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Bringing the Future into Focus

Tim Brennan has made rail service one of many points of emphasis during his tenure.

Tim Brennan has made rail service one of many points of emphasis during his tenure.

Tim Brennan’s almost-half-century-long career with the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission will draw to a close later this summer. As he pivots into retirement, Brennan talked with BusinessWest about the many ways the landscape has changed over the past four and half decades, and especially the emergence of a more regional focus in the Valley.

Tim Brennan says that planners — good ones, anyway — live in what he calls “two time zones.”

“One is the present, and the other is typically 20 years out,” he told BusinessWest. “You’re dealing with the here and now, but you’re also trying to anticipate a problem that might hurt us and ward it off, or an opportunity that we should grab and not squander — and all that makes for an interesting career.”

Brennan has been living in these two time zones for nearly 50 years now, the past 47 of them with what is now known as the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission (PVPC), and the past 40 as executive director of that agency, which has a mission effectively summed up in its name.

Over those years, Brennan and the PVPC, always working collaboratively with municipalities, state leaders, and other business and economic-development-related agencies, has succeeded in changing the local landscape in all kinds of ways — from cleanup of the Connecticut River to creation of the Western Mass. Economic Development Council; from the building of bike trails across the region to the re-establishment of north-south rail service to a number of Western Mass. communities.

“You’re dealing with the here and now, but you’re also trying to anticipate a problem that might hurt us and ward it off, or an opportunity that we should grab and not squander — and all that makes for an interesting career.”

It was primarily a desire to continue working on the front lines to expand that north-south rail service, among other pressing projects, that has kept Brennan in this job into his 70s (he’s now 71), although he is coming to the end of the line, as they say in the rail industry, when it comes to this phase of his life.

Indeed, Brennan will be officially retiring toward the end of August, handing over the reins of the PVPC to a successor to be chosen in a matter of days.

So, for this issue, we conducted what amounts to an exit interview with Brennan, whose work has been spotlighted in this magazine on countless occasions, perhaps most notably when BusinessWest bestowed its coveted Difference Makers award upon him in 2011.

Looking back on his career, Brennan said there have been a number of success stories, none of which were scripted quickly or easily. In fact, he said, over the course of his nearly 50-year career, patience and tenacity have been his (and his agency’s) best virtues — out of necessity.

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

Tim Brennan says there’s still work to do, but the Connecticut River is no longer the “best-landscaped sewer in the country.”

“One of the hardest lessons I learned, and I learned it early on, is that oftentimes, you can make the best of plans, but that doesn’t guarantee they’ll get implemented,” he noted. “You’ve got to stay with it because the planner is frequently not the implementer; you have to keep trying if it’s a good idea.”

As an example of this phenomenon, he cited the PVPC’s long and hard work to create bike trails.

“Back in the ’70s, a concept that came up was the Five College Bikeway; it got a lot of attention and a lot of buzz,” he explained. “But after the buzz wore off, everyone abandoned it. I thought, ‘this has merit; we ought not let it drop.’ It took us 20 years, but I was up cutting the ribbon for the Norwottuck Trail.

“My mantra here is, ‘we plan, we do, and we measure what we do,’” he went on. “And with the doing, you always have to have partners, whether it’s communities at town meeting, a City Council, the state Legislature, MassDOT — whoever the implementers are, we have to tag-team to get our plans to fruition.”

As he winds down his career in planning, Brennan noted that, in many ways, things have come full circle — for both himself and this region.

Elaborating, he said one of the first projects he embraced was cleaning up the Connecticut River, a discussion he introduced by citing that often-quoted line from the early ’70s (he believes it’s from the New York Times) about the river being the “best-landscaped sewer in the country.”

“It’s not a sewer anymore,” said Brennan. “We now have class-B water above the Holyoke Dam; we’ve been working at it for more than 30 years, and we’ve cut the pollution levels by more than 50%. We still have a long way to go, but it’s not a landscaped sewer anymore, and above the Holyoke Dam, it’s a real treasure.

“One of the hardest lessons I learned, and I learned it early on, is that oftentimes, you can make the best of plans, but that doesn’t guarantee they’ll get implemented. You’ve got to stay with it because the planner is frequently not the implementer; you have to keep trying if it’s a good idea.”

As prepares to step away from the PVPC and shift his focus to travel, working for his daughter’s flower-growing business, traveling, and perhaps sailing (more on all that later), Brennan said the environment is once again perhaps the top focus of the agency’s energy.

That’s made clear by the title on the program for the organization’s annual meeting on June 13 in Northampton — “Combating Climate Change” — and the accompanying artwork, a thermometer positioned over a globe taking on a decidedly reddish hue.

Regionally, Brennan and the PVPC have helped changed the climate in this region in a figurative sense. For this issue, we take a look back and, in the spirit of working in two time zones, ahead.

On the Right Track

Brennan told BusinessWest that his daughter first started asking him when he might retire maybe six or seven years ago. His standard response — and he obviously gave it more than a few times — was “in a few years.”

A few became more than a few, and he pressed on well beyond what is considered traditional retirement age (if there is still such a thing) because he found his work in those two time zones “intoxicating,” a word he would use at least a few times.

Besides, he wanted to help steer those efforts to expand north-south rail to a successful conclusion. And it appears he has.

Indeed, the state is close to finalizing an agreement to increase the runs from Springfield north to such communities as Holyoke, Northampton, and Greenfield from the current one a day (the Vermonter) to two a day in the morning and two more in the afternoon, in addition to the Vermonter, on a two-year trial basis.

The additional runs will become permanent, said Brennan, if 24,000 net new riders can be added over the next two years. And he’s confident that threshold can be met.

“Every single year since we moved the train back onto the main line, there’s been steady growth, double-digit growth,” he said. “Northampton has been the standout, but overall, the service has worked as we had imagined — ‘put the train where the people are, and if you have a service that’s attractive, they’ll use it.’ But the service is lean north of Springfield, and we think we can attract those 24,000 riders if we can offer more variety.”

Work to secure this expansion of rail service would be a fitting bookend to a career with the PVPC that saw a young Brennan accept, as one of his first assignments with the agency, creation of the Pioneer Valley Transit Authority.

Tim Brennan says it has taken time to materialize, but the Springfield renaissance is real.

Tim Brennan says it has taken time to materialize, but the Springfield renaissance is real.

“The state Legislature, then led in the House by David Bartley from Holyoke, created regional-transit-enabling legislation, and my boss got the job and essentially said to me, ‘go make it happen,’” recalled Brennan, who said his career has been marked by, and really prolonged by, a string of intriguing projects like that one.

He traces his love affair with the region to the many times he drove across the state while moving his sister to a succession of new residences while she was attending Northeastern University.

Those rides coincided with a search for graduate schools as he was wrapping up his bachelor’s degree work at SUNY Buffalo.

“I just sort of become fascinated with New England,” he explained. “And that’s when I narrowed my search for graduate schools. I came out here to visit UMass, and I just loved the region from the get-go.”

Near the end of his graduate training at UMass, Brennan had the opportunity to work in Northampton under Mayor Shaun Dunphy, at the time the youngest mayor in the Commonwealth.

“He was incredible mentor — I really enjoyed working for him,” said Brennan, adding that his time in the city coincided with the beginning of what become a meteoric rise that has in many ways sustained itself for more than four decades.

“He had me working in solid-waste management,” Brennan said of Dunphy. “And then two projects bubbled up downtown; one was Fitzwilly’s, and the other was Thornes Marketplace, and it was with those two that the resurgence of Northampton really began, and it goes on to this day.”

On a more gradual pace, he believes progress has spread across the region over the past four decades, and the planners at the PVPC have had a lot to do with that.

Brennan joined the agency in 1973, and was one of a handful of staffers. He took the helm in late 1980 and has presided over continuous growth of the PVPC to a staff of more than 50.

Current Events

When asked to compare things in the Pioneer Valley today to the way they were when he took the helm at the PVPC (when Jimmy Carter patrolled the White House), Brennan said the picture has improved in a number of ways.

Progress in and on the Connecticut River is one of the most obvious, he noted, but the cities are, by and large, healthier and more vibrant, and the region as a whole is in many ways more competitive from an economic-development standpoint than it was all those years ago.

And one of the reasons for that is a … well, more regional approach to doing things, something the PVPC helped inspire through another of Brennan’s many success stories — the Plan for Progress.

First drafted a quarter-century ago, the plan was intended to be a blueprint, or road map, for progress, with a focus on both the present and especially the future, said Brennan, adding that one of its first main thrusts was for the creation of a regional economic-development council. Two years later, the EDC was born.

“There was sort of a breakthrough in Boston — for the first time, an administration acknowledged, ‘hey, wait a minute, Massachusetts is not one homogenous economy, it’s a set of discrete regional economies,’” he recalled, referring specifically to the administration of then-Gov. William Weld. “The state realized it needed to set the big table for the entire state — policies, regulations, and programs — but it really needed the regions to do the nitty-gritty details of the economy of the Pioneer Valley versus the Cape or the Berkshires.

“It was sort of a challenge, and we took on the challenge — we went after this,” he went on, adding that the Pioneer Valley was really the first region to take on the assignment of creating a plan for progress.

Over the years, this plan has seen a number of updates — major revisions every 10 years and smaller ones every five years — that have added new points of emphasis, everything from pre-K-to-12 education to workforce building (work prompted by the mass retirement of the Baby Boom generation); from the arrival of MGM Springfield and its impact on traffic to creating a new generation of leaders, a movement that sparked creation of the Pioneer Valley Leadership Council.

“Every year, we actually take a look and do an annual report that the feds look for,” Brennan told BusinessWest. “But the five-year and the 10-year updates … those are the real opportunities to take the car into the garage and really tear the engine apart and make sure it can run for another five years.”

“Overall, the service has worked as we had imagined — ‘put the train where the people are, and if you have a service that’s attractive, they’ll use it.”

As for the EDC, it came about out of recognition that the private sector needed to play a role in economic-development efforts, he noted, adding that the regional-planning mindset has been taken to a new, higher, and, in his view, necessary plane, with creation of the Knowledge Corridor, which packages the area between Greenfield and New Haven into one “super region.”

“The geography of the region is not municipal,” he said. “You have to operate at a regional level in order to be consequential when it comes to the economy. And we’ve actually tried, in an informal way and with some modest success, to go interstate with that with the Knowledge Corridor partnership — you have to be super-regional.”

The Heat Is On

Brennan told BusinessWest that, while a regional approach is critical, healthy cities, and especially a healthy capital city — and Springfield is considered the capital of the Valley — are critical.

And that’s why the progress the City of Homes has enjoyed over the past decade in particular is so important for the region.

“It’s taking a long time, but the renaissance in Springfield is real, and there’s evidence of it everywhere you look,” he said. “Some of it has come through work that we’ve helped with, like Union Station and the rail projects, but much of it has come from the work of the city itself through projects like MGM, CRRC, and work that’s starting to happen with housing.

“They’ve come from a place that’s pretty dark,” we went on, referring to Springfield’s leaders, “to a place that’s pretty interesting, exciting, and building momentum as time goes on.”

ValleyBike, a regional bike-sharing program, represents just one of the many ways the landscape has changed during Tim Brennan’s tenure leading the PVPC.

ValleyBike, a regional bike-sharing program, represents just one of the many ways the landscape has changed during Tim Brennan’s tenure leading the PVPC.

Surveying the scene in Springfield, and the region as a whole, Brennan said the linchpin to further progress and taking the renaissance to a much higher level is attracting young people.

“I hear this refrain all the time — when young people are prepared to settle down and have kids, they return to the Valley,” he said. “But many leave in the first stage of their career to chase bright lights, whether it be Boston, Atlanta, or Austin, Texas. We have to continue to look for ways to get into that vibrant mid-city niche.”

And one of the obvious keys to attracting young people is jobs, he went on, adding that this brings him to one project he knew he couldn’t finish before he left the PVPC, but wanted to at least see into the implementation stage — a high-speed east-west rail line.

He hasn’t been able to do that, either, but the planning commission, again, working with other agencies and individuals such as state Sen. Eric Lesser, has at least swayed the state to again study the concept.

“We did manage to convince the state not to throw the idea away entirely,” he noted, adding that the ongoing study will likely be wrapped up in a year or so.

East-west rail is critical to this region, he said, noting specifically the plight of many rural communities seeing their populations age and decline — a dangerous double whammy — and looking toward high-speed rail as one way to put their communities back on the map, especially as potential homes to young professionals who could work in the eastern part of the state, where the preponderance of good jobs are.

But Boston needs it as well, he said, adding that the Hub, while exploding economically, is suffering from a number of growing pains, including choking traffic and sky-high real-estate prices that threaten to limit its ceiling.

“It’s about 90 miles to Boston; if you equip the train with state-of-the-art wi-fi, we can replicate what my colleagues in California have talked to me about for years,” Brennan explained. “You get employers to allow their staff to log on to work while they’re on the train, so their commute time is work time. And they don’t necessarily have to go to work every day the way the world works now.”

However, Boston is facing what he sees as a much bigger problem — potentially devastating consequences from climate change.

“I’ve read the reports from the fourth climate assessment, and that was pretty startling in terms of what the scientists are saying,” he noted. “They’re saying, ‘folks, we don’t have a lot of time; get on this now.’”

Thus, it’s with those warnings that Brennan is coming full circle, as he noted, with the focus on the environment. Specifically, the annual meeting will feature a keynote address from Kenneth Kimmell, president of the Union of Concerned Scientists. The title of the program? “The Heat Is On: The Compelling Case for Confronting Climate Change and Realizing a Better Future.”

“I’m trying to leave here saying, in a backhanded way, ‘I came in here to this office, and the biggest challenge was the Connecticut River cleanup,’” Brennan said. “And I’m leaving with this — a warning about something that could kill people and create economic and other forms of devastation. We really do need to get on it.”

