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Cybersecurity Special Coverage

Threat Level: Constant

Brian Levine says the UMass Cybersecurity Institute

Brian Levine says the UMass Cybersecurity Institute’s work is “security for the common good.”

 

Make no mistake, we live in an increasingly interconnected world, and the technology that makes that possible is always under threat from those who would mine, expose, and exploit data — often in life-altering ways. So while it’s no surprise that the cybersecurity field is rife with job opportunity, exactly how much opportunity (a half-million open jobs nationally, according to one study) may still raise eyebrows. Area universities with cybersecurity degree programs hope those statistics also raise interest in a challenging field that offers good pay and the chance to do some truly meaningful work.

It’s impossible to envision a world that doesn’t need cybersecurity, Brian Levine said, and that’s not exactly good news.

“I don’t think there’s any way this will go away, unfortunately,” he said, after listing common threats ranging from malware and ransomware attacks to massive breaches of consumer data. “It’s an ever-present problem. So what we do here is really important.”

He was referring to the UMass Cybersecurity Institute on the Amherst campus, which launched in 2015 with the mission of advancing what it calls “security for the common good,” said Levine, the institute’s director. For example, he has worked over the past decade to build tools used by law enforcement around the country — and the world — on cases of internet-based child sexual abuse (for example, the sharing of exploitative photographs).

“That’s a privacy issue, and a forensics issue,” he said, stressing that the institute’s researchers never lose focus on the human benefits of their work — in other words, it’s never just a technical exercise.

“The courses we offer are influenced by research that we do,” he went on. “We have a lot of pride in moving the research we’re doing into the classroom.”

That high-impact work is appealing to many who enter this profession, but one of the most obvious draws is the career opportunity. Matt Smith, director of Cybersecurity programs at Bay Path University, noted that a half-million jobs in cybersecurity are open across the U.S. — more than 20,000 of them in New England, and roughly two-thirds of those (13,389, according to the national CyberSeek research project) in Massachusetts — the 12th-highest total among all U.S. states.

“The industry is changing so rapidly.Turn on the news — one day they’re talking about ransomware, another day it’s the Colonial Pipeline attack … it’s all about security. So, workforce in this industry is in demand.”

“The industry is changing so rapidly,” Smith said. “Turn on the news — one day they’re talking about ransomware, another day it’s the Colonial Pipeline attack … it’s all about security. So, workforce in this industry is in demand.”

That’s the other side of the ‘bad news’ coin — at least for people who want to make a career of defending against threats that will only continue. “It’s real job security, with high starting salaries. You’re going to retain employment and have opportunities to upscale.”

Reflecting the many different niches in cybersecurity, Bay Path offers three undergraduate degrees in the field — digital forensics and incident response, information assurance, and risk management — as well as a master’s degree in cybersecurity management.

“We renew the courses every time we go live, sometimes two times a year,” Smith said. “Every time it’s being presented to another cohort, we look at the information being presented and decide if it’s still applicable, or how it can be improved upon.”

Matt Smith says the constantly evolving nature of threats means job security

Matt Smith says the constantly evolving nature of threats means job security and advancement opportunities for today’s cybersecurity professionals.

For example, “the Colonial Pipeline incident hadn’t happened two years ago — so, let’s talk about that this year and remove something else from the course. We’re always going through the courses, tweaking them, fine-tuning them, and I think that sets us apart from other universities. We handpick the material we incorporate, and we update it, and we use the best forensic software we can.”

And that’s a challenge, said Beverly Benson, Cybersecurity program director for the American Women’s College, Bay Path’s all-online arm, which offers intensive, accelerated versions of the undergraduate cybersecurity programs taught at the main campus.

“I am constantly doing research on threats, making sure my curriculum and content is fresh, because the reality is, those individuals who are trying to attack systems, they don’t take vacations,” she told BusinessWest. “We need to stay abreast of everything to make sure students are getting as up-to-date a curriculum as possible.”

The industry’s constantly evolving nature makes it attractive to many career seekers, she added.

“It’s not a repetitive type of field. There may be a framework to adhere to, but as technology advances, so does the work that needs to be done. Our world is becoming more connected and interconnected, and data is everything. Think about the gadgets in our homes — even washing machines, dryers, and stoves are connected to the internet. We need people to understand how to keep that data safe.”

For that reason, Benson went on, “cybersecurity touches everyone, whether it’s healthcare, financial services, food service, the travel industry, the Department of Defense, you name it. We’re a very interconnected world, and we’re able to do things faster because of data — so we need to protect that data, whether it’s at rest, in transit, or in use.”

 

Defending Data

Levine listed a number of ways the cybersecurity research — and classwork — at UMass affects real people.

“One professor looks at ensuring that people have censorship-free access to information on the internet, which can be very important if you’re a dissident in a country that has censored or filtered it,” he said. “Another professor works with differential privacy, and his technology is being used by the U.S. Census.”

That term refers to technology that allows the government, corporations, or anyone else to release statistical information while not exposing people’s individual data.

Beverly Benson

Beverly Benson

“It’s not a repetitive type of field. There may be a framework to adhere to, but as technology advances, so does the work that needs to be done. Our world is becoming more connected and interconnected, and data is everything.”

“One problem with studies that collect information about you and release it later is the possibility that someone’s personal details can be inferred by looking at the data set,” Levine said, noting that differential-privacy measures ‘fuzz’ the information so the statistics are accurate, but don’t reveal information about any one person.

“We have courses on what some people call ‘ethical hacking’ — how to analyze a computer for its vulnerabilities and learn to defend those vulnerabilities. It’s teaching students to be white hats,” he explained, adding that other classes delve into reverse-engineering security, digital forensics, ethics and law, and securing distributed systems — which, these days, means cryptocurrency.

“Cryptocurrencies are one of the hardest challenges — no one is in charge, and people are exchanging things of value,” Levine said, adding that, whatever the topic, UMass brings in experts with practical experience in the field to teach students. “We don’t want everything taught from an ivory-tower point of view. And we want to teach techniques that will survive past graduation in a quickly evolving field. It’s not just computer science.”

At the American Women’s College, Benson said the average age of a cybersecurity student is 35, many no doubt drawn by the expansive opportunities in the field. “We have career changers, we have people in IT fields who are looking to specialize, and some are new to it, looking to learn more about cybersecurity and join the workforce.”

She’s also gratified that the program is making a small dent in what is currently a male-dominated workforce, to the tune of 80%. Part of the pitch, she said, is the reality that work in this field is wildly varied.

“We have the opportunity to demystify cybersecurity,” she said. “I explain to our women that cybersecurity is more than someone being in a basement coding. Part of cybersecurity is things like risk management, which can be a more consultative approach, helping someone understand assets, risks, and how to protect against vulnerabilities. Those are not technical skills; those are essential business skills.”

Smith agreed. “This hits on financial services, healthcare, government, you name it. Every industry has been affected in one way or another by cybersecurity.”

He should know, having worked in a number of sectors, ranging from the Pentagon to the financial-services world, and he often calls on professionals who actually work in those fields to bring their real-world expertise to Bay Path students. “A lot of programs are computer-science-driven; they’re experts in coding and programming. When you jump into cybersecurity, it’s a different animal.”

Introducing more women into the field, and all the sectors it influences, would be a healthy development, he said.

“I’m the program director, but also their cheerleader,” Benson agreed. “They know my motto is ‘dare to dream,’ and having a diverse workforce will bring about diversity of thought, diversity of problem solving, diversity in the ways people will collaborate. And I think that’s so needed.”

 

Making Connections

Another needed element is networking and making connections in the field early, Smith said. Many Bay Path students take advantage of a Mass Cyber Center mentorship program, working with large companies like Baystate Health, Travelers Insurance, and MassMutual.

“Networking doesn’t happen only when you go to conferences,” he said in explaining the value of such programs. “And most employers, after an internship, offer something on the spot — they’ll say, ‘please, when can you start?’”

That’s huge for new graduates, who typically enter the work world in significant debt. “We’re one of the industries that actually tackles that cohesively. We’re actually getting them employed at a very high-level-paying job, thus cutting down on student debt,” Smith noted, adding that a graduate’s employer will often pay for further education as well.

Speaking of connecting students with careers, the UMass Cybersecurity Institute recently secured a renewal of its CyberCorps Scholarship for Service program, sponsored by the National Science Foundation, which began in 2015.

The latest grant will support approximately 31 scholars at the undergraduate and graduate levels in the university’s computer science and electrical and computer engineering degree programs by offering them full tuition and fees, a stipend ranging from $25,000 per year for undergraduates to $34,000 per year for graduate students, and a professional-development fund for one to three years of their degree program. In addition, students complete an internship at a federal agency during the summers and, upon graduation, work full-time at a federal agency in a cybersecurity role for one to three years at full pay and benefits. Then they’re free to move on, but many don’t.

“We’ve done this for 34 students already, and the vast majority have stayed in the government after their service period is up,” Levine said, noting that federal opportunities range from working at the Pentagon to protecting land and wildlife with the Environmental Protection Agency; from tracking down cybercriminals with the FBI to joining the Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency, which swoops in to manage ransomware attacks.

“This program will help create a new generation of cybersecurity professionals and researchers to address novel and challenging problems facing society,” said Sanjay Raman, dean of the College of Engineering at UMass Amherst. “These students will help to modernize the executive-branch workforce, advance science and technology at government laboratories, and secure our national defense.”

It’s that kind of real-world impact that inspires those who teach the next generation of cybersecurity pros.

“This is why I get up in the morning,” said Bay Path’s Smith, who worked in counterintelligence around the time of 9/11 and remembers how the world changed. “We did a lot of things to protect our country, and I’m proud of that. Now, I want to give back to the students and help them pick up some of the stuff I’ve learned, so they can excel in a workforce that’s begging for anybody with interest in their field.”

His job, and that of his department, is to stay at the forefront of developments in the field — and, again, they are constant — and continue to hone and evolve the program so it remains relevant and on the cutting edge.

“We want our students to stand out in the industry and get hired,” he said. “And we’ve been very fortunate — our students are landing some amazing jobs.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cybersecurity

Vulnerable Population

 

When people think about cybersecurity threats, Stephanie Helm said, they often think only about the technical side — the ways in which electronic devices can be compromised and data stolen.

They sometimes forget about the human side of the equation — but that’s where older adults are often especially at risk.

“There’s a technical vulnerability that can be exploited, whether it’s somebody’s password, exploiting a vulnerability because they failed to update the device to include a patch, or maybe they’re using an unsecured WiFi when they’re in a public location,” said Helm, director of the MassCyberCenter. “So there’s a technical component that everyone using the internet is facing today.”

Just as critical, however, is what she calls the “social engineering of the individual,” where a victim willingly divulges information based on the fact that somebody’s engaging them in a personal way.

Stephanie Helm

Stephanie Helm

“These are professional people who know how to hit those emotional buttons and continue that relationship with the hope that somebody is going to divulge information.”

“Older folks might not have the comfort level with the technology to secure their information,” she said, “and they may be more vulnerable to the social engineering.”

Helm shared these thoughts and others during a webinar presented last week by LeadingAge Massachusetts, titled “Cybersecurity: Helping Older Adults Stay Safer on the Internet.” She joined Rubesh Jacobs, managing director of 24/7 Techies USA, and Judy Miller, director of Technology and Accounting for Kendal at Oberlin in Ohio, to discuss the reasons seniors are increasingly falling prey to online and e-mail scams, and what can be done about it.

“The number of scams leading to financial loss has been dramatically increasing since 2019,” Jacobs said, citing a Federal Trade Commission (FTC) report that the number of online scams tripled between 2019 and 2020, outpacing phone-call scams — which actually declined slightly — for the first time. Meanwhile, e-mail scams more than doubled.

“The acuteness of that spike is shocking,” he added. “We’ve also noticed this trend in our own call centers; 28% of calls we get for help are somehow related to fraudulent activities online.”

According to the FTC, Americans age 60 and up are falling prey to tech-support scams — in which someone poses as a computer technician to gain remote access to the victim’s computer — about 475% more often than those ages 20 to 59. (By contrast, the younger group falls victim to online-shopping scams 60% more often than seniors.)

“Senior citizens are really in that nexus where a criminal can get at them through technical means, or they can get at them through social engineering” — and often a combination of both, Helm said. “The protections you put in place have to look at both of those aspects because you’re not quite sure which of those things a person might be most vulnerable for. I think that’s really troublesome.”

Judy Miller

Judy Miller

“Seniors lose an average of $500 or more when they’re scammed, sometimes due to the fact that they are often trusting and polite, they own their own home, and they have good credit, so they make a good target.”

Effective cybersecurity, she explained, considers people, processes, and technology working together to make someone more resilient and likely to recognize scams.

“The components of social engineering are worth thinking about,” she added, noting that a scam might begin with a realistic bot, either on the phone or online, that shifts over to a live scammer if the victim responds.

Those victims, Helm said, are often lonely and want to talk to someone, or they’re trusting and grateful that someone wants to help them solve a problem, which is why scammers try to establish trust.

One reason for the recent spike in cases is that many older adults were much more isolated starting early in 2020, with family members avoiding most visits until after COVID-19 vaccinations arrived, she noted. But families do need to engage with these topics. “Having an ability to ask questions or to talk about things they’ve been presented with in a safe manner is really important.”

But seniors are far from the only victims, Helm said. “If they continue the engagement, these are professional people who know how to hit those emotional buttons and continue that relationship with the hope that somebody is going to divulge information.”

 

It Takes a Village

Miller has worked for Kendal Corp. for 28 years, so she’s seen these threats evolve at her own facility, which offers units for independent and assisted living, memory care, and skilled nursing.

“Seniors lose an average of $500 or more when they’re scammed, sometimes due to the fact that they are often trusting and polite, they own their own home, and they have good credit, so they make a good target,” she explained. “They have also been falling prey to cyber incidents because of their increased use of the internet.”

Scams that have targeted her residents have taken many forms, from imposters posing as legitimate government agencies or companies requesting payments to fake but attractive offers for gift cards, and much more. Most originate from e-mail, she noted.

When Jacobs asked Miller how often she hears such things, she responded, “it’s almost more important how much we don’t hear about them.”

To make sure people stay educated, if she hears of a scam targeting a resident, all residents are alerted, and some tech-savvy residents will even spread the word themselves if they encounter a scam attempt. “It’s really engaging the entire community to help each other in preventing some of those things from happening.”

Once a scammer gains someone’s trust, Helm said, they often introduce an element of urgency — the idea that the victim has to act now to get a deal or avoid a penalty or legal trouble.

“We should talk about how these scams exist and give senior citizens the confidence that they can recognize when this doesn’t make sense and avoid that sense of urgency to act, because that’s where you make a mistake,” she explained. “It’s perfectly acceptable to say, ‘I do all my business by mail — put a letter in the mail to me, and I’ll respond to you.”

But it’s easier said than done, she admitted, especially at a time when many seniors — and younger people, for that matter — have been more isolated than usual.

“I think it’s difficult for anybody in society to be fully armed and resilient. I feel if people become isolated in their old age and are not as familiar with some of the technology, they can get intimidated. So this is an area where we’re trying to see if we can be more helpful to them.”

Family members can help educate their older loved ones by asking gentle but probing questions about what may be going on, the webinar participants noted, and encourage residents of senior-living communities to call an administrator if they encounter a suspicious e-mail or think their information may have been compromised. And, of course, they should emphasize the importance of protecting passwords and other sensitive information, not clicking suspicious links, and shopping only at reputable, well-known websites.

“If it sounds like it’s too good to be true, it probably isn’t true,” Helm said. “I like to talk with senior citizens about having confidence in the skeptical skills they had throughout life. These are scams that happen to be on a computer, but they’re scams we grew up with since we were kids — bait and switch, or acting like an imposter.”

She takes a broad view of threats, having served in the U.S. Navy for 29 years. After her retirement as a captain, she taught military operations, specifically on integrating cyberspace operations into wargames.

