Home Articles posted by Kayla Ebner
Sports & Leisure

The Real Dirt

Keith Johnson (left, with Rick Johnson)

Keith Johnson (left, with Rick Johnson) says his passion for the Wick 338 stems from his own participation in the sport of motocross.

Motocross in Southwick is nearly a half-century-old tradition. It’s also a business and a well-tuned economic engine. Like the sport itself, this local enterprise has endured some ups and downs, twists and turns, but, thanks to a father-son team, it is now hitting on all cylinders.

When Rick Johnson relates the history of the Wick 338 motocross track in Southwick, he notes that he never thought he’d be managing the production of a national championship — let alone four of them.

But that’s what has transpired in what can only be called the latest chapter in the story of motocross in this town, perhaps best known for other forms of recreation, specifically those involving the Congamond Lakes, which give the community so much of its character.

It’s a story that, like the sport itself, features a number of twists and turns, ups and downs. With that, Johnson, track manager for the facility, flashes back almost a half-century, to 1972. That’s when the very first Southwick motocross race was held, just a few miles from the location of the Wick 338 track on Legion Road in Southwick, as in American Legion Post 338. Hosted by the New England Sports Committee (NESC), the race was held to benefit the Jimmy Fund and other town charities.

“Obviously there’s an economic spinoff, especially when you have a national race where you’re bringing thousands of people into town.”

The event was a huge success, and members of the Legion quickly developed an appetite for more motocross.

Fathers of NESC racers set their minds on building a track of their own and constructed the first version of what now stands at the Wick 338. Led by Bernie Yelin, Pat Smith, Ray Peebles, Dante Molta, Clovis Goyette, and many more, the Wick, as it would come to be called, would bring races, and then a national championship, the first in 1976, to the community. But it also brought much more, including large crowds of people and support for many kinds of businesses, especially those in the hospitality sector.

Then came some of those twists, turns, and dips. Indeed, after the 2012 national championship, the race was taken from the Wick because the track’s condition had deteriorated. Soon, the entire operation was in danger of being closed.

That’s when Mike Grondahl stepped into the picture; he worked out a lease with the American Legion to put it back in business.

The former Planet Fitness CEO had a great love for the sport of motocross, but due to a business investment he made prior to his deal with the track, he did not have the time to maintain it properly, and the track lay dormant.

Luckily for him, he knew a family who also loved the sport.

“He called me, and we agreed to do it — but not with the intent of having a national championship here,” Johnson told BusinessWest. “We just wanted to build the best track for the Northeast.”

Chris Canning (center) is the reigning motocross champion in the Northeast.

Chris Canning (center) is the reigning motocross champion in the Northeast.

While Grondahl originally reached out to Johnson’s son, Keith, now president of the Wick 338 Promotions LLC, the father-and-son duo agreed that the best way to maintain the track was to work together. Rick would help with the business plan and work with the town, acting as the front man, and Keith would take care of things at the track.

Together, their goal was to bring the track — and the business — back to the high level of success enjoyed decades ago. And, generally speaking, they’ve succeeded in those goals, as evidenced by the national championship staged there just over a week ago. The seventh round of the 2019 Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship put an exclamation point on what would have to be called a comeback for motocross racing in Southwick.

For this issue and its focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest talked with the Johnsons and others within the community, and learned that motocross is more than a popular spectator sport; it’s also a driving force when it comes to economic vibrancy in Southwick.

Beyond the Track

The national race at the Wick 338 proves to be one of the most physically grueling races for those competing, each twist and turn more challenging than the last.

But this is not the only event that happens at the track.

Rick Johnson said the site hosts more than 40 events throughout the year, each one bringing between 500 and 3,000 people to town.

“It’s great for the town, not just because of the national, although it brings in 15,000 people in that one day,” said Keith. “For the most part, the town is a huge supporter of the entire facility.”

He noted that many business owners even plan around the track’s events.

“When I give my presentation to the town and give them my schedule, there are so many local shop owners there to learn what the schedule is all about so they can plan,” he told BusinessWest.

Southwick Selectman Joe Deedy can attest to this, and said the town simply wasn’t as vibrant when motocross races weren’t staged for a few years. “When motocross went away a couple years back, you could see a ton of people were so disappointed overall.”

Deedy also recalled that, in the old days, competitors would just show up and enjoy the race. Now, a race team might have five or six promoters they are dealing with, bringing in even more business to the local community.

“Every local little mom-and-pop business or even bigger facility that does catering, chances are, they are there catering to one race team or another,” he said.

Deedy and other town selectmen, Doug Moglin and Russ Fox, spoke highly about the track and the effect it has on Southwick, noting that everything from gas stations to breakfast shops do better business when there is a race in town.

“Obviously there’s an economic spinoff, especially when you have a national race where you’re bringing thousands of people into town,” said Fox, who has been a selectman, off and on, for nearly 40 years.

