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Insurance

Co-owners Anna Holhut and Glenn Allan.

That’s What the Nathan Agencies Have Been in Since 1969

The various names can be confusing at first, but make no mistake, the two divisions that make up the Nathan Agences — Amherst Insurance Agency and Amherst Financial Services — are all about making things clear, whether it’s choosing the right property coverage, exploring the various life-insurance options, or figuring out a strategy to carve out a secure retirement. The three principals say they’re just continuing Ron Nathan’s legacy of creating a one-stop shop to bring peace of mind to all stages of life.

Anna Holhut recalls a family with an insurance claim — no, actually, a family with a life-changing crisis.

“They had a fire, and they had nothing, and I had a check for $25,000 the next morning on my desk so they could go buy shoes and socks — and coats, because it was in the winter. They lost everything. Even if you could put a huge amount on a credit card or have reserves, it’s still huge.”

Or the man who, several years ago, had just lost his mother, so he was already in poor spirits when he came home around 9:30 p.m. to a flooded house due to burst pipes. “That night, we had people out there helping him,” Holhut, president of Amherst Insurance Agency, told BusinessWest. “He was overwhelmed, and he was saying, ‘thank you so much.’ But we want to be there, to try to put things in place to help our clients.”

Part of that process, she noted, is teaming with quality companies, from the insurers themselves to home-restoration firms, attorneys, and anyone else who needs to be part of the insurance process, both when the policy is written and when — often sadly — that coverage comes into play.

“We’ve obviously been here a long time and have the networking to get in touch with people in order to help people, and I love to do that,” she said. “That’s what I strive for.”

Glenn Allan, who co-owns the company with Holhut and serves as its vice president, agreed. “Everybody’s going to say, ‘we provide great service,’ but saying it and doing it are two different things. It’s easy to say, harder to do.”

The Nathan Agencies have been striving to meet that standard since Ron Nathan launched the firm — then known as the Nathan Agency and focusing on life insurance and investment products — in 1969. Now celebrating its 50th anniversary, the enterprise actually encompasses two distinct businesses under one roof: Amherst Insurance Agency and Amherst Financial Services, the latter owned by financial advisor Christian Sulmasy.

Christian Sulmasy says he brings a “comprehensive approach” to his work in financial services.

Sulmasy’s clients run the gamut from young people seeking a basic life-insurance policy or a 401(k), just getting used to saving and financial planning, to people in their 50s deciding where to focus their investment energies and discussing long-term-care insurance, to people in retirement protecting their assets.

“What I’m trying to bring to the table is a more comprehensive approach,” Sulmasy said. “When Ron set this all up, he wanted it to be a one-stop shop, so when a client comes in, it’s ‘let us help you with your retirement, your life insurance, insuring your house.’ It’s more than just, ‘let’s roll over your IRA, and let me manage your IRA.’ Now, we’re doing things like retirement projections. Are you on track? Are you not on track? And what strategies do we employ? That’s what I bring to the table, that comprehensive approach.”

In short, these two businesses under the Nathan Agencies umbrella comprise a lifetime of services for clients of all ages who are looking to the future and wondering how to make it a secure and successful one.

Continuum of Care

When Nathan opened his doors in 1969, Sulmasy said, “he created quite a practice. At one time, he sold a lot of life insurance. He did financial services. He also had property and casualty insurance, all under the Nathan Agencies umbrella. And he even had a real-estate arm at one point, which doesn’t exist anymore.”

In 1979, Nathan purchased the Amherst Insurance and Real Estate Agencies and changed his company’s name to the Nathan Agencies. These days, Amherst Insurance Agency offers property and casualty products, and the Amherst Financial Services Agency provides life insurance, health insurance, and financial-services products through Lincoln Investment.

As Nathan approached retirement, he forged a succession plan to allow the business to continue. In 2012, he sold Amherst Insurance Agency to Holhut and Allan, who had joined the firm in 1987 and 1991, respectively. Sulmasy came on board in 2014 and struck a deal to purchase Amherst Financial Services in 2017.

Holhut and Allan mainly serve individual clients, though a growing commercial-lines practice serves a range of companies, with niches including the home daycare market. “Those are people a lot of companies have difficulty insuring or don’t want to insure,” Allan said. “We’re more of a personal-lines agency than a commercial-lines agency, although we’re trying to grow the commercial aspect of the business.”

No matter the client, Holhut said, customer service is a particular point of emphasis. “I would say we run our business like a family business even though we’re not related. It’s the customer service to our clients; we really strive to go the extra mile for our clients. We have receptionists answering the phone when you call. It’s a very friendly, upbeat staff.”

Allan agreed. “We try to ensure that, when people are left messages, they respond in a timely manner. That’s the biggest complaint we hear from people coming from other agencies — ‘oh, they never got back to me.’ We never want to hear that about our staff.”

Technology has driven plenty of change in the insurance world; Holhut and Allen have both been around to witness the total changeover from paper files to electronic ones, and how that has affected speed of communication and response times between agents and customers — not to mention the ability to respond to a need from anywhere.

“Heaven forbid we had a tornado or hurricane and we couldn’t be here. I always want to be able to set up somewhere we can help our clients. And we can put things into play to do that,” Holhut said. “Because that’s when you need somebody — when something bad happens.”

Again, it’s that message of relationships and personal service, which she said customers can’t get from direct insurance writers on the internet.

“We look at people’s policies, and we’re astonished at the limits. When something happens, they find out they have only $5,000 worth of property-damage coverage and they did $25,000 in damage. There aren’t many cars out there worth only $5,000. So it’s a matter of educating them,” she said. “When people are purchasing something online, they’re just pushing buttons, and they’re just going for the lowest price, and the lowest price isn’t always the best. Maybe you get it cheaper, but you don’t have the coverage you need when something happens.”

Or, as Allan put it, “are you buying a price, or are you buying the coverage you need?”

Education is a big part of Sulmasy’s job, too, whether it’s helping small businesses navigate health-insurance offerings or explaining to individual clients what goes into hybrid life-insurance policies, which offer both a health benefit and help paying for long-term care. Or, of course, teaching people why it’s never too early to plan for retirement.

“People are becoming more wise to it, but for every client that wants to move forward, there are two or three who need a push,” he told BusinessWest. “It doesn’t have to be a full estate plan — it could be basic things like a will, healthcare proxy, or power of attorney. At the very least, getting those in place is important.

“Everybody’s different,” he went on. “Some people kick the can down the road: ‘I’ll deal with it next year.’ With them, my role would be to motivate them or push them in the direction to do what’s in their best interest. I can’t make them do it. I’m not an attorney — I can’t draft up a will for them. But we have some relations with estate planners in the area, and where appropriate, I try to at least let them know these are people I’ve done business in the past and have a comfort level with, and if they want to pursue it, I can certainly help them with that.”

Cradle to Grave

Holhut said her division of the Nathan Agencies also has strong rapport with the attorneys and realtors it works with. “We have the reputation of getting the paperwork to them correct and on time. They don’t want headaches. They don’t want to hold up a closing. It’s important. And we stand behind our reputation.”

Meanwhile, an active blog on the agency’s website educates the public on how to mitigate risk with seasonally placed articles on topics ranging from ice dams to kids going away to college.

The two sides of the Nathan Agencies often refer customers to one another, recognizing that, together, they can help people through numerous stages of life, which is something Ron Nathan always prioritized. “A lot of people say they do it,” Allan said, “but we can actually do it.”

Sulmasy, for one, enjoys the aspect of his job that helps people find security and peace of mind.

“I used to be in the corporate world, struggling to find my social footprint on this earth,” he said, adding that he wanted to make a greater impact on society. But it was a failing economy that gave him the kick he needed.

“I was laid off from my last corporate gig in 2008, when the market was plummeting,” he said. “But I was able to figure out what I want to do for the rest of my life. I made the jump into financial planning, where I could still rely on my financial skill set I’d accumulated, but, at the same time, help people in a more meaningful way than I was in the corporate world. And that’s been totally gratifying for me.

“That’s why I got into the industry — I wanted to help people,” he added. “I believe this is a relationship business. I feel like the relationship is equally important as the financial advice and guidance I and my team provide. Knowing it’s about relationships and knowing I’m trying to help people, it’s been a great fit, and I haven’t looked back.”

Holhut looks back, in some ways — like when she finds she has served multiple generations of a family.

“We watch the kids grow up, then they have kids, then the kids are driving … it’s crazy,” she said. “I enjoy that. I’ve always said I love what I do, because I love the people.” u

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Four years ago, a $7,500 grant from MassDevelopment helped to fund the first annual Downtown GetDown block party in Chicopee. Mayor Richard Kos understands why that was a good investment.

“They like the idea of people coming downtown, because when they do, it gives other people impetus to want to develop the downtown,” he told BusinessWest.

In that first year, he went on, “the block party really removed a lot of question marks. People say there’s no parking downtown. Well, we had 15,000 people over a weekend, and no one complained about parking. It was not an issue. We had people come down and say, ‘this is a nice place to walk around.’ It’s safe, secure, well-lit at night, and they had a lot of fun.”

Now in its fifth year, Downtown GetDown is again expected to draw around 15,000 people the weekend of Aug. 23-24, offering a steady diet of music, entertainment, food, and more than 60 vendor booths.

And what visitors will see is a downtown on the rise, the mayor noted. Take, for example, two residential projects in the pipeline, both of them conversions of former mills: the SilverBrick Group’s $29 million project that will offer 280 units at the Cabotville Mill, and Mount Holyoke Development’s $14 million project that will bring another 105 to the Lyman Mills building.

Across the street is Ames Privilege, a 270-unit development that opened several years ago and now has a two- to three-year waiting list. “We look at that as a model,” Kos said. “If anyone wonders about the need, we point out what a success Ames Privilege is.”

Mills have a particular attraction for young professionals who seek urban living surrounded by public transportation options and walkable amenities. The latter will get a boost with the expected opening of a C-Town supermarket downtown.

“That eliminates a food desert downtown,” Kos said. “To some degree, they’re anticipating what’s happening when you add several hundred apartments. People need groceries — it’s convenient to just walk out your door to a market that provides a lot of food options.”

Chicopee has also signed on to the regional ValleyBike program, with the downtown joining two other locations — in Chicopee Falls and Willimansett — with bike-share stations. “We think those will be positive, and will give people another way to get to work and do things they enjoy doing,” the mayor added.

But perhaps the most intriguing development downtown is the two-year MassDevelopment grant that will pay for a Transformative Development Initiative fellow who will focus on economic-development initiatives in the city center, said Lee Pouliot, the city’s director of Planning and Development.

