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Cinda Jones Is Building a Community — and More — in North Amherst

As the largest private landowner in Massachusetts, with properties in 30 towns, the Cowls family is especially synonymous with North Amherst, where it has made its headquarters — and an enduring legacy in lumber and conservation — for 279 years. These days, Cinda Jones, the ninth-generation president of W.D. Cowls Inc., and her team are doing nothing short of creating a new town center in North Amherst. Why? Because the family has always transformed the land into what was most beneficial and needed. Today, she says, that’s a sense of community.

The area of North Amherst known as the Mill District has served many purposes over the nearly 300 years the Cowls family has made its name there.

Early on, for example, the farm produced and distributed onions, tobacco, and dairy products. In the 1800s, in a burst of diversified interests, the Cowls family managed a rock quarry, constructed a street railway system, ran two sawmills, built and operated a building supply store, and managed myriad residential and commercial properties, along with thousands of acres of timberland.

In short, each generation of Cowls descendants discontinued enterprises that had become outdated and reinvented the family business to be more relevant for their time — and more personally inspiring to them.

Cinda Jones, along with her brother, Evan, represents the ninth such generation to take on that challenge — and the mixed-use development now emerging in the Mill District, known as North Square, might represent its most dramatic change yet.

It’s that project, but also a rich, two-decade stewardship of the Cowls legacy, that has earned Cinda Jones, president of W.D. Cowls Inc., recognition as BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur for 2019.

“We knew, if we’re creating a new uptown in Amherst, it has to be an experiential place,” Jones told BusinessWest during a lengthy tour of the property earlier this month. “We want retail, and retail doesn’t work unless it’s better than online, and it offers something different. We have 22,000 square feet of retail space around a town square in an already-thriving area, where 45,000 people commute through every day. And that’s going to increase. So we’re really excited about what this can become.”

“We knew, if we’re creating a new uptown in Amherst, it has to be an experiential place. We want retail, and retail doesn’t work unless it’s better than online, and it offers something different.”

In simple terms, Jones envisioned a modern residential community of one-, two-, and three-bedroom units overlooking a commercial center comprised of roughly one-third food establishments (a restaurant and café, Jakes at the Mill, is already thriving there), one-third retail, and one-third “experiential services, like yoga, making your own pottery, things you enjoy doing — not dentists and accountants, because those aren’t so fun,” she explained.

“Everyone wants that,” she went on. “Malls stole our downtowns. Now malls are dying, but the one thing they’re doing to stay alive is to have experiences. That’s the correct thing to do. In addition to making a downtown with a mix of retail, we want to create a place where you want to spend the day.”

At left, the converted barn currently occupied by Atkins Farms. At right, one of the newer buildings housing both commercial and residential space.

Spend a day with Cinda Jones, and the main takeaway is a passion for the many ways land can — and should — be used. And she’s got a lot of land to put to use, and plenty of ideas about what comes next.

Nine Generations

Founded in 1741, W.D. Cowls Inc. is, in fact, Massachusetts’ largest private landowner. In 1741, Jonathan Cowls bought a farm in North Amherst and started the Cowls timber company. His son David built the company’s corporate headquarters in 1768 — in a large house that still serves that purpose today. The land Jonathan began acquiring 279 years ago now includes more than 100 parcels in 30 towns in Hampshire and Franklin counties.

According to the company’s written history, “for the first 100 years, everything the family had was always passed down to the oldest son, who was usually named Jonathan, and the Jonathans didn’t muck it up irreversibly. After that, with a David and a couple Walters in the mix, every generation of the family built what his generation of community needed on the home farm, while continuing to grow Cowls’ timberland base and conduct sustainable forestry operations.”

Jones got her start in the family business at age 10, cutting yellow triangles out of sheets of plastic for foresters to use as boundary markers. She worked her way up by scraping and painting fences and barns, sorting nails, stacking lumber, and helping the company’s administrative assistant.

Hannah Rechtschaffen says young people, in particular, desire the face-to-face culture that mixed-use developments promote.

After graduating from Colby College in 1990 and earning a graduate certificate in business administration from Georgetown University in 1995, she remained in Washington, D.C. for several more years, holding conservation and timber industry-related leadership positions, including marketing director for the Cato Institute, Wood Marketing director for the American Forest & Paper Assoc., vice president of the National Forest Foundation, and Northeast regional director of the National Fish & Wildlife Foundation.

In July 2001, her father joked that she was “so good at managing nonprofit organizations” that she should come home and manage the unprofitable sawmill, timberland, and real-estate divisions of Cowls. She did, and brought a bit of bad fortune with her.

“Within a year, the sawmill burned to the ground when lightning hit it,” she told BusinessWest, adding that she initially balked at plans to rebuild it. “I said, ‘Dad, it loses money. Why are we rebuilding a sawmill? Let’s do something different.’ He said, ‘it’s what we do. People depend on these jobs. It feeds our store. We will rebuild. You don’t know enough to close it down yet. But if it doesn’t work in five years, you can try something different.’”

So it went back up, as a timber-frame specialty mill. “We tried really hard, but it still didn’t work,” Jones said. “So we closed it in 2010.”

“I wanted it to be the Dirty Hands District, but I was told no one would come eat sandwiches in the Dirty Hands District. So I couldn’t name it that.”

She was already starting to envision the next step: developing a new downtown area — actually, uptown — in North Amherst. With her brother, she renovated their great-grandmother’s cow barn, which would house the second site Atkins Market site, and built the Trolley Barn mixed-use building, also on Cowls Road, and partnered with Beacon Communities on the residential components of North Square.

“At first, we tried to market the place — ‘locate here!’ But it was just hard-packed gravel and a closed sawmill,” she recalled. “People were like, ‘there’s no here here. Why would we come to a gravel lot in the middle of North Amherst?’”

Coming up with and marketing the Mill District name helped, although Jones first considered a moniker that had been used in the past for this neighborhood of farms and timberland. “I wanted it to be the Dirty Hands District, but I was told no one would come eat sandwiches in the Dirty Hands District. So I couldn’t name it that. So the Mill District it was.”

The Mill District actually encompasses more than North Square. Riverside Park Stores and Apartments — a former trolley destination that now houses a strip mall and 48 apartments behind it — is part of it, as are Cowls Building Supply and Mill District Depot.

Evan and Cinda Jones represent the ninth generation of leadership in the broad array of Cowls operations.

“We’re building a new uptown in Amherst which is called the Mill District, that incorporates Riverside Park and comes all the way up here,” she explained. “We’re trying to connect the two properties and tell the story of the whole neighborhood. North Square is what we’re doing today, but it’s so much bigger than that.”

Face to Face

Hannah Rechtschaffen grew up in Western Mass. but left more than 17 years ago, most recently attending graduate school and working in the field of urban innovation in Philadelphia. In large cities like that, she said, mixed-use developments are par for the course.

Even outside urban environments, though, after a decade of social media curtailing face-to-face contact, “the pendulum has swung back to wanting to be in person, wanting to live above a coffee shop where you go down in the morning and they know your name,” she told BusinessWest. “At one point, that’s how the world used to be, and now I’m hearing from Millennials that’s what they want. And they don’t just want it, they expect it — to go into a place and not be faceless.”

As director of Placemaking for Cowls, a job she took less than a year ago, part of her job is to create events, art installations, and community programs that bring back personal connections and elevate individual experiences in the neighborhood. To that end, she often reaches out to the community about what they want at North Square.

“Malls stole our downtowns. Now malls are dying, but the one thing they’re doing to stay alive is to have experiences. That’s the correct thing to do. In addition to making a downtown with a mix of retail, we want to create a place where you want to spend the day.”

“We have a clipboard over at Jakes where we say, ‘what do you want to see here? What’s important to you?’ And then we go out and try to find those businesses, ideally locally rooted, so they can come and provide some amenities — because there aren’t a lot of amenities along this corridor to Greenfield. We get a lot of feedback from the community about what they’d like to see, and our hope is that what happens here is in line with their vision and our vision.”

Part of that vision is a focus on the arts and opportunities for artists to connect with the community. One example is an art gallery, which will be connected to a general store and a café, featuring artists who hail from the many communities in which Cowls operates.

Some ideas are cheekier than others; Jones said the general store will feature two “experiential public bathrooms,” one with a jungle theme and the other featuring mirror glass — people can see out, but not in — meaning “you can do your business while you’re watching everyone out here do their business.”

Other tenants of the commercial space might include a distillery and tasting room, a flower and gift shop, and a tea house. Meanwhile, Atkins is moving out in July, but Jones has had interest from other food establishments.

Then there are 130 residential units, 20% of which are classified as affordable housing; residents began moving in back in August. Among the amenities — including a community room, gym, and outdoor play areas — are pet-friendly perks like an outdoor dog park and a mud room where dogs can be hosed off after a muddy time outdoors.

And, of course, a raft of shops, eateries, and experiences a few feet beyond one’s front door, and access to PVTA buses to move about the region without having to drive.

“The Mill District is more than just this one place; it’s touching the entire Valley. We’re trying to set an example of how to live in a community,” Rechtschaffen said. “We have to get creative with the experiential aspect of it. Every potential tenant we are talking to right now, they all have some aspect of their business that’s about teaching workshops, teaching classes, sharing what they do and why they do it with community members. That aspect is just crucial, and it’s fun.”

It’s also critical from an environmental perspective, she added, considering how young people aren’t as keen as previous generations were on long drives to get what they need to go. “There’s a lot more around the climate-change conversation — how we live, how we set our lives up to be able to let go of some of those things that have contributed to climate change, and this is one example.”

Land of Opportunity

As president, Jones oversees the real-estate and timberland and natural-resource management divisions of W.D. Cowls Inc., while her brother, Evan, oversees Cowls Building Supply, the retail store founded by their father, Paul. The Mill District has been a joint effort between the two — and it’s far from the only significant land-use project the company has recently undertaken.

For example, Cinda put an agricultural-preservation restriction on 45 acres of Amherst farmland, and in 2012 dedicated the largest contiguous private conservation project in Massachusetts history, the 3,486-acre Paul C. Jones Working Forest in the towns of Leverett and Shutesbury, which stands, she says, as a legacy to Cowls’ eighth-generation leader and the family’s commitment to sustainable forestry.

The Trolley Barn building hosts a range of businesses, including a restaurant, Jakes at the Mill.

In 2019, Cowls added an adjacent 2,000-acre conservation project in Leverett, Shutesbury, and Pelham, this one named for her grandfather, Walter Cowls Jones. A series of solar farms in the region have provided other opportunities for environment-friendly development.

She had already achieved some success at Cowls when BusinessWest named her to its inaugural 40 Under Forty class in 2007, and the evolution of her work since then was reflected in her Continuing Excellence Award last year, and now the Top Entrepreneur honor; she is one of only two individuals to have won three of the magazine’s six major awards.

Previous Top Entrepreneurs

• 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

“Congratulations to Cinda Jones on this recognition as Top Entrepreneur in our region by BusinessWest,” said Claudia Pazmany, president of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce. “Cinda tires of status quo and consistently asks what more can be done. Each idea generated is followed by yet another. She then uses her allies and matches them to local resources to make change happen.

“The transformation of North Amherst through her creation of the Mill District over the last 10 years has not only preserved some of her rich family history in agriculture and lumber, but tied it to the future of our great town, creating economic mobility tying old generations to new,” she went on. “I am proud to call Cinda a friend and colleague and cannot wait to support her in her next project — because there will always be a ‘next’ with Cinda.”

North Square at the Mill District has been that big ‘next’ lately, and it’s the product of not only her team’s vision, but inspiration from unexpected places.

For example, next to Atkins is a recreational area of sorts, complete with a covered sandbox containing books and construction-themed toys. It’s called Wonderland — for good reason.

At the start of construction on North Square, some of the property’s historic millstones and large pieces of granite were converted to benches, tables, and art structures, meant to be a gathering place for people who bought ice cream and a signal that Atkins welcomed them during construction.

A woman named Kate posted on Facebook that her son, Sam, thought this humble play area was the most magical place on earth, referring to it as a ‘wonderland.’ When Jones offered to dedicate the space to Sam, his mom said her daughter Abbie also enjoys playing there, and so did her other daughter, Mabel — during the seven short months of her life.

Jones said that story broke her heart, but Mabel also became an inspiration to create more experiential spaces and programs that make the Mill District a special and important place for more families to connect. Today, Wonderland is adorned with a plaque dedicating it to Sam, Abbie, and Mabel.

Most people are familiar with the saying, ‘it takes a village to raise a child,’ Jones told BusinessWest, but in this case, it took a child to lend a large dose of inspiration to the creation of an entire village.

Permanent Reminder

That’s not the first time Jones honored one of her inspirations with an indelible mark. She also tells the story of how Cowls transitioned to its ninth generation of leadership. When Jones, then 34, came home from D.C. in 2001, her dad thought the sawmill workers might go around her new authority to speak with him if he were on site, so he tossed her the keys to the office and left, saying, “I’ll see you for coffee every morning, but they need to know you’re in charge, so I’m going to make myself scarce.”

Ten years — and plenty of leadership experience — later, as her father was dying, the family sat with a lawyer at the same kitchen table the kids grew up around, with the company represented by piles of paper being passed down to the ninth generation. As her father was signing documents, she stuck her arm in the way, and he jokingly signed it.

