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Business of Aging

Sound Judgment

By Kayla Ebner

The girl sits in her classroom and turns up the volume wheel on her hearing aid loud enough to hear her teacher. Suddenly, the classmate sitting next to her drops his book. She tries to turn her hearing aid down, but it’s already too late. A loud ‘bang’ echoes through her head, then ringing, and more ringing.

Decades later, Jen Sowards remembers exactly how moments like those — and hearing loss in general — felt.

She’s struggled with hearing loss for her whole life, although it wasn’t identified until she was 6 years old. Fortunately, technology in hearing aids continues to get better and better, and Sowards gets to be a part of the evolution. 

Her life experience with hearing loss inspired her to become an audiologist, a career she has thrived in for more than 18 years. After spending more than a decade practicing across the country in Portland, Ore., she returned to the East Coast, where she worked at Clarke Hearing Center in Northampton for about a year. She has since opened her own practice at Florence Hearing Health Care and continues to help people who face the same daily struggles as she does.

“My own experience helped shape my philosophy for clinical practice now. I remember the audiologist just not necessarily taking a lot of time to explain things to me.”

“My own experience helped shape my philosophy for clinical practice now,” said Sowards, adding that her interactions with audiologists as a young child weren’t always positive. “I remember the audiologist just not necessarily taking a lot of time to explain things to me.”

Now, years later in her own practice, she takes ample time to explain to patients what she’s doing, why she recommends one type of hearing aid over another, and much more.

Dr. Deborah Reed, doctor of Audiology at Ascent Audiology & Hearing in Hadley, compares the human auditory system to a piano. The sensory nerve cells in the ear are like the keyboard, and their job is to stimulate the auditory nerve fibers. 

Jen Sowards uses her personal experience with hearing loss to help her patients who face the same daily struggles she does.

“If we unroll that auditory nerve, each fiber would be tuned to a particular pitch just like each string of a piano would be tuned to a particular note, and the job of the keyboard is to play the piano strings,” Reed said. “What we look for during the hearing test is, how well is your keyboard working, and how tuned are your piano strings?”

To continue with this analogy, hearing aids are tuned to respond wherever the keyboard dysfunction is occurring. 

“The bottom-line job of the hearing aid is to restore speech sounds and to improve our communication,” Reed continued. “We’re not necessarily looking to just give you a bunch of volume, we’re looking to give you clarity of speech, and we can do that by fine-tuning the digital processor of the hearing aids today.” 

That’s a long way from the earliest hearing aids, which were hollowed-out animal horns in the 1800s. As technology continues to improve, more people than ever are able to receive custom treatment for their hearing loss — and more lives are being changed.

Beat of a Different (Ear) Drum

Now, Sowards no longer hears the ringing, and loud noises are no longer painful.

That’s because the hearing aids themselves automatically adjust the volume of sounds coming into them. If a sound is very soft, the hearing aid recognizes that and turns it up, and vice versa.

“They really came a long way to where, by digitizing that signal, they were able to have an automatic volume control,” she said, adding that a hearing aid is a lot like a mini-computer. “Being able to automate the volume control on those really made a big difference.”

This is just one way in which modern-day hearing aids have improved. From those initial hollowed-out animal horns, hearing aids evolved to giant battery packs strapped to a person’s chest. A lot of variations have followed — with the past decade in particular seeing a notable burst of progress.

“We’re not necessarily looking to just give you a bunch of volume, we’re looking to give you clarity of speech, and we can do that by fine-tuning the digital processor of the hearing aids today.”

Sowards was fit with just one hearing aid when she was identified with hearing loss as a child. Since then, research has shown that the brain processes sound a lot better when hearing clearly through both ears.

“The prevailing thought at the time was, ‘well, if you can hear with one ear, that’s probably good enough,’” she said. “But if you can hear well out of both ears, you tend to have much better processing for speech when there’s competing background noise, and you also have much better localization skills, or the ability to tell what direction the sound is coming from.”

To achieve this, the patient must first be fit with the right hearing aid. They come in myriad types and sizes, but the ideal match depends on their ear anatomy and severity of hearing loss.

“In a perfect world, we would want to fit the best technology with everybody, but we can’t always do that,” said Reed, adding that fitting hearing aids to people is very much a case-to-case basis. “Then, we have to make judgment calls around quality of life and need.”

For example, someone who is a manager working full-time attending events and interacting with people on a daily basis will want a hearing aid that can process noise much better. On the other hand, someone who works in assisted living might not need all the fancy features.

One of the more recent developments is fall detection. If a person falls, Reed said, some hearing aids now have the ability to detect that fall and issue an alert. If the person does not respond and cancel the alert, a message is sent out to an emergency contact list.

“What we know about people with hearing loss is they tend to be older and might be more isolated,” she explained. “We’re trying to keep them safe and independent.”

Another feature is the ability to Bluetooth hearing aids to a smartphone. Apps allow a person to adjust the settings of their hearing aid and pin that location, so the next time they go there, the hearing aid will adjust to those saved settings automatically.

Hearing aids are also rechargeable, whereas years ago, batteries needed to be replaced. Sowards says most hearing aids now last 20 to 21 hours before needing to be charged again.

Not every person with hearing loss needs hearing aids, but for those that do, plenty of technology is available to support their needs.

“We’re really fortunate today in that technology is amazing,” Reed said. “The digital processing available in hearing aids has never been faster or more accurate.”

Don’t Ignore the Signs

The effects of untreated hearing loss can be startling. An estimated 36 million Americans have some sort of hearing loss — that’s 17% of the adult population.

Unsurprisingly, the incidence of hearing loss grows with age; however, hearing loss is growing in teens as well. According to the Hearing Loss Assoc. of America, an estimated one in five American teens experiences some degree of hearing deficit. Meanwhile, 12.5% of kids between the ages of 6 and 19 have hearing loss as a result of listening to loud music, particularly through earbuds at high volumes.

And the effects go beyond the ears. Studies show that those with hearing loss show significantly higher rates of depression, anxiety, and other psychosocial disorders. Hearing loss has also been associated with decreased social and emotional communication and cognitive function.

Dr. Deborah Reed

“What we know about people with hearing loss is they tend to be older and might be more isolated. We’re trying to keep them safe and independent.”

 

When it comes to teens with hearing loss due to loud music, Sowards says two factors are hugely important: the volume of the music and the time the ears are exposed to the sound.

She compares the fine hair cells in the ears to a green lawn. “If you walk across it a couple times, those blades of grass spring right back up, and it’s no big deal. But if you and 20 of your friends walk that same path eight hours a day, you’re going to get a bare patch.”

The simple solution: be careful with how loud and how often you listen to music. “If it’s loud and constant, that’s when you start to see the damage,” Sowards said.

Reed gave another analogy: exposure to sunlight. Limiting the duration of loud sounds is similar to putting on sunblock or avoiding long stretches of exposure to harmful UV rays.

“It’s okay to listen to music a little louder when you’re working out or something, but make sure you’re turning it down when you’re hanging out reading or doing homework,” she said.

Signs a person may be experiencing hearing loss may include muffled speech and other sounds and difficulty understanding words, especially with competing background noise.

When experiencing symptoms like this, Reed said it’s important to visit an audiologist to get a baseline hearing test sooner rather than later. “What we know now that we didn’t know seven or eight years ago is that the sooner we start treating hearing loss, the better we do.”

Class of 2020

She’s Fighting to Find a Cure for Metastatic Breast Cancer

Photo by Leah Martin Photography

Thirty-seven. 

That’s the age Sandy Cassanelli was diagnosed with stage-3 breast cancer. 

Thirty-eight.

That’s the age she was declared cancer-free — a bilateral mastectomy, eight rounds of chemotherapy, and 28 days of radiation later.

Thirty-nine.

That’s the age she was diagnosed with stage-4 metastatic breast cancer — a diagnosis with no cure.

Forty.

That’s the age many doctors start to recommend mammograms for women.

Yes, Cassanelli was diagnosed with uncurable breast cancer before most women even get their first mammogram.

In just three short years, she was knocked down by this disease more than once, but each time, she did something extremely difficult — she got right back up.

Living with a terminal illness is a different experience for each individual it affects. But Cassanelli is determined to take her personal experience with cancer and use it to help others to, hopefully, find a cure.

Sandy Cassanelli (third from left) with daughter Samantha, husband Craig, and daughter Amanda at Breast Friends Fund’s biggest annual fundraiser, Taste the Cure, in March 2019.

“I feel like the more you give, the more you’ll get,” she said. “I feel so blessed that I’m able to give, and I get so much that I just want to give and show people that, if you are kind, it just makes life so much easier.”

Four years after her stage-4 diagnosis, she continues to try out new medications and treatments, but has yet to find one she can stick with. In October 2018, she began an FDA-approved treatment, but recently found out, once again, her medication was not working. The next step — discussing possible options with her team of doctors.

Despite her diagnosis, Cassanelli lives her life full speed ahead. She’s a mother (to daughters Samantha, 17, and Amanda, 13), as well as CEO and co-owner (with her husband, Craig) of Greeno Supply, a company in West Springfield that distributes various cleaning and packaging supplies both locally and nationally.

She’s also the creator and manager of the Breast Friends Fund, a charity that takes aim at the very disease she was diagnosed with. One hundred percent of funds raised go directly to metastatic breast-cancer research at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

That’s a heck of a load for any person, let alone someone with severe health problems. But Cassanelli holds the weight just fine, and with a smile on her face.

“Having a terminal illness, of course I live every day like it’s my last,” she said. “I try not to sweat the small stuff. I believe that every day I get is a gift, and I’m going to make the best of that day, and I’m going to be positive, because if I’m positive, then everybody around me is going to be positive.”

It is estimated that 155,000 Americans currently live with metastatic breast cancer, a disease that accounts for approximately 40,000 deaths annually in the U.S. That’s why Cassanelli has made it her mission to raise money for the cure.

“Once I became metastatic, it was obviously a big punch in the gut to our family, and we realized that we needed to help find a cure,” she said.

Upon her research into some of the major charities and organizations that support breast-cancer research, she found herself in shock at some of the information she came across.

“We started to do our homework about what most breast-cancer organizations give to research to find the cure,” she said. “We were totally and utterly shocked that most of them give 7% of their money raised to research for the cure.”

So, where does the rest of the money go?

Much of it goes to awareness campaigns, pink ribbons, salaries, community outreach, and more — all important things, she said, but not what she is looking for. So she decided to take matters into her own hands and start her own charity — one that has raised $400,000 in five short years.

But Cassanelli isn’t stopping there.

She says she has a long-term goal of raising $1 million, and is dedicating her life to finding a cure for the very disease that causes her to see every day as a gift — and an opportunity.

Determined to Fight

Cassanelli says being a full-time mom and CEO while running a very successful charity is not an easy task, but she is grateful she can spend many of her days with her family.

“I cherish every minute with my family,” she said. “We do a lot of trips together; we spend a lot of time together.”

Before purchasing Greeno with her husband, Cassanelli lived a very different life. She was a travel agent for World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), booking flights and hotels for superstars like the Rock and the Undertaker — a non-stop job that required a lot of traveling.

This is where she met Craig, who was also working at the WWE as an advertising agent in New York City. They got married, and, after 9/11, it became difficult for Cassanelli to send Craig into the city for work every day.

Photo by Leah Martin Photography

Then they had their first daughter, and working in a big, corporate environment became even harder. When Craig’s uncle passed away, he left behind a business, Greeno Packaging. So, the two purchased it from the estate in 2003.

“There’s nothing glamourous about selling toilet paper and paper towels,” Cassanelli joked, explaining the differences between her previous job and the position she now holds. “I was used to a different lifestyle. To come to Western Mass., it was definitely a culture change … but it’s nice to be your own boss and to be an employer to other people and give back that way.”

A member of BusinessWest’s 40 Under Forty class of 2014, Cassanelli has successfully run Greeno for more than 15 years. The company distributes regionally to Western Mass. and Connecticut, where she resides, but also ships nationally with an online Amazon store. Local manufacturers, hospitals, schools, and other companies utilize its products.

Greeno is also a certified woman-owned business, and Cassanelli holds a few key core values that she uses not only in her business, but also in her charity work.

“I believe that, with hard work and dedication, you can do anything,” she said. “I tell my daughters that all the time: try your hardest, work the hardest, and you can achieve your dreams.”

While Cassanelli refers to her charity as part-time, it never slows. Once she realized she wanted to start something on her own, she approached her doctor, Dr. Eric Winer at Dana-Farber, to see if they could make something work.

“When I approached him, I said, ‘why would I give somebody else money to give to you? Can I start this thing and give money directly to you?’” she recalled, adding that he agreed, and that’s when she began the Breast Friends Fund. Every single dollar raised goes to metastatic breast-cancer research at Dana-Farber. Every expense, from postage stamps to signs for fundraisers, is paid for by Cassanelli’s company, Greeno.

The decision proved to be a solid one. In just five years, the fund has raised $400,000, with a long-term goal of $1 million.

Coming up soon for Breast Friends Fund is its annual Taste the Cure fundraiser on March 27. This wine-tasting at the Gallery in Glastonbury, Conn. includes a wine tasting, appetizers, silent and live auctions, raffles, and more. Last year’s event raised more than $120,000.

Cassanelli maintains that the charity wouldn’t be as successful as it is today without the involvement of the Dana-Farber institute and all the help from her community. “I think our partnership with Dana-Farber is why I’m such a huge success,” she said. “People really believe in them.”

In Connecticut, she said, several local businesses hold fundraisers for the Breast Friends Fund, especially in October for Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

In the past, 2 Hopewell American Bistro & Bar, a restaurant in Glastonbury, donated $1 per pink martini to Cassanelli’s charity. A local bakery also sold cookies and donated 100% of the profits to the charity all month long.

Additionally, in September during the Big E, Greeno parks cars in its space and gives $1 per car to the charity.

This support and growth is a clear testament to the genuine intentions of Cassanelli and her family and the charity that she works so hard to run.

Chasing the Cure

Cassanelli continues to tell her story as much as possible to get the word out about metastatic breast cancer, and hopes to get more Western Mass. businesses involved as the charity grows in more regions across Massachusetts and Connecticut.

Despite her diagnosis, she chooses to get up and fight the fight every day — not just for herself or for her family, but for others who are battling this terrible disease.

“Does it suck? Yeah, it totally sucks,” she said. “But me crawling up in a ball and putting the sheets up over my head is not going to fix anything, so I might as well just get up and go.”

And that’s exactly what she does — she gets up, even when she has every reason not to, and that’s why she is a Difference Maker.

“There’s no point in being sad because, I mean, we’re all going to die,” she said. “I know that every day is a gift, and I’m going to live it to the fullest and do the best that I can.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Class of 2020

This Unique Nonprofit Provides Support, Light in the Darkest of Times

Kelsey Andrews (third from left, with Therese Ross, program director; Bill Scatolini, board president; and Diane Murray, executive director) calls Rick’s Place “a wonderful support system” — and much more. (Photo by Leah Martin Photography)

Kelsey Andrews remembers her husband, Michael, a Massachusetts state trooper, being larger than life.

“He was full of life, full of energy,” she told BusinessWest as she recalled how quickly and how profoundly so many lives were altered when Michael was diagnosed with adenocarcinoma in June 2017 and passed away two short months later. And also how a big a void was left in all those lives.

Kelsey, mother to now-12-year-old Madeline, was abruptly pressed to take on the role of both parents, all while grieving the loss of her husband and trying to raise a grieving child — something no parent is ever prepared or equipped to do.

She recalls thinking — actually, knowing — that she needed help, but didn’t know where to find it or if it even existed.

“I wanted my daughter to be around kids who are, unfortunately, going through a similar situation, and for me to be around people who have gone through the same thing,” said Andrews, adding that, through a co-worker, she eventually found a unique nonprofit that provided all this in the form of free peer support to grieving families, especially children.

Creating just such a place was the mission of several friends and loved ones touched by Rick Thorpe, an individual who was himself larger than life in many ways. And so they gave it his name.

Thorpe, a former football star at Minnechaug High School and 1984 graduate, was among the more than 1,100 people who died in the South Tower of the World Trade Center on 9/11; he left behind his wife, Linda, and newborn daughter, Alexis.

After his death, friends — and there were many of them — felt the need to memorialize him and searched for ways to do so.

They started with a scoreboard placed in his honor at Minnechaug’s football field — the message written across it read “In memory of Rick Thorpe #3 – Class of 1984” — and later a memorial fund, a charity golf tournament, and scholarships. But they wanted something even more impactful.

For inspiration, they turned to Rick’s daughter, Alexis. The bereavement center they established in her father’s name was created in her honor.

Here, children and families can talk about their own experiences, or simply be in the presence of others who are facing similar situations. 

That’s something Executive Director Diane Murray and Program Director Therese Ross say can be incredibly comforting for grieving families. While each person experiences grief differently, they noted, what helps most is being with those who have gone through something similar — one of the main factors that encouraged Kelsey to walk in the door.

“It’s a unique grief journey, but it’s also a universal experience,” said Ross. “To hear from other people how they manage when their child says this or does that, it’s real boots on the ground, people living it, and it’s really helpful.”

Above all else, Rick’s Place provides families with a safe space to not only grieve the loss of their loved one, but keep their memory alive, and does it in a way that people are surrounded by those who understand what they are going through.

Younger children in Rick’s Place programs often use arts and crafts to explain how they’re feeling about their loss.

“To be around others who understand is the single most important thing we do,” Murray said. “There’s just something about being around others who understand a little of what you’re going through that helps diminish the isolation they feel.”

And that’s why this unique nonprofit has been chosen as a Difference Maker for 2020.

Support System

Bill Scatolini, president of Scatolini Insurance in Wilbraham, was a teammate of Rick Thorpe’s at Minnechaug. He describes Rick as a selfless, caring person who always considered others first.

“Rick was the type of person that always thought about the person sitting in front of him,” he recalled. “I would consider Rick to be a giver, whether it was helping somebody in the street or in a soup kitchen. That’s the type of person he was — always trying to look out for the other person’s welfare and see if he could help.”

The nonprofit formed in his honor has taken on this same quality, and it carries out its mission largely through volunteers — facilitators who complete a comprehensive, 17-hour training that addresses bereavement, child development, reflective practice, and group-curriculum planning and facilitation. The board of directors is also completely volunteer-run.

All those involved understand that, according to research, unexamined grief in children can lead to worsening mental-health issues in the long term, including poor school performance, anxiety, depression, addiction issues, and increased risk of suicide.

To help those who are grieving, Rick’s Place offers free programs on site at its home base in Wilbraham for kids ages 5 to 18, and separates groups by age to provide specific activities for each age group. For example, younger children may focus more on arts and crafts to illustrate how their grief makes them feel, while older kids may do more journaling.

The nonprofit also provides eight-week grief groups to schools in the Pioneer Valley, and has recently added a family night once a month where anyone can come in and share their story.

“It’s a unique grief journey, but it’s also a universal experience. To hear from other people how they manage when their child says this or does that, it’s real boots on the ground, people living it, and it’s really helpful.”

It’s this sharing of stories, of common emotions and challenges, that makes Rick’s Place so unique and impactful.

“Madeline’s been a trooper through the whole thing; she’s been very strong,” Kelsey said. “Rick’s place has been wonderful for her, just being around kids that have also experienced loss, knowing that other kids have been through it and she’s not alone.”

This concept of not being alone is at the very heart of Rick’s Place, said Murray, noting that the program began with six kids and four families, and has now served nearly 245 families.

Before finding Rick’s Place, both Ross and Murray served in education roles, and say that, while they loved their previous jobs, they can now truly feel the impact they are making.

Kelsey and Michael Andrews and their daughter, Madeline, before his tragic death in 2017.

“It’s been, quite literally, the most rewarding work of my life,” Murray said. “Being an educator was wonderful, but the way we touch lives here is so important to the families.”

Ross, who has a unique connection to the families that walk through the doors, agreed. She lost her husband to cancer and became a single parent to three children, and she said her experience with loss keeps her present and allows her to remember that each person’s journey is different.

“Just because my husband died doesn’t mean my experience is exactly the same as someone else’s because her husband died,” she explained. “It’s feeling like I’m in those shoes, and I’m farther out than they are now, but boy, do I remember the fog of that first week, month, year, multiple years. It keeps me present in what is the hard journey of grief.”

Both she and Murray emphasized that grief may also include laughter and happiness when remembering a loved one, and they try to normalize that as much as possible. During group activities, they may include projects that help keep a bond of connection to a loved one, such as memory boxes or dreamcatchers.

But, as they noted, each grief experience is different, and with the very young it may also include not fully understanding what’s happening, in which case things get a little trickier.

“We know that preschoolers and kindergartners often do not understand the permanence of grief,” said Murray. “Parents may think they have things under control, and then the child might say, ‘OK, but is she coming to my soccer game?’”

That’s just one of many difficult — sometimes seemingly impossible — questions that parents must try to answer as they navigate an extremely difficult time.

“It’s hard to parent in the first place, but then you have the challenge of parenting a grieving child,” said Ross. “It’s a daunting experience.”

While Rick’s Place does its best to assist parents facing a situation like this, it also encourages adults to find an outlet with either a counselor or a bereavement group themselves so they can work with their own grief while being present for their child’s grieving process.

Shedding Light

The agency is currently midway through a comprehensive strategic plan to examine possible paths to more sustainable growth, while continuing to provide the services so many families desperately need.

Coping with the loss of a loved one is a struggle that, while not often talked about, is more common than most realize.

And for folks like the Andrews family, Rick’s Place is more than just a place: it’s a family.

“They are always here for me and my daughter if we ever need anything,” Kelsey said. “Just being with the people that work here, the volunteers, the other parents, grandparents, that have unfortunately gone through loss as well, has just been a wonderful support system.”

Families often participate in activities together at Rick’s Place.

A support system that emphasizes it’s not about keeping a brave face, but being honest about what it means to be grieving.

A support system that fosters a caring, judgment-free, open environment to anyone who walks through the door.

A support system that encourages people to try to see the light, even in the darkest of times.

“You can choose to let the loss define you positively or negatively,” said Ross. “That doesn’t mean, when you choose to define it positively, that you’re not paying attention to the pain of it. It’s working with the pain to still continue to grow.”

That’s what Rick’s Place helps people do. And that’s why this agency is a real Difference Maker.

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Education

Valuable Perspectives

Students at UMass Amherst participate in the 2017 International Festival.

International students can add a lot to a university or college. They bring diversity when it comes to cultural traditions, and they give domestic students a chance to experience global perspectives. However, it is not always easy to be an international student at a U.S. institution. The process to get in can be very difficult, tuition is expensive, and a rocky political climate makes the decision to go to a different country for school even more unsettling. But colleges and universities in the area are taking steps to make international students feel at home.

Imagine moving to a new country where you don’t know anyone and don’t speak the predominant language.

This is the reality for international students who travel to the U.S. to further their education. But local institutions in Western Mass. are well aware of this and have implemented several new strategies to make these students feel more at home.

The 2019 Open Doors Report on International Education released by the Institute of International Education and the U.S. State Department’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs notes that the total number of international students enrolled in U.S. colleges fell by 2.1% from 2017 to 2018, and continues to drop. This national decline is being attributed to many factors, including student visa delays and denials, the steep price of U.S. higher education, and a rocky political climate.

However, a few institutions in Western Mass. are bucking this trend and continue to accept a consistent number of international students. In some cases, the numbers are even increasing.

While dedicating resources, staff members, and lots of time toward specifically reaching out to international students may not have been on the radar for institutions 10 or 15 years ago, the benefits of bringing these students to campus has become clearer for schools, several of which have adopted strategies for recruiting international students. Some even have positions dedicated to just this effort.

“It’s only been about 10 years that we’ve been really putting our mind to it,” said Kregg Strehorn, assistant provost for Enrollment Management of Undergraduate International Admissions at UMass Amherst.

But putting forth such an effort can’t happen all at once; it requires thoughtfulness, a solid plan, and a team willing to put in the work to make sure these students not only enroll in the university, but thrive there.

“One thing when we began to recruit international students was to make sure that we had a slow-growth model,” said Strehorn, adding that they didn’t just open up the doors and welcome any qualified international student because they wanted to increase the numbers. “We were very planful, very guided. That included me being in constant contact with our campus partners.”

At Western New England University (WNEU), two staff members travel internationally to recruit students, and the institution works with several companies geared toward marketing efforts specifically for international students.

Michelle Kowalsky Goodfellow, executive director of Undergraduate Admissions at WNEU, said a big part of the process is making the students feel welcome, just like they do for any domestic student as well.

“We really try, as we do for any student here, to get them involved in other clubs and organizations and get them to a place where they can make some connections with other friends and not just treat them as, ‘oh, they’re the international students,’” she said. “We want them to have the full experience like any other student.”

Despite a tense political climate and some difficult circumstances, these two universities, among many others, have implemented specific plans to give international students a great experience from start to finish — and those efforts are bearing fruit.

Welcoming Diversity

Strehorn summoned a phrase — “the farther you get away from home, the more you understand home” — to explain how he approached learning about the international student market.

So much so, in fact, that he moved to China with his family for four months to get to the bottom of it.

“China was the first market that we really drilled down and tried to understand how we would compete in that market,” he told BusinessWest, adding that UMass Amherst was already receiving a solid flow of applications from China before implementing specific outreach strategies.

UMass and other institutions have honed strategies for not only attracting international students, but creating a welcoming environment for them.

Living there, he added, helped him understand the intricacies of the market and helped him develop a strategy to move forward.

And it’s working.

According to a fact sheet from the Office of Institutional Research at UMass, the number of entering first-year international students has grown continuously over the past decade, from 54 in the fall of 2010 to 444 last fall.

“From that slow-growth model, we can meet and decide, how many more students can we add for the following year?” Strehorn said.

WNEU has had similar experiences, and Goodfellow says the university accepts around 50 new international students each fall at the undergraduate and graduate levels.

One of the ways UMass and WNEU have been able to retain these students is by cultivating an open and welcoming environment. Goodfellow noted that, despite the negative perception the media may portray regarding the U.S. and its relationship with international visitors in general, most are able to recognize that they will be coming to a safe space.

Massachusetts also leans toward the more progressive side — another talking point for international students and their families.

“I tend to articulate that and say, ‘you would be coming to a place that’s a lot more open to diversity and people with different backgrounds,’” she said. “That’s kind of a big part of a university in general — the inclusion and feeling of acceptance of all people.”

Strehorn added that creating a welcoming environment from start to finish is a big part of recruiting and retaining international students. When they are admitted, the first department they hear from on campus is International Programs, where they receive help with their I-20 document and visa to enter the country, as well as assistance with how to travel to the U.S., where to land, and how to get to campus.

Michelle Kowalsky

“We really try, as we do for any student here, to get them involved in other clubs and organizations and get them to a place where they can make some connections with other friends.”

“It’s really that welcoming spirit that then carries through,” he said. “Not only have they had a good experience through the admissions process, that first handoff over to International Programs is quite smooth and friendly.”

Strehorn said the somewhat tumultuous political climate in the U.S. is a common topic for international students and their families. He added that these families frequently see Americans on the news being less than welcoming of people from other countries, and that can be a valid concern.

“We hear from students and families constantly about the political atmosphere in the United States, whether they will be safe,” he went on. “We are consistently asked about the president and his policies. I think people are doing their due diligence when they’re sending their children here, wondering, are they still going to get a good education at a fair price? And are they going to be safe and welcomed?”

A more recent concern is the spread of the coronavirus, which continues to wreak havoc in China. As a result, UMass has decided to suspend its spring 2020 program to China, affecting seven students. However, the university has not yet made any changes to recruiting Chinese international students. Like everyone else, Strehorn noted, they are waiting for more information before making any big decisions.

“Right now, we are moving business ahead as usual,” he said, adding that they have reached out to several contacts at universities in the U.S. as well as overseas. “We’re hoping to support people from China as always, and we’re hoping this doesn’t turn out to be as devastating as it has the potential to be.”

Home Away from Home

Despite these challenges, there are certainly benefits to bringing international students to an American campus. The first, Goodfellow says, is the diversity factor.

“It allows both our domestic students to interact with folks from all over the world, as well as for those students that are coming from abroad to get a perspective of a U.S. student,” she said.

Another reason is the economic impact international students have on universities and the areas surrounding them.

International students are not eligible to receive federal financial aid, meaning most students, aside from merit-based scholarships like the #YouAreWelcomeHere scholarship at WNEU, are paying full price to attend these universities, boosting revenues for schools and the areas around them.

To put a specific number on that impact, according to the Assoc. of International Educators, international students studying at U.S. colleges and universities contribute $39 billion to the U.S. national economy and support more than 400,000 jobs.

Strehorn added that UMass likes to call itself a “global community,” and it can’t be that without representation from the globe.

“Having folks from all different countries is imperative,” he said. “Domestic students can benefit tremendously from being in classes, discussions, clubs, and social events with students from other countries. I think all of that has formed kind of a home away from home for these students.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Education

Joint Effort

Jeff Hayden says the Cannabis Education Center is a much-needed training ground that will support the growth of an industry on the rise in Holyoke and across Massachusetts.

Investment, job creation, and tax revenue.

According to Jeff Hayden, vice president of Business and Community Services at Holyoke Community College (HCC), these are the three keys to economic development.

They’re also precisely what the cannabis industry is bringing to the state of Massachusetts, which is why HCC has created the Cannabis Education Center, a new series of non-credit courses that provide skilled workforce training to prepare participants for a career in the cannabis industry.

HCC has partnered with the Cannabis Community Care and Research Network (C3RN) to create the first-ever cannabis training center in the state, and classes and programs are in full swing.

Hayden said the conversation about a cannabis training course started two and a half years ago, when discussion was heating up across the Bay State about the prospects of legal, adult-use cannabis — and how the Cannabis Control Commission would handle an expected proliferation of businesses. Once word got out that the commission would be licensing companies — and, therefore, creating jobs in the state — HCC jumped into action.

“Right now, there are about 75 employees in Holyoke who work for cannabis companies, but the projection is that, within a year of those licenses being granted to them, there will be somewhere between 400 or 500 employees in Holyoke.”

“When we heard that, we started to look around for different resources to try to learn more about what was going to happen, and especially what was going to happen in terms of the workforce training and how does someone get ready for the jobs that are going to come in this field,” he told BusinessWest.

About 14 companies have already applied for 21 licenses, and counting, in Holyoke alone. Two are active, both run by Green Thumb Industries on Appleton Street, and the rest are provisional or pending. But that won’t be the case for long.

“Right now, there are about 75 employees in Holyoke who work for cannabis companies, but the projection is that, within a year of those licenses being granted to them, there will be somewhere between 400 or 500 employees in Holyoke,” Hayden said.

Soon, the demand for trained, qualified employees in several different cannabis careers will skyrocket, and there needs to be people to fill those positions.

That’s where HCC comes in.

Growing Like a Weed

Hayden says there are currently five key pillars under the Cannabis Education Center’s umbrella: community education, meaning teaching people all about the cannabis industry; social-equity training; occupational training; custom contract training to cannabis businesses, including communication, leadership, and mentorship skills; and developing different trainings that would be useful for the industry.

Sage Franetovich says there’s a lot of curiosity around the subject of cannabis, and she expects the career prospects to draw people from different backgrounds.

“In all these pillars that we have, we hope that we’re providing a broad-based approach to the industry to either the job seeker or the business so that they can get the training and skills they need either to get on that career track or to be able to be a successful business,” said Hayden. “The hope, really, in terms of what they walk away with, are stackable credentials.”