Among those people who came to town for this year’s national was a large crew from NBC, which broadcast the race nationally. This exposure, said Fox, helps bring in more people and shines a light on Southwick, home to about 10,000 people.

The Wick 338

The Wick 338 hosts more than 40 events throughout the year, from small races to the recent national event that brought 15,000 people to town.

A national race like the one on June 29 brings in a crowd larger than the community’s population, drawing some traffic and maybe a few headaches, but any negatives are far outweighed by the positives, said those we spoke with.

Indeed, Moglin said, even during an event like the national, someone passing through Southwick wouldn’t know the event was going on, making the track a good neighbor.

Because the town has hosted the event several times before, the accumulated experience helps all those involved put on an event with minimal negative impact within the community, Moglin said, noting that the hour before the event and when it finishes are the only times traffic gets backed up, and additional law-enforcement services are not needed on the streets to help manage the crowds.

More Than Moto

While things may be quiet on the road, the track is always bustling.

Referred to as the Fenway Park of motocross, the Wick 338 hosts everything from open practices to Rugged Maniacs to an event known as Southwick Day. Track managers even volunteer their starting line to light off fireworks on the Fourth of July.

Before Rick and Keith hosted their first national event, they knew they needed to upgrade the track in order to make it the best of the best. This included installing new tunnels under the track, trimming trees to make the facility more viewer-friendly, close to 3,000 feet of fencing, a new irrigation system, a brand-new scoring and announcing tower, and more. Four days before the 2019 national, 20 truckloads of dirt were brought in.

These are just a few of the things it takes to run a successful track — and they aren’t cheap. Rick said he knew that, if the Wick charged for general admission only, it would be difficult to generate the revenue needed to pay for the upkeep of the track.

That’s why he got creative and introduced VIP seating.

“We looked and found areas of the track that weren’t being utilized, and we invested in those areas to create VIP sections,” he said, adding that these areas around the track allow ticket holders to get a whole new experience and greatly increase revenues; VIP tickets range from $90 to $375 compared to the general-admission price of $45.

All these investments have led to a four-year run of nationals for the father-and-son duo.

Before Rick and Keith took over at the Wick 338, chain-link fences stood six feet high, and tall trees made it difficult for viewers to truly feel like they were a part of the action. Now, motocross fans have the opportunity to see the dirt flying up-close and personal.

“Those were the things that we felt took away from the character of the New England track,” said Rick. “It was our intent to bring it back as it was back in the ’70s that everybody loved so much, and make it safe.”

They’ve succeeded in that mission, and in the process, they’ve helped rev up the local economy — literally and figuratively.

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Sports & Leisure

The Shape of Things

Anna Dichner and Steve Tryon

Anna Dichner and Steve Tryon are currently the only two trainers at Body Fit Warehouse, teaching about 40 classes a week, focusing on body-weight exercises.

When a person thinks of ‘working out,’ what typically comes to mind first are the grueling physical challenges the body goes through.

However, Steve Tryon says many personal trainers at gyms today are missing a key piece of the puzzle: the mental and spiritual side of training.

This is what he and co-owner Anna Dichner try to bring to Body Fit Warehouse, a holistic lifestyle and fitness gym in Southwick.

When Tryon first started working at the gym years ago, he had no idea he would one day be buying and co-owning the facility with Dichner, his girlfriend he met seven years ago. The two have since completely transformed their own values, which they remember every day in order to give members the best training possible.

“We rebuilt the whole foundation from scratch to show people that it’s not about how you look, it’s not about how strong you are… it’s about everything else you’re able to do in the rest of your life,” said Tryon, adding that, when the couple bought the gym in February 2018, there were a lot of things that needed to be changed. “The trainers and other practitioners that were here, they weren’t looking at things from a holistic standpoint.”

He’s talking about the importance of addressing what is going on inside people’s minds before the body gets to work.

Dichner added that a key element to how successful they have been with the business so far is how they approach identifying what may be going on in a person’s life outside of the gym, and how they can help fix the problem.

“I always ask every one of my clients, ‘how was your day?’ or ‘how are you feeling?’ because that will dictate the workout and the type of session we’re going to have,” she said.

Tryon and Dichner are the only two trainers in the gym, with 130 regular members paying a monthly fee and 40 to 50 people going through classes each week. Even with this high volume, the two manage to spend one-on-one time with a significant number of their members, while still keeping their focus on supporting a holistic lifestyle for each individual who walks through the door.

More Than Muscle Power

Using an individual approach like the one Tryon and Dichner describe sounds like it might break the bank, but the gym gives members and visitors plenty of options when it comes to finding the right fit for them.

“When we came in, we established right off the bat that we’re going to bring a loving atmosphere to the place to show people that we’re about growth,” said Tryon, adding that he will custom-match anyone who comes through the door. “If you have $5, I’ll train you for $5. We don’t care about how much money you pay, we don’t care about how much you’re capable of or this or that. We just want to show you that we want to grow with you, not just train you and make money from you.”

