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Alumni Achievement Award Cover Story

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In 2015, BusinessWest introduced a new recognition program. Actually, it was a spin-off, or extension, of an existing recognition program — 40 Under Forty. The concept was rather simple: to recognize the individual (or individuals — there have multiple winners a few years) who has most improved upon their résumé of excellence, in both their chosen field and with their service to the community. Over the past several years, the competition for what has become known as the Alumni Achievement Award has been spirited, as it was this year. Indeed, a panel of three judges, including the 2022 honoree, Anthony Gleason III, scored nominations featuring individuals across several different sectors of the economy. The four highest scorers, the finalists for the 2023 AAA honor, are profiled here. They are: Ryan McCollum, owner of RMC Strategies; Orlando Ramos, state representative and Springfield mayoral candidate; Amy Royal, founder and CEO of the Royal Law Firm, and Michelle Theroux, executive director of the Berkshire Hills Music Academy. The AAA winner will be announced at this year’s 40 Under Forty gala on June 15 at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House.

Select each finalist below to read their story:

Ryan McCollum

Owner of RMC Strategies

Orlando Ramos

State representative and Springfield mayoral candidate

Amy Royal

Founder and CEO of the Royal Law Firm

Michelle Theroux

Executive director of the Berkshire Hills Music Academy

This year’s 40 Under Forty Alumni Achievement Award is Presented by:

Cover Story Creative Economy

Playing in Harmony

 

Springfield Symphony Orchestra President and CEO Paul Lambert

Springfield Symphony Orchestra President and CEO Paul Lambert

Paul Lambert left a long career with the Basketball Hall of Fame in early 2022 to become interim director of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra.

He said his family has often asked him why. Incredulously. Like … really, Paul, why?

To answer that question, he first notes that he loves music, but that’s only part of why he took over an institution that was still emerging from the pandemic and a long stretch without concerts at Symphony Hall — and embroiled in labor strife with Local 171 of the American Federation of Musicians, which, absent a new contract, had filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the National Labor Relations Board.

But Lambert, who shed the interim tag and was named president and CEO of the SSO earlier this year, saw the value in righting the ship, working toward labor peace, and re-establishing — or at least re-emphasizing — the organization’s importance to not only downtown Springfield, but Western Mass. in general.

With the announcement on May 4 of a new, two-year labor deal between the SSO and the union — which calls for a minimum of eight concerts per year at Symphony Hall, annual raises for the musicians, and possibly other community and educational concerts around the region as well — Lambert, the SSO board, and the musicians are all breathing easier as they plan the 2023-24 season.

“Everyone had been reading the negative stories in the press about the labor issues. People were aware of the global pandemic issues. People were aware of all the challenges facing the SSO. And we had to rebuild people’s confidence.”

“I was very aware of the talent on stage and a great appreciator, if that’s the correct word, of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra,” Lambert said of his career change last year. “But I also was aware of the fact that it was a very challenging time.”

In fact, even long-time supporters in the community, including corporate sponsors, were growing anxious, Lambert admitted.

“Everyone had been reading the negative stories in the press about the labor issues. People were aware of the global pandemic issues. People were aware of all the challenges facing the SSO. And we had to rebuild people’s confidence that not only would we perform, but perform on a first-class basis, and then come back with a full season, with real concerts and real energy with our musicians working with us.”

Beth Welty, the union’s president, called the past few years a “demoralizing” time in many ways, but said everyone is feeling grateful now.

Union President Beth Welty

Union President Beth Welty said the musicians are relieved to have a new contract but hope to increase the number of performances in coming seasons.

“There are a ton of people throughout the organization that want to work together,” she told BusinessWest. “The musicians want to work with Paul and the staff and the board, and we are working together. We’ve got to come together and put the past behind us and work for a much better future.”

Lambert agreed. “This has been a very challenging time for the SSO on a variety of fronts. Certainly, the labor issues that have been in place for some years, on top of the global pandemic, which shut everything down and badly affected all performing-arts organizations for some time, were very real. And to get ourselves into a new beginning, a fresh start for all concerned around this labor deal, was critically important.”

 

Developments of Note

That said, as in many negotiations, no one got exactly what they wanted. For one thing, Welty said the musicians have been clamoring for more performances.

“When I joined the orchestra 40 years ago, we probably did three times the number of concerts we do now. For years, they’ve been constantly cutting and cutting; it felt like no number was small enough for them. They wanted to keep cutting, and we felt like we had to take a stand on that.”

She said the musicians were looking for more than 10 shows, the SSO wanted to go as low as five at one point, and they settled on eight — six classical and two pops.

“We’re not happy about that, but we’re looking to build back up from eight, and now there are some new board members interested in growth,” Welty noted. “You can cut yourself out of existence; the less we play, the less people know we exist.”

“The idea now is to put ourselves in a safer place to see what we can do together, to see what revenue streams we can create, where we can create new opportunities to play.”

Welty did have appreciative thoughts for Lambert, saying it’s clear he understands where the musicians are coming from. And Lambert told BusinessWest that eight concerts is not a hard ceiling, but only the minimum.

“That was a critical point in the negotiations: let’s see what we can do,” he said. “Let’s see what the market will bear. Let’s see what funding is available and what opportunities present themselves. We have to be very creative and open-minded as we work together to see what’s available.”

Symphony Hall

Symphony Hall will host eight SSO performances in 2023-24: six classical and two pops concerts.

Revenue is the big sticking point, he added, noting that, if the SSO sold every ticket for every performance, it would still be running a deficit without increasing external support.

“The challenges that face the Springfield Symphony Orchestra are hardly unique to Springfield. The industry as a whole — traditional, classical symphonic orchestras — is challenged right now,” he explained. “Those audiences, demographically, are aging and fading, and the folks who go to those concerts on a regular basis, and donors and corporations who support those concerts, have been a shrinking pool around the country. There are a lot of orchestras that are really struggling right now to make ends meet.”

He noted that many cities with wealthier populations and deeper corporate pockets than Springfield don’t even have symphonies.

“The idea now is to put ourselves in a safer place to see what we can do together, to see what revenue streams we can create, where we can create new opportunities to play. The whole idea, of course, is to play, to create opportunities for people to hear the Springfield Symphony Orchestra in a variety of formats.”

To that end, the Musicians of the Springfield Symphony Orchestra (MOSSO), the organization formed by SSO musicians during the labor unrest to perform smaller concerts across the region, will transition into a newly named entity, the Springfield Chamber Players, and will continue to present chamber-music concerts, including the long-standing Longmeadow Chamber Series.

Performances like these, Lambert said, will help build a larger audience pool. “They allow new people to come in, who, perhaps, have not listened to the music on a regular basis, and will be exposed to the symphony orchestra and say, ‘wow, this is beautiful. I didn’t know they played this.’”

He and Welty noted that the new season of full-orchestra performance at Symphony Hall, and seasons to follow, will feature a healthy mix of what might be called ‘the classics’ and newer works by more recent composers.

Springfield Symphony Orchestra

The Springfield Symphony Orchestra, boasting 67 musicians, is the largest symphony in Massachusetts outside of Boston.
Photo by Chris Marion Photography

“People love the classics, but you have to bring in living composers and composers of color and women composers, and represent everyone at concerts,” Welty said. “We really started to do that this season. It was more diverse and inclusive. In terms of the repertoire we’re doing next year, it’ll be the same type of year; we’re really excited about that programming, which is going to be more diverse and interesting. We’re still going to do a good dose of the classics — we’re not abandoning them — but we are combining them with stuff that was written in our lifetime.”

Lambert was also excited about this broadening of choices. “We want to certainly maintain and nurture our core audience, the folks who have grown up with us for many years, the subscribers and the bedrock of our audience who love the classic repertoire of classical music. But at the same time, there’s all kinds of music.”

He feels like that’s an important element in bringing in younger, more diverse SSO fans, who will continue to support the organization in the coming decades.

“We happen to live in a very diverse community and region,” he said. “So I think it’s really important that we find ways to reach all those audiences, let them know that the Springfield Symphony Orchestra is for everybody, that it’s music for everyone. We really are excited about those opportunities for people to come in and hear this beautiful music and these wonderful musicians.”

 

Sharp Ideas

The other key element in expanding the audience, of course, is connecting with young people. To that end, Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno announced that the city of Springfield will provide $280,000 over two years in financial support for SSO to create educational programming for youth.

“As the Springfield Symphony and its talented musicians turn a fresh page of music in our beloved Symphony Hall, I cannot stress enough how important Springfield’s talented youth are to the success of this new beginning,” the mayor said in announcing the grant. “Creating a younger, more diverse, and more inclusive classical-music ecosystem should be a top priority of the symphony organizationally. The success of these efforts will ultimately be reflected in the diversity of the music that is played, those represented on stage, and those in the audience.”

Lambert said outreach to youth had been a big success, but stopped happening over the past few years. “As I talked to folks out in the business community, so many people said to me, ‘the first time I ever heard a symphony orchestra, I was in fourth grade … I remember going to that concert, and it changed how I looked at the symphony.’ So I said to the board on more than a few occasions, ‘that’s just not discretionary, that’s mandatory; we have to start redoing that.’ It opens the door for so many people, for the first time in their life, to hear a symphony orchestra live on stage.”

“As I talked to folks out in the business community, so many people said to me, ‘the first time I ever heard a symphony orchestra, I was in fourth grade … I remember going to that concert, and it changed how I looked at the symphony.”

Welty wants to go beyond those experiences, hoping to not only bring kids to Symphony Hall, but for small groups of musicians to visit area schools.

“We used to go play for kids in the classrooms. We probably stopped doing that in the early 2000s, but we did hundreds of those concerts,” she recalled. “I loved it. We interacted directly with the kids; there were Q&A sessions. I want to get back to that as an educational resource.”

She also fondly recalls the days when the symphony toured New England. “I understand that a lot of financial repair has to happen, and we can’t afford to take the whole orchestra, but we can take a quartet out. We can take a quintet out.”

Such traveling shows, like the two series of performances MOSSO staged at the Westfield Atheneum over the past two years, are another way to grow the SSO’s fanbase, she added. “It’s not just great for the audience, but a great marketing tool for the SSO. We hope to keep expanding that.”

As for corporate sponsorship, Lambert said it was a tough year, scheduling live performances on the fly under the old contract’s terms while building up the staff, negotiating with the union, and keeping supporters on board.

“There was a lot of work being done trying to convince people to trust us and come on board. Some folks started to do that when MassMutual came back and was willing to support us; that was critically important. There are other folks we need to embrace that. We’ve had some really wonderful response from a core group of sponsors — I hope there’s a lot more.”

As for growing new audiences, Lambert is confident that those who attend a concert — whether a full symphony performance in Springfield or a chamber concert in Longmeadow, Westfield, or elsewhere — will be “blown away,” and not only want to attend more shows, but perhaps support the SSO as a sponsor or donor. “We need everybody to work together.”

 

In Tune with the Community

After a couple years of performing concerts under the old contract’s terms, Welty is relieved the musicians can focus on the positive impact of what they do.

“For this community to thrive, it really needs a vibrant art scene. It’s a real economic driver,” she said, noting the impact of downtown events on restaurants and other attractions — not to mention on the ability to grow a business.

“If you’re a CEO or business person looking to be based in the Springfield area, and you want to attract the best talent to come work for you, Springfield has to be an appealing place to live — and the arts are so important to that,” Welty added. “Local sports teams are important, but the arts are just as important. If you think you’re living in a cultural desert, you won’t get the best people to come work for you.”

The Springfield Symphony Orchestra, boasting 67 musicians, is the largest symphony in Massachusetts outside of Boston — which is impressive in itself, Lambert said.

“The fact that Springfield, Massachusetts has a symphony orchestra in 2023 is kind of a miracle at this point. There are much bigger places that don’t have this great gift,” he told BusinessWest. “I think it’s really important that we all get together and recognize how this adds to the quality of life here in Springfield, how it adds to the reasons that people might want to live and work here and come downtown.”

Which is why Welty is encouraged by what the new labor agreement promises, and what it may lead to in the future.

“On paper, there’s less guaranteed work, but there’s more energy on the board to create new concerts, new programming,” she said. “I think, in the end, we will start building back and offer more to the community.”

 

Cover Story Cybersecurity

Rise of the Machines

 

Twice a year, Tom Loper participates in a Cybersecurity Advisory Council meeting. The last one was … different.

“I would say there was a sense of concern that I hadn’t seen before at that council because of ChatGPT and the phishing potential,” said Loper, dean of the School of Arts, Sciences and Management at Bay Path University.

He explained that people can use ChatGPT, the AI chatbot that has drawn major worldwide attention since its unveiling last fall, to input information from any website, or emails from an organization, to generate a phishing episode much more realistic, and much more likely to draw a response, than its target had ever received.

“These are people — from Facebook, from Fidelity, from the Hartford, from every major organization you can think of in our area and beyond — who were taken aback by the capabilities of ChatGPT,” Loper said.

“It really scares the hell out of all of us, because we know the biggest problem that we have in cybersecurity, the biggest challenge, comes between the brain and the keyboard. Human beings allow people in.”

“It really scares the hell out of all of us, because we know the biggest problem that we have in cybersecurity, the biggest challenge, comes between the brain and the keyboard,” he explained. “Human beings allow people in. The systems are very good at stopping people from breaching — flags go off, bells and whistles go off. But the biggest problem we have is the human intervention that has to take place. And human beings make mistakes. Especially when we’re connected to the outside world, we make mistakes that allow phishing to take place.”

Tom Loper says ChatGPT is already making work easier

Tom Loper says ChatGPT is already making work easier for students and professionals, but that raises issues ranging from plagiarism to how jobs might change.

And ChatGPT just made that challenge even more daunting.

But the impact of this and other AI tools extend far beyond cyberthreats.

“AI has the ability to be as impactful as the internet — possibly even as impactful as electricity — on the way business is conducted,” said Delcie Bean, president and CEO of Paragus Strategic IT in Hadley. “We all knew this day was coming for a long time, but now it’s here, and by the end of this decade, the only businesses that will still be in business are the ones that embrace the change.”

Bean explained that these tools allow enormous amounts of work previously done by humans to be completely automated, often in a fraction of the time and with much greater accuracy — and not just basic administrative work.

“We are also talking about highly complex work like computer coding, law, and even practicing medicine,” Bean related. “In a recent demonstration, AI correctly diagnosed 225 cancer cases within 18 minutes and at 85% accuracy, while human doctors took 50 minutes and only achieved a 64% accuracy rate with the same cases. Between now and the end of the decade, we are going to see dozens of new companies and technologies emerging, displacing a lot of legacy processes and technologies at a rapid pace.”

What does that mean for employers, the workforce, and job opportunities in the future? No one has all the answers to that question — although ChatGPT itself took a stab at it for us  — but there is broad agreement that change is coming.

“AI has the ability to be as impactful as the internet — possibly even as impactful as electricity — on the way business is conducted. We all knew this day was coming for a long time, but now it’s here, and by the end of this decade, the only businesses that will still be in business are the ones that embrace the change.”

“This really challenges all forms of expertise because it’s drawing on this incredible domain of knowledge,” said James Wilson, professor of Business at Bay Path. “Now, the accuracy of it, the citing of it, all that is not there yet. But it will come.”

Wilson recently started teaching courses in a certificate program on digital transformation, which includes discussion of the impact of AI on the workplace.

“It started as a therapy session because the students were like, ‘what’s the future going to be? What skills do I need to have? What’s going to happen?’ It’s very uncertain. We have these things called human skills … which are presumably going to differentiate us from this artificial intelligence — that is, creative thinking, inquiry, critical thinking, collaboration. You’re not going to run your business on ChatGPT.”

Delcie Bean says AI promises to disrupt

Delcie Bean says AI promises to disrupt not only administrative and computer careers, but law, medicine, and a wide range of other fields.

But that’s not the only viewpoint. “The most pessimistic view of this is that AI will do for humans what the automobile did for horses,” Wilson said. “There are some dire projections.”

 

Future … Tense

Loper and Wilson have delved into the capabilities and possibilities of ChatGPT and other AI tools on the higher-education level, and they’ve been impressed.

“ChatGPT is the hot topic because it’s a breakthrough in the way it uses large language processing,” Loper said. “It’s never been made available to the public like this before. The exciting part is how it processes data at a phenomenal speed — it’s absolutely amazing.”

And it’s not just regurgitating knowledge, he stressed. Xiaoxia Liu, assistant professor and director of Applied Data Science at Bay Path, has been using ChatGPT in her classes, helping students finish programming projects.

A Brief ‘Interview’ with ChatGPT

We went right to the source and asked ChatGPT for its take on this article’s topic. These are the answers it provided within seconds.

How will ChatGPT and other AI tools threaten the job market in the coming years?

AI tools and automation have already impacted the job market in many ways, and it is likely that this trend will continue in the coming years. ChatGPT and other AI tools can automate repetitive or low-level tasks, leading to job displacement for those whose work can be automated.

However, it’s essential to note that AI tools and automation can also create new job opportunities, particularly in areas that require specialized skills or expertise in implementing and managing AI technology. Additionally, the use of AI tools can increase productivity and reduce costs, which can result in businesses expanding and creating new job positions.

Overall, the impact of AI on the job market is complex and multi-faceted. While some jobs may be replaced by automation, new opportunities may arise, and existing roles may evolve and require different skill sets. It is essential for individuals and businesses to adapt to these changes by acquiring new skills and embracing the opportunities presented by AI.

What are some jobs that ChatGPT and other AI tools will impact the most?

ChatGPT and other AI tools are likely to impact a range of jobs, particularly those that involve repetitive or low-level tasks that can be automated. Some examples of jobs that may be impacted the most include:

• Customer-service representatives: ChatGPT can automate many customer service tasks, such as answering common questions or directing customers to the appropriate department.

• Data-entry clerks: AI tools can be used to scan and input data, reducing the need for manual data-entry clerks.

• Factory workers: AI-powered robots can perform tasks such as assembly-line work, reducing the need for human workers.

• Drivers: The use of self-driving cars and trucks may impact the job market for drivers in the coming years.

• Financial analysts: AI tools can analyze financial data and identify patterns, potentially reducing the need for human financial analysts.

• Retail salespeople: The rise of e-commerce and automated checkout systems may reduce the need for human retail salespeople.

• Administrative assistants: AI tools can be used to automate tasks such as scheduling appointments, managing email, and organizing files, reducing the need for human administrative assistants.

It’s important to note that the impact of AI on these jobs may vary depending on the industry, location, and other factors. While AI may automate some tasks, it may also create new job opportunities in areas such as data analysis, AI development and maintenance, and other specialized roles.

Write a haiku about how AI might change the way people work.

Machines learn and grow.
Work becomes more efficient.
Humans thrive with ease.

“She gives them a start, and then they have to finish it; they use Python or whatever to finish it,” Loper explained. “Now, she’s letting them use ChatGPT, and they’re finishing it in seconds. And it’s very accurate, very fast. She’s excited about that. That’s an example where ChatGPT uses large language learning to help it finish something that you started without you giving it much guidance at all, other than the start of the program.”

Loper noted that ChatGPT also gives different answers to questions based on who’s asking and in what way.

“The algorithm, for whatever reason, is drawing on what it thinks is ideal, but your past references influence the way that it searches. The type of question you ask generates a certain type of format and answer. So if you’re asking a business question, you get an answer in a business format. If you’re asking a question for a literary magazine, you get a different format.”

And that raises issues with academic plagiarism, Loper noted, because professors can no longer throw a chunk of a student’s work into Google to get a definite take on whether something was lifted, verbatim, from another source.

He has experimented with generating presentations from ChatGPT based on a series of prompts, and recognizes the ramifications for students. “It was logically laid out and put in a format that, if a student gave it to me, I would say, ‘damn, that’s good. You really learned this material.’”

When it comes to cracking down on plagiarism, Wilson added, “we might have to abandon ship on that in a way, because it’s not so much about being original anymore as being creative in your inquiry and critical in your understanding of it.”

Wilson called up other AI tools as well during his talk with BusinessWest, from Butternut AI, which can build a website in 20 seconds, to Pictory AI, which generates videos, to Wondercraft AI, which asks for discussion prompts and will generate a full podcast, featuring multiple voices.

“I teach a business-analytics class, where it was all research, research, research. I don’t think it’s about research anymore,” he said of the way AI will affect academia. “I think it’s about asking the right questions. It’s about the right inquiry. It may not be about writing anymore. It may be about editing and getting a draft from the AI expert and then adjusting it. The amount of content that can be created is staggering.”

Even classroom lectures can benefit, he added. “I can put in a few prompts, and it generates an entire lecture. I can go in and change the text, which will then be re-narrated through AI. Suddenly, all my content is better organized.”

Amid all these implications is the compelling idea that AI will only get sharper.

James Wilson

James Wilson

“We’ve all gotten used to Siri, and we’ve all gotten used to Google, but now you’re going to have this super-intelligent, conversational assistant with you,” Wilson said.

Loper added that these discussions are no longer theoretical. He noted that speakers at the Davos World Economic Forum, among others, have been thinking seriously about what types of work are going to be replaced by artificial intelligence and what careers will continue to be dominated by human beings, with their unique sensing and critical skills.

“Human beings aren’t going away any time soon, but we’re going to have a level of augmentation that we’ve never experienced, and we don’t know how to work with it yet. It’s so new,” he added. “James and I are playing with ChatGPT, and we’re kind of in awe of it, but we’re just skimming the surface compared to some of the ways people are using it. It’s just amazing.”

Added Wilson, “if you try to imagine this in a much smaller sense, it’s like when the smartphone came out — how did that change business? Texting and emailing and video chat reconfigured the way things are done, but in a smaller sense.”

Loper agreed. “This is much bigger than anything like that.”

 

Risk and Reward

Przemyslaw Grabowicz, a computer scientist in the College of Information and Computer Science at UMass Amherst, is heading up a research initiative called EQUATE (which stands for equity, accountability, trust, and explainability), which is currently developing a coordinated response to the Biden administration’s request for public comment on its AI Accountability Policy.

“As a computer scientist, I believe technology can make our lives better, maybe in some senses easier,” he told BusinessWest. “But I think there’s a risk that, if we step into new technologies too quickly, then society may develop a distrust for new technology that may, in the end, slow down developments.”

The National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), a Commerce Department agency that advises the White House on telecommunications and information policy, is studying whether there are measures that could be implemented assure that AI systems are “legal, effective, ethical, safe, and otherwise trustworthy.”

“Responsible AI systems could bring enormous benefits, but only if we address their potential consequences and harms,” NTIA Administrator Alan Davidson told Reuters. “For these systems to reach their full potential, companies and consumers need to be able to trust them.”

In crafting accountability policies, Grabowicz said, leaders in all areas of life need to think carefully about the consequences of technology development and ways in which profits from this development will be converted into long-term societal gain rather than short-term profits. If not, such technology may contribute to the growth of misinformation and polarization.

“As a society, nobody wants these kinds of consequences, but if corporations focus on short-term financial gain, they may not consider the potential harmful consequences of technology being used in a way that it wasn’t meant to when it was developed.”

Such questions, Bean noted, will be further accelerated by advances in other technologies, especially robotics. “We are rapidly approaching the day when there will be free-standing robots in our lives who are able to think, make decisions, and interact with the world around them.”

In terms of security, he went on, it is hard to quantify the threat. “With Microsoft’s new tool VALL-E, which can mimic a human voice with a sample size as small as three seconds; deepfakes being able to be produced in minutes by anyone with basic computer skills; and more and more data being available to be mined, we are going to need to rethink security.

“While it is possible to imagine how technology will respond to meet these threats, the risk to businesses is the gap that exists in between the threats coming online and the response being available and adopted,” he added. “A lot of businesses are likely to face real threats in that gap — not to mention physical security, things like hacking a moving vehicle or sending a robot to conduct a robbery.”

In short, Bean said, “while there is much to look forward to, there are certainly many threats that will need to be understood and addressed.”

Meanwhile, artificial intelligence continues to evolve — in ways we may not even see coming.

Class of 2023 Cover Story

Introducing the Class of 2023

It is perhaps the best thing about a 40 Under Forty class. And also the most challenging thing for the judges who ultimately decide its makeup.

Each of the nominees has a different background, a different story, a unique set of challenges to overcome, a different path that brought them to where they are, a distinctive set of accomplishments.

This variety, this diversity, makes it difficult for judges, who are asked to weigh the merits of entrepreneurs, professionals, nonprofit managers, public servants, college administrators, and many more — and some who fall into several of these categories at the same time — and score them against one another.

It’s difficult for them, but for the rest of us … it’s what makes this program so special. It’s a salute to the rising stars in this region, and each year, the list of honorees is both a revelation and a celebration.

And the class of 2023 is no exception. It is diverse in every way imaginable.

Each story is, indeed, different, but there are, as always, some common denominators, including excellence within one’s profession, a commitment to giving back to the community, dedication to family and work/life balance, and a focus on how they can make this region better for all those who live and work here.

The judges for this year’s program — spotlighted below — reviewed more than 120 nominations, a number that speaks to the continued vibrancy of this program and the dedication of the region’s rising stars.

The class of 2023 will be celebrated on Thursday, June 15 at the annual 40 Under Forty Gala at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House in Holyoke. That gala will also feature the announcement of the winner of the ninth annual Alumni Achievement Award, a recognition program that salutes the past 40 Under Forty honoree who has most impressively added to their accomplishments in the workplace and within the community, as chosen by a panel of judges.

Tickets for this year’s 40 Under Forty event are sold out!

Go HERE to nominate a 40 Under Forty for next year.

2023 Presenting Sponsor

2023 Partner Sponsors

2023 Presenting Sponsor Alumni Achievement Award

Meet Our Judges

Raymond BerryRaymond Berry is founder and general manager of White Lion Brewing Company, the first craft beer company post-prohibition to recognize the city of Springfield as its home. Berry, a Forty Under 40 member, class of 2010, is currently a board member at Springfield College and Blues to Green, and an attorney general appointee to the Commonwealth’s Cannabis Regulatory Committee. He also sits on the Basketball Hall of Fame Finance Committee, Diversity & Inclusion Committee for the Mass. Brewers Guild, and Philanthropic Committee for the National Brewers Assoc. Berry earned his BS from American International College, MBA from Springfield College, and a graduate certificate from Tufts University. He was a graduate in the region’s inaugural Leadership Pioneer Valley LEAP class. He has received the Spirit Award from the local housing authority, the Affiliated Chamber of Commerce’s Community Leadership Award, the Assoc. of Black Business & Professionals’ Business of the Year Award, and a Martin Luther King Social Justice Award. He has also been recognized as one of the region’s Top 100 Men of Color.

Latoya BosworthLatoya Bosworth is a life coach, author, and program officer for Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities. She worked in Springfield Public Schools for 18 years, first as a special educator and then as a behavior specialist. When she is not facilitating workshops for nonprofit and corporate clients or inspiring others with her speeches and self-published books, she is giving back to her community with through mentoring and collaboration. She was a member of the 40 Under Forty class of 2016, and one of BusinessWest’s Women of Impact for 2022.

Brian CaninaBrian Canina is executive vice president, chief financial officer, and chief operating officer at Holyoke-based PeoplesBank. He has more than 20 years of experience in the finance industry. He is a graduate of Bryant College and is a certified public accountant. He is also a graduate of the ABA Stonier Graduate School of Banking and is a recipient of the Wharton Leadership Certificate. He is president of the Finance and Accounting Society of New England. He serves on the board of directors for Helix Human Services.

Jessye DeaneJessye Deane is the executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce and Regional Tourism Council, and is the owner of two award-winning fitness studios, F45 Training Hampshire Meadows in Hadley and F45 Training Riverdale in West Springfield. She was a member of the 40 Under Forty class of 2021, Franklin County Young Professional of the Year in 2020, and the 2019 Amherst Chamber MVP. She has serves on more than a dozen community-based committees, and is this year’s campaign co-chair for the United Way of Franklin & Hampshire Region. 

Aundrea PaulkAundrea Paulk is the Marketing and Communications director at Caring Health Center. She is also the founder and creative force behind Soiree Mi, LLC, an event-planning and design business. Soiree Mi offers creative and personalized services for private and corporate clients. She is a member of the 40 Under Forty class of 2022. A graduate of Bay Path University, her areas of expertise include marketing, branding, communications, event planning, social media, and website content management.

Alumni Achievement Award

Read about past Alumni Achievers.

Please nominate for this year HERE

Alumni Achievement Award Judging Underway

When BusinessWest launched its 40 Under Forty program in 2007, it did so to identify rising stars across our region — individuals who were excelling in business and through involvement within the community — and celebrate their accomplishments. 

In 2015, BusinessWest announced a new award, one that builds on the foundation upon which 40 Under Forty was created. It’s called the Alumni Achievement Award. As the name suggests, it is presented to the 40 Under Forty honoree who, in the eyes of an independent panel of judges, has most impressively continued and built upon his or her track record of accomplishment. 

Past winners include: 2022: Anthony Gleason II, president and co-founder of the Gleason Johndrow Companies (40 Under Forty class of 2010); 2021: Anthony Gulluni, Hampden County district attorney (class of 2015); 2020: Carla Cosenzi, president, TommyCar Auto Group (class of 2012), and Peter DePergola, director of Clinical Ethics, Baystate Health (class of 2015); 2019: Cinda Jones, president, W.D. Cowls Inc. (class of 2007); 2018: Samalid Hogan, regional director, Massachusetts Small Business Development Center (class of 2013); 2017: Scott Foster, attorney, Bulkley Richardson (class of 2011), and Nicole Griffin, owner, ManeHire (class of 2014); 2016: Dr. Jonathan Bayuk, president, Allergy & Immunology Associates of New England (class of 2008); and 2015: Delcie Bean, president, Paragus Strategic IT (class of 2008). 

This year’s program is presented by Health New England; nominees will be weighed by three independent judges, including last year’s honorees. They are: 

 Anthony Gleason IIAnthony Gleason II is the president and co-founder of the Gleason Johndrow Companies, which provides commercial landscape and snow-removal services, property management, real-estate development, and leasing, as well as self-storage. Under Gleason’s leadership, the company has grown into one of the largest snow-removal contractors in the country. It now boasts a number of large contracts, including the city of Springfield (250 locations), UMass Amherst and its 157 parking lots, Western New England University, and many others. Gleason was part of the 40 under Forty class of 2010, and the 2022 recipient of the Alumni Achievement Award. Gleason and his company are strong supporters of Spirit of Springfield and many other local community organizations. 

Ashley BogleAshley Bogle is assistant general counsel and director of Legal Services for Health New England. In these roles, she manages the day-to-day operations of HNE’s Legal Department which includes a wide range of duties, from reviewing contracts to providing regulatory guidance and maintaining licenses and accreditation. A 40 Under Forty honoree in 2021, she is a founding member of HNE’s Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DEIB) Committee, which guides the organization toward its goals of embedding DEIB and health equity into its strategic plan, mission, operations, community outreach, and member community. She currently serves as president of Art For The Soul Gallery’s board of directors in addition to working on other community projects. A proud UConn Husky, she received both her juris doctor and her bachelor of Arts degrees from the University of Connecticut.

Payton ShubrickPayton Shubrick is a Springfield native and graduate of Springfield Central High School, College of the Holy Cross, and Bay Path University. A member of the 40 Under 40 Class of 2019, she’s an entrepreneur, and started 6 Brick’s, a cannabis dispensary, with the help of her parents and sister. 6 Brick’s opened in September of 2022, and has already garnered ‘Best Massachusetts Recreational Dispensary’ honors at the New England Cannabis Community Awards. Shubrick she is an adjunct professor at American International College, teaching graduate cannabis courses, a coach in the CT Social Equity Accelerator Program, and was recently named Young Entrepreneur of the Year for her leadership and success in her industry. 

Cover Story

What’s in Store?

Brian Kaplan, vice president

Brian Kaplan, vice president of Development for Onyx Partners

 

When Dennis Smith Jr. says the old 99 Restaurant location in the Eastfield Mall is the ideal space for the Empowerment Center operated by the Massachusetts Military Support Foundation, a facility that provides veterans with everything from food to clothing to referrals for legal help, he means ideal.

Indeed, the site, which became available after the restaurant ultimately failed to regain its footing after the pandemic, boasts plenty of space, a lobby area for greeting vets and presenting them with information, freezers and refrigerators for storage of food, ample parking, location on a major thoroughfare (Boston Road), a stop on a bus route … there’s even warehouse space that’s been made available to the foundation at the Ocean State Job Lot across the street.

As ideal as all this was, Smith, who became the center’s director last July, knew it was only temporary. The mall, opened in 1968 and the first facility of its kind in Greater Springfield, has been targeted for redevelopment for close to a decade now and will officially close its doors in July. The question concerning demolition of the landmark (yes, it can be called that) was always when, not if, said Smith.

So, almost from the day he started at the center, he has been exploring where the facility can go next, and he’s looking for a spot that can check as many boxes as the current site as possible, knowing it is unlikely he will find something quite so ideal.

“Nothing has been finalized as to our exact plan. It could consist of primarily retail, but also other uses such as residential, storage, medical office, restaurants — we’re still looking at a few of those options.”

“I’m looking at a number of sites right now,” he said, noting that he recently toured a former Walgreens location on St. James Avenue in Springfield. “It’s going to be very hard to match what we have here, but we’ll try.”

Where the center and the 40-odd other businesses at the mall eventually land — and most are expected to land somewhere — and when are just a few of the many subplots to a broad and intriguing story that could change the landscape on Boston Road and elsewhere in a number of ways.

Others obviously include the reimagining of the mall itself. This has been an ongoing story, but one that will become real when demolition begins later this year, said Brian Kaplan, vice president of Development with Needham-based Onyx Partners, which is remaking the site into what he expects will be a mixed-use facility featuring retail, restaurants, and other, still-to-be determined businesses and residential uses.

“Nothing has been finalized as to our exact plan,” he told BusinessWest. “It could consist of primarily retail, but also other uses such as residential, storage, medical office, restaurants — we’re still looking at a few of those options.”

Dennis Smith Jr.

Dennis Smith Jr. has been looking for a new home for the Empowerment Center operated by the Massachusetts Military Support Foundation almost since the day he arrived, knowing Eastfield Mall’s days were numbered.

Another aspect to the story is the potential impact of the relocation of the tenants on specific retail areas and communities. Indeed, the retail sector has been struggling in general, and especially since COVID. Officials with the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council (EDC), which is coordinating the relocation process for tenants, said the evictions might provide a boost for specific properties and business districts.

The region hasn’t seen many mass relocations like this one, with the most recent one coming when MGM Springfield purchased 95 State St. in Springfield for its own use, displacing a few dozen law firms that found space in several different office buildings within a mile or so of the Hampden County Courthouse.

This process will be different, and for some tenants, it may prove to be challenging, said Xiomara DeLobato, chief of staff of the EDC, adding that many have had very favorable lease rates at the mall and may experience a form of sticker shock as they explore other options.

The EDC is working with Springfield-based Homes Logic Real Estate to create customized solutions for each tenant, she noted. “Our intent is to make sure that we’re providing one-on-one support for each step in the process as they look for vacancies or potential locations to set them up for success.”

For this issue, BusinessWest looks at the many aspects of the Eastfield Mall redevelopment story and what they might mean for the region and its real-estate sector.

 

End of an Era

There is a quiet, eerie feeling at the mall these days.

The massive parking lot off Boston Road is all but empty. Inside, most of the smaller businesses are still open, but there is little foot traffic as the end nears. This sits in stark contrast to the mall’s better days, and there were many of them, when several anchors, including Sears and JCPenney, were thriving; a multiplex theater was operating; and the mall was still a destination.

“Our intent is to make sure that we’re providing one-on-one support for each step in the process as they look for vacancies or potential locations to set them up for success.”

It hasn’t been that for some time, as the anchors and then the theaters closed, mirroring what was happening at malls across the country as consumers increasingly did their buying online and major retailers, like Sears, all but vanished from the landscape.

Today, the mall is experiencing a slow, painful death that comes amid great expectation about what can and ultimately will happen at this site, and a wide range of emotions concerning existing tenants — who will be free of rent and utility charges for these last few months — and what will happen with them.

Let’s start with what’s next for the mall. Kaplan said Onyx often builds new, but it has worked on projects similar to the Eastfield Mall redevelopment initiative in other regions of Massachusetts, Southern New Hampshire, and several other states.

He said the Eastfield Mall project was presented to the company last fall, and after extensive due diligence, the decision was made to move forward and acquire the property, with work ratcheting up in recent months on everything from meetings with tenants to filings with the city.

He believes demolition will begin sometime later this year, after local approvals are secured, with a 12- to 18-month construction process to follow.

Redevelopment will take place in stages, he noted, adding that phase one will, in all likelihood, be retail, restaurants, and services, with a mix of national brands and local ventures, similar in some respects to what exists now, but in a far more modern, 21st-century facility.

Eastfield Mall, which will be redeveloped

The clock is winding down on Eastfield Mall, which will be redeveloped into a modern mixed-use facility.

What will follow will be a function of demand and feasibility, Kaplan noted, adding that the canvas will likely be filled in over several years. Residential development is likely to follow, with more businesses to provide services to those living nearby.

The project could include some of the current tenants at Eastfield, he said, adding that it is possible that some will choose to find a temporary home and ultimately return. The others, which include a broad mix of national retailers and local businesses, will settle elsewhere.

Onyx is collaborating with the EDC and working with other stakeholders, including local and state agencies, to come up with a plan for each tenant, he said, adding that each case is different, obviously, and will require a personalized solution.

Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the EDC, said the agency’s mission is broad, and includes work to bring new businesses to the region and also retain existing businesses and jobs. Finding new homes for displaced Eastfield Mall tenants is a somewhat unique assignment, but it fits the EDC’s job description, if you will.

“It fits in with a focus that we have moving forward, which is on small businesses in terms of having them grow and flourish in the region,” he explained. “This is an opportunity where there are about 40 businesses that have been in operation for some time, and in some cases, they’re original tenants.”

The national tenants, and they include Old Navy, LensCrafters, Kay Jewelers, T-Mobile, and a host of others, have the resources and staffs to handle relocation efforts, if they choose to move those outlets, said Sullivan, adding that the EDC’s primary focus is the local tenants, ranging from the Mall Barber to Donovan’s Irish Pub to Mykonos, a Greek restaurant that has been at the mall since the very beginning.

Many will choose to try to stay in Springfield, he went on, adding that others are willing to look outside the city and the Boston Road area, which presents opportunities for retail areas that were impacted by the pandemic and the general shifting tide of retail — and there are many of them.

Some would prefer to stay in a mall-like setting, he went on, while others might opt to find their own space. Most are looking to lease space, but some are considering the purchase of real estate, which could bring its own benefits.

“Some are willing to look at downtown Springfield or downtown Holyoke,” Sullivan said. “They may not necessarily need to be in a mall setting or Boston Road — although some of them need to be there because that’s where their client base is.”

 

Up from the Ashes

The demise of the mall certainly has the attention of property owners and real-estate brokers in the region, especially those that specialize in retail spaces.

Evan Plotkin, president of NAI Plotkin, has several retail properties in the portfolio, as well as 1350 Main St., the office tower in downtown Springfield that has a significant amount of ground-floor retail space, much if it vacant since the departure of Santander Bank several years ago.

As he walked BusinessWest through that space, Plotkin said it would be an ideal landing spot for some of the Eastfield businesses.

“There are a lot of people who still work downtown or come here for events or to do business,” he said, noting that 1350 Main will soon be welcoming some new office tenants that could generate additional foot traffic. “Some of those mall businesses could do well here.”

Tower Square is another potential landing spot, and Demetrious Panteleakis, a principal with the Macmillan Group, the leasing agent for the office and retail complex, said he has talked with some of the mall tenants about making a move downtown and all that is involved with that decision.

“There’s a potential positive economic spin that goes beyond just the mall investment.”

“We’re very different as it pertains to such things as parking,” he explained, listing just one of the issues being discussed. “Although we have plenty of parking, it’s not typical retail parking; we’re tower parking.”

Overall, he said Tower Square ownership is focused on finding new tenants that can provide needed products and services to tenants of that tower and perhaps those surrounding it. The planned new Big Y market, a scaled-down version of its supermarkets that will go into space once occupied by CVS, is a good example, as are existing tenants, ranging from White Lion Brewing Co. to Dunkin’ Donuts to SkinCatering, a salon and spa. And some of the mall tenants might fit that description.

“We have a spa and hairdresser, a bar, our food court … businesses that support people who work here and don’t want to leave the building,” Panteleakis said, adding that additional hospitality-related businesses that don’t compete directly with existing businesses might be good fits.

As for Smith and his search for a new home for the Empowerment Center, he said there is some “intense work” going on as he tries to find a space that is affordable and checks at least most of the boxes that the old 99 Restaurant does.

“I have a number of great locations that I’d like to go to,” he told BusinessWest. “It comes down to what can be negotiated with the local property owners — that will determine where we go; we’ll just take it step by step.”

Summing up what’s happening on Boston Road, Sullivan said that, while the demise of the mall is regrettable in some ways, there are several bright spots to this ongoing story.

For starters, there is a national developer, Onyx, that has committed to redeveloping the site into something that speaks to the present and future, and not the past, when it comes to retail. Meanwhile, the relocation of the many existing tenants could provide a spark for some communities and their downtowns.

“There’s a potential positive economic spin that goes beyond just the mall investment, and that’s why the EDC is involved,” he told BusinessWest. “There’s potential to grow and amplify that investment in the region.”

Time will tell just how much that investment will be amplified, but the parties involved in this developing story say there are many intriguing chapters still to come.

Cover Story Education

Taking Themselves More Seriously

Izabella Martinez

Izabella Martinez

At first, Izabella Martinez said, she was somewhat intimidated by the prospect of taking college courses when she was only a freshman in high school.

But then, when she got into it, that apprehension soon melted away and was replaced by a host of emotions and feelings, but mostly pride in accomplishment in taking, and doing well in, courses such as Introduction to Computer Technology, English 101, Art, Philosophy, Public Speaking, and what she considers her favorite thus far — College Writing.

“The teacher gave us a lot of freedom to write about what we felt passionate about,” said Martinez, a student at Discovery Early College High School in Springfield, a unique learning center that opened its doors in 2021. “I was able to improve my writing skills while also having creative freedom.”

Martinez believes she’ll have at least 24 college credits by the end of her sophomore year at Discovery. But she’ll have much more than that. She’ll have a higher level of confidence and perhaps something even more important — higher aspirations when it comes to her career and what’s doable, and the wherewithal to get to where she wants to go.