A few examples of rising careers in this industry are cannabis culinary assistant, cannabis retail/patient advocate, cannabis cultivation assistant, and cannabis extraction technician assistant.

But HCC’s cannabis education doesn’t stop at the center. The college is also soon to offer its first credit-based cannabis-related course, called “Cannabis Today,” through its Sustainability Studies program. While no cannabis will be allowed on campus, the programs will use off-site locations for programs that require practice with the plant.

Sage Franetovich, Biology professor at HCC, will be teaching the class and said she has been working on developing the curriculum for the fall of 2020, and hopefully sooner, in the summer, if all goes well.

“With a response to the growing market and job market, we decided it would be a good fit to offer a course on cannabis cultivation with a focus on hemp,” she said.

The class will target topics such as the cultivation of hemp, indoor growing versus outdoor growing, and plant diseases and pest management.

Franetovich said she has been working with several people in the cannabis industry to develop the best possible curriculum for the class. “I think there’s a lot of curiosity around the subject, and I think that will be a draw for people from different backgrounds.”

All this activity comes in response to what will soon be incredibly high (no pun intended) demand for a cannabis workforce.

“When you start to think about that many new people coming in, that’s the equivalent of some of the large things that have happened regionally, like the CRRC company in Springfield, or MGM,” Hayden said.

And this center is striving to prepare people for careers in cannabis with everything from knowledge of the cannabis plant to knowledge of the industry itself, to understanding the commission’s regulations and how those impact the way they’ll do their jobs.

For example, a culinary technician working with edibles needs to know some of the ways the chemicals impact the edible product, specific measurements, levels of dosing, and more.

In the end, all this training is an investment that will, hopefully, bring the city of Holyoke a lot of jobs, and a lot of revenue.

High Expectations

Hayden estimates that between $20 million and $30 million has already been invested in the cannabis industry in Holyoke alone, despite only two operating licenses so far. He says the taxes going to the state will be significant, but 3% of sales also goes to the municipality. That means $1 million in sales equals $30,000 in taxes for the city of Holyoke.

“It’s a significant amount of money that the town can garner,” he said. “This past year, we’ve already received over $100,000 from cannabis-related companies for the city of Holyoke with only two licenses.”

And, so far, the response to the center has been positive, he noted. One of the first programs, a one-time class on the business and accounting side, drew 15 participants, and more than 100 people have expressed interest in training.

The first occupational training course began on Jan. 25 at the HCC MGM Culinary Arts Institute and will continue for five more Saturdays for eight hours a day. C3RN will then place those who successfully complete the course in internships with local companies.

The ultimate goal of all these trainings is not simply to hand participants a diploma, but give them several certifications that will allow them to thrive in every aspect of the field.

“That’s really what we’re shooting for, someone who’s got multiple pieces of paper,” Hayden said. “It’s not just one diploma, it’s multiple pieces of paper that show to an employer that they’re ready for the job and that they can learn from the employer in terms of the skills they need for the future.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Construction

Doors to Success

Invigorated.

That’s not the word many people would use to describe themselves after being in the same business, with the same company, for 34 years. But that’s precisely how Al Herringshaw feels about his most recent career move.

Specifically, he purchased Pella Windows & Doors of Western Massachusetts, a window and door sales and installation business headquartered in Greenfield, which he first joined as a teenager in 1985. It’s been a long and challenging road to ownership, one that required decades of experience in the field and lots of “homework,” as Herringshaw called it, to be ready to take that leap.

Despite the challenges, he would be the first to say he’s glad he decided to take the reins. The second would be Gary Sherman, former owner of Pella Windows & Doors, whom Herringshaw credits with not only showing him the ropes, but also providing support throughout the transition process.

“As succession occurred from Gary Sherman to me. I wouldn’t have done it without his support and without the support from all the employees,” said Herringshaw. “It wasn’t a one-man show. Gary wanted it to happen, I wanted it to happen, and it allowed Gary and I to provide a fairly seamless experience for the employees.”

Herringshaw said making this an easy transition for staff members topped his priority list — not only out of respect for them, but because he knows how it feels to be an employee. In fact, he held several positions in the company before ascending to ownership this past July.

“It feels really good that they’re, in my opinion, back to promoting innovation and coming up with unique things within the window and door industry that set us apart. They’ve really come up with some neat products over the last couple years.””

Herringshaw was only 19 when he started at Pella in the summer of 1985 as a sliding-door builder. He worked in the shop for two years before moving to commercial coordinator, as recommended by his shop supervisor. He spent two years there, then moved into an outside sales rep position in West Springfield for 10 years — all positions he says he enjoyed greatly.

“It’s good to spend time in the field,” he said. “You certainly learn a lot about a business in a sales position.”

In 2000, he came back to Greenfield as Sherman’s general manager and spent 20 years in this position before purchasing the business last year. He said the company had a great back end to 2019, and he’s excited to tap into his extensive experience to bring even more success to an already thriving business.

Opportunity Knocks

Herringshaw believes his experience within the company will help him bring many skills to the table in order to take Pella to a new level.

“I think it helps me garner some respect from the employees because I have seen a lot of the business,” he said. “I also think it gives me perspective on how to look at certain things when people come to me with issues, or even when a customer comes to me.”

Herringshaw said minimal changes were made to staff or location of employees during the transition, and he hopes to fill seven to 10 open positions in the near future.

And that’s only the beginning.

He says he has several ideas and goals he would like to implement to take Pella Windows & Doors to the forefront of the construction field.

“I think we need to add new talent to our business, and I think we need to grow our social-media profile,” he said. “I think those are two key things for our business to get us to the next level.”

Perhaps one of his biggest goals is to raise the Pella profile in the architect community.

“I think we do well there. I’d like to be awesome there,” he told BusinessWest. “I would like Pella products to be the number-one thought-of brand in an architect’s office.”

Al Herringshaw says his many years and layers of experience in the company will help him garner respect from his employees.

As for how to accomplish this, he said he’s excited about some new products that the Pella corporation is introducing to help stand out from the competition.

“It feels really good that they’re, in my opinion, back to promoting innovation and coming up with unique things within the window and door industry that set us apart,” Herringshaw said, adding that he is on a product board where he gets to give input to the company. “They’ve really come up with some neat products over the last couple years.”

For example, he hopes to become a business that is very focused on the ability to supply replacement windows, noting that this will be in high demand in the future.

“When you look at the inventory of homes we have in New England, there are a lot of old homes,” he said. “I think energy-efficient replacement is a big deal, and a good experience for customers is something that we have to focus on and be ready to supply.”

“My folks are very available, I’m very available, and we want to make sure people are happy with the end result. I think that’s a big deal for any company today — to be conscientious and to understand that that’s probably the one way you can truly make yourself unique.”

Standing out is difficult in this industry marked by stiff competition and often vulnerable to economic tides. But Herringshaw is confident that, by diversifying the business and continuing to provide excellent service to customers, Pella will be able to stand out.

“I think the innovation makes a big difference in standing out,” he said. “I truly believe that the overall quality of our products, the fit and finish, really is superior to anyone else’s. But I’ll also tell you, at the end of the day, I believe our customers would say that they do business with us because of the way we respond and take care of them.”

Looking Ahead

Installed sales manager Dan Wells is enthusiastic about the new ownership, noting that “Al has a way of keeping everyone engaged and focused on priorities. One of those priorities is supporting the communities where we live and work.”

A fixture in Western Mass. and Vermont since 1962, Pella has long been known for its customer-centric approach to business, Herringshaw noted, and he expects that to continue. “I have one goal — to make Pella of Greenfield the number-one place to purchase windows and doors, and the number one place to work.”

In short, with plenty of experience in the field, a mind full of ideas and goals, and a hardworking team ready to make it happen, Herringshaw is ready to take Pella Windows & Doors to the next level.

“My folks are very available, I’m very available, and we want to make sure people are happy with the end result,” he said. “I think that’s a big deal for any company today — to be conscientious and to understand that that’s probably the one way you can truly make yourself unique.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Construction

Powered Up

Mike Ostrowski says having the right tools and resources for each job matters, but so does a focus on the personal service and small details.

Mike Ostrowski says having the tools and equipment to be able to do any job is at the top of his priority list.

In fact, it has been that way since the day he started his business. 

Right after high school, Ostrowski went to work for an electrical company in Westfield. For 10 years, he gained extensive experience beyond what many believe is the typical job description of an electrician. 

“When people think of electricians, they think lights and plugs and stuff like that,” said Ostrowski. “While that’s part of it, my specialty and what I got into is automation controls and machinery.”

While he felt he gained an ample amount of experience at this position, he did not feel appreciated for what he brought to the table, so he left the company to start his own business in 2004.

“I went out to see my dad and said, ‘hey, can I borrow enough money to buy a van?’” Ostrowski told BusinessWest. “So, I went out and bought a van and put tools in it.”

“When people think of electricians, they think lights and plugs and stuff like that. While that’s part of it, my specialty and what I got into is automation controls and machinery.”

The rest is history.

This van — and Ostrowski’s dream‚ turned into Ostrowski Electrical, which became AMP Electrical in 2006. He gained a partner that year, and before they parted ways in 2010, they were still able to grow the company from seven employees to 35.

AMP has since downsized to 12 staff members, and while the company has taken some twists and turns over the years, Ostrowski continues to promote the same values he started with, specifically focusing on delivering strong personal service to customers.

“Quality and neatness still count for us,” he said. “Sometimes that’s missed in projects that I’ve seen. Even though we’re a smaller company, we have all the tools and equipment that it takes to do big projects, which a lot of smaller guys don’t have.”

Around the World

As Ostrowski said, many tend to view electricians as just that: people who install lights. But one way AMP Electrical is able to stand out from the crowd is its automation and support services, which have taken Ostrowski everywhere from local cities and towns to all the way to Egypt.

“I like watching the whole process run from start to finish,” he said. For example, beginning in 2005, he picked up a couple projects for Qarun Petroleum Co., based in Cairo, where he designed, built, and tested control panels and wired pump skids locally. He then shipped them off to Cairo, flew there himself, and ran the startup process.

While this is certainly not a regular occurrence, Ostrowski says this is a process that he encounters locally as well.

More recently, AMP Electrical worked on a bleach-dilution process for KIKCorp, a leading independent manufacturer of consumer packaged goods. Ostrowski and employees programmed the valves and controls so the bleach could be diluted to whatever temperature the company wanted.

Of course, AMP is capable of much more than these complex jobs. The company also offers complete electrical construction services, municipal water and wastewater controls, building electrical maintenance, telecommunications solutions, complete service to industrial manufacturing, electrical testing, and bucket-truck services.

The key, as Ostrowski said, is having the tools for every job.

But this field does not come without its challenges. With the wide array of services they offer, AMP has managed to stand out from area competition, but has struggled, as many in this and related industires have, with a lack of skilled workers. “There are not enough skilled people out there,” he said. “There’s a gap in knowledge.”

This, he noted, is partially due to the solar boom, which has created a deficiency in electricians. When people go into solar as apprentices, they come out with the skills to put solar panels on, but often lack basic electrical skills.

“The biggest challenge today, being in this field, is finding talented electricians,” he told BusinessWest. “The solar industry has created a lot of electricians that don’t have a lot of the basic pipe-bending skills and electrical knowledge that you would get working for a traditional electrical contractor.”

Ostrowski himself has quite a few more skills than the average electrician. Moving from business owner to employee, he’s had to do some research to strengthen his expertise in areas including finances, estimating, and business management, all without a college degree.

“I’m a licensed electrician that basically figured it out and made it happen,” he said.

Getting the Job Done

No matter what hat Ostrowski may wear at any given time, electrician or business owner, he makes sure his employees have the tools to get the job done and sets an example of what quality service should look like.

“You’re still going to see my face on job sites,” he said. “When the phone rings and everyone’s busy, my boots are in the corner. I’ll grab my tools and go out and fix somebody’s piece of equipment, or I’ll plug my laptop in and be able to look at somebody’s process and take care of them.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Economic Outlook

Springfield Regional Chamber to Host Marijuana Professionals, Officials

There’s still a lot of confusion surrounding the cannabis industry.

Despite the fact that medical marijuana was legalized in Massachusetts in 2012, and recreational marijuana in 2016, the business community is juggling countless regulations and laws, whether looking to get into the cannabis industry themselves or just dealing with this new economy in general.

On Tuesday, Jan. 28, many of these questions will be answered.

From 12:30 to 5 p.m. at the Springfield Sheraton, the Springfield Regional Chamber will host “The Buzz About Cannabis: Marijuana in the Marketplace and the Workplace,” a collection of business, legal, and medical marijuana professionals, distributors, and entrepreneurs, as well as state cannabis officials, who will give attendees all the information they need to know about cannabis.

Nancy Creed describes retail cannabis sales as just one spur on the wheel of an industry that has pushed its way to the forefront over the last several years, and the president of the Springfield Regional Chamber is making plans to prepare business folks for this rising economic driver.

“The cannabis industry is clearly a, no pun intended, budding industry,” Creed said. “When you look at the revenue associated with it and the taxes, it really is the next economic engine of its time.”

It was a meeting with Cannabis Control Commissioner Kay Doyle that inspired Creed to begin researching this topic.

Nancy Creed describes retail cannabis sales as just one spur on the wheel of an industry that has pushed its way to the forefront over the last several years

“This, to me, was kind of a no-brainer,” Creed said. “We need to make sure that we are at the front of the industry and we are helping businesses either get into the industry or, on the flip side, deal with this new economy.”

The conference itself features an opening keynote from Doyle, breakout sessions focused on topics like “Business Structure and Banking in the Cannabis Industry” and “Cannabis in the Workplace,” and a closing keynote by Beth Waterfall, founder of Elevate Northeast, titled “Cannabis: What’s Next?”

Budding Goals

Chamber leaders thought carefully about what their goals were for the cannabis conference — the first time a chamber in the region has hosted an event of its kind.

Creed said this first conference will take a general focus, building a solid foundation on the basics of the industry — and leaving room for a potential focus on hemp, CBD, or other spokes on the wheel, as she calls them, next year.

The main goal of the conference is to educate attendees on what cannabis is, what they need to know when getting into the industry, and how it affects the economy.

“It’s a place for business people to come and get educated,” she noted. “I think it’s also an opportunity to recognize the growth of the cannabis industry and how that will positively impact our economy and be able to shine a light on it, so people see it as the future of our region.”

In order to accomplish this, she knew they needed to bring in several experts and professionals from different parts of the industry — including someone from the commission, Doyle, to talk about the landscape of the industry and the regulations entrepreneurs need to grapple with.

Next, Creed wanted to ensure the conference featured someone who could help businesses figure out what they needed to know about not only getting into the industry, but also what type of business they would be classified as.

Perhaps most importantly, they needed an expert in the banking industry. Because marijuana is still federally illegal, almost no bank will deal with marijuana businesses — although that could eventually change. Tina Sbrega, CEO of GFA Credit Union, will accompany Scott Foster, partner at Bulkley Richardson, to talk about banking and business structure.

“I want to make sure that businesses understand that, so they are successful when they start out, and aren’t just starting out not thinking through all of the things you need to think through to be a successful business,” Creed said.

She added that this conference is not just for people looking to get into the business, but also for people who just need to understand how it works.

Joanne Berwald, vice president of HR at Mestek; Erica Flores, attorney at Skoler Abbott; and Pam Thornton, director of Strategic HR Services at the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast, will lead a breakout session about recruitment, retention, and employment law.

“There are a lot of complex laws that come into play,” Creed said. “We wanted to make sure, for the rest of the business world that isn’t interested in getting into the cannabis industry, that we had information about what is it like for the other folks working and hiring in a cannabis world.”

For the final breakout session, Creed explained that she wanted to bring in a panel comprised of a marijuana grower, a user, and a distributor, but did not have the internal resources to find people who fit the description. That’s when she reached out to Michael Kusek, cannabis journalist and publisher of Different Leaf magazine. He crafted a team — Noni Goldman, Leslie Laurie, Ezra Parzybok, Karima Rizk, and Payton Shubrick — to talk about their individual niches and how they navigate the cannabis industry in different ways.

Sowing Seeds

Overall, Creed hopes to help as many people as possible navigate a still new and quickly growing industry.

Because it is the first event of its kind, she is unsure just how many people will register, but believes that, once people learn more about the event, they will see the benefits of attending.

“I really don’t know how much the business community is going to understand the conference and embrace the conference,” she said. “Our hope is that they will, but it’s new.”

What she does know is that the cannabis industry is evolving at a rapid rate, and keeping up with the high demand is a must for the chamber.

“It’s a place for business people to come and get educated,” she said. “I think it’s also an opportunity to recognize the growth of the cannabis industry and how that will positively impact our economy, and be able to shine a light on it so people see it as the future of our region — because it’s here.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Health Care

More Than a Gym

Dexter Johnson says people who work downtown are excited about having the YMCA nearby.

Dexter Johnson can rattle off the amenities found in any chain gym. Weights and cardio equipment. A sauna or pool. Perhaps a playroom for kids to hang out while their parents work out.

But the YMCA offers more than just fitness equipment and childcare for its members — it gives them a community, said Johnson, CEO of YMCA of Greater Springfield, which recently relocated from Chestnut Street in Springfield to Tower Square in the heart of downtown.

The nonprofit recently held its grand opening, and is well underway with programs, fitness classes, and more activities open to members.

The fact that Tower Square, Monarch Place, 1550 Main Street, and other surrounding offices are home to more than 2,000 employees in downtown Springfield is one of several benefits of the YMCA’s move, Johnson told BusinessWest. “The reception has been great. The people that work in this building or in the adjoining buildings have been excited about having us here.”

And it’s no secret why.

The new Child Care Center for the Springfield Y boasts a 15,000-square-foot education center, including classrooms, serving infants through elementary-school students. The Wellness Center continues its popular fitness and health programming with a new, 12,000-square-foot facility on the mezzanine level of Tower Square, complete with a group exercise room, state-of-the-art spin room, sauna, steam room, and walking track.

But Johnson knows the Y is more than just a gym — it’s a cause-driven organization that focuses on giving back to the community through youth development, healthy living, and social responsibility.

“We don’t call ourselves a gym, despite the fact that we have gym equipment,” he said. “We are a community organization, and this is just one of the ways that we serve the community.”

The Bigger Picture

One of the many programs the Y offers is LIVESTRONG at the YMCA, a 12-week personal-training program for adult cancer survivors offered without cost to participants. It also provides families with nearly $700,000 in financial scholarships every year — just two examples of how the Y is much more than just a gym, Johnson said.

“Our goal as an organization is to really make the Y stronger,” he noted, adding that the move to a new facility will greatly reduce costs to allow the organization to expand its services and impact. “The Y is looking to serve the community and to help from the spirit, mind, and body aspects of what people need.”

Before the move, Johnson anticipated the Y would lose about 20% of its members due to lack of a pool and change of location, but added that it has since gained new members and partners that are taking advantage of the services. About 50 new memberships were sold before the move into the new space, just because people knew it was coming.

“Nearly 2,000 people work in these three buildings, so we’re really hoping that those folks will understand the convenience of having something like this right here and not having to go to your car and drive elsewhere to meet your wellness needs,” he said.

Right now, the number of membership units, both families and individuals, is up to about 1,000. In order to increase these numbers, Johnson says the Y is giving tours, reaching out to local businesses and neighbors, and will be offering specials starting in 2020 to get people in the door.

“We’re hoping that we will get a good turnout of people that will give us a try,” he said, adding that a new sauna, steam room, and more than 40 group exercise classes a week are just some of the benefits.

While welcoming those newcomers, Johnson emphasized that the Y is also hoping its long-time members will enjoy the new facility as well.

“Despite the fact that we are heavily focused on the business population, we continue to serve the population as a whole, and we want our members to remember that part because that’s crucial for us,” he said. “We’re really looking to build upon the existing membership by moving here.”

A New Venture

While the new location has more limited space than the original, Johnson says he’s focused on making the most of the new location. That includes utilizing the parking garage by offering members free parking for up to three hours — as well as letting people know what other amenities exist in Tower Square, from retail and banking to UMass Amherst and numerous restaurants, most of them in the food court.

“We understand that the more activity and the more action taking place in this building, the better for everyone,” he said.

Overall, Johnson strongly believes this new facility will help serve the goals of the Y as a whole.

“We think this facility will stabilize the organization,” he said, “while we continue in our other efforts as they relate to our full service at our Wilbraham location, our childcare facilities throughout the city, and all the things the Y is involved with.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Mayor Thomas Bernard says North Adams has been investing in economic development, public safety, education, and a host of other areas.

Seven priorities, 43 goals, 95 policies, and 355 actions.

This tall list makes up the master plan for the city of North Adams. The Vision 2030 Plan was launched in 2011, and just this year, Mayor Thomas Bernard and cohorts revisited the plan to check up on the progress made to date.

“We had a really good session in October where we got some interesting suggestions for setting priority areas around marketing and promotion to move the needle on some of the economic developments,” he said.

In addition to the information session in October, Bernard says another will be held in early 2020 in which the town will tackle three things: review what has been accomplished so far, identify things that five years ago may have seemed urgent but are not as pressing now, and identify issues that have changed in the last five years.

The plan’s seven priorities — economic renewal, investment in aging infrastructure, creation of a thriving and connected community, intergenerational thinking, fiscal efficiency, historic preservation, and food access — are all currently being reviewed, and Bernard says these undertakings make for an exciting time in the city.

“There are some really great developments happening in a lot of different areas,” he told BusinessWest. “There’s a good chance to work in collaboration with a lot of people.”

Some of the more prominent developments include a project to build a much-needed new elementary school, updating zoning for the town, investing in public safety, and several projects that cater to younger children.

Bernard knows that, in order to be successful with new projects, the city must still take care of the older, foundational matters, and says North Adams has done a great job keeping track of both.

“We want to double down on the things we’ve already done, both this cultural development that’s happening, but also doing the foundational work to ensure that we can be successful so that we’re championing the big developments, we’re celebrating the jobs that are coming in, but we’re also making sure that the quality of life in neighborhoods is strong and solid,” he said.

“There are some really great developments happening in a lot of different areas. There’s a good chance to work in collaboration with a lot of people.”

Indeed, he says the overall feedback from the community has been extraordinarily positive, and mentioned one feeling in the city in particular: optimism.

Youthful Approach

That optimism, said Bernard, now going into his second term as mayor of North Adams, comes amid an increasing number of investments in economic development, public safety, and other key areas.

But you can’t move forward without looking back, so one big goal is investing in the youth and education sector, which includes the renovation of a very old elementary-school building.

Just a few weeks ago, Bernard and Superintendent of Schools Barbara Malkas visited the Massachusetts School Building Authority and were invited into eligibility for consideration of the reconstruction of Greylock Elementary School — a building that is 70 years old.

North Adams at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1878
Population: 13,708
Area: 20.6 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $18.62
Commercial Tax Rate: $40.67
Median Household Income: $35,020
Family Household Income: $57,522
Type of government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: Crane & Co.; North Adams Regional Hospital; BFAIR Inc.
* Latest information available

“If we’re able to be successful in the feasibility phase, then we’re invited to proceed forward, and we can put the funding plan together,” said Bernard. “It really will set the course for elementary education in the city for the next 50 years.”

Other investments for the youth population in the city include a splash park and a skate park. While Bernard acknowledged North Adams is an aging community and its leaders are always thinking about what it means to be age-friendly, he sees a lot of energy and — here’s that word again — optimism when it comes to investing in the younger population.

“What this splash park and the other main investment, which was a skate park, has done is create community engagement, excitement, energy, vibrancy, and a sense of optimism that comes from things that are youth-focused,” he said.

On the economic-development side, Dave Moresi, a local developer, recently embarked on a mill project that celebrated its grand opening this past June. Bernard said Moresi bought the mill in mid-2017, and it already has more than 50 businesses inside, including a financial-services office, a mental-health clinician, a coffee roaster, a gym, a hair salon, and much more.

“I think this speaks to a couple things,” said Bernard. “It speaks to the quality of work that Dave and his team do, but it also speaks to this moment that we’re in, bringing it back full circle to this energy, excitement, and potential.”

Moresi also purchased a school building the city no longer uses and is turning it into residential apartments.

Adding to that excitement are two enabling projects that have occurred over the past year. Bernard said bringing life into the downtown area continues to be a challenge, so a parking study was done to look at what assets and needs are necessary if the city were to attract additional housing and development. North Adams also updated its zoning map to reflect current conditions — a process that hadn’t been tackled since the late ’50s to early ’60s.

With all this activity going on, the city has also been investing in public safety. Just this year, Lt. Jason Wood was appointed as the new police chief for North Adams. In addition, the city added its first hybrid vehicle to the city fleet and is working on adding a hybrid cruise, which would make it the first city in Western Mass. to do so.

Forward Momentum

While North Adams still faces economic and socioeconomic challenges, like all cities do, the mayor feels optimistic that the community is on the path for success.

“We continue to be in an exciting time for North Adams, and I think more and more people are picking up on it, whether that’s visitors who are coming here or whether it’s longtime residents who are seeing some of these developments and being really excited about it,” Bernard said. “We have a lot of work to do to make sure we stay on an even keel.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Women in Businesss

Wellness in Season

Denise Pelletier was inspired by her own experience with the benefits of salt therapy to help others find similar success.

Denise Pelletier was gifted a trip to a salt cave for her birthday — not your average way to celebrate another trip around the sun.

But Pelletier has bartonellosis, a chronic Lyme disease co-infection that can produce symptoms like fever, fatigue, headaches, and bone pain. When her sister heard about salt therapy and the benefits it can bring, she took Pelletier to a salt cave, thinking it might help with some of the pain she was suffering from.

In the process known as halotherapy, pure, drug-free, pharmaceutical-grade salt is heated and ground into microparticles by a machine called a halogenerator and dispersed in a room or salt bed.

The results of her first salt-therapy session, Pelletier said, included relief from allergies and asthma, among other things.

“I realized that, when I do salt therapy, I don’t need to use my inhaler twice a day, and I don’t need to take my allergy medicine every day,” she said, adding that, if she doesn’t get in at least one or two salt sessions a week, she finds herself needing to use more medication. “For me, it made such a huge difference.”

Although she originally had no intention to start a business, she felt she needed to share the benefits of halotherapy with other people who may be going through a similar thing.

“I’m one of those people that, when something works so wonderfully for me, I want to help other people,” she said. “I thought, ‘how can I bring this to other people?’”

The answer was opening Enisde’s Salt Therapy Halotherapy Spa on Main Street in Palmer.

Science hasn’t quite caught up with the halotherapy trend yet, at least in the U.S., and concrete evidence of the benefits are oftentimes conflicting. But salt therapy has been around for centuries and is more popular in Europe, used as a natural and holistic method for health and wellness.

For Pelletier, the results were fantastic — which is why she’s sharing the benefits of the holistic regimen with others.

Go with the Flow

When thinking about her main goals for her new business, Pelletier had one thing in particular on her mind: keeping a positive and relaxed energy throughout the entire space.

But it took a lot of work to get there, as months were spent gutting the entire building with help from family to make it the business she dreamed of.

“The feel is very important to me, which is why we put so much into the décor,” she said, adding that salt walls and salt floors, while they do not necessarily contribute to the health benefits, add a lot to the relaxation part of the experience. “There’s a lot of people that feel a whole shift in energy when they come in.”

According to Pelletier’s website, salt is negatively charged, which means it naturally attracts positively charged particles and cancels out harmful electromagnetic vibrations in the environment and in people’s bodies. In many cases, this feeling is compared to visiting a waterfall or spending a day at the beach.

Denise Pelletier says she put much thought and effort into the décor and and feel of her establishment, and people “feel a whole shift in energy when they come in.”

And while she by no means recommends eliminating prescribed medicine while practicing halotherapy, she says using it along with salt therapy may help people cut back on the medication they are taking.

“Whether you have breathing issues or skin issues, it’s just something that’s so good to do for yourself, even if you decide to do it once or twice a month,” she said. “It really is that feeling of well-being because it’s actually doing something for you.”

There are five rooms in Enisde’s Halotherapy focused on this well-being feeling — the Dawn Room, which provides the full salt-cave experience with a room-wide salt floor; the Willow Room, with moon pods to sit on that deliver a full-body, weightless sensation; the Bosai Room, featuring a large salt sandbox floor on half of the room and wood floors on the other half; and the Zen Room and Namaste Room, which include state-of-the-art salt-therapy beds for those who want a more private experience.

Salt therapy is more popular in Europe, but is starting to gain traction in the U.S.

Halotherapy rooms are 45-minute sessions for $40, and salt-bed rooms are 20-minute sessions for $20. The salt beds, Pelletier said, were a must-have because the concentrated salt air in the enclosed space is beneficial to those seeking relief, and at a quicker pace.

Give Salt a Chance

Pelletier says the benefits, especially during this time of year, are far greater than what most people would expect.

“It definitely helps you stay healthier in the wintertime, with the flus and the bugs going around,” she noted. “If you are overcoming something, this is wonderful for you because the salt removes toxins from your lungs, it reduces swelling in your lungs and sinuses, and it detoxes your skin.”

While this method of relaxation hasn’t quite caught on in too many places yet, Pelletier hopes people will give halotherapy a try and see the benefits for themselves.

“It’s nice to have something that’s positive and about wellness,” she said. “My hope is that people will want to start taking better care of themselves and making it a priority.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Business of Aging

A Warm Handoff

Jim Carroll says one of the most rewarding parts of his job is seeing people turn their lives around.

Addiction knows no boundaries.

This is the main message Jim Carroll, medical director at OnCall Healthy Living Program, tries to instill in everyone he comes in contact with.

By this, he means addiction can affect people in all walks of life, and is not specific to one group of individuals like the stereotype may depict.

“What many people don’t realize is, addiction is in your neighborhood, in your workplace,” he said. “It doesn’t have any boundaries.”

This is what he and other staff members at OnCall keep in mind at all times when treating patients who are recovering from a substance-abuse disorder. What first started as a mixed-treatment facility with urgent care and addiction switched over to strictly addiction services in early 2018.

The facility pulls patients all the way from the Berkshires to Worcester, and Carroll says between 550 to 600 patients visit the main office in Northampton and a satellite office in Indian Orchard.

Carroll began at OnCall in 2008 as an attending doctor before moving up to medical director in 2013, but has been on staff in the Emergency Department at Mercy Medical Center for 13 years, giving him plenty of experience with addition services and showing him how much need exists for this kind of care.

“It became clear over several years that we wanted our focus to be on the addiction side of things,” he said. “Being in the Emergency Department, we were always very well aware of the opioid crisis and what it was doing to each individual and society as a whole, so we wanted to be a part of the solution.”

And there certainly is a need.

“We’re all about getting people on the path to becoming a better version of themselves.”

The opioid epidemic in Massachusetts has skyrocketed over the last decade. The Massachusetts Department of Public Health reported 1,091 confirmed opioid-related overdose deaths in the state during the first nine months of 2019, with an additional 332 to 407 deaths expected by year’s end.

This makes the services OnCall provides even more imperative. In recent years, OnCall has been putting a new two-part model to the test to make its services even more effective, working toward trying to bring the number of opioid-related deaths much closer to zero.

Beyond the Medicine

Carroll said the mission for every medical provider and behavioral-health professional at OnCall is to help patients recover and lead healthy lives, providing a comfortable environment free of judgment.

“We’re all about getting people on the path to becoming a better version of themselves,” he explained. “The more people we have in treatment, the less people we have at risk for death from overdose that we see in the Emergency Department on an almost daily basis.”

In order to accomplish its goal of helping people get on a healthier and safer path, OnCall uses a two-part model and what it calls ‘a warm handoff’ to get patients back on track. This includes the use of medication along with therapy and other supportive services to help address issues related to alcohol and opioid dependence.