Living in the Present

As noted, climate-change work and helping to bring east-west rail service to fruition are assignments that will fall to the next director of the PVPC.

As for Brennan, the planning he’ll be focused on concerns his retirement, and he intends to carefully plan that as well.

He said there won’t be any consulting work for him — even though there would undoubtedly be many opportunities to do that. He plans to work for his daughter, do some traveling — he’s thinking about a trip to Spain and Portugal — and maybe learn how to sail. He has his pilot’s license but intends to keep his feet firmly on the ground.

He’ll also do something he hasn’t done in close to 50 years — work in one time zone. His goal is to find that equally intoxicating.

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

Cover Story

Community Spotlight

There’s a stunning new aerial photo of downtown Springfield gracing the wall outside Kevin Kennedy’s office in the municipal complex on Tapley Street.

The panoramic image captures the view from above the Connecticut River looking east, with the new MGM Springfield casino prominent in the foreground. Kennedy, the city’s chief Development officer, is quite proud of the photo and all that it shows, but regrets that it was taken in the very early stages of the elaborate work to renovate Riverfront Park, and thus doesn’t include that important addition to the landscape.

He joked about Photoshopping something in to make the image more current, but then acknowledged that, at the rate things are changing, he would be doing a lot of Photoshopping — or swapping out that photo for a new one on a very regular basis.

Those sentiments speak volumes about the pace of development in the city over the past decade or so, and especially the past five or six years, as Springfield has rebounded dramatically from the fiscal malaise — and near-bankruptcy — that enveloped it only 10 years ago.

Indeed, Kennedy said he doesn’t have to ‘sell’ Springfield to potential developers anywhere near as much as he did when he assumed this office in 2011 after working for many years as U.S. Rep. Richard Neal’s aide. Nor does he have to tell the city’s story as much — people seem to know it by the time they’ve entered the room. And many are certainly entering the room.

“Development in an urban area like this isn’t really development — it’s redevelopment, and that, by its very nature, is usually very complicated.”

“We don’t have to explain ourselves — when people walk through the door, they know what’s happened over the past five or seven years,” he explained, adding that, overall, he doesn’t have to convince people that the city is a good investment — most are already convinced, which, again, is a marked change from attitudes that prevailed at the start of this century and even at the start of this decade.

As he talked with BusinessWest, Kennedy equated Springfield’s progress over the past several years to a large jigsaw puzzle, with many of its pieces falling into place. These include everything from the casino to a renovated Union Station; from a restaurant district now taking shape to restored and expanded parks, such as Steans Square, Riverfront Park, Pynchon Plaza, and Duryea Way.

And still more pieces are coming into place — everything from a CVS on Main Street to a Cumberland Farms at the site of the old RMV facility on Liberty Street; from market-rate housing at the old Willys-Overland property on Chestnut Street to a new home for Way Finders at the site of the former Peter Pan bus station in the North End; from new schools to improved traffic patterns.

Kevin Kennedy

Kevin Kennedy stands next to the new panoramic photo of Springfield outside his office, the one he’d like to Photoshop to keep up with recent changes to the landscape.

But there are a number of pieces still missing, Kennedy acknowledged, adding that they’re missing for a reason — these are the hardest ones to fall into place because of their complexity.

Among the items on this list are a replacement for the decrepit Civic Center Parking Garage, which is literally crumbling as you read this; 31 Elm St., an all-important component to the downtown’s recovery because of its location and historical importance; the Paramount Theater project, equally important for all the same reasons; CityStage, now dormant for close to a year; and redevelopment of what has become known as the ‘blast zone,’ the area directly impacted by the natural-gas explosion in late 2012.

To explain their complexity, Kennedy started by making a simple yet poignant observation about development in a city like Springfield.

“Development in an urban area like this isn’t really development — it’s redevelopment, and that, by its very nature, is usually very complicated,” he explained, adding quickly that there are signs of progress with each of those initiatives, and some may be moved over the goal line in the months to come.

Mayor Domenic Sarno agreed, noting that, among those missing pieces, the top priority at this point is probably a new parking garage, primarily because it is essential to realizing many of the other items on the to-do list, such as a deeper restaurant district, more new businesses, and, overall, greater vibrancy downtown.

“The garage is a mainstay for our business community, and the MassMutual Center is a state facility — the garage is an integral part for the programming that goes on there, whether it’s MGM, the Thunderbirds, or college commencements,” said Sarno, adding that he’s already had discussions with both state and federal leaders about potential funding sources for such a facility. “We’re looking to move on this ASAP.”

For this, the latest installment its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest looks at the jigsaw puzzle that is Springfield — meaning the pieces that have fallen into place and those that are still missing.

Rising Tide

‘The New Wave.’

That’s the name those in the Planning office and the Springfield Regional Chamber gave to what has become an annual presentation detailing planned and proposed projects in the City of Homes.

And ‘wave’ fits, said Kennedy, because new developments have been coming in waves, one after another, and there is a new one making its way to shore.

“One thing that people know is that my team will do business with them. I might not be able to give you 10 out 10 things you might be looking for, but maybe I can give you six or seven or eight. They also know that we know how to connect the dots.”

It follows previous waves that brought MGM Springfield, CRRC, a revitalized Union Station, and a repaired I-91 viaduct, projects that were of the nine-figure variety (MGM was almost 10) or very close — the final price tags for CRRC and Union Station were just under $100 million.

The newest wave has just one initiative of that size, and it’s a municipal project — a new pumping station to be built on part of the land once occupied by the York Street Jail. But while many of the projects are smaller, eight- and seven-figure endeavors, they are equally important, said Kennedy, adding that they represent a mix of expansion efforts by existing companies, or ‘legacy businesses,’ as he called them, and relative newcomers.

Together, the projects touch many different sectors of the economy, include both new construction and renovation of existing structures, and total several hundred million dollars in new development. The lengthy list includes:

• MassMutual expansion. The financial-services giant is relocating 1,500 workers to Springfield, increasing the workforce in the city to 4,500. A $50 million project to renovate and expand facilities in Springfield is slated to be completed by 2021;

• Big Y, with a 232,000-square-foot expansion of the current distribution center in Springfield, bringing the total to 425,000 square feet. The $46 million project is due to be completed later this year;

• Way Finders, which is constructing a new, $16.8 million headquarters building at the location of the Peter Pan bus terminal. The 23,338-square-foot structure, to house roughly 160 employees, is slated to open in the spring of 2020;

• Willys-Overland development, a planned 60-unit, market-rate housing project in the one-time auto showroom. Construction is slated to start soon on the $13.8 million project;

• Innovation Center. Grand-opening ceremonies for the $7 million facility on Bridge Street were staged in February. Work continues on the façade, and a new restaurant is planned for the ground floor;

• CVS. Work is set to commence shortly on a new CVS to be constructed at the corner of Main and Union streets. The $2 million facility, to feature what developers are calling an ‘urban design,’ is slated to open this fall;

• Redevelopment of the former RMV site. The location on Liberty Street will be converted into a Cumberland Farms. The $3 million project will benefit a neighborhood that city officials say is underserved when it comes to convenience and gas;

• The Springfield Performing Arts Academy, specifically a $14 million project to relocate the academy in the former Masonic Temple on State Street;

• Tower Square. The office/retail center is the site of several new developments, including renovations to the hotel (which will be rebranded back to Marriott), a new White Lion brewery, and relocation of the YMCA of Greater Springfield into several locations within Tower Square; and

• Educare. A $14 million, 27,000-square-foot, state-of-the-art early-education facility is currently under construction in the Old Hill neighborhood. The project, a joint partnership between Holyoke Chicopee Springfield Head Start, the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation, and Springfield College, will serve 141 children and is slated to open this fall.

An architect’s rendering of a proposed new parking garage

An architect’s rendering of a proposed new parking garage on what’s known as parcel 3, the parking lot behind the TD Bank tower. City officials say a new garage is a must for Springfield.

That’s quite a list, said Kennedy, adding that it’s come about largely because of renewed confidence in the city and its future, an attitude far removed from the one that existed even a decade ago, when there were far fewer businesses willing to bet on the City of Homes.

Getting Down to Business

Indeed, today, as evidenced by all the projects in progress or on the drawing board, there is renewed interest in Springfield across many sectors of the economy — from tourism and hospitality to startups looking for a place to launch, to those looking to be part of the burgeoning cannabis industry in the Bay State.

The city has a message for all these constituencies — that it’s open for business and willing to work with those who would make Springfield their home.

“One thing that people know is that my team will do business with them,” said the mayor. “I might not be able to give you 10 out 10 things you might be looking for, but maybe I can give you six or seven or eight.

“They also know that we know how to connect the dots,” he went on. “We know how to work with all the players — federal, state, and on the local level, all the way down. And they know that we’re willing to put skin in the game, too, and that’s been very advantageous.”

Kennedy agreed, and said that, overall, the city has become what he called a “reliable, predictable partner,” something every business is looking for as it considers locating or relocating in a specific community.

“They don’t need showhorses, they don’t need a lot of glitz,” he told BusinessWest. “They simply want to do their business and know they have a good partner, and I think that’s what we’ve done from the start, and when we sit down to negotiate with people, I think they understand that, and they feel comfortable.”

Kennedy traces this growing sense of comfort to the lengthy and involved process of bringing a casino to the area.

“I think the thing that showed people we were serious was the whole casino process — not necessarily MGM, but the whole process,” he explained. “How we did it, and how upfront with everyone we were. People talk about being transparent, and that’s a jargony-type of a word, but we see it that way … and I think that, by virtue of having a billion-dollar investment come your way, a lot of other companies externally took a look at it, and internally said, ‘look what’s happened.’”

That was a reference to those legacy companies he mentioned, including MassMutual, Big Y, Balise Motor Sales, which is planning another major project in the city’s South End, and many others.

This ability to connect the dots, and be a reliable partner, is creating some progress with some of those aforementioned missing pieces to the puzzle, and will hopefully generate momentum with other initiatives in that category, said Kennedy, who started by referencing two important projects downtown — Elm Street and the Paramount project.

The former, the six-story block at 13-31 Elm St., has been mostly vacant for the past three decades. Plans to convert it into market-rate housing received a significant boost earlier this year when MGM Springfield announced it would was willing to invest in the project as part of its commitment to the city and state to provide at least 54 units of market-rate housing in the area near the casino.

“We’re hoping that we have a development deal struck in a matter of weeks,” said Kennedy. “We’re waiting for the last one or two pieces to fall into place. It’s a tough project, but it’s a necessary project.”

Meanwhile, the $41 million Paramount project — renovation of the historic theater and the adjoining Massasoit Hotel — is moving forward, with preservation work on the roof and façade slated to begin later this year.

Mayor Domenic Sarno

Mayor Domenic Sarno has a healthy collection of ceremonial shovels in his office, one visible sign of the progress the city has made over the past several years.

Another large missing piece is activity in the so-called blast zone, he said, referring to the area from Lyman to Pearl streets and from Dwight to Spring streets. He said the Willys-Overland development, in the heart of this zone, may be a catalyst to more development there.

“Once that project gets going, I’m hoping it will give some push to further development in the blast area, which is probably the next horizon for Springfield,” he noted. “Some property owners have done things — there’s been some clearing and demolition — but others are just waiting and being patient. That’s why this [Willys-Overland] development is important; you have to get that first one in the ground and hope things happen from there.”

Still another missing piece is aggressive marketing of the city and its many assets, said Sarno, adding that may not be missing much longer. Indeed, the city, working in conjunction with the Western Mass. Economic Development Council and a number of area media outlets, is getting closer to launching a marketing campaign for Springfield and the region.

It will focus on a number of audiences, he said, including residents of this region, many of whom need to know about the many good things happening locally, and businesses owners far outside it, who also need to know.

“We have a lot to offer in Springfield — and in Franklin County, Berkshire County, and across Hampden County, and we have to do a better job of telling our story,” the mayor said “When you’re making a sauce, you put in the ingredients; we have all the ingredients here — we just need make a push and send out a clarion call. We need a push locally — sometimes we’re our own worst enemy — but then we need to make a regional push.”

But perhaps the biggest missing piece isn’t actually missing — though it will be soon — and that’s a working parking garage downtown.

Spot of Trouble

Which brings us to a downtown property known as ‘parcel 3.’

That was the name affixed to a number of assembled parcels of land that eventually became the surface parking lot behind the TD Bank office tower on Main Street, an initiative that was part of the Court Square Urban Renewal Plan, drafted nearly 40 years ago and amended several times since.

And that name has stuck — well, at least with city development leaders. To the rest of the world, it’s ‘the parking lot behind the TD Bank building.’ But ‘parcel 3’ is becoming part of the lexicon again as discussions concerning the Civic Center Parking Garage and the glaring need to replace it heat up — out of necessity.

Parcel 3 — better known as the parking lot behind the TD Bank building

Parcel 3 — better known as the parking lot behind the TD Bank building — could give rise to a modern parking garage — and open up a development opportunity on the site of the current, deficient garage across the street.

“The garage is on borrowed time,” said Chris Moskal, executive director of the Springfield Redevelopment Authority (SRA), quickly adding that this sentiment certainly represents an understatement. The garage probably has only a few years of useful life left, he went on, noting that there are areas on several floors that are currently unusable for parking, thus heightening the need for action.

The SRA, which owns parcel 3, currently leases it to an entity called New Marlboro Corp., which owns the TD Bank facility, a.k.a. 1441 Main St.

That lease, originally 30 years in duration when signed in the early ’80s, was extended several years ago to 2028. And this lease and the fine print within it will obviously become the focal point of discussion in the coming months, said Moskal, as the city tries to move forward with plans to replace the Civic Center Parking Garage with a 1,400-spot facility on the most obvious site for such a facility — parcel 3.

