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Firm Resolve

Managing Partner Kenneth Albano

Managing Partner Kenneth Albano

As Bacon Wilson approaches its 125th anniversary next year, it can look back on plenty of history and change — with perhaps the past couple of decades representing the most dramatic evolutions in law. Through it all, the practice has remained remarkably steady, boasting numerous long-time attorneys and a measured growth strategy that has led Bacon Wilson to its position as the region’s largest law firm — one with its focus squarely on the future.

Just before he sat down with BusinessWest, Kenneth Albano was looking through an old file at Bacon Wilson, dating from 1993. Two things struck him about the letterhead.

One was the number of lawyers — just 16, compared to 42 today. The other striking thing was how many of those 16 are still practicing at Bacon Wilson today.

“Every lawyer except a few is still here,” said the firm’s managing partner, noting that he’s been at Bacon Wilson for 31 years, while the other two partners who spoke with BusinessWest for this story, Hyman Darling (38 years) and Donna Wexler (a relatively brief 17 years), have also built quite a bit of history with the firm.

“It says a lot about the fabric of the firm, that people stay here as long as they do.”

It says a lot about the fabric of the firm, that people stay here as long as they do,” Albano went on. “We have lawyers like Mike Katz and Paul Rothschild, who have been here 40-plus years and are still working hard every day.

“When we interview for associates, they always bring that to the top of the discussion, because it’s important for people to feel stability,” he noted. “With Millennials these days, it’s tough to get a straight answer as far as commitment, but we try to impress upon them that this can be your work family and your home for years to come. That’s what we bring to the table, and it’s been successful over the years.”

That stability has no doubt contributed to the firm’s growth, but so have a series of strategic mergers, which have led to Bacon Wilson establishing offices over the years in Northampton, Amherst, Westfield, and Hadley in addition to Springfield, where it has maintained a State Street address for almost 125 years.

“These are not offices where you call a phone number get a receptionist covering all the shared space,” Albano said. “These are standalone facilities with partners, associates, paralegals, and receptionists.”

At a time when it’s more difficult to find young talent (more on that later), the key has been smart expansion — not hiring just to hire or merging just to merge, he added. And those mergers have essentially been achieved through relationship building.

“We don’t buy practices,” he said. “So if you were looking to retire, you wouldn’t come to me and say, ‘I want X amount of dollars for my practice,’ because it’s a lose-lose situation for us. The win-win is, ‘sure, let’s talk, come be part of the Bacon Wilson family for three or four years, allow your clients to meld into our practice groups, and allow our lawyers to get to know your clients, and have a slow exit strategy.’ That’s how it’s worked in the past.”

Last year, Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly ranked Bacon Wilson as the 42nd-largest law firm in Massachusetts, but it’s the largest in Western Mass. — and well-positioned, Albano said, to continue to tackle what has become an increasingly complex and demanding legal landscape.

Time to Change

Long-timers like Albano, Darling, and Wexler have seen their share of changes in the legal world, too.

“When I first came here, if somebody came in for an estate plan, it was a will,” said Darling, who has built a reputation as a premier authority in the region on estate planning. “Now, it’s a will, health proxy, power of attorney, homestead declaration, maybe a trust … we talk about things like end-of-life decisions and organ donors and cremation and anatomical gifts. Pet trusts, gun trusts. It’s evolved into things that none of us ever learned in law school.”

Donna Wexler and Hyman Darling

Donna Wexler and Hyman Darling have seen plenty of changes in their fields of real estate and elder care/estate planning, respectively.

That’s why he has gone from working with one shared secretary to leading a team of six estate-planning attorneys and 20 total staff, with responsibilities ranging from asset-protection planning and pet trusts to having his picture taken with a big check for the Massachusetts Lottery wall in Braintree when a winner decides to establish an anonymous trust.

“There’s special-needs planning that we didn’t do before,” he went on. “There was nothing called elder law when I came to the practice. And 10,000 people turn 60 every day — and we have a lot of them in Massachusetts.”

Technology has changed the way lawyers work as well, said Wexler, who specializes in real estate.

“When I started practicing, I would fill out forms in pen and the secretary would type them, then there were years when I typed them, then it evolved into the banks actually preparing them and e-mailing them. Now we’ve got cloud-based things,” she said, adding that increased government regulation, especially since the financial crisis in 2008, has led to new complexities to her work. “There’s more we need to know about what the regulations are and what we’re required to do.”

Then there’s the culture of constant communication — and the resulting rise in client expectations — that has shrunk timelines on projects in industries like construction, printing, and, yes, law. Albano recalled the days when he’d come back from lunch and hope to see a phone message on one those classic pink slips of paper waiting for him. Now, he returns to a couple dozen e-mails.

“There’s an expectation of immediate response, and it’s changed the pace of the practice tremendously,” Wexler said, to which Darling noted he’s had clients call asking to set up a will before they flew off on vacation. Tomorrow.

They all recognize, however, that those constant e-mails and calls represent something important: individuals who need help, and often at a difficult time in their life.

“I always tell people, if I get a call from someone I haven’t heard from in a while, they’re not calling to say, ‘how are you doing? Have a great day.’ They have a problem.”

“There’s an expectation of immediate response, and it’s changed the pace of the practice tremendously.”

As all three mentioned, those problems continue to evolve. Cannabis law in Massachusetts, for example, has unfurled an entire new world of issues that cross several practice areas. For instance, Albano represents a few municipalities seeking guidance on what kinds of restrictions they can place on marijuana businesses. Wexler has handled transactions for clients looking to purchase land for growing, while some of Darling’s clients have sought to invest in these facilities.

In fact, the sheer scope of Bacon Wilson’s expertise is a plus for clients, Albano said. “We don’t do high-end criminal work or security work. Everything else, we do. And we cross-sell each other to clients. The clients appreciate that.”

Wexler added that the attorneys tend to collaborate for the sake of clients, whether it’s seeking advice from a different department on a case or hearing a potential client’s request for services and recommending colleague with more specialized knowledge.

“When you hire Ken, you’re not just hiring him, you’re hiring 40 lawyers,” Darling said. “The firm is your lawyer. They’re all available.”

Well Suited

Albano said the three-legged stool holding up Bacon Wilson has always been litigation, real estate, and estate planning. “That’s always been with us. But when this firm was founded back in 1895, it was a commercial law firm, and we’ve maintained that commercial group from day one, representing so many Western Mass. banks. We survived all the mergers and all the new banks coming in. The key to our success is maintaining relationships. Relationships are so big in this market.”

So is staying educated and up to date on quickly evolving trends in a practice area.

For instance, even before the #metoo movement — but certainly in the wake of it — employment lawyers have seen a steep rise in harassment and discrimination cases, as well as thorny handbook issues to help clients sort out.

“We’ve had specialists come in here and give seminars on preventing those types of harassment claims,” he noted. “You have to stay up on it.”

In turn, Bacon Wilson’s attorneys are active in the community, writing articles (for publications such as BusinessWest) and conducting workshops on hot issues. That’s in addition to the many ways the firm’s lawyers support their favorite charities and volunteer on their boards.

“Everybody gives back,” Darling said. “We don’t have to ask them; they just realize it’s important.”

Wexler agreed. “When we bring new associates in, the ones I work with seem very excited. And most of them come in with a passion for one organization or another, and we encourage them to take the time to give to that organization. It’s catchy. And it’s exciting to be a part of that.”

That said, it can be a challenge to attract young talent to the firm in a competitive marketplace in an era when law-school enrollment is significantly down from where it was 20 years ago. But Bacon Wilson has developed a relationship with Western New England University School of Law, interviewing students for clerk positions and often hiring them full-time later on, while building similar pipelines with institutions like Bay Path University to find paralegals.

“The tough part is getting young lawyers to stay in Springfield, as opposed to Boston or New York,” Darling said. “But we’ve done a good job. The quality of life here is pretty good. They can make a living and have a house they can afford and be able to pay their school debt.”

Not to mention working at a firm that continues to rack up accolades each year — including “Best Law Firm” in the Valley Advocate Readers’ Poll every year since 2012, “Best Law Firm” in the Daily Hampshire Gazette Readers’ Choice poll every year since 2014, plenty of attorney citations in Best Lawyers in America, the 2018 Firm Impact Award from the Hampden County Bar Assoc. for pro bono work, and a raft of others — and, as Albano noted, a stable, venerable firm to call home for many years to come.

“We’ve grown in bits and pieces over the years,” said Albano, who would like to see the firm grow to more than 50 attorneys during his tenure. “It’s been a great run so far. We’ve had some hiccups along the way, as with any business, especially when the economy was bad. But the reason we’ve grown as well as we have is because the people who work here really enjoy coming to work.”

Joe Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Features

Cruising Altitude

Two Roads Tap Room

Two Roads Tap Room is among several food and drink options Bradley has either added recently or plans to open in the coming year.

It’s no secret that the air-travel industry is a competitive one. But Kevin Dillon said it’s doubly so for the airports themselves.

“We’re competing with many regional airports for passengers, but we’re also competing with every airport in the country for limited assets — meaning aircraft,” he told BusinessWest. “Airlines will put aircraft where they get the best return. So we have to provide the best customer service possible, along with keeping operating costs low for airlines. Airports that can do both will be very successful.”

By any standard, Bradley International Airport has been exactly that in recent years, said Dillon, executive director of the Connecticut Airport Authority (CAA), which has managed the airport in Windsor Locks since 2013 — during which time it has enjoyed six straight years of passenger growth.

Part of that momentum stems from giving passengers what they need, and that’s more flight destinations. Recently announced non-stop additions include service to Denver, Raleigh-Durham, and Orlando on Frontier Airlines; to Pittsburgh on Via Airlines, and to St. Louis on Southwest Airlines.

Kevin Dillon

Kevin Dillon

“We continue to be very heavily focused on airline route development, and we continue to push for additional non-stop routes,” Dillon said, adding that the top goal these days is to boost West Coast service, particularly to Seattle, which would allow easy, one-stop access to Asia from Bradley.

