacher without a job. But she didn’t lack for vision or passion. So she and another teacher, Janice Rogers, decided to open a language school, one that would meet the needs of myriad clientele, from local non-English speakers aiming to improve their workplace communication to student visa holders preparing for college stateside, to Americans skilled in other languages seeking training to become teachers overseas.

After decades of growth that affirmed her initial vision, Johnson stepped down from the executive director’s chair in 2015 after 31 years, handing the reins to Gear, who has been at the institute since the mid-’80s.

From left, Macey Faiella, director of English Programs; Heather Hall, office manager; Caroline Gear, executive director; and Samira Artur, instructor and program coordinator.

Perhaps the most well-known of ILI’s programs is its World Language program, which teaches a number of languages to students with a variety of goals. Some have a son or daughter marrying someone from another country. Others want to boost their communication skills on the job in an increasingly multi-cultural world. Still others want to advance on the job.

Another popular option is the Free English program, a partially grant-funded initiative that provides free classes for immigrants and refugees looking to improve their English skills for work, college, and their daily lives. English classes meet two evenings a week for a total of six hours.

On the flip side is the Intensive English program, which offers an immersive education for international students, with 21 hours of instruction weekly.

“Maybe their company sends them here, or maybe they know their ability to get a job is improved with a better English level,” Gear said. “The average intensive stay is three months; some take longer. Then they go to university or go home and get a job. Area employers will also send employees here to improve their English.”

Four scholarships — funded by Dean’s Beans; immigration law firm Curran, Berger & Kludt; an anonymous donor, and in honor of a board member’s late uncle, Richard Martin — are offered annually to move four students from the Free English program to Intensive English.

“It’s phenomenal to see what they have to say of the difference between six hours and 21 hours,” Gear said. “It takes about a year of classes in the Free English program to go from one level to another, and now they can do that in three months, so it’s really accelerated learning.”

Meanwhile, students in the University Pathways track of the Intensive English program receive individualized support to transition successfully to a university or college. Instead of cramming for exams or memorizing grammar rules, they practice a set of skills including essay writing, classroom participation, interactive presentations, small-group discussions, team collaboration, academic research, and critical analysis. By focusing less on test taking and more on academic training, they’re better positioned to succeed. 

ILI boasts partnerships with more than a dozen colleges and universities, Gear said, that offer these students conditional admission if they meet certain criteria. “They don’t have to take a standardized English test because those schools trust us and know we won’t recommend them unless they are ready to go. We’ve been in this business many years, and we know when people are ready to be successful.”

She added that, “no matter how great your English level is, academic culture in the United States is completely different from their home culture academically. We get them away from rote learning and rote test taking by working on cultural skills, active participation, written and oral production, independent self-direction, peer collaboration, and critical thinking. It’s really helpful for students because they’re so used to one way of teaching for so many years, and we don’t do it that way here.”

ILI’s Workplace Training program offers language courses for companies and employees that bring specialized language training to the workplace. Small businesses can apply to a state fund that pays for this training, Gear said, which makes sense at a time when worker recruitment and retention are such a challenge.

“We all know the situation with finding employees. So if a company finds a great employee but finds their language skills need improvement, working with the state of Massachusetts to have them pay for it is phenomenal.”

As one example, as Gear was giving a tour of ILI to BusinessWest, Office Manager Heather Hall had just gotten off the phone with Flour Bakery in Boston, which employs more than 400 people and was looking for English and Spanish training for many of its staff.

“I’m always learning from our students, and we are making a difference in so many people’s lives. It’s incredibly gratifying to be able to do this work.”

“We’ve also worked with the Holyoke public school system, where we teach the teachers Spanish and the parents English,” Gear said. “It’s not only about learning a language, it’s about learning a culture, navigating systems, and playing an integral role in making sure people feel safe to take risks and get to the next step of their career.”

The sixth — but certainly not least — major component of ILI’s programs is Teacher Training, specifically the SIT TESOL Certificate program, which becomes the graduate’s ticket to teaching language, both in the U.S. and internationally.

 

Diving In

At the heart of all these programs is a teaching style that, as noted earlier, ditches rote memorization for an immersion approach where constantly putting language into practice, student to student, trumps getting every word perfect.

There’s an element of fun to this immersion, too, Gear said. As one student told her, “we play a lot, but I’m learning a lot.”

Gear and her team are learning, too — about how to navigate a post-COVID world that offers new challenges, but new opportunities as well.

“We’ve diversified more, but we still do the same thing: we teach languages, and we train teachers,” she told BusinessWest, noting that a permanent online presence will be a positive from a revenue and growth perspective.

“It was pandemic-driven because our school runs tuition-based programs that support our partially funded Free English classes. So we need students as well as grants and incredibly generous donors to support our school,” she explained. “We wanted to do online instruction, and now we will always teach online, even as people start to come back to more face-to-face programming.”

After all, she said, “not everyone wants to have classes face to face. There are transportation issues, there are childcare issues, so it’s all about access to education. If we can continue to provide classes to folks virtually and also bring them back in here, that’s a positive.”

At the same time, those in the Teacher Training program are learning to teach online, too, a necessary skill post-COVID.

Coming up on ILI’s annual giving season, when letters of appeal are sent to potential supporters, Gear noted that “it’s not just one thing that runs this school; it’s a variety of revenue streams — tuition-based programs, generous community supporters, grant foundations that support us … and love.”

She’s also hoping for some of the ARPA money being distributed by the city of Northampton, which would be put to use upgrading the institute’s space and air flow as part of a three-phase improvement plan.

But mostly, she’s adapting — and appreciating the impact the International Language Institute has on individuals, families, businesses, and communities both locally and around the world.

“I love my job. I love who I get to work with, what we do to help people to the next step,” she said. “I’m always learning from our students, and we are making a difference in so many people’s lives. It’s incredibly gratifying to be able to do this work. It’s not been easy through the pandemic, but we’ve learned to embrace the uncertainty and look for opportunities.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Building Trades Special Coverage

Making the Circuit

 

High-school students train at Elm Electrical as part of its summer First Step Futures program.

High-school students train at Elm Electrical as part of its summer First Step Futures program.

 

 

Over the summer, three cohorts of high-school students attended four-day training seminars, two in June and one in August, at Elm Electrical in Westfield.

Monday through Wednesday, the students received instruction and training in the state-of-the-art Elm University multi-media classrooms and hands-on lab. Thursday, the final day, was Challenge Day, when students applied what they learned and completed a project board challenge. Elm project managers evaluated their work, offered feedback, and got to know the students.

It was, no doubt, an enriching experience for many. But First Steps Futures, as Elm calls it, is more than a summer camp. It’s a program, to be repeated each summer, with an eye firmly on the future of the electrical industry.

“This is a great opportunity to showcase and utilize our training facility, expose kids to the electrical field, as well as instruct our current and future workforce,” instructor Paul Asselin said. “At the same time, we can get them excited about the field and see what the kids can do. Do they follow our strict safety protocols? Do they ask questions? Do they work well with others? Is their work accurate? Do they have a positive attitude? This gives us a snapshot of what they’d look like as potential co-op students on the job.”

The students, in grades 10-12, were recommended by their teachers or Elm employees to attend the free training seminar. Some were, indeed, invited back as co-op students, to get a better look at the field, and give Elm a better look at what they can do.

“This program also gives kids who don’t attend a technical school the chance to see if the electrical field is something they may be interested in pursuing,” Asselin added. “Oftentimes, students who go to a traditional high school think it’s too late to go into a trade. We make sure they know there is still an opportunity to pursue a career in the field.”

“Oftentimes, students who go to a traditional high school think it’s too late to go into a trade. We make sure they know there is still an opportunity to pursue a career in the field.”

The Elm University classrooms and lab weren’t created with young people in mind, however; they’re used year-round as Elm’s in-house training facility. Employees who want to become licensed electricians can opt into the company’s four-year apprentice program, working their jobs Monday through Thursday and then, every other Friday, attending school at Elm University for free, as an alternative to night school.

“We started our own training because we weren’t happy with the training we were getting, the conventional way of going two nights a week, three hours a night; most of these night classes are in a classroom setting and don’t have a hands-on component. They get what they need to pass the test, of course, but the hands-on component makes a big difference because that’s what their supervisors see out in the field. That’s what they need out in the field.”

In short, Elm has created a way to cultivate a pipeline of young talent at a time when older electrical workers are leaving the trade faster than they can be replaced. It’s a trend being observed in all construction trades, in fact, and it sometimes requires innovative solutions.

“We can complain like everyone else or do something about it, and we’ve chosen to do something about it,” Asselin said, noting that the effort and financial investment are paying back in the quality of workers the company is putting into the field. “It’s apparent it’s working.”

Jean Pierre Crevier, co-owner of M.L. Schmitt Inc., a 99-year-old electrical contractor based in Springfield, agrees that companies need to stay connected to the potential pipeline of young talent. He does so by participating in the interviewing process of the Joint Apprentice Training Committee of the Local 7 International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, bringing new students into apprenticeship programs. “I was pleased with this year’s turnout — we had a lot of great candidates to choose from this year.”

Putnam Vocational Technical Academy teachers

Putnam Vocational Technical Academy teachers Michael Poole (far left) and Charley Jackson (far right) and senior students are joined in the electrical shop by M.L. Schmitt’s Bobby Williams (back left) and Pete Coppez (back right).

But he also does so with efforts like a recent partnership between M.L. Schmitt, Exposure, and two local electrical manufacturers, Legrand and Fidelux Lighting, to provide donations to the Putnam Electrical Shop at Putnam Vocational Technical Academy in Springfield.

The Putnam Electrical Shop works on a fixed budget, and donations like this give them additional supplies and equipment for student lessons, said teacher and master electrician Charley Jackson. “I share my work experience and testimony with my students, and it really helps them with their desire to learn. Our recent visit from M.L. Schmitt and donation of supplies really encouraged our students to keep pushing.”

The materials that the school received include low-voltage and line-voltage training kits, a variety of light fixtures, blueprints, surface raceways, disconnect switches and more. More donations are expected to take place this fall, and M.L. Schmitt has hired many Putnam graduates over the years.

“We’ve been conditioned to think you have to have a college degree to have a successful career after high school,” Crevier said. “But a lot of people struggling with college and looking at alternate solutions can make really good money in the trades. I know borderline geniuses who don’t have a really strong formal education behind them, but they can use their hands, and they’re virtual artists, interpreting visual drawings to see what the designer’s intent is. It’s a great career path.”

 

Mind the Gap

The workforce issue isn’t unique to electricians. A recent survey by Associated General Contractors of America (AGCA) found that, overall, construction firms are still struggling to recruit employees. Ninety-three percent of respondents say they have open positions that they’re trying to fill, and 91% indicate they are struggling to fill at least some of these roles. This issue is particularly pronounced among craft positions, which make up the bulk of construction work on job sites.

At the same time, AGCA reported, more companies are waking up to the fact that the future of the construction industry lies in youth, which is why firms are increasingly taking steps to engage younger generations. Fifty-one percent of survey respondents say they’ve gotten involved in career-building programs at the high school, college, and technical-school level in order to encourage students to consider a career in construction.

Jean Pierre Crevier

Jean Pierre Crevier

“But a lot of people struggling with college and looking at alternate solutions can make really good money in the trades. I know borderline geniuses who don’t have a really strong formal education behind them.”

It’s a task facing serious headwinds. Tallo, an employment and scholarship platform geared toward younger workers, issued a report in the spring analyzing survey responses from more than 29,000 high-school and college students about the brands, industries, and career paths they desire. In a ranking of 22 industries, construction attracted the interest of just 16.7% of respondents; only forestry ranked lower. In contrast, 76.5% want to work in technology.

What those who are looking at the trades are finding, however, is opportunity. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, electrician jobs are expected to grow by 9.1% from 2020 to 2030, higher than the 7.7% growth rate projected for all occupations. The increase in demand is largely driven by an increase in devices, buildings, and vehicles that rely on electricity; from 2021 to 2022 alone, total electricity consumption in the U.S. is expected to grow by 1.4%. Meanwhile, as noted earlier, Baby Boomers are retiring at a faster rate than members of Gen Z are choosing careers in the trades.

“I was one of those people who went to a private high school, four-year college, got a bachelor’s degree in marketing, sat behind a desk every day, and decided it wasn’t for me and turned to the trades,” Crevier told BusinessWest. “I decided I was one of those visual people; I like to work with my hands, see my accomplishments at the end of the day, and be proud of what I did.”

One of his pitches to young people is that, particularly for those who enter a union apprentice program, they’ll get paid to learn a career path, rather than go into debt. “Instead of investing tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, into an education, you’re actually getting paid to learn, paid in the field, as you go to night school, at least on the union side.”

Bobby Williams, a purchasing officer at M.L. Schmitt, graduated from Putnam and is gratified to see more of its students become the future of his field. “Without our young, upcoming electricians, we won’t have a future workforce of skilled tradesmen and women.”

Which is why Jackson is gratified by the continued connection betweeen Putnam and area businesses. “These donations and visits from M.L. Schmitt let our students know they’re included,” he said. “It certainly motivates and keeps them encouraged about entering the trade.”

Michael Poole, who chairs the Electrical Department at Putnam, added that the donation gives students an opportunity to see and work with specialty items that they would otherwise not be able to afford. “It also shows them that the community cares about their future success in the electrical trade. I am grateful, and I know that our students are as well.”

 

First Steps on a Rewarding Path

Still, Asselin noted, with the manpower shortage, vocational schools can only put out so many students, which is why programs like Elm’s First Steps Futures, is so important, as the company brings in young talent who might otherwise have never thought electrical work was something for them.

“I’ve got them for four days, so I get a pretty good idea what kind of student and what kind of employee they may be. It was really eye-opening for us to see the quality of some of the students out there,” he said. “Some kids who go to a traditional high school or some other alternative school think they can’t go into a trade because they didn’t go to trade school. That’s not the case. Companies like ours will train them both in the classroom and hands-on. We have that ability to get them up to the same level as, say, a vocational student that went through a three-year vocational program.”

Moving forward, Asselin said Elm might open the week-long program to veterans looking to get into a trade. “It’s a different way to approach the problem.”

But Elm University itself, where current employees skill up for better career opportunities, has been a crucial element, he added. “This is what we should have done a long time ago. We kind of had our hand forced because certain jobs require traveling, guys are out of town for a week, and it’s hard to be in school during the week and also be at work. Now, they can travel during the week and get back for class.

“This is a great option for those who don’t want to have to go to night school,” he added. “In four years, students will be ready to sit for their exam to be licensed electricians. Adding our First Steps Futures program to our Elm U program really allows us to groom our future workforce from the very beginning.”

Offering young people pathways into a career is important, but so is showing them how much satisfaction can be found in the work.

“Really, it’s a tangible thing. I tell students, there is a tangible output from what you do,” Crevier said, adding that he tells students about area jobs his company has worked on, from Union Station to the light and visual displays at Thunderbirds games to hospitals, which rely on electrical networks to save lives. “These things might last decades or hundreds of years, and people will always see the product of what you did. Kids today have never thought about that aspect before.

“We can all find people,” he added. “It’s a matter of finding qualified candidates who have the initiative, the drive, and the desire to differentiate themselves and be leaders. Too many people in the workforce today are complacent to show up and participate and don’t want to do more.”

But Schmitt, a company that’s been around for 99 years and doesn’t plan on going anywhere, won’t always have Crevier and his team at the helm, so a job there, as at many companies, is a chance to grow into higher roles.

“We’re not going to be here for 30 years, but we’re looking at the next 30, 40, 50 years, and even beyond that,” he said. “There’s always an opportunity for the right individual.”

At a time when electrical and all other building trades are scrambling to find talent and restock an aging workforce, it’s just one more factor that might draw a Gen-Z student to a career he or she might never have considered before.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

At the Goal Line

With 35 other states having done so already, Massachusetts lawmakers were eager to pass a bill this summer legalizing sports betting, and Gov. Charlie Baker followed suit, signing it into law. Now comes the hard work by the Gaming Commission to establish a framework and scores of regulations — and the continuing research into a recreational activity that brings a still-uncertain level of economic benefit, alongside some well-established social risks.

The MGM Sports Lounge

The MGM Sports Lounge was designed to enhance the sports viewing — and eventually gambling — experience.

Rachel Volberg has been researching the effects of gambling for almost four decades, and since 2013, she’s been doing it at the behest of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission (MGC), which selected her team a decade ago to research the potential impacts of casinos.

“We’ve kept a pretty careful eye on things, but only a few U.S. states have any funding in their legislation to conduct research, so we know surprisingly little about the social and economic impacts of betting in the United States as a whole,” she told BusinessWest, and that’s even more true when it comes to legalized sports betting, which Massachusetts recently became the 36th state to legalize.

A research professor in the UMass Amherst School of Public Health and Health Sciences, for the past decade Volberg has been the principal investigator with Social and Economic Impacts of Gambling in Massachusetts (SEIGMA), whose latest report — the first of its kind in the nation — deals with the potential impact of legal sports gambling in the Bay State. And if the picture is still uncertain, it’s coming into focus.

“I think the biggest surprise for us was how little research had actually been done, particularly on the economic impacts — what does the industry look like once you legalize it, once it’s operational? What kinds of jobs, what kinds of revenues, and how are those jobs translating into economic benefits? There were literally only two or three economic studies we were able to identify, so there’s clearly a lot of work to be done in that area.”

What is emerging may not thrill proponents of sports gambling who support legalization on economic grounds. The study contends that direct economic impacts will depend on shifting spending from the illegal to legal market, and the impacts will not be entirely new since the majority of these already occur due to the illegal market. In addition, sports betting will primarily redistribute money already in the economy rather than attracting new money from outside Massachusetts.

“Sports betting is, by far, the number-one question I get asked on a daily basis, and it has been for years now. The entire team is looking forward to welcoming the first bet. When the time comes, we’ll be ready.”

“When you compare the tax revenue we anticipate being generated in Massachusetts by sports betting, the optimistic scenario is $60 million a year,” Volberg said, “which is not very large compared to the lottery, which in 2019 generated $1.1 billion in tax revenue, or casinos, which in 2019 generated about $168 million.”

That’s not nothing, of course, and state lawmakers overwhelmingly supported the bill to bring sports gambling out into the open, as did Gov. Charlie Baker, who signed the bill into law shortly after. It was the culmination of momentum that had been building since sports betting was legalized by a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2018. Area legislators pointed out that, with every state in the Northeast having followed suit, Massachusetts was losing money to its neighbors.

“Legalizing sports wagering in Massachusetts will allow us to finally compete with neighboring states and will bring in new revenue and immense economic benefits,” state Sen. John Velis said in August.

The bill allows for 15 online licenses for companies like DraftKings and FanDuel, in addition to five retail licenses for the three casinos and two racetracks in Massachusetts. The bill also creates a commission to study additional licenses for smaller businesses, such as bars and restaurants.

The bill includes out-of-state collegiate betting but does not allow bets on Massachusetts college teams unless they are in the playoffs. The bill also includes a 20% tax on mobile bets and a 15% tax on retail bets, which would be paid by the operating company.

Rachel Volberg

Rachel Volberg

“At this point, the most optimistic scenario for sports betting tax revenues in Massachusetts is about $60 million, and that’s assuming the legal operators are able to capture the great majority of the legal market. It also assumes it will attract people who haven’t bet on sports before there was a legitimate, legal provider.”

“Sports betting is, by far, the number-one question I get asked on a daily basis, and it has been for years now,” said Chris Kelley, president and chief operating officer of MGM Springfield, which built two sports viewing lounges last year partly in anticipation of legal sports betting (more on those later). “The entire team is looking forward to welcoming the first bet. When the time comes, we’ll be ready.”

 

Devil’s in the Details

With the legislation now law, the MGC will work out the details that will make legal sports betting a reality. It has already come up with a list of about 225 regulations that will need to be drafted.

“A great deal of work has already been done by our team in anticipation of sports wagering becoming legal in Massachusetts,” Gaming Commission Executive Director Karen Wells said last month. “This includes identifying over 200 potential regulations, adopting a framework to utilize industry-recognized technical standards, establishing an infrastructure to investigate and license applicants, initiating the hiring of a chief of Sports Wagering, and scheduling public meetings. Now that we have a law that defines our responsibilities as regulator, we will work with our stakeholders to swiftly stand up this new industry with a focus on integrity, player safety, and consumer protection.”

They’ll take a hard look at SEIGMA’s report in crafting that framework and its many elements, Gaming Commission Chair Cathy Judd-Stein said, noting that “this report will aid the MGC as we begin to regulate a sports-wagering industry in the Commonwealth with an uncompromising focus on integrity and player safety.”

Volberg added that “we were trying to give a very broad overview of what is known at this point about the social and economic impact of sports betting, and it’s the first nationwide effort to do that. It also summarizes what we know about sports betting in Massachusetts.”

She told BusinessWest that the ‘handle’ — a term that refers to all money bet, including rewagered winnings, creating a high level of churn — is not the same as the total revenue taken in by operators.

“It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that sports betting is run on very narrow margins, so the actual revenues the operator is able to generate are a very small number of what the handle numbers are,” she explained. “At this point, the most optimistic scenario for sports betting tax revenues in Massachusetts is about $60 million, and that’s assuming the legal operators are able to capture the great majority of the legal market. It also assumes it will attract people who haven’t bet on sports before there was a legitimate, legal provider.”

Because so little information about the impacts of sports betting is available, Volberg’s team mined data from their own surveys and studies that are part of the research ordered by the Massachusetts Legislature when lawmakers passed the Expanded Gaming Act in 2011. Meanwhile, a representative survey of 8,000 adults was completed in Massachusetts earlier this year and provides a snapshot of changes in gambling behavior, attitude, and problem-gambling prevalence since 2013-14.

“The National Council on Problem Gambling has seen a significant increase in sports-betting participation since 2018,” she told BusinessWest, noting that it has also reported an increase in people saying they had experiences with one or more impacts or harms.

“That suggests that an increase in sports betting has the potential to come with increased harm, which is not a surprise, but in Massachusetts, because the Gaming Commission already has familiarity with implementing measures to try to minimize and mitigate harm — because they already have that experience with casinos — we’re hopeful those harms can in fact be minimized,” Volberg added.

Cathy Judd-Stein

Cathy Judd-Stein

“This report will aid the MGC as we begin to regulate a sports-wagering industry in the Commonwealth with an uncompromising focus on integrity and player safety.”

Alisha Khoury-Boucher, a clinical supervisor at MiraVista Behavioral Health Center, agreed to an extent. “Gambling has been a concern for a long time, but we already have a casino close by, so we don’t see a major change with the people we serve from legalizing sports gambling; if they wanted to do those things, they were already doing those things. It’s the behavior more than the access.”

Still, she added, “in my opinion, where we may see more of a problem is with young people, college-age people, who may still be home with mom and dad and have more disposable income. We might see an increase there, but that’s to be determined.”

“Any time a new entertainment is starting up, it’s always going to be advertised toward young people,” Khoury-Boucher said, citing vaping as one example. “They weren’t looking for middle-aged people who’d been smoking for 25 years; they were looking at mid- to late adolescents. It’s kind of the same thing with sports gambling. If you’re a sports fan, you’re seeing advertising that looks like the old beer commercials — everyone’s happy, it’s exciting, it’s flashy. They’re targeting young people, and that’s potentially a problem.”

Indeed, SEIGMA’s study notes that sports betting occurs in all demographic groups but appeals most to young, well-educated men. It adds that problem gambling is higher among sports bettors primarily because they tend to be involved with a large number of other gambling activities, so legalizing sports betting in Massachusetts has the potential to increase rates of gambling harm and problem gambling.

