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Writing the Next Chapter

Robert Johnson, president of Western New England University

Robert Johnson, president of Western New England University

At least once, and perhaps twice, Robert Johnson strongly considered removing himself from the mix as a search committee narrowed the field of candidates to succeed Anthony Caprio as president of Western New England University (WNEU) in Springfield.

It was early spring, and the COVID-19 pandemic was presenting every institution of higher learning, including UMass-Dartmouth, which he served as chancellor, with a laundry list of stern — and, in some cases, unprecedented — challenges.

Johnson told BusinessWest that the campus needed his full attention and that it might be time to call a halt to his quest for the WNEU job. But he “hung in there,” as he put it, and for the same reason that he eventually decided to pursue the position after at least twice telling a persistent recruiter that he wasn’t really interested.

“We are at an inflection point in higher education,” said Johnson, who arrived on the campus on Aug. 15, just a few weeks before students arrived for the fall semester. “Western New England has a good balance of the liberal arts and the professional schools, along with the law school, that puts it in a unique position to write the next chapter when it comes to what higher education will look like.

“I think it’s fair to say that, when we think about higher education, the last time we’ve seen the level of transformation that is about to happen was just after World War II, with the GI Bill and the creation of more urban public universities, community colleges, and the list goes on,” he continued, as talked through a mask to emphasize the point that they are to be worn at all times on this campus. “As we think about the world of work and the future, colleges and universities will be educating people for jobs that don’t exist yet, utilizing technologies that haven’t been created to solve problems that have yet to be identified.”

Elaborating, he said today’s young people, and he counts his son and daughter in this constituency, are expected to hold upwards of 17 jobs in five different industries (three of which don’t currently exist) during their career. All this begs a question he asked: “what does an institution of higher learning look like in an environment like this, where the pace of change is unlike anything the world has ever seen?”

The short answer — he would give a longer one later — is that this now-101-year-old institution looks a whole lot like WNEU, which, he said, is relatively small, agile, and able to adapt and be nimble, qualities that will certainly be needed as schools of all sizes move to what Johnson called a “clicks and mortar” — or “mortar and clicks” — model of operation that, as those words suggest, blends remote with in-person learning.

The process of changing to this model is clearly being accelerated by the pandemic that accompanies Johnson’s arrival at WNEU, and that has already turned this fall semester upside down and inside out at a number of schools large and small.

“Western New England has a good balance of the liberal arts and the professional schools, along with the law school, that puts it in a unique position to write the next chapter when it comes to what higher education will look like.”

Indeed, a number of schools that opened their campuses to students have already closed them and reverted to remote learning. Meanwhile, others trying to keep campuses open are encountering huge problems — and bad press: Northeastern University recently sent 11 students packing after they violated rules and staged a gathering in one of the living areas, for example, and the University of Alabama has reported more than 1,200 cases on its campus in Tuscaloosa.

It’s very early in the semester, but Johnson is optimistic, even confident, that his new place of employment can avoid such occurrences.

“The decision to go with in-person learning was essentially made before I got here, and I think it was the right decision,” he explained, noting that students are living on campus and only 16% of the courses are being taught fully online, with the rest in-person or a hybrid model. “We’ve tested more than 2,500 individuals, and we’ve had only three positive cases, all asymptomatic. It’s worked out well so far, but this is only the end of the first week.

“We’re cautiously optimistic, and we take it day to day,” he went on, adding that the school’s smaller size and strict set of protocols, such as testing students upon arrival, may help prevent some of those calamities that have visited other institutions. “We’ve been very judicious, and our small size makes us a bit different. We’re kind of like Cheers, where everybody knows your name; we don’t have tens of thousands of students that we have to manage.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest talked with Johnson about everything from the business of education in this unsettled time to the next chapter in higher education, which he intends to help write.

Screen Test

Flashing back to that aforementioned search for Caprio’s successor, Johnson noted that it was certainly different than anything he’s experienced before — and he’s been through a number of these, as we’ll see shortly.

Indeed, this was a search in the era of COVID-19, which meant pretty much everything was done remotely, including the later rounds of interviews, which usually involve large numbers of people sitting around a table.

Robert Johnson says he’s confident

Robert Johnson says he’s confident that WNEU, a smaller, tight-knit school, can avoid some of the problems larger institutions have had when reopening this fall.

“It was all Zoom, and it was … interesting,” he said of the interview process. “You don’t know if you’re truly connecting or not. As a person being interviewed, you have much more self-awareness of not only what you’re saying but how you’re saying it, and your own non-verbal communication, because you can see yourself on the screen.

“You have to make sure your background is right, the lighting is right, you’re wearing the right colors, all that,” he went on. “It’s like being on TV, literally, because the first impression people get is what they see on screen.”

Those on the search panel were nonetheless obviously impressed, both by what they saw and heard, and also the great depth of experience that Johnson brings to this latest stop in a nearly 30-year career in higher education.

Indeed, Johnson notes, with a discernable amount of pride in his voice, that he has worked at just about every type of higher-education facility.

“I worked in every not-for-profit higher-education sector,” he noted. “Public, private, two-year, four-year, private, Catholic, large, medium, and small — this is my seventh institution. And I think that gives me a unique lens as a leader in higher education.”

Prior to his stint at UMass Dartmouth, he served as president of Becker College in Worcester from 2010 to 2017, and has also held positions at Oakland University in Michigan and Sinclair College, the University of Dayton, and Central State University, all in Ohio.

As noted earlier, when Johnson was invited by a recruiter to consider perhaps making WNEU the next line on his résumé, he was at first reluctant to become a candidate.

“The search consultant, who I happen to know, called me two or three times, and I did not bite,” he noted. “But as she told me more, and I learned more about Western New England University, I began to take a look. I knew about the school, but I had never taken a deep dive into the institution, its history, and what it had to offer.”

He subsequently took this deep dive, liked what he saw, and, as he noted, hung in through the lengthy interview process because of the unique opportunity this job — at this moment in time — presented.

Since arriving on campus, he has made a point of meeting as many staff members and faculty as possible, but this, too, is difficult during the COVID-19 era. Indeed, meetings can involve only a few participants, so, therefore, there must be more of them.

“We can’t have any of those big ‘meet the president’ meetings,” he noted. “So I’ve had six, seven, or eight meetings with small groups or facility and staff, and I probably have another 15 or 20 of those scheduled. I’m getting to know people, and they’re getting to know me; I’m doing a lot of listening and learning.”

Overall, it’s a challenging time in many respects, he said, adding quickly that higher education was challenging before COVID, for reasons ranging from demographics — smaller high-school graduating classes, for starters — to economics and the growing need to provide value at a time when many are questioning the high cost of a college education.

“The business model for higher ed was going to change regardless — I think, by 2025, given demographics and a whole host of other things, colleges and universities were going to have to figure out how to do business differently,” he told BusinessWest. “I think COVID, overnight, expedited that.

“The business model for higher ed was going to change regardless — I think, by 2025, given demographics and a whole host of other things, colleges and universities were going to have to figure out how to do business differently. I think COVID, overnight, expedited that.”

“It was a Monday, and seven to nine days later, every college in the country was teaching remotely and working remotely, in ways we never imagined,” he continued. “So the very idea that colleges and universities will go back to 100% of what that old business model was is a non-starter. So the question is, ‘how do we reinvent ourselves?’”

Courses of Action

As he commenced answering that question, he started by addressing a question that is being asked in every corner of the country. While there is certainly a place for remote learning, he noted, and it will be part of the equation for every institution, it cannot fully replace in-person learning.

