Home Articles posted by Joseph Bednar
Franklin County Special Coverage

All Aboard

The Greenfield Amtrak stop

The Greenfield Amtrak stop will be busier this month with the restoration of Vermonter service and a second Valley Flyer train. Photo courtesy of Trains In The Valley

While a proposed east-west rail line between Pittsfield and Boston has gotten most of the train-related press recently, another proposal, to incorporate passenger rail service on existing freight lines between North Adams and Boston, has gained considerable momentum, with a comprehensive, 18-month study on the issue set to launch. Not only would it return a service that thrived decades ago, proponents say, but expanded rail in the so-called Northern Tier Corridor could prove to be a huge economic boost to Franklin County — and the families who live there.

 

State Sen. Jo Comerford has spoken with plenty of people who remember taking a train from Greenfield to North Station in Boston to catch Bill Russell’s Celtics.

They stepped on at 2:55 p.m. — one of as many as 12 boardings on any given weekday — and the train was already half-full after stops in Troy, N.Y., North Adams, and Shelburne Falls. Then they’d arrive at North Station at 5:15, “and you’d still have time for dinner before the game started,” Comerford said. “That was our reality in Franklin County in the 1950s.”

She shared those words last week at a virtual community meeting to discuss a comprehensive study, soon to get underway, of passenger rail service along the Northern Tier Corridor, a route from North Adams to Boston via Greenfield, Fitchburg, and other stops.

Ben Heckscher would love to see expanded train service in Western Mass.; as the co-creator of the advocacy organization Trains In The Valley, he’s a strong proponent of existing lines like Amtrak’s Vermonter and Valley Flyer, north-south lines that stop in Greenfield, as well as more ambitious proposals for east-west rail, connecting Pittsfield and Boston along the southern half of the state and North Adams and Boston up north.

Like Comerford, he drew on the sports world as he spoke to BusinessWest, noting that travelers at Union Station in Springfield can order up a ticket that takes them, with a couple of transfers, right to the gates of Yankee Stadium in the Bronx. “But there’s no button to push for the Red Sox,” Heckscher said. “It seems funny — we’re in Western Mass., and you can take a train to see the Yankees, but you can’t get to Fenway.”

But sporting events aren’t highest on his list of rail benefits. Those spots are dedicated to the positive environmental impact of keeping cars off the road, mobility for people who don’t own cars or can’t drive, and the overall economic impact of trains on communities and the people who live and work in them.

People want to access rail for all kinds of reasons, Heckscher said, from commuting to work to enjoying leisure time in places like New York, Philadelphia, and Washington without having to deal with navigating an unfamiliar city and paying for parking. Then there are medical appointments — many families living in Western Mass. have to get to Boston hospitals regularly, and don’t want to deal with the Mass Pike or Route 2 to get there.

“People are just really tired of driving Route 2 to Boston, especially at night or in the winter, and they want another way back and forth,” he said. “So they’re going to do a really robust study, and we’ll see what comes of that.”

In addition, as the average age of the population ticks upward, many older people might want to travel but be loath to drive long distances. In fact, that kind of travel is increasingly appealing to all age groups, Heckscher added. “You can ride the train, open your computer, take a nap. You can’t do that operating a car — at least not yet. So, rail definitely has the potential to become even more important.”

State Rep. Natalie Blais agrees. “We know the residents of Central and Western Mass. are hungry for expanded rail service. That is clear,” she said at last week’s virtual meeting. “We are hungry for rail because we know these connections can positively impact our communities with the possibilities for jobs, expansion of tourism, and the real revitalization of local economies.”

Ben Heckscher

Ben Heckscher

“People are just really tired of driving Route 2 to Boston, especially at night or in the winter, and they want another way back and forth.”

Makaela Niles, project manager for the Northern Tier study at the Massachusetts Department of Transportation, said the 18-month study will evaluate the viability and potential benefits of rail service between North Adams, Greenfield, and Boston.

The process will document past efforts, incorporate market analysis (of demographics, land use, and current and future predicted travel needs), explore costs and alternatives, and recommend next steps. Public participation will be critical, through roughly seven public meetings, most of them with a yet-to-be-established working group and a few focused on input from the public. A website will also be created to track the study’s progress.

“We know it’s critical that we have stakeholders buying in,” said Maureen Mullaney, a program manager with the Franklin Regional Council of Governments. “We look forward to having a very robust, inclusive participation process.”

 

Making Connections

Comerford has proposed rail service along Route 2 as a means for people living in the western counties along the corridor to more easily travel to the Greater Boston region, and a means for people living in the Boston area to more easily access destinations in Berkshire, Franklin, and Worcester counties. In addition to direct service along the Northern Tier, the service could provide connecting service via Greenfield to southern New Hampshire and Vermont.

The service would operate over two segments of an existing rail corridor. The first segment, between North Adams and Fitchburg, is owned by Pan Am Southern LLC. The second segment, between Fitchburg and Boston North Station, is owned by the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA). Any new service would be designed so that it does not negatively impact the existing MBTA Fitchburg Line commuter rail service or the existing freight rail service along the entire corridor.

State Sen. Jamie Eldridge asked Niles at last week’s meeting about potential tension between freight and passenger interests and whether commuter times will be thrown off by the needs of freight carriers.

“We’ll be looking at how those two intersect and make sure any additional service that could occur along the corridor doesn’t impact with freight or current commuter operations along the corridor,” Niles responded. “We’ll look at how all the services communicate and work together.”

Other potential study topics range from development of multi-modal connections with local bus routes and other services to an extension of passenger rail service past North Adams into Adams and even as far as Albany, although that would take coordination with officials in New York.

“My hope is that these communities would suddenly become destination spots for a whole new market of people looking to live in Western Massachusetts and work in Boston.”

Comerford first introduced the bill creating the study back in January 2019, and an amendment funding it was included in the state’s 2020 budget, but the COVID-19 pandemic delayed the start of the study until now.

And it’s not a moment too soon, she recently said on the Train Time podcast presented by Barrington Institute, noting that rail service brings benefits ranging from climate effects to economic development to impact on individual families who want to live in Franklin County but work in Boston (see related story on page 39).

With average salaries lower than those available in Boston often making it difficult to settle in Franklin County, availability of rail affects people’s job prospects and quality of life, she noted.

“My hope is that these communities would suddenly become destination spots for a whole new market of people looking to live in Western Massachusetts and work in Boston,” Comerford said, noting that, longer-term, she hopes to see greater business development in Western Mass. due to expanded rail, as businesses that need access to Boston, Hartford, and New York could set up shop here and access those cities without having to deal with traffic.

The bottom line, she said, is that it’s environmentally important to get cars off the road, but there are currently too many gaps in public transportation to make that a reality.

“There was a time when you could work in Boston and live in Franklin County,” she said. “I’ve heard story after story about what life was like up until about the late ’60s. It changed abruptly for them.

“When I was elected, one of the first things I researched was passenger rail along Route 2,” she went on. “I thought, ‘we have to explore starting this again. This is really important.’”

 

Chugging Along

Of course, east-west rail is only part of the story right now in Western Mass. Running north-south between New Haven and Greenfield are Amtrak’s Valley Flyer and Vermonter lines.

On July 26, Amtrak will restore a second train to its daily Valley Flyer service 16 months after cutting a train due to COVID-19. Southbound trains will depart Greenfield at 5:45 a.m. and 7:35 a.m., and northbound trains will return to the station at 10:23 p.m. and 12:38 a.m.

The Vermonter will return to service in Massachusetts on July 19. A long-distance train originating in Washington, D.C., it has gone no further north than New Haven since March 2020, also due to the pandemic. Amtrak is also reopening three other trains which offer service between New Haven and Springfield.

According to Amtrak, ridership on the Valley Flyer fell by more than half at the Holyoke, Northampton, and Greenfield stations in 2020, but the company is optimistic it will return to past numbers. That’s critical, since the Flyer is part of a DOT and Amtrak pilot program, which means its funding depends on its ridership. The Pioneer Valley Planning Commission (PVPC) will launch an advertising campaign this fall in an effort to boost interest in the service.

“The pandemic really tanked ridership — all forms of public transportation, actually,” said Heckscher, noting that most travelers felt much safer in their cars last year than among groups of people. “But since the vaccine came out, there’s been a comeback in ridership in the Valley Flyer service.”

MJ Adams, Greenfield’s director of Community and Economic Development, said the city has been waiting a long time for the Valley Flyer, “and we don’t want to be just a pilot.”

She feels the city, and the region, will benefit from a perception that people can get anywhere from the Greenfield area, and they may be more willing to move there while continuing to work in the city. Many of those are people who grew up in Franklin County and have a connection to it but still want to feel like they can easily get to work far away or enjoy a day trip without the hassle of traffic or parking.

There’s an economic-development factor related to tourism as well, Adams said. “People in New York City, Hartford, or New Haven can spend the day up here in the country — it’s not just us going down to New York, but people from New York who get on a train, enjoy a nice stay in rural Massachusetts, have a blast, and get back on the train to go home. It’s a two-way street.”

A recent report commissioned by Connecticut’s Capitol Region Council of Governments (CRCOG), in consultation with the PVPC, reinforced the idea of rail as an economic driver, finding a nearly 10-to-1 return on investments in passenger rail between New Haven and Worcester via the Hartford-Springfield metro area.

“In so many ways, the findings of this study confirm what we have seen with our own eyes for decades here in the Valley — regions connected by rail to the major economic hubs of Boston and New York City are thriving, while underserved communities like ours have lagged behind,” PVPC Executive Director Kimberly Robinson said. “We now know what the lack of rail has cost us economically, and this trend cannot continue further into the 21st century.”

Though she was speaking mainly of proposed routes along the state’s southern corridor, Heckscher believes in the economic benefits — and other benefits — of numerous projects being discussed across Massachusetts, including along Route 2.

“With rail, everyone has the ability to travel long distances,” he said — and the impact, while still uncertain in the details, could prove too promising to ignore.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Franklin County

Small-city Living

Greenfield’s strides in municipal broadband

MJ Adams says Greenfield’s strides in municipal broadband will boost its potential for remote workers.

At a recent briefing about potential east-west passenger rail service through Greenfield, state Sen. Adam Hinds talked about how infrastructure investments — not just in rail, but in broadband access and other realms — feels like a “build it and they will come” moment.

“We’re keenly aware we are in a critical transition, a moment of uncertainty, and it feels like we’re at a time when people are making choices about the potential to live in a region like this, or stay in a region like this, based on infrastructure development,” Hinds said, noting that ridership trends on current north-south rail would likely shift as other types of infrastructure, especially digital, come online.

“Our answer to a major disruption in our society and our Commonwealth is a major investment to make the entire community stronger, that can allow anyone to work anywhere in the world,” he added. “We need to be getting it right as we think about recovering strongly.”

MJ Adams, Greenfield’s director of Community Development, said the city has already made strides in that all-important digital realm — strides that could help position the city as a destination for people who want to keep their jobs in larger cities, but work remotely while living in a place with rural appeal, small-city amenities, and, in their mind, better quality of life.

“We felt that, not just for residents but the business community here, we needed our own municipal broadband. We didn’t realize how important that was until everyone was on Zoom.”

She was speaking of Greenfield Community Energy and Technology (GCET), Greenfield’s municipal broadband provider, which was created several years ago to meet a growing need.

“For people who require better high-speed connection, they can actually do that here now,” Adams said. “When Greenfield started building out its broadband infrastructure, that was prompted by experiences years ago, when companies turned down locating here because the internet was not very strong.

“So the city decided not to wait anymore and made a pretty big investment on the city side, making the decision that we’re not going to wait for a Comcast to come in and provide service; we felt that, not just for residents but the business community here, we needed our own municipal broadband,” she added. “We didn’t realize how important that was until everyone was on Zoom.”

John Lunt, general manager of GCET, agreed. In a Greenfield Recorder article in December, he touted GCET’s response to the pandemic — efforts that included no-charge connections for students attending school remotely — but said the utility’s role goes far beyond that.

Danielle Letourneau calls Greenfield “a small city with big-city amenities.”

Danielle Letourneau calls Greenfield “a small city with big-city amenities.”

“Revenues tend to stay local, and municipal broadband providers have become economic-development assets to their towns,” he wrote. “Reliable service, better pricing and customer service, local development, and control of critical infrastructure — this is what a municipal provider offers.”

Danielle Letourneau, Greenfield Mayor Roxann Wedegartner’s chief of staff, told BusinessWest that the city had the foresight to establish this service well before the pandemic made it more critical. But now, it plays a role in attracting new residents and businesses that are navigating a new world when it comes to how, and where, employees want to work.

“We’ve set ourselves up well,” Letourneau said. “We are a small city with big-city amenities. But we do have a rural feel. We even have several co-working spaces; we’re recognized already for that kind of thing as a way to attract people who want to move here.”

All these amenities open the city up for new arrivals, as well as people who grew up here and want to return and raise their own families here, especially those who can take advantage of new opportunities in remote work.

“Even before COVID hit, we looked at ourselves as being a pretty attractive city,” Adams said, and building out high-speed broadband was one way to build on that. “We were seeing ourselves as well-positioned for people who wanted a small-city feel but still wanted proximity to big cities. And we were planning it before COVID arrived.”

Then the pandemic accelerated the remote-work trend, which dovetailed well with what the city was doing, she went on. “Businesses are trying to understand how to make it work, but employees are also figuring out how it works for them. Here, they have an attractive way of life as they try to work remotely, farther afield from higher-priced communities in New England.”

 

Living Room

Chris Campany, executive director of the Windham Regional Commission in Vermont, told the participants in the passenger-rail meeting that “we’re seeing an odd inversion in Southeast Vermont where people are finding employment here but, because of our extreme housing scarcity, are living in Western Mass. There’s going to be a lag in the data availability, but it’s increasingly feeling like the exurban growth in the I-91 corridor has accelerated.”

He doesn’t know if that emigration will continue, but he also doubts families who have moved to Western Mass. or Southern Vermont for work or other reasons will want to uproot again after the pandemic, so there may be some staying power to these trends.

“We were seeing ourselves as well-positioned for people who wanted a small-city feel but still wanted proximity to big cities. And we were planning it before COVID arrived.”

Indeed, the real-estate market in Western Mass. has been booming, with the latest monthly report from the Realtor Assoc. of Pioneer Valley showing sales volume up 20.7% across Hampden, Hampshire, and Franklin counties from June 2020 to June 2020, and the median price up 20.4%.

But while Franklin County’s median price is up 23%, its sales actually fell by 10%, reflecting, perhaps, the shortage of homes to meet demand, which is, obviously, hiking those prices. In fact, current inventory of homes for sale in Franklin County is down 52.9% from a year ago.

Adams said Greenfield officials recognize the need for more housing, especially market-rate housing in the downtown area, noting that upper-level residential development would create mixed-use vibrancy downtown.

Understand how critical downtown is to the city’s future, municipal officials were getting ready to update the downtown revitalization plan well before the pandemic, identifying what the strengths and challenges were in the corridor, she explained. “We want to develop in a way that’s thoughtful and local and makes sense for the business community.”

Greenfield was also among the Massachusetts communities that received local Rapid Recovery Plan funding. “That helps us identify actionable plans we can put in place fairly quickly to ramp up the business community,” Adams said. “It means taking a look at both the public and private realms and the business mix and who needs to be at the table to make a comprehensive plan to breathe life back into our downtown.”

It’s a downtown, she said, that already offered entertainment in venues like Hawks and Reed Performing Arts Center and had been talking about creating outdoor dining before the pandemic accelerated that process.

