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The Next Steps for Springfield

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

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

But he didn’t exactly leave his birthplace behind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tracking Results

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Down on Main Street

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Along for the Ride

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cover Story

Walking Her Way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Achievements of Note

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, the e-mail came.

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

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

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

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

The rest, as they say, is history.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Different Tune

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charting Progress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

Her Happy Place

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

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

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

So she gave Ohana School of Performing Arts a try.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winding Road

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Safe Space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living the Dream

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Features Healthcare Heroes

Healthcare Heroes Class of 2019 to Be Honored on Oct. 17

When BusinessWest and Healthcare News launched Healthcare Heroes in 2017, there was no doubt this was a long-overdue award program in Western Mass. — in fact, we knew the challenge wouldn’t be finding quality nominations, but choosing just a handful to honor each year. Indeed, this year’s judges (see below) carefully studied about 100 different nominees in seven categories to choose the impressive group to be honored at this year’s gala in October.

Collectively, they are innovators and game changers in the region’s rich and vibrant healthcare community, and their stories — told on the following pages — reveal large quantities of energy, imagination, compassion, entrepreneurship, forward thinking, and dedication to the community.

There are eight winners in this third class, with two in the category of Lifetime Achievement, because two candidates were tied with the top score. The Heroes for 2019 are:

• Lifetime Achievement (tie): Katherine Wilson, president and CEO, Behavioral Health Network Inc.; and Frank Robinson, vice president, Public Health, Baystate Health;

• Health/Wellness Administrator/Administration: Emily Uguccioni, executive director, Linda Manor Assisted Living;

• Collaboration in Health/Wellness: Carol Constant, convener, Dementia Friendly Western Massachusetts; and director of Community Engagement, Loomis Communities;

• Community Health: Amy Walker, certified nurse midwife, Cooley Dickinson Health Care;

• Emerging Leader: Tara Ferrante, program director of the Holyoke Outpatient Clinic, ServiceNet;

• Innovation in Health/Wellness: Cristina Huebner Torres, vice president, Research & Population Health, Caring Health Center Inc.; and

• Patient/Resident/Client Care Provider: Shriners Hospitals for Children – Springfield.

3rd Annual Healthcare Heroes Gala
Thursday, October 17, 2019
5:30 p.m.-8:30 p.m.
Sheraton Springfield One Monarch Place Hotel
$90/person; $900/table of 10

PURCHASE TICKETS HERE

Submit nominations for 2020 consideration HERE

Deadline to submit nominations is July 10, 2020, 5 p.m. NO EXCEPTIONS.

Presenting Sponsors

Partner Sponsors

Supporting Sponsors

Meet the Judges

Bob Fazzi

Bob Fazzi has spent a lifetime making a difference in healthcare, most notably with Fazzi Associates, the company he started 40 years ago and incorporated in 1995. Its stated mission is to make a real difference in healthcare by strengthening the quality, value, and impact of home care, hospice, and community-based services. Fazzi Associates has been a leader and a pioneer in this sector, developing products and services — including the industry’s first home-health patient-satisfaction services — as well as research to make agencies stronger and better able to serve their patients. For this work, Fazzi was honored as a Healthcare Hero in 2018 in the category of Lifetime Achievement.

Mary Paquette

Mary Paquette, director of Health Services at American International College, is another 2018 Healthcare Hero, in the category of Patient/Resident/Client Care Provider. AIC is only the latest stop in a 35-year career that has seen her take on a variety of roles, from director of Nursing at Ludlow Hospital to per-diem hospitalist at in the GI Department of the Eastern Connecticut Health Network, to assistant director of Health Services at Western New England University — the job that became the springboard to her post at AIC. Since arriving at AIC 2012, she has turned a moribund health-services facility that few students knew about or ventured to into a thriving, innovative, important campus service.

Alan Popp

Alan Popp joined the Mason Wright Foundation as its Chief Executive Officer in 2008. His previous experience includes head of school and CEO at White Mountain School, a college preparatory school; and chief operating officer at Pine River Institute, a residential treatment center. He has also served as a consultant to more than 200 New England nonprofits, many of them providers of services to seniors. He serves on the boards of LeadingAge Massachusetts, Salvation Army Citadel Corps, and OnBoard Inc., and on the Leadership Council of the Alzheimer’s Assoc. of Massachusetts/New Hampshire. He is also a trustee of Antioch University New England and previously served on the campaign cabinet for the United Way of Pioneer Valley.

Cover Story

MGM Looks to Step Things Up in Year Two

It’s been nearly a full year since MGM Springfield opened its doors in Springfield’s South End. It’s been a year of learning — for both the casino’s team and the consuming public as well. As the headlines have announced, the casino has fallen well behind projections for gross gaming revenues (GGR), but in most all of the other ways to measure the success of the operation, it has not underperformed.

Mike Mathis started by stating what has become obvious — and also addressing the topic on the minds of most everyone in this region when it comes to MGM Springfield.

Gross gaming revenues (or GGR, an acronym that is increasingly becoming part of the local lexicon) are not what they were projected to be for the first year of operation, which will end August 23.

Those projections, made several years ago during the licensing process for the $960 million facility in Springfield’s South End, were for roughly $400 million this first year. Instead, the resort casino is on pace to record closer to $275 million, as the chart on page 8, which includes numbers through the end of July, makes clear.

“In the context of a three-year ramp, which is how we view it, we’re off to a slower ramp-up than we’d like,” Mathis, president and COO at MGM Springfield, admitted. “The gaming revenues are less than we hoped for, and the work is understanding where we are performing well and where we are underperforming.”

With that, Mathis hit upon ongoing work that began literally within days of the casino’s opening. And it continues in earnest today, with the expectation that those numbers can and will improve in year two.

Repeating what he said at the six-month mark for MGM Springfield, Mathis noted that new casinos generally go through a lengthy ramp-up period (three years is the timeframe he repeatedly mentioned) before fully hitting their stride. And that this ramping process involves some learning curves, especially when gaming is being introduced to a region, as is the case in Massachusetts.

And much was learned, said Mathis, referencing everything from Super Bowl watching habits — it became clear that most people would rather watch at home than go to the casino, although Mathis still hopes to change that — to the bands that people will come out to watch (it appears locals really like local groups rather than imports), to the casino games people like to play.

A promotion to give away a Mercedes Benz each week for a month is one of many strategic initiatives to drive visitation to MGM Springfield.

Looking ahead to year two, which will kick-off with four performances by Aerosmith and a host of other birthday-celebration events, Mathis said MGM Springfield will enter it with considerable acquired knowledge, as well as what appears to be some momentum.

Indeed, while June’s GGR numbers were the worst for any full month since the facility opened — Encore Boston opened that same month and probably had something to do with that performance — July’s numbers were better, said Mathis, and slots GGR has been generally higher over the past several months.

“There are many examples of facilities that have taken their first year to figure out what the customer is going to react to, what the competition is doing, and achieve real growth,” he said, adding that he firmly believes MGM Springfield will join that list.

He’s pinning those hopes on everything from changes and additions to the casino floor (more on those later) to the possible introduction of sports betting within the Commonwealth, an addition to the gaming landscape now being considered by the Legislature, to the ‘growing-the-pie’ impact of Encore Boston’s opening earlier this summer.

But while the focus has been on GGR, as it should be, said Mathis, there are many other means by which to measure success during MGM’s first year. And with most all of these, the casino has been on target.