“That was an opportunity to talk about how cybersecurity or cyber operations can affect operations that you traditionally would not think they would impact,” she explained. Now, in her role with the Mass Cyber Center, she knows there are few areas cybersecurity doesn’t impact — and that older Americans are often especially at risk.

“Today,” she said, “we all know this has great consequences to our daily lives.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

Setting Some New Goals

Team President Nate Costa (back row, fourth from right) with the front-office staff

Team President Nate Costa (back row, fourth from right) with the front-office staff

For team President Nate Costa and Springfield Thunderbirds ownership, it has been a frustrating year and a half — but not a quiet one, even with the cancellation of the 2020-21 season. Indeed, the organization has been busy staying connected to the community through a host of programs and providing value to its supporters, while preparing for a 2021-22 season of great promise — season-ticket sales remain high — but also great uncertainty. It’s a season, Costa said, that not only the team, but its city desperately needs.

 

For Nate Costa, launching a hockey season after skipping the previous one might feel like starting from square one, but it isn’t, really. Because he was at the real square one, tasked by the Springfield Thunderbirds’ ownership group with fielding a team just four months after luring it from Maine to Western Mass.

“This is a completely different challenge because at least then you didn’t have COVID surrounding you,” he said. “But the processes are very similar.”

To be sure, while no hockey was played in Springfield during the 2020-21 season, ‘skipping’ may not be the right word. Because keeping the franchise relevant and in the public eye was a daily challenge.

“Unfortunately, we had to make some really hard decisions last year in terms of staffing,” said Costa, the team’s president. “We did our best to get through the year, but we had limited staff on reduced hours, and a lot of our staff had opportunities to get jobs elsewhere.”

With eight newcomers on this year’s front-office staff of 17 — about half the crew — “it’s both challenging and exciting,” he went on. “But I tend to hire young because we like to bring people in and teach them how we do things. We find you don’t have a lot of bad habits that come with those individuals — a lot of them have really good energy, and that’s what’s happened. They’ve energized me and the entire staff.”

Nate Costa has high hopes for the season based on robust season-ticket sales and loyalty among corporate sponsors.

Nate Costa has high hopes for the season based on robust season-ticket sales and loyalty among corporate sponsors.

As he’s noted in the past, he can look to 2016, the year he and his ownership group brought the team to Springfield a month after the departure of the Falcons, for a blueprint of sorts. While the team has a new NHL affiliate in the St. Louis Blues, the core front-office group, including all of last year’s department heads, are back.

“That’s huge because you’re not really starting from scratch,” he said. “You’ve got institutional knowledge, people who know how to do this. So we’ve got a lot of confidence there.”

The team leadership has drawn on that confidence while facing a series of roadblocks and unknowns since shutting down the 2019-20 season early and making the decision to ride out the following season without any gameplay. Even now, the Delta surge that has brought back mask mandates is one more unexpected wrench in a long line of them.

“Our industry is obviously reliant on people coming together in large groups, and that’s the hardest thing.”

“It seems like we get hit with something different every day,” Costa told BusinessWest. “And you just have to be able to be nimble and pivot. It is what it is. Everyone’s dealing with it — not just us, not just our industry.

“But we’re kind of in the public eye,” he went on, “and our industry is obviously reliant on people coming together in large groups, and that’s the hardest thing. Even in the summer, [COVID] was moving in a different direction. So we’ve had to pivot and change things even since the summertime. But at the end of the day, we want to get back to doing what we do.”

One piece of good news is that public support hasn’t wavered. In March 2020, the team had 1,109 full season-ticket holders, the first Springfield hockey team to reach that milestone, he noted; the Falcons had been at 325 before they left town. Right now, the number is 989, and Costa expects that number to easily surpass 1,019 and set a new franchise high. He hopes to set a new attendance mark, too, after the AHL scheduled 29 of the team’s 38 home games on Friday and Saturday nights.

The 2021-22 promotional schedule is filled with favorites

The 2021-22 promotional schedule is filled with favorites like the Teddy Bear Toss, which collects stuffed animals for local charities.

“People are supporting us, and I think people are ready to come back out and do things and get back to some normalcy,” he said. “And hopefully, we won’t need to wear masks all season.”

Costa supports the city’s mask mandate and said the most visceral opposition to it on social media comes from people who don’t have tickets and aren’t likely to support the team anyway. Most people, he believes, understand what it will take to stage a season that won’t have to shut down.

“We are in an industry that relies on packing buildings, getting large gatherings together,” he said. “I think we have a responsibility to do the right thing. And we’ll work through it.”

“At the end of the day, we realize that the last thing we want to have happen is to not have a season again. And everybody recognizes that, and everybody understands that.”

In a wide-ranging interview conducted a few weeks before the season opener on Oct. 16, Costa told BusinessWest what the franchise has been up to over the past 18 months, what fans can expect this season — and why he feels a responsibility to stay connected to the community as more than just its local hockey team.

 

Safety First

But first, he talked about safety, and what it will take to achieve it as COVID continues to be a threat.

“It’s a lot of moving parts, but they’re necessary,” he said. “At the end of the day, we realize that the last thing we want to have happen is to not have a season again. And everybody recognizes that, and everybody understands that. So, internally, it hasn’t been that tough.”

To that end, the entire staff is required to be vaccinated, and everyone associated with the Blues is vaccinated as well. “The AHL has protocols that anybody that’s going to be within six to 12 feet of players is required to be vaccinated, and the St. Louis organization is having their players vaccinated.”

That’s critical, Costa added. “With the close quarters our guys are in, and being on buses together and all that, it’s imperative that we have the guys vaccinated.”

As noted earlier, he’s a believer in the city’s current mask mandate as well. “I’ve been keeping my thumb on the pulse of what’s going on for the last year and a half, and I feel like I’m a de facto COVID expert at this point,” he said, adding that requiring masks at the arena is simply a social responsibility to the city, mandate or not.

During the pandemic, the Thunderbirds partnered with local restaurants

During the pandemic, the Thunderbirds partnered with local restaurants, including Nadim’s Downtown Mediterranean Grill, to donate meals to frontline workers

“We want to sell the place out opening night, and we want to be socially responsible. We felt like it was probably coming at some point that we were going to have some kind of mandate, whether that was going to be mask or vaccination, and I think the mask mandate is perfectly acceptable, because then you don’t have to get into conversation of who’s vaccinated and who’s not. Everyone who comes to the rink will wear a mask, except to eat or drink.”

He admitted it’s an extra challenge to enforce that behavior among fans. “We don’t like wearing masks as much as the next guy. But it’s our livelihood. We’ve committed our resources so much to doing this the right way and bringing the sport back. Last year was really such a blow to me personally just because the last thing I wanted to do is not play. So we’ll do whatever we need to do to get back on the ice and get back to some normalcy.”

One change this year is an absence of high-profile promotions like previous years’ visits from the likes of David Ortiz and Pedro Martinez. Those are expensive investments, and with no guarantees all games will even be played, the Thunderbirds will focus on more locally based promotions — and there are a lot of them, including returning favorites like a throwback jersey night (the Falcons this time, instead of the Indians), the Teddy Bear Toss, a Military Appreciation Night, the Pucks ‘N’ Paws pet night, and Pink in the Rink, which supports the fight against breast cancer. Every Friday night brings a Deuces Wild concessions deal, with sodas, hot dogs, and cups of Coors Light selling for $2 each.

“Last year was really such a blow to me personally just because the last thing I wanted to do is not play. So we’ll do whatever we need to do to get back on the ice and get back to some normalcy.”

“While we’re not investing in huge promotions, there’s still a good foundation of promotions and themes,” Costa said. “We want to re-establish ourselves, get through this year, and hopefully have this in the rear-view mirror next year and really blow it out.

“We always want to provide value and not get complacent,” he added. “And I think we’re providing as much value as anyone in the American Hockey League. I’ll put our stuff up against anybody’s; I take a lot of pride in that. But it’s still a fraction of what we normally do. We have a long-term vision, and that means getting back on the ice first.”

Many of the promotions will support causes and groups of people, like Frontline Fridays, in which healthcare workers, first responders, and other frontline workers who serve the public will be honored.

“I wanted to make sure it was a season-long thing, not just one night,” Costa said. “A lot of people in our community stepped up and did the right thing, working through COVID, and we want to say ‘thank you,’ and it’s really on behalf of the season-ticket members.”

That’s because, with seven home dates left in the curtailed 2019-20 season, most season-ticket holders, instead of demanding refunds, donated the tickets back to the team, and that formed the foundation of the Thunderbirds giving those tickets away to the frontline honorees every Friday this year.

“I feel really good about what we’re doing — not only the fun stuff, but we have a community piece to it as well that will hopefully give a break to some people who have been working hard, give them a chance to come out.”

It wasn’t only season-ticket holders that stayed loyal, Costa said. All the corporate sponsors are back as well, and even though they lost those seven games of exposure, he was able to show them that the team overdelivered on attendance for the other 31 home dates. The team has also included sponsors in its social-media and community activities during the pandemic.

29 of 38 home games scheduled for Friday or Saturday night

With 29 of 38 home games scheduled for Friday or Saturday night, the team is hopeful for plenty of sellouts.

“We genuinely feel like people like us and want to support us,” he added, noting that the team ranks at the top of the league, among like-sized markets, in sponsorships and full season-ticket sales. “At the end of the day, that speaks volumes about who you are as an organization. So the biggest thing was doing right by the people who have done right by us for the first four years of our franchise.”

 

Silver Lining

Costa said the goal last year was to stay visible, even for just a few hours a week. That meant donating meals to frontline workers, trotting out mascot Boomer at community events, and teaming up with the Massachusetts Lottery to spotlight first responders.

“It was important to keep the community aspect front and center,” he noted, adding that the Springfield Business Improvement District stepped up with cash, allowing the team to activate more community promotions and just “keep our lights on and keep our people engaged and keep the business moving forward.”

His goal was simply to be sustainable during a difficult time with little revenue. “I didn’t want to go to ownership and ask for cash. Not that they wouldn’t support it, but I felt we had a duty to do our best, and I think we did better than we ever could have expected.”

The silver lining to all this has been growing demand for the activity for which the team exists — actually playing hockey.

“Obviously, we wanted to play last year. But what do they say — absence makes the heart grow fonder, right? I think that happened a little bit,” Costa told BusinessWest. “I think there’s a real pent-up demand for just having fun in an exciting environment, and just doing things again with our friends and family. We’re hearing from people who can’t wait to get out and cheer on the team and hopefully see us have some success on the ice.”

Still, the past 18 months have reiterated Costa’s view that the Thunderbirds are more than a hockey team, and more than a business.

“I invest my heart and soul into this thing. Sometimes people say, ‘it’s just an AHL hockey team.’ For me, it’s much more than that. I feel like we’re the lifeblood of the community. We’re at the centerpoint. Our whole marketing campaign is going to be around ‘we are 413.’ And we feel that. We want to be that type of organization.

“We genuinely feel like people like us and want to support us. At the end of the day, that speaks volumes about who you are as an organization. So the biggest thing was doing right by the people who have done right by us for the first four years of our franchise.”

“The last year and a half, it’s been, ‘how to we get through this and get back to what we do really, really well?’ There’s no playbook to get you through this stuff. You’re doing things on the fly and trying to make the right decisions, but you don’t know the outcome of certain things.”

He called decisions on what staff to keep, furlough, or cut back hours two springs ago were “gutwrenching,” especially because they came so quickly and unexpectedly.

“The Saturday before shutdown, we had our ninth sellout — tied for most ever, and we had three Saturdays left,” Costa said. “The next week, I had to furlough half the staff. And none of it was their fault. I mean, the week before that, we were on cloud nine. None of us thought this would happen. It completely changed our organization. And you just have to work through it.”

That said, “our goal is to get back to normalcy as quickly as possible, but also do it responsibly and do it the right way,” he noted — even if that means wearing masks a little (well, hopefully just a little) longer. “It’s going to take some time, but we’re really well-positioned as an organization to come out of this strong.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Education Special Coverage

Continuing Education

Matthew Scott says the double protection of vaccines and masks

Matthew Scott says the double protection of vaccines and masks are a good start to keeping AIC’s campus safe.

 

After a year when colleges offered a wide variety of learning options during the pandemic, from in-person to remote to a blend of both, the vast majority have opened their classrooms, residence halls, and athletic fields for a true on-campus experience this fall. But they’re doing so with caution, both internally — in the form of vaccine requirements — and backed by municipalities that are issuing broad mask mandates. The bottom line through all the changes? The idea that young people need the full college experience, and no one wants to risk a disheartening retreat to Zoom.

 

Everyone is tired of pivoting, Matthew Scott said. But, by now, they’re good at it, too.

“We’ve learned that our students are adaptable. They don’t always want to be, but they’ll go with the flow and make it happen. And our staff members have just rolled up their sleeves and said, ‘what needs to be done?’”

As vice president for Student Affairs and dean of students at American International College (AIC) in Springfield, Scott is just one of countless higher-education administrators who have spent the past 18 months adapting to one unexpected development after another when it came to COVID-19 and how students could best learn and interact during the pandemic.

“You want to plan in times when you aren’t in the middle of a crisis, so that you’re ready to use that plan when a crisis occurs,” he said. “But when you’re thinking through your crisis-planning process, you’re thinking of things like a fire or a hurricane coming through. Nobody planned for a pandemic. We had protocols for a specific outbreak, but not something like this.”

The lesson? “We learned that we need to be agile. You might spend weeks planning something, and then one order comes through from the local or state government, and you need to pivot.”

The latest pivot for AIC, one similar to what most colleges and universities are doing, involves students living and learning on campus, with residence halls open and clubs and sports in full swing. But a facemask requirement is back, too, at least indoors. And AIC is also requiring students and employees to be vaccinated against COVID.

“We learned that we need to be agile. You might spend weeks planning something, and then one order comes through from the local or state government, and you need to pivot.”

“At last count, we were at 98%, which is a phenomenal number to get to,” Scott said, noting that religious and medical exemptions are being given, but those people are required to be tested weekly, and their quarantine and isolation protocols in the case of infection differ from those of a vaccinated individual. “So far, the vaccination rate has been helping us quite a bit.”

Elms College in Chicopee has also mandated both masks indoors and vaccination for everyone (students, faculty, and staff) without a legitimate exemption.

“Last year, masks were required everywhere. Now, they are not required outdoors if you don’t have anyone within six feet of you,” President Harry Dumay said. “We don’t have distancing in the clasrooms like last year. But we’ll be functioning with a campus that is fully vaccinated.”

While students could choose to take classes in person or remotely last year, Dumay said the college is asking all undergraduates to be in classrooms this year, although remote capabilities are in place in case someone needs to quarantine.

President Harry Dumay says Elms College not only has a plan

President Harry Dumay says Elms College not only has a plan for this fall, but “a backup to the plan and a backup to the backup.”

“We thought this year would be completely free of all these things, but what we’re seeing in the region and on campus are a lot of breakthrough cases, and Delta is more contagious than the original virus,” Dumay said.

When asked about pushback from students on the vaccine mandate, he said he wouldn’t use that word, exactly. “We certainly had quite a few inquiries from parents, saying, ‘is that necessary?’ Or from staff or employees asking, ‘so what does that mean if I don’t do it?’ I don’t know if anyone resigned on our campus or decided not to come because of the vaccination. There might be one or two cases, but I haven’t heard that.”

Scott said students tend to understand that vaccines not only prevent COVID in many cases, but reduce its severity in others.

At the same time, however, “college-age people are not particularly concerned about hospitalization or death because, for the vast majority of them, they’re able to weather the storm and get through it. But part of the education process is making sure they understand it’s not just about them, it’s about the people around them who might have underlying conditions they might not know about.”

If there has been any pushback, he noted, it has taken the form of questions about why both vaccines and masks are necessary.