To mitigate those concerns, SEIGMA is advising the Gaming Commission to require operators to provide player data to the MGC on a regular basis and to cooperate with researchers; to prohibit live, in-game sports betting, which is disproportionately utilized by problem gamblers; and to restrict advertising and celebrity endorsements, which tend to promote sports betting in young people, precipitate relapse in recovered gamblers, and counteract the effectiveness of messages advocating limited, lower-risk involvement.

Volberg noted that only four states have funded any kind of research about sports betting, while 12 have provided funding for problem-gambling services. This contrasts with Massachusetts, where 9% of the tax revenue raised from sports betting will go into the Public Health Trust Fund that supports research and services to mitigate gambling-related harms.

“We are in a unique position in Massachusetts to be able to monitor the impacts of sports betting as it becomes legal and make adjustments to its provision so as to maximize the benefits and minimize the harms.”

 

Sit Back and Watch

Those benefits, as noted, are uncertain, but operators are excited about the prospects.

For maximum economic impact, SEIGMA’s report recommends issuing licenses for online operators, and a variety of them, since most sports betting is done online. That lines up with the Gaming Commission’s plans.

“While it is likely that sports-book operators, including land-based and online operators, will benefit from sports-betting legalization in Massachusetts,” the study notes, “it is difficult to predict whether sports bettors will add legal sports betting to their repertoire or simply substitute betting on sports for spending on other types of gambling.”

Still, as the leader of the only casino in Western Mass., Kelley sees potential benefits not just for his facility, but for the region itself.

“Massachusetts residents are already driving across the border to Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and New York to place bets. Keeping the millions of tax dollars generated annually by sports wagering in the Commonwealth is a big deal,” he told BusinessWest. In addition, “sports betting at MGM Springfield will bring more foot traffic and visitors to downtown Springfield. We are thrilled at the prospect of not only having more people come and enjoy our property, but to experience all of the amazing businesses nearby.”

To enhance the viewing and gambling experience, the MGM Sports Lounge opened in August 2021, featuring more than 70 lounge seats and a 45-foot state-of-the-art HD viewing wall, inviting fans to watch multiple sporting events at once. A new VIP Sports Lounge also opened last August within TAP Sports Bar, offering a more intimate experience, including a state-of-the-art HD viewing wall.

“As a New England sports fan, I can tell you the MGM Springfield Sports Lounge is the best spot to watch the Patriots, the Red Sox, the Celtics, the Bruins, you name it,” Kelley said. “It’s also just a great place to gather with your friends for a fun night out. As soon as we get the green light, we are ready to incorporate the BetMGM platform into our property.”

Yes, the green light — it’s what many in the gaming industry in Massachusetts have been anticipating for a long time, hoping the benefits of legal sports betting exceed early projections — and outweigh the potential harms.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Employment Special Coverage

What’s in a Job?

team members at Big Y’s St. James Avenue location in Springfield

From left, Nadia Doyle, Leslie Soto, Anialys Gomes, and Michelle Martin, team members at Big Y’s St. James Avenue location in Springfield.

Michael Galat says Big Y has a story to tell, and its employees do, too. And sharing those stories goes a long way toward building and retaining workers in a job market slanted toward job seekers to an unprecedented degree.

“It has been a challenge. Everyone is fighting for top talent,” said Galat, Big Y’s vice president of Employee Services. “We’ve adapted by leveraging our existing workforce to share stories of why they work for Big Y. We’ve got a lot of long-tenured, dedicated people working here, and they’re our best recruiters. We focus on their testimonies, telling their stories about why they want to work at Big Y.”

The supermarket chain has bolstered its workforce efforts in other ways, to be sure, from streamlining the application process to college internships that expose students to career opportunities to hosting a recent series of on-the-spot hiring events. “That’s been a home run for us. Recruitment is an ongoing effort,” Galat said.

But the stories are important, he added, noting that it’s important to build a culture where people want to work when they have other options.

“We’ve updated our career page and social platforms with people’s testimonials — why they like working for Big Y, what makes us different, the flexibility we provide. All those things go a long way to retain people and attract new talent.”

Amy Roberts, executive vice president and chief Human Resources officer at PeoplesBank, says both the company and its employees have a story to tell, and creating the right cultural fit is key to building a stable workforce.

“We’re trying to be up front with individuals about our core values and who we are and that we’re looking for people who are interested in being a part of that,” she explained. “So the process is focused around asking the candidate to tell us stories, tell us things about themselves. We believe that’s really critical.”

After all, it’s not just about bringing in talent, but creating a team for the long run.

Amy Roberts

Amy Roberts

“I think it’s important not to oversell yourself and make the position or company something they’re not; if you do, ultimately a person is not going to stick around.”

“I think it’s important not to oversell yourself and make the position or company something they’re not; if you do, ultimately a person is not going to stick around,” Roberts said. “We try to be up front about who we are as an organization, what’s important to us, how we view success here, and hope that’s best match for the individual. We spend time in the process talking about that.”

For this issue’s focus on employment, BusinessWest spoke to five area employers — Big Y, PeoplesBank, the Center for Human Development (CHD), Bulkley Richardson, and Health New England (HNE) — to get a feel for how challenging the much-talked-about workforce crunch has been for their organizations, and how they’ve shifted their hiring and retention strategies to deal with it.

Carol Fitzgerald, vice president of Human Resources at CHD, admitted that 2021 was difficult, but “I feel like 2022 has gotten better, though there are still some challenges. In 2021, we were losing a lot of folks; it was not only hard to get folks, but our folks were making the choice to leave the field.

“As a large, human-service, behavioral-health organization, we are essential workers, and we work face to face with folks anywhere from birth to elders,” she explained. “And I think a lot of people were deciding during the pandemic not to do this work anymore. So we lost ground in 2021, but we’re gaining ground again. I feel optimistic; it feels less frenetic than it did last year, and it feels like things are improving. We’ve gained about 100 employees over 2021.”

Many of the current challenges are geographic, especially in rural settings, where CHD has dozens of locations. “It’s a lot of geography to cover, and there are fewer people in more rural places, so we’re having a harder time finding folks to do the work.”

Betsey Quick, executive director at Bulkley Richardson, had one of the most positive stories to tell about her law firm’s workforce situation, but, like at CHD, 2021 saw some turmoil.

“That was an unduly interesting time for us, as COVID made people retire faster,” she told BusinessWest. “People who had worked here 10, 20, even 40 and 50 years re-evaluated their work-life balance and said, ‘I don’t need to work until I’m 70. I want to spend money and travel; life is short.’ So we had a slew of retirements we wouldn’t have had, and that punched up our needs quite a bit.”

Carol Fitzgerald

Carol Fitzgerald

“I think a lot of people were deciding during the pandemic not to do this work anymore. So we lost ground in 2021, but we’re gaining ground again. I feel optimistic; it feels less frenetic than it did last year, and it feels like things are improving.”

When the firm started ramping up hiring last year, “all the news in every sector was stating how employees were being poached and salaries were way up; it was an employees’ market. I was fully prepared to have a difficult time because we needed attorneys, we needed staff, we needed management,” she went on. “And for maybe the first three months, I saw the tightness in the market. We weren’t getting responses. We considered going out to recruiters, which we never had to do here. But after about three months, résumés started flooding in.”

 

Passion for Purpose

Sarah Morgan, director of Human Resources and Organizational Development at Health New England, noted that the Great Resignation has affected all employers, but it has also been an opportunity to recruit talented people who are looking for new opportunities or are rejoining the workforce. And many are looking for greater purpose in their jobs.

“This is a competitive recruiting environment we face today; however, Health New England employees know they are helping our members to live more healthful lives and improving the health and well-being of the communities we serve,” she said. “Ultimately, people connect to our role as a hometown not-for-profit health plan and are excited about the possibility of joining that cause.”

At the same time, the pandemic showed all companies how much employees — both current and prospective — value flexibility, and Health New England was no exception.

“Even before the COVID-19 pandemic emerged, we recognized that our employees have different needs, such as around childcare, eldercare, transportation, and the like,” Morgan said. “We respect the individual needs of our staff members and offer flexibility when possible, including the opportunity to work primarily remotely when the business needs allow.”

Betsy Quick

Betsy Quick

“You don’t have to work 6 in the morning to 12 at night and drive people into the ground. People want something different.”

Galat agreed. “We’re highly focused on retention, so we provide flexible work schedules and work-life balance, which is very important in this day and age. People have busy lives; we understand and that try to provide that flexibility for childcare, eldercare, school activities, sports … those things are important, and having that ability to balance their personal life with work is more important than ever.”

At CHD, Fitzgerald added, “we definitely know flexibility is really something people are looking for. While we’ve always tried to be flexible, our jobs are face to face with people for the most part, so we need to be in certain settings. However, during the pandemic, we went to telehealth, and we are trying to maintain a small bit of flexibility for telehealth. Going forward, especially in remote settings, that might work best for us. For example, a clinic in Orange is posting for a position that can be primarily remote. Up there, our managers are willing to talk about any and every way to get somebody to come into work, whether that’s remote or a flex schedule where they can; they’re trying to be creative on an individual basis.”

She added that competition has changed over the past couple years as well. “A lot of service industries are paying a lot more, really crazy rates. So we had to get creative. We offer a lot of hiring incentives and bonuses to come in, and when our employees refer folks. We’re trying to be creative from a compensation standpoint as well.”

Galat says Big Y hosts employee roundtables and focus groups and conducts surveys to get feedback on how the work environment can improve and what employees are looking for, and that information is used as a retention tool. The company also implemented a wage increase in July that impacted 75% of the hourly workforce.

All these efforts are critical because, despite some success stories with hiring, the Great Resignation and a generation of young workers who feel they know their value and want to assert it have created a smaller pool of talent to draw from.

“The highly technical or skilled positions have gotten even harder to recruit for,” Roberts said, “because there’s probably a handful of people who have a certain skill you’re looking for, and they’re either going somewhere else or already have a job and are perfectly happy where they are. Trying to figure out recruiting for those positions has been tricky.

“We’ve engaged recruiting partners and firms to broaden our scope,” she went on. “We’ve had people express interest in 100% remote, and we don’t operate that way, but at the same time, managers who said for years, ‘I want them here on site’ are now open to a more flexible work arrangement, seeing how difficult it is to get people to fill positions.”

Meanwhile, Roberts said, “I think our benefit programs are some of the best around, and we’re always looking at that and asking what else we can be doing. How do we help our people learn and build a career with us? How can we bring in more educational opportunities and help them build their career paths and help them see they have a future here? That goes a long way toward retention, but also from a recruiting standpoint, people want to know they have growth potential with your company. Identifying that process definitely has been key for us.”

 

Culture Counts

As Bulkley Richardson has sought to grow, Quick said, it was clear that “we have a really strong older workforce and a really strong middle, and we didn’t have such a strong younger workforce. So part of our succession plan is to keep that younger personnel coming up behind the bigs so they garner all that knowledge.”

One strategy to bring in young lawyers has been a summer associate program that was revived a few years back. After on-campus interviews and an in-depth review process, three to five candidates are selected every summer, and at the end of the summer, if the fit is right, offers are extended. Of eight offers so far, seven are coming back, and the other one took a clerkship and plans to be back at Bulkley when it’s over.

“We feel like this is a desirable place to work,” Quick said. “There’s been a lot of effort from our executive committee to punch up our vibe so it’s about the humans that work for us, not just about billable hours like a lot of big law firms in big cities. You’ve got to have that component, but you don’t have to work 6 in the morning to 12 at night and drive people into the ground. People want something different.

“COVID has taught us that Bulkley Richardson has always had a super strong family vibe,” she added. “We appreciate your personal time, what happens to you in your life. We really feel that’s paying off. We’re good lawyers and good people, and I feel like this is a positive hiring time for us.”

Galat agreed that culture is key.

“We have employees ranging from 16 to 85. Our people make the difference. We look for individuals that enjoy working with people. This is a people business. We want individuals that want to learn and grow and want to develop others, want to provide exceptional customer service and support our inclusive and belonging culture. Through our employee resource groups, employees share ideas and have a voice in business initiatives and each other.”

At Health New England, Morgan said, “we have been more focused than ever on recruiting people with diverse identities and experiences. More than ever, people want to work for companies that value them for who they are and empower them to bring their full, true selves to their work. We see strength in that and want employees from all backgrounds so we can better serve customers from all backgrounds.”

To that end, Health New England aims to deepen its relationships within the community through participation in local cultural events, job fairs, leadership programs, sponsorships, and more, she noted.

Getting back to the idea of the right cultural fit, Fitzgerald said CHD isn’t looking to hire just anyone, even in a tighter-than-usual market.

“We want the soft skills, the people skills. the relationship skills. That’s important not only for the work we do, but for being able to work with folks who appreciate each other and appreciate differences and have great communication skills and can manage different conversations. These are the kinds of things we’re looking for aside from just technical skills. It’s got to be the right fit.”

After all, she added, the company can train employees on certain tasks, but soft skills and a cultural connection are more organic.

“To have the right mindset about work and fit into that culture, I think those are things that are really important to our people. They care about who they’re working with, who they’re working for, and that translates to how we treat clients and quality of care. It really matters.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cannabis Special Coverage

Cannabis in Flux

Aaron Vega

Aaron Vega says cannabis has been a definite economic driver in Holyoke’s downtown and canal district.

 

According to the Cannabis Control Commission (CCC), legal marijuana is now an annual $3 billion business in Massachusetts.

The communities that have embraced it from the beginning, like Holyoke, can attest to cannabis as an economic driver in terms of commercial real estate, jobs, and other opportunities. The city now has four dispensaries, three grow facilities, and a testing lab up and running, with dozens of other applications at various stages of the permitting process — a process, city Planning & Economic Development Director Aaron Vega said, that was always intended to be easy to navigate.

“This community voted in favor. The mayor was in favor. As a state representative, I was in favor. And we didn’t want to make it more difficult. It was challenging enough with the regulations coming down from the state. We saw this as an industry that could take over some vacant and underutilized buildings, and that’s what informed how we went forward.”

That has indeed occurred. “We’re very excited about the investment that has happened — tens of millions invested in these downtown buildings because of cannabis, and 500 jobs that didn’t exist three years ago,” Vega said, noting that the cannabis enterprises themselves aren’t an endgame, but a way to spur even more investment.

“What do you do with 500 people? You make sure they’re going to your concerts, going to your restaurants and events, utilizing your local food trucks. And then there’s the ancillary businesses to the cannabis industry; how do we lure them to the city and make it even more beneficial for companies to do business in Holyoke?”

Other cities and towns have, to varying degrees, told similar stories. But the host-community agreements they’ve put forward have not always been well-received, and that was one of several issues addressed last month by a multi-faceted cannabis bill passed overwhelmingly by the state Senate and House of Representatives and signed into law by Gov. Charlie Baker.

“We saw this as an industry that could take over some vacant and underutilized buildings, and that’s what informed how we went forward.”

Among its main elements, the law clarifies the host-community agreement (HCA) process by authorizing the CCC to prioritize social-equity program businesses and economic-empowerment priority applicants for expedited review.

It also clarifies the scope of HCAs and adds new criteria, mandating that no host-community agreement can include a community impact fee that is beyond the business’s eighth year of operation, the community-impact fee must be reasonably related to the actual costs required to operate a cannabis business in a community, the CCC must review and approve each HCA as part of the license application and renewal process, and all host communities must establish procedures and policies to encourage full participation in the regulated marijuana industry by people from communities that have been disproportionately harmed by marijuana prohibition and enforcement.

“Communities of color across our country have historically been criminalized, prosecuted, and left out of the conversation in regards to cannabis legalization,” state Sen. Adam Gomez said. “When cannabis was legalized in Massachusetts, those same communities continued to be barred from the conversation table and left behind, with historic barriers preventing them from growing small businesses in meaningful ways. The legislation passed by the legislature will remove those barriers.”

The law also expedites the expungement process, Gomez noted. For individuals seeking to expunge a record for previous offenses that are now decriminalized, the law requires the court to order the expungement of the record within 30 days of the request and expunge records for possession or distribution of marijuana based on the now-legal amount.

“It is incomprehensible that anyone who was charged with a marijuana-related offense still has that on their record in our state, especially when you can drive down the street to a dispensary to buy the same product that that person was arrested for,” Gomez said. “I was proud to support this legislation and can’t wait to see cannabis businesses run by BIPOC owners flourish as a result.”

 

Growing Pains

The law makes other major changes as well, including a clarification of the local social-consumption approval process.

The advent of what’s known as cannabis cafés will give renters, public housing tenants, and tourists a legal place to use a legal substance. Under this legislation, a city or town may allow for social consumption sites through the passage of a bylaw or ordinance.

The legislation also creates a trust fund to make grants and loans to social-equity program participants and economic-empowerment priority applicants, which will give entrepreneurs from communities that have been disproportionately harmed by marijuana prohibition and enforcement better access to grants and loans to get their businesses off the ground.

In addition, 15% of the revenue collected from the sale of marijuana and marijuana products must be transferred to the Cannabis Social Equity Trust Fund, which will be administered by the Executive Office of Housing and Economic Development in consultation with a newly created Cannabis Social Equity Advisory Board.

“It is incomprehensible that anyone who was charged with a marijuana-related offense still has that on their record in our state, especially when you can drive down the street to a dispensary to buy the same product that that person was arrested for.”

“This legislation will create a more equitable cannabis industry in the Commonwealth,” said state Sen. Jo Comerford, noting that lawmakers “approached this issue with expertise and compassion, and the resulting bill will bring more diversity and equity to this industry.”

House Speaker Ronald Mariano added that “the passage of this legislation will help to ensure that those who have been historically impacted by marijuana prohibition can find new opportunity in the emerging industry. This legislation will help to support folks who have faced generations of inequality secure the needed capital to launch a cannabis business.”

The loan fund highlights one of the challenges of starting a business that’s technically illegal under federal law. Although there have been rumblings that the U.S. Congress could move to decriminalize cannabis and open up traditional financing to such businesses, nothing has been done so far.

“It’s still a hard-money business,” said Tim Sheehan, chief Development officer for the city of Springfield, and that affects both entrepreneurs and property owners. “That’s challenging from a real-estate standpoint. If that were to change, it would provide a more stabilized financial underpinning for the industry itself, and obviously, that would translate into folks that have space feeling far more comfortable in terms of the security they have relative to leasing and everything else. It would be accepted in the mainstream financial market.”

While Springfield didn’t embrace cannabis in the unfettered way Holyoke did — the city has put forward two rounds of retail applications and one for a grow facility, but that project, by Page Cultivate LLC in East Springfield, was derailed by the City Council in May over a site-plan change and other concerns — many of its leaders recognize the economic value of the burgeoning industry.

“Once it was legalized, there was clearly a focus on it becoming an economic benefit for the city,” Sheehan said. “Much like when gaming was legalized, we looked to see what the economic potential of the cannabis industry would be relative to both city finances and economic impact in terms of the marketplace.

“Much like when gaming was legalized, we looked to see what the economic potential of the cannabis industry would be relative to both city finances and economic impact in terms of the marketplace.”

“Obviously, the industry has had an impact on storefront and warehouse space, and I would quantify that as a positive impact,” he went on, adding that it remains to be seen what kind of impact the cannabis trade will have on the surrounding residential real-estate market.

“Caution is the watchword. As an industry, it remains to be seen what the saturation point is, and I really think that needs to be factored in through the process with regard to how many of these establishments you’re going to allow, whether it be a grow facility or how many retail establishments you’re going to allow. There is a limited market.”

 

In the Weeds

The cannabis industry’s potential is still unknown, though the early results in terms of new businesses, tax revenues to communities, and jobs have been positive.

But Sheehan is right that no one really knows what the saturation point is, if there is one. And the Legislature’s sprawling cannabis bill last month was an admission that plenty about the permitting process — especially for traditionally disenfranchised communities — needs to be addressed.

As Senate President Karen Spilka put it, “I am thrilled we were able to reach a deal on this bill, which will take meaningful steps toward ensuring communities who have historically been harmed by marijuana criminalization can access resources to enter this industry.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Healthcare Heroes

Here, Shared Research by Nurses and Engineers Will Benefit Patients Everywhere

Co-directors Frank Sup and Karen Giuliano

Co-directors Frank Sup and Karen Giuliano. Leah Martin Photography

Intravenous (IV) infusion pump systems are among the most recognized technologies in healthcare, used by about 90% of hospital patients.

They’re also hopelessly out of date, Karen Giuliano said.

“The design has been around a long time, and hospitals don’t buy one; they buy an entire fleet. They have to invest in training, service contracts, and IT infrastructure. To install a platform is a huge investment and effort.”

And that has led to stagnation, she added. “Over 80% of pumps are really old platforms and don’t do the job they need to do. They’re not developed for today’s standards.”

Enter the Elaine Marieb Center for Nursing and Engineering Innovation at UMass Amherst, which has made improving the safety and usability of IV smart pumps one of its first major projects. The team has been exploring flow-rate accuracy in a variety of settings and use cases, with the goal of developing pumps that eliminate inaccuracy, inconvenience, and resulting medical errors through new technology and simplified design.

The work is gaining widespread attention, as Giuliano, co-director of the center and associate professor of Nursing, and postdoctoral research fellow Jeannine Blake were recently recognized by the Assoc. for the Advancement of Medical Instrumentation (AAMI) for the Best Research Paper in 2021.

Their paper, “Nurse and Pharmacist Knowledge of Intravenous Smart Pump System Setup Requirements,” explored knowledge of intravenous smart-pump system setup requirements among nurses and pharmacists. The results were published in Biomedical Instrumentation & Technology, AAMI’s peer-reviewed journal.

“There’s already a critical nursing shortage, fatigue, and burnout. How can robotics be used to maybe alleviate some of those problems? We can use robotics as an extension of the nurse.”

“We don’t want to build a new pump; we want to build a set of requirements for manufacturers that have been sitting idle for too long without being forced to innovate for the safety of patients and the workflow of the nurses,” Giuliano told BusinessWest.

The effort demonstrates the types of innovation she and Frank Sup, associate professor of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering and the other co-director of the Elaine Marieb Center for Nursing and Engineering Innovation, intended when they launched the center in early 2021. It also reflects the cross-educational opportunities for people like Blake, the first nursing doctoral student to enter an engineering postdoctoral fellowship at UMass.

“Students have come out of here with a siloed education, nurses and engineers. There’s not a natural inkling to work together; they might not even know the importance of collaborating in that way,” Giuliano said. “What we want is to have students graduate that already have that in common, to reach across the aisle. The healthcare environment should not be a silo.”

Under Sup’s leadership, the center has also begun research on the use of robotics in healthcare. It teams doctoral students from both engineering and nursing, as well as an undergraduate nursing honors student, to identify challenges and develop robotic solutions to improve healthcare delivery for patients and providers.

The incorporation of robotic technology into the healthcare system is ongoing and already includes innovations like fully autonomous disinfecting systems and invasive surgical devices, and Sup feels it’s essential that these new technologies are integrated into the field of nursing at multiple levels, including hospital administration, the clinical workplace, and university education. And students need to interact with robots to better understand and utilize this technology in a controlled setting before patient care is involved.

“What are robotics, what can they do, what are they good for, and how can we start to train nurses and engineers in robotics? What day-to-day situations might nurses face in the hospital, clinic, and home, and what might be the best use cases for these robotics systems?” he asked. “That’s where this program started. Nurses are not typically trained in robotics, so we actually start to expose them to these things.”

That may seem like a scary thought to some, or imply that robots could replace nurses, but that’s far from the case, Sup added.

“There’s already a critical nursing shortage, fatigue, and burnout. How can robotics be used to maybe alleviate some of those problems? We can use robotics as an extension of the nurse, potentially doing things when they’re not there, like monitoring and lower levels of service.”