“One thing that we continued to struggle with was the number of people attending college and who were on a path to a living wage. The usual marker for success is graduation, and we were ringing that bell. But we weren’t seeing students entering into high-paying positions right after college, or who were pursuing college, in the way we wanted.”

And this, is a nutshell, is what Discovery High School (DHS), part of the Springfield Empowerment Zone Partnership (SEZP) — an independently governed nonprofit established in 2015 as a collaboration between Springfield Public Schools, the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, and the Springfield Education Assoc. — is all about.

It uses what’s called a ‘wall-to-wall’ model to build viable future career pathways for students by enabling them to take college classes while in high school — and perhaps even earn an associate degree by the time they graduate — without having to pay for the college courses.

As he talked about the school, why it was created, and its overall mission, Matt Brunell, co-executive director of the SEZP, said the inspiration came in the form of statistics showing that, while Springfield’s high-school graduation rates were improving, the number of students going to college, and succeeding there, were not growing.

Matt Brunell

Matt Brunell says Discovery High School was designed to propel students to achieve a living wage within four years of graduation.

“One thing that we continued to struggle with was the number of people attending college and who were on a path to a living wage,” he explained. “The usual marker for success is graduation, and we were ringing that bell. But we weren’t seeing students entering into high-paying positions right after college, or who were pursuing college, in the way we wanted.”

“Three years ago, we took a hard look at industry and labor trends in the area, and we looked at which businesses were going to be growing over the course of the next several years,” he went on. “And we thought differently about a high-school model that would project and send students on that path to a living wage.”

Elaborating, he noted that DHS was designed to propel students to achieve a living wage within four years of high-school graduation. It does this by providing academic pathways that focus on high-demand careers in technology, computer science, engineering, and teaching.

But mostly it does this by inspiring students to “take themselves seriously.”

There are quotation marks around those words because all those we spoke with at DHS used them early and often.

“What she’s developed is an identity around college, and it’s really sticky.”

Especially Declan O’Connor, executive principal of Discovery, who referenced one student who will have amassed 24 college credits by the end of her sophomore year.

“What she’s developed is an identity around college, and it’s really sticky,” he told BusinessWest. “Kids are just starting to understand that this is real, and they’re looking toward their future, and they’re taking themselves seriously.”

Farrika Turner, assistant principal at Discovery, agreed.

“We’re really excited to see our Black and Brown students not be afraid of college, for their families not to be afraid of college and whether it will be attainable for them, to see parents become interested in returning to college and maybe take some of the classes that their children are taking,” she said. “And to have students see themselves as a college student, not as a high-school student that’s taking a course or two here and there that doesn’t add up to anything — they’re working toward the degree they’re interested in after high school.”

Farrika Turner

Farrika Turner says students at Discovery High are taking themselves, and their prospects for future employment, more seriously.

It will be another two years before DHS graduates a class of students. And it will be several years before those involved can compile real data on the outcome of students. But those we talked with said the early-college model is demonstrating promising results in many settings. Meanwhile, they say it is not too early to say it is succeeding at Discovery — at least when it comes to the very unofficial mission of getting students to take themselves more seriously.

 

Course of Action

As he led BusinessWest on a tour of DHS, O’Connor stopped in one classroom where students were learning how to create a circuit and, ultimately, a very small-scale solar panel, and in another, an Introduction to Digital Media class was ongoing where students were getting their pictures taken and compiling information to create their ‘digital brand.’

As inspiration, they were using a brand created by Ruth Carter, the costume designer from Springfield who has won two Oscars for her work on the Black Panther film franchise.

These are not college courses, he explained, but they are solid examples of how students at the school learn by doing, work together, and gain resolve by creating solutions and solving problems.

And this is what Brunell and others had in mind when they conceptualized this relatively new kind of high school.

“We’re really excited to see our Black and Brown students not be afraid of college, for their families not to be afraid of college and whether it will be attainable for them, to see parents become interested in returning to college and maybe take some of the classes that their children are taking.”

“We wanted to create a very small high school where kids were known, where they were cared for and loved during their time here, and where they could get really personalized attention and see themselves in careers that have been under-represented by Black and Brown folks in this community,” he said.

“Discovery High School is our attempt to take a really critical look at the STEM industries and to get students on a stronger pathway to those jobs,” he went on, adding that the Empowerment Zone board ultimately authorized the school in the spring of 2021, and it opened its doors that fall.

The school has open enrollment and is open to all students, said O’Connor, adding that there is no selection process. Overall, the school boasts a diverse population and draws from across the city. These students represent all levels of academic achievement as well.

“The child who chooses us … they know we are and what we’re about,” he explained. “They choose us mostly because they’re invested in our STEM pathways; they like to game, they like computers, they’re interested in engineering — or at least they think they are — and a lot of our students are those who traditionally didn’t do well in school, but have a big curiosity about technology.”

Now boasting 120 students, with plans to expand to 90 students per grade, DHS, as noted earlier, operates under the Early College model, which, as that name suggests, introduces students to college classes while they are high school. This not only gives them a solid head start when they get to college, said Declan, but it gives them that confidence and pride in accomplishment that Martinez spoke of.

Declan O’Connor

Declan O’Connor, principal of Discovery High School, says students there “gain an identity” by taking college classes.

O’Connor said every student at the school can take college classes, and most of them do, with DHS working in partnership with Holyoke Community College, Springfield Technical Community College, Worcester State University, and Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester. Classes take place at Discovery, online, and on the Quinsigamond campus.

As they take them, they are provided with plenty of support, he noted, adding this is an essential ingredient in this success formula, because they are real college classes, something he needed to be assured about himself.

“When I first started this and as I was learning about early college, I asked, ‘are these real college classes, or are they watered-down college classes that are a version for high-school kids?’” he recalled. “And Worcester State sternly said, ‘these are the same college classes.’ So the expectations didn’t change, but what had to be put in place was just a lot of supports for students.”

And what he’s learned over the past 20 months or so is that the students can handle these classes, academically; it’s the other aspects of that challenge, as they are for actual college students, that prove to be the bigger hurdle.

“These students didn’t have trouble doing the work,” he explained. “The challenge was more just ‘teenager stuff’ — following through, doing your homework, and submitting your assignments. Some of the students will say some of the classes they will take in the colleges are easier than 10th-grade English class.

“It’s really cool to see the shift from when they entered high school — to go from being scared and wondering, ‘what am I going to do with my life?’ to start future-planning and talking about their future in ways that make sense, and the feeling ‘I’m going to make some good money.’”

“A lot of it was just executive functioning,” he went on. “But when it came to the actual content of the classes, they were just fine because what we know about all of our kids is that, cognitively, they all have the capacity to learn.”

 

Learning Experiences

The learning at DHS has a stated purpose, said all those we spoke with — to put students on a path to not just a high-school diploma, but that living wage Brunell spoke of.

And this goes back to that notion of the students taking themselves seriously, an undertaking that comes with that confidence gained from taking those college classes, thus making students more ready not only for their actual college experience, but what can come after it.

“Early college for these students is an identity thing,” he explained. “They develop an identity around going to college, and there’s a lot of demystifying of going to college that happens along the way — they no longer have to wonder what college is like. Maybe they’re the first generation in their family to go to college, and in their freshman year, they can break down that psychological barrier of going to college.”

This ability to establish such an identity is one of the ways the faculty and administrators at Discovery are measuring success, more than two full years before anyone is handed a diploma or earns enrollment at a college or university.

Students at Discovery High

Students at Discovery High participate in a project to create a circuit, one of many examples of hands-on learning at the school.

“When the Empowerment Zone surveyed the schools in the entire country that were getting the strongest results for kids, the most predictive quality of the schools that were propelling kids to earn a living wage was whether or not kids were taking college classes in high school,” Brunell said. “It is far more predictive of college matriculation, of college success, of college achievement, of getting the diploma. If they can, during their high school years, actually spend the time in college-level classes and see themselves as being able to take those classes … this is the biggest element for us.”

Brunell said the state recently started compiling data on the salaries earned by the graduates of specific high schools. Looking out five years or so, he projects this data will show that DHS students are faring better than those in high school with more traditional models.

“We see this as the benchmark for whether or not the school is a success,” he said. “When we look at the average number of college credits earned by freshman and sophomores at Discovery High School, we’re incredibly enthused — this is a leading indicator that the school is on the right track.”

Elaborating, he said there will be several ‘winners’ to emerge from the creation of DHS and schools like it, starting with the students, who can earn up to 60 college credits and, as noted, perhaps even a degree in high school, without having to go into debt (those costs are absorbed by the school’s general-fund budget or philanthropy from groups such as the Barr Foundation and New Schools Venture Fund, as well as, locally, the Davis Foundation).

Other winners are the participating colleges, who gain enrollment, revenue, and, in some cases, future students, as well as area employers, especially those in technology-related fields, who are struggling, as other sectors are, to attract and retain qualified talent.

Another indicator of early success at DHS is the level of confidence exuded by students like Izabella Martinez, said Turner, noting that she and others can see this confidence build and reflect itself in how students see themselves and talk about the future.

“It’s really cool to see the shift from when they entered high school — to go from being scared and wondering, ‘what am I going to do with my life?’ to start future-planning and talking about their future in ways that make sense, and the feeling ‘I’m going to make some good money.’

“We see students come in and say, ‘I just want to graduate from high school, get a job, and help my family,’” she went on. “Now they’re understanding that they don’t have get a job at Geek Squad at Best Buy — ‘I can be a programmer; I can use my skills to go in the military and work in cybersecurity.’ It’s really cool to see that change, that mind shift.”

That’s what happens when young people start to take themselves, and their futures, more seriously.

Cover Story

Survival Stories

Joan Grenier, owner of Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley

Joan Grenier, owner of Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley

Joan Grenier called it “GoFundMe before there was GoFundMe.”

She was referring to a letter she sent out to friends in the South Hadley area almost 30 years ago. She couldn’t find a copy — although she believes she has one somewhere — but remembers the gist.

“I simply said, “I’m in trouble and I need your help,’” said Grenier, the second-generation owner of the Odyssey Bookshop in the Village Commons, noting that the missive was sent at a time when just about all small, independent bookstores were in pretty much the same boat she was.

The large chains were beginning to take over the book world and squeeze out their smaller competitors with their huge volumes of books, lower prices, and a maybe a latte to go with all that. Grenier — and she was certainly not alone in this exercise, to be sure — put out a call for help, asking people to support Odyssey and send money if they could.

She raised about $150,000, as she recalls, and it went a long way toward helping her navigate that whitewater and write new chapters in a story started by her father, Romeo Grenier, in 1963.

Then, in the early months of COVID, when bookstores — and most other stores as well — were forced to close their doors, Grenier launched an actual GoFundMe campaign to raise money to take the store through that time of extreme challenge and to a point where it can now celebrate its 60th anniversary.

So did Matt Tannenbaum, owner, for nearly 50 years now, of the Bookstore in Lenox, an institution that got its start in the mid-’60s in the living room of a small, rented house behind an alley that housed a café that came to be known as Alice’s Restaurant.

Tannenbaum raised more than $120,000 in a campaign that became subject material for a documentary, called Hello Bookstore, which is now streaming on Apple and Amazon Prime, and has been praised by critics as one of the best documentaries of 2022.

It tells Tannenbaum’s story, but it also tells the story of all owners of small bookstores across the country who have fought — for decades now — to keep the doors open.

“It’s a place that isn’t home and isn’t work. It’s a place where you can go and be. People come here to sit and read, they come to sit and work, students come here, professors come here to grade papers; a lot of books are written here.”

“It’s a lovely portrait of what we do here — that’s the best way to describe it,” said Tannenbaum, adding that the film portrays the bond that can, and should, exist between a community and its bookstore.

As the documentary chronicles, independent bookstores, including those in this area, have faced a continuing wave of challenges. And many have not survived, including institutions (that’s the only word for it) such as Johnson’s and Edwards in downtown Springfield, and, more recently, Big Bear Used Books and Café in Easthampton.

But overall, and to paraphrase one of the authors whose classics are sold in these landmarks, the death of the independent bookstore has been at least somewhat exaggerated.

The Bookmill in Montague

The Bookmill in Montague operates under the slogan “books you don’t need in a place you can’t find.”

Indeed, many in this region are still … well, doing business. ‘Thriving’ might be too strong a word, but then again, most of these stores never really thrived, as Grenier and others will tell you.

But they have provided a decent living, while also providing an important service, one that is still relevant, to one extent or another, at a time when one can have the latest Louise Penny thriller delivered to their home a day after executing a few simple keystrokes.

They have survived, they said, by providing more than books on shelves — although that’s certainly a big part of it. They also provide, in many cases, a relaxing experience, an opportunity to meet authors, maybe a chance to sample a bottle of wine.

For the owners of these stores, they say what they do isn’t work as much as it is a passion, something that found them as much as they found it.

It was that way for Susan Shilliday, owner of the Bookmill in Montague, which specializes in used books and operates under the slogan “books you don’t need in a place you can’t find.”

She said she had no real intention of buying thus landmark, but then…

“It was a total, crazy fluke,” said Shilliday, who was a screenwriter before she took this gambit — Thirtysomething and Legends of the Fall are among her credits. “It was a joke with my daughters that all I really wanted in life was to come here one day and see a ‘for sale’ sign in front of the Bookmill.”

Instead of a sign, then-owner David Lovelace sent out an email in 2007 to a number of people letting them know that it was time for him to move on. One thing led to another, and Shilliday is now behind the cash register, carrying on a tradition.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with these independent bookstore owners about the state of their business. And in the process, we get to tell some stories that are very intriguing in their own right.

 

It’s Not Home, and It’s Not Work

Shilliday told BusinessWest that, when she received that aforementioned email, she didn’t really know what to do with it at first.

She said she knew a lot about books, but very little, if anything, about retail or running a business. She ultimately decided that this was enough.

“It was the craziest thing I’ve ever done,” she said. “But it turned out to be one of those crazy things that turned out to be just the right thing.”

Elaborating, she said her daughter attended Hampshire College, and, following just a few trips to visit, she fell in love with the region and eventually moved here. One of her favorite things to do was visit the Bookmill, search for things to read, and, usually, settle into one of the comfortable reading chairs on site and read for a while. Make that a long while.

Susan Shilliday, owner of the Bookmill in Montague

Susan Shilliday, owner of the Bookmill in Montague, says her store — and those like it — are an escape for people.

It was a desire to let others enjoy that experience that prompted her take the plunge, despite her lack of experience.

As businesses go, this one has a pretty simple model, she noted; it takes in books from those who don’t want or need them anymore (by appointment only), and then it sells them. Retiring professors from the Five Colleges, all within a few dozen miles or so from the store, are among the best providers of titles for the shelves, she said, adding that, on average, there are roughly 30,000 to 35,000 books on the shelves.

While most bookstores focusing on new titles have had their struggles in recent years, the Bookmill has been able to stay on a generally smoother path, said Shilliday, noting quickly that the pandemic certainly presented a number of challenges, and customers were “thrilled” when the doors were able to open again.

Overall, there are steady streams of customers to the landmark, located in an old grist mill and, later, a machine shop that, among other things, would stamp the handles of Louisville Slugger bats.

Many patrons are students or professors from the area colleges or residents of area communities, but many tourists also find the store, despite what it says in that logo that adorns bookmarks, T-shirts, book bags, and other items.

“People from this area seek it out,” she said. “And we have a lot of tourists who come in, a lot of book lovers who come in … people drive up from New York, Boston, all over; there are a lot of people who make an effort to come here.”

And perusing the shelves for books is just one of the reasons they come, she said, and this explains why the Bookmill has been able to survive and thrive over the years, and why many other stores have as well.

Indeed, she said the pandemic might have helped reinforce the importance of not only books, but bookstores as well.

“People like the community aspect of this … meeting people, discussing books with other people. That’s what we can offer people.”

“It’s a place that isn’t home and isn’t work,” she said of bookstores in general. “It’s a place where you can go and be. People come here to sit and read, they come to sit and work, students come here, professors come here to grade papers; a lot of books are written here. And that was part of the model for the Bookmill from the very beginning; it would be a place where people could come and spend time.”

Elaborating, she said that most bookstores today have other things for people to do; many have a café — the Bookmill has a small café next door, a separate operation — or another value-added proposition that makes a visit to the store an experience, or even more of an experience, as the case may be.

 

Buy the Book

Grenier said she has also long understood the importance of creating an experience, and not just shelves with the latest titles.

That’s why Odyssey stages several events a week, ranging from book-club meetings to regular author appearances, including the “Evening with Bernie Sanders” event staged March 13, at which he talked about, and signed copies of, his new offering It’s OK to be Angry About Capitalism.

These events are ways to bring people to the store and generate interest in books and those who write them, said Grenier, adding that it has been this way pretty much from the start, and certainly since she assumed ownership from her father in the early ’90s, after the store was destroyed by arson for the second time in two years.

She remembers what he said as he was passing the torch: “I’m not sure if I’m giving you anything more than headaches, but if you want the insurance money, we can try again.”

She decided to accept that challenge, but the intention of doing it for “a little while.”

That little while has turned into a 37-year journey that has taken the store through those myriad challenges mentioned earlier.

“There’s been a lot of change and a lot of challenge,” she said of that time, adding that the store has been reinventing itself throughout that period, and especially during the COVID years, when people couldn’t come to the store for several months and instead ordered books from the store’s website.

Matt Tannenbaum

Matt Tannenbaum’s story became the subject of a highly acclaimed documentary film called Hello, Bookstore.

Much of this reinvention involves events, Grenier said, adding that they come in many varieties. There are several book clubs, she noted, including the Signed Editions Club, which has more than 200 members, and the Gift of Reading Club for children, as well as regular author appearances; overall, there are maybe 125 events a year.

Meanwhile, the store has become the outlet for Mount Holyoke College merchandise of all kinds, from apparel to drinkware to stationary. (Years ago, the store sold textbooks to Mount Holyoke students, but that business has changed dramatically, and it is no longer part of the equation.)

Such changes, and such evolution, are necessary, she said, because the landscape has changed, and it is harder for independent bookstores to be successful — not that it has ever really been easy.

The pandemic simply added new layers of challenge because people couldn’t come to the store, and, thus, there were no events for many months, she recalled. “The events went virtual, but it’s pretty hard to sell books at a virtual event.” What’s more, the college was closed, further reducing foot traffic. Through that GoFundMe campaign, federal assistance, and sheer perseverance, the store was able to make it through.

“If it wasn’t for the federal government, we wouldn’t be here,” she said, adding that, moving forward, the store will continue to innovate, evolve, and give people reasons to come through its doors.

“I’m very optimistic — I had to be optimistic to get through COVID,” she told BusinessWest. “People like the community aspect of this … meeting people, discussing books with other people. That’s what we can offer people.”

 

A Real Page Turner

Tannenbaum is equally optimistic, but then again, he always has been.

He said his store has long enjoyed what he called a “loyalty factor” that has enabled him to push through the many changes and challenges that have come to this sector.

Indeed, he recalls that, when a Barnes & Noble opened in the Berkshire Mall in Lanesborough (which closed in 2019), many of his customers responded by saying they simply wouldn’t shop there.

But he acknowledged that many in this sector have not been as fortunate because they haven’t had that same level of community support.

“We did have people who used to come in and say, ‘we used to have a bookstore like this in our town, but it closed,’” he told BusinessWest. “And we would have to bite our tongue because we knew that they did not support it, and that’s why it closed.”

He believes that community support stems from his ability to provide something other than just books. When asked to describe it, he said it’s an experience, a friendly atmosphere … something that consumers just can’t get when they order books online or when they visit the national chains.

“I like to say that Barnes & Noble sells books, but they’re not really a bookstore,” said Tannenbaum, who cut his teeth at the famous (and now-closed) Gotham Book Mart in Manhattan, adding that facilities that do fall into that category, like his, provide value in many different ways.

There are tangibles and intangibles, all of which come out in the documentary, and also in BusinessWest’s talk with Tannenbaum, during which he said nothing pleases him more than being able to connect a customer with a book.

He is still able to do that because of a GoFundMe campaign, which not only gave him the capital to remain open and actually expand his business, but generated more material for that documentary, which was originally inspired by Tannenbaum’s book My Years at the Gotham Book Mart.

Indeed, filming for that production continued all through the spring and summer of 2020, the height of the pandemic, he said, adding that it captures not just the struggles of trying to do business at that time, but the connection he had created between his store and the community — and that community’s refusal (that’s the best word to describe it) to let the story end there.

He added that the film has been good for business in many respects, but especially because it has put his store on the map.

“After the movie came out, I’ve had people visiting from all over the country,” he said. “I’m on the list of places to go; you come to the Berkshires, you go to the Norman Rockwell Museum; you come to New England, you have to go the Bookstore in Lenox, because they’re the ones they made the movie about.”

 

The Last Word

As she talked with BusinessWest, Grenier repeatedly flipped through a few file folders full of materials on the history of the Odyssey Bookshop — photos, newspaper clippings, and other archival material, including, she believes, a copy of that letter she sent out all those years ago — GoFundMe before GoFundMe.

She’s pulling all this together for 60th-anniversary celebrations that will begin around commencement time at Mount Holyoke and continue for the rest of the year.

There were many times during its history when a 60th anniversary seemed a long shot, and at times, maybe a really long shot.

But the store, which has certainly lived up to its name, has preserved, through fires, new and daunting competition, technology, and, yes, a pandemic.

When asked why hers wasn’t one of those bookstores that closed in the ’90s, or even more recently, Grenier said simply, “because my community supported me — people wanted a bookstore here.”

And it is this simple formula that will determine how many of these landmark facilities get to write new chapters in their intriguing stories.

Community Spotlight Cover Story Features

The Paper City Looks Back — and Ahead

Holyoke City Hall

Go just about anywhere in the Paper City — City Hall offices, manufacturing facilities, the local utility, restaurants, some cannabis dispensaries, anywhere — and you will find pictures of what would be called ‘old Holyoke.’ And some images of the new Holyoke as well.

They’re everywhere. Pictures of the old but still-standing mills, the canals, Mount Tom, High Street in a different age, the Hadley Falls Dam, and especially City Hall, the iconic Gothic Revival structure built in 1871 that is, in many ways, the symbol of this historic city.

These pictures you see everywhere are visible evidence of the enormous pride people from this city, or now doing business in it, take in Holyoke.

You see this this pride in every community in Western Mass., from the small towns in Franklin County to the capital of the region, Springfield. But in Holyoke, it’s … well, different. And it just seems like there is more of it.

This much is made clear in the stories that follow in this special section commemorating the city’s 150th birthday. People from Holyoke take a special pride in being from their city, and for many reasons.

There is history — this is the country’s first planned industrial city. There is architecture. There are landmarks. There are institutions. There is tremendous diversity. There is the St. Patrick’s Day Parade and Road Race. Mostly, though, there are people — those who lived a century and more ago, and those who call it home today.

As the city turns 150, there is much to celebrate, and certainly not all of it is in the past, although the past is what many people like to focus on.

There was a time when Holyoke was a model industrial city producing some of the finest papers and textiles in the world. The mills producing these products created thousands of jobs, enormous wealth, and tremendous prosperity.

The city’s fortunes changed, obviously, as these mills closed or moved south or overseas starting just after World War II. For decades, the city was in decline, even as it remained a center of jobs and manufacturing.

Today, there is a sense of revitalization and vibrancy, with new leadership, especially Joshua Garcia, the city’s first Hispanic mayor, and an economy that is far more diverse and fueled by everything from a surging creative-arts sector to a cannabis industry that found in Holyoke a welcome mat, millions of square feet of old mill space perfect for cultivation and even dispensaries, and inexpensive, green energy.

Another factor powering this revitalization is entrepreneurship. Through the efforts of EforAll, the Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce, Holyoke Community College, and other agents of change, Holyoke residents, and especially those making up the minority majority, are creating new businesses, from restaurants to dance studios to fabric shops, that are changing the face of High Street — and the entire city.

These stories and many others are told in the pages that follow. Together, they tell of a city with momentum. A city with vision. A city with renewed optimism about what can be done when people work collaboratively. A city that has a lot to celebrate.

 

Holyoke. Wanna Make Something of It?

By Darby O’Brien

 

Unless you’re from Holyoke, you probably won’t get it.

We’re a little like Southie on the other side of the state. Hardscrabble Holyokers have grit and never quit. Holyoke is a city with soul. It’s a city of neighborhoods. Churchill, Elmwood, the Flats, the Highlands, Oakdale, and Springdale. As Liberty Bank President and Holyoker Dave Glidden says, “you can take the kid out of Holyoke, but you can’t take Holyoke out of the kid.”

Just look at the cast of characters that came out of this place. Start with the famous drummers. Hal Blaine, a Rock & Roll Hall of Famer, played with the legendary Wrecking Crew on 40 number-one hits, and Ronnie Hurst played in Steppenwolf. Holyokers Michael and John Shea wrote the Notre Dame fight song. We have Emmy-winning actress Ann Dowd. Alan Eisenstock was a writer and producer on shows like Mork and Mindy, Sanford and Son, and Family Matters. My nephew, Lenny Jacobson, is another one you’ve seen on the tube, from big-time TV spots to shows like Nurse Jackie, and he just won the 2023 JFK Award.

We’ve also got Neil Sheehan, the New York Times writer who released the Pentagon Papers and won a Pulitzer Prize for his book A Bright Shining Lie, considered to be one of the best books about the Vietnam War. Mitch Epstein is a world-renowned photographer. Frank Leja, who lived down the street from me as a kid, signed as a ‘bonus baby’ with the New York Yankees at 17. To this day, he’s the youngest player ever to appear in the pinstripes. The list goes on. Maybe it’s in the water. We’ve got four reservoirs. They’re all closed for fishing now, but we sneak in and cast a line anyway.

Another thing unique to Holyoke is the game of Pickie. We invented the game in the streets and alleys downtown. Just saw off your mother’s broom for a bat, and grab some Pee Gee balls, and you’re set. It’s always been a sports town. Betsy Frey carries on the family business at Holyoke Sporting Goods, probably one of the last independent sporting-goods stores left. Part of what keeps it going is the boatload of Holyoke merchandise she sells in the store, especially around parade time. You’ve heard about Holyoke’s St. Patrick’s Day parade, right? One of the biggest in the country.

The late “Made in Holyoke” rapper Justin Chavez said, “it’s a city full of pride and hope, a city that’s alive.” My old buddy John Hickey, who was the Water and Power chief, coined the slogan “Holyoke. Best City by a Dam Site.”

Damn right.

 

Darby O’Brien, a Holyoke native, is the owner of the marketing and public relations firm Darby O’Brien Advertising in South Hadley.

Class of 2023 Cover Story Difference Makers

Introducing the Class of 2023

For 15 years now, BusinessWest has been recognizing the work of individuals, groups, businesses, and institutions through its Difference Makers program, with one goal in mind: to show the many ways one can, in fact, make a difference within their community.

The stories below convey a desire to help others, go above and well beyond, and set the bar higher when it comes to what people can accomplish when they work together. That’s true whether we’re talking about Steve and Jean Graham, owners of Toner Plastics, or Claudia Pazmany and Gabrielle Gould, dynamic leaders in Amherst. Or Gary Rome, the charismatic local auto dealer recently named TIME magazine’s Dealer of the Year. Or Nate Costa, whose hockey team, the Springfield Thunderbirds, and his staff working behind the scenes are changing the dynamic in downtown Springfield and beyond. Or the Springfield Ballers, a nonprofit helping to get young people in the game.

See the Digital Edition of the 2023 Difference Makers HERE

Please Join Us for the 2023 Difference Makers Celebration!

Thursday, April 27 5:30 to 9 p.m.

Tickets are $85 and be purchased HERE

Thank you to our partner sponsors: Burkhart Pizzanelli, P.C., the Royal Law Firm, TommyCar Auto Group, and Westfield Bank.

Partner Sponsors:

Cover Story Top Entrepreneur

Benson Hyde and Bruce McAmis Make Provisions a Regional Success Story

Bruce McAmis, left, and Benson Hyde, co-owners of Provisions

Bruce McAmis, left, and Benson Hyde, co-owners of Provisions

 

Grape Expectations

Benson Hyde was a financial advisor who wasn’t enthralled with the firm he was working for or the direction his career was headed in.

Bruce McAmis was a lawyer who would have preferred to be doing … well, just about anything else.

That was years ago. In the intervening time, let’s just say their paths crossed (we’ll fill in the details later), and they are now co-authoring one of the more intriguing entrepreneurship stories unfolding in the region.

It’s called Provisions, a wine, cheese, and much-more store that now has three locations: in Northampton, where it all started, in Amherst, where the plot thickened, and, most recently, Longmeadow, where it thickened even more, with the opening of a location in the Longmeadow Shops just before the holidays. They would have preferred to open sooner, but … well, that’s part of the story.

Indeed, expansion has come quickly — more quickly than they anticipated when they first drafted a business plan that has been revised several times already — because opportunities have presented themselves. Seizing them hasn’t been easy, but they’re managing to take a promising concept and run with it, even in the middle of a pandemic, as we’ll see.

The concept? Hyde described it in a number of ways, but maybe this one works best: “people like to talk about fine wine; we like to say we’re all about fun wine.”

By that, he and McAmis meant wine that comes with stories, products produced in ways that resonate with a younger audience that is embracing wine perhaps more than generations before them.

“Our focus is on smaller producers with a story,” Hyde said, “and being able to provide service on a personal level — when someone walks in the store and wants a recommendation, or wants to hear about where a wine came from, or wants a pairing suggestion and an idea for what would make a great gift.”

“People like to talk about fine wine; we like to say we’re all about fun wine.”

Of course, this story is about more than wine. It’s also about cheese — or cheeses, to be more precise. It’s also about spirits of all kinds now. It’s also about making connections with customers and the community, and educating people about wine, not just selling it by the bottle or case.

And, of course, it’s about entrepreneurship and two people settling into that role after working for others and not really enjoying it, and desiring something else.

McAmis and Hyde look the part, and they also sound the part, using words and phrases that anyone who has gone into business for themselves — especially over the past several years — would use.

“It’s been quite a ride … high highs and low lows; it’s been an incredible learning experience,” said Hyde as he talked about everything from accelerated expansion to coping with a pandemic that forced them to find new ways of doing business and had both of them venturing out to make deliveries themselves.

McAmis echoed those thoughts as he talked about their venture. He actually uttered the words “it’s been fun,” and then retracted the statement. Well, sort of. He said it’s occasionally been fun, but mostly it’s been a stern challenge, one that has tested them in all kinds of ways.

The Provisions owners aim to satisfy an evolving market

The Provisions owners aim to satisfy an evolving market when it comes to how people buy wine, and who is buying it.

“I love it … I rarely, if ever, take a whole day off, but that’s part of being an entrepreneur, I guess,” he said. “It’s been intense, but rewarding on many levels.”

For their work to make Provisions a regional story, one with many chapters still to be written, Hyde and McAmis have been named BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneurs for 2022. They continue a tradition of entrepreneurship in this region that goes back more than 300 years, and they join a distinguished list of previous winners of this award.

That list includes a college president, a hospital administrator, a public utility, the founders of several tech startups, many family-owned ventures, and several individuals and partnerships like the one forged by McAmis and Hyde.

For this issue, BusinessWest tells their story and, in the process of doing so, explains why they are more than worthy of this coveted honor.

 

Vintage Undertaking

They call it the ‘Provisions Dungeon.’

That’s the name affixed to the basement of the Northampton location, on Crafts Avenue.

And the name fits. It’s a large, cavernous space with several rooms of various sizes, all of them now crammed with wine and other products sold upstairs. The main area off the stairs was once a classroom where experts on wine passed on their knowledge to diverse audiences eager to learn more about this far-reaching, truly global subject. Now, that space has been given over to racks holding a wide array of spirits, with the classes held at the Amherst location.

“One of the important traits we’ve shown over the years is being responsive to what we’re facing. Whether it’s having to reshape everything because of the pandemic or with growth, it’s a matter of staying aware and staying flexible, and leaning into opportunities.”

Because the main floor is somewhat cramped, with little if any room for inventory, employees are constantly going back and forth to the basement, McAmis noted.

“We almost need to have extra staff on hand because everything that needs to be restocked is in the basement, and that means a lot of carrying cases of wine up the stairs,” he said, adding that the dungeon, where we talked with the two partners, is just one of the more colorful aspects of this evolving business.

Our story starts roughly 12 years ago, said Hyde, at one of the many dinners he enjoyed with his cousin, Alex Feinstein, founder of GoBerry, the recently closed frozen-yogurt store in downtown Northampton, and his wife.

Bruce McAmis, Benson Hyde, and Hyde’s wife, Toni DeLuca

From left, Bruce McAmis, Benson Hyde, and Hyde’s wife, Toni DeLuca, also the company’s wine and spirits buyer.

“He and I had become very close in the Boston area … he and his wife would cook me dinner, and I would bring the wine,” Hyde recalled. “When they got to Northampton, he called me up and said, ‘they could use a good wine shop downtown.’

“I was working in financial services for a company that I wasn’t thrilled to keep working for, so it was pretty easy to twist my arm and talk me into moving out here,” he went on. “I was inspired by his foray into small business.”

In collaboration with the Feinsteins and two other partners, Gordon Alexander and Nancy Baker, he opened Provisions on Crafts Avenue in November 2011. One of the first wine vendors he worked with was McAmis, who, as noted earlier, had a law degree but decided he didn’t want to make that his career. Instead, he ventured into the liquor-wholesaling business with a venture called Yankee Distribution.

After three years in business, Feinstein and Hyde were the remaining partners in the venture, and in late 2019, McAmis bought out Feinstein and became Hyde’s partner in Provisions.

“I thought that we could really grow the business and take some next steps,” said McAmis, adding that he became intrigued by the possibilities — and by Hyde’s determination to take the venture to the next level and scale up.

Those plans started to materialize quickly, but first — actually, at the same time — the business had to contend with the pandemic, which hit Northampton and its downtown, dominated by restaurants and clubs, extremely hard.

“We stayed open the whole time, but we weren’t open to the public, obviously,” McAmis recalled, adding that, like other ventures of this kind, Provisions relied on pickup and delivery, which constituted new, and expensive, ways of doing business that had to be learned and mastered.

“Main Street was a ghost town,” he said, noting that he was making many deliveries himself, and could see that Provisions, State Street Liquors, and a CVS were essentially the only businesses with lights on in that historically vibrant area.

The new Longmeadow location

The new Longmeadow location came about rather unexpectedly and before the partners were really ready, but they jumped on the opportunity.

Overall, the pandemic was a learning experience and test of the partners’ mettle, said Hyde, adding that, while business was brisk — sales ballooned during the pandemic for many different reasons — business was also much more difficult.

“We had to completely pivot our business model and completely rethink how we worked with customers and how we operated the entire store,” he recalled. “It was intense, and we made a lot of mistakes before we eventually got things ironed out.

“We were really lucky because we had attracted a staff that was really committed,” he went on. “I don’t think we could have done it if we didn’t have such a loyal and committed staff — it was extremely hard.”

 

Case in Point

But at the same time they were enduring the pandemic and its many challenges, the two partners were still thinking about expansion and that proverbial next level.

And, as noted earlier, that expansion has come about more quickly, and more profoundly, than they had anticipated in any version of that business plan, primarily because opportunities presented themselves, and they were determined to take advantage of them.

Previous Top Entrepreneurs

• 2021: Dinesh Patel and Vid Mitta, owners of Tower Square in Springfield
• 2020: Golden Years Homecare Services
• 2019: Cinda Jones, president of
W.D. Cowls Inc.
• 2018: Antonacci Family, owners of USA Hauling, GreatHorse, and Sonny’s Place
• 2017: Owners and managers of the Springfield Thunderbirds
• 2016: Paul Kozub, founder and president of V-One Vodka
• 2015: The D’Amour Family, founders of Big Y
• 2014: Delcie Bean, president of
Paragus Strategic IT
• 2013: Tim Van Epps, president and
CEO of Sandri LLC
• 2012: Rick Crews and Jim Brennan, franchisees of Doctors Express
• 2011: Heriberto Flores, director of the New England Farm Workers’ Council and Partners for Community
• 2010: Bob Bolduc, founder and CEO of Pride
• 2009: Holyoke Gas & Electric
• 2008: Arlene Kelly and Kim Sanborn, founders of Human Resource Solutions and Convergent Solutions Inc.
• 2007: John Maybury, president of
Maybury Material Handling
• 2006: Rocco, Jim, and Jayson Falcone, principals of Rocky’s Hardware Stores and Falcone Retail Properties
• 2005: James (Jeb) Balise, president of Balise Motor Sales
• 2004: Craig Melin, then-president and CEO of Cooley Dickinson Hospital
• 2003: Tony Dolphin, president of Springboard Technologies
• 2002: Timm Tobin, then-president of
Tobin Systems Inc.
• 2001: Dan Kelley, then-president of
Equal Access Partners
• 2000: Jim Ross, Doug Brown, and Richard DiGeronimo, then-principals of Concourse Communications
• 1999: Andrew Scibelli, then-president
of Springfield Technical Community College
• 1998: Eric Suher, president of E.S. Sports
• 1997: Peter Rosskothen and Larry Perreault, then-co-owners of the Log Cabin Banquet and Meeting House
• 1996: David Epstein, president and co-founder of JavaNet and the JavaNet Café

The first such opportunity came on King Street in North Amherst, with the opening of Bottle-O, what McAmis described as “an easy, in-and-out beer and wine store where you can grab some cheese.”

As for the expansion of Provisions, the two partners had long targeted Amherst and Longmeadow as the most logical communities to take their concept, and they started with the former, primarily because opportunities in Longmeadow are harder to come by.

Specifically, they started in North Amherst and the emerging Mill District, for which Cinda Jones, architect of that ambitious undertaking, became another of BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneurs three years ago.

When Atkins Farms decided to leave its space in the sprawling mill complex, Jones approached Benson and McAmis about taking that square footage. They did, recognizing an opportunity to take the brand to a new area and a site that is rapidly becoming a destination because of its array of shops and eateries.

The Amherst location opened in November 2020, still the height of the pandemic, and there have been some growing pains due to COVID, the emerging nature of the Mill District, and the fact that the complex is somewhat off the beaten path.

“It’s taken a little bit of time for word to get out that we’re there,” McAmis said. “But we are growing; we’re seeing green shoots.”

Hyde agreed. “We believe in their vision; they have created a really cool space there,” he said, adding that a planned move to another location at the Mill District, amid an emerging ‘food cluster’ at the complex — with a brewpub envisioned for the space they’re currently occupying — will generate even better results.

As for the Longmeadow location, McAmis said it came about through some “dumb luck.”

Indeed, a space in the Longmeadow Shops next to Max’s restaurant became available, and McAmis noticed the listing while doing a random search for space in Longmeadow last spring.

“As soon as we walked in there, we realized that it was well-suited for what we were looking for,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, while the timing was not exactly ideal because of everything else they were dealing with, they decided to press ahead and get it done, knowing that such opportunities — in that town and in that location — do not come about often.

“Longmeadow happened maybe a year or two sooner than it would have in a perfect world,” he said, noting that the partners were still engrossed in making the North Amherst location work. “It just felt like a bit of a rush to us to contemplate that, but we also didn’t think we would get a better opportunity; not only is it in the Longmeadow Shops, it’s right in the heart of it — so we went ahead. And now that it’s open, I’m happy it’s open.”

Hyde agreed. “The consequences of not taking that spot were huge; I don’t think we would ever have found something that ideal,” he said, adding that the location is close to East Longmeadow and Northern Connecticut, providing an opportunity to introduce the Provisons brand to some new customers.

 

Taste of Success

When asked what might come next for Provisions, Hyde and McAmis looked at each other, laughed, and offered a collective sigh.

The body language and sound effects made it clear that they’re not contemplating additional expansion at this time, and are instead focused on settling in — in every aspect of that phrase.

Elaborating, they said they want to put their new locations on solid ground, build the brand, and, well … keep doing what they’ve been doing all along.

Specifically, this means listening to customers, responding to what they’re saying, and providing an overall product that is in many ways as distinctive as the various bottles and cheeses on the shelves.

“One of the important traits we’ve shown over the years is being responsive to what we’re facing. Whether it’s having to reshape everything because of the pandemic or with growth, it’s a matter of staying aware and staying flexible, and leaning into opportunities,” said Hyde, adding that this operating mindset has served the partners well to date, and it will continue.

“The focus is going to be less on expanding our footprint in the near term, and more on expanding services and making connections within the community,” he went on. “What’s important to both of us is that we not only have a good business, but our business is part of the community; we support our community, and our community supports us.”

Meanwhile, the partners plan to continue with that theme of providing not just fine wine — they do that as well — but also ‘fun’ wine and products with compelling stories.

And while doing so — and this is perhaps the most rewarding part — they’ve earned the trust of customers.

“That’s been a cool thing — developing those relationships, getting to know people’s palates, and building that trust,” Hyde said. “People will call up and say, ‘I trust you … pick out 12 bottles for me, and I’ll come pick it up.”

That’s an example of that flexibility he described, and being responsive to what a changing audience wants and needs in a bottle of wine and the store that will sell it.

“How people shop for wine has changed, and who is shopping for wine has changed,” he expained. “There are more young people interested in wine these days than when we first opened.”

McAmis agreed. “They’re younger, and they’re interested in learning about the products; it doesn’t have to be a lot of money, but there’s an emphasis on quality, not quantity,” he noted. “We have wines that come from family-owned estates and are natural or biodynamic, organic or sustainably grown — these are all important attributes for a lot of these younger consumers.”

Wine tastings, such as this one at the location in the Mill District in North Amherst

Wine tastings, such as this one at the location in the Mill District in North Amherst, are one way the company focuses on education and engaging its customers.

These attributes and others are explained at the wine classes staged at the Amherst store, said Hyde, adding that education remains a big part of the equation at Provisions.

“There’s usually a theme to these classes,” he explained. “We’ll take people to a region, for example; it’s everything from ‘Wine 101’ to how you taste wines, to deep dives on regions or grades or producers.”

Such classes — and tastings — continued through the pandemic via Zoom, he said, noting that producers brought attendees into their operations virtually. “Having that actual producer in their winery talking about the wine is a cool way to experience it,” Hyde said, adding that the partners are looking to add more of these types of presentations in the future.

“Generally, we want to keep our eyes and our ears open to what people are wanting, what spaces we can fill, and how we can keep ourselves different from the bigger package stores,” he went on. “We do have a big selection, but we’re geared more toward service than having a ton of product; we have well-chosen, curated, thoughtful, fun products.”

Such an attitude explains not only why these two are successful, but why they are BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneurs for 2022.