“From talking to people, the draw downtown is really experience-based now versus when we were younger, and it was a place to buy goods and services,” Letourneau said. “People come here to eat out, for world-class music venues, arts, great antique shops, stuff you can’t find anywhere else. I think it’s experiential, and it’s a good feel for downtown.”

The question now is, will the city put all those pieces together, plus the draw of well-established municipal broadband, plus possibly expanded passenger rail, and become a destination of choice for an increasingly remote workforce?

“This is our opportunity now,” Adams said. “People are reassessing where they want to be and what they want to work, and they should take a look at Greenfield.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services Special Coverage

Stating Its Case

Tony Liberopoulos

Tony Liberopoulos says Liberty Bank might be new to Western Mass., but its lenders are anything but.

Dave Glidden is no stranger to the Western Mass. banking community, and neither is the lending team he’s assembled to grow Liberty Bank — the Connecticut-based institution he currently serves as president and CEO — within this region. Liberty’s leaders believe those community ties — some of the Western Mass. team’s lenders have worked in this market for three decades — will prove fruitful at a time when customers are looking for experience and stability.

Liberty Bank is the oldest currently operating bank in Connecticut. But Dave Glidden prefers not to think in terms of state lines.

“We’ve been in Connecticut a long time, and very recently we’ve crossed the border into Western Mass.,” said Glidden, the bank’s president and CEO and a familiar figure to the Pioneer Valley’s banking community from his years as regional president at TD Bank.

The reasons for the northward push, he said, seemed obvious.

“When I looked at this opportunity and took the job, one of the things I talked about with the board and my teammates was that, when you think about it, there are so many similarities between Connecticut and the Greater Springfield market, economically and culturally; people work back and forth across the border.

“So, really, if you stop looking at state boundaries for a second, we really lend in that I-91 corridor, New Haven on up through Middletown, through Hartford, and now into Greater Springfield,” he went on. “There are many similarities in industries and types of businesses, and we know a lot of the borrowers, the centers of influence, the CPA firms, the legal firms … and we know many of the businesses.”

“Liberty Bank is new to Western Mass., but our team is not new to Western Mass.”

That’s because Glidden and Liberty’s Western Mass. team — Chief Credit Officer Dan Flynn; lenders Tony Liberopoulos, Jeff Sattler, Rick Rabideau, and Gene Rondeau; and Sue Fearn, who specializes in cash management — have roughly 160 years of combined experience working in banking in Western Mass.

“Liberty Bank is new to Western Mass., but our team is not new to Western Mass.,” Liberopoulos said. “We’ve got one of the most experienced teams in Western Mass., even though we’re the rookie bank in this area.”

With the ability to assemble a team with that depth of experience in the market, Glidden said, expansion into this region — lending activity began last year, and a commercial loan-production office is opening this month in East Longmeadow — just made sense.

“Obviously, this commercial loan production under Tony’s leadership is the first foray over the border,” Glidden said, “and we’re continually evaluating and looking at retail branch sites and how we’ll build out the franchise over the course of the next couple of years in support of the commercial-lending activities that really started about a year or so ago.”

With more than $7 billion in assets but strong ties to its local communities, Glidden said Liberty is the kind of stable institution that appeals to customers in Western Mass., especially at a time when mergers and acquisitions (M&A) continue to shake up the landscape.

“With everything that’s going on in all the banking markets, there’s a lot of disruption with M&A, and it’s projected there will be a lot more M&A industry-wide,” he noted. “So, as a bank with our size and history, and the teams we have, we’re in a unique position where we can kind of out-local national banks and out-national local banks and be that entity in the middle that can deliver services and make decisions in a very local fashion, but has the scale and the size to grow with borrowers, usually past where a lot of the other community banks are restricted due to their size.”

Dave Glidden with a map of Liberty’s locations

Dave Glidden with a map of Liberty’s locations, most of which are concentrated along, or not far from, the I-91 corridor.

While commercial lending is the main focus right now, Glidden said, he sees Liberty eventually expanding its presence to offer that type of appeal to retail customers as well. “When a bank gets acquired, customers often say, ‘my bank’s changing, my banking relationship is changing — maybe now is the time I should have the conversation with someone else.”

It’s a sense that was only supercharged by the pandemic, a time when online retailers thrived and changed people’s expectations about service delivery.

“We have to continue to deliver the right type of distribution system for our customers if we expect to gain market share and capture those who get disrupted due to M&A activity, or whatever other market event might happen,” Glidden told BusinessWest.

“There are great banks in Western Mass., super people, experienced bankers, but there’s going to continue to be disruption — everywhere, not just in Western Mass.,” he went on. “And we think, with our balance sheet and existing franchise and the investments we’ve been making, which have been significant over the past few years, to really up our digital offerings across the board, we’re in a great position to enter a great market that means a lot to the executive leadership here at Liberty Bank.”

 

Lending Support

Since launching activity in Greater Springfield, Liberopoulos and the rest of the lending team have assembled a broad variety of clients. “It’s across the board,” he said. “We’ll do loans up to $50 million for the right client, or even higher than that. We’re primarily looking at small to medium-sized businesses. We’ll look at investment real-estate deals, and we’ll look at any privately held business, if it’s the right size for us.”

Like the Greater Hartford market in which Liberty has recently expanded its presence, Glidden doesn’t see loans in a vacuum, but rather takes a big-picture look at how each loan-funded project or expansion impacts economic development in an entire region.

“It’s important, when you’re a community bank and you go into a market, that you have a strategy to align with and understand what’s going on in those markets. Who are the key economic-development companies, the drivers? Who are the key not-for-profits that we can align ourselves with and support? Because when we invest in the communities we do business in, it’s not only the right thing to do, it’s smart business.”

As it eyes growth across its footprint, including expansion of retail, investment, and other services in Western Mass., Liberty is making another kind of investment, Glidden said: in its digital channels.

“Banking customers’ habits are changing rapidly. They were changing rapidly before the pandemic,” he said. “But, obviously, the pandemic forced people to adopt online channels that, before, they wouldn’t have felt comfortable with, or didn’t think they needed — but it became a need during the pandemic.”

Part of the bank’s strategy for this region includes what shape the physical footprint will take to support the services Liberty wants to provide, he noted — but that strategy must roll out in tandem with the digital one.

Tony Liberopoulos (left) and Dave Glidden

Tony Liberopoulos (left) and Dave Glidden say there’s a space in Western Mass. for a bank of Liberty’s size and local focus.

“Branches are changing, and customers’ habits are changing — they’re using them less, but that doesn’t mean they’re not still important,” Glidden said, noting that part of what he called his “aspirational three-year plan” has involved bolstering digital assets, so customers can choose how to interact with the bank.

“It’s not up to us to choose how customers do business with us. It’s for them to choose, and it’s incumbent on us to make sure we have all those channels there. Branches are one of them, as are online, digital, and live chat.”

As he noted earlier, Amazon and other online entities, particularly during the pandemic, have altered people’s expectations when it comes to retail, and banks are, indeed, a retail business — so a bank’s digital channels need to live up to those heightened expectations.

The pandemic impacted Liberty’s Western Mass. plans in another way, Liberopoulos said: by giving it an opportunity to stay aggressive when not every bank did.

“It was an interesting time. We came to work every day, took our precautions, properly distanced, wore our masks,” he said, noting that clients still wanted to meet, some in person, some by phone or Zoom, whatever made them most comfortable. And those meetings were often productive.

“We were firm believers that COVID was going to end, so we’d look at their financial performance prior to COVID,” Liberopoulos said. “We knew 2020 and 2021 were going to be difficult, but if they were strong in ’17, ’18, and ’19 — and if their interim results look good in ’21 now that we’re getting past vaccinations — we were very eager to win that business.

“When some other banks were uncomfortable lending because of the numbers they saw for 2020, we were not,” he went on. “We understood it’s about the owners of the business, the history of the business, and we were all convinced, here at Liberty Bank, that we could see the light at the end of the tunnel and we would find the right clients to work with.”

Glidden said he was “never prouder to be a banker” than he was in 2020.

“I never want to go through it again, of course, but what the banking industry did with the Paycheck Protection Program and the SBA lending as part of the CARES Act, that was a huge challenge for the banking industry.”

He praised not only his own team, but his colleagues at other banks for working non-stop in those chaotic early days of PPP last spring, and kept working to get customers the help they needed.

“I could see it was a very unique, maybe the most unique, time in my career,” he said. “I really felt an obligation as a banker, that we’re the only way this money is getting out there in this once-in-a-lifetime — knock on wood — pandemic.”

 

Community Ties

Getting back to the consolidation landscape, Liberopoulos said acquisitions can often distance a bank’s philanthropic arm from the communities in which is does business, but Liberty continues to be focused on those activities.

“The bank is very sensitive to the fact that we’re seeing consolidations, so we’re seeing less money being given to non-for-profits in the community, and one of our chief slogans now is ‘be community kind.’ We want to give back to the community where we work, where we lend, and where we live. And we’ve done that already,” he said, citing donations to Ronald McDonald House, and the Boys & Girls Club as recent examples.

“It’s certainly been part of Liberty Bank’s DNA and corporate culture,” Glidden agreed, noting that the bank’s foundation, which he also serves as president and CEO, gives away around $1.5 million per year, and the bank itself contributes in the seven-figure range as well.

“And our commitments are growing,” he added. “As a community bank, you have a responsibility and obligation to give back; all of us truly believe that. That’s why we’re here. We walk the talk. We give back to our communities. It’s what community banks should do. We’re mutual, we’re private, we’re owned by our customers, so you have to give back to those communities.”

Which is even more important in an era of M&A activity.

“I just think, given the disruption and consolidation in the market, that we’re a bank that’s still local and makes decisions locally. We give back to our communities; we put our money where our mouth is.”

As one of the largest PPP lenders in Connecticut, Liberty also felt a responsibility to support community members who weren’t customers, which is why it serviced PPP loans for such individuals. In some cases, that opened the door to a new relationship opportunity.

In the end, Liberty grew during the pandemic — by about $1.2 billion during 2020, in fact. Some of that was PPP activity, Glidden noted, but about two-thirds sprung from new market share and new customers.

“We continue to feel optimistic — 196 years is pretty old, but I feel more optimistic about the next 196 years than I was pre-pandemic, and I was pretty optimistic pre-pandemic.”

Liberopoulos is optimistic, too. “We’re new to the market, but we’re not new to banking. We’ve got an experienced, well-known team, and we make local decisions with quick turnaround time. We’ll make loan decisions on the spot, in front of a client, when we meet with them. That’s the kind of bank I’m happy to say I work for.”

And it’s the sort of bank that shouldn’t be constrained by state lines, Glidden added.

“Liberty Bank is coming to Western Mass. to be a business partner with the community. We’re not coming there just to make loans and take deposits. This is the first stake in the ground, so to speak, but I think everyone will see and feel our commitment to Western Mass. as we build out our franchise there.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Special Coverage Women in Businesss

Crafting Connections

Hannah Rechtschaffen, director of placemaking for the Mill District and manager of Hannah’s Local Art Gallery.

Hannah Rechtschaffen, director of placemaking for the Mill District and manager of Hannah’s Local Art Gallery.

When Hannah Rechtschaffen set about to open an art gallery in Amherst’s Mill District, she didn’t envision a static space; instead, her goal was to develop a vibrant, eclectic, multi-media gallery that not only focused on local artists, but forged connections between them and the public through workshops, classes, events, and even the everyday conversations that bring to life the stories and history behind each artist and each piece. A couple weeks after the gallery’s opening, she’s optimistic those creative collisions are already happening.

 

Anika Lopes’ roots in Amherst go back six generations, so the town is special to her. But as a milliner — an artist who designs and creates hats — she has made her name in galleries and boutiques in much larger cities, especially New York.

Now, as the highlighted artist for the recent grand opening of Hannah’s Local Art Gallery in Amherst’s Mill District, she feels like she’s come full circle.

“This is the first time I’ve shown in Amherst,” she told BusinessWest. “I never thought I would be showing here, and it’s been wonderful how it’s been received — and it’s a way to give back to the community and encourage artists, especially local artists, that there is a scene and a space for everything.”

“I never thought I would be showing here, and it’s been wonderful how it’s been received — and it’s a way to give back to the community and encourage artists, especially local artists, that there is a scene and a space for everything.”

The Hannah in the gallery name is Hannah Rechtschaffen, director of placemaking at the Mill District, who launched a gallery after Cinda Jones, the ninth-generation owner of the property, asked her to. But Rechtschaffen infused that task with her own vision for an eclectic, multi-media collection of rotating artists (21 are on display now, hailing from 13 different towns, with some being replaced every quarter), but also a space-rental model that continually reinvests in bringing more exposure to the artists (more on that in a bit).

“Every three months, some of the artists will turn over, so there will always be something fresh, and there will also be some carryover,” she said. “I want people to feel good knowing they’ll come back in here and see new stuff. That’s a really crucial part.”

Also rotating will be the front window space, with which the gallery will highlight a certain artist. For the opening weeks, that’s Lopes, who was on hand to celebrate the gallery’s opening on June 19.

Anika Lopes with the front-window display of her millinery art.

Anika Lopes with the front-window display of her millinery art.

“In conjunction with Juneteenth, we wanted to make sure we were highlighting a local artist of color, and Anika’s work with the hats … gives us an opportunity to kind of push the boundary a little bit on what art is,” Rechtschaffen said of the front window space. “We can also have historic installations there, or we can do installations of artists who aren’t local, but maybe they’re doing work you can’t find locally, and we want to highlight it.”

History is important to Lopes, whose display at the gallery includes not only her hats, but original hat blocks created by one of first black men to have a millinery factory in the garment district of New York City — which she uses to hand-block her hat designs, which she then hand-sews.

“There’s a lot of history here, and it’s been amazing to merge this [artwork] with Amherst history as part of the Juneteenth celebration,” Lopes said. “It was just a wonderful opportunity to celebrate Amherst and what’s going on here at the Mill District, which was, in itself, such a pleasant surprise to see and experience. It’s an inspiration for where Amherst can go.”

As for the rental model, Rechtschaffen charges $20 per linear foot per month for wall space, which gives the artist use of the entire wall, floor to ceiling. She also takes a 20% commission on any art sales, all of which cycles back into the gallery for marketing, events, classes, and anything that brings more people in to see the work.

“Right from the start, they felt they were buying into something that was bigger than just their small space. It’s the connection, it’s the lifeline, it’s learning new things that are going to enhance their business.”

“That’s the idea — the commission isn’t just flying out of the artist’s pocket; it’s going right back into running the engine of the business side,” she said, noting that she modeled it after Woolworth Walk, a much larger gallery in Asheville, N.C., which features 230 booths in a former Woolworth’s store.

“In charging a little bit of rent, you create this ownership that artists have of the space. I want to overhear an artist say, ‘oh, I want to show you my gallery.’ I know that I’m doing it right when they have that connection to it,” she explained.

“I wasn’t sure it would translate, and especially coming out of COVID, I felt so self-conscious about putting the model out there, to charge them money up front, even if it was a low rent,” she went on. “I’m an artist; I know how hard it is. But no one batted a eye. Right from the start, they felt they were buying into something that was bigger than just their small space. It’s the connection, it’s the lifeline, it’s learning new things that are going to enhance their business.”

 

Art of the Matter

One of Rechtschaffen’s goals was to highlight a wide variety of art, and she’s done that, with the first 21 exhibitors — all but a couple of them women — working in media ranging from paint to felt to polymer clay. True to its name, the gallery aims to draw from local artists, meaning those living within a one-hour radius.