“I really couldn’t say that one would be okay without the other, which is why we utilize both,” said Carroll, adding that frequency of visits for therapy and medication checkups vary based on how patients are doing.

He added that one of the hardest parts is getting people to take that first step through the door. “One of our biggest challenges is getting people in for the first follow-up visit. When we actually get people to show up, they usually have a positive experience, and then they’re off and running on their recovery.”

He also noted that, according to the limited studies OnCall has conducted, somewhere between 70% and 90% of people who have an opioid-use disorder are not in treatment — yet another reason for the facility to eliminate its urgent-care services and move to addiction services full-time.

“We know a lot of people need help, and with a rise of more and more urgent cares, that became less of a need,” he said.

Another big challenge is the stigma surrounding addiction and treatment, and Carroll said people sometimes worry about how they are going to be treated. This has prompted OnCall to focus on cultivating a comfortable environment for patients from the time they walk in the door to the moment they walk out.

“One of the things we’ve been very cognisant of is what kind of environment we present for patients who present to our clinic,” he told BusinessWest. “Our philosophy and our feeling here is that, once someone actually presents here, they should feel very comfortable being here.”

Rewarding Challenge

“A no-judgment zone” is another way Carroll describes OnCall.

Unfortunately, stigma still does get in the way of people seeking treatment, and labels are often assigned to people who have substance-abuse disorders. He stressed that it’s important for people to realize addiction is a disease — one that can happen to anyone.

“Addiction doesn’t have any special predilection toward any race, gender, age, or profession,” he said. “When people actually understand the disease process and understand that addiction is a brain disease and that it’s not a moral failing, they’ll understand that this isn’t someone trying to proactively ruin their lives or the lives of the people around them.”

He drove this point home by asking a perspective-shifting question: “if someone had type-2 diabetes, would you hold that against them?”

Despite the various challenges that come with the job, for Carroll, the rewards are innumerable.

“Seeing the turnarounds that happen in people’s lives is amazing,” he said. “We see people at some of their lowest moments, and when we can be part of the support team that turns things around for them and you see people get their self-esteem back, their jobs back, their families back, that’s very gratifying as a provider. Seeing people literally turn their lives around in front of you is one of the most rewarding things of my professional career.”

And although the 600 patients OnCall currently serves might seem like a huge number, Carroll says the practice has the capacity for double that amount, and encouraged anyone who is suffering from a substance-abuse disorder, or knows someone who is, to seek help immediately.

“The busier we are, the more people we’re helping, and that’s a good feeling,” he said. “Until we aren’t seeing any overdoses anymore, we just keep moving forward and trying to be part of the solution.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

From left, Rebekah DeCourcey, Stuart Beckley, Tracy Opalinski, and Anna Marques.

‘Somewhere worth seeing.’

This is the tagline that’s been attached to a visioning, branding, wayfinding, and business-development plan for the town of Ware, an ambitious document that has elements ranging from a community vision to a branding strategy to new signage that will direct locals and visitors alike to various civic, cultural, and recreational destinations within the community.

As for that vision, it states that this community in eastern Hampden County is “one where we meet at unique shops and businesses in our revitalized downtown, where a growing, diverse economy is being cultivated, where we respect the land and enjoy unrivaled outdoor recreation opportunities, and where our government and its partners work together to provide efficient and up-to-date services for all of our citizens.”

For town officials, said Selectman Tracy Opalinski, the tasks at hand are to make sure that these are not just taglines and words on a page, but instead constitute reality in this community of nearly 10,000 people — and to communicate this to people within and outside the town. And she and others believe some real progress is being made in this regard.

“Ware is really a center of commerce for a large region, and people come to Ware not just to go to Walmart, but also for their banking, their healthcare, their education. We are a regional hub to a rural area.”

She said there are many projects underway to help people realize how much Ware has to offer, and town officials are working hard to set the town up for a bright future.

“Ware is really a center of commerce for a large region, and people come to Ware not just to go to Walmart,” said Opalinski, referencing perhaps the town’s main drawing card, “but also for their banking, their healthcare, their education. We are a regional hub to a rural area.”

Stuart Beckley, town manager; Anna Marques, building inspector and zoning enforcement officer; and Rebekah DeCourcey, director of Planning and Community Development, all sat with BusinessWest recently and shared the many ongoing projects to help Ware accomplish its ambitious goals, and also several that have already been implemented.

Main Street is one area of town in which Ware officials are looking to create more vibrancy.

These activities include everything from restoring outdoor trails to bringing in new businesses to support a still-struggling Main Street — and officials say they are already seeing results, in the form of some new stores, healthcare-related businesses, arts-focused ventures, and the growing presence of Holyoke Community College.

“There has been a lot of growth on Main Street,” said Beckley. “It used to be rare that there was night parking and night traffic, and now, because of the arts and the restaurants, there has been more activity.”

With Ware being a distance — and roughly equidistant — from Worcester and Springfield, Beckley and others say said they recognize the importance of making services available in the town, and they believe Ware is well on its way to becoming more than just a drive-through community.

“I see the passion, and I see the forward momentum,” said DeCourcey. “I used to take Route 9 when I was out in the Amherst area. I feel like, 10 or 15 years ago, Ware wasn’t a place that I was going to stop for anything, I was just going to drive through. And now, all the storefronts that have been empty for 10 years are filling up.”

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest looks at just how Ware is living up to its new tagline and becoming ‘somewhere worth seeing.’

Building a Brand

The 2015 vision plan for Ware, completed by Arnett Muldrow & Associates with funding from the Edward and Barbara Urban Foundation, recognized growing social issues in town related to low-income housing, lack of transportation, crime, drug use, and an aging population, and noted the general area along Main Street was declining, with continued disinvestment and vacancy.

Town officials recognized the importance of acting quickly and pointedly, and rallied to bring new businesses and projects to town to counter these forces and create a more vibrant community.

There is an ongoing effort to restore Main Street, with new arts-related stores opening, including Clayworks and ArtWorks Gallery by Workshop13, a nonprofit cultural arts and learning center in town. Also on Main Street, E2E, a Holyoke Community College satellite facility for ‘education to employment,’ opened in 2018, and offers services like college enrollment, job training and certificates, jobs lists, and English and math tutoring.

“For HCC to come here was really important to the town, and as it continues to grow, they’ve made a connection with our Ware public schools,” said Beckley. “The town is now offering EMT courses, certified nursing, and is about to start a criminal justice course.”

In addition, expansions have been completed at several businesses, including the Dollar Store and Cluett’s Appliance.

Ware at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1775
Population: 9,872
Area: 40.0 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $20.21
Commercial Tax Rate: $20.21
Median Household Income: $36,875
Median Family Income: $45,505
Type of government: Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Baystate Mary Lane Outpatient Center; Kanzaki Specialty Papers Inc.; Quabbin Wire & Cable Co. Inc.; Walmart
*Latest information available

Within the healthcare sector, to support the growing elder population in Ware, Baystate Mary Lane Outpatient Center expanded its Cancer Care unit, added a new Healogics Wound and Hyperbaric Care unit, and added a new imaging center with 3D breast imaging, all in 2019.

Town officials say one of the main factors that has contributed to this growth and momentum during this time has been the commitment and dedication of business owners and residents alike.

“The business owners here are very committed,” said Marques. “They’re always asking how they can help in a way that goes above and beyond.”

Opalinski added that Ware, for various reasons, doesn’t have a great history of sharing information, and noted that town officials are working hard to open lines of communication both between town residents and department heads and also between the department heads themselves.

“We’ve broken that barrier over the past few years, and we’re really starting to reach out,” she said. “Ware is comprised of really caring people, and I feel that all these different people and entities are talking to each other and collaborating together — regionally, too, and I think that regional outreach is helping other communities grow. It’s connecting us to different entities we’ve never connected to before.”

As for future projects, there is no shortage of activity. Right down the street from Mary Lane, Cedarbrook Village, a $25 million, 119-bed senior center, is being constructed and is set to open in the summer of 2020. In keeping with new medical developments, a $1 million cancer pharmacy is slated to open in 2020.

Also on tap to open in the next year or so is B’Leaf Wellness Center, a local mother-and-daughter-owned cannabis company.

All Hands on Deck

These new developments are all part of an effort to be more business-friendly and attract more people to a community that town officials say has a lot more to offer than people realize. And they are already seeing the benefits of their efforts.

“The housing market in Ware is extraordinarily high right now,” said Beckley. “Single-family houses are selling really well. We’re approaching 100 units sold in a year, which, for Ware, is an amazing amount. The values are going up.”

He and other town officials know that this is the beginning of a long road for Ware and are prepared to continue working toward a brighter future for the tight-knit community.

With a collection of new developments happening, it’s safe to say Ware is a town on the rise, and one to keep on the radar.

“Ware has something good going on,” Marques said. “I think people are recognizing that and looking to move here.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Uncategorized

This Agency Gets IT

Anthony Ciak and Jackie Fallon say building relationships with clients and candidates is key to finding the right fit for both parties.

Finding the right candidate for a job can be a difficult task. In the tech industry, finding someone who not only has the technical skills, but also the right personality for the position, is especially challenging. That’s why FIT Staffing was established — to help companies find the right people to fill these positions, and keep them for the long haul.

Putting a square peg into a round hole just doesn’t work out.

Jackie Fallon says this goes for putting people in jobs as well. If a candidate is not the right fit for a position, things won’t work out in the long run.

Unfortunately, she says many large staffing companies habitually try to do just that — make people fit in positions where they aren’t meant to be in order to increase their numbers and help their bottom lines.

This is one of the reasons why Fallon started FIT Solutions, a technology-focused staffing company that digs deeper — much deeper — to find the right fit, for clients and candidates alike.

Fallon, president of the company, is a former engineer and employee at one of those larger staffing companies. She told BuisnessWest that she started FIT back in 2004 because she felt the Western Mass. area was underserved by the national staffing companies, and that smaller organizations that had IT needs were being overlooked.

So, she went into business for herself to change that.

“We don’t want to put people in positions that they’re not going to be successful at. We take a good, long time with our candidates and assessing what they want to do.”

The mission at FIT Solutions is to provide value to both candidates — those seeking jobs in technology, and the company’s commercial clients, those seeking employees for their open technology positions — and to do it in a thorough manner.

“We don’t want to put people in positions that they’re not going to be successful at,” said Fallon. “We take a good, long time with our candidates and assessing what they want to do.”

Division Manager Anthony Ciak emphasized the difference between FIT and larger staffing companies, adding that creating a solid fit requires more than simply looking at what’s on paper to figure out where a person might belong.

“I think that, with the larger staffing companies, maybe moreso in the IT space, it’s all about numbers,” he said. “They want to get quick placement to get numbers up, and, in the long run, that really doesn’t help anyone.”

He maintains that finding the perfect match always goes well beyond just the technical skills a candidate has. It comes down to finding the right culture and personality fit.

“Tech skills aside, sometimes it’s more about putting a hiring manager and a candidate in the same room and seeing how the sparks fly,” said Ciak, adding that good communication and chemistry are big parts of the process. “What a lot of people are looking for is a good teammate.”

One of the most common stereotypes surrounding those in the tech industry is that people are unsocial and unwilling to interact with others, but Ciak says the opposite is true, and clients look for someone who will work well with their teams.

That’s why FIT focuses on forming long-term relationships with candidates and clients so they can find the right fit for both parties.

Tech Talk

In fact, all this is spelled out loud and clear in the mission statement of the company: “to provide industry insight alongside quality staffing solutions delivered with sincerity, trust, and friendliness for our partners and candidates.”

“Our goal going into a chat with a candidate is to let them know that it’s not just about the job we might be talking about at that moment,” Ciak said. “It’s building a foundation for that opportunity and then anything else further down the line.”

In order to fill positions for clients, those at FIT often reach out to candidates they talked to months or maybe years ago. A suitable fit may not have been found back then, said Fallon, but candidates remember the service they received and are generally happy to come back for another try.

“I think that, with the larger staffing companies, maybe moreso in the IT space, it’s all about numbers. They want to get quick placement to get numbers up, and, in the long run, that really doesn’t help anyone.”

“We go back to the candidates we already have in the pipeline,” she said. “That’s our goal, to get people that we’ve already met, and we already understand what they’re looking for and make that match.”

She added that, frankly, the candidates who have résumés out on job sites like Monster or Dice are being pursued by everyone else in the industry, making it more difficult to reach them.

One thing Fallon hopes will help expand the company’s candidate pool is its recent merger with Marathon Staffing, a $70 million regional agency. Despite the reputation national staffing agencies have, she’s confident that it will help bring more more resources into the Western Mass. area.

“It gives us more bandwidth as far as options with our candidates,” she explained, adding that Marathon didn’t have an IT division, which is where FIT comes in.

Another attribute that helps FIT stand out from competition is its vetting process. Fallon said one of the best compliments the company has ever received came from a hiring manager who told her that, whenever they get a résumé from her, they know it’s a good candidate.

To explain the significance of this for the company, Ciak recalls the story of a client who was looking to fill a position at its location in Franklin County. Geographically, those at this firm knew they were going to have a harder time filling the position because of its location, and after a few months of frustration went by, they had to get creative and think outside the box.

They reached out to a female candidate who — on paper, anyway — had progressed into a few other roles that weren’t directly related to the job they needed to fill. But when FIT reached out to her, they found out that she wanted to get back into that kind of position.

When they presented her as a candidate, the decision maker for the client was reluctant to meet her. But FIT didn’t give up.

“We had a conversation with the hiring manager about trying to help them understand why we felt this person may be a good fit for the role,” said Ciak, adding that the decision maker agreed to a phone call with the candidate. As it turns out, they found she was a perfect match for what they were looking for.

“I think it was a good example of how it wasn’t about what was on the résumé … it was about a lot of the stuff in between the lines,” Ciak said. “Yes, they have to be able to do the job technically, but it’s so much more than that.”

Quality over Quantity

Using this operating mindset, the company has sustained a significant pool of candidates to reach out to, including a database of roughly 20,000 people. And it is constantly looking to make this pool even wider and deeper.

As just one example, the team recently visited Western New England University’s computer science club to talk to the seniors and other students about job opportunities in the area, how to go about looking for a job, interview preparation, salary information, and more. They also attend job summits, workshops, and other similar events to not only be a presence in the community, but also to ensure that they are constantly learning in an ever-changing industry.

“The more that we’re aware of how things are changing, the more we can impress on the candidate the importance of keeping up with technologies, too,” Ciak noted. “A lot of our clients expect the same. They expect folks to keep up with the latest and greatest and to stay educated and to challenge themselves with new technology.”

This, along with a mission to find the right fit for a candidate and client, is what makes FIT Solutions stand out from the competition. It’s what landed them on the ITS63 list as the only Western Mass. vendor, and it’s also what keeps clients and candidates in the area staffed and employed.

“It really comes back to providing value to our candidates and our clients,” Fallon said, “and being a trusted adviser to both of them.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Workforce Development

More Than Clothes

Maria Pelletier found confidence — and a job — with the help of Dress for Success.

Applying for jobs can be a daunting task, especially if one does not have the right tools or preparation to nail the interview. Dress for Success, an international not-for-profit organization, is working toward helping low- to middle-income women achieve economic independence by boosting confidence and providing valuable skills, a network of support, and the right suit to get the job done — literally.

When Maria Pelletier lost her job in August 2017 — the first time she had ever been fired in her life — she felt like she hit rock bottom.

“It was the last thing I was expecting,” she said. “It really set me back and made me question who I am and what I’m able to do.”

Pelletier began collecting unemployment, and although she was applying for jobs, she wasn’t getting hired, and she couldn’t figure out why.

“I was just doubting myself,” she said. “I kept thinking, ‘why are they not hiring me? What is going on?’”

“We’re finding out where they want to work, how we can get them in the door, and what’s their path to move up the ladder and have career success, because ultimately, our goal is to help women gain economic independence.”

Fortunately, she stumbled upon a program called Dress for Success Western Massachusetts, which she says gave her the confidence she needed to get back on track. When asked about her journey through the program, Pelletier had three short words: “where to begin?”

The most important thing Dress for Success did for her was get her confidence back up. Pelletier applied and went through the Foot in the Door program, a course that helps women enter the workforce. She was able to get a job part-time at the Post Office while going to classes for the program.

Then, in April 2018, she got a full-time job as lead Client Service specialist at Baystate Medical Center, and has been working there ever since. In that role, she answers phone calls coming into the hospital, and hopes to continue to learn more about her department and grow into new responsibilities.

“The interview skills and the classes we were taught reinforced on my skills I already had,” she said. “It was just bringing it back out to the forefront and saying, ‘yes, you can do this.’”

Sense of Sisterhood

That, said Executive Director Margaret Tantillo, is exactly what Dress for Success is about — giving women the confidence they need to get into the workforce, whether it is their first time or they need a little help to get back out there.

While the name entails part of the organization’s mission, to supply women with clothing for a job interview — or a few days of outfits once a job is secured — from the Dress for Success boutique at the Eastfield Mall, this is only part of the mission. “The suit is the vehicle, or just one aspect of what we’re able to do,” Tantillo said.

She told BusinessWest there are two workforce-development programs, and a third on the way, designed to help women become financially independent and confident in themselves.

Foot in the Door, launched in 2016 to help underemployed and unemployed women enter the workforce, is a collaboration between Springfield Technical Community College and Holyoke Community College instructors, who provide training on the interpersonal skills that are necessary for any workplace.

Margaret Tantillo says Dress for Success offers women a community of support — a sisterhood of sorts.

Within three months of graduating from this program, 70% of women, on average, are either in school and/or working, Tantillo explained. Program directors also make sure to prioritize putting women in jobs that are the right fit for them.

“We really work with our participants to find out what their interest is and what their skillset is,” said Tantillo. “We’re finding out where they want to work, how we can get them in the door, and what’s their path to move up the ladder and have career success, because ultimately, our goal is to help women gain economic independence.”

Having a good relationship with employers and referring agencies in the region is a big part of this, and Tantillo said practice interviews are available for women who finish the program successfully so they can receive feedback before going into the real interview. Some even get jobs right from the practice round.

On a more personal level, Dress for Success offers the Margaret Fitzgerald one-on-one mentorship program for women who are looking for jobs or recently entered the workforce. Each participant is paired with a professional woman in the community to work with on an individual basis.

“They are able to form a relationship so they can guide and support women in terms of whatever their unique, individual need is,” said Tantillo, adding that the program recently received an anonymous donation of $25,000. “The women who have come through that have had some really good results.”

She added that having a role model is a big part of women finding success in the programs, as many of them have not been fortunate enough to have role models in their lives.

The name of the program comes from a female mentor herself. Margaret Fitzgerald was a secretary and the only woman in the Physics department at Mount Holyoke College in the 1970s. She was called “mom” by many of the women enrolled in that program and acted as a mentor, advocate, and friend to the students. The female leaders in this program hope to do the same thing for their participants.

The newest program, The Professional Women’s Group, is set to launch in January 2020 with help from Eversource. It will focus on promoting employment retention and career advancement by providing valuable information, tools, and resources while creating a safe environment for participants to network with other professionals.

“They have a real sense of responsibility because what they do doesn’t just impact them, it impacts the next person we refer to that employer. It’s interesting to see how people respond when they feel like they’re part of something bigger.”

This group of women will be recruited from other programs and aims to help them especially in the first six months of a job, which are critical in terms of how people perform.

“The unemployment rate is lower, so there are more people in jobs that need the instruction and guidance about how to retain a job,” Tantillo said.

This new program, she explained, is intended to supplement the ones already in place at Dress for Success, and is framed around five pillars: workplace etiquette, work/life balance, financial health, health and wellness, and leadership and civic responsibility.

“We provide them with a community of support,” she noted. “We’ve had women talk about how they feel like this is a sisterhood and that they’ve never felt so supported before in their lives.”

Opening New Doors

Confidence. Community. Sisterhood.

These key words mentioned above several times are what Dress for Success instills in women utilizing its programs. And these women want to succeed not only for themselves, but for each other.

“The flip side is, now, when they’re in a job, they have a real sense of responsibility because what they do doesn’t just impact them, it impacts the next person we refer to that employer,” Tantillo said. “It’s interesting to see how people respond when they feel like they’re part of something bigger.”

For Pelletier, she gained not only a community of support, but a second chance.

“I was at rock bottom, and I said, ‘OK, let me try this. Let me see where it goes from there,’” she said. “They can either kick me to the curb or they can say, ‘hey, come on in.’ And luckily, they said, ‘come on in.’”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Some of the municipal leaders who spoke with BusinessWest about economic development and progress in Ludlow.

For more than a decade now, the Ludlow Mills project, a 20-year initiative that is changing the face of that historic complex and bringing jobs, new businesses, and new places to live to this community, has been the dominant talking point when it comes to the subject of economic development here.

But municipal officials are quick to point out that it’s just one of many intriguing stories unfolding in this town of around 21,000 people, the sum of which adds up to an intriguing, very positive chapter in the history of this community across the Chicopee River from Indian Orchard.

Indeed, there are a number of both municipal and private-sector commercial projects in various stages of development that are keeping town officials busy, and providing ample evidence that this is a community on the rise — in many different respects.

On the municipal side of the equation, construction of a new elementary school, approved by town voters in the spring of 2018, is underway. The facility, to be called Harris Brook Elementary School, will essentially combine the Chapin Street and Veterans Park elementary schools, two aging structures, under one far more efficient roof. It is being constructed on the playing fields adjacent to the current Chapin school.

“It’s always a balancing act. You want to give the students the world, but there’s only so much we can do within the constraints of our budget.”

Meanwhile, construction will soon begin on a new senior center that will replace a facility deemed generally unsafe and largely inadequate for the town’s growing senior population.

“We’re in the basement of a 115-year-old building that used to be a high school and junior high school,” said Jodi Zepke, director of the Council on Aging, adding that the long corridors in the structure are difficult for seniors to navigate. “We’ve done a lot with what we have, but it’s time for a new building.”

The town is also implementing a new communication system, a central hub for police, fire, and EMT services, and has embarked on an extensive renovation of Center Street, the main business thoroughfare, a project in the planning stages since 2008 and deemed long-overdue, said Town Administrator Ellie Villano.

“This is a MassDOT state construction,” she said, explaining that the Commonwealth is paying for the changes to the road. “It widens Center Street and adds a center turn, bike lanes, and new sidewalks.”

All this will make Center Street more presentable and easy to navigate for visitors to two new fast-food restaurants that will take shape there in the coming months — a Wendy’s and a KFC.

These various developments present a combination of benefits and challenges — benefits such as tax dollars and additional vibrancy from the new businesses, and challenges when it comes to paying for all those municipal projects. But the former should definitely help with the latter, said Derek DeBarge, chairman of the Board of Selectmen.

“One of the challenges is that a number of these big projects have all happened at the same time,” added Todd Gazda, superintendent of Ludlow schools. “We’re having to essentially prioritize all of these things, which are all important projects.”

For the latest in its long-running Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest talked with a number of town officials about the many forms of progress taking place and what they mean for the community moving forward.

From the Ground Up

“Revenue, revenue, revenue.”

That’s the word DeBarge repeated several times when asked about the motivating factors behind all the recent municipal projects.

“My concern is obviously trying to do better with our taxes,” he said, adding that a growing senior population, many of whom are living on a single income, is also at the top of the list. “As this revenue is coming in, with the solar, the KFC … it’s all tax-based revenue for us. And the more revenue that comes in, the better we can do for our departments, and that means the better we can do for our tax base, and that’s better for our constituents and for everyone.”

Elaborating, he said that, while town officials have worked hard to secure grants for these municipal projects — and they have received quite a few — the town must bear a good percentage of the cost of each project, which presents a stern budget challenge.

Ludlow at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1774
Population: 21,103
Area: 28.2 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $19.82
Commercial Tax Rate: $19.82
Median Household Income: $53,244
Median Family Income: $67,797
Type of government: Town Council, Representative Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Hampden County House of Correction; Encompass Rehabilitation Hospital; Massachusetts Air National Guard; Kleeberg Sheet Metal Inc.
*Latest information available

Education, and the need to modernize facilities, is just one example of this.

Gazda said the town has been doing a lot of work on the schools recently to improve the quality of educational services provided to students, and one of the top priorities has been to do it in a cost-effective and fiscally responsible manner.

“It’s always a balancing act,” he said. “You want to give the students the world, but there’s only so much we can do within the constraints of our budget.”

Gazda noted that maintenance costs on both Chapin and Veterans Park elementary schools, both built around 60 years ago, had become exorbitant. So a decision was made to put forth a proposal to the Massachusetts School Building Authority.

“We’re currently under budget and ahead of schedule,” he said of the $60 million project, adding that the new facility is slated to open in the fall of 2021 with an estimated student enrollment of 620 to 640 students.

About 10 minutes down the road on the corner of State Street and First Avenue, the new, 18,000-square-foot senior center is under construction and due to open in roughly a year.

Like the new school, its construction has been prompted by the need to replace aging facilities and provide the community with a center that is state-of-the-art.

“It’s no secret that there’s more people over 60 than under 20, and that population of seniors is only going to continue to grow,” said Zepke. “We just took a hard look at the numbers, and we can barely accommodate what we have now.”

As for the new communications system, Ludlow Police Chief Paul Madera says this will make communication between all town entities and the central hub much easier, using radio rather than having to pick up a phone.

“All of our communication systems are in need of refurbishing, so the most prudent and fiscal approach was to combine them all together,” he said, adding that this project, with a price tag of more than $4 million, includes the implementation of a public-safety dispatch which combines police, fire, and EMS services into one center.

While these initiatives proceed, the town is undertaking a host of initiatives aimed at improving quality of life and making this a better community in which to live, work, and conduct business.

Ludlow CARES is one such effort. A community-run organization, it was launched with the goal of educating children and their parents on drug and alcohol abuse in response to the opioid epidemic. Now, DeBarge says it has spread to become much more than that, and has inspired other towns and cities to adopt similar programs.

“It has gotten huge to a point where it has gotten other communities involved with their own towns in a similar way,” he said.

Another organization, the Michael J. Dias Foundation, serves as a resource and a home for recovering addicts.

All these initiatives, DeBarge, Madera, and other town officials agreed, reflect upon the tight-knit community that Ludlow has become.

It Takes a Village

As nine town officials sat around the table informing BusinessWest about everything going on in Ludlow, they spoke with one voice about how, through teamwork at City Hall and other settings, pressing challenges are being undertaken, and economic development — in all its various forms — is taking place.

“Our staffs are doing a tremendous job,” Madera said. “They’re wearing multiple hats doing multiple jobs. There’s always room for improvement, but the fact is, they have to be given credit because they’re the boots on the ground.”

And they are making considerable progress in ensuring that this community with a proud past has a secure future.

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Education

Breaking Down Stereotypes

A mom of two young children, Alysha Putnam strives to be a mentor for women of all ages in the PVWIS.

Science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) jobs have historically been labeled careers for men. Those stereotypes, along with unfair treatment of women in STEM, have dissuaded many from beginning or furthering such careers. Luckily, women in STEM are becoming less of an exception, and thanks to the hard work and dedication of many colleges and organizations, women now have more resources than ever to follow their STEM dreams.

Wearing many hats is a common theme for women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) fields.

Parent, teacher, student, and scientist are only a few that Alysha Putnam can name off the top of her head.

When speaking about her journey, she recalls it was a bumpy road, and says several female mentors helped her become the successful woman she is today.

“It was because of various key people — particularly women, actually — who believed in me despite the life challenges that I was going through, that I was able to be successful despite all the chaos,” she said.

One of these women was her master’s adviser, Paulette Peckol, who, as Putnam recalls, was very accepting of the fact that she had two young children and was flexible with her schedule.

Now, as a teaching and research assistant at UMass Amherst in the organismic and evolutionary biology Ph.D. program, she teaches classes while pursuing her research-focused doctoral degree. Throughout this journey through education, Putnam said, she has developed a strong passion for giving back in the same way she was supported.

Unfortunately, women in STEM, including moms like Putnam, have historically faced backlash, oftentimes driving them away from pursuing a career in these fields or even discouraging them from continuing to climb the ladder once they are established. But Putnam and other women in Western Mass. are using their own personal experiences to try to improve the lives of other women who are hoping to make it in these fields.

That’s why Putnam wears yet another hat: co-founder of Pioneer Valley Women in STEM (PVWIS). She and fellow co-founders Melissa Paciulli, Beth McGinnis-Cavanaugh, and Michelle Rame dedicate much of their time to being a support system and connector to women either already in STEM fields or pursuing such a career. Putnam is an alumna of Holyoke Community College (HCC), Paciulli serves as the director of the STEM Starter Academy at HCC, and Rame is an HCC graduate and current engineering student at Western New England University.

One of their biggest goals is to squash many of the stereotypes that surround both women in STEM, at community colleges specifically. 

“Stereotypes in STEM as a whole exist,” Paciulli said. “I think it’s important to really recognize that all people belong in STEM — people of all abilities and all races and all sexual orientations. We at PVWIS really believe in inclusivity, and through the community colleges we can provide access to a wide, diverse population for STEM, and we can really tackle that issue of diversity in STEM through our work within the region and within the community colleges.”

And they are not the only women in the area making it their goal to help women pursue and excel in these fields.

Gina Semprebon, founding director for the Center for Excellence in Women in STEM (CEWS) at Bay Path University, notes that her own experiences inspired her to start this program to help women pursuing STEM careers.

“I had a really hard time trying to break into the STEM field when I did,” she said. “It was so clear, even as a student for my graduate work, that there was bias. The males were breezing through, and the few women that were in there were not getting the help or support they needed, or were actually being thwarted.”

Fortunately, programs like PVWIS and CEWS are providing access to resources and educational opportunities for these women to follow their passion and climb the STEM ladder.

Turning Experience Into Expertise

When Susanna Swanker walked into the first day of her college internship, the women’s restroom had to be cleaned out for her because it was being used for storage.

Susanne Swanker

At S.I. Group (formerly Schenectady International), she was a chemist working on a pilot project. Aside from the secretary (whom Swanker bonded with very well), she was the only woman in her area. She remembers going to work in a hardhat and jeans while her other friends in accounting or social-services positions were getting dressed in business professional attire.

“It’s a different field, so you have to be willing to do those things,” she said. “I think sometimes maybe that’s a little off-putting or it’s not so attractive for people. But if you love the work, and I think that’s maybe where the challenge is, you get past that.”

Now dean of the School of Business, Arts, and Sciences at American International College, she is working toward refining STEM programs at the university to better fit students’ interests.

Being the only woman in a STEM room is not limited to the workplace. McGinnis-Cavanaugh said it is not unusual for her to be the only woman in the room while she is teaching engineering courses at Springfield Technical Community College.

While the percentage of female faculty in STEM programs at STCC is healthy, she said, the female student population is not so great.

Melissa Paciulli says the events hosted by the PVWIS are intended to make connections and build relationships among fellow STEM women.

Being a woman who went to community college and experienced many of the same struggles her students now face is one of the main reasons why she co-founded PVWIS and continues to teach at STCC.

“I see myself in my students,” she said. “I don’t care what anybody says — community colleges still have that stigma attached to them. ‘Oh, you go to a community college, you couldn’t get into a real college,’ that type of thing. That really bothers me because I went to a community college, so that resonates with me in a big way.”

These stigmas, she said, are an issue of equity in the community-college world, and the everyday issues women in STEM often face come back to one word: access.