These include overall visitation (more than 6 million by the end of the first year); non-gaming revenues (the restaurants and hotel, for example); impact locally in terms of providing a boost to other businesses, especially those in the broad realm of tourism and hospitality; bringing people to the region; boosting the business of meetings and conventions; and employment, especially with regard to hiring Springfield residents and promoting people through the ranks.

“We’re very excited about all the visitors and tourists and eyeballs we’ve brought to the downtown — I know I’ve met many customers who have said ‘this is my first time in Springfield,’ or that they’ve brought their families from other areas to the downtown to show it off,” Mathis told BusinessWest. “One of the emotions I have is a huge sense of pride in what we’ve done here; we’ve given the people of Springfield and Western Mass. a headquarters tourist destination that they can show off to friends and family.”

Rick Sullivan, president of the Western Mass. Economic Development Council, agreed. Using yardsticks as unscientific, but still effective, in his view, as waiting times for a table at restaurants in the downtown area, he said the Casino has brought more vibrancy to the central business district. Also, it has deeply broadened the region’s tourism portfolio, prompting not only greater visitation, but longer stays.

Mike Mathis says year one has been a learning experience on many levels for all those on the MGM team.

“The biggest impact MGM has had in the year it’s been open, and the biggest impact it will have going forward, is that you now have gaming and increasing entertainment opportunities to marry to the other tourist attractions that we can be more than just a one-day travel destination,” he said.

Raising the Stakes

Mathis calls it ‘keeping the floor fresh.’

That’s an industry phrase — one of many that are new to people in this region — and one that refers to the need to constantly change, or freshen, the casino floor to bring both more new business and more repeat customers, said Mathis.

“You can’t get complacent about continuing to earn customers’ loyalty in a highly competitive market,” he noted, adding that efforts to freshen the floor at MGM Springfield include the construction of a new bar just inside the Main Street entrance to the casino — what Mathis calls the ‘back corner,’ because most people enter from the parking garage side — as well as some new electronic table games, some ‘stadium gaming,’ described as a mix of table games and slot machines, and special promotions.

“There’s a whole new zone in that corner, where we’re trying to bring some energy to what would otherwise be the back of the building,” he explained. “We’re trying to drive more business to the back; it’s a heavy investment but part of our work to improve the product.”

These steps are part of the ongoing efforts to improve GGR, said Mathis, but also part of what would be considered normal ramp-up of a casino facility as it adjusts to customers’ wants and needs, and the ebb and flow of the competitive landscape.

“I’ve said this in the past, and our competitors have the same view, which is that you need three years to get to a normalized operation,” he said. “And we’re seeing that ourselves; there are holidays and certain events we think are going to be some of our busiest, and for whatever reason they’re quieter. And then we’ll have a random day in the middle of the week that exceeds a weekend day.

“It’s really about trying to understand the patterns and being nimble and reacting to the patterns,” he went on. “Obviously in a market like this, weather is a factor, and we’re learning what the impact of weather is — good and bad.”

Local sports teams are a factor as well, he said, adding that while they have huge followings, this support doesn’t necessarily extend to viewing at the casino, as was learned during the first Super Bowl of the casino era in Massachusetts.

“In this case, business was less than we would normally see in one of other operations — although it was still a really strong day,” he said, “I think there’s a tradition of going to a house party because of the success they’ve had; we’ve got to figure out how to make MGM Springfield the regional house party for the Super Bowl.

“We’ve got great relationships with all the franchises, and we have strategies on how to activate the space and make it fun and interesting, fun and familiar,” he went on. “It’s a fun challenge; it’s not what we expected, but it’s a good problem to have because there’s a huge opportunity there.”

This process of watching, listening, learning, and responding to trends that were not expected extends to every aspect of the operation, he said, including entertainment and that aforementioned affinity for local acts.

“There are some acts that we think that would traditionally do well as they route the country, that don’t perform as well here,” he explained, “And there were other acts where we were pleasantly surprised by the response; country is popular here, so we’re going to look at country a little more.

“Thematically, there are really great regional bands that have a following here that aren’t national and that we’ve had a lot of success with,” he went on, mentioning Trailer Trash, a ‘modern country band,’ as one example. “Anyone in a new market has to figure out what are those great local bands that drive big crowds, local crowds.”

GGReat Expectations

Of course, there are many other things to figure out as well, said Mathis, adding that the broad goal, obviously, is to bring more people to the casino and inspire them to do more (and spend more) while they’re there.

This explains the freshening of the floor, as well as the four Aerosmith shows (now nearly sold out) and a number of other initiatives designed to bring people to the casino — and bring them back repeatedly.

These are the simple forces that drive GGR, said Mathis, who returned to that ongoing work to identify areas where the casino is underperforming, and addressing them.

Overall, he said the broad assignment is to build loyalty, not merely a visit or two to the resort and its casino floor.

“Part of the first year is gaining new visitors and customers who are seeing it for the first time and building loyalty,” he explained. “And in this market, because of the existence of some pretty strong competitors, there’s already strong loyalty and traditions and gaming habits that, quite frankly, we have to disrupt, and that takes some time.”

Meanwhile, there are some lingering patterns when it comes to where customers are coming from — or not coming from — that still need to be addressed.

Indeed, while MGM Springfield is overperforming, in Mathis’s view, when it comes to drawing customers from along the I-91 corridor, “north-south,” as he put it, things are different when it comes to east-west flow.

“It’s been a challenge to get folks to go west within the Commonwealth and give the facility a chance,” said Mathis adding that bookings like Aerosmith are designed to address that specific problem, and he believes there have been some inroads.

As for those efforts to disrupt current gaming patterns and loyalty with other casinos, Mathis noted that there are several arrows in that quiver, including everything from some new games to be introduced in the coming weeks, to a new promotion that involves giving away a Mercedes each week for several weeks, to a recently concluded program called MGM Millions, a lottery-like game that enabled players to win a wide variety of prizes including bonuses and loyalty privileges.

“That was very successful,” said Mathis, “and what we learned is that people like the lottery, and they’d rather have a smaller chance of winning a larger giveaway than a higher chance at smaller gifts — and that’s part of the learning curve.”

It also includes the addition of Symphony Hall to MGM’s portfolio of performance venues (the casino recently assumed management of that facility), which enables the team to book acts such as Steve Martin & Martin Short, coming Sept. 12, Boyz II Men (Sept. 22), and Smokey Robinson (Oct. 18).

“It’s another great venue that fills a niche we didn’t have previously,” he said, noting the hall’s 2,500 seating capacity. “That’s something in the tool shed we didn’t have our first year, especially since we can program into it, so we’re excited.”

He’s excited also by the prospects of sports betting.

“We’ve seen in our other markets that it can provide as much as a 10% lift to the overall business, not just the sports-betting component,” he said. “People will tend to stay longer, they’ll eat in the restaurants, they’ll place a bet, and spend some time on the casino floor on the machines or on the tables. So it’s an important initiative for us, especially in a market like Springfield and New England where people are passionate about their sports; we think it’s a manner of when, not if, this will happen.”

And, moving forward, Mathis said that while Encore Boston might impact MGM negatively in some ways, overall it will grow the pie when it comes to gaming, as evidenced, he believes, by the Springfield casino’s improved numbers for July.

“That demonstrates what we’ve always said — that there’s an ability to grow this market; there’s different customers for different experiences,” he said. “I like to think that the people in Boston will grow the market.”