“We thought this year would be completely free of all these things, but what we’re seeing in the region and on campus are a lot of breakthrough cases, and Delta is more contagious than the original virus.”

“We’d say, ‘yes, you’re vaccinated, and yes, that probably means there’s a lower likelihood of you contracting COVID, but if you do, you might not know you have it, and you might pass it on to somebody else — maybe a child who can’t get a vaccine, or maybe someone who’s immunocompromised,’” he explained. “For the most part, people get it. More than 1,000 U.S. colleges are requiring vaccines, so we’re among many at this point.”

 

Taking Their Shot

Holyoke Community College President Christina Royal said HCC balanced the desire among many students to get back to in-person learning with the constantly changing health metrics around the Delta variant. “So we decided to open with about a third of classes in person, face to face; a third online; and another third blended of some sort.”

The original plan earlier this summer called for about 25% of classes in person, she explained, “but as those classes were filling up, we heard students wanted more of them, so we added some additional sections. Then we increased class sizes, which were lowered during the pandemic.”

Now 15 students are allowed in a class, still small enough to allow for social distancing, Royal said.

At the same time, “we were also hearing from other students who were not comfortable coming back in, given the conditions in the world. So that’s where we are this semester — we wanted to have a range of options for students so we can match whatever their comfort level is.”

HCC has had a mask mandate on campus since the start of the pandemic and has never lifted it. The college also modified its ventilation systems. “We have several classrooms that don’t have windows, and we wanted to make sure people felt comfortable in the learning spaces.”

In addition, the campus added protective barriers in many places and signage reminding students about masks, social distancing, and hand washing, as well as the need to get vaccinated.

Holyoke Community College President Christina Royal

Holyoke Community College President Christina Royal says the state’s community-college presidents are unified in their support of a vaccine mandate.

That is more than a nudge now, as all 15 community colleges in Massachusetts instituted a vaccine mandate last week for all students, faculty, and staff, which must be fully met by January.

“During the last 18 months, the Massachusetts community colleges have prioritized the health and safety of our communities while also recognizing that many of our students have been disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic,” the presidents said in a statement shared with their campuses. “While a significant number of students, faculty, and staff are already vaccinated or are in the process of becoming vaccinated, the 15 colleges are seeking to increase the health and safety of the learning and working environment in light of the ongoing public health concerns and current guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.”

In her own message to the HCC community, Royal noted that, “while there is no ironclad defense against coronavirus, extensive public-health research has shown that vaccination greatly reduces the risk of hospitalization and death.”

While the UMass system has not yet instituted a vaccine mandate, UMass Amherst is strongly advising shots for all students and employees. “The science is clear that vaccination is the best way to stop COVID-19 from spreading, and our best way to continue protecting each other’s well-being,” an official statement reads.

In the meantime, individuals who are not vaccinated are required to participate in the university’s asymptomatic testing program.

UMass Amherst is also back to in-person learning, but is following public-health guidelines for wearing masks indoors and distancing where possible.

“If we need to do more education and bring some public-health experts in to reduce misinformation and allow for people to get the facts, then we’ll certainly do that as part of our strategy.”

“The use of indoor masks, required on campus and in the town of Amherst … reduce the spread of infection, said Ann Becker, Public Health director, and Jeffrey Hescock, executive director of Environmental Health and Safety, in the campus’ Public Health Promotion Center, in a statement. But they also laid out the stark facts when it comes to vaccination.

“Our data shows that, among our vaccinated population, only 1.7% have tested positive. Among the approximately 500 individuals who have received religious or medical exemptions from vaccination, 10.05% have tested positive. We urge those not yet vaccinated to consider doing so.”

They noted, however, that positive cases have been predominately among undergraduate off-campus students connected to unmasked social activities. “We have not seen any spread in academic settings. Most cases continue to be of short duration, resulting in mild to moderate illness.”

UMass makes vaccine clinics readily availabe on campus, as do the 15 community colleges. HCC offers free COVID-19 vaccinations for four hours every Tuesday, as well as COVID-19 testing six days a week on campus through the Holyoke Board of Health.

Royal was adamant that a vaccine mandate was the right call.

“I think this is in our collective best interest, for our community colleges and for our region as well,” she told BusinessWest. “At this point, the vaccines have been shown to be effective when we’re talking about preventing disease or reducing hospitalizations and deaths.”

She recognizes that people have many different perspectives that should be respected, but that the college has a duty to combat misinformation.

“If we need to do more education and bring some public-health experts in to reduce misinformation and allow for people to get the facts, then we’ll certainly do that as part of our strategy.”

 

Life of the Campus

In some ways, it has been a frustrating start to the semester, Dumay said, noting that the general feeling earlier in the summer was that masks would be optional, let alone vaccines, as COVID gradually retreated. While it hasn’t, he noted that it’s important for students to safety enjoy the full Elms experience.

“One of the distinctive features of an Elms College education … is that it offers a vibrant and nurturing environment, and not just with the instruction that happens in the classroom,” he said. “It’s all the interactions and how people behave with one another.”

College leaders believe important personal growth occurs through that interaction, he added.

“You can’t really do that with an online model. You can approximate it, but it’s not ideal. So to the extent we can, we’ll take the steps that are necessary so we’re safe and have an on-campus education, particularly for young people who are at that stage in their life where they’re forming their character.”

Like Scott, Dumay said the key lesson from the pandemic has been that it’s good to have a plan, but one thet can be modified at any given time. “We have a backup to the plan and a backup to the backup. We’re prepared to shift as the environment changes.”

The second lesson is the importance of transparent communication, he noted, because without it, people tend to fill the gaps with misinformation.

“We’re not pretending the pandemic is over by any means,” AIC’s Scott said. “We’re complying with the Springfield mask mandate right now and requiring masks indoors and outdoors when you can’t maintain the six feet. But we still have a tent set up outside; we’re trying to drive people outside as much as possible, just as an extra layer of protection.

“But the 98% vaccination rate, along with masking — I don’t want to give people a false sense of security where you don’t have to be vigilant, but we’re feeling pretty confident that we’re doing what we need to do to keep people safe.”

If a pocket of infection arises, the campus is ready to bring in more testing supplies and trigger quarantine protocols, but Scott feels like the double protection offered by vaccines and masks are the best way to keep that possibility at bay.

“There’s no one to be mad at,” he added. “I’m not mad at the mayor for putting in a mask mandate; he’s doing what needs to be done to keep the people in the community safe. But is it frustrating when you think you have a plan and the pandemic doesn’t cooperate? Of course, but a virus doesn’t cooperate.”

What makes all the planning and inconveniences worthwhile, he said, was seeing the energy of the students as they moved back onto campus a month ago.

“It was kind of a heartwarming moment seeing some of these returners … they left in March of 2020, and they didn’t come back until the beginning of this September. So when they see each other in person for the very first time in a long while, you can see it, you can feel it. They want to be with each other.

“We believe in the on-campus experience,” he added. “They’re coming here for all these things — to participate in athletics, to live in the residence halls, to eat in the dining commons. We’re on an online campus in this moment.”

Dumay saw the same energy at the Elms — and doesn’t want to do anything that might threaten to snuff it out.

“The first week, seeing students back on campus, was fantastic,” he said. “They’re happy to be here. They don’t want to be sent back to Zoom. They’re happy to be with each other. And we’re happy to see them.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Features

Doing More with Less

 

At a recent virtual seminar, Delcie Bean asked attendees to think back 20 years and ask themselves, did they foresee a time when phone books and yellow pages would not be a thing?

After all, he asked, every home had one, and they were the primary way small businesses advertised and shared their contact information with the public.

Now, “look at what’s happened to that world,” said Bean, president of Paragus Strategic IT. “That’s the pace at which technology is changing. These things we took for granted, that we felt were never going to change, that were part of the fabric of our ecosystem, have changed. And it’s not just phone books. Think of all the landfills that are chock full of technology that, at one point in time, we didn’t think we could live without.”

And it’s not just tools, but the way we do business, he said, pointing out the short jumps between dominant communication methods over the past century. That idea was one jumping-off point for Bean’s virtual seminar on Sept. 15, titled “Automation: the Time Is Now,” and subtitled “How Automation Can Streamline Your Business and Offset the Labor Shortage.”

At this event, presented by BusinessWest and Comcast Business, he said everyone should ask themselves a simple question: “What’s my phone book? What’s the thing in my business that is still antiquated and should have been replaced by now?

“What’s my phone book? What’s the thing in my business that is still antiquated and should have been replaced by now?”

For example, he went on, “do I have employees entering data into a system that could easily be automated? Am I still doing things on paper forms that then need to be scanned into a system or, God forbid, typed in manually into another system? Do I have antiquated processes that require people to get manual approval and shuffle things around and put things in inboxes and outboxes, and do I still have tasks being done manually that are just ripe to automate?”

The 60-minute presentation focused on the benefits of automation and the ways it can be utilized to save businesses time, trouble, and expense — anything from onboarding a new employee or client to gathering information when someone signs up for something on a website, to the steps involved in the approval process when employees want to request a new computer. All of this, and more, can be automated, Bean said.

One common tool helping businesses do that today is the Microsoft 365 platform, an evolution of the Microsoft Office suite that offers subscription tiers and features including secure cloud storage, business e-mail, advanced cyberthreat protection, and the popular Microsoft Teams program.

“Microsoft has made a very deliberate, very intelligent decision to be the leader in small-business workforce automation, and they have invested infinite money in trying to do that,” Bean said. “And it’s actually paid off.”

 

Perfect Storm

The need to streamline processes through automation impacts most businesses and, as such, is a timely topic of discussion, Bean said — “maybe more than we’d want it to be.” And that’s partly because of the unique set of economic stressors that have emerged over the past 18 months.

“We’re probably all feeling busier right now than we’ve ever felt,” he said. “I know there’s a lot going on that’s causing us to have a lot more on our plates, a lot more challenges to solve, a lot more obstacles to overcome than we’ve had to in the past. So why are we taking time out of our day to have this conversation?”

Well, first of all, businesses are being forced to do more with less. Roughly 3.5 million Americans are not in the workforce but used to be — largely because of the pandemic, but not totally. Population growth has slowed, and the massive exodus of Baby Boomers from the workforce has accelerated somewhat.

“That has a huge impact on the ecomomy, one we cannot minimize,” Bean noted — and one that will continue to ripple throughout organizations of all sizes at a time when everyone seems to be wearing more hats than before, juggling more tasks, and trying to keep up with less help. And that leads to more stress in the workforce.

“We’re seeing more employees comment that they feel overwhelmed, people are leaving their jobs, looking for new jobs, changing industries,” he said. “Or they’re managing the working-remote, working-in-the-office challenges, healthcare challenges … it’s a lot of stress and pressure on the workforce that’s still working.”

On the other hand, the workforce crunch has also created a talent shortage and one of the best-ever markets for job seekers, who have more leverage than before, Bean said, making it harder to hire and retain employees.

Wage growth has accelerated, and so have employee demands regarding everything from remote work to more autonomy to relaxed dress codes, he noted. “Employers are working really hard to try to manage and keep up with those demands while also managing the business.”

It’s an incredibly difficult economy, he added, and just for small employers; the situation is really trickling up to larger and higher-paying employers as well. “It’s not ignoring anybody.”

And it comes, Bean explained, in the midst of what’s known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which builds on the third (which began in the mid-20th century and was known as the digital revolution, marked by the rise of computerization). This fourth revolution is melding technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics, cloud computing, augmented reality, smart sensors, 3D printing, and many other advances, and promises to transform the way people live and work.

“There’s a lot going on right now that is digitizing and changing the way we interact with pretty much every aspect of our life,” he said. “And it’s happening at a rate we are very unaccustomed to handle.”

As noted, businesses trying to adapt to this fast-changing world are doing so amid all the recent challenges stemming from the pandemic and the labor situation. Small businesses also lament the growing culture of acquisition, and find it difficult to compete with larger companies with more resources, more innovation, and the ability to pay more for talent.

“All in all, it makes you feel like, if you’re a small firm, you’re in a race that’s a losing battle,” Bean said. “Exhausted? I don’t blame you.”

 

No Standing Still

But exhaustion is no excuse for inaction, he argued, before refuting the common myths around automation: that it’s too expensive, too complicated, and takes too long to implement. All are untrue, he explained during the virtual seminar, and again during a sit-down with BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien during a recent edition of the magazine’s podcast, Business Talk (businesswest.com/blog/businesstalk-with-delcie-bean-ceo-of-paragus-strategic-it).

In other words, there’s no excuse for any business to avoid this conversation any longer.

“We don’t want to be the next Blockbuster,” Bean told the seminar attendees. “We don’t want to be the company that could see that things were changing, stuck to our guns, hung on, and ultimately worked their way into oblivion.”

 

—Joseph Bednar

Insurance Special Coverage

Rising Tide

After a summer of heavy rains in Massachusetts — and across the Northeast, for that matter — plenty of homeowners discovered their insurance policies don’t cover flood damage, and many are no doubt considering whether they should add such coverage. And it’s a question that may be raised even more often in the future, as climate change produces stronger and more frequent storms.

Last week, President Biden sat with state government officials to talk about the growing dangers of hurricanes and floods.

“For decades, scientists have warned that extreme weather would be more extreme and climate change was here. And we’re living through it now,” he said. “We don’t have any more time.”

But it wasn’t Florida he was visiting, or Louisiana or Mississippi. It was New Jersey, which had just experienced, according to one county commissioner, its fourth 100-year storm in the past two decades. The event turned tragic, with close to 40 people dead in New Jersey and New York, many trapped in basements and cars.

In other words, the effects of climate change on storms is no longer a problem for other regions. It’s a problem for the Northeast, too.

And it’s on the minds of those in the insurance industry.

“What was once a 100-year flood is now a 10-year flood,” said Trish Vassallo, director of Operations at Encharter Insurance in Amherst. “We’re seeing things now that we never anticipated.”

Trish Vassallo

Trish Vassallo

“What was once a 100-year flood is now a 10-year flood. We’re seeing things now that we never anticipated.”

Western Mass. residents know this well after a summer of often-incessant rain, punctuated by a few big storms that left a trail of flooded basements in their wake — most of which were not covered by insurance. But it doesn’t have to be that way.

“A homeowners’ policy is going to provide coverage for a hurricane or tornado — which is on everyone’s mind this time of year,” Vassallo said. “We’re covering for wind damage and hail. If the whole house blows away, we’re covering for that as well.

“But flooding is always going to be excluded,” she went on. “You need to purchase a specific flood policy. The basic policy is from the ground up — not the flood coming in from the surface.”

There are two types of coverage homeowners can add to their policy to cover floods, Vassallo noted. Flood insurance covers water damage that results from water that has already hit the ground, pouring in from oversaturated yards, flooded streets, or overflowing rivers, streams, or ponds. Meanwhile, water backup coverage reimburses the homeowner for water that backs into the home through an outside sewer or drain.

“The key phrase is surface and/or groundwater coming into the building,” said David Griffin Jr. senior vice president at the Dowd Agencies in Holyoke. “If a pipe bursts, causing water damage, or water gets in through the roof, or a tree falls through the house and water comes in behind it, that’s all covered [by a basic policy]. But if water from outside the home comes in — if the yard floods and starts to spill into the basement — you’ll need a flood policy to respond to that.”

David Griffin Jr.

David Griffin Jr.

“We’ve had so much water this summer — it’s unprecedented, and it’s becoming an issue for everybody.”

While add-ons like earthquake insurance don’t sell big in New England for a reason, flood insurance is becoming an “absolute necessity,” Vassallo said, noting that it’s required in Massachusetts for mortgages in designated flood zones. “A person no longer has the option; mortgages require it. You can’t close on a loan without it.”

Griffin said his team recently ran some numbers and found that only 3.5% of all homeowners in Massachusetts have a flooding policy. Considering that flood-zone requirement, the percentage of people who aren’t forced to buy the coverage but opt for it anyway is strikingly low.