The 24/7 facility offers a no-contract membership, which means people can pay on a month-to-month basis for a rate of $24.95. The gym also allows drop-ins for $10 a class, and $5 simply to use the facility. The two run about 20 group training sessions a week, and these are not your average gym classes.

Dichner says how many people show up and what kind of energy they give off during the warm-up dictates the type of movements they will do for the day, adding that it is very difficult to plan workouts in advance when she doesn’t know how members will be feeling when they walk through the door.

“We don’t stick to any strict guidelines,” she said. “The holistic practice is, we have to take everything into consideration. If one thing is off, everything is off.”

This “structureless” system, as Tryon calls it, allows the trainers to assess how someone is feeling right off the bat, giving them the ability to create the best training session as possible.

And he says the results are astounding.

The two explained that they have completely different training styles, giving members more options when it comes to choosing how they want to approach a workout.

Both Dichner and Tryon are certified personal trainers, but they credit their ability to get results not to their certifications, but to the experiences they’ve gained throughout their lives. In fact, Dichner says she hardly remembers anything from her certification.

“Once I started training myself and going through trial and error, that’s when I learned the most,” she said. “There’s so much that you learn through hands-on experience.”

Attribute Adjustment

This experience has led to a facility with a completely different mindset about fitness, and Dichner and Tryon have big plans for the future.

“We want to bring it to its full potential,” said Dichner, adding that she hopes they can one day open a much bigger facility with fields and other elements. “The vision keeps changing.”

For now, the couple say helping people grow is the best part of their business. The excitement of not knowing what’s going to happen next helps them stick to their values and continue to give people the best training possible.

“I love seeing people’s attitudes and mindsets change through the training and me helping them,” said Dichner.

“We’re really just enjoying the ride, without a doubt,” added Tryon. “We took it from a gym to a garden.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

A Strained Safety Net

Joan Kagan, president and CEO of Square One

Joan Kagan, president and CEO of Square One

Managing a nonprofit agency has never been easy, but a number of factors, from low unemployment rates and rising employment costs to new labor regulations and immense competition for donor dollars, are making it much more difficult for organizations to carry out their missions.

Joan Kagan compares the effects that unfunded mandates and rising costs have on a nonprofit to a bad tomato season. Well, sort of.

To make that point, she told a story. On a summer day a few years ago, she was informed by the waitress at the restaurant she was patronizing that, if she wanted tomatoes on her sandwich, she would have to pay a surcharge.

“There was a lack of good tomatoes around, so that restaurant owner had to pay a higher price for his tomatoes, and he was passing that cost onto the customer,” said Kagan, president and CEO of early-education provider Square One, adding quickly that the analogy doesn’t exactly work.

That’s because nonprofits are not like restaurants offering tomatoes. They provide vital services, the rates for which are set by the state or federal government, and they can’t simply be raised because the cost of paying employees, providing health insurance, or simply paying the rent, continues to escalate.

And this is the situation that nonprofits, a large and important cog in the regional economy, are facing right now.

Indeed, in June 2018, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker signed a bill that is set to increase the minimum wage gradually every year, until it reaches $15 an hour in 2023. In addition, a payroll tax increase was issued for the new paid family and medical leave program, upping the rate from 0.63% to 0.75%. The state originally planned to begin collecting these taxes on July 1, but due to many companies and organizations expressing confusion on the specifics, the start of the required contributions has been delayed by three months.

“If there is a 5% increase in our health insurance in a year, we have to figure out where that comes from. We can’t just turn around and raise our rates by 5%.”

But the tax hike is coming, and it is one of myriad factors contributing to what are becoming ultra-challenging times for nonprofits, said Kagan.

Katherine Wilson, president and CEO of Behavioral Health Network Inc., which provides a variety of services to individuals with mental health issues, concurred.

“What’s more challenging now for my type of business is that so much of our revenue is established as a rate by somebody else,” said Wilson, who speaks from decades of experience when she says that while running a nonprofit has never been easy, it has perhaps never been more difficult than it is now. “If there is a 5%  increase in our health insurance in a year, we have to figure out where that comes from. We can’t just turn around and raise our rates by 5%.”

Gina Kos, executive director of Sunshine Village in Chicopee, a provider of day services for adults with disabilities, agreed. She told BusinessWest that while demand for the services provided by her agency is increasing, a point she would stress many times, the funding awarded to it for those services has either remained stagnant or decreased, at the same as costs, especially labor costs, are skyrocketing.

And, as noted, matters are about to get a whole lot worse.

“The state tells us how much they’re going to give us for a service, and we figure out how we can create a high-quality, desirable service with the money that they’re giving us,” said Kos, adding that Sunshine Village, along with many other nonprofit organizations, have been able to do this successfully in the past. “Unfortunately, now, it’s getting harder and harder… the regulations are becoming too burdensome.”