Kennedy agreed, and noted that this is a complex project, in terms of both financing — the projected pricetag is $45 million, and several funding sources would likely be involved, from the Springfield Parking Authority (SPA), which owns the current, failing garage, to the state and the federal government — and the number of players involved, from the SRA to the SPA to TD Bank.

“But just because it’s complicated, we can’t walk away from it,” he said. “A new garage is necessary for downtown; that parking facility at the Civic Center is the main commercial-district parking facility.”

And a new parking garage downtown not only secures a replacement for a long-deficient facility, said Kennedy, but it creates a new and intriguing development opportunity in the central business district — the current garage site.

“You have not only MGM here, but a rehabbed Pynchon Plaza, a burgeoning museum district, especially with the new Dr. Seuss Museum, and other things happening downtown,” he said. “I think we could have a nice mixed-use residential complex there with some indoor parking.”

The mayor agreed. “That’s a very valuable piece of property,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, while it while it might become a surface parking lot for the short term, there are a number of more intriguing possibilities for the long term.

While the city continues to reshape and revitalize the downtown, progress is taking place outside it in the many neighborhoods that define the community, said both Sarno and Kennedy.

Springfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1852
Population: 154,758
Area: 33.1 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential tax rate: $19.68
Commercial tax rate: $39.30
Median Household Income: $35,236
Median Family Income: $51,110
Type of government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Baystate Health, MassMutual Financial Group, Big Y Foods, MGM Springfield, Mercy Medical Center, CHD, Smith & Wesson Inc.
* Latest information available

They noted a number of projects, including the planned new Brightwood/Lincoln School, a $70.2 million facility that would replace both the Brightwood and Lincoln elementary schools, and be located adjacent to the existing Chestnut Middle School on Plainfield Street; the new branch of the Springfield Library in East Forest Park, due to be completed this fall; expansion of the residential complex in the former Indian Motocycle manufacturing complex in Mason Square (60 new affordable units are planned); a new Pride store at the corner of State Street and Wilbraham Road; several park projects; a redesign of the troublesome ‘X’ traffic pattern; reconfiguration of the Six Corners intersection; and renewed efforts to reinvent the Eastfield Mall into a community with a mix of housing, retail, and other components.

“We’re making a lot of progress in our neighborhoods,” the mayor said. “People are focused on downtown, but our neighborhoods are important, and we’re making great strides there, too.”

The Big Picture

Getting back to that picture on the wall outside his office, Kennedy acknowledged that, as beautiful as it is, it doesn’t tell the full story of all that’s happened in Springfield over the past several years.

And it will only become less accurate, if that’s the proper word, in the months and years to come.

But that, as they say, is a good problem to have. A very good problem.

For years, Springfield was the picture of stagnancy. Now, it’s the picture of motion and continued progress.

There are still some missing pieces, to be sure, but the puzzle is coming together nicely.

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

Cover Story

Pedal Power

 

Catherine Ratté, principal planner and Land Use & Environment section manager at the PVPC

Catherine Ratté, principal planner and Land Use & Environment section manager at the PVPC

ValleyBike had, by most accounts, an up-and-down first year, and we’re not talking about the hills its bikes make a little easier through electric pedal assist. But on the whole, 2018 was an encouraging success, with gradually increasing ridership across the network’s six municipalities, despite a slow and incomplete roll-out of the 50 stations and 500 bikes. With further expansion possible, hopes are high that more people will ditch their cars for a bike ride in 2019 — and then turn that ride into a habit.

A regional bike-share program may have seemed like a novel idea for many Pioneer Valley denizens last year, but for those who helped bring it about, it’s far from a new concept.

“We’ve been talking about it in the Pioneer Valley for 15 years,” said Catherine Ratté, principal planner and Land Use & Environment section manager at the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission. In fact, the PVPC produced a report in 2008 documenting previous bike-share programs around the world — including the Yellow Bike program that once existed at Hampshire College as well as the Bixi Bikeshare program in Montreal — and encouraging Pioneer Valley municipalities to look into establishing a regional program.

A lot has happened since then, but the main development was the emergence of electric pedal-assist bikes that help riders navigate hills and long distances they might not have wanted to attempt before. It was a game changer, Ratté said.

“Part of it was being a broad region — how can people get from Amherst to Northampton to Springfield? Then electric pedal assist came along, and we said, ‘oh, this could be a regional program,’” she told BusinessWest.

That program, known as ValleyBike, currently encompasses six communities — Northampton, Amherst, Springfield, Holyoke, South Hadley, and Easthampton — with others possibly on the horizon. A rider is free to pick up a bike at any of the 50 stations and drop it off at any other.

“The idea is to replace car trips with bike trips, and pedal assist makes it easier for all ages and abilities to use,” said Ratté. “It’s a big piece of acting on the climate crisis, but we also have a public-health crisis, and people don’t always have the opportunity to be physically active. ValleyBike makes it easier for people to bike to work. Maybe they aren’t physically fit enough to bike without pedal assist, and they don’t want to arrive at work sweaty — but they’re still exercising.”

A recent PVPC report detailed use of ValleyBike during 2018, its inaugural year. Even with limited availability and a slow ramp-up of stations (more on that later), the service logged 26,353 trips last year, an average of 170 per day, generating 83,735 miles — the equivalent of 3.3 times around the earth.

With the numbers expected to increase in 2019, that represents a significant front in the battle against traffic and air pollution, said Wayne Feiden, Northampton’s director of Planning & Sustainability.

“Our biggest commitment this year is to get more people to say, ‘yes, I really want to use this,’” said Feiden, who has long been one of the region’s strongest proponents of a bike-share network. “Nationwide, about a third of the people using bike shares are coming out of their car — making what would have been a car trip otherwise. If we can get you out of your car, that’s great from an environmental standpoint and a congestion standpoint. And that’s the part we need to grow most in the system.”

According to the year-end rider survey that helped the PVPC generate its report, the vast majority of users — 77.9% — rode ValleyBike less than five times per month, and 2.8% used it daily, with another 2.8% riding five or more times per week. These figures suggest that many users rode the bikes for leisure rather than to commute, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, Feiden said.

Wayne Feiden says ValleyBike organizers have several goals

Wayne Feiden says ValleyBike organizers have several goals, from reducing traffic and air pollution to getting people more physically active.

“We have a lot of goals, and each one serves different purposes,” he noted. “One is just to get people to exercise more. So that’s been great, and it’s also been a diverse set of users.”

Indeed, 28.8% of survey respondents were between 18 and 30, 52.1% were between the ages of 30 and 60, and 6.9% were over 60 years old, while the gender split was close to even.

“People who use bikes tend to be younger, but these bikes are reaching a broader range of users, which is great,” he said. “Getting people healthier is wonderful, as is giving people transportation options, whether they can’t afford a car or don’t want to drive a car for environmental reasons.”

“The idea is to replace car trips with bike trips, and pedal assist makes it easier for all ages and abilities to use. It’s a big piece of acting on the climate crisis, but we also have a public-health crisis, and people don’t always have the opportunity to be physically active.”

One goal moving forward, he said, will be to increase usage of memberships. Annual passes ($80) accounted for just 13% of all rides in 2018, and monthly passes ($20) represented another 28%.

Those riders, Feiden said, are the ones more likely to use ValleyBike Share for commuting to work or other daily commitments, and to turn biking from a leisure activity into a habit and a lifestyle. “Once you sign up for a year, you tend to build your commitment.”

For this issue, BusinessWest looks at the ways ValleyBike is building on its own commitment — and its momentum, both electric-assisted and figuratively.

Winding Path

To its proponents at the PVPC, ValleyBike is a key component of the region’s path to a sustainable future by promoting healthy habits and reducing greenhouse gases emitted by vehicle trips. If managed effectively, the year-end report notes, the program could also reduce the need for road repairs and expansion, and has the potential to improve the effectiveness of the region’s transit system.

Following the 2008 report exploring the concept, UMass Amherst launched a free bike-sharing program in 2012 funded by student government fees. The same year, Northampton’s Planning and Sustainability Department began researching a program for that city.

Mayor David Narkewicz approved a single bike-share station downtown, but by early 2013, officials determined that a larger system, either city-wide or, better yet, region-wide, was preferable. At the same time, Amherst officials were meeting with representatives from Amherst College, Hampshire College, and UMass to explore a town-wide bike-sharing program.

Soon after, the PVPC secured a Massachusetts Clean Energy Center grant to work with several area communities to advance clean-energy strategies, selecting advancement of a regional bike-share initiative as a priority for funding.

The ValleyBike station at Court Square

The ValleyBike station at Court Square, one of 11 in Springfield, saw the sixth-most ride starts across the entire network in 2018.

Between 2014 and 2016, the PVPC worked with a group of member municipalities — Amherst, Holyoke, Northampton, and Springfield — to research and advance regional bike-sharing. In 2016, Northampton, with PVPC and regional support, applied for and obtained federal Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality funds for a regional bike-share network for four communities, later adding South Hadley as a fifth member.

A year later, Northampton, with PVPC and regional support, released a bike-share RFP and awarded a contract to Bewegen Technology for a 500-bike, 50-station system in the five communities. Toward the end of 2018, Easthampton obtained a Massachusetts Housing Choice grant for ValleyBike and joined the regional consortium, growing it to six municipalities.

The year-end report notes that ValleyBike had a rocky start due to issues with station installation, bike availability, and kiosk usability. Only 26 stations were open when the system went online on June 28, and another 17 were added in July and August. The remaining seven opened at the start of the 2019 season, bringing the total to 50.

After a slow start, the popularity of ValleyBike saw large increases in the first few weeks of August, reaching its peak ridership between Aug. 21 and Sept. 3, dipping slightly as temperatures dropped and students went back to school in early September.

“This is the first regional, multi-community, all-electric-pedal-assist bike-share program in the world. It was a really ambitious idea,” Ratté told BusinessWest. “It could have been smoother, but we had fantastic numbers of riders from all communities. And we definitely are eager to expand the coalition.”

She noted that possible expansion communities include Hadley, Chicopee, and West Springfield, should the PVPC secure the necessary additional funding. “We hope to keep it growing and expanding as well as adding some stations in the existing communities.”

“Nationwide, about a third of the people using bike shares are coming out of their car — making what would have been a car trip otherwise.”

With a longer season this year and more bikes — the network typically had about 167 available last year, but will offer 500 at the 50 stations in 2019 — she expects an uptick in ridership and increasing interest from the communities not yet on board.

“Hadley and Chicopee are the two holes in the system we’re trying to fill. We’re also trying to expand to West Springfield, but that’s more expanding out rather than filling in holes,” Feiden added. “Obviously we have to get more funding for new stations; there are many more locations that would make sense than we have money for.”

He added that more corporate sponsors are needed to make the system more sustainable. “But businesses are seeing the value for it — a third of the stations in Northampton are on private property. People gave us easements or licenses, whatever they needed to do, because they saw the value. One is at Cooper’s Corner in Florence, a small grocery store, and I hope people shop there because they gave us some really valuable real estate.”

Sustainable Future

Between climate concerns, public-health awareness, and simply enjoying the outdoors, bicycling — especially when pedal-assisted on those tricky hills — holds appeal to many demographic groups, Ratté said.

“If you ask people what they want in their region, a bike share is a popular thing. People expect their cities to fund options for getting around. And the cool thing is, you don’t have to stay inside your municipality; the same bike can go from place to place. It’s very convenient.”

That said, the program would benefit by coordinating more closely with public transit systems, she noted. According to the year-end survey, 27.5% of riders used ValleyBike in conjunction with other types of public transportation (such as rail or bus services). Organizers had hoped that bike stations could be located close to public transportation so public-transit riders could utilize the bikes to reach their final destinations. However, due to complications regarding the need for electrical outlets in close proximity to stations, this goal was not always met. That’s something planners are looking to remedy with future bike-station placements.

“People rely on the bus,” she said, “and to be able to use ValleyBike to get to and from the bus stop would be great.”

On a related note, the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts worked with the Pioneer Valley Regional Ventures Center, the not-for-profit arm of the PVPC, to allocate $12,000 per year over three years to provide subsidized memberships for economically disadvantaged residents of the region, particularly those who live in transit-rich urban cores. Bewegen was not able to launch this aspect of the ValleyBike initiative in 2018, and more people are expected to use ValleyBike when the access passes become available this year.

So far, however, people seem to be using the bikes mostly for enjoyment. Of the year-end survey respondents, 52% said they used ValleyBike mostly for leisure, while 21.2% used them to commute, 5.5% wanted to reduce pollution and traffic congestion, and 5.2% were focused on the health benefits. Notably, 36% reported an increase in riding bikes of all kinds since using the system.

“In some ways, the biggest criticism is people asking, ‘why didn’t you come to my neighborhood?’” Feiden said, noting that Northampton added one stop this year and has applied for a grant to establish four more. “And that’s great. It’s nice to get beat up for not doing it.”

The hope is that the coming years will see fewer of those complaints as ValleyBike continues to expand, giving more people an excuse to leave their cars behind, get their legs moving, and maybe leave the air a little cleaner.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

40 Under 40 Cover Story The Class of 2019

Announcing the Honorees of the 13th Annual 40 Under Forty

40under40-logo2017a

A panel of judges was kept quite busy over the past few weeks, reading, evaluating, and eventually scoring nearly 200 nominations for the 40 Under Forty Class of 2019.

Yes, that’s a record, and it’s a clear indication of how coveted that designation ‘BusinessWest 40 Under Forty honoree’ has become within the 413 — and how much young talent this region boasts.

2019 Event Information:

Date: Thursday, June 20, 2019
Time: 5:30  p.m.-8:30 p.m.
Where: The Log Cabin, 500 Easthampton Rd, Holyoke, MA 01040
Ticket Price: $75 Standing-Room Only Tickets


40 Under Forty Class of 2019

Photography for this special section by Leah Martin Photography

Presenting Sponsors

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Cover Story

Providing a Light

Executive Director Elizabeth Dineen

Executive Director Elizabeth Dineen

Helping survivors heal. That’s been the mission of the YWCA of Western Mass. for 150 years. Today, the agency does this in a number of ways, some well-known, such as its 58-bed domestic-violence shelter, and others far-less-heralded but still important, such as helping area young people attain their high-school equivalency. In each case, the key is providing these survivors with the tools they need to achieve a higher quality of life.