Building Trades Cover Story

Yes, They Can

 

Women Trade workers

From left, Charlene Metcalf, Kailee Grigas, Tracy Routhiee, Lia Oliveira, Jes Thayer, and Liz Wambui

 

The construction trades employed an estimated 1,241,000 women in 2021. While that may seem like a high number, it represents only 11% of all construction trade workers in the U.S. But that percentage includes those working in administrative and office positions; when it comes to tradeswomen working in the field, on job sites, the percentage falls to 4%.

But times are changing, to an extent. Since 2016, there has been a 32% increase in women working in the trades — and a decrease in folks who don’t think they can do the job.

“Every once in a while, I still get that, but for the most part, people are pretty receptive to it,” said Abby Sullivan, who has owned a waste-management business for 11 years. “The biggest part is, I get on the phone talking to people and assuring them that, yes, this girl in the office can talk trash, literally. I never thought that was something I could do. And it’s kind of empowering to be able to be in this industry and be respected for my knowledge and my ability.”

Sullivan started as a school bus driver, but later realized that she wanted to do something on her own. Her CDL license proved to be a natural entry point into starting Affordable Waste Solutions. She started as the main driver and got the same question every woman BusinessWest talked to has heard: ‘you know what you’re doing?’

And the answers are always the same: ‘yes, I do know what I’m doing.’

“It’s not something that most girls do or are into — and at the the beginning, it was a little harder to be taken seriously,” Sullivan said.

But in an industry — actually, a related collection of industries — that desperately need a pipeline of new talent, more women than ever are realizing they can have well-paying, satisfying work in the construction trades, often without taking on the debt of many four-year colleges.

“It’s not something that most girls do or are into — and at the the beginning, it was a little harder to be taken seriously.”

For this issue’s focus on building trades, we spoke to several women in the field — and the teachers and employers who have encouraged them — and heard one resounding message many times over: you have to start somewhere, and confidence is key.

 

Reaching Them Early

Over the past decade, it’s become more natural to see women on job sites, but all those careers started somewhere. In Chicopee, Carl Ingram is starting at the middle-school level to get girls interested in the vocational programs offered at Chicopee Comprehensive High School. Seventh-graders attend a Career and Technical Education (CTE) fair to gauge what the shops are like, and eighth-graders hear more detailed presentations from each shop teacher about what their shops offer.

“We talk a lot about certifications, we talk about credentialing, we also talk about the CTE areas and the exploratory process, because we feel like the exploratory process is something every kid in Chicopee should do,” Ingram said.

v

Pat Sweitzer says girls need confidence to work in the construction trades.

As the CTE director for the city, he went on to explain that freshmen go through a 12-week process where they explore each shop class for a week and later have to pick their top two to choose from later in the second semester. Students not only learn academically in the ‘theory rooms,’ as they’re called, but they also gain hands-on experience in whatever shop they want to participate in: carpentry, metal fabrication, welding, electrical, automotive, advanced manufacturing, and more.

Lia Oliveira, a pipefitter for Adam’s Plumbing and Heating, told BusinessWest a similar story. “I went to Smith Voc in Northampton for high school. I didn’t want plumbing, but we tried every shop for a day, and then you pick your top four for a week, and plumbing was the one. I was like, ‘I can actually learn something new.’ That’s how I got into it. And then, in my junior year of high school, Adams hired me.”

However, not all the women we spoke with knew that early that they would end up in the construction trades. Jes Thayer started out with an art degree and traveled as an artist before the pandemic dried up opportunities. She decided to fall back on the fact that she was once a mechanic and liked to work with her hands.

“Whenever I have issues, my boss says, ‘whenever you have an issue, you come straight to me,’ and she handles it from the top all the way down.”

“I kind of knew that I wanted to be an electrician just because of dealing with cars and the electrical stuff in that, but it was great to get a foundation in all of the building trades through Community Works,” she explained. “They are the ones that helped me find Wayne J. Griffin Electrical, who’s been wonderful to me ever since.”

As a current apprentice, Thayer has gained the ability to feel more confident in her role, explaining that she feels more comfortable in the electrical trade than she did in many automotive shops.

“People tried to take tools right out of my hands, which is a big pet peeve. But here, I think being on the team that I have, they’re giving me the tools, and they’re asking me to show people that are younger than me. It’s about experience and taking leadership opportunities,” she said. “It’s really great to have my company do that, and since I’ve been on the site, we have great morale and have really got each others’ backs.”

Girls from Chicopee Comp

Girls from Chicopee Comp were able to attend a trades event to learn more and network.

Women face many challenges when it comes to working in a male-dominated industry — particularly women of color, who say they have faced discrimination in hiring and employment and experience sexual harassment and gender or racial bias on the job.

But with the increasing number of women on job sites, there’s a stronger sense of community when it comes to these issues, especially sexual harassment.

“Whenever I have issues, my boss says, ‘whenever you have an issue, you come straight to me,’ and she handles it from the top all the way down,” Oliveira said. “It’s a lot easier to deal with that stuff. I know a lot of women get scared coming into construction, thinking that they’re going to have to deal with it, but we don’t have to deal with it. They take care of it.”

Tracy Routhiee, a senior project manager for Fontaine Brothers, added that it’s important to have a support system that has everyone’s back and strengthens the entire team by cultivating camaraderie and standing up for what’s right.

However, it’s also important to begin with a measure of a confidence, said Pat Sweitzer, operations manager for Sweitzer Construction, who told BusinessWest that as long as women carry themselves with confidence and respect the work, men will respect them in turn.

“It’s cool to be wiring up the auditorium and realizing that those lights are going to be shining down on those kids someday that are going to be playing in their first concert or basketball game. It’s kind of neat to know that.”

“I did have one case where that did not occur,” she recalled. “I found that, as long as I stood up for myself, the dynamic changed, and the respect was then forthcoming to me on that particular project. It was an interesting experience for me to have that happen and then realize, ‘wait a minute, I know what I’m doing, and I know how to do this.’”

 

Building a Future

Liz Wambui, director of Diversity and Community Impact for Fontaine Brothers, added that stepping into a new environment, especially one where people may not take a woman seriously, can cause something like imposter syndrome. She said women in construction may have moments where they question if they’re good enough or doing the right thing, but the solution begins with reframing one’s mind and not taking no for an answer.

Most of the women we spoke with explained that, once they get out of their own way, the doors and opportunities are endless, and the feeling of success after completing a project is one of the most satisfying experiences in this industry.

Charlene Metcalf, accountant for Fontaine Brothers, said that, even though she’s not directly on the sites, she is proud to drive by different places that Fontaine Brothers has built and can’t help but share with others that she was a part of that.

A Chicopee Comp student

A Chicopee Comp student said the recent trades event helped her step out of her comfort zone.

Kailee Grigas, a laborer at the firm, agreed. “That’s exactly what happened when I was at MGM. I said, ‘oh, I was there working on that building.’”

Currently, Fontaine Brothers and subcontractors are rebuilding and joining DeBerry and Homer elementary schools in Springfield. The new DeBerry Homer Elementary School will be a state-of-the-art, three-story, 155,000-square-foot school that will serve approximately 920 students from pre-K to grade 6. Both elementary schools will be consolidated into this one building, but each school will maintain its individual identity. Shared spaces and resources include the gym, library, and cafeteria, but the schools will have separate academic and support spaces required to maintain independent schools.

Thayer couldn’t help but share her excitement about the new school with BusinessWest. “To build a school, a lot of things have to come together, but it’s also really exciting. I came from building an Amazon building before this, and it’s kind of like, eh, we’re being pushed to do this really fast, and everyone’s kind of got their own agenda. But here, it’s where kids are going to be learning. It’s cool to be wiring up the auditorium and realizing that those lights are going to be shining down on those kids someday that are going to be playing in their first concert or basketball game. It’s kind of neat to know that.”

Routhiee agreed, adding that, when she’s worked as a project manager for other schools that Fontaine has built, the teachers and principals are always full of gratitude.

And that sense of gratification at finished projects is a real, tangible benefit of being in this field, along with others the women who spoke with BusinessWest mentioned, including good wages and benefits, networking, travel, and more.

Speaking of networking and travel, one of the biggest conferences for women in the trades — Tradeswomen Build Nations — is held in Las Vegas. Closer to home, Girls in Trade is a state-sponsored event that was held at Dean Tech High School in Holyoke this year. Girls in the CTE programs at Chicopee Comp were able to attend with Amber Patruno, the CTE Inclusion teacher. Patruno explained that the girls listened to a lecture on the benefits of being in a trade, but also tested their soft skills with a scavenger hunt throughout the networking portion.

“Within the scavenger hunt, there were certain questions to ask the representatives and certain things to look for within their display, which I thought was phenomenal because it really intrigued the girls to not just walk past the booth,” she added. “It’s like, ‘hey, I want to ask you this question,’ which got them information, but also got them more interested in what each trade had to offer at that point.”

One student who went on the field trip said it was more useful than a college fair because the tradeswomen were able to answer whatever questions she and her peers had about the building trades.

“When you’re in an atmosphere like that with a lot of people, especially for me, it was like, ‘woah, OK,’ she said. “I had to take a step back and tell myself, ‘OK, let’s do this; calm down, one step at a time,’ and I got through it. And I realized, maybe this isn’t all that bad. It might look scary at first, but once you slowly test the waters, you’re good.”

 

Show Them Who’s Boss

That’s how all girls interested in the trades should approach the situation at hand, the student added.

“We’re all equal. I don’t really care who you are; we’re all human beings,” she said. “With that being said, if a man can do something, who says that a woman can’t do the same job? I believe that if you put your head to it, you put your heart to it, you put your mind to it, you can do it.”

Women have always been able to get their hands dirty, but in the construction trades, there’s certainly evidence they’re doing so at a higher rate, although the gender gap remains wide.

To further close that gap will take more education about what these careers offer — and the confidence to say, ‘yes, we can.’

Construction Cover Story

Building Momentum

 

Wonderlyn Murphy

Wonderlyn Murphy

 

 

Wonderlyn Murphy has some ambitious plans for City Enterprise, the construction company she started nearly two decades ago.

She wants to take it to $150 million in annual revenue — roughly six times the current level. She wants to expand geographically and open new locations, perhaps one in Florida and another in Maine or New Hampshire. She wants to build a new headquarters facility in this region because the company has clearly outgrown its current home on Berkshire Avenue in Springfield. She wants to add more staff, and she wants to broaden the portfolio with larger projects, likely through partnerships with larger construction firms.

Yes, there is a lot on her ‘want’ list. But she believes it’s all realistic, and, more importantly, she has a blueprint for getting there.

“We’re in a transition period now where I’m growing the company,” she said. “And I have some very aggressive goals for the next five years. I want to be a $150 million company, and we get there by scaling, we get there by duplication, we get there through collaboration and partnerships, we get there by building the employees based on our core values, get there through outside-the-box thinking and vision, more than just focusing on getting the next job.”

Getting where she wants to go will certainly be a challenge, but Murphy has already clearly shown that she has the ability to set goals and then reach them through hard work, determination, and overcoming obstacles in her path.

“We’re in a transition period now where I’m growing the company. And I have some very aggressive goals for the next five years. We get there through collaboration and partnerships, we get there by building the employees based on our core values, get there through outside-the-box thinking and vision, more than just focusing on getting the next job.”

Indeed, she has taken City Enterprise from a small, one-person venture that started with Murphy designing, building, and flipping homes to a multi-dimensional company with 14 employees that has secured work with clients ranging from UMass Amherst to the U.S. Park Service; from the General Services Administration to the U.S. Coast Guard.

She’s done all this by making connections, forging relationships, and, yes, taking full advantage of City Enterprise’s status as a woman- and minority-owned business.

Such status has certainly opened some doors, but Murphy has had the entrepreneurial drive, and that determination, to march through those doors and, as noted, put down some ambitious plans for what comes next.

Today, Murphy told BusinessWest, thanks to some new staff additions, and especially the addition of Vice President of Operations Charles Young, she is able to spend more time on the business, rather than in it.

And with that fundamental change, she believes she is putting the pieces in place for a story of change, growth, and taking her company to places that she probably couldn’t have imagined 20 years ago.

But then again, she probably could.

 

Building a Foundation

As noted earlier, City Enterprise has been a work in progress, or a dream in progress, for Murphy for nearly two decades now, or not long after she graduated from Wentworth Institute of Technology in Boston with a degree in architectural design technology.

At first, it was a part-time pursuit, something she did after working the overnight shift (midnight to 8 a.m.) as a correctional officer with the Hampden County Sheriff’s Office at the Western Massachusetts Correctional Alcohol Center on Howard Street, since torn down to make way for MGM Springfield. That work was a learning experience on many levels, she said, and one that has helped in her current roles as employer and entrepreneur.

“It was a very interesting experience, to say the least,” she told BusinessWest. “I got to know the population and came to understand what it really meant to be a corrections officer; there’s much more to it than slamming cell doors, even though there were no cell doors there. The population came from varied backgrounds, and to navigate all of that took a certain amount of finesse.”

Abatement work at the former Court Square Hotel

Abatement work at the former Court Square Hotel in downtown Springfield is one of many municipal projects awarded to City Enterprise.

While working in corrections on Howard Street, she designed, built, and sold a few houses, including her first such endeavor, a home on Eastland Street, just a stone’s throw from City Enterprise’s current home on Berkshire Avenue. Later, she designed and built a two-home development on Parkerview Street in Springfield and handled a few renovations and additions as well.

It was difficult to manage both sides of her work life, but she managed.

“I would get out of work at 8, and I would go straight to my job sites and my projects, because I was the only one doing it at the time,” she recalled. “So I had to line up my subcontractors; I had to be on site and make sure everyone was there. I had to schedule everything … and time is always of the essence in real estate, because you want to hit the market at the right time.”

This was the start of City Enterprise, she said, adding that, as she continued to operate her venture out of her basement and create the first of what would be several business plans for its future, Murphy applied for status under what is known as 8A under the Small Business Administration, a program created to help firms owned and controlled by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals.

Applying for such status is a difficult and lengthy proposition, she said, adding that it eventually took her three years to gain that designation. At first, she was turned down, in large part, she believes, because she was still working in corrections at the time and thus — to those reviewing her application, at least — she was not fully committed to her business venture.

After waiting a year — and after leaving the Sheriff’s Department in 2012 and making City Enterprise a full-time pursuit — she applied again, and this time was granted 8A status. And during that year, she was making connections and building relationships with agencies ranging from the General Services Administration to the Army Corps of Engineers to the U.S. Navy.

“I was letting these people know that I was coming — I was developing relationships even before I was admitted into the program,” she said. “Because I knew the 8A was more government-contract-driven, I sought out those agencies.

“I was confident because I made the necessary sacrifices to make that happen,” she said. “I knew there were things I had to do to get past that first rejection, and I did them. I took full advantage of that year.”

The 8A designation certainly opened some doors, as noted earlier, especially at government-owned and operated facilities, such as Westover Air Reserve Base, where she earned first commercial contract — renovation work in the bowling alley on the base.

Wonderlyn Murphy, seen here with recently hired Vice President of Operations Charles Young

Wonderlyn Murphy, seen here with recently hired Vice President of Operations Charles Young, is setting some ambitious goals for City Enterprise.

This was another important learning experience, she said, adding that she initially hired the wrong type of flooring company to work on the bowling lanes, but later secured the right subcontractor, a company in Ohio, and finished the project in good order.

“It was a very difficult entry into the commercial space, but we got through it, and it was a great learning experience,” she said, adding that the company would go on to secure projects with a number of government entities in the ensuing years.

 

Drafting a Plan

That list includes the city of Springfield, which hired the firm to handle the abatement of the historic former Court Square Hotel, which is being converted into market-rate apartments; the National Park Service, which hired City Enterprise to undertake restoration of the porch of the commanding officer’s quarters at the Springfield Armory; UMass Amherst, which has contracted with the company on a number of projects, from renovations of the Rand Theater to envelope repairs at several of the dorms; UMass Medical School, which hired the company to do skylight replacement; the U.S. Coast Guard, which used the company for repairs and renovations to its small-arms range; and countless others.

Current projects include installation of a new marquee sign at the MassMutual Center, work at the Beals Library in Winchendon, and construction of a new amphitheater, also in Winchendon. The company has also submitted a proposal for the Old State House in Boston, what would be its most significant project to date, and is awaiting word on that bid application.

The growing list of clients, the wide range of work undertaken for them, and the growing staff at the company, now numbering 14, including an estimating staff, project managers, an accounting department, and that aforementioned vice president of Operations, shows how far this company has come since Murphy started building houses.

More intriguing, though, is where she wants to take it moving forward.

Indeed, as she mentioned at the top, City Enterprise is in a transition stage in its development, and the broad plan is to essentially scale the operation — in many different ways.

One of them is geographic reach. She said she would like to have a location in South Florida, and perhaps another in northern New England to better serve potential clients in that market. She is also looking at growing through acquisition as well.

“Time is always of the essence in real estate, because you want to hit the market at the right time.”

Meanwhile, as noted earlier, she is settling into … not a new role, necessarily, but a different set of responsibilities as the company makes this transition. Indeed, instead of handling many of the day-to-day matters, which will now be handled by Young, she will be even more focused on the proverbial big picture and goal setting.

“I’m not as involved with the day-to-day as I was a year ago because I have brought on a vice president of Operations,” she said. “But I am very involved with executing my vision and getting my team aligned with the vision, and getting the right people to go with me to that number I just mentioned — $150 million — which is probably the most important part.”

the porch at the commanding officer’s quarters at the Springfield Armory.

City Enterprise has tackled a number of assignments involving government agencies, including work to restore the porch at the commanding officer’s quarters at the Springfield Armory.

Elaborating, the company’s broad portfolio of projects — meaning the depth and diversity of the client base and the wide variety of work — is indicative of “where we’re going and who we are,” Murphy said, adding that the focus moving forward is simply on controlled growth and doing what’s necessary to meet those lofty goals.

A new headquarters building is a key part of that equation, she said, adding that she has plans on paper for a new building and a site in mind. Further diversification of the portfolio of clients is another key goal, she said, adding that the company is working to add more colleges and universities, government agencies, municipalities, and healthcare facilities, among others, to that already significant list.

Continued relationship building and potential collaborations with larger construction companies on larger projects is another part of that equation, she said, adding that the company’s status as a woman-owned and minority-owned company could be a huge asset in such collaborative efforts.

 

Bottom Line

Such conversations are ongoing, Murphy said, adding that, as she moves away from the day-to-day of running City Enterprise and more into the broad task of marketing the company and being its “face,” her job description falls into the category of making and building connections.

“It’s a very ambitious place I’m going to,” she said in conclusion, adding that she is putting the pieces in place for something special. The foundation has been built, and she is now ready to build upon it — and in dramatic fashion. u

 

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

Cover Story Women in Businesss

Grass-roots Effort

 

‘Buy Weed from Women.’

That’s what is printed on the back of the coat

Meg Sanders

Meg Sanders

was wearing as she led BusinessWest on a tour of Canna Provisions’ Holyoke dispensary recently.

Those words cover a lot of ground. They’re a request, as well as a statement. They’re also an operating philosophy. And in some respects, they constitute hope for what people will be able to do more easily in the future.

Indeed, buying weed from women — as in women who own or co-own the dispensary in question — is not something easily done. The startup and operating costs for such an operation are extremely high and, for many people — and most women — simply prohibitive. And once one is in, it’s a challenge to stay in.

Sanders, CEO of Canna Provisions, is one of the rare exceptions.

She shifted her career from compliance in financial services to compliance in cannabis while living in Colorado at the time the industry was simply exploding and turning into what she called ‘the wild west.’ She is now a prominent player in the not-so-wild but very intriguing Western Mass. market, overseeing, with her partner, Erik Williams, two dispensaries (the other is in Lee) and a cultivation facility in Sheffield.

Moving forward, she envisions one more dispensary in Western Mass. — she and Williams are looking at several options for acquisition — and the buildout of another manufacturing facility in Lee. And from a bigger-picture perspective, Sanders is looking to hone a business model that will create more profitability in an industry where only a third of all busnesses are profitable.

“ I still believe the best thing in cannabis still has not been invented. We find new cannabinoids every single day; there are new ways to consume this product, new delivery methods, new formulations. Those are all really important parts of where this industry is going. Science is in it, and I am psyched to see the products we come up with to help people.”

When asked about what separates those who are profitable from those who are not, Sanders said it comes down to being smart — with everything from which products (and how much inventory) are carried to the training and development of employees.

“We invest in humans, and we train them,” she said, adding that people are the biggest and most important investment for a company in this sector.

It’s an investment she takes very seriously, and it’s one of the many reasons why she believes Canna Provisions is successful and on the cutting edge when it comes to everything from how products are displayed and sold in the dispensary to how employees are trained, groomed for advancement, and ultimately retained (more on all that later).

“I’m really proud of it — I think it’s the coolest dispensary in America,” she said of the Holyoke facility as she led the tour. “And I’ve been into a lot of them.”

Canna Provision’s dispensary in Holyoke

Meg Sanders says Canna Provision’s dispensary in Holyoke has been designed to resemble an art gallery — and even features works from local artists.

And as she surveys the scene, at that Holyoke location and within the broad cannabis industry, Sanders, who has been quoted in publications ranging from the Wall Street Journal to Northeast Leaf, sees a number of converging forces and trends, but especially innovation, the sector’s deep impact on the local economy and the local landscape, cannabis playing a growing role in the health and wellness of people of all ages, and the promise of much more of all of that in the future.

“Cannabis is a giant vote for freedom — it’s a giant vote for ‘you know what’s best for your body; it’s not the government’s job to tell you what to put in it, on it, any of that,’” she said. “From everyone that I know that uses cannabis, customers I talk to every day, their life is better. A recent study showed that 60% of Millennials use cannabis for wellness, and when you ask them to define ‘wellness,’ it was stress, relaxation, sleep, and anxiety. The fact that people look at cannabis as wellness is huge.

“And I still believe the best thing in cannabis still has not been invented,” she went on. “We find new cannabinoids every single day; there are new ways to consume this product, new delivery methods, new formulations. Those are all really important parts of where this industry is going. Science is in it, and I am psyched to see the products we come up with to help people.”

The wording on the back of Meg Sanders’ jacket

The wording on the back of Meg Sanders’ jacket is both a request and a bit of hope for what people will be able to do more easily in the future.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Sanders about her business, her industry, the words printed on the back of her jacket, and what she expects to come next with all of the above.

 

Joint Ventures

That aforementioned tour of Canna Provisions came the Wednesday before Thanksgiving. It was late morning, just before noon, and the traffic in the store was still relatively light, with a handful of customers exploring the myriad product options or talking to customer-service providers, both behind the counter and on the floor.

But Sanders was expecting a huge day because cannabis, in her estimation, is becoming a growing part of Thanksgiving, especially to contend with the week’s large doses of stress.

“People will be in to get their coping mechanisms and their celebratory pieces so they can deal with Uncle Bob, who might be talking politics at the Thanksgiving table,” she explained. “We all have families, and they’re all very interesting and come with a lot of stuff; this is one way to cope, and it’s not new.”

Meanwhile, she was expecting even bigger crowds for the upcoming Black Friday and the holiday season in general. And such expectations, born from experience in both Colorado and this market, are evidence of the growing influence of cannabis — on the economy and in people’s lives.

Turning back the clock nearly 15 years, Sanders, as noted earlier, was working for a small financial-services company handling a few dozen traders when she approached a friend who was getting in on the ground floor of the exploding cannabis scene in the Centennial State and asked if he could find a place for her.

“I had definitely hit a glass ceiling — there was nowhere else to go and no more money to be made there,” she recalled. “That was happening at the exact same time as this brand-new industry was starting to explode; I reached out to my friend who was creating this cannabis business and said, ‘I’d love to help you guys; what can I do?’

“It took a while for us to find the right place, but I went basically from compliance in the financial industry to compliance in cannabis, and that’s how I got started,” she went on, adding that she became increasingly more involved and eventually become CEO.

Sanders would eventually exit that company — primarily because its board wanted to focus solely on Colorado, while she had larger aspirations for the venture — and work, along with Williams, as a consultant to states, municipalities, and individual businesses as they entered the cannabis business.

“We were helping companies and state regulatory bodies and local governments come up with ordinances that made sense, regulatory frameworks that made sense, and helping people get licensed all over, from Florida to Illinois to Nevada — everywhere,” she recalled. “And then, Massachusetts legalization happened, and we were intrigued by the model in that it wasn’t going to be this massive gaming of the system in a limited-license structure, where if you know the governor, or have the right lobbyist, or if you make donations to the right legislators, you get a license.”

Sanders and Williams eventually consulted for a venture called Canna Provisions and were invited to become part of its operations team. They became CEO and COO, respectively, and guided the company as it gained just the second license issued by the state for a standalone dispensary in Lee, right behind Caroline’s Cannabis in Uxbridge — where she bought her jacket from owner Caroline Frankel. The Holyoke facility, located on Dwight Street in a former paper mill, opened in July 2020, at the height of the pandemic.

In her role, Sanders is involved in all aspects of the business, obviously, but devotes much of her time to staff development and that broad term ‘culture.’

‘At Canna Provisions, we really believe that we’re not just growing plants and growing a business, we’re growing humans,” she explained, adding that the company invests considerable amounts of time, money, and energy to train and develop employees, and then give them opportunities to do different things and advance within the company.

Canna Provisions invests heavily in employee training and development

Meg Sanders says Canna Provisions invests heavily in employee training and development — and the customer experience.

She said she’s currently serving as a facilitator and working with a group of seven employees at the company on a course of leadership training.

“I’m reinforcing my skills by teaching them their skills in hopes of growing humans to become better leaders, which creates happier employees,” she told BusinessWest, adding that most all of these employees have experience in business and customer service but are new to this industry.

“We work really hard to train employees, we spend a lot of money training them, and it’s ongoing,” she went on. “We’ve been told multiple times by people from this industry, and also not from this industry, that they’ve never been to a company that invests so much in training, and they appreciate it.”

 

Down to an Art

While Sanders is certainly well-known within the industry and probably recognized by many she encounters (especially when she shows her ID), she still calls what she does ‘secret shopping.’

These are regular visits to dispensaries across this region and beyond, during which she is always looking at the product mix, the presentation, the staff, and how they interact with customers — all with an eye toward making her own operations better and her own employees ever more responsive to what clients want and need.

“I shop everybody — everybody,” she said, “so that we’re more accurate in our differentiation. I’m able to see what competitors around us are doing, and I can say, ‘that’s one business model — it’s not a bad business model, it’s just not my business model.’”

“We’ve been told multiple times by people from this industry, and also not from this industry, that they’ve never been to a company that invests so much in training, and they appreciate it.”

These secret shopping excursions are just a small part of a broad operating formula aimed at continuous improvement, setting the bar higher, and then clearing that bar.

Sanders believes Canna Provisions does all this in all aspects of its business — from product selection to presentation, but especially with how those on the floor and behind the counter interact with and effectively serve customers, some of whom may suffer from what she called “dispensary phobia,” and a fear of going inside.

And this is a product of all that intensive — and expansive — training that Sanders talked about earlier.

“People have to be on point because your customers expect a certain level of service — they have to know the products,” she said. “It’s training and role playing and practicing and coaching on the floor — teaching them to be more aware of the people who are in front of them.

“This is not a cheap spend, “she went on. “Our average ticket here in Holyoke is close to 100 bucks a pop. When I’m spending $100 or $200 at a location, I do have a bit of expectation to be treated well.”

Overall, she likened the cannabis-buying experience, at least at her dispensaries, to jewelry shopping in many respects, from the high cost of the products to the way that many customers need guidance, or education, on what they’re buying.

Overall, Sanders believes she and Williams have created a different kind of cannabis experience in their locations. The one in Holyoke resembles an art gallery in the way products are displayed, and there are even works of art on the wall. Meanwhile, it pays homage to the property’s roots as a paper mill by putting some of the equipment and office furniture to work in displays.

 

Impact Statement

As she talked about the broad influence that cannabis has had on the local landscape, and will continue to have moving forward, Sanders again flashed back to the early days in Colorado, which came in 2009, the middle of what became known as the Great Recession.

“They just ran with cannabis, and it was crazy,” she said of the rapid growth of the industry and its impact on real estate, cities, towns, and individual neighborhoods. “And this started right after that massive crash and its impact on real estate and mortgages … it was a nightmare. But in Colorado, the opposite happened because all these growers, all of these dispensaries, ended up leasing more than 1 million square feet of warehouse space that had been off the tax rolls for years, just in Denver.

“So, it immediately just infused the city with vibrancy, and it happened all over,” she went on. “It was just one of those interesting economic moments where Colorado did not feel that economic downturn, the bottom dropping out, nearly as much as other states; it was fascinating. And then we kept adding all these jobs, and we kept adding jobs, and building, and then science was involved; the industry just came a long way really fast.”

It continues to grow and evolve, and now, much of what was seen in Colorado is being experienced in other states and other region, including Western Mass., she said, adding that cannabis is having a profound impact on communities like Holyoke and Lee, where she has chosen to put down roots, especially the former.

Indeed, this was a city that rolled out the red carpet for this industry, with its former mayor, Alex Morse, jokingly — although it was no joke — wishing it to become known as Rolling Paper City, a twist on its original nickname, Paper City.

Few actually call it that, but Sanders said there is no disputing the profound impact that cannabis has had in this city, where hundreds of thousands of square feet of unused or underused former mill space has been converted into dispensaries and cultivating facilities.

“Bringing more people to Holyoke is the goal for all of us,” she said. “And I think Holyoke and its bones often get overlooked; I’m so excited that there’s a new art gallery opening on High Street, that there’s several restaurants that we frequent and another new restaurant going in across the way. We have Gateway City Arts, which does concerts all the time. So, there’s momentum, and we’re hoping to be a part of that and help a city that’s been struggling for a long time.

“Together, we’re all going to make Holyoke a better place, with more jobs, more places to live, more restaurants to go to, more shopping, art,” she went on. “I absolutely love this town, and that’s why we came here and spent $1 million to open this dispensary.”

Looking ahead, Sanders wants to see a day when more women can become business owners in this sector.

“It’s very much a closed door, and the numbers are actually going down, which is unfortunate,” she said, noting, again, the sky-high costs of opening and then operating a business in this sector, and the challenge to turn a profit when 70 cents of every dollar earned is returned to the government in taxes.

“Through initiatives at the state level and maybe even at the federal level with safe banking and other things they’re talking about, we need to give minorities and women an opportunity to win alongside all the rich, white money,” she told BusinessWest. “As a female leader in this space, I am super proud to be in this space as a leader and an owner, and I would say it’s one of my biggest motivators to talk about this and do something about it.”

 

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

Cover Story

Building a Foundation

 

As he talked about the foundation he created with some of the proceeds from the sale of Pride Stations and Stores — the business he started more than 40 years ago — and the many difficult societal problems it will address, Bob Bolduc summoned an often-paraphrased quote from John F. Kennedy.

It went this way:

“The great French Marshal Lyautey once asked his gardener to plant a tree. The gardener objected that the tree was slow-growing and wouldn’t reach maturity for 100 years. The Marshal replied, ‘in that case, there is no time to lose — plant it this afternoon!’”

Bolduc recalled the story to drive home the point that the country, and Kennedy’s administration, faced some stubborn, deep-rooted problems, and because they would take a long time to resolve, no time should be wasted in addressing them.

Bolduc, the hugely successful entrepreneur also known for his high level of involvement in the community, and especially Springfield, struck those same tones while talking about the Hope for Youth & Families Foundation, launched earlier this year, and its broad mission.

“Helping youth and families achieve sustainability is the ultimate goal, and that’s not going to happen overnight,” he told BusinessWest. “It starts with the youth, and it’s going to take time to get them from pre-kindergarten into a career. So we’re looking at a long-range plan.

“And along the way, a lot of things have to be done right,” he went on. “So it’s absolutely a long-term, major project.”

Even before Bolduc launched the Hope for Youth & Families Foundation, back when he was planting the seeds and talking in broad strokes about its mission and how it would be carried out, he stressed repeatedly that this endeavor was not about writing checks — although it would undoubtedly write some.

“Helping youth and families achieve sustainability is the ultimate goal, and that’s not going to happen overnight.”

Instead, it was about creating a foundation that would be — and he would use these three words early and often — a convener, a facilitator, and a catalyst.

Shannon Mumblo, who became executive director of the foundation — and its first employee — just a few months ago, agreed.

She said the foundation’s mission statement — “to work within under-resourced communities, create alliances, and find solutions in all aspects necessary to help youth and families achieve sustainability” — speaks to the work it will carry out and how it will go about this work.

Indeed, as they talked about the new foundation and how it will go about its work, both Bolduc and Mumblo noted there are many other foundations, individual agencies, and major institutions already doing good work in this region. The goal moving forward is not to duplicate such work, but build on it, forge new alliances, and create more momentum with the many issues involved with creating sustainability.

And the foundation has already launched several new initiatives, everything from a Trauma Institute — born from the knowledge that trauma is one of the lead social determinants of health and a key contributor to many challenges facing youth and families — to an ‘Inspirational Speaker Series’ at which students will learn about career opportunities in various fields.

The Trauma Institute, which will provide training and consultative services to area agencies and nonprofits serving youth and families, is an early example of those at the new foundation listening to others and responding to identified needs.

Shannon Mumblo

Shannon Mumblo says the Hope for Youth and Families Foundation will, through its Trauma Institute, put a focus on providing trauma-informed services and training.

“We’re not here to replicate anything that’s already being done — we’re here to add value, and to meet needs where they arise,” Mumblo said. “We heard there was a need for something like this, and it has been very well-received within the community.”

For this issue, one that includes its annual Giving Guide, BusinessWest talked with the team at the Hope for Youth & Families Foundation about its broad mission and the long, challenging, and rewarding work that lies ahead.

 

Listening and Learning

There’s a box of tissues on the conference-room table at the foundation’s new office in Springfield.

It was added several months ago, and it’s now a permanent feature, said Bolduc, adding that many of the topics discussed — and stories heard — at the table have prompted those assembled to reach for the tissue box.

This process of listening is a big part of the early work being done at the foundation, said those we spoke with, adding that all those involved are still in the process of learning, identifying issues and ways in which the foundation can become involved, and then developing strategies for this involvement.

Summing it up, Bolduc and Mumblo called it the “Sustainability Challenge,” noting that it has both foundational building blocks — funding, alliances both local and national, data collection, and tracking of progress are just some of them — and a number of initiatives and programs ranging from foster care and supportive housing to summer camps, mentoring and tutoring programs, and scholarships.

The foundation’s work on the Sustainability Challenge is still very much in its infancy stage, said Bolduc, adding that, while he has been talking about his new foundation for the better part of a year now, the sale of the Pride chain was quite complicated, and it took several months to “unravel a lot of complicated issues,” as he put it.

Mumblo, the foundation’s first employee, did not come on board until July, he said, adding that this hire was an important initial step.

For Mumblo, the offer from Bolduc to lead the foundation, extended about a year ago, came somewhat out of the blue. When Bolduc called, she was serving as executive director of Christina’s House in Springfield, a nonprofit focused on providing transitional housing for women and their children, work that earned her status as one of BusinessWest’s Women of Impact for 2021. And she was quite happy in that work.

“I thought Christina’s House was going to the place where I retired eventually,” she said, adding she asked for time to think about this opportunity, and was given it. Her career plans changed when she learned more about the new foundation and the initial roadmap for how it would carry out its mission.

“Bob’s vision and values in the world really aligned with mine,” she noted. “And the bottom line for me was that it was not about handing out checks; it was about doing work — not just talking, but being immersed in the community and listening to what the community really needed and then building the foundation around that need. That’s what brought me here.”

She’s now leading a foundation that has that broad mission statement — and was inspired by all that Bolduc saw, heard, and learned about area communities and specific neighborhoods, and the many kinds of challenges they are facing.

“Because, over my career, I’ve had stores in all the different neighborhoods, I’ve had the opportunity to get to know the populations in these neighborhoods, and I saw the need in the inner cities to help youth and families,” he explained. “When our family decided to start a foundation, we made that our mission — to work with youth and families in the inner cities.

“We had to define the problem and set goals,” he went on, adding that this work is in many ways being shaped by some interviews with 15-year-old girls conducted several years ago.

“When sustainability becomes the goal, we then need to look at what we have to do to make this happen. And we found that we just have to roll up our sleeves and get to work — in all the ways.”

“We asked them what they wanted to do when they grew up,” he recalled. “And when the question came, ‘do you think you’ll go to college?’ every one of them said, categorically, ‘no, I could never go to college.’

“That became one of the points in our mission, and that is to help youth to be sustainable and find a job,” he went on. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be college, but to have a better life, be sustainable, stay in the city — which is a great city — and to ultimately give back, like we want to do.”

Sustainability is the identified goal, or mission. Attaining it is, of course, a challenge, and it has been for decades, he continued, referencing JFK’s famous quote and the need to plant the tree and get started.

“When sustainability becomes the goal, we then need to look at what we have to do to make this happen,” Bolduc told BusinessWest. “And we found that we just have to roll up our sleeves and get to work — in all the ways.”

 

Addressing Needs

This ‘getting to work’ has taken many forms thus far, but much of it has involved meeting with the many agencies working on issues involving sustainability, listening to what they have to say, and thinking about ways to partner with them.

“Over the past few months, we’ve been meeting with every agency and nonprofit that fits into this plan — and we have a few more to go,” Bolduc said. “And we’re finding great people and great programs already in place; unfortunately, we’re finding some silos, and lots of problems. But those problems … we’re calling those opportunities to improve.”

And while listening and learning, those at the foundation have already launched several new initiatives aimed at addressing the needs conveyed to them.

One of these steps is creation of the Trauma Institute, which has its own mission statement — “to provide trauma-informed and responsive support services to youth and families and those who work with them in under-resourced communities.”

And it carries out that mission in many ways, including training and consultation focused on serving youth and families and those who work with them in under-resourced communities, partnerships, and policy and advocacy.

“We’re focused on helping to create pathways to graduation and then on to careers or college. We’re starting young and getting students involved in their education, wanting to go to school, and wanting to further their education or career goals.”

“There is a lot of work being done in mental health, specifically in trauma, but there are gaps because the need is so great and there aren’t enough resources to meet the need in the community,” said Mumblo, noting that she became well aware of these needs and gaps while leading Christina’s House and convinced Bolduc that work to address trauma needed to be a primary focal point of the Hope for Youth & Families Foundation.

“In my previous work with mothers and their children, I came to understand that their trauma is great, and it has many levels and many layers,” she explained. “You can teach life skills and provide a lot of education to help move someone from a point of homelessness or near-homelessness into independent living and stability and success. But until you really reach the root of the issue — which, for me, I saw time and time again, was the trauma that they had experienced and the severing of trust on so many levels and inability to feel loved — until that work really began to happen, the process to change had started, but there was only so much change that was going to happen until you peeled away the layers of that trauma, built that trust, and provided a loving and safe environment.”

Elaborating, she said the need for trauma-informed support and services extends to individuals in the community, obviously, but also to those working in the agencies that provide such services.

“There are many organizations who are serving youth and families in this area and doing a tremendous amount of work,” she said. “But the vicarious trauma that comes from that as providers is great, and a lot of times we’re not great at taking care of ourselves.”

Overall, the foundation’s work with trauma is in its early, formative stages, said Mumblo, adding this is true of other initiatives as well, including the Inspired Speaker Series, which kicked off recently with an event at Springfield Symphony Hall, where students from several area high schools had the opportunity to hear about careers in the military.

Future gatherings, and there will be many of them, will focus on different career paths, said Mumblo, including STEM, healthcare, law and government, law enforcement, and business. The broad goal is to introduce students to careers, inform them of what it takes to forge a career in these fields, and help put them on a path that will take them where they want to go.

There are several initiatives, most all of them still in the formative stages, that fall into this broad realm, said Alison Schoen, director of Administration for the foundation, listing mentoring and tutoring services, as well as after-school and summer programs, as other examples.

“We’re focused on helping to create pathways to graduation and then on to careers or college,” she said. “We’re starting young and getting students involved in their education, wanting to go to school, and wanting to further their education or career goals. We’re working with local organizations that already have established mentoring and tutoring programs and helping to create ties that will bind them and enable them to learn from one another.”

This is just one example, said Bolduc, of those guiding principles he mentioned for this foundation — to be a convener, a facilitator, and a catalyst for positive change.

 

Bottom Line

Such change, as noted earlier, will not come quickly or easily.

That’s why, like that gardener mentioned at the top, those at the Hope for Youth and Families Foundation aren’t wasting any time planting that tree — or, in this case, trees.

The problems related to sustainability are deep-rooted, and addressing them will involve time, patience, persistence, imagination, and more.

Bolduc had those qualities in mind when he began the next chapter of what has been a remarkable career in business and in giving back to the community.

He knew that they would be needed to build a foundation — figuratively, but also quite literally.

 

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

Cover Story

The Next Stage

Donald Sanders, executive artistic director of MIFA Victory Theatre

Donald Sanders, executive artistic director of MIFA Victory Theatre

When asked how many tours he’s given of the Victory Theatre in Holyoke, the landmark that went dark in 1979, Donald Sanders gave a hearty laugh — something he does often — and just shook his head. That was his way of saying ‘more than I could count.’

Those tours have been given to elected officials, economic-development leaders, city department heads, arts groups, members of the media … you name it. They’ve all been in for a look at this piece of history that a city, and a region, have been desperate to renovate and make a part of the future, not merely the past.

And while the tours given today are essentially the same as those given years or even decades ago — they go everywhere from the front lobby to the mezzanine to the stage area — there is a new sense of urgency, optimism, and, yes, momentum — with these visits, said Sanders, executive artistic director of MIFA Victory Theatre, which has been at the forefront of efforts to restore the theater for the past 20 years.

Indeed, over the past several months, there has been a new tone to the discussions about restoring the 1,600-seat facility back to a Broadway-style theater. Specifically, there is a growing sense, after more than 40 years of talk, that this project is real.

“It’s more than just arts and culture; it’s really about impact to community and the secondary impact it offers.”

“I’ve always been optimistic that this could happen, but now, there is greater reason for optimism,” said Sanders, noting that MIFA (the Massachusetts International Festival of the Arts) acquired the Victory Theatre from the city in 2009 and has been committed to its revival since because it region’s best option for bringing large Broadway shows back to the Pioneer Valley. “There is a greater sense of momentum now than perhaps ever before.”

Several factors have contributed to this momentum — everything from a visit to the theater by gubernatorial candidate Maura Healey back in late June to a recent bus trip to Schenectady, N.Y. to take in the restoration of the Proctors arts complex, a project that is similar in many ways to the Victory initiative, to progress with the closing of a persistent funding gap thanks to federal ARPA money.

renovated Victory Theatre.

