Home Articles posted by Joseph Bednar
Features

Hopes Are High

After recreational marijuana use became legal in Massachusetts in 2016, the expectation was that retail stores would pop up quickly within a couple of years. That hasn’t happened, as the state — and host communities — have taken a deliberately measured approach to permitting. But with early returns strong from a few shops, and towns reporting solid tax benefits and no real community disruption, the pace of openings should begin to increase — and so will the economic benefits of this new industry.

If Western Mass. was full of people who thought the sky was falling when recreational marijuana was legalized, well, Mark Zatyrka thinks fewer of them are saying the same thing now.

“I knew it would change. But I feel like it’s changed at a more rapid pace than I would have expected,” he said of public perceptions about the new access to cannabis products in the Bay State. “When we held our public meetings, we had a few folks who thought we were going to destroy the world and everything would come crashing down once we opened. But the opposite has been true.”

Take the location of INSA, the cannabis dispensary he owns in Easthampton, which has sold marijuana for medical purposes since February 2018, but began selling for recreational, or adult, use in December. Tucked beside Eastworks at the rear of the Keystone Mills building on Pleasant Street, he said some may have worried about INSA’s proximity to a nearby park where people hike.

“But, really, we bring more people to the area, we have cameras all over the place, it’s well-lit, so it’s actually a safer place to be,” Zatyrka said. “If the perception was that customers are hoodlums who come in, go out back, and get high and do crime, well, look around — we serve almost every demographic you can imagine, from seniors to millennials, rich and poor, and they’re not violent criminals. They’re not here to cause trouble. Yeah, the perception has changed pretty rapidly.”

Perceptions — pro and con — of this new industry have undoubtedly shaped a permitting process, on both the state and local levels, that has moved more slowly than first expected when recreational use became legal in 2016. The state’s first adult-use retail shops were expected to be open last July, but instead, the first two opened in November, and the pace of new shops since then has been leisurely at best.

But they’re coming. And the ones that are open are changing those worst-case perceptions.

Mark  Zatyrka says INSA has attracted a diverse array of customers

Mark Zatyrka says INSA has attracted a diverse array of customers since starting recreational sales in December.

Take New England Treatment Access (NETA) in Northampton, the Bay State’s first retailer of cannabis products for recreational use.

“For us, it’s been a positive experience,” Northampton Mayor David Narcewicz told BusinessWest. “We’re starting to see some of the economic benefits in terms of taxes, and I know our local businesses have been creative in embracing the new industry. Businesses back in November were offering specials to people who came into town and showed a receipt for shopping at NETA. If anything, I think the business community has been receptive.”

He noted that Northampton’s voters were among the most enthusiastic in their support of legal cannabis, both during the 2012 statewide vote to legalize medicinal marijuana, then for adult use in 2016. As mayor, he said, his approach has been to respect the community’s voice.

“So we’ve been very open and proactive; we created zoning regulations that essentially treat this new industry like any other business, and we did not impose caps on the number of retailers like many communities did.

“We also had the experience of having one of the first medical dispensaries in the state,” he added, speaking of NETA’s original business plan. “We had a track record of seeing how they had operated and had the chance to see what the potential impacts were. They’ve been a good member of our business community; they worked with us to make sure their opening went smoothly, and have been working with surrounding businesses to make sure there’s no disruption.”

Stories like this are why, despite the slow rollout of pot shops so far — and state tax revenue well under early projections — proponents are confident that the trends toward greater public acceptance of this industry, and tax revenues to match, will soon accelerate.

“As an industry, we’ve done a good job to ensure that things are done correctly, and the state’s done a good job putting measures in place to help ensure it is a safe industry and people are getting a safe product and it’s dispensed in a safe way,” Zatyrka said. “The state did a lot of things right, which is why we’re seeing a successful rollout. I know some people wish it moved quicker, but I understand why it didn’t. There are thousands of applications, a lot of inspections, a lot to oversee. It takes time. It’s a new industry for everybody.”

Green Growth

As part of its new marijuana laws, Massachusetts imposes a 17% tax — a 6.25% sales tax plus a 10.75% excise tax — on cannabis businesses, while cites and towns take another 3%, plus whatever else they may choose to impose as part of their host-community agreements.

In Northampton’s case, that’s an additional 3%, called a ‘community-impact fee.’ The city received two checks recently: $449,825 from the Department of Revenue representing the 3% tax rate for recreational marijuana sales in November, December, and January, and $287,506 from NETA itself, reflecting the 3% community-impact fee on recreational sales for December and January.

“When we held our public meetings, we had a few folks who thought we were going to destroy the world and everything would come crashing down once we opened. But the opposite has been true.”

Other towns are seeing their coffers benefit as well. Theory Wellness opened in Great Barrington in December, paying $90,000 in taxes to the town in its first month.

“They opened to long lines, which should level off as they get more competition,” Ed Abrahams, vice chair of the town’s Select Board, told BusinessWest last month. “This is new for all of us, but so far, there have been logistically few problems.”

Southern Berkshire County communities that embrace the cannabis trade are sure to benefit from the continued illegality of the drug in both Connecticut and New York, though leaders in both states have been talking about whether that should remain the case. Brandon Pollock, CEO of Theory Wellness, told the New York Post last week that about 15,000 New Yorkers have made purchases there since its Jan. 11 opening.

“I’d say we get dozens, if not hundreds, a day from the greater New York City area,” he noted. “We get people coming up in Zipcars, people carpooling, people who say they hardly ever drive at all — but will drive to purchase cannabis.”

That sort of consumer response is intriguing to towns that see this industry as a new economic driver.

“Some cities have been great to work with, some a little more difficult to work with,” Zatyrka said. “Easthampton is very progressive city, and early on it was very obvious they wanted us here.”

That’s important from a competition perspective, he said, because the application process is already time-consuming, and communities that want to make it even more difficult to move through permitting and craft a host-community agreement can tie up a project for years, while other shops in more amenable towns are opening and picking up crucial market share and customer loyalty.

“Easthampton was great,” he went on. “Everyone wants to find a solution instead of putting up roadblocks. They want us to be successful, to get their name on the map, and they saw the benefits early on.”

He’s seeing a gradual shift, too, in where proposed projects will be located, noting that, when INSA started cultivating marijuana for medical use, most such outfits were setting up in old mill buildings or industrial parks. “Now it’s not so restrictive — people can open up on Main Street, and wind up in locations that are made for retail use, for people to come visit.”

That’s certainly the goal in Northampton, which is looking at myriad applications from cannabis manufacturers, cultivators, testing labs, and retail establishments, Narcewicz noted. It welcomes them because it sees value in how NETA, which isn’t even located downtown, has impacted business.

“NETA has created good-paying jobs in the community, and it’s an important way to expand our tax base and grow our local economy,” he said. “We have a local economy focused on retail, dining, entertainment, and a very vibrant cultural economy. And I think this complements it.”

There have been traffic and parking challenges, he added, “but if you talk to most retailers, downtowns having too many visitors is never a bad thing. We’re kind of equipped to handle a lot of visitors. And NETA has been very responsive in terms of renting additional parking from neighboring businesses, which helps them as well by providing an income stream. So far, it’s been a very positive experience, and there’s no reason to believe that’s going to change.”

Making a Name

BRIGADE has certainly benefited from this new industry. The Hadley-based brand-services company has worked with INSA extensively, including the creation of the designs for all its products and marketing.

“Everyone calls cannabis the wild west, and it is from a branding and design perspective, too,” said Kirsten Modestow, BRIGADE’s owner and executive creative director. “The rules for a whole category are being written overnight. That’s challenging, but it’s also some of the most exciting stuff we’ve ever worked on.”

With some cannabis businesses coming out with 100 or more products, it presents a unique branding challenge, she added, because the goal is not only to create a memorable look, but to help customers, many of whom have little experience with marijuana, navigate the products.

“One of the upsides of this industry is the impact it’s having on our communities, and it’s providing a lot of new opportunities and jobs,” she said. “It’s providing a lot of work for people, even tapping into farmers and other people who have services to offer and know what they’re doing.”

The education aspect Modestow touched on is one that continues in the store, Zatyrka said. The sales associates — he prefers that title to the flip industry term ‘budtenders’ — are the same ones who have worked with medical patients for a long time, and they have the training to dig deep into the science behind the products, so they can effectively explain them.

“We understand it’s a product that needs to be consumed safely, and we take that seriously,” he said. “We don’t want to be liable for someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing and eats an entire chocolate bar and has to go to the ER. We do all in our power to prevent that from happening.”

The coming months and years will see more education (and more tax revenues) as pot-shop openings pick up the pace — including Evergreen Strategies, LLC, which recently inked a host-community agreement with Belchertown to bring a facility to that town as early as this fall.

The Boston Globe recently cited industry analysts who say Massachusetts has a much slower local approval process and a more complex system to navigate than other states, and the state Cannabis Control Commission has placed a premium on an adult-use regulatory structure that supports public health and public safety. The measured pace ensures that stores pass inspections, sell lab-tested products, hire vetted workers, and track their products.

“It’s a growing industry, and will continue to grow,” said Zatyrka, who plans to open an adult-use dispensary in Springfield and has a cultivating and manufacturing license in Pennsylvania as well. Meanwhile, INSA is doubling its cultivation — located directly above the Easthampton store — and is looking to triple it in the future. “We’re still a few years out before we can meet the demands of the state. So it’s going to be hard work until then to keep up our supply with demand.”

The work is rewarding, though, especially for someone who treated his chronic pain for more than 15 years with oxycontin, oxycodone, morphine, and methadone, and suffered side effects that drastically outweighed the benefits.

“Thanks to cannabis, I was able to stop taking them,” Zatyrka said. “Cannabis helped with the withdrawals, and now I only use cannabis to treat my chronic pain, and it works 100 times better than all the opioids. I know firsthand the power of cannabis versus painkillers.”

He tells that story not because it’s unique, but because it’s representative of many people he comes across, with stories about how cannabis has helped them with seizures, Crohn’s disease, arthritis, and multiple sclerosis. And if legal adult use is helping to tear down the last bits of stigma around cannabis, he’s all for it.

“It’s incredibly gratifying to hear the stories and how grateful people are,” he said. “They’re able to get benefits from cannabis, and don’t have to hide it like they once did.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]m

Employment

More Than a Job

President Tricia Canavan

President Tricia Canavan

At its core, the mission of a staffing agency is to connect employers with job seekers — a task United Personnel has tackled with success for 35 years. But creating those matches doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Rather, building a healthy workforce is a region-wide effort that makes demands of employers, colleges, training programs, K-to-12 schools, and lawmakers. United Personnel President Tricia Canavan recognizes this big picture — and her firm’s role in closing the gaps.

Tricia Canavan’s job is to help people get jobs, and to help companies find those people. It’s that simple — only, it’s not.

