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Banking and Financial Services

Going for the Green

One of the more challenging aspects of running a cannabis business is the inability to access banking services because banks are federally regulated, and cannabis is illegal on the federal level. However, change could be coming after the U.S. House of Representatives voted to pass legislation that would legalize cannabis banking. If the Senate agrees, proponents of the effort say, cannabis operations will become easier, less costly, more transparent, and accessible to a wider range of investors.

Want to start a cannabis business? You’d better have a lot of cash on hand.

However, that equation could be changing after the U.S. House of Representatives voted to pass legislation that would allow the cannabis industry to access banking and financial services, even as the substance remains illegal under federal law.

The Secure and Fair Enforcement (SAFE) Banking Act passed the House by a vote of 321 to 103, with nearly half of Republicans joining all Democrats but one in voting in favor of the bill.

Now the bill will move to the U.S. Senate and, eventually, to the president’s desk. Proponents are confident in their chances of passage.

“It would be great for the cannabis industry and great for the banking industry,” said Peter Gallagher, chief financial officer at INSA, a cannabis dispensary in Easthampton. “A lot of banks we’ve talked to are very interested in getting into it, but don’t want the risks associated with it, so they’ve steered clear of it.”

Banks providing services to state-approved cannabis businesses could, in theory, face criminal and civil liability under federal statutes. In fact, only two financial institutions in Massachusetts have taken on the risk, both of them located in the eastern part of the state. So most cannabis companies operate as cash-only businesses.

“The implications of having to handle a lot of cash are pretty profound,” Gallagher told BusinessWest. “A lot of effort goes into counting and transporting it. To the extent that we can move some of this to credit, it would make our operations a lot easier.”

Momentum to legalize cannabis has made the banking issue impossible to ignore at the federal level. Currently, 33 states, the District of Columbia, Guam, and Puerto Rico have all legalized the use of marijuana to some degree. Yet the possession, distribution, or sale of marijuana remains illegal under federal law, which means any contact with money that can be traced back to state marijuana operations could be considered money laundering and expose a bank to significant legal, operational, and regulatory risk, notes the American Banking Assoc. (ABA).

“The rift between federal and state law has left banks trapped between their mission to serve the financial needs of their local communities and the threat of federal enforcement action,” the association wrote recently. “ABA believes the time has come for Congress and the regulatory agencies to provide greater legal clarity to banks operating in states where marijuana has been legalized for medical or adult use. Those banks, including institutions that have no interest in directly banking marijuana-related businesses, face rising legal and regulatory risks as the marijuana industry grows.”

Gallagher said legalizing cannabis banking across the board makes sense on many levels.

“From a business perspective, it would make banking more accessible and less costly, and it would eliminate the risk of enforcement and regulatory action that banks are worried about, which is what’s leading them to abandon the market.”

Most think they would gladly jump in — making the cannabis industry more accessible to a wider range of entrepreneurs, while bringing down costs — if the SAFE Banking Act becomes law. And that’s what the Senate will have to consider as it begins its review.

Dollars and Sense

Scott Foster, a partner with the law firm Bulkley Richardson who helped establish its cannabis practice, said the law, if passed, would open up the ability of cannabis businesses to use local branches of local banks essentially overnight — if the banks decide to get involved, which seems likely, given the ABA’s advocacy on the issue.

“This is driven not by the cannabis industry, but by the banking industry,” Foster said. “We need clarity in this issue, considering all the non-cannabis businesses affected by this.”

“A lot of banks we’ve talked to are very interested in getting into it, but don’t want the risks associated with it, so they’ve steered clear of it.”

Indeed, in addition to growers and retailers, there are plenty of vendors and suppliers, landlords, and employees indirectly tied to the cannabis industry, thus posing legal risks for banks serving those individuals.

Rob Nichols, ABA president, recently wrote about two such examples: a bank in Ohio was forced to turn down a loan to a fencing company hired to build a fence around a marijuana growing facility, and a bank in Washington had to close an account when a law firm took on a marijuana business as a client.

“If either of these banks looked the other way, they risked violating federal law and facing criminal prosecution,” Nichols said, noting that these examples are far from isolated. An ABA survey found that 75% of banks have had to close an account, terminate a client relationship, or turn away a customer because there was some connection to cannabis.

“What we’re seeing is employees of cannabis companies being turned down for mortgages, and checking accounts closed down because they’re being paid by cannabis companies. That’s the biggest impact that’s actually driving the law,” Foster told BusinessWest. “Senators in states where it’s legal are saying, ‘time out.’ This isn’t about cannabis companies, it’s about the people selling stuff to them, landlords, even W.B. Mason delivering supplies. They’re getting caught up because they’re being paid by cannabis companies, and banks are saying they can’t accept the money. It’s an unintended ripple effect that’s causing a shift in thinking in Congress.”

Furthermore, reconciling the legal divide between state and federal laws would bring benefits to the communities banks serve, Nichols argues.

“The estimated $24 billion in cannabis sales by 2025 in states where marijuana has been legalized could be deposited safely with federally regulated financial institutions, enhancing transparency, public safety, and tax revenue,” he said.

And it’s not just banks asking for lawmakers to take action, he noted. A bipartisan group of 19 state attorneys general last year wrote a letter to lawmakers, arguing that bringing cannabis businesses into the banking system would improve accountability and increase public safety.

“This isn’t about cannabis companies, it’s about the people selling stuff to them, landlords, even W.B. Mason delivering supplies. They’re getting caught up because they’re being paid by cannabis companies, and banks are saying they can’t accept the money. It’s an unintended ripple effect that’s causing a shift in thinking in Congress.”

“Without relief from Congress, even banks that have decided not to serve cannabis businesses will find themselves caught in the financial web created by this booming industry,” Nichols said. “The money from cannabis businesses often goes to vendors, landlords, and employees, while the federal criminal association follows that cash.”

Gallagher agreed, and said it shouldn’t be difficult to build consensus around the need to bring clarity to cannabis finances through the well-regulated banking system.

“If, at the end of the day, what we’re worried about is diversion, or being able to track all that money, it’s easier to do that with electronic payments rather than having people carry large cash balances,” he said. “It’s easier for regulators and everyone else to make sure the industry is healthy and operating compliantly.”

Indeed, that very argument became part of the House debate. Colorado state Rep. Ed Perlmutter argued that keeping cannabis banking illegal is “an invitation to theft, it’s an invitation to money-laundering, it’s an invitation to tax evasion, and it stifles the opportunities of this business.”

Joint Resolutions

Foster said the immediate impact of the SAFE Banking Act would be significant on current cannabis businesses, which would now be able to access local branches of local banks, instead of running a ponderous all-cash operation — and requiring the security that entails — or seeking services from an institution across the state.

“We can’t apply for loans — working capital, construction loans, any lending right now,” Gallagher noted, adding that the handful of banks nationwide that are currently risking the cannabis business are passing on exorbitant costs to customers to do so.

“You’ve had some companies that have been willing to shoulder the risk associated with servicing an operation that’s federally illegal,” he told BusinessWest. “They’ve been able to charge excessive rates for that. As [legalization] happens in this industry, the fees will come down and start to normalize.”

Nichols expects that competition to emerge quickly, saying banks typically respect the decisions made by voters in the states where they operate. “Those voters had weighed the societal and cultural issues that come with legalization, and they made their decision. Instead, the industry is focused on the impact of the gap between state and federal laws on banks and their ability to serve those in their communities.”

The other major impact of a change in the law, Foster said, has to do with the concept of social equity. Massachusetts’ Cannabis Control Commission launched what it calls its Social Equity Program to expedite business applications and provide technical assistance, mentoring, and other resources for individuals from communities that have been disproportionately harmed by marijuana prohibition — typically poverty-stricken areas.

“Even though Massachusetts law has a social-equity component to it, giving expedited processing to social-equity candidates, the practical reality is, most of the investors are still wealthy, white gentlemen who have disposable income invested in cannabis,” he noted.

By allowing entrepreneurs to finance these operations instead of needing all the money up front, Foster explained, “you’ll have more players at the table, and be able to leverage smaller sums into larger companies. I haven’t heard a lot of talk about the social-equity piece, but to me, that’s a big piece, to help more people be able to engage in this business and apply for a loan if they qualify. That, to me, is a potential game changer.”

A companion bill in the U.S. Senate has yet to be voted on by the Senate Banking Committee, which held a hearing in late July on the issue. While that debate is coming, some lawmakers believe it’s only the start. For instance, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said he doesn’t believe the SAFE Banking Act goes far enough.

“This must be a first step toward the decriminalization of marijuana, which has led to the prosecution and incarceration of far too many of our fellow Americans for possession,” he argued.

For now, people like Gallagher are happy the banking issue may finally be resolved.

“We’ve been following this, so it’s not a surprise,” he said. “It’s something that makes a lot of sense from an operations and compliance perspective. We weren’t sure of the timing of it in terms of the evolution of the industry, but it’s something we expected to happen.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Health Care

Beyond the Ban

Call it a decisive response to a much less clear-cut problem.

While shop owners may seethe, Gov. Charlie Baker says the state’s four-month ban on selling vaping products is a necessary step while the medical community tries to figure out what’s causing a rash of pulmonary illness among e-cigarette users across the U.S.

“We do not know what is causing these illnesses, but the only thing in common in each one of these cases is the use of e-cigarettes and vaping products,” Massachusetts Public Health Commissioner Monica Bharel said. “So we want to act now to protect our children.”

On Oct. 1, the Massachusetts Department of Public Health (DPH) reported five additional cases of vaping-associated pulmonary injury — two confirmed, three probable — to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), bringing the statewide total of reported cases to 10. (Five of the cases are confirmed, and five are considered probable for meeting the CDC’s definition of vaping-associated lung injury.) At press time, 83 suspected vaping-related pulmonary cases have been reported to the DPH since Sept. 11.

“While no one has pinpointed the exact cause of this outbreak of illness, we do know that vaping and e-cigarettes are the common thread and are making people sick,” Bharel said. “The information we’re gathering about cases in Massachusetts will further our understanding of vaping-associated lung injury, as well as assist our federal partners.”

Some clarity may be emerging, however, particularly concerning the role of tetrahydrocannabinol (THC), an ingredient found in marijuana. According to the CDC, 77% of the people involved in the recent outbreak reported using products containing THC. In Massachusetts, five of the 10 cases involved THC, while another four vaped both THC and nicotine; just one of the 10 reported vaping nicotine only.

Based on this recent data, CDC recommends people consider refraining from e-cigarette or vaping products, particularly those containing THC.

“CDC is committed to finding out what is causing this outbreak of lung injury and death among individuals using vaping products,” said CDC Director Dr. Robert Redfield. “We continue to work with FDA and state partners to protect the nation from this serious health threat.”

More information is needed to know whether a single product, substance, or brand is responsible for the lung injuries, the CDC noted, adding that the investigation is particularly challenging because it involves hundreds of cases across the country, and patients report use of a wide variety of products and substances.