An architect’s rendering of a renovated Victory Theatre.

Some of that money has been aside for “transformative projects” in communities, said Sanders, adding that he and others have long been making the case that a restored Victory Theatre hosting Broadway shows and other large events can and will have a transformative effect on the local economy.

But there are other factors as well, said Susan Palmer, a principal with the Palmer Westport Group, which focuses on strengthening and developing fundraising and leadership capacity of theaters across the country.

She has consulted on a number of projects aimed at bringing formerly dark theaters back to useful life, and she credits the leadership in Holyoke, and especially Joshua Garcia, the city’s first Puerto Rican mayor, with injecting some needed energy and confidence in the Victory Theatre project.

“He has been fearless; he has been relentless,” said Palmer, who was a theater producer at Barrington Stage in Pittsfield and also worked at Jacob’s Pillow, the Colonial Theater, and the Berkshire Theatre Festival before launching her consulting firm in 2005. “He has a three-legged stool of priorities for the city; he wants to increase and improve the housing stock, he wants to improve educational outcomes, and he wants Holyoke to be the center of economic revitalization in that area, and he feels putting the Victory Theatre back in service is a key to that.”

Garcia, who has put together a strike force (led by his wife, Stephanie) to keep the focus on the project and raise funds within the community for the efforts, said the theater project is, indeed, a key element in efforts to revitalize the city and its downtown and bring new businesses and vibrancy to the community.

The theater has been closed since before he was born, but its importance to the city, from a cultural, economic-development, and pride standpoint, is certainly not lost on him, and he believes the remaining hurdles to restoration of the Victory can be cleared.

“This project is in the ninth inning, as I like to say, and we have a short window to close the funding gap,” Garcia said. “The gap is $15 million to $20 million, but a very clear and doable path has been identified.”

He said the trip to Schenectady, during which participants got to take in a performance of Aladdin, showed not only what can be done to restore a landmark, but what doing so means for the community.

children watch a movie at the Victory Theatre in the ’70s

At top, children watch a movie at the Victory Theatre in the ’70s. Above, a view of Suffolk Street and the theater from 1955.

“It was such an eye-opening experience to know what Schenectady has been able to accomplish with their community,” he said. “It’s more than just arts and culture; it’s really about impact to community and the secondary impact it offers; their story felt very similar to ours.”

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the Victory Theatre project and at how those involved believe that now, more than 40 years after the last movie was shown there, there is sufficient funding, and momentum, to get this initiative over the goal line.

 

Marquee Moments

Palmer told BusinessWest that she has been involved with several theater-restoration projects, including the Colonial Theatre in Pittsfield, a project credited with helping to revitalize a city that had been devastated by the loss of its largest employer, General Electric.

While all of these initiatives differed in some ways, there was a common denominator: time.

Indeed, almost all of these projects took several decades to complete, she said, adding this is an element that is often overlooked in some communities undertaking such initiatives, including Holyoke.

“They all take a long time,” she said. “But the people who are working in these individual communities are only working on their project; they don’t realize that they’re in a pool of companions who have experienced the same thing.

“I worked on one in Ohio, the Woodward Opera House, that took 33 years. So there are two generations of people who have been involved with that. I was brought in in the last three years, and I would talk to people who would say, ‘my parents were working on this back when I was in grade school.’”

“I worked on one in Ohio, the Woodward Opera House, that took 33 years,” she went on. “So there are two generations of people who have been involved with that. I was brought in in the last three years, and I would talk to people who would say, ‘my parents were working on this back when I was in grade school.’”

There are at least two generations of Holyoke residents who have been hearing about, and been part of, efforts to restore the Victory Theatre.

Time has mostly stood still for the landmark since its last showing of the Clint Eastwood comedy Every Way Which Way but Loose in 1979. As one enters the theater, there are some remnants from that final showing, including a few old popcorn tubs, still to be seen.

Movie showings were the last chapter for the Victory, which was commissioned by leading industrialists in the city, including silk-factory owner William Skinner, in 1918, said Sanders, adding that it was intended to be the largest, grandest theater in a thriving city that already boasted many of them.

Turning back the clock a century or so, Sanders said Holyoke had several theaters in its downtown area, as well as a 3,000-seat opera house that stood where a parking garage now exists across from City Hall. The theaters included the Strand, the Majestic, the Suffolk, and the Bijou.

The site selected for the Victory Theatre, a name chosen to commemorate the Allies’ victory in World War I, was adjacent to the Holyoke House, then the finest hotel in the city, said Sanders, adding that this was a pattern followed by many cities at that time.

The Victory Theatre closed in 1979

The Victory Theatre closed in 1979 and hasn’t seen much light since then.

The Victory was what’s known as a ‘legitimate house,’ said Sanders, meaning that it had the finest of accommodations and was the therefore the preferred theater of choice for many performers of that era.

“That terminology means it hosted the highest level of shows and was a theater that was the best-equipped, had the best dressing rooms, etc., etc.,” he said, adding that Holyoke didn’t have a ‘legit house,’ and its leaders were determined to build one.

Fast-forwarding through the history of the Victory, Sanders said its fortunes mirrored those of the city. As the paper and textile mills that enabled Holyoke to boast one of the highest per-capita income rates in the country a century ago began to move south and then eventually offshore, the theater and the area around it started to decline, and the Victory eventually became a movie house.

As the trend in movie theaters shifted to smaller facilities in large complexes with multiple screens, its fortunes faded further until it ultimately closed. After it was taken for non-payment of taxes in the early ’80s, there were various efforts to restore the landmark, said Sanders, adding that, in all cases, the money needed — $9 million maybe 30 years ago and then progressively higher figures as the scope of the work increased — could not be raised.

In 2005, an item came before the Holyoke City Council to raze the Victory Theatre, he said, adding that he lobbied that group to stay the execution, arguing that such a vital landmark — and potential economic-development engine — should not be lost to the past.

The council listened, he said, and the Victory lived to fight another day.

To the casual observer, meaning those who haven’t been in for a tour, the facility seems frozen in time and unchanged. But that’s not the case, said Sanders, noting that a number if improvements have been undertaken over the years to ready the theater for restoration.

Steps have included asbestos removal, installing a new roof, converting the gas utility to electric (a project still underway), restoration of historic murals located near the stage, replacing non-compliant window coverings with new polycarbonate clear coverings, and other initiatives that together total nearly $5 million.

Overall, the structure is very sound, noted Sanders, adding that no expense was spared in building it.

 

Victory Is in Sight

To bring a project like the Victory Theatre to a successful result, a number of elements have to come together, Palmer said. These include leadership, a commitment from the community, funding, of course, and sometimes a little luck.

In the case of the Victory, the luck, if one chooses to call it that, comes in the form of ARPA money in the wake of the pandemic, funds that are expected to close most, but not all, of a $5 million to $6 million gap between the $58 million needed for the project and what has been raised through various means, including historic tax credits and new market tax credits; private, individual, corporate, and foundation donations; and public grants.

“ARPA money is what helped this project turn the corner,” Palmer explained, adding that the federal government has released $350 billion in funds to individual cities and states, and those working on the Victory Theatre project are currently working with several lobbyists to position this initiative for a $12 million ARPA allocation.

“It hasn’t happened yet … it’s coming in dribs and drabs, pieces here, pieces there,” she said, adding that the ARPA funds will constitute roughly half of what still needs to be raised for the project.

The rest will be raised locally, she said, adding that $7.5 million has been pledged, and there are plans for a community effort with a goal of raising $2 million.

Local fundraising will include mostly smaller donations, Palmer said, but that grassroots effort, which will involve phone calls, knocking on doors, letter-writing campaigns, and fundraisers and friendraisers of all kinds, will bring area residents and businesses into the fight to restore the theater, and it will send a strong message to elected leaders about the importance of the initiative — to the city and region as a whole.

Mayor Garcia agreed, and noted again the importance of the project, not just from the standpoint of the arts, as significant as that is, but to the proverbial big picture in Holyoke and the region.

“The Victory Theatre checks off a lot of boxes,” he said. “When we think of what we’re trying to do in our city, in our downtown, in terms of tourism and economic development, this is just another piece of the greater economic system puzzle that we’re trying to solve here.”

Elaborating, he said the theater cannot exist in a vacuum, and there must be an infrastructure of supporting businesses — restaurants, bars, and other hospitality-related ventures — to make a revitalized Victory Theatre succeed.

Palmer concurred, and to explain, she did some math.

“When the theater opens, it’s going to be substantial — there are 1,600 seats in there,” she said. “The average occupancy, or utilization, rate of any nonprofit regional theater on any given night is 65%, so there will be 1,100 people bopping around that neighborhood several times a week. Right now, there aren’t many things to do, and certainly not enough to accommodate 1,100 people.

“So, there’s a parallel effort we’re working on to make sure, when the theater opens its doors, that the ancillary economic benefit will be ready to go,” she went on, adding that city officials and the strike force are working to help make sure that there is an infrastructure in place to support the theater.

Meanwhile, work continues to build on the current momentum and convince the public that there is a path to getting this done, said Aaron Vega, Holyoke’s Planning director, adding that more than 40 years of waiting for action on the property has created some stubborn skepticism that still must be overcome.

“It does take a long time for these projects to happen, and there has been work done,” he said. “Unfortunately, it’s not visible from the outside; people drive by and say, ‘it looks the same as it did 10 years ago or 20 years ago.’ Overall, we need to reinstill some energy and some trust that this project is real.”

The bus trip to Schenectady and the Proctors arts complex was part of this larger effort, said Vega, noting that Schenectady and Holyoke are very similar in that they were both devastated by the loss of large employers (in the former’s case, it was General Electric). And their respective restoration projects are similar as well in that they involved long periods of time and a deep commitment from the community.

“One of the reasons we took that trip is to have people be able to come back and tell the story of what a theater like this could do for Holyoke, obviously, but also the entire region,” he said, adding that these discussions are now being had, generating what he and others expect will be more momentum.

And momentum not just for theater, he said, but what can come because of such a facility.

“I’m hoping that people can see the spinoff,” he explained. “The new restaurants, the buildings that were unoccupied being reoccupied — that’s the thing we want to see, the spinoff and the ripple effect; that’s what is going to affect everyone, not just those who will go to the theater.”

 

Bottom Line

Returning to the subject of those tours he has given — and will continue to give — Sanders said they do more then enlighten. They also educate and inspire those who take them.

In most all ways, they are better than a marketing brochure, better than talking to someone about the history and importance of this landmark.

“It’s our biggest selling point; it’s much better than me saying, ‘we have the last Broadway house in the region,’” he noted. “People walk through the door, they see 800 seats and the stage … and they realize what a treasure this is.”

It’s been 43 years since this treasure was anything more than a piece of history, but if all goes well — and things are tending in that direction — it will soon be an important piece of the future.

 

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

Cover Story Event Galleries Women of Impact 2022

Watch the Video from the Dec. 9 Event

This Year’s Class to Be Celebrated on Dec. 8

BusinessWest has long recognized the contributions of women within the business community and created the Women of Impact awards four years ago to further honor women who have the authority and power to move the needle in their business, are respected for accomplishments within their industries, give back to the community, and are sought out as respected advisors and mentors within their field of influence.

See the 2022 Women of Impact Digital section HERE

The eight stories below demonstrate that idea many times over. They detail not only what these women do for a living, but what they’ve done with their lives — specifically, how they’ve become innovators in their fields, leaders within the community, and, most importantly, inspirations to all those around them. The class of 2022 features:

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Cover Story

Making Progress

The Latino Economic Development Council recently opened the doors to its new facility on Fort Street in Springfield. More importantly, it is off to a fast and impactful start as it works to open doors — and keep them open — for business owners and entrepreneurs, especially those in the large, and growing, Latino business community. It will offer microgrants and facilities for meetings and co-working opportunities, but most importantly, it will provide much-needed coaching in subjects ranging from finance to human resources to mental wellness.

 

Executive Director Andrew Melendez

Executive Director Andrew Melendez

 

Andrew Melendez says he’s led a number of tours of the new Latino Economic Development Council headquarters facility on Fort Street in Springfield. More than he can count, actually.

He said the comments from those taking those tours vary, but there is a common, and very important, theme. Most say they’ve never seen anything quite like it — but wish they had.

Indeed, the Latino EDC, or LEDC, as it’s called, an affiliate of Partners for Community, is different. It is not a chamber of commerce, although it has some of those qualities and it partners with those institutions. It’s not an incubator, but it has some of those qualities, and it partners with those critical components of the entrepreneurship ecosystem as well.

It is a place where more than two dozen coaches, experts in many aspects of business, will make themselves available to business owners — especially those within the large and growing Latino business community, looking to take the next step with their venture, whatever that might be — and share what they know.

The council will also provide microgrants of a few thousand dollars or even less to assist with startup costs, while also providing co-working space and facilities — the PeoplesBank Business Lounge — that the business community can use for meetings and teleconferences.

“The main objective that we have is to help Latino business owners take their business to the next level.”

In short, what the LEDC wants to do is convert employees into employers, spark the growth and development of new businesses, and change the landscape on Main Street — and many other streets — in area communities, said Melendez, director of Operations for the LEDC.

It will do this not necessarily with microgrants — although they can certainly help a microbusiness or startup buy a sign, secure a new piece of equipment, or do some social-media marketing, perhaps — but with a combination of those grants and training programs from those coaches on how to qualify for a business loan, workforce training, mental wellness, and much more.

“We’ll be able to offer ‘Finance 101,’ ‘Accounting 101,’ ‘Building Wealth,’ ‘How to Lead by Example,’ and so on,” said Melendez, adding that the LEDC is partnering with a host of entities and agencies, from the state to the U.S. Small Business Administration in its efforts to build a larger, more sustainable Latino business community.

The facilities at the Latino Economic Development Council include space for meetings and community functions.

The facilities at the Latino Economic Development Council include space for meetings and community functions.

Overall, he said, the agency will focus on what he calls the three ‘Cs’ of helping business owners get to where they want to go: coaching, capital (those microgrants, but also counseling and technical assistance that might help them secure loans from area banks and credit unions), and connections to other business-development and economic-development-related agencies on the local, state, and national levels.

Adriano Vaccaro, CEO of Culture Redesigned, a culture strategist by trade and a workforce training coach for the LEDC, agreed.

“The main objective that we have is to help Latino business owners take their business to the next level,” she told BusinessWest, adding that the agency is putting together a comprehensive catalog of training programs. “And we’re attaching key performance indicators to the coaching sessions, so we can not only provide the skills and fill the gaps, but make sure we’re producing the results that are needed. It’s not just training — it’s training connected to a particular result.”

That’s an important distinction, she said, noting that the coaches are results-oriented and emphasize measuring — and sustaining — those results.

“It doesn’t mean that every business needs everything,” she went on. “We will do a needs assessment and make sure every business gets whatever they need, from where they’re starting their journey with us.”

Melendez concurred. “We want to make sure that, whether it’s a small business making $3 million or a microbusiness making $300,000 or an entrepreneur just starting up, they all have access to the same resources; that’s the fairness,” he said. “In January of 2020, Joe Biden said it’s not fair that some people get to pick up the phone and talk to a lawyer or an HR professional or someone to guide them in a workers’ comp claim, and other people don’t. This is us ensuring that our community — and I want to define our community as this whole community; anyone can come to the LEDC — has access to resources.”

As for the microgrants, made possible by federal ARPA funds awarded to Springfield and funneled to the LEDC, Melendez said there have already been more than 125 applications for such grants, and he expects that number to go much higher in the weeks to come.

BusinessWest recently sat down with Melendez and several of the coaches that are part of the LEDC to get some perspective on how this unique agency will work, how it will address stated goals, and, perhaps most importantly, how it will measure success.

The quick answer, as we’ll see, is that there will be many ways to do just that.

 

Getting Down to Business

It’s called the ‘imposter syndrome,’ and most business owners and professionals are by now quite familiar with that phrase.

It connotes persistent feelings that one isn’t … well, entirely comfortable in their own skin, professionally, and not fully credentialed, either literally or figuratively, to be worthy of the title on their business card.

Dr. Edna Rodriguez, director of Behavioral Health at Mercy Medical Center, one of the coaches at the LEDC (and one of BusinessWest’s 40 Under Forty honorees for 2022), said that many within the minority community fall victim to imposter syndrome.

“I want to be able to give back when it comes to development of business and entrepreneurship, teaching those basics, and helping people fine-tune their plans and the steps they need to take to become viable businesses in the community.”

“Many doubt if we have the level of skill, the ideas, and the tools … they struggle with confidence and knowing that that they can do and achieve the things they are good at,” she explained. “And that can really create a lot of anxiety and other issues that can definitely impact the mental health of an individual.”

And that’s just one of the matters she addresses with those she counsels as a mental-wellness coach for the LEDC.

“Our culture is beautiful and colorful and very integrated, but with that comes a lot of burden, especially when we’re talking about taking on everything that happens both at work and to home,” she noted. “Often, our Latino folks find a hard time managing stress and taking care of their physical and mental health, especially when they’re in the role of being a business owner.

“So my role is to individually help people understand how they can care for themselves, how they can find balance, and how to communicate their needs in an assertive way to both the people around them and the people who can help them,” she went on. “Sometimes it’s hard to just take that first step and open up and seek help.”

Helping business owners — and, again, especially those within the Latino community — cope with such issues is just one of the many focal points of the LEDC, which grew out of the Massachusetts Latino Chamber of Commerce and continues and expands upon its work, Melendez said.

Latino Economic Development Council

From left, Jose Hernandez, restaurant coach; Deborah Roque, accounting coach; Adriano Vaccaro; workforce training coach; Gilberto Amador, professional-development coach; Jesse Santos, finance and loan coach; Andrew Melendez; and Dr. Edna Rodriguez, mental-wellness coach.

And its model is unique, he went on, both in what it offers and that the services it provides are free.

“We want this to be free to the community, and I’m committed to that,” he said, adding that the LEDC was created to provide critical coaching and insight to business owners and aspiring entrepreneurs who may otherwise not be able to access such expertise.

Which brings him back to those tours he mentioned at the top and the comments from those who take them.

“I’ve taken dozens of people through the doors — people from Boston, Holyoke, Springfield, all over,” he said. “They’ve seen incubators with various businesses … but to walk in, and right where you walk in, there’s a marketing agency; an accountant; a psychologist; a professional-development trainer on safety; a professional-development trainer on diversity, equity, and inclusion; someone who can write a loan for you from beginning to end for free and send it to our partner banks … they haven’t seen that before.”

This is the essence of the LEDC, which Melendez likened to a credit union that doesn’t exclude anyone from membership. And the heart of the agency is its coaches, 28 of them at last count.

People like Rodriguez, the mental-wellness coach; Gilberto Amador, president of the Mass 2 Miami Consultant Group and professional development coach for the LEDC; Deborah Roque, owner of Affordable Accounting Services & Tax Preparation and an accounting coach for the agency; Jose Hernandez, owner of Palete Latin Cuisine in Springfield and the restaurant coach for the LEDC; Carlos DeLeon, a financial advisor with Ameriprise Financial, who provides guidance on personal finance; and Jesse Santos, a business finance and loan coach and officer with Latin Financial.

They and many others offer specific areas of expertise and, more importantly, a willingness to share it, that Amador summed up this way: “we bring something important to the table — experience, drive, and vision. And with the young people today, there’s going to be a generational gap if we don’t bring this information to them.”

 

Getting a Leg Up

Like Melendez and others we spoke with, Santos said capital is obviously critical to the advancement of any business venture, and is also an area many need help navigating, which is why he is now part of the coaching lineup at the LEDC.

“I’m here to guide those in the Latino community, and others as well, to get alternative funding, equipment financing, lines of credit — just help them get some funding,” he explained. “If the conventional banking system doesn’t help them or the rates are not to their favor or what they consider fair, they can come to me and we can broker it to other banks and other vendors to see what other opportunities we can get them.”

His work is an example of how the LEDC will work to provide guidance where and when it’s needed, and fill in gaps — in service, opportunities, and knowledge. And the coaches gathered around the conference room table at the LEDC said there are many such gaps, especially when it comes to the intricacies of running a business or simply taking an idea and transforming it into a business.

There are the basics — writing a business plan, deciding on a business classification, obtaining a doing-business-as certificate, and more, said Melendez, and coaches can help with all that. But then, there are the day-to-day, year-to-year matters, such as training staff, creating a culture, and handling HR matters. And the LEDC’s coaches can assist in these areas as well.

Amador, a serial entrepreneur himself but also an educator, said he’s been working with entrepreneurs for many years now and understands that many need help not only with their business, but with balancing business and life.

“I want to be able to give back when it comes to development of business and entrepreneurship, teaching those basics, and helping people fine-tune their plans and the steps they need to take to become viable businesses in the community,” he told BusinessWest, adding that one of these basics is simple financial literacy.

“A lot of them have ideas for starting a business, but they don’t realize that the financial piece is very important,” he said. “What does your profit-and-loss statement mean? What does you balance sheet mean? What is your cash flow? There are things that many in this [Latino] community don’t understand about business because we’ve been doing it a certain way, and we need to change that thought process. If we learn about investment and if we learn about how numbers work, then that makes it easier.”

While some coaching is broad in scope, it can also be specialized in its nature as well. Such is the case with Hernandez, who brings his experience in owning a restaurant, and in presenting Latin cuisine, to the forefront, and leads by example while also coaching others.

“I brought something different to the table and raised the bar with it,” he said of his eatery, located on Boston Road in Springfield. “A lot of people took notice, and you’re beginning to see where other restaurants are beginning to change the way they present the food, and I’m really happy about that.”

Overall, Amador echoed the thoughts of Melendez and others we spoke with when it came to seeing more individuals within the Latino community, which is entrepreneurial by nature, make the often-challenging leap from being an employee to being an employer.

“If there’s a McDonald’s in the North End of Springfield, I want to see a Latino owner of that McDonald’s,” he said. “I don’t want to hear people say, ‘let’s go to McDonald’s’ — I want to hear them say, ‘I want to own a McDonald’s.’”

Such sentiments, and such goals, are what prompted PeoplesBank to want to become involved with the LEDC, said Matt Bannister, the institution’s senior vice president of Marketing and Corporate Responsibility, adding that the bank became sold on the concept and its place in the region’s entrepreneurship ecosystem.

“Other groups have a mentor of two that can help you,” he said. “But they have specialists in whatever your issue is, and I think that’s a smart business model; it’s not one generalist who may or may not have experience with what you’re trying to do — they have a whole team of people, and it’s right in downtown Springfield.”

The bank’s participation started with the business lounge that now bears its name, he went on, adding that involvement may go to a higher level, perhaps by matching, or partially matching, the microgrants awarded to businesses by the LEDC.

 

Connecting the Dots

Summing up what the LEDC is and want he expects it will become in the months and years to come, Melendez said the agency strives to build individuals into “leaders, business owners, and change makers.”

That’s a tall task, he went on, but the ingredients are there for the agency to become transformative when it comes to the Latino business community and the overall economic landscape in Western Mass.

That’s why those who take the tour say they’ve never seen anything quite like it — and why they wish they had. u

 

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

Cover Story

At the Goal Line

With 35 other states having done so already, Massachusetts lawmakers were eager to pass a bill this summer legalizing sports betting, and Gov. Charlie Baker followed suit, signing it into law. Now comes the hard work by the Gaming Commission to establish a framework and scores of regulations — and the continuing research into a recreational activity that brings a still-uncertain level of economic benefit, alongside some well-established social risks.

The MGM Sports Lounge

The MGM Sports Lounge was designed to enhance the sports viewing — and eventually gambling — experience.

Rachel Volberg has been researching the effects of gambling for almost four decades, and since 2013, she’s been doing it at the behest of the Massachusetts Gaming Commission (MGC), which selected her team a decade ago to research the potential impacts of casinos.

“We’ve kept a pretty careful eye on things, but only a few U.S. states have any funding in their legislation to conduct research, so we know surprisingly little about the social and economic impacts of betting in the United States as a whole,” she told BusinessWest, and that’s even more true when it comes to legalized sports betting, which Massachusetts recently became the 36th state to legalize.

A research professor in the UMass Amherst School of Public Health and Health Sciences, for the past decade Volberg has been the principal investigator with Social and Economic Impacts of Gambling in Massachusetts (SEIGMA), whose latest report — the first of its kind in the nation — deals with the potential impact of legal sports gambling in the Bay State. And if the picture is still uncertain, it’s coming into focus.

“I think the biggest surprise for us was how little research had actually been done, particularly on the economic impacts — what does the industry look like once you legalize it, once it’s operational? What kinds of jobs, what kinds of revenues, and how are those jobs translating into economic benefits? There were literally only two or three economic studies we were able to identify, so there’s clearly a lot of work to be done in that area.”

What is emerging may not thrill proponents of sports gambling who support legalization on economic grounds. The study contends that direct economic impacts will depend on shifting spending from the illegal to legal market, and the impacts will not be entirely new since the majority of these already occur due to the illegal market. In addition, sports betting will primarily redistribute money already in the economy rather than attracting new money from outside Massachusetts.

“Sports betting is, by far, the number-one question I get asked on a daily basis, and it has been for years now. The entire team is looking forward to welcoming the first bet. When the time comes, we’ll be ready.”

“When you compare the tax revenue we anticipate being generated in Massachusetts by sports betting, the optimistic scenario is $60 million a year,” Volberg said, “which is not very large compared to the lottery, which in 2019 generated $1.1 billion in tax revenue, or casinos, which in 2019 generated about $168 million.”

That’s not nothing, of course, and state lawmakers overwhelmingly supported the bill to bring sports gambling out into the open, as did Gov. Charlie Baker, who signed the bill into law shortly after. It was the culmination of momentum that had been building since sports betting was legalized by a U.S. Supreme Court decision in 2018. Area legislators pointed out that, with every state in the Northeast having followed suit, Massachusetts was losing money to its neighbors.

“Legalizing sports wagering in Massachusetts will allow us to finally compete with neighboring states and will bring in new revenue and immense economic benefits,” state Sen. John Velis said in August.

The bill allows for 15 online licenses for companies like DraftKings and FanDuel, in addition to five retail licenses for the three casinos and two racetracks in Massachusetts. The bill also creates a commission to study additional licenses for smaller businesses, such as bars and restaurants.

The bill includes out-of-state collegiate betting but does not allow bets on Massachusetts college teams unless they are in the playoffs. The bill also includes a 20% tax on mobile bets and a 15% tax on retail bets, which would be paid by the operating company.

Rachel Volberg

Rachel Volberg

“At this point, the most optimistic scenario for sports betting tax revenues in Massachusetts is about $60 million, and that’s assuming the legal operators are able to capture the great majority of the legal market. It also assumes it will attract people who haven’t bet on sports before there was a legitimate, legal provider.”

“Sports betting is, by far, the number-one question I get asked on a daily basis, and it has been for years now,” said Chris Kelley, president and chief operating officer of MGM Springfield, which built two sports viewing lounges last year partly in anticipation of legal sports betting (more on those later). “The entire team is looking forward to welcoming the first bet. When the time comes, we’ll be ready.”

 

Devil’s in the Details

With the legislation now law, the MGC will work out the details that will make legal sports betting a reality. It has already come up with a list of about 225 regulations that will need to be drafted.

“A great deal of work has already been done by our team in anticipation of sports wagering becoming legal in Massachusetts,” Gaming Commission Executive Director Karen Wells said last month. “This includes identifying over 200 potential regulations, adopting a framework to utilize industry-recognized technical standards, establishing an infrastructure to investigate and license applicants, initiating the hiring of a chief of Sports Wagering, and scheduling public meetings. Now that we have a law that defines our responsibilities as regulator, we will work with our stakeholders to swiftly stand up this new industry with a focus on integrity, player safety, and consumer protection.”

They’ll take a hard look at SEIGMA’s report in crafting that framework and its many elements, Gaming Commission Chair Cathy Judd-Stein said, noting that “this report will aid the MGC as we begin to regulate a sports-wagering industry in the Commonwealth with an uncompromising focus on integrity and player safety.”

Volberg added that “we were trying to give a very broad overview of what is known at this point about the social and economic impact of sports betting, and it’s the first nationwide effort to do that. It also summarizes what we know about sports betting in Massachusetts.”

She told BusinessWest that the ‘handle’ — a term that refers to all money bet, including rewagered winnings, creating a high level of churn — is not the same as the total revenue taken in by operators.

“It’s easy to lose sight of the fact that sports betting is run on very narrow margins, so the actual revenues the operator is able to generate are a very small number of what the handle numbers are,” she explained. “At this point, the most optimistic scenario for sports betting tax revenues in Massachusetts is about $60 million, and that’s assuming the legal operators are able to capture the great majority of the legal market. It also assumes it will attract people who haven’t bet on sports before there was a legitimate, legal provider.”

Because so little information about the impacts of sports betting is available, Volberg’s team mined data from their own surveys and studies that are part of the research ordered by the Massachusetts Legislature when lawmakers passed the Expanded Gaming Act in 2011. Meanwhile, a representative survey of 8,000 adults was completed in Massachusetts earlier this year and provides a snapshot of changes in gambling behavior, attitude, and problem-gambling prevalence since 2013-14.

“The National Council on Problem Gambling has seen a significant increase in sports-betting participation since 2018,” she told BusinessWest, noting that it has also reported an increase in people saying they had experiences with one or more impacts or harms.

“That suggests that an increase in sports betting has the potential to come with increased harm, which is not a surprise, but in Massachusetts, because the Gaming Commission already has familiarity with implementing measures to try to minimize and mitigate harm — because they already have that experience with casinos — we’re hopeful those harms can in fact be minimized,” Volberg added.

Cathy Judd-Stein

Cathy Judd-Stein

“This report will aid the MGC as we begin to regulate a sports-wagering industry in the Commonwealth with an uncompromising focus on integrity and player safety.”

Alisha Khoury-Boucher, a clinical supervisor at MiraVista Behavioral Health Center, agreed to an extent. “Gambling has been a concern for a long time, but we already have a casino close by, so we don’t see a major change with the people we serve from legalizing sports gambling; if they wanted to do those things, they were already doing those things. It’s the behavior more than the access.”

Still, she added, “in my opinion, where we may see more of a problem is with young people, college-age people, who may still be home with mom and dad and have more disposable income. We might see an increase there, but that’s to be determined.”

“Any time a new entertainment is starting up, it’s always going to be advertised toward young people,” Khoury-Boucher said, citing vaping as one example. “They weren’t looking for middle-aged people who’d been smoking for 25 years; they were looking at mid- to late adolescents. It’s kind of the same thing with sports gambling. If you’re a sports fan, you’re seeing advertising that looks like the old beer commercials — everyone’s happy, it’s exciting, it’s flashy. They’re targeting young people, and that’s potentially a problem.”

Indeed, SEIGMA’s study notes that sports betting occurs in all demographic groups but appeals most to young, well-educated men. It adds that problem gambling is higher among sports bettors primarily because they tend to be involved with a large number of other gambling activities, so legalizing sports betting in Massachusetts has the potential to increase rates of gambling harm and problem gambling.

To mitigate those concerns, SEIGMA is advising the Gaming Commission to require operators to provide player data to the MGC on a regular basis and to cooperate with researchers; to prohibit live, in-game sports betting, which is disproportionately utilized by problem gamblers; and to restrict advertising and celebrity endorsements, which tend to promote sports betting in young people, precipitate relapse in recovered gamblers, and counteract the effectiveness of messages advocating limited, lower-risk involvement.

Volberg noted that only four states have funded any kind of research about sports betting, while 12 have provided funding for problem-gambling services. This contrasts with Massachusetts, where 9% of the tax revenue raised from sports betting will go into the Public Health Trust Fund that supports research and services to mitigate gambling-related harms.

“We are in a unique position in Massachusetts to be able to monitor the impacts of sports betting as it becomes legal and make adjustments to its provision so as to maximize the benefits and minimize the harms.”

 

Sit Back and Watch

Those benefits, as noted, are uncertain, but operators are excited about the prospects.

For maximum economic impact, SEIGMA’s report recommends issuing licenses for online operators, and a variety of them, since most sports betting is done online. That lines up with the Gaming Commission’s plans.

“While it is likely that sports-book operators, including land-based and online operators, will benefit from sports-betting legalization in Massachusetts,” the study notes, “it is difficult to predict whether sports bettors will add legal sports betting to their repertoire or simply substitute betting on sports for spending on other types of gambling.”

Still, as the leader of the only casino in Western Mass., Kelley sees potential benefits not just for his facility, but for the region itself.

“Massachusetts residents are already driving across the border to Connecticut, Rhode Island, New Hampshire, and New York to place bets. Keeping the millions of tax dollars generated annually by sports wagering in the Commonwealth is a big deal,” he told BusinessWest. In addition, “sports betting at MGM Springfield will bring more foot traffic and visitors to downtown Springfield. We are thrilled at the prospect of not only having more people come and enjoy our property, but to experience all of the amazing businesses nearby.”

To enhance the viewing and gambling experience, the MGM Sports Lounge opened in August 2021, featuring more than 70 lounge seats and a 45-foot state-of-the-art HD viewing wall, inviting fans to watch multiple sporting events at once. A new VIP Sports Lounge also opened last August within TAP Sports Bar, offering a more intimate experience, including a state-of-the-art HD viewing wall.

“As a New England sports fan, I can tell you the MGM Springfield Sports Lounge is the best spot to watch the Patriots, the Red Sox, the Celtics, the Bruins, you name it,” Kelley said. “It’s also just a great place to gather with your friends for a fun night out. As soon as we get the green light, we are ready to incorporate the BetMGM platform into our property.”

Yes, the green light — it’s what many in the gaming industry in Massachusetts have been anticipating for a long time, hoping the benefits of legal sports betting exceed early projections — and outweigh the potential harms.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Cover Story Healthcare Heroes

Since BusinessWest and its sister publication, the Healthcare News, launched the recognition program known as Healthcare Heroes in 2017, the initiative has more than succeeded in its quest to identify true leaders — not to mention inspiring stories — within this region’s large and very important healthcare sector.
The award was created to recognize those whose contributions to the health and well-being of this region, while known to some, needed to become known to all. And that is certainly true this year.
They are leaders. In some cases innovators or collaborators. In all cases, inspirations — people and organizations that have devoted their lives to improving the quality of individual lives and the health of entire communities. We find these stories to be compelling and inspirational, and we’re sure you will as well.

Overall, everyone who was nominated this year is a hero, but in the minds of our judges — the editors and management at BusinessWest — eight of these stories stood out among the others. The Healthcare Heroes for 2022 are (click on the names to read their stories):

See the BusinessWest 2022 Healthcare Heroes Special Section HERE.

We’re excited to celebrate our Healthcare Heroes on Thursday, Oct. 27 at the Log Cabin in Holyoke. Tickets cost $85 each, and tables of 10 or 12 are available.

The Healthcare Heroes program is being sponsored by presenting sponsors Elms College and Baystate Health/Health New England, and partner sponsors Trinity Health Of New England/Mercy Medical Center, American International College, and MiraVista Behavioral Health Center.

Cover Story Sports & Leisure

Looking Sharp

Anneliese Townsend

Anneliese Townsend

 

“Never attempt to catch an axe.”

That’s one of a handful of rules printed above the targets in each of the 12 lanes at the Agawam Axe House. And while that’s just good common sense, said Anneliese Townsend, founder and co-owner of this intriguing business, this reminder is there for a reason.

“You would think that would be pretty obvious, but, in fact, it’s a natural instinct to put your foot out and try to stop something coming at you, so we have to remind people that it’s an axe,” she told BusinessWest, adding that, since she opened the doors in January 2018, no one has tried to catch an axe.

But many have tried to throw one.

Indeed, this unique enterprise, said to be the first of its kind in New England, the only one in Western Mass., and one of just six currently operating in the state, has seen, well, a sharp rise in interest since it opened, and the numbers — of both participants and revenue — continue to grow.

The venue has welcomed a wide range of constituencies, from companies large and small that are looking for a new and different kind of team-building exercise (a large contingent from LEGO was in recently) to birthday, bachelor, bachelorette, and divorce parties (axe throwing has become popular among women, as we’ll see); from leagues that compete weekly to individuals, many of them professionals, who are looking to blow off a little steam and rid themselves of some stress.

There are many days when Townsend will see all of the above.

“It’s absolutely massive, and it’s getting bigger every day,” she said of the sport of axe throwing, which she was introduced to while on a trip to Montreal with her boyfriend (and now business partner), Bob Manning.

“We Googled ‘things to do in Montreal,’” she recalled, “and the second and fourth items that came up were both axe throwing, and I thought that it was the best thing I’d ever heard of.”

the Burn Battle

The Agawam Axe House hosts a number of leagues and fund-raising events, such as the Burn Battle, which raises money for the American Cancer Society. Participants in last year’s ‘battle’ are seen here. The 2022 edition is set for Oct. 2.

They went to such a facility, but because they were with Manning’s children, they could not partake — it was an over-18 activity, and for obvious reasons. But Townsend was certainly intrigued, and upon returning to Western Mass., she did another Google search, this one to find axe-throwing venues near Agawam.

The closest one she found was in New Jersey. Instead of driving there, this entrepreneur — she’s been involved with an ice-cream shop and some other ventures in this community — eventually decided to open her own facility.

“We Googled ‘things to do in Montreal,’ and the second and fourth items that came up were both axe throwing, and I thought that it was the best thing I’d ever heard of.”

And from the day it opened, it’s been a hit. Or, as participants in this activity might say in this sport, it has stuck.

Business is brisk, and as the sport gets more exposure — from ESPN 8 or from the many who have already tried it — Townsend expects it will only continue to grow in popularity.

When people try it, they find that it’s not nearly as hard as it might look, and it has become a proven stress reliever — at a time when many are having issues with stress, for one reason or another.

“We have a lot of doctors from Noble Hospital [in Westfield] who come in,” she said. “They’re the most stressed people out there.”

This writer tried it, and, after a few throws to get a feel for it and stop trying to ‘flick the axe,’ as Townsend put it, managed to stick a few. Hundreds of other people have done the same, and that’s why Agawam Axe House is more than on target with its business projections.

For this issues and its focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest talked with Townsend about the sport — and business — of axe throwing, and why she believes this is anything but a fad.

 

Gaining an Edge

When asked about axe throwing, or hatchet throwing, which is a more accurate description of the implement being used, as a leisure activity, Townsend described it as “a Canadian thing,” meaning that is where it started and is perhaps most popular.

She said urban axe throwing became a sport — and a business — in 2007 with the opening of Backyard Axe Throwing, or BATL, founded by Matt Wilson. It has grown from there, and there are now hundreds of venues across Canada, the U.S., Australia, Europe, and elsewhere, with more opening their doors every year.

Indeed, Townsend, a native of Australia whose parents still live there, said she keeps urging them to open an axe-throwing business in Sidney. They haven’t, but others have, much to her consternation.

Members of one of the leagues throwing at the Agawam Axe House

Members of one of the leagues throwing at the Agawam Axe House show off their axes, and their enthusiasm for the increasingly popular sport.

There are now actually two bodies governing the sport and promoting it on a global scale — the International Axe Throwing Federation (IATF), which the Agawam Axe House operates under, and the World Axe Throwing League (WATL).

Overall, the sport is catching on at many levels, everything from tournaments, including the U.S. Open, staged by the WATL — which took place in July in Minneapolis, with the finals airing on ESPN — and the International Axe Throwing Championship, which took place in June, to amateurs picking up the sport in places like the Agawam Axe House.

As for the business of axe throwing … getting off the ground was relatively easy, said Townsend, explaining that she acquired the location, secured the necessary permits (a liquor license was sought initially but not granted), and found insurance — a necessary but expensive item in this business sector, to be sure — through a company in Chicago that specializes in writing policies for axe-throwing establishments.

And, as noted, things got off to a fast start, and the company quickly built up some momentum.

But COVID brought things to a screeching halt in the spring of 2020, as it prompted the closing of all indoor sports facilities, said Townsend, adding that she and Manning eventually gained permission from the town to operate a few lanes outdoors, enabling the business to survive until restrictions were fully lifted in the spring of 2021.

Since then, business has been steady, with healthy amounts of new and repeat business, with both being vital to the success of any sports-related business.

Visitors to the Axe House, which now also boasts ‘foot bowling’ — bowling with a football — can use ‘house’ axes or bring their own, although it must meet certain specifications, especially with the size of the head and the material for the handle; it must be wood to control the amount of bounceback.

Many who partake, especially those in leagues, do own their own axes, which typically run for $80 to $90 — much more than a hatchet off the shelf at a hardware store would cost — and some go for as much as $200 to $300, with customized handles.

“That’s part of the fun; you come in thinking, ‘I’m never going to be able to do this,’ and you stick it, and the elation is … well, that’s what it’s all about. That’s why it’s so addictive.”

But otherwise, the sport is very affordable, with lanes renting for $25 per hour, per person.

Townsend said axe throwing is growing in popularity for a number of reasons, starting with the fact that it really is much easier than people think and doesn’t take any real strength, agility, or athletic ability in order to excel. It’s been called the ‘great equalizer’ by one facility owner interviewed by USA Today. And Townsend agreed with that assessment.

“The reason many people don’t try it is because they assume you have to be strong, you have to be able to throw it fast, you have to have some throwing ability,” she said. “It’s a lot easier than one could imagine; people come in every day and say, ‘I’ll never be able to do it,’ and four or five throws later, they’re sticking it.

“It’s all about where you stand — I can make anyone stick it,” she went on, adding that instruction for first-timers is part of the package. “And that’s part of the fun; you come in thinking, ‘I’m never going to be able to do this,’ and you stick it, and the elation is … well, that’s what it’s all about. That’s why it’s so addictive.”

What’s more, you can do this yourself or in groups of all kinds — leagues, a gathering of co-workers, those bachelor, bachelorette, and divorce parties (Townsend had two of them scheduled for the approaching weekend when she talked with BusinessWest), and fundraising events.

These include the upcoming Burn Battle, the second annual women’s tournament, slated for Oct. 2, that will raise funds for the American Cancer Society.

“Girls from all over New England and far away as New Jersey and Philadelphia come and throw and compete,” she said, adding that one of the bigger surprises thus far is how popular the Axe House, and the sport, has become with women. She estimates that perhaps 65% of customers are women. She’s not exactly sure why, although she has some theories.

“I think many women know that this is women-owned; the assumption, when you hear ‘axe throwing,’ is that it’s going to be a gentleman teaching you how to throw axes. I think that women find out it’s me, because I’ve been on the radio a few times, they’re much more comfortable coming in and trying it out,” she said. “Also, it’s an outlet — for everybody, not just women.”

Looking ahead, Townsend said there are no immediate plans to add additional locations or expand beyond Agawam. The immediate focus is on growing the business there and continuing to build the customer base by promoting the sport in any way she can.