“We want to connect anyone coming to the Mill District with the wealth of art and artists in the area because it’s crazy how many artists are living right around here,” she said.

In addition, “it was really important to me to have both emerging and established artists sharing the space. For some of these people, it’s their full-time job, they’re artists, it’s what they do. And for some people, it’s very much on the side of what they do; maybe they want to make it a larger part of their livelihood, or maybe they’re retired and they’re just doing it because it’s a passion.”

Showing those works side by side forges connections between artists and their various media — and so does a large gathering table toward the front of the gallery, which will host classes, workshops, and “conversations” between artists and the public.

Ruth Levine says Hannah’s Local Art Gallery gave her a chance to move her jewelry from her garage into public view.

Ruth Levine says Hannah’s Local Art Gallery gave her a chance to move her jewelry from her garage into public view.

Rechtschaffen related a conversation with one of the exhibitors, Maxine Oland, a well-known local artist who operates an Etsy page.

“I was like, ‘oh, would you be open to teaching a class called Should I Bother Having an Etsy Page?’” she recalled. “Because it’s a lot of work, and you’ve got to keep it up, and there’s a cost involved. I get artists all the time saying, ‘should I bother? Is it worth it?’ What better way to have that conversation than with an artist who’s going to be honest and say, ‘well, for me it’s been worth it, and I sell X amount a month, and here’s the process.’

“So those kinds of classes and pop-up conversations can happen with emerging and established artists, and those who don’t consider themselves artists, coming and listening and learning from each other,” she went on.

Lopes sees great value in the gallery’s focus on connection, calling it a “lifeline for artists.”

“As I’ve been able to see the space and the artists coming in here, especially at this time, where people are coming out of COVID, where everyone in the arts has been affected, it’s really a place that has inspired artists,” she said. “I think it’s building confidence within artists and giving people hope.”

Rechtschaffen said the Mill District itself is intended to be a place that tells a story and builds community, which is why Jones felt an art gallery would be a strong component to begin with.

“Every artist in here has a story behind why they make the art they make, why it’s important to them,” Rechtschaffen told BusinessWest. “I can point to any one of them and tell you the backstory, and it just adds to why someone would connect with a piece and then decide to take it home.”

Stories like Susan Roylance, a longtime woodworker who, one day, carved a face and wasn’t sure what to do with it. She put it aside, but then got inspired by it, and started working in both wood and felt to sculpt whimsical characters. “I feel like every one of those sculptures is a children’s book waiting to happen,” Rechtschaffen said.

Or Dana Volungis, who worked for 24 years for Yankee Candle, got laid off during the pandemic, and started painting … only 10 months ago; her oceanside landscapes and other work belie that short gestation period. “Ten months!” Rechtschaffen said. “I didn’t even realize that when she submitted her application.”

Or Ruth Levine, who makes metal clay jewelry, but set it aside for a time to focus on being a parent and grandparent. “Now here she is,” Rechtschaffen said. “She was so empowered when she was setting her space up, saying, ‘I remember how this feels; this is great.’ She said to me, ‘if you hadn’t opened this gallery, this stuff would still be in my garage.’ I said, ‘you just validated everything for me, because I’m so glad this is not in your garage.’”

Visitors to the gallery, then, aren’t just seeing art, Lopes said. They’re connecting with history — the history of the area and the people who create art here — and maybe take a piece of that history home.

 

Animal Attraction

To add a bit of childlike fun to the gallery, Rechtschaffen commissioned Ivy Mabius, a close friend of Jones and a mural artist, to create a jungle-themed bathroom, complete with large, colorfully painted sculptures of an elephant and a giraffe. “Already, kids who see it don’t want to leave. It’s such an attraction. Kids — and adults — are going to want to come and use the bathroom.”

The general store that adjoins the gallery also features a unique bathroom — this one with one-sided glass, so users have a full view of the sidewalk and parking lot outside. But eclectic bathrooms aren’t the only connection between the two spaces. Rechtschaffen can see a time when artists who have displayed in the gallery find a space in the store to sell their crafts.

Ivy Mabius designed a whimsical, jungle-themed bathroom at the gallery.

Ivy Mabius designed a whimsical, jungle-themed bathroom at the gallery.

Again, it comes back to making connections and offering a wide range of exposure to local art. The front table can also be used as a co-working space, or just a spot to hang out, she added.

“This is really meant to be something people can access all the time, however they need to. The goal is for people to see great art and great work,” she went on, noting that a master cabinet maker from Cowls Building Supply built all the gallery’s walls, shelving, and fixtures on wheels, so the configuration of the gallery can be changed. Artists who want to apply to rent space may do so at bit.ly/HannahsGalleryApplication.

Rechtschaffen also envisions sharing art outside the gallery at pop-up displays, art fairs, holiday events, and other gatherings — again, with the goal of connecting local art to as many people as possible. And they’re hungry for it, she added, like one woman who came to the gallery opening and said it was her first social event in a long time.

“She was like, ‘I’m good, I’m good; this is helping.’ It’s not just about getting people back out there; for business owners and people creating these events, we have a responsibility — if we’re inviting someone into a space, we need to be mindful of what that space feels like, that it feels comfortable. I take that very seriously, creating a space like this where people can come enjoy themselves.”

As people emerge from COVID isolation, Lopes said, one positive is that many have learned a lot about themselves, and that’s especially true for artists, who can now move forward with new understanding and new vulnerability — and a new audience at the Mill District.

“We are into telling stories and making sure people get to see art,” Rechtschaffen said, “but also learn something about their community.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]m

Banking and Financial Services

Strike Against Hunger

Andrew Morehouse thanks Country Bank

A surprised Andrew Morehouse thanks Country Bank for the $500,000 donation to the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts.

Paul Scully says he wants to “throw hunger a curveball.”

And to the leaders of two Massachusetts food banks, it was a welcome pitch indeed.

At its annual meeting on June 21, Country Bank unveiled its most recent — and largest — donation targeting the persistent issue of food insecurity in the Bay State, surprising Andrew Morehouse, executive director of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, and Jean McMurray, executive director of the Worcester Food Bank, with two $500,000 checks, one for each organization.

“With everything we’re hearing these days about the shortage of food and the high expense of food … the need is real out there,” Scully said during the announcement event. “It’s really exciting for us and an honor to announce we’re kicking off a million-dollar pledge to throw hunger a curveball, and we are presenting a $500,000 check to both Jean and Andrew for your organizations.”

It’s just the latest, and largest, in a remarkable show of support from banks across the region in the fight against food insecurity, which spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic and continues to be a persistent problem. Most banks in Western Mass. have ramped up their contributions to area food banks and food pantries, often significantly.

“As a community partner, we care deeply about the sustainability of our communities and the people who live in them,” Scully added, noting that this $1 million pledge reflects an recognition of the burdens many have experienced throughout this past year.

“I’m in awe of Country Bank’s generosity and so impressed by their commitment to the community, whether it be Worcester County or the four counties of Western Massachusetts.”

Newly appointed Country Bank board members Elizabeth Cohen-Rappaport, Richard Maynard, Ross Dik, and Stacey Luster presented the checks to Morehouse and McMurray at the annual meeting.

“I’m in awe of Country Bank’s generosity and so impressed by their commitment to the community, whether it be Worcester County or the four counties of Western Massachusetts,” a visibly surprised Morehouse said. “This demonstrates that Country Bank is for real, and they practice what they preach.”

McMurray was equally touched. “This was totally unexpected, but, when I think about it, Worcester, and Worcester County, is the best place to live, to work, and to give back, and we are going to put this tremendous gift from Country Bank to work so none of our neighbors has to go hungry.”

The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts relies on donations from individuals, businesses, foundations, civic organizations, faith-based groups, schools, and government to fulfill its expanding mission. With the help of that support, it provided the equivalent of 12.3 million meals in in the fiscal year that ended Sept. 30, 2020 — a significant increase from meals provided in previous years, and a pace that continued as the pandemic extended well into 2021.

“Country Bank is always looking at the basic needs of folks in our communities, whether food services, shelter and homelessness, as well as healthcare — those are the primary pillars where the bank tries to make the most of its donations,” said Shelley Regin, the bank’s senior vice president of Marketing.

The support for food banks comes at a critical time, not just in Massachusetts, but nationally. Feeding America estimates that the pandemic caused 13.1 million non-elderly adults to seek free meals or free groceries for the first time.

“The pandemic forced businesses and workers to make tough decisions,” said Ash Slupski, the organization’s website marketing manager. “To prevent the spread of coronavirus, many businesses were forced to close or lay off employees. This is especially true for people employed in restaurants, hotels, other service industries, and small businesses.”

Meanwhile, the needs of remote learning, especially for young children, forced many working parents to temporarily leave their jobs to be home, if they couldn’t work remotely themselves. And many faced reduced hours and paychecks when they did return to work, Slupski noted. “All these changes impact people’s ability to provide for their families now and plan for the future.”

To meet the growing need locally, the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts recently revealed plans for a new distribution center and headquarters, which will be located on the corner of Carew and East Main streets in Chicopee. Construction on the new headquarters, which will be larger and more sustainably build than the current location in Hatfield, is expected to begin next spring.

Regin noted that, in 2020, Country Bank’s philanthropy exceeded $1 million by supporting 450 nonprofits throughout the region, mainly focused on helping food pantries, homeless shelters, COVID-19 relief services, veterans, and other programs that supported the everyday needs of the people in its communities.

“Country Bank really wants to make sure we’re supporting all our communities,” which extend geographically from Springfield to Worcester, she noted. “It starts with Paul, and we all follow his lead in looking for ways the bank can make a difference. We support many charities, as many banks do, but it starts with Paul; he’s a great leader in that way, and we’re all on board.”

 

—Joseph Bednar

Special Coverage Work/Life Balance

Blurred Lines

During the pandemic, work arrangements were, in some ways, clearer than they are now — in short, remote work was the norm. Now, however, businesses and their employees are grappling with balancing company needs and culture with workers’ desire to maintain flexibility regarding when and where they get their jobs done. At the center of all of this is the amorphous, yet critically important, concept of work-life balance — and how, in some ways, remote work has made it even more challenging to achieve.

The employees at Paragus IT

The employees at Paragus IT have been returning to the office — but will be allowed to keep working at home some days.

 

Getting work done during the pandemic was … messy, Delcie Bean said. But it got done.

“In the heat of the pandemic, we had to have maximum flexibility and understood that everyone was doing their absolute best to get done what needed to get done and make sure the clients were taken care of,” the CEO of Paragus IT told BusinessWest. “It was going to be messy, but we had to get through it.”

Emerging from COVID-19, then, has been a time for employers to assess what happened and what they learned about the many different ways people can get their work done — and still have time for themselves.

“What did we lose having everyone remote, and what did we gain?” Bean said. “We realized it was some of both columns A and B — there were certainly some benefits and some risks.

“Really, we found it’s very employee-specific,” he went on. “Some employees really need the structure of the office — they get up, commute, work in the office, commute, relax at home. That’s what helps them separate work from life. Others were really flourishing with a blend, doing work from home; they were good at setting up boundaries and not having their work bleed into their life.”

Despite the evidence showing that many workers flourish at home — achieving work-life balance by establishing firm boundaries — that blurring of lines between work time and family time is a concern, according to area company leaders we spoke with. The result, oddly enough, can be even less balance than before.

“With more people working from home and having increased autonomy over their work schedule, it becomes more challenging to differentiate between work time and personal time,” said Patricia Coughlin, Human Resources director at Wellfleet in Springfield.

In Bean’s case, the post-pandemic strategy that developed was to require employees to work in the Hadley office at least three days — a gradual shift, actually, beginning with one day in June, two days in July, and three days starting in August. Anyone who wants to be on site every day is welcome to do so.

Patricia Coughlin

Patricia Coughlin

“With more people working from home and having increased autonomy over their work schedule, it becomes more challenging to differentiate between work time and personal time.”

“There are certain things that are lost when you’re 100% remote,” he said, giving examples like mentoring new employees and collaborative projects. “But if remote is working for you, we don’t want to stop you.”

He understands that some people need to be in the office to function because they have too many distractions at home.

“It depends on their personality. My home is not a distraction at all — once the kids are in school, my home is quiet, with nothing to distract me,” he said, adding, however, that there’s also nothing there to energize him.

“I need energy from other people to function at my best. We all work a little differently, process things a little differently. A lot of flexibility is good, as long as that flexibility works for both the employees and the company — but working at home can lead to issues with work-life balance if the work never goes away.”

Amy Roberts, chief Human Resources officer at PeoplesBank in Holyoke, said the bank’s leaders learned the organization can be effective while incorporating different types of work arrangements.

“When the pandemic hit and we had to move to a remote workforce for much of our corporate team, there was no question that our associates were dedicated and would get the job done,” she noted. “We had concerns about remote work as it relates to data security, customer impact, and overall engagement of our workforce. But we saw pretty quickly that we were able to operate, meet the needs of our customers, and keep our team engaged.”

For that reason, the bank is now working to establish a hybrid model for many roles and will continue to evaluate increased flexibility for team members. “We may also consider fully remote roles, but at this time those will be very limited.”

Amy Roberts says PeoplesBank wants to develop strategies with its employees to avoid overly blurring the lines between work and family time, especially when working at home.

Amy Roberts says PeoplesBank wants to develop strategies with its employees to avoid overly blurring the lines between work and family time, especially when working at home.

Like Bean, she noted that collaboration can suffer when people are not physically working together. “It’s such a big part of our day to day that we have to ensure people can easily get things done and make decisions as a team from anywhere. We feel this is an important aspect of any sustainable hybrid work model.”

Coughlin agreed that the pandemic made Wellfleet’s leaders more aware of the different ways people not only work well, but collaborate with their peers and find satisfaction in their work. As a result, the company plans to offer hybrid work arrangements and telework options as part of its model going forward.

“We learned from our employees that there is no one-size-fits-all methodology in creating an effective work environment,” she noted. “Throughout the pandemic, it became apparent that the ‘typical’ work arrangement may not be effective for all people.”

She added that this flexible approach is an attractive model that will allow Wellfleet to expand its talent pool while improving overall job satisfaction and increasing opportunities for growth and effectiveness. Again, however, the key is communication and setting boundaries.

“Supervisors and employees should set clear expectations of work schedules, availability, and when responses to e-mails are expected,” she said. “Maintaining this communication reduces the likelihood that employees feel the need to be available while on their personal time.”

 

Unhealthy Relationship

That latter concern is one employment experts across the country have been pondering. Constance Grady, a staff writer for Vox, recently penned an article titled “How Capitalism and the Pandemic Destroyed our Work-life Balance,” arguing that, in a precarious, COVID-disrupted economy, workers became even more attached to their work, in often-unhealthy ways.

“Those of us who were lucky enough to have jobs we could do from home brought our work into our living rooms, our kitchens, our bedrooms,” she wrote. “We pivoted. We shared strategies for how to be productive and overcome the stress of trying to work during a global health emergency. We challenged ourselves to meet and even exceed our pre-pandemic goals, against unfavorable odds. Despite everything, we prioritized work.”

But treating work as a sacred object has consequences, Grady argues. “We have treated work as something to be taken home and cherished. Work is our lover. And this year, we took it to bed.”

Bean understands that risk. “We’ve always strongly encouraged employees to have work-life balance as much as possible and encouraged people to unplug at the end of the day and not resume work until they’re back in the office again,” he said. “That worked much better in the pre-pandemic world, where there were cleaner lines between work and home.”

Paragus has long offered employees ‘discretionary time’ for personal obligations and appointments, which they can make up later. “We try to give employees freedom to schedule their work around what works for both them and the company.”