According to the CDC’s most recent national report, of the patients who reported what products they used, about 77% used THC-containing products, with or without nicotine-containing products; 36% reported exclusive use of THC-containing products; and 16% reported exclusive use of nicotine-containing products.

In addition, the report from Illinois and Wisconsin showed that nearly all THC-containing products reported were packaged, prefilled cartridges that were primarily acquired from informal sources such as friends, family members, illicit dealers, or off the street. THC use is legal and regulated in Massachusetts.

“The main theme seems to be illegal THC products. It’s a mix of chemicals in products to sell on the street that just don’t react that well with the lungs,” Dr. Nico Vehse, chief of Pediatric Pulmonology at Baystate Children’s Hospital, told BusinessWest.

He noted that vaping has posed lung issues since it first emerged in the early 2000s. “Back then, we had a recurrence of what they call popcorn lung. If you get fatty lipids into your lungs, your lung tries to fight it like pneumonia, and that causes a lot of lung damage.”

While much of the vaping news surrounds a lung illness, Dr. Nico Vehse says, nicotine addiction remains a persistent danger, particularly for young people.

Whether the current outbreak is a similar phenomenon or something altogether different is the subject of intense study, at the national level but also in Massachusetts. In mid-September, Bharel mandated that Massachusetts clinicians immediately report any unexplained, vaping-associated lung injury to the DPH. Of the 83 suspect cases reported at press time, 51 are still being investigated, with DPH officials collecting medical records and conducting patient interviews. Twenty-two cases did not meet the official CDC definitions, while the other 10, as noted, were reported to the CDC.

Off the Shelf

Baker went a big step further when, on Sept. 24, he declared a public-health emergency and a four-month statewide ban on sales of all vaping products in Massachusetts. The ban applies to all vaping devices and products, including those containing nicotine or cannabis.

The decision generated some pushback, and not just by retailers. Shaleen Title, commissioner of the state Cannabis Control Commission, assailed the ban in a tweet, posting that it is “purposely pushing people into the illicit market — precisely where the dangerous products are — and goes against every principle of public health and harm reduction. It is dangerous, short-sighted, and undermines the benefits of legal regulation.”

As someone who works with young people, however, Vehse understands the DPH’s concern. Of the 10 reported cases in Massachusetts, five are under age 20. Even absent concern over the current lung illnesses, many vaping products have a much higher nicotine concentration than traditional cigarettes, and some public-health officials are concerned an entirely new generation of young people may be falling prey to nicotine addiction. He noted that some products use salts instead of oils, which may not cause the same kind of lung damage as the oils, but deliver more nicotine.

“They improved on the perfect delivery system for addiction — cigarettes — and made it even more potent for nicotine addiction,” Vehse told BusinessWest. “Nicotine addiction is probably one of the hardest things to quit. I’ve always said you’ll have an easier time quitting heroin than quitting nicotine. It’s the most highly addictive substance we have, legally or illegally.”

As part of its public-health emergency declaration, Massachusetts implemented a statewide standing order for nicotine-replacement products that will allow people to access over-the-counter-products like gum and patches as a covered benefit through their insurance without requiring an individual prescription, similar to what the Baker administration did to increase access to naloxone, the opioid-reversal medication.

Other health organizations praised Baker’s decision, for a variety of reasons.

“In the absence of strong federal action, especially by the FDA, states are being forced to make decisions to protect the health of children and adults from a vaping-related public-health emergency,” said Harold Wimmer, president and CEO of the American Lung Assoc.

“While no one has pinpointed the exact cause of this outbreak of illness, we do know that vaping and e-cigarettes are the common thread and are making people sick.”

“Governor Baker’s announcement reinforces the need for the FDA to clear the market of all flavored e-cigarettes in order to address the youth e-cigarette epidemic,” he went on. “While the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and state and local departments of health continue to investigate the hundreds of cases of lung injury from e-cigarettes, the American Lung Association once again urges all Americans to stop using e-cigarettes.”

Meanwhile, the Massachusetts Dental Society (MDS) also swung its support behind the ban.

“While vaping is believed to pose fewer health risks than smoking regular tobacco cigarettes — the leading cause of preventable death in the United States — it is by no means harmless,” said MDS President Dr. Janis Moriarty. “E-cigarettes still contain nicotine … which increases the risk of high blood pressure and diabetes. E-cigarettes also can have a significant impact on oral health.”

She cited a study supported by the American Dental Assoc. Foundation that determined that vaping sweetened e-cigarettes can increase the risk of cavities. “Additionally, the nicotine in e-cigarettes reduces blood flow, restricting the supply of nutrients and oxygen to the soft tissues of the mouth. This can cause the gums to recede and exacerbate periodontal diseases. Reduced blood circulation also inhibits the mouth’s natural ability to fight bacteria that can accelerate infection, decay, and other problems.”

Time to Act

The main story, however, remains the recent spate of lung illness. At press time, 805 confirmed and probable cases of lung injury associated with e-cigarette product use or vaping had been reported the CDC by 46 states and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Those cases included 12 deaths, but none in Massachusetts.

Bharel hopes her department’s reporting mandate will bear fruit in getting to the bottom of what has become a national concern.

“We are beginning to hear from clinicians about what they are seeing in their practice as a result of the health alert,” she said, adding that the mandate “establishes the legal framework for healthcare providers to report cases and suspected cases so that we can get a better sense of the overall burden of disease in Massachusetts. It also will allow us to provide case counts to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as they continue to try to understand the nationwide impact of vaping-related disease.”

In 2018, Baker signed a law that incorporates e-cigarettes into the definition of tobacco, making it illegal to vape where it is illegal to smoke and raising the minimum age to buy tobacco products, including e-cigarettes, to 21.

Still, the latest statewide data shows 41% of Massachusetts high-school students have tried e-cigarettes at least once. About 20% of them reported using e-cigarettes in the past 30 days — a rate six times higher than adults. Nearly 10% of middle-school students say they have tried e-cigarettes.

In the past year, DPH has conducted two public-information campaigns to raise awareness among middle- and high-school-aged youth and their parents about the dangers of vaping and e-cigarettes. The department promises to reprise both campaigns in the coming weeks and include resources for young people to assist them with quitting.

Vehse said it’s easier for teenagers to sneak a vape at school than to smoke cigarettes, which may contribute to their use. “It doesn’t smell; it doesn’t stay in the air. It’s completely covert. Now high schools have started to install some vaping sensors in bathrooms. As young as middle school, kids are vaping.”

He had no answer to why the usage numbers are so high among a population that shouldn’t even be able to purchase e-cigarettes, but deferred to the simple psychology of being young.

“Maybe it’s just because you’re a teenager and want to do something you’re not allowed to do. It’s all part of the teenager feeling indestrictible,” he said. “But whether you’re cigarette smoking or vaping, both are addictive, and you’re inhaling stuff you’re not supposed to.”

In many cases, they’re inhaling products flavored and packaged in such a way to appeal to kids, he added. “They pretty much make them look like candy bars on the shelves.”

Following a report from the CDC that 27.5% of kids are using e-cigarettes and that many are initiated with flavored products, the AMA’s Wimmer said, “we also call on the Massachusetts Legislature to pass a law prohibiting the sale of all flavored tobacco products.”

For now, Baker, Bharel, and other state officials will continue to assess their most recent moves as the national effort continues to learn more about — and prevent — vaping-related lung disease.

“One of the experts said that, ‘we don’t have time to wait. People are getting sick, and the time to act is now,’” Baker said when announcing the sales ban. “I couldn’t agree more.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Health Care

Cultural Shift

Michael Taylor and Teresa Weybrew say Christopher Heights of Northampton is striving to be ‘the place’ for LGBTQ seniors.

The average age of a Christopher Heights resident is somewhere in the 80s, says Teresa Weybrew, director of Marketing & Admissions at the assisted-living community in Northampton.

That’s an age group that grew up in a less-open time when it came to gender identity and sexual orientation — and members of that generation often still feel anxiety around their peers. But what’s more surprising, Weybrew said, is that, for many, that fear of being openly themselves is heightened when they move into senior-living communities.

“There’s a statistic that, of people who have come out and lived an authentic life in their sexual orientation, when they come into assisted living or skilled nursing, 86% go back in the closet out of fear,” she told BusinessWest. “They’re in an environment where they don’t know how safe they are because they have some memory loss or physical ailments — they’re already vulnerable because they’re not quite physically themselves — and then they have this added layer of anxiety. We want to help them understand that we get it, and they’re going to be OK here.”

Christopher Heights recently hosted a workshop for staff, residents, and public on LGBTQ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer) cultural competency in the senior-living setting. Presented by Rainbow Elders, an arm of LifePath in Greenfield, the event was also part of the process of being credentialed by SAGE, the nation’s largest advocacy organization for LGBTQ elders.

“I want our community to be accepting of other residents,” said Michael Taylor, the facility’s executive director, “but we also want employees to feel comfortable and respected. I see this as making it a welcoming place for both.”

Not all communities are. Angela Houghton of AARP Research writes that three out of four adults age 45 and older who are lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender say they are concerned about having enough support from family and friends as they age. Many are also worried about how they will be treated in long-term-care facilities and want specific LGBTQ services for older adults.

“I’ve been working with SAGE in a conversation for a couple months,” Weybrew added. “But as I got into it, I realized this isn’t just about having a plaque on the wall. We want to live and breathe and walk the talk and really be the facility that does the work and where people can come in and say, ‘yeah, they really do know what they’re doing, and I feel welcome,’ whether it be an employee or someone who comes to live here.”

Subtle Spectrum

For the recent workshop, Rainbow Elders brought in four people — representing gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender perspectives — to talk about gender, identity, orientation, and how none of those categories are black and white, but rather a spectrum.

“It was good educational background. Each talked about their personal story,” Taylor said, noting that Christopher Heights already employs a handful of LGBTQ individuals and aims to create a more welcoming environment for staff and residents alike — which is why hearing these perspectives shared aloud is important.

The demographics speak to the importance of this issue. By 2030, the population of American adults ages 65 or older is expected to surpass 70 million, according the U.S. Census Bureau. The National Gay and Lesbian Task Force puts the number of LGBTQ seniors in the U.S. at 3 million and notes that this figure is expected to double by 2030.

However, LGBTQ seniors frequently report concern over the possibility of encountering discrimination from senior-housing staff or other residents. According to SAGE, 48% of lesbian, gay, or bisexual couples experience “adverse treatment when seeking senior housing,” and transgender elders face such treatment at even higher rates.

Meanwhile, a 2016 report from Justice in Aging notes that 78% of LGBTQ residents in nursing homes, assisted-living facilities, and long-term-care facilities responded ‘no’ or ‘not sure’ when asked if they felt comfortable being open about their sexual orientation or gender identity to facility staff.

Then there are cases like Mary Walsh and Bev Nance, a Missouri couple whose housing application at a local senior-living facility was denied because of a cohabitation policy that defined marriage as between one man and one woman. They sued the facility, but their lawsuit was dismissed by a U.S. district judge in January.