 

All You Could Axe For

As for some of those other posted rules, they include “never run with an axe,” “no trick shots,” and “do not hold the axe by the blade.”

There is another rule — participants must wear close-toed shoes (again, for obvious reasons). Some show up not aware of this stipulation, said Townsend, adding that the Axe House has shoes (Crocs, actually) for rent.

“We call them shoes of shame, for obvious reasons — you weren’t smart enough to wear close-toed shoes throwing sharp objects,” she joked, adding that fewer people have to rent them these days, yet another sign that people are becoming aware of this activity and what it’s all about.

Suffice it to say this business venture is paying off, and that participants are not only sticking it, but sticking with it.

 

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

Community Spotlight Cover Story

Community Spotlight

Architect’s rendering of the new parking garage

Architect’s rendering of the new parking garage soon to take shape in the city’s downtown.

‘Good traffic.’

That’s the phrase used by Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno — who acknowledged that it is somewhat of an oxymoron — to describe traffic that is, well, positive in nature.

This would be traffic generated by vibrancy, by people coming into a city from somewhere else; traffic indicative of progress, as opposed to insufficient infrastructure, poor planning, or both.

Springfield saw quite a bit of this ‘good traffic’ prior to the pandemic, said Sarno, noting that it was generated by concerts at MGM Springfield’s venues, Thunderbirds games, conventions and college graduations at the MassMutual Center, special gatherings like the Winter Weekend staged by the Red Sox in early 2020, or any combination of the above. Sometimes, a random Friday night would be enough to generate such traffic.

And after two years of relative quiet in the wake of the pandemic, the ‘good traffic’ is starting to make a comeback, as is the city as a whole, said Sarno, Springfield’s longest-serving mayor, with 14 years in the corner office, adding that there is promise for a whole lot more in the months and years to come, as pieces to a puzzle come together — or back together, as the case may be.

“Before COVID hit, we had a tremendous amount of momentum going on in Springfield, not just in the downtown, but in all our neighborhoods,” he told BusinessWest. “I think we’re starting to get our mojo back.”

These pieces include everything from a resurgent Thunderbirds squad, which made it all the way the AHL finals after taking a full year off due to COVID, to new housing, including the long-delayed renovation of the former Court Square hotel; from a casino in comeback mode, buoyed by the promise of sports gambling, to the return of the Marriott brand downtown after more than $40 million in renovations to the property in Tower Square; from new restaurants and clubs on Worthington Street to a new parking garage soon to rise where an existing structure is being razed.

“Before COVID hit, we had a tremendous amount of momentum going on in Springfield, not just in the downtown, but in all our neighborhoods. I think we’re starting to get our mojo back.”

The “state-of-the-art and environmentally friendly parking garage,” as Sarno described it, will be part of a larger development in the area around the MassMutual Center, an initiative aimed at bringing people to that site before, during, and perhaps after events (more on that later).

The city still faces a number of stern challenges, many of them COVID-related, said Tim Sheehan, the city’s chief Development officer, citing such matters as the impact of remote work and hybrid schedules on downtown office buildings, an ongoing workforce crisis that has impacted in businesses in all sectors, and the pressing need to redevelop vacant or underutilized properties across Main Street from MGM Springfield.

An architect’s rendering of the planned new entrance at the southwest corner of the MassMutual Center.

An architect’s rendering of the planned new entrance at the southwest corner of the MassMutual Center.

But he, like the mayor, sees progress on many fronts and, overall, a pronounced recovery from a pandemic that hit the city very hard.

“We’re seeing many positive signs that Springfield is making its way back from the pandemic and the many challenges it created,” said Sheehan, who cited, among many yardsticks of momentum, a long line to get a table at Wahlburgers during a recent visit. “And we’re seeing these signs not only in the downtown, but the neighborhoods as well.”

Sarno agreed. He said that, over his lengthy tenure as mayor, the city has coped with a number of challenges and crises, from the June 2011 tornado to the November 2012 natural-gas explosion. But COVID has been different, and it has tested the city and its business community in many different ways.

“It’s been a difficult two years; the pandemic threw everyone a huge curveball,” he explained, adding that city leaders were trying to respond to an unprecedented health crisis while also making good use of state and especially federal money to help small businesses keep the lights on.

“My team has been tested, and, true, it’s been through a lot of disasters before,” he went on. “But this was like shadowboxing — it was surreal.”

COVID isn’t over, and challenges for small businesses remain, but in many respects, the city can get back to business, and it is doing just that.

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Springfield, its ongoing bounce-back from COVID, and, yes, the return of that ‘good traffic.’

State of the City

It was affectionately known as the ‘dog and pony show.’

That’s what some called an annual gathering, orchestrated by the city in conjunction with the Springfield Regional Chamber, at which officials gave what amounted to a progress report on the city, with a large dollar amount attached to all the various economic-development and infrastructure projects — from MGM Springfield to the renovation of Union Station to the reconstruction of the I-91 viaduct — that were in progress or on the drawing board.

The city hasn’t staged one of these sessions in several years, mostly due to COVID, said Sarno, but one is being planned, probably for early next year. And there will be quite a bit to talk about, he went on, hinting at new developments at sites ranging from Union Station to the former Municipal Hospital on State Street, while offering what amounts to a preview of that gathering.

Mayor Domenic Sarno sees progress on many fronts in Springfield after a tumultuous past couple of years.

Mayor Domenic Sarno sees progress on many fronts in Springfield after a tumultuous past couple of years.

And he started with the new, 1,000-space parking garage, which he and Sheehan anticipate will be much more than that.

Indeed, plans for the site include ‘activation’ — that’s a word you hear often when it comes to properties in the downtown — of a surface parking lot next to the present (and future) garage, and, overall, creation of an atmosphere similar, said the mayor, to what is seen at Fenway Park in Boston on game nights.

“Bruce Landon Way will be activated, and many times, it will be shut down,” said Sheehan, adding that the current surface lot, and Bruce Landon Way itself, will become extensions of the MassMutual Center.

“They can have their events literally flowing out to Bruce Landon Way, creating much more activation within the downtown,” he explained. “And it will be utilized for pre- and post-event programming.”

Elaborating, he said the current surface lot will be public space that the Convention Center Authority will lease out for various kinds of functions, bringing more people downtown.

Meanwhile, a new entrance to the MassMutual Center will be added at the corner of State and Main streets, providing the facility with two points of entry and, with this new addition, what the mayor likened to a “Broadway marquee,” a much stronger bridge to MGM Springfield and other businesses south of the arena.

“One of the critical elements of our master plan involves finding ways to activate both of our anchors downtown — MGM Springfield and the convention center itself,” said Sheehan. “And one critical missing piece to that was always the southern entrance to the MassMutual Center, and now, that’s being addressed.”

That new entrance may help spur development of several vacant or underutilized properties across Main Street from the MGM casino, said Sarno, adding that requests for proposals to redevelop these properties, now under city control, will be issued soon.

Dinesh Patel, seen here in the lobby of the soon-to-open Marriott

Dinesh Patel, seen here in the lobby of the soon-to-open Marriott in downtown Springfield, says the facility was designed to reflect the history and culture of the city.

These developments, coupled with the ongoing renovation of 31 Elm St., the former Court Square Hotel, into market-rate apartments due to be ready for occupancy in roughly a year, are expected to create more interest in Springfield and its downtown within the development community, said the mayor, noting, again, that needed pieces are coming together.

These pieces include housing, which will create a larger population of people living in the downtown; restaurants and other hospitality-related businesses, a broad category that includes MGM Springfield, restaurants, and the Thunderbirds; and a vibrant business community.

“One of the critical elements of our master plan involves finding ways to activate both of our anchors downtown — MGM Springfield and the convention center itself. And one critical missing piece to that was always the southern entrance to the MassMutual Center, and now, that’s being addressed.”

Individual pieces coming into place include not only 31 Elm, but the recently opened housing in the former Willys-Overland building on Chestnut Street; some new restaurants and clubs on and around Worthington Street, including Dewey’s Lounge, the Del Raye, and Jackalope; and the planned new Big Y supermarket, which will address a recognized need in what has long been recognized as a food desert.

Staying Power

Then, there’s Tower Square and the Marriott flag that has been returned to the hotel several years after it was lost.

As he talked with BusinessWest about the two years worth of renovations to that hotel and planned reopening of the facility, Dinesh Patel showed off finishing-touch work in several areas, including the lobby, the fitness center, the pool room, and some of the meeting rooms.

He also opened the door the large ballroom, revealing a training session for dozens of the more than 180 people expected to be hired before the facility opens its doors. Like most of the renovation work itself, conducted at the height of the pandemic and its aftermath amid supply-chain issues and soaring prices for many products and materials, the hiring process has been a stern challenge as qualified help remains in short supply.

But for Patel and partner Mid Vitta, whose work to reclaim the Marriott flag — and reinvent Tower Square — earned them BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur award for 2022, it has been what amounts to a labor of love. The two saw an opportunity in the once-thriving but then-challenged retail and office complex in the heart of downtown, and have made the most of it, finding some imaginative reuse of many spaces. These include the recruitment of the YMCA, which has brought its childcare and fitness-center operations, as well as its administrative offices, to Tower Square. It also includes that new and decidedly different kind of Big Y store in space formerly occupied by CVS.

As for the hotel, which will open in time for the induction ceremonies for the Basketball Hall of Fame and the Big E, Patel said the timing is good for the property to come back online.

“Gas prices are coming down, and people are traveling again,” he said. “They want to get out and go places; we see a lot of pent-up demand.”

As he offered a tour of the nearly-ready facility, Patel noted the many nods to Springfield, its history, and its culture, from the basketball-themed art in the fitness center to the wall coverings depicting blueprints of noted inventions that happened in Springfield (from the monkey wrench to rail cars) to the many photographs of ‘old Springfield’ found on the walls of the stairs leading to the meeting facilities on the sixth floor.

“We wanted to tell the story of Springfield,” Patel said. “And we tell that story all through the hotel.”

Increasingly, that story is one of progress and recovery from COVID, not only in the downtown, where much of the interest is focused, but in many other neighborhoods as well, said both Sarno and Sheehan, noting that neighborhood plans have been developed for many different sections of the city that address everything from sidewalks to lighting to beautification, with gathered suggestions then forwarded to an ARPA advisory committee.

Overall, new schools and libraries are being built, infrastructure improvements are being undertaken, and businesses continue to be supported as they face the lingering effects of COVID through initiatives such as the Prime the Pump program, which provided grants of various sizes to businesses in need.

The city has received nearly $124 million in ARPA (American Rescue Plan Act) money to date, and it has distributed more than $50 million, including $4 million dispensed in the seventh round to date, earlier this month. Those funds went to small businesses, new businesses, nonprofits, neighborhoods, housing, capital projects, and direct financial assistance to households and seniors, said Sarno, adding that that the basic strategy has been put that money to use in ways where the impact can be dramatic and immediate.

The renovated outdoor space off the sixth-floor meeting area

The renovated outdoor space off the sixth-floor meeting area is one of the highlights of the soon-to-open Marriott in downtown Springfield.

“The majority of the monies that have been distributed have really helped a lot of minority-owned businesses and women-owned businesses,” he explained. “It’s a very eclectic mix, from mom-and-pop businesses to larger ventures to direct assistance.”

There have been efforts in the broad category of workforce development as well, he went on, adding that businesses of all kinds continue to be impacted by an ultra-tight labor market, just as many are starting to see business pick up again.

Overall, there have been more than 30 meetings conducted with residents and business owners in attendance, said the mayor, adding that these listening sessions were staged to gain direct feedback on how federal COVID relief money can best be spent in Springfield.

Identified needs and challenges range from workforce issues to childcare to transportation, said Sheehan, adding that what has come from these sessions is dialogue, which has often led to action, on how the city can collaborate with other groups and agencies to address these matters. And it has been a very fruitful learning experience.

“It created an opportunity to look at things differently,” he noted. “And I do think it has caused people to look at how we can work collaboratively to solve some pretty significant problems.”

Bottom Line

To motorists who are stuck in it, there is really no such thing as ‘good traffic.’

But while drivers don’t use that phrase, elected officials and economic-development leaders certainly do. As Sarno told BusinessWest, good traffic is a barometer of a city’s vibrancy, a measure of whether, and to what degree, a community has become a destination.

For a long while, Springfield didn’t have much, if any, of this ‘good traffic,’ and then, in the 18 months or so before COVID, it did. The pandemic and its many side effects took much of that traffic away, but there are many signs that it’s back and here to stay.

As the mayor said, the city is starting to get its mojo back. 

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

Cover Story

High Flight

Nate Costa with the AHL’s Eastern Conference Championship trophy

Nate Costa with the AHL’s Eastern Conference Championship trophy and his AHL Finals jersey.

The Springfield Thunderbirds soared to new heights during the 2021-22 season, making the playoffs for the first time in their existence and taking Springfield to the championship round of the playoffs for the first time in three decades. As the franchise enters what will be an abbreviated offseason, it does so with momentum and a championship-caliber team to sell to a more engaged fan base, and management is laser-focused on taking full advantage of this opportunity.

Within the pantheon of ‘good problems to have,’ specifically in the world of professional sports, it doesn’t get much better than this. Although, yes, it does get a little better.

Indeed, after a lengthy playoff run that took the team to within a few wins of a Calder Cup, the Springfield Thunderbirds are looking at a short offseason — as in two full months shorter than the norm.

That’s a problem, said team President Nate Costa, because there’s a lot to do before the 2022-23 season starts, from season-ticket sales to scheduling promotions to lining up special guests and programs. But it’s a good problem, obviously, because of everything that happened during those aforementioned two months and what they mean to this franchise, and this brand, moving forward.

What happened, said Costa, is that the Thunderbirds, the franchise that brought pro hockey back to Springfield in 2016 after a brief time without a team, became “the talk of the town” during that playoff run. Elaborating, he told BusinessWest that the team took a huge leap forward in terms of visibility, prominence, and, yes, relevance. It always had a core of solid fans, but it hadn’t truly arrived. Until this spring.

“It all came to fruition when the playoff run happened,” he told BusinessWest. “All the stuff we thought could happen — that we would be the talk of the town, that we could be the focal point of downtown Springfield … it all came together. And now, it’s about trying to capture some of that momentum and keep things moving.”

The team took this huge step forward in large part because the team seized a huge opportunity during the playoffs to capitalize on the 11 extra games and the excitement generated with each passing round by promoting the brand in every way imaginable, from ceremonial posters and rally towels handed out at the home games to extensive social-media coverage of the team’s run to the Eastern Conference title and the brink of a Calder Cup.

The challenge — and huge opportunity — moving forward, as Costa said, is to build off this hard-earned momentum, and this is what management will be doing in this abbreviated offseason.

Thunderbirds

The extended playoff run gives the Thunderbirds a short offseason, but in the larger scheme of things, that’s a good problem to have.

“All the positives around the business now, and all the stuff that comes from having a nice run like this is … huge, and it’s something we’ve never had before — we’ve never even made the playoffs before in my time with the Thunderbirds,” he noted. “We’re in a good position to take advantage because we’ve laid a really solid foundation that we can build on.”

Looking back on a memorable season, one that earned the T-Birds Team of the Year honors (the President’s Award) from the AHL, Costa said it happened because many pieces fell in place and because all the various players — from the local ownership group that provided the needed resources to a parent team, the St. Louis Blues, that “understands the value of winning at this level,” as he put it, to the players and management — did their respective jobs.

Overall, he said the deep playoff run was and is validation of everything that management and ownership have done to not only bring hockey back to Springfield but to generate interest in hockey and build a successful brand.

“It all came to fruition when the playoff run happened. All the stuff we thought could happen — that we would be the talk of the town, that we could be the focal point of downtown Springfield … it all came together. And now, it’s about trying to capture some of that momentum and keep things moving.”

“It’s been a huge validation, not only for me personally, but for the owners, who stepped up for the city, made a big investment, and did it the right way,” he said. “To be able to get the Eastern Conference championship and do something that hadn’t been done in 30 years … that’s pretty special.

“Getting to the playoffs is really important to the development of these players; these guys are getting extra games, they’re getting extra high-pressure games … that all means a lot to development,” he added. “The really cool thing is that there is lot of continuity between last year’s team and this year’s team, which is a testament to the Blues — they’re bringing back a lot of guys.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with Costa about the season — and postseason — that was, how the team made the most of that unique opportunity, and how it intends to build on all that was gained during the 2022-23 season and beyond.

 

Banner Year

One of the many items on the to-do list for Costa and his team this offseason is to order a ‘2022 Eastern Conference Champions’ banner to hang in the rafters at the soon-to-be-renamed MassMutual Center.

Costa said research revealed the name of a company in Waltham that makes such banners for a number of professional sports teams, and preliminary talks with that outfit will commence soon.

Thunderbirds fared well

While the playoffs are not a ticket to guaranteed financial success, the Thunderbirds fared well, selling out each of its three games in the Finals.

“We want to do it right — to go the company that does this for everyone,” he said. “I want to get their input — I want to get some direction on how to design this the right way, because it’s going to live in our rafters for a long time.”

Finding a company to make a banner for the rafters was about the last thing on anyone’s mind during a very challenging start to the 2021-22 season, said Costa, adding that this past year was a stern test on many different levels.

For starters, the team was starting up again after deciding not to play during the 2020-21 season, when COVID was at its height and the AHL was playing a shorter schedule with a host of restrictions and, for the most part, no fans. This meant assembling a team of employees (with many returnees from before COVID) and re-engaging with a fan base.

But mostly, it meant dealing with a pandemic that kept coming in waves and was still very much a disruptive force, especially for businesses dependent on bringing large numbers of people together in closed spaces.

“All the positives around the business now, and all the stuff that comes from having a nice run like this is … huge, and it’s something we’ve never had before — we’ve never even made the playoffs before in my time with the Thunderbirds.”

“It’s been a long year,” said Costa, putting heavy emphasis on that word ‘long.’ “We dealt with a lot of ups and downs; there were a lot of challenges. Groups were essentially non-existent because schools weren’t doing anything, and we were living in a real COVID world for half the year. January and February were some dark months where we still wearing masks and there were potential capacity limitations … we were dealing with that all year, and it was a really taxing and challenging environment to work through. It was exhausting.”

While dealing with these challenges, the Thunderbirds, thanks to a solid mix of established veterans and emerging prospects, established themselves as not only a playoff contender (23 of the league’s 31 teams would qualify for postseason play for the 2021-22 season following some changes to the format), but as a frontrunner. Indeed, the team forged its way near the top of the Atlantic Division of the Eastern Conference and stayed there for the bulk of the season.

By the spring, the team’s consistently solid play made a playoff birth likely, and then inevitable, giving Costa and his team a chance to start planning — as much as any organization can plan a playoff run, even with a bye in the first round, which the T-Birds earned by finishing second overall in the Atlantic Division.

Indeed, the playoffs are to be taken one series — and, in many respects, one game — at a time, he said, adding that, while a playoff run can benefit a team’s bottom line, there are many additional expenses, especially travel and logistics, and some challenges when it comes to ticket sales, including the loss of all-important group sales.

playoff experience different

Nate Costa says one of the team’s goals was to make the playoff experience different for the fans and the players, with rally towels and banners like this one.

“Every series is like a mini-season, the way we market it and the way you go through the process, because you don’t know what’s going to happen; it’s all dependent on your performance on the ice. At the beginning of the run, we wanted it to make it feel different and feel separate from the regular season, and so, from a marketing perspective, we put together an entire campaign around the playoffs,” Costa explained, including a hashtag slogan — Fly, Fight, Win! — that was a nod to the Air Force. “It was completely different from what our regular-season marketing campaign was.”

 

Winning Formula

Such marketing efforts included everything from lawn signs to new signage around the arena to stickers placed in the windows of downtown businesses, as well as that hashtag. They were a necessary expense, but ones with a very uncertain ROI.

“You can do all that planning and do all those things, and then get knocked out in the first round,” Costa explained. “We were really fortunate that we got to go all the way to the end, but every round you have to redo the schedule, get tickets up on sale, set the pricing on tickets, get the tickets sold, getting marketing in place and buying the advertising — and it all happens within a week.”

“The other blessing about going so late into the playoffs is that it’s only three months from the end of our year to the start of the new year. I think there’s still going to be a lot of pent-up excitement, especially with the number of guys we have coming back and the continuity with raising the banner and all that.”

And there are no guarantees that a playoff run will be a financial success, he said, noting that some teams in the playoffs — including the Chicago Wolves, who triumphed over the T-Birds in the Calder Cup Finals in five games — played before crowds that were far from sellouts, and one of the playoff teams from the Western Conference, Stockton, was averaging just over 1,000 per game.

“At this level, though tickets were in demand, you still have to grind, and you still have to have relationships with people in the region to try to move tickets,” Costa said. “And if you’re not prepared to do that at this level, you’re not going to succeed.

“The first two rounds are really challenging, and teams traditionally break even or lose,” he explained. “But you maximize those opportunities to build momentum for future rounds, if you can get there, and that’s what we did.”

Overall, the Thunderbirds did well with playoff ticket sales, he went on, noting that each of the three Finals games hosted in Springfield was a sellout (6,793 seats), and the earlier rounds averaged more than 5,000, with some games coming on weekdays and even Mondays.

Eastern Conference Champions’ hat.

There are many benefits to an extended playoff run, including merchandise, such as this ‘Eastern Conference Champions’ hat.

But beyond ticket sales, Costa said he saw the playoffs as an opportunity to build the Thunderbirds brand, and he invested heavily in many different initiatives.

For starters, he made sure all three of the team’s media members went to every playoff series to cover the Thunderbirds for social media.

“From the beginning, I wanted to feel like a pro hockey team, and that means getting photography, video, and social media on the road,” he said. “That’s what separates us from a lot of AHL teams; not many teams in this league are willing to invest in this stuff. But I think it’s important for perception of the brand.

“If you can do the little things like that, if you can let the players feel like real pros, then the fans, by extension, the people who are following your brand, can also feel that, and that gives you a lot to sell,” he went on. “The playoffs, to me, was all about maximizing the opportunity.”

 

Setting Sale

As he talked with BusinessWest, Costa was wearing a ‘Calder Cup Finals’ pullover. At one point in the proceedings, he paused to show off the AHL’s Eastern Conference Championship trophy, named for former AHL President Richard Canning.

These are just a few of the symbolic ways in which he and his team are still living in the moment, if you will.

But in most other ways, the team is putting its deep playoff run behind it and moving onto next season. Indeed, Costa made a point of referring to the 2021-22 campaign as ‘last season,’ and to 2022-23 as ‘this season.’

Which brought him back to the ‘good problem to have’ he mentioned at the top.

“It’s a blessing and a curse,” he said of the shortened offseason, noting that it’s too short for everyone involved — players, many of whom will be back with the team, as well as coaches and administrators.

But from a business perspective, and most all other perspectives, it certainly beats the alternative — another season with no playoffs.

“I’m going to take the playoff run and everything that came with it over a longer offseason,” he said, adding quickly that some, but not all, of the page-turning work that comes after a year’s final game is over had to wait until the playoff run ended.

The mission now is to make up for that lost time, and Costa and his team are now forging ahead with the plans for 2022-23. The schedule has been officially released, which means the team can now start slotting in everything from annual events to who will sing the national anthem at each game.

And, as he mentioned, there is momentum to build on, and it is already showing up in season-ticket sales; by mid-July, the team had more than 1,150 season tickets sold for the coming season, a jump of nearly 100 from last year, with more than 200 still to renew and a projected 80% of those coming back. That means the team is looking at perhaps a 30% increase in season-ticket volume.

And that should be just one area of growth, he said, adding that, overall, a short offseason isn’t beneficial only because of what it means about last season.

“The other blessing about going so late into the playoffs is that it’s only three months from the end of our year to the start of the new year,” Costa explained. “I think there’s still going to be a lot of pent-up excitement, especially with the number of guys we have coming back and the continuity with raising the banner and all that.

“Early on in the year is typically really hard for us,” he went on, adding that the team is competing with pro and college football and other sports as well. “But coming out of this, I think we’re going to have a lot of momentum. We don’t really hit our stride typically on the business side with big crowds until December, when people really start to turn the page and think hockey. This will help us early in the season; we’re going to come out of the gates strong.”

As the team continues its budgeting for the coming year, it will be aggressive as it sets goals for ticket sales and revenue because of last year’s success, Costa said, but it will also look for new areas in which to grow and improve, on both the revenue and expense sides.

“It’s just the maturation of the business,” he explained. “We’re in a healthy place now, and it’s all about how we take advantage of our momentum. When we took this over, it was obviously exciting, but there wasn’t a ton of value built up in the brand, and now we’ve gotten to the point where we have some value built into the brand, and we have to take advantage of that.

“Now, we have a winning team to talk about and a championship-caliber team,” he went on. “And that just adds to everything that we’re doing, and it makes our job easier.”

 

Soar Subject

Summing up the playoff run that was, from both a personal and professional perspective, Costa said it was, in a word, “special.”

“It was one of the coolest experiences I’ve had in my career,” he said, noting that the team won the Eastern Conference title exactly six years from the day the new franchise was announced. “I’ve been in pro sports for more than 15 years now and had never gotten to that point — it was fulfilling on many levels.

“And that’s one of the things I hammered home with our staff. I said, ‘I know it’s exhausting, and I know we’re working extra games, but this doesn’t happen every year,’” he went on, adding that, when it does happen, a team has to take full advantage of the moment — and the momentum created by that moment.

And he and his team are fully committed to doing just that.

 

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

Cover Story

A Developing Story

 

architect’s rendering

An architect’s rendering of a proposed new courthouse, apartment complex, and marina for Springfield’s riverfront.

As he talked about the many real-estate development projects he’s been involved with over the years and how they’ve come to the drawing board and then off it, Peter Picknelly said simply, “they develop … and then they happen.”

That was a very simple explanation for what is often a very complex process, especially with some of the projects he and his team at the OPAL Real Estate Group have taken on over the years, many of which have involved public-private partnerships and have taken years, if not decades, to become reality.

What he meant was that each project starts with a concept, or a vision — the marriage of a location or an existing building with a new use, or uses, often with higher goals, such as sparking additional development in a given area or neighborhood, or bringing new life to dormant, sometimes historic properties.

This has been the case with many projects in the OPAL portfolio — from the transportation and education center in downtown Holyoke to the conversion of the former Clarke School for the Deaf in Northampton into luxury apartments, to a similar but much more complicated effort to transform the former Court Square Hotel in downtown Springfield into market-rate housing.

Peter Picknelly says Springfield’s riverfront

Peter Picknelly says Springfield’s riverfront, and especially the stretch north of the Memorial Bridge, is an untapped resource and the ideal location for a new courthouse.

And this is the same general formula being applied to the most ambitious project yet undertaken by Picknelly and his team at OPAL Real Estate — the transformation of land on Springfield’s riverfront, north of the Memorial Bridge, into a home for a new Hampden County courthouse and, perhaps, an apartment complex and marina, a concept that comes with a price tag just under $500 million.

Plans for this concept were unveiled at an elaborate press conference last month, with Picknelly and others, including Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno and Chief Development Officer Tim Sheehan, touting the proposed project as a potential economic catalyst for both the riverfront and Springfield’s North End.

And as a solution to what has become a huge health hazard in Springfield — the Roderick L. Ireland Courthouse, which has been beset with problems ranging from mold and ventilation issues to alarming reports of employees getting sick and in some cases dying of cancers and other diseases linked to environmental concerns.

Indeed, a recent report by the state Trial Court’s Environmental Advisory Committee, made up of courthouse employees, said the courthouse is linked to more than 50 cancer diagnoses and five employees who have died of ALS.

Headlines announcing these reports and the state’s ongoing efforts to clean and perhaps renovate a building that people don’t want to go in — the Hampden Registry of Deeds and the district attorney’s office have relocated staff out of the building — prompted those at OPAL to create that vision that was announced last month, said Picknelly.

“It’s pretty clear to me that there is something wrong, very wrong, with that building,” he said. “There are 25,000 people who have been diagnosed with ALS; five have died in one building! That’s an amazing number. And 60 people have some form of cancer? We need a new courthouse, and anyone who cares about Springfield would have that on their radar.”

But there are very few spots in the city that can accommodate a new courthouse. Picknelly says he has one — or can assemble one.

The land in question has been considered for everything from a casino to a site for a UMass Springfield campus to the possible home for a minor-league baseball stadium. But it remains undeveloped and needs a spark to become a real asset for the city.

The proposed courthouse, a true public-private endeavor, could become that spark, he said, adding that this project, if it comes to fruition — and there are many hurdles to clear, as we’ll see — could lead to additional development along the riverfront and in the North End.

“I think this is an exciting opportunity for our city to expand its downtown area and open up the river, finally, for all sorts of activities,” said Picknelly, who called the Court Square initiative a ‘legacy project,’ and believes the same term could be applied to the courthouse endeavor. “We’ve always thought that our land on the riverfront was underutilized, and that, at some point, it should be developed, and this seemed like a great opportunity, so we’re running with it, and we think it has some legs.”

For this issue, BusinessWest looks at Picknelly’s impressive development track record and how this latest project would become an intriguing next chapter.

 

Right Place, Right Time

Picknelly said OPAL is an acronym, with those letters starting the names of his four children — Olivia, Peter, Alyssa, and Lauryn.

Over the years, it has become synonymous with large-scale, often difficult projects that often involve public-private partnerships. The Picknelly Adult and Family Education Center on Maple Street in Holyoke, which houses bus services on the ground floor and Holyoke Community College’s Adult Learning Center on the upper floors, is one example, while the Court Square project, which boasts an array of partners, including the state, MGM Springfield, Winn Development, and OPAL itself, is another.

“I think this is an exciting opportunity for our city to expand its downtown area and open up the river, finally, for all sorts of activities. We’ve always thought that our land on the riverfront was underutilized, and that, at some point, it should be developed, and this seemed like a great opportunity, so we’re running with it, and we think it has some legs.”

Picknelly said that he and his team at OPAL look for development opportunities across the region, often responding to requests for proposals for specific buildings and properties, as in Holyoke and Court Square, but often by being proactive, sometimes with property owned by Picknelly or Peter Pan.

Such is the case with the existing Hampden County courthouse and the need to find a solution to the ongoing health problems there.

Picknelly and his team at OPAL first became involved with the goal of perhaps finding a temporary home for the courthouse to be used while the existing property is cleaned and renovated. But amid the headlines about illness and death and the high costs of making the building safe, the thought process shifted to finding a permanent solution in the form of a new home.

“The more you looked into it, the worse it got,” he said. “So we asked, ‘where can you build a new one and keep it in the downtown area?’ Because this is important to Springfield.”

The solution that presented itself is the 14.5-acre parcel on the riverfront owned by Picknelly — as well as an adjoining parcel owned by the Republican Co., which is the planned location of the new courthouse; Picknelly is seeking to purchase that parcel.

The land owned by Picknelly is currently home to Peter Pan’s Coachbuilders repair and maintenance facility as well as a number of billboards, which are generating some revenue from lease deals.

As noted earlier, it has been considered for several different uses, including a baseball park — several different proposals for such a facility have been forwarded over the years. And Picknelly said UMass Amherst considered the site before it eventually located its downtown Springfield campus in Tower Square. It then became part of the parcel pieced together for a proposed Western Mass. casino, which was eventually built in the South End.

While the site has remained mostly idle, it has always had vast potential to bring life and business not only to an attractive stretch of the riverfront, but to the North End of the city, which has Union Station, but has long needed a catalyst that can attract different kinds of development.

A new courthouse could be that catalyst, said Picknelly, adding that, while such facilities are generally not thought of as economic development, they are worthy of that description, and for many reasons.

Start with the number 1,600. That’s how many people typically visit the Roderick L. Ireland Courthouse on a daily basis — or would visit it if they were not afraid to venture inside, said Picknelly, adding that this kind of visitation, which includes those with business in the courts, court employees, jurors, and lawyers, could spawn different types of development, from restaurants to office buildings housing lawyers who want to be close to the courthouse.

“Your development is literally right on the water. Nowhere else in Springfield’s downtown can you have that.”

“I don’t think people realize how much activity a courthouse brings to a community,” he said. “It’s an economic-development driver.”

Ultimately, Picknelly believes the courthouse and apartment complex can do for the riverfront north of Memorial Bridge what the Basketball Hall of Fame complex has done for the area south of the bridge — in short, make it a destination.

“Before the Hall of Fame, there was essentially nothing there,” he said, referring to the collection of industrial properties that stood where the Hall is now. “Now, you have restaurants and vibrancy … the courthouse can do the same for the north side of the riverfront.”

It could potentially do even more, he went on, because on the south side of the bridge operating railroad tracks stand between the Hall of Fame and other businesses and the river itself. That problem doesn’t exist on the north side.

“Your development is literally right on the water,” he noted. “Nowhere else in Springfield’s downtown can you have that.”

While the proposed site — and the project envisioned for it — makes sense on many levels, said Picknelly, a number of pieces need to fall into place, especially at the state level.

 

Courting Opportunity

At present, the state and its Division of Capital Asset Management (DCAM) is still weighing whether to renovate the existing courthouse or move into a new one; a deep cleaning of the facility is currently underway.

Sarno and Picknelly have both questioned the wisdom of investing what could be hundreds of millions of dollars in a building that has reportedly been linked to serious illness and death.

“We think cleaning it is great, but ultimately, a new courthouse is needed in Springfield,” said Picknelly, adding that there are several options moving forward for the project and this parcel, with the best, in his view, being the property developed by OPAL and then leased by the state.

“It would be much faster if that was the chosen route,” he told BusinessWest. “Just the procurement process for securing the land would take two years; we can have shovels in the ground quickly. Ultimately, we believe the project can be done, start to finish, in four years.

“Right now, they’re talking about cleaning the building and renovating the current building — that will take seven years and probably cost $200 million when you factor in the cleaning of the facility and what they would have to do to move to the courts to a temporary facility for several years. That’s 70% of building new, and even if you do clean it, people are going to be very reluctant to go into it.”

former Court Square Hotel

OPAL Real Estate has become part of a number of ambitious public-private development initiatives, including the ongoing work to transform the former Court Square Hotel into market-rate housing.
Photo by Joe Santa Maria, Kill the Ball Media

Picknelly noted an additional benefit to building new is that Springfield gains an additional development site — the current courthouse location, in the heart of downtown and across State Street from the MGM casino complex.

If the courthouse moves to the riverfront, you then have that property to be developed for some other activity,” he said. “There are all sorts of opportunities; it’s great land that could be developed for other public purposes.”

When asked to give a timeline for the courthouse project, Picknelly said there are many factors that will play into if it happens and when it happens, from whether the current administration wants to address this problem or pass it on the next one, to how quickly DCAM can study and then weigh the costs and benefits of building new versus renovating what currently exists.

But he expects something — he’s not sure what — to happen within the next year, because of the severity of the health concerns in the current courthouse and the need to find a solution.

Much of his development activity over the past few decades falls into that category of ‘finding solutions,’ and this would certainly be another legacy project for the portfolio.

It is a developing story — figuratively, but also quite literally.

 

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

Cover Story

A New Challenge

Diana Szynal

Diana Szynal

Diana Szynal recently made a successful transition from public service — she was a selectman in Hatfield and then a legislative aide — to running the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce. Now, she’s making another transition, to leadership of the Springfield Regional Chamber. While Greater Springfield is a much larger area, she said the challenges facing businesses, and the basic mission of the chamber, are the same as they are in Franklin County, and she’s ready to put her experience to work in her new setting.

Diana Szynal says that within minutes of the announcement that she had been named the new president of the Springfield Regional Chamber of Commerce going out last spring, her phone started ringing and pinging.

There were calls and texts from area business leaders, government officials, and directors of area economic development agencies wanting to meet and talk.

“The calls started coming, and I’m still getting them,” said Szynal (pronounced Zy-nal), adding that her appointment book is quickly filling up for the next several weeks.

Those appointments are part of what she describes as a broad learning process as she takes the reins at the Springfield chamber, succeeding Nancy Creed, who has stepped down officially after several years at the helm, but is assisting in the transition.

Indeed, while Szynal, who most recently served as director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce and before that served as a legislative aide to the late state Rep. Peter Kocot, is certainly familiar with Springfield and Hampden County in general, she admits that there will be a ‘getting acquainted’ period awaiting her as she assumes the leadership position at the Springfield Regional Chamber.

“I know that I don’t know everything about Springfield,” Szynal, who started her new job July 5, told BusinessWest. “But I do know that I’ve had dozens of local businesses and community leaders offer to help me with that; Springfield is the economic engine of Western Massachusetts, and we need to make sure that we’re at the forefront, always at the cutting edge, of what’s happening, business-wise and legislatively.”

“The pandemic really did shine a spotlight on how critical it is to be part of that larger group and have that support and have that information that was so important.”

While scheduling meetings with those who are now calling and texting her, Szynal is also putting together a to-do list, one that includes a return of the chamber’s popular Super 60 program this fall — nominations are currently being accepted for that honor — as well as a resumption of the chamber’s ambassadors program (put on the shelf due to COVID), and, further down the line, planning of the first in-person Outlook lunch since the start of the pandemic in March of 2020.

Also on the list is creation of a new strategic plan — the last one was undertaken before the pandemic — and continuing and building upon Creed’s strong track record for not only keeping members well-informed, but making sure their voices are heard on Beacon Hill and Capitol Hill.

“Nancy was, and still is a great voice for this region,” said Szynal. “We need to continue to make sure that our voice is heard, and the way you do that is by engaging the legislators and forming good relationships with stage agencies. The legislative piece is really important, and that’s where the Springfield Regional Chamber has a leg up, because it spends so much time making sure that it has put together a solid legislative agenda that supports what businesses need and makes sure that the voice at this end of the state is heard.”

Overall, Szynal takes the reins at an intriguing time for this chamber, and chambers in general.

Indeed, she said that the pandemic provided an opportunity for chambers to show their true value to members — and potential members — when it comes to not only providing needed information (although there was plenty of that) but for being a true resource for, and advocate for, the business community.

“I think there was a real affirmation of the value of chamber membership, particularly during the pandemic,” she said. “In Franklin County, when we went into the shut-down and my phone was ringing, it was non-members who were reaching out. Members of chambers were getting a lot of information during that tumultuous time on matters such as the Payroll Protection Program, who qualified, and how the loans were processed.”

This ability to step up and elevate their game, if you will, resulted in chambers being able to retain members and actually add new ones at a time of real challenge for businesses of all sizes and in every business sector, she went on, adding that both the Franklin County chamber and the Springfield Regional chamber have posted solid numbers the past few years, better than those from before the pandemic.

Moving forward, she said she plans to build off this momentum — and that’s what she prefers to call it — while also strengthening existing relationships with both other chambers and other economic-development-related agencies.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with Szynal about her new appointment, the state of the Springfield Regional chamber, and the prospects for all chambers in the post-pandemic world.

 

Getting Down to Business

Recalling her shift from public service — she was a selectman in Hatfield and then in county government before joining Kocot as an aide — to running a chamber of commerce, Szynal said it was a relatively smooth, almost seamless transition. That’s because the work is similar in many respects, she noted, adding that in both arenas, there are large amounts of listening and advocacy involved.

Elaborating, she said that in her municipal roles, she got to work with many area economic-development-related agencies, such as the regional employment boards (now MassHire agencies), the Economic Development Council of Western Mass., and others. She was able to take those relationships, as well as her understanding of the state Legislature and relationships she forged there, to her work with the Franklin County chamber.

“It was while I was working for representative Kocot that I really cut my teeth on learning about workforce development, economic development, the importance of community organizations and nonprofits, and the importance of public-private partnerships,” she explained. “And how all of that fits into economic development.

region’s voice

Diana Szynal says one of her priorities moving forward is making sure this region’s voice is heard on Beacon Hill and Capitol Hill.

“I was also able to develop at that time really important relationships with key stakeholders throughout the region,” she went on. “So when Rep. Kocot passed away, I went to the Franklin County chamber, and all of those relationships and learning experiences were invaluable in helping me execute the mission there.”

Szynal is expecting a similarly smooth transition as she moves from the Franklin County chamber to the one in Springfield, because, while the two regions are certainly different when it comes to population, the chambers are of similar size, membership-wise. Meanwhile, most all of the issues and challenges within the business communities are the same, and so is the basic mission of the organizations — to serve members and advocate on their behalf.

“The main focus of a chamber is communication, relationships, and business support,” said Szynal. “Each chamber is a little different, but most focus on the same things. Through events we facilitate networking and collaboration among members, and we give businesses some visibility through our membership directory, our website, member spotlights, all of those things. The business-to-business relationships, business-to-community relationships, those are things that most chambers focus on, although each chamber adds their own flavor.”

In Springfield, the size and makeup of the chamber reflects the diversity of the city and its recent upward trajectory, said Szynal, noting that, despite the pandemic and its impact on every sector of the economy, Springfield is in a growth mode and seeing vitality in most aspects of its economy.

“Springfield has so much going for it — there’s been so much revitalization in the area,” she said. “The sectors of healthcare and education, tourism and hospitality, manufacturing … all of those things are so vital and so critical here. I’m really looking forward to diving in and learning all that I don’t know and putting some fresh eyes on the chamber and the region.”

As noted earlier, she arrives at an intriguing time for this chamber, and all chambers. While most have become smaller staff-wise — several, including the Springfield Regional Chamber, are essentially one-person operations — there is a new vibrancy for many due to the relevancy gained during the pandemic.

“There is a lot of opportunity here. I have a lot on my to-do list, but I can’t wait to dive in.”

“The pandemic really did shine a spotlight on how critical it is to be part of that larger group and have that support and have that information that was so important,” Szynal told BusinessWest, adding that the challenge, and opportunity, moving forward is to hammer home the importance of chambers during what could be called more-normal, but still quite challenging times.

Indeed, Szynal said businesses large and small are still being impacted by a number of issues, many of them COVID after-effects including supply-chain issues, soaring prices, the early signs of recession, and, especially, a workforce crisis that doesn’t seem to be getting any better.

“Look at the challenges businesses are facing today that they didn’t have to before — supply chain issues, fuel prices are going to be crushing to some businesses, workforce issues, childcare, and more,” she said, adding that in such times, being part of an organization like the chamber, which can make its voice heard in Boston and Washington can be beneficial to businesses of all sizes.

Speaking of more normal, Szynal said the chamber will be turning back the clock to 2019 with regard to its events and many of its programs. On the events side of the ledger, the agency has started to stage in-person gatherings again — the annual meeting at the Springfield Sheraton drew more than 250 guests — and one of its largest annual get-togethers is back on the docket for the fall.

