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Architecture

Decade of Design

Kevin Shea (left, with Richard Morse)

Kevin Shea (left, with Richard Morse) says Architecture EL built its extensive portfolio of projects largely on direct-design work.

When Kevin Shea launched his own architecture firm after almost two decades working for someone else, it wasn’t exactly a great time to start a business — particularly one in a construction-related field.

It was 2008, actually, right at the start of the Great Recession, which would significantly dry up building activity for the next few years.

“We started at the bottom, but we got lucky, and we worked hard and delivered good client service — the things you want to build on as a new business,” said Shea, who has grown his firm, Architecture EL, from a solo practice to a six-person operation. “Now were seeing some of the firms that survived and hung on — some older, respected firms — start to close up or retire, which puts us in a good spot; we’re well-established at this point, and we can take on the work and fill in the gaps.”

As the East Longmeadow-based firm celebrates its 10-year anniversary in October, Shea can look back at an eclectic blend of projects, ranging from affordable housing to municipal work; from a children’s museum to a country club.

“We started at the bottom, but we got lucky, and we worked hard and delivered good client service — the things you want to build on as a new business.”

“We have a good, diverse mix of work,” he told BusinessWest. “We’ve done some restaurant work locally; we’re looking at significant renovations to Elmcrest Country Club, which had a couple of fires last year; and we’re looking at more affordable housing and some private residential.”

For example, the E. Henry Twiggs Estates, a 75-unit affordable-housing project in the Mason Square neighborhood of Springfield, is being developed by Home City Housing. “We’ve worked through phase 1 with Home City on Twiggs, and now phase 2 is almost slated to begin at the end of the year, so that’s represented a lot of our office time lately,” he said.

Two of the residences in the E. Henry Twiggs Estates, an affordable-housing development in Springfield.

Two of the residences in the E. Henry Twiggs Estates, an affordable-housing development in Springfield.

“We’ve gotten to grow with some good work in housing, especially the affordable-housing sector,” he went on, citing other upcoming work, such as a project with Community Builders, a nonprofit that has become a significant force in the affordable-housing market from Boston to New York. “We’re in the early throes of conversations to do a 70-unit multi-family renovation in Western Mass. — it’s not contracted yet, but well along in the talks. That’ll be nice.”

While developing a strong base in multi-family housing, Shea said his firm has built a diverse portfolio in other areas as well, with recent and upcoming projects including a childcare center in Monson, a fire-station addition in Hampden, and an accessibility project at Hatfield Town Hall, following more extensive design work several years ago on that town’s municipal offices.

“You never know what we’ll be up to,” said Richard Morse, a consultant at the firm — and sometimes, the work can be very outside the box. Take, for instance, a planned project to design a veterans’ memorial on North Main Street in East Longmeadow, in front of the Pleasant View Senior Center, a stone’s throw Route 83 from Architecture EL’s office.

“That’s a relatively modest commission in terms of dollars, but it’s important to us here in East Longmeadow,” Shea said. “A veterans group came to us; they have an agreement for a piece of land in the front yard of the senior center, so we’re in the early stages of a design project for a memorial.”

Morse noted that the project is in the fund-raising stages, but there have already been conversations about what it will look like.

“They came to us with a shopping list, and we’re bringing to it a sense of space and respect and contemplation — and we have to do that in front of a building along a busy street,” Shea said. “We don’t just want to build a chunk of stone; we want to create a space where people come and reflect. That’s one that we’re really honored to have a chance to with these veterans. It’s a nice project, and we’re happy to be doing it close to home, right here in town.”

Unrolling the Future

Shea has always wanted to be an architect, having told the story on occasion of seeing old blueprints lying around his house as a child and being fascinated by what they represented. Architecture ended up fitting his personality, with its blend of hands-on and creative work, mechanical and artistic skills.

So after graduating from Roger Williams University in Rhode Island, he took a job with a small architecture firm for 18 years before deciding in 2008 to strike out on his own.

Architecture EL — the acronym stands for Environment Life — was built on the idea of direct design. It’s more common than ever, in fact, to partner with owners and contractors in the design and construction of a building, whereas, decades ago, those elements were far more often bid separately.

The firm’s recent projects

The firm’s recent projects include restaurants, affordable housing, municipal facilities, and many others.

“I think the trend is toward more hands-on work, more design-build, more working with the trades in the field,” he said. “We see a little of the traditional drawing on spec and bidding to three or five contractors. But we see more of the construction-management side of things, where a developer wants to partner with us and a favorite contractor or builder and basically pull together architects, engineers, and contractors to get an efficient, affordable team.”

That has always been his preferred model, he added. “The nice thing is, you usually get to the point pretty quickly. The contractor is at the table, and you can move from design to construction pretty efficiently.”

With friendly cooperation among all parties, Morse said, “we can be the bridge between the client and the contractor because that gets kind of lopsided without our involvement. We’re able to have dialogue with the builder and come up with ways to control cost and schedule.”

The ‘EL’ in the company’s name doesn’t stand for East Longmeadow, as some may assume, but, as noted earlier, for Environment Life, concepts reflected in the types of work Shea takes on. Green building was on the rise when Architecture EL was born, but it’s become in many ways standard practice, reflected in both customer demands and Massachusetts building codes.

But Shea said he’s not interested in the bare minimum. “On the environmental side, we keep digging further into energy and good design, to deliver not just code compliance but a healthy, safe, well-constructed building. That piece never goes away.”

The ‘life’ piece is a more general idea, but it gets into the whole experience of a space and the specific ways it will benefit the lives of those who live in and use it, whether it’s residents benefiting from affordable housing; the kids who will benefit from an accessibility-improvement project at the Wilbraham Children’s Museum; or the employees of Marcotte Ford who work in that company’s commercial truck center, built in 2015, or its new headquarters, which opens this month.

“We don’t specialize in custom, single-family residential, but it seems that those who end up here need someone to help solve a problem. A lot of times, they have a house, a budget, a program, and can’t figure out how to put it all together.”

“Even a private residential project, that’s very intimate for the client,” Morse said. “You’re designing space where they’ll spend a good portion of their lives, so that always makes our work interesting and impactful.”

Shea agreed. “We don’t specialize in custom, single-family residential, but it seems that those who end up here need someone to help solve a problem. A lot of times, they have a house, a budget, a program, and can’t figure out how to put it all together. It’s nice to work with those people. Those projects can be fun.”

Answer Man

Whether designing a municipal project, a place of business, or a home — or a multi-home development — Shea has never stopped seeing his role as focusing on a client’s environment and life, and coming up with solutions that enhance both.

“We’ve been busy for quite a while, and we seem to be staying busy. Clearly the economy is moving along,” he noted. “We’ve seen a lot of smaller single-family projects creeping up, three or four at a time. These are people who aren’t just hiring a contractor, they want to make sure they get to a good solution. People are looking to invest in the design time up front.”

Morse said the team is cautiously optimistic that the good times will persist.

“We’ve been lucky, and we’ve been busy,” Shea added. “We’ve been growing steadily, though we’re not looking to grow too much. We just want to keep working hard for our clients. That’s what keeps them coming back.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Technology

Better Living Through Apps

Today’s smartphone apps are countless, with uses ranging from entertainment to enrichment. In the latter category, apps help users manage their personal finance, improve their fitness, and give their brains a workout. With that in mind, here are some of the more popular and well-reviewed apps available today.

It’s hard to imagine, but there was a time when everyone couldn’t access virtually all the world’s information in their hand at a moment’s notice. Besides the accumulated knowledge available on a smartphone, myriad apps are available to help users with a wide range of tasks, from managing their finances to tracking their fitness goals to getting an education in various topics.

For this year’s roundup of what’s hot in technology, BusinessWest checks in on what the tech press is saying about some of the most popular smartphone apps.

Money Matters

Smartphones have put a world of personal finance in people’s hands. For example, Intuit’s Mint gives users a real-time look into all their finances, from bank accounts and credit cards to student loans and 401(k) accounts. The budgeting app has attracted more than 20 million users, and it’s easy to see why, says NerdWallet, which identifies the popular service as one of the best budgeting and saving tools available.

“The free app automatically syncs to bank, credit card and investment accounts, pulling data with little effort on the part of the user, and provides free credit-score information. It’s a tool for reluctant budgeters — many people fall into that category, and they’ll be happy keeping tabs on their spending with this service.”

As its name notes, You Need a Budget, or YNAB, “makes no bones about the fact you need to manage your money rather than the other way around,” according to PC World, noting that the popular program, which started life more than a decade ago as manual-input desktop software, is now a subscription-based web app that can sync with users’ financial accounts.

“YNAB includes customizable reports that break down your income and expenses by category, account, and time frame,” the publication explains. “Its greatest strength, however, is its huge community of devout users who freely share their tips on the app as well as the larger enterprise of personal budgeting. The home site is also rich with support resources ranging from help docs to weekly videos to podcasts, all with the aim of helping you get and keep your finances in order.”

For people who find it difficult to track their expenses while trying to reach their savings goals, Wally might be able to help, by giving users a total view of their finances.

“Wally’s interface is simple and easy to navigate, which makes setting your budget and entering expenses a breeze. The app delivers plenty of features without crowding the screen,” Bankrate notes, adding, however, that “what you put into Wally is what you get out of it. The app makes it simple to track your expenses in the hope that you’ll stick to your budget and reach your goals, but it largely depends on the user being diligent in uploading every expense. If you can do that, Wally will be a tremendous aid in helping you reach your savings goals.”

Finally, Acorns is modernizing the old-school practice of saving loose change, rounding up the user’s purchases on linked credit or debit cards, then sweeping the change into a computer-managed investment portfolio.

“Acorns goes after its target market — young, would-be investors who have little money to invest — by waiving management fees for up to four years. College students are ripe for this kind of service and could wind up with a nice little pot of money after four years of rounding up,” Nerdwallet says. “We’re behind any tool that encourages mindless, automatic saving. If you don’t have to think about saving, you’re more likely to do it.”

No Pain, No Gain

What if physical wellness tops one’s priority list? No fear — there are countless apps for that, too, providing users with information on what they’re eating, how to exercise, and how to stay committed to better habits.

One of the most popular nutrition apps is MyFitnessPal, which offers a wealth of tools for tracking what and how much the user eats, and how many calories they burn through activity, explains PC Magazine. “Of all the calorie counters I’ve used, MyFitnessPal is by far the easiest one to manage, and it comes with the largest database of foods and drinks. With the MyFitnessPal app, you can fastidiously watch what you eat 24/7, no matter where you are.”

Added BuiltLean, “MyFitnessPal is not a one-size-fits-all app. Personal diet profiles can be changed to fit a person’s specific needs, whether they are on a strict diet or have certain recommendations from their doctor or dietitian. The program calculates caloric need based on height, weight, gender, and lifestyle.”

Seven-minute workout challenges have become popular for their ease of use, and the 7 Minute Fitness Challenge app is among the more popular apps promoting this activity.

“I like that the video instructions are led by both male and female trainers, and they do a great job guiding you through each exercise via video, audio, image and text,” notes a review in USA Today. “When you upgrade to the paid version, you can also track your weight and visualize your progress, which might help you stay motivated. It also shows a calendar of all of your workouts and lets you see them at a glance. I’ve had this app for three years now, and they do a great job of updating it regularly to add new exercises and respond to user requests.”

Strong offers many features found in scores of other apps — creating custom routines, logging workouts, and tracking weight over time — but does some things that are particularly useful, according to the Verge.