Beyond the Floor

While much of the focus has been on the casino floor and GGR, Mathis said there are many other facets to this business, and he’s pleased with, and somewhat surprised by, the performance of some of these operations.

“I’m pleasantly surprised by how well-received our non-gaming amenities have been,” Mathis told BusinessWest. “The hotel is far above our projected occupancy rates, and the rate we’ve been able to charge is above what we project as well.”

He said the hotel has been generating a wide mix of business, from casino guests, to families visiting the area, to convention and meeting groups.

“We’ve done entire hotel blocks for different corporate groups that have come in and let us host their annual meetings or their incentive meetings for top salespeople,” he noted. “On every given day there are different types of customers in the hotel. We’ve been really pleasantly surprised by the amount of cash business we’re driving, the occupancy; that’s translating into the restaurants, exceeding our expectations on the amount of business overall.”

So much so that the MGM team is looking at perhaps adding more offerings, on top of the Wahlburger’s restaurant due to open next spring according to the latest estimates (groundbreaking will be within the next few weeks).

Meanwhile, business at the casino’s many bars has also exceeded expectations.

“We’ve also been pleasantly surprised by the amount of night life and bar business we’ve been doing,” said Mathis. “New Englanders enjoy their local IPAs and enjoy our nightlife lounges, so we’ve built some extra bars, such as the plaza bar to support our outdoor entertainment, and it’s been very successful.”

While generally pleased with what’s been happening within the casino complex itself, Mathis said the first year has shown that MGM Springfield’s impact extends beyond those four walls — and also that block in the South End.

As an example he points to the Red Rose restaurant abutting the property. Already a mainstay and hugely popular eatery, the restaurant has clearly received a tremendous boost from the casino.

“I was talking to the owner, Tony Caputo, on a Friday night recently,” Mathis recalled. “And he talked about business being up considerably since our opening, and how it actually started before we opened, during the construction process.

“Anecdotally, I’ve heard that many of the restaurants are up 20%, based on the overflow visitation we’re bringing — there’s more people than we can lodge and more people than we can feed,” he went on. “That was part of the strategy intentionally, and it’s bearing out.”

Rick Sullivan agreed.

“There’s more activity downtown now, there’s more people walking around,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s not like you can’t get a seat at a lunch place, but it is busier and that’s good; I never mind waiting a little longer to get a table — that’s a good thing.”

An even better thing, he went on, is MGM’s apparent ability to ‘extend the stay,’ as those in the tourism business say. Elaborating, he said there is some anecdotal evidence building that the addition of the casino is prompting more people to look to the region as something more than a day trip.

“People are looking to match a day at the casino and the Seuss Museum, or the Basketball Hall of Fame, or Six Flags, or the Big E,” he said. “People will do the Big E for the day and the casino for a day; we’re starting to see that.”

Likewise, he and others are seeing people visiting the region for special events and happenings make a point of also visiting the casino and, therefore, downtown Springfield.

He said he witnessed this first-hand when it came to teams that came from out of town for a sled hockey tournament at Amelia Park ice rink in Westfield, and he expects the same for the Babe Ruth World Series, also to take place in that city.

“It’s a place to take people,” he said, adding that as more of this happens, the overall impact of the casino will only grow.

Toward Year Two

As he talked about what’s coming up for the casino’s first birthday party — Aerosmith, a huge cake, the Patriots cheerleaders, and more, Mathis flashed back 350 days or so to when he and Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno rode down Main Street in a Rolls Royce manufactured in Springfield during a parade that preceded the formal ribbon cutting.

The year that followed that triumphant moment has been one of intrigue and learning, for many constituencies, and one where expectations have mostly been met.

In year two, the focus will be on maintaining the current course, but also achieving progress with those expectations that haven’t been met. u

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

Cover Story Uncategorized

Cannabis Ink.

Michael Kusek

Suffice it to say the cannabis industry in Massachusetts is growing and changing at a torrid pace, and it will continue at this speed for some time to come. There are myriad aspects to this sector, from the many different kinds of businesses within it to the dizzying number of products now on the shelves. Michael Kusek, a veteran journalist, has now made it his business — literally and figuratively — to help the public understand all it needs to know.

$20 billion.

That’s the number Michael Kusek offered — somewhat reluctantly and after some hemming and hawing — when he was asked to try to guesstimate how big the still-fledgling cannabis industry might become in the Bay State.

He was reluctant because no one really knows the answer to that question at this point, and they may not for some time. And Kusek knows that better than anyone, which is why he was asked in the first place.

Indeed, Kusek has established himself as the pre-eminent journalist in these parts when it comes to the broad, as in very broad, subject of cannabis, status earned by starting a publication devoted entirely to that subject.

It’s called A Different Leaf, with the subtitle A Journal of Cannabis Culture, and it hit the streets — that’s an industry term — just a few weeks ago. This will be a quarterly publication, sticker price $7 ($10 in Canada), and it now carries the tagline “Bringing You the Best of Cannabis in Massachusetts.”

It is, as Kusek will tell you himself, just the latest of many entrepreneurial endeavors rooted in (yes, that will be the first of many puns you’ll read) the cannabis industry. And he obviously believes it will be a success.

The first issue provides ample evidence of the fact that this subject matter, and this industry, are now quite broad, and Kusek and his team will have plenty to write about. Story headlines include these:

• “Tale of Two Cities: Cannabis may be legal statewide, but what gives with certain cities?”;

• The Grandfather of Cannabis: If you want to learn Massachusetts cannabis history, start with Lester Grinspoon”;

• “And Justice for All: The cannabis industry holds huge promise for new jobs, but who is getting to start companies?”;

• “The Women of Cannabis: These women are shaping the industry”;

• “Going Gourmet with Cannabis: Chef David Yusefzadah’s gourmet take on cannabis edibles and fine dining”; and even

• “Sex & Cannabis: Strategies for combining sex and cannabis.”

To put out such a publication credibly, Kusek has obviously had to set himself up as an authority on this subject, something few other individuals can claim. And as BusinessWest talked with him, he certainly spoke the part.

The cover of the first issue of A Different Leaf, featuring a piggy bank with the word ‘weed’ on it, sends a strong message about the industry and its potential impact in and on the Bay State.

When asked about the pace of businesses opening and some of the latest additions to the landscape, he rattled off the names of new dispensaries in far corners of the state. He knows which communities have voted to ban such enterprises, and he’s even put together a color-coded map to show people the breakdown, a map he says is quite revealing and shows a different twist on business in the Bay State when it comes to east-west dynamics.

“Start on the Cape, and at Provincetown and work your way west — from Provincetown to the elbow, all legal; from the elbow to the armpit, all banned,” he explained. “You get to the South Coast, there’s a smattering, a few banned, and then you get to the suburbs of Boston: the majority of ‘banneds’ in the state form a giant red ‘C’ around the city of Boston, which is this green dot right in the middle.

“That ‘C’ ends at Route 495,” he went on. “And from there to the Berkshires and the New York border, it’s all green with the exception of a handful of towns. So in a state where the gravitational pull of Boston for industry is so strong, the cannabis industry is 495 west.”

As for that question about how big the industry might get in the Bay State, Kusek offered that number, $20 billion — the high end, he acknowledged — but quickly added a caveat.

“In a state where the gravitational pull of Boston for industry is so strong, the cannabis industry is 495 west.”

“It all depends on what our neighbors do,” he explained, noting that, while Massachusetts is alone in the Northeast when it comes to states that have legalized cannabis and also have mechanisms in place for selling it, this probably won’t be the case for long.