But over the past year, those lines blurred, with more people shifting their schedules or even working sporadically, a couple hours on and a couple off — especially when they were helping their homebound kids navigate the world of remote learning.

Hopefully, a return to something approaching normal, even if it does include some remote work, will sharpen those lines a bit. What helps, Bean said, is making firm decisions on what the home is actually for, especially at night.

“I’m very strict. When I get home, the phone goes on the counter and stays there until I go to bed. It’s rare for me to check e-mail at home, and it’s rare for me to work weekends. I try my best to model that you don’t need to work all night and on weekends to keep up; you can do your job during your work hours, then be with your family. You need that balance, and your family needs you there.”

Beyond that, he added, employees need to decompress from work in order to be productive the next day. “You need that separation time to process. You’re never able to let it sink in and reflect when you’re just going, going, going.”

Roberts agreed. “We are concerned about the blurring of lines with people who are working at home,” she said. “We are looking at this issue to determine if there are other ways we can ensure this balance with our plan for long-term workplace flexibility.”

Ideas include encouraging employees to work in a dedicated space, and at the end of the work day, leaving that room behind and closing the door — in other words, stick to the set work schedule.

“Obviously, if a customer issue occurs at the end of our day, we aren’t walking away, but in most cases we have seen that people have done a good job maintaining their normal work hours from any location — home or office.”

Understanding employee needs helps them to create balance while meeting the company’s needs, Coughlin added.

“When people have the flexibility to manage their schedule — for example, to attend a personal appointment and make up time later in the day — that can have a really positive impact on productivity. And everyone’s different; some people are more productive early in the morning, some are more productive in the evening, and others work best within a very set schedule.”

From a company perspective, she went on, it’s important to establish general standards that allow all employees the opportunity to achieve a healthy work-life balance — and it’s important to engage with employees to better identify what is meaningful to them.

“Work-life balance, and what that means, can really vary from person to person,” she noted. “One employee might be driven by the satisfaction in completing a task, while another takes satisfaction from counting hours ‘clocked in.’”

 

Creating a Culture

The bottom line, Coughlin said, is that Wellfleet’s people are fundamental in creating its culture, so it’s important to engage with them, through various platforms, to identify and implement ways to support a healthy work-life balance.

To that end, it offers education and trainings to improve work efficiencies, as well as communication regarding company benefits workers can utilize for personal purposes. Supervisors also work closely with employees to coach skills like prioritizing tasks, setting realistic goals, and time management.

“Wellfleet believes a healthy work-life balance fosters a culture in which employees are able to perform their job duties in a productive manner,” she added. “Good balance and increased flexibility in the workplace can help prevent burnout, reduce stress, and promote overall wellness.”

The company also offers employees the flexibility to adjust their work schedules to attend appointments and encourages them to use paid time off for their personal well-being, Coughlin said. “We saw the need to internally emphasize this message throughout the pandemic, although the ways we promoted this adapted to the circumstances.”

Wellfleet isn’t the only company re-emphasizing the need for workers to take time off, even if they’re not taking as many week-long vacations as before. HR Daily Advisor recently published a story on work-life balance that included input from several employers across the U.S. noting that employees have been de-emphasizing long vacations in favor of three-day weekends, staycations, and mental-health days off — as well as taking less time off overall.

“We have always focused on promoting a healthy work-life balance, and I don’t think remote work will change the way that we encourage our team to pay attention to this balance,” Roberts said. “Some of the ways that we promote this balance is our official work week being 38 hours, generous time-off plans, and fun team events and activities throughout the year. Our managers also do a good job of making sure they balance their expectations to ensure that a healthy work-life balance is a real thing.”

At the same time, Bean said, workers at any number of companies may have begun seeing those remote and flexible work models of the past 16 months as a permanent aspect of work-life balance — or, at least, they hope so. That could cause tension down the line, as employers, already struggling to retain talent in many industries, may have to negotiate such arrangements moving forward.

“However, another part of me knows behaviors and habits don’t change easily,” he added. “We, as a country, have 200 years of working 8 to 5 and going home. I don’t know if the pandemic was long enough to permanently break this muscle memory.”

If he’s right, companies adopting hybrid models now may eventually shift back to the typical, on-site work schedule of the past.

“Maybe people will work from home more than before,” he said. “But I don’t think this was that disruptive that we’ll fundamentally change the way we do work. It comes down to a lot of factors.”

Those factors range from employee desires to company needs and what type of culture an employer wants to promote. And the day might come when the current job surplus lessens and employers feel they have more leverage.

“How comfortable are you with making a decision, if an employer tells you to come back to the office or find new employment?” Bean said. “We’ll see how those things play out, and we’ll find out if the changes are temporary or long-term — and, if they’re long-term, how impactful they’ll be.”

Until then, employees will continue to get their work done in whatever way their company allows — and, hopefully, not take it to bed.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Special Coverage Work/Life Balance

Avoiding the Pitfalls

Tim Netkovick calls it the “kicker” in the law — and it’s a kick that could bruise an unsuspecting employer.

The law in question is the state’s new Paid Family and Medical Leave (PFML) law, portions of which went into effect on Jan. 1, with others to follow on July 1. The law essentially makes Massachusetts the most generous state in the country when it comes to allowing workers to take leave for medical and family-care reasons.

And employers need to be careful how they respond to claims, said Netkovick, an attorney with the Royal Law Firm in Springfield.

“If somebody has utilized PFML, there is what I call a kicker in that statute that says, if there’s any adverse action taken against the employee within a certain period of time, then it’s presumed to be in retaliation,” he told BusinessWest.

Indeed, if an employee challenges an employer’s actions following leave taken under the PFML law, the burden is on the company to prove there was some justifiable reason for taking the adverse action that had nothing to do with the leave request.

“The law does have a very strong anti-retaliation provision baked in. Often, these types of laws do have an anti-retaliation provision, but this one is a little unique,” said John Gannon, an attorney with Skoler, Abbott & Presser in Springfield.

“If an employer does take some kind of negative action against the employee — termination, suspension, demotion, even a negative performance review — within six months of the last day they took leave, there is a presumption that the employer retaliated,” he explained. “The employer can rebut that presumption, showing the motive for the decision is not linked in any way to paid family or medical leave use, but it does open the door to more potential litigation in this area.”

It’s a challenge to prove the action was justifiable, though not impossible, Netkovick said. Still, it’s not a headache employers really want to deal with.

“That’s a challenge we’ve seen come up a few times, where there were issues with the employment relationship before that, and then, all of a sudden, someone goes out on PFML leave,” he said. “There’s not really a lot of guidance on that yet. It might be assumed to be in retaliation, but if you can show something concrete that has happened, hopefully you can get someone to agree with you in the court system. You have to make sure you have your documents in order.”

The PFML law runs concurrently with other applicable state and federal leave laws, such as the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the Massachusetts Parental Leave Act. Similar to the federal FMLA, a Massachusetts employee who returns to work after taking leave under PFML law must be returned to same or similar position as he or she had prior to their leave.

The new law requires employers to provide eligible employees up to 26 total weeks of leave in a benefit year. Currently, employees may be entitled to up to 20 weeks of paid leave to manage their own serious health condition, and may also receive up to 12 weeks of paid leave to bond with a child who is newly born, adopted, or placed in foster care, and up to 26 weeks to care for a family member in the Armed Forces.

On July 1, employees will also be able to receive up to 12 weeks to care for a family member — the employee’s spouse, domestic partner, child, parent, sibling, grandparent, parent of a spouse, or parent of a domestic partner — with a serious health condition.

“There’s a department called the Department of Family and Medical Leave that oversees this whole program, and approves and denies claims,” Gannon said. “They’ve done a pretty effective job of getting the word out there about this program, particularly back in 2020 and early 2021 when it was going live. I remember seeing radio ads, print advertising, a lot of online ads as well.”

As a result, employees tended to know about it, and many held off on, say, elective surgery or put off parental leave for a newborn until after Jan. 1, so they could access the full benefits of the new law, he noted. “We did see a spike [in taking leave] in January and February, and we anticipate we’ll see another spike in July or August of this year when the family-leave components go live, and employees can take leave to care for family members with serious health conditions.”

 

A Rising Need

Patrick Leary, vice president of Work Benefits Research at LIMRA in Windsor, Conn., noted that interest in PFML started to rise several years ago, but has accelerated in recent years, especialy last year.

“More people became caregivers for their parents or other family members affected by COVID,” Leary said. “On top of that, parents took leave to care for their children when remote learning kept them at home.”

Peter Miller, a partner with Millbrook Benefits and Insurance Services in Springfield, added that Massachusetts’ PFML law offers benefits similar to a short-term disability benefit, but won’t replace the need for employers to provide short-term disability insurance.

Leave under the PFML program applies to most W-2 employees in Massachusetts, regardless of whether they are full-time, part-time, or seasonal. Unlike the federal FMLA, the Massachusetts PFML law says an employee is not required to work for a minimum length of time in order to be eligible for leave. However, an employee must meet minimum-threshold earning requirements in order to be eligible for leave under the law.

Notice requirements for the new law work both ways; employers must provide written notice of the PFML program to all employees within 30 days of the employee’s start date, while employees must inform their employers of their need to take leave under the law at least 30 days before the start of the leave, and before filing an application for leave with the state. Where reasons beyond an employee’s control prevent them from giving such advance notice, they must inform their employer as soon as is practical.

Employers don’t have to offer their workers the state benefit; they can opt out of it and apply for an exemption from paying PFML contributions, but only if they purchase a private plan with benefits that are as generous as the state’s plan, and which provide the same job protections, including the anti-retaliation provisions.

“You have two options — you can deal with the state Department of Family Leave they set up, or you can have your own third-party administrator,” Netkovick said. “The private plan has to be set up to match the state plan. There’s no requirement it has to be better, but it has to at least match with the state plan.”

One reason a company might do so is because a third-policy benefits administrator offered that service, and the employer may prefer communicating with that entity over dealing with the state.

Gannon agreed. “One of the perceived advantages to going with private plans is that you do have a little more control over the administration of the plan,” he said, noting that it can be frustrating when the state gets it wrong — for instance, if an employee has been granted 22 weeks of leave rather than 20 because of an administrative error, to cite a hypothetical example.

“There’s nothing you can do to reverse that, which is frustrating for employers,” he told BusinessWest. “With private plans, at least in theory, you can reach out to the plan administrator and ask, ‘why did you approve this for 22 weeks as opposed to 20?’ With the state, it’s more challenging to do that.”

One thing is clear — in allowing employees to take amounts of leave not typical across the country, the state is layering on an additional staffing challenge at a time when companies in myriad industries are already challenged by worker shortages.

“If the state department or your third-party administrator makes the determination this person qualifies under PFML, then there’s really not much you can do,” Netkovick said. “I know that’s created staffing issues for a couple of our clients, but they’ve been able to work that out. If there’s some kind of mandated ratio, I could see that becoming an issue — you might have to hire people on a temporary basis.”

Gannon agreed it can be a hurdle, particularly since employees are eligible for leave starting from day one on the job.

“It has been a challenge from a staffing perspective, especially these days,” he said. “Staffing would be a challenge without all these job-protected forms of leave, and now we have PFML, too.”

 

Know the Facts

One key requirement of the PFML law is that employers need to put it in writing for their workforce.

“It doesn’t have to be in the handbook, but it has to be in writing, advising people of their rights under PFML and the qualifications,” Netkovick said, adding that some companies have made it a part of the handbook because they were revising that manual anyway. “But others have made it as a standalone policy that everyone has to sign off on.”

Gannon has also seen employers approach the communication question in different ways. “We’ve had clients doing a complete update of their handbook, not just to make sure they’re compliant with this law, but to determine whether other policies need to be changed,” he said, such as call-out procedures that give an employer enough time to manage absences from a staffing perspective.

Of course, those written policies need to make clear the anti-retaliation elements of the law, too. If an employee files a lawsuit against an employer for violation of the PFML law and the employer is found to be in violation, numerous remedies are available to the employee, including reinstatement to the same or similar position, three times the lost wages and benefits, and even the employee’s attorney’s fees.

That’s why training managers and supervisors on all aspects of the law is especially important, Gannon said. “They’re the ones who may not realize how strong the anti-retaliation provisions are. Depending on the size of the business, an employer may rely on managers and supervisors, and if they unknowingly retaliate against someone, it could be a problem for the entire organization. It’s important for those in supervisory or managerial roles to understand the law and how strong those anti-retaliation provisions are.”

Netkovick agreed, adding that yearly trainings on all aspects of workplace law, including Paid Family and Medical Leave, is a good idea.

“Companies need to be aware of that retaliation provision — I think that’s the key,” he said. “It’s worthwhile to keep that in mind at the beginning, so you know what the lay of the land is in case something comes up after the fact.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Innovation and Startups Special Coverage

Moving Pictures

 

John Hazen stands beside displays

John Hazen stands beside displays of just a fraction of the products created at his company using holographic technology.

Hazen Paper, a third-generation family business that’s approaching a century in operation in the Holyoke mill district, has never stood still, expanding its operation over the years into facets like foil laminating, specialty coating, and rotary embossing. But its emergence over the past 15 years as an internationally celebrated producer of holographic printed products may be its most profound shift. Its entry into this niche was a calculated risk, the company’s co-owner said, but one that gradually paid off in a striking way.

 

John Hazen figured there was some risk in purchasing his first holographic printer back in 2005. But, as the third-generation co-owner of Hazen Paper Co. in Holyoke, he also saw the potential.

“I always say I was like Jack and the beanstalk,” he told BusinessWest. “Dad sent me out with a bag of beans — ‘grow the business, son!’ — and I bought this crazy thing called a holoprinter.”

But he was determined to build Hazen’s footprint in the world of holographic printing, and plenty of other technology at the company sprung from that first investment.

The results? Well, the numerous awards that pour in every year testify to the company’s success. Like a 2021 Product Excellence Award from the Assoc. of International Metallizers, Coaters and Laminators (AIMCAL), for a holographic consumer package.

“To magnify visual effect on a very small carton,” the press release for the award reads, “Hazen micro-embossed specially coated polyester film with ‘Mercury,’ a unique overall holographic pattern, then metallized the film and laminated it to a solid bleached sulfate board before registered sheeting. The film lamination delivers mirror-like brightness and a liquid-flash effect of full-spectrum color, as well as durable performance for clean scoring and folding.”

“I always say I was like Jack and the beanstalk. Dad sent me out with a bag of beans — ‘grow the business, son!’ — and I bought this crazy thing called a holoprinter.”

Most of those words won’t register with the average consumer. But the effect of the packaging certainly does. “This package really stood out,” one judge said. “The embossed areas are like a hallmark and impart a feeling of luxury.”

It’s the latest in a string of AIMCAL awards for Hazen, which also earned the association’s Product of the Year honors in 2018, 2019, and 2020. The latest was for a transfer-metallized carton, featuring custom holography, created for Nordic Premium Beverages’ Arctic Blue Gin, a project made with Hazen Envirofoil, which uses less than 1% of the aluminum of traditional foil laminate — one way the company continues to stress sustainability, which is being increasingly demanded by clients.

The carton for Arctic Blue Gin, made using Hazen Envirofoil

The carton for Arctic Blue Gin, made using Hazen Envirofoil, earned Product of the Year honors in 2020 from the Assoc. of International Metallizers, Coaters and Laminators (AIMCAL).

In fact, it’s understanding customer needs that led Hazen to step into the world of holography with two emphatic feet in the first place. “In many ways, it’s requests from the customers, information coming in from the market — trying to identify opportunity.”