Beth McGinnis-Cavanaugh

“There should be no difference between the opportunities that men and women have,” McGinnis-Cavanaugh argued. “We kept coming around to the same thing, that our students needed access. That was the word that we kept coming back to. We were trying to think of ways that we could expose them to professional women, to professional situations and professional networks.”

Bay Path’s Leadership Exploration Analysis Development program has similar goals. This 100% online initiative under the CEWS umbrella provides a certificate to early- to mid-career women in STEM fields, giving them the leadership skills they need to advance in their career.

Michele Heyward, founder of PositiveHire and CEO of Heyward Business Consulting, acts as an industry expert for the program, and says this certificate provides women with the tools they need to continue to move up the ladder in their career.

 

From left: Gina Semprebon, Michele Heyward, and Caron Hobin.

“Men are generally promoted based on potential, while women and people of color are promoted based on the proof that they know what they’re doing,” she said. “It is truly essential to have programs like this that are in place, active and engaging for students who are generally going to go out into a workplace where they may be the only one.”

Caron Hobin, vice president of Bay Path, partnered with Semprebon on CEWS and says stereotypes and stigmas faced by women in STEM made it a no-brainer to kick-start the program in 2013.

“I was moved by the statistics that would scream loud and clear that women were just not advancing at the same level as men,” she said. “You’re surrounded by really sharp women, and you look around and say, ‘why is this?’”

Toward a More Equal Future

The statistics speak for themselves.

According to Million Women Mentors, 75% of STEM workers are male. In addition, only three out of 12 women who graduate with a bachelor’s degree in a STEM field still work in a STEM career 10 years after graduation.

That is why programs and organizations like CEWS and PVWIS exist, and these stigmas are slowly being squashed.

“We see ourselves as being the connecting point of all these different women across the Valley and bringing them together to support each other, to share knowledge, to encourage, to uplift, to make connections, to empower,” Putnam said. “As we interact with our community-college students here in Western Mass., we are seeing incredible women of all ages coming through the community-college system who are very capable and smart and just need the support and encouragement to say, ‘yes, you can do it.’”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Holiday Gift Guide

The Gift of Stepping Out

Picking out the right gift for a loved one, partner, friend, or child can be a stressful experience. There are many different factors to consider, and there’s always the worry they won’t like what you pick out. Luckily, Western Mass. has a wide variety of places that offer great experiences you can all share together. Whether it be a go-karting adventure, having dinner at a great local restaurant, or visiting an art museum, there are plenty of experience-based options out there for you and a loved one to share. Save yourself the stress of buying material things this year, and try out one of these experiences for the holidays.

 


For Adventurers and Adrenaline Seekers


Berkshire East Mountain Resort

66 Thunder Mountain Road, Charlemont, MA

(413) 339-6617; www.berkshireeast.com

This resort is Southern New England’s year-round outdoor destination. With everything from whitewater rafting to skiing and snowboarding — and the resort’s signature mountain coaster — there are plenty of options for all types of adventure seekers. Whether you want to celebrate the holidays now or save it for a warm, summer day, a trip to the mountains is the perfect getaway.


Nomad’s Adventure Quest

100 Bidwell Road, South Windsor, CT

(860) 290-1177; www.nomadsadventurequest.com

With more than 65,000 square feet of space, there is something for people of all ages at Nomad’s. The facility has laser tag, glow-in-the-dark black-light mini golf, thunderbowl bowling, a climbing wall, more than 80 arcade and redemption games, two full-size basketball courts, a billiard room, conference and banquet rooms with overhead projection screens, a full bar, a full service café, and more. There is no admission price to enter; activities are individually priced. 


Pioneer Valley Indoor Karting

10 West St., West Hatfield, MA

(413) 446-7845; www.pioneervalleykarting.com

Conveniently located just over the Northampton town line right off I-91 exit 21, Pioneer Valley Indoor Karting is perfect for the adventurous family that loves a good adrenaline rush. The facility opens daily at 11 a.m. for ‘arrive and drive’ high-speed gas go-karting. All pricing is per person, and the facility offers high-speed junior karts specifically designed for junior racers ages 8 to 13 who are taller than 48 inches and weigh less than 180 pounds. 


Springfield Thunderbirds

MassMutual Center, 1277 Main St., Springfield, MA

(413) 787-6600; www.springfieldthunderbirds.com

If you’re a sports lover, this is the event for you. The Springfield Thunderbirds are the American Hockey League’s minor-league affiliate of the Florida Panthers, now playing their fourth season in Springfield. The Thunderbirds play their home games at the MassMutual Center. Tickets start at $10 depending on seating and game night.

For History and Art Lovers


Clark Art Institute

225 South St., Williamstown, MA

(413) 458-2303; www.clarkart.edu

The intimate scale and the wide variety of the galleries at the Clark makes for the perfect family trip, no matter what age a person may be. This institution also offers special programs and events throughout the year that are catered to families specifically, such as gallery talks, art making, and related entertainment. 


Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art

125 West Bay Road, Amherst, MA

(413) 559-6300; www.carlemuseum.org

The Eric Carle Museum is a nonprofit organization seeking to inspire a love of art and reading through picture books. The Carle houses more than 11,000 objects, including thousands of permanent-collection illustrations, three art galleries, an art studio, a theater, educational programs for families, and more.


Connecticut Science Center

250 Columbus Blvd., Hartford, CT

(860) 724-3623; www.ctsciencecenter.org

Only a half-hour from Springfield, the Connecticut Science Center boasts more than 165 hands-on exhibits in 10 galleries and live science demos daily. There is a state-of-the-art 3D digital theater, four educational labs, and daily programs and events. General admission for members is free, youth (ages 3-17) tickets are $16.95, adults (ages 18-64) are $23.95, and seniors (65+) are $21.95.


Norman Rockwell Museum

9 Glendale Road, Stockbridge, MA

(413) 298-4100;

www.nrm.org

The Norman Rockwell Museum houses the world’s largest and most significant collection of Rockwell art. It presents, preserves, and studies the art of illustration and is a world resource for reflection, involvement, and discovery inspired by Norman Rockwell and the power of visual images to shape and reflect society. The museum is open seven days a week, year-round. Admission for members and youth ages 18 and under are free, adult tickets are $20, seniors (65+) are $18, veterans are $17, and college students with an ID are $10.


Shaker Village

1843 West Housatonic St., Pittsfield, MA

(413) 443-0188; www.hancockshakervillage.org

Shake Village boasts 20 authentic Shaker buildings, rich collections of Shaker furniture and artifacts in rotating exhibits, a full schedule of activities and workshops, a mile-long hiking trail and hundreds of acres of additional land with a variety of trails for all skill levels, picnic areas, a store and café, and a working farm with extensive gardens and heritage-breed livestock. Admission for adults is $20; seniors and active/retired military are $18; youth (ages 13-17) are $8; children 12 and under are free. From Nov. 16 through Dec. 22, the village is open weekends only. It is closed for the season Dec. 23 through April 10 and reopens for the spring season April 11.


Springfield Symphony Orchestra

1441 Main St., Suite 121, Springfield, MA

(413) 733-0636; www.springfieldsymphony.org

The SSO is the largest Massachusetts symphony outside of Boston, featuring more than 80 musicians from the New England region of the U.S. and Canada, and holding many performances each season. A Holiday Celebration concert on Dec. 7 will feature guests conductor Nick Palmer, the SSO Chorus directed by Nikki Stoia, the [email protected] Chorus directed by Bob Cilman, cantor Elise Barber, and soprano Jamie-Rose Guarrine. Tickets are available online starting at $25.


Yankee Candle Village

25 Greenfield Road, South Deerfield, MA

(877) 636-7707; www.yankeecandle.com/south-deerfield-village

This is more than just a candle store. The Yankee Candle Village provides everything from make-your-own-candles to irresistible food, and has plenty of options for the kids and the parents to enjoy — as well as a year-round Bavarian Christmas village.


For the Foodies


Capri Pizza Shop

18 Cabot St., Holyoke MA

(413) 532-3460;

www.capripizzashop.com

Capri has been in the family since 1966 and is now owned and run by Fiore Santaniello and managed by his two sons, Salvatore and Gennaro. Though Capri’s look has changed over the years, it has maintained the quality of its food, even earning the People’s Choice Award from Best of Mass Pizza.


Esselon Café

99 Russell St., Hadley, MA

(413) 585-1515; www.esselon.com

Esselon is an award-winning café featuring fresh roasted coffee, rare and exotic teas, and a full menu. Centrally located between Amherst and Northampton on Route 9 on the Common in Hadley, this café offers outdoor dining during the spring, summer, and fall months and a casual atmosphere indoors.


La Fogata

770 Tyler St., Pittsfield, MA

(413) 443-6969; www.lafogatarestaurante.com

La Fogata (Spanish for ‘the bonfire’) offers traditional Colombian cuisine. Owner Miguel Gomez moved to Pittsfield from Colombia in 1993 and realized there were no Latino restaurants in the area, so he decided to open his own. Items on the menu include everything from carne asada to pechuga apanada.


Johnny’s Tavern

30 Boltwood Walk, Amherst

(413) 230-3818;

www.johnnystavernamherst.com

Johnny’s Tavern is a contemporary American restaurant nestled in the heart of the community of Amherst, priding itself on using organic produce, sustainable seafood, and hormone-free meat and poultry whenever possible. Items on the menu range from pizza to a pulled duck sandwich.


Munich Haus

13 Center St., Chicopee, MA

(413) 594-8788; www.munichhaus.com

The Munich Haus gives customers a taste of Germany, no passport required. A family-owned restaurant that opened in 2004, this restaurant prides itself on its authenticity, right down to the food, beer, and décor. The comfortable, laid-back atmosphere paired with popular menu items like its wide array of schnitzels and a plentiful selection of beer and wine make the Munich Haus a place where anyone can find something to enjoy.


Nick’s Nest

1597 Northampton St., Holyoke

(413) 532-5229;

www.nicksnestholyoke.com

This is the perfect place to go for those who want to spend quality time over some great food on a low budget. Founded in 1921 by Nick Malfas, Nick’s Nest started as a roadside popcorn cart. Now serving much more than popcorn, it continues to be a hot spot, featuring hot dogs, homemade potato and macaroni salad, ice cream, and much more.

 

For the Adults


Abandoned Building Brewery

142 Pleasant St., Easthampton

(413) 282-7062; www.abandonedbuildingbrewery.com

This brewery began in March 2013 when owner Matt Tarlecki transformed this abandoned mill building into what now stands as Abandoned Building Brewery, complete with a walk-in cooler, a 15-barrel brewhouse, two 30-barrel fermenters, and one 30-barrel bright tank. Its ales include a combination of year-round, seasonal, and collaboration beers.


MGM Springfield Topgolf Swing Suite

One MGM Way, Springfield

(413) 273-5000;

www.mgmspringfield.com

Located outside on the Plaza next to Indian Motorcycle, Topgolf Swing Suite is a perfect option for couples or a group of friends looking to have fun and enhance golfing skills. The experience offers a comfortable lounge to hang out in while enjoying food and drinks.


Northampton Brewery

11 Brewster Court, Northampton

(413) 584-9903;

www.northamptonbrewery.com

The Northampton Brewery brews fine ales and lagers, served with outstanding food and a friendly staff. The brewery is conveniently located in downtown Northampton and is an ideal place to go for a delicious meal and a couple beers in front of the fireplace on a chilly winter evening. The destination has been around for 35 years and continues to be one of the area’s most popular breweries.


The Quarters

8 Railroad St., Hadley, MA

(413) 429-4263;

www.hadleyquarters.com

The Quarters, located just off Route 9 and directly on the Norwottock Rail Trail, is a destination for those seeking a place to enjoy some creative food, excellent drinks, and a selection of more than 20 vintage arcade games — perfect for a group outing or a date night.

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Jeff Smith and Sue Bunnell say one of the biggest projects going on in Wilbraham is a renovation of Route 20.

Revival by its very definition suggests an improvement in the condition or strength of something. It means giving new life to what already exists, an upgrade of sorts.

This is what elected officials in Wilbraham plan to do in several places around town, for a number of reasons.

One of the most valuable assets the town of Wilbraham has to offer both residents and visitors is the array of businesses and attractions on Route 20, and Jeff Smith says that artery is getting a serious upgrade.

“We have a lot of real estate that could be developed,” said Smith, chairman of the Planning Board. “We’ve got a lot of opportunities for businesses to locate here.”

And some already have.

What was known as the Wilbraham Light Shop many years ago was closed up until recently, and friends of the previous owner are reopening it as a new and improved light shop, something that came as a bit of a shock to Smith and other town employees, seeing as it was vacant for about 20 years, but good news for the town nonetheless.

Sue Bunnell, who chairs the Board of Selectmen, added that Wilbraham boasts an excellent track record when it comes to bringing businesses into town.

“Wilbraham has a good reputation of being business-friendly and among the easier places to get a business up and running,” she said.

Part of this is due to zoning flexibility, Smith said. “We have boards and committees that are willing to not only work within the existing zoning laws, but present new zoning laws to the town to ratify so that new businesses can locate here.”

This has happened recently, when Iron Duke Brewing was looking to move from Ludlow Mills to Wilbraham. Zoning laws were changed, and Iron Duke is now one of two breweries in town.

Still, there is work to be done. And at this point, the Route 20 renovation plan is at 25% completion, which marks the start of public hearings.

“We’ve seen preliminary drawings,” said Bunnell. “Those will be made available to the public, and they will be going from the Friendly’s corporate location to the Palmer line with that redo of the highway.”

What was once meant to include solely road work has become a much more involved process, and town officials recognize the need for all the work being done to make this project happen.

“It started off as what we thought was a repaving, but it really seems like it’s expanding now to more of a redesign,” said Planning Director John Pearsall.

Wilbraham’s town officials hope this redesign, coupled with a progressing marketing strategy and few other things on the agenda, will continue to make it a place people want to live and spend their money.

Driving Momentum

Like Pearsall said, what was supposed to be a fairly simple project has now turned into a plan to revive Route 20. This includes making adjustments to some of the problematic intersections, widening driving lanes, adding sidewalks and bike lanes, and more.

Wilbraham at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1763
Population: 14,868
Area: 22.4 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $21.80
Commercial Tax Rate: $21.80
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

Most importantly, town officials hope to capitalize on the space and buildings available along the road, and are already taking some options into consideration, including mixed-use developments.

Actually, while the term ‘mixed use’ has been thrown around a lot for Route 20, Pearsall said, a better phrase would be ‘multiple use.’

Recently, Delaney’s Market opened in a building that was redeveloped into a multiple-use project. In addition, a proposal for a Taylor Rental property that has been vacant for a while is under review. Also in the works for that property, a Connecticut developer recently filed an application to create another multiple-use development on those grounds.

“I think pedestrian access to a lot of these businesses is going to increase because they’re talking about running proper sidewalks up both sides of Route 20,” Smith said. “It will be a huge help to the existing businesses and future ones.”

The bigger picture of Boston Road is that it was, at one time, all exclusively zoned for commercial activity. But over the years, the town has been trying to introduce residential uses there, including the Woodcrest Condominiums and a new active-adult community that’s being developed off Boston Road.

Route 20 isn’t the only part of town that will be utilizing mixed-use communities. Smith noted that they also hope to revive the town center.

“In our town center, there are a few buildings that are slated for demolition, and we’re working on redevelopment of the site,” he said. “We recently decided at a town meeting at the beginning of this year to allow a mixed-use development on this site.”

For this specific development, the term ‘mixed use’ is appropriate. According to Smith, there will be retail and commercial establishments on the first floor and living quarters on the second floor. This, he said, is part of a bigger picture concerning town redevelopment being worked on behind the scenes.

Another development in the works is part of a ‘community compact’ to identify and explore the potential for expanding municipal fiber along Boston Road to determine how that might impact business opportunities.

“Our expectation is to identify someone to explore how delivering fiber along the Boston Road corridor could create opportunities for businesses,” said Bunnell.

Using Entry Point, a company that has worked with other municipalities to develop and build out their own fiber networks, Wilbraham hopes to give businesses along the Route 20 corridor this opportunity.

Smith is also a business owner of New England Promotional Marketing alongside his wife, Amy, and has been a guinea pig of sorts for the fiber network.

“It was critical for our business; it’s a great system,” he said. “If you’re choked down by your internet, it just becomes slow and difficult to do, and it can really put a damper on your business. Opening up to that fiber-optic pipeline was huge for us, and we want to provide that opportunity all the way down Route 20.”

Welcome Mat

With quite a few items on the to-do list, it’s safe to assume there will be no shortage of excitement in Wilbraham in the coming months and years.

“There are a lot of older buildings that have been kind of run down for a long time, and they’re being turned around,” said Smith. “There are a lot of properties that have been dormant or underutilized, and there’s a big push to rehabilitate these and find new uses or, in some cases, existing uses.”

As for any new businesses looking to make Wilbraham their new home, they can sleep well knowing this is a top priority in Town Hall, Bunnell said. “I think the goal is to make Wilbraham even more attractive and accessible to businesses that are looking to come into town.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Holiday Party Planner

Many Ways to Celebrate

Lynn Kennedy says the Log Cabin, Delaney House, and Log Rolling catering services have something for every business during the holiday season, no matter their size. 

Companies have long celebrated the hard work they’ve done over the course of the year with a holiday party. Whether hosting a small gathering or a large corporate bash, plenty of restaurants, banquet facilities, and caterers in the Western Mass. area are willing to get the job done each year. Although these parties have been popular for decades, owners and managers say trends are always changing in how people want to celebrate the year and ring in a new one.

Lynn Kennedy says one of the most common things she hears from employers booking holiday parties is that they want to do something special for the people that work for them.

“This is something people don’t want to do halfway,” said Kennedy, director of Sales and Marketing at the Log Cabin. “They want to go all in because they realize it’s the best way for them to show their employees the appreciation they deserve for a lot of hard work that they put out there.”

While end-of-the-year holiday parties have long been a tradition for companies of all sizes, employers are finding new ways to show employees their appreciation this season.

Aside from the traditional but enjoyable small group parties and restaurant reservations, companies are going above and beyond to make sure all employees are able to join in the celebration, no matter how big the organization may be.

The Log Cabin offers a wide array of options for holiday parties, including small-group holiday parties that are always a hit. Indeed, the facility is hosting a total of six this year, as opposed to the usual four or five, because of how popular they are.

“This is something people don’t want to do halfway. They want to go all in because they realize it’s the best way for them to show their employees the appreciation they deserve for a lot of hard work that they put out there.”

The Starting Gate at GreatHorse is another popular venue for small-group holiday parties, including a Breakfast with Santa, a Holiday Dinner Dance with the Clark Eno Orchestra, and the annual Holiday Luncheon with Dan Kane & Friends.

Cathy Stephens, director of Catering Sales, says these events are affordable options for small to mid-sized companies looking to enjoy a festive night.

“It is cost-effective for the smaller and even the mid-size companies to host their holiday celebration at venues that are providing live entertainment and a festive menu that satisfies just about everyone,” she said. “It also provides the opportunity to network with other local businesses.”

In addition to Center Square Grill, Bill Collins recently opened another restaurant, HighBrow, in Northampton.

There is no shortage of businesses in the Western Mass. area, and all have their own preferences as to what kind of gathering will appeal to their employees. This encourages restaurants like Center Square Grill to expand their options and accommodate unique requests.

Owner Bill Collins says he does his best to work with any request, no matter how big or small, and often does so himself to make sure everything goes smoothly.

“What makes this restaurant stand out is that the owner is on deck,” he said, adding that General Manager Kim Hulslander is also frequently involved with booking parties. “If you want to call and work with me, you’re going to get me on the phone. You’re in ownership’s hands when you’re booking an event with us, and we see it through to the end.”

The holiday season poses a strong business opportunity for restaurants and banquet facilities, but it is also a great time for caterers.

“We have people who book at the end of the prior year. Once their holiday party finishes, most people, within a week or two, are booking already for the next year.”

Nosh Restaurant and Café in Springfield may be fairly small on the inside, but its catering business is booming, and uses creative food and elegant edible centerpieces to stand out from the competition.

“I think our food is super creative, and we present it beautifully,” said owner Teri Skinner. “It’s important to be creative in how you present the food, the taste, and the flavors. It’s really what a catering company is built on.”

These caterers are seeing a lot more business around the holidays over the past few years for a number of reasons. For this year’s holiday party planning issue, BusinessWest spoke with local restaurants and caterers about these changing traditions and how they strive to stand out among local competition.

Teri Skinner, owner of Nosh, says it’s important to be creative when it comes to food presentation.

Keep Them Coming Back

When Missy Baker at Arland Tool e-mailed Skinner to set up the company’s annual party, she sent just five short words: “all set for the 24th?” Skinner responded, “yes, we’re all set.”

That’s because this is the seventh or eighth time Skinner has hosted Arland’s annual party, and she knows exactly what they like and need.

“It’s great for the customer because they know I’m going to be there, they know the quality of food, and it’s great for me because I know how much they eat and how long it takes,” Skinner said. “It’s a very precise job that we can control very well.”

These kinds of relationships are not uncommon for restaurants and caterers, and it’s often the unique experiences customers have that keeps them coming back year after year.

Collins noted that a loyal clientele books parties at Center Square Grill every year.

“For us not being a big corporate chain, I just try to go above and beyond for the customer,” he said. “It’s worth it for me to do that to try to build in the business year after year.”

Some sites, like the Log Cabin, are so popular that regulars will book their next annual event just weeks after they enjoy their party this year.

“There are a lot of companies where their business is heaviest during this season, and it doesn’t make sense for them to actually have the celebration before Christmas, so they do it as a type of new-year celebration.”

“We have people who book at the end of the prior year,” Kennedy said. “Once their holiday party finishes, most people, within a week or two, are booking already for the next year.”

This mainly includes the larger parties that rent out big rooms at the Log Cabin for 300 to 400 people, like Tighe & Bond, Florence Bank, and PeoplesBank.

Because of the desire for a smaller, more intimate setting, Kennedy says the company’s Delaney House, where several rooms can fit 15 to 50 people, is also jam-packed during the holidays. Whatever the booking party’s size, she has seen an increase in catering over the last few years, which she credits partly to a changing workforce schedule.

“A major component of that is work schedules because you have first and second and third shifts of people,” she said. “Heads of businesses are really trying to figure out a way to incorporate their entire workforce in a holiday celebration and not just limit it to a particular time.”

These multi-shift businesses include news crews, manufacturers, and even hospitals, where it is nearly impossible to get everyone in the same room at the same time. This is where Log Rolling, the catering service for Log Cabin and the Delaney House, comes in handy.

“They’ll come in and ask us, ‘can you set up a breakfast for our morning crew? Can you set up a lunch for our afternoon crew? Can you set up a dinner for our evening crew?’ so everyone is kind of being hit at a different time and everyone gets to enjoy that holiday experience,” Kennedy said.

Making Spirits Bright

Caterers aren’t the only ones bringing unique styles to holiday celebrations. At Center Square Grill, Collins says customized packages are available for parties of any size, including both food and décor.

The restaurant offers packages for private dining that start at $20 and typically go up to $45 per person, although that isn’t the limit. Lower packages might offer unlimited alcoholic beverages with an entrée choice and a salad. With the $45 packages, everyone is greeted with a glass of champagne and gets an appetizer, salad, entrée, and dessert.

Collins also said he can arrange rooms in a variety of ways, with everything from decorated tables for a sit-down dinner to cocktail tables for a more casual night out.

“What’s unique about us is that you can come here casually, or you can come here dressed up, and you’re not going to feel bad in either direction,” he said. “We want you to be comfortable coming in for a burger and a beer or filet, oysters, and a bottle of champagne.”

Perhaps one of the most important parts about a holiday party is the quality and presentation of food, Skinner said. From everything from the plate the food goes on to the way the food itself is presented itself, Nosh puts together each “edible centerpiece” with with care.

“We call them edible centerpieces because they’re so beautiful when they go out,” she elaborated. “That’s how we build things here. We want them to look gorgeous and taste great, so that’s our goal at the end of the day.”

Cathy Stephens says events at Great Horse, including the holiday dinner dance and holiday luncheon, are perfect for businesses with a smaller budget.

More recently, Nosh catered a Halloween party for Northwest Mutual and provided edible centerpieces, appetizers, and a bartender dressed up for the spooky season.

Skinner agrees that catering has become more popular over the years and thinks a lot of people just want to feel comfortable and laid-back. “I think having it at home or at an office is relaxing,” she said.

Perhaps one of the most relaxing options all these restaurants have seen is the decision to hold off on a holiday party until the beginning of the following year to avoid the craziness of booking during peak season.

Kennedy says people normally book parties at the Log Cabin through the first few weeks of January, but some even book all the way into February.

“There are a lot of companies where their business is heaviest during this season, and it doesn’t make sense for them to actually have the celebration before Christmas, so they do it as a type of new-year celebration,” she said.

This happens frequently at restaurants in the area as well, and it’s the reason why Center Square keeps decorations up well into the new year so customers can still feel the holiday spirit even after the holidays are over.

In short, whether businesses are going with a new tradition or sticking with an old one, there is no shortage of options for holiday parties in Western Mass. — and banquet halls and restaurants say they’re happy to oblige.

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Technology

Bit by Bit

From left: Patrick Fortunato, business development manager; Jitu Changela, CEO; and Marc Solomon, director of Operations. 

While growing his business and keeping his employees busy at all times is Jitu Changela’s primary goal, his mission in business is to keep his clients’ employees busy and help those companies grow.

He and his team at the IT solutions company Azaya believe this is one of the best ways to measure success in this highly competitive, still-evolving field. Indeed, companies can’t grow and prosper, and their employees can’t be highly productive, if their IT systems are down. Or if the equipment is old and obsolete. Or if a business isn’t making the most of its investments in IT.

Azaya, a 25-year-old managed-service provider based in Palmer and founded by Changela, helps clients maximize their IT systems and ensure they are reliable and sustainable, thus enabling employees to work better and smarter. It does this through a philosophy of putting the client first and continually learning from each customer experience.

“You can never know everything; we’re always learning,” said Changela, leader of this six-person tech company that provides essential technology components and service to many different types of businesses. “The best way we keep up with what’s happening in this industry is by having a variety of different clients. They’re all from different industries, so working with each one of those clients in a different industry forces us to look at all the different hardware and software solutions that are out there.” 

The company’s overarching goal is to become what a provider must be in this changing industry — a one-stop shop. And it is well on its way to becoming just that.

The company offers something it calls eZ Virtual IT, which creates a team of IT professionals available at a client’s disposal and capable of handling a variety of services, including customized systems, security, website hosting, data protection, and server system setup and maintenance.

It also provides eZ Voice, a complete solution to business phone-line needs, and eZ Projects, help with specific IT projects, which, as Changela puts it, enables the company to “audition” for the client for future partnerships.

“With our model of one fixed cost, we’re there as many times as we need to be without it being any extra expense to them. Being able to be preventive solves a lot of their problems before they become problems.”

But the company’s ongoing success and continued growth is due not only to what it provides clients, but also how — specifically a fixed-cost model that is somewhat unique in the industry and provides a number of benefits for clients.

“That’s our core focus today, providing fixed-cost services,” Changela said, adding that most companies still charge hourly rates. “What we do is very unique; it’s a win-win partnership. Clients pay us a fixed cost, and our goal is to make sure we maintain their infrastructure at a very high level.” 

Overall, the company preaches to its clients to be proactive, or preventive, and not reactive, when it comes to technology, investing in it and ultimately making the most of it, said Marc Solomon, Azaya’s Director of Operations, and the fixed-cost system helps them do just that.

For this issue and its focus on technology, BusinessWest talked with the team at Azaya — that word means ‘shelter, refuge, and support’ in Sanskrit — as it celebrates 25 years in business and looks ahead to what the future can bring for this forward-looking company.

Tech Talk

Before looking forward, though, Changela first flashed back a quarter-century or so to when the internet was young and he was looking for work.

With a strong background in electrical engineering, he knew he wanted to do something computer- or electronics-related but was unemployed and couldn’t find a job. That’s when he decided to make his own luck. 

“I just decided that I had some experience in purchasing high-level computer equipment, and I found clients that needed stuff like that,” he told BusinessWest. “At that time, the internet was very new, so they had to go through some channel to get the high-level computer equipment, and I had the source.” 

So, he provided that equipment to them. Then, the fledgling venture grew from what is called “reselling” to the next phase, which focused on providing a variety of needed services to local clients. 

 “We then became internet service providers in town here in Palmer,” Changela said, adding that the company continued evolving into a multi-layered IT solutions provider. 

Solomon joined the team after an internship while he was attending Southern New Hampshire University. He graduated with a bachelor’s degree in computer science, and has been with the company for three years. 

“I’ve always been interested in technology,” he said. “After I graduated, Jitu brought me on board and has really shown me the ropes of the managed-service-provider industry.” 

 More recently, Azaya added Patrick Fortunato as its Business Development Manager to lead the sales of IT managed-services support, digital and VoIP business telephone systems, and cutting-edge security surveillance technologies, and he has plenty of experience in the technology industry. 

“I used to replace telex machines with fax machines,” he said with a laugh, adding that technology has certainly evolved even more since then, and all three men emphasized the importance of keeping up with the changing times. 

This means finding ways to stand out within a deep and talented pool of competitors, bringing more services to a wider array of customers.

Indeed, Changela said he realized years ago that Comcast was going to take over some of Azaya’s internet business, so the company knew it had to change something up. That’s when it evolved from being an Internet service provider to a managed-service provider,

And one that features what it calls a guaranteed network uptime policy — essentially a promise to keep clients up and running all the time. 

 “It’s all about being preventive over being reactive,” Solomon said. “A lot of times, with billable hours, which is the other side of the coin of fixed cost, it’s difficult to be preventive when you’re working on a limited source of hours. With our model of one fixed cost, we’re there as many times as we need to be without it being any extra expense to them. Being able to be preventive solves a lot of their problems before they become problems.”

“Downtime is obviously not cost-effective. It costs a lot of money when employees cannot work. We want to work smart, not hard, and they want to see their network up and running all the time. Everybody is winning at that point.”

This policy, said Changela said, puts pressure on Azaya as a vendor and partner, but ensures that each party involved is happy.

“Downtime is obviously not cost-effective. It costs a lot of money when employees cannot work,” he said. “We want to work smart, not hard, and they want to see their network up and running all the time. Everybody is winning at that point.”

Overall, Azaya focuses on efficiency and security, bringing the technological support a business needs for greater effectiveness to internal business processes. Changela also says they customize services based on what the business needs, and guides companies through the process. 

This is what the team’s leaders mean when they say the company works in partnership with its clients, another key to its success.

 “We’re constantly talking to our clients and trying to figure out what technology they can utilize to best serve their needs,” he said. “We have to do some research and figure out what’s out there that can help them.”

 For Adaptas Solutions, for example, a phone system that could handle all its needs throughout multiple offices was something it lacked. Azaya installed the Cisco BE6000 in five of its locations, giving Adaptas the ability to connect all its locations seamlessly, providing the phones, servers, and phone lines all throughout the entire operation, creating a one-stop solution.

Bottom Line

While this model seems to be working well for the tech company, Changela says the team has big plans for where they want to be in the future. 

“Our biggest goal is to become that one-stop-shop,” he told BusinessWest. “Anything that is connected to the network, whether it’s printers, cameras, security cameras, or phone systems … we should be involved in it.”

Fortunato said the future of technology is related to security and speed, and Solomon added that becoming a specialty leader in multiple industries is also at the top of Azaya’s list. 

“We have clients from architects to veterinarians, so our range is quite large,” he said. “To be able to pick a vertical and become the dominant leader in that vertical is something that is on the business plan. We want to be viewed as equals in the industry, against the companies that have a little more exposure.”