As for how big the playing field might get in terms of locations and how many might eventually become too many, Kusek said the market will essentially determine this.

“Right now, there are only 20 businesses in the state, and they’re all pretty much opening their doors to a reasonably healthy amount of traffic,” he said. “That’s going to change over time.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Kusek about his new publication, but mostly about the business of cannabis what dimensions in might take in the years to come and how this ultra-intriguing development will change life in the Bay State.

Stirring the Pot

“I didn’t smoke pot until college, when one night my freshman roommate and a friend sparked up my first joint. Two things happened: I didn’t get high, but my fear of cannabis evaporated. This thing I had been taught would ruin my life didn’t seem frightening — and from there it became part of my social life.”

That’s how Kusek began his “From the Editor” piece that introduced his magazine to the reader on page 3 of the first edition. He would go on to talk about how he found that cannabis helped him sleep better, and a few sentences later, he hit at the heart of what this venture is all about.

“Much of the cannabis media is aimed at people who are knowledgeable about cannabis, work in the industry, and/or are in their 20s. Where was the magazine for the older occasional user looking to expand their horizon now that legalization is real?” he wrote, adding that A Different Leaf is the answer to that question.

This map, indicating which communities have banned cannabis businesses (red) and which ones haven’t (green), shows how Western and Central Mass. are the big players in this emerging industry.

It is, indeed, intended for those who, like Kusek in his freshman dorm room, may have overcome their fear of cannabis (that’s may) but still have questions about this product that until very recently was illegal in this state. And Kusek backed up his assumptions that there are many, many people in this category with some anecdotes.

He mentioned a woman in her 70s who was wondering, as he did, if cannabis might help her sleep better without having to resort to sleeping pills, while a younger man asked him if cannabis might provide some relief for his aching knees.

These are the kinds of questions, coupled with growing certainty that a publication targeted to the people who were asking them would be viable and profitable, that prompted Kusek to greenlight his media venture.

Actually, it’s his latest media venture.

Indeed, Kusek, who told BusinessWest he has ink in his veins, has an extensive background in journalism, a second career launched after years of working as a development professional left him looking for something new and different.

“People started running in the other direction when they saw me,” he joked, referring to the latter stages of work raising money for various institutions, including the Springfield Symphony Orchestra.

He changed course and went into public relations and communications work for several years, and while doing that was recruited to handle marketing for the Valley Advocate.

“I had been on the outside of media for a number of years, but this was my first professional stint inside the media, and I really liked it,” he said. “I thought I liked the journalism side of it, which I do; I’m fascinated by it. But what I really began to get interested in was the business side of media.”

He left the Advocate in 2008 with designs to start an arts magazine for New England, but quickly surmised that 2008, the climax of the Great Recession, wasn’t a good time to start any business, so he put those plans on ice and went back into communications.

When times were better, the start of 2014, he launched Take, an arts and culture magazine that, while well-received by readers and crtitics, “never found its niche with advertisers,” said Kusek.

By 2017, Take was winding down, and Kusek was again looking for another challenge. He found one, eventually, in cannabis and a need he identified to create something for older, as in over 50, audiences.

There is a need to stress eventually, because he Kusek certainly didn’t rush into this. He said he did his homework, in the form of extensive research concerning both the emerging industry and the press devoted to it.

“I went to the Barnes & Noble in Hadley and purchased every cannabis magazine they had on the stands, and then I drove to the one in the Northampton and did the same thing,” he recalled, adding that, by the time he was done, he had quite a pile.

He would break these publications down into three categories — the ‘legacy’ magazines such as the well-known High Times, a huge number of business-to-business magazines, and a smaller number of titles he labeled ‘bro’ magazines, aimed at a decidedly younger audience.

What was missing from this pile, he determined, was something devoted to those 50 and over and not exactly experts on this subject.

Growing Like Weed

He describes what he came up with to fill that void this way: “Wine Spectator meets High Times for the 45-to-50-plus crowd,” an intriguing combination editorially that he was reasonably certain would be well-received.

But he knew that solid content without advertising support wasn’t going to get him very far. So he said his next step was to Google ‘cannabis and advertising,’ and the first thing that came up was a Boston Globe article quoting sources talking about how businesses within the cannabis industry were struggling to find media outlets to take their advertising dollars.

“I said, ‘I can take their advertising dollars,’” he told BusinessWest, adding that laws prohibit such companies from advertising on the Google Display Network, Facebook, and other platforms. “I thought there was some space there from a revenue standpoint.”

The first issue gives some evidence of this space, with ads from a number of recreational and medical dispensaries, agencies such as the Mass. Recreational Consumer Council, a hydroponics outfit, and businesses that support the industry, such as Brigade, a Hadley-based company that has helped a number of cannabis-related businesses with branding.

“I think the biggest threat to what could be a really interesting and dynamic industry is if big money rolls over the small businesses. You have some large multi-state operators that could, with their capital, become like Dunkin, with locations on every corner; they have enough capital to make that happen.”

With enough of these advertisers secured — and it took some time to secure them — Kusek decided to let the presses roll. He’s optimistic about the venture and predicts that, as the industry grows and more businesses across the sector open their doors and then desire to market their goods and services, he will have a sustainable business model. And looking down the road, he said the venture could certainly be expanded into other states and parts of the country as legalization continues to spread.

While watching for business opportunities, Kusek is also watching the industry as it grows and evolves in the Bay State. And while watching, he noted that things are certainly happening quickly and the picture is changing almost every day, something he finds both intriguing and challenging as a journalist.

“What’s interesting about being in the industry as a relative newcomer is how dynamic it is and how it changes week to week and month to month,” he noted. “There are always new businesses coming into the pipeline, and there’s new people coming on to the scene. As a journalist sort of keeping an eye on that industry, it’s a lot — there’s a lot of info coming in.

“In this business, a week feels like a month, and a month feels like a year because things move so quickly,” he went on. “We’re in a state where highway improvements are measured in 20- or 30-year increments, so the idea that we have a state agency that got an industry up and running in two years is pretty amazing.”

Also intriguing is the high level of transparency in this new industry, something Kusek said is unique within state government — “you don’t see the head of the DMV writing any open letters right now” — which he believes is a byproduct of expectations.

“This is an industry that grew out of a political movement,” he explained. “Legalization was a political movement, so you have activists, even though it’s legal, continue to pay attention. You have patient activists continue to pay attention to the medical program to make sure it’s serving people really, really well.

“And that’s very different from saying, ‘we’re going to expand the alcohol program, and there are a bunch of activists making sure it’s done right,’” he continued. “Lobbyists, yes, but activists? That’s a different story, and that’s been the genesis for the openness you get from the cannabis commission. If you want to follow how this industry grows, you can look in and see how the sausage is made.”

Stirring the Pot

Kusek said he has been struck by, and quite impressed by, the entrepreneurs now doing business across this broad sector.

They are pioneers of sorts, he said, charting new territory in a fledgling industry, and they’re also survivors in what has become a rugged contest to gain a license and open the doors to a business, an assignment far more difficult than it might look to the casual observer.

“I spend a lot of time with people in this industry, and I have rarely met harder-working people,” he told BusinessWest. “The idea of these people being lazy stoners is far from the truth. These people work around the clock to make their businesses work, and you have to give them credit for that, because it’s not easy.