“Each time I start a new workout for my arms or legs, Strong notes how much I lifted the previous workout. It does so automatically, and it’s amazing how such a simple thing has had such a powerful effect on me,” the reviewer notes. “Bumping that number up over time has become a game to me, and it’s pushed me to gently ramp up the difficulty level on my exercise more than anything I’ve tried short of a personal trainer. The first time I successfully did 40 push-ups, I could scarcely believe it. Previous apps I used required me to update my routines manually; automating that has made all the difference.”

What about emotional wellness? There are plenty of meditation apps available for that. For example, “the moment you open the Calm app, you might feel a sense of … calm. Relaxing sounds of falling rain play automatically in the background, but you could also opt to be greeted by a crackling fireplace, crickets, or something called ‘celestial white noise,’” according to Mindful.

The relaxation continues with Calm’s free meditations — 16 in total, lasting from three to 30 minutes. “Like many other apps, you can set a timer for silent meditation or meditate to intermittent bells,” the site notes. “For nighttime relaxation, Calm features four free ‘sleep stories’ — bedtime stories for adults on everything from science fiction to scenic landscapes to help you transition into slumber.”

App-lied Learning

Countless popular apps focus on education and learning for all ages. For kids, the Children’s MD blog recommends Khan Academy, which collaborates with the U.S. Department of Education and myriad public and private educational institutions to provide a free, world-class education for anyone.

“It’s incredibly easy to use, there are no ads, and it’s appropriate for any school-aged child that knows how to read,” the blog reports, noting that Khan Academy started as a math-learning site but has expanded to many other subjects, from art history to economics. “My kids will spend hours looking at computer-science projects that other kids have shared and incorporating ideas into their own programs. The Khan platform combines educational videos with practice problems and project assignments.”

Meanwhile, Brainscape promises to help students learn more effective ways to study with their classmates, while helping teachers track and create better study habits for students. “This app is a very effective way of using and creating flashcards in a digital manner,” Education World notes. “It’s not much different in terms of creating flashcards and learning from them; however, one cool feature is the ability to set up study reminders, which slightly deters you from procrastination.”

However, the publication notes, the paid content “is a bit of a turnoff from the app, but not to worry — it makes up for it with the ability to create your own digital flashcards. Once the cards are created, you can go through the questions and guess the answer before revealing it, just like normal flashcards.”

Meanwhile, Photomath focuses on, well, math, and does it well, Digital Trends reports. “For high-school students who just need a bit more guidance on how to isolate ‘x’ in their algebra homework, Photomath is essentially your math buddy that can instantly solve and explain every answer. Simply snap a photo of the question (you can also write or type), and the app will break down the solution into separate steps with helpful play-by-play, so that you can apply the same principles to the rest of your homework.”

For older students and adults, The Great Courses is one of the more venerable services out there, created by the Teaching Company during the 1990s with the goal of gathering educational lectures on a video format.

“What helped the Teaching Company to grow more and more famous is their strong ethic toward a lifelong learning, meaning that, for them, learning is not only a short-term journey with an end, but more of a lifelong adventure during which anyone should keep gathering knowledge,” Gria.org notes. “Users have access to an entire online digital video library, but they also get other supports, such as CDs and DVDs or hard-copy materials such as workbooks and guidebooks.”

In short, whatever you’re looking to improve in your life, as the famous ad slogan notes, there’s an app for that.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

The former Cranwell Spa & Golf Resort

The former Cranwell Spa & Golf Resort is undergoing a $60 million renovation and expansion by the Miraval Group.

As its town manager, Christopher Ketchen is certainly bullish on Lenox.

“If you’re moving to the Berkshires, Lenox has clearly got to be on your radar for many reasons,” he told BusinessWest, adding that he’s one of the more recent converts. “I made the move here myself from the Boston area four years ago. I’m originally from Alford, and when I moved back to this area, I chose to live in Lenox.”

Lenox may be known mainly — and deservedly — for its cultural and recreational attractions, from Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, to Shakespeare & Co., to the town’s collection of rustic inns and bed and breakfasts.

But a different sort of economic energy has been bubbling up in recent years, from the small businesses, hotels, and motels springing up along the Route 7 corridor to an ongoing, $60 million expansion and renovation at the former Cranwell Spa & Golf Resort. The Miraval Group, a subsidiary of Hyatt Hotels, purchased the property in 2016 for $22 million and plans to transform it into a high-end wellness resort.

Then there’s the new Courtyard by Marriott, which opened last year and features 92 rooms with panoramic views, an indoor pool, a large patio with firepits, a restaurant, and a 12,000-square-foot event space. Meanwhile, the 112-room Travaasa Experimental Resort at Elm Court, which straddles the Lenox and Strockbridge line, is moving forward as well.

Other projects in recent years include the relocation of Morrison’s Home Improvement Specialists Inc. from Pittsfield and its adaptive reuse of a blighted building that had been vacant for 10 years, an apartment conversion at the Walker Street Residences by the Allegrone Companies, and the construction of Allegrone’s headquarters and co-working office space using green design and technology in a building on Route 7.

Chris Ketchen says Lenox is a draw

Chris Ketchen says Lenox is a draw because of its schools, healthy finances, cultural offerings, and a host of other factors.

“The hospitality industry is probably the biggest economic driver locally,” Ketchen told BusinessWest. “Miravar, the Cranwell development, is still in progress, Elm Court is still in progress, Marriott is up and running. As far as new projects coming in the door, there’s nothing else on that scale today, but that could change tomorrow.”

Moving On Up

In some ways, Lenox doesn’t need the kind of business growth other towns and cities do, because its strengths have long lay in both tourism for visitors and quality of life for residents.

“The town has gotten a fair amount of regional and national recognition in recent years for the schools and for the town’s financial practices,” Ketchen said, noting that Lenox is just one of two Massachusetts municipalities west of the Connecticut River whose finances have AAA ratings from Standard & Poor’s, the other being Great Barrington.

Meanwhile, “our schools are knocking it out of the park year after year in terms of their recognition at both the federal Department of Education and various statewide rankings. The high school ranked number four by U.S. News & World Report, the annual benchmark rating a lot of districts measure themselves by, so a very attractive place for families to locate and make a home.”

Lenox at a glance:

Year Incorporated: 1767
Population: 5,025
<strong>Area: 21.7 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $12.14 
Commercial Tax Rate: $14.98
Median Household Income: $85,581
Median Family Income: $111,413
Type of Government: Board of Selectmen, Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Canyon Ranch, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Kimball Farms

* Latest information available

Not wanting to rest on its laurels, Lenox residents recently approved an appropriation to work with regional agencies to update the town’s comprehensive master plan. “The Planning Board is undertaking that as we speak,” Ketchen said, “and we’ve created a housing production plan through the affordable housing committee, so we’re tackling those issues in a thoughtful way moving forward.”

The state seeks 10% of housing units in any town to be affordable, but in Lenox, the current level is just over 7%, based on the 2010 Census.

The town has also been undertaking significant infrastructure improvements in recent years, the latest announcement being a $9 million, federally funded widening and improvement of a stretch of Walker Street, in addition to water and sewer improvements there.

“We’ve been investing heavily in infrastructure through aggressive capital-improvement programs,” Ketchen said.

To address an aging population — the median age of residents is 51, reflecting a trend in other towns in the Berkshires — town officials created a first-time-homebuyers program in 2016 in partnership with four banks that offers up to $10,000 in down payments to qualified applicants. They also changed zoning requirements to make it easier to build new apartments and condominiums or convert older housing stock into appealing residences, as well as adopting a Complete Streets policy that will make the town eligible for state funds to improve connectivity for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Meanwhile, to address a dearth of of market-rate apartments in Lenox, Allegrone Companies completed a renovation last year of the 1804 William Walker House, transforming it into eight market-rate apartments.

The Whole Package

To encourage companies to move to Lenox or expand, town officials have been focused on a five-year open-space plan that was adopted several years ago.

“With our proximity to employment centers in Pittsfield and also Springfield and Albany, there are options for workers who want to make Lenox their home.”

“We have an open-space and recreation plan that was really well-conceived by the Conway School in conjunction with our Land Use Department, and we’re a few years into executing that plan to preserve open space,” Ketchen said, noting projects like a major improvement to Lenox Town Beach at Laurel Lake last year. In addition, the Berkshire Natural Resources Council, the regional land trust, has been working to develop a regional trail network with a long section passing through Lenox.

Add it all up, Ketchen said, and this town of just over 5,000 residents has plenty to offer.

“With our proximity to employment centers in Pittsfield and also Springfield and Albany, there are options for workers who want to make Lenox their home — and it’s a wonderful place to make a home,” he told BusinessWest. “The town is well-managed financially. We have outstanding schools, libraries, and community center. For a town of our size, we’re providing a lot of services for residents of all ages. Our public-safety and public-works operations are some of the best in the business.”

He added that the town’s tax rates are low — $12.14 for residents and $14.98 for businesses — and relatively stable from year to year.

“Couple that with the employment opportunities and the outstanding municipal and educational programs, the arts and cultural amenities of the region, and the recreational opportunities — put that together, and you have a very attractive package.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Health Care

‘We Are a Different Place’

Shriners Hospitals for Children – Springfield is in a much healthier place than it was nearly a decade ago, when its parent organization seriously considered shutting its doors. A move in 2011 to accept third-party insurance — although free care is still provided to those who need it — stabilized the national network, and canny decisions to introduce new services have helped the Springfield facility not only survive, but thrive and grow stronger: the same goal it has for each young patient.

George Gorton recalls a conversation he had with the parent of a child who nearly drowned — and then required months of intensive rehabilitation to regain full function, both physically and mentally.

Unfortunately, the only two pediatric inpatient rehabilitation units in Massachusetts are located in Boston.

“There was nowhere in Western Massachusetts to bring him back to maximum function level,” Gorton told BusinessWest. “She couldn’t transfer her family to live in Boston for two months to get the care she needed.”

That has changed, however, with last month’s opening of a new, 20-bed Inpatient Rehabilitation Unit at Shriners Hospitals for Children – Springfield.

“Now, everyone in Western Massachusetts who needs that kind of support can come here rather than figure out how to maintain their family 90 miles away,” said Gorton, the hospital’s director of Research, Planning, and Business Development. “It made sense; we had this excess capacity and didn’t need to do a lot of renovation work. It seemed like a natural fit, so we worked to get it set up.”

That excess capacity is due to a trend, increasingly evident over the past two decades, toward more outpatient care at Shriners — and hospitals in general. But despite the space being in good shape, it still needed to be converted to a new use and outfitted with the latest equipment, and that necessitated a $1.25 million capital campaign, which wound up raising slightly more.

George Gorton, left, and Lee Kirk

George Gorton, left, and Lee Kirk say long-standing support from Shriners, their families, and community members — reflected by this display in the lobby recognizing donors — has been a major reason why the hospital provides care regardless of ability to pay.

The new unit is an example of both the community support Shriners continues to accrue and the hospital’s continual evolution in services based on what needs emerge locally.

Specifically, Gorton said, the hospital conducts a community-needs assessment every three years, and out of the 2013 study — which analyzed market and health data and included interviews with primary-care providers and leaders in different healthcare sectors — came a determination that an inpatient pediatric rehab clinic would fill a gaping hole.