Will a summer of heavy rain — or talk of more intense storms in the future — change that? Insurance professionals are watching closely.

 

A Disconnect?

While flooding from rushing water and rain is generally not covered by regular homeowners’ insurance policies, floods remain the most common and most destructive natural disaster in the U.S., according to the National Assoc. of Insurance Commissioners.

From 1988 through 2017, flood damage in the U.S. cost almost $200 billion, according to the Natural Academy of Sciences, and the increase in precipitation due partly to climate change was responsible for $73 billion, or more than a third of that, Investopedia reported this month. These figures include all property damage, not just homes.

Nonetheless, only about 15% of homes in the U.S. are insured against floods, according to both a report from the reinsurance company Swiss Re and a survey by the Insurance Information Institute.

Dowd said homeowners should take a five- to 10-year perspective on what potential flood damage would actually cost. “Do I want to spend 800 bucks a year on a flood-insurance policy? Over 10 years, that’s $8,000. What’s the likelihood of having a loss beyond that if I have to self-insure? You can look at insurance as a long-term budget item.”

Consumers can access a cost estimator, where they can input data about their home, including its age, location, construction style, square footage, and contents, and get back replacement-cost numbers that can help guide policy decisions, Dowd said.

And current events may affect that formula; these days, in the case of major, widespread damage, homeowners may run into supply-chain issues and shortages of wood and other materials, which can significantly jack up costs.

“If you haven’t looked at your limits in a while and they’re $325,000 and it actually costs $425,000 to replace it, you don’t want that kind of gap in case of a total loss,” he noted. “It’s important to be on top of that.”

But protecting a home from water damage — or any other disaster — extends beyond the policy itself, Vassallo said.

“We talk about preparedness — making sure people do the right thing to limit their losses,” she noted, which includes everything from securing movable items to cutting back tree branches that threaten windows and roofs. “This is something we deal with on a day-to-day basis here in New England. You want to limit your damage as a homeowner.

Griffin agreed. “There’s always a level of preparedness you need to have in order to limit damages in a storm. That’s something you want to think about — it can sometimes eliminate bad things.”

Meanwhile, after an incident occurs, the homeowner can take steps to minimize further damage while documenting their losses.

“Always take photos of loss of everything, and make immediate emergency repairs — put that blue tarp on the roof to prevent rain damage,” Vassallo said. “If you do need to make emergency repairs, most insurance companies will honor the photographs. I would recommend you retain damaged materials, which can prevent questions from arising. If you rip out the rug in the house, you don’t want the adjuster to pay you for builder’s grade, when you had a high-grade rug. That’s stuff we deal with all the time.”

The homeowner is expected to not just respond quickly to minimize damage, but to help prevent it as well, she noted. That means regularly cleaning gutters so they’re not backed up with leaves during heavy summer rains, which can lead to water pouring into the foundation and leaking into the basement — or contributing to ice dams in the winter.

In other words, “if you have gutters, clean them — but be careful on that ladder,” Vassallo said. “If you can do your preventive work ahead of time, you’re ahead of the game.”

 

Warning Signs

As he noted earlier, flooding has been on Griffin’s mind lately.

“Typically, this is the time of year when we see the biggest uptick in those types of claims, especially in New England,” he said. “We also see it in March, when the ground is frozen, and we may get two or three inches of rain, which slides across the frozen ground and into your home. But we’ve had so much water this summer — it’s unprecedented, and it’s becoming an issue for everybody.”

He said carriers have been sounding the alarm about this topic. “Storms are getting a lot stronger. It’s definitely something that’s been noted on the carriers’ end.”

They’re not alone, of course.

“Every part of the country is getting hit by extreme weather. And we’re now living in real time what the country’s going to look like,” Biden said in New Jersey last week. “We can’t turn it back very much, but we can prevent it from getting worse.”

And make sure we’re properly insured against the next big storm.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Berkshire County

No Standing Still

Susan Wissler says visitorship is way up

Susan Wissler says visitorship is way up at the Mount — not just from 2020, but from pre-pandemic 2019.

It may not stack up to Edith Wharton’s best novels, but it’s a compelling story.

“We’ve had an incredibly good season, despite the challenge of staying in compliance with the latest CDC and local health recommendations regarding COVID,” said Susan Wissler, executive director of the Mount, Wharton’s former estate in Lenox that is now a hub for all kinds of arts, nature, and cultural programming.

In fact, Wissler said, this year’s visitorship has doubled that of 2020 — maybe not a striking statistic in itself, given the economic shutdown of that spring and a hesitancy among many people to leave their homes for much of the year. But this year’s figures are also 50% higher than they were in 2019.

Part of that success may be attributed to a decision last year to open up the property’s outdoor grounds and gardens for free. “We opened as a public park so people had a place to walk and enjoy beauty and nature in relative safety,” she noted. “We’ve got a pretty big space, and people really appreciated it.”

“We opened as a public park so people had a place to walk and enjoy beauty and nature in relative safety. We’ve got a pretty big space, and people really appreciated it.”

The house itself still requires admission, and Wissler worried people would take advantage of the free outdoor experience and leave. And maybe some did come with that plan — but many felt compelled to go inside, too. Thus, paid visitation topped the previous two years.

So did weddings, all of which were cancelled in 2020, many of them moved into this year. The Mount typically hosts about 12 weddings per year; it will welcome 26 between May and October.

Meanwhile, NightWood — an ethereal, immersive walking experience featuring original music, lighting, and sculptural elements — was a huge hit last winter, bringing in desperately needed revenue with limited attendance and timed tickets; the Mount will stage the attraction again later this year.

Still, the new focus on outdoor space — which included a lecture series under tents this summer — posed its own issues, particularly weeks when it rained and rained. “That has been a huge frustration for all culturals and restaurants, anyone focusing more attention outdoors,” Wissler said. “The weather was a punch in the stomach.”

MASS MoCA in North Adams also offers programming inside and outdoors, and found plenty of success with both in 2021. “June and July were actually our highest-attended months we’ve ever had — and that includes pre-COVID visitorship,” said Jenny Wright, the museum’s director of Communications.

“We had that brief moment after Memorial Day when we were able to lift restrictions — but we do have an indoor mask mandate in place since August 4 and require our staff to be vaccinated. But we’re very fortunate to have the luxury of lots of indoor and outdoor space on our side,” she noted, adding that, in addition to the museum’s wide corridors and spacious galleries making it easy to physically distance, MASS MoCA made good use of outdoor courtyard space this year to stage performances. “We’re very fortunate to have space on our side during this period.”

The museum’s robust artist-residency programs continued throughout the pandemic as well.

“When people are unable to come here, we can still get that story out through our digital programming, whether it’s visual or performing arts.”

“Even before we reinstated our performances, we were housing artists in residence to develop new work. That was the catalyst for us developing new digital programming. That was something we hadn’t done much of before,” Wright said, noting that the museum told artist stories with behind-the-scenes documentaries it then posted online as a way to keep the public connected even when they weren’t in the building. It’s also creating 360-degree virtual tours, starting with its famed Sol Lewitt exhibit, to post to the MASS MoCA website.

“Our mission is to make art … new art that has never existed before,” Wright noted. “When you come here and see that, it’s a powerful experience. But when people are unable to come here, we can still get that story out through our digital programming, whether it’s visual or performing arts.

“For us, it’s really thinking about ways to create multiple points of entry for people, not just the front door,” she went on. “That was something we hadn’t explored in too much depth before.”

Wissler said the Mount found similar success reaching new audiences virtually. “We were really reluctant to get into the pool of virtual programming, but COVID forced us to dive right in — and Zoom programming has been amazing.”

Specifically, events featuring guest authors have been a hit — and found a much broader audience than before. Now, an event that typically drew authors from the mid-Atlantic and New England can bring in guests from pretty much anywhere — and the potential audience has also expanded around the country and even around the world.

“That’s something we’ll continue as we move forward,” Wissler said. “We haven’t found a way to monetize it yet, but from a visitor standpoint, it’s a huge success.”

 

Dramatic Shifts

While many regional destinations and arts organizations shut down completely in 2020, Berkshire Theatre Group (BTG) turned in one of the year’s most notable success stories, creatively staging an outdoor, socially distanced run of Godspell in August in September — the only show featuring Equity stage actors in the entire country at the time.

Nick Paleologos, executive director, said planning for the 2021 season began in late 2020, and the general feeling as the calendar turned was that current health conditions weren’t going to change dramatically until late 2021 or even 2022.

“So we decided to build on what we learned in the summer of 2020, when we did Godspell outdoors. We planned for a modest but slightly more robust outdoor season on both our campuses, in Stockbridge and Pittsfield.”

In Stockbridge, that meant outdoor runs for The Importance of Being Earnest and a newer play, Nina Simone: Four Women, while in Pittsfield, the theater planned a community version of The Wizard of Oz, but with a slightly scaled-back supporting cast. The organization also scheduled a series of outdoor music performances.

“Then, quite suddenly, Gov. Baker decided to lift all restrictions on Memorial Day weekend, and that caught us a little off guard,” Paleologos said. “We had a planned a whole series of protocols, and now, all of a sudden, we were being told, ‘no problem, go back indoors, you don’t have to wear masks,’ all that.”

So the Stockbridge performances were shifted indoors, to the 120-seat Unicorn Theatre, while The Wizard of Oz in Pittsfield remained outdoors, under tents. While it didn’t have to mandate masks, the Unicorn did require them, even though it had recently upgraded its HVAC system.

“We decided on an abundance of caution — we would require masks and suffer any pushback there might be,” Paleologos went on. “But we encountered very little pushback. People were quite happy, even with the protocols, to wear masks for the entire indoor production. We had hardly any complaints. I think they were grateful to be back inside, in an air-conditioned space, instead of outdoors in Stockbridge during the summer.”

Meanwhile, in Pittsfield, attendees didn’t have to wear masks under the tents if they chose not to, and most didn’t.

But another “curveball,” as Paleologos called it, would follow — and, unlike Baker’s decision in May, it wasn’t a positive one. As the Delta variant of COVID-19 emerged and dramatically increased infection rates in a state where COVID had been largely under control, BTG had a decision to make. It was headed into the Nina Simone part of the season and opted to keep that show indoors — but require proof of vaccination for entry.

“Again, we braced outselves for a backlash which never came,” he said, adding that the theater did have to turn away a few people who did not carry that proof with them, even though they claimed to be vaccinated. But in most cases, those patrons requested a credit for a future performance rather than their money back, and other patrons thanked Paleologos for holding fast to the policy, he noted.

“They said the only reason they were there was because of the protocol. I think we’ve gotten to a stage where the issue of concern over spreading the virus has become almost a reflective action; I think people are kind of acclimated to that.”

 

Places in the Heart

The winter-season holiday show at BTG’s Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield will be held indoors, with masks and vaccination required, as well as distancing by placing an empty seat between seated parties.

In other words, the show goes on at this company that has learned not only how to pivot, but that its audience is willing to pivot right along with it.

Paleologos said the various shifts this year have not only made the organization more flexible, but have shown him that the public is willing to adapt as well — and that bodes well for any future ‘curveballs.’

“It’s been a real learning experience for us. As we look ahead, we’ve become more nimble with what we do and how we do it.”

It’s just one example of how people are seeking meaningful experiences right now and are, for the most part, accepting of whatever protocols are required to engage in them.

“I think people came out of 2020 feeling starved and lonely,” Wissler said. “They’re thinking about the Mount as a destination — a nice place to meet with friends and socialize. I think people are coming for many reasons other than tourism — it’s a great place to keep up and enjoy personal relationships.”

Wright agreed that the pandemic has driven home the importance of what destinations like MASS MoCA offer.

“After everything that’s happened over the past 18 months,” she said, “it really underscores the importance of the arts and cultural destinations during these difficult times — particularly contemporary art, which is not just reflections of the moment we’re in, but can present us with a view of what’s possible. And I think people really need that right now.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Healthcare Heroes

Lifetime Achievement

President and CEO, Center for Human Development

Jim Goodwin

Jim Goodwin

In His Long History with CHD, He’s Seen Plenty of Lives Changed

On more than one occasion as he spoke with BusinessWest, Jim Goodwin referred to “short-termers” — employees who, for whatever reason, don’t stay at the Center for Human Development for very long, and don’t get to see the full scope of CHD’s impact on individual lives.

And that’s unfortunate because that impact, he noted, can be slow.

“One of the positives about being here a long time is you get to see how things change,” said Goodwin, the organization’s president and CEO. “We’re not working with a group of people where you sit down and have a conversation and they come away changed. It’s a process.”

For instance, he said, “people that experience serious substance-use issues often try and fail, try and fail, try and fail, and then they make some progress. When you’ve been around a while, you know failure is part of the process, and you see the change over time.

“It’s the same thing with mental health,” he went on. “Certain things in mental health never go away. It’s like diabetes; it’s with you for life. You figure out how to cope with it, how to live with it — and that is a long, hard process.”

That process may include a combination of resources, from medications to therapy to stress-management strategies, he explained.

“When you get to see it happen over time, you see that people can learn skills, they can learn to function normally with various forms of mental illness. You see the difference in people who get services and hang in there and fight the fight and come out the other end. I’ve gotten to see a lot of people come out the other end, develop those skills, and change their lives.”

“People that experience serious substance-use issues often try and fail, try and fail, try and fail, and then they make some progress. When you’ve been around a while, you know failure is part of the process, and you see the change over time.”

In his 42 years with CHD, the last 16 as president and CEO, Goodwin has seen plenty of growth; since 2005, the agency has grown from a $48 million entity to $125 million, and from around 1,300 employees to 2,000. He sees the impact, as he noted, in those individual lives changed, but it’s the sheer number of those stories, and the scope of CHD’s work, that has earned Goodwin the title of Healthcare Hero for 2021 in the Lifetime Achievement category.

“There are a lot of things I’m proud of,” he said, trying to sum up those years. “CHD has had tremendous growth over the years. And as needs have changed, we’ve been able to change and adapt and provide services in more areas.”

Opioid use is one such growth area, he noted. “Over the years, the need for substance-use services has grown substantially, and that has required us to deliver services differently.”

Today, CHD’s services span a wide gamut, including behavioral health and addiction recovery, housing and homelessness, food insecurity, youth welfare, intellectual and developmental disability, child development and advocacy, and more.

Jim Goodwin addresses those gathered to celebrate the 2018 opening of Goodwin House.

Jim Goodwin addresses those gathered to celebrate the 2018 opening of Goodwin House.

“Jim has led CHD to step in and provide services where many others would not, including to people involved with the justice system, the homeless, people with severe mental illness or disability, and many others,” said Ben Craft, CHD’s vice president of Community Engagement, who nominated Goodwin for the award.

One recent example Craft cited is Goodwin House, a 90-day residential program providing substance-use treatment services for male teenagers. The facility and its staff work to help clients not only maintain their sobriety through proven recovery strategies, but also reconnect with their families, education, and job opportunities.

“Jim has quietly built an organization that is racially and culturally diverse and one of the region’s most highly rated employers,” Craft added, “one that has grown with the needs for its services and remained nimble and innovative to keep up with the turbulent environment in which it operates.”

 

Expanding on an Idea

When Goodwin considers CHD’s impact over the years, he’s quick to include the organization’s 2,000 employees as well as its clients.

“These are good jobs with good benefits that allow people to have good lives and do work that they’re proud of,” he said, noting that the broad diversity of his team reflects the makeup of CHD’s clients, most of whom access services in a geographic region spanning from Amherst and Northampton to Hartford and Waterbury, Conn.

It’s an impressive footprint for an agency born from a desire by its three founders — Bill Seretta, Kathy Townsend, and Art Bertrand — to offer community-based care. In the 1960s, Goodwin noted, community services were hard to come by, and people struggling with hunger, homelessness, or simple healthcare needs easily got lost in the system. Young people, particularly those with mental-health issues, were shuffled into state training schools that were more like prisons than centers of care.