“Our objectives are things like reactivating the old library that’s been vacant for a really long time, getting vacant storefronts filled, and using the GetDown as a catalyst for finding entities that might be interested in growing their business to a permanent location,” he said. “It’s taking energy from those activities and, through the fellow who’s working on our behalf, getting those things to the next step.”

To Kos, it’s all about continuing the momentum that has been picking up steam in recent years. “That’s how you get a downtown where people want to come,” he said, adding, “I grew up in an era of urban renewal where you tore everything down, and unfortunately sometimes there was no plan to replace it, so you wound up with nothing. And then people would scramble to find stuff.”

But he sees value in preserving a downtown’s character — for example, the old mills — while looking to the future. “The old brick-and-mortar buildings were so much more impressive than the new stuff.”

 

For this edition of Community Spotlight, we shine the light on what’s happening not only in Chicopee’s downtown, but across a city that developers have found increasingly attractive in recent years.

Mayor Richard Kos says Chicopee’s downtown is enjoying more visitation and vibrancy.

Long Overdue

One of the city’s more visible signs of improvement is the work going on at the 148-year-old City Hall itself, which is undergoing a $12 million improvement and renovation project addressing everything from handicap accessibility to roof and foundation repair; from a new elevator to a full auditorium renovation.

“This building needed a little attention,” Kos said. “The last time I was mayor, we built schools and a library. This time, we’re fixing things.”

The city also bought a house near City Hall from the Valley Opportunity Council, and will demolish it; coupled with other city-acquired properties nearby, the endgame will be 125 to 150 additional free parking spots next to City Hall and walking paths to connect them with downtown destinations.

That comes on the heels of a $10 million renovation of Chicopee’s public-safety complex a couple miles away on Court Street. “As one proponent of that, we’re putting a civilian dispatch facility there and making it robust enough to make it regional,” Kos said, an effort that currently includes Longmeadow but could eventually expand to other towns.

“A number of communities have been looking to do this, but nothing was being done, and we made our improvements sufficient, so it just made sense,” the mayor continued. “In some parts of the country, there’s a regional dispatch for 20 to 30 cities and towns. Here in Massachusetts, nearly every community has own dispatch, and for some, it just doesn’t make sense, with one or two calls a night, if that.”

The city is also training civilians to work the system, which will keep more uniformed officers on the street, he added.

Meanwhile, the 10-year (so far) quest to develop the former Uniroyal site continues, as the city needs to abate three more buildings, demolishing one and securing two for future development, including office and residential uses, Pouliot said.

The city also continues to invest in its two high schools, such as an upcoming replacement of the turf field at Chicopee Comprehensive High School and new LED lights for the Chicopee High School field. It’s also starting an $8 million reconstruction of Fuller Road that will include permitting work to create access to Chicopee River for kayakers.

On the city-services side, Kos continues to tout Chicopee’s low residential tax rate, a municipal electric-light utility with similarly attractive rates, and a plan, also through Chicopee Electric Light, to install high-speed fiber throughout the city, joining the growing ranks of ‘gig cities’ across the U.S.

“That will benefit both residents and businesses,” he said. “The internet is really what drives so much now.”

Meanwhile, in preparation to close its dump on New Lombard Road, which it did in June, Chicopee has promoted less waste over the past few years by limiting trash pickup to one 35-gallon barrel per household, with residents able to buy bags for additional trash.

“For the vast majority of people, it’s worked well,” Kos said. “We also gave everyone a barrel three times that size for recycling, which sends the message that you should recycle more than you throw away, and it’s been working. Our trash has gone down by over 25%.”

Give and Take

In other words, it takes cooperation between the city and its residents and businesses to create an environment where people want to live and set up shop. On the latter front, the booming commercial center at Mass Pike exit 5 picked up another pair of businesses with Five Guys and Mattress Firm in recent months, while Dinesh Patel’s planned $45 development at exit 6 is set to begin soon, and will include a hotel, a gas station, a sit-down restaurant, a coffee shop, and two fast-food eateries.

In Willimansett, major employers like Callaway and J. Polep are thriving on Meadow Street, while Chicopee Street recently saw the opening of Leadfoot Brewing. Meanwhile, the new marijuana economy has arrived in Chicopee as well, with Mass Alternative Care already operational on East Main Street, Theory Wellness set to open a shop on Fuller Road, and a couple of other businesses moving forward with the permitting process.

In short, there’s a lot going on, said Kos, who is getting ready to step down from his second stint as mayor, not seeking re-election this fall. To help harness that energy, the city is getting ready to launch a comprehensive planning project, a resident-driven project being conducted by Horsely Witten Group under a two-year, $150,000 contract.

“It will simply answer the question, ‘what does Chicopee want to be in 20 years?’” Pouliot said, “so we can start developing policy and update zoning to support what we want to build now, versus what we wanted to build back in the ’40s or the ’70s.”

Added Kos, “we’re not only dealing with the present, but preparing for the future” — and there are plenty of reasons to be excited about both.

“We’re trying, as a city,” he went on, “to move on multiple fronts to draw more businesses and more residents — to make this a place where you want to live, not where you have to live.” u

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Architecture

History Lessons

At right: from left, project partners Chris Orszulak, Henry Clement, and Andrew Lam.

In its heyday, the Brewer-Young mansion was the center of Longmeadow’s social scene. Those who don’t remember those days know it more as an eyesore alongside the town green, after a string of owners over the past 30 years were unable to maintain the decaying structure. Enter a trio of investors with a commercial vision for the property, one that would pump economic vitality into the building while restoring its original architecture — and historic importance.

Andrew Lam says he’s “very invested in Longmeadow’s history,” and not just because he lives next door to it.

Specifically, his home abuts the Brewer-Young mansion, a sprawling, Colonial Revival estate built in 1885 that has, to put it charitably, seen better days.

Restoration work aims to return the mansion to its former glory (top photo, courtesy of the Longmeadow Historical Society).

“I’m very interested in making sure we preserve this property and turn it into a positive on our green — not to have it torn down or turned into something negative,” said Lam, an eye surgeon, author of three history books, and co-owner, along with financial-services professional Chris Orszulak and contractor Henry Clement of Innovative Building and Design, of the mansion that will soon begin the next phase of its intriguing story — as a professional office complex for small businesses.

The 10,900-square-foot house, at 734 Longmeadow St., has undergone a slow decline since it left the Young family — of Absorbine fame — in 1989, and has fallen into significant disrepair over the past decade, especially after its last owner, Shahkar Fatemni, was foreclosed on in 2013 and evicted in 2015.

The problem is that — as a string of owners since 1989 have learned — with its massive size and the restoration work it requires, it’s just not viable as a residence anymore; when the front columns collapsed several years ago, it cost Chase Bank $120,000 just to repair the porch. Even if the town got lucky and a wealthy investor stepped in to buy it, Lam noted, what would happen when he moved out? Longmeadow would be in the same situation all over again.

Orszulak also lives in town — in fact, with kids at Center Elementary School, right across the street, and a commute to work that takes him right past the mansion, he’s had a good view of it for a long time. He discussed some sort of commercial development at the site with Lam several years ago, when Lam still believed a residential use was possible.

Jason Pananos in 734 Workspace, the co-working center he’s developing on the third floor.

“I basically said to him, ‘listen, if it ever gets to a point where it comes on the market and you agree it’s not a viable single-family residence, why don’t we talk about partnering on repurposing it and putting it back on the path to sustainability?” Orszulak told BusinessWest. “I’ve always felt like the property was a key part of the town center, and there was a way to sustain and repurpose it.”

Fast-forward a few years — and a massive restoration effort — and the three owners will welcome a nearly full house of commercial tenants in September. The Youngs’ ballroom is now the home of financial advisers Shawn Torres and Alecka Kress of Vitae Wealth Management. The minister’s parlor is occupied by event planner Lindsay Maloni. Setting up shop in the formal dining room are Melissa Buscemi and Maria Arsenieva, program director and financial advisor, respectively, for Reboot, a national nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting Jewish heritage. Psychologist Bonnie Connell will practice in the mansion’s former kitchen.

Meanwhile, Dr. Melissa Johnson, a surgeon at Baystate Medical Center, will operate a practice on the entire second floor, and the third floor is given over to a large co-working space.

The public will have an opportunity to tour the restored mansion as part of the Friends of Storrs Library Tour of Homes fundraiser on Oct. 5. What they’ll find is a lot of history — and, for the first time in many years, hope that a new, vibrant chapter is being written within what was, very recently, only an eyesore alongside the town green.

Singing the Praises

The mansion’s first resident was Rev. Samuel Wolcott, known for writing more than 200 Christian hymns. It was built for him by his two sons, who made their fortune in silver mining in Colorado. Ownership passed to State Sen. Edward Brewer in 1901, but the mansion’s third owner, Mary Ida Young, truly put it on the map.

The matriarch of a family that had made its fortune from Absorbine, a horse liniment popular in the days before automobiles, Young lived there from 1921 to 1960, and during this time it was truly a Gilded Age mansion, with extensive grounds and many servants and gardeners, serving as the site of important social gatherings.

A worker from Blackburn Building Conservation engages in the painstaking work of repairing the original wallpaper.

The Young family retained it until the 1980s, over the years selling off parts of the estate toward the Connecticut River — some was given up for I-91, more to enable development of the Ely Road neighborhood in the rear. A series of residential owners owned the home it in the 1990s and 2000s, each with plans to restore it and put it to use (among the plans were an event space and a bed and breakfast) — but each kept running into the high cost of repair and maintenance.

As it decayed further, Fatemni, five years before his eviction, sought a residential buyer, but found none. And once the property was abandoned, it went downhill quickly.

“Over these eight years, it really started decaying rapidly,” Lam said. “The front portico columns collapsed. The porches were rotting and threatened to fall. The inside had water damage from roof leaks. It was a terrible eyesore for the town because it is located prominently at the center of the historic green.”

Lam, who served for years on the Longmeadow Historical Commission, wanted to preserve it, but every historical preservation society or benefactor he approached realized it was too expensive to maintain — “it was a true money pit” — and declined to help. One society said taking the project on would have bankrupted it.

Finally, he came around to the idea that a commercial use would make sense, and teamed with Orszulak and Clement to purchase the property for $470,200. But not just any commercial use, like a bank or chain store that would be out of character for the town center. Instead, they envisioned a professional office complex that would require renovating and restoring, not tearing down, this piece of history.

“It is probably the best example of Colonial Revival architecture in the Pioneer Valley,” Lam told BusinessWest. “All three of us cared deeply about preserving the mansion in the best possible way.”