By bringing nurses and engineers together at the earliest stages of product innovation, the Elaine Marieb Center promises a raft of such breakthroughs that will result in better technology and, more important, better patient care.

 

Come Together

This is how Giuliano and Sup described the center’s mission at its opening last year:

“Today, healthcare technologies are too often made without the insights and understanding that clinicians bring to the table. Nurses are end users, facing healthcare challenges on the frontlines of patient care. Engineers have the expertise and skills to envision and create medical devices and can work with nurses who bring the real-world healthcare experience needed to design the best possible products and solutions.

“This transformation depends heavily on collaborative research and development work among nursing, engineering, and other disciplines,” they went on. “The ability to quickly and effectively develop and test innovations requires both nursing and engineering skillsets. The power of the nurse-engineer approach is derived from the mutual collaboration between the two, where the nurse identifies the problem, and the engineer facilitates potential solutions.”

One problem in the past, both of them explained to BusinessWest, was that products too often wound up in the hands of nurses too far along in the design and development process to change very much.

“I realized how important it was to have a front-end-user perspective built into the products rather than trying to back-engineer it when it’s 90% done.”

Giuliano, with more than 25 years of experience in critical-care nursing, medical product development and innovation, and patient-centered clinical outcomes research, should know. Prior to joining UMass Amherst, she spent many years working on medical product development from an industry perspective, including 12 years with Philips Healthcare.

Early in her career, she said, “I realized how important it was to have a front-end-user perspective built into the products rather than trying to back-engineer it when it’s 90% done.”

Now, at the center, “we have the ability to prototype things and test them in nursing simulation labs and test them in actual hospitals,” she added, the latter through a collaboration with Baystate Health.

Meanwhile, Sup was also a natural choice to co-direct the new center. As director of UMass Amherst’s Mechatronics and Robotics Research Lab, his research has long focused on developing human-centered mechatronic technologies for augmenting human performance and exploring how to enable robots to fluently interact physically with humans. To that end, he brought teams of nursing and engineering students together to work on senior capstone design projects.

The model was formalized as the Elaine Marieb Center for Nursing and Engineering Innovation with the help of two major gifts: $1 million in seed funding from alumni Michael and Theresa Hluchyj, longtime supporters of both the College of Engineering and the College of Nursing; and $21.5 million from the Elaine Nicpon Marieb Charitable Foundation to the College of Nursing, with a significant portion designated to support the new center.

“Innovation is often accelerated at the intersection of different academic disciplines,” Michael Hluchyj said when announcing the first gift. “The worldwide health crises resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic make clear the critical need for innovative solutions in clinical settings where both nursing and engineering play vital roles.”

And nurses need to have a seat at the innovation table early, Giuliano said.

“Nurses use more products and are part of more services than any other healthcare provicer,” she told BusinessWest. “If they’re not at the table, you’re not going to have the right products. They’re not going to be usable, and if they’re not usable, then they don’t do the job. And from an economic standpoint, they don’t generate the revenue that the company wants. So it’s a lose-lose, which we can turn into a win-win.

“We want to be a usability testing center,” she went on. “So if a company has a product at a certain point in development, has an idea what’s supposed to do and how it’s supposed to work and what its value is, we literally bring it into a sim lab.”

The usability test involves two people, a nurse and a volunteer patient, and both evaluate it, as test administrators watch how it’s used. “If the same mistake is made over and over, it’s a design flaw; it’s not a user error,” Giuliano explained. Then all those results and perceptions go back to manufacturer, who has the opportunity to make improvements early in the process.

To that end, the emerging product prototyping laboratory on the Amherst campus will enable students to design and prototype new products, while a proposed usability laboratory on the Mount Ida campus will allow for product and service testing by frontline clinical end users.

“Having a better understanding of frontline clinician knowledge is a fundamental part of our overall program of research on improving the safety and usability of IV smart pumps,” Blake said when she and Giuliano received the AAMI’s award for their research earlier this year. “We are very excited to receive this award, which supports our continued efforts in this important area of research.”

 

Promising Outcomes

Better research resulting in better patient care is the goal, whether it’s IV pumps, robotics at the hospital bedside, or any number of other ongoing projects at the center, from cloud-based home-healthcare monitoring to wearable sensors that record body movement to assess chronic pain.

Part of the center’s raison d’être is that nurses and engineers are both trained problem solvers who rely on innovation to find solutions, but their paths rarely cross, and the timeframes required for them to find solutions are dramatically different.

Giuliano got her PhD while at Phillips Healthcare because “I really wanted to be a better researcher so I could test products in a meaningful way.” Later, she added, “I realized I liked academia — I was a better student as a 40-year-old than as a 20-year-old — and I knew I wanted to go into academia and try to recreate the nurse-engineer pairing in the academic environment.”

By teaming up with Sup, who was already pursuing those connections, and with the help of some generous gifts from supporters who saw potential in this model, a center was created that is not only generating some impressive outcomes, but is paving a new way for diverse minds to collaborate and improve the patient experience across the globe.

“The whole idea of this center is for academic clinicians, students, nurses, and doctors to bring in industry partners,” Sup said. “It’s going to be innovative, and it’s going to make a difference.”

And it clearly lives up to the title of Healthcare Hero in the category of Innovation.

“This work that’s being done will make its way to safety standards everywhere,” Giuliano said. “Nobody else is doing that. It’s huge.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Healthcare Heroes

Division Chief, General Medicine and Community Health, Baystate Health

He Convened a Broad, Effective, Street-level Response to a Pandemic

Leah Martin Photography

 

From his years working at a VA hospital in Rhode Island to his more recent community-health role overseeing Baystate Health’s medical practices in Springfield, Dr. Paul Pirraglia has always seen himself as a problem solver.

“It’s gratifying to take care of a patient and get a problem solved, or at least controlled for them — when you can address a concern that is having an impact, not just around a health issue, but in a broader sort of way,” he said. “Take a patient who has diabetes. You can get their diabetes under control, but because food is such a huge part of diabetes, if you can actually get them access to good, nutritious foods, then it’s not just about the diabetes; it’s a life changer in a way.

“As medical professionals, we really want to make a difference in people’s lives,” he went on. “So it’s gratifying to be able to serve when there’s a substantive need.”

COVID-19 would certainly qualify.

Which is why Dr. Andrew Artenstein, Baystate’s chief physician executive, who spearheaded pandemic response throughout the system when COVID arrived early in 2020, asked Pirraglia and Dr. Jackie Spain, co-chief medical officer of Baystate’s BeHealthy ACO, to convene a workgroup to mitigate the impact of coronavirus on the most vulnerable patients in the community, particularly those with significant social needs.

“It was clear that traditionally underserved populations were going to get hit especially hard by this pandemic.”

The workgroup included representatives from Baystate Health and its four community health centers, Caring Health Center, the BeHealthy Partnership (a Medicaid accountable-care organization, or ACO, that includes Health New England as the insurer and Baystate Health and Caring Health Center as care sites), the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts, and University of Massachusetts Chan Medical School – Baystate.

The group looked at factors that could contribute to risk, such as low-income housing, where COVID cases were occurring, where ACO members lived, medical conditions were associated with worse COVID outcomes, as well as solutions such as access to pharmacies that home-deliver, food delivery, and transportation.

“On a personal level, I’m drawn to research: here’s a vexing problem; how do we solve it?” Pirraglia said, which is one reason this strategy resonated with him. “When Dr. Artenstein said we needed to do something, it was very, very early on, but it was clear that traditionally underserved populations were going to get hit especially hard by this pandemic. He said, ‘do what you need to do; I’ve got your back.’ So what Jackie and I did was convene a group which was not limited to just Baystate; we got all the leaders we needed.”

That included professionals from a wide range of offices at Baystate and beyond, from infection control to diagnostics and laboratory; from diversity, equity, and inclusion to community relations.

“We were able to pull together a multi-disciplinary group of folks who saw the importance of convening and doing this work,” Pirraglia said. “Despite the jobs they had and their schedules, we met on a weekly basis for many, many months in a row; attendance was phenomenal. That’s because people saw the need to do this.”

This Springfield Housing Authority testing event

This Springfield Housing Authority testing event was organized by the COVID mitigation team.

The goal was to figure out the needs of the Springfield population and communicate with them in a way that was meaningful, and the work progressed rapidly.

Initially, the workgroup explored ways to protect people who were at risk, trying to catch people who had not been infected and keep them from getting infected, while identifying who was infected and making sure those around them had protection. To aid in this effort, a grant from the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts enabled community health workers (CHWs) to supply materials such as facemasks, portable pulse oximeters to measure blood-oxygen levels, and room dividers and air mattresses so families could quarantine within their own living spaces.

“We really broke into two groups, one group more patient-facing and another group more community-facing, and then continued to meet and engage and make sure there was good crosstalk back and forth between us,” Pirraglia told BusinessWest, while stressing the importance of communication early on.

“The communication was with the community and within all the different groups that were participating in this workgroup. But we were also communicating with our community health workers, the on-the-ground folks, the ones gathering the patient needs and delivering on those needs. And the communication, I have to say, was pretty robust, in large part because people were committed to making this happen.”

The group performed geographic analysis to determine where to focus its efforts, gathering information about patient conditions in various areas so they could inform the CHWs on the ground about which areas were riskiest and who needed help, he explained.

“I can’t emphasize enough how important our community health workers were in this work. We were the coaches, but they were the players; they were the ones on the field making this happen.”

“We had to prioritize what we were doing, so communication was paramount. At our Tuesday meetings every week, we’d say, ‘this is what the maps are showing, this is what we now about pharmacy deliveries, this is what we know about food deliveries, this is what we know about the ability to reach out to people.’ We needed to make sure all the different arms knew what the others were doing so we were able to work in concert.”

 

Mission Accepted

In nominating him for the Healthcare Heroes award in the Collaboration category, Michael Knapik, Baystate’s vice president of Government and Community Relations, noted that Pirraglia — an attending physician who sees some of the city’s most vulnerable patients at Baystate Mason Square Neighborhood Health Center and also a professor of Medicine at UMass Chan Medical School – Baystate who teaches residents at Baystate High Street Health Center and Baystate Brightwood Health Center — has always been mission-driven.

“This became especially important as the COVID pandemic snapped into sharp focus the inequities that have been occurring in healthcare,” Knapik said. “People who were already suffering due to inequities related to their vulnerabilities — socioeconomic, racial, ethnic, and identification factors as well as medical comorbidity all contributing — were now at highest risk from COVID-19 in terms of cases, hospitalizations, and death.”

But Pirraglia himself stressed multiple times during his interview with BusinessWest that he’s not the Healthcare Hero here, not really.

“I can’t emphasize enough how important our community health workers were in this work,” he said. “We were the coaches, but they were the players; they were the ones on the field making this happen. Based on priority lists that we made for them, they were able to reach out to patients and find out what their needs were. We created a needs assessment, and then the CHWs were the ones who came up with a contact-free delivery system. COVID mitigation isn’t their primary work, but they jumped in with both feet: ‘what do you need us to do?’ If you ask me, they’re the heroes.”

As the initial surge eased and vaccines became available early in 2021, the workgroup pivoted to that effort, as vaccination delivery to traditionally underserved groups has been a challenge in a state where early allocations from the federal government were deemed insufficient to supply both mass-vaccination sites and smaller providers, Knapik noted. The rollout through a state registration site put those without access to the internet, as well as transportation to such sites, at a disadvantage.

To address this, Baystate started to vaccinate patients age 75 and older from its community health centers in lockstep with the state’s phased rollout, with staff calling patients and inviting them to get vaccinated. In all, they were able to vaccinate 650 people over the course of six weeks, many of them individuals who would have had difficulty getting to any of the state sites. Meanwhile, the workgroup used a series of webinars and other outreach programs to communicate the importance and safety of vaccines.

Pirraglia and his team prepared a lengthy article for the International Journal for Equity in Health last year called “COVID-19 Mitigation for High-risk Populations in Springfield,” detailing the workgroup’s efforts. It concluded, “our highly intentional and methodical approach to patient and community outreach with a strong geographic component has led to fruitful efforts in COVID-19 mitigation. Our patient-level outreach engages our health centers’ clinical teams, particularly community health workers, and is providing the direct benefit of material and service resources for our at-risk patients and their families. Our community efforts leveraged existing relationships and created new partnerships that continue to inform us — healthcare entities, healthcare employees, and clinical teams — so that we can grow and learn in order to authentically build trust and engagement.”

That’s not to say the group couldn’t have done some things differently, Pirraglia said. “It’s difficult because we’re not in a setting where these entities would necessarily be meeting and collaborating. So there was probably more we could have done that was broader and more in concert.

“But I feel confident that, if another crisis came, we could convene another group, or at least use the methodology we used,” he continued. “Certainly, the community outreach and patient-oriented piece of it worked really well, and we’d probably carry that forward if we had another crisis. It really was, in my mind, highly effective.”

 

Mission Accomplished

As noted earlier, Pirraglia has always taken a mission-based approach to care.

“What I mean by that is we take care of a traditionally underserved population with a lot of social challenges in their life,” he told BusinessWest. “These are patients who have difficulty with travel, with food, with shelter, with a lot of other issues in their lives. So just being able to deliver care is more challenging because the patients oftentimes have these other contexts to deal with. Our work has been to try to deliver the best care we can to our patients despite some of the challenges they face.”

Throw in a pandemic, and … well, you can see why we consider the effort heroic, even though Pirraglia doesn’t consider himself a hero.

“It was a really gratifying experience to have people totally on point, using their expertise in trying to figure out this really scary problem,” he said. “We learned that you can be nimble, you can be collaborative, you can tackle a really complex problem. And when you’re working on a group like this and the communication is good, the sense of mission is good, and there’s clarity about where we’re going with it, great things can happen.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Insurance Special Coverage

Into the Breach

 

 

 

When hackers gained access to a large retailer’s computer network through scam emails to employees, more than 900 store locations were affected, and 2 million customers were impacted before the company was alerted by a security blogger six months later. That led to several class-action lawsuits against the company, attorney generals in multiple states opened investigations, and the affected credit-card companies issued fines.

In another case, a ransomware attack blocked all access to a regional accounting firm’s computer system, and also deleted files. After ransom was paid, it took several days to restore the applications and recover deleted files from a backup. As a result, the firm was unable to meet tax-filing deadlines, causing brand and reputation damage.

Then there was a company that provides technicians to a laptop manufacturer’s repair center. While a young woman’s laptop was in the custody of technicians at the center, her Facebook account was hacked, and several sexually explicit photos were posted to it. She negotiated a quick multi-million-dollar settlement with the laptop manufacturer, which demanded, in turn, that the staffing company compensate it for the privacy breach.

These are only three of many real-life cases detailed by the Hartford Financial Services Group as warnings that companies of any kind and any size are vulnerable to cybercrime.

“That’s where insurance comes in, to mitigate the cost of a claim,” said Chris Rivers, senior vice president of Phillips Insurance Agency in Chicopee. “Small businesses sometimes feel they have less risk than larger ones, but that’s not the case. Anybody can be hacked and be held ransom or have data get out.”

Breaches can come at all severity levels, he noted, from a simple Facebook hack to an attack that steals credit-card information or Social Security numbers from tens of thousands of consumers.

Chris Rivers

Chris Rivers

“Small businesses sometimes feel they have less risk than larger ones, but that’s not the case. Anybody can be hacked and be held ransom or have data get out.”

The Hartford reports that the average cost of a data breach in 2020 was $3.86 million, and the U.S. will account for half of all breached data in the world by 2023, when an estimated 33 billion records will have been stolen by cybercriminals.

One of the more severe types of attacks, those involving ransomware, take place every 11 seconds, and the average ransom payment increased to more than $233,000 in 2020. Such attacks result in an average of 19 days of business interruption and downtime.

Again, it’s not just large companies at risk of cyberthreats of all kinds, said Jack Dowd, vice president of Personal Lines and a commercial risk consultant for the Dowd Insurance Agencies in Holyoke.

“The percentage of small businesses that are targeted is significant,” he noted. “A lot of the people doing this know that a lot of small businesses don’t have the infrastructure in place that a larger business does and are more susceptible to attack, and that’s why they’re attacking them.

“It’s important to know, if you’re taking credit cards or you have a system where you store any type of sensitive information with clients, you’re vulnerable,” he went on. “We’ve seen them target people who wouldn’t think they’d be typical targets, and your best course of action is to protect yourself as best you can, and that would include looking into cyber insurance.”

 

Costs Pile Up

According to the Philadelphia Insurance Companies, the average cost of a data breach is $204 per lost record, with more than half of such costs attributable to lost customers and the associated public-relations expenses to rebuild an organization’s reputation.

That’s one reason why cyber insurance policies cover two distinct classes of loss: first-party and third-party.

First-party coverages include loss resulting from damage to or corruption of electronic data and computer programs; income reimbursement during the period of restoration of the computer system; customer notification, regulatory fines and penalties, and public-relations expenses; and reimbursement for extortion expenses, among others. Third-party coverages, on the other hand, include legal liability for financial damage and privacy violations involving customers, employees, and other third parties.

“Network-security liability is a coverage that will provide defense and settlement costs in the event a third-party claimant sues the insured over a failure to secure their own computer system,” Dowd explained.

Jack Dowd

Jack Dowd

“If you’re taking credit cards or you have a system where you store any type of sensitive information with clients, you’re vulnerable.”

But he warned that these expenses can total much more than the client anticipates. In fact, insurers often include sublimits on certain specific types of losses, and it’s up to the insured party to purchase higher limits.

“A lot of insurance companies give a certain amount, say $50,000, toward notifying people they’ve been hacked. But the notification costs alone, depending on the size of the client book, could be more than that. Then there’s the cost to rebuild data, the cost to secure their network … a lot of things go into cyber insurance that people don’t always consider.”

Rivers agreed. “Within the insurance industry, a lot of carriers have thrown in some smaller sublimits that weren’t there in the past. But you can always buy more, up to what you want.”

It’s easy to see why they would. The Philadelphia Insurance Companies lists many breaches over the past several years that affected thousands of customers, like the international hacking group that gained access to the computerized cash registers of a restaurant chain and stole the credit-card information of 5,000 customers, starting a flood of fraudulent purchases around the world.

Or an employee of a Massachusetts rehabilitation center who improperly disposed of 4,000 client records that contained Social Security numbers, credit- and debit-card account numbers, names, addresses, telephone numbers, and sensitive medical information. The center settled the claim with the state and agreed to pay fines and penalties as well as extending $890,000 in customer redress funds for credit monitoring on behalf of the victims.

Selective Insurance Group relates the case of a payroll employee at a plastics manufacturing company who received a spoofed email from a scammer purporting to be the CEO, requesting that the employee send all employees’ W2s immediately. Which he did, and multiple employees reported that fraudulent tax returns were filed in their name.

This last example is a case of what’s known as ‘social engineering,’ and such phishing attempts have become more savvy and authentic-looking. “They’ve gotten a little more sophisticated in recent years,” Dowd said, which is why companies, often encouraged by their insurance companies, initiate training to reduce the chances of human error causing a breach.

 

Closing the Circle

Insurance companies provide another human element to the fight against cyberthreats, Dowd said.

“If you have a cyber policy, you have a place to go, a place of refuge, if you will. If you ever go to work Monday morning and your system is hacked and someone is demanding a ransom payment, you don’t know where to begin. But if you have cyber insurance, you can call the company; they’ve been through this many times, and they’ll tell you exactly what to do. It gives you a starting point you wouldn’t have otherwise.”

When quoting a policy, he added, an agency might run a test of the company’s system and let it know of any holes that need to be closed, Dowd added. “Even if you don’t proceed with coverage, at least you know you have those entry points, and you can pass it on to a person able to close those gaps for you.”

Insurers may also supply clients with training and quarterly check-ins, he added. “They’ll have your employees take these quizzes that will supply them with real-life incidents that happen in the cyber world, and have them identify the errors or signs that they were fake or malicious; they can actually give you some real-life practice on that.”

Rivers said many insurers provide an online help center, but many clients don’t use that resource, instead hiring a computer specialist to make sure the company has the correct virus and malware protection and that there are no gaps in security, in both the hardware and human realms.

However they delegate it, keeping up to date with the latest threats, strategies, and technology is critical, he added. Even though there’s a cost associated with that, it can pale compared to the cost of a breach.

“It’s something that is out there, and everyone can be impacted by it, no matter how small or how big they may be,” Rivers told BusinessWest. “The reputation of a company can certainly be impacted by it. It’s something people don’t always think about — or want to think about. They say, ‘I only have a couple computers; it can’t happen to me.’ But it can.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Architecture

People with Plans

 

The big story in the construction and renovation world is the high cost of … well, everything. But Kerry Bartini says that isn’t deterring people from pursuing her architectural services.

“Business has been super strong, especially in the Berkshires. During the pandemic, we had people calling from all over the U.S. wanting to relocate to the Berkshires. That was a big trend for us,” said Bartini, principal with Berkshire Design Inc. in Pittsfield.

She typically works on a range of single-family residences, commercial sites, and cultural institutions, but as people retreated indoors starting in 2020, specific residential trends were in play. “Second homeowners wanted new homes; we had families who had been here 30 years and wanted to renovate; a lot of locals were homebound, who were working from home and had kids attending school from home, so they did a lot of renovations — not necessarily making the space bigger, though we had that, too, but adapting the space to fit their new needs.”

Once the initial surge of that trend began to recede and inflation and supply-chain issues hit the construction world hard, one would expect architecture work to slow as well, but that hasn’t been the case, Bartini said.

“Business is still the same — we have tons and tons or work. We have a wait list: ‘yes, we can take on that job, but we can’t start for two or three months.’ But contractors are scheduling two years out, so people understand we’re really, really busy, and they’re trying to be patient.

“Even though building prices are volatile,” she added, “people are still moving toward spending more time at home. Even with the high prices, building is still moving forward, even if they have to cut a little bit of square footage in exchange for custom floors and windows, or make other changes to fit the budget.”

Curtis Edgin, a principal at Caolo & Bieniek in Chicopee, said the scale of the firm’s projects — which include a wide range of commercial projects in addition to public work like schools, colleges, libraries, senior centers, public safety, and municipal buildings — may be a bit more modest right now, but the pipeline is still strong, in some cases buoyed by federal and state stimulus money to communities.

“We’re working with several school districts, some in relation to COVID money they received, and are making improvements to facilities based on that,” he said. “We’re fairly diversified in our projects, which is good. We also have some private clients. Though, with interest rates going up now, we’ll see how that shakes out.”

Architecture, engineering, and construction (AEC) executives are generally optimistic about where the market is headed as 2022 progresses. The Engineering News-Record’s Construction Industry Confidence Index, which measures AEC executive sentiment about the market outlook, held steady in the first quarter after rising slightly from the fourth quarter of 2021. In contrast, the index declined in the middle two quarters of 2021, so optimism is definitely up this year.

Meanwhile, the latest Construction Financial Management Assoc. Confindex is up more than 19% over last year. The federal Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act certainly gave it a boost, with states and communities receiving a new surge of funding to invest in infrastructure and building projects. That, combined with movement on a glut of backlogged projects from 2021, is raising optimism, as the first-quarter Confindex survey showed 64% of respondent firms reported a greater backlog of revenue relative to a year ago.

 

From the Ground Up

Jim Hanifan, another principal at Caolo & Bieniek, said the firm’s diversity of projects has been a hedge against economic cycles, but so has its expanding geographic diversity, with recent projects spanning the entire state, from Richmond to Marshfield. “It’s nice — we do quality work in our immediate area, and it starts to grow, and people further out appreciate it.”

The past couple years saw a slight slowdown in the pace of projects, he added, but things have picked up since.

“We definitely saw some supply-chain issues; lead times for a lot of equipment, especially electrical and metal, mechanical units, things like that, used to be one or two months, and now it’s six months and even a year on some components.