“CHD took kids from training schools and served them in foster-care and group-home models, and started to have a lot of success,” he added. “It grew from there. These community-based models started to take off because they were so successful; then we started doing it with adults.”

Today, community-based care remains the heart and soul of CHD’s mission, but the breadth of services has expanded, with more than 80 programs that help people tackle some of life’s toughest problems — often in ways that other agencies hadn’t considered.

“We provide a combination of different types of services,” Goodwin said. “Many can be identified as a mental-health problem or a substance-use problem, but it’s often tied in with other things, especially all the things associated with poverty, joblessness, and homelessness. Many times, especially in the past, agencies would take on one component or the other; they might provide homelessness services or mental-health services. But we’ve been able to combine lots of different services to create a bigger package that does the full scope of things.”

It’s those connections — recognizing the role of social determinants of health and tackling the root causes of issues — that sets CHD apart, but it’s not easy work, Goodwin said. “Some days, it can be very difficult, but when you look at the whole picture, most days I’m really glad we’ve taken all that on.”

It also cultivates an organization with career mobility, he added, as employees can move around and take on different roles as they gain experience in other fields. “One of the good things about CHD is you don’t have to leave to try something new.”

But those connections between clinical and non-clinical supports poses a constant challenge to come up with new ideas and approaches, he added. “You have to be creative.”

Take, for example, Innovative Care Partners (ICP), which is a collaboration between CHD (the managing partner), Gándara Center, and ServiceNet designed to better serve clients in the MassHealth program for their behavioral-health needs. ICP’s care coordinators connect clients with other members of the healthcare-delivery system, including hospitals, primary care, and other providers, across the four Western Mass. counties to help ensure they’re getting needed services without duplication or inefficiencies.

“We get people to follow a set of services that speaks to their behavioral-health needs,” he said, which might include medication, psychiatry, or counseling, but the program also focuses on the factors that get people into health trouble, such as poor nutrition, high levels of anxiety and stress, and high blood pressure.

“Together, primary-care health professionals sign off on a comprehensive plan that speaks to the full range of their needs,” Goodwin explained. “That’s a change. There used to be walls between mental-health services and medical services. Everybody knew that didn’t make any sense, but until recently, it never became a focus of attention.”

 

Learning Experiences

Needless to say, the Center for Human Development has had a challenging 18 months navigating the COVID-19 pandemic. With 850 residential mental-health beds and thousands of clients accessing outpatient care, there was plenty of learning on the fly — especially when it came to telehealth — but everyone came through to continue meeting the needs that drew Goodwin to CHD 42 years ago, and plenty of others.

“We’re proud of our impact, and that includes our economic impact,” he said. “We provide local jobs, and our people are spending money in their local communities, buying homes … a lot of things are happening because they’re here and CHD is paying them. I think we contribute to the economy in a big way.”

But the main impact remains those individual lives that are changed — albeit sometimes very slowly.

“My goal from the very beginning was to have an agency people would be proud to work for and feel good about what they’re doing,” he said, admitting that the work can be tough, navigating thorny issues like homelessness, drug addiction, and young people in trouble with the law.

“That can be very difficult for the workforce,” he added. “But overall, it’s also very rewarding. It’s the type of work you can be proud of and see accomplishment.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Healthcare Heroes

Collaboration In Health/Wellness

Collaborators in DASHH include Revitalize CDC, Baystate Health, Health New England, the BeHealthy Partnership, Holyoke Medical Center, the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts, the Pioneer Valley Asthma Coalition, and the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative.

This Coalition Keeps People Healthy in Ways Its Partners Couldn’t Achieve Alone

If there’s anyone who understands the impact of asthma in Greater Springfield, it’s Sarita Hudson.

Specifically, as director of programs and development for the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts and manager of the Pioneer Valley Asthma Coalition, she understands the connections between one’s physical environment and health — and the factors that have consistently placed Springfield high on lists of riskiest places to live with asthma. But even the Asthma Coalition has its limits.

“We had been doing asthma interventions, working with community health workers, working with clients, doing education, helping them identify triggers,” she said. “But it’s not enough if we can’t actually fix anything in the home.”

Meanwhile, as vice president of Public Health for Baystate Health, Frank Robinson understands the many ways the system’s community health programs and providers promote preventive health and wellness.

“We had been doing asthma interventions, working with community health workers, working with clients, doing education, helping them identify triggers. But it’s not enough if we can’t actually fix anything in the home.”

Still, “Baystate would never be going out and creating healthy homes by doing environmental changes and mitigations,” he explained. “That is not the work of the healthcare system. To be aligned with someone who does that work and gets the health implications and health impacts is perfect, though — it makes a perfect marriage.”

That organization would be Revitalize Community Development Corp. (CDC), which does have a long history of making critical repairs, modifications, and rehabilitation on the homes of low-income families with children, military veterans, the elderly, and people with disabilities.

When these three organizations started talking — about asthma and other issues — they were intrigued by what they might accomplish by working together, said Revitalize CDC President and CEO Colleen Loveless.

“We’d been doing some of this work — mold remediation, pest control — but hadn’t formalized the process in collaboration with insurance companies and the healthcare system,” she told BusinessWest.

Now, thanks to a collaboration called Doorway to an Accessible, Safe and Healthy Home (DASHH), these three organizations are not only identifying families in need of intervention for environmental health issues, and not just educating them on lifestyle changes, but actually making the necessary physical changes to their homes.

“We started talking, and we applied for a technical-assistance grant from the Green & Healthy Homes Initiative in Baltimore. They’ve been doing this work for decades,” Loveless explained. “We were one of five sites awarded that technical-assistance grant.”

Baystate followed with a capacity-building grant, other state grants followed, and DASHH was in business. Since its beginning in 2015, the program has served 130 households with asthma remediation and education, as well as 101 households for age-in-place modifications. Last year, it launched a COVID-19 response project (more on that later), impacting more than 1,550 households and approximately 6,881 individuals.

“It’s a business model that shows that, by intervening and creating healthy homes through environmental remediation, removing asthma triggers, and improving the physical environment, we could reduce asthma incidence in high-risk populations,” Robinson said.

Families referred by Baystate for environmental interventions receive three to five visits to conduct testing, at the start and end of the process, and provide education on how to keep the home clean and safe. If needed, Revitalize CDC brings in services ranging from air-duct cleaning to mold remediation; from pest control to floor covering and replacement, and also provides air purifiers, HEPA vacuums, and cleaning supplies.

By partnering with health-centric organizations, Colleen Loveless (center) and Revitalize CDC was able to infuse its home-rehab efforts with a focus on wellness.

By partnering with health-centric organizations, Colleen Loveless (center) and Revitalize CDC were able to infuse home-rehab efforts with a focus on wellness.

“The goal is to keep people from having to access primary care or the emergency room, and not miss school or work,” Loveless said. “Asthma has such a ripple effect.”

 

Better Together

The initial goal of DASHH was to help older people by improving their housing conditions related to asthma and falls, most notably by providing home assessments and home repairs to help them stay healthy and age in place. Breaking down this enterprise that has earned the title of Healthcare Hero for 2021 in the Collaboration category, the individual honorees are:

• Revitalize CDC; which performs assessments and interventions for adults and children with asthma and COPD and makes safety modifications and aging-in-place improvements so seniors may safely remain in their home;

• The Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts, which provides support on asthma issues; measurement evaluation; support and coordination for referrals, education, and outreach; coordination and support for asthma home-visiting services; and technical assistance and support, as well as providing materials and services in Spanish;

• Baystate Health and the BeHealthy Partnership (a MassHealth accountable-care partnership plan option made up of the Baystate Health Care Alliance and Health New England), which provide referrals to DASHH through five health centers: Baystate General Pediatrics at High Street, Brightwood Health Center, Caring Health Center, High Street Health Center Adult Medicine, and Mason Square Neighborhood Health Center; and

• The Green & Healthy Homes Initiative, a national network that provides technical assistance on planning, database services, and access to best-practice strategies. The organization worked with the other partners on feasibility studies to come up with ways to fund interventions in the home and determine how those efforts might impact healthcare costs and decrease healthcare utilizations regionally.

After its initial success with Baystate, Revitalize CDC expanded its service area in 2019 to begin collaborating with Holyoke Medical Center and its team of community health workers and navigators. To boost such efforts, the city of Holyoke recently awarded Revitalize CDC’s Healthy Homes Program $100,000 from American Rescue Plan Act funds.

DASHH serves low-income families in Hampden County, which ranks last among the Commonwealth’s 14 counties for health outcomes and health factors for racial/ethnic groups. Springfield had been the asthma capital of the U.S., according to the Asthma and Allergy Foundation, until 2019, and now ranks 12th — still not the most desirable ranking, but an improvement, to be sure.

“You talk to the families, and you see that this is the kind of impact that changes their health,” Hudson said of DASHH’s efforts. “It means they can breathe easier and get the supplies they need.”

For instance, in some cases, “the ventilation ducts have never been cleaned, and every time the heat comes on, they have an asthma attack. Now they’re clean, and it doesn’t happen,” she went on. “Some of these are small, simple repairs.”

This issue has been important to Hudson for a long time, through the Pioneer Valley Asthma Coalition, which was formed 15 years ago to address childhood asthma by improving medical and self-management of the condition, as well as by reducing environmental triggers.

The coalition focuses on outdoor air pollution and indoor air quality and has successfully advocated for new policies, including statewide regulations to prohibit tobacco sales to those under 21; green cleaning policies and procedures adopted by Holyoke Public Schools; an ordinance against burning construction and demolition debris; and asthma protocols and an idle-free vehicle policy adopted by Springfield Public Schools, among many other successes.

It’s work — not just the physical interventions, but education of homeowners, landlords, and primary-care physicians — that should be happening on a wider scale, Hudson said, not just in homes, but in schools and other older buildings where people gather.

“We really see a lot of our housing stock as old, with deferred maintenance, including so much of our rental housing. That’s why we are pleased to see more funding around whole-house renovations.”

 

Quick Pivot

Last year, the DASHH coalition began supporting patients at risk of contracting COVID-19 by providing them with essential supplies and access to nutritious food at home. It made contactless deliveries that also included COVID-prevention supplies, including disinfectants, microfiber cleaning cloths, cleaning gloves, dish detergent, food-storage containers, hand soap, disinfectant wipes, paper towels, and food from local pantries.

“These are people who were quarantining, and we were providing them with cleaning supplies, hand sanitizer, and facemasks — and we found many were food-insecure, so they were provided food from local food pantries,” Loveless said. “The whole DASHH program just expanded from asthma to COVID, and we’re still seeing it now.”

Meanwhile, she’s excited about seeing the coalition continue its broader work — and those regional asthma statistics improve further.

“It’s been a really, really great partnership. It’s a win-win situation — the healthcare system saves money, we’re serving more low-income families in need, and patients are healthier. So it’s really a win-win-win.”

Robinson agrees. “I think the role of Revitalize and other housing providers that understand these issues have made a difference — and make healthcare providers’ jobs much easier,” he said. “They have been instrumental partners in creating safe and healthy houses for older adults as well as creating healthy homes for folks with respiratory diseases, asthma in particular.”

The work is both deeply collaborative and, dare we say, heroic.

“I’m so appreciative,” Loveless said. “Together, we’re able to serve more people in need.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services Special Coverage

Open for Business

Romika Odedra says the branch’s layout emphasizes the customer experience.

Holyoke-based PeoplesBank recently expanded its presence in Connecticut with a branch in West Hartford. The new location is projected to help the bank grow its already considerable portfolio of consumer and commercial business from south of the border, especially in an ongoing climate of mergers and acquisitions.

 

When PeoplesBank opened its newest branch in West Hartford on August 30, it wasn’t exactly its first foray into Connecticut’s capital region. Far from it.

“This is a retail opening in West Hartford, but half of our commercial business is in Connecticut already — actually, about 60%,” said Matt Bannister, the bank’s senior vice president of Marketing & Corporate Responsibility.

“Some is up in the Granby-Windsor-Suffield area,” he went on, alluding to PeoplesBank’s first three Connecticut locations, in East Granby, Suffield, and West Suffield. “Some is down here in the Hartford region, and it actually goes all the way down to the shore. We’re kind of catching up with this retail storefront because the commercial customers want a presence here. They’ve been saying to us, ‘come down to Connecticut.’ And West Hartford just makes sense; it’s a great community, and a good place to be.”

Aleda De Maria, executive vice president of Consumer Banking and Operations, said a growing commercial presence in Hartford County cried out for a full-service physical branch.

“The banking centers are there for when they need a little more contact, when they have a little more complexity, or they just want to expand their relationship. We need to make sure we have everything.”

“We absolutely need it. The majority of our new accounts are still opened at brick-and-mortar locations. For more complex conversations, customers want to talk to a person, and they want to have that live interaction. There still is a need for that face-to-face contact.

“I think what the industry is trying to do with the self-service channels — with online, with mobile, with video bankers — is give people the ability to do the quick, day-to-day transactions when they want to, without having to park and go in and talk to somebody, and get it done quickly,” she went on. “The banking centers are there for when they need a little more contact, when they have a little more complexity, or they just want to expand their relationship. We need to make sure we have everything.”

Michael Oleksak, executive vice president and chief lending and credit officer, said all those Connecticut dollars in the bank’s commercial portfolio have not come mainly from the Granby-Suffield area, but predated those physical locations.

Matt Bannister with one of the West Hartford branch’s two interactive video teller machines.

Matt Bannister with one of the West Hartford branch’s two interactive video teller machines.

“We have a significant amount of business in the Greater Hartford area, specifically in the Farmington, Glastonbury, West Hartford communities and downtown Hartford, but we also go as far as New Haven and Greenwich. So our tentacles are fairly long when it comes to our Connecticut presence.

“Most of that is in commercial real estate, which tends to be more transactional,” he went on. “We are able to do a lot of full-service banking for these commercial real-estate customers because of our cash-management expertise and the different products we have, but without a branch presence, it’s really difficult to do business banking.”

The branch presence in West Hartford allows the team to do more commercial and industrial (C&I) lending, and complements a recent expansion of the bank’s C&I team with former TD Bank veterans, Oleksak noted.

“We have a very strong following now, and I think by having a physical presence there, we’ll become a more visible part of the community,” he went on. “We do support our current borrowers, including with a lot of their philanthropic initiatives, but it’s kind of behind the scenes because we don’t have a presence there. But with a physical presence, and with the disruption in the market with the M&T acquisition of People’s United, it will really open the door for us to be a bigger part of the community.”

De Maria agreed. “We’ve already created such a solid foundation with our name and then with the physical presence from the acquisition we did in Suffield in 2018,” she told BusinessWest. “And now, with our West Hartford presence, I think we have a solid opportunity to bring the service we provide for our commercial customers to our retail-customer world, and really marry those two sides together and make an impact.”

 

Making Contact

Many visitors to the new branch will first notice the interactive video tellers, one in the entry and one in the drive-thru lanes, bringing the bank’s total number of such machines to 22 at 17 locations. Users can call up a live teller in Holyoke who manages four or five machines at once.

“That way, we can be open seven days a week and have extended hours and not have to have people physically in the branch. And the video banker can do almost any transaction,” Bannister said, noting that Peoples is the only bank in the Hartford to offer the service. “Part of our technology story is good, consumer-facing technology.”

Romika Odedra, vice president and regional manager, said customers appreciate face time with a live person rather than interacting with a machine and the more limited options available at an ATM. And Bannister added that, with the pandemic still raging, many customers appreciate being able to conduct complex transactions in a contactless way.

“We are able to do a lot of full-service banking for these commercial real-estate customers because of our cash-management expertise and the different products we have, but without a branch presence, it’s really difficult to do business banking.”

“Video tellers are something we’re proud to bring to the market,” De Maria said. “It brings seven-day-a-week banking to West Hartford and our surrounding areas.”