Azreal Alvarez calls this his third crack at high school, or the equivalent thereof.

That’s how he referred to YouthBuild Springfield, a workforce-development initiative operated by the YWCA of Western Massachusetts, a program that is succeeding where the first two stops didn’t. Indeed, Alvarez said that, when he attended one of Springfield’s charter schools, he was bullied so much, he couldn’t stay in that environment. Later, he enrolled in what he described as an online endeavor that didn’t inspire him in any real way.

That left YouthBuild as a last hope that soon became his best hope. The program is designed to not only help young people get their high-school equivalency, but also become introduced to careers in construction or healthcare.

Alavarez, 18, who wants to follow in his father’s footsteps and become a scaffolder, described the program this way: “For some people, this is their third chance or their second chance; for others, it’s their fifth. There’s really not much hope for them, so they come here, and they find a light that no one else can explain.”

With that, whether he knew it or not, Alvarez neatly summed up the first 150 years of the organization now known as the YWCA of Western Mass., the 10th-largest YWCA in the country and one of the oldest as well. Since Ulysses S. Grant patrolled the White House, it has been helping people find a light that, yes, is often hard to explain, but very often leads to a higher quality of life.

“I love this job because we’re able to serve women and children who are desperate to receive professional services, so that they can move on with their lives.”

And that light comes in many different forms, said the agency’s executive director, Elizabeth Dineen, a former prosecutor and supervising district attorney in Hampden County who spent more than a quarter-century handling special-victims cases including those involving child abuse, sexual assaults, domestic violence, and murder, and was recruited to lead the YWCA by several of its board members in 2016.

It might simply be a voice at the other end of a hotline that operates 24/7 and handles more than 10,000 calls a year, she told BusinessWest. Or it might be the peace, safety, and opportunity to start a new and better life that all come with a room in the 58-bed domestic-violence shelter. Or it might be the enlightenment gained through one of the agency’s newer counseling programs, called Children Who Witness Violence, an ambitious undertaking aimed at preventing domestic abuse, sexual abuse, and other forms of criminal behavior from becoming generational.

Or it might come in the form of exposure to a career in the medical field or construction, something a young person might never have considered as they were struggling with traditional high school, said Dineen, adding that YouthBuild and related programs are solid examples of how the YWCA has evolved and expanded well beyond its original mission and even the ‘W’ in its name.

All of this is what the agency is celebrating as it marks its sesquicentennial, an ongoing story that is driven home by the case of Linda Anselmo, who came to the agency last year at a time when she had nowhere else to turn.

A recent transplant to the area, she found herself the subject of intense and relentless verbal and emotional abuse from her partner, who, among other things, “threated to commit suicide and take me with her,” said Anselmo, noting that she was lost and alone when she found the YWCA, but never after that, thanks to the agency.

“I was completely lost — I had just moved to Massachusetts and into this relationship, and things got bad very fast,” she explained. “I didn’t know anyone, I had no family up here, nothing.”

Fast-forwarding, she said the agency helped her find temporary housing in a shelter and then transition to permanent housing in a community she chose not to disclose. More importantly, perhaps, the YWCA helped her move on from what happened to her emotionally.

“I had to heal,” she said. “I didn’t know how, but they showed me how.”

Helping people learn how to heal would be a good way to describe what Dineen and her staff of 150 do 24/7/365. For this issue and its focus on area nonprofits, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at how the agency does just that.

Answering the Call

‘Survivors.’

That’s the word those at the YWCA use when referring to the various constituencies they serve. It works much better than ‘clients’ or ‘residents’ or any other collective that might come to mind.

That’s because all those who come to the facility at 1 Clough St. (or who simply call the hotline number) are survivors — of domestic violence, sexual assault, child abuse, bullying, human trafficking, stalking, or a combination of the above.

They find this YWCA, which serves communities in both Hampden and Hampshire counties, because, while they have survived what has happened to them, they are still in need of a great deal of compassionate help as they seek to put their lives back together. Providing that help has essentially been the mission of this agency for the past 150 years.

“I love this job because we’re able to serve women and children who are desperate to receive professional services, so that they can move on with their lives,” said Dineen, who has made a very smooth transition from the courtroom to the classroom (she chaired the Criminal Justice department at Bay Path University for several years after leaving the DA’s office) to the challenging world of nonprofit management.

Indeed, while the work address and the title on her business card are different, Dineen is, in many ways, continuing the work with survivors that marked the first 25 years of her career, work she described as both extremely rewarding but very challenging.

Azreal Alvarez says the YWCA’s YouthBuild Springfield program is his third crack at high school, and his best chance to succeed.

Azreal Alvarez says the YWCA’s YouthBuild Springfield program is his third crack at high school, and his best chance to succeed.

“When you win a case, it’s very rewarding, but when I lost a case, it was excruciating, because you knew the person was going to be released to the community and would re-offend,” she explained, providing some unique insight into a realm few really know and understand. “Overall, these are some of the most challenging types of cases to prosecute.

“Children who testify in these cases are usually testifying against someone they loved, respected, and admired; it could be a coach, a parent, a teacher, or a relative, so it’s very hard to go into a courtroom and testify against them,” she went on. “And with regard to domestic-violence cases, very often the person they’re testifying against is someone they loved or still love,” she went on. “And when you’re dealing with adult rape cases, whether the survivor is male or female, it’s very challenging; people have to talk about an extremely horrific, traumatic experience.”

Dineen said her work in the DA’s office, which focused on high-profile cases including child-abuse murders, domestic-violence murders, and sexual-assault cases, has benefitted her in a number of ways as she guides the YWCA. For starters, she has a number of connections with area law-enforcement agencies and the legal community, connections that ultimately help her and her team better serve survivors.

Meanwhile, her time in law school and then as a lawyer has certainly helped her handle all the contract work that is part and parcel to managing a nonprofit these days, and especially this one.

But the greatest benefit from her work as a prosecutor is gaining a deep and unique understanding of what survivors go through — and what services they need to move forward with their lives.

This perspective has helped in the development and refinement of a number of programs and initiatives, and it comes across clearly as she talks about facilities such as the domestic-violence shelter, which is filled 24/7 as evidence of what she called an epidemic in this country and this region. She knows about the women and families who come there because she’s operated in their world throughout her career.

“When women come to the shelter, they come very often with just the clothes on their back,” she said, adding that only those deemed to be in eminent danger are assigned rooms. “If they bring anything for their children, it’s usually some kind of comfort object like a blanket or a toy.

“Many women come here right from the hospital or a police station, or they come here when there’s an opportunity to flee their abuser,” she went on. “The person might be going to work or to the supermarket, and there’s a window of opportunity that the woman has to literally flee their abuser.

“When you come to the shelter, it’s not uncommon to see people who might have a black eye, might have chunks of hair removed, might have a cast on their arm or leg,” she continued. “These are women who have experienced and endured, in some cases, long-term physical, sexual, and emotional abuse.”

Forward Progress

Thus, when they arrive, they need a full array of services, said Dineen, listing everything from direct counseling to getting children into schools or daycare as soon as possible, for their benefit, but also to help staff members focus on helping mothers prepare for the day when they will leave the shelter; from work to secure, permanent housing to assistance with entering or re-entering the workforce.

To accomplish all this, the YWCA works with a host of partners, from area school departments and daycare providers such as Square One to Way Finders (for housing and employment services) to Dress for Success (to ensure that women have suitable clothes for an interview or the first day on the job).

“Everything we do with women once they enter the shelter is designed to make them self-sufficient and independent,” she explained. “We’re trying to create conditions of success so that when they leave, they can thrive.”

This independence and self-sufficiency almost always comes through employment, Dineen went on, noting that many who come to the shelter have been out of the workforce for some time and thus need help to re-enter it. Thus, the YMCA has a computer lab and services to help survivors write a résumé and cover letter, apply for jobs online, and conduct themselves at an interview.

“No one is sitting around the shelter,” she told BusinessWest. “When you first come here, yes, you want to breathe and maybe have a couple days of just feeling safe and being able to sleep through the night without fear, but after that … everyone is assigned a case manager who will work with this person to figure out how to get her back on her feet, get her a job, get her to be economically independent, and think about where she wants to live.”

While the domestic-abuse shelter is perhaps the best-known of the programs and facilities operated by the YWCA to assist survivors, it is just one of many, said Dineen.

The YWCA facility on Clough Street

The YWCA facility on Clough Street offers a number of services and programs — all of them designed to help survivors heal.

There are other residential programs, including a transitional housing program in Springfield and teen-parenting residential programs in Springfield and Holyoke, she said, as well as a human-trafficking initiative undertaken in partnership with the Hampden County Sheriff’s Office, the U.S. Attorney’s Office, the Homeland Security Department, and other local, state, and federal agencies, and a host of community programs.

These include the hotline, which Dineen called a critical service to the people of this region and even some who have moved outside it and call the hotline for tips on how to locate services in their new place of residence.

“Each one of those phone calls to our hotline is a cry for help,” she told BusinessWest. “So we try to be as incredibly supportive as possible; if we don’t have a bed available, we’ll try to help someone find another bed within this state. We try to make sure that everyone who calls knows the resources available to them.”

Other services and programs include medical advocacy at hospitals for sexual-abuse victims, sexual-assault and domestic-violence counseling, SafePlan court advocacy, services for young parents, and many others.

They are all designed to help people, like Anselmo, with what can be, and usually is, a complicated healing process.

Complicated, because survivors often try to blame themselves for the abuse inflicted upon them, which is not conductive to recovery.

“I can speak for all women when I say that we go through something traumatic … you’re lost, you’re scared, and you think ‘what did I do?’” she told BusinessWest. “That’s one of the questions that each and every one of us asks ourselves. We have to realize that it’s not us.

“The YWCA gives you tools so you can understand that domestic violence isn’t just physical,” she went on. “It’s mental, it’s emotional, and those two are really hard to heal from; the bruises, they fade, but the emotional and verbal abuse really tears you down a lot.”

Courses of Action

One program that is gaining traction — and results that may be difficult to quantify but certainly can be qualified — is the counseling service for children who witness violence, said Dineen, adding that it is designed for children ages 3 to 18 and provides tools to help those who have experienced violence firsthand, or witnessed it, to cope.

They attend nine to 12 sessions, at which they are encouraged to identify their emotions and learn how to talk about what’s bothering them rather than resort to their fists or cruel words to vent frustration.

“They talk about their feelings, and they talk about what makes a healthy relationship,” she noted, with the goal that such experiences won’t be repeated and won’t become generational, as so often happens.

And, as noted, while she doesn’t have any statistical evidence with which to show progress, she has anecdotal evidence.

“When I see kids come into our shelter and I meet and talk with them, I can see how aggressive some of them, and especially the boys, are,” she explained. “And I see how they talk to their siblings, especially their female siblings, and their mother. They can be very disrespectful and bossy; they’re repeating what they saw.

“And as I see kids go through the Children Who Witness Violence program, I can see a sea change in terms of how they interact with their moms and other females in authority,” she went on. “The moms will say, ‘thank God my child had an opportunity to participate in this.’”

As for the YouthBuild and GED workforce-development programs, they are helping young people like Alvarez get a second, or third or fourth, chance at not only finishing school, but developing self-esteem and perhaps finding a career.

The program has existed for several years, said Dineen, but recently it was retooled (a new director was hired) and expanded to include not only a construction track, but one in healthcare as well, a path more attractive to most of the young women who participate.

“They have a week on campus here where they’re taking academic classes, everything they need to pass their GED,” she explained. “And the other week they’re either doing construction — we’re partnering with Habitat for Humanity — or they’re going to Baystate Health and learning to become a certified nurses’ assistant or a phlebotomist.”

The program is starting to generate results, she said, and it is becoming a last/best option for students who have not enjoyed success in a traditional setting. And, like all the other initiatives at the YWCA, it’s focused on giving people the tools they need to succeed after they leave the agency’s programs behind them.

With YouthBuild and each of the other programs, there are measures of success, some more obvious than others, said Dineen.

“I measure success when my hotline is ringing off the hook — that shows people are using it,” she noted. “I measure success when people stay in our shelter, get the services they need, and then leave — and when they leave, they leave having a job, having safe housing, and having been through counseling so they can understand their own self-worth so they don’t need to get involved with a jerk.

“When I look at YouthBuild, I measure success by how many kids get their GED, by how many kids get a job, by kids getting certified in construction or to be a CNA,” she went on. “And I measure success when people have the courage to pursue prosecution and hold someone accountable for what they’ve done. And in all those areas, we’re seeing progress.”

Seeing the Light

Alvarez and other participants in the YouthBuild program recently traveled to the State House. There, they met with members of the Western Mass. delegation and got some impromptu civics lessons. But this wasn’t just a learning experience.

Indeed, while there, the students were also advocating for the YWCA and programs like YouthBuild, an assignment Alvarez undertook with considerable enthusiasm, telling legislators the same thing he told BusinessWest — that YWCA programs can provide light to someone who has been experiencing dark times and needs an opportunity to heal.

It’s been doing this for 150 years now, and that’s truly worth celebrating.

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

Cover Story

Pivotal Support

India Russell and Lamont Stuckey, makers of Everything Sauce

India Russell and Lamont Stuckey, makers of Everything Sauce

The agency is called SPARK EforAll Holyoke. It represents a merger of SPARK Holyoke, an entity created to inspire and mentor entrepreneurs, and EforAll, the Lowell-based organization that has created an effective model that does essentially the same thing. By whatever name it goes, the agency is helping to spur business ownership among minorities, women, and other constituencies, and it is already changing the landscape in the Paper City.