Yes, that’s January 2019, not 1959. Clearly, the work of SAGE and like-minded organizations isn’t done. Cases like this certainly help explain why only 20% of LGBTQ seniors in long-term-care facilities are open about their sexual orientation, according to Justice in Aging.

Yet, attitudes have been shifting — and prejudices hopefully diminishing — over the decades when it comes to this population, and facilities should be welcoming them as an untapped market, notes a report by Sodexo titled “Why ‘LGBTQ-welcoming’ Will Soon Be a Hallmark of the Most Successful Senior-living Communities.”

“Developing a marketing strategy that attracts LGBTQ older adults is the right thing to do,” the report notes. “And it’s good business. Given the opportunity for senior-living operators to advance their growth agenda, developing a strategic plan that attracts and retains LGBTQ older adults and allies is a vital lever to business growth and to improve quality of life.”

To help facilities move in that direction, SAGE launched its credentialing program for retirement communities around the country aiming to create more understanding and resources for these marginalized groups. Its program addresses the specific difficulties LGBTQ older adults face, including abuse, neglect and hurtful comments.

“Most people work with older adults because they have a caring orientation,” said Tim Johnston, director of national projects at SAGE. “We are giving them the tools they need to help older adults feel more comfortable.”

Watch Your Language

In developing a culturally competent and welcoming environment, it is important to address a number of factors, including language, inclusive visuals in company materials, programming, and outreach efforts, according to the Sodexo report.

At Christopher Heights of Northampton, it begins with the application, which used to give only two options for gender — male or female. It may seem like a small thing, but it’s a detail that sets transgender and non-binary individuals on edge right from the start.

“If you’re trans, what do you put?” Weybrew said. “That’s your first exposure to us — and you’re already thinking, ‘all right, they expect me to be a man or a woman,’ when you don’t identify as that.”

She recently asked a resident from the LGBTQ community what might have improved her experience, and she did mention the application form, but she also stressed the importance of respectful communication.

“She said, ‘just ask.’ And we are afraid. We don’t want to offend anyone, and yet, in our fear, we are offending people by not asking them the questions. We want to connect, we need to connect, and that’s what I think this training will offer us — ways to have the conversation. Many people have lived their whole lives feeling either offended or accepted or some awkward in-between. It’s not like we’re going to do something that’s going to shock them.”

Sodexo’s report affirms that idea, noting that “one of the simplest ways to cultivate both understanding and respectful relationships with LGBTQ older adults is through appropriate use of language. Keep in mind, however, that some terms still used by older LGBTQ people may be seen as outdated by younger LGBTQ people. Become familiar with key terminology and pay close attention to how residents use terms and how they refer to themselves and others.”

Indeed, the report continues, “the LGBTQ community is not a monolith. This must be kept in mind when addressing the needs of LGBTQ older adults as well, who have a totally different set of life experiences than younger LGBTQ people. The former grew up in a time that was far less welcoming, when LGBTQ people guarded their sexual orientation and gender identity as a dangerous secret that could cause them to lose their homes, jobs, families, and freedom. They risked being labeled anything from criminal to mentally ill. That generation still carries a lot of this baggage today as they attempt to navigate issues related to housing and healthcare.”

That may be an understatement. SAGE notes that, just a few decades ago, homosexuality was still classifed as a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Assoc., not to mention a crime in some parts of the U.S. Housing, employment, and healthcare discrimination were common. As a result, many LGBTQ seniors remain fearful or distrustful of medical and social-service providers.

Weybrew has assembled an advisory board that will continue to meet regularly going forward and bring in educational opportunities for residents, staff, and the larger community.

“It won’t end. It can’t end,” she told BusinessWest. “We have to keep learning, and we have to say, ‘yes, we see you.’”

She knows she’s already dealing with a vulnerable population. “You’re talking about a potential resident who’s scared because they’re leaving their home of 40 years. Their spouse died, they’re losing their health, and they’re coming to a place where they don’t know us. I know what’s like because I did it with both my parents. Now you add that layer of sexual orientation. We want them to know, ‘yeah, it’s cool to be here because we’re going to treat you right.’

“We’re going to have our issues,” she went on. “We might get some pushback from an 88-year-old who says, ‘God says that’s a sin.’ It’s going to happen. And we’re going to learn how to manage that.”

Not Just Seniors

Senior-living facilities aren’t the only ones recognizing opportunities to boost cultural competency among their staffs. For example, Cooley Dickinson Hospital has been recognized as a 2019 Leader in LGBTQ Healthcare Equality by the Human Rights Commission (HRC), the country’s largest LGBTQ civil-rights organization. CDH is the only hospital in Western Mass. and one of only seven hospitals in the Commonwealth to earn this designation.

Among its efforts, Cooley Dickinson has recruited and trained clinicians who specialize in the care of LGBTQ people; implemented changes to electronic medical records that facilitate the use of the patient’s preferred gender, name, and pronouns; and collaborated with local gender-diverse community members, the Fenway Institute, and researchers from Harvard Medical School on the PATH (Plan and Act for Transgender Health) Project, a study that will inform the expansion of gender-affirming health services in Western Mass.

“This designation affirms Cooley Dickinson’s commitment to providing equitable, inclusive, and affirming care for LGBTQQ patients and their families,” said Cooley Dickinson Health Care President and CEO Joanne Marqusee. “We are proud to receive — for the third consecutive year — this honor and to continue our efforts to ensure that our local LGBTQ community has access to respectful, appropriate care.”

Sure, it’s easier for Northampton-based facilities like Cooley Dickinson and Christopher Heights to make these efforts, which are likely to meet with resistance in less progressive areas of the country. But it’s a start.

“We realize it’s going to be an ongoing process, but we as a company are committed to it,” Taylor said.

Weybrew said Christopher Heights is a corporate sponsor of the Out! for Reel film festival, which focuses on LGBTQ-themed films and recently kicked off its season. “I had a chance to get up and speak. The word is getting out that this is going to be a welcoming place, and it starts with us internally asking, how do we make it that place every day? How do we make people feel comfortable?”

The answer is an evolving one — and begins with asking the right questions of those who have felt marginalized for too long.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Sports & Leisure

Raising Their Game

Team President Nathan Costa

When the Springfield Thunderbirds hit the ice for the first time three years ago, its management team heard plenty of skepticism about whether hockey could truly thrive and grow beyond a certain ceiling in the city. While there’s still plenty of room for growth in ticket sales, attendance surged last season to a two-decade high, with Saturday nights in particular routinely selling out. In short, there’s a lot of optimism inside the Thunderbirds offices — and a refusal to get complacent.

If Springfield is in the midst of a renaissance, Nathan Costa says, the Springfield Thunderbirds are a large part of the reason — even if not everyone thought they could be.

“I told the staff recently, ‘I think we’ve been able to do this because we came in with a chip on our shoulder.’ We wanted to prove we could do it here and that, if we did it the right way, it could work,” said Costa, the team’s president. “When we first came in, a lot of people said, ‘teams haven’t always had success here — what’s different about you guys?’”

At the start of their fourth season in Springfield, the Thunderbirds — the American Hockey League (AHL) affiliate of the Florida Panthers — have slowly raised what was, in some eyes, a low bar when Costa and a team of local investors brought hockey back to Springfield in 2016 following the departure of the Falcons.

Perhaps most strikingly, the team averaged more than 5,000 fans per night last season — a number no Springfield hockey team had achieved in more than two decades.

“At first, there were low expectations for the marketplace, and it was easier to meet those expectations,” Costa told BusinessWest two weeks before the team begins its 2019-20 home campaign on Oct. 5. “Now we’ve set a high bar. We need to work with the same urgency we’ve always had to keep this moving forward.”

This year’s squad hits the ice for a practice session last week.

Above Costa’s office door is painted the number 6,793. That’s the sellout number at the MassMutual Center, and it’s a number the team reached on about a dozen occasions last season, mostly Saturday nights. With a friendlier home schedule this year (more on that in a bit), the goal is to record even more sellouts and get that average attendance closer to 6,000 than 5,000 — and Costa thinks it’s reachable.

“In the past, you could always walk up and buy a ticket here. Now, if you don’t get a package, or you don’t get a ticket early on, especially for those Saturday nights in the second half of the season, you can’t find a ticket. And that’s what we wanted to create,” he said. “But it’s not easy to do.”

Last year, preparations to host the AHL All-Star Classic (a significant feather in the franchise’s cap) knocked out home games the weekend before, traditionally one of the league’s busier weekends, cutting down the total number of weekend dates. But for the 2019-20 season, the Thunderbirds will host 15 Saturday-night and 14 Friday-night tilts, as well as four Sunday-afternoon games, in all accounting for 33 of the schedule’s 38 home games.

“At first, there were low expectations for the marketplace, and it was easier to meet those expectations. Now we’ve set a high bar. We need to work with the same urgency we’ve always had to keep this moving forward.”

Still, “we’re continuing to put an emphasis on getting to the point where we’re filling the building every single night,” Costa said, adding that season-ticket sales have increased every year. So have the team’s fortunes on the ice, as it posted a winning record last year, although it has missed the playoffs all three years.

“The Panthers had quite a few injuries, so they called up a number of our players around the all-star break, which was challenging on the hockey side,” he explained. “But on the business side, we continue to do what we’ve talked about from the very beginning, which is focus on the family-fun, entertainment aspects of coming to games.

“People want to see a winning product, obviously — especially in this market, where people are spoiled with winning teams,” he went on. “So we’re hoping that comes with time. But we’re also trying to lay a foundation where we’re providing a professional, awesome experience here in the arena, and I think we’re doing that and creating events and promotions people are connecting with.”

From the start, Costa and his team tackled some common gripes from the Falcons’ tenure, including lowering concession prices, negotiating a deal for free parking in the neighboring garage, building a richer schedule of promotions — even ramping up video production to make sure season-ticket holders are watching fresh videos on the big screens as the season moves along.

Being granted last year’s all-star events was a signal, he said, that the AHL recognized what was happening and how fans were responding. So were a series of league awards last year, from Costa being named outstanding executive to honors for the team’s digital-media presence and marketing efforts.

“The All-Star Classic was an absolute home run — it raised our profile locally and within the AHL,” Costa said. “Springfield wasn’t necessarily viewed as a place where you could see best practices or have a full building, but now, we’ve changed the perception of Western Mass. among the AHL board and really rejuvenated the city from their perspective.”

And the perspective of others as well — about 5,000 a night.

Lacing ’em Up

When the Portland Pirates left Maine for Springfield three years ago, the City of Homes was no doubt on the rise, but pieces were still falling into place downtown, and the MGM Springfield casino was still more than two years from opening.

“That was a challenge, when there wasn’t as much life and things going on,” Costa said. “We really wanted to face a lot of the hurdles that we heard about head-on, much of which was parking, safety, or that it costs too much to come to a game. We were trying to bring people downtown.”

Some of those concerns were more reputation than reality, he added. “I’ve worked downtown more than 10 years, and I’ve never not felt safe. And I think that perception is gone now. We don’t hear it at all anymore. It is a testament to the city.”