This is the program known as Super 60, a compilation of the region’s most successful companies based on performance in two categories — Total Revenue and Revenue Growth. One of the chamber’s most important revenue generators, Super 60 was put on ice in 2020 and 2021 because of the pandemic, and Szynal believes the lengthy pause will generate some interest in the popular program, slated for Oct. 28 at the MassMutual Center.

The same could be said for the chamber’s annual Outlook lunch, the region’s largest gathering of area business leaders. It has been staged remotely the past two years, and Szynal is looking forward to that tradition, and many other annual gatherings, returning to an in-person format.

“Outlook, the Beacon Hill and Washington summits, the Government Reception, the Mayors Forum … it’s so important to get back to doing those again because they provide information and offer opportunities for businesses to be together,” she explained. “I’m looking forward to being back full steam.”

While planning those events, she has many other items on her to-do list, starting with those meetings with area civic, business, and economic development leaders.

And there will also be work to create a new strategic plan for the institution.

“The last one was done three years ago, so it would be time to do another one anyway,” she noted. “But with everything that’s happened in the last two and a half years, it’s a really good time to evaluate the mission of the chamber and how we’re meeting that mission.”

 

The Bottom Line

From a personal perspective, Szynal said she chooses to look at the next stop on her career path as an opportunity and not necessarily as a challenge.

It will be an opportunity to continue the kind of work she has been doing for the past several years in several different capacities.

“I really love connecting with people, learning about their business, and learning about their business needs,” she explained. “I love that aspect of any job, that’s why I loved working with Peter Kocot, because I did so much constituent work; this is what I’m looking forward to.
“There is a lot of opportunity here,” she went on. “I have a lot on my to-do list, but I can’t wait to dive in.”

 

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

Construction Cover Story

History in the Remaking

Dave Fontaine Jr.

Dave Fontaine Jr.

Crews working on the $64 million initiative to transform the former Court Square Hotel in downtown Springfield into market-rate housing say the project takes them back in time. Actually, it takes them to several different periods of time — from the property’s days as prominent hotel to more recent days, when it hosted a popular tavern and several other businesses. While doing this time-traveling, these same crews are living in the present and confronting a number of challenges as they usher in the next chapter in this property’s intriguing history.

Dave Fontaine Jr. calls it a “cool memento.” Actually, it’s turned out to be more than that.

He was referring to a bid package submitted by his firm, Fontaine Bros. Inc., for redevelopment of the former Court Square Hotel in the heart of downtown Springfield. The date on the three-ring binder, crammed with interior and exterior photographs and other materials, is 2000.

And that wasn’t the first — or only — time the company had submitted a bid on a project to transform the property, now vacant for more than 25 years, for a different use — endeavors that never saw the light of day for one reason for another.

There have been so many in fact, that Fontaine, vice president of the company started by his great-grandfather and his brother, had some humorous material for use when he was asked to say a few words at one of the many ceremonies to mark milestones for the project that actually made it off the drawing board — a $64 million initiative to convert the property into 71 units of market-rate housing.

“I joked that I believe I’m the third generation of Fontaines to bid on the project,” he told BusinessWest, adding that both his father, Dave Sr., and grandfather, Lester, were involved with similar proposals. “We’ve been pricing it over decades, with at least a dozen iterations and many different planned uses.”

More than a quarter century after the first such bid, Fontaine is finally at work in Court Square, with one of its banners hanging on the front of the property. It’s an intriguing project, said Fontaine, one of many the company has handled that falls in the broad category of historical restoration. Others include the transformation of Classical High School into condominiums, Berkshire Hall at the Berkshire School in Sheffield, the public libraries in Holyoke and Shrewsbury, and even the conversion of 95 State St., visible out the windows of the Court Square property, into the home of MGM’s headquarters in Springfield.

Work at Court Square began early this year, he said, noting that the first phase involved weatherizing the property and making it structurally sound, significant steps for a building that was, in his words, in “terrible shape” when crews arrived and set up shop.

One of the original staircases at the Court Square Hotel.

One of the original staircases at the Court Square Hotel.

Actually it was in terrible shape in 2000, as photos in that bid package reveal, he said, adding that conditions only worsened over the past two decades as the elements took their toll on the structure.

“It had been vacant for 20 or 30 years,” he explained. “When we got there, the envelope needed work — and there are still areas where water gets into the building when the weather is poor — and historically there has been no heat in the building in the winter. The building was really on its last legs.”

Repairing and renovating what Mother Nature has damaged is just one of many challenges on this project, said Fontaine, noting that, like all construction projects undertaken at this time, this one has had to contend with everything from supply-chain issues to often dramatic increases in the prices of materials and labor.

“I joked that I believe I’m the third generation of Fontaines to bid on the project. We’ve been pricing it over decades, with at least a dozen iterations and many different planned uses.”

So much so that the Springfield City Council approved an 11th-hour request for $6.5 million in emergency funding to handle cost overruns for the project which came to fruition through a public-private partnership that includes a number of players, from the state, to Wynn Development and Opal Development, to MGM Springfield.

Another challenge is implied in that phrase ‘historical renovation.’ Indeed, the property, which dates to the 1890s, is on several lists of historic properties, said Karl Beaumier, on-site superintendent for the project, adding that, in many respects, crews from Fontaine are dismantling what was in place in the old hotel rooms and other spaces, storing those pieces, and putting them back after mechanicals, equipment, and appliances are installed and finishing work is completed. Everything that goes into the renovated structure, including new windows (600 of them) must be reviewed by the National Park Service.

“We salvaged a tremendous amount of the wainscoting on the corridors — some of it was left here, some of it came off and it’s going back on,” said Beaumier. “All of the doors were salvaged, the door frames, the door cases, the window cases on all the exterior windows, the baseboard, the chair rail, the crown molding — all of that stuff got saved; there are 10 40-foot conex boxes (shipping containers) completely full of salvaged woodwork that has to go back in the building.

“It’s been carefully removed, catalogued, and stored,” he went on. “It will all go back as part of the historical renovation.”

For this issue and its focus on construction, BusinessWest took a hard-hat tour of the property, and talked with Fontaine and Beaumier about the massive undertaking and the steps still to come.

 

Past Due

As they started their tour on the ground floor of the property, most recently home to several storefronts and eventually to be the site of a restaurant, Beaumier and Fontaine said that for the on-site crews, going to work each day also means going back in time.

Or to several different times, to be more precise.

view out one of the windows on the sixth floor

This view out one of the windows on the sixth floor explains why there has always been interest in converting the property for residential use.

Indeed, on the ground floor, the areas housing the storefronts bear evidence of their former uses, especially the space that was home to the tavern known as the Bar Association, a name chosen to reference the many clients from the legal community, many with offices within a block or so from the courthouse just south of the Court Square property.

“It was like things were stuck in time from the late ’80s,” said Fontaine, noting such items as the stained-glass window in the Bar Association and a door that still had the ‘R’ from owner Tony Ravossa’s name. “It’s cool seeing the old storefronts.”

From the ground floor, Beaumier took BusinessWest to the basement, where collected water provided evidence of still-ongoing work to shore up the property, and then to the second floor, where the next use of the property is starting to come into focus.

There, and on the remaining floors, long rows of what used to be hotel rooms —most all of them with doors to the rooms on either side — have been essentially gutted, with the masonry walls that divided them (see photo, page 30) taken down and the groundwork laid for what will become one- and two-bedroom apartments. In one hallway, rows of shower units were waiting for eventual installation.

While the property will have a completely different use than it did a century ago, it will look, in almost all respects, as it did back then, Beaumier explained.

“When we’re done, and we look down this corridor, it’s supposed to look just like it did in 1900,” he told BusinessWest as he gestured down the narrow hallway of the wing of the property that runs north-south toward State Street. “All these doors that went into the individual hotel rooms … we’ve opened up the spaces, so there will probably be two dummy doors for each unit; the doors that we took off have to get pinned back in the wall so that when you look down this corridor, it looks the same as it did historically; every third door will actually open into a unit, the rest will be dummy doors.”

Elaborating, he said that the actual walls to the units were pushed back a foot from where they stood originally, because the original corridor is too narrow for a wheel chair to turn in, an example of how some adjustments have to be made to enable a century-old building to comply with modern building codes and state and federal regulations.

The tour then provided more glimpses into the past as it went to and then down one of the original staircases to what was the lobby area of the former hotel, complete with the remains of a revolving door, marble-covered walls, and a ceiling, now in an advanced state of decay, that will be restored.

“Right now, we’re getting the building structurally back to where it needs to be so we can do the mechanicals and other systems,” said Fontaine adding that the initial phases of this project have involved demolition, structural work, and salvaging a number of features. When these have been completed, crews will move onto installation of those mechanical systems, replacing hundreds of windows, building out the individual apartments, and putting the salvaged items back in.

When the tour reached the sixth floor, Beaumier pointed out one of the north-facing windows to dramatic views of Court Square (see photo, page 26), looks that help explain why there has always been interest in redeveloping the property for housing, and why there has been a high level of interest in this project.

As they walked and pointed out specific areas of note in the sprawling property, Fontaine and Beaumier talked about everything from the significance of the project to Springfield and its central business district to the many challenges involved with undertaking a project like this at this time of soaring prices, supply-chain issues, and a workforce crisis that has affected all sectors of the economy including construction.

Photo by Joe Santa Maria, Kill the Ball Media

Work to convert the property into a mix of residential and retail spaces is expected to be completed in the early fall of 2023. Photo by Joe Santa Maria, Kill the Ball Media

Fontaine, whose family has developed or redeveloped many properties downtown, from the aforementioned State Street project to the expansion of what is now known as the MassMutual Center, to the creation of MarketPlace, said the Court Square is an important next step in the revitalization of that area.

“That downtown area means a lot to us, we’ve handled a lot of projects in that area,” he said. “I grew up in this area, we’ll stay in this area; I want my daughters to be able to stay around here and work and live here if they choose to, and I this is a big step toward making downtown attractive to working professionals and people who want to be downown.”

As for the many challenges that come with building at this time, Fontaine said there have been some adjustments to make.

That includes the emergency funding from the City Council, he said, adding that the amount allocated should cover the escalating cost of the project. But it also includes longer lead times for items and, in some cases, having to use different products or materials because the lead times are too long.

“As with every construction project going on right now, there have been a lot of items with long lead times — significantly longer than normal,” he explained. “We’ve been working through that with the designers to use some products that do what we need them to do, but also get here within the lead times. With the mechanical systems, one of the manufacturers that was specified for the unit heaters had a 52-week lead time; we found something we could get in the time frame in which we needed them.”

 

Finishing Work

The elaborate project is expected to be completed in the early fall of 2023, said Fontaine.

There will certainly be an elaborate ribbon-cutting ceremony at that time, one that will close the book on the long, often-frustrating efforts to create a new life for the historic property, and usher in the next chapter.

Fontaine can also close the book — figuratively but also quite literally — on more than 25 years of bidding on projects to transform the property.

That binder from 2000 is, as Fontaine said, a cool memento, but it’s also a symbol of this property and how long its fate has been a critical issue in Springfield.

 

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

Alumni Achievement Award Cover Story

2022 Finalists Are Inspirational Leaders within the Community

 

In 2015, BusinessWest introduced a new award, an extension of its 40 Under Forty program. It’s called the Alumni Achievement Award, and as that name suggests, it recognizes previous honorees who continue to build on their resumes of outstanding achievement in their chosen field and in service to the community. Recently, a panel of three judges identified the three finalists for the 2022 award — Amanda Garcia, Anthony Gleason II, and Amy Royal. The winner for this year will be unveiled by Alumni Achievement Award presenting sponsor Health New England at the 40 Under Forty Gala on June 16 at the Log Cabin in Holyoke. As the profiles that begin on page 7 reveal, these three finalists embody the spirit of this award. Their stories convey true leadership and are, in a word, inspiring.

Amanda Garcia

Associate Professor of Accounting and Finances, Director of the MBA Program, Elms College

 

Anthony Gleason II

President and Co-founder of the Gleason Johndrow

 

Amy Royal

Founder/CEO, the Royal Law Firm

 

 

Cover Story

Study in Determination

Hubert Benitez

Hubert Benitez

Hubert Benitez is a dentist by trade. He got into that field because he wanted to serve people — and because he wanted to make a difference. He eventually left dentistry for academia because … well, he still wanted to serve people and make a difference, but in an even more profound way, by creating pathways to higher education. This focus has become a passion, one that he brings to his new role as president of American International College.

At the recent commencement ceremonies for American International College, Hubert Benitez, DDS, the school’s president, was at the podium, handing out diplomas, and offering traditional greetings to the graduates — something along the lines of ‘congratulations, and good luck.’

And in what would have to be considered an unusual twist, many of them said the same thing back to him.

Indeed, Benitez had been on the job for only about a month before taking the stage at those ceremonies at the MassMutual Center — and delivering the commencement address while he was at it. Most all of the students accepting their diplomas knew that, and wanted to offer some words of encouragement.

“You don’t learn about an institution until you’ve talked to its people.”

Taking the helm just a few weeks before the end of a spring semester is highly unusual in higher education — most new presidents would prefer to start during the summer, when things are slower and they have time to ramp up, or at the start of a new school year. Benitez said he was given those options, but was also asked to consider starting in April by Board of Directors Chairman Frank Colaccino, a member of AIC’s Class of 1973 and member of the search committee that ultimately offered Benitez the job.

And he said he jumped at the opportunity, essentially because he couldn’t wait to get started with the next chapter in both his intriguing professional career — and in the history of the school, which first welcomed students in 1885.

“That is a non-traditional start date,” he acknowledged. “Because it’s a transitional phase — we’re closing, and also starting a new academic year. In retrospect, I think it’s been beneficial to start when I did, because I had the opportunity to work with my colleagues during a very stressful time — an academic year is ending, we’re close to commencement, we’re close to ending the fiscal year, and now we’re preparing the budget to present to the Board of Directors for approval.

the AIC campus

Hubert Benitez says his first visit to the AIC campus left him convinced that he wanted to be the school’s next president.

“It’s almost unheard of to start at that time, but I wanted to take up the challenge,” he went on. “And, more importantly, my colleagues were willing to welcome a new president in that time of flux.”

Benitez was anxious to start, and before that, he was anxious to apply, because in every way he can imagine, the school’s mission and its ongoing focus on first-generation students and those who may need a second chance to further their education reflects his own resume and his own focus within higher education.

He said that, throughout its history, AIC has created opportunities for many individuals and he wants to continue and build on this mission, making the school ever-more diverse and responsive to the challenges facing both traditional and non-traditional students.

He brings to that assignment an intriguing resume. Indeed, those letters after his name, DDS, indicate that he is a dentist by trade. He had a practice for more than 14 years, but eventually decided he couldn’t see himself “taking care of toothache for the rest of my life.”

Instead, he opted to change course and pursue a career in higher education, or “the academy,” as he called it, because it met a life-long desire to serve others while presenting many different opportunities to grow as an individual and lead others.

“I always saw my colleagues in higher education as individuals who were trying to find new directions, trying to research, trying to find new directions for healthcare for education … and that was something that was intriguing to me,” he said.

In his most recent position, Benitez served as vice president for Strategic Initiatives and Academic Innovation, and as acting chief inclusion officer at Rockhurst University (RU) in Kansas City, MO. Prior to Rockhurst, Benitez served as president and chief executive officer for Saint Luke’s College of Health Sciences for almost five years, where he provided visionary and strategic leadership that included merging the school in Rockhurst (more on that later).

Hubert Benitez, right, was offering congratulations

While Hubert Benitez, right, was offering congratulations to students at commencement, they were offering it right back to him.

In his short but busy time at AIC, he has been “learning and doing,” as he put it and starting the hard work of creating an envisioning plan for the college, an effort involving many individuals and constituencies.

“Many people ask me, ‘what is your vision?’ he said. “I have a vision of what AIC will be, but the vision of AIC will be a shared vision, a vision created by faculty, staff, administrators, because I want to make sure everyone owns that vision.”

 

Something to Sink His Teeth Into

Benitez told BusinessWest that while he was at Rockhurst University, he was encouraged by recruiting firms to apply for various positions, most of them presidencies, across the broad spectrum of higher education. The presidency of AIC was not one of them.

“No one invited me to apply to AIC; I chose AIC, and I was hoping that AIC would choose me,” he said, adding that there were many things about the small, urban school that intrigued him, starting with the three words over the school’s banner: Access, Opportunity, and Diversity.

“When I see an institution that focuses on providing access to demographics of students, providing opportunities to students who haven’t been successful a first time, or a second time, and maybe this is their last opportunity, and when I see an institution that is working on maximizing the diversity of the future workforce … that is absolutely true to who I am, not only as a person, but as a professional.”

Elaborating, he said that the mission of AIC is true to his heart and a reflection of what he has devoted his career to in recent years. To understand those sentiments, we turn the clock back to his decision to transition from dentistry to higher education.

That transition occurred as he was pursuing a post-doctoral fellowship, when Benitez met a fellow DDS who became a mentor and eventually convinced him that his future shouldn’t be in dentistry.

“I believe in the value of mentorship, not only because it helps people move forward with their professional aspirations, but because mentors find in you what you may not have found in yourself,” he explained. “He saw in me a skill set, a desire for professional growth, a desire to work in higher education … he once told me ‘I don’t think you should stay in dental schools — I see you as a holistic administrator.”

This same mentor advised him that he would need a Ph.D., or another one, to be exact, this one in higher education administration, which he earned at Saint Louis University’s College of Education and Public Service.

He then “went through the academic ranks,” as he put in, serving in a number of capacities, including adjunct faculty, full-time faculty, program director, assistant dean, dean, provost, and chief academic officer, before becoming president and CEO of Saint Luke’s College of Health Sciences.

There, as noted earlier, he helped orchestrate a merger with Rockhurst, a union that was different from many of this type because Saint Luke’s was successful at the time, not struggling as many schools are when they look to merge with a larger institution.

“This was the case of two very strong academic institutions, financially healthy academic institutions, coming together with a common vision,” he explained. “Our merger became an example of how two strong institutions can come together, as opposed to traditional mergers, where one institution has troubles and the other one does not, and I was proud to be part of that process.”

As noted, he would go on to vice president for Strategic Initiatives and Academic Innovation, and as acting chief inclusion officer at Rockhurst.

He was in that role, when, without the encouragement of any recruiters, he applied for the position of president at AIC, earned the opportunity to interview for it, and eventually visited the campus in January. It made quite a first impression, as he recalled.

“Sometimes when you visit a campus, and I’ve had the privilege of visiting many, you get a feeling, or you get what I call a vibe when you visit an academic institution,” he said. “My wife and I left this college and we looked at each other, and we knew it felt right.”

During that visit, he said he met with a number of faculty, staff, and students, who collectively presented a picture of what they were looking for in the school’s next president.

“My focus has always been on creating opportunities for access, for diversity, for equity, for inclusion.”

He summed it all up this way: “They said they were looking for someone who could help them and help this institution become prominent in the community while continuing to serve that demographic of student, and continue to provide that access,” he recalled. “If you hear that, and I look back at my story, you can’t be more mission-aligned and vision-aligned; it’s an alignment of the mission to who I am.”

 

Course of Action

Getting back to his unusual start date, Benitez said it has been beneficial in a number of ways, especially in the manner in which it has enabled him to get a head start on his work, and do a lot of that ‘learning and doing’ he mentioned.

The ‘doing’ part concerns everything from commencement to putting the budget together for the new year, he said, adding that the ‘learning’ takes many forms and is ongoing.

For starters, it involves meeting with every employee on the payroll, he said, adding that this is what he did when he was president of Saint Luke’s College of Health Sciences, an exercise that became a tremendous learning experience.

“First and foremost, I need to know my colleagues’ aspirations — what are their needs?” he explained. “I always say that people come first, and if I can learn to understand each and every person’s personal and professional aspirations, I can serve them better. You don’t learn about an institution until you’ve talked to its people.”

Benitez said he’s already met with senior staff and many groups of employees, and has a schedule packed with one-on-one interviews for the next few months.

He’s also meeting with students, taking in events, meeting with the faculty senate and individual faculty members, all in an effort to learn more about the school, where its stakeholders want to take it, and how it will get there.

“But while learning, we’re also doing,” he said, adding that he and team members have been preparing for both the new school year and the first “envisioning exercise,” as he called it.

“We’re already gathering a group of faculty, staff, and administrators in a room and start to envision what the future of AIC is going to look like,” he said.

“There has to be ownership of the vision, “he went on. “It’s not ‘here’s the president’s vision and others will execute it’ — in my mind, that will never work; it will never have ownership. People need to feel that they belong and that they have a sense of ownership.”

As for his own vision for the school, Benitez said he wants an AIC that is heavily involved in the community and responsive to the constantly changing needs of its students, the community, and area businesses.

“It’s not ‘what can the community do for AIC?’ On the contrary; it’s ‘what can AIC do for the community?’” he explained. “I see an AIC that is vibrant, that creates an environment where, when I walk through the corridors of this institution, it feels like home for all. I should be able to walk the campus and say ‘do you feel at home here?’ If I hear everyone saying ‘yes,’ I think we’re doing our job.”

While working on the visioning process, and as part it, Benitez said he will continue and hopefully broaden AIC’s mission of providing access and opportunities, work that has become the focal point of his own career in higher education.

“My focus has always been on creating opportunities for access, for diversity, for equity, for inclusion,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s been on working with minority populations and creating pathways into higher education for demographics of students where higher education is not always seen as a viable option.

“Some of my colleagues will say ‘it makes sense to you — you come from a Latino background, a demographic group under-represented not only in the health professions but in education in general,’” he said. “And I say ‘yes, it does make sense to me, but it’s the right thing to do.’ And that’s why I’ve devoted the majority of my career to that work of creating transitions, pathways, and pipelines for students from under-represented backgrounds to arrive in higher education, earn a degree, and obtain a better way of living for themselves.”

 

Grade Expectations

Benitez said he shook more than 600 hands during those commencement exercises earlier this month, which he described as a humbling experience in many respects.

Most humbling were those wishes for good luck from the students, he said, adding that they certainly resonated with him.

He understands there are many challenges facing the school, from the uncertainties stemming from the pandemic, to ongoing enrollment issues stemming from smaller high school graduating classes and a host of other issues, to that ongoing task of creating more pathways to higher education.

He not only understands them, he embraces them and wants to tackle them head on. That’s why he took this job, and that’s why he took that early start. There’s plenty of work to do, and he wanted to get right to it.

 

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

Cover Story

Passing it On

Kasey Corsello

Kasey Corsello, a certified coach and co-owner of the Corsello Butcheria in Easthampton.

There are many components to the region’s entrepreneurship ecosystem, perhaps none more important than the small army of mentors who are passing on what they know to a growing number of people looking to work for themselves instead of someone else. They impart to these entrepreneurs everything from the importance of understanding a spreadsheet to the notion that failure is … well, not unexpected and something to be learned from.

When asked what she tries to impart to entrepreneurs as a mentor, or do for them as she counsels them, Kasey Corsello summed it all up by saying that she tries to “normalize the emotional experience of it all, so they don’t feel like there’s something wrong with them.”

Anyone who has ever owned a business or tried to launch one — or mentored anyone who has, for that matter — knows exactly what she’s talking about.

“It is scary to be in the face of uncertainty, so I help them access their own inner resources, their own wisdom of lift experience to be able to make sound decisions,” said Corsello, a certified coach, co-owner, with her husband, of the Corsello Butcheria in Easthampton, and mentor with participants in EforAll Holyoke’s accelerator programs. “I help pull out their confidence and get them thinking that they can do this.”

With that, she described one of the many ways that mentors work with their clients and, while doing so, contribute in powerful ways to the vibrancy of the region’s business community.

Indeed, there are many components to the entrepreneurship ecosystem in Western Mass., and one of the most important is the small army of mentors who pass on what they know and provide much-needed sets of eyes and ears (especially ears) to those looking to start or grow a business.

And for this issue and its focus on entrepreneurship, BusinessWest talked with several of them.

Individually, and collectively, they spoke of the various kinds of rewards — and there are many of them — that go with mentoring, and about the various ways they try to counsel those on the other side of the desk, or the telephone, as the case may be.

This counsel can be technical in nature, such as how to read a spreadsheet and understand the numbers of business.

“I tell them that numbers really matter — get to know the numbers,” said Bellamy Schmidt, a retired executive who worked for many years at General Electric before moving to Wall Street and the giant investment firms JP Morgan and Goldman Sachs and then Holyoke City Hall, where he served as auditor. “As much as people may find the numbers uncomfortable, they basically tell the story of a business.”

In other cases, it’s practical advice, everything from understanding one’s audience and meeting its needs, to the importance of networking and relationship-building.

“I tell them that networking is the key to building relationships,” said Yadira Pacheco, who owns a real estate agency and is a mentor in EforAll’s Spanish program, EparaTodos. “I tell them to network every chance they get; it doesn’t matter if it’s linked directly to their type of business — they’re going to find somebody who knows somebody who knows somebody who’s going to connect with them because of what they do.”

Yadira Pacheco

Yadira Pacheco says she tells entrepreneurs to network every chance they get, because relationship-building is one of the keys to success.

And then, there’s advice, or counseling, that falls more in the category of psychology, if that’s even the right term, that Corsello referred to.

“I tell them not to be afraid of failing — and for obvious reasons,” said Bill Cole, owner of Tiger Web Designs and a serial entrepreneur himself. “The bottom line is this … if you interview all the super successful people in this world, you’ll find that a common thread is that they failed miserably many times before they got to be successful. And there’s a reason for that; some things you must learn the hard way in order to learn them well.”

How well someone copes with failure, and, overall, how well one can learn from it, will play a larger role in one’s ultimate success in business than any given product or service, said Cole, who told BusinessWest that he focuses on helping those that he mentors become good entrepreneurs much more than he counsels them on any specific idea they may have to change the world as we know it.

 

Getting the Idea

As he talked about his mentoring work, Cole said he “got the bug,” eight to 10 years ago.

That bug, as he called it, is a desire to give back to what is, by all accounts, a growing number of people who would rather work for themselves than for someone else. Or at least try to do just that.

What all who try find out is that this isn’t easy, and if it were, everyone would do it. The fact that not everyone does, speaks to just how hard this is, meaning every aspect of entrepreneurship, from conceptualizing ideas to bringing them to market, to coping with the known — things like competition and the laws of supply and demand — to dealing with the unknown and sometimes what can’t possibly be foreseen … like a global pandemic.

Bill Cole

Bill Cole

“I tell them not to be afraid of failing — and for obvious reasons. The bottom line is this … if you interview all the super successful people in this world, you’ll find that a common thread is that they failed miserably many times before they got to be successful. And there’s a reason for that; some things you must learn the hard way in order to learn them well.”

Overall, entrepreneurship is daunting, said those we spoke with, adding that it’s important to assist those who don’t know what they don’t know with the many important aspects of starting and then running a business, while also helping them deal with the roller-coaster ride that is entrepreneurship and all that comes with it.

“I force them to realize that they’re not alone, that they can rely on their mentors to help them,” said Schmidt. “That creates a sense of comfort; it’s not me against the world — I’ve got people who have my back.”

This ‘having one’s back’ aspect of mentoring is as important as any practical advice on a product or marketing, or reading a balance sheet, said those we spoke with, adding that they want to help people learn about themselves as much as they do about business.

“There’s a lot to learn, and when we’re in a space of learning, self-doubt comes in,” said Corsello. “And that creates an emotional response — ‘I can’t do it,’ or ‘I’m overwhelmed.’ There are some people who have a mindset for entrepreneurship and it’s very easy for them — they’re not afraid to fail, they’re not afraid to take risks; their natural strengths are geared toward entrepreneurship.

“There are others who have a hard time with uncertainty, who have a hard time taking risks, who have a hard time failing,” she went on. “I work with people to break down the steps and celebrate each and every small thing.”

There are many of these small things that are involved with starting a business and taking it to the next level — whatever that might be, said those we spoke with, adding that, overall, they work with their mentees to keep their eye on both the big picture and all the little things that contribute to a business being successful.

And while doing so, as Corsello noted, they try to make these entrepreneurs feel comfortable in their own skin. This in a nutshell, is what she strives to do as a mentor to entrepreneurs, a new role she accepted recently as part of the program known as Blueprint Easthampton, which she helped launch.

She said mentoring is like coaching, in that she’s helping build the confidence needed to get where they desire to go.

“I get to see people in their full light, essentially, and fully believe in them when they can’t believe in themselves,” she explained. “They’re realizing their vision and their dream, and they’re learning about themselves and gaining the tools they need to be resilient.”

Bellamy Schmidt

“I force them to realize that they’re not alone, that they can rely on their mentors to help them. That creates a sense of comfort; it’s not me against the world — I’ve got people who have my back.”

Elaborating, she said that entrepreneurship can be as isolating as it is challenging, and, as Schmidt said, these business owners need to know that they’re not alone. And beyond that, they need to understand that what they’re experiencing — the fears, the self-doubts, the seemingly endless hits to their self-confidence, are not unique.

“They need to understand that they’re not the only ones struggling with this,” she went on. “And that’s why I say that I normalize their experience.”

 

Rewards Program

Over the past decade or so, Cole has been a mentor for several of the agencies that are now part of the region’s entrepreneurship ecosystem, including VVM, EforAll, SCORE, the Small Business Administration, and others. He’s worked with startups, mom-and-pop businesses, and some looking to get to the next level, and, because of his background, he’s often asked for advice on creating a website.

But his broad advice to entrepreneurs comes in many flavors, including that aforementioned counsel on failure, why it should be expected, why it’s normal, and, most importantly, why it shouldn’t bring an end to one’s dreams of owning their own business.

Overall, he said he advises those he mentors to work smart — and not just hard, although that is critically important as well.

“There’s a combination of working hard and working smart that has to happen,” he explained. “You can’t just work hard, you have to be smart, too. And ‘smart’ just means paying attention to what’s going on around you.

“We tend to have tunnel vision on what we’re trying to do — whatever that may be,” he went on. “If it’s a product, you may have tunnel vision on the product itself, when you have to think about things like how are you going to go to market with that product, or organize the business itself — how many people need to be hired, how much is it going to cost? There’s a difference between having a product idea and a business, and the difference is that most people have ideas that are expensive hobbies when it’s all said and done — it’s not really a business.”

Schmidt agreed, and said he stresses the importance of understanding who one’s customers are and what need is being met by their product or service.

“I try to force them to think about what it is the customer really wants,” said Schmidt. “Because often, a businessperson will want to do something that they want to do, and it might not be what the customer wants; if you have a business, it’s all about the customer, it’s not about you.”

Miguel Rivera, co-owner, with his wife, of Rewarding Insurance Agency in Holyoke, and another mentor in the EparaTodos program, concurred.

“Many people don’t have a target market,” he explained. “You ask them who their target market is, and they say ‘everyone.’ Then I try to teach them that their clients are not ‘everyone’; they must identify who their target market is so they can do the right marketing.”

When asked what they enjoy about mentoring, all those we spoke with said there are many kinds of rewards.

One obvious one is the satisfaction that comes from helping someone or some group take an idea and turn it into something successful.

“The first day I went to work after college, my new boss said to me something along the lines of … ‘the most important thing I get out of my job is a sense of accomplishment from helping move young people along in their careers and watching them grow,’” Schmidt recalled. “As naive as I was, I thought that was kind of a ridiculous answer. But as I matured, I realized how right he was; there’s a tremendous sense of accomplishment when you see someone develop that you have helped.”

Rivera agreed. “I’m glad to see business owners doing their ribbon cuttings and grand openings — that’s what I enjoy the most,” he said. “And many of my clients are still in business — they’re doing well, and I take pride in that.”

Said Cole, “I love it when someone is successful and I had something to do with it — it’s a wonderful feeling. But I don’t mind being there when someone is struggling, either; I’ve been there, so I know.”

Pacheco has been there as well, and so she knows first-hand how daunting entrepreneurship is. And that’s why she mentors others.

“When I was starting my business, it was very difficult, because I didn’t have the support, the guidance, or a blueprint — anything,” she recalled. “So, I was literally thrown into it and had to figure it out for myself. And that’s one of the reasons why I help others. I know how difficult and stressful it can be when you’re trying to grow a business.”

 

The Bottom Line

Beyond that, though, mentors say that they inevitably learn from those they are mentoring, and this helps them become both better business owners — and better mentors.

“I’ve learned a tremendous number of things that I never would have learned otherwise,” said Cole. “The reality is I’m smarter for it and I have a lot more experience from it than I ever would have had if I just done my own little thing.

Pacheco agreed.

“You always learn something from each participant,” she told BusinessWest. “Everyone has a story; everyone’s background is different. In the process of me helping others, they are also helping me; it’s a learning experience on both sides.”

Such sentiments explain why mentoring is so rewarding — and why it’s so important, for all those involved.

 

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

Class of 2022 Cover Story

Celebrating 15 Years
of Excellence

Call it a trend. What it means … well, we don’t really know, but it’s there.

When BusinessWest launched its 40 Under Forty in 2007 to honor young professionals in Western Mass. — not only for their career achievements, but for their service to the community — that first class featured far more men than women.

In recent years, the opposite has been true. Indeed, in 2021, there were 26 women and 14 men. This year? The pendulum has swung even further, with 28 women in the Class of 2022 and 12 men.

Again, we don’t really know what that means. What we do know is that beyond this bit of statistical intrigue, this class of honorees is like the 15 that came before it, in that it is diverse, in every way imaginable — ethnically, geographically, and professionally.

Indeed, the members of this class took a number of paths to this honor. Many are professionals, but there are also several entrepreneurs. There are nonprofit managers, college administrators, and a few public servants as well.

 

Each story is uniquely different, but there are, as always, some common denominators, including excellence within one’s profession, a commitment to giving back to the community, dedication to family and work/life balance, and a focus on how they can make this region better for all those who live and work here.

The judges for this year’s program — spotlighted below — reviewed more than 120 nominations, a number that speaks to the continued vibrancy of this program and the dedication of the region’s rising stars.

The class of 2022 will be celebrated on Thursday, June 16 at the annual 40 Under Forty Gala at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House in Holyoke. That gala will also feature the announcement of the winner of the eighth annual Alumni Achievement Award, a recognition program that salutes the 40 Under Forty honoree who has most impressively added to their accomplishments in the workplace and within the community, as chosen by a panel of judges.


See the 2022 40 Under Forty Digital Issue Here

2022 40 Under Forty:

SAVE the DATE

Come party with us as we celebrate the 2022 40 Under Forty

June 16, 2022, 4-9 pm at the Log Cabin in Holyoke

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2022 Presenting Sponsor Alumni Achievement Award

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Meet Our Judges

Xiomara Albán DeLobato, a member of the 40 Under Forty class of 2021, currently serves as chief of staff for the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council, where she facilitates the growth and development of the regional economy by encouraging, influencing, and sustaining capital investment and quality job growth. She has dedicated her career and community involvement in serving as an active change agent and advocate for equitable access to economic and academic opportunities in the region and beyond.

Madeline Landrau, one of BusinessWest’s Women of Impact in 2021, works on MassMutual’s Community Responsibility team as a Program Engagement Manager. She oversees MassMutual’s Home Office Giving portfolio and associated relationship management, working with nonprofit organizations primarily in MassMutual’s home office community of Springfield. She’s the lead for LifeBridgeSM, MassMutual’s program that offers free life insurance coverage to eligible parents for the benefit of their children’s education. Landrau mentors young Latinas, providing informal mentoring and coaching, guiding them to make sound decisions, develop socially and enhance their educational skills.

Ryan McCollum, a 40 Under 40 winner in 2012, is the owner of RMC Strategies, which provides full service political consulting to candidates, elected officials, nonprofits and for-profit institutions. A founder of YPS of Greater Springfield, he is on several area boards, including 16 Lyrics, Suit Up Springfield, Square One, Healing Racism Institute, ROCA, NCCJ, and the marketing committee of the Springfield Museums. He sat on Longmeadow’s Coalition for Racial Justice Task Force, and also serves on the Rian Immigrant Center, which helps immigrants assimilate to our country. 

Chad Moir, president and CEO of DopaFit Parkinson’s Movement Center in Easthampton, was honored by BusinessWest with both its 40 Under Forty and Difference Maker awards in 2021. A graduate of American International College and its Public Health program, Moir created DopaFit in 2015. The company uses exercise prograns to help people stop or slow down the progression of Parkinson’s, a neurodegenerative disorder that increasingly robs the body of dopamine, which is released during exercise.

Amy Roberts, executive vice president and chief Human Resources officer at PeoplesBank, has more than 18 years of experience working with business leaders to develop and implement people-management and talent-development strategies. An active member of the community, she has served on many boards including the United Way of Hampshire County, Leadership Pioneer Valley and CHD. She is a reader for the Link to Libraries program and serves on the Service Above Self Annual Luncheon Committee for the Springfield Rotary and Basketball Hall of Fame.

Alumni Achievement Award Judging Underway

When BusinessWest launched its 40 Under Forty program in 2007, it did so to identify rising stars across our region — individuals who were excelling in business and through involvement within the community — and celebrate their accomplishments.

In 2015, BusinessWest announced a new award, one that builds on the foundation upon which 40 Under Forty was created. It’s called the Alumni Achievement Award. As the name suggests, it is presented to the 40 Under Forty honoree who, in the eyes of an independent panel of judges, has most impressively continued and built upon his or her track record of accomplishment.

Past winners include: 2021: Anthony Gulluni, Hampden County district attorney (40 Under Forty class of 2015); 2020: Carla Cosenzi, president, TommyCar Auto Group (class of 2012), and Peter DePergola, director of Clinical Ethics, Baystate Health (class of 2015); 2019: Cinda Jones, president, W.D. Cowls Inc. (class of 2007); 2018: Samalid Hogan, regional director, Massachusetts Small Business Development Center (class of 2013); 2017: Scott Foster, attorney, Bulkley Richardson (class of 2011), and Nicole Griffin, owner, ManeHire (class of 2014); 2016: Dr. Jonathan Bayuk, president, Allergy & Immunology Associates of New England (class of 2008); 2015: Delcie Bean, president, Paragus Strategic IT (class of 2008).

This year’s nominees are currently being weighed by three independent judges, including last year’s honorees. They are:

Anthony Gulluni was sworn into office as Hampden District Attorney in January 2015 and is currently serving his second four-year term. He earned both his bachelor’s degree (2003) and juris doctorate (2007) from Western New England University. As D.A., he has promoted his vision of safer communities by innovative and significant investment in community building and outreach, crime prevention and education, and by focusing efforts on the smart prosecution of violent offenders. The Hampden D.A.’s Office has engaged with many community-based organizations, including Roca, the Healing Racism Institute of Pioneer Valley, and the YWCA to broaden its reach and provide equitable services to all communities in need.

Keith Ledoux is vice president, Commercial Line of Business and Business Development at Health New England, responsible for driving commercial sales, marketing, and business development. He has more than 25 years of experience in the insurance industry, and has a background in sales, healthcare information technology, and strategy development. Previously, he held leadership roles with MiHealth, Tufts Health Plan, Fallon Health, Minuteman Health, and Constitution Health. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Worcester State University and an MBA from Purdue in Health Care Adminsitration. He also completed the AHIP Executive Leadership Program at Northwestern University, Kellogg School of Management.

Kimberly Williams is vice president of Diversity, Equity & Inclusion for Stanley Black & Decker. She provides the center of excellence for the Stanley Black & Decker global DE&I community through the development and implementation of best practices, knowledge management, leadership development, and metrics that can be deployed by the local talent and affinity teams within each region. With more than 25 years of HR experience, she has supported and led DE&I initiatives in several organizations across industries, including, investment banking, health care, nonprofit, and aerospace manufacturing. She received her MBA in Human Resource Management from Syracuse University and her bachelor of Arts degree from American University.

Cover Story

The Next Chapter

Valley Venture Mentors has long had a singular but multi-faceted mission — to promote entrepreneurship in the region and provide various forms of assistance to help business owners take their venture to the next stage. Through a new and broader affiliation with the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council, the agency has an opportunity to become, in the words of its director, even more of an advocate, a champion, and a “convener” within the region’s broad, and growing, entrepreneurship ecosystem.

VVM Executive Director Hope Ross Gibaldi

VVM Executive Director Hope Ross Gibaldi

As she talked about the new, broader, stronger relationship between Valley Venture Mentors and the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council (EDC), Hope Ross Gibaldi, VVM’s executive director, used the word ‘opportunity’ early and quite often.

She said the affiliation between the two agencies, or the deeper affiliation, as the case may be, gives VVM access to a larger pool of funding sources, some of them stemming from COVID-relief efforts, and, in general, a stronger platform from which to conduct its many programs — from its weekly ‘community nights’ to its student business accelerator to its entrepreneurial roundtables — and become an even more vital component of the region’s entrepreneurship ecosystem.

“VVM has gone through a lot of evolution and many iterations, and with the course of the pandemic, that has really provided us with a chance to do some reflection,” Ross Gibaldi explained. “I think this new alignment with the EDC really positions VVM to be a convener regionally for the entrepreneurial ecosystem and be an advocate and a champion for entrepreneurship in the Western Mass. region. It’s a tremendous opportunity — for VVM and the region.”

Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the EDC, agreed. He told BusinessWest that VVM, which will continue to be its own 501(c)(3) nonprofit and rely on many of its traditional funding sources, ranging from area foundations to long-time supporter Berkshire Bank, is now a “program” of the EDC, one that must ultimately pay for itself through fundraising, grants, program fees, and more, while taking full advantage of networking and funding opportunities presented by the EDC.

“Our economy here is really reliant on small and medium-sized businesses, many of which are generationally owned — the ownership is here in Western Massachusetts. And that’s what the future is going to be.”

Sullivan noted that entrepreneurship has always been one of planks, if you will, of the EDC’s platform when it comes to economic development. Elaborating, he said regions like Western Mass. can certainly hope to add all-important jobs by attracting major corporations. But a far more realistic strategy is to grow organically, by encouraging entrepreneurship and providing mentorship and several forms of assistance to companies at various stages of development and maturity.

“Our economy here is really reliant on small and medium-sized businesses, many of which are generationally owned — the ownership is here in Western Massachusetts,” he said. “And that’s what the future is going to be. A Fortune 50 company is not likely to build its headquarters here — our strength is the small-to medium-sized company that stays local, invests local, hires local, uses a supply chain that is also local. Do we all sit and hope that one of these companies that goes through VVM gets really big and stays here? Sure, but that is not the model.”

This explains why the EDC has always maintained a healthy relationship with VVM and why it has now made the agency one of its programs, or affiliates.