“We already have service into Los Angeles and San Francisco, but Seattle would complement those very nicely,” he explained, adding that the CAA is also focused on Phoenix, Austin, Milwaukee, Nashville, and Jacksonville. “As it stands today, we feel we have a very healthy non-stop menu, but we want to expand that.”

Internationally, the daily Aer Lingus flight to Dublin introduced in 2016 has becoming increasingly popular with area business and leisure flyers, and the airline recently committed to another four years at Bradley.

“That service has been a success, especially during the spring and summer months, when business travel to Europe is supplemented by more leisure travel to Ireland,” he added. “We’ll be exploring additional trans-Atlantic service, but we also want to be very careful to make sure we’re fully supporting the Aer Lingus service.”

“Airlines will put aircraft where they get the best return. So we have to provide the best customer service possible, along with keeping operating costs low for airlines. Airports that can do both will be very successful.”

So, Bradley continues to give flyers what they need in terms of destinations. But just as important is giving them what they want. That’s where customer service comes in — and it’s a much more involved game than it was a few decades ago.

Comfort Zone

When Dillon entered the air-travel world in 1975, he said, operating airports was viewed exclusively as a government function, and airports were largely utilitarian in design. Now, it’s a very competitive business that’s laser-focused on pleasing its customers.

Bradley is doing so in a number of ways, including new eateries, such as recent additions Phillips Seafood and Two Roads Tap Room. “We’re looking to add additional concessions in 2019 — particularly in the concourse that houses United and American. Folks can look forward to some new brands coming in 2019; we’re negotiating the deals right now.

“That nicely complements some improvements made in other areas of the airport,” he went on. “Two Roads and Phillips are doing very well, and so is our club, the Escape Lounge. Black Bear restaurant closed down, and it’s going to be redone and refreshed. A lot of good things are coming to the terminal building.”

On that list is a planned $5 million renovation of all public restrooms in the complex, he added. “Everything we do here in the terminal building, all the improvements we make at Bradley, are with an eye toward improved customer service, whether it’s new concessions or something as routine as adding a new elevator. We’re constantly looking to make someone’s journey through the terminal building better.”

Meanwhile, the CAA recently announced that Travelers Aid International has begun serving Bradley’s passengers with a guest-service volunteer program. Forty-five volunteers currently staff the service — which operates out of the Information Center on the lower level of Terminal A, the baggage-claim level — while Travelers Aid continues to recruit more of them.

Travelers Aid currently operates similar guest-service volunteer programs at four other airports: New York JFK, Newark Liberty, Washington Dulles, and Washington Reagan. In addition, it operates the information booth at Washington Union Station. At these five locations, more than 750 Travelers Aid volunteers assisted more than 4.2 million passengers in 2017.

These service-focused improvements have all contributed to Bradley’s continued rise up the annual Condé Nast Traveler poll. The publication’s most recent Readers’ Choice Awards recognized Bradley as the third-best airport in the U.S. Travelers gave the airport high marks for “convenient on-site parking, plentiful charging stations and free wi-fi, decent restaurant options, and an overall relaxed atmosphere.”

airport terminals must be attractive and packed with convenient amenities

Kevin Dillon says airport terminals must be attractive and packed with convenient amenities in order to draw business in a competitive market.10

Selling Convenience

Dillon hopes they have similar praise for Bradley’s planned, $210 million ground transportation center, which is the final stages of design and financing. Construction may begin as soon as this year.

When it’s open, passengers will be able to fly into Bradley and connect to the transportation center via a walkway from the terminal. All the rental-car companies serving Bradley will be located there, as well as 830 spaces of public parking.

“We have rental cars scattered all around airport,” Dillon said. “Being able to walk right into the new center to get a car is, by itself, a great customer-service improvement.”

“We continue to be very heavily focused on airline route development, and we continue to push for additional non-stop routes.”

The transportation facility will also serve as a transit hub for the various bus services into and out of Bradley, as a connecting point to the rail line that now connects New Haven with Springfield. “We feel this is a real opportunity to connect the airport to that rail service,” he added. “We want to have a location within this transportation center where we can process rail and bus passengers.”

Meanwhile, the CAA expects to complete the new airport entrance roadway this summer, he noted.

“That was a safety improvement as well as a capacity improvement, as we look to grow the airport. We want to be sure people can easily access ground transportation, and make sure that driving into airport is just as convenient as the terminal building.”

When the CAA took over operations at Bradley in 2013, it was handling roughly 5.5 million passengers a year. Now, that figure is more than 6.5 million. But Dillon doesn’t think the airport is close to its potential.

“How big can Bradley Airport get? I do think we can be a 10 million passenger airport,” he told BusinessWest — but only if it continues to drive improvements in what passengers need, and also what they want.

“We know, at the end of the day, that what we’re selling is convenience,” he said. “When you compare Bradley with Logan or the New York airports, what differentiates us is that people look at Bradley as the most convenient option.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Joseph Bednar

Mayor Linda Tyer

Mayor Linda Tyer says Pittsfield’s leaders remain focused on the needs of its individual neighborhoods in order to generate economic development.

As part of her annual state-of-the-city address recently, Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer praised the arrival of Wayfair — the fastest-growing e-commerce home-décor company in the world — on a number of levels.

Perhaps most importantly, by opening a sales and service center, the company has created 300 new jobs in Pittsfield. Wayfair is also a locally grown success story, founded by Pittsfield High School graduate Niraj Shah. And, Tyer said, Wayfair’s presence signals to other major employers that they can be successful in this city of about 45,000 people in the heart of Berkshire County.

But Wayfair’s arrival speaks to a broader success story as well — that of a city-wide development strategy that’s bearing fruit.

“Wayfair choosing Pittsfield wasn’t happenstance,” she said. “Rather, the foundation was set with the alignment of the city’s economic-development strategy. The city joined forces with the Pittsfield Economic Development Authority and the Pittsfield Economic Revitalization Corporation. Together, we created the ‘red-carpet team,’ the Mayor’s Economic Development Council, and a new position of Business Development manager.”

In their discussions with companies looking to set up shop in Pittsfield, Tyer noted, those entities are touting not only the economic benefits of doing business here, but quality of life. And people are listening.

“We prepared our presentation assuming that Wayfair will want to know what incentives we might be able to offer them,” she explained. “As the first session got underway, Wayfair’s representatives said they’re not yet interested in the financial incentives. They’d rather learn about Pittsfield’s lifestyle, our schools, our neighborhoods. They wanted to make sure that our community culture aligned with Wayfair’s culture.”

Pittsfield at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1761
Population: 44,737
Area: 42.5 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $19.42
Commercial Tax Rate: $39.94
Median Household Income: $35,655
Median family Income: $46,228
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Berkshire Health Systems; General Dynamics; Petricca Industries Inc.; SABIC Innovative Plastics; Berkshire Bank
* Latest information available

The city’s red-carpet team, made up of city and state officials whose purpose is to develop strategies and explore incentives to support business expansion or startups, has been deployed in myriad cases to help companies move and expand in Pittsfield. Another resource Tyer is excited about is the Berkshire Innovation Center, which broke ground in September at the William Stanley Business Park.

This 20,000-square-foot facility that will support and advance the work of small and medium companies in the life sciences, advanced manufacturing, and technology, featuring cutting-edge equipment available to advanced manufacturers for research and development of new products. In partnership with Berkshire Community College, the center will be a place of teaching and learning, creating a pipeline of trained employees that area companies desperately need.

Neighborhoods on the Rise

Meanwhile, Tyer touted a downtown district generating energy through its mix of eateries, boutiques, and urban apartments, not mention a renovation of the historic Beacon Cinema on North Street by new owner Phoenix Theatres, which refreshed the interior, enhanced the seats, and added more showtimes.

“Downtown is Pittsfield’s front porch,” Tyer said. “We must remain watchful, always, to ensure a spirited, vibrant experience for all who live in and visit our city.”

She added that it’s time for the city to build on the successes of the North Street revitalization and focus more attention on the historic Tyler Street artery.

“My grandmother, who just turned 95, grew up on Tyler Street,” the mayor said. “She has fond memories of sitting on the front porch, getting an ice cream, and walking to North Street with her sisters to buy fabric at Newbury’s. Tyler Street can be that again, but with a modern twist.”

Anchored by Berkshire Medical Center, General Dynamics, and the William Stanley Business Park, the neighborhood is ripe for a renaissance, she argued. One development toward that goal is the conversion of the former St. Mary the Morningstar Church to 29 units of market-rate housing, a project that drew on $125,000 in state finding for infrastructure improvements around the building.

In addition, the Baker-Polito administration awarded a $30,000 grant last May to support small businesses in the neighborhood. The funding, Tyer explained, will be applied to Pittsfield’s Storefront Enhancement Program. “This is vital financial assistance for businesses to make façade improvements to boost visibility, attractiveness, and ensure accessibility.”

Work also began last summer on the Tyler Street Streetscape Design Project, which aims to create a curated throughway that addresses the needs of pedestrians and bicycles, improves lighting and landscaping, identifies dedicated bus stops, preserves on-street parking, and elevates public spaces. The completed design work is expected to be unveiled early this year.

Going forward, the city will continue to seek ways to take advantage of private investment in North Street and Tyler Street, both designated as Opportunity Zones, Tyer said. “Alliances with local and state representatives, financial institutions, and developers will spur capital investment and job creation.”

On the public-safety front, the mayor focused on several incidents in the Westside area of town, citing a meeting with neighborhood residents who expressed their fears and shared their ideas on ways to enhance the work of the police department, while they in turn tried to understand police protocols.

One idea — to establish a Police Department community outreach office in Westside — is becoming a reality, she added, thanks to space being offered by Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity in its building on Columbus Avenue.

Meanwhile, a series of high-visibility patrol operations were conducted in November and December. The operation, led by the Police Department’s uniformed patrol and anti-crime unit, brought in reinforcements from the Berkshire County Sheriff’s Office, Massachusetts State Police, and the state Alcohol Beverages Control Commission, which, in total, netted 32 arrests, including the seizure of approximately 340 grams of cocaine with an estimated value of $34,000 and a variety of illicit pills.