Changela added that one main thing that separates Azaya from competitors is the culture of the company, with a focus on honesty and integrity. 

“It’s not always about making money, it’s about helping our clients become successful,” he said. “And at the end of the day, if they’re successful, we’ll make money anyways.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Women of Impact 2019

Principal, Deliso Financial Services

She Helps People — and the Community — Get Where They Need to Be

Jean Deliso likes to say she is part financial advisor, part therapist.

This description of her work as owner of Deliso Financial and Insurance Services in Agawam sums up not only what she does, but how she does it. Indeed, while the primary objective of her job is to provide financial advice to her clients, she is also committed to forming a personal relationship with each individual who sits in front of her in order to better understand exactly where they are financially and where they want to be — and help them get there.

This is especially true with women, a rewarding niche, if one chooses to call it that, for Deliso, who has, over the course of her 25-year career in this field, become a specialist in empowering women and positioning them for a solid financial future, as well as during times of transition, such as divorce and widowhood.

“I spend a lot of time trying to speak to women because I want them to not be afraid and get educated so they understand that the decision they make, or the lack of the decision they’re making, is going to make a difference in their lives,” Deliso told BusinessWest. “We deserve equality, but we as women need to believe that we deserve equality.”

But helping women — and all her clients — chart a course for a lifetime of financial stability is only one of many reasons why Deliso has been chosen as a Woman of Impact for 2019.

She is also heavily involved in the community, especially with groups and causes that impact children and families. She currently serves as chairman of the board of the Baystate Health Foundation, and is immediate past chairman of the Community Music School, for example, and is also past chair of the board of the YMCA of Greater Springfield and past trustee of the Community Foundation of Western Mass.

Meanwhile, as the daughter and granddaughter of entrepreneurs (more on that later), and a successful one herself, she is also a mentor to young entrepreneurs, especially women, through work with Valley Venture Mentors.

Talking about the various aspects of her life — her work, her involvement in the community, and her family life — Deliso said they all connect and flow together.

“Most people in life think they have it figured out and that they’re all set, but the reality is, they’re not. We’re all very busy people, and, because of that, we don’t take care of ourselves.”

“Some people are different at work than they are at home, but I’m the same way throughout,” she said. “I’ve really identified that my effort in my business matches what I do in the community, and matches who I am. All three components are aligned.”

Together, they make her a true Woman of Impact, as noted by Scott Berg, vice president of Philanthropy at Baystate Health, executive director of the Baystate Health Foundation — and a client of Deliso Financial Services, one of her several people who nominated her.

“Jean is an outstanding person, both professionally and personally. She has built a successful business focused on helping people reach their financial goals,” he wrote. “I believe the key to Jean’s business success has been her unwavering dedication to the community; she is a person, both in business and in the community, who leads by example.”

On-the-money Advice

Deliso told BusinessWest that her strong work ethic, commitment to the community, desire to help others, and, yes, leadership by example are all what she calls family traits.

Indeed, she said she grew up in a family of entrepreneurs — her grandfather, Joseph Deliso Sr., founded HBA Cast Products, later run by her father — who made a point of donating time, energy, and talent to the community.

Her grandfather was one of the founders of Springfield Technical Community College, and his name is on one of the academic buildings on the historic campus.

Jean Deliso doesn’t have any buildings named after her — yet. But she is certainly following the lead of the generations before her when it comes to being an entrepreneur and giving back.

“My work at the YMCA, the Community Music School, and Baystate is all about helping children and helping those in this community who are not as fortunate as I was growing up,” she said. “I had wonderful parents, great role models, and grew up in an entrepreneurial family who were community-minded and taught me that hard work, dedication, giving back, and being kind to others was the way to live.”

With regard to entrepreneurship, Deliso said she knew early on that she wanted to work for herself, and she’s been doing that for 20 years now. After working in the family business in Florida, she relocated to Western Mass., where she consulted with small-business owners on financial operations and maximizing performance. She then segued into financial planning and has become a regional leader in that field.

Jean Deliso, seen here speaking with attendees at a Baystate Health Foundation event, has continued a family tradition of being active within the community.

She has been a New York Life agent since 1995, and is associated with the company’s Connecticut Valley General Office in Windsor, Conn. She is currently enjoying her seventh year as part of New York Life’s Chairman’s Council, ranking in the top 3% of the company’s sales force of more than 12,000 agents.

While such honors and accolades are rewarding, Deliso finds it more rewarding to assist individual clients, guide them through what can be a very difficult process at times, and help them make the right decisions to set them up for a financially stable future.

“Most people in life think they have it figured out and that they’re all set, but the reality is, they’re not,” she said. “We’re all very busy people, and, because of that, we don’t take care of ourselves.”

This is particularly true with women, she noted, adding that they often outlive their husbands and, too often, are not involved in the family’s financial planning.

“I like to educate women because I cringe when I hear the words, ‘oh, I’ll let my husband take care of that,’” Deliso said. “The value of a woman is so important, and I think we, as women, undervalue ourselves a lot.”

So, Deliso and her “small but mighty staff,” as she describes it, helps clients set goals and objectives, and then assists them with getting from point A (where they are) to point B (where they want to be, up to retirement and then through it).

“I will find the disconnects from where they are versus where they want to be, and I help them build this bridge to get them to where they want to be,” she said, adding that this sometimes includes asking difficult questions.

“She is a believer in developing positive assets for youth — whether through improved medical care, quality programs for children before, during, and after school hours, or gaining self-awareness through the power of music.”

These include ‘have you thought of the what-ifs?’ and ‘are you prepared?’

All too often, the answers the answer to those questions is ‘no,’ she went on, adding that she has a passion for turning ‘no’ into ‘yes.’

Balance Sheet

To get this point across, Deliso summoned a case from very early in her career — new clients who provided a critical lesson in being ready for one of those ‘what ifs.’

A young couple in their 30s had two young children and wanted to buy a house. Deliso sat down with them and talked about their goals and asked them those difficult questions mentioned above, especially the one about what would happen if something happened to one of them.

The couple decided they wanted college taken care of for their two children, and also wanted to take care of their mortgage. So, Deliso put them on a savings plan, bought them life insurance, and got them on track to start saving money.

Two years after she started working with this couple, she got a call from the husband: his wife passed away at the age of 32.

His first question, Deliso recalled, was ‘how am I going to do this?’ Her quick answer was that he could do it because of the plan she put in place for him.

“From that moment, those two children went to college because we put money aside for that college education,” she said. “We paid off most of the mortgage because I made sure that that family would be fine if one of those incomes went away, and that’s exactly what happened. This was so powerful that it cemented me in this career.”

Likewise, her family’s deep commitment to the community cemented in her the need to get involved and stay involved. And, as noted, this involvement often involves institutions and initiatives with missions focused on families and children.

Berg summed up this commitment in his nomination of Deliso.

“In addition to impacting the lives of her clients, she has influenced, both directly and indirectly, countless lives through her volunteer efforts at the Baystate Health Foundation, the YMCA, and the Community Music School,” he wrote. “As can be seen in the agencies with which she has given so much time, she is a believer in developing positive assets for youth — whether through improved medical care, quality programs for children before, during, and after school hours, or gaining self-awareness through the power of music. This dedication to our youngest community members is truly an investment in the next generation of our community’s leaders.”

Elaborating, Berg noted that how Deliso serves the community is as important as where she trains those efforts, specifically with enthusiasm that is contagious and strong leadership.

“When Jean presents to the Baystate Health Foundation board of trustees, she strives to make her words resonate, to encourage introspection, and to promote enthusiasm,” he wrote. “Her passion is a reminder to all trustees why they have chosen to commit themselves to moving the foundation mission forward and the true impact it has on its beneficiaries. Jean is exactly what you would want in a leader.”

Her leadership skills were recognized, and applauded, by the Professional Women’s Chamber, which named her Woman of the Year in 2013.

Investments in the Community

As noted, there were several nominations for the Woman of Impact honor with Deliso’s name on them. Collectively, they do a fine job of explaining why she was chosen.

In hers, Judy Moore, director of Client Management at Deliso Financial, noted that working for Deliso has given her an inside look at all the hard work she invests in order to ensure her clients get the best service possible.

“Working for her for 11 years, I can attest to the fact that her high level of professionalism and ethics is astonishing, and her clients reap the benefits of that on a daily basis,” said Moore. “She never tires of giving back to the community and making lives better through her various work, both professionally and altruistically.”

Those sentiments effectively sum up both Deliso’s life’s work and her commitment to the community. In both realms, she always has one eye on today, and the other on tomorrow.

“What I do for a living makes a difference in people’s lives,” she said. “If I can make an impact on someone’s life, that’s a good day.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Women of Impact 2019

Massachusetts Governor’s Councilor

Former Mayor Says Making an Impact Recharges Her Batteries

As she talked about her lengthy career in public service and her philosophy about such work, Mary Hurley summoned a 30-year-old memory that certainly speaks volumes about why she’s a Woman of Impact.

Then mayor of Springfield — the first (and still only) woman to sit in the corner office — she was eating dinner at the kitchen table with her husband, Michael (now deceased), when the phone rang.

Michael picked up the call and encountered a very frustrated man on the line complaining that his trash didn’t get picked up. After assuring the caller he would pass the message along to his wife, he looked at her and said, “if a Chrysler breaks down, do they call Lee Iacocca?”

Mary recalls telling him, and she’s paraphrasing, that maybe they don’t call the CEO of Chrysler when their car won’t start, but they do call the CEO of the city when their trash is still sitting on the curb.

“I told him it’s a 24/7 job,” Hurley recalled, adding that, throughout her long career, she’s made it a point to know not just the formal job description for the various positions she’s held, but everything that goes into each job, right down to making sure the trash gets picked up.

That goes for her stint as mayor, her lengthy career on the bench as a District Court judge, her time on the City Council before becoming mayor, her tenure in the city’s Law Department before running for City Council, and her current work on the Massachusetts Governor’s Council, which she was elected to in 2017 after “coming out of retirement,” as she put it.

It was a short retirement, and not retirement as most know it — she left the bench in 2014 only to again practice law (she’s of counsel to the firm Pellegrini, Seeley, Ryan & Blakesley) — because she decided she certainly wasn’t through serving people in the four western counties of Massachusetts and being a strong advocate for this region.

“It’s the impact you can have, often that you don’t even know about, that’s so important for people.”

Indeed, since being elected to the Governor’s Council for the Eighth District, she has worked tirelessly to not only fill vacancies on the bench — a problem she recognized while serving as a justice — but push for geographical equity in the Bay State concerning the appointment of judges and clerks. And she’s helped achieve progress in both areas.

“When I started in this judgeship, we had 28 judges out here in the District Court in this region, and when I left, we had 19; you try running a business when a third of your workforce is gone,” she said, adding that, since taking office, these numbers have improved considerably.

Looking back on her career, and ahead — she’s planning to seek re-election to the Governor’s Council — Hurley said she’s driven by a desire to help people, usually at a difficult time in their life, and use her knowledge and skills to make an impact. Succeeding in that quest has provided lasting rewards, as another story, this one from just a few years ago, makes clear.

“I was getting a coffee at Dunkin’ Donuts, and the girl who was waiting on me said, ‘you were my judge; you turned my life around,’” Hurley recalled. “It’s the impact you can have, often that you don’t even know about, that’s so important for people. It gives you a really long-lasting, good feeling. It’s like verification that you actually made a difference.”

There are a great many people who can say the same thing as that young woman in the coffee shop, people who can say that Hurley helped turn their lives around. And that’s why she’s a Woman of Impact.

Making Her Case

Looking back on her life and her career, Hurley said there were a few pivotal moments that positioned her to be able to make a difference in so many lives.

The first occurred at Elms College, where she was training to be a teacher, but, after some experience in the classroom practice teaching, she decided this wasn’t the route she was destined to take.

“I knew after practicing teaching that the one thing I didn’t want to do was teach school,” she said with a laugh, adding that, while she gives credit to all who do this extremely difficult job, it simply wasn’t for her.

Instead, she decided to enroll in law school with the goal of following in her father’s footsteps as a criminal lawyer. She got accepted into Boston College, but chose to go to Western New England University so she could take classes at night and work at her father’s office in Springfield during the day.

“That first year … I knew I loved it,” she said. “I knew it was what I wanted to do.”

The second ‘moment,’ if you will, involved an internship she landed during law school in Springfield’s Law Department, an opportunity that put her on a path to a career in both the law and public service.

“My summer internship at the city Law Department was key to exposing me to the political side of things up close,” said Hurley, who would later serve as assistant city solicitor. “If I didn’t have that experience, my life would have been totally different.”

Mary Hurley has had many titles attached to her name over the years, including city councilor, mayor, and District Court judge.

Wanting to make an even deeper impact in the community, and with a little encouragement from former City Solicitor Frank Antonucci, Hurley ran for City Council. After coming up short in two bids, one to now-U.S. Rep. Richard Neal, she eventually served two terms on the council, an experience that only fueled her passion for serving the city she grew up in.

Indeed, when Neal, after becoming mayor, decided to run for Congress in 1988, Hurley triumphed in a special election to become the city’s first woman CEO.

But her mettle, and her ability to work with others to solve hard problems, was tested immediately, as she assumed the corner office during what became very difficult times for the city financially.

“I walked in the door, and [Massachusetts Gov. Michael] Dukakis was running for president,” she recalled, referring to the 1988 election eventually won by George H.W. Bush. “So all the financial problems in the state got swept under the rug. I had to lay off 850 people the first six weeks I was in office.”

The financial situation was so dire that Hurley convinced voters to override Proposition 2½ and raise their taxes by about $9.2 million — to this day, she is still the only mayor of a large metropolitan city to do this.

The override and the massive layoffs were just some of the steps Hurley took to lead the city back to financial stability, and, looking back, she counts this among her most significant — and rewarding — accomplishments.

“Springfield has always been my home,” she told BusinessWest. “I was proud to be able to get us through a serious financial crisis without having to close the schools, without having to go into bankruptcy, and coming up with some changes in the law that required a balanced budget and fiscal accountability.”

Court of Opinion

After serving two terms as mayor, Hurley decided to go back into private practice for a short time in 1991, becoming a principal of the firm Cooley Shrair, before she was encouraged to apply for a judgeship. She was sworn in as a District Court judge on Sept. 29, 1995 and served until July 4, 2014, when she ‘retired.’

But, as noted, it was not a typical retirement, and it didn’t last very long.

“My whole life has been public service and the law, and I enjoy what I do.”

“For the first six months after I retired, I didn’t do anything,” she recalled. “There was a prohibition against me practicing law because I was a judge, so I bought a place in Florida. I was going to retire, play golf, and that was going to be it. But I just got caught up in the whole political scene again, and here I am.”

By that, she was referring to her decision to run for the Governor’s Council, a return to public service sparked by her concern about how understaffed the courts were with judges. She decided to run for the council in an effort to do something about it.

She recalls putting 30,000 miles on her car while campaigning hard in all four western counties during that 2016 election, introducing herself to people unfamiliar with her record in Springfield or on the bench. She eventually triumphed, earning 60% of the vote.

In her first year in office, she worked with the Baker administration to fill a number of vacancies: six new District Court judges, three Superior Court judges, three Probate Court judges, two Juvenile Court judges, and clerks in Orange and Chicopee. Of the new judges appointed, nine are women, a development she’s very proud of.

“I want to continue to keep the courts supplied with good personnel because I truly believe, ‘justice delayed is justice denied,’” she said, quoting Martin Luther King Jr. “My whole life has been public service and the law, and I enjoy what I do.”

She told BusinessWest that what’s important is not just filling vacancies, but filling them with the right people, which is a huge part of her work on the Governor’s Council.

She said the judicial nomination process is a lengthy one, with the council reviewing applications and interviewing candidates and ultimately making recommendations to the governor.

For each nominee, Hurley reads a 40-page application, interviews the candidates, and vets each person thoroughly to determine if they are right for the bench. And she uses her years of experience in public service to help guide her as she goes about such difficult and important work.

“I’m very interested and concerned about temperament, their character, what kind of involvement they’ve had in their local community, and who they have for references,” she said, adding that their experience, knowledge of the law, and what kind of judgeship the individual is seeking are all factors as well. “It’s also important to me to look at how they treat people in the courthouse. How do they treat the court officers? How do they treat their clients and the other lawyers that are on the other side of cases?”

Final Argument

Hurley said she plans to run for the Governor’s Council again in 2020 because, well, she’s a “glutton for punishment.”

That’s one way to describe nearly four decades of public service. She has many others, as well.

Indeed, she describes such work, as tedious as it can sometimes be, as immensely rewarding. For proof, she retells stories like the one involving the waitress in the coffee shop and her husband taking that phone call back when she was mayor.

Such seemingly small moments, she said, have a big impact and get her through the hardest of times. As a judge, it was a parent coming up to her and saying, ‘thank you for saving my child’s life.’ As mayor, it was someone thanking her for doing a great job.

“I could walk into an elevator frustrated as hell; there’s all kinds of stuff going on in the city, and you’re the mayor, and there’s a budget crisis, or it’s this or it’s that,” she said. “Then, someone walks into the elevator and says, ‘thanks for the job you’re doing.’ It gives you that little charge. It literally recharges my batteries.

“I never planned to do any of these things, but it just all fell into place,” she went on, adding that having family and friends by her side got her through the ups and the downs over the years. “You’re not here by yourself; your family, your friends, they all affect how you do things, what you’re able to do, and what motivates you to do the best you can.”

Hurley has been doing the best she can throughout her lengthy career, and success at each stop, in the many ways it can be measured, has certainly made her a Woman of Impact.

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Environment and Engineering

Just Do Something

Monsoon Roastery owner Tim Monson

It’s no secret that the call to action to find more ways to go green is growing every day. With eco-friendly movements like plastic-bag bans and solar panels on the rise, it is easier than ever to find ways to help the environment — and it isn’t just individuals who are making this effort. Small businesses in Western Mass. are doing their part to reduce their carbon footprint — and also saving a little money in the process.

Try to think of a restaurant or business that produces only one 13-gallon trash bag at the end of each week.

Impossible? Not quite. For Tim Monson, owner of Monsoon Roastery in Springfield, this is a regular occurrence.

Admittedly, this is an impressive feat for a roastery that pumps out coffee on a daily basis. One of the first things he and wife, Andrea, started doing when they opened their roastery on Gasoline Alley in September 2018 was collecting coffee compost.

“It’s a great way to reduce waste, because all of a sudden you’re taking 50 or 60 pounds a week and removing that from the trash system and turning that into a renewable resource,” he said.

Food waste can be a difficult process to navigate, but Monson isn’t the only local business owner doing his best to reduce his carbon footprint through methods like composting.

“In this day and age, there’s just no reason not to be making that slight extra effort to do things the right way. It’s also smart from a business sense. You’re going to be a more profitable business if you have less waste. It might be slightly harder in some respects, but only from a logistical point of view.”

For Aimee Francaes, co-owner of Belly of the Beast in Northampton, just one five-gallon bag of trash is produced at the end of each night. With two composting bins in the back of the restaurant, this small business is producing astonishingly low amounts of food waste.

“We try to have as little waste as humanly possible,” she said, adding that part of the business model is not leaving much waste to dispose of in the first place. “Really, getting every little tiny bit we can out of the wonderful animals that come to our doors, and produce as well, that’s a big part of how we go about our business.”

In the U.S., it is estimated that between 30% and 40% of the food supply is wasted. According to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection (DEP), in Massachusetts alone, food waste and other organic material made up about 25% of the total waste stream in 2016.

In addition to composting, Francaes and Monson use other methods to try to reduce this number. For example, Monson says each hot coffee cup sold is compostable. On the restaurant side, Francaes tries to cut down on the number of cups and side plates she serves customers at the restaurant and doesn’t sell bottles of water.

“In this day and age, there’s just no reason not to be making that slight extra effort to do things the right way,” she continued. “It’s also smart from a business sense. You’re going to be a more profitable business if you have less waste. It might be slightly harder in some respects, but only from a logistical point of view.”

Right up the street from Belly of the Beast, the owners and managers of Ode Boutique make decisions that are both business- and environment-smart every day, from where they get their clothes to how they sell them.

Aimee Francaes says her restaurant produces just one five-gallon bag of trash each night.

Manager Jenessa Cintron knows how difficult it is to be environmentally friendly in the retail industry. From the plastic packaging clothing comes in to the plastic hangers on which clothes are displayed, it’s not exactly easy to be green. But the boutique still finds ways to do everything it can to help the environment. This includes looking at the designers it buys from to determine what efforts they are making up the chain.

“It’s so important to so many of our designers and makers — that’s a plus,” she said. “Especially if they’re using natural fibers, biodegradable fabrics, that kind of thing.”

What these small businesses are selling may be different, but they say their desire to do anything they can to help the environment is one that should be adopted by many more companies.

Resourcefully Responsible

For Cintron, this means setting an example for her children (ages 13 and 4, with another on the way).

“I want to try to have the smallest carbon footprint possible, and I want to be an example for my kids,” she said. “Being an example for the community is important, too. I think it’s important as a business to set an example and use your platform in a positive way.”

Jenessa Cintron not only strives to promote sustainable practices, but also looks for that quality in the designers she buys from.

Alison Annes, stylist at Ode Boutique, emphasized the importance of encouraging customers and buyers to know who’s using recyclable materials and why it’s important.

“One of the biggest things is being conscious of it and shopping more and more of the ones that are, and maybe less often of the others until they change their platform on how they recycle their packaging,” she said.

Cintron echoed that packaging is a huge part of the problem, and something she wishes would change.

“A lot of our clothing comes in plastic packaging, and we can’t recycle it,” she said. “We try to recycle as much as we can, all of our boxes and paper and everything, and we encourage our customers to use our reusable bags.”

Monson said he has a similar problem with the plastic packaging coffee comes in, but has not yet found a way to make use of it.

However, Monson and his wife and friends did find a way to use several other materials to create the coffee shop’s decidedly quirky vibe.

“The retail area of our place is mostly made out of repurposed materials, from the barn doors that you walk through when you come in down to the paint on the walls and the floor,” he said. “Even our espresso bar is put together from a used door.”

The desire to be a business that produces as little waste as possible started in college, where Monson earned a bachelor’s degree in business administration with a concentration in green and sustainable business practices.

“Part of our mission from the get-go was, how can we do what normally happens in a business, but a little cleaner and a little better in all areas?” he said. “For us, reducing what we throw in landfills is a no-brainer.”

One Step at a Time

What might be a no-brainer for business owners like Monson, Francaes, and Cintron might not be quite so easy for others to grasp. Luckily, each offered suggestions as to how people can do their part to help reduce their carbon footprint.

Francaes says she used to offer a side dish with cole slaw with every meal, but noticed it ended up in the bus bin because some people didn’t want it. She didn’t want to waste the food or spend the time putting another dish through the washer, so she lowered the prices slightly and added the side dishes as an option on the menu.

“It’s looking at your habits and movements each day and seeing what you can do differently,” she said. “From a personal standpoint, I think it’s a lot about changing habits.”

A habit Cintron and other employees at Ode Boutique adopted is using stuffing from other products when packaging bags for customers instead of buying more paper.

“We also ask customers first if they want all the paper to go along with it,” she said.

Another simple thing to consider is using something old and turning it into something new. At Monsoon Roastery, the entire ceiling is made up of an old fence that was dumped on the property.

“Part of our mission from the get-go was, how can we do what normally happens in a business, but a little cleaner and a little better in all areas? For us, reducing what we throw in landfills is a no-brainer.”

“We broke down the fence, stripped it, stained it, and sealed it, then we covered the whole ceiling with it,” said Monson. “It’s awesome to take a look around you and say, ‘can we give something new life?’”

The overarching lesson emerging from each of these three business owners is that there really are no excuses when it comes to being environmentally friendly, and that, while waste challenges vary from company to company, everyone can find some room for improvement — and those small steps add up.

“There are always little things you can do,” Monson said. “I think, if more people would make a small effort, together it would go a long way. We can all do our part in our own ways. We can’t all do everything, but we can all do something.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Mary McNally says the town’s top public-safety priority right now is taking its ambulance service to the next level.

Balance.

That’s a word you hear quite often in East Longmeadow’s Town Hall these days — and for good reason.

This growing community of roughly 16,000 people on the border with Connecticut has long enjoyed a solid balance of business and industry, attractive residential neighborhoods, and a large amount of agricultural land, although the total acreage has fallen in recent years.

It’s an attractive and fairly unique mix — most towns this size can boast two of those ingredients or only one — and maintaining this balance while also achieving additional growth is the ongoing assignment for town leaders.

Balance and patience are the current watchwords for the community, said Town Council President Kathleen Hill, especially as it takes on several large-scale projects she said will benefit the community in the long run.

These include everything from public-safety initiatives to addressing the need to renovate or perhaps replace the town’s 60-year-old high school, one of many built across the region to accommodate the huge Baby Boom generation; from securing a new use for the large eyesore known to most as the Package Machinery property on Chestnut Street to developing a new master plan (more on these matters later).

At the top of the to-do list for town leaders, though, is hiring a new town manager to replace Denise Menard, who left the position on a separation agreement back in July.

For now, Mary McNally serves as acting town manager for a four-month period. She was appointed by the Town Council on Aug. 22 and will serve through Dec. 21 of this year. Hill is in the first year of her second three-year term.

Hill said finding a permanent town manager is a priority for the council and a crucial step in order to begin moving forward with several projects that are in various stages of progression.

“We hired a consultant about a month ago to conduct a professional search for us,” she said, referring to Community Paradigm Associates, which is also assisting Longmeadow in finding a town manager, and recently completed a search for Palmer.

Hill said the town is still in the early stages of the process, and, at this time, the council is gearing up to advertise the position and proceed in the search for the second manager in the town’s history.

Once this process is concluded and the new town manager is settled into the role, more focus can be put on “progressive projects,” as both Hill and McNally called them. Hill says the goal is to move East Longmeadow toward the future, while also keeping the tight-knit community feel that many residents know and love.

“You have to move with the future,” she said. “The character of the town is something we want to preserve. At the same time, we recognize the necessity of being progressive.”

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest talked with Hill and McNally about the process of maintaining balance while also moving the community forward.

Preservation Acts

‘Progress’ is another word you hear in town offices, and officials are looking to create some on a number of fronts, especially with the hiring of a new town manager.

“Next week, the council will be appointing a screening committee, solely for the purpose of reading the applications that the consultant brings to them,” said Hill, noting that the council will not be involved in any part of the process prior to the final four candidates that come out of the pool.

“We will, for the right reasons, go into the process blind to the candidate pool so that we can be totally unbiased, and we will conduct our own public interviews with the hopes of identifying our next manager by early December,” she said, adding that the worst-case scenario is to have the town manager at a desk in early 2020, depending on the candidate and whether or not the person has to give notice to a previous job.

And there will certainly be a lot on that desk in terms of projects and priorities, said those we spoke with, listing matters ranging from public safety to education; economic development to parks and recreation.

With that first category, the priority is taking the town’s ambulance service to the next level, said McNally.

Currently, the town has one basic life support (BLS) ambulance that can be staffed by an EMT, and she says the Fire Department is pursuing an advanced life support (ALS) ambulance that must be staffed by paramedics.

This request, McNally and Hill said, was prompted predominantly by a growing elder community in town. Indeed, East Longmeadow has a half-dozen senior-living facilities, three nursing homes, and other facilities that care primarily for the elderly.

“Because that need is growing, the Fire Department is ready, willing, and able to meet it,” McNally said. “The firefighters have reached that paramedic level of certification; because of the needs of the community, the fire chief has been quite interested in securing that second ambulance, but it’s a long process.”

A feasibility study is also being contemplated for the renovation or rehabilitation of the East Longmeadow Police Department, which was built in 1974.

About a mile down the road from the police station is the old Package Machine property, which is perhaps the most pressing matter in the economic-development category. The industrial property, which includes a large manufacturing area and huge warehouse, has seen various uses over the past several decades — modular homes were built in the warehouse, for example — but has remained mostly vacant and thus become a topic of controversy and speculation.

Hill said there is an interested party, East Longmeadow Redevelopers, that is working with the Planning Board on conceptual work for a mixed-use district that would include apartment-style living, single-family home-style living, retail, and commercial properties.

Hill and McNally referenced Mashpee Commons, located in the town of Mashpee on Cape Cod and described as “upscale shopping and dining in a charming New England village setting,” as the type of facility that might be built on the property.

“There’s something for everyone,” said McNally. “The idea is to have options for your retail, dining, and housing needs. In terms of economic development, it will bring more tax revenue to the town, and it brings housing options for an aging population.”

Kathleen Hill says the former Package Machine property could eventually see new life as a mixed-use development.

She stressed, however, that the discussions are preliminary, and at present there is no existing mixed-use bylaw to establish the district.

The ultimate goal for town officials, as stated above, is to achieve such growth and add needed commercial tax revenue, while also preserving the town’s rural character. This includes preserving remaining farmland.

“We have some huge tracts of land that the town will protect and keep that way as undeveloped land either for conservation or because you just don’t want to build on every square foot you have for a variety of reasons,” said Hill. “You don’t want the farming areas to go away.”

McNally added that this is often a quality-of-life matter, and a desire to have green areas and oxygenation from the trees.

Speaking of green, a plan currently on the back burner is a vision to “re-image” Heritage Park, Hill said. A rendering shows an amphitheater-type stadium built around the pond where more concerts and local events could be held. In addition, more ballfields would be added, as well as a field house.

“It’s going to be a significant investment, but it will add more value to the town,” she said. “That’s what we want to do — make sure there’s return on investment.”

Adding value to the town also means having a good school system with up-to-date buildings, which means addressing the issue of the aging high school. Hill is a former career educator — she spent 21 years in the East Longmeadow school system — and said she has a hard time not advocating for a better high school.

“The reality is, without a building that is state-of-the-art, it drags your real-estate values down,” she said. “People aren’t going to want to come. My husband and I want to sell our house at some point and maybe get something a little smaller. If we let everything in town fall by the wayside, we’re not going to get the same price point that we would if we keep our town vibrant.”

Slow and Steady

Cultivating an even more vibrant community for the long term will be the underlying goal behind creating a new master plan, work on which began more than a year ago.

“Our planner has convened a master plan committee,” said Hill. “It would be a cross-section of folks in town who want to reimagine the master plan. The last one the town did was in 1976, so it’s time.”

Although this might sound like a long time to go without a plan, she said, this is not unique to East Longmeadow. Many small towns either struggle with their plan or simply don’t have one.

But Hill says the benefits of having one are too great to ignore.

“With an accurate plan, as a community, you are in a better position to attract state and federal grant funding,” she added. “It’s a way to define who you are as a community and understand what your needs are. It’s strategic planning. It’s a vision of the future.”

This vision all comes back to that word mentioned at the very top — balance.

“There’s just so much here in this town, but it still has that small-town, quaint feeling,” said Hill. “The sentiment on the Town Council is to maintain that feeling, spend the tax dollars to not only keep that feeling for folks, but give them as much service as possible with a look toward the future as well.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Health Care

Baby Steps

Rachel Szlachetka, Jazz, and Cindy Napoli play in the kids’ room at the Center for Human Development facility on Birnie Ave in Springfield.

When looking at 2-year-old Jazeilis “Jazz” Jones, she seems like any normal toddler who loves to eat and play. But what you can’t tell from looking at her is that Jazz, born a month prematurely, has overcome several developmental hurdles to get to where she is today.