Part of that change is the simple fact of more feet on the street, especially at night.

“There’s a lot more going on. Restaurants are buzzing. People are walking around. There’s life, there’s energy. The city was primed for that,” he said, crediting entities like MGM and the Springfield Business Improvement District and efforts in the realms of public safety and downtown beautification.

Still, selling a new team to the public after the Falcons took flight was a challenge initially. “But we were confident in our business plan and stuck to what worked in other AHL cities; we stuck to providing value to ticket holders and in the arena. The league started feeling good about us, and it’s steadily grown over three years.”

The franchise is always feeling out new promotions, although a few have become regular events, including 3-2-1 Fridays ($3 beers, $2 hot dogs, and $1 sodas) and a Friday-night concert series; March’s Pink in the Rink event to celebrate breast-cancer survivors and raise funds for treatment and research; and December’s Teddy Bear Toss, where fans bring stuffed animals and throw them on the ice after the home team’s first goal, to be collected and donated to underprivileged children.

Visits from David Ortiz and Pedro Martinez have proven hugely popular as well, and while the team doesn’t have someone of quite that stature stopping by this year, it has planned four guest appearances, including former Florida Panther goalie Roberto Luongo in November; Mike Eruzione from the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team in February, marking the 40th anniversary of the Miracle on Ice; and Brian Scalabrine from the Celtics’ 2008 NBA championship team in March.

The fourth guest is a little more outside the box: actor Leslie David Baker, who played Stanley Hudson in the hit TV show The Office, will visit in December for what the team is labeling its Office Holiday Party, inviting local businesses to basically celebrate the season at the MassMutual Center, watch a game, and meet Baker.

“We’re trying to provide more value to ticket holders, and letting them know we continue to invest in the game experience,” Costa said.

Another returning promotion is a Blast from the Past night in January, when the team reverts to 1990-era Springfield Indians jerseys, celebrating the 30th anniversary of that team’s Calder Cup win.

“We’re trying to tap into that old nostalgia; that’s a fun part of what we do,” Costa said, noting that the team still owns the Springfield Indians trademark. “We made the decision not to rebrand to that when we purchased the franchise. But using it here once in a while is fun, and we can create an event around it that people look forward to.

“I think we’ve done a good job of recognizing the past but also creating our own brand,” he went on. “We obviously still hear about the Indians quite a bit — there’s a lot of romanticizing around the Indians, and obviously they had some really good, successful years — but it wasn’t all roses during that time. They had their ups and downs.”

The goal with the Thunderbirds, obviously, is to have far more of the former than the latter.

“There’s been a tendency in the past to have a negative viewpoint about downtown Springfield,” he told BusinessWest. “We want create a positive experience. It’s a perfect size city for AHL franchise. Now we have to keep that trajectory moving forward and continue to sell tickets and show value. The minute we take our foot off the gas, our business is going to suffer.”

Community Goals

The Thunderbirds have been equally aggressive about community involvement, Costa said, with Boomer, the team’s mascot, making more than 200 appearances a year at businesses, schools, and organizations, and each player making at least three appearances as well, in addition to team events. The franchise has also developed a charitable foundation and youth-oriented outreaches like a reading program, a kids club, and a partnership that creates positive connections between area youth and the Springfield Police.

“Being here in this marketplace, there’s a duty for us to give back and truly be a part of the community,” Costa said. “So a lot of this stuff is focused on giving back and doing the right thing by our community in general.”

He’s gratified by the growth of the brand and the deepening of its civic roots, but admits he’s driven somewhat by anxiety and fear of failure, and still carries that chip on his shoulder from the early days. He also credits a hardworking staff willing to roll up their sleeves, hit the phones and the streets, and do the often-tedious work it takes to increase ticket sales and awareness of what’s happening on the ice.

“It’s awesome to see how the community has surrounded us and supported what we’re trying to do,” he said. “But we’ve never said, ‘hey, let’s just open the arena and see who comes out.’ We’ve always been proactive about getting out and telling our story. Now, we’re so well-positioned that, if the team has some success on the ice, it’s ready to take off. It’s palpable. If you come on a Saturday night, you can feel the energy.”

With so many entertainment options available — and a deep mesh of TV programming that makes it easier for families to just stay home — Costa and his team certainly aren’t letting up on the gas. In short, that number 6,793 continues to drive them.

“There’s nowhere else to go but up,” he said. “If we keep doing the things we’re doing, it will happen, and I think we’re seeing that now — that doing the right thing and working hard will lead to success.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Russell Fox (left, with Karl Stinehart) says Southwick’s slate of 250th-birthday events will be family-friendly and honor the town’s past while looking to a promising future.

Nov. 7 will be a big day in Southwick — and the start of a big year.

Starting that day, a year-long series of events — including holiday festivals, history tours, parades, concerts, and more — will culminate in the Taste of Southwick Gala on Nov. 7, 2020, the 250th anniversary of the town’s incorporation.

Southwick officials and volunteers have been meeting to plan this broad slate of birthday events for some time, much of the planning guided by the nonprofit Southwick Civic Fund.

“It’s an ambitious plan for a smaller community,” said Russell Fox, who chairs the town’s Select Board. “We’re actively raising money, not just from businesses but residents also. And we have some very generous residents — one resident gave us $1,000. So it’s coming along. We’d like these events to be kid-oriented. We want young people to feel like they’re part of the community and learn something about the history of the community and have a good time.”

And there’s a lot to celebrate, as Southwick continues to grow its business base, housing options, and especially its reputation as a recreation destination, Fox said. That Taste event alone speaks to what he calls a recent “restaurant renaissance” in town, with recent additions like Crepes Tea House and Wok on Water, the conversion of Chuck’s Steak House to Westfield River Brewing (which hosts concerts during the summer), and new Crabby Joe’s Bar and Grill owner Mark O’Neill’s plans to tear down that establishment and rebrand it as a state-of-the-art restaurant and brewery that may use wind turbines for electricity.

A 250th-anniversary celebration is an opportunity for a town like Southwick to show how far it has come in the realms of history, population growth, economic development, and cultural and recreational draws, said Karl Stinehart, the town’s chief administrative officer.

On the latter front, Southwick has become a mecca for recreational offerings, like boating on the Congamond Lakes, motocross events at the Wick 338, town events at the 66-acre Whalley Park, and a well-traveled rail trail frequented by bicyclists, hikers, and dog walkers.

As for its population, Southwick still boasts around 10,000 residents, and work continues at two significant new neighborhoods, a 26-home subdivision off Vining Hill Road called Noble Steed, and Fiore Realty’s project to develop about 65 homes at the former Southwick Country Club site. Meanwhile, the town made zoning changes near that site to expand commercial developments along College Highway, including a possible medical facility.

On the infrastructure front, the town is planning to improve sidewalks on Depot Street to provide easier access to downtown, and is currently improving the roadway and drainage on Congamond Road — a key entry into town from Connecticut — aided by more than $4 million in state funds.

“When that’s done, it’ll have a bike lane and sidewalk, and connect the neighborhood both to Gillette’s Corner and to the rail trail,” Stinehart said. “There are businesses that abut the rail trail, and if you go there on certain days, on the weekend, you’ll see people on the trail using those businesses.”

Stinehart noted that the town’s single tax rate of $17.48 continues to be a draw for new businesses, which is good considering the potential development opportunities along College Highway and at the Southwick Industrial Park on Hudson Drive.

“We try to balance residential growth and the business sector, which is an important thing because it keeps our tax rate competitive,” he said. “When you’re a businessman looking to site in a community and you see you’re going to be treated equally as every other taxpayer, you take notice of that.”

Fox agreed. “We try to keep that balance. We’ve got a graying population, with more people on fixed incomes. So the tax rate is a big deal to us. We don’t want to tax people out of the community they grew up in or want to retire in.”

He recalled a business owner looking to move into town from a neighboring community a couple decades ago. He was offered some tax incentives but was angling for more, but instead Fox reminded him of the town’s quality schools, low traffic, reasonable tax rate, and recreational opportunities, and that sold him. “He’s been in Southwick 20-plus years, doing very well.”

Those selling points have only expanded since then, Fox said, and that’s reason enough to celebrate 250 years.

Fun in the Sun

There’s plenty for outdoor enthusiasts to enjoy in Southwick, including three golf courses (Edgewood, the Ranch, and a par-3 track at Longhi’s) and the aforementioned 6.5-mile-long rail trail that runs through town from the Westfield border to the Suffield border.

“People in town love the bike trail — it’s just a beautiful area,” Fox told BusinessWest. “When that first started, there were some naysayers, but I think most of those people have gone away.”

“Or they’re on the trail using it,” Stinehart quickly added.

Meanwhile, the lakes on the south side of town — featuring two boat ramps, a fishing pier, and a town beach — provide plenty of activity for residents. A $275,000 project renovated the south boat ramp on Berkshire Avenue last year, making it more modern and handicap-accessible, and the beachfront was recently renovated as well.

Southwick at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1770
Population: 9,502
Area: 31.7 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $17.47
Commercial Tax Rate: $17.47
Median Household Income: $52,296
Family Household Income: $64,456
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting; Board of Selectmen
Largest Employers: Big Y; Whalley Computer Associates; Southwick Regional School District
*Latest information available

Stinehart said the lakes and their environs are an important aspect of Southwick’s outdoor culture and worthy of investment, being, among other things, a major destination for freshwater fishing tournaments.

Then there’s the Wick 338, the motocross track behind the American Legion, which abuts the Southwick Recreation Center and Whalley Park. The complex hosts the annual Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship — which is broadcast live on NBC and draws some 15,000 to 18,000 people to town — as well about 25 other races throughout the year and a host of other events, including Rugged Maniac New England, a challenging, mud-splattered 5K obstacle course. That continual flow of visitors to town benefits a host of other businesses, from gas stations to restaurants, Stinehart noted.

As for Whalley Park itself — which was donated to the town by the prominent Whalley family and developed using municipal and Community Preservation Act funds — it includes a full-size soccer field, baseball field, and softball field, lighting for the fields, a huge kids’ play area, and a pavilion.

The town also recently acquired a 144-acre parcel on North Pond at Congamond Lakes. The Mass. Department of Fisheries and Wildlife awarded Southwick money to help purchase it, and the Franklin Land Trust conducted a fund-raising effort to make up the difference in price. The parcel is abutted by two areas owned by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the state of Connecticut.

Even before that, Stinehart said, Southwick had preserved more than 1,000 acres of open space, not including the lakes themselves, and has been active in buying up development rights to farmland, ensuring that they can’t be developed, but must remain agricultural land.

“We’re proud of our agricultural roots, and we still have a lot of farms,” Fox said. “Now we have farms protected in perpetuity.”

Also in the realm of preservation, the town’s Cemetery Commission continues its work to restore the Old Cemetery, which dates to 1770, and the town recently sold its old library, built in 1891, to an investor who intends to partner with the Southwick Historical Commission to preserve it while putting it back on the tax rolls.