“While we tackle the complex issue of crime, our Police Department has established a strong philosophy of community policing,” Tyer added, noting that officers have hosted free movie events, back-to-school meet and greets, and other community activities. “All of these interactions create trusting relationships that will endure with our kids, their families, and our police officers.”

Collaborative Efforts

Still, making the community a more desirable one — again, a factor in attracting new business — doesn’t end with public safety. To that end, an LED street-light conversion will be complete by the spring, replacing some 5,300 streetlights in all, with the dual goal of brighter streets and lower utility bills. Meanwhile, the Westside Riverway Park, a new outdoor space along the west branch of the Housatonic River, extends from Wahconah Park to Clapp Park.

“Paying attention to what’s happening within our neighborhoods continues to be a primary focus. And our efforts are paying dividends,” Tyer said, noting that a surging housing market has increased home values in the city. Still, she added, vigilance against blight and decay in neighborhoods remains a priority for her administration.

“We have cataloged about 100 problem properties,” she noted. “The city’s code-enforcement team tries to identify and exercise all viable options. Our objective is always to preserve as much as possible. Sometimes, demolition is the only option. We continuously balance the cost of demotion against the very real gains that come with keeping our city appealing.”

Finally, 2018 was the first year of Community Preservation projects, the mayor noted. Drawing from a 1% surcharge on property values, the endeavor resulted in a $580,000 appropriation of funds for investing in historic resources, open space, and recreation. Eleven projects were funded, including the preservation of the Melville Art and Artifacts collection in the Berkshire Athenaeum, the Arrowhead stone wall, restoration of the Springside House, siting and design for pickleball courts, the turf field at Berkshire Community College, and infield restoration at the Pellerin baseball field.

Meanwhile, she said, local partners continue to support improvements in public spaces. This past year, the pavilion at Durant Park went up thanks to a gift from Greylock Federal Credit Union. A Berkshire Bank contribution facilitated the renovation of the basketball court at Lakewood Park, while the Buddy Pellerin Foundation and the Rotary Club are making significant investments in Clapp Park.

The progress Pittsfield has made on these fronts and others are, of course, a collective effort by myriad agencies, businesses, and individuals, Tyer noted. But she wants her administration to set the tone for growth.

“We cultivate an organizational culture that encompasses shared responsibility, proactive long-term planning, dynamic communication and professional development,” she said. “My philosophy around this is simple: when we make decisions that affect the people that we serve, these principles must be in the forefront of our minds.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Class of 2019 Difference Makers

They’ve Shared a Lifetime Working for Social Change

Frederick Hurst clearly recalls where he was the April afternoon in 1968 when Martin Luther King Jr. was shot and killed. It was a job interview — a job he decided not to take.

That day, he said, changed the course of his life, and that of his wife, Marjorie. The trajectory of those lives has been a winding one, with many stops along the way, but one common thread — a constant focus on making a difference, in myriad ways.

For the past 15 years, the most visible vehicle for that change has been An African American Point of View, the ‘newsmagazine,’ as Rick calls it, that blends community news with often-unsparing commentary, every word of it edited by Marjorie. We’ll let his note in a recent issue explain the dynamic.

“We didn’t start this paper without knowing what we want to accomplish. We knew where we wanted to go in terms of content and impact. And we still feel we provide a point of view that is not provided anywhere else.”

“Like any journalist, I have an editor who pushes back at me. She pisses me off sometimes, but I often acquiesce. I’m not easy. She often recoils at stuff that truly expresses what I mean to say even though it might upset some folks. I am most responsive when she can show me a milder way to say the same thing and less responsive when she suggests a change simply because, without it, someone will get mad. I write it as I see it. And sometimes, I want to make someone mad because it is a legitimate part of my message and it tells the story best.”

“We didn’t start this paper without knowing what we want to accomplish,” Rick told BusinessWest. “We knew where we wanted to go in terms of content and impact. And we still feel we provide a point of view that is not provided anywhere else.”

It’s a perspective that remains badly needed, he added.

“The African-American point of view is so diluted in every medium you can find around here. I don’t think that has been malicious; I just think folks generally don’t understand what that means, even though they do the best they can,” he continued. “Sometimes I write to educate, sometimes I write to provoke, and sometimes I write to just express my opinion.”

Pointing out ways that political, educational, and economic infrastructures present barriers to success for the black community is nothing new to the Hursts.

Marjorie and Rick Hurst are gratified that their son Justin and daughter-in-law Denise

Marjorie and Rick Hurst are gratified that their son Justin and daughter-in-law Denise — who serve on Springfield’s City Council and School Committee, respectively — have followed their example of civic involvement.

“These things need to be discussed without equivocation,” Rick continued. “And most people I know — good people — are equivocal. They’ve been raised to be equivocal, and approach things like race with such delicacy that the story doesn’t get out there. One way we can make a solid impact as a newspaper is to deal with these race issues unequivocally. And I think we’re having an impact. Sometimes my good friends get mad at me — but it doesn’t bother me. I learned, if you have another point of view, write it, and we’ll print it.”

Marjorie noted that the newspaper had long been on the couple’s five-year plan — for way more than five years, actually — before they actually launched it in 2003.

“It was always part of what we were going to do,” she said. “He always had something to say, always had thoughts, always had ideas and a need to express them.”

And a need for an editor — even when they were dating as teenagers and engaged as college students.

“I’d send her love letters, and she’d send them back with corrections in red,” he laughed. “And she’s still doing that with anything else I write.”

A Life Together

In fact, the Hursts have known each other from their days as Buckingham Junior High School students in Springfield. Marjorie went to the High School of Commerce, Rick to Technical High School, and they had been dating for five years when they decided to tie the knot as undergrads at Howard University in Washington, D.C. in 1967.

“I was planning to go into speech therapy and audiology,” she recalled. “I had started out in journalism, but decided not to do that. It felt too intrusive to ask people all these questions.”

King’s death when the couple were seniors at Howard palpably altered both their career paths. An economics major with his eye on law school, Rick was sitting at a table with executives from D.C.-based Riggs National Bank, who were making him an offer to manage their trust department — and offering to pay his way through law school — when he heard King had been shot.

“People came running in, screaming and hollering — everyone was all upset,” he recalled. “It changed everything. I listened and was very cool, but I knew I wasn’t going to work for a bank, and we made a decision to come back to Springfield.”

“Most people I know — good people — are equivocal. They’ve been raised to be equivocal, and approach things like race with such delicacy that the story doesn’t get out there.”

With a new sense of mission, Rick got involved in poverty and unemployment programs, and they both taught school. He was recruited by Digital Equipment Corp. to run its planning department in Springfield and did well there for several years, but grew frustrated by the steady flow of white employees being promoted ahead of him. They both attended a graduate program at UMass, after which time an intriguing opportunity arose in Chicago.

It was an experimental, relatively new school on the west side of the city — a rough area to say the least — called Daniel Hale Williams University. Rick became facilities manager in 1975, while Marjorie worked as registrar.

“We sold our house, packed up our furniture, and moved to Oak Park,” he recalled. “The school had campuses all over the west side and south side, into the projects. We struggled to make that thing survive — but it didn’t survive. We had cashed in everything, and we were out in the middle of the country, when the school went bankrupt. Both of us were out of a job, and Marge was pregnant with our third child, Justin.”

That was the low point in their early part of their marriage, but again, they were energized by a planned return to Springfield. This time, they turned to law, Rick’s original goal as an undergrad at Howard. He enrolled at DePaul University School of Law — also working part-time while Marjorie worked full-time — and then both returned to Springfield, where she enrolled in Western New England College School of Law.

Rick Hurst says he writes to both educate and provoke

Rick Hurst says he writes to both educate and provoke — because sometimes people need a little provocation.

She opened a law office with a friend, while then-Gov. Mike Dukakis appointed Rick a commissioner at the Mass. Commission on Discrimination, overseeing 171 communities in the western half of the state for the next nine years.

“It was a very powerful commission then,” he said, explaining that MCAD had a judicial unit and a civil-rights unit. The latter, which no longer exists, allowed commissioners to essentially police every municipality and require them to develop diversity programs for employment, housing, and contract compliance — and authority to bring charges if they didn’t comply.

Holyoke and Springfield were both recalcitrant when it came to instituting such programs, he noted, and Holyoke has been more progressive over the years than Springfield, which Hurst feels remains somewhat stuck in old-school politics when it comes to systemic change.

“It was a great time in my life. We saw some positive changes,” he said. “And when I left, I went with my love” — specifically, to join her in the law firm that would eventually be known as Hurst and Hurst, P.C.

“It was an interesting time,” Marge said regarding those early years. “We just started off young and involved, and we continued to be involved. We got involved in civil rights. We were part of high-school walkouts over the lack of minority teachers and a black-focused curriculum. We set up an alternative school. We’ve always been extremely active and dedicated to moving the ball forward in whatever way we could. But we’ve always worked closely together and been supportive of each other, and there’s always been the feeling we’re equal partners.”

Hot Off the Presses

By the turn of the century, they both agreed their newspaper idea couldn’t stay on the five-year plan forever. So, in 2003, they took the plunge — with a little extra motivation from a black newspaper based in Framingham that was sniffing around Springfield. “That sped us up,” Rick said. “We knew we had a better product.”

The paper was originally published quarterly, then bimonthly in its second year, then monthly in its third, which it remains to this day. When the Great Recession hit, the paper struggled somewhat — advertisers began pulling back, loath to spend money during those difficult years — but Af-Am Point of View survived and eventually thrived, rebranding as a newsmagazine and pouring resources into producing more — and more diverse — content, while also developing an online presence.

“I’d send her love letters, and she’d send them back with corrections in red. And she’s still doing that with anything else I write.”

“We entered the market as African-American emphasis paper, but we always knew we’d expand and broaden it out,” Rick said. “We felt the paper would never grow in reader interest without a diversity of writers, to make it interesting to everybody.”