Once inside the branch, customers will see pods instead of traditional customer lines — a model Peoples and other banks have been implementing for years. Customers can stand beside the teller and even see what he or she is looking at on the computer screen, if necessary. “In the beginning, people were like, ‘where do I go?’” Odedra said. “But it’s so easy — it’s warm, it’s welcoming, it’s not ‘there’s the line.’ It’s nice to have that one-on-one experience.”

The branch also employs a ‘universal banker’ model, Bannister said. “Any bank employee you see out here can do all the transactions. You can go to a teller pod or pop into an office if it’s more convenient or you just want privacy to have a conversation.” In other, more specialized offices down the hallway from the main area, he added, the bank will offer a mortgage expert, a wealth adviser, and other ancillary services.

And in front, at the main entrance, is a high table, couch, and coffee bar. “We’re trying to say to people, ‘come on in and hang out; get to know us a little bit,” Bannister said. “The thought is, we want to have sort of an open storefront.”

That’s partly to reflect the neighborhood the branch is in, with restaurants and small shops lining the streets and the shopping and dining mecca Blue Back Square just down the road.

“This area really is hopping with foot traffic,” he said. “And if you’re a bank with a retail storefront, you want foot traffic.”

Those who drive to PeoplesBank will appreciate the free parking lot the bank shares with the town’s Post Office.

“I used to work at a different bank, and that was the biggest issue we had, the parking,” Odedra said. “I’m so glad we have the parking we have. We don’t have to rush the customer out; we have time to have that one-on-one with them and invite them to have a cup of coffee.”

Bannister said West Hartford has been an enthusiastic town to work with, from its Chamber of Commerce to local economic-development leaders.

“Right from the start, when we were saying we wanted to come down, they were like, ‘how can we help?’ We’re in a lot of communities, and some of them are very welcoming, and some are maybe not so much. This one has been great to work with.”

 

Opportunity Knocks

The branch is fully staffed as well, with a mix of on-site and hybrid workers, reflecting the current makeup of the entire PeoplesBank organization. Some are West Hartford natives who know the market, Bannisher said, while some were attracted by working near all the nearby restaurants and other neighborhood amenities.

Aleda De Maria

Even in an age of mobile banking, Aleda De Maria says, people still want face-to-face interaction at branches for many services.

There’s room to expand in Hartford County, he added, with plans to open at least two more branches in the next couple of years.

“We’re coming in with a message of ‘we’re here, and we’re here to stay, and we can do everything the big banks do, but with a local feel and local decisions,’” De Maria said. “And I think that’s what’s missing in banking in general nowadays — being able to bank how you want to bank but also at a community bank where you don’t have to worry about who’s going to buy them.”

That presence means civic involvement and philanthropy as well, Bannister said, noting that PeoplesBank plans to give close to $60,000 in the first month alone to local organizations like Habitat for Humanity, Hands on Hartford (which assists with food pantries and the homeless population), the United Way, Foodshare, and even two West Hartford community events the bank will sponsor this fall and next summer.

“Right from the start, when we were saying we wanted to come down, they were like, ‘how can we help?’ We’re in a lot of communities, and some of them are very welcoming, and some are maybe not so much. This one has been great to work with.”

“We feel like we’re leading with the values we want to be known by in the community, which are innovation, technology, customer service, and the community support.”

De Maria agreed with Bannister than broadening the bank’s footprint in Connecticut is a must. “We will continue to actively look for physical locations, primarily in Hartford County,” she said. “We’re not opposed to outside Hartford County should it make sense, but in Hartford County, we feel we have an opportunity for our brand to really make an impact in the community.”

And that means expanded business, including commercial lending, Oleksak said. “I think there’s tremendous opportunity in this market for us, given our size and the experience of our lending staff. We’re very diverse, and between small business, large commercial real-estate loans, and now C&I expertise, I think we bring a lot to the table. It’s a great opportunity for us.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cannabis Special Coverage

Growing Concerns

Meg Sanders says the state’s onerous regulatory hurdles have made the cannabis space an unfair playing field

Meg Sanders says the state’s onerous regulatory hurdles have made the cannabis space an unfair playing field, especially for smaller shops and social-equity applicants.

Everyone has seen the dispensaries and other cannabis businesses sprouting up in communities across Massachusetts — and the long lines of customers often stretching out the door. And they might think this business is easy money. But that’s far from the truth, thanks to an onerous tax situation, the illegal nature of the product on the federal level making it tough to enlist financial and other partners, and the slow march from stigma to acceptance of this still-new industry. All of that, however, could be changing, although it will take federal action to loosen some of those shackles.

Meg Sanders is a cannabis-industry veteran, most notably in Colorado, the nation’s first regulated market for legal cannabis. So she’s no stranger to the growing pains the industry is now dealing with in Massachusetts.

But as a local business owner — as CEO of Canna Provisions in Holyoke and Lee — she’s frustrated by them, too.

“We’re limited on what we can do with advertising, and the amount of product we can sell to a customer at a time,” she said, citing just two examples of regulations set forth by the state’s Cannabis Control Commission (CCC).

“The whole idea was to regulate cannabis like we regulate alcohol, and we’re not doing that. Actually, they’re going way above and way over the top, and I don’t think that’s helpful to the industry. I don’t think it’s helpful to individual businesses, and it’s definitely, in my opinion, not in the spirit of the CCC, which is supposed to promote social-equity and economic-empowerment applicants. But the bar for entry is really high, and the bar to stay out of trouble with the CCC is really high.”

“The whole idea was to regulate cannabis like we regulate alcohol, and we’re not doing that. Actually, they’re going way above and way over the top, and I don’t think that’s helpful to the industry.”

In other words, despite the number of cannabis businesses currently operating across Massachusetts — 267 and rising every week — this is a tough field to enter and a tougher one to succeed at, Sanders told BusinessWest.

“I think of people who are bootstrapping, mom-and-pop stores, teams that are working with a limited amount of cash, and it’s not a level playing field,” she went on. “And a lot of things we worry about in this industry are things that really do not matter. The amount of money this industry spends on packaging alone, that just goes in a landfill, is awful, and it’s driven by these rules and regs — it has to be childproof, it’s got to have 57 warning labels on it. I feel ethically horrible about the mounds of packaging in landfills. And the burden it puts on mom-and-pop manufacturers who are trying to make a really cool chocolate bar and the expense that’s going into that packaging … it’s really tricky.”

It doesn’t help, she added, that many state regulations can be challenging to interpret, mainly because the CCC is going through the same growing pains businesses are.

Scott Foster says federal decriminalization of cannabis has gained momentum

Scott Foster says federal decriminalization of cannabis has gained momentum, but the timeline is still uncertain.

“I’ve seen this in other states — the agency tasked with regulating and monitoring the industry has a very steep learning curve,” Sanders said. “One investigator will tell you one thing, and another investigator will tell you another thing. So they’re not always on the same page for specific rules.”

Many of those regulations address diversion of product, she noted. “We’ve spent millions of dollars building this business. The last thing we’re going to do is flush it down the toilet trying to sneak a pound out the back door. It’s just absurd.”

So are onerous background checks to get into the industry, keeping out some of the individuals — from communities that have been inordinately affected by the Drug War — who should be able to enter and prosper, she added. “Regulators and business owners should be partners to build a better business and correct things that need correcting, understanding everyone is doing their best.”

Those challenges are strictly state-level, but others on the federal level are just as burdensome, and boil down to the fact that the U.S. government still classifies cannabis as an illegal controlled substance. That means most banks and credit unions have avoided doing business with cannabis operators, though that’s slowly changing.

“In the early days, there weren’t a lot of professionals willing to take the career risk to enter the industry, so it was hard to find talent to come in and help grow the business. But, again, you’re starting to see that shift as more states legalize and you see the social proofs play out.”

“The federal illegality is a big challenge, and it doesn’t stop with the banking issue,” said Patrick Gottschlicht, chief operating officer of Insa. “That’s been extremely detrimental to us, but that carries across to other companies that we can work with — payroll processors, ERP [enterprise resource planning] companies, any big national or international software companies, accounting firms, security vendors … they can’t work with us because of that federal illegality.”

That has started to shift as more professional services and banks are opening up to this industry, though many still won’t, and many that do are startups themselves, with less at stake, said Peter Gallagher, Insa’s CEO.

“There’s no playbook for this industry,” he added. “There’s been a lot of trial and error to get to where we are. In the early days, there weren’t a lot of professionals willing to take the career risk to enter the industry, so it was hard to find talent to come in and help grow the business. But, again, you’re starting to see that shift as more states legalize and you see the social proofs play out. People’s friends are getting into it, talking positively about it, and they see the success of the industry, and you’re seeing more willingness to work with cannabis.”

Some bills have been introduced in Washington to, if not legalize cannabis, at least decriminalize it.

“Those bills would make it easier for us, and also de-risk the industry around the margins for a lot of partners,” Gallagher said. “The trend is definitely there, but in what time frame will that happen? From our perspective, it’s been happening a lot faster than we ever expected. When we got into this, we thought the legal conversation would take 20 or 30 years to play out.”

 

Taking No Credit

Sanders is hopeful, too. “At the federal level, we have big challenges. We can’t even take credit cards. That’s so silly. We can take a debit card and cash, and that’s it. That alone would be a really big help.”

Scott Foster, a partner at Bulkley Richardson and one of the attorneys in that firm’s cannabis practice group, believes sentiment is growing that Congress will act sooner rather than later on some degree of allowing banks into the cannabis space or remove the threat of federal enforcement against entities that partner with cannabis operators.

“That will help create some stability. And the biggest thing it’ll do is allow people to use credit cards at the facilities; it’s largely cash right now. If Congress changes that law, boom — you can use your Visa card, you can use your Mastercard. And the reason that you can’t now is not because Visa and Mastercard have a particular ethical or moral problem with it — they’ve just got a legal problem.”

Patrick Gottschlicht (left) and Peter Gallagher say cannabis is a much more challenging business than it seems — but it’s a rewarding one.

Patrick Gottschlicht (left) and Peter Gallagher say cannabis is a much more challenging business than it seems — but it’s a rewarding one.

Some federal bills have bipartisan support, he added, “but Congress has a lot of other things going on.” Still, with almost 40 states and territories having legalized medical cannabis and more than 20 giving the OK to adult-use cannabis, “I think the tide is definitely turning on this; it’s just a matter of how far it goes, and how quickly.”

Even without a change in the law, Foster explained, “the banking situation is getting better. We’re seeing some banks and some credit unions more willing to lend into the cannabis space now — much more than a couple years ago. They’re becoming more comfortable with lending for real-estate purposes — not for buying things, necessarily, but for buildout and for creating a space, including cultivation spaces. So that’s a change. A very small change, but the fact that it’s happening at all is a big deal.”

The other federal law cannabis operators want to see changed is Internal Revenue Code Section 280E, which severely limits tax deductions for business that deal in controlled substances prohibited by federal law. In short, businesses can deduct the cost of goods sold, but are not allowed any other deductions or credits on their return, including for wages.

“The taxes are crushing — you can’t deduct wages, rent, or other ordinary deductions. Most of these companies are looking at an effective tax rate of 70% to 90% in that, of their profit at the end of the day, 70% of it goes to pay federal taxes.”

“The taxes are crushing — you can’t deduct wages, rent, or other ordinary deductions,” Foster said. “Most of these companies are looking at an effective tax rate of 70% to 90% in that, of their profit at the end of the day, 70% of it goes to pay federal taxes. And this is after they pay state and local taxes. So the federal government is making a lot of tax money off of cannabis companies across the U.S.

“It’s been challenged multiple times in multiple states,” he went on, “and every tax court and every appellate court has said, ‘Congress can change it, but they were unequivocal in what they said.’ It’s a completely constitutionally valid statute.”

Decriminalizing cannabis federally would neuter the impact of 280E on the industry, which would be massive news for cannabis businesses that are already paying higher-than-average state taxes, while their host communities get a cut of between 3% and 6% as well.

But decriminalization would open many other doors as well, like broadening the market for insuring these businesses.

“There’s a risk that your insurance company could, almost at any point, say, ‘well, what you’re doing is a violation of federal law; therefore, we’re not going to insure you,’” Foster said. “The companies are getting insurance — they’re required to get insurance by the CCC — but they’re not the traditional companies; they’re not the Allstates or the companies you see advertising. They’re smaller, specialty, boutique insurance companies that have figured out it’s worth the risk to them to get into that space because the premiums are appreciably higher than they would be for a comparable business.”

So, again, the lack of federal legislation to decriminalize cannabis is increasing the cost of doing business, he went on. “If that happened, I think the cost of insurance would go down because you’d have more competition overnight in the space.”

Another barrier to continued growth that is slowly coming down is stigma surrounding the products themselves.

“For decades, it was drilled into people’s heads that this was a bad thing,” Gallagher said. “It’s going to take time to change that, and the most powerful tool is social proof and people seeing their friends and relatives using it to either treat various ailments or enhance their lifestyle; they see they’re successful, healthy individuals, and this is just a way to improve their lives. But I think it’s going to take time.”

For example, Gottschlicht added, “we have a bedtime edible to help you sleep, and we’ve seen people who were non-cannabis users start using that and come into the space because of that. It’s incredible how many people have gotten off standard pharmaceuticals and gone to half a gummy every night. The feedback has been, ‘it doesn’t make me groggy; it doesn’t give me the melatonin hangover I’ve gotten in the past. I feel normal in the morning, and it helps me sleep through the night.’”

Hearing those testimonies from friends and family is often how the stigma barrier falls for people who have been nervous about stopping by, he noted. “They think, ‘hey, there’s some good benefit to this.’ Or as an alternative to opioids after surgery — we’ve had a lot of people come in who just don’t want to take opioids for pain after surgery; they want to try cannabis because it’s not as addictive as some of the opioids out there.”

Sanders agreed. “I personally think the biggest move you can make to convert non-cannabis users to cannabis is this one-on-one experience, people telling people, or people coming in and finding relief from something — maybe sleep issues or aches and pains. And when you convert one person, they tell someone, and then they tell someone.”

 

Business Is Blooming

It’s been fulfilling to see the industry grow, Foster said — not to mention a boost to his own professional practice.

“The big uncertainty now is what consolidation in this industry is going to look like, and when is it going to happen. Everyone knows big players are going to come in and buy up companies and create brands that stretch across the nation; it’s already occurring, though not a lot … yet.”

But as more investors become comfortable with industry — there’s that idea of breaking through stigma again — that consolidation will happen, he went on. Drawing on the beer industry, he noted there’s no Anheuser-Busch in cannabis yet — it’s all microbreweries, so to speak. But even when large, national companies spread across the space, there will always be room for the boutique experience, for small companies that continue to research and promote the effects of new and different strains.

Research that is not currently happening to the degree it could because much research, especially clinical research at universities, is dependent on … wait for it … federal funding.

But once that research takes off and the cannabis industry escapes the shackles of federal illegality — a development that industry players generally agree will happen at some point — the products will continue to become more legitimized in the public eye, and the potential customer base will expand.

“People are asking, is the industry tapped out? No, I’m not seeing that,” Foster said. “Every business that opens up has a line out the door, and every facility that opens up can sell everything it makes. So, we have not reached a point of saturation by any means.”

That ever-expanding competition is another challenge, Sanders said, but one that should benefit all players because it further legitimizes the products in more people’s minds. But it also means individual businesses need to work harder to stand out. Canna does that with a strong focus on the individual experience and locally sourced products — including its own brand, Smash — with interesting, local stories behind them.

“There’s more good people than not in this space, and we owe it to consumers who are cannabis-curious to put our best foot forward and make sure they have as much information about our products as possible, so they don’t have any unexpected reactions,” she said. “Our commitment is to great products we can tell a story about, that we understand and respect and can get behind and provide the best experience we can possibly provide, and educate our customers.”