“Some would say that online learning is the way, and the path, of the future,” he noted. “I would say online learning is a tool in terms of modality, but it is not the essence of education.”

Elaborating, he said that, for many students, and classes of students, the in-person, on-campus model is one that can not only provide a pathway to a career but also help an individual mature, meet people from different backgrounds, and develop important interpersonal skills.

“Some would say that online learning is the way, and the path, of the future. I would say online learning is a tool in terms of modality, but it is not the essence of education.”

“For the student coming from a wealthy family, I think they need socialization, and they need a face-to-face environment,” he explained. “For the first-generation student whose parents did not go to college, I think they need socialization. And for students who come from poor families, they need socialization.

“My point being that online learning is not a panacea,” he continued. Some would argue that, if you have online learning, it would help poor kids go to college. I would say that the poor kids, the first-generation kids, are the very ones who need to be on that college campus, to socialize and meet people different from themselves. And the same is true for those kids coming from the upper middle class and wealthy families — they need that socialization.

“In my humble opinion, face-to-face never goes away,” he went on. “But does that mean that one might be living on campus five years from now, taking five classes a semester, with maybe one or two of them being online or hybrid? Absolutely. I think the new model is going to be click and mortar, or mortar and click.”

Expanding on that point while explaining what such a model can and ultimately must provide to students, he returned to those numbers he mentioned earlier — 17 jobs in five industries, at least a few of which don’t exist in 2020. Johnson told BusinessWest that a college education will likely only prepare a student for perhaps of the first of these jobs. Beyond that, though, it can provide critical thinking skills and other qualities needed to take on the next 16.

“That very first job that a student gets out of college — they’ve been trained for that. But that fifth job … they have not been trained for that,” he said. “And I think the role of the academy in the 21st century, the new model, is all about giving students and graduates what I call the agile mindset, which is knowledge and the power of learning — giving students essential human skills that cannot be replicated by robots and gives them the mindset to continually add value throughout their professional careers.

“We’re educating people to get that first job, and to create every job after that,” he continued. “We’re making sure that every person who graduates from college is resilient and has social and emotional intelligence and has an entrepreneurial outlook, which is not about being an entrepreneur; it’s about value creation and having those essential human skills. What that means, fundamentally, is that no algorithm will ever put them out of a job.”

To get his point across, he relayed a conversation he had with some students enrolled in a nursing program. “They said, ‘this doesn’t apply to us,’ and I said, ‘yes, it does, because there are robots in Japan that are turning patients over in hospitals. So if you think technology does not impact what you do, you’re mistaken.’”

Summing it all up, he said that, moving forward, and more than ever before, a college education must make the student resilient, something he does not believe can be accomplished solely through online learning.

“How do I put the engineer and the artist together, give them a real-world problem, and say, ‘have at it, go solve it?’” he asked. “They have to be face to face, hands-on. We can come up with alternate reality, virtual reality, and all the technology you want, but at some point, people have to sit down and look each other in the eye.”

Bottom Line

Returning to the subject of the pandemic and the ongoing fall semester, Johnson reiterated his cautious optimism about getting to the finish line without any major incidents, and said simply, “get me to Thanksgiving with everyone still on campus.” That’s when students will be heading for a lengthy break after a semester that started early (late August) and, to steal a line from Bill Belichick, featured no days off — classes were even in session on Labor Day.

But while he wants to get to Thanksgiving, Johnson is, of course, looking much further down the road, to the future of higher education, which is, in some important respects, already here.

He believes WNEU represents that future, and that’s why he “hung in there” during that search process.

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

Alumni Achievement Award Cover Story

Finalists for Award Are Leaders in Business — and in the Community

Launched in 2015, and known then as the Continued Excellence Award, BusinessWest’s Alumni Achievement Award recognizes a previous 40 Under Forty honoree who has continued to build on his or résumé as a rising star in this region and leader both in business and within the community. The five finalists for 2020 — Carla Cosenzi, Peter DePergola, Mike Fenton, Paul Kozub, and James Leahy — epitomize what this award, sponsored by Health New England, is all about, and why it is among the most coveted of BusinessWest’s many awards.

 

Carla Cosenzi

She’s driven to succeed — in business and in the community

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Peter Depergola

This pioneer remains on the leading edge in the field of bioethics

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Mike Fenton

He has a passion for the law, and for serving his constituents

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Paul Kozub

This entrepreneur — and his label — have come a long way in 15 years

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James Leahy

This city leader has always been an ambassador — and a connector

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Cover Story

The Plot Thickens

Even in a normal year, Feb. 29 is an odd date to open a business.

“We really won’t have an anniversary for another four years,” Thomas Winstanley, director of Marketing at Theory Wellness, joked about his company’s third cannabis dispensary, which opened in Chicopee on that leap-year date almost six months ago.

Of course, 2020 is no normal year, and a couple weeks after opening, Theory closed its doors as part of a statewide shutdown of ‘non-essential’ businesses due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It’s been an interesting six months, to say the least,” Winstanley told BusinessWest. “We had a brand-new team in place, the final approvals had come through, and that team was just getting their sea legs on the retail side when the shutdown came.”

When dispensaries were eventually allowed to open, it was only for medical marijuana at first, while the vast majority of business — recreational sales — remained shut down.

And now?

“It’s dynamite,” he said. “A lot of money is coming back to the market, and our team hasn’t missed a step since coming back — and we’ve seen the team continue to grow. We’ve come back a lot stronger.”

The line that forms outside the shop each morning testifies to demand that certainly didn’t go away during the weeks when product was unavailable.

It’s a story taking shape across the state, with cannabis businesses continuing to launch and grow even as the pandemic still rages and the economy nowhere near returning to its 2019 condition. Take Holyoke, for example — a city whose leaders fully embraced the cannabis trade from the start, and where two more businesses opened in recent weeks, Canna Provisions on Dwight Street and Boston Bud Co. on Sargeant Street.

“It’s been an interesting six months, to say the least. We had a brand-new team in place, the final approvals had come through, and that team was just getting their sea legs on the retail side when the shutdown came.”

“I’m not going to lie — I was very nervous as the economy took a downturn,” said Marcos Marrero, Holyoke’s director of Planning & Economic Development, about the cannabis hub city leaders have worked to cultivate, one that now includes a handful of cultivation, production, and retail businesses, with more on the way. “Oddly enough, we haven’t seen a significant stoppage in stores’ actions at this point. I can only speculate why that is.”

One reason, quite simply, is that some sectors do better than others during recessions. Marrero compared it to when prohibition was lifted during the Great Depression, and smart entrepreneurs immediately saw the long-term (and pent-up) demand for alcohol, even during tough economic times.

Theory Wellness in Chicopee

Theory Wellness in Chicopee closed in March just a few weeks after it opened, but customer traffic has been solid this summer.

“Today, we have a very robust alcoholic-beverage industry,” he said, reflecting demand that has never subsided over the decades. “So I don’t think there’s anything remarkably special about cannabis in that regard.”

Another apt comparison is the financial crisis of 2008, when the fundamentals of the economy were coming apart — a different story than in 2020. “Now, the economy is tanking because there’s no consumption, and the labor force is contracting.”

Those investing in the cannabis sector, however, are looking beyond that; they know demand for these products is likely to remain high — no pun intended — in the long term.

“This may be as good an investment as anything,” Marrero said. “We’re still seeing investments going forward at the local level; it’s a very positive outlook, even during the pandemic.”