They call it ‘Everything Sauce.’

That’s the name India Russell and Lamont Stuckey gave to a product that is now the main focus of a business they call Veganish Foodies.

This is a company, but also a mindset and what the partners call a “lifestyle brand for anyone making the change to ‘healthy living.’” Elaborating, they told BusinessWest that veganish foodies are individuals who love food and are ready to explore the more-healthy vegan lifestyle one meal at a time by substituting their favorite foods with healthier alternatives or ingredients.

The Everything Sauce? That’s part of it. It’s something they concocted themselves as a spicy alternative to other things people put on their food and something that may make the healthier foods in a vegetarian or vegan diet more, well, palatable.

“It has an alternative to soy … it has different spices to give you flavor … it has an alternative to sugar in there,” said Stuckey, trying hard not to identify any secret ingredients. “It’s all blended together to give you a sweet heat that makes all kinds of foods taste better.”

As noted, this sauce has become the main focus of this business venture since the partners became involved with a program called SPARK EforAll Holyoke, the latest branch office (if that’s the proper term) of an agency that started in the Lowell-Lawrence area of the state in 2011 and has expanded to a number of small and mid-sized cities, including Holyoke, that share common challenges and demographic profiles (more on that in a bit).

Overall, EforAll, short for Entrepreneurship for All, is an agency that essentially promotes its chosen name, specifically in cities that have large ethnic populations but few resources for individuals with entrepreneurial energy and drive.

Holyoke certainly fits that description, and EforAll became part of the landscape in the city when those managing the agency known as SPARK decided last year to merge with EforAll and fully embrace its model, said David Parker, CEO of the organization.

Tessa Murphy-Romboletti, executive director EforAll, Alex Morse, was encouraged by the progress being made in her hometown, and wanted to play a bigger role in those efforts.

Tessa Murphy-Romboletti, executive director EforAll, Alex Morse, was encouraged by the progress being made in her hometown, and wanted to play a bigger role in those efforts.

Like the better-known Valley Venture Mentors, SPARK EforAll Holyoke features mentoring, accelerator programs, pitch contests, and other forms of programming to help participants take an idea and eventually transform it into a business — while also helping them avoid many of the mistakes that turn businesses into casualties, said Tessa Murphy-Romboletti, the agency’s executive director. But its work generally involves a different constituency.

“The people we’re working with … they’re not necessarily making the next big mobile app or finding a cure for cancer — although they might be,” she explained. “They may just be running a cleaning business, but that’s feeding their families. Being able to work with people who may have never considered themselves entrepreneurs, and being able to show them that they’re able to do that, I think that’s what makes us unique.”

As for Russell and Stuckey, they became part of the accelerator class at SPARK EforAll Holyoke that graduated late last month during ceremonies at Wistariahust Museum, a fitting location because it was the home of William Skinner, one of Holyoke’s most noted and inspirational entrepreneurs.

“The people we’re working with … they’re not necessarily making the next big mobile app or finding a cure for cancer — although they might be. They may just be running a cleaning business, but that’s feeding their families. Being able to work with people who may have never considered themselves entrepreneurs, and being able to show them that they’re able to do that, I think that’s what makes us unique.”

Their mentors helped persuade them that making Everything Sauce shouldn’t be one small aspect of their venture — it should be the main focus. And they followed that advice, securing space in a commercial kitchen (Cornucopia Foods in Northampton) to scale up production, a process that is ongoing; you can now buy a bottle (price tag: $12) at Cornucopia or Crispy’s Wings-N-Fish in Springfield.

“When we came to SPARK EforAll, they really helped us organize ourselves and focus more on our sauce,” Russell explained, adding that the partners had several products and services, ranging from a 40-day cleanse to a seven-day challenge, but their mentors narrowed the company’s focus to something scalable and something it could sell.

In entrepreneurship circles, they call this a pivot, said Murphy-Romboletti, adding that such moves are usually vital to shaping a developing concept into a growing business.

And there was a lot of pivoting going on with the latest accelerator class, she noted, adding that it included eight companies, four of which split $5,000 in prize money to help take their ventures to the next step.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with the entrepreneurs behind those prize-winning ventures to gain some perspective on SPARK Efor All and its growing impact within the region’s entrepreneurial infrastructure. Those companies came away from the ceremonies with one of those large ceremonial checks, but the reality is that they won much more than that — specifically a better road map for taking their business on the path to success.

Positive Steps

Alex Sandana told BusinessWest that he had aspirations to be a professional dancer while growing up. But his family was sternly tested by the expensive classes and training it would take to make that dream reality.

So he can certainly relate to the young people he’s now giving lessons to in a studio on High Street in Holyoke he calls Star Dancers Unity.

He opened it in 2013, and, like most people in business for any length of time, said his experience has been a roller-coaster ride — meaning both ups and downs.

Alex Sandana with some of his students at Star Dancers Unity.

Alex Sandana with some of his students at Star Dancers Unity.

Things have become somewhat less turbulent since he became involved with SPARK EforAll Holyoke, a step he wishes he had taken much sooner.

“I got into this knowing … zero,” he recalled. “I had an idea of what I was getting myself into, and I knew that Holyoke needed a place where kids could be themselves and not be burdened by the high tuition that other dance studios charge. But I never had any experience in business; I was learning as I was going.

EforAll has helped him expand the portfolio, if you will, serving not just young people, but also providing lessons, and choreography, for weddings and quinceañeras, the fiestas staged for girls turning 15 — that Latin equivalent of the sweet-16 party.

“I was able, with the help of my mentors, to identify other ways to generate revenue,” said Saldana, adding that this more-diversified business has much greater growth potential.

Helping business owners execute such changes and key pivots is essentially the mission statement at SPARK EforAll Holyoke, said Murphy-Romboletti, 29, who worked for several years as the executive assistant, scheduler, and press secretary for Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse, who coaxed her into returning to her hometown after she relocated to Brooklyn, feeling, as many young people did and still do, that she had to leave this area to find what she was looking for.

As she explained how she took the reins at the small agency, she said she watched as many of Morse’s initiatives in the broad realm of economic development — from promotion of the arts to development of an innovation district to programs to inspire and support entrepreneurship — began to change the landscape.

And she decided she wanted to be part of it.

“A position opened up in planning and economic development,” she recalled. “I loved working with the business owners in our community, and there were so many cool projects happening, especially in the downtown, so it seemed like a natural next step.”

One that led to another step when the directorship of SPARK came open. That provided an opportunity to work on a project she helped get off the ground while working in the mayor’s office.

“I loved working with the business owners in our community, and there were so many cool projects happening, especially in the downtown, so it seemed like a natural next step.”

“I was able, through my job at City Hall, to be there for the early planning stages for SPARK,” she recalled, noting that the initiative was funded through a Working Cities Challenge grant. “I loved it; I thought, ‘what an awesome opportunity to create an entrepreneurship program that’s inclusive and empowering and not your typical accelerator.’”

Those sentiments help explain why and how SPARK came to merge with EforAll. Holyoke’s demographics are similar to those in other cities it serves — 51% of its residents are Hispanic, and 9% of its businesses are owned by Latinos — and there is a need for services to help that latter number rise. Meanwhile, EforAll had an established model generating measurable results in other communities.

Getting Down to Business

Thus, she now leads what amounts to the latest in a series of expansion efforts for EforAll, which, after being launched in Lowell-Lawrence, has subsequently added offices in New Bedford, Fall River, Lynn, and Hyannis (an office that serves the entire Cape), as well as Holyoke.

The business model for the agency — launched under UMass Lowell with initial funding from the Deshpande Foundation and known originally as the Merrimack Valley Sandbox — involves working in communities, and with individuals, who are generally underserved, at least when it comes to initiatives within the broad realm of entrepreneurship.

“Generally speaking, this means immigrants, people of color, women, those who are unemployed, veterans, people returning from incarceration … those are the kinds of communities we look for,” Parker explained. “And we want to encourage people with ideas for businesses — we don’t give them ideas — to come to our programs, share their ideas, and see if we can help them get those businesses started.”

There are a number of measures for success, he said, including the number of businesses launched (both for-profit and nonprofit in nature), jobs, sales, and the capital raised for those ventures, he went on, adding that there have been a number of success stories as well.

The one cited most often is that of Danaris Mazara, who came to this country from the Dominican Republic at age 22.

Parker, who has told the story often, said that, after her husband was laid off from his job and the family began to struggle, Mazara took food stamps her mother gave her to buy groceries and instead bought ingredients for flan, a popular Dominican dessert. She made enough to sell to her co-workers and friends and made $500 in a few weeks.

Fast-forwarding a little, Parker said EforAll helped her move the flan operation out of her home and into a commercial bakery that she now owns by helping her secure a loan. It also assisted with product lines, pricing, and other aspects of the business. Today, she has 13 employees and is already looking for a larger bakery.

The EforAll model itself is scalable, said Parker, adding that the agency is certainly in an expansion mode. Indeed, now that it has shown that its formula for bolstering a community’s entrepreneurial ecosystem works in several Bay State cities, EforAll is ready to embark on expansion into other areas of the country.

“We hope to announce new EforAll programs in other states within this year,” he told BusinessWest, adding that the goal is to have another four sites by the end of this year, another six by the end of 2020, and perhaps as many as 50 in the years to come.

Julie Molianny and Rashad Ali, who launched Cantina Curbside Grill, a food truck featuring Latin fusion items, aspire to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant in the future.

Julie Molianny and Rashad Ali, who launched Cantina Curbside Grill, a food truck featuring Latin fusion items, aspire to open a brick-and-mortar restaurant in the future.

Meanwhile, in Holyoke, SPARK EforAll is getting set to open co-working space in a building on High Street — the doors will likely open in May — and thus take its mission to a still-higher level. Funded by a MassDevelopment Collaborative Workspace grant, the 1,500-square-foot facility has a large room that can accommodate perhaps 20 desks and several smaller cubicle-like areas, said Murphy-Romboletti, adding that there is obvious need for such space in Holyoke, and she expects that it will be well-received.

At the same time, the agency’s mentoring and accelerator programs are helping a number of entrepreneurs and aspiring entrepreneurs move their concepts forward.

The 12 weeks of classes — two classes a week — are “intense,” Murphy-Romboletti, adding that each company is assigned a team of three mentors that act as an advisory panel.

“These entrepreneurs are deeply immersed in this process,” she explained. “We’re helping people navigate the challenges in front of them and do their business right.”

Spicing Things Up

People like Julie Molianny and Rashad Ali, who launched Cantina Curbside Grill, a food truck featuring Latin fusion items such as tacos, burritos, quesadillas, and more.

They started slowly in 2017, said Molianny, focusing on events on area college campuses and farmers’ markets. But the truck will soon shift into a higher gear, figuratively, she noted, adding that later this month it will be parked Monday through Friday at a still-to-be-determined location near Springfield’s riverfront.

Down the road, and probably not far down, the partners want to add a trailer to the lineup so they can handle bigger events, she said, adding that the ultimate goal is to have a brick-and-mortar restaurant.

EforAll has helped the two with the accounting and pricing sides of the ledger, said Ali, and also with focusing on not only the big picture — what’s in the business plan — but also myriad day-to-day issues involved with running a business.

“The hardest part is keeping tabs on everything, crossing all the T’s and doting all the I’s, staying on top of taxes and everything else,” he said, adding that the accelerator classes have helped the partners stay focused and organized.

Specifically, that means focused on the best options for stability and growth moving forward, which brings us back to Russell, Stuckey, and Everything Sauce, which is just one bullet point in their ever-changing business plan.

Indeed, the partners also have plans to put a food truck on the road, one that would offer what they called “plant-based alternatives,” and operate what might be considered non-typical hours.

“We want to specifically focus on food after 9 p.m., because after that hour, most eateries in this area are closed,” said Stuckey. “And what is open … let’s just say there aren’t many alternatives for healthy eating; we intend to change that.”

In the meantime, they intend to scale up their sauce. They’ve moved from a few gallons at a time in their home to four or five gallons at Cornucopia, which they found with the help of SPARK EforAll, and aspire to production runs of perhaps 200 gallons or more, perhaps at the Western Mass. Food Processing Center in Greenfield, which they also found with help from their mentors.

These mentors are entrepreneurs themselves, said Murphy-Romboletti, meaning they’ve been on the roller coaster themselves and have real-world experiences that translate into sage advice about if and how to take an idea from scratchings on a table napkin to Main Street, or High Street, as the case may be.

From left, Marcos Mateo, his mother, Madeline, and Abiel Alvarado, look to open their auto-service business in June.

From left, Marcos Mateo, his mother, Madeline, and Abiel Alvarado, look to open their auto-service business in June.

That was the case with Abiel Alvarado, his girlfriend, Madeline Mateo, and her son, Marcos Mateo. The three are going into business together, in a venture called Mateo Auto Sales, which has an interesting backstory.

Indeed, Alvarado was in the auto sales and service business in Puerto Rico, and essentially saw that business, and his life, turned upside down by Hurricane Maria. He relocated to Holyoke, where he met Madeline and expressed his desire to soon get back into business for himself. Looking for some help and direction, Madeline went to City Hall, and was soon redirected to the Chamber of Commerce and eventually SPARK EforAll Holyoke.

The three partners applied to, and eventually became part of, the latest accelerator class. Marcos Mateo told BusinessWest they’ve received many different kinds of support for their mentors.

“They provided a lot of guidance,” he said. “They lined everything up, they showed us exactly what we should be focusing on; our mentors helped us with identifying where to go and how to find information.

“We’re not just guessing and having to waste our time doing research,” he went on. “Every class was full of information we needed.”

In Good Company

Alvarado and the Mateos are currently in lease negotiations on a building, and hope to be open for business in June.