“That’s forced everyone to look at schedules,” he went on. “The public schools now have to think way ahead. They’re not planning for this summer; they’re planning for the following one. You can’t get the product this summer, so you have to push it off to the following year. With questions about budgeting and cost estimates, where will it be 12 months from now? That’s a challenge.”

There’s no good answer to when — or whether — the more complicated equipment needed to build projects once architectural designs are complete will start to become more accessible, Hanifan added, and keep projects from being pushed off too far. “No one knows whether this will be the new normal.”

While the pace of business can cycle, so do design trends, said Bartini, whose firm collaborates with Bradley Architects Inc., led by principal Robert Harrison, under the combined name of Berkshire Bradley.

For example, in the residential realm, “it used to be that, in the primary bathroom, everyone wanted a tub and shower separate. Now, nobody wants the bathtub — as long as there’s a bathtub somewhere in the house, nobody wants a bathtub in the primary bathroom, which gives us greater flexibility of space.”

In kitchens, walk-in pantries and oversized working islands are in, while waterfall countertops are on the wane. Task lighting is popular throughout the home as well. On the exterior of the home, black windows are in, black and white color schemes dominate, and modern farmhouse design continues to be hugely popular in the region.

“For siding, for a lot of people, board and batten is back, and people are mixing up horizontal and vertical siding on the same house,” Bartini said, “which is a really smart thing to do as it gives the house a little character without breaking the budget.”

And, of course, “more clients are coming to us looking for their homes to be green. Unfortunately, though, that’s usually the first thing that gets cut when you start talking numbers. When building prices are through the roof, they might not do the $40,000 solar panels. They’re getting savvy thinking about sustainability, but we’re not at a place in the market where those items always make it through to construction.”

Edgin agreed, reporting the same conflict between growing interest in sustainability in commercial and public properties and the realities of budgeting.

“The sustainable aspect is a given these days. The question is, how far do they want to go with that? How much are they willing to invest?”

Clients should consider the long-term cost savings of sustainable systems, he added, but they don’t always act on that.

“There are a number of things people can do that are more expensive initially, but over the life cycle, the cost savings are great,” Edgin said. “But if they’re only budgeting based on bid day and the construction period, they want to keep it as low as possible. That’s not a long-term view, and it’s not as good for the environment. So they have to decide: are they committed to spending a little more money now to go all in? Or do they just want to talk that way?”

Maintenance budget is another factor when considering sustainable building and systems, Hanifan added.

“These are very elaborate and energy-efficient systems, but if you’re a small town and don’t have a large maintance staff, you’re not going to be able to keep up with the systems, where a larger city has a facilities department that can expand and keep up with more numerous and complex systems,” he noted. “It may show great payback and be worth the capital investment, but if you have to bring in outside people every time for general maintenance and repair, the savings can get depleted really fast.”

 

Through the Roof

Despite the uncertainty about project scheduling these days, Edgin said, clients still want the design work done now. But fluctuating material costs over the life of a project remain a daunting factor.

“If you talked about something a year ago and you’re now bidding it, and you haven’t updated your budget, there is risk there unless there is sufficient contingency money,” he added. “Some materials went through the roof and then tapered back closer to their original norms, but are not quite there yet. Lumber went through the roof but came back down — but not all the way down. Better than it was six months ago, but certainly not what it was two years ago. Steel, same thing.”

Despite the economic challenges, Bartini said, it’s full speed ahead at Berkshire Design, particularly on the residential side.

“We’re always pretty busy, and we still have the same kind of mix — maybe three new houses go up a year, and the rest is additions, renovations, or a combination of both. We’ve had a lot of new construction despite the fact that building prices are through the roof.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Architecture Special Coverage

Growth by Design

Tighe & Bond President and CEO Robert Belitz

Tighe & Bond President and CEO Robert Belitz

To say Tighe & Bond is a growing company would be an understatement.

From 2006 to 2016, the Westfield-based engineering firm increased its workforce from 170 to 270, but since then, the tally has expanded to 450, due to a combination of geographic expansion across the Northeast, enhancements to specialized services, and organic growth.

“We like to say it’s still manageable growth — robust, but manageable for us,” said Robert Belitz, who was hired by Tighe & Bond as chief financial officer in 2014 and took the reins as president and CEO three years later. “Our strategic planning process, which we go through every year, says it would be nice to grow between 5% and 10%. So you can see we’re on the higher end of that range.”

Among the recent footprint-expanding additions include an office in Portland, Maine, and two strategic acquisitions. One is a landscape-architecture and urban-planning firm in Boston called Halvorson Design (now Halvorson | Tighe & Bond Studio), which is part of the firm’s continuing strategy in Eastern Mass. and its first office presence in the Hub.

“The work they do is a terrific complement to our existing sites and brings more capabilities to our clients; they also did a lot of coastal-resiliency work as well, and that will continue to be in high demand for us.”

“We like to say it’s still manageable growth — robust, but manageable for us.”

The other recent acquisition was joining forces with RT Group, which expanded the firm’s waterfront and coastal-engineering capabilities in Rhode Island.

“Given where our offices are, there is a tremendous amount of coastline where we have opportunities to support our clients,” Belitz said. “There’s an awful lot of funding that’s being directed toward seawall construction, which is part of our coastal practice. The RT Group does a lot of work around port areas.”

River Valley Co-op in Easthampton

River Valley Co-op in Easthampton is one of the first net-zero-energy grocery stores in Massachusetts.
(Photo by Tighe & Bond)

With offices in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Maine, Rhode Island, and Connecticut, it’s a natural fit for Tighe & Bond to tackle more coastline work, he added. “There have been a number of natural-disaster events that have raised the awareness of the need for coastal resilience.”

Clippership Wharf in East Boston is a good example. The waterfront residential complex was developed by Lendlease with landscape design by Tighe & Bond and Halvorson, and building design by the Architectural Team. The tiered site includes a harbor walk at the lower level, public access and open spaces at mid-level, and residences and a courtyard above. A ‘living shoreline,’ the first in Boston’s urban harbor, recreates the coastal habitat through the introduction of native plantings and wave-dissipating features to accommodate future sea-level rise, creating a natural flood barrier protecting tenants and other inland properties.

“Our challenge is prioritizing how we can capitalize on all these opportunities in the market.”

Tighe & Bond has also significantly expanded its capabilities in the MEP — mechanical, electrical, and plumbing — area, Belitz said. “We’ve added a significant number of resources there. That’s to serve our existing client base, but it’s also in response to the pandemic, when we were asked to do a fair amount of air-quality work.”

Other growth areas have included traffic and roadway projects as well as asset management, he added. Meanwhile, the firm’s traditional niches in water, wastewater, and other types of projects remain strong.

“We’re still really well-diversified in terms of the services that we can provide to our clients,” he went on. “We’ve trademarked a terminology we call the whole-asset approach, which says we can support a client’s needs on whatever their assets are, from the outset of a project all the way to completion, and that’s because we provide such a broad array of services to our clients.”

At the same time, “I think the stimulus money that’s coming from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act aligns really well with the services that we provide as an organization, including our core water and wastewater services and our environmental work related to brownfield remediation. Our challenge is prioritizing how we can capitalize on all these opportunities in the market.”

 

System Expansion

Founded in 1911 to consult on broad-based civil-engineering projects, Tighe & Bond eventually came to specialize in environmental engineering, focusing on water, wastewater, solid-waste, and hazardous-waste issues, and its growing diversity of expertise has been a buffer against economic downturns in any one area.

Currently, 60% to 65% of its projects are public contracts with municipalities and state government agencies throughout New England and New York, and 35% to 40% are private work for a diverse group of industries.

Clippership Wharf in East Boston

Clippership Wharf in East Boston is an example of a project that includes elements of coastal resiliency.
(Photo by Ed Wonsek)

“It’s a great thing to be diversified during an economic slowdown,” Belitz said. “The diversity of the services we provide has always been beneficial for us.”

That’s particularly important during times of unusual economic disruption, like the current environment.

“We’re always trying to keep an eye on the economic conditions,” he told BusinessWest. “We are partnering very closely with our clients on any supply-chain issues that might cause delays in their projects or extensions of their projects. We’ve been trying to keep a very close eye on that and work closely internally to make sure our people understand how best to communicate with a client. That’s what it comes down to; it’s primarily communication around schedule and timing and making sure that all of that is coordinated.”

The firm has expanded its presence in renewable-energy projects over the past 15 years or so. For example, River Valley Co-op in Easthampton is one of the first net-zero-energy grocery stores in Massachusetts. Tighe’s engineers provided energy-modeling services to evaluate various design alternatives, including HVAC systems, building envelope, and lighting systems. In addition, it designed an array of electric-vehicle charging stations in the co-op parking lot.

Tighe & Bond, like all such firms, has faced an increasingly complex regulatory and permitting landscape, one where environmental concerns once considered minor are now paramount. But Belitz considers these issues not hurdles, but opportunities.

For example, “nitrogen and phosphorous removal for wastewater treatment plants has been a pretty big driver of some of our growth over the last few years,” he explained.

In that vein, the firm recently worked with the town of Southington, Conn. to upgrade its water-pollution control facility. Tighe & Bond developed a phased plan for addressing the town’s wastewater infrastructure needs over the next 20 years. Recent improvements included phosphorus removal, odor control, and UV disinfection.

The upgrades helped the town meet new phosphorus discharge limits that protect the Quinnipiac River, and odor-control measures have helped residents in nearby neighborhoods and those using abutting sports fields. The American Council of Engineering Companies of Connecticut honored the project team’s designs with the 2022 Grand Award for Engineering Excellence.

“We are partnering very closely with our clients on any supply-chain issues that might cause delays in their projects or extensions of their projects.”

Meanwhile, Belitz said, “one of the emerging regulatory drivers is what’s called lead service line replacements, which are requirements for communities to do inventories and replacement plans for the lead service lines. We also do a lot of brownfields cleanup, and that’s been a very significant piece of our growth over the past two to three years, and another example of our well-rounded services.”

 

Working on the Pipeline

Asked how Tighe & Bond continues to grow its workforce at a time when companies of all kinds are struggling with finding and retaining talent, Belitz said it’s a multi-layered strategy.

“I’m not sure a day goes by when we don’t talk about our hiring and attraction of talent. We’ve beefed up our talent-acquisition function here at the firm to continue to identify and attract candidates to the firm. And once we get candidates to join us, we’ve always done a really good job of investing in their development, in order to retain our latest employees.”

He said the firm’s “very robust” onboarding and training program consists of not only leadership training, but anything people need to do their jobs: project management, quality management, safety and health principles, and more. “We’ve made a very big investment in that area just because we’ve had to, given our growth. We’ve kind of branded it internally as Tighe & Bond University, where new folks come in and meet with their supervisor and figure out what sorts of training they need to be effective in their jobs, and we think that’s key to a successful onboarding.”

Tighe & Bond has purposefully cultivated a culture of mentorship and teamwork as well, particularly between the older and younger generations of engineers.

“One of the nice things that we hear all the time from people in our organization is they get to work on all different kinds of projects,” Belitz said. “The other thing we’ve always done, but have made further investments in, is the ability to work seamlessly across all of our offices. All our offices are fitted with collaboration tools and the technology that people need to work together, and to complement that, we assign new hires to current employees when they join the firm so they can get that initial mentoring and that on-the-job training that is so important to their success.”

The firm adopted a hybrid work model during the pandemic that has continued to be effective, he added. “We think that allows our people not only to have some of the work-life balance and work-life integration objectives they’ve always had, but it still affords us ample opportunities to collaborate on projects and have that on-the-job mentoring and training. That’s how we’ve approached the pandemic, with a pretty big investment in technology to make sure that happens.

“From the outset of the pandemic, we were very intentional about saying our main goals are to look after the safety and health of our people, to protect the jobs of our people, and also to maintain our employee benefits,” he went on. “There was a lot of uncertainty at the time. We had some sectors that slowed down for a short period of time, but we had others that ramped up, and now I think some of those sectors that have slowed down have come out of the pandemic ready to work with Tighe & Bond on even more projects.”

 

Building a Culture

Belitz said Tighe & Bond’s leadership is proud of the firm’s culture, which includes elements like the Make a Difference program, which affords employees time to give back to their communities through service projects with local nonprofits.

“Even during the pandemic, though we couldn’t do some of those things because of the restrictions, we had a number of our people volunteer in places like food banks and hospitals and places that had the most need during that period of time,” he explained.

Meanwhile, the company’s employee-benefit program has seen additions like a paid-time-off donation program, by which employees can donate hours of unused vacation to co-workers for certain personal needs; and a student-loan repayment benefit through which the company makes a principal payment to an employee’s student loan. “It shows our commitment to importance of education and our commitment to employees,” Belitz said.

Meanwhile, he added, the firm has made further investments in technology, both internally and with tools like drone technology, 3D laser scanning, and enhanced use of GIS. “We think those are things that enhance the client and employee experience.”

The firm has also increased its commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion through efforts like the Supporting Women at Tighe & Bond Employee Resource Group and a partnership with the National Society for Black Engineers, which includes two scholarships for students in the engineering field; both efforts aim to increase the diversity of the firm’s talent pipeline.

All these efforts create an environment where people want to work, Belitz said.

“One area that’s super important for us is our employee ownership and the fact that, even in a climate today where there’s a lot of consolidation and a lot of influence of equity investment in engineering and architecture firms, we’re remaining committed to our employee ownership model,” he added.

“That, combined with the fact that we have all our offices within the Northeast, is a very good model for us to keep growing, but to grow in a manageable way. Growth creates opportunity for our people, and I think we’ve got a nice growth model in place.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

 

Banking and Financial Services

Matters of Interest

 

team of mortgage consultants

James Sherbo (third from left), senior vice president of Consumer Lending at PeoplesBank, with his team of mortgage consultants.

 

Mike Ostrowski remembers signing for his first mortgage.

The year was 1982. The 30-year adjustable rate was … wait for it … 16.37%.

“You could put a house on a credit card and beat that rate,” said Ostrowski, president and CEO of Arrha Credit Union. From that historical perspective, he noted, today’s rates, typically between 5% and 6%, don’t seem so onerous.

“We don’t make the market. We would like to see a nice, steady rate that does not fluctuate and move, but the fact of the matter is, even if the rates are hovering around 5% or 6% right now, that’s still a great rate,” he went on. “Did you catch the bottom of the market at 3%? Maybe some people did, and that’s great, but 6% isn’t ridiculous. It needs to be put in perspective. People forget.”

That they do, said Kevin O’Connor, executive vice president of Westfield Bank. “People were really used to rates of 3% for 30 years fixed,” he said, though he was quick to note that doubling that rate does alter the affordability of some houses when shopping in today’s market, and he’s sensitive to that reality. Still, “people are surprised right now, but 15 years ago, 8% to 9% was common, so a lot of us still view 5% as a good rate.”

Mike Ostrowski

Mike Ostrowski

“The whole goal in all of this is to cool down the overheated market, try to slow it down. If the Fed doesn’t take any action, you could be mired in inflation for a long time. And that’s certainly not to anyone’s benefit.”

James Sherbo, senior vice president of Consumer Lending at PeoplesBank, had similar thoughts, noting that, while 5% to 6% mortgage interest rates are historically low, they don’t seem low when people have been accustomed to a long stretch of much lower rates. And he understands why those interest rates, which are not directly tied to the Federal Reserve’s actions but tend to follow that pattern, are rising.

“Overall, it’s to slow inflation down, and part of that formula is the housing market,” Sherbo explained. “The thought is that, as rates increase, it will slow down the activity we’ve seen in the market the past couple of years.”

That activity has included an unprecedented swelling of home prices, driven by the laws of supply and demand — the former dragging way behind the latter in the wake of the pandemic and building-supply shortages.

“The whole goal in all of this is to cool down the overheated market, try to slow it down,” Ostrowski said. “If the Fed doesn’t take any action, you could be mired in inflation for a long time. And that’s certainly not to anyone’s benefit.”

O’Connor noted that the Fed’s recent moves to boost the prime lending rate, which has led to increases in other areas of the rate environment, including mortgages, have required banks to balance that reality with the needs of borrowers.

“In our case, how do we best position that rate for what the bank needs as well as what is good for customers and the community as a whole?” he said. “When rates were rising, we were probably looking at it daily. That’s not typical; we try to set rates as best we can for a week, so customers and Realtors are looking at something they can rely on, so they can plan.”

That daily whiplash has stabilized somewhat, to where the bank may alter the rate an eighth of a point during any given week, he added.

For this issue’s focus on banking and financial services, BusinessWest talked with several area industry leaders about why mortgage interest rates have been so volatile lately, and how they’re addressing the needs and concerns of borrowers.

 

Bottom-line Impact

Craig Boivin, vice president of Marketing at UMassFive College Federal Credit Union, understands the historical picture of mortgage rates, but also sees consumers’ side: that buying a house in 2022 will cost them significantly more on their monthly bill than a house bought for the same price in 2021.

“Compound that with the fact that rents are higher, and it puts people in a position of ‘should I bid on houses when the values haven’t come down yet, or pony up another year of rent, which has increased a couple hundred dollars as well?’

“We’ve had a lot of conversations internally about how to help people get into homes,” Boivin went on. “Home ownership is one way people move into a higher economic class. We also know how homeowners benefit from values going up, as they can tap into home equity. So, how do we help people navigate this crazy environment?”

Craig Boivan

Craig Boivan

“We often tell folks who are getting into the homebuying game, especially people entering this crazy world for the first time, ‘take the workshop. We’ll show you different rate options, who you’ll be working with, finding your agent, all those things. Just talk to us.”

One way is by offering a wide range of products and matching borrowers to the right ones. For instance, UMassFive’s adjustable-rate mortgage product, which offers lower fixed rates over the first several years, followed by variable rates later on, can be a solid option for certain people.

“Those loans got a bad rap in the 2000s leading up to the housing burst because there was a lot less strict criteria around granting mortgages; some financial institutions were giving loans to people who couldn’t afford them,” he explained, which led to financial pain when a loan’s rate shot up.

But some customers are ideal fits for these types of loans, he said, such as first-time homebuyers who are already planning to move to their next home early in the loan, or medical residents who move around often, or professors who don’t have tenure and expect their current job to be transitory.

“One of the main reasons we can offer such a wide range of products is the way we set up our mortgage department,” Boivin said, noting that UMassFive invested in a credit-union service organization, or CUSO, called Member Advantage Mortgage, back around 2008. CUSOs allow a number of credit unions to create scale by pooling their resources on a particular program — in this case mortgages — which allows them to craft unique products for their members while weathering the kind of economic volatility that can upend business.

Lauren Duffy, chief operating officer at UMassFive, is executive chair of the Member Advantage Mortgage board of directors, “so we have direct oversight and a lot of influence,” Boivin noted.

O’Connor said Westfield Bank helps potential borrowers through its pre-qualification program, called ‘lock and shop.’ “They leave here knowing what their level of affordability will be, and their payment, based on current market rates. Then they can go out there and do some shopping.”

The idea is to avoid situations where shoppers think they’ve found the perfect home, only to find it’s unaffordable later, based on current rates, he explained.

Kevin O’Connor

Kevin O’Connor

“We want to take the uncertainty off someone’s head and give them some stability. We try to work with people in that way in these unsettled times.”

“That’s certainly helpful. We want to take the uncertainty off someone’s head and give them some stability. We try to work with people in that way in these unsettled times. Certainly, as a community bank, we feel a strong obligation to the community to find security and peace of mind for customers through this process.”

Boivin said UMassFive likes to “lead with education,” which is the motivator behind its educational programs, like Home Buying 101.

“We often tell folks who are getting into the homebuying game, especially people entering this crazy world for the first time, ‘take the workshop. We’ll show you different rate options, who you’ll be working with, finding your agent, all those things. Just talk to us.’”

 

Dollars and Sense

While mortgage volume hasn’t gone down at most institutions, refinancing has understandably taken a hit.

“We saw lots of refinancing from 5% to 3%; these people are not going to give up their rate now for any reason,” O’Connor said. “But a home-equity line of credit is an alternative, so they can preserve their lower interest rate, and we’re seeing home-equity volumes back up. A line of credit is variable to prime, and people understand that, but for many people, it’s worth doing that rather than give up their fixed-rate mortgage.”

Ostrowski said there will always be some refinancing business “because there’s always a need for money. People always need to send their kids to college, and they always want to make improvements to their homes.”

On the mortgage-origination side, the first-time homebuyer segment is most affected by higher interest rates, Sherbo said, simply because they don’t have a home to sell in this inflated market.

“They have the double whammy of higher rates and higher prices at the same time, and they often don’t have the wherewithal to withstand a bidding war on a property. So we have to do our best and be as competitive as we can on our products and our rates. We historically have low loan fees compared to our competitors, and a strong relationship with the real-estate community here in our footprint. Over time, we’ve developed a very good reputation for getting things done.”

The good news is that higher rates, married with a slight easing of the supply-and-demand conundrum, may push prices down, “but I don’t think we’ve seen that happen quite yet,” Sherbo added. “I think things should at least start settling down a little bit. We’re not seeing the bidding wars as hot and heavy as we have in the past. In some areas, there are some signs things are cooling down a little bit, which will help prices stabilize.”

He emphasized the importance of a community bank’s role in guiding customers to good decisions. “We know the market, and we can make adjustments quickly. We’re very agile when we have to adjust and change our programs a bit. We have to be focused on being competitive on rates, and we want to give buyers options. As soon as you feel you’ll be in the market, come talk to us, get pre-qualified, and we can guide you through what your options are.”

Ostrowski hopes home prices ease as well, but new housing starts nationally remain slow, which is indicative of the still-high cost of building materials, among other factors. But considering the big picture, he doesn’t think current mortgage rates should stop potential buyers from jumping into the pool.

“Realtors care about making a sale as quickly as possible. I don’t blame them; that’s their job. So they’re going to take a more negative view on this,” he told BusinessWest. “I don’t look at it as negative. You have to deal with normal fluctuations in this business. It might be slightly more than normal right now, but I wouldn’t hesitate in buying in the current market.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Innovation and Startups

The Art of Connection

ArtsHub of Western Mass is a website, but for the region’s artist community, Lisa Davol and Dee Boyle-Clapp say, it’s so much more.

 

“Like the steampunk aesthetic, Bruce Rosenbaum thrives on paradox. His artwork is a blend of gilded era opulence, modern functionality, and futuristic aspiration,” author Daniel Hales recently wrote about the Palmer-based artist who specializes in creating steampunk-inspired objects. “Similarly, Bruce himself is simultaneously an unapologetic dreamer — an artist building fanciful castles in the clouds out of very heavy materials — and also a very pragmatic and successful businessman.”

That article, one of many on the ArtsHub of Western Mass website, perfectly encapsulates the dual worlds of art and commerce that so many creatives must inhabit. They may create in isolation, but rely on connection — of many different kinds — to bring their work into the light and make a living.

The ArtsHub, a free, centralized online portal that seeks to forge those connections, could be a game changer in that regard, said its founders, Dee Boyle-Clapp, director of the UMass Arts Extension Service, and Lisa Davol, Marketing manager for the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce.

Lisa Davol

Lisa Davol

“We’ve all been trying find a way to get artists together because artists are kind of working in their own silos, and they really needed a place to gather to see who’s doing what and to find access to resources, technical assistance, funding, and collaborators.”

Rosenbaum, Boyle-Clapp said, is “a person who’s an artist, but he’s always looking for other artists to hire because he needs people who have specific skills based on whatever art project he’s currently working on. And he needed a place to find other artists. So the ArtsHub is a spot for him to quickly find people who are in the region he can reach out to and hire. That’s one of the roles the ArtsHub is going to play.”

One of many, in fact.