Creating a Pipeline

The proliferation of cannabis businesses across the region, with the promise of more to come, means jobs, and that potential isn’t lost on area colleges and universities.

First, Holyoke Community College (HCC) and the Cannabis Community Care and Research Network (C3RN) announced the creation of the Cannabis Education Center last fall, to provide education, training, and other business resources to individuals in the region who want to work in the cannabis industry.

HCC and C3RN are designated training partners through the Massachusetts Cannabis Control Commission’s (CCC) Social Equity Vendor Training program, which was designed to provide priority access, training, and technical assistance to populations and communities that, traditionally, have been negatively impacted by the drug war.

Soon after that, American International College (AIC) dipped a toe into the sector by launching a three-course certificate program called Micro-Emerging Markets: Cannabis, offering an overview of cannabis entrepreneurship, business operations, and law and ethics.

This fall, AIC is launching a master’s program in Cannabis Science and Commerce — with a one-year online program or a two-year hybrid model — that takes a deeper dive into preparing students to work in this field, said Jennifer Barry, AIC’s director of Continuing Studies and Special Projects.

She cited some striking statistics — 15% job growth in the legal cannabis industry in 2019, $404 million in legal cannabis sales in Massachusetts that same year, and 245,000 full-time-equivalent jobs created nationally by early 2020 — to explain why the program is necessary.

JENNIFER BARRY

Jennifer Barry

“We want to provide opportunities to connect students with an industry where there’s a lot of room for employment growth. The idea is to connect students with experts in the industry.”

“We want to provide opportunities to connect students with an industry where there’s a lot of room for employment growth,” Barry told BusinessWest. “The idea is to connect students with experts in the industry.”

To that end, the program will be taught collaboratively by faculty members, cannabis-industry professionals, and occasionally guest lecturers, either in person or by video.

“We’re taking the academic rigor of an AIC course normally taught by faculty members and keeping it current and relevant by pulling in industry experts,” she explained, noting that classes cover topics from law and policy to the chemistry of cannabis.

“It’s hard for people who work full-time in the cannabis industry, which is such a demanding field, to make time,” she added, but quickly noted that they recognize the need to create a pipeline of talent in the region so the sector can continue to grow and avoid a skills gap. In that way, she noted, this master’s program is a win-win — helping graduates access a solid career while helping area businesses grow.

“That’s the real benefit of our program,” Barry continued, noting that it’s the first program in the U.S. that blends business, science, and the legal aspects of the trade. “What we’ve found, speaking with cannabis professionals, is you have to understand the chemical components of the plant to be prepared to sell it, package it, speak about it intelligently in the field.

“That’s why we have a chemistry course, and one that talks about cannabis from seed to sale, how it makes it through the pipeline, giving students a broad understanding of the process. Then, through individual courses, they can dig through each individual element.”

The goal, again, is to support both opportunities for job seekers and business growth, and Marrero sees elements of both in Holyoke’s enthusiastic adoption of the cannabis sector. He said Holyoke officials don’t “game the system” with host-community agreements, trying to squeeze as much from license applicants as possible. Instead, it’s a standard template that can be approved in a day.

“The CCC does its due diligence on businesses; we regulate things like land use and how businesses are integrated into the community,” he said of the city’s approach to license approval. “For us, it’s been about how to create jobs, how to help businesses get into the cannabis industry.

“It’s about creating a cluster,” he went on. “We’ve made a concerted effort to make it smooth, to work with industries to create a cluster. What it gets us is more than the sum of its parts; it’s how many jobs are created by these companies — and we have a dozen already special-permitted.”

Those services run the gamut from plumbers and pipefitters to security, delivery services, cleaning services, lawyers, and more.

“Any new company produces opportunities for other types of other businesses, and those businesses have to employ people. It’s that economic contagion that’s also attractive,” Marrero explained — one of the few times one might hear the word ‘contagion’ these days in a positive light.

A Social Contract

Winstanley said Theory’s experience setting up shop in Chicopee went as smoothly as it could have, considering the built-in rigor of the process, especially at the state level.

“We’ve always known there were a lot of policies in place at the state level and the local level. It’s a long process,” he told BusinessWest. “But we want to make sure we get it right and operate in ways that are beneficial to the local population, and we want to make sure to set an example for what legal cannabis should look like in this day and age.”

One way Theory — which also has locations in Great Barrington and Bridgewater, and employs about 200 people in its cultivation, manufacturing, and retail divisions — does that is through the kind of social-equity program the CCC made a point of emphasizing.

It recently accepted applications from ‘economic-empowerment’ applicants as designated by the commission and will select a qualified applicant to partner with, guiding and mentoring the entrepreneur through the process of opening their doors, from financial assistance to professional services to zoning and regulatory hurdles.

That financial commitment will total up to $250,000, $100,000 of which will be offered in the form of 0% interest debt financing, with $150,000 worth of initial cannabis inventory to be offered on consignment, providing a boost of capital to help get the operation off the ground. Theory will also connect the successful applicant with professional services like banking, legal, insurance, and HR.

“This is something we felt really strongly about,” Winstanley said. “We felt it’s the future of the industry, to make sure everyone has an opportunity to get into it.”

Barry is well aware of the social-equity component as well, saying it aligns with AIC’s mission to provide access and opportunity to a diverse student population.

“Each course will have a social-equity component; students will get exposure to the business through the lens of social equity, and by the end of the program, they’ll be entrenched in how we can potentially undo some of the disproportionate harm done in the past, while creating a workforce that meets the needs of the industry.”

Because, again, the opportunities appear to be increasing.

“They’ll build a network of professionals they can use as resources as they create their careers, whether they start out working for someone else or start their own business,” she added. “They’ll know it’s not limited.”

That’s true in Holyoke right now, where the next site to open will likely be True Leaf, located near the Holyoke Dam, Marrero said. “They’re a pretty sizable operation — they would be the biggest in Holyoke by square footage, and they’re near completion of construction.”

Winstanley said Theory learned a lot from its original store, in Great Barrington, the first dispensary to open in the Berkshires. Now, competition is springing up across Western Mass., but he says the company still has plenty of room to grow.

“It’s not only the growth of our company, but the significant tax revenue that’s definitely needed,” he said. “Right now, we’re just really happy to see cannabis is back, and hopefully we can continue to contribute, and the industry will provide some much-needed life in these strange times.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus Cover Story Modern Office

The Future of Work

Michael Galat

Michael Galat, vice president of Employee Services at Big Y.

When businesses sent employees home in mid-March, many thought it would be for just a few weeks. Instead, as the pandemic lingered, weeks stretched into months, and now, even as companies are allowed to bring their teams back on site, many have not. The reason? Employers say it makes little sense to risk their people’s health if they can do their job just as well at home. But … if they can work effectively at home, why bring them back at all? That’s a conversation many companies are having as they ponder the future of the workplace in the COVID-19 era.

Big Y Foods is one of the region’s largest companies, with more than 11,000 employees throughout Massachusetts and Connecticut. It has also been an essential business throughout the pandemic, so it never shut down.

Many of its employees — those who stock shelves, prepare food, work the cashier lines, and do any number of other tasks — must do their jobs on site, in a specific location. But at Big Y’s 300-employee-strong customer-support center in Springfield, which supports those frontline workers, that wasn’t necessarily the case.