Rick Sullivan

Rick Sullivan says that promoting entrepreneurship and supporting the startup community is vital to the Western Mass. economy, which explains the affiliation between VVM and the EDC.

“The founders of VVM did a masterful job of getting it here and recognizing the importance of the startup community and small-business growth and the importance of that to the Western Mass. economy,” Sullivan told BusinessWest. “We’re building off that leadership and vision and bringing in here. And I think it does align perfectly with the EDC, because it [VVM] is really looking to bring all the resources together for a common goal and put everyone under one umbrella. So I’m optimistic about the future of VVM.”

VVM now joins several other affiliates of the EDC, including the Springfield Regional Chamber, the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau, the Westmass Area Development Corp., the Springfield Business Improvement District, the Amherst Business Improvement District, Westover Airport, and the East of the River Five Town Chamber of Commerce.

The new affiliation agreement provides a good opportunity (there’s that word again) to revisit the mission of VVM, which has entered another intriguing chapter in its history, and how it will carry that mission out.

Indeed, the stronger relationship with the EDC comes as the agency continues what Ross Gibaldi, who joined the agency two years ago and has grown into her current role, described as an evolutionary process, one impacted in many ways by the pandemic, and sometimes in a positive way.

Indeed, programs that were once limited to those who could attend in person are now accessible to anyone who can join via Zoom, which has greatly increased attendance in some cases and brought some new and different voices to the discussions.

“I see VVM stepping in to support a lot of these amazing initiatives that are helping to build that ecosystem.”

Meanwhile, as she noted, the new affiliation provides VVM with an opportunity to create more and stronger partnerships with other agencies in the ecosystem and enable that larger entity to better serve the region and its business community.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with Ross Gibaldi and Sullivan about not only the new/old affiliation between the EDC and VVM, but also about the business plan moving forward for an agency that has been at the forefront of efforts to promote entrepreneurship and assist businesses as they work to get to that next level — whatever it might be.

 

Getting Down to Business ‘Dolphin tank pitches.’

That’s the very unofficial name given to one of the more intriguing elements of a summer student business-accelerator program VVM operates in conjunction with the Berthiaume Center at UMass Amherst.

And, yes, it’s a derivative of sorts of the popular television show Shark Tank.

Actually, “it’s a softer version of what you see on TV — it’s, well, not as sharky,” Ross Gibaldi told BusinesWest. “We’re lovingly critical … we’re not vicious. It’s not that we don’t want these entrepreneurs to get real feedback, because that’s an important part of building a venture — getting real, honest, transparent feedback from judges and mentors. But you also don’t want to break their spirit, so we’re trying to find a loving way to do it.”

The dolphin tank, even if it’s not really called that, is part of a broad network of programs that VVM conducts or is part of, all aimed at helping those in business or looking to start one clear hurdles and get to the next level. And it is just one example of how the agency is working to refine and strengthen all those roles Ross Gibaldi described earlier — from convener to advocate to champion of entrepreneurs.

Elaborating on these thoughts, Ross Gibaldi said that, as the entrepreneurship ecosystem continues to grow and evolve, VVM looks to play a broader role in forging partnerships with various players, create more awareness of specific initiatives (and the system itself), and bring a more unified, cohesive approach to the mission shared by these agencies.

“We’re all building a unified front for innovation and entrepreneurship across the region, and I think that fits very nicely with the Western Mass. Economic Development Council, and this new alignment puts VVM in a position to support some these ecosystem initiatives that are so drastically needed,” she explained. “But, as organizations and nonprofits that are so strapped, everyone is working with blinders on, which creates silos that people are working in and duplication of efforts. So when we’re able to clearly map out our regional entrepreneurial ecosystem, we can highlight where the gaps are and where we are not serving our entrepreneurs.

“What VVM’s programs will do from there is pull together the stakeholders, be the advocate to figure out how we get funding to support indepth initiatives that can really address the challenges and barriers for our entrepreneurs,” she went on. “I’ve been working very hard over the past few years to strengthen the relationship with other organizations in the entrepreneurial ecosystem, other technical-assistance providers, and all of the others operating in the space supporting entrepreneurs. I see VVM stepping in to support a lot of these amazing initiatives that are helping to build that ecosystem.”

As just one example, she cited the Blueprint Easthampton entrepreneurship program, an regional resource-mapping initiative launched by the city’s mayor, Nicole LaChapelle, to promote innovation, entrepreneurship, and STEM education.

And there are countless others, she noted, adding that they often target specific communities or regions, sectors of the economy, or stages of starting and scaling a business.

Another example would be an initiative called the Western Mass Founders Network, funded by a grant from the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative and launched by the EDC in partnership with other agencies, including Greentown Labs.

The network was designed for companies that are more advanced, are looking for funding, or might already have received funding, said Sullivan, adding that the group meets monthly and hears from speakers on topics chosen by the business owners with the goal of helping them move to the next level.

“There’s also monthly meetings that are happening with resource partners such as SCORE, the Mass. Small Business Development Center, and other organizations that are supporting entrepreneurs,” said Ross Gibaldi, adding that one of her broad goals is to create more awareness of all that is happening within the ecosystem and create more partnerships to better serve the region.

“Supporting a lot of these initiatives and really threading them together to build out and strengthen our regional entrepreneurial ecosystem is one of our priorities.”

“I found that, often, we as organizations are operating in silos and often are unaware of what’s happening with the other agencies,” she explained. “When that happens, we do a disservice to our entrepreneurs because we’re not fully aware of the opportunities in the Valley. And how are we supposed to take advantage of them and encourage our entrepreneurs to take advantage of them if we don’t know about them? So supporting a lot of these initiatives and really threading them together to build out and strengthen our regional entrepreneurial ecosystem is one of our priorities.”

Meanwhile, VVM continues to offer its own broad slate of programs while partnering with other agencies on different initiatives. In that first category are VVM’s community nights, on the second Wednesday of each month. Now back in person after being virtual for two years because of the pandemic, they offer networking, mentoring opportunities, and elevator-pitch presentations. There’s also a weekly roundtable discussion with startup businesses on Tuesday nights, conducted via Zoom.

In that latter category are programs such as RiseUp Springfield, in which VVM partners with the city to provide a six-month program to help small business owners create scale and expand their ventures. There is also the Harold Grinspoon Entrepreneurship Initiative, which involves all 14 area colleges and culminates with an annual spring Celebration of Entrepreneurship Spirit banquet.

There’s also the summer student business-accelerator program, which, because it has been run virtually the past few years, has been able to attract participants from across the country and around the world.

“We’ve found that making the program virtual makes it more accessible to people,” she explained. “Over the past few years, we’ve had people log in from outside the United States, which is really exciting; we’ve had people from Pakistan, France, India, and South Africa, and that’s been an amazing element, to broaden that accessibility for these entrepreneurs.”

And these lessons learned will carry over into the future, she said, adding that many programs will continue to have at least a virtual component to enable that improved accessibility to continue.

 

Venturing Forth

Overall, the new relationship between VVM and the EDC is difficult to put into words or describe with a single word.

In simple terms, it means that VVM now has a better, stronger platform for promoting innovation and entrepreneurship.

Time will tell, but it appears that the new relationship will enable it to take its mission to a different plane while perhaps bringing more continuity and cohesion to the entrepreneurship ecosystem.

As Ross Gibaldi said, it’s a big opportunity for both VVM and the region.

 

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

Cover Story

Sound Strategy

Barry Roberts and Gabrielle Gould outside the home of the Drake in downtown Amherst

Barry Roberts and Gabrielle Gould outside the home of the Drake in downtown Amherst

You might call it a development of note. That’s one poetic way to describe the transformation of the old High Horse restaurant space in the former First National Bank of Amherst building into a live performance and music space that will be called the Drake in a nod to a former downtown landmark. Like its namesake, a hotel with a famous bar, the new venue is expected to be a destination, a creator of lasting memories, and a key contributor to vibrancy downtown.

Barry Roberts isn’t sure how long the graffiti has been there.

He does know that it’s been a fixture — and a talking point — since long before he bought the property it graces, which now houses the Amherst Cinema, Amherst Coffee, and a number of other businesses in the heart of downtown Amherst, and that was 15 years ago.

And he suspects that this message has been ‘refreshed’ a few times over the years, because it’s as easy to read now as it was years ago.

It says ‘Save the Drake — for Willie, for Humanity,’ a reference to the legendary hotel and bar located in its basement, known as the Rathskeller, and its equally famous bartender, Willie. (Just about every student who attended UMass or Amherst College in the ’60s or ’70s has a Drake story. Or 100 of them.)

Roberts and others collaborating on an ambitious initiative in another property he owns, the former First National Bank of Amherst, are not exactly saving the Drake as most remember it. But they are reviving the name and creating a venue they expect will be just as successful when it comes to making memories that will live on for decades.

Indeed, the Drake is the name going over the door of a live performance and music venue that will go into space last occupied by the High Horse restaurant. The facility, to be operated by the Downtown Amherst Foundation (DAF), a 501(c)(3) that was founded to bring arts and culture to the Amherst area, is due to open April 26. and when it does, it is expected to have an immediate and profound impact on Amherst and its downtown, said Gabrielle Gould, executive director of the town’s Business Improvement District (BID), who played a key role in putting the many pieces of the puzzle together for this project.

She told BusinessWest that repeated studies revealed that what was missing from the landscape in Amherst’s downtown was a venue for live music, one that could compete with several such facilities across the Connecticut River in Northampton and not only keep Amherst residents and area college students in that community, but bring people from across Western Mass. — and perhaps the Northeast — to the town.

“We see people consistently going across the bridge and spending anywhere from $60 to $400 a night because of the amount of entertainment and music that is in that area,” Gould said. “For me, creating a vibrant downtown has to be experience-driven, and if you’re not providing arts and culture and experiences surrounding that, what is there to come here for?”

Roberts agreed.

“This is a game changer — an absolute game changer,” said Roberts, who is also president of the BID, adding that the facility has the potential to become what the Drake was — a landmark, a drawing card, and an attraction that will create memories for generations of people.

While doing that, the Drake will play a key role in an ongoing resurgence, or comeback story for downtown Amherst, said Gould, adding that the district lost a number of businesses — 15 by her count — during the pandemic. Many were restaurants, but there was some retail as well, she noted, adding that almost that many new businesses have been added in recent months, bringing vibrancy and excitement to the area.

The graffiti on the wall outside Amherst Coffee helped inspire the name of Amherst’s new live-performance and music venue.

Overall, she sees the Drake project as one very important chapter in an emerging story involving a new and more vibrant downtown Amherst, one that is well-positioned for what happens post-COVID.

“There’s a future here that is unlike anything that anyone could have envisioned five years ago,” she said, adding that the pieces are falling into place for this community that was so hard-hit by the pandemic.

As the work to ready the Drake for its opening enters its final stages, BusinessWest talked with Roberts and Gould about how this intriguing project came to fruition and what it means for a downtown that has been in search of a spark and now has one.

Landmark Decision

As she talked about the Drake project, Gould noted that it has been a product of good fortune, or good timing, in many respects.

Elaborating, she said ideal space (the former High Horse location) became available at essentially the same time resources, many of them in the form of pandemic-relief monies, were being made available to communities such as Amherst as they sought to recover from COVID and its many side effects.

“Right now, there’s a firehose of funds available — COVID funding, the Build Back Better plan … everything,” she said, adding that she doubts whether this project would have become reality so quickly in more normal times. “We’re not looking for silver linings, but we’ll take what we can get.”

The old Drake hotel

The old Drake hotel and its famous bar were a destination and creator of memories. The same is expected from what could be called the ‘new’ Drake.

But mostly, this project came about because of recognized need for such a facility in Amherst, she said, and a rare opportunity to make it happen. This need is spelled out in large letters — quite literally — on the website devoted to the Drake.

“When COVID hit, it really came to a place where we realized that we had a moment, and we needed to strike when the iron was hot.”

“For decades, the Amherst community as asked for, begged for, and sought out a space for a live performance and music venue,” the passage reads. “The Amherst BID and the Downtown Amherst Foundation have listened and are ready to build for the future. Arts and culture will be the economic and destination driver Amherst needs to head into 2022.”

It goes on to say the Drake is the first project toward building Amherst as a destination for locals and visitors alike, hinting strongly that there will be others, including a performance shell for the south common downtown, an initiative that has been a priority for the BID and the DAF for some time now and is still very much on the drawing board, said Gould.

But for now, the Drake is taking center stage, literally and figuratively.

“When COVID hit, it really came to a place where we realized that we had a moment, and we needed to strike when the iron was hot,” she said, noting, again, that this project is the byproduct of good timing and recognized need. “This was our opportunity; Barry having this space become available was just beyond perfect, because there really is no other available space in the downtown area that would lend itself as perfectly as this space to the concept that we wanted to go forward with.”

With the site secured, a proposal for a performance venue was put together and presented to a number of funding sources, Gould went on, adding that $175,000 in seed money was awarded to the Amherst BID by the Massachusetts Office of Business Development’s Regional Pilot Project. With that money, an attractive lease was secured, the architectural firm Kuhn Riddle was hired “at an incredibly reduced rate,” to design the venue, and additional fundraising efforts were initiated.

Gabrielle Gould says a live-performance venue has long been a priority for Amherst

Gabrielle Gould says a live-performance venue has long been a priority for Amherst, and it should provide a spark for its downtown.

Overall, the buildout costs for the project are a projected $750,000, said Gould, adding that the fundraising goal is $1.3 million, with just over $1 million secured to date.

It has come from a variety of sources, including $250,000 in local, community support in amounts ranging from $10 to $50,000; a $100,000 cash gift plus a Steinway piano from Amherst College; American Rescue Plan Act funds, local and state grants, and other sources. “You name it, we’ve gone after it,” Gould said.

Speaking of naming it, that was another task on the do-to list, said Gould, noting that there were several contenders being considered when someone suggested naming it after the famous bar immortalized in that graffiti, which is asked about on an almost daily basis at Amherst Coffee.

“And I thought, ‘why not play off that nostalgia of a bygone era?’” Gould told BusinessWest. “Another thing that will bring us together again after this pandemic is community and nostalgia, and going back a little bit. So while we’re going forward, let’s pay some homage to the past.”

While construction, fundraising, and naming efforts have been the most visible aspects of the project to date, the BID and DAF have also been putting together an operations plan, said Gould, noting that Laudable Productions, which already works with several area venues, has been hired to book performers for the Drake, which will be operated as a nonprofit, with all proceeds going to future performances.

A soft opening is set for April 26, featuring the Northampton Jazz Workshop, also known as the Green Street Trio, she noted, adding that the lineup for the spring and summer will be announced in early April.

“The idea is to program events for five or six nights a week,” said Roberts, adding that such a hefty slate of shows will have a profound impact on the downtown and the many types of businesses to be found there.

Indeed, while the Drake is about live performances and music, it is really about economic development, said both Roberts and Gould, noting that, while those phrases ‘game changer’ and ‘driving force’ are often used in business and development circles, they both apply here. Indeed, they believe this project will succeed in not only keeping people in Amherst or bringing more people to it, but propel the town forward as various constituencies work to bring a new parking facility to the downtown area.

“If you want retail to thrive, if you want restaurants to thrive, you can’t just be a shopping center — that’s what malls are for; they have free parking there, it’s great. We want to create something in Amherst that positions us as a destination for 300 miles and further from us.”

While Amherst still boasts a number of fine restaurants and a variety of retail, Gould said, it needs more — specifically in the form of arts and entertainment — to be a true destination on par with its neighbor across the Coolidge Bridge.

“If you want retail to thrive, if you want restaurants to thrive, you can’t just be a shopping center — that’s what malls are for; they have free parking there, it’s great,” she explained. “We want to create something in Amherst that positions us as a destination for 300 miles and further from us.

“We will bring performers into this really intimate, beautiful, small space that you will never get to see in a venue like this, and for the ticket price we’ll be able to offer,” she went on. “People will hopefully be coming from New York, Boston, Pennsylvania, and all over.”

Getting the Message

Getting back to that graffiti on the side of the Amherst Cinema building — which will be recreated in neon on one wall in the new Drake — Roberts doesn’t know when it was spray-painted there or by whom.

But he does know that he always wanted to save the message and maintain it for future generations even as he redeveloped the site for new uses. It is a link to the past, he said, and one that has also become an inspiration for those securing a vibrant future for this area.

The Drake, as tens of thousands of students and area residents remember it, isn’t being saved, technically speaking. But the spirit of that landmark, that institution, will live on in an important way.

Not as a name over a door, but as a powerful force in moving Amherst forward and making it a destination and source of memories.

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

Cover Story

The Great Return

Chris Viale, president and CEO of Cambridge Credit Counseling

Chris Viale, president and CEO of Cambridge Credit Counseling

Over the past year or so, most companies have set — and then pushed back — the date when workers would return to the offices they left when COVID-19 arrived in March 2020. Now, such a return seems more real. But what’s also real is a commitment to flexibility among area employers, who recognize not only that employees can work effectively from home, but that hybrid, or fully remote, work schedules are becoming ever-more critical when it comes to attracting and retaining a workforce.

There was the Great Depression. And 75 years later, there was the Great Recession. We’re still struggling with what’s being called the Great Resignation, and now … we have what some are referring to as the Great Return.

This would be the return to the office of all those workers — tens of millions of them — who went home to work right around this time two years ago. Some have already returned, but many haven’t. There have been several scheduled returns over the past two years — indeed, most major corporations have moved back their return dates several times due to surges and new variants — but this time, by most all accounts, it seems real. Very real.

And it also seems complicated, or at least far different than most would have thought a return would look like two years ago.

That’s because the world of work has changed in a profound way, with the matter put in its proper perspective by Kristin Morales-Lemieux, senior vice president and chief Human Resources officer at Baystate Health.

“When we first sent everyone home, no one wanted to be there,” she said, adding that roughly 4,000 of the system’s employees were told to work remotely, if they could. “And for the first six months, we spent all of our time trying to hold back the tide of employees and managers who wanted to come back into the building, and, quite frankly, walking around and finding people who should not be there and shooing them back home again.

“As our employees come back together, our goal is to combine the flexibility and convenience we’ve had working remotely with the energy, connection, and collaboration that comes from being together in person.”

“But somewhere around that six-month mark …. there was a shift, and people starting saying, ‘I don’t want to go back,’ or ‘I certainly don’t want to go back full-time,’” she went on. “And in a few areas where we started to transition departments back, we started to notice that, not in large numbers, but here and there, we began losing people who were taking jobs with other organizations that allowed them to work remotely full-time.”

Kristin Morales-Lemieux

When they first went home, Kristin Morales-Lemieux says, employees were clamoring to come back to the office; six months later, most no longer wanted to.

This phenomenon explains why ‘flexibility’ is the watchword as the Great Return commences, and why the hybrid schedule — whereby people work in the office at least a few days of the week and remotely for the remainder — is becoming the norm among employers, and, increasingly, expected when it comes to employees.

At Monson Savings Bank, employees now have a number of options when it comes to working schedules, including a hybrid model that has them in the office at least two days a week, and a four-day work week. MSB President Dan Moriarty said such flexibility, at a time when most have proven they can work effectively from home, is a practical response to the changing work climate.

“We wanted to create some culture for retention for existing employees,” he said, echoing the thoughts of many we spoke with. “And as we compete against other companies in this region, but also well outside, that offer flexibility and remote working, we thought it was a good balance — for the organization and the employee.”

Meanwhile, MassMutual has put in place what it calls a “flexible workplace approach” that is comprised of three work arrangements — full-time in the office, full-time remote, and a hybrid of the two, with the majority of the financial-services giant’s employees working a hybrid arrangement.

“Flexibility is at the heart of our approach,” said Sue Cicco, head of Human Resources and Employee Experience for the company. “As our employees come back together, our goal is to combine the flexibility and convenience we’ve had working remotely with the energy, connection, and collaboration that comes from being together in person.”

Elaborating, she said the flexible-workplace approach has been in place since last summer with employees “testing” it over the past several months. They are now being asked to be at “a more regular cadence” by the beginning of April.

At Cambridge Credit Counseling, Chris Viale, president and CEO of the company, plans to bring employees back to work a hybrid schedule starting later this month. But the longer-term plan is to bring most employees back five days a week, he told BusinessWest, adding that he’s expecting some pushback, will listen to those giving it, and may ultimately change his mind.

“If people thought the labor market was tight going into COVID, we haven’t seen anything yet.”

But for now, that’s the plan, and for reasons that would resonate with many employers across the region.

“We’ve been grappling with this for quite some time,” Viale explained. “Right before the pandemic, we secured a much larger office space with a state-of-the-art call-center environment, and we committed to a seven-year lease, so we have that financial expense baked in to trying to do what’s right for everyone, trying to make sure the company is functioning as we need it to, trying to make sure we’re serving the consumers we’re serving, and meeting the needs of our staff. We’re trying to balance all that — somehow.”

Overall, there are many forces driving the flexibility being exhibited at most workplaces, but perhaps the most significant is common sense when it comes to the matter of attracting and retaining talent, especially at a time when businesses in virtually sector are struggling to do so.

Dan Moriarty says Monson Savings Bank is focusing on flexibility

Dan Moriarty says Monson Savings Bank is focusing on flexibility with its return-to-the-workplace strategies, including hybrid schedules and the option of a four-day work week.

Morales-Lemieux noted that Baystate Health, which regularly employs roughly 13,000 employees, currently has about 1,900 vacancies, three times what might be considered normal and a powerful motivating force when it comes to establishing return-to-the-workplace strategies.

“If people thought the labor market was tight going into COVID,” she said, “we haven’t seen anything yet.”

 

Work in Progress

It’s called ‘Corporate Tuesday.’

That’s the name Monson Savings Bank has attached to the second day of the work week, a day when most, if not all, employees will be in the office, said Moriarty, adding that this is the day, considered better than Monday, or any other day, for that matter, when people would schedule in-person meetings, department meetings, and collaborations.

“The parking lot is pretty full,” he explained, adding that Corporate Tuesday has been in effect since Jan. 1, and has thus far been greeted with a generally positive response.

Beyond Corporate Tuesday and some similar initiatives, there is now unprecedented amounts of flexibility when it comes to work and work schedules, at companies both large and small, a new landscape that has been years (and not just the past two years) in the making.

Indeed, Morales-Lemieux echoed others when she said there was some movement in this direction before the pandemic, especially as the unemployment rate dropped and it became steadily more challenging to attract and retain talent.

Sarah Morgan

Sarah Morgan says employees at Health New England have shown they can be effective working remotely.

“Even pre-COVID, we were really starting to feel the pressure to move into a variety of more flexible work arrangements, even as it relates to our frontline workers,” she told BusinessWest. “As the unemployment rate had dropped over the past decade, coupled with our own unique challenges in Western Massachusetts, such as our aging population and the number of healthcare-related — and non-healthcare-related — companies that we compete with for workers, we had, in the year prior to the pandemic, been talking in earnest about how we needed to change in order to make sure that we could keep a workforce.”

Elaborating, she said this talk involved, among other things, remote-work scenarios not only for attractive job candidates from other states who do not wish to relocate to Massachusetts, but also candidates and existing employees already in the 413.

Suffice it to say the pandemic has served to open more eyes to this need to change and add several layers of urgency to the matter, despite the delayed nature of the return to work.

But change comes hard to many companies, said Meredith Wise, president and CEO of the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast, noting that, in this case, most employers she’s talked with have seen the wisdom of embracing flexibility and not trying to put in place a one-size — or one-schedule, to be more precise — fits-all policy or strategy.

Indeed, even most old-school managers who would certainly prefer to have everyone back in the office eight hours a day, five days a week, are recognizing the need to embrace the changing landscape and not fight it — for a number of very practical reasons, especially those workforce issues, she said.

“We’re advising people to be flexible and talk with employees about what’s going to work for them. And one of the big reasons why is the retention problem that most employers are facing right now.”

“We’re advising people to be flexible and talk with employees about what’s going to work for them,” she explained. “And one of the big reasons why is the retention problem that most employers are facing right now; there are enough employers that are offering hybrid arrangements that you could easily lose people if you put your foot down and say, ‘I need you here five days a week.’ Those workers can easily find someone who will be flexible and more accommodating.”

 

Balance Sheet

Those we spoke with said there have been a number of fits and starts when it comes to returning employees to the workplace. Most were ready to start the process last spring or last fall, but Delta and then Omicron ultimately pushed back those timetables.

Now, most are looking at later this month or early next month as a return date, although it appears the vast majority of workers will still be working remotely at least a few days a week.

At Health New England, Sarah Morgan, director of Human Resources and Organizational Development, said all but a handful of the company’s 385 employees are currently working remotely, and there is no set date for a return. As for a plan, it involves being flexible, giving employees an opportunity to “volunteer” to return if they should desire to do so and if the conditions with regard to the pandemic warrant such a return.

For many reasons, she said, returning everyone to the office full-time — essentially turning back the clock to early March 2020 — is not practical. For starters, even with COVID subsiding in many respects, the company is no rush for a return to pre-pandemic density levels in its office space in Monarch Place. But over the past two years, employees have shown they can effectively work remotely, she went on, which more than justifies flexible or hybrid work schedules.

“Our associates have proven that they’re capable of working remotely for quite some time; they’re meeting the standards and expectations and doing very, very well,” she told BusinessWest. “They’re meeting all the needs of our members, and so we’ve said that people like to work at home, we understand that, and we’re going to enable a certain amount of flexibility within teams and a hybrid approach.”

Like others, she said such flexibility is becoming ever-more critical when it comes to attracting and retaining employees, but also widening the pool of talent to include those from other regions of the country.

“We recognize that flexibility around remote work and hybrid work schedules is a way to honor the needs of people,” she said, using that word ‘needs’ in reference to everything from family matters to physical disabilities. “We’re seeing more people ask for that flexibility when they apply.”

And at the Harold Grinspoon Foundation, which employs roughly 150 people, 100 at the Agawam Corporate Center, there will be similar amounts of flexibility, said Jennifer Murphy, director of Human Resources, adding that the employees now working remotely, and that’s most of them, are slated to return in a hybrid format on April 4.

“Part of our new flexible-work policy involves a hybrid work model; when we return, people will be required to work 60% of the time in the office,” Murphy said, adding that this plan of action has been generally well-received by employees. Overall, it represents acknowledgement of both the emergence of remote work as being popular and effective and the importance of face-to-face interaction when it comes to office culture.

“What COVID has taught us is that, given the nature of our work, we can operate our business successfully remotely,” she explained. “But we also feel it’s important for our culture that we work together and collaborate together; there’s real value in those face-to-face interactions. Overall, we’re trying to balance the value and importance of in-person work and collaboration with employees’ desire to also have that flexibility to work remotely.”

Jennifer Murphy

Jennifer Murphy says the 100 employees working at the offices of the Harold Grinspoon Foundation will be returning on April 4 and working hybrid schedules.

At Cambridge Credit Counseling, Viale said his plan to bring employees back to a hybrid schedule was greeted with a generally positive response. Overall, he’s not expecting the same when it comes to his plans to bring all or most employees (there will be exceptions for health considerations and other factors) back full-time.

Elaborating, and echoing Morales-Lemieux’s comments, he said that, as the months went by, employees became increasingly comfortable with working remotely, and increasingly uncomfortable with the thought of returning to the office.

But after weighing all the factors, including that seven-year lease on a significantly larger footprint and other considerations, he decided that bringing everyone back is the best course. But, as noted earlier, he will listen, and he may be open to changing his plans.

And what may be a deciding factor in his ultimate decision is his ability to maintain his workforce.

“What’s really challenging is just finding people to work,” he said. “I just heard an ad coming in to work this morning that Target is hiring people for $24 an hour; our starting wage is between $16 and $18 an hour.”

At Ware-based Country Bank, most all employees have been back to the office since last fall, said Miriam Siegel, first senior vice president and chief culture officer for the institution, adding that she believes that the bank is among the first, if not the first, business of its kind to put a flexible work policy in place.

The employees who have returned are working three days in the office and two remotely, she said, adding that the new policy, or strategy, is not the result of COVID, necessarily, but rather recognition that times and needs are changing, and flexible schedules are the logical, responsible response to the current landscape.

“One of the big things we’ve learned at the bank is that we have to recognize that we don’t live in a one-size-fits-all working world anymore,” she said. “That has become our mantra in many ways.”

Elaborating, she said the pandemic helped drive home the need to communicate with employees, have them articulate their challenges and needs, and then work with them to the extent possible to accommodate those needs.

“What COVID has taught us is that, given the nature of our work, we can operate our business successfully remotely. But we also feel it’s important for our culture that we work together and collaborate together; there’s real value in those face-to-face interactions.”

This is the right thing to do, Siegel said, but it’s also what many companies are willing to do, which is critical during what could only be called an ongoing workforce crisis.

“When you couple this remote-work situation with the Great Resignation, shifting priorities, and our challenge to retain people … we need to be listening to our employees and accommodate them when we can,” she said. “Because they’ll very quickly go somewhere else right now.”

At Baystate, as Morales-Lemieux noted, efforts to bring back — to the extent they are coming back — those 4,000 employees who left for home two years ago have been underway for some time.

There is now an organization-wide communication plan and strategy that will be launched in early April, she said, adding that there are still 3,000 people working “completely or largely” remotely.

 

Bottom Line

At all the workplaces we talked with, the new policies and strategies are in place for what would be called the time being.

Indeed, each company said it reserved to right to re-evaluate and change what is in place, depending on how things work out.

“The program we put in place — we keep the option open to revise or revoke if we don’t see good results,” Moriarty said. “But so far, so good.”

Murphy concurred. “When we initiated this policy and rolled it out, we said we would try it for one year and see how it works, and that we reserve the right to revisit it,” she said, adding that, while there is general confidence that this strategy will succeed given what’s happened over the past two years, it is still, on some levels, an experiment.

But overall, she’s not expecting many changes to the new policies — or to the current landscape in the workplace, for that matter.

“Maybe I’m wrong, but I don’t see the trend turning back to fully in-person work for most people, especially those who work at a computer all day,” she said. “We’ve shown that that the remote model works; I think it’s here to stay.”

Morgan agreed. “We’re trending in that direction; HR professionals are talking about the trends, and the ‘new normal,’ and what will be the future of work,” she explained. “For so many reasons, we’re engaging in work in a different way; we’re fitting it into our lives in a different way than we could if we had a 30-minute commute to the office — and we’re finding that we can be even more productive.”

Those sentiments are among the many that make it clear that work has changed over the past two years — and probably changed forever.

And this will make the much-anticipated Great Return something to watch.

 

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

Cover Story

The Return of a Tradition

Marc Joyce

Marc Joyce, chairman of the 69th Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day Parade

It’s been nearly 1,100 days since Holyoke has staged its St. Patrick’s Day Parade and accompanying road race. That’s way too long for the businesses that depend on those institutions for a large percentage of their annual revenue. And it’s way too long for a community that always gains a huge dose of civic pride when mid-March rolls around. The traditions are back for 2022, and for the city and the region, there is much to celebrate.

 

 

The cover to the program book for the 69th Holyoke St. Patrick’s Day Parade was designed by an artist from Ireland.

Blended with the headline ‘The Season of Green,’ is a collection of the words that identify dozens of shades of green — from pistachio to lime; jade to shamrock — arranged in the shape of the Emerald Isle, and in those various colors.

It’s striking — and, yes, very green. But perhaps the most poignant thing about this publication is the date printed in smaller type to the side: March 22nd, 2020.

Indeed, this program book was published just over two years ago, and except for some minor updates in a supplement that will be inserted into the book, it remains profoundly unchanged. That goes from the date on the cover to all the advertisements inside to the ‘welcome’ from parade President Marc Joyce. In it, he thanks sponsors, the business community, and all those who helped make the parade possible. But there is no mention of the pandemic that kept this tradition from happening for two years.

“Civic engagement and pride in a community, any community, is critical. Any opportunity we can get to keep people excited about feeling good about the city they live in continues to help build on quality of life. That’s why it’s so important to have the parade back.”

Joyce told BusinessWest that the decision was made not to print another book, just that supplement, and to essentially pick up where the world, and Holyoke, left off when the COVID-19 pandemic prompted a shutdown of the state just a week or so before the 69th parade was to step off.

“We like to say that it’s the 2020 parade in 2022,” said Joyce, noting that, in most all respects, the date of the 69th parade has simply been moved up two years. Everything, or almost everything, is as it was then; he is still parade president (his has been a long, grueling three-year stint; normally, it’s one year); John (Jay) Driscoll, a prominent lawyer in Holyoke, is still the grand marshal, and Dave Glidden, president and CEO of Liberty Bank, is still recipient of the prestigious John F. Kennedy Award.

It is as if time has stood still in some ways. Only it hasn’t, obviously.

The program guide for the 69th annual parade

The program guide for the 69th annual parade, or what the event chairman calls “the 2020 parade in 2022.”

Holyoke has been without its greatest tradition for nearly 36 months now, and as it returns, many reflected on all that has been lost — and what has been regained as more than a month of parade-related events and gatherings have returned.

While those in the business community spoke of lost revenue — in some cases more than a third and perhaps even half of what they would generate in an entire year — and lost opportunities to introduce themselves to thousands of patrons (more on that later), all those we spoke with mentioned other, even more important losses, including a sense of identify and feelings of pride in the community.

As for what is being regained … the word that came up over and over and over again is ‘normalcy.’

“There’s a lot of pride in our community when it comes to parade weekend activity, when it comes to the parade and the road race, not just in this community, but across the region,” said Holyoke Mayor Joshua Garcia. “With quaranteening and all the other things we’ve had to deal with, this will bring back some kind of sense of normalcy.

“And that’s important, because civic engagement and pride in a community, any community, is critical,” he went on. “Any opportunity we can get to keep people excited about feeling good about the city they live in continues to help build on quality of life. That’s why it’s so important to have the parade back.”

Peter Rosskothen, owner of several hospitality-related businesses in Holyoke, including the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House, the Delaney House restaurant, and others, agreed.

“It’s very good for business,” he said of the parade, the road race and the month of events and activities leading up to it. “But it’s also good for the morale of Holyoke; it’s bigger than business, it’s civic pride, it’s the community coming together. Holyoke is a city with some problems, but you kind of forget about that with the parade.”

Joyce concurred, noting that the losses are not restricted to dollars and cents.

“It’s in the mindset and emotions of people who have grown up with this,” he explained. “I’m 71 years old, and I’ve been on the committee for 45 years. And I remember the first parade I went to; my father was marching with the Post Office, and my mother and I would walk about a mile and a half downtown to watch the parade. When I was away at college, I missed a few parades, but other than that, I haven’t missed any.

“It’s a homecoming,” he went on. “People come back to the city, and you see people you haven’t seen since perhaps last year; it’s a wonderful family-oriented event.”

For this issue, BusinessWest puts the lost years of 2020 and 2021 into perspective, and looks ahead to what all are expecting to be a memorable month as Holyoke welcomes back a tradition.

 

Mummers the Word

As he reflected back on March 2020 and the parade that wasn’t, Joyce said he remembers many things from that turbulent, mostly forgettable month, including the weather, which, to all those involved with this tradition, is often a big part of the story.

Mid-March in New England can bring with it all kinds of weather, and the parade has seen just about everything over its long history — snow, cold, rain, sleet, wind, and, occasionally, some sun and spring-like conditions.

In a somewhat cruel bit of irony, there were two such warm, sunny days — for the parade and the accompanying road race — in 2020, said Joyce, adding that it was the same in 2021, a meteorological turn of events that would only add insult to the injury of having to call off the parade two years in a row, he noted.

Turning his attention to 2022, Joyce joked that there is now considerable pressure on Driscoll.

Damien Rivera

Damien Rivera says that, for bars and restaurants in downtown Holyoke, the parade and road race are like the Super Bowl.

“We always kid that the grand marshal is in charge of the weather, one way or the other,” he explained. “I kid with him and say, ‘Jay, you’re two for two; can you pull it off a third time?’ I’m hoping, for all of our sakes, that he can.”

Keeping one’s sense of humor hasn’t been easy for the past two years, but Joyce and others involved with the parade have had little choice. The alternative is too depressing.

Recapping the past two years, Joyce recalled that “all systems were go” for the 2020 parade even as the virus first detected in China made its way to this country.

“We know it was out there, but no one knew how serious it was going to be,” he said. “The parade that was going to be in 2020 was canceled about 10 days before the event. That was really tough; people were saying ‘Oh, you’re babies, don’t cancel it.’ The fact of the matter is, we didn’t cancel it. Alex Morse, who was mayor at the time, called me into his office; we met with the Board of Health, and the DPW, and the police and fire, and they explained clearly the science of this thing and the interconnectedness of everything. The Fire Department was concerned that if they lost half their force to COVID, they wouldn’t be able to protect the city of Holyoke appropriately, and it was the same with the police.

“This is an event when every bar can show off what they can do, and we missed out on that opportunity for two years.”

“That was a hard pill to swallow but we always figured that this would be over soon and we’d be back in 2021,” he went on. “But that didn’t happen, for obvious reasons; we actually approached the city right after the first of the year in 2021 — the directors met, we discussed it long and hard, and we just figured that the same reasons we canceled in 2020 still existed in 2021, and it just made no sense to go forward. We approached the city and said ‘this is just not going to work, and we’ll be back in 2022.’”

Joyce remembers sitting on his front porch on parade day 2021, soaking in the gorgeous weather, drinking a Guinness, and watching a few friends drive down the street honking their horns. “That was the extent of the parade.”

Over the course of the past two years, the parade committee has never really stopped preparing for the 69th parade, he went on, adding that some things have gone on as they normally would, like the annual past president’s raffle and a memorial mass for deceased members of the committee.

Meanwhile, there has been planning — much of it via Zoom — for events this year, such as a gala staged late last month at the Log Cabin, the annual Awards Night, and many others.

Nicole Ortiz, who opened Crave on High Street

Nicole Ortiz, who opened Crave on High Street just over a year ago, is looking forward to her first parade week of activities.

As for the parade itself, it will be roughly the size of previous parades, with 15,000 marchers expected, close to 30 musical units, and 19-20 floats. What Joyce and everyone else expects to be larger this year — as in much larger, is the level of anticipation for both the parade and the race.

“It’s really hard to describe,” said Joyce. “Anywhere I’ve gone over the past few years and especially the past six to eight months, people have walked up and said, ‘Marc, are we having a parade?’ ‘Are we having a parade next year?’ People are excited to have the parade back.”

That’s especially true within the business community and its hospitality sector, which has suffered mightily over the past 24 months, as we’ll see.

 

Glass Half Empty

‘Crazy.’

Wasting no time at all, that’s the word Damien Rivera used to describe road race day at the Unicorn Inn on High Street.

“Really crazy,” he went on, gesturing with his hand around the two rooms that comprise this cozy neighborhood bar, adding that, by late morning on race day both rooms would be crammed with standing patrons — standing because the establishment can fit more people in if there are no tables and chairs on the floor.

Elaborating on ‘crazy,’ Rivera, a long-time employee who once lived above the bar with his father, Bobby Rivera, the establishment’s bar manager, detailed all that goes into race day at the Unicorn, which is even bigger than parade day, because, as he noted, the race ends at that northern stretch of High Street, and that’s where people congregate; the parade, in contrast, is spread out over a larger area, and thus the crowd is more spread out as well.

Peter Rosskothen

Peter Rosskothen

“It’s bigger than business, it’s civic pride, it’s the community coming together.”

He said that extra help is hired, a separate beer station is set up so that bartenders are not slowed by those who simply want a bottle of suds. There’s a DJ, and a deeper menu of food options is created, all in hopes of attracting race fans, who have a number of options when it comes to where to quench their thirst and whet their appetite.

Summing it all up, Rivera said simply “this is our Super Bowl — that’s the best way I can describe it,” meaning it’s the biggest, most lucrative time of the year. How big? Without giving specific numbers, he estimated that St. Patrick’s week — yes, it’s a week to many of those who celebrate it, especially when the holiday falls mid-or even early week and the parade as always, is on a Sunday — generates more than a third and perhaps even half of an entire year’s revenues.

What was it like to be without that week two years a row? Rivera simply shook his head and said “awful.” And by that, he was referencing more than just lost revenue.

“It’s a celebration,” he said of road race day, but also the entire week and beyond. “Holyoke is historically Irish, so when that week happens … it’s timely, it’s cheery, it’s a bright celebration of Irish culture, and for the businesses, this is our most important time.”

He said that establishments like the Unicorn depend on parade-week festivities for more than just revenue. It’s also a great marketing tool, a way to make introductions with potential new patrons.

“It brings people from so many places,” he explained. “If they didn’t know this place was here, they learned that it’s here. So not having the race and the parade meant that new people weren’t learning about this place as much as if we had it; this is an event when every bar can show off what they can do, and we missed out on that opportunity for two years.”

Nicole Ortiz is certainly looking to make some introductions during this year’s parade. She’s the owner of Crave restaurant on High Street, just across the street from City Hall — and the reviewing stand for the parade. She opened the establishment, which specializes in “modern and unique Puerto Rican food,” just over a year ago and missed out on a parade that year. In fact, Ortiz, who started with a food truck in early 2020, hasn’t experienced a parade as a business owner — although she’s heard quite a bit about the tradition from other business owners. She’s looking forward to the opportunity.

“They told me there’s tons of people down here, and they make tons of money,” she explained. “They say there’s tens of thousands of people down here for the race as well as the parade; it sounds pretty crazy.”

Rivera is looking forward to 2022 being a breakout year, and he’s not alone in that assessment.

Indeed, the phrase pent-up demand has been used in almost every context imaginable over the past 24 months, from cars to dining out to vacationing. And when it comes to the parade and the road race, pent-up demand is real.

Mayor Garcia drew parallels between this year’s parade and last year’s Big E. Both marked the return of an institution that the region had to do without, he said, adding that the Big E saw record attendance one Saturday during its run last year, and he’s expecting something similar with the parade.

Rosskothen agreed. “I feel that the parade is going to be bigger and better than it’s been in years,” he said. “I think people are ready to get out and do stuff. We’re handling the road race, and I’m preparing for a record breaker.”

“I feel that the parade is going to be bigger and better than it’s been in years,” he said. “I think people are ready to get out and do stuff. We’re handling the road race, and I’m preparing for a record breaker.”

Rosskothen, like others we spoke with, noted repeatedly that the parade and road race are not one day, or two days, as the case may be, but a week’s worth of celebration and, actually, several weeks’ worth of events, activities, and Irish-related food, drink, and culture leading up to the climax of mid-March.

“It’s a whole month,” he said. “We start playing Irish music at our venues, people go out, and in my case we start selling corned-beef-and-cabbage dinner packages in the beginning of March at Delaney’s Market. It’s all tied into the parade; it puts your Irish mindset on for lack of a better phrase.”