When H. Lee Kirk Jr. came on board as the facility’s administrator in 2015, he and his team honed that data further, spending the better part of that year reassessing the hospital’s vision and putting together a strategic plan. They determined that continued investment in core services — from neuromuscular care and cleft foot and palate to spine care and chest-wall conditions — was an obvious goal, but they also identified needs in other areas, from fracture care to sports medicine to pediatric urology, as well as the new rehabilitation unit.

“After a traumatic injury — a brain injury, serious orthopedic injury, it could be spinal injury — a child might have some functional deficits, even though they are not in a medically acute situation,” Kirk told BusinessWest. “So they come to this program and spend anywhere from two to eight weeks with intensive rehabilitative services, which is physical therapy, occupational therapy, and speech therapy, and also physician care and nursing care.”

Under the supervision of a fellowship-trained pediatric physiatrist, patients admitted to the unit will receive a minimum of 15 hours of combined physical, occupational, and/or speech therapy per week, added Sheryl Moriarty, program director of the unit. “Using an individualized, developmental, and age-appropriate program model, our Inpatient Rehabilitation team will manage medically stable children and adolescents with a variety of life-altering and complex medical conditions.”

That evolution in services makes it even more clear, Gorton said, that the landscape is far different than it was in 2009, when the national Shriners organization seriously considered closing the Springfield hospital.

“We’re stronger in every sense of the word,” he said, “from our leadership to the quality of the employees we have to the diversity of programs we have to the financial strength behind all this. We are a different place.”

First Steps

When a boy named Bertram, from Augusta, Maine, made the trek with his family to Springfield in February 1925, he probably wasn’t thinking about making history. But he did just that, as the hospital’s very first patient.

“While Shriners opened hospitals primarily to take care of kids with polio, Bertram had club feet,” Kirk said — a condition that became one of the facility’s core services.

After the first Shriners Hospitals for Children site opened in 1922 in Shreveport, La., 10 other facilities followed in 1925 (there are now 22 facilities, all in the U.S. except for Mexico City and Montreal). Four of those hospitals, including one in Boston, focus on acute burn care, while the rest focus primarily on a mix of orthopedics and other types of pediatric care.

As an orthopedic specialty hospital, the Springfield facility has long focused on conditions ranging from scoliosis, cerebral palsy, and spina bifida to club foot, chest-wall deformities, cleft lip and palate, and a host of other conditions afflicting the limbs, joints, bones, and extremities. But that’s the tip of the proverbial iceberg.

“This is along the lines of a community service, and our athletic trainers are working with school systems and private sports clubs in the community, to participate from a preventive point of view, but they certainly can attend games as a first responder and then follow up with treatment.”

“There’s some consistency in services, but each of the hospitals has adapted to the needs that present themselves in that community,” he went on, noting specialties like rheumatology, urology, and fracture care in Springfield, as well as a sports health and medicine program that brought on two athletic trainers and is currently recruiting a pediatric orthopedic surgeon with training in sports medicine.

“This is along the lines of a community service, and our athletic trainers are working with school systems and private sports clubs in the community, to participate from a preventive point of view, but they certainly can attend games as a first responder and then follow up with treatment.”

In all, more than 90% of care provided in Springfield is outpatient, reflecting a broader trend in healthcare, Kirk added. “We have always had, and still have, the only pediatric orthopedic surgeons in Western Massachusetts.”

Jennifer Tross stands in a hallway of the new Inpatient Rehabilitation Unit.

Jennifer Tross stands in a hallway of the new Inpatient Rehabilitation Unit.

After its clinical work, he noted, the second part of the Shriners mission is education. Over the past 30 years, thousands of physicians have undertaken residency education or postgraduate fellowships at the children’s hospitals.

“We have a lot of students here in a lot of healthcare disciplines, particularly two orthopedic residents who come on 10- to 12-week rotations from Boston University and Albany Medical Center. We have nursing students, nurse practitioners, physical and occupational therapists — a whole cadre of individuals.”

The third component of the mission is research, specifically clinical research in terms of how to improve the processes of delivering care to children. That often takes the shape of new technology, from computerized 3D modeling for cleft-palate surgery to the hospital’s motion-analysis laboratory, where an array of infrared cameras examine how a child walks and converts that data to a 3D model that gives doctors all they need to know about a child’s progress.

More recently, a capital campaign raised just under $1 million to install the EOS Imaging System, Nobel Prize-winning X-ray technology that exists nowhere else in Western Mass. or the Hartford area, which enhances imaging while reducing the patient’s exposure to radiation.

That’s important, Kirk said, particularly for children who have had scoliosis or other orthopedic conditions, and start having X-rays early on their lives and continue them throughout adolescence.

It’s gratifying, he added, to do all this in a facility decked out in child-friendly playscapes and colorful, kid-oriented sculptures and artwork.

“It’s truly a children’s hospital when you look around the waiting areas and the lobbies,” Kirk said, noting that ‘child-friendly’ goes well beyond décor, to the ways in which the medical team interacts with patients. “This is a happy place, and it’s a privilege for me to be part of such a mission-driven organization. I’ve been in this business for 35 years, and this is the most mission-driven healthcare organization I’ve ever been associated with — and I think others feel that way too.”

Joint Efforts

Jennifer Tross certainly does. She’s one of the newest team members, coming on board as Marketing and Communications manager earlier this summer. “I felt the commitment as I was being recruited here,” she said. “It’s an honor to be a part of it, really.”

It’s not that difficult to uphold the hospital’s mission when one sees the results, Kirk added.

“Our vision is to be the best at transforming the lives of children and families, and that’s what we look for every single day,” he told BusinessWest. “You see how their lives are transformed, and how, regardless of their situation, they’re treated like normal kids here. That helps them to evolve and have confidence to function normally at home, at school, and in their communities.”

There’s a confidence in the voices of the hospital’s leaders that wasn’t there nine years ago, following a stunning announcement by the national Shriners organization that it was considering closing six of its 22 children’s hospitals across the country — including the one on Carew Street.

“Our vision is to be the best at transforming the lives of children and families, and that’s what we look for every single day. You see how their lives are transformed, and how, regardless of their situation, they’re treated like normal kids here. That helps them to evolve and have confidence to function normally at home, at school, and in their communities.”

In the end, after a deluge of very vocal outrage and support by families of patients and community leaders, the Shriners board decided against closing any of its specialty children’s hospitals, even though the organization had been struggling — at the height of the Great Recession — to provide its traditionally free care given rising costs and a shrinking endowment.

To make it possible to keep the facilities open, in 2011, Shriners — for the first time in its nearly century-long history — started accepting third-party payments from private insurance and government payers such as Medicaid when possible, although free care is still provided to all patients without the means to pay, and the hospital continues to accommodate families who can’t afford the co-pays and deductibles that are now required by many insurance plans.

“That was a very good strategic move,” Kirk said, noting that, regardless of the change, 65% of the care provided last year to 11,501 children was paid for by donors, the Shriners organization, and system proceeds.

If a family can’t pay, he noted, the hospital does not chase the money, relying on an assistance resource funded by Shriners and their families nationwide. “One of the largest causes of personal bankruptcy is healthcare. It’s unfortunate that all healthcare can’t be delivered in the Shriners model. But I don’t disparage my colleagues — they don’t have a million-plus Shriners and their families around the world who are incredibly passionate about raising money to take care of kids.”

As a result of this model, “Shriners Hospitals for Children is a net $10 billion business with no debt. And one of the things we try to minimize is the support we require from system proceeds, other than our endowment,” he noted. “And we’ve been very successful here. It’s kind of an internal competition — which hospital requires the least support from the system.”

In the past three years, the Springfield facility has ranked second on that list twice, and third once. And that’s despite actually growing its services significantly. In 2016, Gorton said, the hospital grew its new patient intakes by 44%, followed by 26% the following year and a projected 20% this year. “So we serve a lot more children across the diverse set of services we provide.”

He noted that the outpouring of community support in 2009 — which included a sizable rally across the street — was an awakening of sorts.

“They said, ‘hell no, don’t go, we need you; stay here,’” he recalled. “Since then, we’ve done everything we could to identify what it was that the community wanted from us and recreate ourselves in that image. I think we’ve been largely — more than largely … exceptionally — successful on that.”

The hospital saw a lot of turnover in the years following 2009, Gorton added, “but the people who stayed are committed to the mission and vision of transforming children’s lives. The people who have joined us since then sense that the one thing we don’t compromise on is our mission and our vision.”

Best Foot Forward

When asked where the hospital goes from here, Kirk had a simple answer: Taking care of more children.

That means making sure area pediatricians, orthopedists, and hospitals are aware of what Shriners does, but it also means bolstering telehealth technology that allows the hospital not only to consult with, say, burn experts at the Boston facility, but to broaden outreach clinics already established in Maine, New York, and … Cyprus?

“We go to Cyprus every year — for 37 years now,” Kirk said of a connection the organization made long ago with the Mediterranean island. “We’ll see 300 kids in four days of the clinic, and over the course of a year, 10 to 20 will come to Springfield and stay in the Ronald McDonald House here while they receive care — typically surgical care.

“We’ve had an ancient telehealth connection with Cyprus, and we’re now updating that to the latest technology, so we can have telehealth clinics with Cyprus four to six times a year in addition to going over there,” he went on. So we’re going to focus on taking care of more kids.”

That is, after all, the core of the Shriners mission.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Green Business

A Hot Topic

The Center for EcoTechnology has carved out a significant legacy over the past four-plus decades by promoting green energy, waste reduction, and a host of other environmentally friendly initiatives — partly because it effectively conveys how such practices are good for not just the planet, but the bottom line. Two new solar-access projects — one for homeowners, one for businesses that use a lot of hot water — are no exception.

After decades of connecting businesses and homeowners with renewable-energy solutions, the Center for EcoTechnology in Florence keeps coming up with new ones.

Take, for example, a solar-access program specifically for middle-income homeowners, making it possible for qualifying families to procure solar panels and heat pumps with no upfront costs.

“A lot of middle-income homeowners have not been able to take advantage of owning their own solar arrays,” CET President John Majercak said. “They can make a fixed payment for electricity to somebody who owns the equipment, but there are many more benefits to owning the panels.”

To introduce more households to those benefits, CET has worked with UMassFive College Federal Credit Union on a loan product that not only makes it easier to purchase solar panels — CET actually makes the first six payments on the 10-year loan — but includes a warranty on all equipment and labor for the life of the loan.

“This product makes it possible for a homeowner to own the solar panels and heat pumps,” he explained. “We set it up to make sure what they pay on the loan is less than what they’re paying now for heating and cooling, so they see immediate savings, and after 10 years, they own the system outright, so the heating and cooling, when powered by solar panels, is essentially free after that.”

Then there’s a new program that works with businesses that use a lot of hot water — think breweries, hospitals, laundromats, and many others — and connects them with incentives for solar hot water.

Andrew Mankin (pictured) and Gary Happ recently had a solar hot-water system installed

Andrew Mankin (pictured) and Gary Happ recently had a solar hot-water system installed at their business, Barrington Brewery.

“That’s a program available to any business or farm in the state — including multi-family buildings and nursing homes — that use a lot of hot water year-round. It’s a great technology where we use solar panels to heat water, as opposed to make electricity,” Majercak explained. “For folks who use a lot of hot water in their business, it’s a really economic way to make hot water. It’s technology not a lot of people know about, compared to solar panels that make electricity. So we’re doing a lot of outreach and hand-holding, getting businesses to look at the proposals, the free technical assistance, and the incentives available from the state.”