Gina Kos

Gina Kos says the measures contained in the so-called ‘grand bargain’ will present a stern test for all nonprofits.

She was referring, of course, to measures contained in the so-called Grand Bargain, the compromise struck between elected officials and the state’s business leaders. They include the minimum-wage increases and paid family leave, the latter of which will bring its own challenges to nonprofits used to running lean.

And these additional expenses come at a time when nonprofits are locked into rates that they can charge for services, with some of these rates badly out of date, said Wilson.

“When the state looks at an organization to come up with its rate, they look at the cost it took to fulfill the service two years ago,” she explained. “They don’t look at the market rate, they look at data that’s two years old … so the rates that they establish are extremely low and keep us as employers of individuals with low hourly rates.

“That makes it very difficult to find a quality staff person to fill our jobs and do good work that we need to be doing for the people that we serve,” she went on, adding that, in this climate, she and all nonprofit managers must be imaginative and persistent as they seek ways to bring more revenue and donations to their organizations.

For this issue and its focus on nonprofits, BusinessWest talked with area industry leaders about the forces contributing to these challenging times and the ways they’re responding to them.

Making Ends Meet

Kos, like other business and nonprofit leaders, said she has real doubts about whether the pending minimum-wage increases will significantly improve quality of life for the employees who receive them.

She believes many businesses and nonprofits will respond to the increases by cutting staffers’ hours, thus keeping payroll levels stagnant. Meanwhile, the minimum-wage hikes may actually hurt some employees because their higher annual salaries will push them over the so-called benefit cliff, meaning they will lose forms of assistance — for housing, food, and other items — previously provided by state and federal agencies because they no longer qualify, income-wise.

“Unfortunately, now, it’s getting harder and harder… the regulations are becoming too burdensome.”

“The goodness of what people want to do to give people a better quality of life through income is not going to be achieved,” said Kos. “And, quite honestly, it might even be reversed.”

Meanwhile, she doesn’t have any doubts that these measures will make it much more difficult for agencies like Sunshine Village, where 75% of the budget goes to wages, to carry out their missions, because they will make it more difficult to properly fund and staff their programs and also attract and retain talent.

Indeed, Kos said Sunshine Village, which has 280 employees, likes to tout itself as an employer of choice, paying employees $2 to $4 over the minimum wage in the past, a practice it will find considerably more challenging in the years to come.

That’s due in part to the compression effect that minimum-wage hikes have on salaries across the board. If an employer raises wages at entry-level positions from $13 to $15, it needs to then move its second-tier employees higher in order to differentiate the positions, and so on, up the ladder.

In short, minimum-wage hikes impact wages throughout an organization, said those we spoke with — and, again, unlike businesses selling sandwiches with tomatoes on them, they can’t simply raise rates to cover them.

Katherine Wilson says nonprofits are being challenged by set rates for services that are often out of step with the cost of providing those services.

Katherine Wilson says nonprofits are being challenged by set rates for services that are often out of step with the cost of providing those services.

Meanwhile, the paid-family-leave measure brings challenges of its own, said Kos. In addition to the tax burden, agencies must be able to provide services and run the organization if people are on leave, a real burden for smaller agencies, especially with programs that require minimum staffing ratios.

“We’ve always been able to find ways that we can do more with less,” said Kos. “And we’ve done that through innovation, through increasing efficiencies, through cost-cutting initiatives, but today, it’s just getting harder.”

Kagan agreed, and noted that, with historically low unemployment rates nationally and even in this region, simply finding staff is difficult, especially when nonprofits are competing with a host of industry sectors, including retail and hospitality, for individuals earning entry-level wages.

Kos concurred, and said payroll is just one of the line items on the budget where the numbers are growing.

“Other costs are rising at a level that our funding levels are not keeping up with,” she said. “And because of that, we’re losing really good staff.”

Mission Control

These new challenges for nonprofits are compounded by growing need within the community for many of the services they provide and demand for greater services, said those we spoke with, making this an even more difficult time for this sector.

“Not only are we dealing with the same type of funding level as we have had five or 10 years ago,” said Kos, “the expectation for the service from the customers that we’re seeing is that they want a better service, and we’re not getting better funding for that service.”

She noted that her agency, like Square One and BHN, is one of the many organizations in what’s known as the ‘safety net’ for Western Mass., and if they are not getting the necessary funding to provide their services to members of the community, the entire business community will be negatively affected.

“If Sunshine Village can’t serve more people coming out of the school system, if Square One isn’t able to serve more kids who need daycare, if Behavioral Health Network isn’t able to provide services for people with substance-abuse issues, their family members aren’t going to be able to go to work, and the business community is going to be hurt,” said Kos. “If their employees don’t have the safety net, their employees aren’t going to be able to go to work.”

In response to these many challenges, nonprofit managers are forced to be more creative with ways to raise additional revenues and become leaner, more efficient organizations, both of which are necessary if they are to continue to carry out their respective missions.