Change Is Good

The town’s modern schools — the complex on Feeding Hills Road that houses Woodland Elementary School, Powder Mill Middle School, and Southwick Regional School underwent significant additions and renovations in recent years — have also been a draw for new residents, and they have the capacity to house a growing student population, Fox said.

All this has contributed to Southwick being honored this year by the Republican’s Reader Raves program as the best area town to live in.

“It’s taken a lot of hard work to get to that point,” Fox said of the award. “Some people don’t like change at all, but not all change is bad. This is a community we can be proud of. I think we doing a good job of keeping things in balance — commercial, industry, and residential.

“We’re not sitting back; we’re growing,” he went on. “We know people want to move here, and we’re proud of that. We’re going to make sure Southwick remains the town it always has been.” u

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Business Innovation

Best of Times, Worst of Times

From left, Amy Roberts, Sarah McCarthy, and Carol Fitzgerald discuss why and how recruiting is more difficult in the current economy.

As one of the region’s largest employers, the Center for Human Development is constantly hiring; in fact, it has about 100 job openings right now, said Carol Fitzgerald, vice president of Human Resources.

At a time of low unemployment, CHD isn’t the only company that has to be focused and creative when it comes to filling those open positions.

“I think it’s a candidate’s dream right now,” Fitzgerald said. “We’re finding that people are coming to us with multiple offers. They’re playing the field, trying to figure out who’s going to get them not just the best compensation, but the best schedule, all these extra benefits. And they often don’t decide until the very, very end. Who’s going to win that race?”

Amy Roberts, chief Human Resources officer for PeoplesBank, tells a similar story.

“I’ve never experienced a market where you almost have to aggressively make sure someone shows up for an interview,” she said. “We’re finding, when people are looking, they’re looking in multiple places, so you’re not the only game in town. So we’ve seen an increase in people not showing up to a scheduled meeting.”

Fitzgerald and Roberts detailed the challenges of the current recruiting landscape at a morning-long workshop, titled “Attracting the Best Candidates in Possibly the Worst of Times,” presented on Sept. 20 by Garvey Communication Associates and BusinessWest. Specifically, they took part in a panel of human-resources professionals who explained how the market has shifted and why recruiters have to do things differently than they may be used to in order to land the best talent.

“I think it’s a candidate’s dream right now. We’re finding that people are coming to us with multiple offers. They’re playing the field, trying to figure out who’s going to get them not just the best compensation, but the best schedule, all these extra benefits. And they often don’t decide until the very, very end. Who’s going to win that race?”

“You need to know your market — and we’re in a tough market — and know what your company offers and provides as well as being very focused on the type of individual you want to have work for you,” said Sarah McCarthy, senior Human Resources business partner for Commonwealth Care Alliance, the third member of that panel. “It’s not an environment where people are coming to you; you have to do some mining and find these individuals and encourage them to come work for you, and in doing that, you need to provide context for them — why should they want to come work for you?”

In short, companies need to sell themselves — and their company culture — to job seekers more aggressively than ever before, said John Garvey, president of GCAi, adding that this doesn’t mean catering to stereotypes about young professionals.

“For a while, we heard, ‘Millennials need nap rooms, they have to play foosball, have dance parties,’ all this crazy stuff. I don’t think any of that is true,” he said. “I think people want to be a part of something they’re passionate about. That’s important. And that requires us to talk to them in different ways and develop talent in different ways — and also to reach out in different ways.”

Baiting the Hook

It also means thinking differently about who the perfect candidate is, said McCarthy, adding that flexibility is key — not only in which skills the job requires up front and which can be trained, but what schedule and work-life balance a talented candidate is looking for.

“How can the work be done?” she went on, noting that not every job needs to be 8 to 5, and many employees have needs when it comes to dropping off or picking up kids or caring for a parent. “As an employer, you’re investing in your employees and looking what their needs are, but also what the organization’s needs are. At the end of the week, is the work getting done?”

Darcy Fortune and James Garvey say websites, video, and social media are more effective recruiting tools when they clearly showcase a company’s culture.

There was a time when employers had most of the leverage in these situations, but when unemployment is at all-time lows in Massachusetts, that’s no longer the case, which forces companies to think outside the box more than they’re accustomed to.

“You can train for technical skills, but it’s harder to train for what we would call soft skills — somebody who shows up on time and gets along with everybody and their team,” Fitzgerald said. “Those are the things that are harder to find. If you can find that and train up, you broaden the number of candidates you’re able to consider.”

That said, Roberts added, “it really is about getting the right person in the right job, and not getting hung up on the fact that you have so many openings and it’s so difficult to find people that we’re just going to put anyone in the role.”

The goal, then, should be attracting as many qualified candidates to apply as possible. That starts with the posting itself, said Tiffany Appleton, recruiter and director of the Accounting & Finance Division at Johnson & Hill Staffing Services, who gave a separate presentation on the mistakes companies make in their hiring process.

How to Ensure Your Hiring Process Stinks

Tiffany Appleton, recruiter and director of the Accounting & Finance Division at Johnson & Hill Staffing Services, took a tongue-in-cheek approach to effective hiring practices with a list of 10 surefire ways a company can turn its hiring process into a crushing disappointment.

• Write a boring job description. “Just give them the specifics of what they need to have before they walk in the door, and say, ‘if you don’t have these, don’t bother sending your résumé because I’m never going to look at it.’ Just list the facts, and don’t make it sound fun.”

• Take your time reviewing résumés. “Say, ‘some of those look pretty good, but I should wait a few more days because I might get another one that’s even better.’ Candidates love writing off a job, and then you call them a month later and say, ‘we’d like to have you in for an interview.’ That surprise factor is amazing.”

• Save time when you’re scheduling interviews. “Be efficient. E-mail the people you like — ‘I’d like to have you in for an interview; here are the dates and times that are available.’ Let them get back to you and tell you which ones they want. And to make sure you’re saving time, use a form-letter e-mail template.”

• Interviewers should talk only about the job specifics. “They should not talk about anything about the culture of the company, about it being a fun place to work, about any of the growth opportunities that might be available. They should definitely not talk about any fun projects you might get to work on. Just the facts.”

• Take your time after the interview. “You need that time to make sure you’ve arrived at a consensus, that you know who the right people are, and everyone on your team agrees. Candidates really like it when they hear from you weeks after your interview, saying, ‘yeah, we’d like to have you back.’”

• Reach out only to those who made the cut to schedule a second interview. “Don’t worry about those who didn’t make the cut. They’ll figure it out eventually. Don’t waste your time talking to those people. You’d never want them in the future anyway.”

• Make sure the second interview is long and tedious. “Make sure the candidate meets every person they may ever work with in the office in that second interview. Take your time. You need to have that group consensus, remember? Time is on your side.”

• Even if by now you’re feeling confident about whom to hire, be sure to schedule a third interview — or a fourth, or a fifth. “If you want to be sure, you have to ask them every question you’d ever want to know the answer to before you make an offer.”

• When it comes time to make an offer, figure out the lowest possible salary you think will be accepted. “There is no need to waste any money. What is that lowest number they’ll say yes to? What if you start high and they say yes? Why would you do that? They could have said yes to less money.”

• After that offer is accepted, consider your job done. “You don’t need to congratulate them. Don’t say you’re happy they’re joining the team. Don’t give them any guidance. You don’t need to tell them anything. Just assume they’re going to show up. And look at all that time you have to fill that next position!” u

“A job description is that thing you use internally to use as metrics … while a job advertisement is the thing you share with the public that makes them go, ‘wow, that looks amazing; I want it,” she said. “You’re trying to get somebody to read something and go, ‘ooh, that interests me.’”

Later in the morning, GCAi’s James Garvey, digital marketing analyst, and Darcy Fortune, digital public relations analyst, talked about the communication tools companies need to be using when recruiting, including social media, video, and websites that are optimized for mobile devices, because that’s where they’ll reach the most top talent these days. Those channels are also an opportunity to showcase some of that all-important company culture before a candidate ever walks in the door.

“It’s all about the candidate experience now,” Garvey said. “Folks are comparing you to your competition, and they’re going to think about how the process of applying for this position makes them feel. If you can use that as a competitive advantage, that’s a significant opportunity.”

Companies can express a concern for culture in many ways, some as simple as providing employees with breakfast, something Commonwealth Care Alliance does, McCarthy said. “I can’t tell you what a difference that’s made in our organization, especially for young professionals entering the market who don’t have a lot of money.”

Or, it can be expressed in the way a new hire is treated, Roberts said, noting that PeoplesBank sends its new hires a package from Edible Arrangements — a simple gesture that can resonate right off the bat.

“It’s amazing how many people will come in their first day and say, ‘oh my gosh, I got the gift, thank you.’ They just appreciate it — and the other side of it is, their family sees that,” she said. “We’re setting that standard right out of the gate that now they’re part of an organization that cares about them and wants to make them feel welcome.”

Reeling Them In

That’s especially crucial when the job market is so tight for employers that there’s no guarantee someone even shows up after accepting a position, if they find something they like better in the interim.

“I hope they show up,” Roberts said. “Most times they do, but it’s definitely a unique thing I haven’t experienced in my career in HR and recruiting.”

Fitzgerald said it’s no longer enough to post a job and watch the résumés pour in; now companies have to actively court the candidates they prefer.

“The biggest challenge for us is to get the managers to realize it’s not about them anymore,” she said. “We’re trying to tell them, ‘you have to respond within 24 hours to something, or else you’re absolutely going to lose people.’”

It’s a speed game these days, she added, one in which candidates are in effect interviewing companies, seeking the best fit for them of perhaps multiple offers.

Recruiters have to keep in contact and keep top candidates engaged even after coming to an agreement, McCarthy added. “You can’t just make a job offer and walk away now. It’s about the engagement after they’ve accepted.”

That engagement doesn’t end after the first day on the job, she added. “Now the burden is on the organization — now that they’re an employee, how are you going to retain them? Which is very different than a few years ago, when there was a surplus of candidates, and we were hiring and just waiting a month or two, before they came to orientation, to engage them.

Employers that take these steps stand the best chance of landing their top choice to fill a position, rather than just securing warm bodies, Roberts added. “It’s about focusing your attention instead of posting and praying and then deciding 30 days later you have to have that dialogue because it just didn’t work the way you hoped it would.”

And if a top candidate turns a job down? It’s OK to ask why — and learn from the rejection, Fitzgerald said.

“What we’re trying to find out is, what’s the differentiation between us and anywhere else? Sometimes it’s about salary, but mostly it’s about their experience, and it’s really about culture. So we’re really trying to look at total rewards in a way that speaks to individual employees.”

In addition, parting on good terms may lead to a change of heart down the road.

“We want them to have a good experience with us so we can make that next connection. It’s about long-term connections with people,” she went on. “Our managers may be mad they didn’t take our offer, but it’s OK. Maybe it’s not the time now for CHD, but there will be a time when this will work out, or we might have a different opportunity. So let’s stay in touch.”