“Workforce development and education are things I’m really passionate about and involved in in a variety of ways,” she told BusinessWest. “We’ve heard about the skills gap and the disconnect between people who are not working or are underemployed, and employers who are saying they can’t expand because they don’t have the staff they need, and they have to turn work away because there’s not enough employees. There’s a real disconnect. So, what are the strategies we can use to be able to bridge that gap?”

As president of United Personnel, Canavan connects job seekers to regular paychecks every day. But the challenge of doing so runs far deeper than many might assume. In fact, for many, it starts well before kindergarten.

“I think we need to be really comprehensive and innovative in how we look at workforce develoment and education, even K to 12. They call it cradle to career — you want to start kids with a really good background to enter kindergarten.”

Consider, she said, that only 7% of Springfield children are considered kindergarten-ready when they enter school, and if they don’t hit reading proficiency by third grade, it sets them on a never-ending pattern of playing catchup.

“It’s said that, from kindergarten to third grade, you’re learning to read, and from third grade on, you’re reading to learn,” Canavan said. “So if your reading-comprehension skills are not where they need to be, it’s a very tough thing to make that up. The gaps start young, and they persist, and continue through high school.”

Beyond high school, in fact, contributing to what are commonly known in the employment world as skills gaps. Which brings her back to her daily role, one she tackles with a decidedly big-picture view.

“I think the disconnect and the skills gap we see is not only a challenge and a missed opportunity for local residents, but it also is an economic-development concern,” she said. “Ultimately, employers need the skilled workforce to be able to grow, and if we, over the long term, or even the medium term, are not able to produce better results at a time when Massachusetts population is pretty flat, we’re going to have a problem. It’s critical that we’re engaging as many of those residents as can work and want to work, and making sure they have the skills they need to be successful for themselves and their families, too.”

In today’s reasonably healthy economy, Canavan said, good jobs exist. She knows, because she’s got a large roster of clients that want to fill them.

“If we cannot access candidates that have the skill sets that employers need, we will not be viable as an organization. So we have some serious skin in this game,” she went on. “But I also see it as a social-justice issue. If we can do better in these fields of education and workforce development, if we can connect people with the opportunties that exist in ways they had not been connected before, that can be a game changer.”

“I think the disconnect and the skills gap we see is not only a challenge and a missed opportunity for local residents, but it also is an economic-development concern.”

For this issue’s focus on employment, BusinessWest sat down with Canavan to talk about the ways her 35-year-old firm continues to close the gaps between job creators and job seekers, and the myriad ways that task is complicated by a lifetime of factors.

Steady Growth

Jay Canavan, Tricia’s father, transitioned from a career as president of Springfield Museums to launch United Personnel in 1984; his wife, Mary Ellen Scott, joined him about six months later, eventually serving as the company’s long-time president until eight years ago, when Tricia took the reins.

Jay and Mary Ellen opened their first office in Hartford, specializing in professional, administrative, and finance services. A few years later, they opened a second office in Springfield, focusing on support to the light industrial sector. Today, the firm also boasts offices in Northampton, Pittsfield, Chelmsford, and New Haven.

Meanwhile, its roster of specialties has grown to include manufacturing, hospitality, information technology, nonprofits, medical offices, and even a dental-services division, which has proven to be a significant growth area.

“Then we continue to focus on some core competencies,” she noted. “We do a lot of vendor-on-premises account management, where we provide turnkey human-resources support for our clients.”

One example is Yankee Candle, a business whose staffing level fluctuates through the ebbs and flows of the retail seasons. “Back in the day, people would hire and lay off, hire and lay off, Now, using a vendor-on-premises model, we partner with their human resources and production teams, and we manage seasonal staffing for them in a turnkey way. We have management on site 24/7, so their human resources and production teams can focus on their core business, and we supplement those activities.”

Cavanan said she enjoys working in partnership with clients because it allows United to become a part of their business and operational strategy and provide real value.

“Because we deal with such a wide variety of clients, we’re often able to take best practices and lessons learned and apply them to new clients. It’s almost like a knowledge-sharing service that we offer. And we’ve been really pleased with the results of some of that expertise we’ve been able to implement.”

Whether it’s helping clients with continuous improvement, staff-retention strategies, or joint recruiting events, she said United does its best work when it’s able to take on that level of partnership.

“If clients are open to this, we’re able to take an advisory and consulting role where we share with them, ‘here are some things we’re seeing in the marketplace.’ Oftentimes, it’s even current employment law,” Canavan said, noting that, just last week, United showed a client that one of its incentive programs was no longer legal due to changes in the law.

“We’re really proud of being able to serve as subject-matter experts in terms of recruitment, but also often in terms of human-resources compliance,” she went on. “We’re not attorneys, but because of the nature of what we do, we frequently have a very good finger on the pulse of what’s happening in compliance and employment law.”

Those various human-resources services are often crucial to smaller clients that may not have an in-house HR team or, at best, have one person handling everything from benefits and compliance to performance management and recruitment.

“To recruit well and comprehensively in a very tight labor market is extremely time-consuming,” she said. “Not only are we doing it all day, every day, but we have the infrastructure to find not only candidates that are actively seeking employment, but also candidates who might be open to considering a new job. And being able to partner with small and medium-sized customers allows us to bring them support with services they likely don’t have time to do. We’re really proud of that aspect of our work.”

Work Your Way Up

But Canavan is also proud of the big-picture view United takes of the region’s jobs landscape, citing efforts like the Working Cities grant that aims to better align workforce-development efforts and produce positive results for both job seekers and employers. “The economy is good, so let’s use this time to focus on training those who need it.”

Many well-paying careers, she noted, are in reach without a college education for those who are willing to access training, start small, and work their way up — in advanced manufacturing, for instance. The MassHire career centers offer training programs in that realm, but the classes aren’t always full. “How do we do a better job helping people build awareness of those opportunities, connecting them to those opportunities, and supporting them through it?”

United Personnel has been headquartered in Springfield

For most of its history, United Personnel has been headquartered in Springfield — currently on Bridge Street — but its reach expands far beyond this region.

There are institutional barriers as well, such as the so-called ‘cliff effect’ that throws up financial disincentives to people on public benefits who want to work. She said a bill currently making its way through the state Legislature would address that scenario through a pilot program that would help low-income Springfield residents access jobs while reducing the need for public benefits.

On an individual level, part of United Personnel’s mission is to dismantle as many roadblocks to employment as it can, Canavan explained. For example, employers typically prefer to hire someone with at least six months of recent, steady work without gaps. But, realizing there are reasons those gaps exist, United offers myriad short-term jobs to help people build a portfolio and references and prove they can handle something more permanent.

“It’s not that hard to be successful. It’s being on time, paying attention, staying off your phone. And, if you’re successful, you’ll find lots of opportunities for career pathways.”

“We’re really proud of being able to serve as subject-matter experts in terms of recruitment, but also often in terms of human-resources compliance. We’re not attorneys, but … we frequently have a very good finger on the pulse of what’s happening in compliance and employment law.”

She understands that some job seekers, especially younger ones, often struggle with those ‘soft skills.’

“It may be a lack of awareness, or not being super engaged in the work they’re doing. Entry-level jobs can frequently be boring or repetitive — it may not be the most exciting day you’ve ever had in your life,” she went on, noting that one of her first jobs out of college was a temp role in Chicago, doing numeric data entry all day. “It was terrible. But we’ve all had those jobs.”

The idea is to use every opportunity — whether a temp job or a training program — as a chance to move up to something better. And when job seekers do just that, it’s especially gratifying.

“It’s not our success, it’s their success. We just helped them get a foot in the door,” she said. “A lot of people don’t realize the opportunities that come from working with a staffing firm. We can be your advocate. We can help you. Lots of jobs are available — start small, and you can work your way up.”

Community Focus

United Personnel has certainly worked its way up over the past 35 years, not just in helping people find jobs and helping clients run their businesses more efficiently, but through a culture of community support. Team members are encouraged to volunteer and serve on boards, while the company itself offers financial support to numerous organizations in areas like workforce development and education, women’s leadership, community vitality, and arts and culture. One program is an endowed scholarship at the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts for first-generation college students from area gateway cities.

“We’re interested in leveraging what we do and whatever financial resources we have available to us,” Canavan told BusinessWest. “We consider it a privilege to be able to do that. We don’t just want to be here to do business; we want to be a part of the community. We are all very cognizant of the fact that we are successful because of our community.”

That said, she noted that legislative mandates from Boston continue to burden employers and make it more difficult than ever to do business in Massachusetts. Which makes it even more important for her to make clients’ lives a little easier.

“We feel honored to be able to do this work with our customers and candidates that come to us. When a client is happy with what we’ve done, or a candidate comes to us with a table-sized box of chocolates to say ‘thank you,’ that’s rewarding. It’s a privilege to help people find work and help companies find that talented staff they need to drive the success of their organization.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Charlie Blanchard says Palmer continues to make progress

Charlie Blanchard says Palmer continues to make progress in its commerce centers and with green-energy projects.

Palmer’s leaders see the town as a destination — and hope the myriad players investigating east-west passenger rail service in Massachusetts view it the same way.

That’s why the Palmer Town Council recently established a citizens’ advisory committee and contracted with the UMass Center for Economic Development to study — and prepare a report on — the merits of an east-west passenger rail stop in Palmer, to be submitted to the state advisory committee currently looking into the feasibility of expanded east-west passenger service.

Those efforts included a recent meeting with community members to brainstorm about the pros and cons of the entire concept of east-west rail and Palmer’s place on any proposed line.

“Originally, the discussion was to have a relatively high-speed east-west route between, say, Boston and Springfield, or Boston, Worcester, Springfield,” said Charlie Blanchard, Palmer’s town manager. “If you add a stop in Palmer, what does it do to the timing? In fact, the timing doesn’t change that much. But the big benefit would be more ridership coming in or getting off the train, which would be a big deal.”

In a recent letter to state Sen. Anne Gobi, who attended the community meeting, Blanchard pointed out that Palmer is roughly central to Springfield and Worcester, and also at the center of a market that extends north to Amherst — and to institutions like UMass Amherst and Amherst College — and south to Storrs and the University of Connecticut. In short, it’s a point of connection in many directions that would benefit from expanded rail service.

Palmer at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1775
Population: 13,050 (2015)
Area: 32 square miles
County: Hampden
Tax Rate, residential and commercial: Palmer, $22.14; Three Rivers, $22.90; Bondsville, $22.97; Thorndike, $23.78
Median Household Income: $41,443
Median Family Income: $49,358
Type of government: Town Manager; Town Council
Largest Employers: Baystate Wing Hospital; Sanderson MacLeod Inc., Camp Ramah of New England; Big Y
* Latest information available

Furthermore, the absence of a stop in what’s nicknamed the Town of Seven Railroads would mean commuters from the Quaboag region who want to travel by train to Boston would have to drive roughly 40 minutes per day to use Springfield’s Union Station or slightly more to access Worcester. Participants at the meeting believed Palmer-area residents would be loath to do either, limiting total ridership at a time when the state would be clamoring to maximize it.