“The vast majority of folks, certainly in the business community, don’t understand that we’re businesses too.”

But most don’t have much flexibility when it comes to their budgets. At BHN, for example, 80% to 83% of the organization’s revenue is related to compensation.

“That doesn’t leave a lot of room to find money when there is something that represents an increase in the cost of paying our employees or supporting them,” Wilson told BusinessWest, adding, as others did, that agencies must think outside the box when it comes to bringing in more revenue in order to keep up with rising regulation costs.

This includes advocating with state representatives, looking for grants, and cutting costs within the organization.

This isn’t easy, said Kagan, adding that another challenge facing nonprofits is that people don’t understand that the same problems facing businesses today — finding and retaining talent, paying for ever-rising health insurance, coping with new state labor and employment laws, and many others — apply to them as well.

“The vast majority of folks, certainly in the business community, don’t understand that we’re businesses too,” said Kagan, adding that this makes it more difficult to generate more donations or other forms of support.

Kos agreed, but noted that, as businesses struggle with the same cost issues, there might be growing awareness of what nonprofits are confronting.

“I think what’s interesting today is that the for-profit business community is starting to struggle with the same things that we as the nonprofit community have been struggling with for decades,” she said.

Kagan agreed, and noted that it’s important for nonprofits to educate the business community — and all their supporters — about just how challenging the current climate is, and will be for years to come.

“You’re not advocating just to bring money into your own organization,” she explained. “You need it so that you can pay fair equitable salaries to your staff and provide a high-quality service to the people that you’re serving.”

Climate Change

All those we spoke with stressed that managing a nonprofit has never been as easy as it might look.

But over the years, said Kos, organizations like Sunshine Village have “managed.”

Indeed, they’ve managed to continuously raise funds vital to their organizations, cope with rising costs and changes in labor and employment laws, and, yes, carry out their important missions.

But it’s a fact that simply ‘managing’ is becoming ever-more difficult.

These new regulations are making it increasingly difficult for nonprofits to keep their heads above water, but that doesn’t stop them from trying.

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Commercial Real Estate

Painting the Town

The East Columbus parking garage after being colorfully decorated by artist Wane One from the Bronx, N.Y.

The East Columbus parking garage after being colorfully decorated by artist Wane One from the Bronx, N.Y.

Artist Wane One from the Bronx, N.Y.

Artist Wane One from the Bronx, N.Y.

Britt Ruhe is a huge fan of public art, specifically mural art.

After attending what have come to be called ‘mural festivals’ in cities such as Worcester and Salem and seeing the many benefits they bring to those communities, she lobbied hard to bring a concept known as Fresh Paint to the City of Homes.

Wanting to find a way to give back to the community, Ruhe, a financial strategist for startups and small businesses by trade, began meeting with festival organizers in other parts of the state to gather input and essentially learn how it’s done.

“I was able to see firsthand what an incredible impact mural festivals have on revitalizing a neighborhood, and I thought, ‘Western Mass. needs something like this,’” said Ruhe, adding that, when she approached Springfield’s business, civic, and community leaders about staging a festival here, she encountered overwhelming support.

Indeed, not only did Kevin Kennedy, the city’s chief Development officer, agree to the festival concept, he pushed Ruhe to set the bar higher than her original proposal of five murals in order to achieve a greater impact.

Over six days earlier this month, 35 artists, with considerable help from the public during several ‘paint parties,’ transformed 10 walls throughout the city during Springfield’s first mural festival.

“It’s been a great success; when you do something in a city the size of Springfield, it has to have the correct impact,” said Kennedy. “I thought five was a little too small to be impactful. This was the first time we were going into multiple murals, and I thought 10 was more impactful than five.”

He said encouraging the arts and culture sector, currently a $50 million business in Springfield, is important for the continued revitalization of the city, especially in the realms of housing and entertainment.

The 28 total works of public art add up to 20,000 square feet of murals, and the larger works were approved by building owners who had no idea what the finished product would look like.

“I was able to see firsthand what an incredible impact mural festivals have on revitalizing a neighborhood, and I thought, ‘Western Mass. needs something like this.’”

“The building owners have the biggest lift; they donate their wall,” said Ruhe. “As part of a festival, the building owner doesn’t have to pay, but they don’t get to choose what goes on their wall, which is a big ask, especially this first year around.”

Overall, the festival was a community effort, with $150,000 raised for the event from donors and several sponsors, including MassMutual, MassDevelopment, Tower Square Hotel, and many others.

Dozens of volunteers took part, and 1,500 cans of spray paint and 500 gallons of liquid paint were used to change the face of many formerly drab buildings and pieces of infrastructure.

But the benefits far outweigh the costs, Ruhe told BusinessWest.

“There’s a lot of data out there that shows that murals increase property value, foot traffic, and they’re good for residential and commercial businesses,” she explained, adding that, although the economic benefits are difficult to quantify, a study is being undertaken to examine the direct effects such a festival has on a city.