When Diany Dejesus gave birth to Jazz, she was already fighting her own battle with anxiety and depression. A newborn baby who wouldn’t latch to her breast or drink from a bottle only added to her stress and made it nearly impossible for Dejesus to sleep at night. After talking with her therapist, she was referred to the Early Intervention program at the Center for Human Development.

Today, Jazz could seemingly eat all day if you let her, and Dejesus is exponentially more confident as a mother.

This success story, like others similar to it but unique in some ways, wasn’t written overnight, but rather over time and through perseverance — as well a partnership, if you will, between the parent and the 22 staff members of the Early Intervention program.

Erinne Gorneault, a licensed clinical social worker and program director, explained how it works. She told BusinessWest that each child is unique and grows at his or her own pace. But sometimes a child needs help.

“It’s the best feeling in the world to feed your kid. Everybody should be able to have that joy in feeding, and it can be so stressful for our kids who are developmentally delayed or on the autism spectrum.”

With a caseload of 230 families, CHD’s Early Intervention program works with infants and children from birth to age 3 who have, or are at risk for, developmental delays. A CHD team can assess a child’s abilities and, if indicated, will develop an individualized plan to promote development of play, movement, social behavior, communication, and self-care skills. Staff members work with children and their families in their own environment.

The work is extremely rewarding, said Cindy Napoli, an occupational therapist and program supervisor of Early Intervention, who cited, as just one example, how the program can help give parents the gift of being able to feed their child.

“It’s the best feeling in the world to feed your kid,” she said. “Everybody should be able to have that joy in feeding, and it can be so stressful for our kids who are developmentally delayed or on the autism spectrum.”

For Jazz, her biggest challenge was with feeding. At one point, she was labeled as “failure to thrive,” meaning she was unable to grow or gain weight. Even when Napoli and other CHD staff found a solution by having her drink through a straw, she was still struggling. Now, Jazz is thriving, eating more than enough food to keep her healthy, and speaking in full sentences.

“She’s doing so great, I’m so amazed. At the beginning, it started off so slow, I was really afraid for her. I didn’t know what I was going to have to deal with, but she’s way ahead of herself now.”

Erinne Gorneault says that being receptive to parents’ wants and needs is a critical part of the early-intervention process.

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at CHD’s Early Intervention program and that aforementioned partnership between team members and parents to achieve life-changing results for both the child and the parents.

Food for Thought

Gorneault said parents often contact CHD’s Early Intervention program because they are concerned about their baby or toddler’s development in the areas of speech delays, or delays in walking or crawling.

The experienced team can assess the possibility of a delay and work with parents and their children to help them attain their milestones — essentially, to catch up — if that’s what’s needed.

Program staff members also work with children diagnosed on the autism spectrum, infants and toddlers with feeding concerns, toddlers with sensory issues, and infants and toddlers with medical needs. They support the family by providing education and improving developmental milestones through teaching parents to interact with their infant or child while building strong emotional relationship. In all cases, staffers work with families to connect them with other community services that might be helpful and provide several playgroups for both community members and CHD Early Intervention families to participate in without interactive team members.

Although the 22 staff members in the program may be the experts, Napoli said the most important part of their work is going at the parents’ pace and empowering them to be advocates for their child.

“It’s about enabling and empowering the parents to be the lead person and the specialist,” she said. “We believe the parents are the specialists. It’s about empowering them and teaching them how to be advocates.”

Gorneault agreed, adding that the trans-disciplinary approach used at Early Intervention allows them to guide parents effectively while also keeping them in the driver’s seat.

Diany Dejesus says that one of the most beneficial things that has come out of her participation in the Early Intervention program with daughter Jazz is that it has built up her confidence as a mother.

“We just help; the parents are the ones doing all the work,” she told BusinessWest. “They’re the ones working on the outcomes; they are making the difference.”

With occupational therapists, physical therapists, and speech therapists in the program, staff members use a trans-disciplinary approach to work with families and find the best way to help achieve milestones.

“You don’t go in there with blinders on, thinking, ‘I’m only here for feeding,’ or ‘I’m only here for walking,’” said Napoli. “It’s about where the child is at, where do we want them to go, what are the priorities of the family, and how can we all do it together?”

One of the most important aspects of this program, said those we spoke with, is that the specialists work with the families in their most natural environment, usually the home or a day-care facility, in order to get the most successful outcomes.

“Being in the home, you’re able to adapt the environment,” said Napoli. “You’re able to see what they’re cooking. I can’t say enough about the natural environment.”

One of the priorities during the hour-long sessions staged over several weeks is working on what is most difficult for the parents, said Napoli. Once staffers have made their suggestions, their goal — and their hope — is that parents continue to practice the suggested strategies on their own.

“You’re modeling in hopes to encourage the parent to do the same thing,” she explained.

This is important, she said, because while CHD staff see the child for only one hour a week and specialists may visit a family at different times, parents are with the baby daily, almost 24/7.

Gorneault agreed, adding that being receptive to the parents’ wants and needs is a critical part of the process.

“They run the show,” she explained. “We make recommendations, but if they’re not ready for that, we slow down and just stay at their pace and support them and build their confidence as parents.”

A Matter of Confidence

And a confidence boost was exactly what Dejesus needed.

“I started off doubting everything, due to the fact that I have anxiety and depression; it just made it so much harder for me,” she said. “Little by little, with a lot of help from here and from my therapist, I just got reassured more, and it made me that much more confident.”

Dejesus said the people she interacts with at CHD are like another family, and have helped her achieve the confidence she needs to be a great mother.

“Having more people that can help you and guide you, that really did help me a lot,” she said. “Now, I trust myself and my instincts as a mom when it comes to Jazz.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

Walking Her Way

Brynn Cartelli knows that most of the 13 people who emerged victorious on The Voice before her had seen that triumph be the defining moment in their life. She is determined not to let that happen to her. With several hit singles out already, like “Walk My Way” and “Grow Young,” she is making strides in her quest to make The Voice just the start of her career.

When Brynn Cartelli walked on stage to do a soundcheck on March 8, she looked up and saw Bruins and Celtics banners and 20,000 seats that would soon be filled with people waiting for her to open a performance that would also include Grammy Award winner Kelly Clarkson.

All of a sudden, it dawned on her where she was: TD Garden in Boston, a place iconic artists like Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran had sold out countless times. A place where she used to go to watch her favorite artists, such as the two just mentioned, perform. A place where she sat a few months ago to see Sam Smith sing.

“I forgot where we were because I was in my dressing room all day getting ready,” she told BusinessWest. “I looked at my guitar player, and I was like, ‘holy crap.’”

There have been quite a few ‘holy crap’ moments, and at least a few other instances of maybe forgetting where she was, since Cartelli burst onto the scene — and into the nation’s cultural consciousness — with her stunning win on NBC’s The Voice roughly 15 months ago.

“I forgot where we were because I was in my dressing room all day getting ready. I looked at my guitar player, and I was like, ‘holy crap.’”

Since that triumph at age 15 — yes, she was the youngest winner in the show’s history — life has changed in all kinds of ways, essentially because music went from being something she did well to something she essentially does for a living.

Now 16, Cartelli is finishing high school online, and she flies back and forth to Los Angeles and Nashville regularly while recording an album she hopes to release during the first half of 2020.

Those recording sessions have been mixed with a host of live performances — such as the one at the TD Garden and several shows at the recently concluded Big E — and myriad other developments to create a hectic, exciting lifestyle marked by a seemingly endless run of learning experiences for Cartelli and her family.

The Cartellis pose with pop singer Kelly Clarkson following Brynn’s victory in season 14 of The Voice.

“The process is amazing,” said Brynn’s father, Damon, owner of the Fathers & Sons auto dealerships. “We had really no idea what to expect; we’re still learning stuff.”

The learning curves involve everything from hiring an agent (more on that later) to filling — and then living — a crowded schedule; from building a wardrobe to building what is becoming a recognized brand.

But for Brynn, one of the biggest challenges — and opportunities — lies in moving beyond The Voice and no longer being defined by that singular moment, as proud of it as she is, and also forging an identity through her music.

“I like telling stories through my music,” she told BusinessWest. “I use music as a diary. My fans are growing up with me as the story grows up. If a song feels like mine, I’m really happy about it.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Cartelli and her parents about the journey thus far and where the opportunity-laden road ahead may take them.

Achievements of Note

Many aspiring musicians and singers make it a stated goal to try out for shows like The Voice or American Idol. That certainly wasn’t the case for Brynn Cartelli.

This despite the fact that she had been singing for as long as her family could remember, and friends and relatives had been pushing the family to find an outlet — and a larger stage — for the emerging talent.

“People have been telling me for a long time, ‘you need to do something with her,’ and we didn’t know exactly what that meant,” Brynn’s mother, Deb, told BusinessWest. “It just didn’t feel right to push her, so the fact that this happened the way it did is really a testament to her gift.”

“I like telling stories through my music. I use music as a diary. My fans are growing up with me as the story grows up. If a song feels like mine, I’m really happy about it.”

By that, she meant The Voice experience came about “organically,” as family members like to say.

The story begins at the Sandbar restaurant (formerly Jetties) on Nantucket in 2016. Cartelli got up to the mic and sang a few songs for the crowd. Unbeknownst to her, a bartender recorded her performance and posted it to Facebook. It quickly went viral around the island. After meeting up with a local blogger, Cartelli was encouraged to post the video on YouTube, and did.

Then, the e-mail came.

The writer claimed to be from NBC’s The Voice, said Brynn, adding that she and her parents were all initially skeptical. But after doing more research, they realized it was not a scam.

“It took a little bit of convincing and looking into it to realize that it was an actual casting agency for The Voice,” said Brynn, adding that she traveled to New York City for a private audition.

She made it all the way through to the show’s so-called blind auditions — judges face away from those performing and focus only on what they hear — but did not “turn any chairs,” meaning the judge’s chairs, which one must do to get on the show.

A few weeks later, however, representatives of the show called back and asked if she’d return for another audition for season 14.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Brynn Cartelli performs “Don’t Dream It’s Over” with Kelly Clarkson on The Voice’s finale.

“We did not go searching for this,” said Deb. “Even when she didn’t get through the first time, we kind of thought, ‘OK, that’s fine.’ She had this great experience, she left with her head high, and ultimately that’s a great life lesson no matter what you’re doing.”

The experience was rewarding on a number of levels, said Brynn, adding that it gave her a taste of the business and an opportunity to meet and learn from people with similar goals, ambitions, passion — and talent.

“It was the first time I’ve been around a lot of musicians, singers, and songwriters, so it was the first time I felt like I was in a group of people that were like me,” she told BusinessWest.

Brynn certainly made the most of her second chance, and, as noted earlier, is now determined to move beyond The Voice and make it more than just one line on her résumé.

“I was super happy to win the show, but now I hear that phrase and I want to not just win the show; I want to make a career,” she said.

A Different Tune

This next stage in her life, as noted, is one that’s been marked by countless challenges and learning curves. One of the first involved building a team to help her manage her goals and career, and especially an agent.

After winning the show, Cartelli decided she wanted to hire Clarkson’s husband, Brandon Blackstock, as her manager, so she spent months trying to break out of contracts she signed when coming onto The Voice in order to make sure she had a team behind her that she could trust.

“After the show, when it seemed like I disappeared for a while, I was really just stuck in contracts,” she explained. “I took a lot of that time to really learn what kind of music I wanted to write and put out and what kind of sound I wanted.”

Elaborating, she said this was hard to do at first. Being a young girl in a room that was oftentimes filled with businessmen, it was difficult for her to tell them what she wanted to do and how she wanted to do it. But now that she has found her core group, she is confident and ready to move forward.

“We finally found a really great group of people and a really great label [Elektra Records] and team that supports my vision entirely,” Cartelli said. “They want to win with me; they don’t want to just win for themselves. They want to see a career happen, not just a couple songs or an album.”

But for now, much of the focus is on that first album, which translates into a considerable amount of travel, specifically to L.A. and Nashville.

That’s one of the many adjustments she’s has to make, and she credits the team she has behind her — led in many ways by Clarkson, who rose to fame as the winner of the first season of American Idol and was a judge for the 14th season of The Voice — with helping her navigate a host of challenges.

“She’s been so incredibly giving and such a good example of someone who passes it down,” Cartelli said. “She knows a lot of the same things I know of what it’s like to come off a show and have to try to build a career that makes you not just defined by the name of the TV show. She’s such an amazing mentor, you can’t not love her.”

Cartelli and her parents said NBC and The Voice have also been in her corner, ready to help whenever she needs it.

“You hear some horror stories about Hollywood, but the people that we encountered have all been great,” Damon said.

Meanwhile, the local support has never wavered, and a few recent performances made Cartelli feel grateful for all the support she’s received throughout her journey so far. She most recently performed at the Big E on Sept. 13-15 and drew fans in from all over New England to see her.

During her stint on The Voice, The Big E held watch parties so fans could gather to see the local star take the stage. While Cartelli was in L.A. for the show, she remembers being amazed at the pictures and videos of local supporters she saw from back home. Now, as she sang on the stage live and in person at the Big E, she reflected on a journey that wouldn’t have been possible without her fans.

“It was really nice to use that as a thank you,” she said.

Charting Progress

Now, it’s full speed ahead for the potential future superstar.

Cartelli admits she feels like she’s been home a little too long and is “itching” to get back to L.A. to record more music, but is taking her time with the process.

“I’m definitely taking my time and making this album really special so the people who voted for me get more than just a trophy,” she said. “I want them to get someone that they feel proud of.”

Cartelli’s parents joked that, while they know how talented their daughter is, they never expected her to actually win the show — or make music a career.

“I don’t think either of us had any expectation that it was going to go the way it went,” Damon said. “This whole road, everything seemed like it was aligned; everything is falling into place.”

And with the way the stars have aligned for Brynn already, it certainly seems like this is the path she is meant to take.

Indeed, Cartelli is doing what she loves and gets to share her music with more than just a crowd at a restaurant. She said she is constantly reminded of why she is passionate about singing, like the moment she realized she was about to perform at TD Garden — and never gets tired of the rush.

“I know I have to keep doing this so one day, it’s not just me opening up for someone,” Cartelli said. “Maybe one day, I get to design my own stage and have my own thing.”

With her attitude, passion, and determination, there is little doubt she will be seen headlining her own tour in the near future.

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Sports & Leisure

Striking a Chord

Ruth Griggs’ passion for jazz music and a desire to give back to the community is what inspired her to reboot the festival.

One of the many things that is most loved about the city of Northampton is its walkability, allowing both residents and visitors to appreciate the uniqueness of this eclectic community with ease. On Oct. 4, jazz music will radiate from several corners of the city, signaling the start of the annual Northampton Jazz Festival.

Founded in 2011, the festival was conceived by five people who wanted to find a way to combine their passion for jazz with their love for Northampton. So they put together an event complete with food trucks, vendors, and, of course, lots of jazz.

But their operating model became too expensive to maintain, so the festival was discontinued after its 2015 show.

After a two-year hiatus, however, a team of dedicated individuals determined to bring it back, and thus, the Northampton Jazz Festival 2.0 was born.

Thanks to the hard work of a small but dedicated team, a beloved event is back and better than ever, they say, and in a more sustainable way to make sure the festival is here to stay.

“We came up with a new model which is less expensive and is much more inclusive of as many different constituents downtown as possible.”

Indeed, when Amy Cahillane, director of the Downtown Northampton Assoc., approached Ruth Griggs about bringing the festival back, Griggs considered the proprosition a no-brainer. Now president of the festival, Griggs said Cahillane presented a model that offered everything that was lacking before, including strong relationships downtown and with city government.

When Cahillane told her she could help with these missing pieces, Griggs recalled, she said, “you’ve got yourself a deal.”

“I knew one of the things that was lacking in the former iteration of the jazz festival was the kind of support they needed to make this viable,” Griggs told BusinessWest. “We came up with a new model which is less expensive and is much more inclusive of as many different constituents downtown as possible.”

She said the idea for this new model is for people to enjoy Northampton and encourage those attending the concerts to stop at the shops downtown.

The Jeremy Turgeon Quintet performs at the Jazz Strut. (Photo by Bobby Davis)

What remains from the old model, however, is the core goal that was established when the festival began: to expose people of all generations, ethnicities, and orientations to jazz music, while also bringing more visitors to the city.

“We want people to walk from concert to concert and get a cup of coffee at the Roost or have lunch at Paul and Elizabeth’s or one of the many restaurants in town,” Griggs said. “We want them to enjoy Northampton and enjoy the jazz.”

More than 2,000 people took in the 2018 festival, coming from across Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, New York, and Connecticut to see locally, regionally, and nationally recognized musicians perform. Twenty jazz performances took place at 17 different venues around downtown Northampton over the course of four days, another twist on the new version of the festival. Previously, the event was staged behind Thornes Marketplace in a parking lot, but Griggs said the new model encourages people to explore the city and gives them a chance to patronize all the shops and restaurants.

With the opening of MGM Springfield in August 2018, one of the stated goals of the festival was to help mitigate the impact of the casino on Northampton, which has, for four decades now, boasted the region’s most vibrant downtown.

In 2018, the Massachusetts Gaming Commission allocated $100,000 to the city to develop and implement marketing strategies to keep Northampton a well-known and popular destination for arts and entertainment, shopping, and dining.

“One of the challenges that merchants are facing all around the country is a lack of foot traffic because people are shopping online,” Griggs said. “There’s nothing that’s more important to a retailer than people walking by their store.”

This is especially true for many of the mom-and-pop shops that rely on local business to stay open. Griggs maintains that jazz music lifts people’s spirits and often encourages them to go into a store.

“When you either have music playing in the store or right outside the store, it makes people stop and look and listen and walk into the store in many cases,” she said. “I’ve seen that with my own eyes.”

She also said merchants were happy with the festival last year and thought the festival brought business to the downtown area.

“It exposes Northampton to people that may not have otherwise known about the town, and it reinforces for the community downtown how wonderful it is to be there,” Griggs said. “It’s walkable, it’s friendly, it’s accessible, it’s beautiful. It reinforces what is unique about Northampton.”

Indeed, the show is carefully orchestrated to do just that. Organizers deliberately leave time in between each set of acts so people have an opportunity to walk around and enjoy the city. Beginning with the Jazz Strut on Friday, Oct. 4, free jazz performances will be staged from 5 to 10:30 p.m. at seven Northampton restaurants, bars, and pubs. Each performance lasts two hours and starts at half-hour intervals so festival-goers can walk a short distance and see all the acts if they choose.

“We want people to have an hour to kill in Northampton,” said Griggs. “We build that into the schedule.”

Saturday features jazz musicians at several different venues across town beginning at noon and ending at 6:30 p.m. The headliner, the Kurt Elling Quintet, will perform from 7:30 to 9 p.m. at the Academy of Music to close out the performances.

Sunday is reserved for the Jazz Brunch at the Delaney House in Holyoke, which serves as a fundraiser for the Jazz Artists in the Schools Program at JFK Middle School.

All this planning is conducted by a team of locals with a passion for jazz. Griggs and Cahillane are joined by Al Blankenship, Mary Lou Rup, Kathy Service, Carol Abbe Smith, Paul Arslanian, Frank Newton, George Kaye, and a dedicated group of volunteers to get the new show on the road.

And since the inaugural run of the new festival went so well last year, Griggs said there was no need to rethink it in any kind of major way.

“I like this festival for Northampton because it’s doable … it’s not too huge, it’s not too complicated, it’s not too expensive,” she said. “I think it’s more important to have a festival that is right-sized for the community so that it can be sustained, rather than having something that’s growing and getting more complicated and this and that. Before you know it, it becomes top-heavy, and you can’t handle it anymore.”

With overwhelmingly positive feedback from last year’s festival, there is little doubt that the 2019 festival will once again prove to be an outstanding event for this unique city.

“That combination of the good feelings that music can engender, combined with being in a town like Northampton … that ultimately has an economic impact,” Griggs said. “You’re setting the stage for success.”

— Kayla Ebner

Education

Breaking Barriers

Rose Egan was inspired to work at the CEP because she had a long and difficult journey to education and wants to be able to give the gift of learning to others.

For many people, going to school and preparing to enter the working world is the norm. Unfortunately, for many members of the Latino community in the city of Holyoke, this is easier said than done. The language barriers faced by those who do not speak English are often burdensome and prevent people from getting an education or finding a job. The Community Education Project provides classes to give individuals the tools they need to become successful and move forward with their lives.

Imagine that your one and only barrier to success was not speaking the language you need to speak in order to move forward in life.

This intimidating scenario is all too real for many people in the city of Holyoke. In the Paper City, 30% of the population age 18 and older does not have a high-school diploma, while 18.4% speak with limited English proficiency.

This language barrier creates setbacks for much of the Latino community, but the Community Education Project (CEP) is working to change that.

“The bottom line is, people want to better their lives, and they want better opportunities. A lot of them are doing it for their children so they have better opportunities as well.”

The CEP provides adult-literacy and language-education programs in an effort to achieve social and economic justice by contributing to the development of the Latino community in Holyoke. The organization offers two levels of native language literacy in Spanish to prepare students for HiSET and GED exams in Spanish, three levels of English for speakers of other languages (ESOL), and adult basic education for transition to college and careers.

It is the only provider in the region that offers native language literacy, or GED preparation in Spanish, and all classes are provided for free to anyone who walks in the door.

Executive Director Rose Egan said most people come in because they desire a better quality of life and want to be more independent.

From left, Edith Rodriguez, and Sonia Girón Peña de Aponte take their first English class with Angelika Bay, lead instructor in English for speakers of other languages (ESOL).

“The bottom line is, people want to better their lives, and they want better opportunities,” she noted. “A lot of them are doing it for their children so they have better opportunities as well.”

People come to the CEP at all levels, including adult learners with grade-level equivalency of age 3 to high school. Some students haven’t stepped in a classroom in 20 years. Some must bring interpreters to doctors’ appointments. Some are parents who want to be able to talk to their kids’ teachers and other school personnel without having an outsider in the mix, because they feel like they cannot develop a solid relationship.

“They want to be able to advocate for themselves,” said Egan. “The issue we see is that people can get along in their daily life fine in this area because everyone around here speaks Spanish, but then when they try to step out of that zone, they find barriers due to their lack of English-language skills.”

CEP classes run throughout the day and at night, and summer classes are offered as well. Egan said about 110 students participate daily across all programs, and seven staff members make it all happen — a “small but mighty” team, as she calls it.

“I didn’t even know what college was — it could have been another planet. I knew no one that went to college in my entire life. My purpose here is to help open doors for students, but also help elevate the organization as a whole.”

One staff member in particular, Vida Zavala, made a positive impact on student Ingrid Arvelo’s life, and put her in the right direction to accomplish her goals.

Arvelo — an immigrant from Venezuela and a 40-year-old mother of two — has plenty on her hands, but still found time to take level three ESOL classes, including the hardest, most immersive class in the program.

“It worked for me because now I’m taking classes to go to college in January,” she said.

Arvelo is currently enrolled in the college-transition course with CEP, and wants to attend Holyoke Community College next year, hoping to study law or education to become a teacher. She is thankful to the CEP for helping give her the confidence to learn English.

From left, Maria Vasquez, Nydia Rodriguez, and Stephanie Trinidad take their first English class at the CEP.

“If they see that you are in trouble or struggling, they help,” she said. “I’m so grateful for the program.”

Broader Purpose

Putting on programs like this isn’t easy, but when things get tough, Egan says she remembers her journey through education and how much she wants to give that to others.

“I didn’t even know what college was — it could have been another planet. I knew no one that went to college in my entire life,” she said. “My purpose here is to help open doors for students, but also help elevate the organization as a whole.”

Egan is also a single mom and sent her daughter off to her first day of kindergarten recently. She recognizes — and is grateful — that her daughter will probably never experience what it’s like to not know what education is. Her job at the CEP is her way to make sure others can grow and learn every day.

“This is an opportunity for me to be able to come to work every day and feel like I’m not coming to work,” she said. “I’m doing what I love to do, which is sharing the gift of education with other people.”

And she has plans in motion to help support the classes the CEP offers.

The Community Education Project is a 501(c)(3) organization and is classified as a public charity. After attending an innovation accelerator program with Paul Silva, Egan came up with a few programs to expand its revenue streams.

The first is a document-translation service the CEP has been providing for 30 years, but recently opened up to nonprofit organizations in the area. She explained that document translation is very costly, and the CEP is able to come in about 20% below competitors, helping other local nonprofits get their documents translated into Spanish.

“It helps us because it provides us some unrestricted revenue so that we can focus on our core services, which are serving our students and providing them with native language literacy, English-language skills, transition to college and careers, things like that,” Egan said, adding that this is very difficult to do with a limited budget.

“We find the biggest barrier to people coming in our door is they didn’t know we existed,” she said, adding that conducting more outreach in the community and incorporating marketing strategies into the mix are also on her to-do list.

She’s also hoping to expand Spanish-language classes to both children and adult learners, such as those regularly tasked with interacting with Spanish-speaking employees.

“We’re targeting local employers so that we can train their staff to speak Spanish so they can develop a better relationship with people they are serving without having to have a middle person interpret,” Egan said. “Launching those classes will really help us worry less about how we’re going to fund our classes and our core program. We want to make sure we have the funds we need to continue providing the services that will better our community.”

Looking to the Future

With all these services, Egan is confident CEP will be able to help even more students like Arvelo reach their goals.

“This country gives you the opportunity to be a better person, a better professional, and a better worker,” Arvelo said. “But if you don’t speak English and if you don’t put in the effort, you can’t make it. So English is the first step.”

With that in mind, Egan and the staff at the CEP continue to look for new ways to support those who want a better quality of life and have big plans for the future, one step at a time.

“Education is such a gift, and without it, we don’t even know what we’re missing,” Egan said. “If I can be that conduit to just make education accessible to those who otherwise wouldn’t have that opportunity, then I’m more than happy to step into that role.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Green Business

Here Comes the Sun

With green-energy usage in homes rapidly increasing, there is no shortage of competition in the solar field. Home and business owners are looking for ways to save money and protect the environment, and with 211 solar installers in the state of Massachusetts, there are plenty of options. This makes standing out even more important for companies like Valley Solar, which installs solar panels for families and businesses alike.

Sixteen months ago, Mike Hempstead was a landlord with a background in sales and marketing and an interest in alternative energy.

He had six solar systems installed on properties he owned, giving him plenty of experience with various solar companies, including Valley Solar, an energy division of Valley Home Improvement in Northampton, which installed his last two systems.

“I just felt that the experience of working with the team at Valley Solar was so far superior to what I experienced with other solar companies that I knew this was the place I wanted to work when I got into solar.”

Hempstead was so impressed with the service he received that he applied for a job with the company.

“I just felt that the experience of working with the team at Valley Solar was so far superior to what I experienced with other solar companies that I knew this was the place I wanted to work when I got into solar,” he said.

These days, he’s Valley Solar’s sales manager, part of the team that provides service to customers in the four counties of Western Mass.

That service, he said, is what helps the company shine (pun intended) in a very competitive field — so competitive, in fact, that Valley Solar is one of 211 solar installers in the state of Massachusetts.

“Most customers only buy solar one time in their lives, but we treat our customers for solar as if they’re going to be a repeat customer and we give them that level of care that sets us apart,” he said.

General Manager Patrick Rondeau agreed, adding that Valley Solar makes recommendations for homeowners based on what’s best for them, not what’s hottest on the market.

Mike Hempstead says his first experience with Valley Solar was when he installed systems on two of the houses he leased, which led him to pursue a position at the company.

“We’re just trying to advise homeowners in a way that we’d want to be advised if we weren’t specialists in the field,” he said.

Valley Solar is a division of Valley Home Improvement, which has been around for 25 years. “About five or six years ago, the former owner of the company installed solar at his house,” said Rondeau. “He watched the process, and, having been a builder for his whole life, he thought, ‘we could do that. We should do that.’”

So, five years ago, this vision was brought to life with Valley Solar, and its relatively new status hasn’t slowed it down. The company took the 2018 Daily Hampshire Gazette Readers’ Choice Award for Best Local Solar and continues to receive raving reviews from customers.

Hempstead said much of that success comes from the firm’s home-improvement background, better enabling it to help choose the right plan for each customer.

“We’re a division of a design and build firm, and we handle all aspects of building renovation and construction, and that gives us a broader perspective of how solar integrates with other energy systems,” he said.

A finished system that Valley Solar installed on a home in Pelham.

For this issue and its green-business focus, BusinessWest talked with Hempstead and Rondeau about the solar business and the advantages it brings to customers on both the residential side and business side.

Green Makes Green

Rondeau started by stating the obvious: solar technology is environmentally friendly.

But what many people don’t realize, he went on, is that it is also a huge money-saving strategy.

“Right now, if you’re simply paying the utility, you’re paying what they’ll have you pay,” said Rondeau. “If you have your own system, you don’t worry about what they’re charging; you’ve taken care of that.”

Perhaps one of the greatest incentives is the constantly rising cost of energy, which has been going up at twice the rate of inflation, Hempstead noted. Massachusetts has the third-highest residential electricity rate in the country, coming in at 22.57 cents per kilowatt-hour, topped only by Hawaii (32.09) and Rhode Island (22.67). And these numbers will only continue to rise.

“Your savings are far greater than they were in the past because the cost of energy is so much more than it was,” he said. “At the same time, panels have become more powerful, so you’re getting more energy for less cost.”

Webber and Grinnell Insurance is one local business that recently installed solar panels on their property, and Vice President of Operations Richard Webber said the investment has been 100% positive so far.

“We’ve basically eliminated our monthly electric charge, which is really our only utility in the building,” he said. “We do all of our limited heating and air conditioning with the solar panels now.”

Patrick Rondeau says Valley Solar recommends products for homeowners based on what’s best for them, not what’s hottest on the market.

President Bill Grinnell agreed, and said the incentives were another reason why the company chose to go solar.

“As a business owner, you’re very concerned with the investments you make and the return you get,” he said, adding that, while the upfront investment is a good chunk of change, the tax credit he gets will make it worthwhile. “With the incentives that are out there, I think it’s a great investment.”

These incentives are another reason why many businesses and homeowners alike have invested in solar energy, but they’re always shifting. Commercial and residential owners who have just installed their solar systems receive a federal tax credit for 30% of the system, but not for long. Congress passed a multi-year extension of the solar Investment Tax Credit (ITC) in 2015, with a 30% incentive for systems installed in 2019, a 26% incentive in 2020, 22% in 2021, and 10% in 2022 for commercial and utility scale, but none for residential.

Still, even with this news, there are still plenty of reasons to consider solar installation, including accelerated depreciation. While business customers still get the 30% federal tax credit for their business, they also get a 100% bonus depreciation in their first year with solar.

“This will effectively, depending on your tax rate, give you another 20-25% back in the first year,” said Hempstead. “So, you have 50-55% of your system paid for the next time you pay taxes.”

Bright Idea

The numbers speak for themselves, said Rondeau, adding that he predicts prices for solar installation will continue to drop in the next few years.

“Solar can and often does pay for itself in a relatively short period of time,” he said. “I think we have reached a tipping point where most folks, if they can see the numbers, can convince themselves that it’s worth the investment.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Margaret Kerswill (left) and Laureen Vizza in front of their Main Street shop, Mutability in Motion.

When Margaret Kerswill talks about her favorite part of the town of Stockbridge, she doesn’t mention a restaurant or the relatively low property-tax rate — she talks about the positive vibe and sense of community in town.

Although Kerswill’s favorite local shop is undoubtably Mutability in Motion, a store she owns with wife Laureen Vizza that sells crafts from more than 50 artisans in the U.S., the first thing she mentioned was the culture of the town.