For background, he explained that the holographic industry saw significant consolidation between 2000 and 2004. In the late ’90s, holographic manufacturers were mostly small mom-and-pop shops, but that changed when larger players started buying them out. One of the catalysts was … well, toothpaste.

“When Colgate came out with a line of holographic packaging on their toothpaste … in the world of holography, the world of consumer packaging, that was a major event,” Hazen said. “They gained market share against Crest, and that’s what it’s all about. If they can pick up 1%, it’s massive. Once Colgate truly validated the use of holography, things got pretty exciting.”

Another growth area was DVD packaging — in fact, Hazen would go on to create holographic images for the DVD boxes for numerous major films, including for the likes of Pixar and Marvel. But its entry into that niche came in 2004, when it created the DVD packaging for the TV show Quantum Leap, which involved a custom hologram.

By that time, however, some of the small holographers Hazen used in the ’90s had been bought up, so it turned to one of the big conglomerates, Illinois Tool Works, or ITW, which had bought up several of the small, boutique holographers.

“We had to work with ITW, but we didn’t feel like they were using their power very well,” Hazen recalled. “We got the job done, and it won an award — and the feedback we were getting from studios and box makers was that this could be big.”

So, seeing the expanding opportunities in front of him, Hazen started creating an in-house holographic division.

Around 2005, “one of the companies that got acquired got busted into pieces, and we were able to start reassembling the pieces of the broken puzzle,” he recalled. “We set up our holographic lab, bought the holoprinter technology, hired some castoffs from the consolidation era, and set up a holographic lab in the basement. Since then, we’ve been able to expand.”

 

Shining Examples

Holography isn’t particularly new in the corporate world, Hazen said, noting its use on the dove image on Visa cards.

“That’s a hologram. They’ve had that on the Visa card for 40 years. A lot of times, holography is used as a branding feature, but also as a security feature. It authenticates, makes it hard to counterfeit. It’s done with money as well. That’s security holography, and it tends to be small.

“The holography we do for decorative packaging and some branding is larger format,” he went on. “We’re producing holographic plates as big as 60 inches by 60 inches. It’s not security holography and tends to be lower-resolution. But it is very unique; it’s hard, if not impossible, to replicate. And from a graphic point of view, it gives the graphic artist a mechanism for providing backlighting, for creating movement, for creating a 3D kind of effect.”

Hazen also uses a digital process — several different ones, actually, as opposed to Visa. “The Visa dove is analog — they created the model of a dove, set up lasers around a room, and got light to refract and bounce back.”

“We got the job done, and it won an award — and the feedback we were getting from studios and box makers was that this could be big.”

These days, Hazen Paper’s holography can be seen in hundreds of applications worldwide, from product packaging to the program covers for annual events like the Basketball Hall of Fame enshrinement (since 2013) and the Super Bowl (since 2004, although not in 2021, since there were questions early on about the game’s scheduling during COVID-19, and the design process has to start many months in advance).

Hazen showed off a copy of the 2020 hoops-hall enshrinement program, the class that includes the likes of Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, and Kevin Garnett. It showcases 3D imagery of the Hall of Fame’s iconic dome and spire and its panoramic interior, juxtaposed with a collage of the year’s inductees in action. The back cover is a holographic treatment of Mohegan Sun in Connecticut, where the enshrinement ceremony was held. Again, it used the sustainable Envirofoil process.

Hazen has created over the past two decades

Top: the holographic Kat Von D Metal Crush limited-edition powder highlighter carton won AIMCAL’s Product of the Year honors in 2018. Above: one of the many DVD packages Hazen has created over the past two decades.

Hazen has also added to its trophy shelf multiple times in the past year, including a Next Century Award from Associated Industries of Massachusetts, which recognizes employers, individuals, and community organizers that have made unique contributions to the economy and residents of Massachusetts. The company employs 200 people and participates in an internship program with Western New England University that helps engineering students gain experience.

“We create opportunities for young people to learn about the industry in general and our operation in particular — and expand our future talent pool,” Hazen said when the award was announced.

And back in December, the International Hologram Manufacturers Assoc. (IHMA) named Hazen Paper’s 2020 holographic calendar Best Applied Decorative/Packaging Product at its Excellence in Holography Awards.

Featuring a fire-breathing dragon with three-dimensional scales, the oversized calendar utilized an array of innovative holographic techniques to create a decorative design the IHMA called “outstanding.” These holographic designs included gray-motion for the sky background, color-motion for the dragon, and two-channel color-motion lenses and fire-motion lenses to animate the flames.

And the company continues to innovate. For example, it announced back in August it had created an innovative, two-sided promotion to demonstrate cutting-edge holographic technologies. The Hazen team designed the artwork on both sides to showcase specific visual effects with nano-holography that delivers an even more dramatic three-dimensional effect.

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the promotion is that it is two-sided custom holography, transfer-metallized on both sides. “It hasn’t been done before,” Hazen said last summer. “The ability to transfer-metallize a lightweight stock on two sides with custom holography opens up the potential for use in many applications where consumer impact is key. It’s very exciting.”

 

Changing Times

Clearly, Hazen Paper has come a long way from its origins in 1925, when Hazen’s grandfather, also named John, launched the enterprise as a decorative paper converter and embosser. His younger brother, Ted, joined Hazen in 1928 to help manage the growing company, which grew rapidly in the 1930s and expanded into printing and foil laminating by the 1940s.

Ted’s son, Bob, joined the company in 1957, and John’s son, Tom, signed on in 1960, and the second generation expanded the company numerous times over the next three decades, as Hazen Paper became known worldwide for specializing in foil and film lamination, gravure printing, specialty coating, and rotary embossing. Hazen products became widely used in luxury packaging, lottery and other security tickets, tags and labels, cards and cover stocks, as well as photo and fine-art mounting.

The third-generation owners, John and Robert Hazen, joined the company at the start of the 1990s, and have continued to grow the enterprise and expand its capabilities, with a special emphasis on coating, metallizing, and — of course — holographic technology.

In 2005, Hazen Paper set up its holographic origination lab and design studio in Holyoke, and has since developed thousands of unique holographic designs and holds several patents on the processes it has developed. Shortly after, the company launched a holographic embossing and metallizing operation a mile away on Main Street.

“They always say it’s dangerous to go outside your traditional business model, outside your wheelhouse,” John Hazen said of those early days in this new niche, and particularly that plant. “We came in way over budget, at least six months behind, but that plant came to life right at the end of 2008.”

That’s right — at the beginning of a crippling recession.

“When you think about what was going on in the world, the first half of 2009 was really a scary time,” he said. “Fortunately, the business came back in the summer of 2009, and everything started to fall into place.

“Everyone’s system for making holography is different — they’re similar, but they’re different — but the one thing we knew was our system worked,” he went on. “But we went through some rough years from 2010 to 2016. We definitely overextended ourselves to get into the holographic business, and part of that overextension was the impact of the 2009 recession.”

In 2006, Hazen set up its first satellite plant in Indiana, a lamination and sheeting operation that ultimately operated 24/7, with more than 50 full-time employees. In 2016, however, it sold the plant as a strategic move away from commodity-type foil laminations to increase focus on growth opportunities in holography and specialty paper products in Holyoke.

Broadly speaking, packaging remains the broadest category of holographic work nationally, with designs seen on everything from boxes of golf balls and toothpaste to liquor packages. But the sky is the limit, Hazen said, and new uses emerge all the time — justifying that initial investment more than 15 years ago.

“It really was a startup, a technology startup in an older company. And ultimately, we really reinvented Hazen Paper,” he told BusinessWest. “The holographic technology ended up feeding the old business. So it’s like we installed a new heart in an old body.”

Not a bad return on that bag of beans.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Construction

Air Apparent

Scott Cernak’s expertise and development of the residential division at M.J. Moran

Scott Cernak’s expertise and development of the residential division at M.J. Moran are serving him well today as the head of his own venture.

Never underestimate the influence of a teacher.

Or, in Scott Cernak’s case, two of them, who taught plumbing when he was a student at Smith Vocational & Agricultural High School, and proved engaging enough in the subject to capture his attention.

“I wasn’t sure which trade I wanted to take,” he said. “The plumbing teachers there were really good — I never thought I would have chosen plumbing, but I ended up liking it quite a bit.”

He likes the trajectory of his career as well. Today, Cernak is the owner of a company — Western Mass Heating, Cooling & Plumbing — that recently spun off M.J. Moran Inc., the only company he’d ever worked for, and where he latched on as an intern early in his junior year at Smith.

“I started on my 16th birthday and started liking it more and more,” he recalled. “I got into more and more things; I started doing sprinkler fitting, all kinds of pipe fitting, welding and plumbing and HVAC.”

“It was a really good, mutually beneficial decision to have us part ways and for me to buy the division.”

All of that appealed to him, but he was especially interested in the residential division, which hadn’t been a significant part of Moran’s business, but which he and two other employees started growing steadily. “At this point, I was in my early 20s and running a lot of large residential and small commercial jobs, new-construction service calls — anything from packing a faucet to doing a whole new house and everything in between.”

His success in that division led to a promotion to general manager of the company in 2016, and something bigger four years later. “I got the opportunity to buy the division that I helped build,” he told BusinessWest, “and here we are.”

The reason for the spinoff company is that Jim Moran, who launched his enterprise 42 years ago, is heading — slowly — toward retirement, Cernak explained.

“He’ll never fully retire, but he wanted to take a little off his plate right now. His sons, Chad and Kyle, who run the commercial-industrial division, don’t have any interest in the residential divison — they relied on me for that anyway — so it just made sense for Jim and myself and our departments.

“It was a really good, mutually beneficial decision to have us part ways and for me to buy the division; it worked really well for them, and it’s worked really well for us,” he went on. “We still communicate frequently, and we still collaborate; I hire them as a sub when we need extra manpower, or they hire us as a sub on some jobs. So it works out pretty well.”

Roughly eight months into his new enterprise, Cernak said his work is well-balanced, split fairly evenly between service work, major renovations for general contractors, and installing and replacing heating and cooling systems. “It’s a pretty good mix, and some of that is commercial, too — service work and small installation work.”

Western Mass Heating, Cooling & Plumbing is more departmentalized than most similar firms, he added, with a full service department.

“Most companies around us don’t have a service department; they just throw in a service call here and there. We actually have a service department that’s dedicated to service work, then we have a new-construction installation department that’s dedicated to the bigger work. That works well for our dispatching and keeping things organized and keeping the right guys on the right jobs. It’s one reason we’re able to stay efficient and continue to grow.”

 

Into the Pipeline

What first drew Cernak into the plumbing field at Smith Voke was, simply, realizing for the first time the breadth of what tradespeople in that field do.

“As a teenager, I didn’t realize that plumbing was more than just cleaning a drain or fixing a toilet. A lot of people — not just young teenagers — think plumbing is just fixing plumbing; they think it’s just dirty work. But I got to see a different side of it — learning how the pipefitting works, doing some welding and some soldering.”

“Even before 2020, new houses were getting a lot tighter, and indoor air quality was becoming a much higher priority for people.”

He also quickly learned, by researching the field, that it’s a trade with stability and good job security. “It’s one of the higher-paid trades, so there were a lot of factors. But before that, it had never clicked to me that, hey, plumbers actually install the plumbing in a new house, too, not just fix the plumbing in an old house.”

The science of plumbing hasn’t changed much during his career, but HVAC is a different story.

“Indoor air quality has been a big factor,” he said. “Coronavirus certainly helped with that — or hurt with that, however you want to put it. But coronavirus certainly put a new spin on it. But even before 2020, new houses were getting a lot tighter, and indoor air quality was becoming a much higher priority for people, so we sell a lot of products that help with filtration and literally zap bacteria and viruses out of the air; there are all kinds of air-cleaning products that we’re selling as part of our systems, part of our installations, part of our services. It’s not the core of our business, but it certainly is a pretty big part of our business.”

Businesses in Massachusetts took the lead on emphasizing air-quality measures indoors, much of it driven by regulations. But in the era of COVID-19, people increasingly demand high-tech air-purifying systems in their homes.

“We’d never had people asking for indoor air-quality measures — or very rarely; maybe 1% of people would ask for something like that back before coronavirus. And now, probably close to 20% to 30% ask for it specifically.”

Scott Cernak said his company is growing and hiring

Scott Cernak said his company is growing and hiring, even though his industry is challenged by a slow pipeline of young talent entering the field.

Clearly, there will always be a market for plumbing and HVAC work — as Cernak said, this is a stable field — and he can see his fledgling company growing, but one challenge will be attracting talent as it does. Right now, nationwide, roughly three workers are aging out and retiring from these disciplines for every two young people who come in.

“And out of those two, probably only one to one and a half are going to make it past five years,” he went on. “So there’s a big-time shortage, and it’s going to get worse and worse.”

As one way to counter that trend, “I have longer-term goals of creating more education within our company,” he explained. “I’d like to bring a sheet-metal school in house, not necessarily from us, but probably third-party, using our facility; that’s going to help attract some people.”

Meanwhile, “we have ads out on different internet platforms, and we’re trying to recruit internally too. Everyone who works with us knows we’re looking for at least one or two more service techs on top of other positions as well. We have been hiring — four people in the past month and a half — so we’re definitely growing, and we’re on a trajectory of more growth as well.”

 

Investments in the Future

One key to achieving that growth, Cernak said, is not being afraid to invest in the kinds of things that will attract top talent.

“I’ve got an eye for talent — and I’m not afraid to hire the best and pay for the best, that’s for sure,” he told BusinessWest. “I provide the best tools, the best training, we have new, well-equipped trucks, and we’re working on getting even more trucks. So all our people have the right tools, the right trucks, and the right infrastructure to do their jobs.”

In addition, “I’ve invested heavily into software and IT systems to organize how we do our work and how we bill for our work and how we store data and how we access data, which is a huge part of the industry that people generally overlook,” he went on. “We’re not fumbling through file cabinets to find the customer’s history. With a couple clicks, we’re there. Same thing with our guys in the field — they have access via tablet or smartphone to access any of our customers’ history. When a customer calls, we know what they have already, and we know the right tech to send to the right job.”

What it adds up to is efficiency, which both employees and customers appreciate, Cernak said. “We’re very good in the service department, dispatching, getting people there. We have quite a backlog sometimes, but we’re also very good at prioritizing emergencies.”

Creating efficient systems and investing in better resources may not bring an immediate payback, he added, but he’s looking long-term — at the kind of success his mentor, Jim Moran, enjoyed for more than four decades. It’s why, when he saw an opportunity to build upon his experience and set out on his own, he took it.

“Sometimes,” he said, “you’ve got to go with your gut and know what’s right and do it.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Health Care

Disrupting the Cycle

 

The past year has been a difficult one in many ways, Dr. Alisha Moreland-Capula said.

“It’s been a tough time with COVID. We’ve had a lot of uncertainly, a lot of loss, and we’ve also had a rise in racial tension and a disruption in the relationship between law enforcement and the community,” the psychiatrist and author of Training for Change noted.

But when addressing an issue like urban violence, what many people — even those working to solve the problem — often don’t understand is the impact of fear. Not occasional fear, but long-term, lived-in fear.

“If you can imagine a life that is completely consumed and shaped by fear, then it is not absolutely outside the realm of possibility to understand how toxic that can be on someone’s life,” Moreland-Capula said.

The occasion for her words was the keynote address of a virtual forum last month hosted by Roca, an organization that aims to disrupt incarceration, poverty, and racism by engaging young adults, police, and systems that impact urban violence.