While little of the funds raised go to the artists themselves, Kim Carlino, artist of the mural at 8-12 Stearns Square, said there are many other types of rewards, especially the pursuit of such a daunting challenge.

Kim Carlino’s mural at 8-12 Stearns Square is a product of her love for creating illusion and disillusion of space in abstract form.

Kim Carlino’s mural at 8-12 Stearns Square is a product of her love for creating illusion and disillusion of space in abstract form.

Carlino says she loves the challenge of approaching a big piece and the ability to change and adjust the marks she makes.

Carlino says she loves the challenge of approaching a big piece and the ability to change and adjust the marks she makes.

“I like the experience of having something that’s bigger than you and can really engulf you,” she said, while transforming that massive, highly visible wall in the heart of the entertainment district. “Everyone coming by is just so thankful; it’s the same experience I have every time I make a mural — everybody wants more color in their life, and we need more of that in our day-to-day.”

Springfield, as noted, is only the latest in a number of cities — in Massachusetts and across the country — to embrace murals and the concept of a mural festival.

Wane One, a muralist for 38 years, has taken part in many of these events. He said the only American art form started by young children has turned into a worldwide artistic movement.

“This artform has gone global,” he said after creating the mural on the East Columbus parking garage. “It doesn’t matter what part of the world you go to right now, it has pretty much taken over.”

In the city of Worcester, the arts and culture sector is a $127.5 million industry, filling 4,062 full-time jobs. And murals have become a distinctive part of the landscape there.

Che Anderson, project manager in the Worcester city manager’s office, said that community’s mural festival — called “Pow! Wow!” — has brought more people out and into the local community, providing a boost to small businesses.

“Overall, ‘Pow! Wow!’ has provided an international platform to know about Worcester and the things that are already existing,” he told BusinessWest, adding that the festival has improved the city’s walkability. “The festival also provided an outlet for many creatives in the city.”

As for Springfield, similar effects are already in evidence.

“It’s been a great success,” said Kennedy. “It has delivered everything I think the mayor and I hoped for on the cultural side, the economic side, and the reputational side.”

Ruhe said the local business community’s support has been extremely helpful through the course of the festival, and she sees her hopes for the event’s future materializing.

“It’s really bringing the community together. People from all walks of life are coming out for the events or standing on the sidewalks looking at the art, talking with each other, painting together,” she said. “What makes mural art so powerful is that is brings art out into the street and into people’s everyday lives.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Features

Rethinking Safety

Joe Hileman of Blue-U Defense addresses the audience gathered at the recent seminar on workplace violence.

Joe Hileman of Blue-U Defense addresses the audience gathered at the recent seminar on workplace violence.

Sarah Corrigan thought the new security systems being implemented at OMG Inc.’s several locations would be sufficient to keep employers safe from any sort of outside danger.

But a recent workplace-violence training session convinced her that keeping an office or building safe at a time when active-shooter incidents occur almost weekly in the U.S. is far more about educating and training people than it is about technology — although technology is certainly important.

Corrigan, vice president of Human Resources and Environmental Health and Safety for Agawam-based OMG, said she went into the session, hosted by the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast (EANE) and presented by Blue-U Defense, expecting to receive some type of plan for how to deal with these types of tragic incidents.

Instead, she came out knowing it was up to her to talk with her employees about how they can each help themselves survive such a situation.

“I expected them to give us a process where there would be something set that we follow, so that was different to me, but it made a lot of sense,” she said, adding that she was surprised to hear the instructors actually warn against making a detailed plan.

Blue-U President and CEO Terry Choate Jr. told his audience of 150 business owners, managers, and rank-and-file employees that active-shooter training can oftentimes be too descriptive, putting the lives of those in the path of danger at even higher risk.

“As alarming as some of those videos are to watch, it is truly a reality. We’re really at a point where we need to take matters into our own hands; we have to be proactive at this point. It’s almost like, if we don’t do anything, we can’t expect any change.”

“Most of the active-shooter training across the country is ‘run, hide, and fight’ based. The problem with run, hide, fight is we already know that,” Choate said. “In the end, it means nothing. The key becomes how, when, and where do we run? How, when, and where do we hide? How, when, and where do we fight?”

This was the key takeaway from the three-hour session, hosted by EANE twice earlier this month — on June 12 at the Log Cabin in Springfield and on June 13 at at the Mandell Jewish Community Center in West Hartford.

The sessions were prompted by recent events — all too many of them, including the May 30 mass shooting at a municipal building in Virginia Beach, Va. — and alarming statistics. Indeed, according to the Gun Violence Archive, there were 340 mass shootings in 2018, compared to 269 in 2014. Meanwhile, during the presentation, Choate said the number-one cause of death for women in the workplace is workplace violence.

More than 140 area business owners, managers, and employees attended the event.

