Home Articles posted by 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