The Hursts celebrate Marjorie’s election to the Springfield School Committee

The Hursts celebrate Marjorie’s election to the Springfield School Committee — she was the top vote getter — in this 1997 photo from the Union-News.

Indeed, those writers represent diverse races, genders, and ages, too — in fact, a recent issue featured an essay by the Hursts’ 12-year-old grandson, Tristin.

Through it all, Rick has never been one to pull punches, whether speaking broadly about systemic racism in the U.S. or calling out local leaders on political matters.

“I’m more the warrior type than Marge,” he said. “Not in a wild and crazy way — I’m more measured than that. But I fight for change. I understand what change means. All my adult life, I’ve been fighting for political change, broader cultural change in the way people think. And the paper has made a difference. I think we’ve impacted the way people see black people and the way black people see themselves. I know we’re not there yet, but nothing makes me feel better than to know we have started something in that direction that’s meaningful.”

The Hursts have a long political history in the city, including Rick’s unsuccessful effort in the mayoral race of 1969, and City Council bids after that. Meanwhile, Marjorie served 12 years on the Springfield School Committee. Their youngest son, Justin, has followed suit over the past few years, most recently being named president of the City Council, while his wife, Denise, serves on the School Committee.

That legacy is gratifying for Marjorie, who had her kids knocking on doors from an early age supporting local candidates for office. “They had a history of being active and involved in politics.”

“They were very much involved,” Rick added. “We were sophisticated — we could break wards down, break streets down; we understood the value of door to door, face to face. They grew up with that in their heads, and the work was natural to them. But they take it to a new level with technology.”

That civic investment by the next generation is a source of pride, he added.

“That’s what I live for. I want to see my kids get involved in the body politic, and not just them. A whole lot of other minorities, black, Hispanic — and women, too — should get involved so Springfield is run like it should be run.”

Marjorie calls Rick conservative when it comes to his feelings about family structure, but he considers their family proof that a two-parent home — with two educated parents, no less — gives kids a great advantage in life. Their daughter and oldest child, Tiffani, is an assistant to the public defender in Delaware County, Pennsylvania, following years as a federal appellate attorney in Las Vegas. Their first son, Frederick Jr., has a CPA background and works for the public school system locally.

“I made a promise to myself, years before I met Marge, that I’d meet a good woman who’d want to marry me, and I’d stay with her for the rest of my days,” Rick said. “I’ve always preached it to my kids — take your time, find a good woman you’re compatible with, and commit to stay with her for the rest of your life and raise your kids right.”

He explained that Marjorie represented something aspirational to him, whose wisdom he has long relied on.

“I’m more the warrior type than Marge. Not in a wild and crazy way — I’m more measured than that. But I fight for change. I understand what change means. All my adult life, I’ve been fighting for political change, broader cultural change in the way people think.”

“I’m a kid from the hood; I really am — fisticuffs and gambling and all that,” he said. “When I made a decision to go to college, I had all that baggage. And at every critical point in my life, I can point to Marge being there as incredible support. Whether I would have made it anyway, I don’t know. But, my God, most people who came up with me … I’ve got more dead than alive, and many of them died decades ago.”

Even at Howard, he vascillated in his goals and considered dropping out to join his brother in the Army. “But she helped me struggle through, and I finished college. If I ever write my story, it’ll be a story about Marge.”

The Next Chapter

But Rick has written a book already: A History of Blind Industries and Services of Maryland, the century-spanning account of a program in Maryland dedicated to putting blind people to work — a success story that reflects his own philosophy about how government programs should support, but never replace, organic economic development in a community.

“You’ve got to introduce an economic-development element into every program you put on the table, or they’re all going to fail,” he said “These people figured out how you do it, how to integrate government money into private operations and grow the private sector much bigger than the original government investment.”

In some ways, the Hursts’ life together has been a microcosm of that kind of growth, constantly planting seeds — from a newspaper influencing public opinion to the development of black-centric curriculum in the public schools, to the raising up of future generations who will continue making a difference.

“Justin and Denise surround themselves with people of all races; they’re comfortable with everyone,” Marge said of the two Hurst family members with the most public profile these days. “That gives you hope for the future — how seamlessly they move into the fabric of the city, into all areas of the city. It makes you feel good that you might have contributed to an element of change in the city. So we’re extremely proud to be here at this point in time and still be contributing through the newspaper.”

Not that the work is ever truly done, Rick was quick to add, arguing that Springfield will never grow to political maturity until it fully shakes off its history of crony politics and embraces more diversity and openness to change. “I know it sounds idealistic, but change never came about through people who weren’t idealistic. The only way you change that stuff is to keep picking at it.”

He admires a quote by Thomas Jefferson — a man, it must be said, with his own racial complexities — who once noted that, if he had to choose between a government without newspapers or newspapers without government, he would not hesitate to choose the latter.

“That’s the power of the media,” Rick said. “Jefferson knew what he was talking about. If we didn’t have the press today, we’d be well on our way to a dictatorship. I’ve come to understand the power of the press.

“We’ve had an impact in that respect,” he went on. “The Hursts never set out to be prominent. We set out to make a difference, and we have made a difference. And that impact will continue long after we’re gone.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Meetings & Conventions

Horse Sense

President and CEO Gene Cassidy

President and CEO Gene Cassidy.

When people think of the Eastern States Exposition, they often think immediately of the Big E, the 17-day fair that dominates the tourism landscape at the start of each fall. But Eastern States is much more than that, as reflected by its diverse array of events, both large and small, and the resulting economic impact on the region — not to mention its important mission of keeping its agricultural heritage alive for future generations.

Fifty-two years ago, notes Greg Chiecko, a local camping group set up shop at the Eastern States Exposition — and have come back every year since.

“That was our first non-fair event. They took the building for the whole month — it took that long to set up, do their show, and move out.”

How things have changed, said Chiecko, director of Sales. The Big E, the 17-day fair that has taken place each fall for more than a century, remains the ESE’s most famous calling card. But outside the fair, the grounds hosts more than 100 events annually, some small-scale, some much larger, like the camping and outdoor show that now crams hundreds of vehicles into three large buildings each February.

One of the many horse shows at the ESE.

One of the many horse shows at the ESE.

“The dynamics have changed substantially over the past 50 years,” Chiecko said. “They’ve been doing it so long, it’s amazing. They still take a little while to move in, but they do it with such accuracy, and they literally move out of all the buildings in a day.”

A quick look at the coming month’s schedule demonstrates the range of groups that present events here. February alone offers the Amherst Railway Society’s Railroad Hobby Show, the aforementioned Springfield RV Camping and Outdoor Show, the Springfield Sportsmen’s Show, and two dog shows. March brings the Old Deerfield Spring Sampler Craft Fair, Mark’s Northeast Motorsports Expo, the Antique & Modern Firearms Show, the Maple Harvest Day & Pancake Breakfast, the AMMO Fight League, a Massachusetts 4-H Blue Ribbon Calf Sale, and the large Western Mass. Home and Garden Show — not to mention two more dog shows.

“We call ourselves the flexible facility in the heart of New England, and we truly are,” said Chiecko, who will leave the ESE next month to become president and CEO of the Outdoor Amusement Business Assoc. “And every show is different. The Big E and the Fiber Festival are the only events we produce. We’re a landlord the rest of the year. Some of these are volunteer groups, some are professional promoters, some are associations … it runs the gamut. They produce the shows, and we offer services, like ticket takers, ticket sellers, security, and more. They can use our services or use their own.”

Greg Chiecko calls the ESE “the flexible facility in the heart of New England.”

Greg Chiecko calls the ESE “the flexible facility in the heart of New England.”

Gene Cassidy, president and CEO of the Eastern States Exposition, noted that the facility also offers services like advertising, sign manufacturing, banking, and other amenities that many venues don’t have in their portfolio. The result of this flexibility and roster of services results in a high retention rate, with groups that return year after year. In addition, he noted, “some staff people have been here for 40 years. So there’s a lot of institutional memory.”

The ESE’s consumer shows — home shows, gun shows, camp shows, sport shows, and the like — tend to be among its most popular offerings, Chiecko said. “We’re also the dog-show capital of the Northeast. In 2017, we had 36,000 AKC-registered dogs on our property, just from the AKC shows, not counting other groups. Dog shows are a big deal. And we love dog shows because they come on holidays: Easter, Thanksgiving weekend, Fourth of July weekend, times of the year when it would be difficult to fill our spaces.”

“In 2017, we had 36,000 AKC-registered dogs on our property, just from the AKC shows, not counting other groups. Dog shows are a big deal.”

EASTEC, the largest manufacturing event east of the Mississippi, returns to the fairgrounds this May for its biannual visit. “Exhibitors love it, and the area restaurants and hotels do great,” Chiecko said, adding that local trade shows, from the likes of J. Polep Distribution Services and Performance Food Group, also regularly host events. Meanwhile, clients book parties and weddings at Storrowton Tavern and the Carriage House, which managed by a private firm but owned by the ESE.

That’s far from an exhaustive list, but it does lend credence to Chiecko’s “flexible facility” motto.

“I’ve been here 24 years, and I’ve never heard a “can we do it?” inquiry that I’ve had to say ‘no’ to,” he said. “The facility is so flexible, and our crew is so flexible, we can do anything.”

Animal Attraction

Despite the myriad events the ESE presents each year, its heritage remains firmly rooted in animals and agriculture.

“We do 13 horse shows outside the three we do for the fair,” Chiecko said. “We do a sheep show, youth cattle shows, and we have a big poultry show coming up next month. And this past year, we had the National Rabbit Association. We had 18,000 rabbits here.”

“The joke,” Cassidy quickly added, “was that 18,000 rabbits came, and 36,000 left.”

The attendance level varies among these events, Chiecko noted. “A lot of the horse shows tend to watch themselves rather than anything else. But the rabbit show attracted a huge population from the general public.”

The annual Western Mass. Home and Garden show

The annual Western Mass. Home and Garden show brings attendees face to face with hundreds of local businesses.