That use, however, required a zone change — and a two-thirds vote at a special town meeting. “We had a strong case it was in such terrible condition that it was quite obvious something needed to be done, but any time there’s a change, there are always going to be people for and against it.”

Their effort was buoyed by an informational campaign — and the support of Todd and Tyler Young, the last of the Young family to reside in the mansion.

The striking conservatory at the mansion was restored with new tempered, shatter-proof glass.

“When considering the various use cases (bed and breakfast, condominiums, etc.) and related market and financial analysis the current owners have undertaken, our family honestly believes that the proposal of re-zoning this property for professional office space is the most realistic and best use of this uncommon structure,” they wrote to Longmeadow Buzz, an online forum, in January 2018. “Outside of a viable repurposing and renovation, we sincerely believe demolition of this prominent building is a certainty once it is officially deemed uninhabitable or a catastrophic event such as a partial structural collapse or fire occurs — whichever comes next.”

The vote that month was close, as 69% approved the zone change from a residence to professional offices. “That’s different from commercial zoning,” Lam said. “We didn’t want it to be a McDonald’s or a gas station or any building that didn’t look historic.”

Since then, he, Orszulak, and Clement have poured $1.3 million into renovations, with more to come — the original budget was $2 million, and Lam thinks it will wind up in that ballpark.

Melding Old and New

It has been a delicate dance. On one hand, Lam said, “everything needed to be modernized — HVAC, plumbing, electrical. There was no central air, and the roof was collapsing. Every day brought a new challenge. ‘Oh, we need handrails.’ ‘Oh, we need an elevator.’ ‘Oh, we need a fire escape.’ But we didn’t want to take away from the historic look.”

Original features include marble floors and a grand staircase, lined by stained-glass windows, in the front foyer; a glassed-in conservatory based on the Crystal Palace from London’s Great Exhibition of 1851; and embossed leather wallpaper on the first floor designed by Zuber & Cie, an 18th-century French manufacturer that also designed wallpaper for the Diplomatic Reception Room in the White House.

“The wallpaper was literally falling apart, full of cracks and peeling,” Lam said, noting that the team commissioned Middleborough-based Blackburn Building Conservation return it to its original glory, a painstaking process involving tiny scalpels and other equipment — and plenty of patience.

“The whole staircase is priceless,” Lam said. “The goal when you walk into the building is for it to appear as it did in 1885 when it was first built — exactly the same. The staircase and stained glass are all the same.”

But today’s Brewer-Young mansion reflects the 21st century in many ways, too, such as 734 Workspace, the co-working complex Jason Pananos has developed on the third floor, featuring 10 small offices — already mostly rented — a large shared workspace, and amenities including a kitchen and office equipment.

The mansion’s grand staircase is highlighted by large panels of stained glass.

“It’s very exciting. It’s going to be a vibrant place — a place where entrepreneurs and professionals come together and cross-pollinate ideas,” Lam said. “It’ll be a wonderful environment to work in. All our tenants are local; they all believe in our goal to save this mansion, and they’re willing to join us in doing just that.”

Saving the 134-year-old house means modernizing it in other ways, too, many of which require significant funds.

“Frankly, it was not clear how much it would truly cost,” Lam said. “Asbestos was discovered that would have to be removed. We needed to install a giant sprinkler system that includes the exterior porches to comply with codes. The conservatory serves no purpose from a profit standpoint, but it’s beautiful, so we replaced the old glass with tempered, shatter-proof glass.”

Even more beautiful, the partners said, was the speed at which the building was rented.

“It was a stronger response than I anticipated,” Orszulak said, noting that the tenants on board are virtually all from Longmeadow — impressive in a town that has a lower density of commercial properties than any other in the region, by far. “For us to be almost occupied before completion was really reassuring to me personally. This level of support, I think, speaks to the broad community interest in repurposing this property.”

Lam never assumed that kind success, although he was hopeful.

“That was one of the major risks we were taking — that no one would want to be there,” he told BusinessWest. “But the town strongly believes in our goals to preserve it in an aesthetically beautiful way, and that’s reflected in the people who want to be there. They’ve trusted us and agreed to rent before the building was beautiful. That’s telling, and very fulfilling to us.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Education

Learning to See

Joy Baglio

When she arrived in the Pioneer Valley from New York City four years ago, Joy Baglio knew she wanted to write, and to connect with other writers. What she didn’t expect was to stumble upon a passion to teach the craft of writing, and to assemble a team to help her do that. Since its opening in 2016, the Pioneer Valley Writers’ Workshop has grown steadily, into a place both supportive and rigorous. And that’s an intriguing story in itself.

Joy Baglio likes sharing a quote by Flannery O’Connor, who wrote, “learning to see is the basis for learning all the arts.”

And there are many ways to see, Baglio said, including breaking apart written texts to examine the ‘how’ of writing — the craft, to employ a term Baglio uses often to describe what takes place at Pioneer Valley Writers’ Workshop (PVWW).

“I guess I have an inner engineer, someone who wants to understand how things work — but with stories,” she said during a candid conversation with BusinessWest, a few weeks after she was honored by the magazine as one of this year’s 40 Under Forty.

The problem is that the process of learning how to improve one’s writing requires vulnerability — and not every writer relishes that.

“People want to be recognized, they think they want to improve, but they don’t know how to take feedback,” she said. “We all have sense that what we produce is precious and sacred. That’s an earlier writer impulse — ‘this came out this way, this needs to be in this format, I’m protective of the way it is.’”

However, “there’s a moment when you emerge from that, when you really want to grow,” she went on, before hearkening back to the O’Connor quote. “Learning to see is also learning to see where your own work can grow. What can you learn from others? How can you learn those things? Taking feedback is one of the big challenges. It’s hard — it challenges our sense of self.”

But those who attend classes and workshops at PVWW quickly learn the value of feedback, of diving honestly into their work, and of honing their craft — just as Baglio does with the trusted writers to whom she sends her own manuscripts.

Joy Baglio (right) with PVWW Assistant Director Kate Senecal at the Easthampton Book Fest.

“If there’s anything not working, I want to know all of it. I want this thing to be as good as it can be,” she said of perhaps the greatest reason to take a class. “It requires deep self-honesty. What do you really want from your writing? Are you writing for yourself, in which case feedback is very threatening? Is it all about the ego, or is there something about the process of writing that you love? Do you want to be recognized and that’s all, or do you want to be the best writer you can be? If so, it requires a kind of surrendering.”

Writers — both seasoned and just starting out — have been happily surrendering, and growing, at PVWW since Baglio launched the school in 2016 as an informal Meetup.com group. It has since expanded to 13 instructors and a comprehensive curriculum that draws fiction writers, memoir writers, poets, even songwriters. One-day classes offer participants the opportunity to focus on specific elements such as dialogue, setting, and suspense, while multi-week series delve deeper into fiction fundamentals, story arc, revision, and more.

The organization also provides one-on-one consultations and writing-coach services, as well as hosting free writer gatherings and readings designed to cultivate and support the writing community at large.

It’s a collaborative environment where the instructors — who receive most of the proceeds the class fees generate — have plenty of say in what they’d like to bring to the table.

“We just slowly built it so we had more and more people teaching, and in order to sustain it, we started charging for classes, as low as we could, and it just kind of grew from sheer demand of people being interested and telling us how valuable they found it.”

“I might say, ‘it would be great if we had a class on sentence structure, creating flow on sentence level,’ and someone might fill that gap. But I want them to be passionate about what they’re teaching. We send out calls for class proposals, and I try to offer as many as we can,” Baglio said. “We offered 20 classes last spring — so it’s really kind of grown. I had no idea that it would grow like this.”

Settling Down

Baglio’s own story begins in Buffalo, N.Y. — “I grew up in blizzards and lake-effect snow” — after which she earned her undergraduate degree in English and creative writing from Bard College in New York, followed by an MFA in fiction from the New School in Manhattan.

She remained in the city for several years after that, but she and her partner were looking for a lifestyle change when they moved to the Pioneer Valley in 2015.

“My own writing started taking off when I moved here,” she recalled. “There must be something about leaving a place like New York City and coming to a place like this, a new place.”

Some early successes with published work and awards — her short stories have appeared in Tin House, Iowa Review, New Ohio Review, TriQuarterly, PANK, SmokeLong Quarterly, and many others — gave her a sense of momentum and possibility in her new home. In particular, a short story in Tin House called “Ron” — about a young woman who encounters a long series of lovers by that name — led to a film and TV option, and a film agent. Meanwhile, she’s working on a novel based loosely on her short story “How to Survive on Land,” the story of three half-mermaid siblings.

Much of Baglio’s work falls into the genre known as speculative fiction, a broad umbrella that includes sci-fi, fantasy, dystopian or futuristic fiction, and other imaginative themes. She started writing fantasy in high school, but as an undergrad, she was encouraged to write in a more realistic bent, although it wasn’t interesting to her. Inspired by the stories of Karen Russell and others, she felt she could uncover more meaning through more interesting, fantastic angles — and have fun doing it.

“It feels more playful, and I’m an advocate that writing is not drudgery,” she said. “My impulse was always that kind of story, but I got steered away from it — and then I refound it.”

A lot of her ideas lend themselves to “short exploration,” she said, which explains why she has about 20 pieces of flash fiction — very short stories — on her desktop. “I jump around and try to inch them all forward simultaneously, like an advancing army of stories. I like to work from start to finish through a piece and get that practice of what it means to begin and end something and develop it.”

That said, she’s making progress on her novel — writing much of it in a notebook instead of on a computer, which forces her to move the story forward, rather than get bogged down tweaking one section. She was awarded fellowships from the Elizabeth George Foundation and the Speculative Literature Foundation for work and research on the novel, for which she has already received early interest from agents and publishers.

She also teaches at the Boston-based creative writing center GrubStreet, and is associate fiction editor of Bucknell University’s literary magazine, West Branch.

The school’s instructors bring a deep pool of writing and editing experience to their classes.

All that would seem to take a good deal of Baglio’s time, and it does. In fact, she never planned to start a writing school — just to move to an arts-friendly region with a writing community she could tap into. When she did, through the Meetup groups gathering at Commons Coworking in Williamsburg, she saw an opportunity for more.

“There are a lot of small writing groups around here, and I loved some of them. I just felt a need for something else — I felt people wanting and needing instruction and tools,” she said. “I refer to ‘the writer’s toolbox’ — all the techniques and tools and concrete stuff that can actually help people. Like point of view — it’s a very technical craft element, and when you understand point of view and narrative distance and how to move farther and closer to your characters, it can really improve your writing a lot.”