“That’s the absolute joy of Stockbridge itself,” she said. “You see it in every aspect of Stockbridge, whether you’re just out and about for your daily activities like going to the post office. Doing those normal, daily things, you bump into people all over the place.”

And Kerswill experiences this sense of community in more ways than one. As president of the Stockbridge Chamber of Commerce, she regularly attends meetings and finds that several town residents show up consistently, contradicting the typical stereotype for chambers of commerce.

“It’s a great force in the town,” she said. “The more members we have, the more feedback we get, and the more people who can take part in town meetings. It gives us a bigger voice, and it helps us when we come at this as a collective rather than trying to do all the same things, but as individuals.”

She joined the chamber soon after opening her business in town as an opportunity to be a part of a broader marketing reach, hoping to create relationships with other local businesses in town.

“The chamber has a much broader marketing reach than I might as an individual business,” Kerswill told BusinessWest. “Because of that much broader marketing reach, when the businesses come together and support the chamber, it can reach even further because those member dollars increase our marketing budget and increase our ability to interact with the town.”

When thinking of a small town that relies on tourism to support its economy, one might assume it turns into a ghost town during the winter months. But this is not the case for Stockbridge. In fact, this close-knit town provides plenty of museums, historic sites, and other activities for those who live there and visitors alike, and most don’t close down during the offseason. While summer and spring typically see the most tourism, Stockbridge still has plenty to offer during the other months of the year.

“We are a town that’s open all year long; nobody closes seasonally,” said Kerswill. “All of our shops are independently operated, and they’re all mom-and-pop shops. Everybody carries something you need; we try not to overlap what we sell. We all have different missions.”

Year-round Fun

And these missions all provide different forms of entertainment, 365 days a year.

Barbara Zanetti, executive director of the Stockbridge Chamber of Commerce, noted that, while Stockbridge currently relies on tourism, the chamber is constantly looking for ways to grow the town and slowly move away from that necessity.

“We are a small community with just under 2,000 residents, but we have so much to offer as far as culture,” she said.

Along Main Street alone, one can find the Stockbridge Library, banks and real-estate offices, the Red Lion Inn, St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, the Austen Riggs Center, the Mission House Museum, and many more.

Stockbridge at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1739
Population: 1,947
Area: 23.7 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $10.13
Commercial Tax Rate: $10.13
Median Household Income: $48,571
Median Family Income: $59,556
Type of government: Town Administrator; Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Austen Riggs Center; Tanglewood; Red Lion Inn
* Latest information available

Among the most popular is the Norman Rockwell Museum, which celebrates 50 years of exhibits this year. The museum holds the world’s largest and most significant collection of Rockwell art, and provides educational opportunities for those who are interested in learning more about the universal messages of humanity and kindness portrayed in his work.

Another popular destination is Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra and one of the world’s most beloved music festivals. The 2019 Tanglewood season included everything from performances by the Boston Symphony Orchestra to showcases for up-and-coming artists.

During the warmer months, outdoor activities abound, Kerswill noted, and suggested visitors take a moment to explore nature in and around Stockbridge.

“Bring your kayak up here, get out on the water, and just let your body de-stress for a couple of hours,” she said. “And then take in the surroundings.”

The natural resources, hiking, and beauty of the countryside are a few things that Zanetti says consistently keep people coming to the area, in addition to the arts and cultural aspects that draw a steady flow of visitors.

And though some activities may slow down during the offseason, Kerswill said few close during the colder months. “There’s just this amazing bit of culture that happens. Whether you live here or whether you’re visiting, you will find something regardless of the time of year.”

Best of Both Worlds

While Stockbridge has the feel of being in the countryside, Kerswill says anything a person could need is only a short drive away.

“We like the small-town New England feel, but you’re also not too far from all the conveniences you need,” she said. “It’s like this illusion of living in the country, but you’re surrounded by everything you need, so nothing is really inconvenient.”

All it takes, she said, is a little bit of research to find a plethora of activities to explore in town.

“I think, unless people really get to know the town, they don’t really realize just how much there is here,” she said. “It’s the best of both worlds, for sure.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Green Business

Tyler Crawford (left), Lovin’ Spoonfuls Hampden County food rescue coordinator, and Big Y president and CEO Charlie D’Amour help make a delivery to the Longmeadow Food Pantry.

Meeting a Need

Hampden County has the highest rate of child food insecurity in the state of Massachusetts. In fact, more than 15% of children in the region may not know where or when their next meal will come from, and may lack access to enough food to lead an active, healthy life.

This is one of the reasons Lovin’ Spoonfuls, an organization dedicated to rescuing and distributing fresh food to communities in need, brought its project to Hampden County.

In explaining the significance of an elevated child food-insecurity rate, Lauren Palumbo notes that it not only affects those kids now, but may also negatively impact communities in the long term.

“You can’t expect these children to succeed in school if they’re not accessing adequate nutrition.”

“The challenging thing about food insecurity is that it often affects households with children at a much higher rate than it affects general households,” said Palumbo, the organization’s chief operating officer. “You can’t expect these children to succeed in school if they’re not accessing adequate nutrition.”

Palumbo told BusinessWest that Lovin’ Spoonfuls has been eyeing Hampden County for a couple years now, partially due to that high level of child food insecurity, and she hopes Lovin’ Spoonfuls can help aid those in need.

So far, Lovin’ Spoonfuls has rescued and delivered more than 13,300,000 pounds of food to nearly 40 cities and towns across Eastern Mass., she noted. “For us, it’s about growing regionally and serving the areas that have some of the greatest need, but our long-term goal is really to serve all of Massachusetts.”

Food Waste to Food Placed

Although it may not always be obvious, there is plenty of need in Hampden County.

Kathy Henry, food administrator at Friend’s Place Food Pantry in Springfield, serves up to 180 people and households on one of her two distribution days throughout the week. Monday is reserved for senior citizens age 60 or older, and normally draws up to 135 seniors, while Wednesday is open to all ages, and typically brings in up to 180 people or families.

Founder and Executive Director Ashley Stanley kicks off the launch of Lovin’ Spoonfuls in Hampden County.

Henry said Lovin’ Spoonfuls reached out to her about delivering food right when she lost a few volunteers who used to pick up food for her.

“It was perfect timing that they stepped in,” she said. “I have no complaints. I greatly appreciate the service.”

Henry’s food pantry is one of 17 that Lovin’ Spoonfuls delivers to in Hampden County. The organization works to deliver food that would otherwise be wasted to nonprofits in Chicopee, East Longmeadow, Holyoke, Longmeadow, South Hadley, Springfield, and West Springfield.

The route in Hampden County is expected to rescue an estimated 10,000 pounds of fresh produce, dairy, proteins, and prepared foods from grocery stores in the region every week, including inaugural retail partner Big Y, whom Palumbo says has been a pleasure to work with.

“Oftentimes, it’s sort of a learning curve to get a business on board, but their team has been absolutely on board since day one and has been really consistent and amazing to work with,” she noted.

This proved to be true at the Hampden County launch of Lovin’ Spoonfuls on July 22, when Big Y President and CEO Charlie D’Amour was the first volunteer to jump in the back of the truck to help deliver food to Longmeadow Open Pantry.

“It’s not every day we get the president and CEO of a retailer into the back of a truck to move boxes,” Palumbo said.

At the launch, D’Amour said he’s always been troubled by the waste endemic to the supermarket business, and he’s glad there is now a way to use the extra food to serve those in need.

Tyler Crawford says working for Lovin’ Spoonfuls gives him the opportunity to give back to the community he grew up in.

“With Lovin’ Spoonfuls, we have a wonderful opportunity to connect that much more and in a very timely way,” he said. “It’s food rescue for a reason because it would just be going to waste, and there’s an opportunity to have it not go into the landfills, but have it go and do some wonderful good.”

Right now, Hampden County food dropoffs are run by driver Tyler Crawford, a 23-year-old who grew up in Springfield. He said he was looking for a way to give back to the community when he saw Lovin’ Spoonfuls was coming to the area.

“I had been looking for something meaningful for work,” he said. “I don’t like just having a job to make money; I prefer to do something I’m passionate about, which is mostly helping people.”

Food for Thought

But a dedicated team isn’t the only thing that makes what Lovin’ Spoonfuls does possible. Palumbo says it takes about $140,000 a year to run this operation, from staffing costs to training right down to the truck itself.

“The real lift is, obviously, making sure that we have the funds in place to stay and make a strong commitment to the community,” she said, adding that the last thing she wants to do is enter a community and have to pull back if the funding is not there.

“With Lovin’ Spoonfuls, we have a wonderful opportunity to connect that much more and in a very timely way. It’s food rescue for a reason because it would just be going to waste, and there’s an opportunity to have it not go into the landfills, but have it go and do some wonderful good.”

If operating at full capacity, each truck can rescue up to 600,000 pounds of food a year, adding up to more than 3 pounds per dollar for the cost of operating the vehicle.

“There is not a single county in this country that is not wasting food,” she noted. “So much energy goes into producing and transporting food, and then to throw 40% of it away, you’re wasting the resources and the human labor and all of the effort that went into doing this in the first place. For us, it’s an environmental issue as well.”

The most important impact, however, may be on the thousands of people who are food-insecure across the state.

“This is not a problem of supply. Hunger has been a problem in this country for a number of years, but it is not a question of us not having enough food,” Palumbo said. “We produce more than enough food to feed everyone, but it’s about getting it to them.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Construction

Sphere of Influence

Work continues on an intriguing and highly visible project to put a fresh, more watertight face on the sphere at the Basketball Hall of Fame. The project is a study in efficient teamwork and bringing intricate work to a polished finish — quite literally.

While the Campanile and the larger Court Square complex are perhaps the most recognizable landmarks in Springfield, the large sphere that encompasses the museum at the Basketball Hall of Fame has certainly joined that list.

And right now, that sphere has taken on the look of a giant jigsaw puzzle — with some pieces in place and many still missing — which, in many respects, is exactly what it is.

Indeed, the Hall of Fame is in the midst of a $4 million project to repair the outside of the dome, easily the most visible component of a larger project will modernize the Hall and make it far more user-friendly.

The dome work, which began in March, has become somewhat of a spectator sport because of the Hall’s high degree of visibility, especially from I-91 and even the MGM Springfield parking garage. What people can see is dramatic change between what would be considered the old and the new, even though the 900 panels that make up the sphere are not actually being replaced.

What people can’t see, though, is how intricate and challenging this reconstruction project is, and the high level of choreography involved as crews attempt to make a museum façade comprised of nearly 1,000 panels look like one very shiny globe.

Paul Dowd, president of Bloomfield, Conn.-based Managed Air Systems LLC, which is leading the initiative, explained that “what makes it unique is there are not many spherical buildings out there. This replication of a basketball is a unique structure in and of itself.”

“It didn’t give us the opportunity to really reflect all the content that’s out there, whether it was a long-time-ago hall of famer or an honoree just enshrined last year; we weren’t able to really bring them alive. The objective in our new Hall of Honor will be to provide as much information as we possibly can on all the hall of famers, no matter what era they came in, and have it be much more engaging.”

Elaborating, he said that, again, like a jigsaw puzzle, no two pieces of this dome are exactly the same, despite how things look to the naked eye and even the photographs on these pages. This means each panel must be marked when it is taken down in order to ensure that it is put in the same place when it is returned.

After they’re removed and marked, 10 pieces at a time are shipped to Managed Air Systems where they are sanded and painted — a process that takes several hours per panel.

Each panel is unique and must be marked before being taken off, repaired, and put in the exact same spot it came from.

Although his firm specializes in this kind of work — Managed Air applies protective or decorative coating to anything that needs it, from cars to planes to furniture — the Hall project is somewhat different in that requires a focus on timeliness and ensuring an ultra-high level of consistency across 900 individual panels weighing 110 pounds each.

“One of the big concerns going into this was having a coordinated effort from the people taking the panels off to the people doing the rubber membrane repair on the inside to us getting the panels repaired and back to them,” said Dowd. “It was a very large, coordinated effort to make this all go smoothly.”

For this issue and its focus on construction, BusinessWest takes an in-depth, up-close look at the Hall project and how it is a shining example, figuratively but also quite literally, of effective teamwork in construction — and reconstruction.

Round Numbers

By now, a good number of people across the region have seen John Doleva, president and CEO of the Hall of Fame, hold up and talk about what he affectionately refers to as a ‘spaceship.’

That’s his pet term for the individual lights that were affixed to the museum dome as it was constructed nearly 20 years ago — the lights that took on different colors for various occasions.

He calls them ‘spaceships’ because, well, they take on the 1950s-ish, sci-fi shape of a UFO.

There are — or were — 900 of these lights — one for each panel — and roughly half of them leaked, said Doleva, adding that the damage caused by these leaks inspired the $4 million reconstruction project which will restore the panels to the original luster and replace the spaceships with LED lighting.

The project commenced in the spring, and, as both Dowd and Doleva noted, it’s been an intriguing project that requires a high level of coordination among Managed Air Systems and a host of local contractors.

John Doleva says the $4 million dome reconstruction should be finished by the end of September.

That list includes Western Builders of Granby, Chandler Architectural Products Inc. of Springfield, Kent Brothers Excavating of Southampton, Superior Caulking & Waterproofing of Palmer, Collins Electric of Chicopee, Healey & Associates of Belchertown, and project management by Colebrook Realty Services of Springfield and Holyoke.

“That was a key element as we chose vendors,” said Doleva. “We wanted them to be qualified, but there are plenty of qualified vendors in our area, and we wanted to make sure that we were employing people from our region.”

Managed Air Systems spends about 10 hours, on average, refurbishing each of the panels. Some have been damaged over the years and need additional repairs, meaning they need to be kept overnight. Once the repair and reconditioning work is done, the panels are painted to give the dome a fresh, new look.

Doleva said construction is moving quickly, so when these panels aren’t quite ready to be placed back in their positions, they are stored in the garage located under the Hall of Fame.

Dowd said the board at Hoop Hall chose a high-gloss finish for the panels, which will provide long-term durability against UV rays and weather.

“It almost looks wet when you look at the panel, very similar to a freshly painted car part,” he explained. “That glossy finish helps protect it more long-term from the exposure to the sun and the elements.”

But there’s more to it than slapping some paint on. There are three different materials that go on the panels — a sealer that allows the paint to go on, a grey metallic coating, and a clear coat that encapsulates and seals the panel. Dowd says each panel is painted in a downdraft-heated paint booth that he compares to a giant convection oven. Once the panels are painted in the booth, the press of a button cures the panels at up to 200 degrees.

Perhaps the most intricate part of this process is making sure each panel looks the same as the rest, even though they are all slightly different sizes.

“From our end, the biggest challenge we have is to have the repeatability in the quality of finish,” Dowd said, adding that the company has had to redo some panels that weren’t quite right. “You want this globe, when it’s all done, if someone was to walk around it, to have the same luster and shine and quality on it to look consistent as if it was just one giant globe.”

Once the dome is finished, LED projection lighting will be installed to light the front of the building.

“I think it will attract a lot of attention,” Dowd said. “You can’t miss it when you drive on 91 — it should get some ‘wow’ factor.”

The Bigger Picture

That phrase ‘wow factor’ applies to the many other components of the Hall renovation project as well, said Doleva.

These include the new Hall of Honor, which recently opened. It allows visitors to view any hall of famer in a brand-new, digital manner.

“It didn’t give us the opportunity to really reflect all the content that’s out there, whether it was a long-time-ago hall of famer or an honoree just enshrined last year; we weren’t able to really bring them alive,” said Doleva in reference to the old display. “The objective in our new Hall of Honor will be to provide as much information as we possibly can on all the hall of famers, no matter what era they came in, and have it be much more engaging.”

This includes the next phase of the indoor construction: a complete remodeling of the top floor of the museum. Doleva says this exhibit, sponsored by the NBA Players Assoc., will feature 16 key moments in basketball displayed in graphics on the ceiling.

“We’re going to take advantage of the verticality of that space by having a big sailboat sail of graphics and then an exhibit in front of it,” he said, adding that, while they are taking a more digital approach, they are not totally abandoning the original values of the museum, which includes physical artifacts. “What we haven’t lost sight of is what makes a sports museum different than going on your telephone and looking up sports history.”

Meanwhile, the outside of this particular sports museum will have a different look and feel as well.

The refurbished sphere will reflect a new era at the Hall — in all kinds of ways.

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Technology

Mom Tech

Many people assume that working from home is less productive than spending time in the office. However, the opposite is oftentimes true. This is especially true now that technology allows for quick and easy communication between home and office, giving employees, especially moms, the ability to work efficiently from home while maintaining a healthy work-life balance.

When Tiffany Appleton looks back on raising her now-19-year-old daughter, she remembers how difficult it was to have a full-time job on top of the 24-hour job called parenting. As a single parent, she really didn’t have a choice whether to go to work or not — she had to find a way to balance the two.

And she did — but she also realizes how much easier that might have been in today’s world, where technology allows employees to work from home productively and sustain a healthy work-life balance.

Appleton, recruiter and director of the accounting and finance division at Johnson & Hill Staffing, finds more and more people are working from home, and sees benefits for both the employee and the employer.

“I’ve interviewed many people who have had a work-from-home schedule, and usually they say that they end up working more than they would if they were in the office,” she explained, adding that it is oftentimes easier to be productive at home than working in an office environment, with the myriad distractions found there.

“I think much of this desire for having flexibility to work remotely came from moms who wanted to have their hands in balancing both the career and raising a family, and not having to feel like they could only do one or the other.”

In fact, the work-from-home population has grown by 159% since 2005, and the number of employers offering a remote option has grown by 40% in the past five years. The start of this fairly new trend, Appleton said, can be attributed to the moms.

“I think much of this desire for having flexibility to work remotely came from moms who wanted to have their hands in balancing both the career and raising a family, and not having to feel like they could only do one or the other,” she said.

Mary Shea, vice president of digital strategy at GCAi, can attest to this. She’s a new mom of a 4½-month-old boy. She commutes from Sturbridge but works from home on Mondays and Fridays, a schedule she says took some getting used to but now allows her use her time more productively while helping her maintain a healthy lifestyle. Her position at GCAi includes building and managing ad campaigns for her clients, a job she says she can do very well remotely.

Between her long commute and having a new baby boy, Mary Shea says working from home twice a week makes a huge difference in her life.

“Most of the time, I don’t have to be in the office,” Shea told BusinessWest. “I’ve set it up where Mondays and Fridays are my set schedule. Those are the days I’ll work on things that I know are online, and then, the other three days, I come into the office or go on location for a video shoot.”

Working from home saves Shea three hours a day that would otherwise be spent in a car — time she spends either working more, grocery shopping, or fitting in some exercise. And she never feels disconnected from the company, knowing her team back in the Springfield office is only a phone call away.

“Technology today has enabled parents, particularly moms like me, to work remotely,” she said, adding that hard and soft technology like the cloud-based project-management system GCAi uses and applications on her phone make this possible. “Being able to work remotely in the situation I’m in now is pretty vital because it’s just such a busy week.”

Barriers to Success

Shea isn’t the only mom, or employee in general, who feels this way. Karen Buell, vice president of Operations at Payveris and mother of two, has been working from home three days a week for eight years.

“Some women are pushing off having a family or they’re choosing between a career and having a family. For me, I can choose both,” she said, adding that being part of a tech company makes this a pretty easy thing to do.

Tiffany Appleton says Western Mass. businesses are adopting work-from-home policies slower than bigger cities, but it is still becoming more normal in the area.

In fact, Buell says about a third of the employees at Payveris are 100% remote.

But for some employers, this can be a difficult thing to embrace. Appleton says the negative stigma that surrounds those who work from home can sometimes prevent employers from making the jump.

“I’ve found, in Western Mass., we’re a little slower to adopt it than the cities are,” she said. “Sometimes employers get scared by work-life balance and think, ‘that means people don’t want to work, they just want to have a life and pretend they’re working.’ They just assume the worst.”

This negative perception is one of the things Buell experienced in her early work-from-home days, with people telling her she’d have a hard time being visible or ever being promoted. Despite the lingering stereotype, she was promoted at Payveris just a couple months ago.

“It doesn’t hold you back. If you’re there and you’re showing up and being productive, you can do anything,” she said. “It’s not about where you are, it’s about how productive you can be.”

Another challenging aspect about working from home is maintaining a connection with those who are at the office. Both Appleton and Shea agreed this responsibility lies largely with the employee, but also the cooperation of co-workers to maintain connectivity.

“Keeping the culture of the office is probably the most important thing the employer can do when having people who are not in the office all the time — finding ways to make sure that they are included, even if they’re not there in person,” Appleton said.

This may even include something as simple as telling a co-worker not to bring a lunch tomorrow because the office is ordering pizza or letting them know that so-and-so down the hall got engaged.

“Those are the things that usually irk people,” she continued. “Making sure there are ways to include the people when they’re not there — and being very conscious to include them and make them feel like they are part of the team — is important.”

Karen Buell says employers would benefit from seeing the upside of remote work instead of focusing on the negatives.

Technology makes all this especially simple. Appleton says more and more employers are investing in the kinds of technology that can be accessed remotely, such as Freedcamp, a collaborative project-management system that GCAi uses for everyday business and communication.

Win-win Situation

With increasingly adaptive technology that allows employees to do things like videoconferencing and sending documents through group-sharing software within seconds, disconnectedness is becoming less and less of a problem.

“Taking the next step to make sure the tools you’re investing in for the office have those abilities for people to work from anywhere is crucial,” Appleton said.

When she thinks about becoming a working parent 19 years ago, she realizes how helpful modern technology would have been when her daughter was home sick from school and she had to take the day off from work. Or on a snow day, when it wouldn’t have been necessary to get in the car and drive to the office to be productive.

“It’s nice now that you can do everything you need to do from home,” she said. “I think it’s good for the employees and the employers at the end of the day.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]m

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

As anyone who lives in Hadley, visits the town, or drives through it knows, Route 9, the main commercial thoroughfare in this still largely agricultural community, is in a seemingly constant state of motion.

In this case, motion translates into everything from high traffic counts to a continuous flow of new businesses across a wide spectrum that includes service ventures, retail outlets, and hospitality-related companies, to infrastructure work aimed at improving traffic flow.

And Hadley is seeing all of the above at the moment, as Town Administrator David Nixon noted as he talked with BusinessWest about the state of his community.

There are a number of new additions to the commercial landscape in various stages of development, said Nixon, listing a new Homewoods Hotel that recently debuted — bringing the total number of hotel rooms in town to 612 — as well as a Five Guys, L.L. Bean, Harbor Freight Tools, and 110 Grill that will be unveiled soon.

“There’s a lot of demand, and obviously the infrastructure is in place to support that demand except for the gas moratorium,” said Nixon, referring to an ongoing ban on new or expanded natural-gas service in Hampshire and Franklin counties due to a lack of capacity, a source of considerable controversy and consternation within the community. “The University of Massachusetts and the other colleges in the area, as well as 25 other campuses within an hour’s drive of this spot, make the area recession-proof.”

“Route 9 is a big economy booster for the town of Hadley and is continuously being renovated to provide services to both residents and visitors.”

And they make Hadley, population 5,000 or so, a much more populated place during what would be called business hours, with between 35,000 and 80,000 visiting the community each day.

But Hadley has always been much more than a place to visit or travel through on the way to somewhere else, especially the college towns that border it, Amherst and Northampton. Indeed, a mix of culture, recreation, and bucolic countryside makes it an attractive place to live.

Which brings us back to the aforementioned infrastructure work and a mix of municipal projects designed to make it even more attractive.

That latter category includes a new, $3.9 million library that can be seen from the top of Hadley’s Town Hall building. Molly Keegan, general government liaison for the Hadley Select Board, said the state’s Library Building Assoc. is matching 50% of the project costs.

“Like many communities, we were suffering from deferred maintenance on some of our older town properties,” she noted, “and we were able to move forward with a funding strategy that allowed us to build a new library and take advantage of the state grant program.”

Right next door to the library, a new, $7.1 million senior center is under way, and a new, $3.5 million fire substation is being constructed on River Drive.

Meanwhile, the infrastructure work includes a number of road and bridge projects, all aimed at improving traffic flow along Route 9.

For this, the latest installment in its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest looks at how the word ‘Hadley’ remains seemingly synonymous with both ‘change’ and ‘progress.’

Routes and Roots

As is the case with most infrastructure projects, progress usually comes after a lengthy period of inconvenience. And that will certainly be the case in Hadley.

Three major road projects will be taking place simultaneously over the next few years, said Nixon, adding that all are needed for the community to better accommodate those tens of thousands of visitors every day.

Currently underway is work on the roundabout at the west side of the Calvin Coolidge Bridge in Northampton.

“The current configuration is not efficient — it doesn’t allow cars to go through quickly,” he explained. “They’re going to put an exchange with the ramps, the bridge, and the surface streets, so that will get traffic moving a lot quicker.”

In addition, the Bay Road Bridge over Fort River is being completely replaced. The bridge will be reconstructed with wider shoulders and new sidewalks, with construction set to begin in the spring of 2021.

Finally, a four-year project is set to widen Route 9 from Town Hall to 2.5 miles east by the malls. This project will add another lane to the popular route in hopes of significantly reducing traffic tie-ups.

“Traffic congestion has been a real problem in some areas, but is now becoming a real problem all over the East Coast,” Nixon said. “Taking care of the infrastructure is of regional importance.”

Hadley at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1661
Population: 5,250 (2010)
Area: 24.6 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $12.36
Commercial Tax Rate: $12.36
Median Household Income: $51,851
Median Family Income: $61,897
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting, Board of Selectmen
Largest Employers: Super Stop & Shop; Evaluation Systems Group Pearson; Elaine Center at Hadley; Home Depot; Lowe’s Home Improvement
* Latest information available

Equally important is maintaining what has been a diverse business community, he noted, adding that, while the retail and hospitality sectors have exploded along Route 9 in recent decades, agriculture remains a huge part of the town’s vibrancy — and its identity.

“Agriculture is a part of our heritage,” he said. “This is still very much an agricultural town.”

He’s talking about the six dairy farms and endless acres of preserved farmland on town property that accompany the booming business on Route 9.

The town has the most protected farmland in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, he said, adding that the strong commercial and industrial base helps the community to not only preserve its agricultural base, but keep its residential tax rates comparatively low.

But while small in size (population-wise) and mostly rural in character, Hadley is facing some big-city challenges.

“We are, at our core, a small town,” Nixon said. “We have the resources of a small town, and yet we’re dealing with much larger issues.”

Chief among them is traffic, he said, adding that this is a seasonal concern for the Berkshires and Cape Cod, in Hadley, it’s a year-round problem, although conditions are somewhat better when the colleges are not in session.

The town will have some help as it goes about taking on these various challenges in the form of a higher bond rating.

On June 21, Hadley was informed that its bond rating was upgraded from AA+ to AAA, an achievement only three other towns in Massachusetts — Northampton, Great Barrington, and Lenox — can currently boast.

“That’s quite an achievement for a small town,” said Nixon. “We’re insufferably pleased with ourselves. It’s an accomplishment not only of the town government and the million things that we do, but it’s also an accomplishment for the entire business, residential, and agricultural community. It’s something that everyone can take pride in and feel good about and take credit for.”

Keegan added that a financial team has been working hard alongside elected officials to make the higher bond rating possible.

“Having that bond rating … not only is it public recognition of all the good work being done by the municipal employees and volunteers, but it also puts us in the best position we can be in in terms of borrowing,” she said. “The timing on that could not have been any better.”

Planting Seeds

As for the future, Nixon hopes Hadley continues to build upon its recent successes and especially that higher bond rating.

What is distinctly clear is that the town is in a period of ongoing growth and evolution, all while maintaining the rural quality and agricultural character that makes Hadley, well, Hadley.

And like that AAA rating, this is something to celebrate.

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Healthcare Heroes

This Assisted-living Facility Manager Leads by Example

Emily Uguccioni

It’s safe to say that, at the age of 13, most people don’t know what they want to be when they grow up.

But Emily Uguccioni thought she had it all figured out; she wanted to be an attorney or judge — a figure in the courtroom. At the very least, she knew what she did not want to do — work with the elderly.

But a volunteer position at the Alzheimer’s Resource Center in Connecticut changed her perspective. The facility, right across the street from her middle school, became the foundation for what would become a career she completely fell in love with.

“I wanted an assignment anywhere not near an old person,” noted Uguccioni when explaining her decision to volunteer at a nursing home, but not work with or near those living there.

All her friends read to residents or took them to activities, but she wanted no part of that; instead she got a job in the library organizing all the books. One day, she was instructed to bring a paper to a nurse on one of the units, and upon her arrival, she ran into an old woman.

“This lady said, ‘I’ve been here for four days, and no one has come to pick me up,’” Uguccioni recalled, adding that she did not realize at the time that people with dementia have a disassociation from time. This women had actually been living at the facility for several years.

Feeling bad for the confused woman, Uguccioni said she would try to resolve her issue and offered to get her a drink from the juice cart. Together, they sat and talked for a while until a nurse came by.

“I pride myself in knowing all the residents and all the family members here by name. I pride myself in knowing all the staff by name. I think I know a lot about the residents themselves in terms of what they like, what they dislike, and what might be a concern for them or their family, which is sometimes very different things.”

“She said, ‘you’re the only person in a week that has been able to get her away from that door,’” Uguccioni recalled, adding that, when word got back to the activities director that she was able to do that, she was promptly transferred from her library job and to a position as a resident volunteer.

Fast-forward to today, as Uguccioni sits as executive director at Linda Manor Assisted Living in Northampton, a facility she has put on the fast track when it comes to growth, vibrancy, and recognition.

Indeed, since arriving in 2015, she has doubled occupancy from 40 to more than 80, and there is now a waiting list.

Meanwhile, Linda Manor has been named the best assisted-living facility in Northampton by both the Daily Hampshire Gazette and SeniorAdvisor.com. Under Uguccioni’s direction, the facility has twice won the Silver Honor Affiliate Excellence Award through Berkshire Healthcare Services.

But it’s not so much what she’s accomplished as how that has earned her the Healthcare Heroes award in the category called Health/Wellness Administrator/Administration.

The ‘how’ boils down to a lead-by-example style and an ability to make each and every team member feel not only valued but a key contributor to the health and well-being of all the residents at Linda Manor.

Nicole Kapise-Perkins, Human Resources manager at Linda Manor, summed this up effectively and poignantly in nominating Uguccioni for the award.

“Emily’s fairness and open, engaging manner has had a huge impact on employee morale, and as a result, the services we provide to our residents and families is rated the best in the Northampton area,” Kapise-Perkins wrote. “She lets her staff members know they are appreciated, and they give 110% on the job.”

Manor of Speaking

One of the first things Uguccioni did when she came to Linda Manor was relocate her office.

She moved it out of the administration “suite,” as she called it, and into an office that any person can see the moment they walk into the lobby. This seemingly innocuous change is an effective representation of one of Uguccioni’s biggest personal goals as both a manager and a leader: visibility.

On any given day at Linda Manor, one could find her chatting with residents at breakfast, meeting with staff members to get updates about how they are doing, or attending a check-in meeting with residents and their families, an important time for both constituencies.

“I pride myself in knowing all the residents and all the family members here by name. I pride myself in knowing all the staff by name,” said Uguccioni, noting that there are more than 80 people working with her (not for her). “I think I know a lot about the residents themselves in terms of what they like, what they dislike, and what might be a concern for them or their family, which is sometimes very different things.”

This doesn’t sound like the 13-year-old who took a job in the library because she didn’t want to work around old people.