However, when it comes to most animal events, Cassidy said, “I wish there were more people engaged. It’s our job to promote the breed or species, put it out there for the public to consume, and they’re free events. The fact is, if the Big E had more days or we had more acreage, more of those shows would take place during the course of the fair so we could get as many people from the public exposed to that. But we do our best to try to promote interest in it; we believe it’s important for agriculture. It’s mission-driven; we’re not making any money on that. That’s all stuff we promote and invest heavily in.”

Still, “the more shows we can put in during the fair, the more it helps us fund our agriculture program, most of which happens outside of the fair, in the other 49 weeks of the year,” he went on. “We make it available to the public so they can have the exposure. It’s tough in this day and age, when the youth in the general population are so disassociated from agriculture, and we deal with the hardcore animal activists, the people who have serious agendas against consumption of animals, and they influence public policy to the detriment of the greater good of society.”

That has affected the national 4-H program, which gets federal funding and is being influenced by people outside of agriculture, which results in regulation making it harder for children to be involved. Meanwhile, Future Farmers of America, a private nonprofit not under federal control, is going strong, Cassidy explained, noting that, no matter the vehicle, it’s important to keep engaging young people in agriculture and animal rearing. “Those are the kids that going to feed the world in the next generation.”

It’s one of the reasons why the Big E, which continues to set attendance records, is so critical, in that it helps fund the other 49 weeks of events while driving interest in animal shows; people are more likely to check out such shows once they’ve bought a ticket and are at the fairgrounds.

“At one time, we had four or five antique shows here. The Internet has almost eliminated antique shows because people can shop from the comfort of their own living room.”

“The fair is just a fundraiser. It’s like your church bazaar, except we just happen to run 17 days and are one of the biggest in the world,” Cassidy said. “It’s a fundraiser for us to drive stewardship into our mission. I wish more people were as excited about that mission as we are. I look down the road a generation, and we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

On the other hand, Chiecko said, the consumer shows are still strong because people enjoy events that reflect their hobbies and interests. But even there, the Internet has impacted certain shows.

“At one time, we had four or five antique shows here. The Internet has almost eliminated antique shows because people can shop from the comfort of their own living room, which is really too bad, because the quality of what people get isn’t nearly the same. It’s the same with craft shows. That’s the nature of the business cycle — we’re no different than a brick-and-mortar store dealing with Amazon.”

Living the Mission

Cassidy emphasized more than once during BusinessWest’s visit that the Eastern States Exposition makes a priority of its agricultural mission. “Not everyone relates to that mission. But if we can’t support agriculture, we can’t support everything else we support – and we support a lot.”

He’s not just talking about planned events. The fairgrounds has been a staging center for emergency situations as well. Northeast Utilities set up camp and fed its crews there during the famous October 2011 snowstorm. A few months before that, the ESE’s dorms housed hundreds of people suddenly made homeless by the tornado that struck the region. “We’ve hosted large RV rallies here,” Chiecko said. “If a cattle guy breaks down on 91, they might come here.”

So there’s a community impact in addition to the economic impact to the region — more than a half-billion dollars a year, he noted, with only part of that generated by the 17-day Big E. “Year-round operations play a big role.”

He believes its impact will only grow now that MGM Springfield has opened across the river.

“I think we have a good partnership,” he said, one that extends beyond parking cars for MGM during its first week of operation last summer. “They bring large conventions to town, which utilize rooms and banquet spaces downtown — well, we have 355,000 square feet of exhibit space. We’re hoping to see more city-wide conventions. It’s a tight-knit community here.”

Dog shows have become a surprisingly robust source of bookings for the ESE.

Dog shows have become a surprisingly robust source of bookings for the ESE.

For convention goers and people who attend events at Eastern States, MGM is another activity to take in while visiting Springfield, he added, while people who come to Springfield mainly for the casino might also take in an event at the fairgrounds — and everyone benefits.

“Because of the advertising campaign MGM launched, it put Springfield on the map in a bigger way, and I think our fair benefited from that,” Cassidy said of last year’s record attendance at the Big E, which took place a few weeks after MGM opened. “My hope is that, with the synergies we’ve developed in partnership with MGM, we can help bring more commerce to the city of Springfield in the form of non-fair events: trade shows, professional shows, manufacturing shows.”

With that in mind, he keeps plugging away at that year-round mission — because, simply put, the Eastern States Exposition is more than a center for events of all kinds. It’s a critical piece of the region’s tourism and economic picture.

“If this place ever went away, the impact on our economy would be devastating,” he said.

Which is why he doesn’t intend to let the ESE go to the dogs — well, except on those weekends when it does.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Women in Businesss

Culture of Care

Karin Jeffers, CEO of Clinical & Support Options

Karin Jeffers, CEO of Clinical & Support Options

Karin Jeffers, the long-time CEO of Clinical & Support Options, knew she had a challenge on her hands when she took the reins at the struggling behavioral-health and social-services agency. But she’s never been one to shy away from a challenge, and has steadily grown the organization into the broad-based, community-focused force it is today. She’s done so by embracing constant change, a culture of learning, and a sensitivity to the unique experiences of each client who walks through the door.

As the daughter of teachers, helping and supporting people was in Karin Jeffers’ blood. How she eventually applied that idea, however, wasn’t exactly a straight line.

“I went to school at Springfield College for physical therapy and thought I had my life figured out,” she told BusinessWest. “That’s what I was going to do. But then I took an abnormal psychology class, and I was just fascinated. It was way more interesting than anything I was doing otherwise.”

After doing a bit of research and learning how mental-health professionals impact people’s lives, she was sold, and switched her major to counseling and psychology.

“That was probably three and a half years through the PT program,” she recalled. “That was a fun phone call home to my dad.”

Her career path has validated that decision in spades, however. After earning her master’s degree in psychology, Jeffers took a job with the Massachusetts Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children and, over the next 13 years, rose through the ranks there, from home family therapist to coordinator to clinical director to regional director.

“It can be challenging when working with children and families, but what I found immensely rewarding — and this holds to this day — is the resilience of kids and families and their desire for a better life.”

“It was a great organization; it really exposed me to a lot of the ways you can help people and make a change in an individual, a family, and a community.”

It was telling — and another validation of her shift away from physical therapy — that she found the work rewarding, even though the issues she dealt with on a daily basis could be sobering, to say the least.

“It can be challenging when working with children and families, but what I found immensely rewarding — and this holds to this day — is the resilience of kids and families and their desire for a better life,” she said. “That really drives me through what can sound like horrible stories, whether it’s abuse or trauma or whatever people have been through.

“You rarely meet somebody who wants to be in a bad place,” she went on. “You meet people who want to do better, but they may not have the tools or the resources or the supports to get where they need to be; the hope is that you can help people get closer to healing and recovery.”

Meanwhile, Clinical & Support Options was an agency founded as a child and family organization that had crept away from that mission somewhat over the years, Jeffers said. She arrived there in 2005 to become CEO of what was then a $4 million nonprofit behavioral-health enterprise with about 90 employees and just a handful of sites, mostly in Franklin County.

“I’ve always loved challenges, and at the time that I came to CSO, it was a much smaller agency,” she said. “They had been through several CEOs in the prior few years. They had a really good core mission and core group of people, but needed some leadership, so it was an opportunity for me to make my mark on a new agency and see if we could build something that would make a difference.”

That she has. Thirteen years into her leadership tenure at CSO, it has become a $40 million organization with more than 700 employees spread across five counties, with 15 office locations, and serving some 17,000 people annually.

“We really have the full spectrum of services, from crisis intervention to family support to prevention services to support and recovery services,” Jeffers said. “Our latest merger was with Friends of the Homeless, so now we’re able to add housing and shelter to it. The way we’ve been able to integrate and really blend all those services together, we can truly say that, if you need support or help, just come here, and we’ll help you figure out where to get it, as opposed to you having to know which number to call and where to go and what to ask for. We work very hard at that kind of integration and service.”

She has spearheaded that kind of growth and integration through a specific set of values and a nimble leadership style that embraces change, and encourages her team to do the same. And she’s certainly not done.

Dramatic Turnaround

The Clinical & Support Options that Jeffers joined in 2005 was saddled with what she called a bad financial picture, but a good core team that wanted to provide strong services — and needed strong leadership to do so.

“I’m a big believer in strategic planning and actually following that plan and executing it,” she explained. “Some of the growth has happened through partnerships or mergers or takeovers of other offices. We’ve actually had other behavioral-health agencies close down offices, then reach out to us at CSO to assume operation. So we were able to grow by picking up those services where they were needed and expand on them, really use it as a launch point to do even more.”

Some growth was driven by changes at the state and federal levels. The 2009 Children’s Behavioral Health Initiative, which aimed to expand and integrate children’s mental-health services in Massachusetts into a comprehensive, community-based system of care, wound up building up CSO’s roster of contracts. Meanwhile, it was one of only three agencies nationwide to win a federal grant from the Department of Justice to link victims of crime to mental-health and trauma services. Other grants followed, and the agency continued to grow.

“It’s been exciting; we’ve been able to find our niche,” Jeffers said. “There are larger agencies than us and smaller agencies than us, but we’ve really been able to find our niche in certain things and do them well, while also offering a broad range of services to the community, so people can access what they need when they need it.”

Part of meeting those needs is a strategic direction toward what she calls a “trauma-informed” culture, which is essentially a system-wide change, launched about five years ago, that emphasizes sensitivity to possible trauma in every person who comes to CSO.

“A lot of people think of trauma-informed care as just a modality, trauma treatment, and we really look at it as a much broader philosophy, which is that trauma affects way more people than you think,” she explained. “You never know who has been traumatized, so how you treat people and what culture you set and having a place where you respect choices and empowerment and safety — that’s different than just providing trauma treatment.”

To that end, CSO has embarked on a long-term culture shift that not only includes best practices in treatment, but also examines what the offices look like, how policies are received, and how people are treated.