She was particularly inspired by writing conferences she attended after earning her MFA, especially Tin House’s summer workshop in Portland, Oregon, which was very craft-based in instruction.

“We learned about technical stuff that I feel wasn’t even taught in many of my MFA classes. It really approached writing from the point of view of how to technically learn different skills,” she said. So, once her Meetup sessions became well-attended, Baglio began to put the pieces together in an entrepreneurial way.

“Even at the beginning, I approached it as a class, so I had a whole lesson. I think the first-ever one I did was on creating and developing characters,” she said. “I was leading it; it wasn’t just a free-for-all meeting where we’d sit and write together. I was giving out a lot of craft instruction I had accumulated over years — a lot of stuff I thought was helpful. And people kept coming back.”

Preserving the Spark

The roster of classes and workshops gradually expanded as Baglio met more writers drawn to the experience — and more instructors as well.

“We just slowly built it so we had more and more people teaching, and in order to sustain it, we started charging for classes, as low as we could, and it just kind of grew from sheer demand of people being interested and telling us how valuable they found it,” she explained. “A lot of people told us this was the first of this kind of writing instruction in the Valley. There are a lot of literary offerings and writers, but there isn’t one cohesive craft school for writing. So I felt there was a need — and we kept expanding.”

Becoming an entrepreneur was an education in itself, she added, and in many ways, running the school has taken time away from actual writing, but, on balance, she feels energized by the interactions.

“With writing, it’s always a balance of preserving your own creative spark and your own initial drive that led you to write in the first place with the practical side of how to teach others,” she told BusinessWest. “I really love teaching. I feel like I learn so much from the students and from other writers. I feel like I have this community of writers in the Valley.

Joy Baglio is seen here teaching the first-ever multi-week workshop (Intro to Fiction) at Pioneer Valley Writers’ Workshop — the first, as it turns out, of many more.

“It’s become this weird marriage of my own passion and the practical aspects of the business,” she went on. “Administrative work takes a lot of time. But it does give me creative energy. I just see what the other instructors are teaching, and I’m inspired by their topics, what they propose.”

The school — which draws writers of all ages and skill levels, from young people just starting out to retirees contemplating their memoirs — remains based at Common Coworking, which has been a positive symbiotic relationship; a number of current members at the space discovered it through a writing class.

Baglio also hosts free monthly community writing sessions and organizes free public literary readings and author panels at venues such as UMass Amherst, local libraries and bookstores, and other central locations in the Pioneer Valley. The school’s curriculum also includes workshops specifically geared to young creative writers, from middle through high school. On a related note, Baglio is currently teaching speculative fiction writing to high-school girls at Smith College’s summer writing program.

While her next goal is to get her novel into the world — which she feels would raise the profile of the PVWW as well as her own — she’s also looking at ways to expand the school, including online options and perhaps a residency program.

“I want to find really innovative ways to help people feel empowered creatively,” she said. “I feel like Pioneer Valley Writers’ Workshop can go in many different directions, but craft is always at the center of it. I want it to feel both rigorous and kind.”

She’s found plenty of both rigor and kindness through her development of a school she never planned to open when she left the urban environs of New York City.

“I remember moving here and reading some article saying this is the most densely populated area of writers in the country. So it isn’t surprising that this would emerge here,” she said. “I wasn’t dreaming of starting a writing school in New York, but I needed to get out of the city to do this. I feel like the Valley itself inspired this.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Manufacturing

Taking Flight

Since the announcement last month that defense and aerospace giants Raytheon and United Technologies will merge into one firm based in Eastern Mass., few other details have emerged, and questions remain about the impact on the companies’ workforce, particularly those currently based at UTC’s Connecticut plant. But some see potential growth in the merger, which may bode well for the many Western Mass. machine shops — and their 5,000 employees — that make components for those companies.

Rick Sullivan calls it the “invisible backbone of the economy” in Western Mass.

He refers to precision manufacturing, and he chooses each of those words for a reason. Machine shops — virtually all of them in the small (make that very small) to medium-sized range — exist in almost every community in the four counties of Western Mass.

“Those companies, if we could put them together under one room, it would be a giant company that gets everyone’s attention all the time — national attention. It’s that significant,” said Sullivan, president and CEO of the Western Mass. Economic Development Council.

As for invisible? “These shops each have a real niche and do high-quality work, and you don’t see that impact every single day,” he went on. “But it’s a true center of excellence. It’s important.”

Among the work many of these shops do is supplying components for major companies — like Raytheon and United Technologies Corp. (UTC). And when two companies of that size announce plans to merge, as they did last month, it sends ripples of concern through that often-invisible but critical industry, simply because of the uncertainty it produces.

“Obviously, when anything changes out there, we have to evaluate that change in terms of what it’s going to mean locally,” Sullivan told BusinessWest. “No question, the relationship of Massachusetts manufacturers with both companies is significant.”

The merger — which will create one of the world’s largest defense companies, with combined sales of $74 billion — will close in the first half of 2020 after United Technologies completes the previously planned separation of its Otis and Carrier businesses.

The combined company, to be named Raytheon Technologies Corp., will be a major player in defense research and technology — not that the two companies weren’t already. In announcing the merger, the two giants said they will be able to develop new technologies more quickly, with combined research and development spending of $8 billion annually and more than 60,000 engineers.

In many ways, that’s good news, but there are workforce-related questions, state Sen. Eric Lesser noted the day the merger was announced.

Rick Sullivan says the economic impact of the region’s precision manufacturers is significant, even as it often flies under the public radar.

“The UTC-Raytheon deal means another major corporate HQ is relocating to Massachusetts, which overall for Massachusetts is positive news and will be celebrated in Boston,” he said, while quickly noting that a sizable portion of UTC’s current workforce lives in Greater Springfield.

“A quick drive past the huge parking at UTC’s facility across from Bradley Airport, for example, shows a lot of Massachusetts license plates,” he went on. “I personally know many constituents that work at the UTC facilities in both Windsor Locks and Farmington — engineers, electricians, accountants, salespeople, etc. — almost all very good and well-paying careers with great career paths at a variety of education levels.

“Long term, what will happen to those Western Mass. UTC jobs as a result of this merger?” Lesser asked. “If facilities are relocated to Metro Boston, what will losing those jobs mean for Western Mass.? It won’t be positive. We need good jobs at both ends of Massachusetts, and everywhere in between.”

The fact that Raytheon Technologies will be based near Boston drew a complaint from U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, who said he is concerned about the potential workforce impact on his state. A member of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Blumenthal also urged the Defense Department, the Justice Department, and other agencies to examine the potential impact on costs and competition in the defense industry.

Maintaining the Flow

Then there’s the matter of protecting the flow of work to the region’s small machine shops and their 5,000-plus employees. It’s an area of concern for Kristin Carlson in both her roles — as president of Peerless Precision in Westfield and also of the Western Mass. chapter of the National Tooling and Machining Assoc.

She recently told BusinessWest that business is booming for Peerless and most other local precision manufacturers, and that the region has a reputation across the country and around the world as a precision-machining hub. The industries the sector serves — aerospace, defense, oil and gas, and some commercial sectors — are surging, and a report issued last year by the Precision Manufacturing Regional Alliance Projects suggests that the manufacturing sector statewide will need to fill up to 1,500 jobs this year, due to growth and retirement.

“Obviously, when anything changes out there, we have to evaluate that change in terms of what it’s going to mean locally. No question, the relationship of Massachusetts manufacturers with both companies is significant.”

So there’s a lot at stake when a move of this scale happens — and Carlson hopes the impact is a net positive.

“A lot of the machine shops are already suppliers to Raytheon or UTC,” she said. “From what I can see, this merger presents the opportunity for existing suppliers to those two separate companies to become suppliers to the new company, which can increase opportunities for local machine shops and other manufacturers — which means growth and more jobs.”

As for the move of UTC to Eastern Mass., where Raytheon is already based, Carlson doesn’t expect the company to move its entire workforce, although it hasn’t made those plans clear yet.

“I don’t know what the grand plan is,” she said. “My perspective is, I don’t think they’re going to be moving everyone to Eastern Mass. I anticipate some jobs might get transferred over to the new location, but I don’t think they’ll be shutting down or moving everyone over.”

Kristin Carlson says the Raytheon-UTC merger may present opportunities to increase an already-robust pipeline of work.

Raytheon Technologies intends to focus on hypersonics — vehicles and weapons that can fly faster than the speed of sound — as well as intelligence and surveillance systems, artificial intelligence for commercial aviation, and cybersecurity for connected planes.

Raytheon was founded in 1922 and makes missiles, including the Patriot system, and cybersecurity tools. United Technologies was founded in 1934 and makes products for the aerospace and building sectors, including airplane engines and spacesuits.

“Our two companies have iconic brands that share a long history of innovation, customer focus, and proven execution,” United Technologies Chairman and CEO Greg Hayes noted in a statement last month.

Hayes will become the CEO of Raytheon Technologies. Two years after the merger closes, he will add the title of chairman. Raytheon Chairman and CEO Tom Kennedy will be appointed executive chairman. The company’s board will include eight directors from UTC and seven from Raytheon.

Defense mergers are nothing new in recently years. In 2018 alone, there were eight mergers exceeding $1 billion in value, including an all-stock deal between L3 Technologies and Harris and General Dynamics’ acquisition of CSRA Inc., according to PricewaterhouseCoopers.

Building on Relationships

Still, in Western Mass., much of the focus has come down to jobs, and preserving the working relationships that exist between small machine shops and large players like Raytheon and UTC.

“Those relationships as subcontractors are vital to us,” Sullivan told BusinessWest. “I do think, moving forward, those connections can even be strengthened. In Western Mass., we recognize that we have an economy that goes east-west, but as importantly, and maybe even more importantly, it goes north-south also. We obviously will be watching closely.

“Raytheon is obviously a big player regionally in Western Mass.,” he added. “We need to grow those relationships, and I do think there are opportunities for growth.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

The Baystate Health & Wellness Center, which opened last year, lies alongside significant improvements to the Dwight Road corridor at the East Longmeadow line.

When people think of economic development, they might think of a flood of new businesses into a community. Longmeadow will never have that, Town Manager Stephen Crane said, but it certainly has economic development — centered instead around residential property values and the quality of life that maintains them.

“What sustains property values are investments like middle schools, senior centers, things that make the community more desirable to live. That’s the number-one goal of Longmeadow,” he said of a town in which 95% of all property is residential.