“It’s a concept we’ve been talking about, and that the arts community has been talking about, for years,” Davol said. “We’ve all been trying find a way to get artists together because artists are kind of working in their own silos, and they really needed a place to gather to see who’s doing what and to find access to resources, technical assistance, funding, and collaborators. There’s such a huge arts economy in this area, but there’s a need for connection around that.”

The pair worked on creating an arts database in Franklin County, and similar efforts have been attempted in other areas of Western Mass. But the vision for ArtsHub, which caters to artists — visual, performing, written-word, you name it — across Hampden, Hampshire, Franklin, and Berkshire counties, started coalescing in earnest after the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council convened a creative-economy network.

“It was really the first time everyone in the whole region was able to come around the table together and say, ‘hey, this is what’s going on in my region; what’s going on in your region?’” Davol recalled. “And all of the needs are the same, basically.”

Next came a planning grant from the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, followed by a much larger $186,000 grant from the Massachusetts Office of Business Development. After much planning and a virtual summit that drew artists around the theme of “How to Recover and Thrive” after the pandemic, the website was launched in January.

“Now we have a place to find resources,” Davol said. “This is sort of like a chamber of commerce for artists. It’s the same concept. They’re all small businesses, and they really need support and connection.”

As the website explains, “we want to collaborate across diverse sectors of the creative communities in Western Mass. and help one another locate opportunities for funding, studio and rehearsal space, collaborations, commissions, training, careers, storytelling, promotion, and more. A good hub makes space for all local creatives, from studio and performing artists to architects and spacemakers, graphic and web designers, photographers and videographers, singers and musicians, arts managers and administrators, employers and funders, tourists and visitors, audiences and customers.”

Boyle-Clapp noted that “we needed a website, a home base, a place to have an artists’ directory, a place where artists can find access to resources and studio spaces and answer the question, ‘how do I hire somebody?’ Those are all really important.”

Dee Boyle-Clapp

Dee Boyle-Clapp

“It’s a one-stop place for artists to find out what’s going on, what’s available, what can I learn, and what can I access that will help me with my career?”

Artists create a profile on the site and are able to interact with hundreds of other artists on matters like locating talent, professional development, public art opportunities, grants — the sky’s the limit, really. “It’s a one-stop place for artists to find out what’s going on, what’s available, what can I learn, and what can I access that will help me with my career?”

 

Making Contact

One reason ArtsHub has succeeded so far where other efforts have fizzled out is that its founders thought more strategically about how to partner with different entities to make it sustainable.

“A big part of it is the artists’ database. They’re so expensive to create and so hard to maintain,” Davol said. So ArtsHub has partnered with the New England Foundation for the Arts on that aspect, which broadens the range of exposure for participants.

Meanwhile, ArtsHub has enlisted a number of community liaisons to reach out to artists in specific communities — not just geographic, as in individual cities and towns, but into the Native American, Hispanic, African-American, and other demographic communities in the local creative ecosystem, to get them involved and develop a richer and more robust membership.

“The liaisons are working to help us understand what the needs are of those artists who represent those communities and help them tap the resources of the ArtsHub,” Boyle-Clapp said. “We think of the ArtsHub as a platform, and now we’re inviting other people to participate. Do you have a studio for rent? Are you looking for an actor or artist? Do you have a grant available? This is where to post it.

“It opens up opportunities for everyone, so it’s not an exclusive group, which is why the community liaisons are so important,” she went on. “They’re helping to open this up to the wider community of who’s working here.”

This effort comes at a time when the arts community is recovering from unprecedented challenge, particularly for those who depend on public gatherings, which were shut down for long stretches during the pandemic. The $186,000 grant, in fact, specifically targeted COVID-recovery efforts.

“The arts were hit so hard. Arts organizations were slammed. It’s one thing to be closed down, but another thing to have absolutely no access to venues and no place to be found.”

“How can we help this sector revive?” Boyle-Clapp said. “The arts were hit so hard. Arts organizations were slammed. It’s one thing to be closed down, but another thing to have absolutely no access to venues and no place to be found. One in six jobs in the Valley is tied to the creative economy, so it’s critical that this sector be supported and have access to resources. We are here to help facilitate that as much as possible.”

Most of the initial effort was building the site, Davol said, and now the engagement piece is in full swing, getting artists to sign up. And it’s been successful, with about 2,500 Western Mass. artists on ArtsHub now, many busy connecting over shared resources and opportunities, while posting events to a calendar page.

“I think at the one-year mark, we’ll be able to see what the impact has been,” she added. “There’s a lot of engagement on Facebook, a lot of people signing up. And the more people we can get, the better a resource this is for the creative community, and the more job postings there will be. It looks really great now, but it could be so much bigger.”

ArtsHub has also been engaging writers to share stories on the site, from the Rosenbaum profile to a recent discussion about non-fungible tokens, or NFTs. “We have writers doing stories about individual artists and concepts,” Boyle-Clapp said. “These are topics of interest to folks in the arts.”

A Lunch and Learn workshop series will likely follow, with artists given the chance to speak for 15 to 30 minutes about their work, she added. “I’m going to kick off the first one by talking about internships.”

Davol noted that the virtual creative-economy summit in January featured workshops on everything from how to get leads and market one’s work to how to get into galleries. “The Lunch and Learn may be a way to continue that. We’ll see what happens the first year and what needs are brought to the surface. What have we learned from this, what has been brought to our attention, and where can we go? We’re very open to possibilities.”

 

Developing Story

Not only is ArtsHub connecting artists with resources and encouraging the community to hire locally, Boyle-Clapp said the general public might find the site useful as well, whether they’re looking for a musician for a bar mitzvah or planning on visiting the region and seeking cultural activities to fill their itinerary.

“People have wanted this for a really long time. It’s a dream come true,” she told BusinessWest. “We’re really excited that it’s here, and now we’re just trying to get more people to know about us, to understand it, to access its potential. It’s a site that should be utilized as much as possible.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached a [email protected]

 

Innovation and Startups Special Coverage

Going with the Flow

customer site in Detroit

From left, Aclarity’s Chief Science Officer Orren Schneider, CEO Julie Bliss Mullen, Application Engineer Liz Christ, and Senior Operations Engineer Chris Hull at a customer site in Detroit.

They’re called per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances. But they’re known by a much simpler, and more troubling, moniker.

“They’re nicknamed the ‘forever chemicals’ because they don’t break down in nature,” said Orren Schneider, chief science officer at the Hadley-based startup known as Aclarity. “The bonds in them are so strong that essentially nothing natural breaks them down. Maybe if you hit them with lightning, they’ll break down.”

Lightning isn’t exactly a feasible solution. But Aclarity — which has made waves (no pun intended) in the water industry with a its novel electrochemical approach to combating pollutants — offers a better one.

“We can actually destroy these compounds and break them into their component parts,” Schneider told BusinessWest. “There’s a big focus at the state level — and also starting at the federal level — on how to get these compounds out of the environment.

“The reason they’re there is they’re incredibly useful in a lot of different consumer and industrial products,” he explained. “Scotchgard, for instance. They’re also used in firefighting foam to help put out fires. They’re used on pizza boxes and Chinese food containers. So they’re very useful, and those same properties that make them useful make them difficult to break down. Right now, our main focus is, how do we break these down?”

Several years ago, BusinessWest told the early part of the Aclarity story, of how CEO Julie Bliss Mullen, as part of her PhD research, discovered an electrochemical technology that could treat water by passing a small electric current through it to destroy contaminants.

“They’re nicknamed the ‘forever chemicals’ because they don’t break down in nature. The bonds in them are so strong that essentially nothing natural breaks them down.”

 

It immediately stood out from other solutions on the market due to both the lack of resulting waste products and its versatility. So in 2017, she co-founded Aclarity, which won the top award at the UMass Innovation Challenge, claiming $26,000 in seed money to help jump-start the company.

Julie Bliss Mullen co-founded Aclarity to sustainably and cost-effectively clean the world’s most challenging waters.

Julie Bliss Mullen co-founded Aclarity to sustainably and cost-effectively clean the world’s most challenging waters.

Essentially, she explains, electricity is applied to an anode and cathode, water flows through the reactor, and contaminants are destroyed by strong oxidants such as free electrons (which break the PFAS bonds), hydroxyl radicals, ozone, and chlorine that are generated inside of the Aclarity reactor. The result is harmless byproducts — essentially water that is free of PFAS and other harmful contaminants.

“Think about a battery,” Schneider said. “You have electrodes in there, and it takes chemical energy and turns it into electrical energy. We do the opposite. We put electrical current into the electrodes, and chemistry occurs. What we’re trying to do is break down a lot of different chemicals that are found in water. And most of the ones we’re focused on right now are PFAS.”

Aclarity isn’t the only company trying to develop a workable and scalable solution for this type of water pollution, he added. “The first company that can commercialize a product that can destroy these compounds is going to be a big winner. And we think we are in the lead there. We know the technology works, and now we’re just figuring out how to make a product that we can sell to do it.”

 

Water, Water Everywhere

Schneider said the original product was just a small reactor that could handle a couple of gallons a minute, which proved out the technology.

“We used that with potential customers to run samples, run water through it, to show them what we can do,” he said, adding that Aclarity has recently built the next stage, scaling up from a single electrode to 10 electrodes in a reactor, and that is being used to further show potential customers that the system works.

“We’re working right now with landfills; we’re going to be starting a project in Warren at the end of August with one of these pilot units,” he noted. “Landfill leachate looks like Guinness beer when it comes out — dirty, dark brown. We turn it into something that looks a little more like Coors Light. And we destroy a lot of the stuff that’s in there, organic compounds, things like ammonia and PFAS. Landfill leachate is an ideal application for us because it’s really high concentration and relatively low volumes. That really favors our economics.”

Aclarity is also starting a pilot system in North Carolina at a water-treatment plant, working with an engineering firm there. “The levels of PFAS found in drinking water are generally pretty low, and the existing technologies work well to remove them,” Schneider explained, but not destroy them. So after small volumes of PFAS are separated from the water using membranes and a technology called foam fractionation, Aclarity will be on site trying to destroy those compounds.

“The first company that can commercialize a product that can destroy these compounds is going to be a big winner. And we think we are in the lead there.”

“You probably won’t see us bolted onto the end of a water treatment plant,” Schneider said. “In New York City, their small system treats 290 million gallons a day. Their large system, over a billion gallons. We just can’t treat that much. But this particular plant treats about 20 million gallons of water a day, and when you concentrate it all the way through foam fractionation, you might be down to 20,000 gallons, and at that level, that’s something we can treat. So it’s a combination of concentration technologies followed by destructive technologies.”

Meanwhile, in Northern Italy, Aclarity is working with a textile plant, treating PFAS at the factory rather than letting it get out to the enviroment and having to worry about treating it there, Schneider explained.

“One other area we’re looking at is Department of Defense bases and firefighting academies. A lot of these compounds are found in firefighting foam. They’ll spray it down, and it keeps oxygen away and stands up to high heat, but then you have this lagoon of water that’s highly contaminated. So we’re discussing building a mobile treatment system where we can come in, treat the lagoon for whatever amount of time is needed, then move on to the next site.”

Orren Schneider (left) brought decades of experience

Intrigued by the company’s promise, Orren Schneider (left) brought decades of experience in the water industry to Aclarity.

Schneider said Aclarity was looking for someone like him who knows the water industry — he’s been working in it for 35 years — and understands these technologies. And he was intrigued by the potential of Bliss Mullen’s startup.

“There are other emerging destructive technologies out there, but, putting on my scientific hat, my engineer’s hat, I have doubts about some of them, how well they’ll scale up or how much energy they’ll use or the materials that are required. I follow trends of new technologies that come out, and I think electrochemical is the next one that’s really going to make a change and emerge from the lab into something that becomes commercially viable.

“That’s one of the reasons why I joined Aclarity. None of our existing technologies really deal with PFAS well,” he went on. “We can get it out of the water, but we just transfer it to something else, whether it’s a more concentrated water stream or granular activated carbon or ion exchange, but then, what do we do with it? It’s still there. Electrochemistry has promise; we’re showing that we can actually destroy these compounds and render them harmless.”

 

Listen Up

That result, on a broad scale, would be life-changing for many, Schneider said. And it starts with an increasingly fine ability to detect pollution in water.

“I use this line a lot: one of the best things I learned in high school was that the number-one cause of pollution is analytical equipment. What that means is, if we can’t measure something, we don’t know it’s there. Our measurement technologies are equivalent to a blade of grass in Central Park. It’s that fine; we can find so many things, and we’re finding adverse health outcomes from these compounds.

“The goal is not just removing them, but being able to destroy them to very low levels,” he went on. “We can destroy things down to the limits of detection that we have now, and there’s no scientific reason to think that we can’t go even lower. It’s just a matter of how much money it’s going to cost and how much electricity it’s going to use. But the science is there.”

He’s excited about the flexibility and adaptability of Aclarity’s process.

“While we are focused on PFAS now, there’s a whole market out there that we can potentially deal with. Also, in things like landfills, because we can treat multiple contaminants at the same time, that just makes us more cost-effective. So rather than have technology A for this compound, technology B for that, we can treat both of those at the same time. So, hopefully, we can be not just a solution, but a cost-effective and the go-to solution.”

After all, Schneider said, until PFAS are out of the manufacturing stream and the environment — and that day seems a ways off, to say the least — there’s going to be a need for technologies like Aclarity. “But there’s always going to be something else. The beauty our technology is that it works for so many different things.”

The key to advancing ideas like this and making them marketable is cooperation between government and the private sector, he added.

“We’re a small company. We want to be the industry leader, but it’s going to take a lot of different people, different technologies, different ideas to figure our way out of this problem. We need government support to help drive this; if there aren’t regulations, people aren’t going to pay to treat things they don’t have to.”

His advice to leaders everywhere?

“Listen to the public. This is one of the few environmental issues where it’s not just caught up in the science; the public is aware and want things done. So it’s going to take cooperation between the public, private industry, and government, all coming together to help solve this big issue.

“We’re not a solution looking for a problem,” Schneider added. “We want to be part of solving that problem. I’m a big believer in the public-health part of this as well as the environmental part. I wouldn’t be doing it otherwise.” u

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at

[email protected]

 

Banking and Financial Services

Making Contact

Jeff Sullivan

Jeff Sullivan says New Valley came into the market wanting to cater to small and medium-sized businesses, and that philosophy has served the bank well.

When BusinessWest spoke to Jeff Sullivan in late 2019, about six months after New Valley Bank & Trust opened in downtown Springfield — the first Springfield-based bank to open in more than a decade — he talked about focusing on smaller commercial loans than larger banks prefer to take on, and quick turnaround times as well.

The driving philosophy, amid a landscape of ever-larger mergers and acquisitions in banking, was to serve small to medium-sized businesses in a high-touch way they don’t necessarily experience at large institutions.

That philosophy is still true today — and it works, to judge by the growth of New Valley in its first three years, with 35 employees, just under $300 million in assets, and a third branch set to open in West Springfield in September (more on that later).

“Some of our bigger competitors, just as a function of their size, have to do larger deals. It’s just a math equation; they’ve got to feed a bigger engine,” Sullivan said during our recent visit, noting that many large banks don’t want to focus on deals under seven figures.

“But all those $100,000 and $500,000 relationships really mean a lot to us,” he went on. “We like hitting singles, and we think we do it well; we think that’s an overlooked part of the market.”

While many large banks have long assumed that non-bank lenders, like LendingClub and Kabbage, would grab significant market share in the small-business community, Sullivan said, people still value local banking relationships.

“They say, ‘I know these people, I trust them, and if I have a really bad year or something bad happens to my business, I know somebody at that bank I can call to help me.’ If you’re dealing with an 800 number of a Wall Street bank or a Silicon Valley fintech firm, you’re probably not going to get that level of service.”

And in granting that kind of quick, personal service, Sullivan said the bank is growing the economy by encouraging the region’s extensive small-business ecosystem.

“We just continue to execute on our plan. We have plenty of liquidity, plenty of capital. We can continue to grow for a couple more years with the framework that we have.”

“We serve the entrepreneurs, people with energy and a lot of enthusiasm and optimism by nature. A lot of really smart, enthusiastic people are living here who have good ideas, and turning those good ideas into real businesses is an incredible challenge,” he said. “So, I think our customer base is inherently a little more optimistic about the future and thinking about growth, and it’s great to work with people like that.”

Just past its three-year anniversary — the time when the startup phase is over and regulators “take some of the handcuffs off,” Sullivan said — New Valley is slightly ahead of the pace of its original business plan. Deposit growth is certainly ahead of schedule, but that’s true of all banks after the federal government poured trillions of stimulus dollars into the economy between mid-2000 and early 2021.

But loan growth is on target at New Valley as well, with about $175 million in outstanding loans, about $25 million of that residential and the rest commercial.

“The pipeline is good,” he said. “We’re in a time now when rates have gone up, there’s a lot of talk about a recession, and you hope it’s not a self-fulfilling prophecy, where if enough people talk about a recession, they’ll kind of speak it into existence. We’re cautious about the end of this year and going into 2023, but our pipeline is as big as it’s been. We’re having really solid production months, with lots of new customers signing up with us every month.”

New Valley’s third branch

New Valley’s third branch, at 333 Elm St. in West Springfield, is expected to open in September.

As a result, he expects that outstanding-loan figure to top $200 million by year’s end, and maybe by the third quarter. “We just continue to execute on our plan. We have plenty of liquidity, plenty of capital. We can continue to grow for a couple more years with the framework that we have.”

 

Over the River

While the last bank launched in Springfield before New Valley, NUVO Bank (since acquired by Community Bank), focused on a mostly digital banking model, New Valley wanted to stress more of a brick-and-mortar foundation. It currently has two branches in Springfield, both downtown and on Wilbraham Road in Sixteen Acres.

A third branch is expected to open in September on a former Holyoke Credit Union site at 333 Elm St. in downtown West Springfield.

“We evaluated it and thought it was a really good opportunity,” Sullivan said. “There’s some old-school thinking that people don’t like crossing the river; they don’t like to be forced to go to downtown Springfield. We had a steady chorus of people saying, ‘could you please open something on the west side of the river?’ So we were pretty sure our next branch would be on the west side of the river, but we weren’t sure exactly where. This opportunity just kind of dropped in our lap.”

One advantage of the new office will be drive-up convenience, which downtown Springfield customers don’t have. But there are other reasons customers value conveniently located branches, even at a time when adoption of mobile and online banking has soared.

“There have been barriers getting to parity. But as those barriers disappear, we’re seeing a swell of Latino and African-American businesses that are starting up — really smart, talented people who are choosing to move to this area because they feel like there are resources here.”

“People say bank branches are going to go away at some point and go fully electronic. But I think there is still a safety blanket when people know there’s a bank branch close to their location, and when they go in for some of the important transactions, like opening accounts or applying for a loan, or when they really need advice, they can show up in person.

“That builds confidence,” he added. “They probably go to our branches very infrequently, unless they’re in some kind of cash business where they have to go all the time. But I think people want to know there’s somebody that they trust within a relatively short drive of where they are, and they can lean on that person if they need to.”

The team at New Valley makes a point of engaging with customers, he added. “If they’ve got any questions, we try to give them advice as best we can. And people are just very appreciative of that. We’re so small that, if I get a call and it happens to be about a customer-service issue, I can run right upstairs and take care of it pretty much on the spot.”

That was especially true during the pandemic, when community-focused banks and credit unions helped customers navigate some truly trying times, with Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans and in other ways.

“There’s nothing better than somebody calls a year later and says, ‘I may not have told you at the time, but I was really struggling, and you guys really helped me out.’ That’s always great to hear.”

The pandemic also saw banks expand their digital capabilities as customers embraced those technologies like never before.

“Our industry was behind the curve in terms of adoption of technology in a lot of ways,” Sullivan said. “But since 2020, everybody knows how to use their phone to do their banking transactions. Most people know how to make a deposit with their mobile device. People are more savvy. Banks, as a result of that, are trying to automate more and more their processes.

“With the PPP loans, people could apply online and didn’t have to talk to a human being; they could sign up electronically, and we could get everything done remotely — because we had to do it remotely,” he went on. “Now, we’ve taken those best practices and rolled them into normal post-pandemic business. We want people to be able to go online with a few clicks and apply for a loan, and we can deliver the documents electronically.”

At New Valley — and at most other banks, it seems — there’s certainly a place for both high-tech and in-person services, and neither are fading away.

“It’s not that we don’t want to have those in-person interactions with people,” he added, “but sometimes it’s just a whole lot more convenient to be able to email the documents to somebody, they sign it — whether at 7 at night or 7 in the morning — and it’s back in our inbox the next day, and we take care of it.”

 

Long-term Partners

Sullivan was quick to tout other aspects of the New Valley task and spending our dollars wisely, and that opens up opportunities for us. While we’re small, we’re not inefficient in terms of our overhead compared to the overhead of a bigger bank. So we have the ability to offer more products to people.”

Meanwhile, the bank’s lenders have met what Sullivan called “a steady stream of people” bringing experience and good business plans to the table, in many cases, but needing help getting to the next level.

“A lot of them are walking in the door with so much growth in front of them, and their biggest question is how to manage it. They’re not asking, ‘how do I start from zero?’ They started from zero, but they’ve gotten to a certain point, and now the hockey stick is going straight up, and the question is how to manage it. ‘Do I have the right management team? Do I have enough employees? Do I have the ability to buy materials?’ Those are good problems to have, but they’re still problems; they’re still challenges.”

Sullivan is gratified that many small-business owners dealing with those challenges locally hail from the Latino and African-American communities, which have been historically underserved by entrepreneurship resources — but that’s changing in Greater Springfield.

“There have been barriers getting to parity. But as those barriers disappear, we’re seeing a swell of Latino and African-American businesses that are starting up — really smart, talented people who are choosing to move to this area because they feel like there are resources here.

“That’s a big part of our business for the future as well, just playing whatever small role we can play in wealth creation for those families, helping them to build wealth for future generations,” Sullivan added. “And hopefully we can hit those singles, and they turn into doubles and triples and the occasional home run, and hopefully we’re with those families, building multi-generational relationships, for a long, long time.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Special Coverage Technology

The Future Is Here

It’s striking to think that many young professionals entering the workforce today have never known a world without high-tech devices, many designed to be used on the go, that address every possible work and leisure need. And those devices have only become more powerful over time, with a wider array of options and price points. In its annual look at some of the most intriguing devices available, BusinessWest dives into what the tech press is saying about some of 2022’s hottest products for the home or … well, anywhere else.

 

Connecting and Computing

Among this year’s crop of smartphones, the Samsung Galaxy S22 Ultra ($1,199) has been getting plenty of raves. In fact, Spy calls it “the first true flagship phone to beat for 2022.” The site praises Samsung for bringing back the S Pen stylus, a popular feature with Samsung’s Galaxy Note series. “It’s also a beast when it comes to capturing photos and videos with its quadruple camera system, offering excellent image quality and low-light performance. You’ll have plenty of versatility with this package because you can get very close with its 100x space zoom telephoto lens.”

 

You’ll find no shortage of love for Apple’s newest models as well, the iPhone 13 Pro ($999) and 13 Pro Max ($1,099), which, boast the best cameras and battery life of any iPhone to date, CNET notes, as well as high-end features like the ability to record ProRes videos. “By packing the 13 Pro and 13 Pro Max with features many of us have wanted for years, including a display with a high refresh rate, Apple further defined the difference between its Pro and non-Pro phones. Three years ago, by comparison, the word Pro seemed more of a marketing term than an indication that the phone was any more professional than a regular iPhone.”