In both cases, CET partners with state agencies like the Department of Energy Resources (DOER) and the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC) to bring the economic and environmental benefits of solar energy to customers who might not have considered them before.

“If we can help someone’s life be better or their business perform better at the same time we’re helping the environment, it just makes so much sense,” he said. “So we’re always pushing harder to make more of it happen.”

Home and Business

In the case of solar hot water for businesses, CET provides solar hot-water installers to get the project done, information on grants and rebates to help cover costs, and step-by-step guidance through the whole process, Majercak said, adding that other businesses that might benefit include hotels and restaurants, car washes, and community centers and resorts with large indoor swimming pools — any business, really, with year-round use of heated water in large quantities.

A solar hot-water system essentially captures heat from sunlight and circulates the thermal energy to a water tank. Solar hot-water systems reduce reliance on traditional water-heating fuels, such as oil, electricity, or propane, saving consumers money on their energy bills. These systems can provide up to 80% of domestic hot-water needs. Incentives of up to $100,000 are available for qualifying projects, Majercak said.

“The technology has been around for a long time — for decades, really — but it’s improved over the past five to 10 years, and word hasn’t really gotten out how effective it is,” he noted. “We’ve helped a variety of different businesses and been very successful saving them a ton of money — things like a multi-family building that has central hot water, or a farm that has a cheese-making factory on the side. It doesn’t cost anything to have us come out and do an assessment and see if it would be a good match for you.”

John Majercak

John Majercak presents information about CET’s impact during the organization’s annual meeting.

Business owners Majercek has spoken with are often surprised at savings they didn’t know existed, he noted.

“There’s so much information out there, but people don’t always think of their energy costs as something that’s controllable — they say, ‘oh, wow, it costs a lot of money to heat hot water, but what can I do?’ They think of it as the cost of doing business, rather than something they can improve on by using new technology.”

The same is true in the residential market, to some degree, he said, but to those who have signed on, the benefits are evident, including, again, step-by-step guidance through the program from CET, the 10-year warranty on equipment and labor, and a reduction in energy costs right from the start along with increased home value — not to mention a 30% federal tax credit and a 10% tax credit from the Commonwealth for solar installation.

While most homeowners know what solar panels do — convert sunlight into electricity to power a house without any pollution or carbon emissions — heat pumps aren’t as commonly understood, Majercek said.

Rather than burning fossil fuels to produce heating and cooling, heat pumps move heat from one place to another — bringing heat into the home in the winter and removing heat in the summer. Advancements in the technology now allow for excellent performance even on the coldest and hottest days of the year.

“This is a great new program,” he told BusinessWest. “The state specifically targeted middle-income homeowners, helping them get financial help and hands-on assistance from us to take advantage of these two technologies — solar photovoltaic panels and heat pumps, which are becoming much more commonplace.”

Even so, he said, many homeowners have been reluctant to pay the up-front costs for energy-efficient technology, which is why the loan product CET is using — ensuring that their costs don’t rise from what they’re already paying — is so attractive.

Some of those who believe in solar power but fear the initial costs sign onto power-purchase agreements with solar-panel owners, he added, “and that’s OK, but they don’t get the benefits of ownership — the tax credits, the renewable-energy credits. They’re missing out on one of the best parts. This program helps them take advantage of that, and it’s affordable for them right from the start.”

A Green Legacy

Connecting individuals and businesses with green energy solutions is a large part of CET’s mission, but that mission has taken many forms since the organization’s mid-’70s inception.

At first, CET focused on energy conservation, in particular partnering with utility companies on the relatively new concept of ‘energy audits,’ whereby a consultant visits a home or business to talk about ways in which their building or operation could be revamped to save on energy costs.

Other early initiatives included the development of a passive solar greenhouse at Berkshire Botanical Garden and Project SUEDE, a program that taught solar energy, energy-conservation theory, and carpentry to unemployed people, who then installed 31 solar space-heating systems in low-income households.

CET still conducts energy audits, helping homeowners and businesses understand the value of sustainable systems and educating them on the incentives available to make changes. But the organization has become much more, expanding its mission into a host of new opportunities, from composting to food-waste reduction.

Paulina Alenkina, a CET employee

Paulina Alenkina, a CET employee, says she’s glad she took advantage of the solar-access program.

Through a program called RecyclingWorks in Massachusetts, CET offers technical advice and assistance to companies regarding recycling and composting waste. In doing so, it has worked with companies ranging from small shops to large entities like Big Y and Titeflex.

Another success story at CET has been EcoBuilding Bargains, which began life as the ReStore in 2001 before undergoing a move and rebranding seven years ago.

In its first incarnation on Albany Street in Springfield, the ReStore dealt in recycled building materials, with the twin goals of saving builders and do-it-yourselfers money while reducing the burden on landfills. A move to Warwick Street in 2011 involved a $900,000 energy retrofit on the existing building on that site — a good example of CET practicing what it preached.

CET is also making an effort to raise up the next generation of green innovators, through a fellowship program it launched seven years ago. Five fellows per year — recent college graduates from across the U.S. — are chosen to work with CET for one year and receive training in environmental science, energy efficiency, waste reduction, and other aspects of green business. They’ve gone on to work at similarly minded nonprofits, and also corporations looking to go green.

Meanwhile, with utility incentives making energy-efficient technology more affordable for Massachusetts businesses, the Center for EcoTechnology continues to works with Columbia Gas and Berkshire Gas to help companies navigate the incentives and options available.

“The state has goals for how much renewable energy it wants to create, and it wants to address climate change and access all the benefits these technologies and services provide,” Majercek said. “Those goals align closely with our mission. We’re trying to bridge the gap between what we’d like to happen and what’s actually happening in the world.

“If we can come in and provide some education and hand-holding to make it simple for people,” he went on, “the technology can ensure that people get benefits, and the environment gets benefits, too. We’re helping people be more comfortable and save money — and saving the planet. It’s a triple bottom line.”

All Aboard

Businesses can also boost the new solar-access program for middle-income homeowners simply by letting their employees know it exists, he added. “Many businesses have lots of employees that fall into the middle-income bracket and would be able to benefit from the program. We can provide information for companies: newsletters, posters, lunch-and-learn presentations for employees and staff. Businesses can help employees go green and save money; it’s an easy thing to promote, and a win for any employee who would qualify.”

Such initiatives have been a win for CET as well, which not only reached but surpassed its program goals in the most recent three-year period.

“That’s exciting,” he said. “Everyone who works here is extremely motivated by our mission and the impact we can make.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Health Care

A Different Kind of Health Crisis

Dr. Gaurav Chawla

Dr. Gaurav Chawla describes suicide as “a very unfortunate, tragic outcome of a complex set of circumstances.”

It’s a common, but certainly not universal, refrain when an individual takes his or her own life.

Friends and relatives will say they didn’t see any signs that this was coming, said Kate Hildreth-Fortin, program director, Emergency Service & Mobile Crisis Intervention with Behavioral Health Network (BHN). Or they’ll say that they could not see any apparent reason for this outcome, that the individual in question seemed outwardly happy and was enjoying life.

That’s what people said about celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain, designer Kate Spade, comedian Robin Williams, and countless others, famous and not at all famous.

“But almost always, there are warning signs, and there are reasons,” said Hildreth-Fortin, one of many who spoke with BusinessWest about a subject that is timely, immensely complicated, and a true healthcare crisis probably on the same level as the one involving opioid addiction.

“If you think about the cost society pays due to undiagnosed mental-health conditions, due to emotional crises and stressors leading to loss of function and ultimately to suicide, and how many lives are directed affected by suicide … when you think about all that, this is a public health crisis.”

Timely not just because of those celebrity suicides several months ago — although they always help bring attention to the problem — and not just because of a recent report from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the growing problem.

It’s timely because the numbers continue to rise, as does the overall toll from suicide, which goes well beyond the individuals who take their own life, said Dr. Gaurav Chawla, chief medical officer at Providence Behavioral Health Hospital, part of Trinity Health Of New England, who estimated that six lives are directly impacted by each suicide.

“If you think about the cost society pays due to undiagnosed mental-health conditions, due to emotional crises and stressors leading to loss of function and ultimately to suicide,” he went on, “and how many lives are directed affected by suicide … when you think about all that, this is a public health crisis.”

Getting back to the numbers, they are eye-opening and quite alarming:

• The most recent surveys show there are 45,000 completed suicides in the U.S. every year;

• That number has steadily risen since the start of this millennium, with suicides up a total of 28% since 2000;

• Massachusetts has the third-lowest suicide rate in the nation, but the rate of suicides in the Bay State has increased 35% since 1999, well above the national average;

• Women attempt suicide at a higher rate than men, but men complete suicide at a higher rate than women;

• Firearms are used in more than 50% of suicide attempts;

• Middle-aged white men (those in their 40s to mid-50s) have the highest suicide rate, particularly when they are single, but there is another peak involving individuals over 84; and

• Among individuals ages 14-34, suicide is the second-leading cause of death after accidents.

Perhaps as disturbing and frustrating as the numbers themselves are the forces behind them. They are numerous, often difficult to see, and very difficult to combat.

But there are common denominators of a sort. For starters, suicide usually results from a combination of factors, not one in particular, said Chawla, who summed things up succinctly, noting that “there is never one reason for someone to take their life; suicide is a very unfortunate, tragic outcome of a complex set of circumstances.

Kate Hildreth-Fortin

In almost all cases, Kate Hildreth-Fortin says, there are warning signs with someone contemplating suicide.

“You will often see the assumption that undiagnosed mental illness or inadequately recognized or treated mental illness is the cause,” he went on. “However, that is a myth; 50% of the suicides do not have a diagnosed mental illness behind them.”

As for what is behind them, that list is obviously quite long, said Hildreth-Fortin, and could include biological and genetic factors, increasing stresses of life, relationship crises, financial and occupational stressors, poor coping styles, increased substance use, and many others.

Another common denominator is that those contemplating suicide generally feel trapped in a life that does not bring them happiness or make them fulfilled, said those we spoke with, adding that this descriptive phrase can be applied to people at every age, every income bracket, and every walk of life.

Slicing through it all, such individuals need a way out of that trap and can’t find one or are unwilling to try, said Chawla.

“Suicide is a confluence of circumstances that lead one to conclude that they’re trapped in a hopeless circumstance, sometimes without purpose, in a painful existence from which there is no other way out,” he told BusinessWest.

Meanwhile, providing a way out, especially to those suffering from behavioral-health issues (and that’s a large percentage of those who contemplate or complete suicide) is made more difficult by the persistent stigma attached to seeking help for such conditions, and then finding help in a system plagued by a shortage of resources.

These are the reasons why this is a healthcare crisis, even if the same politicians who are quick to give such a label to the opioid epidemic are mysteriously reluctant to do the same with suicide.

For this issue, BusinessWest takes a long, hard look at suicide, going beyond the numbers in a quest to explain why they continue to rise, and also looking at how area professionals are helping those who are in that aforementioned ‘trap’ and need a way out.

A Failure of the System

Hildreth-Fortin, like the others we spoke with, said that, while it is somewhat regrettable that it often takes celebrity suicides like Bourdain’s and Spade’s to bring heavy media attention to the problem of suicide, she’s happy for the attention and a chance to bring the conversations to the forefront, instead of the background, where they have been for too long.