She didn’t wash it off. Instead, she had the signature permanently tattooed there.

A few months later, as she was about to sign off on the Paul C. Jones Working Forest in honor of her father, she rolled up her sleeves, looked down, and saw the signature, and felt like he was still across the table from her in the same house the family has operated from since 1741.

And with the same philosophy, too — one that constantly asks what’s the best use for the land, and the people who live, work, and play there.

“It’s smart growth when you build near jobs and gas stations and schools and population centers, and when you don’t build where there are critical natural resources,” she said. “And Cowls is in the unique position to be able to decide and build in an intelligent way. We have this existing industrial site in North Amherst that we’ve redeveloped for the ninth time, and it’s a new town center, so people who live here can get everything they need. And we do hope they’ll come live here.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

History indicates a recession, but most just aren’t seeing evidence of one

‘Optimistic skepticism.’ That’s the phrase one area bank president summoned as he talked about the year ahead and, more specifically, talk of a recession. While history — especially as it relates to the inverted yield curve — tells us one is very likely, most all other indicators, from unemployment and inflation rates to the stock market to the steady pipeline of work on the books at area construction-related firms we spoke with, say something else.

It was the Monday before Christmas. John Raymaakers II wasn’t planning on being in that day, but an important bid was due, and he had to wrap up the paperwork.

There were a lot of bids to vie for in 2019, Raymaakers, a principal with Westfield-based general contractor J.L. Raymaakers & Sons Inc., told BusinessWest, noting that the company prevailed in several of these competitions, success that translated into one of the company’s better years recently.

And it’s a trend he expects will continue into 2020.

“We’re still busy at this time of year, and that’s a good thing for us,” he said, noting that the firm specializes in heavy civil construction work such as water, sewer, and drainage systems. “And we’ve got jobs we’re bidding on — one today and another next week. We have a good amount of work in front of us, so we’re feeling pretty good.”

Raymaakers is not alone when it comes to a generally positive outlook for the year ahead. Indeed, BusinessWest talked with several business owners, including many in the construction sector — usually a highly accurate barometer of the overall economy — to get a feel for what might be in store as a new decade dawns.

Slicing through the various comments, it appears there is some uncertainty about the year ahead, which is natural given the considerable talk about a recession, the fact that is a presidential election year, and the ongoing workforce issues facing virtually every sector of the economy.

But there was also something approaching consensus that the generally good times that prevailed in 2019 — and for the past several years, for that matter — will continue in the year ahead.

Tom Senecal, president and CEO of Holyoke-based PeoplesBank, told BusinessWest that, while some indicators may give pause for concern, such as an inverted yield curve (more on that later), most would indicate there is little trouble on the immediate horizon.

“The economy is doing really well,” he said. “We see that in our numbers — from our loan perspective, with delinquency rates … everything is humming along.”

Curtis Edgin, a principal with the Chicopee-based architecture firm Caolo & Bieniek, sounded a similar tone when asked what he’s seeing and hearing.

Tom Senecal says he believes in history and the power of the inverted yield curve to forecast recessions. But his eyes prompt him to be ‘optimistically skeptical’ about a downturn.

“No one’s seen any signs of it letting up,” he said of an expansion that has lasted a full decade now, adding quickly that he’s seen enough economic cycles to know that things can change quickly. He just hasn’t seen any evidence that they will.

Meanwhile, Scott Keiter, a principal with Northampton-based Keiter Builders, said his firm had a record year in 2019. He quickly qualified that by saying the business, only 11 years old, has grown every year since its inception and 2019 was merely the latest in a succession of ‘record years.’

That said, the company, like others we spoke with, has a solid flow of work that will keep it busy well into the new year, with more projects on the horizon.

“Most of our work is institutional and commercial, but we also saw a significant increase in larger residential projects, and I think that’s a good sign — people are willing to invest significant amounts of money in their properties” he said. “And we have a good, secured pipeline for the spring and early summer, and that’s not always the case.”

But, while general optimism prevails, there are challenges facing business owners and managers, especially when it comes to workforce issues, specifically finding and retaining talent.

Indeed, what was once considered a good problem to have — and some still use that phrase because it generally means business is good — is now considered to be just a problem. A nagging problem.

“My membership would say, to a company, that the biggest barrier they have to increased growth is finding more people and finding the right people to expand the workforce and take on additional work that’s out there,” said Rick Sullivan, president of the Economic Development Council (EDC) of Western Mass. “The biggest problem we’re facing is workforce — finding talent, developing talent, and retaining talent — and that’s across all levels, from entry level to middle and upper management.”

For this issue and its focus on the 2020 Economic Outlook, BusinessWest talked with several business and economic-development leaders about what to expect in the year ahead. While no one has a crystal ball, most say their eyes tell them the decade-long expansion could certainly continue into the next decade.

Work in the Pipeline

Senecal told BusinessWest he was giving a speech a few months back, and while talking about the economy in general, he referenced the inverted yield curve and its historical significance.

“Every time a yield curve has gone inverted or flat in the past 50 years, and there have been seven times, in every single case it has indicated a recession, usually about nine months after the yield curve gets inverted,” he said, summarizing his remarks. “Which would indicate a recession around May or June of 2020; that’s what history tells us.

“But when you look at our economic numbers — extremely low unemployment, inflation in check, economic growth being wonderful, the stock market doing wonderful … I’m not a predictor, but indications don’t feel the same as they have over the past 50 years,” he went on. “If you’re a believer in historical data as a predictor of future performance, then the numbers say a recession should come in May or June. But I just don’t see it. I am a believer in history, and I am a believer in data, but let’s just say that I’m optimistically skeptical when it comes to a recession.”

There are a many reasons to be optimistically skeptical when it comes to a recession, especially when talking with those in construction-related businesses, which, as noted, provide an historically accurate barometer of what’s happening with the economy.

That’s especially true of architects, who usually feel the effects of a downturn before almost anyone else. Edgin, who, as noted, has been through a number of ups and downs in the economic cycle in his 35-year career, said he hasn’t seen anything to indicate the economy is slowing to any great degree.

His firm handles both public- and private-sector work, and especially the former. Edgin said this diversity has helped it ride out the slow times. The firm has completed much of its work involving an $85 million elementary-school project in Easthampton and doesn’t have anything approaching that scale in the pipeline. But there is work in the pipeline.

Scott Keiter says his construction business has a solid pipeline of work heading into 2020, a sign of a generally sound economy.

“We’re busy,” said Edgin, using a word that most in the construction field would certainly like to hear him use. “We’re seeing a significant number of studies for projects like senior centers, town halls, libraries, or police stations — people recognize the need; they just need to get their ducks aligned to keep things moving.”

Meanwhile, his firm is handling a handful of smaller projects, including work at the Boys & Girls Club in West Springfield, Westfield State University, and other institutions, as well as some private-sector projects.

Summing things up, he said the company is “catching our breath” after a solid 2019 punctuated by the Easthampton project and waiting for some of those projects in the study phase — and there are quite a few of them — to come to fruition.

“Maybe that’s the adjustment,” he told BusinessWest. “And if that’s all the adjustment we need, I’m happy with that; we were oversubscribed, let me put it that way, in 2018 and 2019.”

This past year was also a busy one for Keiter Builders, which, as noted, had a number of projects on both the residential and commercial sides of the ledger. The latter category included a good deal of work at both Smith College and Amherst College, while the former featured several new homes and a number of large-scale renovation projects.

Summing up what he’s heard from clients in both realms concerning the economy and the year ahead, he said it’s mostly upbeat.

“The people sending the money our way … it’s generally positive,” he noted. “We’re not hearing anything from them that’s concerning — it’s just your normal chatter. People are steaming forward; they’re investing in infrastructure and capital projects. And that’s good news for us.”

Raymaakers concurred. He said 2019 was a busy year — he said it was a ‘9,’ maybe a ‘9½’ on a scale of 1 to 10 — that featured several large-scale projects, including runway-grading work at Barnes Municipal Airport in Westfield and dam repair at Forest Park. Work was so steady, the company added employees, bringing the total to 39.

John Raymaakers, seen here with his wife and business partner, Laurie, says the company is feeling “pretty good” about 2020 and the economy in general.

Looking ahead, he told BusinessWest the firm remains optimistic.

“We’ll see how the election goes, and after that … who knows?” he said. “Right now, we feel pretty good about things.”

Work in Progress

Those comments sum up how most people feel about almost everything except the workforce challenges facing them.

Raymaakers said his company did bring on more people, but finding them wasn’t easy. Keiter said his firm also struggled to find people to handle its growing workload.

And Senecal confirmed that the problem extends to positions at all rungs of the hiring ladder. To put the matter in perspective, he talked about a position the bank has been trying to fill — unsuccessfully — for half a year now.

“We’ve been looking for someone for more than six months in our Accounting department, someone with five to 10 years of experience in the banking industry,” he noted. “And what’s more surprising is that, with all the consolidation going on in this industry, we’re still not able to find someone for that position.

“Overall, it is very difficult to find people right now for many of the jobs where we’re looking for specific skills — it’s virtually impossible in some areas,” he went on. “It’s been such a challenge, and that’s a clear indication of what’s happening in many sectors.”

Indeed, the problem is prevalent in pretty much every sector of the economy, said Sullivan, noting that it is manifesting itself in a number of ways.

One is some upward movement on wages and benefits, which is yet another sign of a healthy economy, he said, adding that, while this isn’t happening across the board, there is movement in many sectors where there is steep competition for talent, especially precision manufacturing and financial services.

“People have choices when it comes to where they can work,” he told BusinessWest. “People are looking around, so in order to keep a workforce, people are having to pay a little more and provide some other benefits or incentives.”

In addition to movement on wages, there is a greater focus on trying to bring more people into the workforce, said Sullivan, noting that, through a grant from the Boston Federal Reserve and the Working Cities Initiative, the region has launched efforts to bring some of those who have been on the outside looking in when it comes to the workforce into the fold.

These endeavors involve mostly entry-level positions, and they’re a relatively new point of emphasis for the EDC, he said, adding that they are generating some results, putting those who have been unemployed or underemployed not just into jobs but onto career paths.

Meanwhile, the EDC is looking at taking steps to bolster the workforce, including what could be called recruiting efforts — steps to market Western Mass. and its many benefits in the hope that some may seek to relocate.

“This might involve some regional advertising initiative — an effort to raise awareness about Western Mass. and how it’s a great place to live, there are opportunities here, the cost of living is lower than many other areas of the state and the country,” he explained. “And while it’s a great place to live, it’s also a great place to work.”

Such efforts would be focused on other areas in the Northeast, especially older manufacturing cities that may not be doing as well as the Greater Springfield area, Sullivan noted, adding that he’s not expecting to lure people from Arizona or Florida.

“Sometimes, it’s a little tough to sell those winter months,” he said with a laugh, adding that the region does have many saleable assets, and its businesses need workers to grow.

Such a campaign would not have a large budget, and it would be waged mostly with social media, he said, adding that there is an opportunity to attract people for certain sectors, especially precision manufacturing.

“It will not a be a large media campaign — you won’t be seeing us on the Patriots game,” he said, adding that targeted messages promoting opportunities in specific sectors may help grow the workforce.

Forward Progress

Traditionally, the phrase one hears when it comes to the economy and the year ahead is ‘cautious optimism.’

There’s some of that this year — quite a bit, in fact. But overall, there’s more of that optimistic skepticism that Senecal spoke of and that others referenced, even if they didn’t use those exact words.

History, and some of the economic indicators, tell us that a downturn is likely, if not imminent.

But most business owners and managers just aren’t seeing it — and that’s certainly a good sign as a new year and a new decade begin.

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

Cover Story

From the Casino to Cannabis, Powerful Forces Have Changed the Landscape

By George O’Brien and Joseph Bednar

As the year and the decade come to a close, BusinessWest takes a look back at the stories that dominated the past 10 years and the forces that have in many ways changed the landscape — literally and metaphorically. These include everything from the tornado that touched down that June day in 2011 to the arrival of casino gambling in Western Mass.; from the emergence of a new and multi-faceted business sector — cannabis — to the growth and maturity of the entrepreneurship ecosystem. In short, the region looks a lot different than it did in January 2010, and most of it is for the better. Because this is 2020, here are the top 20 stories from the past decade.

The Casino Era

Perhaps the most dominant story of the decade was the introduction of casino gambling to the Common-wealth — and it covered the entire decade, to be sure, with a number of plots and subplots.

And, of course, the story continues.

Through the early part of the 2010s, the dominant story was where the casinos would be located. Legislation dictated that one of the resort casinos be located in what is considered ‘Western Mass.’ — everything west of Worcester — and a number of sites in several different communities emerged.

That list included the Big E grounds, the Wyckoff Country Club site in Holyoke, a location just off the Mass Pike entrance in Palmer, a site in Brimfield, and, of course, several locations in Springfield, including two downtown — one on the Peter Pan bus terminal site and the other in the tornado-ravaged South End — and one in East Springfield that eventually became home to CRRC (see listing below).

Eventually, MGM’s proposal to revitalize the South End with a $950 million resort casino was chosen by Springfield and then the Gaming Commission. Construction began in the spring of 2015, and for more than three years, the region watched the massive facility take shape.