After that, they’ll begin what will likely be a roller-coaster ride, something all entrepreneurs endure. With the accelerator behind them and quarterly meetings with their mentors to continue for at least the next year, maybe the ride won’t be particularly wild or feature many significant dips.

Helping create a smoother ride is what SPARK EforAll Holyoke is all about. Its accelerator programs and other initiatives are unique when it comes to the constituency being served, but similar to others in that its mission is to open doors to business ownership and the opportunities it creates.

And that’s why these services are pivotal, in every sense of that word.

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

Cover Story

Bridging the Gulf

Sen. Eric Lesser

Sen. Eric Lesser

Since first elected to office five years ago, state Sen. Eric Lesser has made economic development and, more specifically, closing the wide gap in prosperity between the eastern and western areas of the state his top priority. While he’s most closely linked to high-speed rail, he’s put his name — and energy — behind a number of initiatives to bring more jobs and more vibrancy to the 413.

As he talks about economic development in the Bay State, Eric Lesser focuses on most of the usual subjects — jobs, wages, taxes, incentives, industry clusters, training, and technology. But the issue he’s really obsessed with is geography.

To be more specific, it’s the economic gulf that exists between east — meaning Greater Boston — and west in a state that’s only 120 miles wide. It’s a huge gulf, and since he was first elected to the state Senate in 2014, Lesser has devoted most of his waking hours to somehow closing it and enabling the four western counties to look and feel more like those east of Worcester, at least from a jobs and overall vibrancy perspective.

This broad goal has been the inspiration for dozens of bills and initiatives, ranging from high-speed rail service that would connect Boston and Springfield to more recent endeavors such as legislation that would pay $10,000 to individuals willing to move to Western Mass. and work remotely, and another bill that would funnel $87 million in incentives that General Electric is essentially refunding to the state toward vocational education programs.

But in each case, Lesser told BusinessWest, the bills were filed not to benefit Western Mass. exclusively, but the state as a whole, said Lesser, chair of the Legislature’s Manufacturing Caucus and also its Gateway Cities Caucus.

“This challenge we have is actually a huge opportunity, because we have a lot of assets; we’ve got great cultural institutions, we’ve got great academic institutions, we’re really close to red-hot economic centers in New York to our south and Boston to our east. We have to take full advantage of this opportunity.”

“Boston has an endless supply of fast-growing, high-paying jobs,” he told BusinessWest. “What it doesn’t have is enough open space, enough affordable housing, and a transportation system that can sustain all this. So my philosophy for the past five years has been to work on policies that address the needs of both ends of the state.”

As an example, he cited the issue he is perhaps most closely associated with — high-speed rail service, again the focus of ongoing study. Lesser said there is a good reason for his preoccupation with rail — actually several of them.

Indeed, both research and recent events show there a strong relationship between rail service and seizing opportunities within the broad realm of economic development, he said, citing several once-struggling cities within the Commonwealth as examples.

“The Wall Street Journal did a detailed report on this about a year and a half ago,” he explained. “They looked at Lowell, Lawrence, Worcester, and Springfield and determined that recovery from the Great Recession was greatest in those gateway cities that were connected by rail service.

“Why? Because they were able to take advantage of the overheating of the economy in Boston — people were moving out of the city to find more affordable places to live, and they could do that because of the rail connection,” he went on. “Rail will give people in Western Mass. access to high-paying jobs that will grow our economy by producing and fueling the construction industry, among others. And it gives Eastern Mass. access to more open space and more affordable housing, which are desperately needed priorities.”

Likewise, the legislation involving incentives to move west would help this region because it would bring more young professionals with buying power to the area, but it would also help the Greater Boston area by giving remote workers for companies based there a more affordable option for living in the Bay State.

Overall, the energetic Lesser is committed to helping this region not only regain some of the prominence it enjoyed when it was a center for precision manufacturing and had tens of thousands of people working in that sector at the Springfield Armory and several private companies, but thrive in a modern, technology-driven economy fueled by innovation and entrepreneurship.

Eric Lesser says a strong precision-manufacturing sector

Eric Lesser says a strong precision-manufacturing sector is one of the region’s many assets, and one that should be leveraged in the years and decades to come.

And as he goes about that assignment, he sees a number of links between the past and the future.

Indeed, when one of the young entrepreneurs speaking at the State of Entrepreneurship event staged last month at Valley Venture Mentors opined that Western Mass. could be the next Silicon Valley, Lesser, when it was his turn to talk, said this region was Silicon Valley not so long ago, at least in terms of industrial innovation and ‘firsts’ — everything from the Blanchard lathe to the monkey wrench — due to a strong culture of entrepreneurship.

It is becoming that again, but has a ways to go, he told BusinessWest, specifically when asked if this region could become home to many of the large corporations now based in and around Boston.

“The single biggest challenge is workforce,” he said. “Companies need a a mix of workers, and they need a supply of workers that can do what they need done; we’re not there yet.”

Overall, to play a more prominent role in today’s IT-driven economy, this region needs some help in the broad and critical realm of connectivity, he went on, adding that this help could come in the form of a high-speed rail connection, funding to help vocational high schools reduce or eliminate their waiting lists for some programs, and, yes, even incentives for individuals to relocate here.

“This challenge we have is actually a huge opportunity,” he said, “because we have a lot of assets; we’ve got great cultural institutions, we’ve got great academic institutions, we’re really close to red-hot economic centers in New York to our south and Boston to our east. We have to take full advantage of this opportunity.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Lesser about how his primary focus since being elected to office is doing just that.

State of the Economy

As he talked about the gulf that exists between east and west, Lesser, whose district includes roughly half of Springfield, more than half of Chicopee, and several smaller towns east of Springfield, provided a quick history lesson in how things came to be this way.

“In the 1980s, we had a manufacturing-oriented economy here that emptied out over the course of the 20 or 30 years since then,” he explained, referencing the closing, relocation, or downsizing of stalwarts such as American Bosch, Chapman Valve, Westinghouse, Monsanto, and others. “Those companies used to employ thousands each, and most of those still lie empty. Boston and Eastern Mass. had the same phenomenon — in fact, the whole country saw it; there were major manufacturing centers in the Boston area that also emptied out.

“The difference and the challenge we have is that, in the Boston area, those jobs were replaced by jobs in high tech, education, healthcare, the so-called eds and meds, as they say,” he went on. “We had some of the replacement in Western Mass., but nowhere near as much or at the same rate as Eastern Mass.”

And while jobs have left, so too have people.

Lesser noted that Holyoke, in its heyday as a paper and textiles mecca, had a population of close to 60,000; today it’s around 40,000. Springfield once had 190,000 residents; today the number is closer to 160,000. And while the populations are getting smaller, they’re also getting older, and it’s not just the urban centers.

“They’re talking about closing schools in communities all across my district — in Granby, in Wilbraham-Hampden, even in Longmeadow, where they’re talking about closing one of the two middle schools,” he told BusinessWest, adding that these smaller, aging populations are reaching a critical stage.

“If we don’t do big creative things to reverse this challenge that we face, then we’re going to be in big trouble,” he said, emphasizing that adjective. “We’ve got to bring in new ideas, be aggressive about trying new concepts, and work with what we have, which is great people, a great legacy of innovation, and great quality of life.”

And Lesser has brought forth a number of new ideas since first elected, many of them focused on replacing the jobs that have been lost in this region, drawing more young people to the 413, and building the entrepreneurial ecosystem in the Valley.

He wants to replace jobs lost by bolstering the region’s already-strong manufacturing sector with education and training programs aimed at retaining jobs and adding new ones. And at the same time, he wants to build a stronger workforce in this region — one that will eventually attract more employers — by making it easier to work for the companies in and around Boston, but live here.

Which brings us back to high-speed rail.

The matter has been studied, but Lesser fought hard for and eventually helped win funding to get it studied again. He’s confident that the study will reveal what he firmly believes — that such rail service is a worthy investment for the Commonwealth because of the benefits that will come from bringing Greater Boston and Greater Springfield closer together, figuratively speaking.

Eric Lesser, seen here at a recent roundtable

Eric Lesser, seen here at a recent roundtable with manufacturing and vocational-education leaders, says the state must do something to ease the long waiting lists for vocational programs.

“Rents are out of control in Boston, the traffic is asphyxiating, they need relief from that, and we offer that in Western Mass.,” he explained, adding quickly that he does not believe Boston-area prices will come to the 413, as they have in parts of Rhode Island and other regions of this state.

“We’re a long way from that being the challenge,” he said. “I’m sensitive to that, and we have to stay on top of that. If you focus on things like transit-oriented development — clustering development around Union Station, for example, and redeveloping mill properties and vacant home units — you can do this in a sustainable way that lifts all boats.”

Making Progress

As he referenced the region’s proud history as an advanced-manufacturing hub, Lesser said this sector remains one of its strengths. However, its status is threatened by a number of sustainability challenges, especially when it comes to the workforce.

“Right now, in the Pioneer Valley, you have thousands of vacant positions in advanced manufacturing,” he noted. “And the reason they’re vacant is because you have wait lists at all our voke schools; they can’t produce graduates fast enough to keep up with the growth.

“This is a golden opportunity for us to grow the economy if we can target the state investments toward closing those voke-ed and career and technical education waiting lists,” he went on, referring to his legislation related to the GE incentives being refunded to the state. “You’re going to get more people out the door into jobs, working good jobs that pay $25 to $30 an hour entry level for an 18- or 19-year-old with no college debt. And if we don’t do that, how long is a company going to sit around with vacancies on their books? They’re going to move to North Carolina, Texas, Eastern Mass., or upstate New York, where they’re going to find the workers.”

Thus, the legislation regarding those GE incentives, filed just last month, is an example of that creative, aggressive thinking that Lesser mentioned earlier, and an example of initiatives aimed at benefiting not just Western Mass., but the state as a whole.

It’s a measure that triggered a discussion about the prudence of granting large incentives for relocation to companies like GE, when, in Lesser’s opinion, there are plenty of better ways to invest those tens of millions of dollars.

“The idea behind that money was to create jobs,” referring to the more than $150 million awarded to GE as an incentive to move from Connecticut to Boston and invest in new facilities there. “But it was creating almost entirely high-paying, white-collar jobs in an area of the state that is already producing a lot of high-paying, white-collar jobs. We desperately need middle-class jobs in all the regions outside of Boston, which already has a red-hot economy.

“So the idea here is to direct the money to vocational and CTE programs to do things like purchase more equipment, outfit more classrooms, and hire more teachers,” he went on. “You’re going to reduce that backlog, get students off the wait list, and get them slotted right away into jobs with local employers that are already here.”

He said the measure has garnered a considerable amount of support since it was filed, and from across the state — not surprising given the priority placed on training workers for the manufacturing sector by both the Manufacturing Caucus and the Gateway Cities Caucus and efforts to get more CTE funding.

Such efforts have been going on for years, and the momentum created by such efforts, as well as changing views about granting incentives to large corporations that often don’t bring all the jobs they promise or want too much in exchange for them, may be prompting some rethinking when it comes to how this state might invest in economic development.

“If we don’t do big creative things to reverse this challenge that we face, then we’re going to be in big trouble. We’ve got to bring in new ideas, be aggressive about trying new concepts, and work with what we have, which is great people, a great legacy of innovation, and great quality of life.”

“The state is willing to shell out, with such enthusiasm, a massive tax writeoff to a huge corporation that may or may not keep that money in Massachusetts — and in fact is more likely to distribute it to its shareholders, who live all over the world,” Lesser said. “Now, this becomes a test to see if the state is committed to middle-class job creation outside of already-hot markets. How committed are we to creating jobs in Springfield, Holyoke, and Pittsfield?”

While awaiting an answer to that question, Lesser will also see if there is sufficient support for legislation that has come to be called his ‘go west’ bill, one that would award $10,000 to individuals willing to relocate to Western Mass. and work remotely.

It was sparked, he said, by both the ongoing and accelerating trend toward professionals working remotely, and also those alarming demographic trends cited earlier involving populations getting smaller and older. Instead, he wants them to get larger and younger.

“There’s a big trend globally regarding remote working, especially companies based in San Francisco, Boston, or New York,” he explained. “They’re facing sky-high commercial real-estate prices, so they’re under immense pressure to shrink their office footprints in those cities. So you can see a scenario where a bank based in New York wants to shrink its rent footprint in Manhattan; it can offer an incentive to its workers that can be matched with our incentive. Those workers can move here, buy homes here, send their kids to school here, shop here, and pay taxes here.”

Lesser enthusiastically points to an analysis of that bill authored by Hans Despain, chair of the Economics department at Nichols College, who praised Lesser’s focus on remote jobs, especially those in the FIRE (finance, insurance, and real estate) sector, and projected a benefit to the region of $60,000 for each individual who goes west.

“The first thing to underscore is that this is quite literally a jobs bill,” Despain wrote in an op-ed in the Republican. “For example, for each new citizen who relocates to Holyoke, she brings with her a job that previously did not exist in the area.”

Connecting the Dots

When asked about whether energies should be put toward incentivizing the next GE — if there is one — to locate in the western part of the state or another still-struggling region like the New Bedford area, Lesser reiterated his contention that Greater Springfield simply couldn’t contend for such a prize at this moment in its history — for the very reasons that have prompted all those measures that have come off his desk.

“We can’t bring a GE here until we make the investments, until we make the decisions we have to make that have, quite frankly, been kicked down the road far too long,” he told BusinessWest. “We need to invest in connectivity; we need the rail service. We need to continue to invest in our workforce and our local communities so we’re producing the skilled workers who can work at those companies.

“And I’m very confident that a GE or an Amazon could come here,” he went on. “But I’m more interested in the kid at Chicopee Comp who thinks up the next GE and decides to locate it here and grow it here rather than packing up and moving it to Boston or San Francisco.”

That can only happen if there’s a workforce, and if the gulf between east and west can be bridged. These are the hard facts that drive Lesser as he tries to engineer a solution to this long-standing problem.