“They got a lot of curveballs thrown at them,” he added, referring to, among other things, the often complex and taxing host-community agreements and the many hurdles that must be cleared on the way to getting a license. “These people just keep slogging forward, and it’s pretty impressive.”

Elaborating, he said it takes at least a year to attain a license, and there are significant upfront costs and expenses to be incurred before one can earn a nickel.

“One of the challenges with opening a cannabis business is that the license is attached to an address,” he explained. “So once you get your host-community agreement and start the application process, you have to buy or rent a building. And it can take months before you get that license; there’s a pretty good burn rate on your capital before you earn any money.”

This hard reality was one of the factors that delayed the first issue of A Different Leaf, he said, adding that many of the businesses he was counting on to support that venture were still waiting to secure a license.

When asked to look down the road and project what the scene might look like in a year or two — or 10 — Kusek reiterated that this is difficult because Massachusetts certainly won’t be the only state in the Northeast doing this for much longer.

At present, large numbers of people are crossing over the borders to the Bay State to buy cannabis products, he said, adding that soon, a relative term to be sure, they may not have to.

When asked about what might go wrong as the industry expands and broadens its influence, Kusek this, too, is difficult to project.

“I think the biggest threat to what could be a really interesting and dynamic industry is if big money rolls over the small businesses,” he explained. “You have some large, multi-state operators that could, with their capital, become like Dunkin’, with locations on every corner; they have enough capital to make that happen.”

At present, the Cannabis Control Commission has governors in place to limit such a threat, he added quickly, noting that entities are currently limited to three stores. But moving forward, the state needs to keep such measures in place to prevent monopolies from developing.

Meanwhile, there is the state’s Social Equity Program, designed to provide a pathway for individuals and businesses in communities of “disproportionate impact” to enter the adult-use cannabis marketplace. That program is laudable, said Kusek, and it provides opportunities for certain demographic populations, but these individuals face stern challenges to enter the growing cannabis marketplace.

“Overall, I think the state is doing a commendable job, from where I sit, trying to balance fostering small businesses, fostering this cadre of businesses that are applying under the Social Equity Program, with the big companies that are coming to Massachusetts,” he said. “It’s a very delicate balancing act.”

What also remains to be seen is how and to what extent the cannabis industry and players within it become part of the business community on a regional and statewide basis, he said.

“Cannabis people are thinking, ‘are we going to be welcome?’” he said. “Traditional industry organizations like AIM [Associated Industries of Massachusetts]… AIM was not in favor of legalization, but now it’s like, ‘we have this multi-billion industry on our hands — how do we make them part of our organization?’ It will be interesting to see how traditional industries embrace this.”

Give and Toke

“One thing I’ve discovered about cannabis in the last year is that it is a topic full of evolution, learning, and change.”

That’s how Kusek chose to essentially wrap up his initial message to his readers.

To some, that might seem like understatement given how the landscape has changed over the past year and how it is destined to continuing changing in the months to come.

But it also a reality.

Kusek now has a front-row seat for one of the most compelling business stories in this state’s history, and he is really enjoying both the view and the challenge of trying to capture it all.

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

Cover Story

Getting a Boost

Lisa Papademetriou, founder of Bookflow

The name tells a good part of the story. Launch413, one of the latest additions to the region’s entrepreneurship ecosystem, exists to help developing companies get to the proverbial next level. It does so by linking entrepreneurs with seasoned experts in everything from marketing to supply-chain dynamics, thus enabling them to soar higher — and, hopefully, within the 413.

Lisa Papademetriou is a wordsmith.

She’s a novelist specializing in young-adult fiction — she’s written, among other things, the New York Times bestseller Middle School: My Brother is a Big, Fat Liar — but she’s also been an editor at Harper Collins, teaches writing, and is a sought-after public speaker.

But she also knows how to use numbers effectively, especially when it comes to the business she’s trying to take to the next level.

She knows, for example, that publishing is a $77 billion business. Further, she knows that something like 1.2 million different books are published each year, many of them self-published. And perhaps most importantly, especially when it comes to her venture, she knows that perhaps one in 10 people who start writing a book will actually finish it.

With all these numbers in mind, Papademetriou created Bookflow, a cloud-based tool for writers that helps them become more creative — and more productive.

“It helps writers build skills, with a framework that’s built out to support specifically long-form fiction,” she explained. “It provides information on structure and checklists to help people keep their scenes on track and accomplish what they want to do.

“It helps build motivation with Fitbit-style trackers on both a daily and a project level so that you have a certain amount of accountability,” she went on. “And it also offers rewards.”

Those aforementioned numbers also help explain why she enlisted the help of Launch413, an initiative, but also a business itself, that has become an intriguing addition to the region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

In a nutshell, Launch413 helps take startups to their first $10 million in revenue, said Paul Silva, co-founder along with Rick Plaut. Silva is perhaps best known for his work to create Valley Venture Mentors, but he now wears many hats, as we’ll see, including president of River Valley Investors, an angel-investor network.

Paul Silva says Launch413 was created to address a gap in the region’s entrepreneurship ecosystem — specifically companies ready for venture funding.

When wearing his Launch413 hat, he and other members of the team help people like Papademetriou take an existing venture to that proverbial next level through guidance and consultation on matters ranging from sales to technology to supply chain.

This consultation is provided in exchange for what amounts to royalties in the business — not an equity stake — payable down the road.

That’s how Launch 413 does what it does. As for the why, that’s summed up in this simple line from its website: “we believe there is no better way to create prosperity than to help entrepreneurs turn their crazy dreams into innovation and jobs for the future.”

For Papademetriou, her crazy dream is what she calls “the world’s first online writing mentor,” which provides an organizational framework for helping writers stay on point, on target, and finish what they start.

She told BusinessWest she clearly understood what the market wanted and needed, but she didn’t know everything she needed to know to convert the service, currently available for free, into a successful business.

So, with some urging from Silva, she enlisted help from Launch413 — specifically, from people like Eric Ashman, CFO of the Huffington Post and serial entrepreneur; Meghan Fitzgerald Henshon, global brand manager for Procter & Gamble; and Randy Krotowski, CIO of a Fortune 100 company with vast experience in negotiating joint ventures and acquisitions.

Consultation from such individuals would otherwise be prohibitively expensive, if you actually get them on the phone, said Papademetriou, adding that Launch 413 provides such access, and she is taking full advantage.

Thus, her story — that’s an industry term — provides a perfect example of how Launch413 is becoming an important addition to the entrepreneurial landscape. And there are many others, such as Wooftrax, maker of the Walk for a Dog app, and a company with this marketing slogan: “Don’t just take your dog for a walk … take your walk for a dog.”

Indeed, this venture, launched by Doug Hexter, enables users to raise funds for an animal organization every time they take their dog for a walk.

Revenues are generated from advertisements, said Hexter, adding that some 50 million walks have been taken since it was launched two years ago, benefiting 9,000 animal charities.

“Launch413 is helping take things to the next level,” Hexter told BusinessWest. “They’ve been great in, well, helping us focus on what makes sense to focus on.”

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an indepth look at Launch413 and how it is becoming an exciting new plot line in ongoing efforts to foster entrepreneurship in the region and create more jobs and vibrancy in the process.

A Real Page Turner

When she was teaching, Papademetriou said, she was struck by just how many students had a good idea for a story and the motivation to write it, but had trouble organizing it into a cohesive manuscript and identifying the objectives they were supposed to accomplish with their work.