It opened in August 2018, and since then, the focus has primarily been on revenues that are lagging well behind what was projected when the casino was proposed. However, Mike Mathis, president and COO of MGM Springfield, has maintained that casinos go through a “ramping-up” process that is generally three years or more in duration, and that the Springfield facility is still very much still in this ramping phase.

Looking forward, MGM officials are optimistic that sports gambling — still being considered by the Legislature — will provide a needed revenue boost. Meanwhile, they point to a number of positive developments spurred by the casino, including jobs, greater vibrancy in the downtown area, a trickle-down effect to other hospitality-related businesses, and new events, such as concerts and the upcoming Red Sox Winter Weekend.

Springfield’s Revitalization

When the decade began, Springfield was still climbing out of a very deep, very dark fiscal hole that it fell into several years earlier, one that took the city into receivership and made it the butt of jokes in the eastern part of the state.

As the decade ends, there is still considerable work to do, but Springfield is a very different place than it was 10 years ago. Its downtown, now anchored by a $960 million casino, is much more vibrant. CRRC is making subway cars in East Springfield. Union Station has been revitalized, and rail service has been expanded. The I-91 viaduct has been replaced. Many of the areas damaged by the tornado of 2011 have been revitalized. Tower Square has new ownership and some intriguing new tenants, including the YMCA of Greater Springfield.

Meanwhile, several of the parks, including Riverfront Park and Court Square, have been restored, and Pynchon Park, which links Dwight Street with the Quadrangle, is getting a facelift. Way Finders is building a new, $17 million headquarters building on the site of the old Peter Pan Bus Terminal. MassMutual is is spending $50 million to renovate and expand facilities in Springfield. Big Y recently completed a $46 million expansion. A $14 Educare facility just opened its doors. The list goes on.

There are still things to be done, such as revitalizing Court Square, building a replacement for the crumbling Civic Center Parking Garage, and spreading the vibrancy at MGM Springfield to properties across Main Street from that complex. But overall, Springfield is enjoying a resurgence, and has taken the step of announcing this loudly, and locally, in a marketing campaign created in concert with the Economic Development Council of Western Mass.

A city that was still very much in a dark place at the start of the decade has now come into the light.

The Rise of Cannabis

While many states have since followed suit, Massachusetts has long been near the vanguard when it comes to legalizing marijuana — first for medicinal purposes in 2012, then for recreational, or ‘adult,’ use in 2016. Both measures were passed by voters at the ballot box, and together they have created nothing less than another economic driver in Western Mass.

New England Treatment Access (NETA), the state’s first dispensary to begin adult sales, drew massive lines when it first opened in November 2018, but still maintains a healthy flow of customers as other shops, like Insa in Easthampton, Theory Wellness in Great Barrington, and others have begun recreational sales — with dozens more, in myriad communities, in various stages of permitting and development.

The burgeoning cannabis trade has impacted other fields as well, such as law, as firms have launched specialized practices to help entrepreneurs navigate the intricacies of this business. Meanwhile, banks eagerly await a possible move on the federal level to allow them to handle cannabis accounts.

Municipalities no doubt appreciate the additional tax revenue, which differs by town — in Northampton’s case, it’s 6% on top of the 17% tax customers pay the state, resulting in a $737,331 haul during NETA’s first three months of operation. In this light, it’s no surprise so many communities have embraced this new cannabis era in Massachusetts.

Marijuana remains illegal federally, but a surge of state-level legalization has probably gained too much momentum for that to remain the case forever. Massachusetts has played no small part in that trend.

A Decade-long Expansion

When the decade began, the economy, in many ways still recovering from what became known as the Great Recession, was nonetheless expanding.

And 10 years later … it is still expanding.

It’s been an historic run in many ways, and one that has seemingly defied the odds and host of issues — from trade wars to turmoil overseas to chaos on Capital Hill — to continue as it has.

For most of the decade, the expansion has been anything but profound — usually a percentage point or two or three of growth — but it has continued, bringing the stock market to new and sometimes dizzying heights — the Dow was above 28,000 as this issue went to press, and the S&P was nearing 3,200 — and the region and the nation to something approaching full employment.

These historically low unemployment levels have brought opportunities for workers and challenges for employers (see below), but they are the most obvious sign that the economy is still humming.

The question is … just how long can this last?

Many of the experts predicted a recession for sometime in 2019. It didn’t happen. Now, many are saying that one is likely for 2020, especially with the current inversion of the yield curve, whereby interest rates have flipped on U.S. Treasuries, with short-term bonds paying more than long-term bonds.

If history is any indicator, then this expansion seems destined to come an end soon. Then again, all the signs, from the stock market to the job market, seem to indicate otherwise.

Workforce Issues

As noted, the expansion has brought with it historically low unemployment in most regions of the country, including Western Mass.

And, as also noted, this has created a market heavily tipped toward the job seeker, which has meant challenging times for employers across virtually every sector of the economy.

Indeed, one consistent theme in the hundreds of interviews BusinessWest conducted with business owners and managers over the past decade has been the ongoing difficulty with finding and retaining good help.

It doesn’t matter which sector you’re talking about — healthcare, financial services, construction, distribution, retail, or hospitality — the one constant has been the struggle to fill the ranks.

At the start of the decade and maybe until a few years ago, employers would say it was a good problem to have; now, they don’t use that phrase so much. It’s just a problem.

And one that has led to some new terminology entering the lexicon: ‘ghosting,’ a situation that occurs when someone is slated to show up for work (or even an interview) and doesn’t, because something better has come along.

The situation has been exacerbated by forces ranging from the retirement of Baby Boomers to the arrival of MGM Springfield, and addressed by initiatives at the state and local levels — from agencies, community colleges, and organizations like Dress for Success — to give more people the skills they need to succeed in a technology-driven economy.

A Growing Entrepreneurship Ecosystem

One of the very best stories over the past decade has been the growth and maturation of the region’s entrepreneurship ecosystem, to the point where it is now a powerful force in the region when it comes to economic development.

The ecosystem has come to have a number of moving parts, from mentorship groups such as Valley Venture Mentors, EforAll Holyoke (formerly SPARK), and Launch 413 to entrepreneurship programs at area colleges and universities; from angel-investing groups that provide much-needed capital to initiatives like UMass Amherst’s Institute for Applied Life Sciences and Springfield-based TechSpring, which are working to take ideas from the lab to the marketplace.

Together, these moving parts have created large amounts of what could be called entrepreneurial energy, which has led to hundreds of new startups selling everything from cookies to mops to software programs that can enable machines to operate more efficiently.

Many of the entrepreneurs behind these ventures have made their way to the cover of BusinessWest, an indication of just how important the startup economy has become to the overall vitality of this region, and how large and impactful the entrepreneurship ecosystem has become.

While many are waiting and hoping for the next Google, Facebook, or Uber, most understand that the many smaller businesses now employing a handful of workers are already changing the landscape in individual communities, such as Holyoke and Springfield.

The Opioid Crisis

In 2016, when Gov. Charlie Baker signed into law a sweeping series of measures aimed at curbing opioid addiction, that class of drugs had long been recognized as a health crisis in the Commonwealth.

Specifically, it was the first law in the nation to limit an opioid prescription to a seven-day supply for first-time adult prescriptions and every prescription for minors, with certain exceptions. Among other provisions, information on opiate use and misuse must be disseminated at head-injury safety programs for high-school athletes, doctors must check the Prescription Monitoring Program database before writing a prescription for a Schedule 2 or Schedule 3 narcotic, and prescribers have ramped up continuing-education efforts, ranging from effective pain management to the risks of abuse and addiction associated with opioid medications, just to name a few.

Progress has been slow. In 2017, there were 1,913 drug-overdose deaths involving opioids in Massachusetts — a rate of 28.2 deaths per 100,000 persons, roughly double the national rate of 14.6. The greatest increase in opioid deaths was seen in cases involving synthetic opioids, mainly fentanyl: a rise from 67 deaths in 2012 to 1,649 deaths in 2017.

More recent news has been mixed. Opioid-related overdose deaths in Massachusetts fell 6% in the first nine months of 2019 compared to the first nine months of 2018, according to the Massachusetts Department of Public Health. Between January and September of 2019, there were 1,460 confirmed and estimated opioid-related overdose deaths in Massachusetts, compared to 1,559 in the first nine months of 2018.

However, the fentanyl problem grows — it was present in 93% of opioid-related overdose deaths where there was a toxicology screen over that time frame, up from 89% in 2018. Still, the state’s multi-pronged approach to the opioid epidemic may finally be making a difference.

The Tornado of 2011

There aren’t many residents and business owners who don’t have vivid recollections of the tornado that roared across Western Mass. on June 1, 2011.

Indeed, it traveled through a number of communities, leaving in its wake heavy damage and rebuilding challenges like the region had never seen.

It ravaged rural areas like Belchertown, but also traveled right down Main Street in Springfield, crossing over City Hall as it did so.

As it tore across Springfield and the region, the tornado didn’t discriminate; it damaged elementary schools, colleges, and especially what was then Cathedral High School, which was eventually razed and replaced with a much smaller facility known as Pope Francis High School. It laid waste to Monson’s scenic landscape. It changed the landscape at Veterans Golf Course in Springfield and completely uprooted Square One, the early-childhood education provider located in Springfield’s South End. (Joan Kagan, executive director of Square One, became the face of the disaster, literally and figuratively, as her picture — taken on Main Street with the agency’s ravaged home behind her — graced the cover of BusinessWest a few days later.)

After the dust settled, the difficult and inspiring cleanup and recovery began, and in some ways, it is still ongoing. Efforts to rehabilitate the South End of Springfield were greatly accelerated by MGM’s proposal to build a resort casino partly on parcels damaged by the casino. But several other businesses have risen in that era, including a new CVS pharmacy.

The Potential of Rail

State Sen. Eric Lesser has long been touting east-west rail service connecting Western Mass. and Boston, arguing that an 80-minute ride from Springfield’s Union Station to Boston’s South Station would be a game changer — and not only for Springfield.

“In Western Mass., we have great quality of life, great schools, a lot to offer, but we’re not creating jobs fast enough to keep people here,” he told BusinessWest. “As a result, we’ve seen a vacuuming of jobs and opportunities into a handful of zip codes. And in Boston, two crises are playing out simultaneously: out-of-control traffic gridlock and skyrocketing housing prices.”

Connecting the regions with high-speed rail could help solve both problems, he often argues. High-speed rail service between Pittsfield and Boston — with up to 16 round-trip trains running every day along the Interstate 90 corridor — was among the options for linking Western Mass. to Boston presented by the Massachusetts Department of Transportation to a state advisory committee in Springfield recently.

It’s not like rail hasn’t already made life easier in Western Mass., what with the launch of the Amtrak Vermonter line in 2016 and the Valley Flyer service between Greenfield and Springfield earlier this year. Ridership originating in Northampton on the Vermonter line increased from 17,197 riders in 2016 to 21,619 in 2018, reflecting a growing demand for rail.

“The new generation — people my age and younger — don’t want to sit in their cars all day,” Lesser said. “They don’t want long commutes on clogged highways. They’re open to using buses and trains in a way that maybe previous generations weren’t. Again, it would solve a lot of overlapping challenges we’re facing all at the same time.”

CRRC’s Rail Cars

A region that used to be home to many major manufacturing companies — at least, more than exist today — got a major boost in 2014 with the announcement that Chinese rail-car manufacturing giant CRRC was coming to Springfield to build hundreds of new cars for the MBTA’s Orange Line and Red Line systems.

The initial contract was for 152 Orange Line cars and 132 Red Line cars to replace aging trains. Two years later, an additional order was placed for 120 more Red Line cars, bringing the state’s total investment in new cars to $566 million.

From CRRC’s $95 million factory on Page Boulevard, which employs about 200 people, about a dozen trains have been delivered, and the company also built a 42,500-square-foot warehouse at the site this year to house large components.

The company’s leaders say they invested in Springfield with an eye on significant growth in the U.S. That has come to fruition, with a deal in 2016 to manufacture new subway cars for the city of Los Angeles and an agreement in 2017 to build new train cars for SEPTA, Philadelphia’s transit system, to name just two developments.

MBTA says the new vehicles incorporate improved safety features, wireless communications for monitoring potential maintenance needs, improved passenger comfort, new technology that provides important customer-facing information, and cutting-edge accessibility features, such as platform gap-mitigation devices.

For Springfield, however, the trains represent something greater — a major manufacturing success story at a time when one was needed.

The Dr. Seuss Museum

For years, people visiting the Dr. Seuss sculpture garden in the Quadrangle would ask where the museum devoted to the beloved children’s author and Springfield native was located. And they would be told there wasn’t one.

That all changed in the summer of 2017, with the opening of the Amazing World of Dr. Seuss Museum, a facility that has provided a true measure of the awesome power of the Seuss name and brand by attracting visitors from across the region and country and from around the world.

In its first year of operation, the museum enabled the Quadrangle to shatter attendance records, and the numbers have been steady and quite impressive since.

Museum officials are optimistic that the attendance and revenue boost from the Seuss facility will enable it to modernize and expand many of its other facilities. Meanwhile, civic and economic-development leaders say Seuss gives Springfield a powerful addition to its roster of attractions, one that can inspire — and lengthen — visits to the region.