“About 80% of them started working from home once COVID-19 started gaining traction,” said Michael Galat, vice president of Employee Services at Big Y. That shift meant setting everyone up with the right equipment if they didn’t have it at home, and also putting together a best-practices guide for working remotely. “Whether people are working remotely or not, they need to have access and be available to support those locations.”

The lesson learned over four months? They did their jobs just fine. And until COVID-19 begins to subside in earnest, Big Y is taking its time bringing employees — at least the ones who don’t have to work in the stores — back to their pre-pandemic workspaces.

“We’re definitely taking our time. We’re at about 30% in the support center now,” Galat said. “Obviously this is peak vacation time, but we are slowly, and I mean slowly, reintegrating people in the support center.”

PeoplesBank is learning similar lessons about what employees can accomplish at home, said Amy Roberts, chief Human Resources officer.

“There’s always a concern, when you don’t have someone on site, because you can’t see what they’re doing. Are they working?” she said. “But we haven’t really missed a beat in terms of productivity levels. Some people like working from home — it works for them — while some people prefer working in the office, and they can’t wait to come back. But for overall productivity and meeting the needs of customers, we haven’t had any concerns.”

Roberts doesn’t see a day, post-pandemic, when the majority of bank employees are still working at home. But functioning so well over the past few months has at least gotten HR leaders talking.

“Is this something we can do on a more permanent basis? We’re still trying to figure out the right blend. But there seems to be some opportunity for flexible work options, and I think we’re going to do that in the future.”

“Is this something we can do on a more permanent basis? We’re still trying to figure out the right blend,” she told BusinessWest. “But there seems to be some opportunity for flexible work options, and I think we’re going to do that in the future.”

Patrick Leary has had those conversations, too. As a partner with MP CPAs, he understands that much of his business is face to face with clients. “But I don’t think we’ll go back to 100% on site.”

Elaborating, he explained that “the model of having everyone show up at 9 o’clock and work all day until 5, then go home, I think it’s really been proven that it doesn’t need to be that way. Yes, we need to have people available, and we can’t have somebody that decides, ‘I want to enjoy my day, so I’ll start the workday at 5 p.m. and work till 1 a.m.’ — although some of the 20-somethings might like that; me, I need to be in bed by 9.”

But while it’s true that employees need to be available to field phone calls and take appointments during core work hours, he went on, it may not be necessary to have everyone working in the same place at the same time.

“I think our ideas about what is a regular workplace have completely changed,” Leary went on, and it wasn’t sending everyone home in March that shifted those ideas; it was how long the stay-at-home trend has lasted.

Amy Roberts says PeoplesBank

Amy Roberts says PeoplesBank has to balance the benefits of working at home with the interactive employee culture it has cultivated.

“If everyone went home, and two weeks later they were back in the office, we wouldn’t be having this conversation,” he noted. “But we’ve proven in four months that people can work at home, work efficiently at home, and accept working at home.”

These three companies — a supermarket chain, a bank, and an accounting firm — all have totally different business models and customer needs, yet they’re all saying the same thing when it comes to the workplace of the future, and specifically whether remote work is here to stay: nothing is set in stone, but it’s a conversation worth having.

Shifting on the Fly

Shifting to remote appointments back in March was a smooth process, Leary said, partly because all the clients were working remotely, too.

“That part of it was not overly challenging,” he added. “And we had stress-tested our internal systems about a month earlier as good practice, just to see how we were doing. We did some modifications, so system-wide, we were in good shape. We had been using voice over internet for the phones, so when someone called at the office, it could ring at the house. So we were good there.”

The company did need to work through some quality-control issues, however, especially since the team was being physically separated during the heart of tax-preparation season.

“That, to me, was the biggest challenge,” he said. “Most people are accustomed to doing that in face-to-face settings, but we did it with everyone at home. We developed some protocols for how that would work.”

The firm created a schedule for individuals to come to the office to pick up packages, scan documents, and send them to the right people.

“The model of having everyone show up at 9 o’clock and work all day until 5, then go home, I think it’s really been proven that it doesn’t need to be that way.”

“Then there was the whole PPP thing, working with virtually all our business clients, showing them how to apply for it, and making sure they knew they rules, which were evolving almost daily,” Leary recalled. “We had a core group staying really closely involved and on top of the regulations, and we did a couple of webinars for clients.”

Then there was COVID-19 itself. “We were helping clients through their issues with business being called off — what do they do for cash flow?” he went on. “But the biggest challenge for me was that it all occurred during our busiest time.”

Banking customers were dealing with some of the same issues, as well as their usual needs, and PeoplesBank leaders were quick to make sure employees were set up to work at home.

“In a matter of two weeks, we assigned something like 150 Chromebooks and issued VPN access to all office items,” Roberts said, noting that about 170 people who work in the office were sent home to work. Some, who could not get the access they needed for whatever reason, were paid until the issues were resolved, and they began working from home as well.

These days, the main office is about 25% occupied, with most still working totally from home and others coming into the office one or two days a week. Like Leary, Roberts said discussions have already taken place regarding what the past four months mean for the future of remote work.

“There are definitely limitations, if we’re going to pursue it is a work type,” she said. “We’re going to need technology that ensures full access and takes care of the little things you experience when you’re at home instead of the office, like system slowdowns and delays.”

In short, if PeoplesBank is going to expand remote work in perpetuity — and not just because a pandemic has forced much of the work world home — it needs to the same experience from a work standpoint. “We’ve highlighted things that can be better. But for the most part, it’s been pretty seamless.”

Leary said the current situation has opened his eyes to internet infrastructure needs in the community, especially in places like the hilltowns, which can run into slow speeds and spotty cell service. “If this becomes the new norm, we can’t have someone working in their house who can’t connect to the outside world efficiently.”

Remote Learning

For a company like Big Y — which, between its supermarkets, convenience stores, and gas stations, is a 24/7 operation — flexible work options on the customer-support side make sense, Galat said.

“We’re able to give flexibility to that employee who may have childcare issues, or is caring for an elderly parent, and it allows us to support our stores while minimizing the amount of people who come in here,” he said, which remains an issue with the pandemic still a threat. “So having flexibility of schedule helps their personal lives and also our workplace.”

Patrick Leary

Patrick Leary says a shift to more permanent work-at-home options will require an investment in technology.

Claire D’Amour-Daley, the chain’s vice president of Corporate Communications, agreed. “Some have even felt more productive at home than here. It will certainly be part of the workplace of the future.”

She was especially impressed that the company was able to shift how it did business — not just moving some employees home, but taking steps to protect the ones in the stores — essentially on the fly.

“We’re used to working quickly, but not that quickly,” she said. “The stores were slammed the first few weeks, and this added yet another element of urgency. But we never stopped; we quickly pivoted to serve our stores and our customers in an unprecedented manner.”

“We made it work, and we needed to,” Galat added. “We needed to stay connected more than ever during this time.”

That said, “there are more discussions to be had,” he continued. “Absolutely, some lessons were learned — we’re able to support our locations — but when you look at the company-culture part of it, you lose that social aspect.”

To counter that, remote employees have been conferencing over Zoom three or four times a week, in some departments every day. Meanwhile, they’ve been issued guidance for working efficiently at home, from creating a comfortable, ergonomically correct work area to setting aside time for mind-clearing breaks.

“Eighty to 85% of the feedback has been positive,” Galat said. “People have been able to get their products done. Some have missed the social element, but for others, there’s value in the time saved not commuting in traffic.”

PeoplesBank has long promoted an interactive, employee-centric culture, and that has to be considered when pondering the future of the workplace.