 

In the laptop world, the Dell XPS 13 Plus (starting at $1,449) “is a sleek computer that’s built around the latest and most powerful Intel Core processors,” Business Insider notes. “In lieu of click buttons, it uses a seamless glass touchpad surface and replaces the function keys with a top row of touch-sensitive function buttons.” In addition, Dell’s updated RapidCharge Express 2.0 technology can charge the battery up to 80% in under an hour. “Innovations like this,” the publication noted, “can benefit users and keep Dell ahead of rivals.”

 

Among today’s monitors, BBC Science Focus raves about the Samsung M8 smart monitor ($579). “With an affordable price tag, and an overkill of connection options, the Samsung M8 could be the perfect monitor for a lot of people. It doubles up as a TV and monitor, offering smart TV with Netflix, YouTube, and most streaming platforms, as well as connection options for most laptops, AirPlay for Apple products, and even DEX to connect your Samsung smartphone as a computer. Not enough? It also has built-in speakers, a 4K display and an added webcam.”

 

Need to keep your devices charged in the car? The Baseus USB-C Car Charger ($19) is an inexpensive device with a 65-watt USB-C port that can power up most laptops, according to bestproducts.com. A USB-A charging connector with a maximum power output of 18 watts is also included. “The product has a sleek design with translucent housing, a built-in voltage display, and onboard illumination. It has built-in tech to protect the connected devices from overcharging and overheating.”

 

That’s Entertainment

There’s no doubt that the explosion of entertainment choices we can stream on dozens of services has transformed the way we watch TV. At the same time, smart TVs have grown larger and less expensive over the past few decades. Among today’s models, Esquire praises the LG Electronics C1 65-inch OLED HDTV ($1,379). “With a beautiful picture and a sleek, stylish design, LG’s OLED TV is one of the best on the market. Plus, it can connect to Amazon Alexa devices so your whole house is hooked up.”

 

Most TVs aren’t built to survive the elements, but the SunBriteTV Veranda Series 3 ($2,899) is specifically designed for the outdoors. “In addition, it offers a few key advantages over previous Veranda models, including a brighter and much more colorful picture with support for Dolby Vision, as well as a full suite of Android TV features such as streaming media services, Google Assistant voice control, and the ability to mirror your phone,” PC Magazine notes, adding that, while the price tag is high, “you’re paying a premium for a TV you can use outside without worry.”

 

Gamers have more options than ever before as well, but for many, PlayStation still reigns supreme. Calling it “the best plug-and-play gaming platform available,” Digital Trends says the PlayStation 5 ($499), boasts “lightning-fast load speeds, a new controller, and a phenomenal lineup of launch titles (including fan favorites and new exclusives).” In fact, the magazine noted that the PS5 not only easily bests the Xbox when it comes to game selection, Sony has now brought backward compatibility into the fold, so the PS5 will be able to play most PS4 games. “The PS5 simply has the best game library out there right now.”

 

Speaking of new ways to play, “virtual reality might take its time to have its ‘iPhone moment,’ but it is still very much the next big thing for the coolest gadgets,” Spy notes, and no VR device flashes that promise more than the Meta Quest 2 ($299). Without the need for a powerful computer or special equipment, users can simply strap the Quest 2 (formerly Oculus) to their head, pick up the controllers, and move freely in VR space, thanks to its inside-out technology, which uses cameras placed outside the headset to track the users’ movement in the space around them.

 

Then there’s the Samsung Freestyle ($799), a new portable entertainment device that combines a projector and smart speaker into one compact package. It supports 1080p projection at up to 100 inches, offers access to a wide variety of streaming apps, and delivers 360-degree sound with built-in Alexa voice control. “The Freestyle stands out from other compact projectors thanks to its rotating cradle that makes it look like a portable spotlight,” Business Insider notes. “It also has automatic picture adjustments that could make it a breeze to set up virtually anywhere. It can even plug into an overhead light socket so you can project onto the floor or a table.”

 

Life on the Go

Smartwatches are all the rage, and the Apple Watch Series 7 ($329) ranks highly across most rating sites. With a bigger case and a larger screen than its predecessor, “the product also has best-in-class health-, fitness-, and wellness-tracking capabilities, powered by accurate heart-rate and blood-oxygen sensors, according to bestproducts.com. Apple offers the Series 7 with a 41- or a 45-millimeter case in a multitude of finishes, optional cellular network connectivity is available, and wearers can customize the timepiece with a wide selection of bands. “New year, new Apple watch,” Esquire adds. “The 20% larger screen makes all the difference.”

 

In the category of hybrid smartwatch, which combines connectivity with traditional watch mechanics, bestproducts.com chooses the Everett Hybrid Smartwatch ($179), calling it a feature-packed device with a built-in, always-on display and heart-rate sensor. “We like that, instead of looking like a tech product, it resembles a classic chronograph timepiece with mechanical hands and a three-button layout.” The stainless-steel timepiece is waterproof up to 30 meters, and it is available in several finishes, with an easy-to-replace band or bracelet.

 

Need a pair of quality headphones and don’t want to splurge on Apple AirPods? Then the clunkily named but sleekly built Sony WH-1000XM5 ($399) may be the way to go, BBC Science Focus notes. “These, like their predecessors, are some of the best headphones around. In terms of specs and audio, these are extremely similar to Sony’s renditions from before. They offer market-leading audio across the lows, mids, and highs, excellent noise cancellation, and you get an array of smart ambient features.” The site also praises the lighter, more minimalist design.

 

In the market for a drone? “Every year,” BBC Science Focus notes, “the DJI’s Mini series gets smaller and yet more powerful, cramming high-end specs into a lightweight drone that you can chuck in your bag. But with all those improvements comes an eye-watering price, and an increasing fear for your financial status if you crash it.” The DJI Mini 3 Pro ($759) offers advanced obstacle avoidance features, a rotating lens to film in portrait or landscape, 4K video, smart flying features like automatic tracking, and the ability to follow a subject, the site notes. “Despite its higher price, this feels like the perfect drone for beginners, those who like to travel, or really anyone in the market for a lightweight, high-tech drone.”

 

At the end of an active day, why not wind down by grilling dinner — wherever you are? The BioLite FirePit+ ($249) is a small, efficient fire pit that burns charcoal and wood. More than 50 air jets deliver oxygen to the fire for a uniform temperature and reduced smoke, while a rechargeable battery runs a built-in fan for controlling the fire up to 30 hours, according to PC Magazine. “You can cook on top of the included grill grate for direct contact with the flames or pick up a cast-iron griddle accessory. Bluetooth lets you control the flame intensity and fan speed with your phone, for a smart grilling experience no matter where you are.”

 

Around the House

Home security systems are nothing new, but if you’re looking for an extra layer of security, the Ring Glass Break Sensor ($40 for one, $70 for two) can detect break-in attempts through glass windows and doors from up to 25 feet away, Wired notes. Users will need a Ring Alarm or Ring Alarm Pro to use it, and the sensor can be configured the sensor to trigger a siren when it detects broken glass.

 

Sometimes home security means being prepared when the power goes down. The Anker 757 PowerHouse generator ($1,399) is powered by a lithium iron phosphate battery, which is the same type of battery used to power various electric vehicles, and “it’s a beast,” Gear Patrol notes. “Its multiple ports and outlets allow will allow you to simultaneously charge various gadgets, including your laptop, smartphone, and tablets, as well as power larger appliances like a refrigerator, a TV, or multiple outdoor lights.”

 

Air purification is a different kind of home safety product, and Gear Patrol touts the Wyze Air Purifier ($135), which can be purchased with one of three different filters, among the best on the market. “The air purifier works with the Wyze app, and, once set up, it can send you real-time status updates and alert you as to when it needs cleaning.” According to the company, each purifier is capable of cleaning 500-square-foot room more than three times an hour.

 

Wired has some ideas for making life easier as a pet owner, like the Smarty Pear Leo’s Loo Too Litter Box ($600). “Veterinarians say automatic litter boxes, while convenient, make it tough for owners to keep tabs on their cat’s bathroom trips — which can be useful for flagging any potential illnesses. The Leo’s Loo Too solves this with a built-in sensor that tracks how often your cat goes, along with its weight, and syncs the data to a companion app on your phone.” The device comes with additional features like UV sterilization and radar to keep the box from self-cleaning while the cat is nearby.

 

Speaking of animals, Wired also recommends the Bird Buddy Bird Feeder ($200), which “gives new meaning to bird watching. Not only does this cute little home feed birds, but its battery-powered camera offers a live feed via the connected app. If that’s not entertaining enough, it’ll snap photos of said birds, identify the species, and present a ton of facts about each one.”

Manufacturing

Meetings of the Minds

 

Kevin Moforte

Kevin Moforte says entrepreneurship helps build prosperous communities, and FORGE’s work is a big part of that.

Kevin Moforte has traveled an intriguing road to his new role as Western Mass. director of FORGE.

Before serving as executive director for EforAll Lynn, a nonprofit that mentors entrepreneurs on Massachusetts’ North Shore, he taught classes about entrepreneurship, innovation, and sustainable development at colleges in Chile. He spent his early career working in community development and emergency housing in slums across Latin America, particularly in Colombia and the Caribbean. And in 2015, he founded Esperanza Soaps, a company based out of Las Malvinas in the Dominican Republic, bringing good jobs to the women of a impoverished community.

So he’s well-versed in entrepreneurship, education, community development, and the links between them. And since October, he’s brought his connection-making skills to FORGE, which, since 2015, has connected innovators and startups with manufacturers in an effort to grow both ecosystems in Massachusetts.

“We’re really helping the success rate on the innovation side, and we’re driving a tremendous amount of economic value to the manufacturing side locally.”

“I love entrepreneurship. I think it plays a key role not just in building wealth, but in building healthy, prosperous, stable communities. So being engaged with entrepreneurs at different stages has always been a passion of mine,” Moforte told BusinessWest. “I started a business myself, and I understand the ins and outs of how difficult it is to build a business, how dependent you are on a community, and how much fun it is to have connections with people who will help you get to the next step, people who really cheer you on.”

And those connections are critical, he went on. “With startups, it’s a real pitfall when you transition to manufacturing. That’s why the work we do is really important.”

FORGE, the sister organization of Greentown Labs in Somerville, was formed because, according to its mission statement, startups making physical products are solving some of the world’s toughest problems, but face roadblocks to scale. By connecting them with right-fit manufacturers, FORGE addresses crucial gaps and accelerates the path to market for these startups’ products.

Laura Teicher

Laura Teicher says the survival rate of startups taking advantage of FORGE is more than 90%, a staggering improvement over the national average.

“There are over 7,000 manufacturers right here in Massachusetts. A lot of people don’t recognize that,” said Laura Teicher, executive director of FORGE, adding that the innovation economy has also long been one of the Bay State’s strengths. “Right here in Massachusetts, two of our economic powerhouses are innovation and manufacturing. And FORGE is really the first organzation to focus on bringing the two together to work collaboratively, which has a lot of fantastic impacts for both the innovator and the manufacturers.”

She was quick to clarify what she means by ‘startup,’ however. These aren’t solo inventors with a drawing scribbled on a napkin. In fact, the average startup FORGE works with has a prototype, a manufacturing budget, and, on average, eight employees and about $900,000 in funding. But that next steps — starting production and scaling up — are tricky.

“We help them get ready to manufacture; we educate around getting their materials together, look through their specs, and make sure they have the appropriate amount of funding before they’re connected with any manufacturers,” Teicher explained. “On the other side of the equation, we develop just as deep a relationship with the manufacturers themselves. So we’re able to educate both sides on preparing to work together and then make right-fit connections between the two.”

To date, FORGE has served more than 500 startups and innovators and has more than 450 manufacturers and suppliers in the network — and is always looking for more local shops.

The results of connecting the two parties has been striking, as the startups working with FORGE have more than a 90% survival rate, as opposed to the national average of around 10%.

“So we’ve essentially flipped the script,” Teicher said. “We’re really helping the success rate on the innovation side, and we’re driving a tremendous amount of economic value to the manufacturing side locally. We know of over $34 million in contracts resulting from our direct connections to manufacturing, and that’s definitely a tip-of-the-iceberg number. We’re serving about 300 startups and innovators annually at this point, so we’ve really accelerated.”

 

Forging Connections

FORGE was essentially created to help entrepreneurs building products to create prototypes and find manufacturers that can build the products they’ve developed and specific components for them — specifically, manufacturers in Massachusetts.

In doing so, Teicher said, FORGE has supported 4,500 jobs in innovation and manufacturing, providing unique, manufacturing-focused support across all sectors, including robotics, medical devices, cleantech, advanced materials, transportation, and much more. About 75% of the innovators FORGE has helped return to the organization as they scale for new and further support, and 20% are in full-scale production and deployment. Meanwhile, more than 40% of the startups are minority-led, and 28% have female or non-binary leadership.

Kevin Moforte

Kevin Moforte

“How you design and manufacture your product can really make or break your product. There are a million pitfalls. So getting the right connections, getting the right advice, getting the right people on your side, is critical.”

“How you design and manufacture your product can really make or break your product. There are a million pitfalls,” Moforte said. “So getting the right connections, getting the right advice, getting the right people on your side, is critical. And that’s where FORGE comes in, with critical connections and really specialized knowldege.

Many entrepreneurs have no idea how to go about looking for a manufacturer, he added. “China is always in the back of their minds. They don’t realize Massachusetts is a powerhouse in manufacturing. There are things we make in Massachusetts that you can only make in a few other parts of the world, because that’s the depth of the specialty and expertise we have. Part of our role is showing them that someone 40 minutes down the road may be able to make this for you, and you don’t have to make a 40-hour trip across the world to find a manufacturer.”

On the flip side, Moforte said, the startup world isn’t on the mind of many manufacturers when it comes to procuring business.

“They’re used to working with long-term contracts, steady customers, when there’s so much innovation coming out of Massachusetts that could represent a new, steady stream of business for them,” he noted. “Those relationships just need a little greasing. We help these two groups that normally wouldn’t encounter each other, and we ease those conversations into something fruitful.”

FORGE’s role is especially relevant these days, Teicher added, specially since the pandemic and the resulting, and still ongoing, disruptions in global supply chains, which have caused some manufacturers to bring their production and material sourcing back home. That’s good for startups looking for a local manufacturing option.

“Global supply-chain disruptions have just been rocking the world, and that’s why we’ve seen such acceleration in demand to engage with us,” she said. “Sometimes innovators just assume they have to go overseas, and that may make sense for certain commodities, but there is such a wealth right here.

“On the flip side, the manufacturers that are thriving and getting creative in terms of new, forward-looking business opportunities are taking a closer look at innovation and realizing, ‘hey, if I work with FORGE, I can work with innovators who are prepared to engage with me, they’re right-fit for me, and they’re low-risk because they have this incredible survival rate.’ We are opning doors on both sides in a very timely way.”

Localizing the supply chain also reduces costs and carbon footprints, while driving jobs and economic value to the region, Teicher said. “There are so many benefits to making these connections.”

 

From the Ground Up

Moforte said he has been “completely blown away” by both the manufacturing capacity and innovative ideas emerging from Western Mass.

“We get all the crazy innovators — they come to us because they’re inventing the next solar technology, the next water treatment-technology; they have this new gadget that nobody’s thought of making before, and it has this complicated piece that connects with this little tube, and it’s made of this material, and getting that wrong can really tank their business, but getting it right can represent huge benefits.”

Indeed, the world is full of such ‘crazy’ ideas. With the right manufacturing connection, though, some of those can become the very smart next big thing. Like the UMass student who worked with FORGE to develop his idea for an insulin-delivery device, or the startup that created a new technology to pull toxins out of wastewater.

FORGE has helped hundreds of good ideas like those find fertile manufacturing ground, and only sees more opportunity in the future.

“During the pandemic, everyone was just in their shops, so we were calling and nudging and banging on doors and really re-establishing relationships,” Moforte said. “We want to understand what they do, how they work best, and how we can connect them with local innovators to bring more business into the region.”

40 Under 40 Class of 2022

Director of Sales Operations, Webber & Grinnell Insurance; Age 35

In college, Reynolds Whalen said, his dual passions were acting and travel. So, in 2011, he founded a company, called Performing Arts Abroad, that offered international experiences to travelers in music, dance, theater, and film.

He focused especially on collaborating with marginalized communities around the world, using the arts for education, development, and social change, growing the Northampton-based company to more than 160 participants in 2019.

And then the pandemic struck.

“It started as an arts-for-social-change program in Kenya, a country I’ve been involved with for many years,” Whalen recalled. “It grew quickly, and we had a lot of success, but COVID just wiped everything out; performing arts and travel both stopped in their tracks.”

His next role, at Webber & Grinnell Insurance, might not seem like an obvious progression, but he was intrigued by being able to tackle a culture-building role at the agency, while creating a more data-driven model and empowering the team to do their best work as efficiently as possible.

Outside of work, Whalen is active in the Episcopal Church of Saints James and Andrew in Greenfield, serving on the governing board, directing the youth group, and founding a digital ministry during the pandemic; he also serves on the Episcopal Diocese of Western Massachusetts. In addition, he’s a member of Eggtooth Productions in Greenfield and is a teaching artist for public-school program that uses an immersive theater framework to boost literacy for first- and second-graders.

His heart for the international community still gets a workout, too, serving as board clerk and a member of the finance committee at the International Language Institute in Northampton. He also supports several Afghan refugee families through a Circle of Care group, doing things like taking them to their local survival centers to get registered, showing them how to navigate the bus system, and helping them enroll in free English classes.

“My passion for a long time has been creating understanding amongst people of different cultures and ways of living in the world; the most important thing for our country at this moment in time is access to information about other people and other cultures, and understanding the value that immigrants bring to our community,” Whalen said. “Our community is made stronger by people who are visitors or settling here from other places. Those aspects of the community are particularly important to me.”

 

— Joseph Bednar

40 Under 40 Class of 2022

Owner, N. Riley Construction; Age 39

Nick Riley knows construction changes lives — both those of his clients, when they step into a new home or undergo a dramatic renovation, and in his own life, in which a bet on himself paid off at a young age.

Age 24, to be exact. Riley had been working as a laborer for another construction business for a couple of years, and decided he loved the work, and how the results of his labor made people happy.

“I decided I was going to start my own business,” he recalled. “So I got into small remodeling, and gradually got into homebuilding pretty quickly.”

That was 2007, an interesting time to strike out on his own, with the global financial crisis and the Great Recession just around the corner. Riley credits his participation in an Extreme Makeover: Home Edition build in Springfield in 2011 with bringing attention to N. Riley Construction and taking the firm to the next level.

“That definitely helped me,” he said. “Since then, we’ve been at it non-stop, growing by leaps and bounds every year. We’re doing 10-plus houses a year, large commercial buildings … I’ve got a good group of guys working for me, and that helps.”

It’s tough for contractors to keep and grow their crews these days, but Riley has been addressing that issue at the source, by cultivating the next generation of workers through an initiative called Student Builders.

“I’m the president, and I work with a couple other local people on that board,” he said. “What we do is purchase property in Chicopee — usually either dilapidated homes that need to be ripped down or pieces of land that need to be developed — and we set it up so kids in vocational programs, like carpentry, electrical, or landscaping, can build an entry-level house. It’s good, hands-on experience, and they can see if that’s something they want to do. It’s a good way to reach out to kids and get them into the workforce.”

The hope is that many will find the career as gratifying as he does.

“I love transforming people’s houses, working with customers and creating something for them that they’re excited about, that they’ll cherish for years,” Riley said. “It’s a very satisfying job. When I drive down the street and look around and say, ‘yeah, we did that house,’ or ‘we did that project,’ it’s nice. We take a lot of pride in our work.”

 

— Joseph Bednar

40 Under 40 Class of 2022

Director of Placemaking, W.D. Cowls Inc.; Age 39

Not everyone knows what placemaking is. But, to hear Hannah Rechtschaffen talk about it, maybe everyone should.

“Placemaking, to me, is really looking at the arts and culture and history and current residents of a place and really paying attention to how that place is developing and changing,” she explained. “Because all places are changing in some way.”

At W.D. Cowls Inc., specifically at the Mill District in North Amherst, a burgeoning center for living, shopping, dining, and lifestyle experiences, Rechtschaffen plans and executes events, convenes stakeholders in better leveraging the neighborhood’s assets, oversees the direction of the complex’s Local Art Gallery, guides internal team building and company growth, and interfaces with potential commercial tenants and developers.

“We want to create a great place to live and work and visit, by constantly paying attention to what’s here and what could be here and what we want here, and then stewarding that.”

The art gallery has been a particular passion; Rechtschaffen says the arts have been a lifelong passion, and her focus on economic development and how an ecosystem develops came after that.

“But I think the arts are very underrepresented; people don’t always imagine the extent to which the arts can be included,” she noted. On the other hand, “when we look at economic development, the arts are always at the core because artists are in the world to see things clearly and bring awareness and a voice to people, groups, or ideas that are not being seen.”

As a board member of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, she sits on multiple committees, including government affairs, marketing, the equity and inclusion task force (which she helped launch in 2021), and the first responders’ annual picnic. In Greenfield, where she lives, she chairs the town’s Sustainable Greenfield Implementation Committee, which is focused on tracking the use and communication of the town’s master plan.

“I live in Greenfield, and everything I get to effect in Amherst, I want that to happen in Greenfield as well,” she said. “It’s hard for me not to join in; I can’t expect other people to do it.”

Whatever her role, Rechtschaffen added that “my work is much more focused on equity and inclusivity than it used to be. That’s been a real gift of this time of COVID, a silver lining, as it were — I feel like I’ve always paid attention, but I’m putting more effort into paying attention to who a place is for and how a community is for everyone.”

 

— Joseph Bednar

 

40 Under 40 Class of 2022

Chief Financial Officer, Holyoke Soldiers’ Home; Age 31

Michael Lynch’s accounting and finance career has long focused on roles with a community benefit.

Like when he joined the city of Springfield in 2014, working in Disaster Recovery and Compliance, a new unit created after the June 2011 tornado to fund new housing projects, demolish blighted properties, and improve the city in other ways.

Four years later, Lynch transitioned to the state level, serving as fiscal director for the Western Region of the Department of Youth Services. When the governor declared a state of emergency early in the COVID-19 pandemic, Lynch immediately began working with his colleagues to procure appropriate PPE to protect DYS youth and personnel on a daily basis.

A little over a year ago, Lynch saw another opportunity he couldn’t pass up — as chief financial officer at the Holyoke Soldiers’ Home, which was still recovering from a mismanaged COVID outbreak early in the pandemic that saw dozens of veterans die.

“When this opportunity became available, I had to jump at it,” he said, noting that he was aware of what had happened there, but behind the headlines, he also knew changes were being made, and he wanted to be part of the team that could turn the facility around.

“This is a very special place because of the people we serve, but also because of the employees I’ve been lucky to work with,” he added. “The people here have such a deep level of care for the work they do; they are so committed to helping veterans day in and day out.”

Lynch, an adjunct professor of Accounting at Holyoke Community College, is committed to his community in other ways as well, namely through two charity golf tournaments he organizes each year that have, to date, raised more than $25,000 for local organizations like Rays of Hope, Miracle League of Western Massachusetts, Autism Speaks New England, Autism Connections, Shriners Hospitals for Children, Special Olympics Massachusetts, and the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts’ COVID-19 Response Fund.

“I started these golf tournaments as a way to make sure families can come together to do something positive for local charities,” he said. “I love doing this; I love event planning. My dream is to add a banquet dinner afterward and a much larger raffle, which will ultimately raise more funds. It’s so exciting to me. I want to continue to do everything I can to help people and bring people together.”

 

— Joseph Bednar

40 Under 40 Class of 2022

Community Outreach Specialist, Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts; Age 31

Sasha Jiménez has performed plenty of jobs in her life — gas-station cashier, summer-programs facilitator, teacher of English and science, just to name a few — but her current role may be closest to her heart.