“On the sentence level, their stuff was great,” she told BusinessWest. “On the big-picture level, on the strategy level … not so much. They had no trouble with descriptions or even creating vibrant characters, but they couldn’t make a whole story, and they couldn’t get to the end.”

Bookflow was created to help them get to the end, and in that respect, it is much like Launch413 itself; both concepts are focused on the big picture, strategy, and putting the pieces together — for a specific venture, but also the region itself.

“We believe there is no better way to create prosperity than to help entrepreneurs turn their crazy dreams into innovation and jobs for the future.”

As Silva explained, River Valley Investors (RVI) has long been interested in investing in more local companies, but it has struggled to identify enough local ventures that were far enough along for investors to feel comfortable taking on the risk.

“When VVM took off, we had hope that we could invest in VVM graduates,” he went on, referring to the agency’s accelerator program. “And we invested in one or two of them, but VVM has graduated some 200 companies. So there was a gap between what VVM was graduating and what RVI could comfortably invest in.”

Launch413 was created to help close that gap.

Elaborating, Silva said most of the companies VVM has been graduating are led by first-time founders.

“And these first-time founders have to make all the first-timer mistakes — those are the rules,” he explained. “And we don’t want to invest in someone who we know is going to make all those first-timer mistakes, because they’re going to make them on our dime.”

Meanwhile, such first-time founders generally don’t have the money needed to hire people have essentially been there and done that, he went on, thus creating a frustrating catch-22 — one that needed to be addressed.

Launch413 was born from that frustration, said Silva, adding that it provides entrepreneurs with access to people who have been there and done that and are willing to share their wealth of knowledge for a share of the profits down the road.

Doug Hexter, founder of Wooftrax, is one of many entrepreneurs who have received consultation from those behind Launch413.

“I realized that I knew a bunch of crazy-smart people who don’t need to get paid today,” Silva said. “They can take a risk and help the companies, and thus help solve the chicken-and-egg problem.”

The operating model for Launch413, he went on, is to invest in a company by providing ongoing consultative support in the crafting of a strategic plan, focusing on the areas where the entrepreneur or group needs technical assistance to get from here to there.

“We’ll say, ‘OK, what are your biggest challenges?’” he explained. “‘Do you need to redo your branding or build a robust marketing strategy? The former global brand manager for Procter & Gamble is going to meet with you every two weeks to get that done. You need to get your financials straightened out before you meet with venture capitalists? This is the founding CFO of the Huffington Post; he’s going to meet with you every two weeks until you’re done and ready, and if you impress him, he’ll introduce you to his VC friends.’

“And so on and so forth,” he continued, adding that Launch413 has more than dozen such consultants ready to assist. And when companies being helped then come to RVI and other groups in search of capital, that team behind them certainly helps eliminate some of the risk that might be involved.

This support comes in exchange for royalties, or a percentage of top-line revenue, a few years down the road and until the company reaches $10 million in revenues, said Silva, adding that this overall model is somewhat unique. He’s seen it done with one-offs and unicorn companies (revenues in excess of $1 billion) but not in a structured format like this.

As for that royalties structure, he believes it works more effectively than taking an equity stake, something most entrepreneurs don’t want to do anyway.

“Our incentive is not to encourage the entrepreneur to sell the company,” he said, adding that ‘413’ exists in the name as a nod toward the goal of creating more businesses for this region. “By taking a royalty, our only incentive is to help the entrepreneur earn money. If the entrepreneur wants to sell the company, they can certainly do that, and we’ll get paid then. But they know our only incentive is to make the company more successful.”

The Plot Thickens

Returning to the many motivations for Bookflow, Papademetriou noted that, when she encountered students who had trouble getting to the finish line, she would usually recommend that they read books on writing to find some inspiration and a roadmap.

“Invariably, they would try to apply everything all at once and get frustrated,” she said. “And I kept thinking, ‘if I can just be there with them as they’re trying to compose, encouraging them or reminding them gently that this scene needs to have an emotional transition, or some technical thing, it would be a lot easier.’”

Through Bookflow, that’s essentially what she does — she’s there with the writer as he or she continues their journey to the final page. “You can’t always be sitting next to someone as they’re composing,” she explained, “but you can offer a piece of software that serves as that kind of mentor.”

In a way, Launch413 provides a similar service to the entrepreneur — helping that individual or team get to where they want to go.

“As someone who has been in publishing and has been a novelist, I didn’t necessarily have contacts with the kind of business background that one needs if one wants to launch a product and create a business,” said Papademetriou. “I knew what the consumer needed, but I didn’t know how to conceive a business strategy. I didn’t know how to craft an investor pitch, and I didn’t even really know how to create a cohesive marketing plan. And Launch 413 has been instrumental in helping me with all of those things.”

Hexter tells a similar story with Wooftrax, adding that the company was already established when it became involved with Launch413, which has been instrumental in helping it scale up.

“It’s a process,” he said. “They’ve been helping us in identifying strategies to get to that next step, partnerships, helping us in the decision process, and more.

“They have expertise in the areas that we need help in, without actually having those people on staff, which we couldn’t afford to do,” he went on. “And they’ve helped us make connections — connections in the community, connections to other entrepreneurs, connections to venture-capital people, and other people doing interesting startup activity — and all those connections become useful in the short term and the medium term.”

“On the sentence level, their stuff was great. On the big-picture level, on the strategy level … not so much. They had no trouble with descriptions or even creating vibrant characters, but they couldn’t make a whole story, and they couldn’t get to the end.”

As for the consultants working with the entrepreneurs, each one brings vast levels of experience and success to the equation. In Fitzgerald Henshon’s case, that experience comes in the realms of marketing and brand building, areas she said many business owners don’t fully understand.

“I do a lot of educating entrepreneurs on just what marketing is strategically,” she explained. “I think people think of marketing as websites and ads, but it’s what goes into that — that knowledge of the consumer and the benefits the business is trying to bring to the consumer — and then how to communicate it in a way that’s really authentic to the brand that they’re creating.”

She said there are many types of consumers, obviously, and ventures like those now being assisted by Launch413 must identify their specific consumers and craft a message intended specifically for them.

For that reason, the work she does with these entrepreneurs is very hands-on, it involves imparting decades of acquired knowledge, and it’s quite rewarding on a number of levels.

“I really love it,” she said. “I’m impressed with the quality of the entrepreneurs and the ideas. And I think that this [Launch413] is a marriage that works very well. You’re helping meet specific needs, so it seems like every time you meet, something concrete is being tackled.

“It’s not advice and then ‘take it or leave it,’” she went on. “It’s something really tangible to be worked on, and then we roll up our sleeves and get it done. We don’t offer a few ideas in a presentation, for example; we go through it slide by slide.”

By the Book

Papademetriou isn’t sure how her latest work — meaning Bookflow, not the next young-adult novel to hit the shelves — will end or even how the next chapter will develop.

She’s confident, though, that this will be the story of a new and intriguing product that will meet a critical need — helping all those writers who start a book and never finish it, for example — in a meaningful and profitable way.

It’s a story with an intriguing cast of characters and several potential plot twists, all resulting from the help of Launch413.

And, as all those who spoke with BusinessWest noted, it’s a story that needs to be written many more times as the region seeks to grow and add more jobs.