In a morning filled with stark reality checks and myriad good ideas for facing that new reality, Fitzgerald acknowledged that her own job has become more critical than ever — and her fellow panelists agreed.

“Certainly,” she said, “it’s job security for all of us.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

Her Happy Place

Ashley Kohl, perhaps best known in the region as the former host of Mass Appeal, has carved out a new success story over the past three years as owner of Ohana School of Performing Arts. But the road to this point hasn’t always been easy, marked by personal upheaval, financial challenges, and a sudden uprooting to a new location. Through it all, her business has grown, but her values — a commitment to inclusion, positive vibes, and providing a safe space to cultivate a passion for dance — have never changed.

A woman reached out to Ashley Kohl recently on Facebook, saying she wanted to dance, but was feeling uncertain.

“She said, ‘I haven’t danced since I was a kid, I’m really out of shape, I have no confidence, I’m really intimidated. But I want to try something new that’s for me, to help me build my confidence, and I want to feel accepted — and I feel like your studio is a perfect place.”

So she gave Ohana School of Performing Arts a try.

“I saw her in my adult hip-hop class last night, smiling the whole time,” Kohl told BusinessWest. “She was super nervous when she came in, but when she left, she said, ‘I can’t wait to come back.’”

In many ways, that woman personifies Kohl’s vision of what she wants Ohana — which recently hosted a grand opening at its new location in Chicopee — to be.

“A dance studio can be intimidating — but this is not that place. What I envision is people of all shapes, all sizes, all backgrounds, all beliefs, all genders, all identities, everyone. No matter what age you are, you can come here, and I love seeing everyone dance. Everyone. When I dance, I’m happy. So I know dance will bring them joy. And that’s the ultimate goal.”

After a stressful spring during which she was given only a few weeks to find a new location for the studio she has owned since 2016 (more on that later), Kohl takes her own measure of joy from the space on Sheridan Street in Chicopee, which is more than double the size of her former studio in South Hadley.

Classes include ballet, tap, hip-hop, musical theater, contemporary, parent/child combo classes, adult-level classes, fitness and more. But education is only part of the equation at Ohana (a Hawaiian word meaning ‘family’). The other part is a focus on kindness, compassion, and inclusivity.

“Ohana has become more than a dance studio — it’s a movement,” Kohl said. “So many people sign up not just because they want to dance, but because they want to be a part of this positive energy. It’s a place of love.”

That energy is shared these days by more than 300 students. “I overcame a ton of adversity because we were kicked out and given a month to find a new place. And now I’m living my dream, doing what I love. This is my happy place. These people are my family. It’s so much more than a job. I even have ‘Ohana’ tattooed on me, because this is what I live, sleep, eat, breathe.”

Winding Road

The journey to this point, however, has been a winding one, marked by both disappointments and unexpected successes — all of it subtly directing Kohl to that happy place she now occupies.

The relevant part of the story begins with an audition in New York City for So You Think You Can Dance in January 2010. Kohl waited in line overnight, in the rain, for that chance, and when she had her few seconds to impress the producers, her wet sneaker caught on the rubber floor during a pirouette, and she fell.

One of several reminders on the walls that Ohana is intended to be a place of acceptance and inclusion.

“I cried all the way home, thinking, ‘my dreams are over, my life is over,’” she recalled. But in March, another opportunity arose — an open casting call for Mass Appeal, a lifestyle program on WWLP-TV. Kohl’s mother encouraged her to audition, and she did, even though she had no journalism or television background. She didn’t feel nearly the pressure she did in New York two months earlier because she figured her chances weren’t great. But she kept getting callbacks, and eventually the hosting job.

“I loved it. It was amazing, the things I learned, the people I met,” Kohl said, noting that she had attended college, but never graduated. “I look back on my time at Mass Appeal, and that was the best education I could have received. I learned about every industry, met people from every walk of life, and learned how to adapt and overcome. It was a great learning experience.”

And also, with one fateful interview in 2015, a great inspiration. “I did a story on a dance class for kids of all ages and all abilities. Afterward, I got in my car, and I was so inspired. I thought, ‘this is what’s missing in my life — dance for people of all abilities.’ It moved me.”

At the same time, two other things were happening. Her marriage was falling apart, and she didn’t want to go through a divorce while in the public eye, so she was looking to step away from a hosting job she had come to love. And her mother, who had owned Technique Studio of Dance since 1997, first in Chicopee and then on Newton Street in South Hadley, was looking to slow down and offered her daughter the opportunity to take over the business.

“That’s when I thought, you know what? I’ll leave TV — I think it’s my time — and I’ll open a dance studio for people of all abilities,” she said.

The sudden inspiration surprised her. Though she’d been dancing all her life, she never once — not as a kid, as a teenager, even in college — had a desire to follow in her mom’s footsteps and own a dance studio. Yet, here she was, struck by a new passion and able to see how the events of the past several years had led her to that point.

“If I got So You Think You Can Dance, if I didn’t fall and made it through and my dream came true, Mass Appeal never would have happened — and that led me here.”

Kohl took over Technique in 2016 and changed the name to Ohana to stress not only her own family, but the one she hoped to create among her students. “My mother said, ‘you bring your own energy and vision. Rebrand it and make it your own.’”

And there, on Newton Street, the business grew for three years — until she had to move.

She actually first heard rumors that the building owner wanted to sell during the summer of 2015, and not long after, she stumbled upon the Sheridan Street building in Chicopee, which had been vacant for two years and needed copious amounts of work. “I wasn’t in the place financially to jump into something new,” she recalled. “I figured, if it’s still there when I need it, it was meant to be. And when I got the eviction letter, this place was still available.”

That letter came on March 1 of this year, telling her she needed to be out by April 1. “I’m a single mom with two kids, and I was in the midst of my dance season, so it was really hard. And I had grown up dancing in that building, so there were emotions, too.”

She pushed the owner for six weeks instead of four — actually, “I begged,” she said — and was granted the extension. Through those six weeks, Kohl had the first floor of the new location renovated, and after classes began there at the end of May, she went to work on the top floor.

Ashley Kohl says the move to Chicopee was stressful at times, but serendipitous in the way it came together with no program cancellations.

“It definitely wasn’t move-in ready,” she said — but no classes or programs were ever interrupted. “We had our last class in South Hadley the Thursday before Memorial Day, and our first class here the Tuesday after Memorial Day. It was very stressful, but this community had my back. They all came out on moving day. I never was alone, and that’s a testament to what this community is and who the people are.”

Safe Space

The new, 6,000-square-foot Ohana — more than doubling the 2,600 square feet available in South Hadley — includes three large studios, one of them handicapped-accessible; a ramped entrance and restrooms are also ADA-compliant.

“I want to make sure this is a place where everyone feels welcome,” Kohl said, but that sentiment extends beyond disabilities. “We have kids as young as 18 months, and adults as old as … well, anyone who wants to come and be a part of it. I think the biggest thing is that everyone feels accepted, and they feel comfortable and not intimidated, and everyone gets to perform.”

Why take up dance? Kohl says people have different reasons — but everyone dances anyway, in some form or another. “Maybe we don’t admit it or go to dance class, but we all feel music in our body, no matter who we are.”

Popular TV shows like So You Think You Can Dance, Dancing with the Stars, and America’s Got Talent have made dancing even more mainstream, but a little intimidating at the same time, she added. “People think, ‘I can’t do that. I can’t dance like that.’”

At the same time, though, she believes dancing makes people happy — and she wants to provide an outlet where they can do that in a non-intimidating way.

“You can be part of something where you feel like you’re accepted, where you’re loved and supported, where you can exercise and release the tension of the day in a positive place. There aren’t many places you can go and just feel free and feel like you can let go and find a happy place.

“It’s not for everyone,” she admitted. “But the main thing is, whether you say you dance or not, you do in some capacity. And to be able to come to a place that’s safe and happy and positive and loving is really cool.”

Kohl is protective of those positive vibes, too — and won’t tolerate negative or disrespectful behavior.

“If you come in here and bring your dark stormcloud — granted, we all have bad days, and we’re here to lift you up,” she told BusinessWest. “But if you are going to talk about people or treat people unkindly, I will ask you to leave. This is a very safe, happy place, and I am serious about keeping it that way.”

Kohl said she was bullied growing up, but finally felt like she belonged when she attended high school at Pioneer Valley Performing Arts, a place where people finally ‘got’ her passion for dance. It was, in short, the safe space that public school was not.

“Not every kid has that,” she said. “Maybe home isn’t safe. Maybe school isn’t safe. But I know — I guarantee — when you come here, you’re safe. Whether you’re an adult in a really bad marriage and home isn’t safe, whatever it may be, I hear from people that they come here, and they feel happy.”

That’s especially notable in a dance world that can admittedly be catty, cutthroat, and competitive, she added. “And there’s a time and place for that if you want to be on Broadway, but that’s not what this is. We don’t compete in dance competitions. We do it for the love.”

It starts with the love of family — her mother still runs a dance store in the studio, and it’s her handwriting that forms the Ohana logo on the walls — but now extends to 300 students, 11 teachers, seven assistants, and one full-time employee, all of which have the potential to increase in this much larger space than Newton Street allowed.

Still, the transition was scary at times. “The whole time I was terrified, but my faith was stronger,” Kohl said. “I knew if it was meant to happen, it would. What’s the worst thing that could happen? It fails? Then I move on.”

As it turns out, she just had to move a few miles away. “It’s fulfilling, and it’s more than a dance studio — it’s people’s second home,” she went on. “I feel humble and grateful, but I’m proud of it because I don’t feel there’s enough of this energy in the world.”

Living the Dream

It’s safe to say Kohl has plenty to do in the new studio, but one goal down the road is to expand community outreach programs. Already, Sunshine Village residents take classes on Fridays, a Westfield program for adults with disabilities will be starting up on Thursdays, and instructors teach dance at the senior center in South Hadley as well. She’d like to do more of the latter — “bringing those vibes and energy and dance to people where they are. That’s the next step.”

Meanwhile, she promotes the spirit of the studio through programs like Wingman for Dance, which teaches students about kindness, self-acceptance, diversity and inclusion, giving back, and community service. Speaking of giving back, students also present annual charity performances to support local nonprofits, and Kohl founded One Ohana Inc. a registered 501(c)(3) organization that awards scholarships to dancers of all ages and abilities throughout the Pioneer Valley.

She’s passionate about all of it, because, well, life’s too short not to be.

“I was born with something inside me that I have to pursue, and if I don’t, then it’s going to be buried in a cemetery somewhere, and no one will ever know what would have come of it,” she told BusinessWest. “And look at this now. I found my passion — to bring not just dance, but joy to people’s lives.

“I’m not going to die with my passion inside me,” she went on. “I’m going to make a difference and inspire people. I have a humble house, and I’ll probably never be rich, but in my heart, I’m so full.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Home Improvement

Help Wanted

With home-improvement demand surging in 2019, contractors say they can pick and choose from available jobs, which isn’t always ideal for consumers, who often have trouble finding a professional who can fit them in. In realty, most contractors would love to take on more jobs — but can’t because it’s not easy to find talent, especially young talent with the potential to grow with a company over the long term.