More than 140 area business owners, managers, and employees attended the event.

Those numbers help explain why the MassHire Springfield Career Center office, located in the Springfield Technology Park across from Springfield Technical Community College, was uninhabited on the afternoon of June 12, with all 28 employees attending the session at the Log Cabin.

Executive Director Kevin Lynn said his staff had been asking to do a training like the one put on by EANE, and he jumped at the opportunity.

“I think the issue really is that, every time we turn on the news and hear about one of these shootings, you think, ‘do you know what to do? What’s the right thing to do?’ he told BusinessWest. “You’re always sort of guessing.”

And guessing isn’t what he wants to be doing, or wants anyone else on his staff doing, he said, adding that this was a big motivator for sending his team to the training.

The audience at the Log Cabin was attentive and responsive as Choate and his colleague, Joe Hileman, went through their presentation, and the crowd fell silent when listening to the disturbing audio of the Columbine High School shooting in 1999.

Using that tape and videos of other mass shootings, the two explained that, although it may be a difficult thing to think and talk about such incidents and the steps needed to prevent one, such discussions are necessary in this day and age.

Pam Thornton, director of Strategic HR services at EANE, agreed, and said part of the agency’s role as an employer partner has become keeping the employees it serves safe, prompting such programs as the recent training sessions.

“As alarming as some of those videos are to watch, it is truly a reality,” she said. “We’re really at a point where we need to take matters into our own hands; we have to be proactive at this point. It’s almost like, if we don’t do anything, we can’t expect any change.”

Lynn added that the training session forced him to think about things differently, noting that being a company that regularly interacts with the public, serving 12,000 people annually, heightens the need for security.

“There’s really not a lot of room to operate; a building from the 1800s is not really built for this kind of reality,” he said, referring to the Tech Park, part of the Springfield Armory complex and later home to Digital Equipment Corp.

Like OMG, Lynn said he is looking into renovations that could potentially make the building safer, but for now, he said his employees were thankful for the training.

Whether working with organizations as large as OMG or nonprofits as small as MassHire, Blue-U focuses on giving people the tools to mentally deal with a life-threatening situation.

Choate told the audience at the Log Cabin that one of the biggest problems with active-shooter training in these times is that the mental aspect of the problem is not dealt with. Another huge problem comes with overpreparing for a workplace-violence situation.

“We cannot assume what a bad guy or threat is going to do when they come into the building,” he said.

OMG Inc. is in the process of upgrading its security systems, including the installation of cameras and using badges for all 300-plus employees in its Agawam facility, but the company’s leaders now know that a conversation needs to be started with its workers as well.

“There are a lot of doors, a lot of ways to get in,” said Corrigan. “You can’t protect all of those means of access, so you have to teach employees to think for themselves so that they have a plan.”

Kristen Pospolita, HR manager at OMG, said the training session aligned with what the company is currently focusing on.

“I thought that it goes in line with what we are trying to do at OMG, which is to empower our employees to take accountability and responsibility for their own safety in every aspect of the job,” she said, adding that being careful while operating machines and picking up spills on the floor are other ways to be self-aware. “This is just one more step in keeping us all safe. ‘See something, say something’ can be very helpful in lots of different types of situations.”

While a mass shooting or violent crime in the workplace is still not exactly a common occurrence, Choate said such matters are, unfortunately, something people are forced to think about in today’s world. Taking the necessary precautions and thinking about how one would respond in an active-shooter situation can be the difference between living and dying.

“No matter what we do, we will never be able to stop acts of mass violence entirely; it will not happen,” said Choate. “That doesn’t mean we can’t try.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Features

Striking a Chord

Donald Harrison and Zaccai Curtis perform on the Charles Neville Main Stage in 2017.  Photo by Ed Cohen

Donald Harrison and Zaccai Curtis perform on the Charles Neville Main Stage in 2017.
Photo by Ed Cohen

Evan Plotkin has always been a firm believer in the arts as an economic-development strategy and vehicle for “changing the conversation about Springfield,” as he likes to say.

And this belief has manifested itself in a number of ways, from the manner in which he has turned 1350 Main St. (the downtown Springfield office building he co-owns) into a type of art gallery to the sculptures he has helped bring to the central business district, to his long-time support of the Springfield Museums and other institutions.

But perhaps the most visible, and impactful, example of his work to use the arts to bring people — and energy — to the city and its downtown is the annual Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival, the sixth edition of which is slated for Aug. 10.

“We’re putting a light on Springfield that is very positive,” said Plotkin, one of the founders of the festival. “The reputation of the jazz festival has been very positively received throughout the music world, regionally and beyond. That has a lot of benefits to changing the conversation about Springfield; you can talk about a lot of things about Springfield, but now you can add the festival to those things.”

The festival strives to connect people of all ages, races, and backgrounds through music and the arts, said Plotkin, and also connect people to Springfield, a city clearly on the rise.