Holyoke’s Renaissance

Another intriguing story from this past decade has been the resurgence in the city of Holyoke, a proud industrial city that has been re-inventing itself as a center for the arts, entrepreneurship, and, yes, cannabis.

In fact, in one interview with a TV crew several months ago, Holyoke’s mayor, Alex Morse, joked that it was goal, if not his mission, to see the community’s nickname change from the Paper City to the Rolling Paper City. That remark speaks to the enthusiastic manner in which the city embraced the legalization of cannabis in the Commonwealth and essentially opened its doors to many different kinds of businesses within that sector. Today, hundreds of thousands of square feet of former mill space is being eyed for cannabis cultivation and other uses, and several facilities are already operating.

But cannabis is only one of many good stories that have unfolded in Holyoke over the past decade. Others include the opening of the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center in 2012; renovation of the property known as the Cubit Building, which is now home to apartments as well as the Holyoke Community College MGM Culinary Arts Institute; creation of SPARK, an agency devoted to encouraging and mentoring entrepreneurs (now named EforAll Holyoke); new rail service; and a burgeoning cultural district in the heart of downtown.

Like Springfield and other gateway cities and former industrial centers, Holyoke has evolved beyond those roots, and with very positive results.

Springfield Thunderbirds

One of the best stories of the decade involved hockey in Springfield, and specifically a new team that has infused the region with energy, imagination, and, yes, entertaining hockey.

We’re talking about the Springfield Thunderbirds, a team, and a story, so good that the franchise’s owners and managers were named BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneurs for 2017.

To recap quickly, hockey, which has a rich history in Springfield dating back to the 1930s, was struggling in Springfield toward the middle of the decade. And then, it was gone, as the franchise known as the Springfield Falcons relocated to Arizona.

But a large group of entrepreneurs and community activists were determined not to see hockey relegated to the past. Their first move was to purchase a franchise in Portland, Maine, and relocate it to Springfield. Their second, even more important, move was to put Nate Costa, then working for the American Hockey League in its Springfield office, in charge.

His goal was to turn the Thunderbirds into a household name, and he has done just that, making the T-Birds, as they’re called, a big part of the renaissance taking place in Springfield.

The team is averaging more than 5,000 fans a night through a host of imaginative efforts — from promotions such as 3-2-1 Fridays ($3 beers, $2 hot dogs, and $1 sodas) to bringing in celebrities such as Red Sox stars David Ortiz and Pedro Martinez.

The end result? A ticket to a hockey game at the MassMutual Center is much more difficult to come by. That’s a sign of the T-Birds’ success on the ice, and in their ability to become part of the proverbial big picture when it comes to Springfield’s revitalization.

Bay Path University’s Evolution

A quarter-century ago, Bay Path College was a small, two-year school experiencing an identity crisis on a number of levels. Today, the institution is a university and a brand known across the region, and also across the country.

And the continued growth and emergence of Bay Path, led by President Carol Leary, who will be retiring next spring, certainly deserves to be among the biggest stories of the past decade.

The college, recently ranked among the fastest-growing private baccalaureate institutions in the nation, has, over the past several years, created the American Women’s College, an online institution; added several new programs, both at the undergraduate and graduate levels; opened a new science center in East Longmeadow; and become an industry leader in cybersecurity and computer-science programs. Meanwhile, it continues to stage its annual Women’s Leadership Conference each spring, an event that draws roughly 1,000 people to the MassMutual Center.

And in 2014, the institution had to create a new sign at its entrance in the center of Longmeadow, one with enough room for the word ‘university,’ a step that reflects its more global reach and its rising brand.

Over the past few years, Leary has been twice honored by BusinessWest, first with its Difference Makers award, and then its Women of Impact award. Those accolades speak to how much she has done for the school and within this region. But they also reflect just how far this school has come.

Ludlow Mills on Schedule

It’s been more than eight years since Westmass Area Development Corp. announced the 20-year project known as Ludlow Mills — a blend of both brownfield and greenfield development — and, about a third of the way through that time frame, progress at this complex of 60 buildings and adjoining undeveloped land has been steady.

When it started the clock back in 2011, Westmass said this project would generate $300 million in public and private investments, more than 2,000 jobs, and a more than $2 million increase in municipal property taxes. To date, high-profile initiatives on the site include the building of Encompass Health Rehabilitation Hospital of Western Massachusetts, WinnDevelopment’s overhaul of the structure known as Mill 10 into over-55 housing, and several smaller developments.

And there is more on the drawing board, most notably WinnDevelopment’s planned conversion of Mill 8, the so-called Clock Tower Building, into a mixed-used project featuring commercial space on the ground floor and more housing in the floors above.

The next key milestone for the project is the construction of Riverside Drive, which will open up approximately 60 acres of pre-permitted light-industrial property.

“We’re getting a lot of interest,” said Jeff Daley, Westmass’ new CEO, who noted that one of the front parcels was sold to the town of Ludlow for a new senior center, which recently broke ground. “That’s going to be a beautiful building to showcase the property from the eastern side.”

Ludlow’s municipal leaders say Ludlow Mills is already creating a trickle-down effect to the town and the region in terms of jobs and other benefits.

“It’s growing,” Daley added, “and there’s a lot of momentum, a lot of interest. People are coming in and creating stable businesses, and creating jobs. It’s really exciting.”

Ideas Take Shape at IALS

UMass Amherst may be renowned for cutting-edge scientific research, but when it comes from turning published papers into public benefits, the transition hasn’t always been smooth. Enter UMass Amherst’s Institute for Applied Life Sciences (IALS, pronounced ‘aisles’), where a collection of ‘core facilities’ is helping boost the state’s manufacturing economy — and innovation reputation — in myriad ways.

IALS was created in 2013 with $150 million in capital funding from the Massachusetts Life Sciences Center (MLSC) and the university itself. Its mission is to accelerate life-science research and advance collaboration with industry to effectively shorten the gap between scientific innovation and technological advancement.

The institute achieves this goal through three translational centers: the Models to Medicine Center, which harnesses campus research strengths in life science; the Center for Bioactive Delivery, which seeks to discover new paradigms for the discovery of optimized delivery vehicles for drugs; and the Center for Personalized Health Monitoring, which aims to accelerate the development and commercialization of low-cost, wearable, wireless sensor systems for health and biometric monitoring.

Located inside the IALS building, these core facilities — now numbering more than 30 — and their high-tech equipment are available not only to UMass researchers, but to companies that want to rent the space and equipment. For those companies, IALS provides a key resource they might not be able to afford on their own — and it could make a difference whether they invest in Western Mass. or go elsewhere.

Together, they form a pathway to commercialization — a vehicle to bring research to fruition and make an impact on society. By creating connections between research and the marketplace, IALS is doing its part to make Western Mass. a hub of innovation.

Baystate’s Expansion

Baystate Medical Center was already the region’s largest hospital — and the flagship of an ever-broadening network of hospitals and specialty practices — when it launched an ambitious, $295 million expansion, called ‘the Hospital of the Future,’ toward the end of the last decade.

‘Future,’ in this context, had multiple meanings. One was a forward-looking mindset when it came to technology, how a modern emergency room should look, and sustainable design and construction elements in the 640,000-square-foot addition. Another was the fact that Baystate left much of the new space undeveloped inside, knowing it would be needed in, well, the future.

When the new space opened in April 2012, its MassMutual Wing housed the Davis Family Heart and Vascular Center, which includes six surgical/endovascular suites designed to accommodate advanced lifesaving cardiovascular procedures, as well as 32 cardiovascular critical-care rooms that support state-of-the-art medicine. Later that year, a much larger Emergency Department opened in the new building, replacing an outdated ER that was designed to handle much less traffic than it was currently receiving.

That’s not the only way Baystate was expanding, of course. It also brought Wing Memorial Hospital and Noble Hospital into its system in 2014 and 2015, respectively, and continued adding to what has become a broad medical campus on the north end of Main Street in Springfield — not to mention its partnership with UMass Medical School in creating a downtown campus, which opened in 2016.

In short, whatever the future brings in healthcare locally, Baystate has placed itself square in the center of it.

Transformation in North Amherst

Cinda Jones, who, with her brother, Evan, represents the ninth generation of Cowls family landowners in North Amherst, has said each generation has transformed the land into what was most beneficial to the community at the time.

These days, she’s putting that philosophy to work at North Square at the Mill District. In fact, Jones’ company, W.D. Cowls Inc., and Boston-based Beacon Communities are developing three mixed-use buildings featuring 130 residential units — including 26 affordable units for people at or below 50% of the area’s median income — and 22,000 square feet of commercial space. The first residents began moving in over this past summer.

The partnership has benefited from local, state and federal support; in fact, it’s the first time that Amherst has taken advantage of legislation allowing the town to grant special tax incentives for projects that include affordable housing for low- and moderate-income tenants.

While impressive on its own, North Square reflects one of the more notable development trends in recent years: mixed-use structures in urban and village centers that generate economic vibrancy simply by putting more feet on the street.

Isenberg Climbs in the Rankings

One of the more intriguing stories from the past decade has been the steady rise of the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst, a facility that has taken on a new profile — on campus and across the country.

The school, which first opened its doors in 1947, is now ranked first (actually, it’s tied with UConn) among the public undergraduate business programs in the Northeast in the 2020 U.S. News & World Report listings, 11th among the best public business schools in the country, and 50th in the rankings of the best business schools overall.

These numbers have been climbing steadily over the past years as the Isenberg School has made every greater investments in its programs and faculty, an expansion initiative punctuated by the opening this year of a $62 million expansion that puts a new face on Isenberg and boldly announces its intentions to continue its rise in the ranks.

EDC on a Mission

The goal of the Economic Development Council (EDC) of Western Mass. is multi-faceted, but has long boiled down to one core mission: encouraging the growth of the region’s economy, which was pounded by the Great Recession but has since been on a decidedly upward trajectory.

Its president, Rick Sullivan, says the EDC has seen a definite uptick in site searches, both from companies in the region that want to expand and those looking at Western Mass. for the first time.

“What we’ve become is what we call an ‘honest broker,’ he said. “We treat private developers and quasi-public developers the same. When a request comes in, it goes out to everyone on the list, all the economic-development professionals in the area, and we do not care whether the development occurs in Greenfield or Agawam or anywhere in between. We just want to have growth happen in the region, and that will continue to be the case.”

Many of the searches don’t result in a business moving here, he added, but those inquiries are a good gauge of the current health of the economy and the potential of the region, and they’re coming from a range of industries, from manufacturers and construction-materials companies to warehousing operations and call centers. When the region is doing well, Sullivan said, its natural pluses, such as its position near major interstates roughly between Boston and New York, become even more attractive.

Meanwhile, the EDC has forged stronger partnerships with colleges and universities, such as a cybersecurity management program at Bay Path and water-innovation and clean-energy work at UMass Amherst. “I think you’ll see the EDC do more with higher ed,” Sullivan said. “That’s where the talent pool is.”

The economy might eventually waver, but the EDC intends to maintain a steady course when it comes to raising the profile and success of its namesake region.

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Special Publications

Regional Philanthropic Opportunities

View the PDF flipbook

While philanthropy is a year-round activity, the holidays are a time when many of us think about those who are most in need, and how, in general, they can help make Western Mass. a better community for all who call this region home.

To help individuals, groups, and businesses make effective decisions when it comes to philanthropy, BusinessWest and the Healthcare News present the annual Giving Guide. Open the PDF flipbook to view profiles of several area nonprofit organizations, a sampling of this region’s thousands of nonprofits.

These profiles are intended to educate readers about what these groups are doing, and also to inspire them to provide the critical support (which comes in many different forms) that these organizations and so many others desperately need. Indeed, these profiles list not only giving opportunities — everything from online donations to corporate sponsorships — but also volunteer opportunities.

And it is through volunteering, as much as with a cash donation, that individuals can help a nonprofit carry out its important mission within our community.

BusinessWest and HCN launched the Giving Guide in 2011 to essentially harness this region’s incredibly strong track record of philanthropy and support the organizations dedicated to helping those in need.

The publication is designed to inform, but also to encourage individuals and organizations to find new and imaginative ways to give back. We are confident that it will succeed with both of these assignments.

George O’Brien, Editor
John Gormally, Publisher
Kate Campiti, Associate Publisher

 

 

Presented by:

 

 
 

 


 

Cover Story

Taking Hold

More than 30 years ago, Paul DiGrigoli made it a goal to put his name on a line of hair-care products. It took nearly three decades to realize that dream, but ultimately it took more than time. It required him to step back from his business — or ‘away from the chair,’ as he put it — and attain the time and flexibility to fully flex his entrepreneurial muscles. There’s a lesson here, and he imparts it upon the many audiences who hear his motivational and hair-industry-focused speeches.

Paul DiGrigoli couldn’t put his hands on it easily, but he knew he had the news clipping somewhere.

It’s a saved copy of a Daily Hampshire Gazette story on his salon in Easthampton, one of many news items he’s saved over the years. He doesn’t recall the exact date, but knows it’s from the late ’80s. The content he remembers most vividly — and references most often — are his remarks about someday having a product line with his name on it.

That someday turned out to be roughly three decades later, as DiGrigoli unveiled a full slate of products — everything from shampoo and conditioner to something that will reduce the time it takes to blow-dry hair (more on later) — about a year ago. The name on the bottle is Paul Jõseph, chosen because Joseph, his middle name, is much easier to pronounce than DiGrigoli.