 

Bottom Line

Joyce said that there are only about 500 of the program books left to distribute at the parade. Those already given out have become a kind of dubious collector’s item — a guide to a parade that didn’t happen, or wouldn’t happen for two years.

In a way, they have become a symbol, not of what was lost or of a time that stood still, but of the community’s resilience and of the immense importance of this tradition to the city and the entire region. No one ever really doubted that importance; it was too obvious for that to happen. But three years removed from the last parade, it is now even easier to see all that the parade and the race mean to Holyoke.

It’s not just the revenue for those bars, restaurants, hotels, and banquet halls, although that’s a very big part of it. It’s the sense of community, the feeling of pride, the people coming back to this city year after year. It’s history. It’s tradition. It’s Holyoke.

It’s something else, too. It’s normal, and everyone involved is excited that it has returned.

 

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

Class of 2022 Cover Story

For 14 years now, BusinessWest has been recognizing the work of individuals, groups, businesses, and institutions through its Difference Makers program, with one goal in mind: to show the many ways one can, in fact, make a difference within their community. Their stories are sure to enlighten and also inspire others to find their own ways to make a difference.

View BusinessWest Difference Makers Special Section HERE

The 2022 Difference Makers

Click on each NAME to read their story!

Tara Brewster

Vice President of Business Development, Greenfield Savings Bank


The Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts


Heriberto Flores

President, New England Farm Workers’ Council


John Greaney

Retired State Supreme Court Justice; Senior Counsel, Bulkley Richardson

Ruth Griggs

President, Northampton Jazz Festival; Principal, RC Communications


Ted Hebert

Founder and Owner, Teddy Bear Pools and Spas


I Found Light Against All Odds and Its Founder and CEO, Stefan Davis


Roca Holyoke and Springfield

Come party with us as we celebrate the 2022 Difference Makers

March 24, 2022, 5-8:30 pm at the Log Cabin in Holyoke

PURCHASE YOUR TICKETS HERE

Tickets cost $75 and can be ordered at businesswest.com. The sponsors for this year’s program are Burkhart Pizzanelli, the New England Farm Workers’ Council, the Royal Law Firm, TommyCar Auto Group, and Westfield Bank

Supporting Sponsors:

Cover Story

Ethics in Business

The two words ‘ethics’ and ‘business’ come together in the same sentence often, although what they mean when they are juxtaposed like that depends on whom you ask. A common refrain is that it means ‘doing the right thing.’ But even that becomes somewhat complicated amid questions concerning who we are doing the right thing for. And then, there’s the matter of profit, and the question of if, when, and under what circumstances it comes ahead of ethics. To get some answers, BusinessWest convened a panel of area business leaders for a virtual roundtable discussion. The comments, as might be expected, are thought-provoking, and lead to more questions. Our panelists include Peter DePergola, chief Ethics officer, senior director of Clinical Ethics, and chief of the Ethics Consultation Service, Baystate Health — and also Shaughness family chair for the study of the Humanities, associate professor of Bioethics and Medical Humanities, and executive director of the St. Augustine Center for Ethics, Religion, and Culture at Elms College; Sandra Doran, president of Bay Path University; Tom Loper, Associate Provost & Dean in the School of Arts, Science and Management, Bay Path University, and former business owner; Mark Cutting, president and CEO of C&D Electronics; Drew DiGiorgio, president and CEO, Wellfleet; and Patrick Leary, partner with MP CPAs.

Watch the video here:

 

BusinessWest: Let’s start with that phrase ‘ethics in business.’ What does that mean to you?

 

DePergola: “For me, ethics is the philosophical study of morality, and morality, at its heart, concerns how the actions we perform contribute to the persons we become. To me, ethics in business is the way we in which we express and articulate or moral character in business transactions — not just with consumers, but with one another on our teams. We’re a little slow in western culture to pay as much attention to ethics in business as we should; there’s the classic Freeman v. Freeman debate where we talk about the distinctions between profit and corporate social responsibility, and whether we should ever sacrifice things like profit in pursuit of greater common good. So I think the opportunity for business to pause and reflect on itself in a new way is somethings that’s evergreen. Ethics is something that’s been discussed and considered for a much longer time in things like medicine, starting with people like Hippocrates. Ethics in business is no less important than ethics at the bedside.”

Peter DePergola

“To me, ethics in business is the way we in which we express and articulate or moral character in business transactions — not just with consumers, but with one another on our teams.”

Doran: “I think any discussion of ethics also has to include a discussion of morals and values, because each one of those has its own place in how we think about things. Most people think of morals as a more personal aspect of their character and how they view things, the lens through which they look at the world. And when we think about ethics, it’s often framed more as an organization; what are the rules, what is the code that people are going to operate within as part of an organization? That’s a really important consideration for any business or organization: what is the lens, what is the framework? And how are we thinking about ethics in that context?”

 

Cutting: “I’m in the aerospace and defense industry; we service a majority of the prime contractors across the world. Ethics for me is … we are a small, minute part of the supply chain in that industry, and our hope is that, as a small business, we can be treated fairly and ethically. We understand our competition, and we understand that, because we’re small, we may be taken advantage of at some level. Those are the things we think about as we strategize and when we work with these big firms and negotiate contracts. We have to hope that the terms and conditions that apply to us apply to others. It’s a concern, and we hope that we’re on a level playing field. We just don’t know. We’re hoping that everyone who supports that industry is ethical at some level.”

Sandra Doran

Sandra Doran

“Most people think of morals as a more personal aspect of their character and how they view things, the lens through which they look at the world. And when we think about ethics, it’s often framed more as an organization; what are the rules, what is the code that people are going to operate within as part of an organization?”

DiGiorgio: “Our business, Wellfleet, provides health insurance, intangible goods; you can’t touch what we produce, so what we produce is a trust, a bond with our members, our clients. It’s all about ethics at the end of the day. Ethics, for us, means doing the right thing, quite simply put. We have contracts and agreements, and if anyone’s looked at a health-insurance policy, it’s 60 pages long; good luck with that. But there’s a lot of faith that you will act ethically about my claim. We’re part of Berkshire Hathaway, and when you’re trying to manage a conglomerate of companies like Warren [Buffett] does, you really just do it through ‘do the right thing.’ That’s the only way to manage at that level.”

 

Loper: “I like to break ethics down into ‘good’ and ‘bad.’ Are we doing something that’s good for folks that are stakeholders? Are we doing things that are not so good? Are we being open and honest? Are we being trustworthy and respectful? All those things are parts of a code of ethics that helps us to deliver on our promise and not come up short. Sometimes we all come up short, we all walk with a limp, as they say, but some people do things intentionally and break those bonds, the contract they’re supposed to have with their stakeholders, and when that’s done, that’s not good at all.”

 

Leary: In public accounting, our job is help other businesses succeed, so we’re privy to a lot of confidential information that is not out in the public realm, and we’ve very cognizant of that. As a public accountant, we’re required to participate in a periodic ethics training specifically on ethics issues, which is interesting because it gives you a chance to pause and look at various scenarios where ethics come into play — not that it doesn’t come into play every day.

“Looking back on my career, and when I’m talking to someone about personal tax planning, I have yet to find someone say, ‘hey, how can I pay the most in taxes?’ Usually, it’s ‘how do I reduce my taxes?’ You need to be careful that you’re playing within the rules, the regulations that are provided out there. There are people that would prefer to skirt those rules, but our job is to make sure that our clients are not doing that, as best we can. We are looking out for our clients, but it’s not just the business owner. It’s the stakeholders as well. Without employees, without customers, without suppliers, you don’t have business. So our business, Mark’s business, Bay Path … everyone here, you’re built on reputation, and it’s easy to lose your reputation and very hard to get it back.”

Tom Loper

“Sometimes we all come up short, we all walk with a limp, as they say, but some people do things intentionally and break those bonds, the contract they’re supposed to have with their stakeholders, and when that’s done, that’s not good at all.”

BusinessWest: We’ve heard the phrase ‘do the right thing’ a few times already. What exactly does that mean? Right for whom?

 

DiGiorgio: “You have to keep things simple from the standpoint of terminology, so people understand. You can talk to someone about ethics, and they may or may not understand how ethics works. But if you say ‘do the right thing,’ you can have a team that focuses on your customer, your member, your team. It’s about doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. It’s about treating people with respect, treating people the way you would want to be treated. There’s a lot of ways at looking at ‘do the right thing,’ but most of us understand that, at the end of the day, the ‘right thing’ is the right thing for the person you’re dealing with. Maybe that’s a member on a call with customer service, or maybe five minutes before your lunch break, and you know the call is going to take 10 minutes. Spend the 10 minutes; do the right thing.”

 

Doran: “At Bay Path, our focus is on the student, so we’re always talking about what’s best for the student. But the way we think about doing what’s best in terms of the customer, the student, is ‘how do we build a strong community?’ Because if we have a strong community that supports each other and is invested in everyone’s success, then people generally make the right decisions. If our students are not successful, we’re not successful; if our registrar isn’t successful, then our students are not successful. We’re really focused on this virtuous cycle of success.”

 

DePergola: “There are many different avenues to try to articulate the ‘right thing to do’ in a given scenario. One of the things we try to do is look at decisions to be made from a variety of different perspectives, understanding that our primary goal in that analysis is very likely, although not exclusively, to try to make the small decision 1,000 times to put someone else’s well-being ahead of our own, without sacrificing who we are as a person, what we stand for, at a base level. In the clinical world, we’re asking questions of whether what we’re doing is reasonable; we’re asking why we’re doing it, how we’re doing it — is it proportionate to the good we’re trying to accomplish? When are we doing it — is it the right time? Where are we doing it — is it the right place? We ask questions about ‘what if?’ — we project the foreseeable consequences of the decision, not just at the end of the day, but where does this leave our patient or our stakeholder or our shareholder six months from now?

“And then, there’s ‘what else?’ This is my favorite question of moral analysis because it’s the question of moral imagination. It helps us understand that, when we make a bad decision in business ethics, it’s not because we’re morally bankrupt in some way, but because we’ve been to unimaginative; we’ve focused on an ‘A’ or a ‘B’ option, and we failed to brainstorm for a ‘C’ or ‘D.’ So there are a variety of ways to get at what’s the right thing to do.”

Mark Cutting

Mark Cutting

“If I ship a bad product to a big customer like Boeing, and there’s failure, I’m destroyed in my business and in my industry. It’s a top-down, flow-down thing to make sure everyone’s on the same page concerning the ethics that you believe in.”

BusinessWest: Smith & Wesson recently announced that it will relocate its corporate headquarters from Springfield to Tennessee, a move that will presumably help the company but hurt families in this area and the region as whole. What does this case tell us about ethics and how it is often difficult deciding what it is the right thing to do?

 

Loper: “Smith & Wesson may have shut doors if it can’t move or cut 500 employees, and the people in Tennessee think it’s a great thing. In Springfield, to someone who just lost their job, it’s a bad thing. What is the right thing? It depends son your perspective.”

 

DePergola: “This is certainly my reality in the world of clinical ethics — that the good thing to do is very often, if not exclusively, the least bad thing to do. And I mean that in a very literal sense. It’s not a clear or easy decision between choosing something clearly good or something clearly bad; you don’t need an ethical analysis for that. It’s often choosing something that will have indirect and unintended consequences that are negative and that are unavoidable in pursuit of something good, like maintaining the structure of the company — somewhere. So, really, finding the good is very often a matter of trying to identify the least bad thing to do, knowing that a perfect solution is not possible.”

Patrick Leary

“You’re built on reputation, and it’s easy to lose your reputation and very hard to get it back.”

Cutting: “For the management staff at Smith & Wesson, it was a tough decision to make; you’re going to have to let some folks go, but you’re going to be able to maintain your stock value to your shareholders, which, under those conditions as a publicly traded company, is part of your mission statement. You’re there to provide the best and most absolute path to success for that company. It’s a slippery slope when we make decisions like that, and I think, unfortunately, maybe we need to look in the mirror in this state and say, ‘was that the right thing for us to? Maybe we should claw that back, re-embrace them, and change the law.’”

 

BusinessWest: Just how does leadership set the tone when it comes to business ethics?

 

Doran: “You have to show, not tell. Everything a leader does is under scrutiny — they’re being watched with a magnifying glass. But it’s equally important to have a written statement. We all have values, personal values, but it’s very important to have an organizational framework … it’s really important that everyone understands where an organization stands when it comes to things like integrity, inclusivity, and dealing honestly with everyone — in our case, students, faculty, staff, everyone in the ecosystem.

“Everyone in our university, whether you’re a trustee or alum, has a social compact to abide by a common value set and code of ethics, and that was really tested through COVID. Everyone had to support this code of conduct; it was testing, it was mask wearing, it was … maybe you have a relative in Rome and you want to visit them, but you can’t do that, because it’s not good for our community. So the code centered not on what’s good for you, but on what’s good for our community at large, and that was a really good example, I think, of this code of conduct and how leaders set the tone.”

 

Cutting: “When it comes to people being ethical or a company being ethical, it has to be top down. It starts at the top, and it has to flow down to everyone in the company. You talk about the reputation in the industry … it doesn’t take long to lose it. If I ship a bad product to a big customer like Boeing, and there’s failure, I’m destroyed in my business and in my industry. It’s a top-down, flow-down thing to make sure everyone’s on the same page concerning the ethics that you believe in.”

Drew DiGiorgio

“It’s about doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. It’s about treating people with respect, treating people the way you would want to be treated.”

Loper: “The recent decision by Smith & Wesson is a great example of how challenging it can be to make decisions in the business world, and by what yardstick. You have to be able to look at yourself in the mirror every day, and there are personal convictions that you have to relate to.

“One of the things I’ve found to be helpful — I’m not sure it’s a solution, but it certainly made it easier for me to look at things when I was in business — is to pull up from the situation that I found myself in as president and think about the different stakeholders and what they were expecting of the organization that I started up or developed, and what responsibilities I had to those stakeholders. That was true whether it was to the city that helped me to get the power that I needed delivered to a place where they had never delivered that much power before, or whether it was the people supplying the material from India, or whether it was putting an ad in the paper to attract people with certain skills to work on a certain piece of equipment — and then seeing people standing in line, waiting for an opportunity to work on that machine, knowing that it hurt other people because I was taking their best.

“I was constantly dealing with matters that bordered on ethical issues, and one of the things that helped me was this concept of conscious capitalism and the idea of thinking more broadly than my own business and trying to take a long view of what value creation is all about, and for whom. And there were constant tradeoffs, and I was always trying to look at bigger issues and make the best decision I could with the information that we had.”

 

DiGiorgio: “We have several keys at our business — security, empathy, honoring commitments, and then, fiscal responsibility. And they all flow together. And if we do those things, that’s going to produce the right results. But you have to establish those keys and set that culture. That’s where it begins.”

 

BusinessWest: Finally, profits and ethics. How do we balance these two important pillars of business?

 

Loper: “You have to take the long view; you can’t just take the short view, as with those quarterly profits. And that quarterly review process that larger corporations, the Fortune 500 companies, have to go through, makes it very difficult to make the right long-term decision. It’s very hard sometimes to make the right decision.

“When you talk about profits, I think you have to understand that there are short-term profits and long-term profits, and it’s not all measured in dollars and cents. Sometimes it’s measured in terms of forests being destroyed that could affect the climate or natural resources being exploited that are not replaceable. This whole concept of conscious capitalism that encourages us to think bigger is not just a theory; there’s a whole collection of major corporations that are part of that whole movement of shared value and conscious capitalism that are doing better on Wall Street than companies that don’t, that historically have focused on a much narrower definition of ‘corporate profit.’ And I think that this is showing the rest of the world that you can do that, and the more global we’ve become, the more influence we’re going to have on that notion of what ‘profit’ really is. We need to have broader measures of success as companies than just profits.”

 

Leary: “I agree. Short-term profits are not indicative of the long-term value of a company. With most companies on Wall Street, you’re looking at quick profits, and some of the biggest frauds that have committed at public companies were for short-term profit for people — and those companies are no longer around.

“When you look at the overall value of what you’ve created as a business owner, it’s not just dollars, or profits — it’s how many families have you helped feed, or how many kids have you sent to college, or what you’ve done for the community — that should all be part of the profit equation. You can do both — you can have profits, and you can have a successful company and an ethical company. You can balance those two; ethics and profits don’t have to be mutually exclusive. In fact, they should be working hand in hand. Ethical companies have a longer-term prospect than those looking at short-term gain, and we’ve seen that through history with companies that have failed. Why did they fail? It’s typically because of some short-term decision that someone made.”

 

Doran: “At Bay Path, our board is very focused on ESG [environmental, social, and governance] investing, and making sure that a company’s values align with our values, and of course we’re also very focused on making sure our portfolio performs, because it’s in the interest off our endowment that funds a large part of our scholarship program. And we’ve been doing some very technical comparisons [between] companies that are more ESG-focused and others that may not have it as a stated part of their practice … and the returns are very similar. That shows that profits and ethics do go hand in hand at many places. It should not be an anomaly, it should not be the exception, and I do not believe that it is.”

 

DePergola: “The real litmus test would be … if the profit started to significantly slow down, would we still do the right thing? I think that confronts us with who we are. And if we’re not sure if we would do the right thing if the profit slows down, then we should take a look at that. Overall, Patrick and Sandra are right: profits and ethics are not mutually exclusive. Doing the right thing consistently over time, getting buy-in, and anchoring things to the mission — what we’re going to stand for no matter what — that’s what people want to be part of. And I think profit follows from that decision to do the right thing.” u

Cover Story Top Entrepreneur

Towering Achievements

Dinesh Patel and Vid Mitta Are Reimagining a Springfield Landmark

In 1996, BusinessWest introduced a new recognition program, one that pays homage to the entrepreneurial spirit that has long defined this region. Since then, the Top Entrepreneur honor has gone to small-business owners, college and hospital presidents, and even Holyoke’s municipal utility. This year’s recipients are Dinesh Patel and Vid Mitta, true serial entrepreneurs who rolled the dice and purchased Tower Square, the iconic but troubled Springfield landmark, in 2018. Their efforts to change the landscape and reimagine the property have been slowed by COVID, and there are many chapters in this story still left to write. But there are signs of progress, and the partners’ patience, persistence, and entrepreneurial mettle are big reasons why.

Demetrios Panteleakis recalls his company being one of many commercial real-estate brokerage firms that were interviewed to represent the new ownership group at Tower Square as leasing agent.

He also recalls being rather surprised when the Macmillan Group won the contract. That’s because … well, he was rather candid in his assessment of what needed to be done with the downtown Springfield landmark.

Probably too candid, in his mind.

“I think I was pretty brutal when it comes to what needed to change and what types of investments needed to be made in the building,” he said, looking back more than three years. “I sent it to them kind of thinking, ‘they’re going to look at this and probably say, ‘forget this guy — there’s no way we’re doing all this.’

“But to my surprise, and to my surprise ever since, it’s been the complete opposite,” he went on. “They wanted to meet with me again, and they wanted me to go into detail on a marketing plan, they wanted me to go into detail on the improvements … the concept of doing away with traditional retail and doing more of a community-based approach for the tenants of the building and focusing on just the constant improvement of the building.”

Panteleakis said that this response to his “brutal assessment,” and the actions taken since, go a long way toward explaining why partners Vid Mitta and Dinesh Patel have been named BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneurs for 2022, the latest winners of an award first handed out in 1996.

Actually, this is the second time they’ve won the award — sort of. Indeed, they were, and still are, part of the ownership and management team of the Springfield Thunderbirds that took home the Top Entrepreneur award for 2017 for their efforts to not only bring hockey back to the city but make it a force in efforts to reinvigorate the downtown.

The two were already serial entrepreneurs at the time MassMutual was looking to sell the Tower Square complex in 2017, owning everything from hotels to fast-food restaurants; from an information-technology-solutions company to early-education facilities. But this was their first real joint venture and certainly their first class-A office tower, and Panteleakis said they entered this exercise with what he called a “thirst for learning.”

Demetrios Panteleakis stands in the space in Tower Square now occupied by Country Bank

Demetrios Panteleakis stands in the space in Tower Square now occupied by Country Bank, one of many new tenants to arrive since Vid Mitta and Dinesh Patel acquired the downtown Springfield landmark.

“And that’s unusual,” he went on. “Most people who own buildings always think they know more than the broker; it’s rare for them to listen. I was shocked when they started instituting the plan, and they really stuck to it.”

While listening has been a major ingredient in their success at Tower Square — and in business in general — there are many others, the partners told BusinessWest, including patience, especially amid COVID-19, which has certainly slowed the pace of progress. But also watching and learning what has worked elsewhere (we’ll see some examples of that) and applying it to their venture.

Persistence and adherence to the plan are also keys, they said.

“We just keep moving and keep achieving one target at a time,” said Mitta in describing the overall strategy for the property. “Right now, we’re at 70% occupancy, compared to roughly 40% when we took over the building. So we still have another 30% to go, so we’re not there yet, and we work on a day-to-day basis based on the leads that we get. We’ve come this far, and we hope to go all the way to the finish line, to 100%.”

Patel concurred, noting that, while nothing has really been easy with this venture — undertaken mostly during the two years of COVID and made much expensive and complicated because of it (more on that later) — there are encouraging signs. Overall, the project has been a learning experience and has emboldened the partners in many ways.

“I think I was pretty brutal when it comes to what needed to change and what types of investments needed to be made in the building. I sent it to them kind of thinking, ‘they’re going to look at this and probably say, ‘forget this guy — there’s no way we’re doing all this.”

“This project has given us a lot of confidence,” he said. “If there’s a space, and the structure is good, like we have here, we know we can create something in our mind and move forward.”

Tim Sheehan, Springfield’s chief Development officer, lauded the work at Tower Square, saying that, in many respects, the partners’ efforts mirror the original mission of the property and take it a new and higher level at a different point in the city’s history.

“This is a critically important project for Springfield,” he said. “The whole impetus behind the building itself was to enliven the commercial business district of the downtown, and to enliven it by bringing businesses to the heart of the city, workers to the heart of the city, visitors, and supportive retail, and clearly the building has done that.

“When you look back at how this was conceived in the 1960s as part of a large urban-renewal effort, the contemplation of this building really started with a small group of civic and downtown business leaders, and ultimately it was advanced by MassMutual,” Sheehan continued. “So I guess you could say Tower Square continues to attract entrepreneurial investors to the property. And while the vision that those initial investors had was clearly bold, Dinesh and Vid’s vision to reposition the property is as bold, if not bolder.”

 

Background — Check

A quick look at the partners’ résumés and portfolios of business interests reveals why the phrase ‘serial entrepreneur’ applies to both.

A pharmacist by trade, Patel has become a prolific business owner and developer. His portfolio now includes several 99 Restaurant & Pub locations, including one in Greenfield; a Walgreens in Worcester; a CVS in Bridgewater, Conn.; three McDonald’s franchises, including one in Holyoke; several Hampden Inn & Suites locations across New England; a few adult day-care facilities; and even a self-storage operation.

As for Mitta, he started as a software programmer and has, over the past three decades or so, put together a broad and diverse portfolio of business interests known collectively as Mitta’s Group. Like Patel, he has properties in the hospitality realm, including several hotels within the Marriott, Hyatt, Choice, and Wyndham franchises, but also owns several early-education facilities operating under the name the Learning Experience, as well as Synergic Solutions, which provides information-technology solutions to businesses around the globe.

The new façade on the hotel at Tower Square

The new façade on the hotel at Tower Square is symbolic of the changes that have taken place at the property.

And they continue to invest in new ventures, including development of a 14-acre parcel in Windsor, Conn. into a mixed-use complex that will include a hotel, apartments, a gas station, a car wash, and other components. Work on the project, to be called Windsor Crossing, is set to commence next spring.

The top line on each résumé now, though, is Tower Square, and how these two came together to purchase the 50-year-old landmark is an intriguing story, which they summed up as a calculated risk well worth taking.

The two certainly knew each other well — as noted, they both had ownership stakes in the Thunderbirds, and Patel had sold some properties to Mitta — but they had never launched a joint venture together … until Tower Square came on the market in late 2017.

“Most people who own buildings always think they know more than the broker; it’s rare for them to listen.”

“When I came across this particular listing from MassMutual, I approached Dinesh and asked him what his thoughts were,” Mitta said. “He said that if I was interested, he was willing to partner, and that got the ball rolling.”

Patel recalls them having a lengthy discussion concerning the property — which came in two parts, the hotel and the retail/office complex adjoining it — on opening night of the Thunderbirds’ 2017-18 season, which came only a day before the deadline for submitting bids for the Tower Square property.

cover of BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur issue

This is actually the second time Vid Mitta and Dinesh Patel have been on the cover of BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur issue. They’re part of the ownership and management group of the Springfield Thunderbirds that took home the honor in 2017.

“Between 4 and 5 o’clock, I was in Northampton on a bike ride, and I thought to myself, ‘I want to pull the trigger on this,’” he went on, adding that a bid was submitted mere minutes before the 5 p.m. deadline.

Bidding on Tower Square was certainly not a slam-dunk proposition at the time; in fact, it was far from it. While the building, which changed the downtown Springfield skyline in dramatic fashion when it opened in the late ’60s, had some core tenants in its retail space — UMass Amherst, Cambridge College, and a CVS, among others — and several more in its office tower, the complex had certainly seen better days.

MassMutual was soon to be vacating several floors in the office tower, many spaces in the retail portion of the building were vacant or underutilized, and the hotel on the property had lost the Marriott flag that had flown over it for decades and was now known as the Tower Square Hotel.

But while others were looking at a glass half-empty — or far worse — the two partners saw potential, and something else as well: an important property in a city that they had invested in and become part of.

“My wife and I were having lunch together and started talking about Tower Square,” Patel recalled. “She described it as an ‘iconic building’ in Springfield and a ‘once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.’ She said, ‘we need to figure out how to get this building.’”

Mitta recalls having similar thoughts, and noted that, while their initial interest was focused on the hotel, which they successfully bid on first, they eventually pursued the rest of the property as well, paying $17.5 million for both halves of the operation.

And they did so understanding that there would be much larger investments to come.

“We knew what we were getting into,” said Mitta, acknowledging that this comment covers considerable ground, meaning acknowledgement that large amounts of work needed to be done not only to get the Marriott flag back on the hotel, but to renovate the parking garage; repair and upgrade aging equipment, including the elevators; and undertake other improvements to bring new tenants, and new vibrancy, to the property.

 

Building Momentum

Elaborating, the two partners said they entered this joint venture with a plan of sorts, one that would take shape over the coming months and years.

That plan called for focusing less on traditional retail and more on creating something approaching a community, with pieces that would complement one another, said Patel, adding that, even before he and Mitta had finalized their commitment to bid on the property, he was talking with Dexter Johnson, president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Springfield, about moving parts of that operation, specifically the fitness center and childcare facilities, to Tower Square.

“This project has given us a lot of confidence. If there’s a space, and the structure is good, like we have here, we know we can create something in our mind and move forward.”

Those operations would eventually become part of a larger plan that called for attracting businesses that would bring convenience, as well as needed products and services, to those working in the tower, but also the students attending classes there and those living in and around downtown, said the partners, adding that other components have come to include White Lion Brewing Co., a spa (SkinCatering), and even the wine exchange that recently opened in the space next to the Hot Table restaurant.

“We never thought that this would come back as a retail building,” Mitta said. “But when we purchased the property, we knew that MassMutual had already put UMass and Cambridge College into the retail mall, and that gave us a good start toward bringing more semi-retail businesses into the mall, so it would be a win-win situation for all of us.”

Previous Top Entrepreneurs

2020: Golden Years Homecare Services
2019: Cinda Jones, president of W.D. Cowls Inc.
2018: Antonacci Family, owners of USA Hauling, GreatHorse, and Sonny’s Place
2017: Owners and managers of the Springfield Thunderbirds
2016: Paul Kozub, founder and president of V-One Vodka
2015: The D’Amour Family, founders of Big Y
2014: Delcie Bean, president of Paragus Strategic IT
2013: Tim Van Epps, president and CEO of Sandri LLC
2012: Rick Crews and Jim Brennan, franchisees of Doctors Express
2011: Heriberto Flores, director of the New England Farm Workers’ Council and Partners for Community
2010: Bob Bolduc, founder and CEO of Pride
2009: Holyoke Gas & Electric
2008: Arlene Kelly and Kim Sanborn, founders of Human Resource Solutions and Convergent Solutions Inc.
2007: John Maybury, president of Maybury Material Handling
2006: Rocco, Jim, and Jayson Falcone, principals of Rocky’s Hardware Stores and Falcone Retail Properties
2005: James (Jeb) Balise, president of Balise Motor Sales
2004: Craig Melin, then-president and CEO of Cooley Dickinson Hospital
2003: Tony Dolphin, president of Springboard Technologies
2002: Timm Tobin, then-president of Tobin Systems Inc.
2001: Dan Kelley, then-president of Equal Access Partners
2000: Jim Ross, Doug Brown, and Richard DiGeronimo, then-principals of Concourse Communications
1999: Andrew Scibelli, then-president of Springfield Technical Community College
1998: Eric Suher, president of E.S. Sports
1997: Peter Rosskothen and Larry Perreault, then-co-owners of the Log Cabin Banquet and Meeting House
1996: David Epstein, president and co-founder of JavaNet and the JavaNet Café

Patel concurred, noting how he and Mitta have seen the ‘education hub’ concept work in Worcester, and they believe it can work in Springfield as well.

In the office tower, said Panteleakis, the goal has been to take advantage of the attractive class-A space, including the floors vacated by MassMutual, as well as other amenities, such as on-site parking, those aforementioned service businesses, and a safer, more vibrant downtown to bring some of the businesses that had left Springfield back to its central business district while also bringing some new names to that area.

And that has happened with the addition of Wellfleet, which now has its name and logo on the building, as well as Farm Credit Financial Partners, the Hampden County District Attorney’s Office, Country Bank, several state offices, and many other new tenants.

“We’ve replaced 150,000 square feet vacated by MassMutual with 140,000 square feet of new tenants,” Panteleakis said, adding that there is one more full floor to fill and several “smaller pockets” that remain vacant.

The partners said that, while there is certainly a plan in place, the simple objective moving forward is to continue adding complementary pieces and creating a destination — something Tower Square was decades ago but hasn’t been for some time.

“If you look at the building today, it efficiently serves the needs of modern office tenants, and that’s been though significant upgrades to that space,” Sheehan said. “The investment of more than $20 million in completely refurbishing the hotel and restoring the Marriott flag will attract new and more visitors to downtown and enhance the city’s attractiveness as a meeting and convention destination. Additionally, they’ve created a sense of excitement — I don’t think you can use any other word — about what the building’s public space could actually be.”

While progress has been made on many different levels at the Tower Square property, the pandemic has certainly slowed its pace, due to everything from the soaring cost of materials to labor shortages, said the partners, adding that it has also made improvements and enhancements more expensive — and far more expensive, in many cases.

That’s especially true with the ongoing work at the hotel, where supply-chain issues have made it difficult to obtain needed materials in a timely fashion. Overall, the project, with a price tag that has risen past $30 million, is well behind the original schedule, which had the hotel reopening last year, but the partners are confident that the facility will be welcoming guests by the end of the second quarter of this year.

“COVID has hurt us because the cost of construction has shot up, and the cost of raw materials has shot up as well,” Mitta said. “Every time we import things from China or some other country, the container fees alone are almost four to five times what they used to be two or three years back. We don’t want to stop, so we had to pay these higher prices and keep going.”

As just one example, Patel noted that steel prices have risen 48% this year, an increase that could not have been foreseen when they bought the property.

“Increases of 10% or so, you anticipate that; you can factor that in,” he noted. “But 48% to 50%, you can’t plan for that. It’s all about supply and demand.”

Despite the skyrocketing cost of the project, the partners remain optimistic about the hotel and its prospects for the future. They said COVID will eventually relent, and when it does, people — if not businesses — will be ready and willing to travel again.

“People are coming back,” Mitta said. “They’re traveling, they’re using hotels, and the travel industry is coming back — especially when it’s not related to business travel.”

COVID has also brought a halt to any plans to develop the parcel across Main Street from Tower Square, known to many as the ‘Steiger’s lot’ because that’s where the department store once stood.

The rooftop area at Tower Square

The rooftop area at Tower Square is one of many that have a new look.

Original plans called for building a Hyatt on that property, but the pandemic and its deep impact on travel of all kinds put that initiative on ice, said Patel, adding that their plans will be revisited once the Marriott opens.

Meanwhile, they’re advancing plans for Windsor Crossing and continually looking for new entrepreneurial opportunities. That thirst for new opportunities brought them to Tower Square in the first place, and it has seen them through this challenging but ultimately fulfilling time.

“It’s been exciting,” Mitta said. “Every day is a new adventure.”

 

Landmark Decision

Flashing back to when the partners acquired the Tower Square property, Mitta noted that they had both a plan as well as a backup plan, one that called for converting the office tower into residential space if the office market didn’t develop as anticipated.

That backup plan wasn’t needed, obviously, although there have been some struggles, and COVID certainly has brought many unanticipated challenges.

Instead, the partners are moving forward, as Mitta noted, achieving one target at a time. The larger goal is not to turn back the clock and make Tower Square exactly what it was decades ago, but turn it back to the extent that the landmark is a destination and center of vibrancy.

There is still work to do, but if Mitta and Patel have proven anything, it’s that they are persistent and determined to make the plan they put on the drawing board more than four years ago a reality.

They’ve also shown that they’re quite worthy of BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur honor.

 

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

Cover Story Economic Outlook

COVID Complicates Generally Optimistic Projections

A year ago, business and economic development leaders were looking beyond a surge in COVID to what they were seeing as better times — when the pandemic would be a thing of the past, the economy would rebound, and ‘normal,’ as in the life we experienced before March of 2020, would return. Most of that, especially the parts about COVID being over and returning to normal, didn’t happen. And that explains why, a year later, amidst another strong surge in COVID cases, there is quite a bit of optimism about the year ahead, but also some hedging of bets. This past year showed that we just can’t predict what will happen with this pandemic or with many of its side effects, everything from an unprecedented workforce shortage to inflation and supply chain woes, to a still white-hot housing market. In the stories that begin on page 16, area business leaders look ahead and project a year in which most all of the stern challenges from 2021, and especially the pandemic, will linger. But they also see a new and perhaps better chance to more effectively move on from COVID.

The Economy >>

Optimism Abounds, but Many Factors Make It Difficult to Project


The Region >>

There Were Glimpses of Progress in 2021, and More Are Expected


Small Business >>

Many Are Busy, But Challenges Linger as the New Year Dawns



Higher Education >>

Region’s Colleges, Universities Face More Stern Tests in 2022


Healthcare >>

The Prognosis Is for Another Year of Stern Challenges in 2022


Tourism >>

Sector Is on the Rebound, but Hospitality Still Faces Staffing Issues


Cover Story

Standing Out in His Field

Myke Connolly is a serial entrepreneur who has always understood — and always preached — the power of marketing.

Myke Connolly is a serial entrepreneur who has always understood — and always preached — the power of marketing.

Myke Connolly, known to some as Mr. Stinky Cakes, is a serial entrepreneur who has always understood — and always preached — the power of marketing. His latest venture is a business that brings that message to light, figuratively but also quite literally. Stand Out Truck has now attracted clients ranging from parents of high-school graduates to the local shop to President Biden — or at least one of his marketing teams. The goal is to make this a national brand, and he’s well down that road.

Myke Connolly says the e-mail found its way into his inbox around 2 that Monday afternoon.

The firm handling some marketing and promotion work for the Biden administration wanted to know if Connolly and his team at Stand Out Truck could have one of his vehicles — pickup trucks outfitted to carry digital wording and imaging — in New Hampshire the next day to present a message promoting the president’s Build Back Better plan of action.

The quick answer, as it almost always is with such inquiries, was ‘yes.’

By early that evening, the message “Better Roads. Better Bridges. Better Jobs. — Brought to you by Joe Biden” — complete with a picture of the 46th president — had been readied, and before dawn the next morning, a crew was on its way to the Granite State.

“We spent some time in Manchester, then we went to Woodstock, where the president spoke in front of that bridge, and then we went back to Manchester, and then back to Springfield — it was an eight-hour campaign,” he noted, adding that, other than the name on the account, this was much like most of his gigs to date.

The assignment from the Biden camp gives Connolly and Stand Out Truck (SOT) a new and impressive top line for its growing list of clients, and a new example of how quickly the company can respond to client needs and present a message to an intended audience.

And since this serial entrepreneur known to some as ‘Mr. Stinky Cakes’ launched this venture just as the pandemic was arriving in this region (more on that later), there have been all kinds of messages — and all kinds of audiences.

In that first category, there’s been everything from birthday wishes and congratulations to a high-school or college graduate to last-minute messages from political candidates; from invites to a pitch contest to welcome messages from a bank with a new branch in the neighborhood. The audiences, meanwhile, have ranged from families to groups attending a VFW-sponsored car show to cities and counties, as in New Hampshire.

Stand Out Truck landed a high-profile assignment helping President Biden promote his Build Back Better plan.

Stand Out Truck landed a high-profile assignment helping President Biden promote his Build Back Better plan.

And while the concept is gathering speed, as well as clients, Connolly believes he’s just getting started. Indeed, while he has one eye on the present and his two trucks on the road, his other is on the future and prospects for taking the business to the regional and even national levels, with perhaps licensing options (there’s already one of those in place) and franchising.

“The goal is to build a national brand — eventually, I want to take my company public,” he said, adding that he’s building for the long term and striving for steady growth.

Meanwhile, Connolly, 39, lives by what he encourages his clients to do — aggressively marketing his business. He said the Biden camp found him not by accident, but because he’s visible and always promoting what he does. And he advises businesses — and those politicians — to do the same; indeed, Stand Out Truck is an offshoot, or expansion, of a marketing business he started called Launch and Stand Out Agency. That’s the same title he put on a book he wrote in 2013.

“We make ourselves so visible and so accessible, we have some high-profile people that reach out to us all the time,” he explained, he said, adding that his business model is all about getting a message across — figuratively, but, in the case of his trucks, also quite literally.

“The goal is to build a national brand — eventually, I want to take my company public.”

And this new venture is the culmination of three decades (yes, he started when he was in grammar school) of being in business and marketing himself and his products and services.

“I always tell people … it’s not the truck,” he said. “It’s everything behind it; that’s why it works.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Connolly about his latest venture, a lifetime (almost) of entrepreneurship, and how, in his words, he’s marketing “in slow motion.”

 

Seeing His Name in Lights

Connolly’s relatively new mailing address is a small suite in the Venture X complex — a co-working space — in Holyoke. Along one wall of that space is a collection of more than 100 photos of his Stand Out Trucks in action.

The wall is almost entirely full, and these framed images speak to just how far this venture has come in almost two years. And as he talked, Connolly kept gesturing … to the Biden assignment. To his message to an employee enjoying a birthday — “his phone was ringing all day because people were seeing the truck.” To at least a half-dozen political candidates and their messages. To several corporate clients with various messages. To high-school graduates … the list goes on.

One wall of Myke Connolly’s space at Venture X

One wall of Myke Connolly’s space at Venture X is covered by photos of his Stand Out Trucks in action.

The road to filling that wall has been a long one, with a number of twists and turns.

As noted earlier, Connolly is a serial entrepreneur. He’s been in business and marketing, and also studying business and marketing, to some extent since he was 9.

Connolly grew up in the Bahamas and spent a lot of his time with his stepfather, who owned a pest-control business. He remembers a lot about those days, but especially what he saw on the coffee tables and TVs of clients, especially the wealthy ones. The coffee tables boasted business magazines, and the TVs had shows with the stock-market crawler at the bottom.

“I would go home and watch the TV show with the ticker,” he recalled. “I understood nothing, but I knew enough to know that all these successful people were doing the same thing — and watching that ticker — so there had to be something to that.”

While watching, he did a lot of reading and learned about successful entrepreneurs like Yankee Candle founder Mike Kittredge, Vermont Teddy Bear founder John Sortino, and many others — stories he said he could understand as a young person and draw inspiration from.

When, in 2008, he started his first business, Stinky Cakes, which offered practical gifts to new parents such as cakes shaped from diapers (hence the name), he would call on Kittredge, Sortino, and some of the others to talk about marketing, brand building, and much more.

“In month two, they started canceling graduations. So I said, ‘forget about selling ad space to businesses … I’m just going to go celebrate all these kids that I know.’ I turned it into a graduation truck.”

“These guys were in my phone; when I had questions, I would call them,” he told BusinessWest. “And that’s why I encourage kids today to read and to learn about entrepreneurs, and to reach out to them; truly successful people always want to find a way to help.”

As for marketing, Connolly says he’s been doing that since he was 9, when he would take some of the candy his grandmother would bring back from trips to Florida and sell it to classmates in school.

“I had flavors, like Jolly Ranchers, that the school store didn’t have,” he explained. “I didn’t know it was marketing at the time, but I started giving the candy to kids in my class. That’s how simple marketing is — showing people that would buy what you have that you have what they want.”

As a result of his success in business and marketing, Connolly was asked to do some teaching, guest lecturing, and mentoring of young entrepreneurs by groups like Valley Venture Mentors and EforAll Holyoke.

He focuses heavily on building credit, creating solid cash flow, and sound money management. “If you don’t know how to manage your money, none of this will ever work,” he said. “I say, ‘you can be making $1 million a year, but it you’re spending $1.5 million … then you’re in big trouble.’”

One course he’s taught is called the “100 Grand Plan,” which, as that name suggests, advises those taking it on how to make their first $100,000. Among the keys to doing so, and one that is often overlooked, is marketing.

“In order to make money, you have to understand marketing, but no matter how much we laid it out and taught them, some of them just didn’t get it,” he told BusinessWest. “So some of them started asking me to do their marketing for them.”

This led to the creation of the Launch and Stand Out agency, he went on, adding that one of his clients wanted to feature children on billboards across the country and hired him to do some of the buying of space on those boards.

This experience prompted him to want become part of what’s known as the ‘out-of-home’ advertising business, and, specifically, digital billboards — in this case, ones that move.

“I had a group of really intelligent engineers put together the truck … and we just started,” he said, joking that he could have bought two Ferraris for what he spent on the trucks and the related equipment.

 

The Road to Success

A big component of any business venture is timing, said Connolly, adding that, with Stand Out Truck, his was awful. For the most part, anyway.

He launched on March 9, 2020, a carefully chosen date that coincides with the death (in 1997) of rapper Biggie Smalls. Unfortunately, it also coincided with the arrival of COVID-19. Indeed, just as he was putting his trucks on the road, the state and most all businesses were shutting down, and people across the region were hunkering down.