In addition, “a train stop in Palmer would be a major stimulus in helping to provide quality housing for commuters at an affordable price. With the ability to commute by train, this would open up a very affordable housing market,” Blanchard wrote in his letter, adding that a stop would also stimulate the economy of a set of communities that have yet to capture the growth found to the east, while boosting Palmer’s own downtown revitalization and encouraging hospitality companies to build more lodging there.

In short, it would inject energy into a town that, while it has plenty to tout in recent years, could always use more.

Projects and Progress

Baystate Wing Hospital’s $17.2 million project to expand its Emergency Department was perhaps the town’s biggest development last year. Aimed at better supporting the current annual patient volume of 24,000 visits, the 17,800-square-foot space includes separate ambulance and public entryways and features 20 patient rooms, including trauma, behavioral health, and other dedicated specialty-care areas.

“That opened in September, and was quite a big expansion,” Blanchard said.

Meanwhile, Palmer joined the ranks of the many Western Mass. communities to welcome the burgeoning cannabis industry in Massachusetts (see story, page 6), approving its first medical-marijuana facility on Chamber Road, including a 25,000-square-foot greenhouse and 3,200 square feet of retail space. Altitude Organic Corp. will move its headquarters from Colorado to a property on Thorndike Street in Palmer as part of the development, and expects to have plants growing in an indoor facility by October.

“It really is interesting to see the public acceptance of this new type of business,” Blanchard added, noting that the town’s laws allow for three retail cannabis locations in its commercial business district. “We’re looking forward to having them and seeing how successful they can be.”

In the Three Rivers section of town, progress continues at 2032 Main St., where the South Middlesex Opportunity Council is renovating the top floor to apartments and the bottom to retail — a mixed-use plan expected to infuse new residents into the neighborhood while attracting more shoppers.

“They ran into some structural issues — it was a bigger project than they thought — but activity continues,” Blanchard said. “It was completely gutted, and they had to do some reinforcing, but now it’s back on track.”

Property and business owners in Three Rivers have been engaging in a grass-roots revitalization effort for years, which includes changing the perception of the area and filling vacant storefronts. At the same time, the consortium known as On the Right TRACK (Three Rivers Arts Community Knowledge) has been working for some time to build a cultural and creative economy in the village.

On the culinary front in town, Stables Restaurant of Hadley recently opened a new restaurant at Burgundy Brook, on Route 181 on the north side of town. “When you go by there, you see a lot of cars and a lot of activity,” Blanchard noted.

Finally, the new rail spur installed at Sherwood Lumber Yard, in the town’s industrial park — a project that has been in the works since 2013, and funded through an Industrial Rail Access Program grant — allows the business to bring in materials by train, spurring significant expansion of the operation and helping the entire industrial park by unloading without clogging up other traffic.

“Now that the rail spur is completed, there’s more activity up there,” Blanchard said. “It also helped increase the rail capacity for the rest of the businesses there.”

Powering an Economy

Palmer also continues to embrace green-energy projects. In addition to 10 large-scale solar projects — producing 29.3 megawatts of electricity every year — and the installationin early 2018 of car-charging stations at Town Hall and the public library, the town has been working with Thorndike Energy and the Microgrid Institute to explore the benefits of a microgrid system that would access the hydropower and solar power generated at Thorndike Mills for emergency power.

“Thorndike Energy has hyropower over there, and generates electricity through hydropower,” Blanchard said. “They’re going to be adding some solar to it as well. You take those two renewable sources of electricity, and you add battery or other types of standby storage, so that you can store some of this power generated through a renewable source, and have it available in the event of an emergency.”

Project objectives include improved resiliency of electrical services for critical community facilities, expanded storage capacity to better integrate local renewable energy, and supporting National Grid goals in terms of modernization, storage, and renewables. Then, of course, there’s the benefit of job growth and retention.

“Obviously, anything located at Thorndike Mills would benefit from it,” Blanchard said. “The benefit to overall economic growth would be to attract new businesses to Thorndike Mills, which right now is pretty underutilized. It would enhance their marketability to show they have this renewable stored energy there.”

It’s just one way in which Palmer is generating energy from an economic-development standpoint, and raising its profile as a destination and a connecting point to the rest of Central Mass. — a role it will continue to embrace regardless of the eventual fate of any east-west rail line.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Architecture Construction

Designs on Growth

As one local architect noted, we’re far enough away from the last recession to start worrying about the next one — and recessions tend to hit this sector particularly hard. Still, despite mixed signals in the long-term economic picture nationally, work remains steady locally, with municipalities, colleges, and businesses of all kinds continuing to invest in capital projects. Even if storm clouds do appear down the road, the 2019 outlook in architecture seems bright.

Curtis Edgin put it in simple terms when asked how 2019 is shaping up in the architecture sector.

“We’re busy; I can’t complain,” he told BusinessWest. Those five words sum up a strong outlook in an industry that tends to be a leading indicator for the economy as a whole — when things slow down, construction, finance, and other areas tend to follow — and is currently trending up, or at least holding steady.

“We’re far from the last recession — maybe far enough to worry about the next one,” said Edgin, a principal with Caolo & Bieniek Associates (CBA) in Chicopee. “But I don’t see that coming yet, looking at our workload.”

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) reports a similar outlook, with architecture firm billings nationally strengthening to a level not seen in the previous 12 months. Indicators of work in the pipeline, including inquiries into new projects and the value of new design contracts, also improved in January.

“The government shutdown affected architecture firms but doesn’t appear to have created a slowdown in the profession,” AIA Chief Economist Kermit Baker noted. “While AIA did hear from a few firms that were experiencing significant cash-flow issues due to the shutdown, the data suggests that the majority of firms had no long-term impact.”

Broken down by region, the Northeast is performing better than the West, but slightly trailing the South (which continues to rebuild from a rough 2018 hurricane season) and the Midwest. Nationally, billings softened slightly in February from the January pace, but remain strong in the big-picture sense, Baker said. “Overall, business conditions at architecture firms across the country have remained generally healthy.”

Curtis Edgin says specializing in a range of diverse niches is a plus for any firm

Curtis Edgin says specializing in a range of diverse niches is a plus for any firm, serving as a buffer against a downturn in any one area.

Jonathan Salvon, a principal with Kuhn Riddle Architects in Amherst, reports strong business as well, especially in the education realm, traditionally a strength for the firm, with projects for UMass and a historic-renovation conversion project for Elms College.

“Then there’s a mix of multi-family housing and commercial projects,” he told BusinessWest. “We’ve got a new office building for Way Finders going up on the old Peter Pan site in Springfield, which is our biggest commercial project at the moment. And there’s a 36-unit, multi-family housing project going up on University Drive in Amherst.”

Caolo & Bieniek, known for its wide range of public projects, from schools to fire and police stations, has expanded its base of private projects since merging with Reinhardt Associates in 2017.

“It’s been kind of a good synergy. We’ve blended our strengths and their strengths,” Edgin said, noting that one example is the recently completed Baystate Health & Wellness Center on the Longmeadow-East Longmeadow line, as Reinhardt has a solid history in medical office buildings.

“E-commerce has been growing at about three times the rate of traditional brick-and-mortar sales. The slowdown in housing hasn’t helped, as new residential development often spurs new retail construction activity. Instead, larger shares of investment in these facilities is going to the renovation of existing buildings.”

Other recent CBA projects recently started or well underway include a senior center in West Boylston, a police station in Williamstown, a public-safety complex in Lenox, a renovation of Chicopee’s public-safety facility, a pre-K to grade-8 school in Easthampton, and some work with UMass Amherst, Westfield State University, and other colleges.

“There’s a good mix of private and public, and we seem to be doing a fair amount of work with human-services agencies,” Edgin added, noting that the firm just did a project for Guidewire in Chicopee, and Sunshine Village in the city has also been a consistent client. “We seem to have a bit going in that sector right now. We’re busy, and it’s a good mix all around.”

Strong Pace, but Red Flags

The AIA suggests that growth in architecture should continue at least through 2020, but a number of emerging red flags suggest a cautious outlook.

Spending on non-residential buildings nationally is projected to grow by 4.4% this year, paced by healthy gains in the industrial and institutional building sectors, it notes. For 2020, growth is projected to slow to 2.4%, with essentially no increase in spending on commercial facilities, but gains in the 3% range in the industrial and institutional categories.

“Still,” Baker said, “there is growing concern inside and outside of the industry that a broader economic downturn may be materializing over the next 12 to 24 months.”

Nationally, growth in gross domestic product is estimated to be close to 3% in 2019, while the job market continues to be healthy, with more than 2.6 million net new payroll jobs added in 2018, an improvement over 2017’s figure of just under 2.2 million. In fact, the national unemployment rate was below 4% for most of 2018. Consumer-sentiment levels remained strong, and the nation’s factories also were busy, with industrial output achieving its strongest growth in almost a decade.

Jonathan Salvon says one of his firm’s three ‘legs,’ residential work, has been impacted by a slowdown in single-family construction

Jonathan Salvon says one of his firm’s three ‘legs,’ residential work, has been impacted by a slowdown in single-family construction over the past decade, but a rising portfolio of multi-family projects has picked up the slack.

However, there are several signals that point to an emerging slowdown in the broader economy, and therefore in the construction sector, Baker noted. These include declines in leading economic indicators, weakness in some key sectors of the economy, and softness in the markets of major U.S. trading partners. “These signals may be temporary responses to negative short-term conditions, but historically they have preceded a more widespread downturn.”

Meanwhile, since dropping sharply during the Great Recession, housing starts have had a very slow recovery, the AIA notes, and Salvon can attest to that reality locally. But Kuhn Riddle has adjusted in other ways.

“We’ve always been a stool with three legs,” he said. “One-third is work for various colleges, charter schools, prep schools, secondary schools, and even some day cares — we run the whole gamut in education. The second third is residential work; in the past, before the 2009 recession, that was often single-family residences. That market has never really come back, at least for us. But we’ve been lucky to develop a new market in multi-family projects.”

The third leg is a variety of commercial projects, including office buildings, restaurants, and bank renovations, to name a few, Salvon said.

“Hopefully we all stay busy. But we do know it goes in cycles; we’ve been through plenty of slower times and a lot of boom times. But we’ve been very blessed. We’re pretty busy and hope to stay that way.”

Nationally, Baker sees design work on the commercial front as a bit of a mixed bag at the moment.

“Business investments often reflect what corporate leaders feel is the growth potential for their companies. Investment nationally in new plants and equipment saw healthy growth in 2017 and through the first half of 2018, but slowed significantly beginning in the third quarter of last year,” he noted. “Given the recent trends in business-confidence scores, investment is unlikely to accelerate anytime soon. Business confidence fell sharply through 2018, with the fourth quarter showing the lowest levels in six years.”

In the Bay State, the picture is equally muddy. The Business Confidence Index issued monthly by Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) reported a gain in February after dropping in January to its lowest level in more than two years.