And while that timeline certainly isn’t what he had in mind when he talked with the Gazette business writer back when Ronald Reagan was in the White House, there’s a reason why it took so long for the dream to become reality.

Actually, several of them.

They include everything from the immense amount of competition in this vast market segment and the difficulty of breaking in, to the vast amounts of research and trial and error that go into creating such products, to the challenge of simply getting products into salons. And perhaps the biggest reason is the time it takes to do all that and how DiGrigoli needed to get out from behind the chair, as he put it, and work on his business, not necessarily in it.

“Entrepreneurship is not an easy thing, and I think that, at the end of the day, you try to get to the point where the business can run without you,” he explained. “When you can do that, it’s a game changer because, for most people, they’re not running their business; their business is running them.

“Entrepreneurship is not an easy thing, and I think that, at the end of the day, you try to get to the point where the business can run without you.”

“I came to the realization that, in order to grow my business exponentially, I had to step away,” he went on, adding that he’s still very much involved in the many aspects of his company, but he doesn’t micromanage and does spend considerable time and energy grooming leaders to run these operations.

This has left him free of many of the day-to-day details and ‘distractions,’ as he called them, and with the time to travel the country speaking, write a book for those within the industry titled Booked Solid — the Ultimate Guide to Getting and Keeping Customers, grow and diversify his business with initiatives such as the new product line, and even take on some real-estate initatitives, such as a building he and some partners renovated on Capital Drive — it now boasts several tenants and will likely become the eventual home of his school and salon.

These are all lessons DiGrigoli tries to impart upon the audiences he speaks to on a frequent basis. These are most often cosmetology students and professionals already in the business. Many are where he was a few decades ago and generally have what it takes to get where he is now.

What they need to know is how to make that transition from being a stylist to being an entrepreneur, he went on, adding that he has plenty of guidance and advice for them on this subject.

“By stepping away, and by sitting still, I have been able to organize my thinking,” he explained. “When you organize your thinking, that’s pretty profound because you’re allowed to make the bigger decisions involving your company, not the smaller decisions; when you’re wrapped up in the day-to-day operations, you’re caught up.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with DiGrigoli about his new product line, but mostly about the ongoing journey that brought him to the day when he could put ‘Paul Jõseph’ on a bottle of conditioner, and the lessons this story offers — for people not only in cosmetology, but in every line of business.

Hair Apparent

DiGrigoli’s small office at his salon and school on Riverdale Street is crowded with photographs — there’s shots of him with Vidal Sassoon and John Paul Deloria, co-founder of Paul Mitchell, for example, as well awards from various local and national organizations, a few slogans in frames, and news clippings (but not the one mentioned earlier from the Gazette).

Paul DiGrigoli says it took many years of research, trial and error, and “tweaking” to bring his lineup of hair-care products to the marketplace.

There’s also a simple map of the 50 states, with the vast majority of them colored over with a blue highlighter. Those colored-in states are those that DiGrigoli has traveled to for his many speaking engagements, and when looking at it while talking with BusinessWest, he discovered he was a little behind in his work.

Indeed, Montana, still white on this map, needs to be crossed off the list, he said, adding that there are just a few states, mostly in the Midwest — Nebraska, South Dakota, and Wyoming — that he has still to visit.

That map, especially when absorbed in concert with all that other memorabilia, provides solid evidence of just how far DiGrigoli has come in his life and his career, which now spans nearly 45 years. It’s a story he shares with those in his audiences, and one that most in this market know by now.

It’s about an aspiring stylist and entrepreneur who was once living at the YMCA of Greater Springfield while enrolled in cosmetology classes at Springfield Technical Community College. Like most who break into this profession, he started out working for someone else before putting his own name over the door. And the name has been put on not just the salon, but also a cosmetology school that has grown steadily over the years.

And now, as noted, it adorns a wide array of products now available at his salon and many others in this region and outside of it.

The line, all with the Paul Jõseph name on the bottles, includes Stacked, a volumizing shampoo and also a volumizing conditioner; Lock It In, a color-protecting shampoo and color-protecting conditioner; Real Clear, a clarifying shampoo; Intensity, a ‘leave-in treatment’; Upgrade, a quick-blow-dry spray; and Elevate, a color-protecting hairspray.

Bringing each product to the shelves was a lengthy, challenging exercise, he told BusinessWest, noting that the marketplace is flooded with similar products, and for his to succeed, they had to be different and represent some form of improvement over what was already on the shelves.

As a result, he would often hear conflicting advice from customers and friends alike.

“What started it was my clients, who would say things like, ‘Paul, maybe you should think about your own product line,’” he recalled. “But there were other people who were telling me I was crazy to want to do that because of all the products that were already out there.”

Ultimately, there was more than enough motivation to persevere, he said, summoning numbers that he knows by heart and rattles off pretty much every time he speaks publicly to get his message across.

“Last year, consumers spent $46 billion — that’s with a ‘b’ — on hair care and cosmetics,” he said. “Women spent $12.5 billion on color alone.”

But bringing the Paul Jõseph line to the shelves was a lengthy and challenging process that began with customers voicing needs and requests for solutions, and continued with years of R&D, product refinement, and, finally, getting something ready for public consumption.

“Last year, consumers spent $46 billion — that’s with a ‘b’ — on hair care and cosmetics. Women spent $12.5 billion on color alone.”

He used the Upgrade product to get these points across.

As noted, it usually began with customer input. “People would say, ‘you should come up with a product that actually blow-dries my hair quicker, because I have two kids and I have to get them to school and have to get to work myself, and I don’t have time to do my hair, but my hair’s important to me,’” he recalled, adding that he took these marching orders and went to work creating something he believes is unique in the marketplace.

Upgrade has a vegetable protein in it, and it actually pushes the water out of the cuticle of the hair, he explained, adding that the product enables the user to reduce blow-drying time by a full 30%.

It came about through considerable work with a chemist he hired, and thorough testing of the product in two intriguing laboratories — his school and his salon.

“I would give it to all my students and my clients,” he explained. “And we would have feedback sheets and would get comments like ‘the fragrance is too strong,’ or ‘the fragrance isn’t strong enough,’ or ‘it’s making my hair too dry.’ We got all this information back, and I would go to my chemist and say, ‘these are my concerns; this is what we’re finding,’ and we’d tweak it.”

Head Counts

It was this way with all the products in the lineup, he went on, adding that it took more than three years to finally get Upgrade on the shelves. His portfolio of products — he’s always looking to add new ones — is now in 42 salons across the country (many owned by people who attend his speaking engagements).

The goal for the first full year was to be in closer to 100 salons, he said, adding that he is still quite pleased with the results and knows those numbers will grow steadily in the years to come.

Paul DiGrigoli’s branded hair-care line is a dream 30 years in the making.

“Slow and steady wins the race; this is a marathon, not a sprint,” he told BusinessWest, summoning one of the many time-worn axioms about business, entrepreneurship, and life that he imparts upon his audiences and business writers alike.

“If you love what you’re doing, you’ll never work a day in your life,” he said, borrowing another one he uses frequently. They may sound like clichés, he acknowledged, but they are words to live by and run a business by.

And this is the one of the many messages he leaves with his audiences during talks that are motivational in nature and generally positive in tone. Indeed, DiGrigoli will almost certainly remind his audiences of the hair industry’s long-term security and how, while they can buy shoes, books, and golf clubs on the Internet, they can’t purchase a haircut there.

“No matter how big the information age gets or the social-media platform gets, no one’s ever going to take our jobs,” he told BusinessWest, paraphrasing what he tells those at gatherings like the one he spoke at a few weeks ago in Baltimore. “No one’s going to walk down the street and say, ‘where’d you get your hair cut?’ and hear ‘I got it on Facebook.’ That’s never going to happen. We still have to touch people to cut their hair, and that’s never going to change.”

But his talks are also loaded with hard talk about how salon owners — and those in other lines of work as well — need to step out from behind the chair, figuratively if not literally, to get the business to the next level.

Elaborating, he said that, while most all of those he addresses are ready and willing to become more entrepreneurial, as he did, many are just not able because they’re still doing too much work in their business.

“It’s not that they don’t have the knowledge or have the experience — they’re just physically exhausted, period,” he explained. “They’re trying to be all things to all people, and that’s impossible.”

He knows this from experience, and to get his point across, he summoned an anecdote that many of his younger audiences might not relate to directly — but they get the point.

“It was like watching The Ed Sullivan Show,” he said, referencing the variety show from a half-century ago. “I was the guy with the plates — the guy spinning a whole bunch of plates at one time. He had five plates going at one time … he’d go over here trying to spin one plate, and then over there to keep another plate spinning, and when that one got wobbly, he’d go over there and get it spinning again.

“That was me,” he went on. “Until I learned to step back and take a snapshot of my business, knowing that I had the things, or skills, I really enjoyed doing, and other things I didn’t want to do because I wasn’t good at them. Once I found that out, it was a game changer.”

Other salon owners — and those in every other business sector — can change their game by taking a similar step back, he said, adding that the keys are having a team behind you and the passion to turn dreams into reality.

Making Do

When asked what’s next for him and what would have to be called his portfolio of businesses, DiGrigoli listed a number of goals and ambitions, from the very specific — writing a another book (this one for the public, not just salon owners) — to the very broad — making Paul Jõseph a “household name,” as he put it.

But his overriding ambition is to continue helping those in his industry — the 1.7 million stylists in this country, by his count — with everything from filling their scheduling books with appointments to diversifying their business operations.

Mostly, though, he’s focused on helping them becoming more entrepreneurial and able to work on their business, and not necessarily in it.

Yes, that’s another cliché, but it’s an important one, and he’s become a role model for how to take on that assignment — as that news clipping from 30 years ago, and all that have come since — will attest.

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

Cover Story

Forward Thinking

Kim Robinson

Kim Robinson, who has worked with planning and development agencies in Detroit and Nevada, has been chosen to fill the large shoes left by Tim Brennan, who recently retired as director of the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission after more than four decades in that position. Robinson is focused on a number of short- and long-term priorities — everything from the upcoming census to east-west rail service.

Kim Robinson says she wasn’t exactly looking to move on from her job as executive director of the Truckee Meadows Regional Planning Agency in Reno, Nevada.

But then…

The advertisement posted on the jobs board on the American Planners Assoc. website caught her attention. And held it.

It was an ad seeking candidates to succeed Tim Brennan as executive director of the Pioneer Valley Regional Planning Commission, a post he held for more than four decades.

“ I saw this as a one-of-a kind opportunity. This seemed like a real opportunity to lead an organization that is so well thought of and has so many opportunities to help and support the 43 jurisdictions that are part of the area we serve. I could tell this was a special opportunity.”

Robinson, who moved into Brennan’s office just a few weeks ago, doesn’t recall the specific wording within that posting, but does recall what struck her eye and what prompted her to eventually move roughly 2,800 miles east.

“I saw this as a one-of-a kind opportunity, and I recognized that pretty early on in reading the job description itself,” she told BusinessWest. “This seemed like a real opportunity to lead an organization that is so well thought of and has so many opportunities to help and support the 43 jurisdictions that are part of the area we serve. I could tell this was a special opportunity.”

That area is Hampden and Hampshire counties, and those 43 jurisdictions are cities and towns as diverse as Springfield and Ware; Northampton and Longmeadow. For those communities, the PVPC, as it’s called, provides, as Robinson noted, a number of planning-related services.

Indeed, from its creation in 1962, the PVPC has been involved with everything from building bike trails to cleanup of the Connecticut River to creating the so-called Plan for Progress, a regularly updated document that has identified planning priorities for the region.

The specific list of services doesn’t go from A to Z, but rather from A to W, starting with air-quality analysis and ending with water-supply protection. In between lies everything from climate action and clean energy to housing planning and development to parking studies.

Meanwhile, the PVPC also provides what’s known as local technical assistance, or LTA, to member communities. It can take many forms, including information from the agency’s Data Center, traffic counts on local roads, and assistance with local grant applications.

the Connecticut River is no longer the “best-landscaped sewer in the country.”

Kim Robinson says one of many priorities for the PVPC, and the region, is expanding rail service to Springfield and other area communities.

It was the opportunity to be part of all that and write the next chapter in the agency’s history that prompted Robinson to go beyond reading the want ad and actively seek the position.

Since arriving, she has been busy on a number of fronts — from putting some of her own maps up on the walls of her office (like most planners, she has an affinity for maps) to meeting with many of the PVPC commissioners from those 43 cities and towns that are members; from getting a lay of the land, if you will, to setting some priorities for the short and long term.

In that first category is the upcoming national census and work to help ensure that as many area residents as possible are counted. An accurate count is important, she told BusinessWest, because the dollar figures attached to grants and assistance programs are driven by the numbers generated by the census.

“A lot of funding is derived from the census, so we obviously want as accurate a count as possible,” she said, adding that the PVPC has formed what’s known as a Complete Count Committee, or CCC, which utilizes local knowledge, influence, and resources to educate communities and promote the census through outreach efforts (more on that later).

Meanwhile, in that latter category are issues ranging from housing — specifically, the need to create more housing options, especially at the lower end of the price scale — to transportation and especially efforts to create more rail service and, in particular, an east-west line. And also something Robinson called ‘resiliency.’