That’s because a brighter light needs to be shone on this crisis to bring about any kind of change in the current trends. With that attention, she said, there is hope that the stigma attached to mental-health issues and seeking help for them might be diminished; hope that more resources might be brought to bear to address the crisis, as has happened with opioid addiction; hope that friends and loved ones might become aware of the warning signs — what to do when they see and hear them; and hope that those feeling trapped might be more persistent in finding a way out.

That’s a lot of hoping, but in this battle, those fighting it will take whatever help they can get, especially with regard to that stigma concerning mental health.

“Suicide is a word we use every day; it’s something we deal with every day,” said Hildreth-Fortin, whose program handles roughly 1,300 assessments a month, and 70% of these individuals, in her estimation, have suicidal thoughts. “There’s a lot we can do with prevention; we need to reduce the stigma, improve education, and treat suicide the same way we would diabetes — ‘what can we do to help someone?’”

Chawla agreed, and said the stigma attached to both suicide and mental illness and seeking help for it often contributes to a lack of understanding concerning why someone commits suicide.

That is certainly the case with celebrities such as Bourdain, Williams, and others, he went on, adding that, to most of the rest of the world, these people seem happy and content with their lives.

But it’s not the world’s perception of these individuals that matters; it’s how they view themselves, and this is true of people across all income levels and social strata.

“It’s about perceptions of who you are, how you fit in your world, and how meaningful you find your existence,” he said. “That’s what ultimately leads to or doesn’t lead to such acts.”

But while suicide is seemingly an individual act, it isn’t, and each act represents more than one person choosing that tragic outcome.

“Suicide is taken as one event by one individual, and that’s not what it is,” said Chawla. “It is the final outcome of the failure of the system. Along the way, there are many lives affected, there’s a lot of loss of function, and there is opportunity that’s missed.”

Hildreth-Fortin and others at BHN agreed, and said one huge key to perhaps reducing the number of suicides is to seize opportunities rather than miss them.

And there is quite a bit that goes into this equation, she noted, listing everything from proper training of police officers, teachers, and others to being aware of the many warning signs; from knowing what questions to ask those at risk (and asking them) to knowing how to respond to the answers to those questions.

And this means not overreacting or underreacting, and, above all, connecting people at risk with services that provide help, said Hildreth-Fortin, who, like Matthew Leone, assistant program director of the crisis unit at BHN, is trained in something called QPR, which stands for question, persuade, refer — the three basic steps in suicide prevention.

“This is training given to anyone in recognizing the risk factors, how to persuade the person to get help, and how to refer that person for help,” Leone explained, adding that, in his role, he does a lot of training in the community on how to recognize suicide.

Which brings him to those warning signs. There are many to watch for, some subtle, some most definitely not, he said.

“This is training given to anyone in recognizing the risk factors, how to persuade the person to get help, and how to refer that person for help”

They could and often do include people saying ‘goodbye’ or ‘nice to know you’ on Facebook and other platforms, individuals giving away possessions, young people suddenly drawing up a will, people losing interest in things they enjoy doing, a decrease in performance at school, and many others.

“A more overt sign might be when they start stockpiling medication or another means of following through on their plan,” Leone went on, adding that, in addition to these warning signs, which are clearly red flags, there are also risk factors.

And there are many of those, he said, starting with being a middle-age male. Others include financial distress, depression, divorce, loss of a job, being given a terminal diagnosis, and, of course, a combination of some of these.

Questions and Answers

The next part of the equation is knowing what to do when warning signs are recognized, or with someone who outwardly seems at risk, said Hildreth-Fortin.

She acknowledged that having a conversation with such an individual and asking the questions that need to be asked is awkward and often very difficult (some fear that just asking the questions can help promote a suicidal act) but it needs to be done.

“A big piece of QPR training is teaching people how to ask the question, to get someone comfortable with asking someone if they’re suicidal,” she said, adding that this training is often given to first responders and educators, but parents, spouses, friends, and employers also fall into the category of individuals who need to ask questions and need to know how to ask and also how to respond.

Questions should focus on what thoughts people are having, how often they’re having them, and whether they’ve acted on these thoughts in any way before, said Hallie-Beth Hollister, assistant program director, Community Relations for BHN, adding that the answers will generally reveal just how at-risk someone might be.

Jenni Pothier

Jenni Pothier says those working with those contemplating suicide need to create a comfortable, non-judgmental, open space for dialogue to occur.

One key, she went on, is not asking leading questions that would enable the individual to give the answers the questioner might be looking for.

“Don’t say, ‘you’re not thinking of killing yourself, right?’” she said by way of example.

But, as noted, recognizing warning signs and asking the right questions are only parts of the equation. Responding to the signs and the questions to the answers is another big part, said Leone, adding that that many people balk at asking questions, or especially difficult and specific questions, because of anxiety about the answer.

“‘What do I do if the answer is yes?’” is a question that unnerves many, he went on, adding that there’s a reason for this; the response can be complex.

“We talk with people all day who mention that they’ve having suicidal thoughts,” he explained. “Some have the intent to follow through, others do not; some have vague suicidal ideation where there’s no real plan to it.”

Which is why overreaction is possible and should be avoided.

“Many times, with suicide, when someone says they’re having those thoughts, instead of starting a conversation, it ends the conversation,” he explained. “People will jump in and say, ‘we need to get them to the hospital, we need to get them help now,’ when the person is just reaching out to talk about it for help.

“And this overreaction can have a negative effect to it because then the next time the person is experiencing those thoughts, they may not say anything,” he went on, adding that the key is generating the proper response given the individual’s risk factors, warning signs, the strength of the connections in his or her life, and other factors.

Jenni Pothier, director of the Tenancy Preservation program for Springfield-based Mental Health Associates, agreed. In the course of her work, which involves helping individuals who are at risk of homelessness — a stressful situation to say the least — the subject of suicide often comes up.

“Because we know that suicide includes risk factors like poverty, experiencing potential homelessness, and a lack of access to resources, people are in crisis,” she explained. “So we’re assessing people regularly for suicide.”

And those assessments involve asking those questions mentioned above, asking them in an effective way, and responding in the appropriate manner.

“As practitioners and clinicians in the community, you need to create comfortable, non-judgmental, and open spaces for dialogue to occur,” she explained, “so people can express to you how they’re feeling without the fear of the stigma or that you’re going to instantly call 911 to get them hospitalized if they say they’re contemplating suicide or having suicidal ideations.”

Bottom Line

As she talked with BusinessWest about suicide and, more specifically, the problems many have with asking the questions that must of asked of someone at risk, Hildreth-Fortin related the story about an educator who, during a QPR training session, admitted not only that she would have difficulty asking such questions, but also that she would be upset if someone put those questions to her child.

“I had a real hard time responding to her, because it spoke so greatly to the stigma attached to this,” she said. “If your child had a stomach ache, you wouldn’t have a problem with him going to the nurse. You talk about what hurts, what kind of pain it is … we have to treat suicide the same way we would any medical symptom. We have to talk about it.”

It will take a confluence of factors and a great deal of resources to reverse the current trends on suicide, but getting people to talk about it and respond to the talk is the big first step, said Chawla, adding that only by doing so can those missed opportunities he mentioned become real opportunities to do something about a true healthcare crisis.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

Lean and Green

solar canopies

These solar canopies over a parking lot are part of a massive, campus-wide photovoltaic project.

Because its region is so environmentally conscious, UMass Amherst would appear to be fertile ground for sustainable practices like green energy, eco-friendly buildings, and a buy-local ethos in food service. But it’s still remarkable how broadly — and effectively — the university has cast its net when it comes to sustainability. A national report placing the campus ninth in the nation for such efforts is the latest accolade, but UMass isn’t about to rest on its laurels.

Call it a reward for a decade of work.

When the Assoc. for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education released the three-year results of its Sustainability Tracking, Assessment and Rating System (STARS), UMass Amherst earned placed ninth in the nation — a leap of 20 places from its previous rating in 2015.

That’s gratifying, said Steve Goodwin, deputy chancellor and professor of Microbiology at UMass, who has been heavily involved in efforts to make the state’s flagship campus more green. And it’s not a recognition that was earned overnight.

“Sustainability has been a focus for the campus for about 10 years,” he told BusinessWest. “There were some efforts even before that, but it really started about 10 years ago.”

When Kumble Subbaswamy became chancellor in 2012, Goodwin said, he ramped up those efforts by forming an advisory committee specifically around sustainability, which helped to raise the awareness of green issues around campus.

“Sustainability has been a focus for the campus for about 10 years,” he told BusinessWest. “There were some efforts even before that, but it really started about 10 years ago.”

“This new STARS score reflects the university’s continuing commitment to excellence in sustainability,” Subbaswamy said when the ranking was announced. “UMass Amherst is a leader in best practices for energy-efficient construction and sustainable food use, conducting world-class research, and preparing a new generation of students to be inspired stewards of our planet.”

But before any of that could be accomplished — through innovative food-service changes, solar projects, green-building techniques, and a host of other initiatives (more on them later) — there had to be buy-in from both the university’s leaders and its students.

“It gained a lot of acceptance early on because a lot of sustainability is doing what you do and meeting your mission with very high efficiency,” Goodwin said. “That’s not all of what sustainability is, but that was an appealing piece for us. A campus has a particular mission, and it has a limited set of resources to meet that mission.”

Steve Goodwin

Steve Goodwin says buy-in from students has been key to UMass Amherst’s sustainability successes.

Take, for example, the Central Heating Plant, a project completed in 2009 that replaced the campus’ 80-year-old coal-burning plant with a co-generation facility that provides electricity for 70% of the campus and 100% of the steam needed for heating and cooling buildings across the sprawling grounds — all while reducing greenhouse gases by 27%.

“That was a really big decision for the campus,” Goodwin said. “At the time, it was probably the best co-generation plant in the country. That really worked out well for us because we needed electrical power and we were heating with steam, so to get the efficiencies of co-generation was a really a big deal for the campus.”

Those early years of UMass Amherst’s new sustainability focus also saw a reduction in water use — by using recycled water where appropriate — and partnering with Johnson Controls to incorporate energy-saving devices on much of the campus lighting. And that was just the beginning.

“Since then, the sustainability committee has really taken the lead for the chancellor, and made it more of a campus-wide thing,” Goodwin said — in ways that continue to expand and raise the university’s green profile on the national stage.

Food for Thought

Early in the process, late last decade, UMass officials recognized food service as a prime area to boost efficiency and reduce waste. Not only did the sheer volume of food produced every day offer plenty of opportunity for improvement, but students were beginning to ask questions about waste.

“The initial step was to go trayless,” Goodwin said. “If you have a tray of food, it’s easier to heap a lot of food on the tray and not necessarily eat it all. But if you have to carry it all with your hands, you take less to begin with, and if you want more, you just go back.”

As a formal measure, in 2013, UMass Amherst became the largest food-service provider in the nation to sign on to the Real Food Campus Commitment, which requires participating universities’ food budgets to move away from industrial farms and junk food and toward local and community-based, fair, ecologically sound, and humane food sources by 2020. “For an institution this large,” Goodwin said, “we purchase a very large percentage of local food.”

In 2014, UMass Amherst Dining Services was selected as a gold recipient for procurement practices in the 2014 Sustainability Awards given by the National Assoc. of College and University Food Services — just one way national experts were taking notice. Around the same time, the university’s sustainability staff and faculty team from Environmental Conservation, the Physical Plant, Dining Services, and University Relations won the state Department of Energy Resources’ Leading by Example Award.