In one sense, it’s a good problem to have, Andy Crane said — but it’s still a problem.

He’s talking about an ongoing shortage of skilled labor in the construction field, making it difficult for companies to keep up with what continues to be high consumer demand for home-improvement projects.

The good part of the problem is that they can be more selective about the projects they want to tackle, but that’s not always great for the consumer, and it stifles growth, said Crane, executive director of the Home Builders and Remodelers Assoc. of Western Mass.

“There’s a lot of work to be done, but the workforce is very tight, and it’s difficult for companies to respond to everyone. They’re just booked out for a long period of time,” he went on. “Skilled labor — especially young skilled labor — is few and far between.”

Crane gets calls from homeowners looking for a contractor for a project but struggling to nail one down who can fit them in, and that labor shortage has a lot to do with it, he told BusinessWest. “A lot of contractors are in the same boat. I guess it’s a good problem on our side, but it’s bad PR.”

Stephen Ross, partner at Construct Associates in Northampton, understands the problem well. “We just hired two new guys, which is a nice thing to be able to do these days. We just snapped them up. It’s hard — the majority of people applying for jobs have been in their late 50s, even early 60s. But we try to hire for the long haul.”

Still, business has been positive for a long stretch now at Construct, which boasts plenty of residential construction in its mix of projects.

“Kitchens and bathrooms are still big sellers around here — lots and lots of them,” Ross said, noting that the prevailing design trends of the past couple of years continue to dominate, among them open floor plans, tile in bathrooms, hardwood floors, and granite and quartz surfaces in kitchens.

The Home Improvement Research Institute (HIRI), which issues quarterly state-of-the-industry reports, is bullish on the rest of 2019. According to HIRI’s quarterly Project Sentiment Tracking Survey of 3,000 homeowners, several trends stand out:

• About 75% of homeowners are planning one or more projects in the next three months — the highest project-planning incidence since tracking began in 2012, according to the organization.

• The top motivators for projects include repair, replacement, and routine maintenance.

• The average homeowner plans to complete 4.3 projects in the next three months.

• The top projects include kitchens, windows, driveways, exterior paint, and roofs.

• The Northeast is home to the nation’s highest percentage of project planners in the second quarter — not surprising, as the region’s housing stock tends to be older than in many other areas of the country, so there’s plenty of work to be done.

Other Trends

Energy efficiency remains a trend at the forefront of home improvement as well. Each year, Fixr, an online home-improvement community, polls experts in the home-design industry to discover what the upcoming trends in home design and building will be. This year, the site polled industry experts on what they believe are the top ways that homeowners will utilize design trends and new innovations to help lower their energy bills in the coming years.

According to the poll, a majority of homeowners are personally motivated to save energy in order to save money, yet they also have a significant environmental awareness, which is driving some decisions.

The poll revealed that ducts and windows are the two most effective places to save through air sealing, heat pumps are the most popular method to heat an energy-efficient house, tankless heaters are the most efficient way to heat water, solar power remains the most common way to utilize renewable energy in the home, and cellulose and fiberglass are tied as the most popular ways to insulate an attic.

Another trend analysts have been keeping an eye on for years has been the rise of DIY (do-it-yourself) projects, spurred partly by a greater variety of resources available to homeowners and the abundance of inspiration available on home-improvement television programs and websites.

According to HIRI, roughly two-thirds of completed home-improvement projects are done completely DIY, and three-quarters have at lease some DIY involvement. The level of professional work is dependent on the project. Painting and landscaping are overwhelmingly DIY, while roof and siding replacement are heavily dependent on professional work. Interestingly, HIRI’s poll suggests that, while most who finish their projects are satisfied, those who complete them totally DIY report a higher satisfaction rate.

Not surprisingly, projects done with professionals cost significantly more than those undertaken DIY, and survey respondents who used professional contractors showed a higher likelihood of having the total cost of their project be higher than expected.

As homeowners age, they tend to move away from doing the work by themselves, shifting to professional contractors more frequently. Baby Boomers are twice as likely to hire a pro than a Millennial. The use of professionals is also largely dependent on household income. As family income goes up, so does the likelihood that a contractor is hired to complete a remodeling project.

Whether professional or DIY, annual gains in improvement and repair spending, while still healthy, are projected to continue decelerating through early 2020, according to the Leading Indicator of Remodeling Activity (LIRA) released by the Remodeling Futures Program at the Joint Center for Housing Studies of Harvard University. LIRA forecasts that year-over-year growth in homeowner remodeling expenditure will slow from about 7% this summer to 2.6% by the first quarter of 2020.

“Cooling house price gains, home-sales activity, and remodeling permitting are lowering our expectations for home-improvement and repair spending this year and next,” said Chris Herbert, managing director of the Joint Center for Housing Studies. “Yet, more favorable mortgage rates could still give a boost to home sales and refinancing … which could help buoy remodeling activity.”

Abbe Will, associate project director in the Remodeling Futures Program, added that “home-improvement and repair spending has been in an extended period of above-trend growth for several years, due to weak homebuilding, aging homes, and other factors. However, growth in remodeling is expected to fall below the market’s historical average of 5% for the first time since 2013.”

Aging in Place

One strong home-improvement trend in the Northeast involves Baby Boomers, who continue to pour into their retirement years at the rate of about 10,000 a day — and want to spend those years in their own homes if possible. As a result, many projects today involve making those homes safer and more accessible, with improvements ranging from night and security lights to wider interior walkways to curbless showers.

But older homeowners are also going for modern and attractive features, Ross said. “People are wrapping things up, things they’ve let go for decades. People are moving toward fixed incomes and are planning that last hurrah — maybe a garage addition. Or decks need replacing, or siding needs replacing — and nothing gets cheaper the longer you wait.”

In fact, building costs are more expensive than ever, Crane said, for reasons ranging from heavy regulation in Massachusetts to new tariffs at the federal level to inevitable economic trends. But the landscape remains a healthy one for builders and remodelers — if they can find the help they need.

“Construction companies can pick and choose their jobs,” he said. “It’s a great sellers’ market.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Green Business

Bans and Beyond

Coryanne Mansell says CET understands how to balance conservation issues (like food-waste reduction)with business needs.

Ask a random person what percentage of food goes to waste. Maybe they’ll say 10% or 20% — some might guess a little more. But few would surmise the actual figure.

“Food waste is a nationally and even globally pervasive issue,” said Lorenzo Macaluso, director of Client Services at the Center for EcoTechnology (CET) in Northampton. “There have been a number of studies on this, all of which find that somewhere in the ballpark of 40% of all food produced is never actually consumed. There is loss at every step of the way along the chain. From a cost perspective, from an environmental perspective, from a resources perspective — basically, by every measure — it’s very significant.”

Massachusetts is one of only six states — five of them clustered in the Northeast, the other being California — and seven metro areas that have implemented organic waste bans on some level. And CET has helped area businesses develop strategies to reduce food waste, so a recent partnership with the Harvard Law School Food Law and Policy Clinic (FLPC) — specifically, a ‘toolkit’ on organic waste bans and their potential to reduce food waste and strengthen local economies — made sense.

“Somewhere in the ballpark of 40% of all food produced is never actually consumed. There is loss at every step of the way along the chain.”

“Massachusetts in general has been a national leader on addressing this issue head-on, through a number of strategies to help keep food from the trash,” Macaluso told BusinessWest. “We’re focused on helping businesses implement those strategies because we have a long, rich history of doing that work. Harvard Law is great at analyzing policies with a legal lens, and we have the practical side, how those policies are actually playing out in real life.”

Food waste in the U.S. amounts to some $218 billion each year spent on food that is never eaten, according to the toolkit, which is basically a lengthy report (titled “Bans and Beyond”) that examines the issue, what those six states and seven cities have implemented, the challenges they’ve faced, and the economic impact of those policies.

As for the core issue, most wasted food ends up in landfills, where it produces greenhouse gases and contributes to states and localities running out of landfill capacity. State and local bans limit the amount of organic waste, including food waste, that businesses and individuals can dispose of in landfills — thus driving more sustainable practices, such as food-waste prevention, food donation, and sending food scraps to animal-feed operations or composting or anaerobic-digestion (AD) facilities.

“Food waste takes up space in landfills, contributes to climate change, and is a drain on the economy,” said Emily Broad Leib, director of FLPC. “Organic waste bans are one of the best tools we have seen that states and localities can use to transform business practices and drive the development of food-waste recycling infrastructure.”

While much work remains, Lorenzo Macaluso says the Bay State has been a national leader on the food-waste issue.

The toolkit walks readers through factors to consider in pursuing similar policies in their own state or locality. It also explores nine other categories of policies and programs — such as permitting and zoning regulations for organics-recycling facilities, grants to support food-waste reduction projects, and policies to create markets for biogas and compost — that can enhance the impact of an organic waste ban or advance food waste reduction and diversion independently.

“Over the years, we’ve seen firsthand how waste bans and the other policies and programs discussed in the toolkit can drive innovation and significantly reduce wasted food,” said John Majercak, president of CET. “The resulting impact is a big win for communities, regional economies, and the environment.”

The environmental impact is significant. According to the report, 21% of the U.S. freshwater supply and 300 million barrels of oil are used to produce food that goes to waste. And in 2012, more than 20% of municipal solid waste disposed of was food waste — especially noteworthy at a time when cities and states are running out of space to pile trash. Furthermore, organic materials in landfills decompose and release methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change. Food waste is responsible for at least 11% of methane emissions generated from landfills, an amount equivalent to the emissions of about 3.4 million vehicles.

“We’ve seen firsthand how waste bans and the other policies and programs discussed in the toolkit can drive innovation and significantly reduce wasted food.”

“We partnered with the Harvard Food Law and Policy Clinic to develop this toolkit because we have boots-on-the-ground experience with businesses to implement food-waste diversion programs, as well as understanding market needs,” said Coryanne Mansell, Strategic Services representative at CET, adding that individual businesses, at least locally, increasingly understand the problem, especially after hearing the 40% statistic. “That’s a huge impact on the environment.”

“When I mention that number,” Macaluso added, “100% of the people are really surprised when they first hear it.”

The Massachusetts Model

Unlike other states with organic waste bans, Massachusetts established its disposal ban through regulation rather than legislation. In 2014, the Commonwealth’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) amended regulations on solid-waste disposal by adding ‘commercial organic material’ to a list of several materials already barred from entering solid-waste disposal streams.

The ban applies only to commercial and institutional food-waste generators (not households) that dispose of at least one ton of those materials in waste per week, and and only for weeks during which they surpass that one-ton threshold. Temporary exemptions from the ban may be issued if the waste is contaminated or unacceptable for composting or other use, and the entity takes steps to prevent the contamination from recurring, or if a waste generator’s usual composting or other processing service declines the waste and the generator cannot find an alternative within a reasonable time.

Food-scrap generators may comply by reducing their waste production below the one-ton-per-week threshold, donating surplus food, processing food scraps on site, or sending food scraps to an animal-feed, composting, or AD facility.