“Employers remain generally optimistic about a state economy that continues to run at full-employment levels and a U.S. economy that is projected to grow by 2.2% this year,” said Raymond Torto, Chair of AIM’s Board of Economic Advisors and a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. “At the same time, the erosion of confidence among Massachusetts manufacturers during the past 12 months raises some concern about the long-term sustainability of the recovery.”

On a sector-by-sector basis, Baker reported, design work for retail facilities continues to suffer from the growth on online shopping.

“E-commerce has been growing at about three times the rate of traditional brick-and-mortar sales. The slowdown in housing hasn’t helped, as new residential development often spurs new retail construction activity,” he noted. “Instead, larger shares of investment in these facilities is going to the renovation of existing buildings.”

On the other hand, office projects represent the strongest commercial sector in construction right now, with 5% growth projected for this year and 1% in 2020. “This sector has benefited from strong job growth and the apparent bottoming out of the years-long decline in office space per employee,” Baker said. “Much of the increase has come from the booming technology sector, so the outlook is dependent on continued growth in this industry sector.”

Meanwhile, eds and meds — or education and healthcare, two pillars of the Western Mass. economy — represent very healthy sectors nationally for architects and general contractors. AIA projects 5.5% in the education sector this year and an additional 4% in 2020, and 4% growth in healthcare in 2019 followed by 3.6% in 2020. 

“We’re pretty diversified and active in a lot of different environments,” Edgin said. “It’s not just schools, not just police stations, not just fire stations, but a little bit of everything.” He cited the recent renovation of Polish National Credit Union’s Front Street branch in Chicopee, as well as a new Arrha Credit Union branch in West Springfield and a project with the Boys and Girls Club of West Springfield. “A lot of things take a while, so it’s that advance planning that keeps you busy a year or two from now.”

Leading Indicator

Baker reported that business conditions at U.S. architecture firms in 2018, as measured by AIA’s Architecture Billings Index (ABI), were essentially unchanged from 2017.

“Since the ABI has been shown to lead construction spending by an average of nine to 12 months, this would suggest that the growth in spending on non-residential buildings in 2019 should be close to the growth rate of 2018,” he noted. “Additionally, new design contracts coming into architecture firms grew at a healthy pace in 2018, underscoring the robust level of backlogs currently enjoyed by most firms.”

Meanwhile, Dodge Data & Analytics recently released its 2019 Dodge Construction Outlook, which predicted that total U.S. construction starts for 2019 will be $808 billion, staying essentially even with the $807 billion estimated for 2018.

“There are, of course, mounting headwinds affecting construction, namely rising interest rates and higher material costs, but for now these have been balanced by the stronger growth for the U.S. economy, some easing of bank lending standards, still-healthy market fundamentals for commercial real estate, and greater state financing for school construction and enhanced federal funding for public works,” said Robert Murray, chief economist for Dodge Data & Analytics.

Locally, both architects and builders are maintaining the same sort of cautious optimism, at least in the short term.

“Right now, it’s strong,” Edgin said. “We’ve increased our staffing.”

Finding talented staff remains a challenge, he said, because strong growth among architecture firms in general means stiff competition, and Greater Springfield isn’t always a top destination for young professionals in the field compared to, say, Boston or New York, where pay scales are higher (but, of course, so is the cost of living).

Salvon understands that reality as well, but said Kuhn Riddle has benefited from its location in downtown Amherst, where it has easy access to the UMass architecture program. “We’ve been a little spoiled — we’ve been privileged to get some employees out of that program over the last decade or so, and we’ve tried to make a nice work environment, so people been staying here.”

All things considered, he told BusinessWest, the outlook seems strong in architecture locally, and others agree.

“We’ve been able to build some good staff and a good team, so we’re happy about that,” Edgin said. “Hopefully we all stay busy. But we do know it goes in cycles; we’ve been through plenty of slower times and a lot of boom times. But we’ve been very blessed. We’re pretty busy and hope to stay that way.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Technology

Pipeline to Progress

When the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center released a study last fall examining potential locations for water-technology demonstration centers in Massachusetts — thus raising the Bay State’s profile and potential in the increasingly critical field of water supply, treatment, and sustainability — UMass Amherst was a natural choice, because it’s been making connections between water research and industry for some time. A host of key stakeholders believe it can become even more so in the decades to come.

Talk to experts in the broad realm of water technology innovation, and it doesn’t take long for Israel to come up, at least in terms of government investment.

It’s not exactly by choice.

“There are countries facing severe water issues right now,” said Loren Walker, director of the Office of Research Development at UMass Amherst. “Israel is the world leader in terms of state-led efforts to purify water — because they have to. They have a real water-constraint situation there.”

But several entities in the Bay State — from the university to the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC) to a host of industry players, both established companies and startups — are intrigued by the potential to make Massachusetts an international leader in water innovation as well. And they’ve got plenty of progress to build on already.

“It’s obviously a big area — there’s a water crisis around the country, around the world, and it will be more critical as the years go on, so there’s a need to innovate ways to treat water, both wastewater and surface water,” Walker told BusinessWest.

“It’s an active area of university research, an active area of industrial research,” he went on, “but there’s a gap between the kind of research the universities do — federally funded, more basic or fundamental — and technologies being developed by industry that they can ultimately commercialize and sell. There’s a gap between that fundamental research and the later applied research where you’re prototyping, scaling up, and seeing what technologies really work — and that’s where you need a pilot site. You need a way to go from fundamental laboratory research to commercial-scale research.”

UMass could be that site, he said.

Loren Walker

Loren Walker says the Amherst Wastewater Treatment plant provides UMass researchers and partnering companies a flow of wastewater on which to test new technologies.

Last fall, MassCEC released a comprehensive study that evaluates the technical and financial feasibility of three potential water-technology demonstration centers across Massachusetts, including one at UMass Amherst. Such centers, proponents say, could offer a test bed to pilot new water technologies and position Massachusetts as a global leader in the water-innovation and energy-efficiency sector, providing significant business and employment opportunities.

Rick Sullivan, president of the Western Mass. Economic Development Council, said one of the EDC’s goals is to help identify and develop sectors where Massachusetts could become a center of excellence. Back when he served as secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs under then-Gov. Deval Patrick, he and the governor traveled to several locations, including Israel, to learn about water innovation, recognizing this was an issue of growing international concern.

“Water is just a really big issue, and becoming more important every day,” Sullivan said. “So we started asking, ‘can Massachusetts actually play in this water cluster?’ The short answer is, yes we can — because it’s already a multi-billion-dollar business in the Commonwealth.”

“It’s obviously a big area — there’s a water crisis around the country, around the world, and it will be more critical as the years go on.”

That figure includes everything from delivery systems to public-works projects; from filtering, purifying, and clarifying water to security of freshwater sources like the Quabbin Reservoir, he noted. “So it’s a bigger field than I think a lot of people realize.”

UMass Amherst has long been involved in water research. Then, in 2016, a $4.1 million grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency — on the heels of a state earmark of $1.5 million from the state Department of Environmental Protection for water innovation — helped launch one of only two national research centers (the other is in Boulder, Colo.) focused on testing and demonstrating cutting-edge technologies for drinking-water systems.

All things considered, Sullivan said, UMass Amherst is an ideal spot to develop a demonstration center. A conference last October, called “Innovations and Opportunities in Water Technologies,” brought together the business and startup community, area municipal leaders who spoke about challenges to current water and wastewater systems, and UMass experts who detailed some of the cutting-edge work already being done on campus.

“At the end of the day, all of those panels and all the discussion and information kind of led back to reinforcing the idea that this is a really smart investment for the Commonwealth,” Sullivan said, noting that the investment to create the three centers was approved as part of the state’s 2014 environmental bond bill, but has not yet been appropriated in the state budget.

“When you talk to the companies that are in the innovation sector, one of the biggest needs they have is to be able to take their product and demonstrate that it works in real life — and to be able to do that not just in a lab, but out there in the real world,” he continued. “UMass has the ability to provide that infrastructure with some investment from the Commonwealth.”

In the Flow

The MassCEC study analyzed the technical and financial feasibility of three potential water-technology demonstration centers around the state: the so-called Wastewater Pilot Plant at UMass Amherst, the Massachusetts Alternative Septic System Test Center in Barnstable, and the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority’s Deer Island Treatment Plant in Boston Harbor.

Establishing this network could create jobs, lower energy costs, and optimize municipal operations in addition to supporting water-technology research, the study noted. A test-bed network could serve existing Massachusetts-based water technology companies, help attract new companies to the Commonwealth, advance new solutions to both local and global water challenges, and provide a strong foundation for innovation.

Key to UMass Amherst’s feasibility as a demonstration center is the fact that it already acts as a pilot site for industry — albeit on a limited basis — because of its access to flowing streams of municipal wastewater at the Amherst Wastewater Treatment Plant, located next to the university’s Water Energy Technology (WET) Center.

“You need flowing streams of municipal wastewater and surface water; you need to have access to this to test your filtration membrane or electrochemical treatment technologies, whatever they may be,” Walker said.

“Those facilities are few and far between,” he added. “But we happen to have one of just a couple facilities in the country that have some of the key attributes necessary to do some of this pilot testing — access to flowing wastewater and flowing surface-water streams, proximity to a research university, and access to stakeholders and end users.”

The issue, he said, is size and scale.

Rick Sullivan says Massachusetts can be a major player in the water cluster and, in many ways, already is.

Rick Sullivan says Massachusetts can be a major player in the water cluster and, in many ways, already is.

“We have the fundamental key attributes needed to make this kind of pilot facility, but we’re limited,” he went on. “We have bays now and already have companies using the facility to do their own research and scale up. It’s already an active space for research and development collaborations — but it gets filled up very quickly, so we would love to expand it, see even more companies come in and use this space, both established companies as well as new startups.”

The center was established in the 1970s and ran as a research pilot site for decades, but fell into disrepair in the late 1990s, he explained. Since its grant-funded renovation in 2016 as a research and collaboration space, it has hosted numerous industrial collaborators. “But it’s limited how many projects can happen in parallel. So there’s a case to be made for investing in infrastructure improvements, expansion, and modernization, do more projects in parallel.”

As an example of the kind of research being done there, Walker brought up ultrafiltration membranes — nanoscale membranes that can remove contaminants when water is forced through. One problem is that the membranes tend to get fouled up by materials in the water and eventually don’t work so well, and have to be replaced regularly, which is costly.

But Jessica Schiffman, an associate professor of Chemical Engineering at UMass Amherst, recently received a National Science Foundation grant to study the use of naturally occurring biopolymers that can be used as a nanofiber’s mat to prevent fouling in these ultrafiltration membranes, he explained. “Then you have a membrane that lasts longer and is more valuable, more efficient, and processes water more effectively.”

Then there are startups like Aclarity, whose CEO, Julie Bliss Mullen, presented at the fall conference. Her company specializes in electrochemical advanced oxidation, which is essentially using electricity to decontaminate water.

“Our faculty and students are looking for real-world problems to tackle. We’re on the research side of the equation, but the real world informs what gets done here.”