The UMass Crop and Animal Research and Education Farm in South Deerfield

The UMass Crop and Animal Research and Education Farm in South Deerfield is home to the Student Farming Enterprise, which allows undergraduates to gain hands-on experience managing a small, organic farm. Produce generated there is sold to local stores and a community-supported agriculture share program.

Building design has been another focus, a recent example being the John W. Olver Design Building, completed last year, which uses a wood-concrete composite flooring product that was developed on the UMass campus. The contemporary wood structure, which houses the Building and Construction Technology program, the Department of Architecture, and the Department of Landscape Architecture and Regional Planning, includes sustainability features such as LED lighting, motion sensors, ample natural light, electro-tinting glass, heat-recovery systems, bioswales, rain gardens, low-flow faucets, and public-transportation access.

Meanwhile, the Integrated Science Building, constructed in 2009, employs cooling systems that reuse rainwater, state-of-the-art heat exchanges and ventilation systems, passive solar collection, and extensive use of eco-friendly materials like bamboo, to name just a few features.

“Obviously building is a big chunk of where our resources go, especially energy and water resources, so building design has a big impact,” Goodwin said, noting that UMass typically aims for some level of LEED certification on new buildings.

“But we’ve also done some things that go above and beyond those certifications to try to make our buildings more suited for their particular uses,” he went on. “There’s a whole variety of passive solar issues, lighting issues, energy and water use around buildings, reclaiming ground water, those sorts of considerations.”

Textbook Examples

On an academic level, Goodwin said, sustainability has made its way into the curriculum of nearly every program on campus. “I don’t think there’s any school or college that doesn’t have something that deals with an aspect of sustainability. They range from the obvious — an environmental science course, for instance — to a social justice course where they’re making connections back into sustainability and how that impacts the way people experience their communities.”

He stressed repeatedly, however, that raising up a culture of sustainability has never been a solely top-down effort, and that students have long been engaged on these issues.

“One of the things we did early on was to establish a culture within the dormitories and among the students — in part because the students really want this. They care about these issues a lot,” he said. “So we spend a lot of time building various aspects of sustainability into the curriculum, but also extracurricular activities.”

For example, ‘eco-reps’ are students who are specifically trained around issues of sustainability and are responsible for a floor of a dorm, to help students understand the impact of their day-to-day activities. “We run competitions between the dorms — who’s going to do the most recycling or use the least water this year, those kinds of things.”

Students had a direct impact on one of the university’s most notable green decisions — to divest its endowment from direct holdings in fossil fuels in 2016, becoming the first major public university to do so.

The John W. Olver Design Building

The John W. Olver Design Building is a model for green design and operation.

A year earlier, the board of directors of the UMass Foundation voted to divest from direct holdings in coal companies in response to a petition from the UMass Fossil Fuel Divestment Campaign, a student group. Energized by that decision, the campaign staged a series of demonstrations to call for divestment from all fossil fuels, and the foundation board followed suit.

“Important societal change often begins on college campuses, and it often begins with students,” UMass President Marty Meehan said at the time. “I’m proud of the students and the entire university community for putting UMass at the forefront of a vital movement, one that has been important to me throughout my professional life.”

It’s an example, Goodwin said, of the ways university leadership and the student body are often in alignment on issues of sustainability, both locally and globally. “So it’s been a balance of having sustainability in the curriculum, having demand from the students, and also having the central administration realize the importance of sustainability university-wide.

Numerous people on campus are tasked with making sure UMass continually improves its efforts, including the creation of a new position, sustainability manager, seven years ago.

“We’re having a huge impact in the region, and we’re proud of the impact we’re having — and at the same time, we’re also proud of what the students are experiencing,” Goodwin said. “Not only are they learning about these issues, but they’re living this approach as well. They’re living within an environment in which sustainability has a higher priority, so now we hope that impact will increase as they go out into their communities and spread the impacts of sustainability.”

Green Makes Green

Last year, UMass Amherst made news on the green-energy front again, installing more than 15,000 photovoltaic panels across campus, providing 5.5 megawatts of clean electrical power for the campus to use for a heavily discounted rate. The initiative is expected to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions in the regional grid by the equivalent of 31,000 tons of carbon dioxide and cut the university’s electric bills by $6.2 million over 20 years.

“It’s a situation where doing the right thing is also a very smart business decision as well,” Goodwin said. “As time goes on, some of those challenges will get to be a little trickier. Now we’re trying to make decisions about the need to increase the amount of electricity that we’re currently generating, so we’re going to expand the base, but how, exactly, is the right way to do it that’s efficient, a good financial decision, and also a good decision for the environment? It gets very complex.”

For now, he went on, the campus has a strong foundation in decreasing its carbon footprint and decreasing the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases being emitted — efforts that have run the gamut from large-scale energy production to UMass Amherst’s participation in ValleyBike Share.

“The campus had been trying to run an internal bike-share program with some success, but we were hoping to do better,” he noted. “Now, with ValleyBike Share, the campus is working with other communities to develop a program that will actually bring a little more connectivitity between the university and the surrounding communities. So it has multiple benefits.”

Clearly, the impact of sustainable practices on not only the campus, but potentially the world, through the continued efforts of alumni, is reward enough for the university’s broad sustainability efforts — but the STARS recognition is nice too, Goodwin admitted, as it showcases UMass Amherst in the top 10 among some 600 participating institutions.

“We’re very excited about that, but it’s a huge amount of work, to be perfectly honest, because it’s all self-reporting,” he explained. “It covers so many aspects — the academic side, the financial side and investments, energy use, and the social side of sustainability. So it’s a very wide-ranging analysis. And, of course, after you do all that self-reporting, they go and verify everything as well.”

The end result is certainly a source of pride on campus — and a little more motivation to continue and broaden these efforts. Not that UMass needed any.

“Sustainability means a lot of different things to different people,” Goodwin said. “But to me, it was always a way of thinking: ‘OK, yes, we have a set of decisions to make; let’s make sustainability a part of that decision-making process.’ And I think our students are picking up on that as well.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Retirement Planning

One Size Doesn’t Fit All

President and Chief Investment Officer Trevor Forbes

President and Chief Investment Officer Trevor Forbes

With decades of investment experience under his belt — much of it for very large companies on an international scale — Trevor Forbes decided he preferred an approach to portfolio management that emphasizes the individual. He found that model at Renaissance Investment Group, which he joined as president in 2011. Creating a completely personalized portfolio for each client takes work, he said, but it’s worth it because it creates peace of mind — in more ways than one.

It makes sense, Trevor Forbes said, that no two people would forge an identical strategy for their financial future.

“Your financial position is going to be different than someone else’s, and your ideas about what you want when you retire will undoubtedly be different. So how you deal with that retirement will be different,” said Forbes, president and chief investment officer at Lenox-based Renaissance Investment Group.

“You may be a cautious investor; you may be able to tolerate much less in the way of volatility in your investments than someone else, and we take that into account,” he went on. “We have to balance a whole range of different requirements from our clients. A lot of organizations will claim to do that, to an extent, but in most cases, they are not really set up to do it that way — certainly not for the size of clients we typically manage money for.”

Renaissance was launched in 2000 with a vision to provide tailored investment-management and financial-planning advice to individuals who were being sidelined by the centralization of the industry.

“That’s remained very much the ethos of Renaissance ever since,” Forbes said. “I joined in 2011, having had long discussions with the original founders for about 18 months prior to that, at a time when two of the original founders were seeking to retire. They wanted somebody with a similar ethos and a similar approach to investments.”

“The mission has been to provide individualized investment management and financial planning for people who otherwise wouldn’t be getting that.”

Forbes, a native of England, had worked in London for most of his career, mainly for large financial organizations on the investment side. “For example, for most of the ’90s I was the head of global equities for Citibank, which was those days based in London. I had to coordinate the investment approach of seven different locations around the world. They got me very heavily involved in asset allocation for a whole range of different types of clients. Particularly interesting to me, at that stage, was the private client side.”

Forbes left Citibank at the end of the 1990s and went into private-client wealth management; in 2007, he set up a wealth-management business “at probably one of the most inauspicious times in market history.” But over the next several years, he and his team built that enterprise from nothing to a billion dollars under management.

Still, he and his wife were looking for something different when they relocated to the Berkshires — she to open a bed and breakfast, and he to find a wealth-management firm that fit his philosophy — which he found in Renaissance just as it was looking for a successor to run the business.

Just before he came on board, the company became a wholly owned subsidiary of Berkshire Bank, but it never fit neatly into that’s institution’s mold, he said, so in 2016, he partnered with Ohio-based Stratos Wealth Enterprises, LLC to buy out the firm.

“We’ve been able to regain our independence and maintain what has been the ethos of the company all the way through,” he explained. “The mission has been to provide individualized investment management and financial planning for people who otherwise wouldn’t be getting that. That continues today.”

In most investment-advisory firms of Renaissance’s size, said Chief Operating Officer Christopher Silipigno, “you’re not getting someone to sit down and find out exactly what your situation is, what variables are in play for you, and then looking at the specific equities that best make up a portfolio that matches that. That’s pretty special.”

One thing that attracted him to the firm, he added, is its history of bringing in senior-level talent from very large institutions who now bring that experience to clients outside the ultra-high-net-worth sphere.

“You’re getting someone with Trevor’s background to sit down with you and run through all kinds of things — your investment concerns, retirement concerns, cash flow and how much you need, as well as things like passing this wealth on in a tax-efficient manner, how the funds will go to your children, even real-estate concerns.”

As an SEC-registered investment advisory firm, Silipigno noted, Renaissance has a fiduciary responsibility to clients — a term meaning, essentially, that their interests always come first.

“Most people don’t understand that, in your large broker-dealer houses, that’s not the case. They have a suitability expectation, which means the investment has to be suitable, but it could be that they’re selling you Apple because they own Apple at one price and want to sell it at another. We’re not selling our own stock, so our advice is what’s in your best interest. We’re also not pushing products, which is unique.”

Conscientious Investors

At Renaissance, the investment team is doing all its own research on individual investments, Silipigno said. “You might think that’s the norm, but it’s further and further away from the norm. Typically, research is done somewhere else and being sent into the firm, and then that research is being used to make decisions for you.”

That in-house research, he explained, extends to both national trend tracking, but also the fundamentals of each company being considered for investment. For instance, he noted, in a growing economy, oil might be a promising investment. “But maybe we see a lot of growth coming out of West Texas, and here are the companies in West Texas best poised to grow because they have the capacity to grow.

Chris Silipigno

Chris Silipigno says Renaissance has a fiduciary responsibility to clients, meaning their interests come first, not the firm’s.

“That’s the kind of specific research that’s happening here and can be brought to a client,” he said. “Maybe someone in a $15 million account somewhere can demand that kind of answer. Here, we’re bringing that to clients in much smaller accounts.”

Sometimes, an individual investment strategy will incorporate what’s become known in the industry as social-responsibility investments (SRI), or environmental, social, and governance (ESG) preferences. Take, for example, customers who may not want their money invested in petroleum.

“A lot of those clients might not want that company in West Texas. That’s fine. It’s their wealth, and they have a role to play in how that wealth is invested,” Forbes said. “So we tailor a portfolio to either exclude certain characteristics or include some of the characteristics these individuals are interested in. Then we do research into these kinds of companies.”

In addition to fossil fuels, some customers have an aversion to military spending, guns, alcohol, gambling, pharmaceutical companies, even investment banks, and don’t want their money invested in one or more of those areas, he explained. Conversely, they might have a special interest in water resources, testing equipment for water purity, solar energy, or any number of other mission-driven businesses.