To aid in compliance, Massachusetts offers several options for funding organics-processing operations. The DEP also partners with BDC Capital to administer the Massachusetts Recycling Loan Fund, which provides loans to eligible businesses, including recycling and composting companies. The fund offers preferred terms for composting, AD, and other food-waste processing facilities. Another funding source for renewable-energy projects is the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, a quasi-public agency that provides grants and technical assistance for clean-energy innovators.

Due to the efforts of organizations like RecyclingWorks, food-rescue organizations, and state and local agencies, the amount of food donated or rescued in Massachusetts has increased at least 22% since the organic-waste ban went into effect, from 21,300 tons in 2014 to 25,900 tons in 2017.

“We’ve had great results,” Macaluso said. “An economic-impact study was conducted, showing increased investment and job creation and large diversion of food-waste tonnage … it’s been quite effective.”

That economic impact has been an underreported part of the story. The Massachusetts DEP contracted with ICF, a management-consulting company, in 2016 to conduct an analysis of the impacts of Massachusetts’ commercial food-waste ban and broader trends in the state’s organic waste industry. To accomplish this, they developed a survey targeting three primary sectors: organic waste haulers, processors and composters, and food-rescue and recovery organizations.

The study found that the three sectors together supported more than 900 total jobs in 2016, and that all three sectors reported significant growth in employment in recent years, with more than 500 jobs added between 2010 and 2016. In 2016, the jobs supported by all three sectors combined generated more than $46 million in labor income, and the industries contributed nearly $77 million to the gross state product and produced almost $175 million in industry activity. Finally, the organic-waste industry contributed more than $5 million in state and local tax revenue in 2016. The analysis projected that growth would continue in 2017 in beyond.

“When we evaluate the impact of these waste bans,” Mansell told BusinessWest, “we see they can create job growth, help feed more hungry people, and, of course, increase capacity at existing landfills.”

All Aboard?

The toolkit lays out this data in detail not just for Massachusetts, but for New York, Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island, California, and the seven metro areas (New York City; Seattle; San Francisco; Portland, Ore.; Austin, Texas; Boulder, Colo.; and Hennepin County, Minn.). The hope now, among those who prepared the toolkit, is that other states will consider these case studies and be part of a national effort to lower that daunting 40% statistic.

CET has been promoting waste-reduction efforts on the local level for a long time, Mansell said. “We help people understand what the regulatory requirements are, but we also come at it from a company perspective, helping them implement a program that’s best suited for their needs, really meeting those businesses where they are. And we’ve seen some pretty positive experiences because companies are seeing the financial savings and seeing the social and environmental opportunities from these programs as well.”

For states wondering if a food-waste ban would work, she added, “we do hope this toolkit provides a roadmap.”

The report makes clear that it’s not an easy decision. A state or locality must determine whether it has, or plans to develop, the necessary infrastructure to process the organic waste that a ban would divert from landfills, from composting and AD facilities that accept food scraps to collection services and food-rescue organizations.

A state or city must also determine whether implementing an organic waste ban would be politically and financially feasible, the report notes. “In the absence of a plan to develop sufficient infrastructure, or without political support or financial resources, a state or locality may wish to focus on a non-binding strategy such as a zero-waste plan or waste-management strategy, or on more targeted policies to support infrastructure development, before pursuing an enforceable organic waste ban or mandate.”

So change doesn’t necessarily happen overnight. But Macaluso says these kinds of changes are worth pursuing.

“We understand business. We understand things have to make business sense,” he said. “But we do feel like this is a win all around.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services

Uniting Forces

People’s United Bank is no longer the small, Springfield-based institution, then known as the Bank of Western Massachusetts, that made its name three decades ago through a strong emphasis on local commercial lending. And the now-Connecticut-based institution is growing again, with a planned acquisition of United Bank that will push its assets well above $50 billion. But local connections are still key to the People’s United ethos, its Massachusetts president says — and he hopes United Bank customers feel the same way.

Patrick Sullivan thinks People’s United Bank has built a strong reputation in Western Mass. — and hopes customers of United Bank feel the same way following a recently announced acquisition.

“We trust that customers kind of know us already in Western Mass., and that they’re confident this isn’t a big change in the sense of somebody they don’t know. They’ve known us for a long time,” said Sullivan, Massachusetts president of People’s United, the Bridgeport, Conn.-based bank that began life in downtown Springfield 32 years ago as the Bank of Western Massachusetts.

“We have people that have worked for either the Bank of Western Mass. or People’s United for a long time,” he added. “Long-term relationships are valued here, and long-time principles and dynamics don’t change. Local is local.”

The two institutions announced in July that People’s United Financial Inc., the holding company for Peoples’s United Bank, would acquire United Financial Bancorp Inc., the holding company for United Bank, in a 100% stock transaction valued at approximately $759 million. Then banks’ leaders characterized it as a strong cultural fit that would benefit customers.

“We are excited to welcome United Bank to People’s United,” said Jack Barnes, chairman and CEO of People’s United Financial. “With the fourth-largest deposit market share in the combined Hartford and Springfield market, a complementary array of commercial and retail capabilities, and a shared legacy of community giving, United will solidify our presence in the Central Connecticut market and strengthen our franchise in Western Massachusetts.”

William Crawford, president and CEO of United Financial Bancorp, added that “People’s United Bank has long been a premier brand in Connecticut that is committed to building meaningful relationships with its customers and communities. We are confident their broad array of products and services, in-market knowledge, and the size and strength of their balance sheet will deliver enhanced value to our stakeholders.”

Patrick Sullivan says the acquisition of United Bank makes sense on a number of levels, both financially and culturally.

Indeed, the move is, in one sense, the story of two Connecticut-based banks —United is based in Hartford — but both banks have a long history and a strong presence in Western Mass.

Sullivan — who joined People’s United six years ago as Massachusetts president and also oversees the bank’s commercial, industrial, and business banking, noted that the institution was already the eighth-largest bank in Massachusetts, and will obviously be slightly larger, growing from 56 branches in its multi-state footprint to around double that, though some are expected to close (more on that later).

“Because of the economy in Massachuetts and the size of the market, we’ve invested a lot in people from other institutions that have joined us with specific expertise in lending, commercial markets, retail, wealth, insurance, whatever,” he went on, citing its government-banking niche as one strength.

“We had a good government business in Western Mass. before I came on six years ago. Today, we’ve got 90 clients in Western Mass. with $162 million in deposits. It’s a big business for us. Likewise, it’s a big business for us throughout the whole company. The city of Springfield is a major customer,” he explained, as are Worcester, Pittsfield, Easthampton, and many others.

For this issue’s focus on banking and finance, BusinessWest spoke with Sullivan about the broadened services and technology People’s Bank will bring to United Bank customers, and why he feels this growing institution will continue to maintain a local focus in the communities where it operates.

Growth Pattern

Immediately after the merger, People’s United will go from five branches in Hampden County to 20, from five to 10 in Worcester County, and from three to four in Hampshire County; its roster of three branches in Franklin County won’t change.

Still, not every branch will remain open; in some communities, both banks now operate within a block or so of each other, which means consolidation is inevitable, Sullivan said. “We’ll make a decision in the best interests of our customers, according to where they bank. But all the retail employees have been told they will have positions with us.”

Just as it has during its growth over the years — People’s United boasts assets around $47.9 billion, and is acquiring a bank with about $7.3 billion — Sullivan said the institution stresses local decision making when it comes to lending, philanthropy, and other matters.

“We still operate just like we did when we had $30 billion. We want to keep it local,” he told BusinessWest. “Our biggest client has its headquarters in Western Mass. Our challenge has been small businesses, those $100,000 loans, the startups. We try to take care of the small-business segment. Let’s face it, those are the heart of a lot of the communities we’re in, and we’re always trying to be more responsive to them.”

In recent years, People’s United has made significant investments in its commercial specialties, including hiring teams of specialized industry experts to better serve customers. Among these niches are technology companies, restaurant franchises, and a healthcare finance team. While those divisions are based out of Boston, they serve the bank’s entire New England and New York footprint and beyond.

The bank has also invested heavily in technology, said Steven Bodakowski, vice president of Corporate Communications.

This United Bank branch in downtown Springfield is just a couple blocks from the People’s United branch — one of many examples of overlapping branches the organization must examine post-merger.

“We’re constantly focused on on how, when, and where we interface with customers in this changing age of banking,” he noted. “Technology and digital enhancements continue to be a major focus for the bank as we aim to stay one step ahead of customer needs and deliver a truly integrated service model that blends the best in customer service with technology.”

To that end, People’s United has developed a strategic initiative to provide customers with online and digital solutions for a suite of its most popular offerings.

“This digital banking experience is designed to mirror and be an extension of the branch experience — serve as another path to interact with and receive guidance from bankers, based on individual customer preferences,” Bodakowski said. “Our bankers are being trained to become digital advocates.”

Offerings include a technology-based home-lending platform designed to simplify and transform the way customers apply for a home-equity loan or home mortgage, providing the ability to virtually interact with mortgage account officers in real time to complete the online application.

Other features include a refreshed online and mobile solution for opening checking and savings accounts, a digital small-business loan application for loans $250,000 or less, a direct-to-client robo-advisory offering, and a new, digitally driven financial-literacy platform that allows customers and the community to access financial-literacy classes and modules.

The latter is an especially important tool to help young people, the elderly, and anyone, really, become more financially savvy, make better decisions, plan for the future, and avoid scams.

“We also launched a new website in May with a fully optimized user experience,” Bodakowski said, one that delivers a fully optimized user experience for mobile devices, an enhanced ‘storefront’ feature to highlight key product areas, and a robust support and security center and new content areas designed to engage and educate customers.

The bank has also enhanced its marketing capabilities to more accurately target its customers and understand their lifestyles, through the use of integrated third-party digital e-mail and marketing platforms such as Marketo and Salesforce.

“We look forward to welcoming [United Bank’s] well-established customer base and delivering to them our enhanced technology and digital capabilities, combined with our network of expert bankers,” Barnes said when the acquisition was first announced.

Living Local

That’s a lot of growth since the institution opened its doors in 1987 as the Bank of Western Massachusetts with $9.3 million in assets. By way of contrast, People’s United awarded almost half that total — about $4 million — to nonprofits last year, about $2.3 million of that in Massachusetts. Of that latter figure, more than $854,000 was contributed by the bank in donations and sponsorships, while more than $1.4 million was awarded in grants by People’s United Community Foundation and People’s United Community Foundation of Eastern Massachusetts.

Those giving decisions remain, as they always been, local, Sullivan said, because the local bankers know the market and its needs. He knows that’s part of the community-bank ethos in Western Mass., and even banks that have grown far beyond community-bank size still have to operate like one.

“Our philanthropy is very local. We take very seriously how things get allocated to these organizations,” he added. “Our principles are always to stay local, whether it’s the specialty expertise in the market or our volunteerism and philanthropy. That’s in our DNA.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]