“Then there are companies developing their own technologies we don’t even know about,” Walker said. “When they get to the stage where they’ve tested it at the lab scale and they know it works at that scale, they still can’t sell it; they can’t turn it into a technology and market it to anyone until they’ve tested it at the municipal scale, and that’s where a facility like the WET Center comes in.

“We already know there’s interest here, and we have more interest than we can serve presently,” he went on. “And we’re hoping we can find ways to expand and renovate the facility so we can meet that interest.”

It’s not just companies that benefit, he added. “Our faculty and students are looking for real-world problems to tackle. We’re on the research side of the equation, but the real world informs what gets done here. So it’s a very fruitful partnership, to have our basic researchers working with companies, and companies hopefully getting some value out of the investigations we can lead, and we get a lot of value from the questions they ask, which informs the research we do here at the university.”

Current Events

One end result of all this innovation and connection, Sullivan said, is a real economic-development boost in a field that promises to become more critical over the next several decades.

“Companies these days are looking for direct ties to the university for two reasons: one, the students are graduating and they need the talent, and they also want to tie back to the research and development that’s occurring with the grad students and professors and other staff, so they can stay on the cutting edge,” he told BusinessWest.

The test-bed potential, to have a site big enough to accommodate real-life testing for more companies, only enhances that potential, he added, noting that it’s only one way UMass is leading the way in connecting scientific research with real economic development, with the core facilities at the Institute for Applied Life Sciences being another.

“It’s such a resource and economic opportunity for the region,” he said of the university as a whole, “and I think a lot of people don’t understand and appreciate the potential it has and the importance it has.”

Walker was quick to add that the state and region have been taking the water-technology issue seriously for some time. For example, the New England Water Innovation Network is a nonprofit trade group that examines the water cluster in Massachusetts — companies developing water-purification technologies, university researchers at UMass and other universities, and industry — and connects those dots to help foster collaboration and innovation that will develop technologies, attract companies interested in developing these technologies, and hopefully create more jobs and an economic boost, all while attacking a major global problem.

“So there’s a need, and it’s likely only going to grow,” he said. “UMass Amherst is going to help develop some of the solutions to solve that problem and, hopefully, in the process of doing so, create some economic opportunity for Massachusetts and Western Mass. in particular.”

While UMass is ahead of the curve, Walker noted, this isn’t an unknown area for innovation potential, and other states, like Georgia, are currently looking to develop similar pilot-scale and commercial-scale projects.

“Right now we’re in a good place. We have a lot of interest, and we have a lot of expertise here, but I think that, going forward, we’ll see a lot more competition from other states and other regions that want to get in on this game. But to be successful, you have to have combination of physical infrastructure, stakeholder relations, and, critically, the expertise. That means having experts at the university level, which we have in spades here.”

David Reckhow is one of the more prominent of that group. The director of the Water Innovation Network for Sustainable Small Systems at UMass Amherst, he has traveled to Israel, Singapore, and other places to learn about global water needs and the innovation occurring worldwide to meet those needs.

“They talk about water being the next oil,” Reckhow told BusinessWest in December 2014. “We’re running out of quality water. There’s plenty of water on the planet, but most of it is not usable; the water in the ocean is not usable, or, at least, it’s very expensive to use. So, as we move forward, there’s going to be more conflict over existing high-quality water sources. We have seen it in the Middle East for a long time, but it’s going to be more widespread. It’s an issue of national security around the world.”

The intervening years have only made it more of one. And UMass Amherst has the potential, Walker said, to be a national center for water innovation that will benefit the region, but also attract players from across the U.S., both industry and academic collaborators.

“I do think it’s new enough of a cluster that it’s just starting to get some real recognition of its importance,” Sullivan said. “I think there’s a real opportunity for Western Mass., and UMass in particular, to play a role here.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Jennifer Tabakin

Jennifer Tabakin says initiatives like high-speed broadband, environmental sustainability, and the arts all contribute to quality of life and help attract young people to town.

Jennifer Tabakin is a believer in using public investment to spur private investment. After six years as Great Barrington’s town manager — she’s stepping down in June — she has seen plenty of evidence to back up that philosophy.

“We’ve talked a lot about the investments we’ve made in Bridge Street, which is one of our side streets off Main Street,” she told BusinessWest. “Over the years, the public money put into it has been significant, and we’ve been able to see private development come along in response to it.”

Projects like Powerhouse Square, a mixed-use development on Bridge Street. “It’s literally steps from Main Street — exactly where new development should be,” said Town Planner Chris Rembold.

On the ground floor is Berkshire Co-op Market, a grocery store that’s moving from a different location and doubling its size. The development also includes space for smaller retail outlets and 20 new residential apartments on the second and third levels. In fact, that’s just a sample of a recent housing boom in town; in the past year alone, 228 new housing units were either built or permitted.

“We’ve been able to get far more downtown than I ever expected, ranging from affordable units to downtown condos. That meets the needs people have for a more walkable lifestyle” — one where residences are in close proximity to shopping, restaurants, and cultural amenities, Tabakin said.

One example of the latter is Saint James Place, which opened in 2017 as a home to small and mid-sized Berkshire County arts groups in need of performance, rehearsal, and office space. Created out of the historic St. James Episcopal Church on Main Street, several of its office spaces for lease have been filled by arts-related groups such the Berkshire Playwrights Lab, Flying Cloud, and the Berkshire Opera.

“It’s kind of a hub of supporting businesses and people. Not only are there traditional performing arts, but a dance studio, literary arts, and visual arts — and new media like computer design and software design.”

Saint James Place is now a thriving cultural venue, and we’re thrilled to have them here,” Tabakin said.

In October, in recognition of its vibrant arts life, the downtown was designated one of the state’s cultural districts by the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

“It’s a geographic area with not only plenty of cultural venues and things to do — like the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center and Saint James Place as performing-arts venues — but it’s kind of a hub of supporting businesses and people,” Rembold said. “Not only are there traditional performing arts, but a dance studio, literary arts, and visual arts — and new media like computer design and software design.”

The cultural-district designation, he added, is a recognition of the vitality of the arts and culture in downtown Great Barrington, but it also serves a practical purpose. Cultural districts can access a stream of services including tax credits, economic incentives, planning assistance, grants, historic-preservation help, signs, and tourism promotion. Among the town’s plans is a shared cultural events calendar, which will help the various venues better coordinate their booking schedules, making it easier for visitors to know what’s happening when they spend a weekend or more here.

“It’s kind of an organizational effort, a marketing effort for the downtown,” Rembold said, adding that there’s much to market: the Mahaiwe and Saint James Place alone offer some 200 nights of entertainment a year. “And if something’s not going on there, you can go see a movie or a poetry reading or a Friday night film at the library. If you’re bored in Great Barrington, that’s your own fault.”

Getting with the Times

Another recent boon for downtown is the installation of fiber service. “It’s a strategy to make sure our downtown has the highest-speed broadband and can be competitive with our neighbors in the area, so people can locate here and take advantage of that higher speed,” Tabakin said.

“We have a private company covering all the development cost and infrastructure cost to bring fiber to downtown, and we’ll eventually start moving out to the rest of the community,” said Ed Abrahams, vice chair of the Select Board.

Great Barrington at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1761
Population: 7,104
Area: 45.8 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $14.98
Commercial Tax Rate: $14.98
Median Household Income: $95,490
Median Family Income: $103,135
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Fairview Hospital; Kutscher’s Sports Academy; Prairie Whale
* Latest information available

Meanwhile, the town continues to make environmental sustainability common practice, moving all municipal, school, and community buildings to green energy sources and reducing use of single-use plastic products.

“For the past four years, we’ve supported eight large solar projects with a combined value of $16 million,” Tabakin added, while many town residents have gone solar as well.

All these factors — culture, high-speed broadband, sustainability — aim to position Great Barrington as a thoroughly modern community, even as it retains much of its quintessential old New England character, thus attracting more young families. Like other towns in rural Berkshire and Franklin counties, Great Barrington has seen the average age of its residents rise in recent years; the community has always been a popular spot for retirees, and there are a number of New Yorkers with summer homes in town.

But by bolstering ingredients like attractive (and affordable) housing, a vibrant downtown, a burgeoning cultural community, and outdoor activities (Ski Butternut is a prominent attraction), Great Barrington’s leaders are looking clearly at the future, which means attracting young people and especially young families.

Of course, those families will need to find find jobs here, and Great Barrington boasts strengths in a number of sectors, including education (Simons Rock of Bard College is located in town), healthcare (Fairview Hospital), technology (perhaps a dozen IT companies call the town home), the arts and tourism, the nonprofit community, and restaurants (the town is home to around 80 of them).

“We have challenges like other places, and we have to deal with the limited resources of a small town, but we have a very committed group here, and I have no doubt that will continue.”

“The challenge for the Select Board, and all of us, for that matter, is to maintain the vibrancy we have and support for our local retailers and existing businesses, and also be open to new businesses — to keep that appropriate balance and make sure we have diversity in the local economy,” Tabakin said. “That’s something we speak about a lot.”

One area of the economy that’s growing — literally — is the cannabis sector, which is something BusinessWest has mentioned in almost every Community Spotlight over the past six months. Great Barrington is no exception, with Theory Wellness opening the first retail marijuana store in Berkshire County in January, with others to follow. In the first month, the shop netted $2 million in sales and $90,000 in taxes paid to the town.

“They opened to long lines, which should level off as they get more competition,” said Abrahams, who quickly added that any cannabis business in Great Barrington should do well, due to the town’s proximity to Connecticut and New York, states where the drug is not legal. “This is new for all of us, but so far, there have been logistically few problems, and police report no increase in people driving under the influence.”

Continuing Commitment

As Tabakin looks back on her six years in office, she’s especially gratified at a Town Hall full of energetic and committed people, and a lot of new faces — during her tenure, 26 people were either promoted or started a career there.

“Several years ago, we were warned we had a number of people approaching retirement age,” Abrahams added, “and it’s been a really smooth transition replacing them with newer people.”

Having a well-run town, Tabakin said, speaks to a commitment to quality of life, one that’s evident in Great Barrington’s vibrant retail district, cultural attractions, quality schools, and more, she said.

“Many times, government gets a bad rap, but I don’t feel that’s the case in Great Barrington,” she told BusinessWest. “We have challenges like other places, and we have to deal with the limited resources of a small town, but we have a very committed group here, and I have no doubt that will continue.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Construction

From Bedside to Job Site

Dorothy Ostrowski says she’s never been happier than she is at the helm of a venerable construction firm.

After more than a decade in nursing, Dorothy Ostrowski says she’s never been happier than she is at the helm of a venerable construction firm.

Dorothy Ostrowski has never settled for having just one ball in the air.

Like the time, a few years ago, when she was building a house with her husband, Mike, while pregnant with their second child, completing a dual master’s degree, and starting a new nursing job.