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

Cover Story

A Six-month Checkup

Mike Mathis, foreground, with recently promoted MGM employees

Mike Mathis, foreground, with recently promoted MGM employees, from left: Marissa Dombkowski, Bill Blake, and Nickolaos Panteleakis.

A half-year after opening its doors, MGM Springfield is well behind its stated goals and expectations for gross gaming revenues, or GGR, and the numbers have been declining each month since the fall. But the winter months are traditionally the slowest in this industry, said Mike Mathis, president and COO of the resort, and the company is still ramping up its operation. Overall, he said, there are a number of positive indicators.

‘Ramping.’

That’s the word you hear quite frequently from MGM’s leaders as they talk about the $950 million property in Springfield’s South End. Jim Murren, president and CEO of MGM Resorts International, used it early and often in a conference call with stock analysts last month following the release of MGM’s fourth-quarter earnings in 2018.

And Mike Mathis, president and COO of MGM Springfield, leaned on it as he talked with BusinessWest late last month, six months after the facility opened its doors. With casinos like this one, Mathis said, the ramping-up process, if you will, goes on for three years or so and is quite involved.

It entails watching, listening, learning, and adapting, all with the goals of growing visitation and, therefore, the bottom line, while also improving efficiency and making the operation in question more profitable.

“I think it’s premature to judge us, or anyone, on a partial data set; it’s a little early to say we’re going to underperform or overperform for our first year.”

“In the context of a new resort, it’s commonly understood within the industry that there’s a three-year stabilization period — a ramp period to stabilization,” he explained. “Three years serves as a benchmark. You’ve been through a few different seasonality rotations, you see the different ranges of weather, you see the different ranges of how holidays land, whether they land on weekends or midweek — you get all those different scenarios.

“You’re also building up your database,” he went on. “Seeing how your competition’s reacting to what you’re doing — how are they activating their property. You get a feel over a couple of years — did we do well that weekend because the competition didn’t have much going on? Or did we suffer because they put in a big act to counter that weekend? That all shakes out over two or three years.”

These references to ramping up are being generated by questions about revenues at MGM Springfield, and, more specifically, about why they are not approaching the numbers the company projected to the Mass. Gaming Commission.

‘Slower’ is the operative word being used with regard to revenues, and it fits if one considers MGM’s projections of $418 million in annual gross gaming revenue (GGR) in its first year of operation, or $34.8 million per month. Indeed, the company recorded $21.58 million in GGR in December, and just $19.7 million in January (February’s numbers will not be released for a few weeks). GGR for November was $21.2 million, the number was $22.2 for October, and in September, it was $26.95 million.

Mathis, while certainly acknowledging that the numbers are lower than projected, at least for the winter months, told BusinessWest that the $418 million projection given to the Gaming Commission was made several years ago, and that the landscape has changed in some ways since then.

Mike Mathis says the winter months are traditionally the slowest for casinos

Mike Mathis says the winter months are traditionally the slowest for casinos in the Northeast, and he is optimistic that visitation will climb as the mercury does.

Meanwhile … it’s early, said Mathis, referring to the fact that the casino has only been open for six months, and a few of those months (January, February, and early December, before the holidays) are among the slowest for casinos, especially those in the Northeast.

“I think it’s premature to judge us, or anyone, on a partial data set; it’s a little early to say we’re going to underperform or overperform for our first year,” he told BusinessWest. “If you look at our August and September numbers, we would have exceeded our expectations. And going into the winter months … that’s the low end of the season.”

And, overall, the casino is still ramping.

That means it’s still learning, collecting data, watching patterns develop, and adapting to what the data shows. As he said earlier, it’s an involved process that involves a number of factors, including the weather. Make that especially the weather.

Mathis said he and his team are tuned into the forecasts, because one thing he’s noticed thus far — and this counts as one of the surprises on his list — is that, despite a reputation for being hardy, people in New England are apparently easily scared off from traveling in snow — or even forecasts of same.

“We thought New England would be hardier than what we’ve seen on some of these snow days,” he said with a laugh. “We’ve had a little bit of experience with snow in Detroit and Atlantic City, but I think every market is unique, and we’re learning some of the patterns and behaviors.

“And it’s not just snow,” he went on, sounding much like area golf-course operators when they talk about rain and how it impacts them. “It’s what type of snow and what time of day it hits and what day of the week it hits. Weather forecasts have become an important tool for operating and planning; it’s been a very interesting learning curve.”

One that extends, as he said, well beyond snow, and into other realms such as where people are visiting from, how often they visit, which games they play, which restaurants they frequent, and much more.

Overall, and as might be expected, Mathis is optimistic that the monthly numbers for GGR will improve as the weather gets better and the casino can make much better use of its outdoor facilities with concerts — Aerosmith is coming for the first-anniversary celebration — and other activities.

But looming over MGM Springfield, in a big way, is the opening of a competing casino in Everett, slated for sometime this summer. Mathis said that development will further alter the landscape and certainly add new wrinkles to the ramping process.

Driven by Data

Mathis told BusinessWest that this first six months of operation have been a learning experience on all kinds of levels, and this, too, was to be expected, because gaming is still relatively new to Massachusetts (Plainridge Park Casino, a slots facility, opened in the fall of 2017), and while those at MGM had expectations, they didn’t know exactly what to expect.

What have they learned? For starters, they’ve learned that visitors much prefer the weekend to the weekdays. And while that sounds obvious, the disparity in the numbers is eye-opening.

“I’m surprised at how weekend-centric the business has been — the difference between weekends and weekdays is pretty dramatic,” Mathis noted, adding that, with the former, visitation averages roughly 18,000 to 20,000 a day, while with the latter, it’s closer to 10,000.

This disparity is far greater than it is in Las Vegas and with most other MGM properties, said Mathis, adding that one big reason for this is a still-ramping (there’s that word again) meeting and convention business in Greater Springfield.

Mike Mathis says the ROAR! Comedy Club has become a solid attraction for MGM Springfield

Mike Mathis says the ROAR! Comedy Club has become a solid attraction for MGM Springfield and a vehicle for bringing new audiences to the resort.

“We have the ability to impact those numbers midweek by putting more convention groups in the MassMutual Center, getting more citywide events, and getting more entertainment mid-week, which we plan on ramping up,” he explained. “There’s ways to impact that midweek business to the benefit of the entire downtown.”

What else have they learned? There’s that aversion to traveling in snow that was mentioned earlier. That was in evidence a few weeks back. The weekend before Presidents Day was one of the best the casino had since it opened, said Mathis, crediting MGM’s ROAR! comedy shows and a host of other things happening downtown and elsewhere, including two Thunderbirds games and a camping and RV show at the Big E, for the surge, one that contributed to one of the few real traffic jams recorded since the property opened.

But the holiday itself (a day off for the vast majority of workers in this region) was considerably slower, and Mathis believes that the few inches of snow that fell overnight had a lot to do with this. Of course, Monday is also a weekday.

What else? Well, to date, MGM Springfield is “underperforming” (Mathis’ word) when it comes to attracting people from Central Mass. Indeed, while the casino does well in drawing people from Upstate New York, New Hampshire, Vermont, and Connecticut (the I-91 corridor), the numbers from the central part of the state are less impressive, which, if you take the glass-is-half-full approach, which Mathis does, means there’s considerable room for growth.

“We’re trying to understand the phenomenon of east-west travel on the Pike, frankly,” he explained. “I think there’s a bias to go north-south — I think that might be the more the traditional traffic pattern, and that’s what the data shows — but we’re also doing well with Boston.

“The good news about how this data shakes out is that there’s upside opportunity for us in Central Mass.,” he went on. “And this might blunt the impact of the Everett casino.”

There have been a few other surprises, including the number of people making their first visit six months after the ceremonial ribbon was cut.

“I’m still surprised by how many people I’m meeting on the floor who are seeing it for the first time,” he said. “Our team has been at this since 2012, so sometimes I feel that anybody who was interested in coming would have come in the first month or two. But there are people hitting the floor every day who are brand new, and for whatever reason have decided that this is the weekend they want to check it out.”

A Laughing Matter

While much of the media’s focus has been on GGR and the hard fact that the numbers are not where they were projected to be, Mathis said there are a number of positive developments to note as the casino passes that six-month mile marker. Here are several he listed:

• The data clearly shows that the opening of MGM Springfield has grown the overall gambling market in this broad region, he said, adding that this becomes clear when one does some simple math and looks at MGM’s revenues and the declining numbers for competitors. The former is larger than the aggregate of the latter, which translates into growth, which bodes well for all players.

“I think one of the good things about new properties coming into the market is it keeps everybody in a position of having to keep up.”

“I’ve met countless customers on our floor who have said that MGM Springfield is their first casino gaming experience, and there’s a few reasons for that,” he said. “Some say they were in Las Vegas, they’re Mlife members, and they’d been to a convention or show, but didn’t happen to go into the casino on that trip; with this in their backyard, they thought they’d give it a try. Others will say they like our non-smoking gaming environment and had never gone into another casino because they didn’t want the smoke; that’s a real competitive advantage for us.”

• The ROAR! Comedy Club has been a solid addition to the MGM lineup, helping to drive visitation, especially during some of the slower months on the calendar. Located in the historic Armory, the shows have drawn consistent crowds, said Mathis, adding that, as the calendar turns to spring and then summer, the team at MGM Springfield will look to maximize its outdoor facilities with a full slate of entertainment to be announced in the coming weeks.

“In talking with the comedians, they say we’re now the buzz within that community — it’s a cool venue, something all the comics want to play on their East Coast rotation,” he told BusinessWest. “it’s a great way to expose the building to different customers.”

• The team continues to find new ways to leverage its many facilities at the casino, said Mathis, noting that it has added entertainment in its ballrooms — Sinbad recently performed two sold-out shows — and the staff continually looks for new opportunities.

“We’re doing a lot of fun activations in different parts of the resort,” he explained. “We want to make sure we understand the booking patterns for convention and meeting groups, and when we see holes, it’s like an empty airplane seat; how do you fill it, and how do you bring new customers to the resort?”

• The hotel and food and beverage side of the casino operation has been exceeding expectations, said Mathis, adding that, among other things, a recently added weekend brunch at Cal Mare restaurant has helped grow that side of the equation.

“Our hotel and restaurant business has been extremely strong, and we thought that would be the case, because there’s good, local lodging and F&B in the market, but perhaps not to a Vegas standard, and we believe we’ve brought a Vegas standard to this market. We’ve exceeded occupancy, and we’ve exceeded our average daily rate.”

• But despite this success, there has been some spillover to other area businesses in this sector, and this is by design, said Mathis, noting that the hotel, with 252 rooms, is not particularly large, and the dining options, while growing (groundbreaking on a Wahlburgers is slated for later this year), leave plenty of opportunities for other eateries in the downtown.

“One of the reasons we sized the hotel the way we did was that we wanted to make sure that developments like ours have a spillover effect to other businesses,” he said. “And we wanted to make sure that came true. Some restaurant owners, including the Caputo family at Red Rose, have been quoted as saying that their business is up 20%, and people are expanding and extending hours.”

• Likewise, the numbers regarding the workforce have been generally positive, said Mathis. He estimated a 35% churn rate since the facility opened its doors, and noted that, while this might sound high to business owners and managers in other sectors, it’s in line with industry norms and actually lower than in many other areas.

Meanwhile, the targets for hiring Springfield residents, veterans, women, and minorities have all been met or exceeded, and many employees have already moved up the ladder since the casino opened its doors.

“I got the stat the other day … I think we’ve had 200 or so promotions since day one, and 30% of those are Springfield residents,” he noted. “Nothing makes me prouder than to see a line-level employee on day one who’s now wearing a suit in a supervisory management role. And it’s happening.”

As examples, he cited three employees who joined him for photos later in the day: Bill Blake, formerly graphic supervisor and now creative manager; Nickolaos Panteleakis, formerly Front Services manager (where he handled many front desk duties) and now director of Front Services; and Marissa Dombkowski, who has been promoted twice already — she started as an HR communications specialist, moved up to Entertainment Marketing coordinator, and is now Marketing manager for the MassMutual Center.

Overall, and to recap, Mathis reiterated that ramping up is, indeed, a three-year process, one that involves a serious learning curve on many different levels.

“I tell my team all the time, ‘if it were easy, everyone would do it,’” he said of casino operations in general. “That’s why we’re here — to manage through, collect data, and be smarter every day as we collect data and finetune the business.”

Driving Force

Mathis was one of those people caught in that traffic jam on the Saturday of Presidents Day weekend.

He told BusinessWest that it took him more than 45 minutes to get to an event downtown from his home in Longmeadow, normally a 15-minute drive. But unlike most others, he certainly wasn’t complaining.

“I’ve never been happer to be in stand-still traffic,” he said, adding that, while it has always been MGM’s goal to minimize such disruption, he’ll gladly take more nights like that in the weeks and months to come.

And he predicts he’ll be getting more as that ramping process continues.

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

Cover Story

Century Unlimited

Jeb Balise

Jeb Balise stands in one of the company’s car washes, this one on Riverdale Street.

Some time in 1919 — when, exactly, no one really knows — Paul Balise went into business for himself repairing automobiles and selling them on the side. Today, that company he founded is one of the largest auto-dealer groups in New England and one of the 50 largest in the country. But in most all ways, it’s still doing business the same as it was when Woodrow Wilson was in the White House.

As he flipped through the large photo albums he helped assemble, Bobby Balise moved slowly and methodically, stopping at each page, and sometimes each image, to offer a little commentary.

That’s because every item in the collection helps tell a story that’s now 100 years in the making.

There’s the picture of the small repair garage in Hatfield where it all began. There are photos of the family’s farm and some of the animals raised there. Moving ahead a few pages, there’s a sales receipt from 1936 for a three-year-old Chevrolet Town Sedan sold to a William Bolack, sticker price $410 ($50 was given for a 1929 Ford that was traded in). Little did he know the transaction would become a piece of family history.