Fear can be a positive, she noted, when it heightens one’s senses in order to escape a dangerous situation or seek help.

However, “being afraid is meaningful until it’s not,” she said — when it’s a constant presence in a young person’s life, due to stressors like racism, poverty, and violence. That’s why Roca aims to tackle the issue of violence by addressing the causes of other traumas first — engaging not only with young people, but with the systems that impact them, from education to law enforcement to child welfare.

Gov. Charlie Baker

Gov. Charlie Baker

“Roca has been a relentless force in disrupting incarceration, poverty, and racism by engaging young adults, law enforcement, and systems at the center of urban violence and relationships to address trauma, find hope, and drive change.”

“We know from brain science that the external environment around us impacts who we are and who we become,” Moreland-Capula explained. “What Roca says is that we have to work with those environments, change the systems, and help to change the trajectory of the young adults we seek to serve.”

Mike Davis, vice president of Public Safety and chief of Police at Northeastern University, as well as a Roca board member, understands that concept.

“We have before us a moral imperative to be better as individuals and collective members of society,” he told forum attendees, adding that, too often, people lose hope because change hasn’t happened fast enough or, worse, believe working for change is someone else’s responsibility.

“Both of these thoughts are not only wrong, but but if they serve as the guidance for our behavior, they will guarantee failure,” Davis went on. “Substantive change is everyone’s responsibility, without exception. What needs to animate our actions now is a sense of urgency based on a vision for what is possible.”

Roca has such a vision, he explained, based on the premise that all people have intrinsic value and potential to contribute something unique to their society — and has not only helped steered young people away from prison and toward better outcomes, but also worked with police to see their roles differently.

“The loss of life to homicide or prison not only not only impacts that individual, that community, or that city, it impacts all of our society,” Davis said. “Loss of life is loss of possibility.”

In a brief address to the forum, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker noted that “Roca has been a relentless force in disrupting incarceration, poverty, and racism by engaging young adults, law enforcement, and systems at the center of urban violence and relationships to address trauma, find hope, and drive change. I’ve seen firsthand that Roca and its programming works.”

 

Fear Factors

Fortunately, Moreland-Capula said, Roca has been ahead of the curve in paying attention to the relationship between root traumas and their societal impact.

“They understand that, for whole communities to heal, for people to heal, there has to be keen attention paid to specific things like community violence, like trauma.”

Some of the chronic fear she mentioned earlier stems from a lack of basic needs, from food and water to shelter, safety, even love and belonging. By helping young people access education and employment, those cycles can be broken as well, she noted. “We know there are complex and structural challenges that require a complex and structural approach.”

Molly Baldwin, Roca’s founder and CEO, said the proliferation of drugs, violence, and guns in communities requires innovative approaches.

“Our old methods won’t work. Incarceration is expensive and a failure. Jobs and GED programs are not enough, and even the most credible messenger cannot convince a young person to do differently if that young person is living in a state of fight or flight and cannot access the thinking part of their brain for healthy decision making,” she said. “If we don’t address the impact of lived trauma, we can’t hope for healing and change.”

That philosophy is behind the recent establishment of the Roca Impact Institute, which works with communities and institutions that have a clear commitment to addressing violence by working with young people who are at the center of local incidents and trends.

Molly Baldwin

Molly Baldwin

“Even the most credible messenger cannot convince a young person to do differently if that young person is living in a state of fight or flight and cannot access the thinking part of their brain for healthy decision making.”

Unlike a typical training approach, the Roca Impact Institute is an intensive coaching approach that works with police departments, criminal-justice agencies, and community-based programs in sustained, collaborative partnerships over a 12- to 24-month period. Experienced Roca leaders engage these partners to learn new, trauma-informed strategies and apply them in their local context.

The idea, Baldwin said, is to change together. “If we hope for change for young people, we must change, too.”

At the virtual forum, Baldwin presented Roca’s James E. Mahoney Award to Peter Forbes, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services (DYS), which has implented some of the concepts Roca promotes. Back in the 1990s, he noted, juvenile justice was in a different place, using terms like ‘predator’ and ‘offender,’ and concepts like boot camps and scared-straight programs.

But those thing didn’t work, he said, instead generating poor outcomes for individuals and communities. “Since that time, our work at DYS has evolved. We’ve embraced the principle that young people can make positive change in their lives, that we as an agency can be part of that change, and that our investment in youth development actually contributes to community safety.”

He cited national studies demonstrating that therapeutic approaches to justice-involved youth drive lower recidivism than punishment strategies. “If we run a coercive system, we actually run the risk of young people being worse off for their contact with the system.”

It starts, Forbes said, with meeting young people where they are. “People who work with adolescents see disrespect, non-responsiveness, impulsivity, defiance — behaviors that are typical of adolescents. Those are not descriptors of juvenile delinquency; that’s typical adolescent behavior. So it’s really important, as adults working with young people, that we respond to the behavior, but not overreact.”

 

New Beginnings

The event featured a brief address by former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, who has been an ardent gun-control advocate following her assassination attempt in 2011. Her message struck a different, more activist tone than the rest of the program.

“These are scary times — racism, sexism, lies, coronavirus. It’s time to stand up for what’s right. It’s time for courage,” she said. “We must do something to stop gun violence and protect our children, our future … to make our country a safer place, a better place.”

It will be a better place, Baldwin said, through the kind of relationship building, mutual understanding, and personal accountability that lie at the heart of Roca.

“We are humbled and honored to work with the young people at the center of urban violence — those who are traumatized, full of distrust, and trapped in a cycle of violence and poverty that traditional youth programs alone can’t break,” she said. “Today is a celebration of those who make this work possible, from young people to Roca teams and our partners committed to sparking new thinking about working with young people who are traumatized and stuck.”

Getting unstuck is a decision, she noted, offering a George Bernard Shaw quote: “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”

Roca is doing its part to create change, Baldwin said, but it can’t achieve its goals alone. “There is an opportunity for all of us to begin again.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Innovation and Startups

Breaking Down the Silos

Barbara Casey

Barbara Casey says Pixel Health’s companies understand the technology underpinning healthcare, but spend more time on people and processes.

 

For Pixel Health, 2020 was a year of growth — double-digit sales growth, in fact, and a 30% staff increase despite the impact of COVID-19 on the healthcare industry.

Or, perhaps — at least in part — because of the pandemic’s effect.

That’s because information-technology (IT) needs shifted dramatically during the pandemic, and health systems had a lot to sort through.

“There were a ton of digital-health startups funded in 2020,” said Barbara Casey, chief revenue officer at Holyoke-based Pixel Health, which comprises five separate but interconnected companies that assist health organizations in myriad ways. In fact, she noted, investment dollars in digital-health startups doubled last year, from $7 billion in 2019 to $14 billion in 2020.

“Digital health in general had a tremendous boom in 2020, which is good — and, in some ways, not so good,” Casey told BusinessWest. “It creates more noise in the market. If we can learn more about what our clients’ requirements are and what they want the experience to be like for stakeholders, we can help them sort through those vendors and see which ones match their requirements.

“There’s a ton of choice — that’s why we exist,” she went on. “There’s so much variability, so many ways you can do it. I think working with an organization like us, with as much depth and breadth as we have, is helpful to clients in finding a streamlined path to the end result.”

Pixel Health companies, which assist hospitals and health systems in creating IT infrastructure, improving operational processes, developing software, and facilitating financial efficiencies, has dramatically expanded its national client base since the pandemic began.

“Now we’re coordinating beyond the IT department, coordinating with the clinical side of healthcare, and that opens up a whole different range of consulting services we offer to healthcare providers.”

“While most healthcare-consulting groups specialize in either strategic planning or technical execution, Pixel Health companies do both,” company founder Michael Feld said.

In its marketing, Pixel Health claims its companies can “make healthcare better for patients, providers, and administrators alike by facilitating the use of technology, simplifying the process of using it, and overcoming the cultural and organizational constraints hindering its adoption. We help make the delivery of care better.”

President Brad Mondschein noted that the network’s first two companies, VertitechIT and baytechIT, “were really about how to coordinate the IT buildout and the provision of IT services to healthcare providers, and make those healthcare providers aware of what needs to be communicated internally and, frankly, even externally about their capabilities.”

With three other companies — Nectar Strategic Consulting, akiro, and Liberty Fox Technologies — now in the fold, “we’ve stepped beyond that — now we’re coordinating beyond the IT department, coordinating with the clinical side of healthcare, and that opens up a whole different range of consulting services we offer to healthcare providers,” he continued. “It’s also helped healthcare providers ensure that their IT services are focused so the clinical staff are getting what they need out of IT.”

 

A Quick Breakdown

The five Pixel Health companies are interconnected in some ways, but each brings unique atttributes to the table.

VertitechIT’s goal is to drive IT transformation for health systems. Its executive and clinical consultants, architects, and engineers design and implement IT roadmaps in line with the strategic plans of client organizations.

VertitechIT also touts its ability to implement transformational changes for clients at virtually no net new capital expense. As one example, a $2.5 billion health system constructed a three-site, software-defined data center and saved $8 million over previous designs with little to no impact on its budget. Senior consultants also took on interim leadership roles, working to transform the institution’s siloed work culture as well.

Brad Mondschein

Brad Mondschein says Pixel Health’s “secret sauce” is being able to bring many different areas of expertise to bear to meet a healthcare client’s needs.

Meanwhile, baytechIT is a managed service provider (MSP) and value-added reseller — one of the only health-centric MSPs in the country, in fact. The company operates a call center staffed by healthcare analysts, adept at meeting the unique and often time-critical needs of the clinical environment.

Nectar specializes in applying technology to serve the quadruple aim of healthcare delivery: delivering the right care at the right time, at the right cost, and improving the clinical experience in the process. It offers a boutique consulting environment, offering a unique perspective on unifying technology and driving healthcare transformation to achieve clinical objectives.

“Nectar is about the digital-health experiences of consumers, patients, families, but also clinicians, nurses, doctors, and other professionals,” Casey said. “There should be ease of use and frictionless quality with how those experiences happen for all those different stakeholders. That’s where Nectar comes in — we do know a lot about the underpinnings of technology, but we spend more time on people and processes.”

Next, akiro tackles the needs of healthcare from the revenue cycle and financial management to government-program assistance and complex merger-and-acquisition support. “They really focus on the business side of healthcare,” Mondschein said, “and they’re helping healthcare providers manage their mergers and acquisitions.”

“I don’t want to say we’re the only company that does it this way, but we think what we do is very unique.”

Finally, Liberty Fox, the only Pixel Health company acquired by the network and not developed inside it, takes a boutique design approach to software development, touting itself as a one-stop shop for all things technology and providing software solutions and recommendations that improve clients’ business.

“They can create software from scratch, write apps, but also do integrations between each system,” Casey said. “They make sure the integration that needs to happen on the patient-clinician side is seamless and makes sense.”

Some clients take advantage of the services of multiple Pixel Health companies, Casey said. “For example, Behavioral Health Network is an organization where baytech is helping them with delivery of IT services, Vertitech is also helping them with several things, and Nectar is working with them on telehealth strategy and implementation. So, several entities are all working in that organization.”

The model is an attractive one for clients, Mondschein said.

“I don’t want to say we’re the only company that does it this way, but we think what we do is very unique. There are MSPs out there that do some of these individual things, but don’t combine it the way we do it. Our secret sauce is our ability to take the different expertise we have in each of our subsidiaries and bring all of them to bear on an issue or a problem or project that a client might need.

“One thing that’s really important to remember is, at the same time we’re providing services, the goal is to make healthcare a better experience for patients and clinicians,” he added. “That’s our mission.”

 

Growth Potential

It’s a mission that has led to considerable growth, Mondschein said.

“Internally, we’re looking at how we can expand the services we’re offering while attracting really good employees and really good technicians as well. The large majority of our staff work in Western Mass. and provide services in Western Mass. We certainly have a national presence, but Western Mass. is still our headquarters, and we still have a great affiliation with the practices here in Western Mass. and with Baystate.”

As noted earlier, the pandemic didn’t slow the pace of growth.

“We were fairly lucky — we were well-prepared for the remote working environment because we do so much work around the country, not just in Western Mass.,” Mondschein explained. “Much of our staff was already remote; we were able to collaborate remotely prior to the pandemic.”

What became evident during the pandemic is that improvements in healthcare technology are allowing remote collaborations to work even better than they did prior to the pandemic, and that’s good news for providers.

“For our clients, the need for the telehealth strategies accelerated significantly, and the ability to go mobile and have the mobility pieces in place significantly increased,” he told BusinessWest. “Certainly, telehealth is going to be here a long time, so patients been very fortunate as well, because not everyone has access to healthcare, and telehealth can give people access they didn’t have before.”

And the increasing presence of IT in healthcare — not just in telehealth, but in any number of applications — has positioned Pixel Health well to help organizations turn all that ‘noise,’ as Casey put it, into solutions that work for everyone.

“We have the ability to translate among those different domains,” she said. “A lot of our clients have been operating within a lot of silos — operations does this, clinical does this, IT, marketing, strategy, all these pieces. Especially in digital strategy, they often don’t have the staff that can translate among all those different components. We’re able to translate and accelerate that implementation.

“That’s hard, and there aren’t a lot of other firms out there doing that,” she added. “It’s something that really differentiates us.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

The Rising Cost of … Everything

To understand what’s happening in today’s global economy, one UMass economist said it’s helpful to picture it as a grid filled with connected nodes. When one of those nodes — manufacturing, distribution, shipping, you name it — is disrupted, the impact is felt by everyone. These days, those disruptions are occurring across the supply chain, and for many different reasons, causing costs to soar — both for businesses and their customers. It’s a major concern with no simple solution, and some worry that rising prices may derail what is otherwise looking like an economy in recovery.

When people sit down at a restaurant, Bryan Graham says, they don’t usually consider how their favorite meals and ingredients get there. They just expect them to be there.

It’s not always a smooth process, and the last couple months, especially, have been a challenge.

“There have been shortages on everything — things you wouldn’t think about, everything from the beverage side to the food side,” said Graham, regional manager for the Bean Restaurant Group, which boasts a family of 11 eateries throughout the region, from Johnny’s Tavern in Amherst to the Boathouse in South Hadley to the Student Prince in Springfield.

And those shortages have a financial impact, he went on. “Increases in prices have gone through the roof — to the point where we’ve moved some things off the menu because we can’t keep up with the prices; we’re losing money.”

The company has taken to switching menu items or brands of ingredients to keep up with price fluctuations, Graham added. “We’d always purchase one brand of canned tomatoes or one brand of ketchup, but we’re seeing brands being short, so we have to switch brands to get by without running out of product day to day.”

It makes for an odd market, he said. “You place your order, and you don’t really know if it’s all coming in until you open the truck and you’re short one or two items.”

It’s not something customers typically notice — until their favorite appetizer is suddenly unavailable. “Ninety percent of our customers are really understanding. The other 10% are like, ‘what do you mean I can’t have this?’ Unfortunately, we don’t want to charge you $40 for 10 chicken wings. Most people are pretty good about it.”

Bryan Graham says high food prices have forced the occasional menu change

Bryan Graham says high food prices have forced the occasional menu change because the Bean Restaurant Group doesn’t want to pass exorbitant costs to customers.

Nationally, food prices rose 0.4% in April, both at restaurants and on grocery shelves. Prices are up 2.4% from May 2020.

But it’s not just food. Rising prices for … well, almost everything have become one of the leading economic stories of 2021. One reason is a positive of sorts — the economy is reopening at high speed. Unfortunately, in some cases, supply chains have been slow to respond to growing consumer demand.