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

Cover Story

Capturing a Journey

Chris and Missy Thibault

Chris and Missy Thibault

Chris Thibault has spent his professional career helping companies and institutions — from MassMutual to Spirit of Springfield — blend words and pictures to send meaningful and powerful messages. Now, he and his wife and business partner, Missy, are producing one for and about him, and certainly not the one he planned at age 36. It’s about living with, running a business with — and hopefully not dying from — a disease that’s not only attacking his body, but that recently took the life of his brother. They’re going public and telling this story to maybe help Chris and the family, but certainly to help others.

“All I know is that I have been behind on projects for the past six months. It pains me to tell clients, ‘I’m sorry, we just fell a little behind.’ And I have said that over and over again. I not only want to do good work, I want to do great work. And not only that, I want my clients to have the best customer service possible. Excellent work, done on time. I’ve created unique systems within my company to do just that. But cancer is a bitch.”

That’s just one of the many powerful passages from a blog post that Chris Thibault wrote a few weeks back at christeebo.com/.howtocancer.

It came complete with a title — “How to Run a Production Company While Living (or Dying) of Stage 4 Cancer” — that hits the reader right between the eyes and almost compels that person to move on to the next sentence and the next gripping photograph.

And that was the whole idea.

“I haven’t figured that one out yet,” wrote Thibault, 36, president of Chris Teebo Films, in reference to the question posed by that working title. “And to be honest, I wrote the title to get your attention so you actually start reading this thing.”

If one keeps reading, they’ll take in a brutally honest portrayal of what it’s like to be told that one has stage 4 cancer, in this case a return of the breast cancer that struck Chris four years ago, only this time with it spreading to several parts of his body — and then live, and work, with both that knowledge and the disease itself.

The blog post is merely the beginning — the first act, if you will — of a larger presentation intended to capture what Thibault called a “journey,” one where no one really knows what’s ahead, where the current path leads, or even whether he will stay on this path.

Elaborating, Thibault and his wife, Missy — who is also a co-worker and business partner, serving Chris Teebo Films as editor and producer, thus the title ‘preditor’ — said they will soon bring a camera directly into their home in an effort to capture this difficult but also compelling time in the lives of everyone in this family of five.

Chris Thibault titled his blog post “How to Run a Production Company While Living (or Dying) of Stage 4 Cancer.”

Chris Thibault titled his blog post “How to Run a Production Company While Living (or Dying) of Stage 4 Cancer.”

“It will be very weird in the beginning, but if I stick with it, it will become less weird,” he explained. “I’m going to direct it even though I’m going to be living my life.”

Missy agreed about the ‘weird’ part, but said that, ultimately, the family is doing what Chris Teebo Films asks those taking part in its productions to do.

“We’re constantly telling people to ‘just be you and tell us your story,’” she explained. “We tell them to just open up and share their story, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

Before the camera starts rolling, though, Chris and Missy will be getting away for a while to the Vancouver area in Canada. It’s not a vacation, although they may try to relax a bit. Instead, they’re going for some alternative treatments for Chris, specifically hypertherapy (more on that later).

The junket to Canada and the comments you’ll hear about it speak volumes about where the Thibaults are in this journey. They’re searching — for answers, for a possible cure, and for a way a survive the disease that just claimed Chris’ brother, Brandon, a few weeks ago; he ultimately lost a lengthy, difficult fight with melanoma in mid-June.

As noted earlier, they don’t know where the journey will take them. At this point, Chris said the doctors tell him the cancer cannot be stopped; it can only be slowed. His oncologist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute has offered what Chris called a “menu” of options to battle the cancer, and none have produced what anyone would call encouraging results.

As for the ongoing efforts to chronicle this journey and the upcoming film work in the Thibault home, they are being undertaken in part to help the family. Indeed, donations are requested to help offset the costs of treatment and, really, just pay the bills at a time when Chris is forced to miss more time at work.

“We’re constantly telling people to ‘just be you and tell us your story. We tell them to just open up and share their story, and that’s what we’re going to do.”

But this effort is also intended to help others finding themselves in a similar battle by providing them with words and pictures intended to educate, but also inspire.

For this issue and its focus on healthcare, BusinessWest talked with the Thibaults about their journey and their willingness to go public, as in very public, and share their story.

The Big Picture

“Make no mistake, the cancer cells in my body are on a mission from hell to grow and kill me. Is it stage 4? Yes. Is it considered a terminal illness? Yes. Has it spread to my lungs, spine, ribs, hip, and pelvic bone? Check. Do I cough constantly and get winded from simple things like walking up the stairs? Yessir. Is there a known medical cure? Nope.”

This passage, which succinctly summed up both Thibault’s condition and thought pattern as he talked with BusinessWest, represents more of the frank, sometimes blunt commentary in his blog post, which, again, is designed to tell his story but also relay the feelings of all those who have battled or are currently battling the disease.

He said taking on cancer is, all at once, humbling, frustrating, and especially tiring — mentally as well as physically. There are, as almost everyone who has been through it has said, good days and bad days, but eventually the latter start to seriously outnumber the former. Chris said he still has a number of good days — like the one when he and Missy sat for this interview — meaning there was very little of the coughing and the pain that comes with it. But every day is clouded by the huge question marks about the future.

Chris and Missy Thibault, here with their children, Brayden, Sklyar, and Cassidy, will soon bring the cameras into their home to record their journey.

Chris and Missy Thibault, here with their children, Brayden, Sklyar, and Cassidy, will soon bring the cameras into their home to record their journey.

Before we talk about that, though, we need to go back to last fall and a phone call Chris said he won’t ever forget.

The person at the other end of the line wanted to know what Chris was doing at that moment. Specifically, she wanted to know if he was driving. Apparently, those in the healthcare community are trained to ask that question if they’re going to deliver bad news.

“She said the results from the scan ‘didn’t look good,’” recalled Thibault, who was on a shoot in Boston at the time, adding that she didn’t say much of anything else, which was somewhat annoying to him. And really annoying to Missy, who was, in fact, driving when Chris relayed that skimpy yet distressing news to her.

“I get a text from him that says, ‘doctor says scans don’t look good,’” she recalled. “I said, ‘what the heck does that mean?’”

What it meant was that their lives were going to change in a profound way.

The chest scan in question came after Chris started experiencing what he called “weird symptoms” during his recovery from surgery after he tore his biceps while reaching out and grabbing the treadmill he was on after it had started to tip over (a story told in great detail in the blog post).

“One day, I got on the treadmill and just did a light jog. I found that I couldn’t really catch my breath. Strange. I actually thought it was something in the air at the studio. Maybe the air was a little ‘thick’ that day? But in the coming weeks I had more and more symptoms, persistent cough, strange pain in my leg, and some vision problems.”

And with those symptoms came some commentary from the voice inside his head, commentary in the form of questions — about whether the cancer that had rocked his world years earlier might be back.

In fact, it was. It had metastasized, and there were, as those tests indeed revealed, a number of tumors, as Chris relayed in another poignant passage from his blog.

“‘Too many [tumors] to count,’ the doctor said with a sad, straight-face look that I read as ‘you’re fucked, kid.’”

Chris recalled ‘too many to count.’ Missy remembers hearing ‘innumerable.’ One phrase, one word that mean the same heartbreaking thing.

And so this journey began, and it came — not that there’s a good time — at an extremely bad time, professionally and also personally. With regard to the latter, the Thibaults were now a family of five with the birth of their daughter, Cassidy, a year earlier. Meanwhile, Chris’ brother Brandon was losing his fight with cancer.