This is an attribute the region and its individual cities and towns need to attain, she said, adding that there are many factors that can impact long-term resiliency, from jobs to climate change and efforts to control it.

“Resiliency is about an organization, or a community, being able to absorb changes that are kind of outside its control, whether it’s the economy or the climate or other factors — it’s the ability to be able to withstand and move forward,” she noted, adding that the goal moving forward is to make the 43 cities and towns in the region more resilient.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Robinson about her move across the country and what lies ahead for the region and the PVPC when it comes to planning and readying this area for what is to come in the decades ahead.

Background Discussion

Robinson brings a diverse background in planning and economic development to her new position with the PVPC, as well as experience working in different parts of the country.

Indeed, before relocating to Reno, she worked in Detroit, where she was born, starting in 1997 as a planner/administrator for the Jefferson-Chalmers District Council.

A year later, she became manager of the city’s Planning and Development Department, a post she stayed in for a full decade, an intriguing and challenging time for a city that fell into a serious spiral but in recent years has been on the rebound.

Early on in her Detroit tenure, the concept of empowerment zones was gaining traction, and Detroit was awarded $100 million for initiatives and departments.

“That provided an opportunity to do a lot of good, interesting work,” she recalled, “and there started to be a lot of growth and growth potential, and by the mid-2000s, we could really start to see the positive changes that were coming.”

Seeking a new and different challenge but in a somewhat familiar setting (she spent much of her childhood living in Southern Nevada), Robinson relocated to Reno and became Planning manager of the Washoe County Department of Community Development in 2007. Later, she would become executive director of the Truckee Meadows Regional Planning Agency, where she addressed a number of the same challenges she will encounter in Western Mass., including housing and the need to create more options at different price points.

Meanwhile, industrial land and, more specifically, challenges presented by its development, was another of the issues she and her agency addressed.

“The largest industrial park in the country is in the county next door,” she noted, referring to the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center, a 107,000-acre facility that is home to more than 100 facilities, including the Tesla Gigafactory 1, a massive lithium-ion-battery and electric-vehicle assembly plant. “So the conversation around competition between the two counties was a large one. Meanwhile, one of the things we saw was a large number of jobs going to that county, but not a lot of homes being built. So the Washoe County area, all 6,000 square miles of it, which includes Reno and the city of Sparks, was responsible for providing housing, schools, education, all those pieces; it was a tremendous strain on the existing infrastructure, and they weren’t getting the tax dollars from that employment.”

Strategies for addressing these issues were part of the five-year regional plan for Washoe County that Robinson helped draft earlier this year. The ink was drying as she read about the job opportunity in the Pioneer Valley.

Robinson said she enjoyed her work in Western Nevada and, as she noted, wasn’t really looking for a new challenge, but that ad on the American Planners Assoc. job board changed that. Specifically, she recalled what the PVPC wrote with regard to what it was seeking in its first new executive director since Jimmy Carter was in the White House.

“They were looking for leadership, experience, and the opportunity to get some different perspective,” she recalled, adding that she was confident she could deliver all of the above, especially that ‘different perspective.’

Indeed, Robinson said she knew little, if anything about Hampden and Hampshire counties when she applied, but was intrigued by the agency, the depth of its portfolio of services, and the chance to lead such an organization.

While getting to know the region and some of the specific communities — she’s visited a few and plans to put a considerable number of miles on her car in the weeks and months to come — and also meeting with staff and having a few conversations with her predecessor, she is getting a handle on the issues confronting them. And in many respects, they’re the same as those she encountered in Nevada and Detroit.

Moving Targets

These include renewable energy (especially solar), housing, transportation, overall sustainability, and, yes, that all-important 2020 census.

Transportation, and especially efforts to expand and improve rail service, was Brennan’s pet project and one of his enduring legacies, said Robinson, adding that she understands the importance of passenger rail service to this area and its long-term prospects and intends to continue Brennan’s advocacy for additional service.

“We’ve just recently had a huge success with the start of the Flyer,” she said, referring to expanded north-south rail service on a line that extends from New Haven to Greenfield. “That’s a palpable piece of Tim’s legacy.”

As for the potential for east-west service that would link Boston and Springfield, Robinson said she’s among many eagerly awaiting the results of the state’s ongoing study of that concept.

But rail is just part of the larger transportation picture, she went on, adding that the PVPC is in the process of updating the Regional Transportation Plan, which will include discussion of streets, bike lanes, transit, “all the ways we move in our community,” she noted.

As for the census, it is an important priority for individual cities and towns and the PVPC, said Robinson, adding that the counts do far more than help determine how many congressional districts a state has and how they are drawn.

And the Complete Count Committee plays an important role in getting the numbers right.

“A lot of funding is derived from the census, so we obviously want as accurate a count as possible.”

“These committees present an opportunity to bring together all the various folks that are impacted by, or can help to impact, the census itself,” she explained. “We bring together a wide group of people — service providers, representatives of the cities and towns, the Census Bureau — and the conversation is about how we can get the most accurate and complete count possible.”

The upcoming census is an example of the many ways the PVPC assists local communities, and it also provides that local technical assistance, said Robinson, adding that this comes in a number of forms. As one example, she cited ongoing work with Longmeadow, which has requested assistance with its open-space and recreation plan, as well as frequent requests to help communities amend zoning bylaws.

The agency is also enjoying success with — and looking to perhaps expand — what it calls ‘shared services,’ such as accounting services provided by an individual hired by the PVPC that can be made available to smaller communities, thus saving them the expense of hiring someone themselves.

“It’s a great opportunity for them to save money because they’re buying along with others,” she explained, adding that other shared services include IT help and other areas; for example, at present, Longmeadow and East Longmeadow are having discussions about sharing a health director.

Moving forward, the PVPC will continually look for new and different ways to assist member communities, said Robinson, adding that the already-deep list and the potential to add to it was one of the many aspects of this job that caught her attention.

Toward Tomorrow

As she talked with BusinessWest in one of the conference rooms at PVPC’s headquarters on Congress Street in Springfield, Robinson said she doesn’t spend a lot of time looking at the APA jobs board and wasn’t necessarily looking to leave the Reno area.

“I applied for one job,” she explained.

It was a job she continually described as a one-of-a-kind opportunity, and for a number of reasons — but especially a desire to continue a nearly 60-year track record of service to the region, one that involves keeping one eye on today and the other squarely on tomorrow, meaning decades down the road.

That’s been the PVPC story, and Robinson is excited about the prospects of writing the next several chapters.

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

Cover Story Event Galleries Women of Impact 2019

Scenes from the Dec. 5th Luncheon

 

This is the second class of Women of Impact, a new recognition program created by BusinessWest to recognize individuals who are making a difference in this community and tell stories that need to be told.

This is a diverse class of winners, in every sense of that phrase, but especially when it comes to the manner in which they’re making an impact, whether it’s through public service, turning around a nonprofit, connecting individuals with opportunities to serve their communities, managing a school system, mentoring entrepreneurs, helping individuals and families find financial security, running a successful business, or donating time and talent to area nonprofits and institutions.

Join us as we celebrate them on Dec. 5 at the Sheraton Springfield. We invite you to come and applaud these truly impactful women.

Photos by Dani Fine Photography

The Women of Impact for 2019 are:

Tricia Canavan

President, United Personnel Services

Carol Moore Cutting

President, CEO, and general manager, Cutting Edge Broadcasting

Jean Deliso

Principal, Deliso Financial Services

Ellen Freyman

Partner, Shatz, Schwartz & Fentin

Mary Hurley

Massachusetts Governor’s Councilor

Lydia Martinez-Alvarez

Assistant superintendent, Springfield Public Schools

Suzanne Parker

Executive director, Girls Inc. of the Valley

Katherine Putnam

Managing director, Golden Seeds

Event Information

Date: Thursday, December 5, 2019
Time: 11 a.m.-1:45 p.m.
Tickets: ON SALE NOW $65/person; $650/table of 10
Location: Sheraton Springfield, One, Monarch Place, Springfield, MA 01144
For more information: Call (413) 781-8600 x100 or email at [email protected]

 

THE 2019 WOMEN OF IMPACT AWARDS LUNCHEON IS SOLD OUT

Keynote Speaker

Lisa Tanzer, president of Life is Good, has over 25 years of consumer brand experience. Prior to becoming president, Lisa served as the company’s head of Marketing after spending over 20 years on the board of directors of the Life is Good Kids Foundation. She’s held executive positions in the entertainment, ecommerce, and education sectors. Earlier in her career, Lisa held marketing and strategy roles at Hasbro, Staples, The Gillette Company, and PricewaterhouseCoopers. She received her BA from Tufts University and an MBA from Harvard Business School.

Co-emcee

Taylor Knight joined 22News in July of 2018 as a multimedia journalist. Currently, Taylor is the co-anchor of the 22News weekday morning newscasts and a reporter for the 22News I-Team.  Before arriving in Springfield, Taylor was a reporter for FiOS1 News in New Jersey. Taylor began her career as a multimedia journalist in Connecticut, covering news and sports in Fairfield County.  Taylor earned her B.A. in broadcast journalism at Temple University in Philadelphia. During college, she interned at WFSB in Connecticut and NBC Sports Philadelphia. In her free time, Taylor enjoys spending time with her dog, running, and watching the Philadelphia Eagles. She is excited to now be “Working for You!”

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Cover Story

The Next Steps for Springfield

Tim Sheehan, who succeeded Kevin Kennedy as Springfield’s chief Development officer in July, may be new to the job, but he’s certainly not new to the city. He grew up there, and later worked for two different mayoral administrations. In recent years, he’s seen the city go from the depths of receivership to what many are calling a renaissance. Looking to build off created momentum, he said there is still considerable work to do.

Tim Sheehan left Springfield, and a job with the state agency MassDevelopment, in 2002 to become director of the Redevelopment Agency in Norwalk, Conn.

But he didn’t exactly leave his birthplace behind.

Indeed, with a number of family and friends still living in and around the City of Homes, he returned frequently — at least once a month, by his estimate — and thus was keeping pace with all that happened in the city over that time.

That’s a lengthy list that includes everything from receivership to the opening of MGM Springfield to the revitalization, decades in the making, of Union Station, a project he’s quite familiar with because, starting in 2017, he took the train to Springfield for those visits.

So Sheehan didn’t have to reacquaint himself with the city, its challenges, and its opportunities when he accepted Mayor Domenic Sarno’s proposition to succeed Kevin Kennedy as Springfield’s chief Development officer.

In this important role, he has some big shoes to fill — Kennedy played a huge part in bringing more than $4 billion in development to the city since that tornado touched down in June 2011 — but also some momentum to build on and opportunities to add new chapters to an ongoing success story.

Indeed, while noting that considerable progress has been made with everything from vitality in the central business district to jobs to the city’s fiscal health, Sheehan concedes that much work remains to be done.

“There’s a very positive perception regarding where the city has positioned itself as a city within Western Mass.,” he said. “But there’s still room to grow on that, and I think Springfield can become a real leader in urban development.”

“The casino has met us a long way in the objective of encouraging people to go out from the casino and explore the city. What we need to do is take the next step so that there’s some sense of equivalence between what’s at the casino and what’s outside on Main Street.”

In no particular order, he listed the city’s many neighborhoods and needed work to revitalize the ‘Main Streets,’ if you will, of Indian Orchard, Forest Park, Six Corners, Boston Road, and even 16 Acres, where he grew up, as well as the need to create more market-rate housing in the city, a realm where he enjoyed success in Norwalk.

Sheehan also mentioned some specific projects that most might think of when they hear the term ‘economic development’ — 31 Elm St. was at the top of that list — and some initiatives they might not connect with that term, such as job training and assistance to small businesses, which are the backbone of the city’s economy.

“There are some studies that looked at employment and job-training initiatives in the city and discussed ways they could be improved,” he noted. “And there are studies that looked at how we could expand and assist the industrial and manufacturing sectors that exist here, and still others that look at the importance of the small-business sector within Springfield’s larger economy, the role it plays, and what government could provide to strengthen small business.

“As much as the large-scale development in the city has been fantastic and they’re a beacon to attract people,” he went on, citing MGM, CRRC, and other eight- and nine-figure projects, “we can’t lose sight of the fact that the smaller businesses — employers with fewer than six people — are the vast majority of the businesses, and they contribute significantly to the economic health of the city.”

And then, there’s MGM Springfield, or what’s happening across the street from it, to be more precise. Actually, it’s what’s not happening that needs to be addressed moving forward, said Sheehan, citing the need for balance or ‘equivalence,’ as he put it.

“The casino has met us a long way in the objective of encouraging people to go out from the casino and explore the city,” he explained. “What we need to do is take the next step so that there’s some sense of equivalence between what’s at the casino and what’s outside on Main Street.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Sheehan about his return to Springfield and how he intends to help build on the positive energy that’s been created and take the city to a still-higher plane.

Tracking Results

Looking out the windows of the train during those trips from New Haven, Sheehan said he could certainly see progress coming to the city he grew up in — and not just in the gleaming casino taking shape in the South End.

He noted improvement in everything from the entertainment district to parks; from public safety to job creation.