“We rely on that interaction and engagement you get by being in the office together as a group,” Roberts said.

“Making sure we can continue that interactive part of our culture is something I’m really focused on right now. That’s a tricky one. If you have a completely remote workforce, you lose some of those engagement opportunities, and you have to shift some of the ways you engage. We’re not going to let that stop us from pursuing flexibility, but we have to consider the great culture that we have.”

Home or Away?

While employee culture and technology requirements are certainly legitimate topics of discussion, none of the professionals who spoke with BusinessWest expressed much concern about employee accountability and efficiency — “our concerns about people not doing their work dissipated pretty quickly,” D’Amour-Daley said — meaning remote workers may indeed have a broader role in the future.

“It’s been interesting to say the least,” Leary said. “I’ve fallen into a pretty good routine from day one. I’ve tried to make it a regular day: shower, get dressed — not in a suit, but not pajamas — and sit down at my computer. It makes for a more normal routine than saying, ‘I’ll get to work when I get to it.’ And I think most people would feel the same.”

Expanded use of remote work would also open up opportunities for both companies and employees, especially those who want to live in, say, Boston or New York City, he noted. Those individuals could expand their job-search horizons, while Western Mass. could become a more attractive place for businesses to set down roots, taking advantage of the region’s relatively low lease rates while hiring from afar.

All these opportunities can only open up if remote work proves a viable option. And companies of all types are starting to think it is.

“I haven’t had a single client call and say, ‘hey, I was talking to Sally, and I heard a dog barking in the background; it was really distracting,’” Leary said. “I actually think the idea of working from home is good for people. In that time they’d be commuting, maybe they’re exercising or spending more time with their family.

“People do miss the social interaction,” he was quick to add. “Maybe they live alone, or it’s just them and their significant other in the office.”

But the employees of MP CPAs who are back in the office — about half the team — are there by choice, he said, with others choosing to remain at home.

Because it works. And employers like things that work. So, in this era of Zoom and home offices and (sometimes) pajamas, they’re paying attention.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Education

Entrance Exam

Come back to campus, or don’t — either way, you’ll learn.

Just don’t expect campus life to be anything like you’re used to.

That’s essentially the message from UMass Amherst, by far the region’s largest of roughly 20 colleges and universities grappling with how to welcome students back to campus this fall — or setting them up for online instruction, as the case may be. Or, in some cases, both.

“We heard loud and clear from our student body that, even if they’re taking courses remotely, they would really like to be on campus or around campus,” Chancellor Kumble Subbaswamy said during a recent conference call discussing the university’s fall plans.

In a nutshell, the vast majority of students will not be required to return to Amherst, with most courses offered remotely. But they may return — for residence-hall life and in-person instruction — if they’d like.

“Our communication will be very explicit about what the campus might look like and what our expectations are, and what we will hold all of our students responsible for,” he continued. “With all of that knowledge, if they still want to come to campus and live in campus housing, they’re most welcome to. And whether they come back to campus or not, we will really provide a rich and rewarding academic experience with not only remote courses but also advising and lots of peer-to-peer interactions and faculty-to-student interactions and so forth.”

In other words, Subbaswamy noted, “we’re prepared to serve our community to the best possible extent in terms of providing all the college experience can under these different circumstances because of the pandemic. That’s the bottom line.”

Bryan Gross says WNEU’s mission prioritizes on-campus education

Bryan Gross says WNEU’s mission prioritizes on-campus education, but the university is ready to pivot if the pandemic worsens.

That said, life in the residence halls will be altered to include pedestrian-flow guidelines, restrictions on group gatherings, and limited face-to-face contact. No guests will be allowed in residence halls, at least at first. Most student services will be offered remotely. The Recreation Center will be open — with limits and restrictions placed on activities.

In short, things have changed since COVID-19 arrived in Massachusetts. Leaders at the region’s higher-education institutions have been meeting since … well, pretty much since they sent students home in mid-March, to hash out what classrooms and the campus experience will look like come late August, when the fall semester begins for most.

“We need to make sure we’re providing them with some sense of security, and do everything that we can to make this experience one where they are able to continue their studies and get to graduation.”

None of the schools’ plans are exactly the same, with some emphasizing on-campus instruction, some — including most of the community colleges — opting for an online-heavy approach, and others landing somewhere in between, with students choosing between in-person, online, and hybrid programs (see box on page 19).

Western New England University, touting its ample space and small classes, has decided to conduct the vast majority of classes fully on-campus this fall, while a small number of courses will be delivered in a hybrid or online format.

“We keep coming back to discussions regarding our mission, which is to provide a highly personalized educational experience inside and outside class,” said Bryan Gross, vice president for Enrollment Management and Marketing. “For the faculty and staff working on this plan, any time we get stuck on details, we come back to that mission.”

Students will be required to wear a mask or face shield, practice social distancing, and maintain a high standard of hygiene. In addition, plexiglass barriers will be installed throughout campus, including classrooms. Most buildings will be one-directional to minimize hallway contact, buildings will be cleaned more frequently, and residence halls will be limited to single and double rooming options, among other measures.

Walter Breau

Walter Breau

“We learned a lot in the spring when we had to go online — we understand what we did well and what we can do better. If a second surge happens and everyone decides to move online, the Elms flex model allows that to happen.”

“We watch the news every day,” Gross told BusinessWest. “Things are constantly changing in terms of safety, and we have to follow state and federal regulations, but based on the information we currently have, we feel confident our plan is doable — that it meets our values and protects the health and safety of students. But if things change, we also have to be open and honest, and we are willing and able to change.”

That’s why WNEU, like many colleges and universities, has actually been planning for three different scenarios — most students on campus, online learning, and a hybrid of the two.

“The majority of our families are ready for their children to be on campus and have the campus experience,” he added, “They trust our Health Services and know, if it’s ever not safe to be here, we’re going to make the right decision in the best interest of our students.”

That’s the COVID-19 world colleges and universities must grapple with — with every day bringing changing news and more moving targets. As enrollment planning goes, it’s unprecedented, at least within living memory. And students aren’t the only ones who will be learning something.

Course Corrections

At Elms College, classes will be taught this fall in a hybrid, flexible model that gives students the option of attending sessions in the classroom, online, or both. Students can move between the options based on their personal preferences, while international and non-local students will be able to continue their coursework from afar.

“We know some students are high-risk or living with someone high-risk and don’t feel comfortable being in a classroom, but we also know students want an in-person experience,” said Walter Breau, vice president of Academic Affairs. “So they can choose when to be in the classroom.”

The usual mix of masks, distancing, and plexiglass will be in play, and on-campus students will be expected to monitor and record any COVID-like symptoms they might have. As is the case at other campuses welcoming students this fall, any positive symptoms must be reported to the Health Center for consultation, and the college will have a separate living space for any student in need of quarantine.

Fall 2020 Plans … for Now

Leaders at 20 area colleges and universities continue to discuss plans for how academic programs will be delivered fall. Those plans might change, and even schools planning on a mostly on-campus experience will likely offer some programs remotely. Here are the latest plans, grouped by categories that may not capture all the nuances of each plan; readers are encouraged to visit the schools’ specific websites for more information.

• All courses delivered online, but students have option of attending in person: UMass Amherst.

• All online, with students in some programs (such as healthcare and culinary arts) on campus part of the time: Asnuntuck Community College, Cambridge College, Greenfield Community College, Holyoke Community College, Springfield Technical Community College.