For example, American steel manufacturers all but shut down production last spring as the pandemic took hold and the economy imploded. But as the recovery ramped up, mills were slow to resume full production, creating a massive steel shortage, one that has severely impacted building costs.

Meanwhile, sawmills also shut down lumber production last spring to brace for a housing slump that never arrived — and now, with the housing market on fire, both in new construction and home improvement, lumber shortages have sent consumer prices soaring. In fact, the median sale price of existing homes nationwide surged by 17.2% in March to a record $329,100.

Anna Nagurney, the Eugene M. Isenberg chair in Integrative Studies at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst, said soaring prices in construction are a natural result of home-improvement activity increasing during the pandemic, while home buying never really slowed.

“People haven’t been traveling or anything, so they’ve been improving their homes, building decks, and so on,” she said. “Now we’ve seen the price of lumber has escalated dramatically in the last couple of months.”

The pandemic messed with supply and demand in unexpected ways, but now that the economy is reopening and consumers want to go out and spend (and, in many cases, have been saving those stimulus checks for that purpose), supply has run into a number of roadblocks, from the slow ramp-up of the lumber and steel industries to serious delays in freight shipping (more on that later) to a shortage of workers putting additional strain on businesses.

“People want bigger homes, better homes, they have more money, the federal government has been pretty good to people … there’s just much more demand for products,” Nagurney said.

Anna Nagurney

Anna Nagurney

“People haven’t been traveling or anything, so they’ve been improving their homes, building decks, and so on. Now we’ve seen the price of lumber has escalated dramatically in the last couple of months.”

She noted that the Trump administration was more overt about pursuing trade wars, and while back-and-forth tariffs haven’t been as much of an issue lately, the U.S. is still not on great terms with China, which significantly impacts the cost of steel, aluminum, and rare-earth metals. “The geopolitics is scary.”

Gas prices are on the rise as well, which impacts every sector of the economy, said Peter Picknelly, chairman and CEO of Peter Pan Bus Lines.

“Rising fuel has an effect on everyone — people have to ship things, produce things … it’s not just gas, but everything we buy,” he said. “Chicken and beef and produce, they all need machinery to harvest; that’s all fuel. You have to transport it; that’s all fuel. Rising fuel costs are a significant hit to the average consumer.”

 

Easing the Burden

In the case of lumber, the shortage has been exacerbated by existing tariffs. In the spring of 2017, the Trump administration hit Canada with tariffs of up to 24% on lumber. During the final months of his presidency, those tariffs were slashed to 9%, but the National Assoc. of Home Builders is calling on the Biden administration to temporarily remove the 9% tariff on Canadian lumber to help ease price volatility.

Supply-chain issues aren’t helping, from the six-day Suez Canal shutdown in March to clear the container ship Ever Given to the cyberattack that shut down the Colonial Pipeline earlier this month, to a critical shortage of shipping containers worldwide, particularly in Asia. Companies are waiting weeks for containers to become available and paying premium rates to secure them, causing shipping costs to skyrocket.

Peter Picknelly says fuel prices affect more than the transportation sector he works in

Peter Picknelly says fuel prices affect more than the transportation sector he works in, impacting everything from manufactured goods to the processing and delivery of food.

“The containers are not where they’re supposed to be,” Nagurney said. “It’s like a puzzle. We need to move them. That’s one of the reasons we can’t get some of the goods from China, like furniture. The prices of shipping containers have gone up as a result because they’re not where they should be.”

Margeaux MacDonald knows that well. As imports manager for East Coast Tile, which supplies Best Tile in Springfield, she is dealing with significant delays in bringing material in from Europe and Asia.

“There are huge delays right now,” she said. “We could have a booking on an actual boat and might not have a container to put the material in. Or, we’ve been bumped from boats because the vessel is overbooked. It’s frustrating — it’s taking four weeks, depending on where the stuff is. In Portugal, the booking is awful; it’s taking forever to get on the boat.”

The backups are affecting shipping costs — significantly. As one example, she cited a container from Turkey that currently costs four times as much to book as it did only a few months ago. “That’s just to pay for the container to get on the ocean carrier.”

Not all locations have gone up as dramatically, MacDonald added, noting that rates from Italy have more or less doubled — not as bad as the Turkey situation, but not ideal. “And we’re not the only ones seeing delays,” she said, citing a company she works with that’s trying to get a container of material from Brazil to New York, and has been delayed more than a month.

“I’m relatively new in this position, but I’ve definitely picked the brains of veterans across the industry, and a lot of people have said to me, ‘I’ve never seen this — I’ve been in the industry for 25 years, and I’ve never seen the volume and delays coming right now.’”

“I’m relatively new in this position, but I’ve definitely picked the brains of veterans across the industry, and a lot of people have said to me, ‘I’ve never seen this — I’ve been in the industry for 25 years, and I’ve never seen the volume and delays coming right now.’”

The problem doesn’t end when the product is shipped, she added. With huge backups in ports, truckers are sometimes waiting hours to load, and instead of hauling two or three loads a day, they might get only one. And returning empty containers to port has become more difficult as well. All these factors raise prices down the supply line. “There are a lot of moving pieces.”

It’s helpful to think about supply chains holistically to convey what’s going on, Nagurney said, describing the global economy as a grid of connected nodes representing manufacturing sites, warehouses, freight service providers, distribution centers, and demand points. A disruption at any of those nodes reverberates throughout the grid — and the economy has endured many such disruptions over the past year, on both the supply and demand sides.

“We’ve seen all sorts of shocks — supply shocks, different kinds of demand shocks, and, more recently, what’s happening with freight issues, from port congestion to the Ever Given blocking freight in the Suez Canal.

“With lumber, some of it has to do with higher tariffs on Canadian lumber,” she went on. “We don’t have containers in the right places to ship lumber. Freight costs are going up, and there’s all sorts of demand on imports from Europe.”

In short, things are chaotic right now, and that globally connected grid is under plenty of stress.

 

Inflation Spikes

Which brings us back to rising prices on, again, almost everything. U.S. consumer prices in April increased 4.2% from a year earlier, more than the 3.6% economists had predicted, and the largest 12-month increase since September 2008.

The biggest driver of last month’s inflation jump, CNN reported, was a 10% increase in used cars and trucks, which accounted for more than one-third of the overall inflation increase. Over the past year, used-car prices rose 21%, due in large part to a spike in demand — as people sought to travel last year without relying on public transit — just as car manufacturers were closed or running at diminished capacity.

Other factors in April’s inflation report include rising costs for furniture — a casualty of the shipping backlog — and hotels, airline tickets, and recreational activities, a trend that speaks to growing demand among Americans to get back to normal life.

Restaurants are feeling that demand, and are struggling, in many cases, to staff up to meet it.

“More places are reopening, and restrictions are being lifted,” Graham said. “That goes to supply and demand — demand was down for so long, and now it’s back up.”

However, he noted, federal unemployment benefits have kept service workers — who are in some cases, being paid more for not working — away from available jobs.

Bob Bolduc knows this story well. The CEO of Pride Stores said he recently shuttered four stores because he didn’t have anyone to staff them — and he blames unrealistically generous unemployment benefits.

“We’ve been competing with the government for 15 months now, and we’re not getting through to them,” he said. “The real story is how much the government is paying, and how that’s driving prices up unrealistically.

“We’re all paying the same people, for the same labor, two to five dollars an hour more than we normally do, and the definition of inflation is when you pay a lot more but don’t get anything more for it,” he went on. “The biggest factor is that we’re competing with the government for labor — the government is paying people to stay home, and we’re trying to get them to come back to work.”

The frustration is palpable, Bolduc said. “People say they can’t get a job, but we offer them jobs, and they don’t show up. They just want to come in and apply to say they applied. And nobody checks; they’re just giving it away. It’s been that way for 15 months now, and it’s worse than you realize. People have no idea.”

State officials have heard such complaints from business owners, however, and announced last week that, starting in mid-June, Massachusetts will more diligently require proof of genuine job-search activity as a condition of accessing unemployment benefits.

At the same time, Bolduc said, “other prices are going crazy — on everything. Convenience items and food are up at least 10%, maybe pushing 15%, and I don’t see an end in sight.”

For some industries, rising prices can be a benefit.

“We always view our largest competitor as passenger automobiles,” Peter Pan’s Picknelly said. “Historically, when fuel starts going over $3.50, we see a significant increase in passengers because it’s just too expensive for people to travel, so they look for alternatives in the bus.”

If anything, rising fuel prices — married to a desire among people to get away this summer — has benefited Peter Pan’s business, Picknelly explained, noting that Cape Cod trips are almost 100% booked, while he sees similar interest in destinations like New York and Washington, D.C. The reason is that people are looking to travel a little closer to home — in range of a drive, not a flight — and see bus travel as an affordable, low-stress option.

High gas prices should also benefit the company’s commuter buses by making public transit more attractive, he said, noting that the average city bus gets about 280 passenger miles to the gallon, as opposed to about one-tenth of that for cars.

 

The Struggle Continues

That makes for an environmentally friendly byproduct of a challenging economic season. And Nagurney doesn’t separate the economy from the environment — in fact, she believes business and industry leaders need to adopt techniques from disaster management because climate change remains a factor in the global economy.

“Things aren’t going to get better — we’ll see more storms, more floods, more hurricanes, sea levels rising, even more things like the fires we had on the West Coast. Climate change will lead to a greater frequency of natural disasters, and that will affect global supply chains, and it’ll take longer to get products.”

For now, though, most businesses are just focused on when the short-term stress will end. And no one really knows the answer to that.

“In January, we thought this will probably last until March,” MacDonald said of the shipping delays. “In March, we heard it might fizzle out by the summer. We’re almost to summertime, and I’m releasing things from Spain that can’t get a booking until the beginning of July.

“And we’re seeing a huge increase in sales, too,” she added. “There’s a huge need in the United States, and we’re trying to pump as much material as we can into the States, but it’s a struggle.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Special Coverage Travel and Tourism

Fun in the Sun

Last year may not have been a total washout when it came to outdoor recreation and events, but many well-loved attractions and destinations had to dramatically scale back operations — if they opened at all. This year, with May 29 marking the end of most gathering restrictions in Massachusetts, there’s once again plenty to look forward to. You can read about some of them on the following pages: two local collegiate baseball teams back in action, the return of a beloved music and craft festival in Greenfield, and — as a shoutout to the governor — a baker’s dozen other options. There’s much, much more to look forward to, so get online and check out what else is happening near you, during a summer that promises to be a long-awaited breath of fresh air.

Berkshires Arts Festival

380 State Road, Great Barrington

www.berkshiresartsfestival.com

Admission: $7-$14; free for children under 10

Aug. 13-15: Ski Butternut plays host to the Berkshires Arts Festival, a regional tradition now in its 20th year. When Gov. Charlie Baker announced the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions as of Aug. 1 (since revised to May 29), event organizers moved the dates of this year’s festival to mid-August. Thousands of art lovers and collectors are expected to stop by to check out and purchase the creations of more than 175 artists and designers from across the country, in both outdoor and air-conditioned indoor exhibition spaces. “With its relaxed atmosphere, great food, exceptional art, and fine crafts, puppet shows, and live music,” the Berkshires Visitors Bureau notes, “it’s a great weekend for the entire family.”

 

The Big E

1305 Memorial Ave., West Springfield

www.easternstatesexposition.com

Admission: $8 and up; free for children under 5; 17-day pass $20-$40

Sept. 17 to Oct. 3: Yes, it’s happening. And as regional fairs go, it’s still the big one, with something for everyone, whether it’s the copious fair food or the livestock shows, the Avenue of States houses and parades, the local vendors and crafters, or the live music. Musical highlights this year include Machine Gun Kelly in concert on Sept. 17, and Brad Paisley performing in the arena on Sept. 24, marking the 20th anniversary of the first time Paisley played the Big E.

 

Crab Apple Whitewater Rafting

2056 Mohawk Trail, Charlemont

www.crabapplewhitewater.com

Admission: Varies by activity

All summer: Wanna get wet? Crab Apple is a third-generation, multi-state family business that operates locally on the Deerfield River in the northern Berkshire Mountains of Western Mass. Its rafting excursions range from mild to wild, full- or half-day runs, in rafts and inflatable kayaks. In short, Crab Apple offers something for everyone, from beginners to more experienced rafters. Starting May 29, the company will accept reservations for all group sizes. Meanwhile, waivers will be sent in advance to guests for e-signing to ensure a touch-free check-in process, hand-washing stations have been added at all building entrances, and transportation to and from the river will be offered in vans and buses.

 

Drive-in Concerts at the Wick

The Wick, Legion Road, Southwick

www.westfieldlivemusic.com/southwick

Admission: $25 to $45

June 11, July 9, Aug. TBA: The national touring and recording artists Beatlemania Again will headline a summer series of live drive-in concerts on to benefit the Southwick Civic Fund, which creates and produces events that provide a sense of community spirit, celebration, and civic pride. The concert will be held at the Southwick MotoX Track (the Wick) on Legion Road in Southwick on June 11 at 7:30 p.m., and will follow all current CDC and local health department guidelines. Each vehicle will have a space next to it for the occupants to set up lawn chairs or blankets to enjoy the show. A modest PA and lighting will provide a real concert feel. Upcoming concerts in the series include Foreigners Journey (July 9) and an August show to be announced.

 

FreshGrass Festival

1040 MASS MoCA Way, North Adams

www.freshgrass.com

Admission: $50-$150 for three-day pass; free for children under 6

Sept. 24-26: The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art is known for its musical events, and the FreshGrass festival is among the highlights, showcasing dozens of bluegrass artists and bands over three days. This year, the lineup includes Dispatch, Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue, Béla Fleck My Bluegrass Heart (featuring Michael Cleveland, Sierra Hull, Justin Moses, Mark Schatz, and Bryan Sutton), Watchouse, Sarah Jarosz, and many more. FreshGrass features bluegrass traditionalists and innovators on four stages and platforms throughout the museum’s 16-acre campus. Festival programming also includes FreshScores, a silent film with original live music; FreshGrass commissions and world premieres; instrument and industry workshops; pop-up performances and retail; and local Berkshire food and spirits vendors.

 

Fresh Paint Springfield

Downtown Springfield

www.freshpaintspringfield.com

Admission: Free

June 5-13: Fresh Paint Springfield, the mural festival that began in 2019 in downtown Springfield and transformed large exterior walls into art, will return with 10 new murals downtown and in Mason Square. This year’s festival will involve members of the community in the design and painting of all 10 murals, which will result in opportunities for more than 1,000 Springfield residents to actively participate in the beautification of the city. The murals will use a technique that employs giant paint-by-numbers canvases on special polytab mural fabric for members of the community to paint at COVID-safe outdoor paint parties during the festival. New this year, the Community Mural Apprentice program will pair 10 local artists with established muralists to learn how to independently engage with the community in designing and painting large, professional murals.

 

Historic Deerfield

84B Old Main St., Deerfield, MA

www.historic-deerfield.org

Admission: $5-$18; free for children under 6

All summer: This outdoor museum interprets the history and culture of early New England and the Connecticut River Valley. Visitors can tour 12 carefully preserved antique houses dating from 1730 to 1850 and explore world-class collections of regional furniture, silver, textiles, and other decorative arts. Summer activities include educational lectures, cooking demonstrations, and exhibitions of period items and art. Due to COVID-19, access to the historic house museums is still restricted, but at least one historic house will open for touring each day, with wider access possible later on. Visitors should inquire on the day of their visit which house is open for touring that day.