As the Community Outreach manager for Planned Parenthood League of Massachusetts, Jiménez provides resources to organizations across the Commonwealth and connects them to referral partners. She also gives presentations at schools and other venues and is the team lead for the organization’s HIV-prevention plan.

Her interest in this area was sparked as a freshman at Pioneer Valley Performing Arts Charter Public School. “I was exposed to such a broad range of topics, one of them being sexual reproductive health — not just the disparities that existed, but also the atrocities done to Puerto Rican women and Nicaraguan women, and how important sexual reproductive health is to marginalized communities,” she explained. “I’ve been passionate about it ever since.”

Even while teaching at Putnam Vocational Technical Academy, she’d bring in Tapestry to give workshops on consent, and coordinated a donation drive to make menstrual products available and easily accessible at area high schools and homeless shelters.

Her daughter has been another source of her passion. “I’m trying to build a place where she can access something as basic as menstrual products or birth control or a Pap smear or chest exam. Part of my profession is making sure this work continues — not only for my daughter, but so all women have access to sexual reproductive health.”

Active in the community, Jiménez was instrumental in the passing of the Paris Agreement Declaration 4.0, signed by Mayor Domenic Sarno, designating Springfield as a Fast Track City committed to HIV/AIDS prevention and awareness initiatives.

Jimenez, who has earned degrees at Springfield Technical Community College, Smith College, and UMass Amherst, has also helped Putnam students access extracurricular opportunities for college readiness and improved MCAS scores through social and emotional learning; supported Inclusive Strategies and its goal of addressing systemic racism statewide; organized and advocated for political candidates; and worked with domestic-violence survivors at the YWCA while providing support with housing, employment, and other social determinants of health.

That role at the YWCA, in particular, opened Jiménez’s eyes to health disparities among women, especially in regard to intimate-partner violence, HIV prevention, and substance-use disorder, she said.

And as for all those other jobs in her past? They’re all important on her journey to the critical work she’s doing today, she said. “It’s always OK to be passionate and pursue something else and follow whatever feeds your soul.”

 

— Joseph Bednar

 

40 Under 40 Class of 2022

Community Development Manager, Sevita; Age 33

When asked what she loves most about her job, Giselle Gaines had trouble picking out anything she doesn’t love.

“It doesn’t feel like work,” she said. “They say if you love what you do, you won’t work a day in your life. This is a lifestyle for me.”

She was speaking about her role with Sevita, a provider of home- and community-based care for people of all ages with any number of needs. “We offer adults, children, and families high-quality services and supports that lead to growth and independence no matter what physical, intellectual, or behavioral challenges they face.”

The organization, once known as the Mentor Network, has been around for 50 years, providing services ranging from home care and adult day health to foster care and programs for children with autism. As the Community Development manager, Gaines brings new partners and new revenue streams to the company, but also serves as a liaison between the community and those services, building relationships with other healthcare professionals who can help clients.

“I feel I can relate to these families and bring my own story to them,” she said. “I have children with disabilities as well. Part of the reason I chose this vital work is to help build a world I want for my kids and other kids when they become adults.”

As the mother of four children with autism, Gaines wanted a career where she could advocate for her family and others like it. But she has a heart for serving the community in other ways, too.

A Leadership Pioneer Valley alumna and coach, she’s also the Diversity and Outreach officer for the Springfield Ward 4 Democratic Committee and worked with Springfield College staff on last year’s Be the Change event, which promoted leadership and civic engagement. She’s also a board member of Easterseals Massachusetts’ Western Mass. Regional Board; founder and board chair of the Miracle Marc Foundation, which promotes water safety; and a board member with Keep Springfield Beautiful.

She also created 413 Community Hands, a collaboration among local organizations to bring essential resources, education, and healthcare access to people and communities in need.

Why take on all that on top of her career and family? Again, she doesn’t consider it work. “I want to be the change I want to see in the world, and I strive to do that every single day.”

 

— Joseph Bednar

 

40 Under 40 Class of 2022

Superintendent of Operations, Westfield Gas + Electric; Age 33

Folks in Westfield don’t always see Greg Freeman during the best of times. But he’s always trying to make things better.

Freeman has been working with the city for the past decade, starting in the Engineering department, where he performed mostly clerical work, but rising up the ranks through a series of promotions to his current role as superintendent of Operations at Westfield Gas + Electric, overseeing more than 70 employees.

“Whether it’s someone building a new house or someone whose furnace fails in the winter, and we run a new gas line to the house, or the phone calls during the last storm that took out branches, and we got their power back up, we’re seen as very valuable to the town because of our quick response and reliability,” he explained.

Freeman, who earned degrees at Springfield Technical College, UMass Amherst, and Norwich University, oversees the general operations of both the natural-gas and electrical sides of the municipal utility, including construction, storm response, and regulatory compliance.

“I enjoy being part of the community I live in — that’s the biggest thing,” he said, with his community-outreach roles ranging from Dig Safe campaigns to safety and career presentations at local schools. “Almost every day is different, but helping people out and giving back to the community is nice.”

As the safety officer for WG+E, those civic engagements are especially meaningful. “Every year, we do a safety class with fifth-graders, things like how to notice a natural-gas odor or what’s not safe when you see downed wires. We try to get word out there as much as possible.”

Michael Erwin, an electrician and business owner who nominated Freeman for 40 Under Forty, noted that “Greg continues to work together with his team of colleagues to promote infrastructure improvements, foster safety culture, promote the success of future WG+E endeavors such as fiber, and is the embodiment of the term ‘community.’”

Through all of that, family is especially important to Freeman, who has four children, all under age 9, with his wife, Kelly.

“My biggest cheerleader is definitely my wife, and my family is my biggest accomplishment, and also my biggest motivator,” he said. “When I’m working a long day or I’m out on a storm for days on end, I always know I have a good group behind me, supporting everything I do.”

 

— Joseph Bednar

40 Under 40 Class of 2022

Director, Center for Social Justice, Western New England University School of Law; Age 39

From her early career, teaching elementary school in New York City’s Spanish Harlem with Teach for America, Ariel Clemmer has been passionate about changing lives.

“That was an amazing experience,” she recalled. “I was working with a community-based school, meaning most students lived next to the school in project housing. It was a small environment, and I was an outsider coming in, trying to shake up the system a little bit. That’s been true of most of my positions.”

While studying law, her initial plans were to be a public defender. In fact, immediately after graduation, she joined Bronx Defenders, representing low-income clients charged with crimes.

“From there, my career has taken kind of a winding path, but the common thread has been to help people and try to make the world a better place,” said Clemmer, whose passion for pro bono work saw her named one of the top 30 pro bono attorneys of 2014 by Legal Services of New York City.

What has stayed with her from her experiences in NYC was a burden for people who are struggling, especially those victimized by systemic inequities. She brought that passion to her recent role as pro bono director at the Hampden County Bar Assoc., and then to her current position, as director of the Center for Social Justice at Western New England University School of Law.

“Our mission is to advance justice through research, education, advocacy, innovation, and public engagement,” she said, and the center does so through initiatives like a sealing and expungement program to address harm caused to people of color by the war on drugs, a consumer-debt initiative to defend consumers facing wrongful credit-card collection actions, and a gender-affirming identification project that offers pro bono legal services to individuals who need help with gender-affirming name changes, birth-certificate amendments, and more.

“It’s an exciting time to be working in social justice and living out this mission through our programming,” Clemmer said. “I’ve always had the sense that the world would be a better place if everyone was allowed the same opportunities and treated equally, regardless of what makes them different. So many times in my life, I’ve seen that’s just not the case.

“When racial injustice happens, or other types of limitations are put on people because of disabilities or gender status or sexual orientation, it bothers me,” she added. “That’s why the work I do now is so meaningful. It enables me, every day, to work toward something better.”

 

— Joseph Bednar

Banking and Financial Services Special Coverage

The Fed Makes Its Move

 

 

Last month’s federal funds rate hike by the Federal Reserve — the first of what may be several such increases — was long-awaited and welcome in the banking community, while the Fed hopes it begins to produce its intended effect of cooling the economy and slowing inflation. The impact on loans and credit of all kinds will be meaningful, finance leaders say, but the long-term, historical perspective suggests this is still a very good time to borrow.

It’s a move many in the finance world are calling overdue, and in some ways welcome.

After keeping interest rates low through the first two years of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Federal Reserve hiked the federal funds rate by one-quarter of a percentage point on March 16, while also suggesting it might issue up to six more small increases before year’s end.

“We’ve lived with this low-rate environment for the last few years, which has been extremely difficult for banks on the margins,” said Brian Canina, executive vice president and chief of Finance and Shared Services at PeoplesBank. “So this was definitely something we have been waiting for.

“Last year was very interesting because, despite the inflation we were seeing, there was no movement on interest rates,” he added. “These have been interesting times, and hopefully, as the Fed continues to monitor this and increase the rates in the future, it would be nice to see us get back to a more normalized interest-rate environment that we’re more familiar with.”

Jeffrey Sullivan, president and CEO of New Valley Bank, said the Fed’s move was not only expected, but had been announced and much discussed in the marketplace.

“People are saying it’s overdue, and many are saying the Fed should have done it earlier to cool off the economy and keep inflation down a little bit,” he told BusinessWest. “Some people are worried there could be a lot of increases coming down the pike. But if it’s slow and steady, it’s probably not going to be a huge shock to people borrowing money, whether businesses or consumers.”

According to Forbes, the Federal Reserve’s mission is to keep the U.S. economy humming, but not too hot or too cold. So when the economy booms and distortions like inflation and asset bubbles get out of hand, threatening economic stability, the Fed can step in and raise interest rates, cooling down the economy and keeping growth on track.

“We’ve lived with this low-rate environment for the last few years, which has been extremely difficult for banks on the margins. So this was definitely something we have been waiting for.”

“When the Fed raises the federal funds target rate, the goal is to increase the cost of credit throughout the economy. Higher interest rates make loans more expensive for both businesses and consumers, and everyone ends up spending more on interest payments,” the publication notes.

“Those who can’t or don’t want to afford the higher payments postpone projects that involve financing,” Forbes adds. “It simultaneously encourages people to save money to earn higher interest payments. This reduces the supply of money in circulation, which tends to lower inflation and moderate economic activity — a/k/a cool off the economy.”

Because so many other rates in the economy are tied to the funds rate, any increase by the Fed has a direct effect on the interest consumers pay when they carry a credit card balance or take out a loan, and on yields for savings accounts and certificates of deposit, Nerdwallet notes.

“In general, the Fed reduces rates to try to stimulate the economy and raises rates to try to head off inflation,” the site explains, using a mechanism that causes rates on savings accounts, mortgages, and credit cards to rise. “Interest rates have been low for so long that many consumers — Millennials and Gen Z, particularly — haven’t really known a time when borrowing wasn’t cheap and savings vehicles didn’t pay next to nothing.”

Sullivan agreed. “Obviously, they’re paying a little more than they were paying a year or two ago. But by historical standards, when you look at mortgage rates — which have been 6%, 8%, even 20% — it’s not as unbearable.

“Everyone wanted to lock it in when a 30-year mortgage was 2.75%, which was the low point — kind of like saying they wish they’d bought Apple stock early on; everyone wants to time it perfectly,” he went on. “But in the broader context, these are still really low rates compared to what consumers have seen. It shouldn’t slow down the economy tremendously.”

 

 

Gimme Shelter

Mortgages will certainly become more expensive following the Fed’s move — at least, the interest costs. Forbes noted that a $300,000, 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage would add about $185,000 in interest charges with a 3.5% rate, but would add $247,000 — almost double the amount of the original loan — with a 4.5% rate.

“In response to this increase, the family in this example might delay purchasing a home, or opt for one that requires a smaller mortgage, to minimize the size of their monthly payment,” the publication notes.

But NPR notes that rising rates could stop the “runaway train” of higher home prices, which rose nearly 20% in the U.S. last year, on average. With a historic shortage of homes for sale and very low interest rates, bidding wars regularly broke out and drove prices ever higher. Meanwhile, soaring selling prices pulled in more buyers who didn’t want to miss out, which further overheated the market.

Jeff Sullivan

Jeff Sullivan says many in the banking world feel the Fed’s rate increase is long overdue.

“Higher mortgage rates may be helpful in cooling the housing market,” Selma Hepp, an economist with CoreLogic, told NPR. “That may help bring us back more to some level of normality, and in that case we won’t see so much bidding over the asking price.”

Prices aren’t likely to fall right away, Hepp said, but they might rise much less this year, say 3%, and a few years like that could give contractors time to catch up with demand and build more homes.

Canina notes, however, that low inventory is still the main factor driving home prices in Western Mass. So with interest rates increasing, “that’s kind of a double whammy, for lack of a better term.”

Sullivan agreed. “Lack of inventory keeps prices high, no matter what the rates are.”

Ninety percent of homeowners have fixed-rate mortgages, protecting them against rising rates. But most home-equity lines of credit — funds borrowed against the home — have variable rates, which will now go up. Forbes noted that some banks will let borrowers take the money they owe on their line of credit and lock that into a fixed interest rate.

On the other side of the coin, retail banking customers may expect interest rates on savings to rise now as well, but that may happen more slowly.

“These historically low rates on savings products won’t jump higher overnight, but a higher federal funds rate can stimulate competition among banks and credit unions, and consumers may benefit from that,” Nerdwallet notes. “It may be worth looking for a savings account with better rates if your financial institution is slow to respond to a Fed rate increase.”

“If they continue to increase interest rates six or seven times before the end of this year, it’s going to be interesting to see what kind of impact that has on the markets and consumers particularly.”

Canina explained that, from a consumer standpoint, banks have been living with historically low rates, and their margins have been squeezed at the same time the federal government has been putting out trillions in stimulus into the economy. As a result, bank balance sheets have significantly expanded with deposits.

“Banks have so much liquidity on their balance sheets, and if loans slow down, even with rates rising, banks will probably be reluctant to raise [savings] rates,” he noted. “We’ve managed to maintain deposit rates at a higher level than our competitors, and we’ll continue to monitor it to make sure we stay in terms of where we are relative to our competition, but banks are likely not raising rates any time in the near-term future.”

Brian Canina

Even if the Fed decides on multiple hikes this year, Brian Canina says, consumers should realize that interest rates are still low from a historical perspective.

The expectation from consumers is that, once the Fed raises rates, savings interest rates will follow shortly after, Canina added. “In the current environment, that’s very likely not to be the case this time around.”

 

Uncertain Times

Canina noted that the Fed employed a similar rate policy in the wake of the Great Recession, but “this is a little different situation, so coming out of it, I think it will be a little different in terms of how it plays out.”

Specifically, the key factors in the financial crisis of the late oughts were credit and housing issues. “In this one, you have the supply chain. You also have the Great Resignation, and the labor market was heavily impacted. The supply chain has not corrected itself, and we do have some labor-market matters to deal with. If they continue to increase interest rates six or seven times before the end of this year, it’s going to be interesting to see what kind of impact that has on the markets and consumers particularly.”

Canina added that commercial lending at PeoplesBank slowed slightly in 2020 and 2021, and 2022 is expected to be stronger.

“But the rising interest-rate environment has not impacted the commercial side just yet,” he explained. “Commercial rates are based more on competition than the markets. Mortgage pricing is really designated by the government agencies, Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. So that’s kind of a set market, and mortgage companies price off that.

“When pricing commercial mortgages,” he continued, “you’re pricing to competition, and they’re usually a little slower to react, so right now, we’re seeing lower rates for commercial than residential mortgages, which is a total anomaly, something we don’t see in a normalized interest-rate environment. In the next six to nine months or so, that should straighten itself out. We’re seeing some unusual trends right now.”

Sullivan said gas prices are a larger factor for people right now than interest rates. “They’re staring at gas prices that average $4 a gallon and could be going to $5 a gallon. That’s more of a psychological factor for the average person.”

It’s certainly not the first economic shock of recent years.

“The pandemic definitely shocked the system, creating disruption in the supply chain,” Sullivan said. “That certainly includes building materials, which is one reason why real-estate prices aren’t coming down. And those material costs, the people I talk to say it’ll be another year or two before that starts to correct itself. So that will keep the inflation rate high.

“The Federal Reserve has some tools, but they’re limited tools,” he added. “We’re in such a unique situation with the supply chain being so screwed up. It’ll take awhile.”

As for the other factor weighing on the economy — a persistent worker shortage — “wages are going up, and pressure on wages is going up. Is that bad or good? That depends on what lens you’re looking through. It’s tougher for employers who have to pay that.”

Taking the big picture on what’s happening in the economy, Nerdwallet said the Fed’s recent move — and those to come — aren’t necessarily a bad thing.

“Reducing debt, especially when you’re paying a variable interest rate, will help you in a rising-rate environment. So will increasing your savings and staying focused on your long-term investing strategy, in spite of day-to-day fluctuations in the stock market,” the site notes. “If you manage your money carefully and the economy stays strong, rising rates could be a good thing for your wallet.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Nonprofit Management Special Coverage

Growth Is on the Menu

 

A rendering of the future Chicopee home of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, set to open in 2023.

A rendering of the future Chicopee home of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, set to open in 2023.

While it manages an impressive flow of food from numerous sources to the people who need it most, in recent years, the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts has been doing that job in a space that’s not sufficient for the work. That will change with the opening, in 2023, of a new headquarters in Chicopee that will more than double the organization’s space and allow it to serve more people with more food and more nutrition and educations — in effect, expanding the menu of what’s possible at a time when the need is great.

 

The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts was launched in a Hadley barn 40 years ago. Four years later, it relocated to its current facility in Hatfield.

Today, as one of four regional food banks in Massachusetts, the organization provides food to 172 food pantries, meal sites, and shelters in Berkshire, Franklin, Hampden, and Hampshire counties. Its food sources include the state and federal government, local farms — including two of its own  — retail and wholesale food businesses, community organizations, and individual donations.

The organization also provides other forms of food assistance, such as nutrition workshops, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) enrollment assistance, and education, public-policy advocacy, and engagement around issues of food insecurity.

That’s a lot of food and a lot of people being served, and not enough space to do it all. In fact, the Food Bank has had to turn away about a million pounds of food donations over the past three years, said Andrew Morehouse, its executive director.

The need for a new facility is nothing new, but the reality of one is finally on the near horizon, with a $19 million, 63,000-square-foot facility breaking ground in Chicopee next month and set to open next year, more than doubling the organization’s current 30,000 square feet of space.

Those are gratifying numbers, Morehouse said.

“This is a project we’ve been planning for probably six years, when we realized we were beginning to run out of space here at the facility in Hatfield. So we began the process of figuring out what we needed to do,” he told BusinessWest. “Do we want to expand the facility in Hatfield or purchase or build a second facility in Hampden County? Can we operate two facilities? If we can’t, are we prepared to move to the Springfield area?”

About three years ago, the Food Bank decided to move to Hampden County, for multiple reasons. “One is because it’s right at the crossroads of two major interstates, which facilitates loads of food to and from the Food Bank. We distribute large amounts of food, tens of thousands of pounds of food every day — over a million pounds every month.”

“It’s right at the crossroads of two major interstates, which facilitates loads of food to and from the Food Bank. We distribute large amounts of food, tens of thousands of pounds of food every day — over a million pounds every month.”

In addition, Hampden County boasts the region’s largest concentration of people facing food insecurity. “For that reason as well, we said, ‘we really need to be in Hampden County,’” Morehouse explained. “We’ve been an upper Pioneer Valley organization, even though we serve all four counties, and this affords us the opportunity to raise our visibility in Hampden County.”

More than two years ago, the Food Bank honed in on a building for sale on Carando Drive in Springfield and made an offer to purchase, but backed out after the inspection stage. “So we went back to the drawing board,” he said, and that process eventually brought the nonprofit to a parcel of land at the Chicopee River Business Park owned by Westmass Area Development Corp.

Andrew Morehouse (center) with Big Y CEO Charlie D’Amour (left) and Dennis Duquette, MassMutual Foundation president

Andrew Morehouse (center) with Big Y CEO Charlie D’Amour (left) and Dennis Duquette, MassMutual Foundation president, when they announced pledges of $1.5 million each to the Food Bank’s capital campaign last year.

The space is plentiful — 16.5 acres, 9.5 of which are buildable, the rest protected as wetlands and greenspace. The Dennis Group had begun designing a building well before the land purchase (Thomas Douglas Architects also had a hand in the design), and C.E. Floyd, based in Bedford, will do the construction, with groundbreaking, as noted, likely to happen next month and the new facility expected to open in March or April 2023, with move-in complete by that summer.

“It’s twice the size of our current facility, which gives us the capacity to receive, store, and distribute more healthy food to more people for decades to come,” Morehouse said.

 

Special Deliveries

The Food Bank’s reach is impressive, serving as a clearinghouse of emergency food for all four counties of Western Mass., most distributed to local food pantries, meal sites, and shelters.

“It’s important to note that more than 50% of the food we distribute is perishable foods, like vegetables and frozen meats,” Morehouse noted. “And a lot of the non-perishable food is very healthy grains, pastas, beans, and nutritious canned food items, low in salt and sugar, for people who don’t have time to cook.”

Much of the food the organization collects is purchased, using state and federal funds, from wholesalers, local supermarkets, and three dozen local farms, from which the Food Bank purchased more than a half-million pounds of vegetables last year using state funds; farmers also donate another half-million pounds each year.

“It’s important to note that more than 50% of the food we distribute is perishable foods, like vegetables and frozen meats. And a lot of the non-perishable food is very healthy grains, pastas, beans, and nutritious canned food items, low in salt and sugar, for people who don’t have time to cook.”

“We’ve also increased our own capacity to distribute food directly,” Morehouse said. “Since the late ’80s, we’ve been providing food to seniors in 51 senior centers across all four counties, and we continue to do that. Every month, we send a truck and provide bags of groceries to 6,500 elders — about 16 food items to supplement elders who lived on fixed incomes. And in the last six or seven years, we initiated a mobile food bank where we send a truck once or twice a month to 26 sites in the four counties — 10 in Hampden County — and provide fresh vegetables and other food items to individuals who live in food deserts, neighborhoods that don’t have grocery stores where they can buy healthy food.”

Andrew Morehouse

Andrew Morehouse says moving food — tens of thousands of pounds of it a day — in and out of the Food Bank’s headquarters will be much more efficient in the new facility.

The federal government responded well to suddenly increased food-insecurity needs in the first year of the pandemic, Morehouse noted, but by late 2021, many of those expanded safety-net programs were sunsetting, at the same time inflation was sending food prices soaring. “We believe that will lead to another spike in demand for emergency food.”

He intends for the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts to meet that demand locally.

“This brand-new building is designed to maximize the efficiency of the flow of inventory. Over the last 30 years at our current facility, we’ve been expanding in a very small footprint in any way we can; this new property allows us to maximize efficiency and store more food and move food in and out more quickly and have more bays to receive food and distribute it quickly.”

And because combating hunger requires multiple lines of attack, Morehouse plans to use the additional space for expanded nutrition education programs as well, including a large demonstration kitchen. He also plans to hire more staff.

“We have partnerships with local hospitals and community health centers to address people with food insecurity. We’ll have more staff to help people apply for SNAP benefits and have more community space to accommodate workshops and community events.”

One of the project funding sources, a MassWorks grant to the city of Chicopee for site development, requires the building to have a physical public benefit, Morehouse noted. “So we’ve entered into an easement agreement with the city where our parking lot and community room are available as emergency shelter in the event of a natural disaster.”

Speaking of funding, while the project budget is $19 million, the capital campaign aimed to raise $26.3 million, which includes financing, furniture, fixtures, equipment, legal costs, accounting, and fundraising. Of that, more than $25 million has already been pledged. Large earmarks included $5 million in federal American Rescue Plan Act funds and $1.6 million from Chicopee’s coffers.