Honda models mingle with Chevys in the early 1970s.

Paul Balise’s used car business on Front Street in Chicopee

Paul Balise’s used car business on Front Street in Chicopee

Flipping a few more times, Balise came to a grainy copy of a newspaper photograph, an aerial shot showing the Chevrolet dealership on Columbus Avenue, the York Street Jail across the road, and other buildings in Springfield’s South End — including dozens of homes that would be torn down years later to make way for I-91 — standing in more than three feet of water after the hurricane of 1938.

And then, a few more pages in, there’s a photo montage of that day in 1954 when the Budweiser donkeys came to Springfield. That’s right, donkeys. Apparently they were used in addition to the famous Clydesdales to pull the wagon used in promotions for the beer maker. There’s a photo of the team passing that same dealership on Columbus Avenue and then another of them in the showroom. Balise explains:

“They were going to tour the South End of Springfield and the restaurants down there and entice people to buy more Budweiser. The story goes that they were supposed to stay at the stables across the street where the town had the horses for the garbage collectors. But something fell apart, there wasn’t enough room, the horses didn’t get along with donkeys, I don’t know what, but my Uncle Paul said they could house them in his showroom.”

The Budweiser mules came to Springfield in 1954 and bedded down for a night at Balise Chevrolet, one of the more intriguing pages from the company’s long history.

The Budweiser mules came to Springfield in 1954 and bedded down for a night at Balise Chevrolet, one of the more intriguing pages from the company’s long history.

‘Uncle Paul’ is Paul Balise, founder of the company now known as Balise Motor Sales. He grew up on a farm, as noted earlier, but gravitated toward repairing and selling farm equipment, and then, as they became more popular, automobiles, said Bobby, whose business card reads ‘parts inventory manager’ for Balise Honda, but whose unofficial title is company historian, a role he relishes, to put things mildly.

Paul Balise started with an auto-repair business called the Square Deal Garage and sold cars on the side, his nephew went on. Later, he established a used-car business on Front Street in Chicopee and would eventually become a Chevrolet franchise dealer. He moved to Main Street in Springfield before talking a big leap and leasing — and then buying — the lot on Columbus Avenue that Balise Hyundai still stands on today (much more on all this later).

He was succeeded by his son, Jim, and then his grandson, Jeb, as president and dealer, and over the past few decades, Balise has grown to be the largest dealer group in this region, one of the largest in New England, and among the 50 largest in the country.

Summing up the first 100 years quickly and succinctly, Jeb Balise said that, starting with the garage in Hatfield and continuing with his grandfather’s risky decision to buy the Williams Dodge property on Columbus Avenue, his father’s gambit to sell a little-known Japanese car called Honda at the Chevy dealership, and carrying on today with Balise car washes and a host of auto-related businesses, the company has seized opportunities when and where it could with an eye toward staying on the cutting edge of an always-changing business.

“Starting with my grandfather, we’ve been entrepreneurial and always looking for better ways to serve the customer,” he said, adding that it has been this way since 1919.

When, exactly, in 1919 no one really knows, said Bobby Balise, adding that the company that has become one of the most recognizable brands in this region had a rather informal beginning.

And there are some other dates and miscellaneous bits of information that remain question marks, such as the precise location of that dealership in Chicopee.

But a great deal is known, he went on, adding that much of the company’s history has been chronicled in some form, and over the course of a year-long centennial celebration, the company will try to tell some of that history.

While doing so, it will write some new chapters and add more images to the albums — figuratively if not literally, said Jeb, adding that, in this age of consolidation within the industry, the Balise company is only looking toward what it will take to be around another 100 years.

History Lessons

Alex Balise McEwen, Jeb’s daughter and fourth-generation member of the Balise leadership team — she’s the marketing manager — told BusinessWest that the company is still piecing together plans for how and when it will mark the centennial.

“This will be a year-long celebration,” she noted, adding that, in addition to bringing back the familiar ‘You’ll Do Better at Balise” slogan, radio commercials and other forms of marketing are noting that the company is commemorating 100 years of doing business in this region.

Alex Balise McEwan, fourth-generation member of the Balise leadership team

Alex Balise McEwen, fourth-generation member of the Balise leadership team, says the company will celebrate its centennial throughout the year and in many different ways.

This business has certainly come a long way since the Square Deal Garage, and there have been many individuals and milestones of note, she went on, and the company will use various methods to tell those stories — such as the back wall of the area of the service department at Balise Honda where customers would pick up their vehicles after the work was done. There, several photos and types of imagery have been placed that help tell the story of this particular dealership.

There’s a large photo of Milton Berman, founder of Yale Genton, the large clothing store that once stood on the property at the south end of Riverdale Street, as well as a photo of that store. But most of the others are related to the Honda brand and Jim Balise’s somewhat risky but ultimately rewarding decision to sell the small Japanese cars.

Indeed, there’s a window sticker for a 1971 Honda model; the price was $1,775. There’s also a photo taken in 1972 in Forest Park showing Jim Balise and several of his colleagues standing behind a both a two-cylinder Honda and an eight-cylinder Chevy Impala. And then, there’s a large color photo of the 1973 Honda Civic, the car that changed the fortunes of not only that carmaker, but maybe the Balise company itself, said the company’s historian.

“During the 1973 gas crisis, we had a Chevrolet getting eight miles per gallon, and we had the Chevy Vega, which was supposed to be the savior of the American car industry, and what happens — the engines start blowing up on them,” Bobby Balise recalled. “All we had left besides the Chevys in the showroom was this little Honda Civic, which got great gas mileage; I really believe that saved the franchise to have the foresight to have two car lines.”

There have been many other fortuitous gambles and hard decisions made over the past 100 years, and by each generation, said Jeb Balise, who particularly likes telling stories about his grandfather, who he described as his best friend growing up.

“During the 1973 gas crisis, we had a Chevrolet getting eight miles per gallon, and we had the Chevy Vega, which was supposed to be the savior of the American car industry, and what happens — the engines start blowing up on them. All we had left besides the Chevys in the showroom was this little Honda Civic, which got great gas mileage; I really believe that saved the franchise to have the foresight to have two car lines.”

Recently made part of the inaugural class of the Massachusetts State Automobile Dealers Association’s New Car Dealer Hall of Fame, Paul Balise was a very hands-on manager who spent his career doing what he was doing at the start — fixing things, said Jeb, as one of his favorite stories about his grandfather reveals.

“It was the mid-’70s, I had just started working for my father, and we needed an electrician for … something, I don’t remember what. So we got an electrician, and they did the repair,” he recalled. “A week or two later, my father comes down with the bill, which was reasonable, and says, ‘what are you doing? — your grandfather does all the repairs around here.’

“It wasn’t to save money,” he went on. “That’s what my grandfather did; at 80, he was still a mechanic slash repairman slash everything else.”

Overall, what he did was set a tone, not just with his work ethic but with his ability to visualize opportunities and seize them.

Driving Forces

Slicing through the long history of the company, both Jeb and Bobby Balise said the decision to move off Main Street and eventually buy the Williams Dodge property on Columbus Avenue was a watershed moment and one that in many ways set the tone for all that was to follow.

“Paul knew he had to move off Main Street because there wasn’t enough room for cars and storage, and he took a gamble and bought that building,” said Bobby, whose father worked alongside Paul for many years as parts manager. “He hesitated on it, and with good reason; it was the height of the Depression, and no one knew what was going to happen and how long it was going to last. But he did it, and proved out to be a spectacular location for him, which we still own today.”

Bobby Balise is the Balise company’s unofficial historian

Bobby Balise is the Balise company’s unofficial historian, a role he’s carried out with great enthusiasm for almost a half-century.

Jeb agreed, and siad the deal might not have happened if his grandfather was left to his own instincts.

“The bank shows up and has a meeting with him and says, ‘Paul, we want to put you in this location,’” he said, recalling the stories told to him about a lease that would be for $600 a month. “My grandfather says he can’t afford it, and those at the bank say, ‘we’ll make sure you can afford it.’

“When the recession was over, the same bankers said, ‘Paul, we’re going to sell you the dealership — it’s time for you to buy it,’” he went on. “Again, he said, ‘I can’t afford it,’ and they basically said, ‘we’ll make it so you can afford it’; it was all on a handshake.”

Moving quickly through the past 40 years of the company’s history — the part less chronicled in those albums — the Balise name moved well beyond Springfield and Chevrolet, starting with that Honda franchise.

Today, the company has 21 new- and used-car dealerships in Western Mass., Rhode Island, and on Cape Cod, and a host of nameplates, foreign and domestic, including Chevy, Ford, Chrysler, Buick, GMC, Honda, Toyota, Nissan, Hyundai, Mazda, Kia, and many others.

And, as noted, it has diversified with collision-repair shops and car washes.

Diversification is necessary, he said, because Balise, with all the nameplates it sells, has more than adequate coverage in this region when it comes to sales. Opportunities for continued growth, therefore, lie more in other businesses related to the car.

But there are opportunities to add dealerships in other markets, including Rhode Island and Connecticut, he said, adding that the company is always looking for new opportunities.

Paul Balise moved his Chevy dealership to Columbus Avenue at the height of the Great Depression

Paul Balise moved his Chevy dealership to Columbus Avenue at the height of the Great Depression, a risky move that set the tone for successive generations of company leadership.

As he carries on the work of the generations that came before him, Jeb Balise said he learned a lot from both his father and grandfather — about the car business, yes, but more about business in general.

“They taught me about how to treat people,” he explained. “They genuinely cared about doing the right thing and helping people. That sounds cliché and corny, but that’s how they were.”

Those thoughts stay with him today as he leads an auto group at a time of ongoing change and consolidation — a time when repair of vehicles is just as important a part of the business — and one with better margins — than new-car sales.

“The level of competition is actually greater because they’re bigger dealerships and the throughput per dealership is much higher, which really helps the consumer because it means you have better selection wherever you end up. Between the Internet and technology and the level of competition with other dealers, it’s never been easier to buy a car.”

In that respect, not much has changed in 100 years, he said with a laugh, adding that, in most all other ways, the landscape has changed considerably.

Especially with regard to consolidation. Indeed, while the days of the single-franchise dealer are not officially over, they are certainly numbered.

“Consolidation continues, and bigger auto groups are getting even bigger,” he explained. “And the level of competition is actually greater because they’re bigger dealerships and the throughput per dealership is much higher, which really helps the consumer because it means you have better selection wherever you end up. Between the Internet and technology and the level of competition with other dealers, it’s never been easier to buy a car.”

There’s still plenty of room for more consolidation, he went on, adding that single dealerships are being bought by groups, and groups are being bought up by bigger groups.

“There’s a lot of buy-sell activity still happening at this period of time, and it usually starts happening when the market gets a little tighter,” he went on. “It’s caused by a few things — retirement age, getting tired, not having kids in the business who want the business, and other factors.”

Balise will not be one of the companies bought up by a larger group because it has no intention of being an acquisition target, said Jeb, adding that he rarely if ever even gets an inquiring call, because those who might pick up the phone know there’s no point in doing so.

“The goal is that we keep it a generational and growing business,” he explained. “We pride ourselves on being a significant part of the communities we operate in, and making a difference — in the lives of our associates as well as the customers and the general community.”

Past Is Prologue

As he continued flipping through the photo albums, Bobby Balise stopped at a page with a curious but poignant collection of items.

One is a photo of the company’s first tow truck, or wrecker, as they were called in those days — a 1948 Weaver with a three-ton boom and a hand crank. It’s symbolic of how the company has always been about more than merely selling cars.

There’s also a photo of James Balise looking not into the camera, but toward what the caption describes as “the unknown future.”

The caption under this photo from the company’s archives reads ‘James Balise looks into the unknown future — 1947.’

And then, there’s a recounting of what was said to Paul Balise by friend Bob Johnston as the two were playing a round with others on the recently opened Franconia Golf Club in Springfield and Paul was expressing considerable anxiety over his decision to buy the vacant auto dealership on Columbus Avenue.

“The clouds you so much dread are rich in mercies and shall break in blessings on your head,” Johnston supposedly said.

That’s a prescient thought and a harbinger for a company that has seen the sun shine on it over the years, but also has been able to make it rain — in all kinds of ways.

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

Class of 2019 Cover Story Difference Makers

Celebrating the 2019 Class

It was almost a decade ago now when Bill Ward, then the executive director of the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County, stepped to the podium at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House in Holyoke to accept the first Difference Maker award presented by BusinessWest.

Much has happened since then. Ward retired a few years later, and the REB is now known as the MassHire Hampden County Workforce Board. But the Difference Maker award remains a constant — and a symbol of excellence and dedication to improving quality of life in this region.

Since the very beginning, this recognition program has shown conclusively that are a great many ways to make a difference. And the class of 2019, the program’s 11th, makes this even more abundantly clear, as the stories clearly show.

The six members of the class of 2019 will be honored on Thursday, March 28 at the Log Cabin. For information about the event, sponsorship opportunities, or to purchase tickets, call (413) 781-8600, ext. 100, or go HERE.

 

2019 Difference Makers

Carla Cosenzi, Co-president, TommyCar Auto Group

She’s Been a Driving Force in Business and Philanthropy

The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts

This Essential Agency Helps the Region Contend with a ‘New Normal’

Peter Gagliardi, President and CEO, of Way Finders

He’s Spent a Career Bringing Home the Power of Collaboration

Frederick and Marjorie Hurst

They’ve Shared a Lifetime Working for Social Change

Joe Peters, Vice Chairman, Former President, Universal Plastics

This Business Leader Has Made a Career of Finding Ways to Give Back

The Springfield Museums

Institution Has Mastered the Art and Science of Being Entrepreneurial

2019 Presenting Sponsor

2019 Sponsors

Photography for this special section by Leah Martin Photography