But, as noted, there is still considerable work to do, he said, adding that the prospect of leading such efforts was enticing enough to make ‘chief Development officer, city of Springfield’ the next line on an already-intriguing résumé.

And, as mentioned, some of the earlier lines involve Springfield as well. Indeed, he worked for two mayors — Richard Neal (before he become Congressman Neal) and his successor, Mary Hurley, in the Community Development and Planning office.

From Springfield City Hall, Sheehan moved to work for the state at the Executive Office of Communities and Development, and later at MassDevelopment, both at that agency’s Boston office and its first regional office in Springfield, which he directed.

He enjoyed the work, but eventually he desired a return to working on the municipal level and in development work.

“At the time, MassDevelopment was doing a lot of community-development lending, and I was doing projects on the North Shore and Lawrence, and then projects in the Berkshires,” he recalled. “One of the problems, from my perspective, is that I was drifting toward being more of a banker and less of a hands-on community-development/economic-development person.”

While MGM is thriving, Tim Sheehan says, one of the challenges facing the city is the need to achieve what he calls ‘equivalence’ on the other side of Main Street, seen here.

He found an opportunity to get back to the latter in Norwalk, and its Redevelopment Agency, a broad, one-stop shop for planning, housing, and economic development.

In Norwalk, a city roughly half Springfield’s size (85,000 people), one of his biggest achievements involved increasing the number of market-rate housing units in and around downtown, thus growing the population in the central business district.

The city had a number of factors working in its favor as it went about this assignment, he noted, especially its proximity to New York and status as a bedroom community for Gotham.

“It’s an hour by train to Grand Central Station, and 45 minutes to be in Manhattan proper,” he said, adding that these numbers translate into a fairly attractive commute, thus making such projects doable from an economic perspective in terms of the prices developers could charge for such properties.

Springfield doesn’t have such geography working for it, he went on, adding quickly that it can take advantage of some demographic shifts, especially retiring Baby Boomers and Millennials both becoming more drawn to walkable cities and the amenities of urban living.

What’s more, the city has a large stock of older buildings, many of them architectural gems, that could be converted to market-rate housing, perhaps with retail or other uses on the ground floors.

“The architecture in Springfield is far beyond what new development would be able to accomplish today,” he noted. “What we would like to see is a dedicated effort to look at repurposing those buildings with residential uses.”

Still, the numbers have to work for developers to move forward with projects like the one now underway at the former Willys-Overland building, and in some cases, it might be challenging to make them work.

“Springfield has the capacity to absorb more market-rate housing, but I think there’s going to have to be some level of government support for that,” he said, citing statistics showing that, while Worcester added more than 600 new housing units between 2013 and 2017, Springfield added 230. “But these projects have to pencil out from an economic standpoint. That was a challenge in downtown Hartford, but both the state and the city stepped up to understand that.”

“The importance of having a downtown residential population is critical to the long-term economic viability of your municipality,” he went on, underscoring the importance of such initiatives. “This is one of the challenges that Springfield needs to address.”

Overall, the city needs to create much more of a balance downtown between market-rate housing and the large amounts of subsidized housing that still exist in the central business district, he said, adding that this has been a long-standing issue for Springfield and a key to continued revitalization.

“You can’t have all or mostly subsidized housing — that’s not good for your downtown,” he went on, adding that Springfield’s housing stock downtown has been out of balance for some time.

Down on Main Street

But housing is just one of the issues and challenges facing the city, said Sheehan, who returned to the subject of MGM Springfield and the work needed to match the glitter on the west side of Main Street with some on the east side.

At the moment, there is little if any glitter there, he said, noting that there are several vacant or underutilized properties in the shadow of the casino, and this is a situation that needs to be addressed if the property is to reach its full potential and become even more of a catalyst for development.

“You have to give a nod to MGM in terms of the architectural design of the casino — it was meant to be porous, and that’s atypical of casino design, but a net positive for Main Street in Springfield,” he noted. “But in order to have people traversing between Main Street and the casino, there needs to be a sense of equivalence on both sides of the street.

“If I didn’t necessarily want to stay on the casino floor and wanted to come out and see what downtown might have to offer, I’m inhibited from doing that by coming to the front door on Main Street, looking across the street, and seeing that there’s no ‘there’ there for me,” he went on. “I’m going to turn around and go back into the casino.”

Creating a ‘there’ will require private investment, he continued, adding that a consortium of investors have expressed some interest in taking on properties that are “not meeting their full potential.”

And while downtown and the blocks around MGM are certainly a priority for the city, Sheehan said, Springfield’s other neighborhoods need some attention as well, especially their main commercial districts.

“If you look at the neighborhood commercial corridors, there is a lot of work to be done,” and strengthening those corridors is a priority moving forward, he told BusinessWest, listing Main Street Street in Indian Orchard as one such corridor, the ‘X’ in Forest Park as another, and Boston Road, which he grew up near, as still another.

“If you look at Boston Road, there is significant vacancy there,” he said, referring not only to the Eastfield Mall and the exodus of stores there but the full length of that commercial thoroughfare. “It’s not the Boston Road I used to remember as a kid; there are some challenges there.”

Six Corners is another neighborhood corridor where improvement is needed and work is in progress, he said, noting the infrastructure work taking place there, especially a new roundabout designed to ease traffic flow in that area.

The hope is that such civic improvements there and elsewhere will generate private-sector investments, he went on, adding quickly that revitalization of neighborhoods such as Six Corners requires collaborative efforts among a number of parties — and healthy doses of imagination.

We’ve made a big investment in the public infrastructure there,” he said. “Now, we need to look at the sustainability of the businesses that exist there; we’re doing some early planning activity with regard to what commercial activity is appropriate for there.

“We’re also trying to get more engagement in these centers from the institutions that surround them,” he went on. “How can we engage better with AIC and Springfield College to ensure that the businesses that surround them are made more healthy by their populations?”

These projects are often much more difficult to undertake because they do involve private investment, he went on, adding that the public (government) side has to inspire such investments and make them easier through planning and a roadmap for the future.

“In order to entice the private developer to come to those areas, from the city’s perspective, you need to have a plan as to what you want to happen there, and you have to have everything aligned with that plan, so that, if I’m making the investment after reading your plan, I don’t have to deal with zoning in terms of having to change something to fit your plan; it’s already been done,” he explained. “I’ve read the plan, I understand what the city wants, and the city’s done all the heavy lifting to get my project approved.”

Along for the Ride

Talking about the train he took into Springfield, Sheehan raved about everything from the price of the ticket to how full the cars were — at least to the Hartford stop.

“The train is fantastic; the ability to go from Springfield to Hartford or Hartford to Springfield or New Haven to Springfield for $6 or $12 one way … that’s a bargain and a very convenient form of transportation,” he said, adding that the train has become a very attractive alternative to those not looking to battle the traffic on I-95 or I-91 on a Friday afternoon, or any afternoon, for that matter.

It’s not his official job description, but as chief Development officer, Sheehan’s goal is putting even more people on those trains coming into Springfield — professionals, tourists, and those, like him, coming to visit family and friends.

It’s also his job to give them not only more to see out the windows, but more to experience once the train pulls in.

It’s a challenge he certainly embraces, and one that brings his career full circle in many respects — back to the city he grew up in, and back to the city he wants to take the next level.

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

Cover Story

Walking Her Way

Brynn Cartelli knows that most of the 13 people who emerged victorious on The Voice before her had seen that triumph be the defining moment in their life. She is determined not to let that happen to her. With several hit singles out already, like “Walk My Way” and “Grow Young,” she is making strides in her quest to make The Voice just the start of her career.

When Brynn Cartelli walked on stage to do a soundcheck on March 8, she looked up and saw Bruins and Celtics banners and 20,000 seats that would soon be filled with people waiting for her to open a performance that would also include Grammy Award winner Kelly Clarkson.

All of a sudden, it dawned on her where she was: TD Garden in Boston, a place iconic artists like Taylor Swift and Ed Sheeran had sold out countless times. A place where she used to go to watch her favorite artists, such as the two just mentioned, perform. A place where she sat a few months ago to see Sam Smith sing.

“I forgot where we were because I was in my dressing room all day getting ready,” she told BusinessWest. “I looked at my guitar player, and I was like, ‘holy crap.’”

There have been quite a few ‘holy crap’ moments, and at least a few other instances of maybe forgetting where she was, since Cartelli burst onto the scene — and into the nation’s cultural consciousness — with her stunning win on NBC’s The Voice roughly 15 months ago.

“I forgot where we were because I was in my dressing room all day getting ready. I looked at my guitar player, and I was like, ‘holy crap.’”

Since that triumph at age 15 — yes, she was the youngest winner in the show’s history — life has changed in all kinds of ways, essentially because music went from being something she did well to something she essentially does for a living.

Now 16, Cartelli is finishing high school online, and she flies back and forth to Los Angeles and Nashville regularly while recording an album she hopes to release during the first half of 2020.

Those recording sessions have been mixed with a host of live performances — such as the one at the TD Garden and several shows at the recently concluded Big E — and myriad other developments to create a hectic, exciting lifestyle marked by a seemingly endless run of learning experiences for Cartelli and her family.

The Cartellis pose with pop singer Kelly Clarkson following Brynn’s victory in season 14 of The Voice.

“The process is amazing,” said Brynn’s father, Damon, owner of the Fathers & Sons auto dealerships. “We had really no idea what to expect; we’re still learning stuff.”

The learning curves involve everything from hiring an agent (more on that later) to filling — and then living — a crowded schedule; from building a wardrobe to building what is becoming a recognized brand.

But for Brynn, one of the biggest challenges — and opportunities — lies in moving beyond The Voice and no longer being defined by that singular moment, as proud of it as she is, and also forging an identity through her music.

“I like telling stories through my music,” she told BusinessWest. “I use music as a diary. My fans are growing up with me as the story grows up. If a song feels like mine, I’m really happy about it.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Cartelli and her parents about the journey thus far and where the opportunity-laden road ahead may take them.

Achievements of Note

Many aspiring musicians and singers make it a stated goal to try out for shows like The Voice or American Idol. That certainly wasn’t the case for Brynn Cartelli.

This despite the fact that she had been singing for as long as her family could remember, and friends and relatives had been pushing the family to find an outlet — and a larger stage — for the emerging talent.

“People have been telling me for a long time, ‘you need to do something with her,’ and we didn’t know exactly what that meant,” Brynn’s mother, Deb, told BusinessWest. “It just didn’t feel right to push her, so the fact that this happened the way it did is really a testament to her gift.”

“I like telling stories through my music. I use music as a diary. My fans are growing up with me as the story grows up. If a song feels like mine, I’m really happy about it.”

By that, she meant The Voice experience came about “organically,” as family members like to say.

The story begins at the Sandbar restaurant (formerly Jetties) on Nantucket in 2016. Cartelli got up to the mic and sang a few songs for the crowd. Unbeknownst to her, a bartender recorded her performance and posted it to Facebook. It quickly went viral around the island. After meeting up with a local blogger, Cartelli was encouraged to post the video on YouTube, and did.

Then, the e-mail came.

The writer claimed to be from NBC’s The Voice, said Brynn, adding that she and her parents were all initially skeptical. But after doing more research, they realized it was not a scam.

“It took a little bit of convincing and looking into it to realize that it was an actual casting agency for The Voice,” said Brynn, adding that she traveled to New York City for a private audition.

She made it all the way through to the show’s so-called blind auditions — judges face away from those performing and focus only on what they hear — but did not “turn any chairs,” meaning the judge’s chairs, which one must do to get on the show.

A few weeks later, however, representatives of the show called back and asked if she’d return for another audition for season 14.

The rest, as they say, is history.

Brynn Cartelli performs “Don’t Dream It’s Over” with Kelly Clarkson on The Voice’s finale.

“We did not go searching for this,” said Deb. “Even when she didn’t get through the first time, we kind of thought, ‘OK, that’s fine.’ She had this great experience, she left with her head high, and ultimately that’s a great life lesson no matter what you’re doing.”

The experience was rewarding on a number of levels, said Brynn, adding that it gave her a taste of the business and an opportunity to meet and learn from people with similar goals, ambitions, passion — and talent.

“It was the first time I’ve been around a lot of musicians, singers, and songwriters, so it was the first time I felt like I was in a group of people that were like me,” she told BusinessWest.

Brynn certainly made the most of her second chance, and, as noted earlier, is now determined to move beyond The Voice and make it more than just one line on her résumé.

“I was super happy to win the show, but now I hear that phrase and I want to not just win the show; I want to make a career,” she said.

A Different Tune

This next stage in her life, as noted, is one that’s been marked by countless challenges and learning curves. One of the first involved building a team to help her manage her goals and career, and especially an agent.

After winning the show, Cartelli decided she wanted to hire Clarkson’s husband, Brandon Blackstock, as her manager, so she spent months trying to break out of contracts she signed when coming onto The Voice in order to make sure she had a team behind her that she could trust.

“After the show, when it seemed like I disappeared for a while, I was really just stuck in contracts,” she explained. “I took a lot of that time to really learn what kind of music I wanted to write and put out and what kind of sound I wanted.”

Elaborating, she said this was hard to do at first. Being a young girl in a room that was oftentimes filled with businessmen, it was difficult for her to tell them what she wanted to do and how she wanted to do it. But now that she has found her core group, she is confident and ready to move forward.