• Blend of on-campus, online, and hybrid instruction: Bay Path University, Berkshire Community College, Elms College, Mount Holyoke College, Springfield College, Westfield State University, Williams College. American International College is discussing this model as well.

• Blend of on-campus and online instruction with students on campus for either fall or spring: Amherst College, Smith College.

• Mostly on-campus instruction: Bard’s College at Simon’s Rock, Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, Hampshire College, Western New England University.

“Safety is our number-one priority,” Breau told BusinessWest. “We know students want to come back. How to keep them safe while doing that has been the prime goal of reopening. Our task force made sure safety was always number one on the list.”

To that end, students will need to review safety-training materials when they return to campus. “It’s going to be a team-based effort. It’s not just administrators, faculty, and staff, but students have to be a part of the process as well. We’ll certainly rely on them to help us stay safe.”

There’s a safety net built into the ‘HyFlex’ model as well, Breau noted, in that it wouldn’t be difficult to transfer all learning online if the region’s infection rates soar.

“We learned a lot in the spring when we had to go online — we understand what we did well and what we can do better. If a second surge happens and everyone decides to move online, the Elms flex model allows that to happen; it’s built into the syllabus and the way instructors plan the courses.”

American International College is also seriously considering a HyFlex model, and plans to announce its detailed fall strategy by the end of July, said Nicolle Cestero, chief of staff, senior vice president for Human Relations, and Title IX coordinator. She said a group of campus leaders has been meeting for several months and are doing all they can to give students an on-campus option.

With more than half of its undergraduate student body first-generation college students and more than 50% also Pell Grant-eligible — meaning they come from low-income families — AIC doesn’t want to add additional challenges to their lives, she noted.

“We need to make sure we’re providing them with some sense of security, and do everything that we can to make this experience one where they are able to continue their studies and get to graduation,” Cestero said, noting that the HyFlex option is an ideal model in that it allows students to access their education in a way that best serves their needs in this most difficult year.

Plus, there’s value in the on-campus experience that can’t be replicated remotely, she added. “Maybe your roommate becomes your best friend for life. Or you’re participating in a conversation that you never would have participated in — on race or gender or power and privilege, or whatever it is — and you don’t necessarily get to do that if you’re not on campus. You develop so much in these years — it’s your first time away from home, and you’re teaching yourself how to do things, how to manage your own time and finances, all that stuff.”

In a letter to the Springfield College family, President Mary-Beth Cooper detailed a blend of in-person, remote, and hybrid instruction, with all learning moving online after Thanksgiving. But she emphasized that new safety measures — from masks and distancing to a contact-tracing program and isolation spaces — are key to making the plan work.

“Successfully remaining on campus throughout the fall semester will depend on the degree to which we, as a community, work together to reduce the possibility of the virus appearing on campus and, if it does, responding quickly to limit its spread,” she explained.

Brandi Hephner LeBlanc, vice chancellor for Student Affairs at UMass Amherst, noted that the university will distribute a student agreement that details the testing and symptom self-monitoring they’re asked to do, as well as the need to carry hand sanitizer and face coverings when moving about, among other safety measures.

“We’re really asking them to be a responsible community member, first and foremost, and to be a part of the bystander intervention,” she said. “When you see someone without a mask, remind them.”

And if students don’t comply?

“There is going to be what I would term an escalation of intervention,” she explained. “We’ll have public-health ambassadors on campus that will help remind folks, and there will be a lot of communication to find out if there’s a problem. This is not going to be an immediate referral to the Conduct Office, unless it’s something so egregious that that’s necessary. But this is something that takes a lot of reminding to manage the behavior. And we’re prepared to do that.”

Catalog of Options

A few institutions across the region have emphasized the value of returning as much activity to campus as possible. Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts President James Birge cited recent survey data collected from 10,000 high-school and college students; 78% of respondents find the experience of in-class learning this fall appealing, while one-third would transfer out of their institution if the college shifted to online course delivery.

Nicolle Cestero

Nicolle Cestero says the value of the campus experience shouldn’t be minimized, but a hybrid flex model might be the smartest way to go this fall.

“We know the residential and in-person class experience is important to our students, students at state universities across the Commonwealth, and nationally,” Birge said, which is why MCLA is moving ahead with an ambitious on-campus approach. “Although returning to campus this fall presents some risk, we will work to make the campus experience as safe as possible for everyone. Of course, this means we will have to significantly shift our way of learning, teaching, and working.”

Other campuses, like Amherst College and Smith College, are looking at having roughly half the students on campus for the fall, to better achieve physical distancing, with the ones sent home for remote learning having on-campus priority for the spring.

“We know that any scenario short of bringing everyone to campus will be bitterly disappointing to those who will have to wait until the spring,” Amherst College President Biddy Martin wrote in a letter to students and families. “With this structure, we can provide the opportunity for every student who wishes to be on campus to spend at least one semester here and, if things go well, both semesters for a large number of those students.”

Meanwhile, Springfield Technical Community College is among a handful of area institutions — several community colleges among them — to continue with an online model this fall, though some programs in STCC’s School of Health and Patient Simulation will include low-density, on-campus labs adhering to social-distancing, PPE, and sanitizing protocols.

“STCC has no intention of becoming a fully online institution,” said Geraldine de Berly, vice president of Academic Affairs. “The pivot to online is driven by a health pandemic. COVID-19 has forced the college to adjust, and we do hope in the future to return to the robust utilization of campus facilities.”

In some instances, STCC will use synchronous teaching strategies, with students gathering at a specific time through videoconferencing. But most of the classes will be taught using an asynchronous approach, which gives students flexibility to set their own hours to complete their studies and assignments.

“Many of our students have childcare obligations, work commitments, and a host of other complicated circumstances,” President John Cook said. “We know that our students benefit from having flexibility in their classwork, and online is yet another way STCC lives its mission of ensuring access to higher education.”

Flexibility, in many ways, has become a key word in the region’s higher-education sector, which suddenly offers a wide array of learning models heading into perhaps the most unusual fall semester for American students in generations.

What these schools have in common is an emphasis on safety, and on making sure students know their own responsibilities in keeping COVID-19 infections low — and keeping the campus experience alive, in whatever curtailed form it might take.

WNEU’s Gross is confident it’s a message they will understand.

“You’re not doing it for yourself, but for other people. And that’s such a positive message we can send,” he told BusinessWest. “That’s why human beings are on this earth, to care for one another and take actions that help the community. We hope that value is something that’s embraced by our students. It’s an amazing opportunity to learn and grow and take actions to help others.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Women in Businesss

In the Right Mold

Pia Kumar

Pia Kumar, ‘chief strategy officer’ at Universal Plastics.

Back in mid-March, Pia Kumar recalls, at the height of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a good deal of absenteeism at the five plants within the Universal Plastics fold — maybe 40% by her estimate, a number that spoke volumes about the high levels of fear and anxiety within the workforce.

So Kumar, who co-owns the Universal family of businesses with her husband, Jay, and has the title ‘Chief Strategy Officer’ printed on her business card, did what she says comes naturally to her.

She got on the phone.

“I called every single employee that was not here and talked to them about their concerns,” she told BusinessWest, noting that this was maybe 200 people across the five facilities. “In some cases, I talked to their wives, their husbands, their children; I wanted to understand what we could do together as a business to make sure they could come back in and do the essential work we were doing.

“We make the diagnostic machines used to test for COVID, so we needed to come back in and get working, but we needed to keep people safe,” she went on. “There was a lot of uncertainty, and we needed to establish trust.”