The festival is known for bringing both established and up-and-coming artists together to perform on the same stage — actually, several stages. The 2019 festival headliner is Elan Trotman, who will perform on a stage in the plaza at MGM Springfield at 10 p.m., kicking off the festival’s after-party.

Other performers of the day are split between two stages of equal importance in or near Court Square; the Charles Neville Main Stage and the Urban Roots Stage will offer performances simultaneously.

Artists for the 2019 lineup include Cory Henry and the Funk Apostles, Elio Villafranca & the Jass Syncopators, Tia Fuller, Samite, Firey String Sistas!, Kotoko Brass, Molly Tigre, Convergence Project Trio, Tap Roots, and the Holyoke Community Jazz Ensemble. Local artists from the Springfield area include the Billy Arnold Trio, Bomba De Aqui, and Ryan Hollander.

Evan Plotkin believes the jazz festival helps bring people to Springfield and present the city in a positive light.  Leah Martin Photography

Evan Plotkin believes the jazz festival helps bring people to Springfield and present the city in a positive light.
Leah Martin Photography

This year marks the festival’s second without Charles Neville, member of the Neville Brothers and beloved performer at the event, who died in April 2018. Neville’s wife, Kristin, co-founded the event with Plotkin and Blues to Green, a nonprofit organization that uses music to bring people together through performances, and hopes to unite people from many different communities in Springfield that share a common love for art and music.

The organization also works to create a more positive image for Springfield and help erase negative perceptions about the City of Homes. Plotkin told BusinessWest that Charles Neville’s impact on the festival lives on through the performances at the annual event.

“I think he really believed in the healing power of music and its ability to bring people together as one people,” said Plotkin, adding that Neville acted as a guiding light for the festival. “His presence spoke more than almost anything.”

The free outdoor festival has drawn thousands of people to Court Square, giving people the opportunity to meet other music lovers. The $200,000 budget for the event comes completely from sponsors and volunteers.

Plotkin said support for the event has been tremendously helpful, and the positive reactions from attendees are what drive the producers to make it bigger and better each year.

“I love the fact that people are so animated and excited about the music,” said Plotkin, adding that the music ranges from Latino bands to blues artists to gospel singers. “The audience embraces the variety of different genres and feels like this is something that belongs to them.”

Hollander, one of the local artists set to perform at the 2019 festival, agreed that jazz music has the ability to bring people together. “I think jazz music is intended to be the music of the people,” he said.

City on the Rise

The Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival comes at a time where the arts are playing a significant, and growing, role in the revitalization of Springfield and also in creating a better vibe in the city. Examples abound, including everything from high-profile, MGM-organized concerts at the MassMutual Center (Stevie Wonder and Cher have performed, and Aerosmith is booked for this summer) to Fresh Paint, a mural project downtown that has changed the face of many buildings and structures .

“I think this festival coming off of the mural festival is going to push us forward in terms of really positive impressions that people will have about the city,” Plotkin said.

Hollander agreed, noting that the opening of MGM and other initiatives have created more vibrancy and more nightlife, complemented by a greater police presence and, overall, fewer concerns about crime and safety.

“I think that Springfield is definitely on the rise,” he told BusinessWest. “The general downtown just feels safer in most parts. I think any time we find other things to occupy ourselves with, we’re less likely to resort to crime or violence. The festival is an opportunity to do something non-violent and be entertained.”

In 2016, Jazz Times magazine named the Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival one of the best jazz festivals to attend, and Plotkin hopes the event can continue to grow in both size and stature.

“The jazz festival helps to define the downtown from its walkability,” he said, adding that his goal would be to model the festival after other famous ones in the region, like the Newport Jazz Festival, and set up several different stages and venues around the downtown area.

“Ultimately, a really cool concept to grasp is how walkable the city is, because that implies that it’s safe,” he said. “A walkable city is a safe city. The more people who are walking the streets, the less worries you have about crime and safety.”

As an example of this phenomenon, he cited the underpass that connects the downtown with Riverfront Park, which has been painted into a Dr. Seuss mural by John Simpson. This connector, Plotkin said, used to be a place where people did not want to go because they were afraid to cross the highway to go to the riverfront.

“Now, by painting that underpass and creating activities on that side of the river as well as downtown, you’re creating this connector,” he explained, adding that the jazz festival acts similarly, showing how possible it is to bring all communities in Springfield together as one. “We haven’t reached that ultimate goal of having this festival throughout the downtown, but by doing the jazz festival, you can see the potential of what can happen if we carry this throughout downtown.”

Plotkin remembers a time in his early 20s where he was able to walk to bars and restaurants downtown and feel completely safe, and feels that Springfield is making its way there once again.

“I think, today, it’s the safest the city has ever been downtown,” he said. “And it can only get better as we finish construction on several parks and as we start to program them with music.

“That,” he added, “is where a wall becomes a bridge.”

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]