“As I always say, our number-one economic activity is the sale of single-family homes,” he went on. “So keeping those homes a desirable place for people to live is job one, and new senior centers, new schools, new amenities — those are the things we can do as a municipal government to sustain that quality of life.”

While a new middle school has been talked about for years, a new senior center will soon become reality, after a groundbreaking ceremony was held on July 11. The Longmeadow Adult Center will move from its current location, a former elementary school at Greenwood Park, to a $14 million facility on Maple Road next year.

“It’s a fantastic project. It’s a very big deal,” Crane said, noting that the demographic trend commonly called ‘the aging of America’ is certainly underway in Western Mass.; in fact, 29% percent of Longmeadow’s population is age 60 or older, and that number grows every year. Because of that, he said, communities need to provide services that help seniors age in place.

“The senior center will fill a lot of gaps we have in terms of aging in place,” he told BusinessWest, noting amenities like its state-of-the-art gymnasium with a suspended walking track. “The programming space will be substantially better than what we have now. The current programs are great, but the new space will reflect the quality of those programs.”

Crane, who has been Longmeadow town manager for the past six years, will be departing his seat next month after inking a three-year contract as town manager in Concord. He’s witnessed plenty of changes in town during that time, but one of the intriguing ones has been Longmeadow’s shifting demographic reputation, spurred by growing amenities for seniors and a significant stock of ranch homes for single-floor living. In short, a town once known as a place where young parents raised their kids and moved out is becoming an all-ages destination.

Taxing Concerns

To maintain those amenities — and the quality of life so critical to keeping residential property values high — town officials support legislation on the state level that would allow it, and other towns, to override a key element of Proposition 2½, which went into effect in 1982.

That legislation sets a 2.5% ceiling on total property taxes — or $25 per $1,000 of assessed value — and a 2.5% annual limit on property-tax increases. (The ceiling does not include excludable debt for capital projects like the senior center.) Proponents of a change, at least in Longmeadow, would like towns to be able to override the first part of the law by moving the ceiling higher, first by a two-thirds vote at town meeting, then at the ballot box.

“It’s really quintessential self-determination, which is the essence of town-meeting government.”

“We are approaching that ceiling. And costs are going to continue to go up, unless property values stay the same or go up. If we have a 1% dip in our real-estate market, our tax rate jumps up even if we don’t spend another dime,” Crane said. “We are not proposing to touch the 2.5% increase, but we propose that the community can set the ceiling where it wants, and decide for themselves how much they want to invest in themselves. It’s really a local-control thing.”

While Longmeadow has the highest residential tax rate in the Commonwealth, it also has a high bond rating. “So our tax rate is not the result of profligate spending. We are an extremely well-managed town from a financial standpoint. We have to be very careful and make great decisions and pursue value in earnest, which we do.”

One way it does that is by pursuing regionalization when possible, as with the two-town (and perhaps others in the future) regional emergency communications center, or RCC, that Longmeadow is establishing with Chicopee, housed in that city’s Police Department and operated by an independent district called WESTCOMM. That system is expected to go live in October, and dispatchers have already been hired.

“The Baker administration is pushing municipalities to work together,” Crane said. “We certainly embrace that, whether it’s working with East Longmeadow on shared health services for public health, the regional dispatch with Chicopee, we are always reaching across town lines, trying to find ways to work more efficiently and relieve burdens on taxpayers.”

He understands how legislation to change Prop 2½ could be cast as merely an effort to raise taxes, and he understands how that goes over with some.

“Would it lead to increased taxes? Not any more than the current two-and-a-half-percent cap allows year after year. Would it lead to higher tax bills in the future? Potentially. But is it essential to maintain property values and maintain the community’s quality of life? Yes.

“To hit that ceiling,” he continued, “means reductions in services that may not be impactful right away, but would lead to a downhill momentum where services are reduced, quality of life goes down, property values then go down as well — and that’s even if the economy and real-estate market stay stable.”

Important, though, is the fact that, under the proposed change, each community would have a say in moving its tax ceiling — and Crane said Longmeadow residents have long been aware of its unique tax base and the need for community investment to keep property values high.

“It’s really quintessential self-determination, which is the essence of town-meeting government,” he added. “The state doesn’t really give a lot of local-control options to communities for generating revenue.”

Moving Right Along

Meanwhile, the town continues to pursue improvements and development on both the public and private fronts. Along the busy Dwight Road corridor that intersects Converse and Williams streets — where the Baystate Health & Wellness Center opened last year — a major infrastructure project included street and sewer upgrades, new sidewalks and bike lanes, and improved traffic-light coordination across the East Longmeadow town line.

“The corridor improvements on Dwight Road are complete, which is a regionally significant improvement,” Crane said. “Traffic is flowing exponentially better than it ever did. Those improvements were clearly needed.”

Longmeadow at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1783
Population: 15,784
Area: 9.7 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $24.09
Commercial Tax Rate: $24.09
Median Household Income: $109,586
Median Family Income: $115,578
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting; Town Manager; Board of Selectmen
Largest Employers: Bay Path University; JGS Lifecare; Glenmeadow
* Latest information available

On the private-investment front, in addition to the Baystate project and a 21,000-square-foot expansion of the Longmeadow Shops in 2017, a memory-care facility is planned on the site of a former synagogue on Williams Street, and the former Brewer-Young Mansion on Longmeadow Street has been converted to professional offices, with developers eying a mix of uses, including shared workspaces. On the municipal side, the development of a new Department of Public Works facility on the site of a former tennis club on Dwight Road continues despite unexpected costs from asbestos removal from the soil.

Overall, Crane said, “town meeting been generous with appropriations. To me, it’s a sign that they have faith in their local government and know that, if it wasn’t really needed, we wouldn’t be asking for it. The success we’ve had with approval of things shows we are able to articulate the community’s needs in a way that town meeting agrees with.”

For instance, voters recently authorized a $1.54 million debt exclusion to continue improvements to the Wolf Swamp Road athletic fields, which Crane called the town’s biggest and busiest recreational asset.

“The fields have fallen into disrepair for a variety of reasons — lack of irrigation, overprogramming, and just some disinvestment,” he told BusinessWest. “The DPW does the best it can to maintain those fields, but without irrigation and with the overprogramming, there’s a limit to how effective you can be with maintenance.”

The plan includes a new, central parking lot, converting current parking at one end of the complex to field space, and achieving a net gain in field space.

“The fields will be stripped, graded, planted, and irrigated,” he went on. “It’ll be a couple years out of service, but when it comes back online, it’ll be the envy of the region, I think. That’s not a great economic driver, but when we have tournaments, those do generate revenue for the town, but it also sustains quality of life, which does have economic value.”

‘A Good Place’

Crane said the various departments in Town Hall want to support its local bricks-and-mortar businesses with good infrastructure and cooperative permitting. “You can help people with what they need or you can make them climb through the regulatory systems on their own, and I know we really try to do what we can for our local businesses.”

But he also understands that housing — and the higher revenues that come from raising quality of life and keeping home values high — will always dictate much of what Longmeadow is able to achieve.

“I’m proud of the work I’ve had a small part in accomplishing,” he said as he prepared for his newest challenge in Concord. “We have a great team, great departments, and outstanding volunteers. I’m proud to have been a part of many positive changes that have happened in the community — things that have been quality-of-life improvements, but have not changed the character of the community. The next town manager will have challenges, but I think the town is in a good place.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Business of Aging

Man UP

Joy Brock

Joy Brock says organizations like the CONCERN Employee Assistance Program can bring mental-health resources to men — if they’re willing to ask.

Behavioral health is not a male issue or a female issue — it’s a human issue. Yet, the imbalance between the problems facing men and their willingness to seek help has raised alarm bells in the field over the years.

Suicide rates provide one of the starker contrasts, with men making up more than 75% of all suicide victims in the U.S., with one man killing himself every 20 minutes on average. Substance abuse — sometimes referred to as ‘slow-motion suicide’ — follows a similar track, ensnaring three men for every woman.

And, yet, men don’t want to bring up these issues, said Sara Kendall, vice president of Clinical Operations at MHA in Springfield.

“In our society, we have expressions like ‘man up.’ So many things in our culture are geared toward men being strong, and therefore, seeking any help — especially anything behavioral-health-related — been viewed as weakness,” she told BusinessWest. “It’s often difficult for men to feel comfortable talking to someone, so there’s a disconnect with how to help. We encounter that a lot.”

Joy Brock, director of the CONCERN Employee Assistance Program, which is affiliated with River Valley Counseling Center, has battled the same tendencies in her counseling and referral work.

“Oftentimes, men have this tendency to pull back and not discuss any mental-health stuff that’s going on with them,” she said. “They might be struggling with anxiety or depression or even social anxiety, but they’ll hide it.”

“Not all families sit down and say, ‘all right, as a guy, here’s how you handle this.’ They just tell you, ‘stop crying’ or ‘you’re being weak right now’ or ‘be a man.’”

Many times, the reluctance of men to seek help begins in their youth, with stereotypes that eventually harden into personality traits.

“We’re not all taught how to deal with situations growing up,” she noted. “We all come from different families, and not all families sit down and say, ‘all right, as a guy, here’s how you handle this.’ They just tell you, ‘stop crying’ or ‘you’re being weak right now’ or ‘be a man’ — all these social norms and stereotypes, which make it even harder when something’s happening to you.”

It’s a situation that’s exacerbated when one’s peers hold the same stereotypes, Brock added.

“Where do you go for help when you can’t go to your family and friends because they’re like, ‘oh, it’s not that big of a deal’? So some guys don’t talk about it, which is tough because it’s isolating. And if we hide it or pretend it doesn’t exist, it just keeps growing and gets to a place where you’re having breakdowns or meltdowns, or you’re getting suspended from work, and part of you doesn’t understand what’s going on.”

While difficult emotions — and clinical depression and anxiety — don’t always have a specific cause, there are some common stressors, she said, noting that divorce and unemployment can strike at the identity of men by altering their traditional roles and leaving them adrift, without pride or purpose.

It’s notable that men in small towns and rural areas have particularly high rates of suicide, and flyover states such as Wyoming, Montana, New Mexico, and Utah, as well as Alaska, have the highest rates of suicide in the country — a trend that has been linked to the decline in traditional male industries such as manufacturing, forestry, and fisheries, leaving large swaths of men in certain regions jobless or underemployed.

High rates have also been observed in veterans, young Native Americans, and gay men, with one possible common thread being perceived rejection by mainstream society, leading to strong feelings of alienation and isolation.

If there is an obvious trigger to feelings of depression or anxiety, Kendall said, it’s often easier to get men in the door to talk about it.