The company earned it by taking painstaking steps to comply with work regulations put in place in four different states — everything from masks and face shields to social-distancing measures and temperature checks, with most ideas coming from employees. And in a matter of a few short weeks, absenteeism all but disappeared.

“It’s strange — in some ways, I feel more connected to people these days. I think it’s because there’s been so much uncertainty and so many questions. There’s so many things we don’t know; it’s almost as if it [the pandemic] has given us a way to come together closer and talk about things more openly.”

Kumar’s phone calls, and those subsequent actions taken by the company, provide some valuable insight into not only her management style — although it certainly does that — but also into her approach to business and her specific, and very broad, role with the company.

Indeed, while she’s certainly involved with strategy, as that business card would indicate, and she is involved in virtually every aspect of the business, she’s predominantly focused on people and their well-being. And that goes for the community, as well as the Universal ‘family.’

This is evidenced by something she calls ‘office hours.’ These are the twice-monthly Zoom meetings she conducts with employees at each plant to help them feel more connected at a time when traveling to those plants is far more difficult and, well, people need a connection.

And she’s finding that, while Zoom is certainly a different experience than the in-person office hours she had been conducting until the pandemic (more on those later), they’re in some ways more effective.

“It’s strange — in some ways, I feel more connected to people these days,” she noted. “I think it’s because there’s been so much uncertainty and so many questions. There’s so many things we don’t know; it’s almost as if it [the pandemic] has given us a way to come together closer and talk about things more openly.”

It’s also on display in a number of programs and initiatives she’s helped introduce at the company that are designed to help individuals overcome barriers to employment and success in the workplace — and in life itself.

“We have someone in our HR department whose whole job is to make sure that we make people successful outside of work, so that they can be successful at work.” she said of efforts to help employees with everything from attaining a driver’s license to securing day-care services.

Pia Kumar shows off some of the company’s new face shields

Pia Kumar shows off some of the company’s new face shields with ‘skirts,’ one of many new products it has developed in the wake of the pandemic.

As for her own efforts in the realm of work-life balance, she said, simply, “I work at it.”

By that, she meant that she finds time for work, family, and to be alone for a few moments each day, early in the morning — time she spends meditating and planning, for the most part.

“I need to get my planning done to feel prepared for my day,” she explained. “I do a 10-minute meditation, then I spend 30 minutes planning, and then I take my dog for a walk; it works for me.”

For this issue and its focus on women in business, we talked at length with Kumar about her work with her husband to grow and expand Universal. But mostly, the talk was about people and helping them handle all that work and life can throw at them — even a global pandemic.

Clear Intentions

As she talked with BusinessWest in the company’s recently opened corporate offices, located next door to the Holyoke plant on Whiting Farms Road, Kumar showed off a display of one of the latest additions to the company’s portfolio of products.

These are face shields — which the company started making a few months ago to help meet demand for personal protective equipment within the region — that feature what she called ‘skirts.’

Designed specifically for teachers, these customized products allow for open communication without muffling the voice or hiding expressions — things masks can’t do — while providing more protection than a common face shield.

“You can wear it all day — you’re fully covered, you’re fully sealed,” she said while demonstrating the product, noting there are several styles, including models invoking Halloween and Christmas, and another promoting breast-cancer awareness. Response has been good, she noted, and there are ongoing discussions about perhaps making such shields for children.

These PPE products are part of the company’s pivoting efforts during the pandemic, she explained — a way to assist the community and especially the healthcare and education sectors while also keeping employees working at a time when many traditional customers, including those in aerospace and medical-device manufacturing, have scaled back as a result of the pandemic.

And such efforts are among the current focal points for the Kumars, who acquired Universal Plastics roughly eight years ago — she dates the transaction to the birth of their first child — from long-time owner Joe Peters. Flashing back to that purchase, Pia said the couple, who met while they were both working in finance in New York after graduating from college, were looking for a challenge they could undertake together.

“We had always had this dream to someday own and run a small business together,” she said. “We just liked the idea of building something, we liked the idea of having autonomy, we liked the idea of taking something, growing it, and making it our life’s work.”

Pia Kumar, seen here reading to children at the Morgan School in Holyoke

Pia Kumar, seen here reading to children at the Morgan School in Holyoke as part of the company’s Link to Libraries sponsorship, says her discussions with employees have helped her understand the many barriers that people face when it comes to succeeding in the workplace.

And that’s exactly what has happened with Universal, a company launched by Joe Peters’ father in Chicopee and eventually moved to Holyoke.

Indeed, the Kumars have added four other companies over the past several years, with the goal of attracting different types of customers and doing more for them. Expansion efforts started with the acquisition of a competitor, Mayfield Plastics in Sutton (since renamed Universal), an operation similar to the one in Holyoke.

“We offer a product called custom thermoforming,” she said of the Holyoke facility. “It’s good for small volumes, but as some customers ramped up, we would lose those customers. Then we started thinking about how we could keep that customer for a longer life cycle, and we started looking at injection molders.”

This led to the acquisition of Sajar Plastics in Middlefield, Ohio in 2018, and the subsequent addition of a blow-molding facility in Pennsylvania that had a strong focus on medical-equipment manufacturing — steps that have greatly diversified the corporation and opened the door to new types of opportunities.

While Pia is certainly involved with all aspects of the company, especially short- and long-term strategy, she told BusinessWest that people are her main focus, and it’s a role she believes she’s well-suited for.

“I try to spend a lot of time with employees; it’s part of what my focus is with the company,” she explained. “I like to really get out there and talk to people and really understand what our people are saying and thinking, and what their fears are.”

She traditionally did this through those aforementioned office hours — the in-person variety, especially in Holyoke, where she would walk the floor every day and talk with people. With the other plants, she would make a point of getting out to each at least once a month.

But COVID-19 changed all that, as it has many other aspects of this business — from the products being made, like those face shields with skirts and plastic dividers for automobiles (similar to those found in cabs), to the precautions being taken to keep employees safe.

Shaping Core Values

What hasn’t changed, especially during these trying times, is the company’s — and especially Pia’s — efforts to help employees overcome those barriers she mentioned.

And there are many of them, she went on, adding that a good percentage of the company’s employees are single mothers, who faced a number of hurdles before the pandemic and now face even more. She came to understand these hurdles over time, she said, and it was a real learning experience.

“Before we came here, we lived in New York City, we worked in finance, we worked in venture capital,” Kumar explained. “We were doing things with a group of people who had a lot of opportunities; they went to certain schools and had the right types of jobs and the right kind of résumés. Coming here and working in manufacturing gave me an understanding of the barriers that people face that I never had.

“I was in many ways taking for granted things like childcare and transportation and having access to affordable education,” she went on. “These are really, really good people who want to come in every day and do a really good job, but these are real barriers that they face. It’s not a question of how motivated they are or how ambitious they are — there are just structural barriers that people face that I became attuned to when I talked to my employees.”

“We had always had this dream to someday own and run a small business together. We just liked the idea of building something, we liked the idea of having autonomy, we liked the idea of taking something, growing it, and making it our life’s work.”

This understanding of the issues has translated into policies regarding attendance and other matters that Kumar considers worker-friendly.

Elaborating, she said the company has explored such things as ride-sharing and on-site day care and have encountered significant barriers to success. What has worked, she noted, is talking with people to understand their specific situations, and then making accommodations when and where they are practical.

“Our single mothers are some of our best workers,” she told BusinessWest. “And understanding that and working with that population to make sure that they have the tools they need to be set up for success became personally important to me.”