“Somehow, I don’t know how everything fits on my plate, but it all does,” she told BusinessWest. “One of the biggest things I believe is that anyone’s capable of anything. It’s really how bad do you want it, and how much does it impact you, your life, and your family?”

“One of the biggest things I believe is that anyone’s capable of anything. It’s really how bad do you want it, and how much does it impact you, your life, and your family?”

She had to ask all those questions, plus a few more, when the opportunity arose last April to purchase Adams & Ruxton Construction, a 110-year-old West Springfield company, from its then-owner, family friend Andy Touchette.

With Mike busy running his own company, Amp Electric, it was a decision that rested fully with Dorothy, who had worked in nursing for well over a decade but was intrigued by putting the MBA she earned in 2015 to good use.

He said, ‘what do you think? Do you think you can run it?’” she recalled. “And I was like, ‘you know what? It’s time to do something for me. It’s time to do something for our family. It’s time to do something where I know I have a passion and I can be a good leader.’ So I immediately contacted Andy and said we’re interested.”

Mike had long admired Adams & Ruxton and the work Touchette did there. “I knew it wasn’t a dud. It was all about if the numbers worked and whether or not we could afford it — and whether or not she wanted to run it. That’s how it came to be.”

Once the deal and a transition plan was in place, Dorothy spent the next six months working with Touchette, unpaid, learning every aspect of the business, from contracts and estimating to equipment and planning — “every nut and bolt,” as she put it.

Mike Ostrowski knew enough about his friend’s company

Mike Ostrowski knew enough about his friend’s company — and his wife’s skillset — to know this would be a good fit.

With a diverse range of work, from excavation to commercial buildings, the firm’s recent clients include Chicopee Electric Light, Bank of America, the Diocese of Springfield, Callaway, and Coldwell Banker, among others. The company is also currently being evaluated for woman-owned and veteran-owned certifications, which would open up more doors, especially in the realm of state and federal contracts.

It’s a new adventure for sure, one far different than her career stops to this point would have predicted. For this issue’s focus on construction and architecture, BusinessWest talked with Ostrowski about the many twists in her path, from the roads outside Afghanistan’s capital to emergency departments at area hospitals, to her new task, building a new career — both literally and figuratively.

Joining the Force

Growing up, Ostrowski’s plans were much different than her eventual path into nursing. Specifically, she wanted to be a police officer, eventually studying criminal justice at Holyoke Community College.

Before that, though, at age 17, she signed up with the Army National Guard. A friend had recently joined the service, so she spoke with the same recruiter, who explained the opportunities available in a military police role.

“It was one of those turning points in life, like, ‘what am I going to do with the rest of my life?’” she recalled. After attending boot camp the summer after her junior year, she left for Fort McClellan in Alabama the following year, after her high-school graduation, for what would become a seven-year stint, with stops in Italy, Honduras, Panama, and — most memorably — a nine-month tour in Afghanistan, two years after the 2001 U.S. invasion.

“Wherever I’ve been, we’ve always talked about us opening a business — maybe a daycare for special-needs children or something else. I’ve always had that desire to do more and be more.”

“We did a lot of security stuff in Kabul; we were there to support the rebuilding of the Afghan national army,” she explained. Partway through, she became a chase driver for Gen. Karl Eikenberry, tasked with ‘defensive driving’ to protect the general and others from gunfire and IEDs.

“I’ve had dinner at President [Hamid] Karzai’s palace,” she recalled. “We traveled by Chinooks and Blackhawks with Apache escorts through the mountains, met with warlords, and rode in armored-up Chevy Suburbans with thick, bulletproof glass.”

But her future wouldn’t be in police work — civilian or military. Instead, while taking classes at HCC, she crossed paths with some people who got her interested in medical assisting. After earning her certification in that field and working for a podiatrist, she landed in the Emergency Department of Baystate Medical Center. It was an eye-opening experience.

“That was my first taste of the chaotic world of emergency-room nursing, and I loved it,” she said. “I don’t think you ever get stagnant in that kind of environment. You never know what’s going to come around the corner next, and if you become complacent somewhere, you start to miss things and start to make mistakes. It’s the ever-changing part of it and the constant knowledge. No two patients have the same cookie-cutter symptoms or diagnosis. It’s that constant education that keeps you on your toes.”

She performed well in that environment, and colleagues began suggesting she attend nursing school, which she did, earning an associate degree in nursing at Springfield Technical Community College with help from G.I. Bill benefits, and soon found herself in a new-graduate residency at Baystate.

“But I always wanted more,” she said. “I stayed there long enough to get experience, then I did travel nursing. I saw a lot of different places and different ways procedures are done.”

Ostrowski eventually returned to Western Mass., where she dated, then married Mike, and earned her bachelor’s degree in nursing at Elms College. She took ER jobs at Baystate and Mercy Medical Center, but soon decided she wanted to shift into a less hectic type of job that allowed her more time with family. So she accepted a job with Sound Physicians, a medical process-improvement company, and went back to Elms for a dual master’s degree in nursing and business administration.

“Throughout these transitions, I always wanted more,” she said. “I wanted to be more in a leadership position.”

She found that by buying Adams & Ruxton.

“Wherever I’ve been, we’ve always talked about us opening a business — maybe a daycare for special-needs children or something else,” she said. “I’ve always had that desire to do more and be more.”

After Sound Physicians, she worked at St. Francis Medical Center in Hartford as a process-improvement nurse, and had moved to a role as nurse manager at Connecticut Children’s Hospital when the opportunity arose to buy the construction company.

“I’ve never not been happy as a nurse, and I think I would have potentially stayed in nursing longer had I stayed at the bedside,” she explained. “But I had moved into more of that management piece of nursing, and I constantly struggled with being a nurse’s nurse versus the business of healthcare. It was a difficult internal turmoil to be in, when you know what you want to do through your nurses and patients, but your constraints are based on finances.”

Furthermore, the job was keeping her busy 60 hours a week or more, and she felt she wasn’t home nearly enough to be with her family, especially her older son. “He was struggling to read as a first-grader, and I could have counted on my two hands how many times I was home in time to be able to read to him.”

Time to Change

Something had to give. And her husband could see it, too.

“Between the unhappiness of where she was and having a friend of ours running this [construction] business the past 10 years and how well he’s done, that put it into perspective — ‘hey, it’s just another type of business,’” Mike said. “We’re buying a fully established business that’s completely up and running. All you have to do is go in and replicate what’s going on. You don’t have to build it from the ground up — you can make your changes, you can improve it and grow the business, but in the beginning, all you have to do is replicate it and keep it going.”

“Knowing where to get the answers and knowing to tell someone you don’t know the answer — you get more respect from that than from anything.”

The transition period was important, Dorothy said.

“Andy said he had gotten multiple offers from people he thought would potentially be able to take this business on, but they weren’t the right fit,” she noted. “There’s a certain quality that Adams & Ruxton provides. You have to be the right kind of person who’s going to be there for your clients and your prospective clients. And Andy really wanted to make this a warm handoff. So, the last six months, he made sure he introduced me to all his key clients, and he’s come back in a consultative way; if there’s someone I didn’t meet during those six months, he goes out and meets them with me so they know they’re in the same hands they were before.”

She said the most gratifying aspect of her career move was the fact that Adams & Ruxton’s employees, many of whom have been there more than 20 years, stayed on board when she arrived — and have been a rich resource.

“There’s a constant conversation — if I don’t know something in the construction realm, I have the support system and the knowledge within these walls to ask the questions. I know finances, and I understand how to run the business. I may not know everything there is to know about general contracting, but I know when to say I don’t know, and I know when to ask the questions. I have a great support team.”

Mike agreed. “Knowing where to get the answers and knowing to tell someone you don’t know the answer — you get more respect from that than from anything,” he said.

Both are pleased that business — both at the firm and in the industry as a whole — is healthy right now, Dorothy said. “Our construction rampup this year has started much earlier this year than previous years, so I have no worries about the busy-ness or sustainability.”

It’s a peace she said she began to forge during the period she worked directly with Touchette.

“Over those first six months, there were times I’d never been more sure of something in my career, even as a nurse, and I’ve never been happier than I am now,” she told BusinessWest. “I probably have more stress because I directly impact the livelihoods of the people who work for me, but I’m happier. I enjoy coming to work every day. I enjoy learning new things every day.”

Ostrowski thinks back to other times of transition during her life — like when she missed her graduation from Elms in 2010 because she was delivering her first child — and sees one whirlwind after another, but that suits her just fine.

“I’ve never backed down from a challenge, and I think this is probably the coolest challenge I can embrace, and I will make this successful because I’ve got a great team around me,” she said. “I’m lucky to be where I am right now.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Home Improvement

Total Transformations

With the economy chugging along, home-improvement businesses report solid activity over the past few years, with the prospect of more to come. Locally, perhaps partly because of a relatively mild December and January, companies logged more customer calls during a time of year when homeowners traditionally want to hibernate. Now, on the cusp of spring, they’re ready to hit the ground running.

If there’s one thing R.J. Chapdelaine is grateful for, it’s changing tastes in home design.

Take, for example, the current trend — one that has been building over the past decade or two — of open floor plans.

“People seem to want to open up the kitchen to family room space, open the kitchen to dining room, and create that open floor plan. That, I think, is what we see the most, taking someone’s compartmentalized house and opening it up,” said Chapdelaine, owner of Joseph Chapdelaine & Sons in East Longmeadow.

“You see the center-hall Colonial with a dining room, living room, and kitchen, and we go in and open up the walls,” he continued. “I say, thank God my grandfather and my father built them the way they did. Now I can go in and open them up. It’s job security. And you watch — someday down the road, it’ll go back.”

Whatever the trends and the homeowner’s personal tastes, the home-improvement industry has been riding a wave for some time now.

According to the Home Improvement Research Institute (HIRI), the market for home-improvement products and materials grew by 6.3% in 2018 after a 7.3% jump in 2017. Breaking it down further, the professional market increased by 9.9% last year, while the consumer market saw a sales increase of 4.7%. That trend is expected to slow slightly over the next three years, but still increase by an annual average of 4.2% through 2022.

“What I’ve seen is a very strong push for kitchens and baths, additions, and remodels,” Chapdelaine said. “That seems to be our strongest portion of the business right now. The new homes have slowed for us considerably, but the kitchen, bath, and addition calls have been very strong, straight through the winter.”

“The new homes have slowed for us considerably, but the kitchen, bath, and addition calls have been very strong, straight through the winter.”

That’s somewhat surprising because normally calls slow through December, January, and February, he added. “Over the years, we’ve come to the conclusion that people really don’t want us in their house around the holidays. But this year, it’s been incredibly strong right through the winter months, which is great. As we gear up for spring, there’s a lot of work on the board. Usually we would be expecting the phone to ring now in anticipation of a good spring start, but it’s been ringing throughout the winter.”

Frank Nataloni, co-owner of Kitchens & Baths by Curio in Springfield, has also seen a busier-than-usual winter, perhaps because the snowfall has not been too onerous.