“We finally found a really great group of people and a really great label [Elektra Records] and team that supports my vision entirely,” Cartelli said. “They want to win with me; they don’t want to just win for themselves. They want to see a career happen, not just a couple songs or an album.”

But for now, much of the focus is on that first album, which translates into a considerable amount of travel, specifically to L.A. and Nashville.

That’s one of the many adjustments she’s has to make, and she credits the team she has behind her — led in many ways by Clarkson, who rose to fame as the winner of the first season of American Idol and was a judge for the 14th season of The Voice — with helping her navigate a host of challenges.

“She’s been so incredibly giving and such a good example of someone who passes it down,” Cartelli said. “She knows a lot of the same things I know of what it’s like to come off a show and have to try to build a career that makes you not just defined by the name of the TV show. She’s such an amazing mentor, you can’t not love her.”

Cartelli and her parents said NBC and The Voice have also been in her corner, ready to help whenever she needs it.

“You hear some horror stories about Hollywood, but the people that we encountered have all been great,” Damon said.

Meanwhile, the local support has never wavered, and a few recent performances made Cartelli feel grateful for all the support she’s received throughout her journey so far. She most recently performed at the Big E on Sept. 13-15 and drew fans in from all over New England to see her.

During her stint on The Voice, The Big E held watch parties so fans could gather to see the local star take the stage. While Cartelli was in L.A. for the show, she remembers being amazed at the pictures and videos of local supporters she saw from back home. Now, as she sang on the stage live and in person at the Big E, she reflected on a journey that wouldn’t have been possible without her fans.

“It was really nice to use that as a thank you,” she said.

Charting Progress

Now, it’s full speed ahead for the potential future superstar.

Cartelli admits she feels like she’s been home a little too long and is “itching” to get back to L.A. to record more music, but is taking her time with the process.

“I’m definitely taking my time and making this album really special so the people who voted for me get more than just a trophy,” she said. “I want them to get someone that they feel proud of.”

Cartelli’s parents joked that, while they know how talented their daughter is, they never expected her to actually win the show — or make music a career.

“I don’t think either of us had any expectation that it was going to go the way it went,” Damon said. “This whole road, everything seemed like it was aligned; everything is falling into place.”

And with the way the stars have aligned for Brynn already, it certainly seems like this is the path she is meant to take.

Indeed, Cartelli is doing what she loves and gets to share her music with more than just a crowd at a restaurant. She said she is constantly reminded of why she is passionate about singing, like the moment she realized she was about to perform at TD Garden — and never gets tired of the rush.

“I know I have to keep doing this so one day, it’s not just me opening up for someone,” Cartelli said. “Maybe one day, I get to design my own stage and have my own thing.”

With her attitude, passion, and determination, there is little doubt she will be seen headlining her own tour in the near future.

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

Her Happy Place

Ashley Kohl, perhaps best known in the region as the former host of Mass Appeal, has carved out a new success story over the past three years as owner of Ohana School of Performing Arts. But the road to this point hasn’t always been easy, marked by personal upheaval, financial challenges, and a sudden uprooting to a new location. Through it all, her business has grown, but her values — a commitment to inclusion, positive vibes, and providing a safe space to cultivate a passion for dance — have never changed.

A woman reached out to Ashley Kohl recently on Facebook, saying she wanted to dance, but was feeling uncertain.

“She said, ‘I haven’t danced since I was a kid, I’m really out of shape, I have no confidence, I’m really intimidated. But I want to try something new that’s for me, to help me build my confidence, and I want to feel accepted — and I feel like your studio is a perfect place.”

So she gave Ohana School of Performing Arts a try.

“I saw her in my adult hip-hop class last night, smiling the whole time,” Kohl told BusinessWest. “She was super nervous when she came in, but when she left, she said, ‘I can’t wait to come back.’”

In many ways, that woman personifies Kohl’s vision of what she wants Ohana — which recently hosted a grand opening at its new location in Chicopee — to be.

“A dance studio can be intimidating — but this is not that place. What I envision is people of all shapes, all sizes, all backgrounds, all beliefs, all genders, all identities, everyone. No matter what age you are, you can come here, and I love seeing everyone dance. Everyone. When I dance, I’m happy. So I know dance will bring them joy. And that’s the ultimate goal.”

After a stressful spring during which she was given only a few weeks to find a new location for the studio she has owned since 2016 (more on that later), Kohl takes her own measure of joy from the space on Sheridan Street in Chicopee, which is more than double the size of her former studio in South Hadley.

Classes include ballet, tap, hip-hop, musical theater, contemporary, parent/child combo classes, adult-level classes, fitness and more. But education is only part of the equation at Ohana (a Hawaiian word meaning ‘family’). The other part is a focus on kindness, compassion, and inclusivity.

“Ohana has become more than a dance studio — it’s a movement,” Kohl said. “So many people sign up not just because they want to dance, but because they want to be a part of this positive energy. It’s a place of love.”

That energy is shared these days by more than 300 students. “I overcame a ton of adversity because we were kicked out and given a month to find a new place. And now I’m living my dream, doing what I love. This is my happy place. These people are my family. It’s so much more than a job. I even have ‘Ohana’ tattooed on me, because this is what I live, sleep, eat, breathe.”

Winding Road

The journey to this point, however, has been a winding one, marked by both disappointments and unexpected successes — all of it subtly directing Kohl to that happy place she now occupies.

The relevant part of the story begins with an audition in New York City for So You Think You Can Dance in January 2010. Kohl waited in line overnight, in the rain, for that chance, and when she had her few seconds to impress the producers, her wet sneaker caught on the rubber floor during a pirouette, and she fell.

One of several reminders on the walls that Ohana is intended to be a place of acceptance and inclusion.

“I cried all the way home, thinking, ‘my dreams are over, my life is over,’” she recalled. But in March, another opportunity arose — an open casting call for Mass Appeal, a lifestyle program on WWLP-TV. Kohl’s mother encouraged her to audition, and she did, even though she had no journalism or television background. She didn’t feel nearly the pressure she did in New York two months earlier because she figured her chances weren’t great. But she kept getting callbacks, and eventually the hosting job.

“I loved it. It was amazing, the things I learned, the people I met,” Kohl said, noting that she had attended college, but never graduated. “I look back on my time at Mass Appeal, and that was the best education I could have received. I learned about every industry, met people from every walk of life, and learned how to adapt and overcome. It was a great learning experience.”

And also, with one fateful interview in 2015, a great inspiration. “I did a story on a dance class for kids of all ages and all abilities. Afterward, I got in my car, and I was so inspired. I thought, ‘this is what’s missing in my life — dance for people of all abilities.’ It moved me.”

At the same time, two other things were happening. Her marriage was falling apart, and she didn’t want to go through a divorce while in the public eye, so she was looking to step away from a hosting job she had come to love. And her mother, who had owned Technique Studio of Dance since 1997, first in Chicopee and then on Newton Street in South Hadley, was looking to slow down and offered her daughter the opportunity to take over the business.

“That’s when I thought, you know what? I’ll leave TV — I think it’s my time — and I’ll open a dance studio for people of all abilities,” she said.

The sudden inspiration surprised her. Though she’d been dancing all her life, she never once — not as a kid, as a teenager, even in college — had a desire to follow in her mom’s footsteps and own a dance studio. Yet, here she was, struck by a new passion and able to see how the events of the past several years had led her to that point.

“If I got So You Think You Can Dance, if I didn’t fall and made it through and my dream came true, Mass Appeal never would have happened — and that led me here.”

Kohl took over Technique in 2016 and changed the name to Ohana to stress not only her own family, but the one she hoped to create among her students. “My mother said, ‘you bring your own energy and vision. Rebrand it and make it your own.’”

And there, on Newton Street, the business grew for three years — until she had to move.

She actually first heard rumors that the building owner wanted to sell during the summer of 2015, and not long after, she stumbled upon the Sheridan Street building in Chicopee, which had been vacant for two years and needed copious amounts of work. “I wasn’t in the place financially to jump into something new,” she recalled. “I figured, if it’s still there when I need it, it was meant to be. And when I got the eviction letter, this place was still available.”

That letter came on March 1 of this year, telling her she needed to be out by April 1. “I’m a single mom with two kids, and I was in the midst of my dance season, so it was really hard. And I had grown up dancing in that building, so there were emotions, too.”

She pushed the owner for six weeks instead of four — actually, “I begged,” she said — and was granted the extension. Through those six weeks, Kohl had the first floor of the new location renovated, and after classes began there at the end of May, she went to work on the top floor.

Ashley Kohl says the move to Chicopee was stressful at times, but serendipitous in the way it came together with no program cancellations.

“It definitely wasn’t move-in ready,” she said — but no classes or programs were ever interrupted. “We had our last class in South Hadley the Thursday before Memorial Day, and our first class here the Tuesday after Memorial Day. It was very stressful, but this community had my back. They all came out on moving day. I never was alone, and that’s a testament to what this community is and who the people are.”

Safe Space

The new, 6,000-square-foot Ohana — more than doubling the 2,600 square feet available in South Hadley — includes three large studios, one of them handicapped-accessible; a ramped entrance and restrooms are also ADA-compliant.

“I want to make sure this is a place where everyone feels welcome,” Kohl said, but that sentiment extends beyond disabilities. “We have kids as young as 18 months, and adults as old as … well, anyone who wants to come and be a part of it. I think the biggest thing is that everyone feels accepted, and they feel comfortable and not intimidated, and everyone gets to perform.”

Why take up dance? Kohl says people have different reasons — but everyone dances anyway, in some form or another. “Maybe we don’t admit it or go to dance class, but we all feel music in our body, no matter who we are.”

Popular TV shows like So You Think You Can Dance, Dancing with the Stars, and America’s Got Talent have made dancing even more mainstream, but a little intimidating at the same time, she added. “People think, ‘I can’t do that. I can’t dance like that.’”

At the same time, though, she believes dancing makes people happy — and she wants to provide an outlet where they can do that in a non-intimidating way.

“You can be part of something where you feel like you’re accepted, where you’re loved and supported, where you can exercise and release the tension of the day in a positive place. There aren’t many places you can go and just feel free and feel like you can let go and find a happy place.

“It’s not for everyone,” she admitted. “But the main thing is, whether you say you dance or not, you do in some capacity. And to be able to come to a place that’s safe and happy and positive and loving is really cool.”

Kohl is protective of those positive vibes, too — and won’t tolerate negative or disrespectful behavior.

“If you come in here and bring your dark stormcloud — granted, we all have bad days, and we’re here to lift you up,” she told BusinessWest. “But if you are going to talk about people or treat people unkindly, I will ask you to leave. This is a very safe, happy place, and I am serious about keeping it that way.”

Kohl said she was bullied growing up, but finally felt like she belonged when she attended high school at Pioneer Valley Performing Arts, a place where people finally ‘got’ her passion for dance. It was, in short, the safe space that public school was not.

“Not every kid has that,” she said. “Maybe home isn’t safe. Maybe school isn’t safe. But I know — I guarantee — when you come here, you’re safe. Whether you’re an adult in a really bad marriage and home isn’t safe, whatever it may be, I hear from people that they come here, and they feel happy.”

That’s especially notable in a dance world that can admittedly be catty, cutthroat, and competitive, she added. “And there’s a time and place for that if you want to be on Broadway, but that’s not what this is. We don’t compete in dance competitions. We do it for the love.”

It starts with the love of family — her mother still runs a dance store in the studio, and it’s her handwriting that forms the Ohana logo on the walls — but now extends to 300 students, 11 teachers, seven assistants, and one full-time employee, all of which have the potential to increase in this much larger space than Newton Street allowed.

Still, the transition was scary at times. “The whole time I was terrified, but my faith was stronger,” Kohl said. “I knew if it was meant to happen, it would. What’s the worst thing that could happen? It fails? Then I move on.”

As it turns out, she just had to move a few miles away. “It’s fulfilling, and it’s more than a dance studio — it’s people’s second home,” she went on. “I feel humble and grateful, but I’m proud of it because I don’t feel there’s enough of this energy in the world.”

Living the Dream

It’s safe to say Kohl has plenty to do in the new studio, but one goal down the road is to expand community outreach programs. Already, Sunshine Village residents take classes on Fridays, a Westfield program for adults with disabilities will be starting up on Thursdays, and instructors teach dance at the senior center in South Hadley as well. She’d like to do more of the latter — “bringing those vibes and energy and dance to people where they are. That’s the next step.”

Meanwhile, she promotes the spirit of the studio through programs like Wingman for Dance, which teaches students about kindness, self-acceptance, diversity and inclusion, giving back, and community service. Speaking of giving back, students also present annual charity performances to support local nonprofits, and Kohl founded One Ohana Inc. a registered 501(c)(3) organization that awards scholarships to dancers of all ages and abilities throughout the Pioneer Valley.

She’s passionate about all of it, because, well, life’s too short not to be.

“I was born with something inside me that I have to pursue, and if I don’t, then it’s going to be buried in a cemetery somewhere, and no one will ever know what would have come of it,” she told BusinessWest. “And look at this now. I found my passion — to bring not just dance, but joy to people’s lives.

“I’m not going to die with my passion inside me,” she went on. “I’m going to make a difference and inspire people. I have a humble house, and I’ll probably never be rich, but in my heart, I’m so full.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]