“Mayor [John] Vieau has repeatedly said how proud he is that the city of Chicopee will become the hub for food insecurity for the four counties of Western Massachusetts,” Morehouse said.

Other sources of funding include a New Market Tax Credit investment program, which will raise $4.2 million from investors, as well as support from individuals foundations, and businesses, he explained. “Lastly, the Food Bank will invest the proceeds from the same of our current building to the campaign.”

When MassDevelopment issued a $9.5 million tax-exempt bond for the project earlier this month, MassDevelopment President and CEO Dan Rivera noted that “more residents of Western Massachusetts will soon be able to access nutritious food and supportive services with the construction of this bigger, modern Food Bank. MassDevelopment is proud to deliver tax-exempt financing to help the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts fulfill its mission of addressing food insecurity and empowering people to live healthy lives.”

“This is a great project to be a part of,” added Matthew Krokov, first vice president of Commercial Banking at PeoplesBank, which purchased the bond. “The Food Bank plays a vital role in alleviating food insecurities in our region, and this investment in the Food Bank’s future home will help provide better access for individuals in our community.”

 

Food for Thought

The project, like any large construction project these days, has run into supply-chain obstacles that have caused delay and boosted costs, but Morehouse and other stakeholders finally see it coming into focus — and not a moment too soon for an organization that provided 11.6 million meals in 2021, reaching an average of 103,000 individuals per month.

“We are excited the Food Bank of Western Mass. has chosen the Chicopee River Business Park to relocate their operations and headquarters,” Vieau said. “I can think of no better place in terms of access, efficiency, and accessibility than right here in Chicopee, at the crossroads of New England.” u

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Franklin County

Getting Reconnected

Jeremy Goldsher (left) and Jeff Sauser

Jeremy Goldsher (left) and Jeff Sauser say the Business Breakdown is just one of many new ways Greenspace CoWork is forging connections within the business community.

 

While the past two years haven’t exactly been kind to co-working spaces, Jeff Sauser said, the long-term view is much rosier.

“COVID has really accelerated the trend toward remote work,” he explained, noting that the business world was already taking steps in that direction, but at a much more gradual pace. “One silver lining from COVID is that co-working spaces and other shared spaces are seeing a golden age moving forward.”

Jeremy Goldsher, who opened Greenspace CoWork with Sauser in downtown Greenfield several years ago, agreed. “We’ve managed to keep everything afloat during the last few years. Its definitely been a challenge, but Jeff and I have both developed a lot of creative avenues through the co-work model that we might never have considered.”

Specifically, the pair wanted to do more to connect the Greenfield business community, and one way is through a new monthly series of networking events called Business Breakdown.

The idea came out of internal conversations about how to bring people back together and give them a chance to reconnect, Goldsher said.

“I know I’ve spent the better part of two years isolated, and I was excited to find a good reason to be in person with my peers and understanding all the challenges everyone else is going through.”

In addition, he noted, “a lot of new businesses have opened up during COVID, and there hasn’t been much opportunity for anyone to present themselves. We wanted to give a platform for new businesses to come down Main Street and meet fellow business owners and market themselves and speak to the community.”

“Our model is to be more of a resource to our community, rather than just our membership.”

Each Business Breakdown session, which takes place at Greenspace, on the third floor of the Hawks & Reed building on Main Street, begins with an informal presentation from a new local business. The sessions also explore topics like transparency, resource sharing, and recovery in a disruptive climate; the challenges business people face both professionally and personally amid the pandemic; and inventive ways they can overcome those challenges.

The sessions meet the first Wednesday of every month. The April 6 event will take place from 5:30 to 7:30 p.m.

“Our model is to be more of a resource to our community, rather than just our membership,” Goldsher said. “It’s something we’ve thought about a lot over the past couple years, as the world changed.”

With Greenspace membership back to pre-pandemic levels, Sauser said, “events like these are symbolic for us — people are opening their doors back up, and we’re seeing a lot of good interactions from the business community. They’re anxious to get back together. It’s been tough psychologically for business owners.”

The guest speakers for the inaugural Business Breakdown last month were the head brewer and taproom manager at Four Phantoms Brewery. “They spoke at length about how local flora and fauna have really influenced their ingredients, and how they use local artists for their cans,” Goldsher noted. “It was spectacular.”

Future sessions will collaborate with Cocina Lupida, a restaurant on the first floor of the Hawks & Reed building, which houses Greenspace CoWork. That includes April’s session, which will feature the partners from Madhouse Multi-Arts, which offers collaborative, accessible art spaces on Main Street and helps aspiring artists and musicians access resources and skills they need to reach their creative and professional goals.

“We’re very excited to have them. It’s a new business started by two young Hampshire College grads. They’re very much in the vein of our co-work space, but focused more on the arts,” Goldsher said. “We’ve watched as they took a historical building on Main Street that had been dormant for many years and brought it back to life.”

He added that the event series is “definitely evolving,” and that participation and feedback will help determine what future events will look like. But for now, he and Sauser are encouraged — and excited to hear what Madhouse brings to the table.

“How do you take arts and crafts and turn it into a business? How do you make a living doing those things? We have so many creative people around here — how do you take art and turn it into your livelihood?” Sauser asked. “We want to get a good variety of different business perspectives, not all of which are bricks-and-mortar companies.”

“It’s amazing to shift the process away from being a tradititional co-working operator to take a more in-depth approach to supporting local businesses and business leaders.”

Greenspace is also working with Greenfield Community College and the Franklin County Community Development Corp. on a pilot series they hope to launch this spring, Sauser said, a handful of workshops on topics like how to start a business, how to write a business plan, getting financials in order, obtaining a bank loan, and more.

“We’re not reinventing resources that don’t exist, but providing an additional outlet to do them,” he explained. “We’ll gather data while we’re doing it and, moving forward, may evolve that into something more substantive and cohort-based, with classes you can go through, a program like LaunchSpace in Orange. We’re looking at opportunities to grow something similar here. We’re thinking about Franklin County holistically.”

And the region’s business owners could benefit from that kind of collaborative approach to growth, Goldsher added.

“A lot of people are just not communicating openly with each other — it’s almost like people forgot how to be honest, and they’re a little bit unsure about how much they’re willing to discuss about their trials and tribulations. But it’s amazing to shift the process away from being a tradititional co-working operator to take a more in-depth approach to supporting local businesses and business leaders.”

Sauser agreed. “This was something we always wanted to do, and if not for COVID, it might look a little different. I’m excited — it feels like we’re emerging from this situation and responding to what the community needs. We want to have an impact on Greenfield’s revitalization, so we’re looking at it through that lens. And we believe it can be a model for other communities.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Travel and Tourism

Call of the Wild

Kayakers paddle on the Connecticut River

Kayakers paddle on the Connecticut River with Mount Toby in the background. (Photo by Alexander Terrill)

 

Feeling burned out by a career in health finance, Brian Pearson and his wife went on an adventure, backpacking through South America for seven months.

They liked it so much, they stayed there for well over a decade, settling in Santiago, Chile, where he built a travel company. But when international travel was halted by the pandemic in early 2020, he came home to Massachusetts and launched Adventure East, with the goal of helping locals in Western Mass. access the great outdoors.

“I decided it was a great opportunity to take advantage of all the outdoor interest coming out of the pandemic,” he told BusinessWest. “People wanted more time outdoors when there was nowhere else to go.”

The idea, he said, is that people enjoy being out in nature, but planning an outdoor adventure can be time-consuming and challenging. So Adventure East handles the logistics of outings involving hiking, biking, fishing, kayaking, canoeing, skiing, shoeshoeing, and more — as well as the equipment — so participants can take in the region’s natural beauty without the hassle of figuring out logistics, and be shuttled back to their car to boot.

The model has remained a strong one even with indoor tourism opening back up in late 2020 and through 2021. For one thing, the health benefits of being outdoors became more widely discussed during the pandemic. And more people simply came to realize — and are still realizing — how much the region has to offer in that regard.

“We’re providing access to the outdoors, providing information about where to go, guides that are knowledgable … they’re very experienced people, passionate about what they do. We have experts in a lot of different areas.”

While its activities take place throughout the region’s forests, mountains, and waterways, Adventure East’s headquarters is in Sunderland, across Route 116 from the Connecticut River boat ramps there.

“That nine-mile stretch from Turners Falls to Sunderland is really wonderful; there are farms and residential homes along the river, but the state has done a fantastic job over the years building the Connecticut River Greenway,” Pearson said, noting that paddlers are always impressed by the sights of Mount Toby and Mount Sugarloaf, and of bald eagles flying about.

The company has been expanding its activities in the corporate and education sectors as well, he said, with clients including Baystate Health, Amherst College, UMass Amherst, the Bement School, and Hartsbrook School.

“We’re already working with large companies like Baystate and UMass, getting their employees outdoors. I wouldn’t call them full-blown corporate retreats, but more having people enjoy a walk or hike and unwind and be in nature, share a meal … we do farm-to-table activities in connection with local farms in Sunderland, Whately, and Hatfield.”

On the education side, Adventure East has gotten Sunderland grade-schoolers outdoors during winter vacation, and brought kids from Mohawk Trail Regional School canoeing on Ashfield Lake when it’s warmer, he added.

“At the colleges, we’ve gotten more outdoor programs onto their radar, and we’re looking to do more outdoors with students, showing them what they have in the Valley. We continue to provide information on the walking trails right out their back door. It’s really fantastic.”

Pearson said the guided hiking tours are geared at a wide range of skill and experience levels, with access to trails on both state and private conservation lands, ranging from trail walks with naturalists to snowshoeing; from bird watching to yoga and ‘forest bathing’ — a form of mindfulness where participants “soak up the energy of the forest and take that with them,” he explained.

“It’s been scientifically shown that 40 minutes in the forest can reduce stress, reduce cortisol levels … there’s a real therapeutic aspect to nature. It’s not complicated. You don’t need us to experience it, but we love to share it and support people getting out there.”

And when people appreciate nature, he added, that leads to greater respect and even conservation efforts, “to preserve the outdoors for future generations to do the same types of activities.”

As tourism begins to open up fully after two pandemic-hampered years, Pearson envisions Adventure East evolving into a destination company that works with other operators like itself and destinations throughout the Northeast.

“It could be up in Maine or the White Mountains or Vermont, really connecting these types of experiences into multi-day itineraries, which is exactly what I was doing in South America,” he noted. “There is a segment of the population that really appreciates the exact type of service we offer and enjoy not having to deal with details. We want to connect with people and provide a personalized experience.”

It’s work Pearson finds gratifying.

“When I was in Chile, many local Chileans would call me up: ‘we’re going to such and such a place this weekend; what does Brian recommend?’ It was an honor to help Chileans appreciate their own country.”

The Pioneer Valley is a lot like that too, he said, filled with outdoor opportunities to explore that many locals really don’t know about.

“It’s about being out there, experiencing it, having a real appreciation,” he said. “I enjoy doing that, whether it’s teaching kids to ski for the first time or showing people magical spots in the woods, 10 minutes from Route 116. There’s so much in our valley.”

 

— Joseph Bednar

Tourism & Hospitality

Staging Ground

Actors in last year’s production of King Lear, starring Christopher Lloyd (center), rehearse in costume on The New Spruce Theatre stage.

 

“Sigh no more, ladies, sigh no more / Men were deceivers ever / One foot in sea, and one on shore / To one thing constant never.”

That’s a line from William Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Three words in particular — ‘Sigh no more’ — have been adopted by Shakespeare & Company as its theme for 2022, and for good reason.

“We’ve chosen to signify we’re walking out of hard times, but they’re not far behind us,” said Jaclyn Stevenson, director of Marketing & Communications at the Lenox-based theater organization. “‘One foot at sea and another on shore’ — we’re moving on to greater things, but we’re not out of the woods yet.”

Cultural destinations across Western Mass. and the U.S. can certainly relate to that sentiment, navigating plenty of woods as COVID-19 shut down almost all live performances in 2020 and continued to hamper the craft in 2021. But Shakespeare & Company has one foot firmly planted on the shore of a post-pandemic world, and hoping it stays there.

“It’s been very challenging,” Stevenson told BusinessWest. “We went from having no performances at all to having outdoor performances last year — and it was a great benefit to have that option. Then, as things started to reopen, there’s that constant challenge of monitoring what the COVID-19 protocols for the public are, and on top of that, the protocols for actors are often different, so we’re looking at the safety of the patrons as well as the safety of our actors.”

Part of that process was creating a second outdoor space, the 500-seat New Spruce Theater, an amphitheater that went up in only 90 days last summer.

As the company’s two indoor venues reopened as well, changes ranged from an entirely new HVAC system, ensuring the best air quality, to ‘safety seating,’ which puts empty seats between each party. That means less tickets sold, but safety was paramount, Stevenson noted.

“This summer, we’re going to have performances on four stages, two outdoor and two indoor. Some people like the air-conditioned performance experience, and some people like to be outside. But the summer season will continue to be challenging because things are ever-changing.”

The two Shakespeare productions planned for 2022 include Much Ado About Nothing — “a lot of companies are doing it this year because it’s so celebratory; everyone’s happy to be back,” Stevenson said — and Measure for Measure, which involves “war and a madman and depression, so it’s very timely.”

This year marks Shakespeare & Company’s 45th season of performances, actor training, and education, Stevenson said, and while the shows are well-known, not as many people are aware of the other two pillars.

The actor training takes several forms: month-long intensive programs, weekend intensive programs, and a Summer Shakespeare Intensive modeled after the month-long program, which provides young actors — undergraduate theater students, recent graduates, and early-career acting professionals — the opportunity to immerse themselves in Shakespeare six days a week for four weeks during the summer performance season.

In addition, the Center for Actor Training offers a variety of specialized workshops throughout the year, exploring a full range of disciplines, including rhetoric, wit, clown, fight, voice, movement, public speaking, and more. The Center for Actor Training now offers many of its workshops and classes online, providing the opportunity for theater professionals around the world to study with its faculty.

The education side of the ledger is highlighted by the annual Fall Festival of Shakespeare, which brings more than 500 students from 10 high schools together each year for a nine-week, collaborative, non-competitive, celebratory exploration and production of multiple Shakespeare plays. “Our faculty members are working, professional actors,” Stevenson noted.

The program — which culminates in full-scale productions at their own schools and then on the main stage at Shakespeare & Company’s Tina Packer Playhouse — is the subject of Speak What We Feel, a 2021 documentary by Patrick J. Toole that won the Audience Award for Best Documentary Film at the 2021 Berkshire International Film Festival.

“The Fall Festival has persevered and continues to grow,” Stevenson said, though it was much scaled back in 2021. “Hopefully, this fall, we can go back to a typical setup.”

While Shakespeare’s plays are the heart of the organization’s mission, Stevenson was quick to point out that visitors can take in plenty of contemporary plays as well throughout the year, as well as comedy and other events.

Meanwhile, she noted, the campus itself is a recreational — or at least relaxing — spot. “We have a 33-acre campus and walkable, accessible grounds that include a full array of modern sculpture peppered in with buildings of many eras. It’s a beautiful campus — you can come here, park your car, walk around, and have a picnic.”

It’s all located in the heart of Lenox, which is why the company has collaborated with local restaurants, which have created Shakespeare-inspired cocktails and desserts.

“The idea is, you can order an ice-cream cone and be reminded that, right down the street, we’re offering productions during the day and evenings in a full array of modern and contemporary titles.”

Bridging the gap between classic and modern — that’s Shakespeare & Company, which hopes 2022 is the year it finally steps out from the sea of a pandemic and moves confidently up the shore, sighing no more.

 

— Joseph Bednar

Environment and Engineering

Elevating an Industry

Ashley Sullivan

Ashley Sullivan says OTO’s workload is higher today than it was pre-pandemic.

When she was named president of O’Reilly, Talbot & Okun at the start of 2020 after two decades at the engineering firm, Ashley Sullivan knew she was in for a time of transition.

What she didn’t know was … so was every other business, thanks to a pandemic that shut down much of the economy for a time, and continues to reverberate today.

“You had to adapt; everyone did,” Sullivan told BusinessWest. “So I do think it was something that helped us work through so many things and put another name to the transition. There was an external reason for us to look at everything: what are we doing? Are we shutting down the office or not? What’s our COVID policy? How are we going to work remotely? And our services for some projects were deemed essential. That’s good, but how do we keep our people safe?

“In a way, I think that gave us time and a reason to move through our own transition and the change of leadership,” she went on. “We looked through our business practices, looked at our services, reconnected with clients … we had time to think of our culture and our brand and do some marketing, which we knew was going to be important. And how were we going to get to the other side of this? It was quite the ride.”

At the same time, “it was almost easier, in a way, to ask for help during that time because nobody knew what they were doing,” Sullivan added. And what she was hearing was, “‘hey, you need to keep marketing, you need to reach out to your clients … don’t stop those things right now because, when you get to the other side, you’re going to have to make sure all those investments into your company were happening, investments in your people.’”

Investing in people, and growing the team, is something Sullivan wanted to emphasize from the beginning, aiming to create a company where people would want to work, she said, listing her core values as respect, togetherness — “we found that people did want to work together; they do like to collaborate, network, and be on design teams” — and transparency. “We want to keep communication open and make people feel like they’re part of something bigger than any one individual.”

“It’s not about competition with the person next door, it is about elevating the whole industry. We believe in the services we provide. We believe in what we do.”

All that, she said, is in the service of elevating the industry, as the mission statement posted in the conference room attests: “We will elevate our industry to create and deliver the best solutions for natural and built environments.”

As she explained, “it’s not about competition with the person next door, it is about elevating the whole industry. We believe in the services we provide. We believe in what we do. I really enjoy working with other consultants. We’ve been able to do some master service agreements with other consultants where, if they don’t have capacity to do a job, we will help them, or vice versa. That came out of the pandemic, people helping each other. We saw a lot of helping.”

And to elevate an industry, Sullivan believes she must first elevate her people. “I’m so proud of this team and what they’ve done; they put some trust in me, and so many people have stepped up, and they did a lot of professional development. Now I’m seeing people I mentored who are mentoring the new people coming in.”

Ashley Sullivan performs a phase-1 dam inspection.

Ashley Sullivan performs a phase-1 dam inspection.

That workforce-development philosophy carries over to her role instructing the civil engineering capstone design course at Western New England University. There, she guides graduating students through a mock building project, and many of her peers join her in presenting practical technical knowledge, writing skills, and soft-skills training.

“I love that,” she said. “I feel like our industry should do a better job with mentoring, with creating the next generation of people to work. Again, it goes back to elevating the industry: are we doing all we can to show that we’re good at what we do?”

 

From the Ground Up

Before O’Reilly, Talbot & Okun’s three founders launched the firm in 1994, they were working together at an environmental-services firm in Connecticut. The Bay State had just developed the Massachusetts Contingency Plan, a law that tells people how to go about cleaning up spills of hazardous materials. As that program rolled out, the three saw an emerging need for people with their skills. So they started a company.

Over the years, OTO’s services have included testing commercial properties for hazardous materials and overseeing cleanup, asbestos management in schools and offices, brownfield redevelopment, indoor air-quality assessments, and geotechnical engineering, which may involve helping developers assess how much force and weight the ground under a proposed structure can stand, or determining the strength of an existing building’s foundation and surrounding topography.

“I feel like our industry should do a better job with mentoring, with creating the next generation of people to work.”

OTO’s early-pandemic experience — also Sullivan’s trial by fire in the president’s chair — mirrored that of many in the construction and engineering world.

“There was a time initially where we all went remote and some projects definitely stopped. Construction already in place before the pandemic typically kept going, so we had that work. Any new projects tended to slow down and stop.

“Also, in-person meetings, site meetings, that all stopped,” she went on. “So we really had to adapt and ask, ‘OK, how are we going to collaborate, how are we going to communicate?’ Our work definitely did slow down for a little bit, as we figured out how all this was going to work. Then some public jobs started coming back, and it was a real push to keep public work going.”

Most of the firm’s services continued at some level, though anything associated with property transfers stopped for a while. “Now property transfers have started up again; a lot of work has started up again. It went from the slowdown to this crazy pickup of a lot of work.”

As a result, the project load is busier now than it was pre-COVID, Sullivan said, adding that “anything on hold has moved forward.”

OTO’s certification as a Women Business Enterprise has also helped create new relationships and new opportunities. “We’ve been able to meet new clients, new architects, and get on more design teams and be brought into a lot of interesting projects. So we are very busy. There is a lot of work, and we’re actually trying to grow staff-wise, which is very hard to do right now.”

That’s true across the entire industry and, indeed, all sectors. That’s why companies that want to hire need to stand out, and one of the ways they can do that is through culture.

“One of my roles is to create a place where people want to work,” she said, noting that OTO has made three technical hires over the past two years. “I’m always on the lookout. It’s not easy, particularly with being a small company and competing with some of the bigger firms.

“We have found — and this is exciting for me — a lot of the people that we have hired have been referred to us: ‘go check out OTO; go speak with Ashley. That might be a good fit.’ And I try to do that for other people. When I come across somebody who does a technical service that OTO doesn’t provide, I’ll put them in contact with somebody I work with. But I think what you give off is what you get. You have to have your eyes open to opportunity and be a place where people want to work.”

 

Engineering Change

During the past couple years, OTO has renewed some sectors, such as industrial compliance, where some staff had retired but not been replaced. “But during this time, we looked at some professional development and said, ‘hey, maybe there’s not work in one service sector; what else can we renew?’ And we’ve been able to renew those services.”

Among the firm’s recent notable projects is the geotechnical and hazardous-materials assessment on the project that will replace the dilapidated Civic Center Parking Garage next to the MassMutual Center in Springfield.

“How can I not be enthusiastic for a project I can see out my window?” Sullivan said. “And their vision for it is just amazing for downtown. So that’s super exciting.”

Other local projects include a number of schools in Springfield, West Springfield, Gardner, and other communities, as well as work with Westmass Area Development Corp. on the ongoing Ludlow Mills redevelopment. “We’re a small piece of a lot of projects. Any one of us here probably has 30 projects at any one time.”

Because Massachusetts has done a good job cleaning up its largest contaminated sites, OTO focuses more on site redevelopment, as it’s tougher these days to find untouched land to develop in Massachusetts, Sullivan noted.

“We have to look at environmental implications for jobs. When we get involved early on, we can guide the design team in how to approach these projects and provide value early on.

“What we’ve been able to do more is actually couple our services,” she added. “On a redevelopment project, we’ve been able to offer our hazardous-materials compliance, our Massachusetts regulations compliance, and geotechnical engineering all in one, and we’ve been working a lot more internally cross-sector-wise. That’s sometimes harder to communicate internally than externally, but we’ve really worked on a lot of those skills and working together in teams, and we’re able to provide clients with cross-sector services.”

In short, O’Reilly, Talbot & Okun has emerged from two pandemic-dominated years in strong shape, but it took plenty of persistence and flexibility to get there.

“It’s been hard,” Sullivan said. “But as soon as things get overwhelming or challenging, I look around and see how everybody here has progressed and developed and stepped up and taken ownership. They’re why I’m here — and our clients. We work with so many wonderful and talented people.”

Looking back to those initial months of COVID — again, also her initial months in charge at OTO — she was surprised by the support she received from other local engineering players.

“I had so many people reach out to me from other firms, checking in: ‘how are you doing? Do you need advice?’

“There were so many people willing to help and come together, different leaders from other firms and other organizations,” she went on. “There were times I was blown away by how people really do want to help other people. I made some great relationships with other CEOs that, two years ago, I might never have called.”

In short, Sullivan isn’t the only one trying to elevate an industry, and that’s a good thing.

“A lot of people want other people to succeed,” she said. “That’s something I believe in, and that was really neat to see. It keeps me going.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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