“We’re a year-round operation, but it really depends on the type of winter we have,” he said. “If we have a mild winter, what happens is demand ends up being spread out, and we see a bit more people through the winter. When the weather is really bad, nobody goes outside. Either way, spring is always the strongest time from a sales standpoint.”

According to the Project and Sentiment Tracking Survey conducted by HIRI toward the end of 2018, which queries adults across the U.S. about their planned home-improvement projects, outdoor living spaces will feature the most activity in the next three months. More than one-quarter of homeowners surveyed indicated they will take on lawn and garden and/or landscaping projects during this time.

R.J. Chapdelaine

R.J. Chapdelaine says the region’s older housing stock and demographic changes have contributed to a strong remodeling business in recent years.

Taking all types of projects into consideration, inside and out, the Northeast and South lead the way, with about two-thirds of homeowners in both regions saying they plan home-improvement projects this spring.

Meanwhile, whether homeowners shoulder the work themselves is relatively dependent on the project type. On average, a little more than half of all projects are of the DIY variety — and of those, many involve outdoor living spaces, with 82.6% of homeowners tackling landscaping projects.

“I have to say, people feel confident, and they’re willing to spend money on their house,” Chapdelaine said. “It seems as though people are upbeat, and we’re reaping the phone calls and the benefits of that consumer confidence.”

Trending Topics

HIRI reports that, nationally, the home-improvement products market continues to outperform many other sectors of the economy. At the organization’s 2018 Industry Insights Conference last fall, experts in the sector shared what they felt were some prevailing trends heading into 2019. Among them:

• DIYers are more likely to be Millennials, which may have to do with that generation’s connection to devices. “DIYers spend more than 60 hours per week on TV and digital devices, including computers and smartphones,” Peter Katsingris, senior vice president of insights at Neilsen, told conference attendees, according to Forbes. “The technology and the choices it provides make DIY a realistic option for people.”

• More than one-third of homeowners who completed a home-improvement project in the past year regret not spending more on the project.

• The rental housing market is on the rise. A wave of growth has increased the number and share of rental households in the U.S., especially higher-end rentals in urban areas. This reality could lead to greater interest in portable and free-standing home-improvement products tenants can take with them when they move, as opposed to permanent fixtures.

• With home wellness on the rise, the lighting industry has been coming up with intriguing options. A technology known as circadian rhythm lighting is one rising trend, producing indoor illumination that more closely matches natural light in its warmth and, paired with home automation, can shift through the day with the sun to ease the impact of artificial light on the human body.

• Finally, remodeling activity isn’t slowing down anytime soon, due in part to an aging housing stock. With home prices increasing and new construction harder to find in some areas of the country, people are staying put and remodeling. “With the existing house stock averaging 38 years old, much of the inventory is in need of updating,” Mark Boud, senior vice president and chief economist at Hanley Wood/Metrostudy, told the conference.

That aging stock is an especially relevant reality in Western Mass., but so is another trend boosting the remodeling market: an increasing desire among Baby Boomers to age in place.

This recent remodeling project by Kitchens by Curio

This recent remodeling project by Kitchens by Curio reflects some current trends in kitchens, particularly its color palette dominated by white and grey.

“We’re seeing more aging in place, and we’re seeing that as a reason people are making changes,” said Lori Loughlin, manager of Frank Webb Home in Springfield. “They’re doing what they can to make sure they stay in their homes as long as possible because they feel like it’s a better option.”

In some cases, that means installing mobility and safety equipment, but in others, it means building in-law suites, or even moving to — by either building or remodeling — a smaller house.

“We’re getting phone calls now for people looking to to downsize,” Chapdelaine said. “I think the Baby Boomers are going to be looking for that smaller house and aging in place.”

Style Points

As for interior styles, those haven’t shifted much over the past couple of years. Painted cabinetry finishes and color palettes dominated by white and grey are still popular in kitchens and bathrooms, Nataloni told BusinessWest. “I just did a process of cherry wood with a black finish rubbed off, and the cherry comes through the black. It’s spectacular, actually.”

Styles change, he noted, but they don’t change abruptly. “White is very popular, grey is popular, but we are starting to see other colors, hints of yellow and green, coming in. I’ll be doing a yellow kitchen — not school-bus yellow, a very pale yellow, but a very warm color.”

“We’re seeing more aging in place, and we’re seeing that as a reason people are making changes. They’re doing what they can to make sure they stay in their homes as long as possible because they feel like it’s a better option.”

Chapdelaine reported similar, gradual movement toward color, but mainly pastels and muted colors, not too much that would be characterized as bold. “We’re still seeing a lot of white cabinetry and floors stained a number of different colors. With surfaces, we’re still running strong in quartz — some granites, but mainly quartz.”

The most important trend, of course, is that the home-improvement business as a whole remains strong.

“We’re seeing everything from full bathroom jobs to kitchens with the walls removed, right up to additions, which are ranging from family rooms to master suites,” he said. “We’re seeing more whole-house updates — painting, hardwood floors, that kind of work — and we’re also seeing whole-house remodels, which is very similar to building a house. You’re gutting the house down to the bare studs, going through and doing a new bathroom, new kitchen, new flooring, new drywall, which is kind of nice.”

He expects spring to bring its usual rush of customer inquiries as the weather continues to improve, but said people looking to get into the queue for the spring should really be calling in February and March.

Nataloni agrees, and says he appreciates the fact that, with the economy performing fairly well, homeowners are investing more money in their living space, whether they plan to stay there for a long time or improve the house’s dated look in preparation to sell it.

“We have a lot of older housing stock around here,” he said. “Wherever you go, you see someone working on their house.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Insurance

Shelter from the Storm

In the insurance world, an umbrella policy is exactly what it sounds like, sitting atop home, auto, and business insurance coverage and providing excess protection against liability risks. What is less clear, area insurance experts say, is why more people don’t avail themselves of this relatively inexpensive vehicle. After all, life’s storms can strike at any time, and when they do, no one wants to be totally exposed.

Even the best intentions can’t always fend off an expensive lawsuit, said John Dowd, president and CEO of the Dowd Agencies in Holyoke. Take a field trip, for example.

“If you or your spouse has volunteered to chaperone your kid’s school field trip to an amusement park, you both can be held legally responsible for anything that goes wrong on the trip,” he explained. “If a child under your care is injured during the excursion, that child’s parents might try to sue you for damages.”

Which could wind up being a trickier situation than simply loading that child into one’s own car and crashing it — because the driver’s auto-insurance policy covers bodily injury. But what about situations like that field trip — what policy covers that?

It’s just one example, Dowd said, of why an umbrella policy is a good idea for most people. “A personal umbrella policy can provide coverage for such potential incidents, allowing you to chaperone a trip without worrying about potential financial risks.”

An umbrella policy — sometimes referred to as ‘family insurance,’ he noted — essentially sits atop existing auto and homeowners policies to deliver an additional layer of protection, especially against catastrophic liability loss.

“I would like to see anybody who has any net worth — say, more than $100,000, which would include most homeowners these days — to have a personal umbrella,” said Mark Lussier, who co-owns Lussier Insurance in West Springfield.

“The idea behind a personal umbrella is, you want to cover your net worth. When I get a phone call from someone who says, ‘I have this umbrella, but I don’t really need it,’ I say, ‘if somebody were to sue you for everything you were worth, is what you have on your home or auto policy enough?’”

Dowd noted that the coverage from a personal umbrella policy is wide-reaching, providing protection for scenarios not covered by a typical home or auto policy. For instance, if a family member rents a snowmobile on vacation and is involved in an accident, the umbrella policy may help pay for the cost of repairs and medical bills of the injured parties.

Perhaps the most compelling aspect of an umbrella policy, Lussier said, is its cost — maybe $250 or $300 per year for $1 million in coverage, with additional coverage available beyond that, typically in increments of $1 million. “I have a couple of clients who’ve got $5 million umbrellas because their net worth justifies the extra cost.”

“The idea behind a personal umbrella is, you want to cover your net worth. When I get a phone call from someone who says, ‘I have this umbrella, but I don’t really need it,’ I say, ‘if somebody were to sue you for everything you were worth, is what you have on your home or auto policy enough?’”

That’s on top of legal defense fees, which insurers cover as part of any policy. “So, if the unimaginable happens and you’re called by Mark E. Salomone, you have peace of mind knowing your insurance is going to defend you as well as pay anything you’re legally responsible for.”

Mark Lussier

Mark Lussier says the inexpensive cost of a personal umbrella policy, coupled with the many scenarios it covers, present a strong argument for buying one.

In addition, the umbrella is worldwide coverage. “So you can be vacationing in Europe, and if someone is injured because of something you’re responsible for, your umbrella is going to respond,” Lussier said.

Bill Trudeau, president of the Insurance Center of New England in Agawam, said he draws a simple diagram to explain the umbrella concept to customers, with policies like home and auto represented by rectangles, and the umbrella hovering over all of them.

“You can imagine a multi-fatality accident, where the claims might easily surpass $1 million. If an accident is deemed your fault, you may run out of insurance,” he explained. “But if you’ve bought a $2 million umbrella to go on top of a $1 million policy, now you have $3 million in protection in that instance. It’s a policy for excess liability claims — product liability, premises liability, bodily injury, property damage, all kinds of claims. It’s one policy, and you can decide how much protection you want to buy.”

Surprising Circumstances

Lussier stressed that umbrella coverage isn’t technically coverage the policy holder doesn’t already have. “You can’t get umbrella unless you have the underlying policy.”

While some may ask why not just increase coverage on existing home and auto policies, he pointed to the broad nature of umbrella protection, and, again, its cost.

“Many times, to buy more coverage under the basic policy begins to beg the issue of why you shouldn’t have the umbrella. I can have a $1 million umbrella for three cars and two houses for $250 a year. So it’s cheap.”

In Massachusetts, Dowd explained, most umbrella policies provide coverage for the policy holder and their immediate family members living in the same household, with some exceptions. And he listed a few scenarios where that wide net may come in handy.

For example, “if a dog attacks a guest in your home, you may be responsible for any medical bills,” he explained. Even a small bite could end up costing thousands of dollars, and, while some homeowners insurance policies provide liability coverage for dog bites, they typically restrict what breeds are covered. “If your policy excludes your dog’s breed, umbrella insurance may help cover any financial responsibility you have for the incident.”

As another example, if a recently licensed teenager causes a multi-vehicle auto accident, the resulting financial liability could be expensive. “While a single-car accident likely won’t exhaust your auto-insurance policy, a multi-car accident might exceed the coverage,” he said. “Personal umbrella insurance can cover expenses beyond those covered in your auto policy.”

One hindrance to purchasing umbrella coverage, Lussier noted, is that the holder must first increase his or her automobile bodily-injury coverage to $250,000 — and that floor can rise to $500,000 for older drivers. “In some cases, especially with multiple cars, that can be unaffordable. People say, ‘I can’t allocate that risk transfer; I’d rather retain the risk myself and take my chances.’ And that’s really what insurance is all about — it’s a transfer of risk.”