“The referral may come from a spouse. Oftentimes, a gentleman will come in and say, ‘I have to do this or lose my marriage, or lose my family, or lose my job.’ It’s tied to the fear of losing something. But once they’re here, they’re just as inclined to stay in treatment as females. There’s so much potential to help, if we can make it more comfortable for men to talk.”

Breaking Barriers

Besides cultural factors, Mental Health America notes three elements that may feed into the reluctance of men to seek help for mental-health issues.

The first is that awareness strategies are not targeted effectively to men. Research indicates that men respond more strongly to humor (especially dark humor) and, at least initially, to softer mental-health language. But, as Kendall noted, once men are engaged enough to learn more, there is often much less resistance to continuing the conversation.

The second factor is that men ask for help differently. Men are much more likely to accept help when there is a chance for reciprocity — that is, when they perceive an opportunity to help the other person in return, which wards off the feeling of weakness that is often associated with asking for help. Men also prefer to either fix or at least try to fix issues themselves when possible, before reaching out for help.

Sara Kendall says men tend to stay with needed mental-health programs once they begin, but getting the conversation started can be difficult.

Sara Kendall says men tend to stay with needed mental-health programs once they begin, but getting the conversation started can be difficult.

For this reason, Brock suggested that acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) is an effective option for many men. Instead of putting the emphasis on talking about feelings, ACT stresses accepting the reality of one’s situation, choosing a direction, and taking specific action toward those goals.

“What is it you’re fighting for? What gives you meaning in your life? Let’s focus on that, while also acknowledging you don’t feel great about the situation you’re in,” she said. “It’s a different, more action-oriented approach, and works especially well for veterans.”

The third factor is the fact that men often express mental-health problems differently than women, leading to misdiagnosis.

Although both genders experience similar symptoms of some mental-health concerns, how they manifest and present those symptoms can vary. For example, women often respond to symptoms of depression by appearing disheartened, sad, or talking about feelings of worthlessness. Men, however, often respond with anger, frustration, impulsive behavior, or other manifestations that are often dismissed as normal male, acting-out behaviors.

“It’ll end up presenting like anger or sometimes irritability,” Brock said. “Sometimes they just get tired, they don’t want to do anything, they’re not motivated, or they’re pulling away from work or the things that normally interest them. Sometimes it’s physical — stomachaches or chest tightening, that kind of thing. Or they do a lot of risk taking or avoiding or trying to escape a situation. And they might use substances, like alcohol or drugs, to try to hide things.

“If you’re no longer enjoying activities, if it creates disruption in your life, let’s talk about that. It’s no different than a pulled back keeping you from baseball games.”

“Sometimes we don’t recognize what depression is,” she went on, “because when you think depression, you think sadness, and for guys it looks way different. If you’re finding you’re more angry or irritable, that may be depression. And if you’re pulling away and isolating from other people, that’s depression as well.”

Because depression, anxiety, and related issues can wreak as much havoc on daily life as physical problems, if not more, it makes sense to seek help, Kendall said.

“If you’re no longer enjoying activities, if it creates disruption in your life, let’s talk about that. It’s no different than a pulled back keeping you from baseball games,” she explained. “We’re all in the same boat, and it’s OK to talk about it. Asking for help is not a sign of weakness.”

Dispelling the Myths

Joshua Beharry, a survivor of suicide, has become a mental-health advocate and the project coordinator of HeadsUpGuys, which provides men with advice and resources to identify, manage, and prevent depression.

“Fighting depression is difficult. Not only do you have to fight the illness, but you also fight the stigma attached to it,” he recently wrote for the National Alliance on Mental Illness website. “For men, the fear of looking weak or unmanly adds to this strain. Anger, shame, and other defenses can kick in as a means of self-protection, but may ultimately prevent men from seeking treatment.”

He outlined several common myths that stand between men and recovery from depression, including ‘depression equals weakness,’ ‘a man should be able to control his feelings,’ ‘real men don’t ask for help,’ ‘talking about depression won’t help,’ and ‘depression will make you a burden to others.” Understanding the falsehood behind all of these is the first step toward a healthier life, he added.

“Being unhealthy and refusing to seek treatment can put pressure and stress on those that care about you, but asking for help does not make you a burden. It makes people feel good to help a loved one, so don’t try to hide what you’re going through from them. What’s most frustrating is when someone needs help, but they refuse to ask for it.”

An employee-assistance program like CONCERN, which contracts with numerous area employers, is a good place to start, Brock said. It’s intended to be a non-confrontational environment where someone can admit they’re struggling and learn about resources — such as outpatient therapy, anger-management and substance-use support groups, and perhaps more intensive treatments — that can help.

“Sometimes it’s easy to hide things under drugs and alcohol, so that men don’t even know they have a problem,” she added. “Sometimes men have trouble being assertive and communicating their needs. But when they drink, out come the feelings.”

Primary-care physicians are also a good place to bring up issues of concern, Kendall noted.

“Most of us have one — it’s someone we know and feel comfortable with, who doesn’t feel as foreign or off-putting to call,” she said. “I feel like that’s the safest place to start. They know you physically, and mental health is just as important as your physical health.”

The doctor might provide a number of options, she added, such as an outpatient behavioral-health clinic like the BestLife Emotional Health & Wellness Center that MHA recently opened in Springfield. The important thing is to get the conversation started.

“How can we make it OK for men to talk openly about this part of themselves, which is just as important as their physical health?” Kendall said. “Men need to hear that it’s OK to talk about feeling anxious or depressed, just as they’d be concerned about having a back problem or a knee injury.”

Taking the First Step

The bottom line is that mental health is a critical part of life, both Kendall and Brock said. Not only do men attempt suicide far more often than women, they tend to use more lethal means, and are successful — if that’s the right word — about two-thirds of the time.

“I think it’s just hard to talk about what’s going on with us,” Brock told BusinessWest. “We’ve been trained that we have a life to live, we have to get on with it, and we’re supposed to be productive members of society. The reality is, life is not perfect, and it’s not smooth.

“With mental health, in order to get through it, you actually have to go straight through it,” she went on, “and it takes an extraordinary amount of courage and willingness to face something that is terrifying and extremely painful. Most of us would prefer to go out the back door and say, ‘yeah, I’m not dealing with that today.’”

Those who choose to take action — to man up, if you will — are typically glad they did. But the first step, facing the truth, is often the hardest.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight Features

Community Spotlight

Kate Phelon and Stefan Czaporowski

Kate Phelon and Stefan Czaporowski say the Westfield Education to Business Alliance benefits both current employers in the city and some of their future workforce.

Kate Phelon has long appreciated the spirit of collaboration between Westfield’s municipal, business, and educational leaders — and points to the Westfield Education to Business Alliance, which just wrapped up its third year, as a good example.

The alliance, WE2BA for short, connects the city’s schools, where students are beginning to contemplate their career paths, with companies that are eager to mine local talent. Last year, it launched an adopt-a-classroom program — Mestek, Forum House, and PeoplesBank were the initial adopters, and more are expected to come on board next year — while Westfield High School’s annual career fair drew a record 61 vendors.

“We want to get more people involved — more businesses adopting more classrooms,” said Phelon, executive director of the Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce. “The principals are engaged in this.”

Stefan Czaporowski, the city’s Superintendent of Schools, said those efforts can have long-term economic-development impacts.

“Whether our students go on to college or work, we realize they might not be in Westfield as soon as they graduate,” he told BusinessWest. “But we want them to come back here, live here, work here, and help grow Westfield. I think the best way to do that is to show them what Westfield has to offer — and it offers a ton.”

It’s not just WE2BA (much more on that later) that’s showcasing the city’s strengths. Take, for example, Go Westfield, a collaboration among municipal officials, Westfield Gas + Electric, Whip City Fiber, the Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce, and corporate sponsor Westfield Bank to encapsulate what makes this city a desirable landing spot, and, more importantly, tell people about it.

“The city had never really taken on the task of marketing itself until just recently,” Mayor Brian Sullivan said. “It’s a work in progress, but we’ve gotten much better at touting what we have. We’ve got a lot of things here. We have an airport, a college, a hospital. We’ve got an exit off the Mass Pike. We’ve got transportation potential, between I-91 and the Pike. We’re literally two hours away from six different state capitals; geographically, we’re situated nicely. And we have more developable land than most.”

But Go Westfield is about more than marketing; it’s also a means to continual self-improvement. Phelon cited three recent focus groups — targeting the retail, manufacturing, and nonprofit sectors — as a notable example.

“Whether our students go on to college or work, we realize they might not be in Westfield as soon as they graduate. But we want them to come back here, live here, work here, and help grow Westfield. I think the best way to do that is to show them what Westfield has to offer — and it offers a ton.”

“These are the businesses that are here, and we wanted to find out from them what’s working really well, and what keeps them up at night,” she told BusinessWest. “That helps us better market ourselves as we address concerns and find out if other businesses have the same concerns. We want to make our existing businesses happy and address their issues — and if we don’t know what those issues are, we can’t help them.”

Sullivan agreed. “We’ve gotten much better at listening to stakeholders. It used to be that the city would have an idea, and we would go after that idea. Now, it’s more reaching out to the companies in town and saying, ‘what’s working? What’s not working? What do you need?’ We’re making the companies already here a little better, and by listening to their needs, it’s helping out other companies who are saying, ‘yeah, we needed that too.’”

Sullivan hears those needs at the Mayor’s Coffee Hour, sponsored by the chamber and hosted by a different business each month.

“Those companies get to show off what they do, and we get to talk about things like construction projects, road projects, what’s coming down the pike for the City Council,” Sullivan said, adding that he often brings along other city department heads to enrich the discussions. “I don’t want to just stand in front of the room and talk; it’s got to be a two-way conversation. And an hour can fly by.”

That’s partly because there’s a lot to talk about these days in the Whip City — and the collaborations driving that progress are becoming more robust.

Welcoming Party

When someone contacts one of the Go Westfield member organizations, Sullivan explained, other members are quickly roped in, whether that’s a municipal department, Westfield Gas + Electric, or the chamber. “If some company is interested in coming here and calls the chamber, Kate’s been really good at giving me a heads-up that, ‘hey, these people are looking to come.’”

Companies like Wright-Pierce, a 72-year-old environmental/civil infrastructure engineering firm, which recently announced it will open an office in Westfield.

Or Myers Information Systems, which is relocating downtown from its previous location in Northampton, bringing 20 software-development professionals and renovating 110 Elm St., which used to be a restaurant with industrial space above it. The firm expects to hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony in the coming months.

Westfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1669
Population: 41,552
Area: 47.4 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $19.70
Commercial Tax Rate: $38.00
Median Household Income: $45,240
Median Family Income: $55,327
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Westfield State University, Baystate Noble Hospital, Mestek Inc., Savage Arms Inc., Advance Manufacturing Co.
* Latest information available

“Some of the reasons Myers chose here were the chamber, a bike trail, access to downtown, and fiber coming from the Gas + Electric,” the mayor said. “We reached out, wooing them to come to us. They were pretty impressed with how solidified we were as a group.”

He was referring specifically to Whip City Fiber, a division of Westfield Gas + Electric that continues to expand gigabyte-speed internet to residences and businesses across the city.

“Having access to that is huge for an awful lot of companies that are looking for bandwidth and a central location for their employees,” he explained. “Companies aren’t 9 to 5 anymore, where people come in and do their work and leave. It’s all hours of the day, it’s weekends, and if you can have access to high-speed internet, you can thrive as a company.”

The Elm Street Urban Renewal Plan, approved in 2013, continues to focus on revitalizing a two-block area in the heart of downtown Westfield running along both sides of Elm Street, the city’s main commercial thoroughfare. One recent success story is the $6.6 million Olver Transit Pavilion, which opened in April 2017.

The same year, the Westfield Redevelopment Authority demolished a former bowling alley near the transit center, with plans to create a multi-story, mixed-use building with retail, restaurants, office space, and market-rate apartments. The WRA plans to issue a request for proposals for the site — much of which used to house J.J. Newberry’s five-and-dime store — within the next month.

The mixed-use concept, Sullivan said, is an important one for a wide swath of Millennial professionals who crave city living with walkable amenities.

“They want to live downtown and don’t want cars; they want to walk or bike anywhere they want to go — a total urban lifestyle,” he told BusinessWest. “With Millennials, it’s not ‘build your house somewhere and have your two cars and go to your job.’ They want to be downtown, walk to the coffee shop, bring their laptop, do some of their work there, and go for a bike ride.

“The trend is all about internet access, getting to and from places without using a car, and downtown visibility,” he went on. “That’s what drove Myers to Elm Street, access to all these things.”

Another economic trend in Massachusetts involves the cannabis industry, and Westfield has embraced such businesses, with four available licenses for retail, cultivation, or other uses; two are currently going through the permitting process. With Southwick and West Springfield currently not in the marijuana game, Sullivan noted that Westfield is in a good spot when it comes to cornering market share, particularly from across the Connecticut border.

Brian Sullivan says city officials have become more adept

Brian Sullivan says city officials have become more adept at “opening up our ears” and being responsive to the needs of the business community.

“The City Council is figuring out whether we want one in downtown core district or keep them on the outskirts,” Sullivan said. “It’s such a new industry that nobody really knows what’s going to shake down. Everything is on the table right now.”

Meanwhile, initiatives like Go Westfield continue to dig into what the business community wants and how to bring new companies into the fold, with the goal of boosting economic development not only downtown, but across this sprawling city of more than 47 square miles.

“You have to adapt, and we’re getting better at adapting and opening up our ears,” he added. “And that’s what these focus groups are doing. We’re sitting there and listening to what’s lacking or what’s not working, or maybe what is working, and doing more of that.”

Back to School

Phelon and Czaporowski are excited about the potential of expanding the reach of the Westfield Education to Business Alliance, enlisting graduate students from Westfield State University to help out with programs moving forward. At a focus group in the spring, about 20 professors from various degree programs expressed an interest in working with different organizations in town, getting students into the weeds of local businesses.

“We hope they go away to college — that’s great — but come back. We have a great community. It’s pretty cool what’s happening here.”

The existing connections work on multiple levels. For instance, the students who worked with Mestek in the adopt-a-classroom program improved their presentation skills and performed, on average, markedly better than their peers in the school’s science fair. Meanwhile, Westfield teachers went to Mestek to help employees with limited English proficiency boost those skills.

“We want to expand adopt-a-classroom because getting the business community in front of the kids and sharing their expertise and their work experiences is huge,” Czaporowski said. “And we want to keep promoting what some call soft skills and we call essential skills — speaking with eye contact, how to interview, résumés, but also how to be a productive employee — things like punctuality and attendance. We call them essential skills because these are skills you’re going to need throughout life.”

Meanwhile, businesses visited elementary schools for career-day events toward the end of the school year, getting kids thinking early about career pathways and even what high school to attend to best serve those interests.

“We’re exposing kids to relevant life learning,” the superintendent said. “And it’s beneficial to the businesses too. The experience is eye-opening for them.”

That’s partly because students learn differently today — in a more interactive, collaborative style, with different tools — than they used to, Sullivan said, and it’s helpful for employers to understand that.

“It’s all about workforce development,” he said. “A lot of these companies will need their talents someday. They need those kids to walk into their business and start working. That training is now happening in the schools. And it’s a two-way street. A lot of the best companies in town are sending a representative to some of these meetings with the students because they want the students to know their product when they get out.”

Whether it’s through the career fair, adopt-a-classroom, or other efforts, Phelon noted, there are many ways to engage with students and show them what career and lifestyle opportunities exist in their own backyard — just as Go Westfield broadcasts that message to a much wider audience.

“We hope they go away to college — that’s great — but come back,” she said. “We have a great community. It’s pretty cool what’s happening here.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Business of Aging

Education Anywhere

Marjorie Bessette says online nursing programs are opening doors to higher degrees at a time when the industry is demanding them.

Marjorie Bessette says online nursing programs are opening doors to higher degrees at a time when the industry is demanding them.

Back in 2010, the Institute of Medicine put out a call for 80% of all registered nurses to have a bachelor’s degree in nursing (BSN) by 2020. National nurse organizations picked up the goal as well — 85% is the current goal — while hospitals with ‘magnet’ status, such as Baystate Medical Center, maintain even stricter staffing goals.

One problem, though: RNs work full-time jobs, and many go home to a full slate of family and parenting obligations. And that leaves little opportunity to go back to school to take classes toward a BSN.

Enter the online model.

“The reason for the increase in online RN-to-BSN programs is the need to increase the number of BSN-prepared nurses in the workplace,” said Marjorie Bessette, academic director of Health and Nursing at Bay Path University.

“There’s a national initiative to have 85% of RNs be minimally at the BSN level by 2020, which is right around the corner,” she went on. “Nurses have full-time jobs and full-time lives. With area hospitals and work sites demanding BSNs, we’re trying to help that workforce shortage by creating accelerated programs online that nurses can take on their own schedule. They don’t have to be in class at a certain time.”

Bay Path, through its American Women’s College, launched its online RN-to-BSN program in 2015 and graduated its first class in 2017. It also offers online tracks toward master of science in nursing (MSN) and doctor of nursing practice degrees.

“Many students come in with an RN already, and they’re usually able to transfer most of their associate-degree credits toward a bachelor’s degree,” Bessette noted.

American International College (AIC) offers online programs for an RN-to-BSN degree, as well as its MSN track, which offers three concentrations: nurse educator, nurse administrator, and family nurse practitioner.

“Ultimately, both RNs and graduate-program students are already working nurses, and it can be challenging to go back to school while working on their chosen career, but the online format gives them the opportunity to do that,” said Ellen Furman, interim director for Graduate Nursing and assistant professor of Nursing at AIC.

“The reason for the increase in online RN-to-BSN programs is the need to increase the number of BSN-prepared nurses in the workplace.”

“They have to be online weekly, but when, exactly, to be online is up to them,” she went on. “So, a nurse might be working nights, or might be on days, and this gives them the flexibility to arrange their schedule to get their work done at a time that’s convenient for them.”

And convenience is paramount for young medical professionals who don’t need much more added stress on their plates.

“Many have families, and trying to balance that can be really difficult,” Furman said. “With the online forum, they can work when they want to work, or when they have time to work, rather than being at a specific place at a specific time on a weekly basis.”

And that, industry leaders believe, will lead to many more nurses seeking the higher degrees so in demand.

“There is currently an RN shortage, which seems to be cyclical. Some years, graduates are looking for jobs, and some years, there are multiple jobs per graduate,” Furman said. “Right now, there seems to be a real shortage. If you look at any healthcare institution in the region, they’re all looking to recruit nurses, and at higher levels of education, especially if they’re a magnet institution like Baystate, which is looking to increase their number of nurses with higher degrees.”

Setting the Pace

Cindy Dakin, professor and director of Graduate Nursing Studies at Elms College School of Nursing, said Elms offers all three tracks of its MSN program — one in nursing education, one in nursing and health services management, and the third in school nursing — online.

“You don’t have to be sitting in front of the computer at a specific time. Classes are not live. You can access the materials through the system,” she noted. “The faculty will load the syllabus and load all the assignments for the entire semester, so students know when each deadline is. That allows them to plan ahead if they want to get ahead. If somebody moves quicker, or if a vacation is coming up, you can get it done ahead of time if you want to. It allows flexibility when you can access the whole course and know what the requirements and deadlines are.”

Elms launched its first MSN program — a totally in-person classroom model — in 2008, then moved to a hybrid format, recogizing that nurses have busy lives, and the requirements of the job — with often-unexpected overtime shifts arising — made it difficult to come to class at times.

School nurses in particular were having a tough time making it to class for 3 or 3:30 p.m., Dakin noted. “They always had to be late, and we always made allowances for them, but they were still missing something in the first half-hour of class.”

The best option, department leaders decided, was a totally online program.

“It has helped to broaden our market,” she said. “Normally, students — even in hybrid programs — have lived within close proximity to Elms, and come on campus for classes. Being online, I have students from the North Shore, on Nantucket, and these people definitely would not have enrolled in our program if we still required face-to-face classes. Our base is much wider now.”

Bessette added that students face the same academic rigors as they would in a physical classroom, but they can complete the program on an accelerated basis to meet the requirements.

“It’s more convenient because, whatever shift you’re working as a nurse, you’re able to fit that in. When I went back for my bachelor’s degree, I did it the traditional way; we didn’t have an online program at the time. I went in the evening after work, one course, three nights a week, for 15 weeks. But I did my master’s online, and that made a huge difference.”

Most online nursing courses do require a clinical component, depending on the track. Also, “we have a few on-campus days, but those are minimal,” Furman said. “In the RN-to-BSN program, there’s no on-campus requirement.”

Breaking Through

Dakin was quick to note that, if students need to talk to faculty, the professor will schedule a session, or perhaps arrange to meet several students at once through a videoconferencing session.

In fact, technology has made the online model feel less isolating in recent years, she added. “When they load the course information, they may use PowerPoint, or they might tape themselves lecturing. Most of us, at the very least, do voiceovers, which lends a more personal aspect to it.