 

Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival

358 George Carter Road, Becket

www.jacobspillow.org

Admission: Prices vary

June 30 to Aug. 29: Jacob’s Pillow has become one of the country’s premier showcases for dance, and this year’s festival returns with live, in-person events, but much more as well. “We will share the restorative and uplifting power of dance in person at our campus in the Berkshire Hills, on the road in our communities, as well as through live and on-demand events online to reach audiences across the world,” its directors say. “Our offerings will include commissions, premieres, Pillow debuts, talks, and workshops that take into account COVID-compliant protocols to ensure the health and safety of our community. The festival will put artists back to work after the devastation of the pandemic and remind us all of the power of dance to positively impact communities.”

 

Mattoon Street Arts Festival

Mattoon Street, Springfield

www.mattoonfestival.org

Admission: Free

Sept. 11-12: Now in its 48th year, the Mattoon Street Arts Festival is the longest-running arts festival in the Pioneer Valley, featuring about 100 exhibitors, including artists that work in ceramics, fibers, glass, jewelry, painting and printmaking, photography, wood, metal, and mixed media. Food vendors and strolling musicians help to make the event a true late-summer destination. Admission is free, as is parking at the TD Bank lot. Located just three blocks from I-91, this family-friendly event is ideal for holiday shopping, seeing new craft ideas, or just walking on a beautiful Victorian street.

Pedal ‘n’ Party

Brunelle’s Marina, 1 Alvord St., South Hadley

www.pedalnparty.com

Admission: $30 for 60 minutes, $15 for 30 minutes

All summer: Want to have some fun out on the water? Rent an individual hydrobike, which can be use to explore the Connecticut River and the streams that feed into it. This eco-friendly, pedal-powered vessel moves at a comfortable 4-6 mph with easy effort. From its stability to its high visibility on the water, the hydrobike is engineered for a safe, reliable ride. Its pontoons were scientifically developed by a professional canoe designer for optimum buoyancy, speed, and maneuverability, ensuring a smooth ride even in very choppy water. Stable enough to dive from, the hydrobike can also handle rough water conditions, including five-foot swells. Rent it for a beautiful day on the water, a workout, or a fun group activity.

 

Pioneer Valley Ballet

Park Hill Orchard, 82 Park Hill Road, Easthampton

www.pioneervalleyballet.org

Admission: $20, $10 for children and seniors

June 4-5: It’s been a year and a half since Pioneer Valley Ballet (PVB) last performed for a live audience, but that will change in June as the company welcomes spring with an outdoor, site-specific performance of one of Shakespeare’s most popular and treasured works, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. After having to cancel all of its 2020 performances, PVB is once again taking to the stage — only this time the ‘stage’ is Easthampton’s Park Hill Orchard, where for two afternoons small groups will wind through the fields, discovering scenes from the Midsummer story at sites throughout the picturesque orchard. A new audience will enter every 30 minutes. The first performance of each day will be a non-roaming, single-location performance for anyone with mobility concerns.

 

Six Flags New England

1623 Main St., Agawam

www.sixflags.com/newengland

Admission: $29.99 and up; season passes $49.99

All summer: Continuing an annual tradition of adding a new major attraction each spring, Six Flags New England recently unveiled Supergirl Skyflyer, a spinning, high-speed thrill ride. The main park is now open, and the Hurricane Harbor waterpark opens Memorial Day weekend. “We are beyond thrilled that we can reopen our theme park with a full complement of our more than 100 rides, attractions, and unique experiences,” park President Pete Carmichael said recently. “Now more than ever, families need an escape that is safe, accessible and fun.”

 

The Zoo in Forest Park

293 Sumner Ave., Springfield, MA

www.forestparkzoo.org

Admission: $5-$10; free for children under 1

Through Oct. 14: The Zoo in Forest Park, located inside Springfield’s Forest Park, is home to a wide variety of species found throughout the world and North America. Meanwhile, the zoo maintains a focus on conservation, wildlife education, and rehabilitations. The Zoo is open seven days a week, weather permitting, but all guests, including members, currently need a timed ticket to visit. Recently, state Sen. Eric Lesser and other local lawmakers announced $125,000 in pandemic recovery funding for the zoo to continue its mission of education, conservation, and rehabilitation.

 

 

Travel and Tourism

Play Ball!

Kate Avard says the Blue Sox have maintained strong relationships

Kate Avard says the Blue Sox have maintained strong relationships with programs that have delivered key players in its past few successful seasons.

Kate Avard first discovered the Valley Blue Sox as a summer intern with the club in 2016, while working toward degrees in sport management and kinesiology at UMass Amherst, and she was excited to return to the franchise as its general manager in 2020.

It wasn’t the experience she had hoped for, to say the least. But she’s happy to see the team finally taking the field in 2021.

“We didn’t get to play last year, and I think everyone across the league — players, staff, and interns — are all very excited to be able to play this season,” Avard told BusinessWest.

Last year’s lull particularly smarted for the Blue Sox, who were coming off three outstanding seasons — New England Collegiate Baseball League championships in 2017 and 2018 and a nailbiter loss in the division finals in 2019.

“We’ve gotten tons of interest from players wanting to get back out there for us,” she said. “The same thing with interns — we pull interns from across the U.S. Everyone wants to get back out on the field, and that goes for all the organizations in our league.”

Chris Thompson had a different pandemic experience last year. The co-founder of the Westfield Starfires was grateful that the Futures Collegiate Baseball League actually went through with a season, albeit one with strict pandemic protocols and limited fans. He, too, is looking forward to a more normal campaign in 2021.

“It’s an opportunity for kids to come together and kind of celebrate the social gathering once again.”

“We’re proud to be part of such an innovative and forward-thinking league,” he said. “In the last year, we were able to manage the intricacies of multiple states and municipalities to pull off a season — some of the only baseball played in North America. We’re pretty proud of that — of showcasing our team and being able to provide a safe, positive experience for fans at Bullens Field.”

In fact, the Futures league not only played last year, but managed to grow its footprint during the pandemic, welcoming two new teams, the Burlington (Vt.) Lake Monsters and the Norwich (Conn.) Sea Unicorns, into the fold, which speaks well of continued interest in baseball, Thompson noted. “We’ve been able to attract new ownership groups, which is really exciting for us.”

Despite the lost season of play last year, Avard said the Blue Sox’ director of Baseball Operations, John Raiola, was able to maintain relationships that have long fed Holyoke’s summer franchise. “He knows all the recruiting very well, so he was able to stay in contact with a lot of programs and schools that we’ve previously drawn from. We definitely didn’t go silent last year.”

Meanwhile, the Starfires have been in contact with college coaches around the country as well, Thompson said, though national recruiting is a little more difficult because Westfield is among many teams that have put host-family programs on hold during the pandemic. “Teams are taking a more local and regional roster approach for 2021.”

The Blue Sox, on the other hand, have continued to solicit host families to house the college players this summer.

“We rely on our host families to welcome them and show our players why Western Mass. is so great,” Avard said, while those players, in turn, help the team provide low-cost, family-friendly entertainment for local fans.

She added that the team is following all state health mandates for capacity and social distancing at MacKenzie Stadium — restrictions that were significantly loosened days before press time. Still, the park will be equipped with hand-washing and hand-sanitizer stations in a nod to the fact that the pandemic hasn’t gone away.

“It’s America’s pastime,” Thompson added. “We’re going to have a great atmosphere at Bullens Field. It’s an opportunity for kids to come together and kind of celebrate the social gathering once again, while following all the CDC protocols.”

The Starfires, which were named after a fighter jet once stationed at Barnes Air National Guard Base, will open the season with a new mascot, a black squirrel named Stanley Starfire, who shares a namesake with Stanley Park. “We continue to pay homage to the city of Westfield.”

Thompson is also excited about a partnership with Amherst Brewing Co., which created a new Starfires IPA for sale at the park and at the local Hangar Pub & Brewery. But he’s mostly excited about baseball. “The players are fired up and looking forward to getting back on the field.”

The two local collegiate teams — which both start play in the coming days and continue into August — aren’t the only options for fans, of course. The Hartford Yard Goats, the double-A affiliate of the Colorado Rockies, still draw impressive crowds just down I-91 in Dunkin’ Donuts Park, while the Red Sox moved their triple-A affiliate to Worcester, where they recently kicked off play in Polar Park.

“I personally think baseball is integral to this area,” Avard said. “We have so many different teams in so many different levels, and I’ve seen so much support from the fans. People were reaching out to us in January, asking about the season, asking if we’d be back at MacKenzie.

“Baseball is one of the biggest sports around here,” she went on. “Everyone is so excited to be back on the field. As an outdoor activity, it’s a great way to start bringing things back to normal this summer.”

 

—Joseph Bednar

Travel and Tourism

Better Late Than Never

Femi Kuti & the Positive Force

Femi Kuti & the Positive Force entertain the crowd at the Green River Festival in 2018. (Photo by Douglas Mason)

Since its inception in the late 1980s, the Green River Festival had never been canceled. Until last year.

And Jim Olsen wanted to give it every chance to return in 2021, even if it meant moving the date from mid-July to Aug. 27-29 — which turned out to be unnecessary, but hey, better safe than sorry.

“It was definitely a challenge to plan on so many levels,” said Olsen, president of Signature Sounds, the Northampton-based company that produces the annual festival in Greenfield.

“It became apparent in January that July wasn’t going to fly — at least, it didn’t seem that way at the time,” he went on, a perception that speaks volumes about how far the state and the nation have come with COVID-19 case rates and a massive vaccination effort. At first, the move seemed prescient, especially after Gov. Charlie Baker announced the state would fully reopen, without gathering restrictions, on Aug. 1.

No one knew the governor would eventually shift that date to May 29, but Olsen doesn’t mind an extra month to get the Green River Festival right, even if the planning got a little thorny.

“We had already booked all the musicians for July, and we had to scrap that and start over again for August,” he said — a feat in itself, since musicians tend to book a series of shows in succession, and it’s not always easy to shift dates around.

“These musicians are dying to get back out there. They depend on being on the road.”

But shift they did, and this year’s festival features about 30 bands, headlined by the likes of Jon Batiste, Shakey Graves, Ani DiFranco, Valerie June, and Drive-By Truckers over the event’s three days. Check out greenriverfestival.com for the full lineup and plenty of other information.

Speaking of changes, the festival also had to find another venue after 33 years at Greenfield Community College, which announced earlier this year it would be closed for the summer. The new host is the Franklin County Fairgrounds, which actually offers more space, Olsen said. “It’s a great site, and we’re really excited about it. I feel it’s going to be a new and exciting chapter for us.”

He’s not the only one who’s excited. Musicians have struggled badly during the pandemic like few businesses have — and, make no mistake, music is a business, one that relies on live performance.

“These days, you really don’t make much money recording,” Olsen said of a market that has radically de-emphasized physical product in favor of streaming. “It’s all in the live shows. These musicians are dying to get back out there. They depend on being on the road.”

While they’re enjoying this year’s stop along that road — the event will feature music on three different stages throughout the weekend — the festival will also feature plenty of what fans have loved in the past, from Berkshire Brewing Co.’s beer and wine tent to food trucks hailing from across the Northeast to the Makers Market, a collection of regional artisans selling handmade crafts, jewelry, clothing, and more.

“We’ve worked very hard building a world-class crafts market,” Olsen said. “We like to represent the best of Western Mass. at the Green River Festival. That’s why we continue to do so well.”

Tickets cost $139.99 for the weekend, but patrons can attend Friday only for $44.99 or Saturday or Sunday for $69.99 each day. Camping is available, but RV passes are already sold out.

“Our ticket sales have been very, very strong, from the minute we announced it,” Olsen said. “There’s so much anticipation among people to get back to life, to get back out and enjoy the stuff we love. I’ve always felt like this was a big community party — and this year, it’s going to be supersized.”

 

—Joseph Bednar

Special Coverage Technology

Bringing a Message to Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And do it, for the most part, remotely.

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

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

 

Crossing Paths

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

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

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

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

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

A project for Amherst College’s bicentennial

Animated messaging advocating for changes in tobacco laws

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Mission Accomplished

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Restaurants

Sunny Outlook

Debra Flynn in the alley behind Eastside Grill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Taking to the Streets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Class of 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

—Joseph Bednar

Class of 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

—Joseph Bednar

Class of 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

—Joseph Bednar

 

Class of 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

—Joseph Bednar

Class of 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What really keeps her going, however, is passion.

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

 

—Joseph Bednar

 

Class of 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

—Joseph Bednar

Class of 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

—Joseph Bednar

Class of 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

—Joseph Bednar

Class of 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

—Joseph Bednar

Class of 2021

CEO, Secure Energy Solutions; Age 39

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

—Joseph Bednar

Class of 2021

Co-owner, Mellowship Entertainment, LLC; Age 28

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

—Joseph Bednar

Class of 2021

Project Manager, Tighe & Bond; Age 30

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

—Joseph Bednar

 

Class of 2021

Staff Attorney, Central West Justice Center; Age 32

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

—Joseph Bednar

Class of 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

—Joseph Bednar

Education Special Coverage

Back to Normal?

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

Normalcy.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jonathan Scully

Jonathan Scully

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chet Jordan

Chet Jordan

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

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

 

Safety First

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bryan Gross

Bryan Gross

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Learning by Doing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Waiting for the Return

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And doing so safely, Gross said.

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

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

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

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

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Architecture Special Coverage

A New Environment

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

 

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

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

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

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

Jeff Daley

Jeff Daley

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Peter

David Peter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Holding Pattern

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

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

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

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

Ashley Sullivan

Ashley Sullivan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christopher Myhrum

Christopher Myhrum

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Issues of Justice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Moving Forward

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

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

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

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

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

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story The Cannabis Industry

Creating a Buzz

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

Helen Gomez Andrews and Chris Andrews of the High End

Sustaining a Plan

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

Stephanie McNair of Turning Leaf Centers

Budding Connections

Turning Leaf Centers Plants Itself Firmly in the Community

Charlotte Hanna of Community Growth Partners and Rebelle

Charlotte Hanna of Community Growth Partners and Rebelle

Hire Calling

Community Growth Partners Builds on Model of Social Equity

Health Care Special Coverage

Youth in Crisis

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

 

Alane Burgess began by stating the obvious.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tamera Crenshaw says barriers to accessing mental healthcare are myriad.

Tamera Crenshaw says barriers to accessing mental healthcare are myriad.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“You’ve got to name it.”

 

Start the Conversation

That means breaking through societal stigma surrounding these struggles.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jessica Collins

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

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

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

 

Take It Seriously

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Health Care

Mental Block

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

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

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

Dr. Barry Sarvet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Multiple Pivots

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

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

Spiros Hatiras

Spiros Hatiras

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Not Waiting Around

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

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

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

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

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

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

The Cannabis Industry

Hire Calling

Charlotte Hanna of Community Growth Partners and Rebelle

Charlotte Hanna of Community Growth Partners and Rebelle

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Growth Opportunity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charlotte Hanna and members of Roca celebrate

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

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

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

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

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

 

Taking Control

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

The Cannabis Industry

Budding Connections

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

It’s called Budstock.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Comfort Level

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

What’s on the Menu?

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

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

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

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

The Cannabis Industry

Sustaining a Plan

Chris and Helen Andrews

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Feels Like Home

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Have a Seat

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

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

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

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

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Special Coverage Tourism & Hospitality

Get Back Here

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

Gillian Amaral (left) and Stacey Warren

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Places, she said, like Western Mass.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Taking the Long View

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

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

Mary Kay Wydra says Western Mass. is well-positioned

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Up in the Air

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]