Insa, which has a production facility in Easthampton and four dispensaries across the region, including a flagship store in Springfield, has also expanded nationally, with a production facility in Pennsylvania selling to about 100 dispensaries and a Florida license to build a production site and medical dispensaries. And Gallagher embraces the growing competition in all those regions.

“The way we look at it, this is a much bigger industry than exists today,” he said. “If we all do a good job and operate responsibly and create good quality products, it will encourage more people to enter the industry and experiment and try it, and this will get much, much bigger. A rising tide lifts all boats, and as long as you have good, responsible players in the market, it’s going to be a benefit to everyone.”

Still, he added, “it’s a tough business. One of the common misperceptions is, people think it’s going to be easy. But it’s probably the hardest thing I’ve had to do. You have to be on it every day. And when you’re dealing with any biological product, the number of variables to control are immense. So it’s extremely challenging.

“But it’s been great,” he added. “The relationships we’ve built along the way have been fantastic. I wouldn’t change it for anything.”

Except, of course, for some pesky federal laws.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Law Special Coverage

Firm Commitment

Peter Shrair

Peter Shrair says the two firms saw “some real synergies” when they started talking.

Springfield-based Cooley Shrair and Hartford-based Halloran Sage have a lot in common, including histories that span more than 75 years and a focus on the broad needs of business clients. But their philosophies and cultures also have a lot in common, as their leaders discovered during discussions that led to Cooley Shrair joining the Halloran Sage family last month. The result, they hope, will be more inclusive service to clients, as well as a more attractive landing spot for the young talent all law firms need to grow.

When asked what Halloran Sage and Cooley Shrair bring to each other’s table, David Shrair had to think back only 15 minutes.

“We’ve got a new, West Hartford-based client who called me and said, ‘I tried to trademark a logo myself, and I got lost. Can you help us?’” said Shrair, a partner at his namesake Springfield firm, which recently joined the much larger, Hartford-based Halloran Sage law group.

“We normally would have referred him to a firm we did business with in Hartford, who did all our intellectual-property work,” Shrair continued. “But I got on the computer and sent out a blast e-mail to partners and counsel at Halloran Sage. Within three minutes, I got one name from five different partners. I’ve connected that partner, he’s got the logo, and we’re working on it.”

In other words, by joining forces with 86-year-old Halloran Sage, an 80-attorney practice whose law expertise in the realm known as transactional business runs deeper in some areas than Cooley Shrair’s, the firm can keep its clients in house for a much wider range of matters, instead of farming them out, he noted.

“We can keep an eye on the case and make sure it’s being handled properly, which is very difficult to do when you’re sending it out to somebody else, and you have no idea whether your client is being taken care of,” said Peter Shrair, another partner with the firm. “If we’re looking at the client’s interest first, then the client gets a much better product.”

That’s one of the ideas behind what both firms aren’t calling a merger or an acquisition, but a joining together of the two entities under the Halloran Sage umbrella.

“We started talking, and we saw some synergies between what we do and what they do. And I had a thought that one plus one could equal three, with a really good group of smart people working together.”

Peter said he started talking informally to Bill McGrath, a partner at Halloran Sage, about such a relationship last year.

“Another lawyer in their office, Sue Scibilia, and I were talking about something else. She said to me, ‘you really should meet Bill McGrath. He’s a good business person and one of the smartest lawyers I’ve ever known.’ And I consider Sue to be one of the smartest lawyers I’ve ever known. So, we started talking, and we saw some synergies between what we do and what they do. And I had a thought that one plus one could equal three, with a really good group of smart people working together.”

Casey O’Connell, another partner at Halloran Sage, agreed.

“This has always been a Connecticut-based firm with a regional focus,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re always looking to find ways to better serve our clients and to provide the best possible legal services that we as a legal firm can provide. So we’re always on the lookout to have talented attorneys with complementary practices and similar philosophies to join our firm.”

David Shrair says the combined firm will be able to keep more clients completely in-house.

David Shrair says the combined firm will be able to keep more clients completely in-house.

After informal discussions turned more specific over several months, he went on, “there were some meetings among people with the firms, and it was determined it would really be a great fit and a way for us to collectively be bigger than we both were separately and, most importantly, to provide additional resources to our client base and Cooley Shrair’s client base to better serve our clients.”

For this issue’s focus on law, BusinessWest sat down with O’Connell and the two Shrairs to talk about why this relationship makes sense, and why both firms feel they — and their business clients — are better off because of it.

 

One-stop Shop

Business clients, after all, are at the heart of both firms’ work. Besides a shared focus on transactional law, which incorporates activities like contracts, finance, construction and real estate, risk management, restructuring and bankruptcies, board governance, intellectual property, and a host of others, Halloran Sage also boasts broad expertise in business litigation.

“That’s a service that we had not been offering for a number of years,” Peter Shrair said. “Even when we offered it, it clearly wasn’t with that depth of people. We had one or two, maybe at one point three people doing litigation, but they might have 30. And depending on the size and complexity of the matter, they have the skill, knowledge base, and depth of people to handle it.”

The firms are similar in other ways — for instance, both have a large banking practice, representing different banks, “so there’s a synergy right there,” David added.

“We collaborate very well across practices,” O’Connell said, “and that is one way where the firms can mutually help each other, with the Cooley Shrair folks bringing a wealth of transactional and business banking knowledge that really strengthens our practice areas. But we also have a very robust litigation practice.

“I would say Halloran is a full-service firm, and our litigation portion of the firm is very large and robust — we’re one of the biggest firms that focuses on litigation in Connecticut,” he went on. “And one of the reasons we have such a long history in Connecticut is our ability to provide clients with essentially one-stop shopping.”

Joining a Connecticut-based firm — Halloran Sage has five offices in the Nutmeg State — also makes sense in that three of Cooley Shrair’s attorneys were already admitted to the Connecticut bar, and the firm has worked with many clients from across the border.

This isn’t the first time Halloran Sage has taken on an established group of attorneys all at once, but most of its growth over the years has been organic, O’Connell said. For instance, it launched a New Haven office with two attorneys in 2012, and has since grown that site to 12 attorneys.

“It was a big success story to build and maintain a presence in that part of the state,” he noted. “We have an office Washington, D.C., but [Springfield] is our first office outside Connecticut with a large presence. This really broadens our reach to become not just a Connecticut firm, but a Southern New England firm.”

Client relationships won’t be disrupted, Peter Shrair said, but may shift over time.

Casey O’Connell

Casey O’Connell

“We collaborate very well across practices, and that is one way where the firms can mutually help each other, with the Cooley Shrair folks bringing a wealth of transactional and business banking knowledge that really strengthens our practice areas.”

“If it’s a more natural fit for someone from Hartford to handle something, they’ll handle it,” he explained, noting, as an example, a litigation case that came in just that morning and was referred to attorneys in Hartford. “We’re looking for whatever is best for the client — if a client can be handled better out of New Haven, we want to handle that out of New Haven. If it can be handled better in Springfield, presumably we’ll handle it in Springfield. “Really, it deals with whose practice area it fits best in.”

 

Business as Usual, Sort Of

For two firms that deal heavily with business clients — at a time when the business world has been rocked by COVID-19 — the past 18 months have gone surprisingly well, Peter noted.

“At least as far as my practice goes, there was very little change,” he said. “In fact, with the advent of Zoom and Microsoft Teams and everything else, it was probably easier because you could get different people online together quickly and have a discussion.”

David Shrair was stranded in Florida in March 2020 when the economy first began to shut down — so his firm shipped him a computer and double-screen monitor.

“I closed one of my largest transactions in years from Florida; I did Planning Board meetings from Florida, just like I was sitting in Springfield or wherever; it mattered not,” he recalled. “It’s interesting — with the shutdown and all the issues that went with it, most of our business clients continued very much along the same vein. They had their own internal problems, but the sales and acquisitions and all that still continued to go on. We have been extremely busy.”

After an initial slowing of work in the pipeline last spring, Halloran Sage’s team adjusted quickly to the pandemic as well, O’Connell said, and business has been strong from the second half of 2020 to the present. The transactional work has been more robust than litigation because court activity slowed to a crawl last year, but overall, business has been brisk, and the firm is on a growth trajectory.

“We’re always looking for new opportunities and ways to serve our clients. That includes having new attorneys come in with different specialties or outlooks or just to grow our bench and have more resources to grow our client base,” he went on. “We’re always looking to figure out how we can modify our firm or business to better serve our clients. That’s what the current combination of Cooley Shrair and Halloran Sage is all about, and certainly where Halloran wants to continue to go, to make sure we’re staying ahead of the curve and in the best position to serve our clients.”

The broader geographic reach will also benefit the combined firm in attracting talent, as attorneys will be able to access opportunities across Connecticut as well as into Massachusetts, and move around as their life circumstances change, Peter Shrair said. And David noted that being part of a much larger organization broadens the partnership track, which can also be a draw for young attorneys to settle in this region.

But in the end, O’Connell said, what the discussions really came down to was a perceived alignment in the firms’ client-first philosophies.

“We went through some internal discussions, not really to create a new philosophy, but to figure out a way to better articulate our firm’s philosophy, and we have determined that our firm’s philosophy is ‘client, firm, self,’ in that order,” he said. “In talking to the Cooley Shrair folks, we found there was a great alignment with how they deliver service, and our philosophies really align, so seemed like a natural fit when we pursued it.”

Peter Shrair agreed. “For 75-plus years, that has always been our mantra — our response time and our response to clients’ needs.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

 

Modern Office

Best of Both Worlds

Michael Galat says Big Y is scheduling employees in a way that balances the company’s needs with their own.

Michael Galat says Big Y is scheduling employees in a way that balances the company’s needs with their own.

Looking over the past year and a half, Lisa Verville isn’t surprised the O’Connell Companies operated smoothly with the vast majority of its team working from home.

“People have stepped up, they did what they needed to do, and work got done,” said Verville, director of Human Resources for the large family of businesses that includes Daniel O’Connell’s Sons, O’Connell Development Group, Appleton Corp., and New England Fertilizer Corp.

“Now, the technical piece of it — if this happened 20 years ago, I can’t imagine it would have worked as well as it did. We didn’t have Zoom back then,” she added. “But we have a very dedicated team. I’m not surprised it worked well.”

Which is why remote work will continue at O’Connell — to a point. Starting last month, employees were required to work on site at least three days a week, and more if they want to.

“We miss everybody,” Verville said. “We have a great culture, and we don’t want to lose that culture. If people are 100% remote, I think there’s a risk of losing that — do people feel connected to their organization if they’re not here, cooperating and collaborating with their team?”

At the same time, “we know we have to balance that with what’s going on with our workers. We want our employees to be happy and feeling as though there’s a balance. That’s our goal.”

Welcome to the new, hybrid workplace, which looks to be a dominant model for employers across myriad industries, at least for the near future.

“People tell us they can do both,” Verville said. “I think it works, and allows for that work-life balance. I think people appreciate the flexibility.”

Big Y has been operating on a hybrid model for its support-center workers since early in the pandemic, said Michael Galat, vice president of Employee Services. And that will continue.

“Obviously, our stores are open nights and weekends, and our goal, as always, is to make sure we’re taking care of our store employees and our customers at all times,” he said. “Business needs may be different for different positions. It’s finding the right balance — making sure we’re taking care of customers but also allowing our people the autonomy to work from home.”

That’s the thinking at MassMutual as well, said Sue Cicco, head of Human Resources and Employee Experience. The company’s return-to-office approach will balance flexibility with in-person collaboration, with most employees transitioning to a hybrid model, working some days in the office and some days remotely.

Ross Giombetti

Ross Giombetti

“I could see a lot of businesses and leaders getting impatient and frustrated; they want the old way to come back and expect everything to be great. But that’s not how it works.”

“We will also continue to support fully remote and fully in-office arrangements where it makes sense,” she added. “Importantly, this approach is designed to incorporate employee flexibility, so it will look different across the company, depending on role, function, and business needs.”

With most employees working 100% remotely during the COVID-19 pandemic, she explained, “we learned that we can successfully operate in a virtual work environment. That said, we also think there’s value in teams meeting in person to spur creativity, social connection, and collaboration.”

The goal now is to build on the work-life flexibility MassMutual has offered for years, while taking into account employees’ feedback from recent engagement and surveys.

“Similar to how we approach many new situations,” Cicco said, “we’ll assess and evolve our approach as we learn more about what works best for our customers, employees, and company.”

 

Culture of Caring

Ross Giombetti, president of Giombetti Associates — a leadership institute that helps businesses acquire and develop top talent — said the vast majority of his clients are currently maintaining a hybrid model and anticipate sticking with it for at least a while.

“I think most companies realized that, contrary to the initial concerns they may have had, a lot of people were very productive during the pandemic, working remotely, and it actually went a lot better than they thought,” he told BusinessWest. “So a lot of organizations realized that’s here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future.”

At the same time, he added, employers are finding resistance to bringing workers back full-time because remote work has become a habit.

“If you think about how habits are formed and what makes humans comfortable with something, it takes a full 90 days for a new norm or new habit to become part of our routine. Take mask wearing — I would bet most of us took about 90 days to get comfortable and used to wearing a mask.”

Well, many employees stayed home more than five times that long, so the habit has become deeply ingrained, becoming the new norm. Giombetti also noted that many employees told to return to the office, at least part of the time, may be uncomfortable doing so, still fearful of gathering in groups.

Sue Cicco

Sue Cicco

“By making sure our employees have the flexibility to take care of their families, we set off a virtuous cycle where our people are taken care of, and in turn they can take care of their communities, and that extends to how we can take care of our customers.”

In other words, working at home is a hard habit to break, for many reasons. That’s why most businesses are looking at hybrid scheduling as an acceptable option.

“I could see a lot of businesses and leaders getting impatient and frustrated; they want the old way to come back and expect everything to be great,” he said. “But that’s not how it works. A lot of the advice I’m giving people is to be patient with the process, be patient with people returning to work, whether hybrid or fully. When people are back around large groups of people, there will probably be some nervousness, and we need to be understanding of that.”

At Giombetti’s own company in Wilbraham, Fridays are remote days for everyone, and employees can request to work at home any other day they feel they’ll get more done there, with fewer distractions.

“If our team needs that, I encourage it. That’s how we operate,” he said. “I think many organizations understand it’s better to measure results, attitude, and performance than where they’re doing the work from.”

Galat said Big Y’s leadership learned many lessons over the past 17 months.

“One is that we can still be very productive while employees are working from home — there’s an increase in employee productivity when employees are happy. We’ve always considered ourselves a culture of caring, and this [remote work] has helped people balance their personal needs, whether it’s child care, elder care, whatever.

“I also think a big part of productivity is flexibility,” he went on. “Some may log on earlier in the morning, or at times work later at night.”

While working from home saves on travel time and can boost productivity in other ways, he admitted that it’s important that colleagues come in a few days a week to make sure they’re not missing out on the collaborative components of their jobs. Therefore, managers are expected to work on site at least three days a week, and everyone else at least two.

“Again, it depends on the business needs. That’s a very important component of it,” Galat said. “There may be weeks they have to come in every day, and there may be weeks they can work more from home. Each area supervisor works with them to find that balance based on the business needs and what’s going on in their personal life.”

Workers appreciate that kind of consideration, Cicco added. “By making sure our employees have the flexibility to take care of their families, we set off a virtuous cycle where our people are taken care of, and in turn they can take care of their communities, and that extends to how we can take care of our customers.”

 

Culture of Collaboration

That said, companies see value in making sure their workforce is physically present, at least part of the time,

“We think there’s value in both in-person collaboration and the flexibility created by working remotely,” Cicco said, adding that most MassMutual employees responding to surveys or other outreach preferred the hybrid option.

“We’ve learned that, while we appreciate the increased flexibility of remote work, we also miss the value we get from face-to-face meetings, impromptu conversations, collaboration across work groups, and what we learn when we’re together,” she went on. “Not to mention the social aspects — having lunch, bumping into friends around the building, and catching up over a cup of coffee.”