“Some students aren’t sure if they’ll like it,” she added. “They like the extra time, not having to travel to a specific place. But they’re also afraid of losing contact. But that doesn’t happen, and at the same time, it really broadens our base to recruit students.”

Furman agreed.

“There will be people who say, ‘I don’t think I can learn online.’ I’ve been that student who has been both online and in the classroom, and I’ll say that online education is not like it used to be,” she told BusinessWest. “Today, with technology as it is, there are so many more options to deliver content and more effectively teach students in that online room. I believe if a student says they can’t learn online, they just haven’t been engaged in the right program in the right way.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Hampshire County

A Shopping Evolution

General Manager Lynn Gray

General Manager Lynn Gray

Hampshire Mall has seen its share of changes over the decades, particularly in recent years with the onslaught of online retail that has severely challenged brick-and-mortar shopping centers across the country. But this complex on busy Route 9, in a largely affluent, college-dominated region, has recrafted itself as an entertainment destination, where people can do some shopping, yes, but also enjoy go-karts, bowling, laser tag, a movie, and more. The takeaway? Malls may be challenged, but they’re not obsolete yet.

When Bill Hoefler purchased Interskate 91 at the Hampshire Mall 19 years ago, the rollerskating destination had been open for several years, and the mall itself had been thriving, more or less, for two decades.

He wondered how that could be. “Hadley’s population was only about 3,800.”

But the commercial corridor on Russell Street had been growing for some time, he went on, serving as a bridge between Amherst and Northampton, two communities with eclectic, college-centric populations where it could sometimes be difficult to build.

“Walmart had just been built in ’98,” he noted, “and we knew the mall had plans to demolish the theaters and build new ones. Then you had Chili’s and Applebees just a half-mile away. Those companies usually will not build where there’s not a 100,000 population density within a five-mile radius. So why are they in Hadley?”

Fast-forward almost 20 years, and Route 9 is even more built out than before. Interskate continues to draw a loyal clientele, and Hoefler has expanded his adjoining laser-tag operation from 2,100 square feet to 4,500. And Hampshire Mall — at a time when malls, especially those not bordering major highways, have been rocked by the online retail revolution — is not just surviving in tiny Hadley, but bringing in new tenants, many of them entertainment-oriented.

“It’s a hotbed,” Hoefler said. “People in Western Massachusetts will drive 45 minutes to do what they want, but why not just go to Holyoke? Well, a lot of people north of Holyoke just won’t go that far; they stop here. Or they come in from the west. We even have people from Westfield who would rather come here than mess with the perception of the ‘city mall’ in Holyoke.”

Lynn Gray has a lot of experience at Hampshire Mall as well, starting her career in marketing there about two decades ago, when Kmart was still a thriving anchor, and Cinemark was turning the old six-screen movie theater into a 12-screen megaplex. After leaving to work at another Pyramid Management Group property a decade ago, she returned around the start of 2016 and now serves as the mall’s general manager.

“So I got to see where the center was 20 years ago and where it is today, and the changes in between have been really exciting,” she said, rejecting the idea that brick-and-mortar retail is in permanent decline.

“The word I like to use is evolution, because shopping behavior changes constantly,” she told BusinessWest. “What consumers want, how they want it, when they want it, how they want it delivered to them, or how they want to see, touch, and feel it has constantly changed.”

Many still desire that hands-on, instant-gratification shopping experience, she added, which explains why Hampshire has brought in new retail tenants in recent years, from chains like PetSmart to service-oriented shops like T-Mobile and Nail Pro & Spa to local favorites like Faces, which previously spent decades in downtown Northampton.

But it has also morphed into an entertainment destination, complementing long-time tenants Interskate and Cinemark with newer arrivals like Autobahn Indoor Speedway and PiNZ.

“Twenty years ago, there was a theater here, which is entertainment. We had rollerskating and laser tag, which is entertainment,” Gray said. “Over the last several years, as a lot of developers and shopping centers have moved away from big boxes and wondered what to do with some of the changes in retail, they’ve been introducing more and more entertainment. We’ve followed suit, but Pyramid has always been at the forefront of that anyway. Having a rollerskating rink at a shopping mall is not traditional.”

Not much has been traditional about successful malls in recent years, Hoefler agreed, but the business model is working in Hadley.

“When we got here, we saw it was the beginning of an upswing, and we made it our home,” he said. “We’ve been big cheerleaders for the property, and we love being here.”

Gaining Speed

Jake Savageau, general manager of Autobahn, feels the same way. The karting chain boasts 12 locations across the country and attracts a broad clientele, from parents bringing young children during the day to a college and adult crowd at night, racing electric karts that can reach 50 mph. The center’s oldest racer to date was a 95-year-old.

“So much entertainment is coming into malls,” he said, “so when people come in expecting to buy clothing and other items, they see us making a lot of noise, and it attracts their attention — ‘what’s going on here?’ It makes them stay in the mall longer and spend more money and have a good time at the end of the day.”

PiNZ, a small, Massachusetts-based chain, is another recent addition, bringing bowling, arcade games, and a full restaurant and bar to the mall — plus the most recent attraction, axe throwing. General Manager Jessica Ruiz said PiNZ attracts the same kind of crowd flow Autobahn does — younger kids during the day, college students and adults at night.

Jake Savageau says shoppers sometimes discover the entertainment options, like Autobahn Indoor Speedway, when they arrive — and then return to spend more time and money in the mall.

Jake Savageau says shoppers sometimes discover the entertainment options, like Autobahn Indoor Speedway, when they arrive — and then return to spend more time and money in the mall.

“They love it,” she said of the axe-throwing room. “For the most part, people are surprised they like it as much as they do. Everyone’s looking for an experience now. And that’s what we give them, with all the activities we offer here.”

The mall has begun installing ‘patios’ outside the PiNZ eatery and nearby Arizona Pizza, offering a sort of sidewalk-café experience that connects diners to the mall as a whole. Speaking of connecting to the mall, neither PiNZ nor Autobahn has an exterior entrance — the idea is to bring people into the mall to see what else catches their interest.

The Cinemark theaters still do well, Gray said, and continue to invest in the space, including new seating last year and updates to the HVAC system to become more energy-efficient. “They’re making a lot of changes and reinvesting because this is a great, desirable location for them, too.”

Pyramid has made capital investments as well, she added, not only in space improvements to attract new dining, shopping, and entertainment options, but efforts over the past decade to install new lighting, new flooring, restroom updates, and seating modifications to make the center more attractive to both customers and retailers.

“The food court was redone, we have new digital display directories … it’s been really nice to see,” she said. “Fifteen or 20 years ago when I came here, it was the cobblestone and a sort of ’80s-’90s vibe, and today, it’s fresh, it’s exciting, it’s bright.”

With new retail and entertainment tenants in the fold, she would like to see more dining options come on board — perhaps some locally owned eateries, or even a brewery. The idea is to constantly evolve the mix to transform what was once retail-dominant into a center where people can have a diverse experience and spend plenty of time — and money.

“Twenty years ago, people wouldn’t have thought they’d see a Target in a shopping center, and the next evolution is that people wouldn’t have thought a gym would be in a mall,” she said, noting the presence of Planet Fitness. “But that’s here, and go-kart racing is here. So it constantly changes.”

Blurring Lines

Malls aren’t done evolving, Gray said, noting that even online retailers, like Warby Parker, are showing up in malls.

“Even Amazon is doing pop-ups inside shopping centers. The online world and the e-commerce world does still look to brick and mortar to enhance their brands as well. While you can buy things on Target.com, people still want that experience and that instant gratification, while other people can wait for their product. A lot of people still want to come into a mall, into a setting where there’s more than one option, to see, touch, and feel their products before they make their purchase.”

That said, no one managing malls today is downplaying the impact of online retail.

“Your online presence is always going to be there — that’s the wave of the future,” Gray told BusinessWest. “But by introducing an entertainment component, it’s about the experience — and we’ve taken that experience to a new level. With the collection of all these experiences all under one roof, the goal for us is to make sure we’re all things to all people and we provide the customer with what they want, when they want it.”

Faces built its name for 33 years in downtown Northampton, but now it’s one of the newest retail options a few miles to the east at Hampshire Mall.

Faces built its name for 33 years in downtown Northampton, but now it’s one of the newest retail options a few miles to the east at Hampshire Mall.

Hampshire Mall is well-positioned to roll with changes in shopping habits, Gray added, because of its community demographics and the economic vitality of Route 9 in general.

“Retailers are looking for population density, but they’re also looking for household income thresholds, and this area offers so much. It’s a very affluent community, the crossroads between Northampton and Amherst,” she explained. “But we’re also in great proximity to a wealth of the college student population, which definitely is a driver for this area.

“Twenty years ago, this section of Route 9 was completely different than what it looks like today,” she went on. “There wasn’t a Lowe’s, a Home Depot, a Starbucks. Now all these things exist here, and this becomes a very desirable area for a lot of different uses. LL Bean is moving across the street; Autobahn is open here. A lot of people see this as valuable real estate because of its access to the affluent community and the college students.”

Bill Hoefler

Bill Hoefler says he enjoys being part of the “funky and eclectic” mix of tenants at Hampshire Mall.

Faces is a good example, she said. “It’s traditional retail, if you will, but with a non-traditional flair,” she said of the quirky store that opened in downtown Amherst in 1971 but recently ended a 33-year run as a downtown Northampton mainstay.

“They relocated to Hampshire Mall because they saw the collection of entertainment and dining and all the uses they wanted to be around to support their business for the long term,” Gray noted. “I think that’s a testament to how, when you put the right people under the same roof, people are more drawn to come in, and businesses are more drawn to open new locations.”

Rolling Along

Hoefler has certainly seen his share of mall evolution, but continues to draw families to the uniquely shaped skating rink above the food court and his new, cutting-edge laser-tag center downstairs. “We didn’t just want to move; we wanted to do it bigger, better, with the latest technology.”

The skating business ebbs and flows, he added, but in perhaps unexpected ways; when the economy is good, he sees new faces, but he typically does best when the economy is flat, because he has a loyal clientele, largely middle to lower-middle class, that appreciates an affordable entertainment option. “Even when times are tough, they still come skating.”

Now that those entertainment options have expanded, Hampshire Mall’s target audience — a mix of college students, factory workers, agricultural families, and more — have additional reasons to make their way to the mall.

“We’re proud of our history,” Hoefler said. “We’re proud to be in the mall. We’re glad to be part of the mix that keeps this funky and eclectic. It’s a good time.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]