“The end result has been an ongoing philosophy of embedding trauma-informed care and resilience throughout everything we do,” she went on. “We trained everybody, from clinicians to the janitorial staff to administrative staff and secretaries, right across the board, so that everybody had the same filter and philosophy and support in doing their jobs.”

She even enlisted people to walk through the various CSO offices, like secret shoppers, and report back on their experience. The feedback included everything from pictures on walls that might be triggering to how they were treated when they came to the front window, and that feedback was then used to initiate change.

“You never know who has been traumatized, so how you treat people and what culture you set and having a place where you respect choices and empowerment and safety — that’s different than just providing trauma treatment.”

As one example, the waiting room in the Springfield office used to have hallways on either side, and staff constantly walked through. But Jeffers heard that felt really intrusive, and bothered clients who were finally asking for help, but were being ignored by professionals in the office. So the waiting room was moved to a larger, quieter spot, where the first providers clients saw were there to help them, not walk past.

“We look at our staff from the client lens,” she said. “It really is about a culture shift, and that is ongoing. There really isn’t a start and an end. Well, there’s a start, but then it’s an ever-evolving process, and our goal is quality improvement.”

Knowledge Is Power

That training in trauma-informed care is just one reflection of an organization — and its leader — that value continual learning. In fact, CSO provides more than 500 hours of free training for staff per year, which makes it easier to promote from within; more than 48% of the management team (70 out of 145) have come up through the ranks.

“It is very much a learning culture. We do a tremendous amount of internal staff training, but we also do external training,” Jeffers said, noting CSO has trained more than 1,000 individuals in mental-health first aid (both youth and adult versions) and more than 1,100 community members in principles of trauma-informed care (TIC). That’s on top of training 820 employees in the TIC curriculum over the past four years.

“We’ve provided training to other agencies, police, schools, colleges, and community groups on trauma-informed care and the impact of trauma in the communities,” she explained. “For the lay person, a lot of the focus is on how to recognize what your role can be in helping somebody get to a better place. Stigma is still real; people are afraid of mental health, and they don’t know how to react to situations. So we’re really trying to break down that stigma and empower people and teach them what their role can be, whether it’s your family or neighbor or someone in line at the grocery store having a tough time.”

That community impact — not just in external trainings, but in the day-to-day improvement in people’s lives — is one of the things that keeps Jeffers motivated as new threats emerge, such as the opioid crisis that has become so prevalent in recent years.

“The state of Massachusetts is heading in some really exciting directions with their investments in behavioral health, so to be a part of that is really exciting,” she told BusinessWest. “We will continue to be good at what we do and then see what else we can do. We certainly don’t want to grow just to grow. We want to grow to meet the needs of our community, and I think there’s still a lot of work to be done.”

“People who work here know we’ve got to change and adapt,” she went on. “It’s not about doing the same old same old, but how do we constantly strive for better quality and better outcomes? That’s something that drives me, and it’s exciting to be a part of it.”

As a prominent female leader in healthcare, Jeffers is especially proud of the percentage of women in leadership positions at CSO, including 60% of the executive leadership team (six of 10), 73% of the senior leadership team (27 of 37), and 84% of the overall, agency-wide management team (122 of 145).

Still, at the end of the day — and some days are tougher than others — it’s all about meeting needs and creating change in the community.

“There are definitely challenges,” she said. “Challenges on the funding front, keeping up with demands, and creating a good place to work are tough. But it’s exciting to know we can impact the number of people we impact.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Construction

Home Free

Partners Stephen Ross (left) and Bob Walker

Partners Stephen Ross (left) and Bob Walker

Construct Associates has built a reputation for home renovation and restoration in Western Mass. over the past few decades, which is fortunate these days, since business is surging in that area. The reasons are myriad — among them, plenty of old housing stock in the Pioneer Valley, a generally strong economy, and the continued aging of America and the desire among the senior set to remain in their homes and age in place. It all adds up to opportunity, and Construct is making the most of it.

Stephen Ross says residential renovation is looking up — in more ways than one.

“We’re doing a lot of aging-in-place stuff — personal elevators, residential elevators, additions,” he told BusinessWest. “I like to say that an elevator costs probably 10 months worth of a decent retirement community. There, you’re not going to get that money back. But with an elevator, it’s equity toward your house.”

Ross and Bob Walker, the partners at Construct Associates in Northampton, say aging in place is a major trend in residential construction and renovation these days, with the Baby Boom generation continuing to swell the ranks of the over-65 age group, many of them loath to give up independent living.

“I saw a poll recently where 88% of people want to remain in their home, and a lot of them are trying to do just that,” Ross said, noting again that elevators, accessible showers, and other additions pay for themselves if they make the difference between staying there and moving to a retirement community. “I’ve got two of those in the works now. One is an in-law suite, where they’re making it accessible for the in-laws, and the other is a professional couple that wants to be able to utilize their whole house.”

Meanwhile, Walker is wrapping up a first-floor master suite in Northampton with an aging-in-place concept. “It’s an older home right in the middle of town, but all the bedrooms are upstairs. A couple years ago, they did a big kitchen remodel, and now they want a bedroom and bath and laundry on the first floor, where they can get to all of it. We’re putting in a curbless shower, in case of limited mobility.”

“We did a pretty serious job search back in the fall, but we we got a lot of people we felt weren’t qualified for the quality work we do. Sometimes you do get good people come in who are older guys. The labor pool is aging, and it would be nice to see a lot more young people coming into the field.”

Not only do older people want to age in place, Ross said, but the Five College area tends to have consistent rotation of housing stock, and new owners want to come in and put their mark on their new house. And many newcomers to the region arrive from pricier markets, so they’re getting relative bargains and have money left over for remodeling.

“We’re a high-end firm,” Walker added. “We’ll do the whole gamut of work, but our real money is in high-end residential remodeling. At this point, we really are working off our reputation, our referral base. I’m doing a major house remodel in Longmeadow now — four bathrooms, going through the house and upgrading. I have another major job like that, a big Victorian in town here with a high-end kitchen, a big master bath, upgrading mechanical systems, making it as energy-efficient as possible.”

New home building remains a quieter market, Ross added, so Construct is in the right place these days. “Kitchens and bathrooms are our bread and butter, and it always seems like weve got one or two, if not four or six, going on in the background.”

Innovative Idea

Walker and three other partners — Hobie Iselin, Bob Reckman, and Chris Dawson — launched Construct Associates in 1984 with a bright idea — and good timing.

The idea was to create a construction company based on the model of a law office, where the owners share space, marketing, and accounting, but are responsible for managing their own projects.

This residential addition in Northampton

This residential addition in Northampton features an elevator, an amenity that has become more popular in recent years.

The good timing had to do with the company’s home city of Northampton, which was growing quickly and had recently begun to capture the imagination of developers. Construct had a hand in shaping the commercial rebirth of the city, building or renovating the Northampton Brewery, the Hotel Northampton, the Calvin Theater, two Bart’s Ice Cream Shops, Bruegger’s Bagel Bakery, Pinch Pottery, Pleasant Street Video, Silverscape Designs, and other properties.

Other partners have come and gone over the years; today, Walker shares ownership with Ross, who first joined the company as a carpenter in 1988 and became a partner in 2006.

The workload has changed over the years; Construct Associates does far more residential work — mainly home-renovation projects — than it used to. But it still does some light commercial work, notably the recent renovation of New England Treatment Access, the marijuana dispensary a block away from its Northampton headquarters.

The firm’s design and construction capabilities cover everything from antique designs to modern styles, the partners note, but they specialize in older buildings, providing innovative designs and construction for kitchen and bathroom remodeling, renovations, and additions, as well as new construction projects.

“We do all our carpentry. We don’t sub out any carpentry because we have our in-house guys,” Walker said.

While the volume of work has been strong lately, he noted, the staffing issues that plague many contractors may be the only thing holding back further growth.

“We lost a few guys last year, and we’re trying to replace them. We did a pretty serious job search back in the fall, but we we got a lot of people we felt weren’t qualified for the quality work we do. Sometimes you do get good people come in who are older guys. The labor pool is aging, and it would be nice to see a lot more young people coming into the field.”

He said he hired a carpenter last year who recently graduated from Smith Vocational and Agricultural High School — one of only three students in the carpentry program at the time. That’s not surprising, as a decades-long emphasis on pushing kids into college has contributed to talent shortages in what are generally well-paying careers in the construction trades.

“The most interesting thing I see in vocational schools is the percentage that are going to college,” Ross said. “Back when we were kids, if you went to vocational school, that meant you were going into a vocation. I’m personally shocked at the kids going on to higher education.”

Walker agreed. “It’s interesting. You can make a really good wage doing this rather than try to come into the job market with some computer skill that every guy and his brother has.”

Smooth Sailing

Other than finding talent, the construction-industry landscape is looking strong in 2019, Walker said.

“One of my lumber-yard reps asked how we were doing because he was really surprised that, right after the first of the year, things are still hopping. He sees it because he supplies a lot of builders. Generally, you get to this time in January, and things kind of slow up, but they’re moving quite well.”

Part of that has been the mild winter — though at press time, shortly after this interview, a major snowstorm was expected to sweep through the Northeast.

“There are jobs where I might have pushed a little harder to get concrete in the ground had I known we would have had this mild weather,” Ross said, “but you had that first [November] snowfall that made you think winter was coming, and then it didn’t.”

He’s expecting a solid spring surge this year, though, once people get their tax refunds and the weather starts to get truly warm.

“One of my lumber-yard reps asked how we were doing because he was really surprised that, right after the first of the year, things are still hopping. He sees it because he supplies a lot of builders. Generally, you get to this time in January, and things kind of slow up, but they’re moving quite well.”

“People are funny,” he said. “They’ll call you in the spring when it starts warming up and want to do something right then, but in reality, some of them should be talking to us right now and planning ahead.”

At the start of 2019, though, the calls have been coming in, partly due to the lack of snow.

“With the weather being mild,” Ross said, “some of them are a little more anxious to get some projects started, when normally they would be hunkered down because they don’t want people tramping sand and salt into their house, and opening and closing doors. So we have more calls than we usually do this time of year, but winter will have to come sooner or later. It’ll be interesting to see what happens then.”