In addition, “we believe the connection that comes with being face-to-face brings energy, encourages innovative thinking, accelerates learning, and strengthens relationships and community,” Cicco noted. “With this in mind, we will encourage work groups to come together regularly, for the benefit of their work and their team.”

Giombetti said most of his clients offering hybrid work stress the need to be physically present at times — brainstorming and working through critical issues at a staff meeting, for instance. “Some things are best done in a room with other people. And most clients have found their employees are totally comfortable with that.”

The other challenge for companies has to do with culture, camaraderie, and the kind of collaboration that can’t be easily achieved over Zoom.

“A lot of organizations are training specifically on that topic,” he said. “While you’re honoring the flexibility of your teammates and employees, it’s important to make sure you can maintain that great culture you’ve built.”

Galat agreed, noting that, while Zoom and similar tools have their place and have been an important piece of keeping staff connected, some collaborations are more effective in person.

“We’re big on culture here — that’s a very, very important part of it. When you don’t see people at least part of the time, it’s hard to strengthen those relationships. It’s all about relationship building, and that goes back to who we are as an organization, caring about employees. Yes, we’re allowing them to work from home, but building relationships with people over the years when we don’t see them some of the time, that’s difficult.”

At the same time, Big Y has prepared a series of best practices for employees working remotely, including the need to take regular breaks. “Productivity is important getting the job done,” Galat said, “but we also want to make sure people are taking some time away as well.”

Giombetti said remote work has allowed some bad habits to creep back in, including a tendency to multi-task to the detriment of the main task.

“If you’re in the office, in the conference room, having a meeting, most of us know it would be foolish to pick up the phone when someone is talking to us because that’s just rude,” he explained, noting that it happens much more often during a Slack, Teams, or Zoom meeting. “Unfortunately, the last year and a half maybe caused us to retrench a little bit, and the amount of multi-tasking has increased. We have to guard against that.”

 

Unexpected Absence

Verville remembers the week in March 2020 when O’Connell’s Holyoke headquarters emptied for what most employees thought would be a temporary detour home.

“People did what they needed to do. There was a real commitment there,” she said. “But I personally didn’t think it would last this long. I think most people left the office and said, ‘see you in a couple weeks.’ No one thought it would be this long. And I missed everyone, so it’s great to get back to some sense of normalcy, if you will.”

That new norm seems to be an understanding among employers that their workers value flexibility, but also that the workplace culture will suffer without some face-to-face collaboration.

“It’s a hard balance,” Giombetti said, “but I think organizations that are intentional about it do it best; that’s the recipe for success.”

It could also be a recipe to attract talent at a time when many companies are struggling with hiring and retention, as many potential workers would be more amenable to a hybrid schedule than five days a week away from home.

“It’s about being able to attract and retain the top talent and finding that balance between supporting the stores — providing the tools to get their jobs done — and being accessible so that people say, ‘hey, I can work at home, and they care about me — I can take care of my family’s needs as well,’” Galat said. “It’s all about the workplace culture, and work-life balance is part of it. We want the best of both worlds.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Technology

Life on the Cutting Edge

An on-the-go society demands on-the-go technology, and today’s array of high-tech devices — available at all price points — offer users new ways to make their home lives more efficient, manage their work, boost their health, and, well, just have fun in more eye-popping, ear-tickling ways than ever. In its annual look at some of the hottest tech items available, BusinessWest dives into what the tech press is saying about some of 2021’s buzziest items.

 

When compared to many of the other cool tech gadgets on this list, the Amazon Smart Plug ($25) “might seem underwhelming, but you might be impressed with how much you like this smart-home accessory once you start using it,” according to spy.com. “Head out on vacation and can’t remember if you left a fan or window AC unit running? If it’s plugged into this, you can simply open up your Alexa app and cut off the power. Have a lamp that you love, but it doesn’t work with a smart bulb? Use one of these to make a dumb lamp very, very smart. On top of all that, Alexa has some impressive power-monitoring tools, so that if you have more than one of these around your home, you can figure out which appliances and electronics around the house are costing you the most money, and you can adjust your usage behavior accordingly.”

 

Meanwhile, the same site says the Anker Nebula Solar Portable Projector ($520) won’t replace a fancy, 65-inch, 4K HDR TV, “but for those moments when you’re really craving that movie-theater experience at home … you’ll understand why this made our list of cool tech gadgets.” The projector boasts easy setup, too. “Barely bigger than a book, you can point it at a wall and have it projecting a 120-inch, 1080p version of your favorite Netflix movie without needing to configure the picture settings or find a power outlet.”

 

Speaking of projectors, the BenQ X1300i 4LED Gaming Projector ($1,299) is being marketed as the first true gaming projector that’s optimized for the PS5 or Xbox Series X. “The 3,000-lumen projector will play 1080p content — so not true 4K content — at extremely low latency, which is needed for competitive gamers,” according to gearpatrol.com. “Additionally, it has built-in speakers and an Android TV operating system, so it functions as any traditional smart TV — but it can create up to a 150-inch screen.”

 

Taking tech outdoors is the DJI Mavic Air 2 Drone ($799), which menshealth.com touts for its massive optical sensor, means “the 48-megapixel photos pop and the hyperlap video is 8K — smart futureproofing for when your TV plays catchup. The next-gen obstacle-avoidance sensors, combined with the 34-minutes-long flight time, mean you spend more time shooting killer video and less time dodging trees and buildings.”

 

Smart wallets offer a convenient way to store and transport cash and credit cards while protecting against loss or theft. The Ekster Parliament Smart Wallet ($89) is a smart bifold wallet with RFID coating (to protect against identity theft) and a patented mechanism that ejects cards from its aluminum storage pocket with the press of a button. It has space for at least 10 cards, as well as a strap for carrying cash and receipts, according to bestproducts.com. “Ekster has crafted the wallet from high-quality leather that comes in a multitude of colors. An optional Bluetooth tracker for the wallet is also available. This ultra-thin gadget has a maximum range of 200 feet, and it is powered by light, so it never needs a battery.”

 

In the smartwatch category, the Fossil Gen 5 LTE ($349) is the company’s first product in the cellular wearables market, crn.com notes. “The Fossil Gen 5 LTE Touchscreen leverages LTE connectivity from Verizon, the Qualcomm Snapdragon Wear 3100 platform, and Google’s Wear OS to let users make calls and do texting without a mobile phone.” Fossil also makes what bestproducts.com calls the best hybrid smartwatch, the Fossil Latitude HR Hybrid Smartwatch ($195), “a feature-packed hybrid smartwatch with a built-in, always-on display and a heart-rate sensor. We like that, instead of looking like a tech product, it resembles a classic chronograph timepiece with mechanical hands and a three-button layout. The Latitude HR can effortlessly deliver notifications from your phone and keep tabs on your activities.”

 

“We don’t know who will be more excited about the Furbo Dog Camera ($169), you or your pet,” popsugar.com notes. “You can monitor them through your phone, send them treats when you’re away, and so much more.” The 1080p, full-HD camera and night vision allows users to livestream video to monitor their pet on their phone with a 160-degree wide-angle view, day and night. A sensor also sends push notifications to a smartphone when it detects barking. Users can even toss treats to their dog via the free Furbo iOS/Android app. Set-up is easy — just plug it in to a power outlet using its USB cord, download the Furbo app, and connect to home WiFi.

 

“As one of the first companies to make artificial intelligence and voice-recognition technology available to the average person, spy.com notes, “Google is still the top dog when it comes to voice assistants and smart-home platforms. And perhaps its most radical move was the Google Nest Mini ($35), a small and cheap speaker that is fully imbued with the powers to command your smart home. Once you get used to the particular ways of interacting with a voice assistant, it’s rare when you have to raise your voice or repeat yourself to get the Nest Mini to understand you, even when you’re on the other side of the room, half-asleep at 1 a.m., telling it to turn off the lights, shut off the TV, and lock the doors.”

 

Tired of housework? “If you’re a fan of the iRobot vacuum, then you’ll want to give the iRobot Braava Jet 240 Robot Mop ($180) a try,” popsugar.com asserts. “It will clean your floors when you’re not around, so you have nothing to worry about later.” The device claims to offer precision jet spray and a vibrating cleaning to tackle dirt and stains, and gets into hard-to-reach places, including under and around toilets, into corners, below cabinets, and under and around furniture and other objects, using an efficient, systematic cleaning pattern. It also mops and sweeps finished hard floors, including hardwood, tile, and stone, and it’s ideal for kitchens and bathrooms.

 

Smart glasses are a thing these days, too. Jlab Audio recently introduced its new Jlab JBuds Frames ($49), a device that discretely attaches to a user’s glasses to provide wireless stereo audio on the go. “The JBuds Frames consist of two independently operating Bluetooth wireless audio devices, which include 16mm drivers that produce sound that can only be heard by the wearer, not by others,” according to crn.com. “In addition, the device can easily be detached and mounted on other frames when needed.”

 

For a next-level experience in eyewear, “virtual reality might be taking its time to have its ‘iPhone moment,’ but it is still very much the next big thing when it comes to the coolest tech gadgets,” spy.com notes, “and there is not a single VR device that flashes that promise more than the Oculus Quest 2 ($349).” Without the need for a powerful computer or special equipment, users can simply strap the Quest 2 to their head, pick up the controllers, and move freely in VR space thanks to its inside-out technology, which uses cameras on the outside of the headset to track movement. “In a time where we don’t have many places to escape to, the Oculus Quest 2 offers up an infinite number of destinations … even if they’re only virtual.”

 

Another way to escape into another world — albeit one requiring more effort — is the Peloton Bike+ (from $2,495). “Peloton’s updated bike boasts a lustrous, 24-inch-wide screen and a game-changing multi-grip handlebar that lets you always find comfortable position,” menshealth.com notes. “And the best feature just may be auto-follow, which automatically shifts the resistance when the instructor calls for it. Translation: no escape from tough workouts.”

 

Speaking of devices with health benefits, the Polar Verity Sense optical heart monitor ($90) can be worn on the arm or temple (for swimming). “It’s designed for people who don’t necessarily wear a wrist-bound fitness tracker or smartwatch, or are doing an exercise that isn’t very friendly to wrist jewelry, like martial arts, swimming, dancing or boxing,” gearpatrol.com notes. “It’s a nifty accessory for people who use Polar Flow, Polar’s free fitness and training app, or wear one of the company’s smartwatches.”

 

Meanwhile, gearpatrol.com is also high on the Ring Video Doorbell Pro 2 ($250), the next-generation version of its well-reviewed video doorbell — and it adds two big upgrades. “First, it adds a new radar sensor that enables new 3D motion detection and bird’s-eye-view features; this allows it to better detect and even create a top-down map of the movement taking place in front of your door. And, secondly, the camera has an improved field of view so that it can capture the delivery person’s entire body — head to toe — when they drop off a package.”

 

Finally, are you looking for great sound for home entertainment? With Sonos Arc ($799), users can “get immersive audio that can fill an entire house in one slim, sleek, ultra-versatile package,” menshealth.com notes. “A whopping 11 drivers power Sonos’ newest soundbar, fueling a surround-sound experience that delivers in all situations, whether you’re playing Halo or watching Avengers: Endgame.”

 

Franklin County Special Coverage

All Aboard

The Greenfield Amtrak stop

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ben Heckscher

Ben Heckscher

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

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

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

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

 

Making Connections

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Chugging Along

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Franklin County

Small-city Living

Greenfield’s strides in municipal broadband

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Living Room

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services Special Coverage

Stating Its Case

Tony Liberopoulos

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dave Glidden with a map of Liberty’s locations

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

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

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

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

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

 

Lending Support

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tony Liberopoulos (left) and Dave Glidden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Community Ties

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Special Coverage Women in Businesss

Crafting Connections

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Art of the Matter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Animal Attraction

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]m

Banking and Financial Services

Strike Against Hunger

Andrew Morehouse thanks Country Bank

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

—Joseph Bednar

Special Coverage Work/Life Balance

Blurred Lines

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

The employees at Paragus IT

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Patricia Coughlin

Patricia Coughlin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Unhealthy Relationship

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Creating a Culture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Special Coverage Work/Life Balance

Avoiding the Pitfalls

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Rising Need

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Know the Facts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Innovation and Startups Special Coverage

Moving Pictures

 

John Hazen stands beside displays

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The carton for Arctic Blue Gin, made using Hazen Envirofoil

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Shining Examples

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hazen has created over the past two decades

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Changing Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not a bad return on that bag of beans.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Construction

Air Apparent

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

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

Never underestimate the influence of a teacher.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Into the Pipeline

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Scott Cernak said his company is growing and hiring

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

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

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

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

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

 

Investments in the Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Health Care

Disrupting the Cycle

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gov. Charlie Baker

Gov. Charlie Baker

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Fear Factors

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

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

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

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

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

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

Molly Baldwin

Molly Baldwin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

New Beginnings

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Innovation and Startups

Breaking Down the Silos

Barbara Casey

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

A Quick Breakdown

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

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

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

Brad Mondschein

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Growth Potential

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

The Rising Cost of … Everything

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Anna Nagurney

Anna Nagurney

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

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

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

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

 

Easing the Burden

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Inflation Spikes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

For some industries, rising prices can be a benefit.

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

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

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

 

The Struggle Continues

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

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

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

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

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

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Special Coverage Travel and Tourism

Fun in the Sun

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

Berkshires Arts Festival

380 State Road, Great Barrington

www.berkshiresartsfestival.com

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

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

 

The Big E

1305 Memorial Ave., West Springfield

www.easternstatesexposition.com

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

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

 

Crab Apple Whitewater Rafting

2056 Mohawk Trail, Charlemont

www.crabapplewhitewater.com

Admission: Varies by activity

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

 

Drive-in Concerts at the Wick

The Wick, Legion Road, Southwick

www.westfieldlivemusic.com/southwick

Admission: $25 to $45

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

 

FreshGrass Festival

1040 MASS MoCA Way, North Adams

www.freshgrass.com

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

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

 

Fresh Paint Springfield

Downtown Springfield

www.freshpaintspringfield.com

Admission: Free

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

 

Historic Deerfield

84B Old Main St., Deerfield, MA

www.historic-deerfield.org

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

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

 

Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival

358 George Carter Road, Becket

www.jacobspillow.org

Admission: Prices vary

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

 

Mattoon Street Arts Festival

Mattoon Street, Springfield

www.mattoonfestival.org

Admission: Free

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

Pedal ‘n’ Party

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

www.pedalnparty.com

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

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

 

Pioneer Valley Ballet

Park Hill Orchard, 82 Park Hill Road, Easthampton

www.pioneervalleyballet.org

Admission: $20, $10 for children and seniors

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

 

Six Flags New England

1623 Main St., Agawam

www.sixflags.com/newengland

Admission: $29.99 and up; season passes $49.99

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

 

The Zoo in Forest Park

293 Sumner Ave., Springfield, MA

www.forestparkzoo.org

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

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

 

 

Travel and Tourism

Play Ball!

Kate Avard says the Blue Sox have maintained strong relationships

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

—Joseph Bednar

Travel and Tourism

Better Late Than Never

Femi Kuti & the Positive Force

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

—Joseph Bednar

Special Coverage Technology

Bringing a Message to Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And do it, for the most part, remotely.

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

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

 

Crossing Paths

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

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

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

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

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

A project for Amherst College’s bicentennial

Animated messaging advocating for changes in tobacco laws

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Mission Accomplished

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Restaurants

Sunny Outlook

Debra Flynn in the alley behind Eastside Grill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Taking to the Streets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Class of 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

—Joseph Bednar

Class of 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

—Joseph Bednar

Class of 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

—Joseph Bednar

 

Class of 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

—Joseph Bednar

Class of 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What really keeps her going, however, is passion.

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

 

—Joseph Bednar

 

Class of 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

—Joseph Bednar

Class of 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

—Joseph Bednar

Class of 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

—Joseph Bednar

Class of 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

—Joseph Bednar

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