As for the former, the business, Chris Teebo Films, was really hitting its stride, producing a wide range of work for a host of regional and national clients that included MassMutual, the pharmaceutical giant Novartis, Bay Path University, Spirit of Springfield, FastenMaster in Agawam, Mercedes-Benz of Springfield, BusinessWest (he has produced sponsor videos for many of the magazine’s events), and many others.

As noted earlier, as the cancer has spread, Chris has found it more difficult to work, although he presses on, a task made easier by the support he’s received from his clients, who have been not only understanding of missed deadlines, but willing to send him more work — including a project for Spirit of Springfield’s 25th anniversary — and assist him in his fight. Peter and Michelle Wirth, owners of the Mercedes dealership, even offered to send cars to take him to treatments.

“The support of the business community has been unreal,” said Chris, adding that he was at first reluctant to tell clients about his condition out of fear they may not have faith that he can finish projects he takes on. But those fears proved ungrounded, and he continues to get new work.

Bringing a Cancer Fight into Focus

“My skinny ass lifted weights for the first time in about 7 months the other day. I’m about 35 pounds lighter than I was back then, mostly all of it muscle weight. … I never realized how much muscle I had in my ass! After losing a bunch of weight, I was towel drying out of the shower and noticed … it wasn’t there! This was at a time when I was really feeling the effects of the tumor in my hip and couldn’t bend down at all. The atrophy in that portion of my body was really noticeable. Still is. It sucks because, a mere half a year earlier, I was physically, and probably mentally, the strongest I have ever been.”

This passage from the blog captures some of the observations, thoughts, and raw emotions that are part and parcel to a cancer fight.

So does this one.

Chris Teebo says his doctors have tried a number of steps

Chris Teebo says his doctors have tried a number of steps from a menu of treatment options, but none have succeeded.

“I am bent over on a hospital chair with my right foot on the floor and my left knee resting on the chair. My pants are pulled down just below my butt. I am sitting alone in a room at Dana Farber bent over with my full ass out, waiting for the nurse to come back into the room. Oh, and the room doesn’t have real doors, just one of those thin hospital curtains. So at any point, someone could walk by and catch a glimpse. Is there anything more humiliating?

‘Did it get cold in here?’ I quietly asked myself.

It felt chilly. I might as well be bending over in front of an open fridge.

The nurse finally comes in.

‘How we doing?’ she asked with an over-the-top caring voice, like a firing squad was about to come in and put some bullets in my crack.

‘I’m fine.’

I was anything but fine, of course, mentally and physically, but that’s what you say.”

The nurse in question would proceed to administer what Chris called a large dose of a drug called Fulvestrant, being taken in combination with a newly approved drug called Piqray, made, coincidentally enough, by Novartis.

Ultimately, this combination became the third different set of chemo and hormonal treatments to have been tried, and all have failed. So Chris and Missy — the two are in this fight together, every step of the way, sharing the research, and the hope for something that will work — are on to option number four.

“At this point, they’re really throwing things at the wall; they don’t know what’s going to work, so they’re trying all these things,” said Chris. “They haven’t been able to stop it — there’s no cure for what I have — but there are drugs that will slow it down, basically.

“And these things are toxic — they ship them to me in what amounts to a haz-mat bag,” he went on. “It says ‘keep this away from people — no one can touch it’ — but I have to take it.”

And while battling the cancer with chemo and other regimens, the Thibaults are looking at alternative treatments, like the hyperthermia Chris will receive in Vancouver, designed to generate changes in the cancer cells that can (that’s can) make the cells more likely to be affected by other treatments such as radiation therapy or chemotherapy.

“As I understand it, and I don’t really understand it, cancer cells don’t survive in hot — they don’t like to be heated up, and that’s what this treatment does,” he told BusinessWest. “We did a lot of research on it, and it was recommended by our naturopathic doctor.”

“The support of the business community has been unreal.”

Missy said she understands it better because she’s taken it upon herself to do much of the research and work to understand the many new forms of treatment that are becoming available and which ones hold the most promise.

“I had heard about and read about it,” she said of the hyperthermia treatments, which focus heat on a specific area — in this case, the target will be Chris’ lungs. “I’m immersing myself in that radical-remission, naturopathic world just to inform myself as much as possible.”

Screen Test

“I love creating. If I can’t create, I’ll just load the bullet now. But this is about more than that. It is a way to potentially raise the money needed to actually sustain my life through this journey and at the same time help others going through a similar thing. We will document the process in every way we can.”

That’s how Chris described the ongoing project to chronicle the fight, the journey that he and his family are now taking.

By ‘every way we can,’ he meant videos, blog posts, pictures, and podcasts. Eventually, all of this gathered material will be molded into a feature-length documentary, designed, as noted earlier, to educate and, hopefully, inspire.

There have been many successful and poignant efforts to chronicle a cancer fight in the past, but the Thibaults intend to use their unique and considerable skills in the art of storytelling to do something different — and compelling.

This was something Chris made a plan to do four years ago with his first brush with cancer, a project that took on the working title “Breast Cancer Boy,” an obvious reference to the fact that men rarely contract this form of cancer.

There were a few blog posts and an effort to relate what he was experiencing, he recalled, but this time the effort will be much more comprehensive and personal — because it needs to be.

And, as noted, it will involve a number of vehicles for getting the message across, from blog posts to podcasts, to what Chris called “TV-show-like material.”

“Nick’s going to come in with a camera and hang out with us,” he said, referring to Nick Laroche, an editor and production assistant with Chris Teebo Films. “He’s going to come to our house and hang out.

“It will be weird, because you really put it all out there when you do it like that,” he went on. “We don’t have a big budget — we don’t have any budget — so it’s not going to be like the Kardashians. But it will be a behind-the-scenes look at what goes into this.”

By ‘this,’ he meant everything involved with a cancer fight, from the research of various treatments to the wide range of emotions experienced by all those involved.

“People can see our confusion with medications, our frustration with doctors — they’re going to see all that,” he went on. “And I didn’t want to do this; I’m doing it because I feel it’s time and I need to. It’s not because I want to.”

Missy agreed and said, again, that this bit of storytelling aims to do what they ask their many clients to do.

“We steer away from scripted video content,” she explained, adding that the company has been doing a number of documentary-style productions for clients, including the American Women’s College at Bay Path University and MassMutual, and it will put that experience to good use as they tell their own story.

Things will be much different when the camera is pointed at them, but they both believe this something they need to do.

Indeed, when Missy noted that it will be difficult to find the time to do this, given work, medical treatments locally, and trips to places like Vancouver, Chris replied simply, “we’re going to have to make the time.”

A Message of Hope

“Lastly, I love you. I mean it. The good thing about going through this is that you look at people differently. I am convinced that the majority of humanity is good, regardless of what the news tells you.

OK, get on with your day. You’ll hear from us soon.”

That’s how Chris wrapped up his blog post. Each word, each phrase was chosen carefully, and each one has meaning.

‘You’ll hear from us soon’ makes it clear that the efforts to chronicle this story are only beginning. The words that come before explain why he and Missy are doing this.

In short, it’s a story that needs to be told. And there’s probably no one in the region who can tell any story — let alone this one — in a better, more powerful way.

As for ‘OK, get on with your day’ … well, none of us are likely to take that simple assignment for granted ever again.

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

Cover Story

A Strained Safety Net

Joan Kagan, president and CEO of Square One

Joan Kagan, president and CEO of Square One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gina Kos

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making Ends Meet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mission Control

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Climate Change

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

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

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

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

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

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

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]