The desire to age in place, however, or simply to turn an old house into something fresh and modern, aren’t ideas subject to the season, and on that front, Construct Associates continues to make its mark on Northampton and the region.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Education

Reservoir of Talent

Ware High School graduates

Ware High School graduates, from left, Felicity Dineen, Jordan Trzpit, Valentina Towne, Joe Gagnon, Morgan Orszulak, and Seth Bourdeau with Michael Moran (right), president of Baystate Health’s Eastern Region, which helped fund tuition and textbooks for the students’ EMT training at Holyoke Community College’s satellite in Ware.

 

 

Seth Bordeau had no plans to become a paramedic, but a chance elective at Ware High School last year — “Introduction to Fire Science,” taught by Ware Fire Department Deputy Chief Edward Wloch — led him down an unexpected path.

“I was less than enthusiastic, but slightly interested in the fire-science class,” Bordeau said. “But after every class, I found myself more and more excited for the next. The subject of emergency services was fascinating, and as the year-long course was coming to an end and graduation grew closer, I knew I’d miss this class the most. I also knew that I wanted to pursue this career.”

Fortunately, the elective led to an opportunity to take an EMT class at the Holyoke Community College satellite located at the Education to Employment (E2E) site on Main Street in Ware. He and fellow Ware High students who finished the high-school elective are now contemplating a career in fire science and emergency medicine. Baystate Wing Hospital Corp., one of the E2E’s local business partners, provided a matching grant that covered half the tuition and textbooks for the EMT course for each of the students.

“When we took a step back and took a broader look, we realized there was a hole in the region — there really weren’t any institutions of higher learning past high school, very little if any public transportation, and a lack of resources for people looking for jobs and employers looking for qualified workers.”

“I signed up for the EMT course almost immediately and didn’t think twice about my decision,” said Bordeau. “The EMT course ran from June to August, the whole summer, and looking back, I wouldn’t have wanted the summer to be any different. I have completed the practical exam and passed, and I am now onto taking my written exam. Once that is completed, I’ve been offered a position as an EMT for the town of West Brookfield. I hope to further my career by looking into paramedic school.”

This career pipeline between Ware High School and HCC’s satellite in Ware is just one example of how E2E — initially forged as a partnership between the Quaboag Valley Community Development Corp. (QVCDC) and HCC — is building connections between higher education, local businesses, economic-development leaders, and the community to meet workforce needs, said Jeff Hayden, vice president of Business and Community Services at HCC.

“From an academic point of view, they’re really looking to provide hands-on training activities for students who maybe aren’t sure what they want to do, or aren’t as book-motivated as some students might be. The hands-on training is giving them experience in an actual occupation,” said Hayden, noting that Ware High School added a criminal-justice elective to its roster of project-based, career-focused learning in 2018, and will introduce a certified nursing assistant (CNA) course in the fall of 2019.

Those efforts are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to E2E programming, which features a range of resources for employers looking for talent and individuals seeking jobs (and the skills needed to procure them), and even a transportation service, the Quaboag Connector, that helps people access these services across these lightly populated towns in West-Central Mass.

“E2E is really a unique and innovative facility to help meet the needs of folks in our rural, former mill-town communities,” said Sheila Cuddy, executive director of the QVCDC. Several years ago, she explained, her organization was looking at strategic planning in the 15 communities it serves.

Jeff Hayden said HCC meets a need in Ware and surrounding towns

Jeff Hayden said HCC meets a need in Ware and surrounding towns for students who might be burdened by a long commute to the nearest college campus.

“We had been meeting with educators and small-business people and larger employers about the disconnect in our unemployment rates in this region, which tend to be 1% to 2% above the state average,” Cuddy told BusinessWest. “At the same time, we had employers who had difficulty hiring qualified workers. When we took a step back and took a broader look, we realized there was a hole in the region — there really weren’t any institutions of higher learning past high school, very little if any public transportation, and a lack of resources for people looking for jobs and employers looking for qualified workers.”

After HCC came on board as the QVCDC’s higher-ed partner in E2E, Country Bank stepped up with class-A office space in downtown Ware it no longer needed, and a mix of business funders (including Monson Savings Bank), grants, and tax credits began to take shape. “Since then, it has mushroomed,” Cuddy said.

For this issue’s focus on education, BusinessWest takes a look at how Education to Employment has brought new levels of collaboration and creativity to bear on the persistent problem of matching job seekers with jobs — often jobs, as in Bordeau’s case, they had no idea they’d want.

Key Connections

In one sense, Hayden noted, the E2E center was created to provide a place where individuals could connect with the college, because a 45-minute commute could be an obstacle — in both time and money — to enrolling in college. “So if you had a place where you could get information, resources, and a study place, with technology there, that might be advantageous.”

Indeed, the roughly 3,000-square-foot center located at 79 Main St. in Ware includes two classrooms, as well as private study areas and office space. Computer workstations are available for community members interested in enrolling in credit classes at HCC as online students. Meanwhile, the center has offered non-credit classes in hospitality and culinary arts, manufacturing, and health careers. Staffers are also on hand to help people with résumé writing, job-interview and application advice, and soft skills that all employers seek.

“They might need help with a résumé, or they might need additional classes, either for college credit or workforce-training classes to get certification for a new job. Or there might be questions about how to apply for financial aid,” Cuddy said.

“We have several computers and robust broadband service,” she added. “It really has become what we envisioned it to be — an education-to-employment center. We’ve had several ServSafe classes to help people step into the hospitality industry, which also helps local restaurants. We did some training with the Mass. Gaming Commission to prepare for casino jobs. We’ve also done manufacturing training with MassHire folks from the Franklin-Hampshire region.”

In addition, local employers have come to E2E looking for skilled workers, and sometimes matches are made through job fairs, she said. “We also have a local veterans’ group that meets there once a month. It really has become a vibrant and vital community resource and a respectful place for people to come to learn.”

Hayden agreed, citing efforts like a business-led program aimed at instilling workforce training and soft skills in the 16-to-24 age group. “They’ve also done programs at the QVCDC where they help people save money to start businesses. They do computer classes, literacy classes, financial-literacy classes, and we’ve done some of that stuff as well out there. It has become very active.”

It’s all supplemented by the Quaboag Connector, a mini-bus system that brings people back and forth between Palmer, Ware, and the other Quaboag communities for jobs, classes, and other things, Hayden noted. “That’s been extremely effective. Oftentimes, we think of the poverty in the urban core of Springfield, Holyoke, and Chicopee, and we don’t necessarily think of the rural or suburban poor, especially in the communities out east, where the challenges of transportation, day care, and elder care are the same as in urban communities. Getting to work on time is a challenge without buses and vans to make it work.”

Baystate Health’s Eastern Region, which includes Baystate Wing Hospital and Baystate Mary Lane, is one of the Quaboag Connector’s partners, providing $90,000 in funding to the transportation initiative.

“The consequences of the lack of transportation and unemployment elevate the importance to invest in these local initiatives. Both provide good options for our young people,” said Mike Moran, Baystate’s Eastern Region president. “Baystate Health is strongly committed to the many communities in our region and will continue to work with our community partners to focus and grow programs and initiatives that promote wellness, education, and workforce development.” 

Natural Fit

Surveying the growing roster of programs run through E2E, Hayden said the partnerships forged among higher education, the business community, and other groups, all of whom are seeking similar outcomes when it comes to building a vibrant workforce, have come together naturally and organically.

E2E offices

Country Bank donated space on Main Street in Ware to the QVCDC for the E2E offices.

“It doesn’t feel forced at all; it feels like people really want to work together to make something happen,” he told BusinessWest. “The challenge is always financial resources. None of us singly have enough resources to make it work, and even jointly, it would be difficult to make some of these initiatives work, but we’ve all been working together to find those resources.”

The needs remain significant, Cuddy added.

“We have a number of manufacturers, small and large, based in our region that are facing the challenge of a workforce that’s aging out. I know a company with more than 100 employees, and within five years, 50% of those employees will be approaching retirement age. I know everyone is having difficulty finding people who are certified to be CNAs, especially as the population ages, and other healthcare careers are having the same issues — the aging of the existing workforce and training newer folks needed to take up these careers.”

That’s why Education to Employment makes sense, and is needed, she went on.

“These community partnerships really speak to Western Mass., whether it be out of necessity or creativity or a general spirit of neighborliness. Especially in the smaller communities, there’s a recognition that all of us working together accomplish a whole lot more than we could individually.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Construction

National Outlook

According to the 2019 Dodge Construction Outlook released by Dodge Data & Analytics, a leader in construction-industry forecasting and business planning, total U.S. construction starts for 2019 will be $808 billion, staying essentially even with the $807 billion recorded in 2018.

“Over the past three years, the expansion for the U.S. construction industry has shown deceleration in its rate of growth, a pattern that typically takes place as an expansion matures,” said Robert Murray, chief economist for Dodge Data & Analytics. “After advancing 11% to 14% each year from 2012 through 2015, total construction starts climbed 7% in both 2016 and 2017, and a 3% increase is estimated for 2018. There are, of course, mounting headwinds affecting construction, namely rising interest rates and higher material costs, but for now these have been balanced by the stronger growth for the U.S. economy, some easing of bank lending standards, still-healthy market fundamentals for commercial real estate, and greater state financing for school construction and enhanced federal funding for public works.”

One important question going into 2019 is whether deceleration is followed by a period of high-level stability or a period of decline, he noted. For 2019, it’s expected that growth for the U.S. economy won’t be quite as strong as what happened in 2018, as the benefits of tax cuts begin to wane. Short-term interest rates will rise, as the Federal Reserve continues to move monetary policy towards a more neutral stance. Long-term interest rates will also rise, reflecting higher inflationary expectations by the financial markets. At the same time, any erosion in market fundamentals for commercial real estate will stay modest. In addition, the greater funding from state and local bond measures passed in recent years will still be present, and it’s likely that federal spending for construction programs will increase.