“Your view of social responsibility can be much different than someone else’s view of social responsibility. So we have to take into account a very wide range of differing views,” he added, noting that such companies must also be suitable investments from a financial perspective — otherwise, there’s not much point in investing in them.

Tailoring portfolios to match a customer’s ESG preferences, Forbes said, is really just an extension of what Renaissance is already doing for clients, which is research on a client-by-client basis — a task that has become much easier in an era of technology that makes information so readily accessible. “It’s time-consuming; there’s no doubt about that, but anything you do well is going to be time-consuming.”

Forbes first became interested in ESG investing during the 1980s, when he began directing money away from South African companies that supported apartheid. Today, a commitment to ESG investments still makes sense, especially in a socially conscious region like the Berkshires.

“It’s gone from a fringe idea, a few people saying, ‘hey, I want to invest in a way that doesn’t offend my values’ to a global movement,” Silipigno said. “Every year, the growth has been exponential.”

He said many larger firms are making ESG investments, but they’re one-size-fits-all portfolios of companies the advisory firm has decided fit the ESG mold, not crafted individually for each client. “They might decide a petroleum company is OK, because a certain amount of its revenues go back into the environment. But that might not be your decision as a client; you might say, ‘I don’t want anybody that profits from fossil fuels.’”

Indeed, Forbes added, “the way you express your social responsibility will be different than someone else’s. The way we do it is more targeted, and we have the technology to achieve that.”

For people worried that investing their conscience might cost them returns on growth, Renaissance has not found that to be the case, Silipigno added. “We’re seeing that our portfolios that are ESG and SRI are tracking with the major indices. So you don’t have to have a drag on your returns to invest in a way that meets your conscience.”

Smart Approach

Renaissance takes on clients with at least a half-million dollars to invest, although that could include a group of smaller accounts — for example, in one household.

“Our average client size is bigger than that, and basically these are people who worked very hard to get their wealth, and they want that wealth to provide them with some security, particularly as they get into later life,” Forbes said. “In some cases, it’s to provide a second generation with some wealth as well, and sometimes it includes charitable giving.”

Renaissance also manages money for foundations and endowments, he added. A large portion of its client base is in the Berkshires or surrounding regions, but the firm also has many clients on the West Coast, Florida, and other points across the U.S.

“We see ourselves as the center of a team of individuals that may include an attorney, an accountant, and a whole range of people who are important in mapping out your future — and succeeding generations as well. And it has to be done on a client-by-client basis. You have to know your clients. That’s important.”

Silipigno said potential clients will come in for a financial checkup, assessing their current financial standing and where their assets are. He often finds people at one of two extremes. Some are currently exposed to a tremendous amount of risk — with money tied up in just a few stocks that have done well, but could be vulnerable to a market downturn — while others have taken an alarmingly conservative approach to their future.

The firm boasts a broad client base in and around the Berkshires, but also across the U.S.

The firm boasts a broad client base in and around the Berkshires, but also across the U.S.

For example, he recently met with a doctor, married with five kids, who had more than a million dollars, all of it tucked away in a savings account, building almost no growth whatsoever — not exactly the most ambitious retirement plan.

Clients who come on board find there’s a happy medium, he said, a way to both grow and protect their assets through a diversified approach. Forbes was quick to note, however, that he doesn’t take the approach of some houses that clients should have a little bit of everything. For example, he shies away from international investments because they’re naturally a little more volatile.

“Some of those risks may be worth taking, but I’ve got to be satisfied that they are worth taking,” he said. “I’ve never believed that you should have a little bit of this, a little bit of that, a little bit of something else just because it adds extra diversification. All of our portfolios are very diversified. But there’s nothing in the theory that suggests you should have something in emerging markets or something in high-yield debt, for example.”

In addition, he explained, “if you look at the typical way portfolio management is run here, we build everything up from the client level. So if we decide, for example, that today is the right day to buy Google, rather than saying, ‘OK, we’re going to buy 1,000 Google, you’re 0.2% of our client base, so you’re going to get 0.2%,’ we approach it differently. We’ll look at your portfolio, then we’ll look at his portfolio, and we’ll model each individual portfolio until we’ve got an aggregation of the amount of Google we want to buy.”

That’s different from how most investment houses organize their strategy, he went on. “It forces the portfolio manager to take account of your requirements at the time we’re actually trading within the account. I think that is an important factor. It is a differentiating factor between Renaissance and a lot of the industry.”

Another selling point is the firm’s transparency in terms of its fee basis. “We don’t invest in third-party funds,” Forbes said. “When you go to one of the larger investment-management organizations, they buy a mutual fund, and that mutual fund has another layer of fees within it, on top of the investment fees you’re already being charged. So your actual level of cost starts to escalate. We don’t believe in that — all our clients are invested in individual stocks and individual bonds. That provides very transparent fees. We think that’s in our clients’ best interest.”

Getting Personal

All these facets of Renaissance’s ethos — a word Forbes used several times for emphasis — certainly creates more work for the team, especially the individualized aspect of the investment process.

“Most investment managers will probably say it’s not a very cost-effective model, but fortunately, these days, we have a lot of technology at our fingertips, and rather than using that technology to determine what we’re going to invest in, we use it to actually inform our approach to investment management, from a research point of view and also from a day-to-day management point of view.”

It’s an approach that has worked for 18 years now, he said, if only because clients know their portfolio will be personally tailored to their assets, goals, risk tolerance — and, yes, even their conscience.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight: Wilbraham

Bob Boilard (left) and Jeff Smith

Bob Boilard (left) and Jeff Smith say they’d like to see more civic participation in policy discussions and planning town events.

Being pro-business, Jeff Smith says, doesn’t mean letting just any business set up shop in Wilbraham — but it does mean giving every business a fair shake.

Take, for example, Iron Duke Brewing, which is moving to town after a successful but eventually contentious stay at the Ludlow Mills. Because Wilbraham had no zoning for microbrew and brewpub establishments, the town’s Economic Development Initiative Steering Committee (EDICS) recommended a zoning change that eased the path for not just Iron Duke, but also Catch 22 Brewing, which is setting up shop at the former Dana’s Grillroom on Boston Road.

“One of the reasons why [Catch 22] said they came here was because we had specific zoning for what they wanted to do,” said Smith, the town’s Planning Board chairman, giving one example of how a zoning change can have effects beyond its initial motivation.

“One of the reasons why [Catch 22 Brewing] said they came here was because we had specific zoning for what they wanted to do.”

“When somebody comes into town and is interested in locating a business here and we don’t have specific zoning for it,” he added, “the Planning Department, the Planning Board, and the town itself take a hard look at the zoning and say, ‘is this the type of operation we’d like to see here? Maybe we should put zoning in place, and we can pitch it to the town, and if it’s not appropriate and the town agrees, they can vote accordingly at town meeting.’”

The same thing happened when the town lifted a long-time moratorium on new gas stations. As soon as that happened, Cumberland Farms bought some real estate in Post Office Park along Boston Road, with plans to open a 24-hour facility.

“We tried to have some foresight,” Smith told BusinessWest, adding that the Route 20 corridor used to have five gas stations, but that number had shrunk to two since the moratorium went into effect. “We said, ‘OK, why don’t we allow gas stations?’ It was something a previous Planning Board had put it in, but we said, ‘why? Things have changed. Maybe this is a good time to take a look at this.’ And as soon as we did, Cumberland Farms came in and located here.”

Bob Boilard, who chairs Wilbraham’s three-member Board of Selectmen, said he’s not an advocate of locking up decent, buildable land in perpetuity, or keeping out entire classes of businesses for no reason.

“There’s got to be a common-sense approach,” he said. “There are people in town that would say, ‘let’s stop now. No more building in Wilbraham.’ But you can’t do that. You have to have a tax base and controlled growth to support the town. It’s a balancing act. Open space is great, and we do a great job with that, but we have to consider each individual thing that comes before us.”

Smith added that town officials try to be both reactive and proactive, recognizing current needs but also anticipating future ones. “We want more businesses and more enterprises to locate here in our business district.”

Open for Business

Boilard said the town has worked in recent years to streamline the process for businesses to set up shop there.

“Planning and Zoning have done a great job adjusting things to make it easier for businesses to come in, and when they do come in, they complement us on the ease of communication, the ease of getting things done,” he said. “We don’t put up brick walls every so many feet for these guys; we try to make it as easy as possible to come in and do business in Wilbraham.”

Wilbraham at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1763
Population: 14,868
Area: 22.4 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $22.64
Commercial Tax Rate: $22.64
Median Household Income: $65,014
Median Family Income: $73,825
Type of government: Board of Selectmen, Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Baystate Wing Wilbraham Medical Center; Friendly Ice Cream Corp.; Big Y; Home Depot; Wilbraham & Monson Academy
*Latest information available

The nine-member EDICS has been integral to that effort, Smith said. “Let’s say you’re XYZ Inc., and you want to locate your business in Wilbraham. What do you do? What’s your first step? Where do you go? How do you know if there’s zoning for your business?”

One project the group wants to tackle is creating a comprehensive section on the town’s website to answer all those questions.

“They’re proposing updating the website to a more modern platform that’s more user-friendly, and then adding a business or a ‘locating your business here’ page that would essentially have a checklist: the first step is to talk to this person, here’s their phone number, here’s their e-mail.

“That way, people come in prepared,” he went on. “As a member of town government, we hate to have somebody come in unprepared and then have to tell them, ‘hey, you’re going to have to come back to the next meeting, and that’s a month away.’ So if they can get a lot of questions answered and come prepared, it’s smoother for everybody.”

The committee is also looking into creating marketing materials, both online and in print, outlining what Wilbraham has to offer — such as its access to rail and a single tax rate — that make it appealing to locate a business here.

Not every development proposal has gone according to plan. A recent effort to allow a mixed-use development in the town center, in the area of Main and Springfield streets, failed to garner the necessary two-thirds approval at a town meeting, falling short by about a dozen votes.

“It’s a very sensitive area,” Smith said. “One thing I’ve learned in my six years on the Planning Board is that people are very hesitant to change. In the long run, I think we take our time in this town and we do things right, and the end result is good. But in the beginning, there’s an air of skepticism toward changing something — which I don’t think is a bad thing.”

But it can be tricky, he went on, when a developer wants to move forward with a proposal that could create added energy in the center, especially when other mixed-use facilities, grandfathered in when the town put a hold on others like it, already exist.

“People understand there’s some vacant buildings there, and we could make changes that would probably make them not vacant and make it more vibrant,” he explained, “but I think there’s a fear that would be a change they may not like. So we have to tread lightly and move carefully with the center of town and make sure we get as much input from the people of the town as possible.”

In the end, he said, town officials didn’t do the best job conveying why such a development would be a positive. “It was a close vote, which is good because there are a lot of people in favor of it, but at the same time it tells me we have more work to do.”

Changing Times

It’s a challenge, Boilard said, to build a more vibrant town in an age when people’s lifestyles have been altered by technology, declining school enrollment, and a host of other factors. “The generations are changing, and society changes, and that happens everywhere.”

For example, Smith said, the Boston Road business corridor was originally built around retail, but bricks-and-mortar retail establishments struggle in the age of Amazon, and the concept of what a downtown or business center looks like today has shifted immeasurably since the 1970s, or even the 1990s.