Then there’s something called ‘personal-injury coverage,’ Lussier said, which is different from bodily injury, instead referring to libel, slander, false arrest, and defamation of character. And this has become a minefield in the age of social media.

“Many times, to buy more coverage under the basic policy begins to beg the issue of why you shouldn’t have the umbrella. I can have a $1 million umbrella for three cars and two houses for $250 a year. So it’s cheap.”

“Some people, especially teens, don’t fully comprehend the power of social media,” Dowd said. “If your child makes a disparaging remark or unsubstantiated claim about someone on social media, that person might try to sue for libel.”

An umbrella policy may provide coverage for such situations, with most policies extending coverage to online statements. “Aside from just physical damage, umbrella protection can provide financial assistance if you’re being sued for libel or slander.”

Lussier agreed that this is a significant issue in an era when everyone is quick with a camera, and when images, videos, and statements online can live forever.

“Depending on your means, you can find yourself liable for substantial sums,” he told BusinessWest. “Nowadays, something said innocuously or without much thought can be a big deal. It goes viral, and the next thing you know, you’re saying, ‘I didn’t really mean it the way it was taken, but if I’d have known it would go that far, I would’ve kept my mouth shut.’ And if you put it in writing, you can make it even worse.”

Cost of Doing Business

Clearly, personal umbrella policies cover a wide net of possibilities. But it can be tricky when they cross over into the business realm. Lussier cited the example of a photographer who closes his studio and moves his enterprise into his house. “Now his house is a business exposure, and an umbrella excludes business exposures.”

That’s where a business umbrella comes in, working in much the same way a personal umbrella does, but covering liability risks related to a business.

Bill Trudeau

Bill Trudeau says growing businesses should continually reassess what level of coverage they need from an umbrella policy.

“If you have a relationship with your broker, they’re likely to offer you umbrella liability,” Trudeau said of business owners. “If you’re doing a review of your insurance, it’s something almost any competent broker brings up. As your business grows, it would be part of the basics of insurance coverage.”

The nature of the business would impact the risk exposure and, hence, the level of coverage needed, he noted. While a $1 million umbrella might be fine for a storefront shoe store or florist, a business owner with a fleet of heavy trucks would likely need more.

“We’re hoping not to scare people, but we want them to make realistic choices,” he said. “And a lot of times, those choices are informed by some requirement from the place you’re doing business with, like a contractor taking on bigger jobs, like a casino or office tower or hotel chain. The risk managers for those entities tend to have a requirement for higher limits of liability. So, like it or not, if you want to play in that area and do business with these kinds of clients, you probably have to buy an umbrella of some sort.”

Fame is a factor, too, Lussier said — and often results in higher rates per million of coverage, because famous people are seen as bigger targets for lawsuits.

“If you’re a high-profile person, like a news anchor, you won’t get an inexpensive umbrella, because of the higher exposure,” he explained. “If we’re selling you cheap insurance, we’re basically gambling that you’re never going to use it. That’s really what insurance is all about. The most people participate for the least amount of risk, so we can then price it accordingly.”

In addition, the level of coverage should reflect not only one’s net worth, but future earning potential as well. A doctor who just graduated from medical school and plans a career in brain surgery might have little more than debt to show right now, but a lawsuit could put significant future earnings at risk.

In the end, Trudeau said, umbrella coverage can bring peace of mind in myriad scenarios.

“If something’s gone wrong in your business — someone went through a stop sign, something terrible happened, some member of the public is injured badly, and your company is sued for $5 million — you can take some comfort: ‘I bought insurance, and I’m able to pay what people wanted to negotiate without having to declare bankruptcy.’ It’s still awful, but you have that small comfort, as opposed to sitting there wondering what to do.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Diana Schindler

Diana Schindler says it’s key for Deerfield to balance the town’s rural character with needed economic growth.

Deerfield boasts numerous draws for businesses looking to relocate, Diana Schindler says, from its reasonable property-tax rate to its proximity to Interstate 91, Route 116, and Routes 5 and 10.

But there’s also been some pushback against some of those businesses, which reared its head when residents recently spoke out against a proposed Dollar General store in town. The Planning Board listened and turned down the project, said Schindler, Deerfield’s interim town administrator.

“There’s been a feeling in the community that they want that at arm’s length — that big-box retail development, drive-thrus, things they don’t feel are part of the culture of old Deerfield. It’s meaningful to them,” Schindler told BusinessWest.

“On the flip side, it creates more of a burden on the residential tax base,” she went on, noting that more than 80% of the town’s tax base is residential. “There’s a cost to the citizens in their tax rate and the sustainability of that tax rate. Deerfield has always readily paid for the level of service its citizenry wants and expects, but at the expense of not doing some major projects.”

For instance, the town is looking at a $1 million cost to replace a tank at the South Deerfield Wastewater Treatment Plant, which is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to needed work at the facility over the next decade or two. Then there are plans to expand the Tilton Library and develop a shared senior center with surrounding communities.

“Seniors are asking for that. But all this adds up to millions of dollars, and you have the pressure of limiting development — or, rather, wanting development that will fit into the culture, which does limit it to some capacity,” Schindler said. “Less than 20% of the tax base is commercial/industrial, which is not a lot considering the viability of the property we have along 5/10 and a couple other areas. It’s going to become a question for the citizenry — is it sustainable?”

She’s one of many in Deerfield who believe economic development — in whatever form residents may want — is critical to the future of a town known for its tourist draws, including Yankee Candle’s flagship store, Mount Sugarloaf, Historic Deerfield, and Magic Wings, but needs to diversify and broaden its commercial portfolio.

“At first, they wanted to hide it, put it on the outskirts of town, but now they want it close to downtown. And that’s where it should be — take it out of the shadows, take it away from the edge of town where people can just pop in and leave. Bring them in and use it for economic development.”

“The ideal would be to get everybody together and integrate it all. We’re spread out geographically, and there’s a dichotomy between Old Deerfield and South Deerfield. We’re working toward making sure the town is the town, and everybody recognizes that if the town does well and comes together, then all of the components, all of our events, could do better.”

A veteran of the Franklin Regional Council of Governments and the Hampshire Council of Governments, Schindler has some regional government experience, and she believes there’s value in taking a regional view of economic development. But she’s more concerned with Deerfield’s residents, agencies, and organizations working together to forge a common vision for community development.

“If we could come together,” she said, “especially as we come to our 350th-anniversary celebration, we could build energy off of each other.”

Forging a Path

That celebration rolls around in 2023, which should be enough time, Schindler said, to see some real development progress in town, particularly in the Elm Street corridor, the main commercial area in South Deerfield.

Town leaders know that to attract new businesses — in hospitality and other sectors as well — they need to make the downtown area more inviting and pedestrian-friendly, and they’re eyeing a host of potential improvements in the Elm Street center, which may include work on sidewalks, lights, and storefronts.

For a year before taking on her current role last month — one she is interested in pursuing on a permanent basis — Schindler was a special projects consultant in town, and one of the big projects she embraced right away was Complete Streets, mostly geared toward the South Deerfield center.

South Deerfield center

Town leaders see plenty of potential in the South Deerfield center corridor.

“We’re in the process of putting that plan together. We want to create more walkability, more accessibility, and that includes for folks in wheelchairs, people with children, people of all abilities,” she said. “We’re also looking at ways to make South Deerfield’s center more aesthetically pleasing — light it, put in streetscapes, put in wayfinding, finish the municipal parking lot we have down there; all that is being discussed as part of the plan. We want it to stay a viable downtown.”

The area is not particularly expansive, she pointed out, spanning just a few blocks, but in some ways, that presents a more enticing opportunity, by ensuring that development and improvement efforts are tightly focused. There’s some land-use complexity as well, as the Massachusetts Department of Transportation owns a small part of the corridor, and the state owns Conway Street, home to Town Hall.

“But that’s an opportunity,” she said, “because the state is also excited about Complete Streets, and we could see a wonderful economic center down here, which I’m sure the state would support in a variety of different ways.”

The downtown has seen some business change recently, with longtime restaurant Jerry’s Place closing last year, and a café called Leo’s Table setting up shop in the location, with proprietor Jennifer Howard specializing in made-from-scratch breakfast and lunch fare. The building itself — which is also home to Ciesluk’s Market, Giving Circle Thrift Shop, the Tavern, and a Subway sandwich location, as well as 19 apartments on the second floor, has new owners, Jason Kicza and Justin Killeen, who plan to touch up the property this spring.

“I would consider that the anchor building on that side,” Schindler said, “and it’s doing great.”

Cumberland Farms’ move from South Deerfield’s center to the main road — specifically, the corner of Elm Street and Routes 5 and 10 — may not have been as great for the downtown’s prospects.

Deerfield at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1677
Population: 5,400
Area: 33.4 square miles
County: Franklin
Residential and commercial Tax Rate: $16.34 (Deerfield), $18.14 (South Deerfield)
Median Household Income: $74,853
Median Family Income: $83,859
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Yankee Candle Co., Pelican Products Inc.
* Latest information available

“They have a bigger business down on the corner, but it’s not necessarily a draw into the center; now people can just pop into Cumby’s for gas and keep going,” she said. “So we are looking at ways to basically create more stability in the center of South Deerfield by doing a variety of things. Obviously, part of that is keeping businesses and attracting more businesses.”

These days, the corridor can be oddly empty at certain times of the day, she noted, but well-trafficked during morning and evening rush hours. The goal, she told BusinessWest, is to turn it into a pedestrian-friendly center at all hours, rather than a thruway.

The Complete Streets plan will be a big part of that. By the time the 350th rolls around, she’d like to see significant physical and infrastructure improvements to make the downtown more of a destination. “The sidewalks will look different, maybe more green space, and hopefully we’ll see more people down there.”

High Times

Like many area communities, Deerfield has embraced the burgeoning cannabis industry in Massachusetts, recently approving two site plans, one for a cultivation facility at Pioneer Gardens on Mill Village Road, and the other for a dispensary run by Harvest Inc. on State Road.

“The culture has changed,” Schindler said, noting that, when communities were first exploring the economic possibilities of marijuana businesses, many Deerfield residents — most of them older — were staunchly opposed. But that opposition has died down to a large degree in many towns, to the point where communities might begin to locate such businesses in more central areas.

“At first, they wanted to hide it, put it on the outskirts of town, but now they want it close to downtown. And that’s where it should be — take it out of the shadows, take it away from the edge of town where people can just pop in and leave. Bring them in and use it for economic development.”

Meanwhile, Schindler and other Deerfield leaders will continue to think outside the box — even if big boxes aren’t in the cards — by examining where pockets of land already devoted to commercial and industrial businesses might have some infill potential, and continue to take pressure off the residential tax base.

“The thing I think is so tremendous about Deerfield is the huge opportunity it offers,” she said. “It’s wide open, and it’s got resources — financial resources, natural resources, culture, art, access to main roads. I get excited about it.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]