“In this environment, it’s forecast that growth for construction starts will decelerate further, but not yet make the transition to the point where the overall volume of activity declines” Murray noted. “For 2019, total construction starts are forecast to hold basically steady at $808 billion. By major sector in dollar terms, residential building will be down 2%, non-residential building will match its 2018 amount, and non-building construction will increase 3%.”

The pattern of construction starts by more specific segments includes the following:

• Single-family housing will be unchanged in dollar terms, alongside a modest 3% drop in housing starts to 815,000. There will be a slight decline in homebuyer demand as the result of higher mortgage rates, diminished affordability, and reduced tax advantages for home ownership as the result of tax reform.

• Multi-family housing will slide 6% in dollars and 8% in units to 465,000. Market fundamentals such as occupancies and rent growth had shown modest erosion prior to 2018, which then paused in 2018 due to the stronger U.S. economy. However, that erosion in market fundamentals is expected to resume in 2019.

• Commercial building will retreat 3%, following 2% gains in 2017 and 2018, as well as the substantial percentage increases that took place earlier. While 2018 market fundamentals for offices and warehouses were healthy, this year, vacancy rates are expected to rise as the economy slows, slightly dampening construction. Hotel construction will ease back from recent strength, and store construction will experience further weakness.

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

• Institutional building will advance 3%, picking up the pace slightly from its 1% gain in 2018, which itself followed an 18% hike in 2017. Educational facilities should see continued growth in 2019, supported by funding coming from numerous school-construction bond measures. Healthcare projects will make a partial rebound after pulling back in 2018. Airport terminal and amusement-related projects are expected to stay close to the elevated levels of construction starts reported in 2017 and 2018.

• Manufacturing plant construction will rise 2% following a 18% jump in 2018. The recent pickup in petrochemical plant projects should continue, and cuts in the corporate tax rate from tax reform should encourage firms to invest more in new plant capacity.

• Public-works construction will increase 4%, reflecting growth by most of the project types. The omnibus federal appropriations bill passed last March provided greater funding for transportation projects that will carry over into 2019, and environmental-related projects are getting a lift from recently passed legislation.

• Electric utilities and gas plants will drop 3%, continuing to retreat after the exceptional amount reported back in 2015. New generating capacity continues to come online, dampening capacity utilization rates for power generation.

Dodge Data & Analytics is North America’s leading provider of analytics and software-based workflow-integration solutions for the construction industry. 

Technology

Blasting Off

A team from Feeding Hills gets ready to put their robot to the test.

A team from Feeding Hills gets ready to put their robot to the test.

Seeing a group of middle-schoolers design, build, and program robots that perform specific, detailed tasks on cue is an impressive sight. But the impact of the FIRST LEGO League, which boasts teams in numerous schools throughout Western Mass., goes far beyond engineering training. It’s also teaching young people communication skills, teamwork, and confidence — all key traits to take into whatever career they choose, whether in the STEM fields or not.

As the robotic rover methodically navigated a landscape of obstacles, it relied on its programming to perform any number of tasks, from extracting core samples to angling a solar array to crossing a crater. If the programming — honed over months of diligent trial and error — failed, so did the robot.

That’s OK, though — this wasn’t a billion-dollar piece of outer-space equipment at stake, but a robot built from LEGO Mindstorm parts, and performing tasks on a colorful, space-themed table. And these weren’t astronauts or NASA engineers performing experiments, but area elementary and middle-school students showing off their prowess at the recent FIRST LEGO League Into Orbit Challenge at Western New England University.

Three dozen teams of students from Agawam, Brookfield, Chicopee, Greenfield, Holyoke, Longmeadow, Northampton, South Hadley, Springfield, West Springfield, Westhampton, and Wilbraham took part in the competition, reflecting a surge in growth for school-based robotics programs.

“It’s more than just the robots. Yes, the engineering is important — the math and the physics behind it — but more important than that is the teamwork, the critical-thinking skills, and the communication skills the kids develop.”

After competing head to head with each other, seven of those teams advanced to a statewide competition in Worcester a week later, and from there, the top teams moved on to championship events this spring.

“It’s all about taking your classroom lessons — the math, the science — and applying them in a real-world situation,” said Dana Henry, a senior mentor for the regional FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) program, who first connected students with robotics in Agawam 18 years ago.

“It’s more than just the robots,” he told BusinessWest. “Yes, the engineering is important — the math and the physics behind it — but more important than that is the teamwork, the critical-thinking skills, and the communication skills the kids develop.”

The FIRST LEGO League challenges kids to think like scientists and engineers. During this year’s space-themed season, teams choose real-world problems to solve and then build, test, and program an autonomous robot using LEGO Mindstorms technology to solve a set of missions.

Last months’s event, the Agawam Qualifier, is in its 11th year, moving to WNEU this season after outgrowing its previous space at Agawam Junior High School, Henry noted.

Dana Henry says FIRST LEGO League competitors are applying classroom lessons to real-world problems, and gaining a raft of skills while doing so.

Dana Henry says FIRST LEGO League competitors are applying classroom lessons to real-world problems, and gaining a raft of skills while doing so.

“We have four programs in Agawam, and we help other teams, at other school systems in the area, get up and running,” Henry said of his role with FIRST. “Western New England came in with the facility and some resources, and they are working with a couple of local teams themselves. It’s been a pretty great ride so far.”

Suleyman Demirhan, a science teacher at Hampden Charter School of Science in Chicopee who oversees that school’s robotics club, explained that the faculty coach’s role is to teach students the basics of building and programming the robot — and researching issues as they arise — but it’s important for students to learn how to accomplish their goals with minimal hand-holding.

“They learn a specific topic for their project, and how to design a robot and program it. The coach is there just to guide them, to provide the right materials and supplies for learning the robotics, and then we get to see their progress. We’re teaching them how to solve problems. It’s a learning process,” Demirhan said.

“Actually, they teach each other and learn from one another,” he went on. “I see it like working at a company, like being an engineer, but at the same time being a middle-schooler. They’re learning to solve all these engineering problems, and then they learn how to solve the programming problems.”

Values Added

The FIRST LEGO League, launched 20 years ago by inventor Dean Kamen and LEGO Group owner Kjeld Kirk Kristiansen, now boasts 320,000 participants and 40,000 teams in 98 countries.

At the cornerstone of the program are a set of core values, through which participants learn that friendly competition and mutual gain are not separate goals, and that helping one another is the foundation of teamwork.

According to the league website, those core values include discovery (exploring new skills and ideas), innovation (using creativity and persistence to solve problems), impact (applying what we learn to improve our world), inclusion (respecting each other and embracing our differences), teamwork (understanding that we are stronger when we work together), and fun (enjoying and celebrating what we do).

The student-designed robots are all different, taking myriad approaches to tackling similar challenges.

So the goal is more than learning robotics, engineering, and programming. But even the tasks themselves extend far beyond the robots. Each year, teams are mandated to research a real-world problem such as food safety, recycling, energy, etc., and then develop a solution.

As part of this year’s Into Orbit theme, teams considered the challenges humans must overcome to travel around the solar system — such as extreme temperatures; lack of air, water, and food; waste disposal and recycling; loneliness and isolation; and the need for exercise — and research and present a project, not unlike at a science fair, that aims to solve one of those problems.

“With this year’s theme, they designed a project that helps astronauts in space travel improve their physical conditions and mental health, or it could be anything that supports astronauts,” Demirhan said, noting that his school’s two teams took on the problems of growing food in space and designing an effective trash compactor.

The competition itself centers around the LEGO robots designed and built by the students, he went on. “Each challenge needs to be solved by a robot which is running autonomously. So the students program the robots and make specific attachments that work with different challenges. They don’t only design these attachments, but design and write the programs.”

If the programming is off by the slightest margin, the robot will miss its target on the table — and miss out on critical points needed to post a high score and advance.

“With each one of these challenges, they encounter difficult areas with the programming,” Demirhan went on. “Some programs might work in a specific environment and might not work in a different environment, and they’re trying to write the best program that can work in many different conditions. For example, light could be a factor — robots have light sensors, and the amount of light in the practice room could be different than in competition. So the student needs to solve this challenge and write a really good, efficient program that can run in both these environments.”

For students inclined to this type of work, Henry said, it’s a fun way to learn to apply STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) concepts while developing critical-thinking and team-building skills, and even soft skills like how to talk to the judges about their robots in an engaging way — yes, they’re judged on that, too.

“Not only do they have to build a robot to compete on the table, but they’re also being judged on a project, and they have to adhere to all the core values throughout the FIRST program,” he added. “It’s about communication skills and critical-thinking skills. It’s much more than just robots.”

Time to Shine

Through the FIRST LEGO League, Kamen and Kristiansen always intended for young people to discover the fun in science and technology but also develop in a positive way as people. Henry said he has seen exactly that.

“We had one kid that came through the program who was very shy, ate his lunch in the corner all by himself at his junior high school, but he came into high school and absolutely bloomed. He got into college, and now he’s an engineer with NASA. I’m telling you, if he doesn’t go to Mars, he’s going to be one of the engineers that gets us there.”

Other students in the program have gone on to non-science fields, like teaching, music, and the culinary arts, he continued, but the lessons they learned about solving problems and working with others are applicable to any field.

For those who do aspire to a career in engineering or robotics, however, the FIRST program does offer a leg up, Demirhan said, both in the college-application process — schools consider this valuable experience — and gaining career skills at an earlier age than most future engineers do.

“They’re all doing real-world engineering. Once they go to an engineering school, they’re seeing problems like these and learning how to solve them. So this is really a tiny engineering program that has massive applications. We’re teaching real-world problems and coming up with good solutions to them.”

In short, students are creating ideas, solving problems, and overcoming obstacles, all while gaining confidence in their abilities to positively use technology. To Henry, that’s an appealing mix.

“The STEM part is important, absolutely, but it’s more than just that,” he said. “I can’t stress that enough. We’ve seen kids blossom in so many ways.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]