“When I was a kid, I would get on my bicycle — I lived near Mile Tree School — and I could drive to the center of town. My dentist was there, Louis & Clark filled all of our prescriptions, the gas station would fix your car or come jump your car in your driveway, my pediatrician was right on the road there, the post office was there, and the village store was there, selling sandwiches and stuff. Everything you needed was there.”

Today, he went on, “you don’t see as many kids out riding their bikes. Those things that I mentioned aren’t really there in one convenient package. Things are different. So we’re trying to put in or modify zoning, potentially bringing some mixed-use components or do something to revitalize those areas, and it’s tough to balance that with … I don’t want to say a fear of change, but there’s an apprehension toward change in the wrong direction.”

Boilard said Wilbraham remains an attractive destination for new residents, with a well-run and well-regarded school system, although real estate in town can be pricey. “It can be hard for new families to come in and be able to afford Wilbraham. I wish we could have an impact on that, but it’s the way economics and demographics are.”

That said, several new subdivisions have gone up in recent years, with a trend toward modestly sized houses, which are selling faster than larger homes, and developers are designing projects accordingly, Smith said.

“Residential growth, in my time here, has been pretty consistent — I would say slow but always moving in the right direction,” he explained. “There’s not a ton of available land in town. The last subdivision to go in was an old farm that was in a family for a long time, and it wasn’t being used as a farm anymore. So a developer purchased it and divided it up and put in a subdivision.”

Compared to other towns in the area, he went on, Wilbraham does a good job of protecting and managing open-space and recreation parcels. “Every time a parcel is brought to the town to be purchased or donated as open space, the town is seemingly in favor of those purchases.”

But controlled growth is the goal, he added, and a balance must be struck between commerce and open space. “There’s a tax base that has to be built, and we try to build it with as much business as we can. We’ve turned down pieces of open space offered to the town — ‘no, we’re all set; put it on the open market, develop the property and get some tax revenue going.’”

Getting to Know You

One area Wilbraham does need to improve, both Boilard and Smith said, is in the area of volunteerism and civic involvement.

“Town events are well-attended, and that’s great,” Smith said, citing examples like the Spec Pond fishing derby, the Run for Rice’s 5K, the Thursday night concert series, the revamped Peach Blossom Festival, and the Christmas tree lighting. “But I would love to see more participation in the planning.”

Boilard agreed. “People complain we don’t have an event, but nobody wants to volunteer to run it. It’s always the same core people stepping up to volunteer,” he said, adding that this trend applies to town-meeting attendance as well.

For example, a recent public hearing on raising the minimum smoking age in town to 21 drew mainly support from the residents in attendance. “Then the phone calls started rolling in — ‘I can shoot a bullet in the Army at 18; why are you doing this?’ I said, ‘where were you Monday night? Why didn’t you come in and talk to us?’”

Smith called the numbers at town meetings “painful” — particularly considering the work that officials put into preparing for them. “I like it when there’s an angry mob in here. That’s good. We want some feedback. But participation could be better.”

After all, he and Boilard said, engaged residents are informed residents, all the better equipped to steer Wilbraham into its next phase of controlled growth.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

Tracking Progress

Springfield Train StationThe launch of the Hartford line last month, which expands rail activity from Union Station in Springfield to a host of Connecticut stops, has been a success, judging by early ridership. More important, it has municipal and economic-development leaders from Greater Springfield thinking about the potential of a Springfield-to-Greenfield service beginning next year, as well as the viability of east-west service between Boston and Springfield. It’s about more than riding the trains, they say — it’s about what riders will do once they get here.

When is a train not just a train?

Because the ones stopping at Union Station as part of the so-called Hartford line — which connects Springfield with New Haven via six other stations that roughly track I-91 through Connecticut — represent more than that, said Kevin Kennedy, Springfield’s chief Development officer.

“The simplest way to explain it is, the future is about connectivity, whether that connection is physical or electronic,” Kennedy told BusinessWest. “That’s going to be the case for the next 20 to 30 years going forward. And, in the case of rail, it’s critical that we increase our activity in Union Station.”

The reason is simple symbiosis. At a time when Springfield is preparing for an influx of visitors with the opening of MGM Springfield next month, in addition to other significant economic-development activity downtown, a train stop for several CTRail trains each day promises to make the city a more attractive destination, Kennedy said. That could have spinoffs for other regional attractions, particularly after a northern rail line is completed next year, connecting Union Station with Greenfield.

“The simplest way to explain it is, the future is about connectivity, whether that connection is physical or electronic,” Kennedy told BusinessWest. “That’s going to be the case for the next 20 to 30 years going forward. And, in the case of rail, it’s critical that we increase our activity in Union Station.”

“When they bring Greenfield and Northampton and Holyoke into the loop with new depots (all built over the past few years), that’s going to have a dramatic effect on how everyone comes and goes from Springfield,” Kennedy said. “MGM is an entertainment giant, and we’re basically going to be sharing [visitors] up and down the Valley, sending some of our visitors to MGM north to see what goes on up there, and seeing an awful lot of people come here. That’s connectivity.”

Michael Mathis, president and chief operating officer of MGM Springfield, agreed that expanded rail will benefit not just the casino, but the city and region as a whole, helping to brand it as an accessible travel destination.

“This new high-speed connection will be a welcome catalyst for business and tourism in the city and connect two important regional economic hubs,” Mathis told BusinessWest. “As awareness of the service continues to grow, we anticipate more and more people will be attracted to the area.”

To further promote exploration of the city from Union Station, MGM and the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority will launch the Loop, a free shuttle service linking downtown tourist attractions, hotels, restaurants, and arts and culture destinations. Debuting Aug. 24 as part of MGM Springfield’s opening, the Loop will connect Union Station, the Springfield Armory, Springfield Museums, the Basketball Hall of Fame, MGM Springfield, and the MassMutual Center, as well as four downtown hotels.

Rail activity in Union Station has picked up significantly

Rail activity in Union Station has picked up significantly, and expanded Springfield-to-Greenfield service next year will continue that trend.

“Any time you have a significant number of individuals coming into the city, that’s an economic opportunity,” said Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Western Mass. Economic Development Council. “Certainly, things are happening in the region, and downtown Springfield in particular, and it’s a big plus that it’s very walkable, or an easy commute with the MGM trolley to different venues here.”

All Aboard

Looking ahead, Gov. Charlie Baker recently announced that passenger rail service between Springfield and Greenfield will begin on a pilot basis in spring 2019. Under the agreement, MassDOT will fund the cost and management of the pilot service, which will be operated by Amtrak and conclude in fall 2021.

The pilot will provide two round-trips each day and make stops at stations in Greenfield, Northampton, Holyoke, and Springfield. Southbound service will be provided in the morning hours, and northbound in the evenings. This pilot service will leverage the MassDOT-owned rail line currently used by Amtrak’s Vermonter service.

Economic-development officials in the Pioneer Valley, and the cities connected by that future line, will likely be cheered by the early success of the 62-mile Hartford line, which began operating on June 16, with trains running approximately every 45 minutes between Springfield and several communities in Connecticut, including Windsor Locks, Windsor, Hartford, Berlin, Meriden, Wallingford, and New Haven. This expanded service is in addition to the existing Amtrak service throughout the corridor.

After two days of free rides, the line began running at regular fare prices on June 18, and in that first full week of June 18-24, ridership on the Hartford line totaled 10,719 customers, which Connecticut Gov. Dannel Malloy characterized as a success.

“I’ve spoken with scores of riders who have begun to use the Hartford Line and who are saying their commute has become much easier and less stressful,” ConnDOT Commissioner James Redeker said in a statement. “With easy access and connections with our CTtransit buses, we are opening up all kinds of options for getting around Connecticut — whether you’re going to work, to school, or simply playing the role of tourist.”

The Hartford Line connects commuters to existing rail services in New Haven that allow for connections to Boston, New York City, and beyond, including the New Haven Line (Metro-North), Shore Line East, Amtrak Acela, and Northeast Regional services.

“We know that it will take some time for this new rail service to grow to full maturity and become part of the everyday lives of Connecticut residents, but there is definitely an excitement about this long-overdue train service,” Malloy said at the time. “At the end of the day, this transit service is about building vibrant communities that attract businesses, grow jobs, and make our state a more attractive place to live, visit, and do business.”

This is precisely the model Massachusetts officials want to see replicated here — right away around Union Station, and eventually up and down the Valley as well.

“With the Loop service starting there, it will provide an opportunity to see Springfield even beyond the casino,” said Chris Moskal, executive director of the Springfield Redevelopment Authority.

The activity at Union Station has impacted other downtown development as well, Kennedy said, including Silverbrick Lofts and future market-rate apartments in the Willys-Overland building. “The 265 units at Silverbrick wouldn’t have happened without Union Station,” he noted. “They were very specific about that.”

Down the Line

Beyond north-south rail, however, are much more ambitious rumblings — and they’re rumblings from far, far down the proverbial track at this point — about east-west rail service connecting Boston and Springfield, and perhaps Albany one day.

MassDOT plans to carry out an extensive study over 18 months, analyzing many aspects and options for potential east-west passenger rail service. This will include engaging with stakeholders and evaluating the potential costs, speed, infrastructure needs, and ridership of potential passenger rail service throughout this corridor.

“Carrying out a comprehensive study on east-west passenger rail will allow us to have a rigorous, fact-based discussion regarding options for potential service,” state Transportation Secretary Stephanie Pollack said last month. “Many legislators, local and regional officials, and business leaders called for such a study, and we are pleased to take a step in advancing this planning for future service.”

Eventually, Kennedy told BusinessWest, rail service from, say, Montreal to New York and from Boston to Albany would position Springfield in an enviable spot as a central hub along both lines.

U.S. Rep. Richard Neal said as much when the Hartford line opened last month, calling enhanced rail service between Springfield and Boston a potential “game changer” for the region. “Investing in our transportation infrastructure will benefit people across the entire Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”

Between Amtrak and now CTrail, riders have several options

Between Amtrak and now CTrail, riders have several options each day to travel to and from Connecticut and beyond.

Sullivan said increasing the speed and ease of travel to a destination like Springfield, with more frequent schedule options, will open up opportunities to attract visitors from both the north and south. He’s not as optimistic about east-west rail, at least not in the next decade, since it’s not in the state’s five-year budget plan and has many logistical and cost hurdles to overcome.

“But certainly, the Connecticut line coming in gives the Convention & Visitors Bureau some travel and tourism opportunities, and it’s incumbent on those entities to sell the region hard — and they’re doing that,” he said. “It’s a significant opportunity.”

Kennedy noted that, when he travels on the eastern part of the state, each T stop is marked by renovated buildings and generally lively activity around the stations. If Massachusetts can be traversed in all directions by rail, he believes, highways could become less congested while trains bring economic energy into each city they stop in. “I see really good things ahead and significant potential,” he said. “Trains are a key component of the future.”

That’s why it’s important for Springfield to continue to grow with rail in mind, he added.

“One of the reasons for our recent success is that we planned bigger rather than smaller,” he said. “Springfield had a history of thinking too small, but certainly over the past five to eight years, we thought bigger, and it’s worked very well. We’ll continue with that big-picture thinking with Union Station as a critical node.”

Moskal agreed.

“Believe me, we’ve had an unbelievable response from people who use Union Station every day,” he said. “From what I’m hearing from people, they’ve said, ‘where has this service been?’ I’m like, ‘it’s here now.’ The spinoff potential has excited people. You can take the bus from there. The activity in and around the station is enormous. And the opportunities are only going to expand.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]