And it’s not.

As noted earlier, that chance encounter with the woman looking for someone to pick her up changed the course of Uguccioni’s career — and her life.

Emily Uguccioni’s goal is to make every team member know they are valued and a key contributor to Linda Manor’s success.

The volunteer experience she embarked upon after transferring out of library lasted three years until she was hired to be an activities assistant, where she worked at night and on weekends.

“When I was there, I got to see the operations of a nursing home, and I got to see what nurses do and how you interact with the residents and how important a long-term care facility is,” said Uguccioni, adding that this prompted her to explore options in healthcare degrees for her college education.

She graduated from Springfield College in 2006 with a degree in health services administration, knowing she wanted to end up at a higher-level administration or perhaps an executive-director position.

After graduation, she served as a therapeutic recreation director and managed the activities department in various assisted-living homes in Connecticut. Most recently, she worked as director of Operations and Services at Seabury Active Life Community in Bloomfield, Conn., a position she was offered when her previous boss left.

She came to Linda Manor just a year after it opened in 2014, and immediately commenced changing its fortunes.

The facility sits next to Linda Manor Extended Care Facility, also affiliated with Berkshire Healthcare Services, which opened in 1989, and Uguccioni immediately recognized opportunities to create synergies and potential growth for both facilities.

“My vision was to create community and to build a campus concept with the extended-care facility so that the community as a whole saw this campus as a place where housing meets healthcare, a unique concept without a buy-in fee that many of the competitors have,” she said. “Because we are not a ‘life-care community,’ the referral flow and process were not already built into the campus of care with a blink of an eye.”

Elaborating, she said that, while a strong, mutually beneficial relationship between the two facilities seemed like a natural outcome, it took time, patience, and diligence to make it work.

This meant months of working with Mark Ailinger, administrator at the extended-care facility, and his team to build a solid relationship.

“That [relationship] was missing, and I could see that right when I got here,” said Uguccioni, adding that was a problem that could have affected several facets of both facilities had it continued. In order for facilities like Linda Manor to be financially stable, Uguccioni told BusinessWest, maintaining a consistent resident census at or above the target, as well as managing controllable operating expenses, are crucial. But, in order to accomplish this, facilities need solid referral sources, and wellness programs and models for the residents. All this comes much easier when you can utilize the resources at the extended-care facility right next door.

So Uguccioni and Ailinger worked together to build trust between the two buildings so that the extended-care facility could become a consistent referral source at the assisted-living facility, and vice versa.

“It is one of my proudest accomplishments since my tenure here,” she said.

At Home with the Idea

But there have been many accomplishments since Uguccioni’s arrival, including those ‘best-of’ awards.

They are generally a measure of customer service, and Uguccioni said she believes quality in this realm is a function of having a staff that knows it is valued and appreciated.

Indeed, it takes a village to run a successful assisted-living facility that leaves residents and their families happy, and Linda Manor does that well by putting an emphasis on relationships.

To help staff members accomplish this, Uguccioni helps them realize the impact they have on residents, and the value they have in affecting their lives.

For example, she said a certified nursing assistant providing daily services to a resident, like giving medication or offering assistance in the bathroom, translates into much more than completing a simple task.

“You’re really here to be an integral part of that person’s day,” Uguccioni said. “You’re the first person that they see in the morning, and, therefore, their interaction with you really shapes how their day might be.”

This, she says, is the key to running a successful assisted-living community.

“If you don’t have a staff that’s committed and engaged, you don’t have anything,” she said. “I think that it’s really important that you have people and staff in general that are invested in their role and they realize the value that they have in assisted living, and what they mean to the people that live here.”

But building a strong, caring team is not an easy task in this employment environment. Uguccioni says one of the biggest challenges in running an assisted-living facility is that not many people seem to want to be aides.

“There’s a lot of open positions in healthcare for certified nursing assistants, and we don’t find as many people seeking that out as a desired level of employment,” she said, adding that she puts staff satisfaction high on her list in order to reduce turnover.

“I don’t ever want someone here to feel like ‘oh, I just work in housekeeping,’ or ‘I’m just the server in the dining room; what do I know?’ Everybody here knows a tremendous amount,” Uguccioni added. “It’s not just me that runs the building, it’s all of us. If one person could do it, I wouldn’t have everybody else that works here.”

This attitude has helped Linda Manor to continue to be recognized as one of the best assisted-living facilities in the area, and Uguccioni is always thinking about ways to improve.

“I’m always looking at how we can positively affect someone’s life through the residents and the families,” she noted, adding that she has positive experiences every day that remind her why she does what she does.

She recalls one instance from a few years ago, while she was covering for someone in the Admissions department while they were on vacation. A woman walked in looking for a place for her mom to live. The minute she sat down in Uguccioni’s office, she began to cry.

“This woman was in a terrible predicament. Her mother lived in a totally different part of the country, and she didn’t know how to talk to her to tell her she couldn’t live alone anymore,” she said.

In this instance, Uguccioni advised the woman not to tell her mom why she couldn’t live alone, but explain how living in an assisted-living facility would help her live an easier, happier life.

The next week, the woman got her mom on a plane and moved her into Linda Manor.

“Being able to help her, I really do feel like I have a pivotal piece to that,” Uguccioni said. “Every time I see her when she comes in, she says, ‘I thank you every day.’”

Live and Learn

When she reflects back to that experience she had at the Alzheimer’s Resource Center as a 13-year-old girl, Uguccioni is grateful that the nurse sent her to deliver that paper, because it put her on a path to a career she loves every day.

“If I hadn’t had that volunteer experience doing something that was completely out of my comfort zone, I would never have what I have today,” she said. “I would never be in this field at all.”

But she did go down that path, and doing so started her on her journey to be a Healthcare Hero.

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Tourism & Hospitality

Gene Cassidy stands in front of what will soon be the midway sign that Big E visitors know very well.

Production of the Big E Takes a Village, and We’re Not Talking About Storrowton

As the clock ticks down the start of another Big E, an elaborate and well-choreographed effort is underway to get everything set for opening night. As it turns out, this is just one of the myriad traditions synonymous with this annual celebration of New England.

Eugene Cassidy likens the process of getting the Big E ready for opening day to choreographing a dance number. In short, a large number of people have to work in sync and in cooperation with one another to get the desired result.

Preparations for the 17-day long fair, which starts Sept. 13, begin 18 months before it happens, and there are countless moving parts that need to come together — properly and on time — to not only have the fair ready for prime time, but to ensure that each day of The Big E is a success.

“Even though we’re now just a month away from the 2019 fair, we’re well into planning for 2020,” said Cassidy, president and CEO of the Eastern States Exposition, while explaining how the jig-saw puzzle that is the 2019 fair comes together.

“Everybody is probably on pins and needles as we get ready,” he went on. “Coordinating the fairgrounds is really like being a dance instructor. There are so many little things that need to be considered, like what gets placed first. The choreography that’s required is very important.”

And this year, there is more to be choreographed than merely the tents, displays, rides, and flower gardens.

Indeed, while managing the traffic to and from the fair has always been a matter of import (and a stern test) this year there is a much higher degree of difficulty to those maneuvers.

That’s because the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge, which connects Agawam with West Springfield and borders the western end of the fairgrounds, is roughly one third of the way through a three-year renovation project.
The four-lane bridge is down to two, and as anyone who has ever tried to cross the bridge during Big E time knows, four lanes are not nearly enough.

Strategies are being developed to address the matter, said Agawam Mayor William Sapelli, adding that he is working with both the Big E and the town of West Springfield to devise ways to mitigate tieups.

“We discussed the traffic concerns and how we’re going to mitigate some of those issues,” he said. “The Big E has been very, very cooperative. There’s going to be a lot of coordination between the two police departments… it’s kind of like an orchestrated dance; we have our side and they have theirs.”

So it seems there will be a lot of dancing going on, figuratively, before and during this edition of the Big E, which will look to top last year’s record attendance mark of 1,543,470 people.

Organizers believe they have the lineup to do just that, as we’ll see, and, as always, are keeping their fingers crossed on the weather, which is one puzzle piece that can’t be choreographed.

For this issue and its focus on tourism and hospitality, BusinessWest talked at length with Cassidy and others at the fair to gain some perspective on this year’s edition and also how these fairs come to life.

Gene Cassidy says the carnival rides and games, brought in by the North American Midway Entertainment right after Labor Day, all go up in a matter of days.

Parts of the Whole

Cassidy has been coming to the Big E since his youth, and he has many vivid memories from his visits. Among them is his first view of an elephant when he was 7.

Today, it’s his job — and his mission — to make lasting memories for others. He’s been doing this for eight years as president and CEO, and 26 years of working for the exposition in various capacities.

These memory-making duties are rewarding, but also quite challenging at this time, said Cassidy, listing everything from new and different hurdles being faced by agriculture fairs, especially from animal-rights groups, to mounting competition for the time and attention of families — competition that certainly didn’t exist when the fair was launched, to the aging infrastructure of the Big E itself, with many buildings approaching 100 years in age.

These facilities are “capital intensive,” according to Cassidy, who said donations to the fair are modest because some people do not recognize the Eastern States as something that is worthy of making charitable contributions to.

“Because the fair is so successful, we’re sort of a victim of our own success,” he said. “We produce tremendous agricultural events that draw interest across North America, and we make enough income in order to support those events, but we do not have enough income to recapitalize the facility.”

This makes things difficult when updating the older buildings that hold some of the fair’s most beloved traditions. Over the past seven years, Cassidy said, the corporation has spent about $30 million fixing up the buildings.

“My goal is to raise awareness of the importance of the Eastern States in order to stimulate the interest of our region’s businesses in order to raise money to help recapitalize the facilities,” he said, adding that this awareness-raising process comes down to many factors, including the task of putting on a good show each year.

Brynn Cartelli, Longmeadow native and winner of season 14 of The Voice, is set to perform at The Big E on Sept. 13-15 on the Court of Honor stage.

 

And this involves choreography, but also a blending of the traditional and the new in ways that will draw audiences of all ages. And Noreen Tassinari, director of marketing at the Eastern States Exposition, believes this has been accomplished with the 2019 edition of the fair.

“The Big E is, across generations, a tradition here in Western Mass., Connecticut, and throughout New England — people come for many reasons, and some of the reasons are their favorite family traditions,” she said, adding that for many, the fair is a yearly stop in their calendar, which is why it’s so important to keep adding new items to the extensive list of things to do at the fair.

“We like to have a fresh approach each year, so we like to introduce new entertainment and features and certainly new foods so people are buzzing about what’s going on at the Big E this year,” she said. “We want people thinking ‘we can’t miss the fair.’”

Among the new additions for 2019 are a star-studded entertainment lineup with three stages featuring big-name stars like Loverboy, Carly Rae Jepsen, and Brynn Cartelli, as well as other local artists. Other entertainment includes everything from Ireland’s Dingle Peninsula Showcase, a cultural, educational, trade and tourism showcase featuring products from the Emerald Isle, to the Avenue of States, a unique display of buildings representing each New England state.

John Lebeaux Commissioner of the Mass. Department of Agricultural Resources, believes that The Big E might not have as significant of an impact as it does today without the unique representation from all New England states.

“It’s one of the top 10 biggest agricultural fairs in the United States,” he said. “I don’t think we would have been able to achieve that were it not for this regional aspect.”

This extended reach and regional flavor makes the Big E more than a fair and a tradition, said Cassidy, adding that it also a force within the local economy.

“A lot of our mission is to create and build a local economy,” he said, adding that the lastest economic-impact study, conducted in 2014, showed that the annual impact regionally totaled $479 million.

In Cassidy’s seven years as CEO, five have set new records for attendance. If the record is broken again, that will be a good problem to have, in most respects, because of what promises to be a trying year traffic-wise.

As a result of the bridge-construction work, left turns from River Road onto Memorial Ave. are “no longer allowed,” according to The Big E website, and fair-goers are being asked to use Baldwin Street to get to the Eastern States instead.

This will no doubt create lengthier travel times for many people traveling to and from the area, but both Agawam and West Springfield are doing what they can to minimize the inconvenience.

Sapelli said The Big E is making sure that any larger vehicles, including horse trailers and delivery trucks, are using a specific route with better access rather than coming through Agawam and having to make a tight turn onto the bridge. In addition, the fair partnered with King Ward Coach Lines, which will be shuttling people from various locations, including the Enfield Mall, to cut down on the number of vehicles that need to come in for parking.

With realistically only two ways to get to Memorial Avenue, and one of them under serious construction, West Springfield Mayor William Reichelt says delays are, unfortunately, inevitable.

“We’re working with each other and then the state to make sure there are enough resources,” he said. “I think, unfortunately, there’s just going to be traffic going that way because we went from four down to two lanes.”

Sapelli agrees and asks that people be patient while waiting to get into the fair.

“We’ll all get through this, it’s a wonderful fair,” he said. “They do a lot for the economy and the surrounding communities.”

Fair Game

Despite the likely traffic jams, the fair is likely to draw record-breaking crowds. Again, that has been the trend. For now, it’s crunch-time for the Big E staff who have to choreograph another major production.

Between the entertainment artists, the Avenue of States, the seemingly-endless food vendors, and everything in between, it’s easy to see why this fair has become a tradition for families across the Northeast and even beyond.

“You almost need more than one visit to do it justice,” said Tassinari. “We really have the New England flavor and feel, and that’s part of our mission.”

Autos

Peter Vecchiarelli, left, and Tom Parsons say that building relationships is the key to success when it comes to commercial truck sales.

Nutmeg Trucks Stands Out by Forging Partnerships with Customers

Peter Vecchiarelli says that selling commercial trucks — everything from box trucks to tanker trucks to huge dump trucks — is a lot like selling … almost anything else.

It’s obviously important to know everything there is about the products you’re selling and servicing, he told BusinessWest. But it’s more important to know and understand everything there is to know about the specific customer.

Indeed, sometimes what a customer thinks he or she needs isn’t really what they need, said Vecchiarelli, general manager of Nutmeg Truck Center in West Springfield, which sells and leases International and Isuzu vehicles and services all makes.

“You don’t want to be a know-it-all, but you want to suggest things that will benefit the customer,” Vecchiarelli said, adding that these suggestions comprise just one of the keys for this business.

Tom Parsons agreed. He sold cars for 30 years before joining Nutmeg, and noted some similarities between that world and this one. In both, and especially this one, success comes from working in partnership with the client to forge an appropriate solution.

“You really have to know the product and what the customer needs,” he explained. “Every single customer has a business, where every person who buys a car probably doesn’t, and each business is different.”

This mindset has enabled Nutmeg — a Connecticut-based business (hence the name) with six locations (the other five are in Connecticut — to stand out in a crowded field of competitors, said Vecchiarelli. He added that success isn’t necessarily dictated by the inventory on the lot (although that certainly helps), but rather by the level of trust that can be established with the client.

“We try to sell ourselves,” Vecchiarelli said. “People buy from who they like and trust, that’s one of our huge mottos. We’ve been around, and people trust us.”

For this issue and its focus on auto sales, BusinessWest talked at length with Vecchiarelli and Parsons about the truck business and what it takes to be leader within it.

This Isuzu truck, suitable for a wide array of potential clients, is one of many on the lot at Nutmeg Trucks.

Driving Force

And Vecchiarelli started by saying that the truck business certainly wasn’t in his plans when he graduated from Westfield State University in 1992.

Actually, he didn’t have any real plans at all.

Indeed, he earned a degree in Communications, but had no solid ideas about what to do with it. For a while, he worked his summer job and coached football with his brother at Agawam High School. One day, he came across an entry level management job at Penske Truck Rental in Chicopee.

That’s how he got his start in the truck business, and when he found Nutmeg in 1996, he never looked back.

And while looking straight ahead, he told BusinessWest, he wears a good number of hats. Many are part and parcel to having ‘general manager’ on one’s business card, but some might surprise you.

For example, he might very well be the one delivering a new or used truck to a client, an assignment he said he carries out on a regular basis.

This is one of those little things that add up, he said, adding that the big things include having quality products to offer and, again, working closely with the client to find solutions.

This is necessary, because, as noted, there is considerable competition within the truck marketplace.

On the International side, Nutmeg competes against the likes of Ford, Freightliner Trucks, and Mack Trucks. Isuzu competitors include Chevrolet, Hino and Mitsubishi.

Overall, business has been solid over the past several years as the economy has continued its pattern of slow yet steady growth, said Vecchiarelli, adding that company sold more than 40 new and used vehicles in 2018 and is on pace to double that number this year.

It’s customer portfolio, as might be expected, is diverse, and includes everything from general contractors to municipalities to area farms.

In addition to selling trucks, Nutmeg also sells truck parts and provides other services to its customers. Vecchiarelli noted that Clean Machine Power Wash buys all its trucks from Nutmeg, which has a great relationship with the owner. A few weeks ago, the business had its company picnic and asked if Vecchiarelli would do a few oil changes on their trucks while the business was closed for the day. Each oil change on a truck takes from an hour to an hour and a half to complete, and Nutmeg did 11 oil changes throughout the day.

“It’s just the little things we do,” Vecchiarelli said. “It’s not always an 8 to 5 job. You have to do what it takes.”

This brings him back to that work involving relationship-building, how it can create repeat customers and often turn relatively small transactions into much larger ones down the road.

As an example, he recalled the story of how the sale of an $11,000 used box truck eventually turned into much more.

“As I was delivering the used truck, the customer said he was interested in buying a new tri-axle dump truck in the future,” said Vecchiarelli while pointing out one of the obvious benefits of doing that work himself. “We put stuff together and sold him one and he then recommended his friend to us for another tri-axle dump; we turned an $11,000 sale into two dump trucks worth almost $400,000.”

Fundamentally Speaking

There have been many stories like that recorded over the years, said both Vecchiarelli and Parsons, adding that by focusing on the fundamentals of customer service, Nutmeg continues to thrive and grow.

“Those fundamental things are so true,” he said. “We practice fundamentals, try to over deliver and exceed expectations.”

Vecchiarelli agreed. “The biggest thing that sets us apart from the competition is experience, getting the job done, and building relationships,” he said in summation. “If you do little things right, people remember that.” u

Tourism & Hospitality Uncategorized

Katie DiClemente says the openness of the meeting spaces at the Sheraton is one of the biggest selling points for people looking to stage conventions.

Sheraton Springfield Takes Steps to Stand Out in the Marketplace

Stacy Gravanis acknowledged the obvious when it comes to the convention and meetings market in the Northeast, and the country as a whole — there is no shortage of competition.

And in this climate, the assignment is also obvious — to find a way, or several ways, as the case may be, to stand out in this crowded marketplace.

The Sheraton Springfield has been doing that since it opened more than 30 years ago, said Gravanis, general manager of the facility, and it keeps looking for new, innovative, and, well, cool ways of continuing that practice. Cool as in a Ding-Dong cart. Indeed, the nostalgic summertime staple, sometimes seen patrolling neighborhoods and often seen parked at pools and lakes, became part of the landscape at the downtown Springfield landmark during the first week in August.

It was parked on the grounds, providing a unique opportunity to cool down during what has been an oppressive summer to date — for guests and downtown workers alike. And it became another way to bring value and something different to visitors, said Gravanis, who told BusinessWest that this is all part of the work to not only stand out — as important as that is — but also to help build relationships and turn customers into repeat customers, a critical assignment in this industry.

One of the stops on the Sheraton’s ice cream truck tour was MGM Head Start in Springfield.

“The goal is to find that connection to them and build loyalty,” she told BusinessWest, adding that the Ding-Dong cart is just one example of programs, products, and services that go into the connection-building process.

Katie DiClemente, assistant director of Sales and Marketing for the Sheraton agreed. She said that conventions and meetings comprise a large slice of the business at the Sheraton, one where building relationships and generating repeat business is essential.

DiClemente noted that the facility hosts dozens of convention groups a year, such as the Pancretan Association of America, which was in town from June 28 to July 3 and brought 475 people to the hotel. Meanwhile, its assorted meeting spaces host a wide array of gatherings, from company retreats and annual meetings to team-training sessions, to educational seminars.

The hotel’s portfolio of facilities and its unique layout (more on that later) are attractive selling points, she said, as is the region and its many attractions.

Both Gravanis and DiClemente said an already attractive mix of attractions, from Six Flags to the Dr. Seuss museum, has been significantly bolstered by MGM Springfield, which they expect to help bring new convention business to the 413.

For this issue and its focus on meetings and conventions, BusinessWest talked with Gravanis and DiClemente about the Sheraton’s ongoing work to stand out in the market, and how it is creating new flavors of customer service — figuratively but also quite literally.

Getting the Scoop

One of the largest facilities of its kind in the region, the Sheraton boasts 325 hotel rooms, more than 36,000 square feet of meeting space, including a ballroom and eight meeting rooms on the third floor, six meeting rooms on the second floor, and two additional meeting rooms on the fourth floor, leaving plenty of space for large conventions.

DiClemente says the 10,000 square foot ballroom can hold up to 1,000 people depending on the type of event, with a 500-person cap for a banquet-style event.

But size is not the only attractive quality. Indeed, DiClemente said the setup of the meeting spaces at the Sheraton Springfield is unlike most other hotels.

“The flow of our space is something that definitely attracts people to our hotel,” she told BusinessWest. “We’re not a conference-style hotel where you’re walking down a long hallway and going to your meeting rooms and finding it that way. We’re an atrium style, so if your meeting room is on the second floor, you can look down and see where you need to go. The natural light shines through the atrium.”

This natural light, and all that comes with it, has attracted a number of groups to the Sheraton — and Greater Springfield. The Pancretan Association of America (PAA), a national organization comprised of members who support and perpetuate Cretan culture through scholarship, educational, cultural, and philanthropic programs for those in the United States, Canada, and Crete, is an example of the how the region and the hotel are drawing local, national, and even international groups.

And bringing them here is a collaborative effort, said Gravanis, adding that the hotel works closely with the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau (GSCVB), keeping in daily contact with Director of Sales Alicia Szenda.

“We have a really great relationship with her being the director of sales,” said DiClemente. “If the convention center has a lead where they need overnight rooms, that’s sent to the [GSCVB] and Alicia is that middleperson between the MassMutual Center and the hotels in the area.”

Once that lead is sent out to the hotels, they bid on the piece of business, which is sent directly to Szenda. Of course, this region is usually competing against several other cities in for the right to host specific conventions, which brings us back to that notion of standing out — and building relationships.

Again, the Ding-Dong cart was just part of it.

Aside from the ice cream runs, Gravanis said the hotel staff works to stay in touch with clients — be they groups or individuals — through birthday and anniversary cards and other touch points to build a relationship and, hopefully, a long-term relationship.

“Whether it’s a local client or a client out of a different city, it’s so important to build that relationship with them and that’s something we do every day,” said DiClemente. “It’s really a top priority for our sales team.”

Gravanis added, again, that the area itself is a huge selling point for the Sheraton, and it is becoming more so through the addition of MGM Springfield, which has the potential to bring a wide array of meetings and conventions to the city, many of which will require large amounts of hotel rooms and other facilities.

Staying Power

Since it opened nearly three decades ago, the Sheraton has been one of the key players in the region’s large and important hospitality sector.

It has been one of the important pieces in the puzzle when it comes to the infrastructure needed to bring meetings and conventions, and, therefore, revenue and vibrancy, to the region.

It has maintained this position by being innovative and always finding ways to stand out. And the Ding-Dong cart, as cool as it is, is just the latest example.

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Education

Pressing On

President-Elect Ed Wingenbach spoke at his first public press conference on Thursday, July 18 regarding the future of Hampshire College and the role he hopes to play in its success.

When asked whether he thought Hampshire College could not only maintain its accreditation but forge a long-term future, Ed Wingenbach, the recently named president of the beleaguered institution, didn’t hesitate in his response and spoke with a voice brimming with confidence.

“Yes; do you need me to say more?” he replied as the question was posed at a press conference to announce his appointment on July 18.

“I’m not at all worried about our ability to pull it off,” he went on, adding that, although he believes Hampshire College will overcome these obstacles, that certainly doesn’t mean it will be easy. “There’s a lot of hard work to be done over the next two months, six months, three years, but it’s the work that Hampshire College should always be doing.”

His confidence, he said, results from what he called “extraordinary and dedicated students, staff, faculty, alumni, and community members who all have the will to get the job done.”

Wingenbach will be the eighth president of the Amherst-based institution has appointed. An accomplished administrator, faculty leader, scholar, and proponent of liberal-arts education, he has served for the past six months as acting president of Ripon College in Wisconsin, a liberal-arts college where he has been vice president and dean of faculty and a professor of Politics and Government since 2015. Previously, he served for 15 years as an administrator and faculty leader at the University of Redlands in California.

“I’m coming to Hampshire College today and hopefully for a very long time because I think that it is the essential college in higher education,” he said at his welcoming press conference. “There is no place that has been more important to the success of the American college and university system over the last 50 years than Hampshire College.”

Hampshire’s board of trustees voted unanimously for Wingenbach’s appointment on July 12 after a formal recommendation from the presidential search committee chaired by trustee Ellen Sturgis and comprising faculty, students, staff, trustees, and alumni.

The board’s goal was to name a new president this summer to help guide the college in securing its operations, planning for its future, and preparing for the coming academic year, assignments that come as the school is literally fighting for its survival.

Indeed, the school recently received a letter from the New England Commission of Higher Education (NECHE) stating that, absent evidence of substantial progress on a number of matters, ranging from hiring a new president to developing plans for achieving ambitious goals for fundraising and rebuilding enrollment, “the commission will, at its November 2019 meeting, take an action to place the college on probation or withdraw its accreditation.”

“I’m coming to Hampshire College today and hopefully for a very long time because I think that it is the essential college in higher education. There is no place that has been more important to the success of the American college and university system over the last 50 years than Hampshire College.”

This rather stern warning comes after roughly a year of turmoil and regional and national headlines concerning the college, thrusting it into the forefront of mounting problems for smaller, independent colleges dependent largely on high-school graduates at a time when graduating classes are getting smaller and projected to get smaller still.

In recent months, Hampshire announced it will not admit a full class for this fall — in fact, only about 15 students are expected to be in what will be known as the class of 2019. There have also been layoffs, the resignations of President Miriam Nelson and several board members, and departures among the current student body.

 

Grade Expectations

Despite this steady drumbeat of bad news, in recent writings to the Hampshire community, interim President Ken Rosenthal, one of Hampshire’s founders, has been using a decidedly optimistic tone. Last month, he wrote that the school was fully committed to enrolling a full class for 2020, was making progress with an aggressive bid to raise $20 million by June 2020 and an estimated $100 million over the next five years, and was filling several key positions, including president.

Ken Rosenthal

While acknowledging this optimistic tone and focus on the future at a time when many had — and perhaps still have — grave doubts that Hampshire has a future, Rosenthal told BusinessWest, “that certainly doesn’t mean it’s going to be easy.”

Wingenbach agrees, but he has a plan.

“I am confident that we can overcome those challenges by reinvigorating the mission to innovate and lead higher education,” he said. “By becoming distinctive again, and inventing, again, new ways to think about undergraduate education, and implementing them and doing them well, we’ll restore the rightful distinctiveness of Hampshire College.”

However, both his and Rosenthal’s sentiments about the task ahead certainly not being easy were echoed by Barbara Brittingham, president of NECHE, who said Hampshire faces what she called a “heavy lift,” given both the challenges facing all colleges reliant upon high-school graduates, and the relatively young age of Hampshire’s alumni.

Wingenbach told media, professors, students, and trustees that Hampshire College is a laboratory to how to make higher education better, and the hard work that will happen over the coming months and years will set the college up for success.

Indeed, like Rosenthal, she said Hampshire is challenged to raise money and thus grow its endowment because its oldest alums are barely 70 — and probably still living and thus not bequeathing money to the college — and most alums are at an age when they are paying for their children’s college, saving for retirement, or putting their money to other uses.

Thus, the school will have to look well beyond its alumni base for support, she said. And it will also have to attract more students, a task made more difficult by recent headlines and words and phrases such as ‘probation’ and ‘possible loss of accreditation.’

“Colleges rely a lot on donations from alumni, but they often get donations from friends, people who admire the mission,” said Brittingham, adding that Hampshire will need considerable help from such friends moving forward.

This, said Wingenbach, is part of the plan. In order to reinvigorate Hampshire College, reaching out to not only alumni, but also those who are interested in Hampshire’s mission, is crucial.

“We have all kinds of resources beyond this campus to make sure that our students have access to everything they need to be successful,” he said.

 

Course of Action

The college has certainly used those resources so far. Wingenbach praised Hampshire for raising more than $9 million since February of this year, adding that this is an impressive accomplishment with the challenges they’ve faced.
But the college will need to continue to raise money at this rate in order to make ends meet.

Because Hampshire will be a much smaller school this fall — it just graduated 295 students and will bring in only 15 freshmen in September — the resulting loss of tuition and fees will result in a huge budget deficit. The projected number is $20 million, said Rosenthal, but it may be smaller depending on just how many students return to the campus this fall; the school is budgeting for 600.

“We set out two months ago to raise that $20 million by June 30, 2020, and we’re a little ahead of schedule,” said Rosenthal, adding that this schedule called for having $7 million in cash in hand by August, another $7 million by the end of December, and the final $6 million by the end of the current fiscal year, ending next June 30.

Moving forward, and, again, thinking optimistically, as the college moves closer to what Rosenthal called ‘normal size,” meaning 1,200 to 1,400 students, the budget deficits will grow smaller. Still, he projects that roughly $60 million will be needed over the next five years. When necessary capital improvements are added, the number rises to $100 million.

As Brittingham noted — as Rosenthal did himself, only with different language — this is indeed a heavy lift for a college this size.

Wingenbach says the cost structure of the college must undergo a serious adjustment in order to accomplish this ambitious goal.

“As we’re currently constituted, we spend too much money, and we don’t raise enough. That’s a fundamental reality of almost all small colleges in the entire country; we’re no different. But we have to face that reality as well,” he said. “As we’re thinking about experimentation and innovation and new ideas, we have to think about that framework within a reasonable understanding of what our budget and resources will look like two and four years from now, and live within that framework.”

This, Wingenbach said, may include an increase in tuition.

“We have to be thinking really carefully about what our likely students are willing to pay for this kind of an education,” he said, adding that the average Hampshire student graduates with about $24,000 in debt, an extraordinarily low figure for a four-year education. “I think it’s likely that tuition goes up, but I don’t think it’s likely that it goes up a lot in any given year.”

 

Critical Crossroads

Whether all or any of this — from the early progress on fundraising to Hampshire’s relevance in a changing world — will have any impact on students’ decisions on whether to return to the campus, or on NECHE’s upcoming decision on accreditation, remain to be seen. And they will both go a long way toward determining the college’s future.

“I think we have a really good story to tell that I think is compelling to people,” Wingenbach said, adding that another critical part of reinventing the school is going to be reminding people why the school is so important in the first place.

“One of the big advantages Hampshire has is that the value of an education here is easy to articulate,” he went on. “Colleges struggle to attract students who can pay a slightly higher rate if they have no argument as to why you should do that. Hampshire has a great argument for why you should do that.”

Reminding not only those within the community, but also those inside Hampshire College, of all this is a critical step in maintaining the energy Wingenbach says is crucial to get the school back on top. This includes recognizing the hard times in order to get to the good.

“There has been a lot of trauma here,” he said. “This has been a very hard six months to a year. Part of engaging people is recognizing that, both within the college community and with the public. It doesn’t change the fact that this has been a really hard year, and people have struggled. We recognize that and say, ‘now we’re going to continue to struggle, but we’re going to do something productive about it.’”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]