It was through her work with employees to understand and then help remove barriers that led to her involvement with a number of area nonprofits and institutions.

That list includes Link to Libraries, the nonprofit that fills school library shelves and encourages reading by placing area community leaders in the classroom to read — Universal Plastics sponsors the Morgan School in Holyoke, which many of the company’s employees attended — as well as the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts, Bay Path University, and Springfield Technical Community College, which she serves as a foundation board member.

She’s become so enamored with STCC manufacturing graduates that she has a standing rule with her operations manager: “if someone comes to us from STCC, you have to give me a reason not to hire them, because they’re all people who have pulled themselves up by their bootstraps, and they just need an opportunity. And that’s the kind of company we are; that’s the kind of company we need to be. We need to be the kind of company that gives people a chance, and we need to do it over and over again.”

As for her own professional development, Kumar said she doesn’t have a coach, per se, although her husband might count as one. But she does read quite a bit on the subject.

Pia Kumar, seen here with coworkers at the company’s Holyoke plant

Pia Kumar, seen here with coworkers at the company’s Holyoke plant, says that, while she’s focused on all aspects of the business, connecting with employees and helping them address challenges has become her primary focus.

What she does have are mentors. She listed Susan Jaye Kaplan, founder of Link to Libraries, and Dianne Fuller Doherty, retired business owner and director of the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center’s Springfield office — both winners of BusinessWest’s Difference Makers award.

“I’m not afraid to ask for help; I’m not afraid to admit I don’t know something,” she said, adding that she believes good managers share these traits. “Feedback is a gift, and I firmly believe, if you don’t want to know the answer, then don’t ask the question. But if you ask the question, you need to be able to stomach the answer.”

When asked about how she approaches the broad assignment of achieving work-life balance, she said simply, “I work at it.”

“These are really, really good people who want to come in every day and do a really good job, but these are real barriers that they face. It’s not a question of how motivated they are or how ambitious they are — there are just structural barriers that people face that I became attuned to when I talked to my employees.”

“I spend a lot of time planning, I delegate a lot, and I am very comfortable with having a list of things I wanted to get to but didn’t at the end of the day,” she explained. “There are days when the company is the most important thing — when COVID first happened, we needed to make our employees safe. And then, there are other times when it’s more important that we’re there for our children. My mother is having surgery next week, so that will be the focus then.

“I feel very lucky that I have a supportive partner who helps me manage all these things,” she went on. “But we also have a really great team. We’re not the experts — we didn’t come in with a deep background in manufacturing, and that’s why we keep people from our acquired businesses. Our job is to take all the information and provide the right vision.”

Parts of the Whole

Summing up her approach to her broad role at Universal Plastics, Kumar said, “my biggest failure as a leader is when someone can’t tell me what they really think; if they can’t tell me what they really think, we have a problem.

“I encourage people debating and saying ‘no, this is how we should be doing it,’” she went on. “And when there is that open communication, there’s trust, and that allows me to do more, and the more we can grow as a business.”

Open communication. Trust. Helping employees overcome barriers. These are the keys to success at this company — and any company, said Kumar, stressing, again, that four-word phrase she used in connection with all these matters: ‘we work at it.’

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

Cover Story

Seizing the Moment

Vanessa Otero

Vanessa Otero, interim director of the Healing Racism Institute of Pioneer Valley.

Vanessa Otero said the phone started ringing just a day or two after George Floyd was killed on a street in Minneapolis and the world, and this region, began to react to what it saw — and felt.

On the other end of the line were those in leadership positions at area businesses, institutions, and nonprofits who wanted to know what the Healing Racism Institute of the Pioneer Valley (HRIPV), the 501(c)(3) Otero now serves as interim director, could do to help not only educate those at these companies and agencies about racism — something it’s been doing for several years now — but take the conversation to a different, much higher plane.

And then convert the talk into far-reaching action.

“Every day, we have two or three organizations reaching out, people who have been through our two-day session, saying, ‘can we talk about what more we can do — the what now?’” she said. “And we’ve initiated a process to add that ‘what now?’”

Elaborating, she noted that, in response to these inquiries, HRIPV — which has seen more than 800 area residents and business leaders attend its signature two-day sessions, where participants learn, grow, and process the effects of racism within individuals and the community as a whole — is committed to formalizing and institutionalizing an expanded roster of services that includes everything from onboarding training for new hires at area companies and agencies to full- and half-day training sessions for staffs and boards (more on all this later).

These phone calls — and HRIPV’s commitment — provide just some of the many forms of evidence that George Floyd’s death, more than any similar incident before it or since, has created a real opportunity — as much as all those we spoke with regretted the use of that term in this circumstance — to bring about real and lasting change when it comes to systemic racism and equal access to opportunity.

“We’ve just reached a tipping point,” said Ronn Johnson, president and CEO of Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services in Springfield, who is being honored by BusinessWest as one of its Difference Makers for 2020. “We’ve reached that point where we’ve really grabbed hold of something that has the potential to change social policies.”

Frank Robinson, vice president of Public Health at Baystate Health, who has been actively involved with the Healing Racism Institute since it was blueprinted by John Davis, a director of the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation and others after they were inspired by a similar initiative in Grand Rapids, Mich., agreed.

Ronn Johnson

Ronn Johnson stands near a mural depicting the names of dozens of victims of police brutality. The art has become an inspiration to many visitors.

He told BusinessWest that the George Floyd killing, coupled with the way in which the pandemic has further exposed racial inequalities, has created a compelling opportunity to create a dialogue about not just racism, but the systemic racism that exists in many corporations and institutions.

“I call COVID the great magnifier,” he noted. “The pandemic has created an opportunity, if you look at the glass as half-full, to visit problems that have been magnified by its presence. Someone talked about COVID as a magnifier, and then they talked about the ongoing structural problems it has revealed as the virus of 1619, the beginning of slavery.

“We’ve done a good job of getting folks to understand racism and perhaps their role in it,” he went on, referring to the HRIPV specifically. “Now is the time to deepen that conversation so we look at some of the structural and systemic issues that perpetuate the problem — and that’s a slightly different conversation than the ones we’ve been having.”

But while there is general optimism that the confluence of events in this unforgettable spring of 2020 will indeed change the landscape in profound ways, those we spoke with acknowledged there is much work to be done, and none of it is particularly easy. So much work, in fact, that some are feeling overwhelmed by the assignment confronting them.

The place to start, said Christina Royal, president of Holyoke Community College (HCC), is with each business, each institution, and each individual asking what they can do to address this issue in their own way.

“And if they’re already taking some actions, they need to ask what more they can do,” she said, adding that this is exactly what HCC is doing. It already has a number of programs and initiatives in place to help level what has historically been an unlevel playing field when it comes to access to opportunities for individuals of color, but Royal acknowledged that more needs to be done.

Mark Keroack, president and CEO of Baystate Health, expressed similar sentiments.

“Just in the past few months, it’s become clear that it’s not enough to travel the personal journey yourself and get your head and your heart in the right place,” he said. “You also need to be aware of the fact that all around us is this system that tends to favor white people. And then the question is — what are you going to do about it? And it’s not straightforward; there’s a lot of thinking and learning, and trying this and trying that.”

“We’ve just reached a tipping point. We’ve reached that point where we’ve really grabbed hold of something that has the potential to change social policies.”

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at how the events of the past several weeks have indeed created an important opportunity to address the large and complicated issue of racism in this country — and how to maximize that opportunity.

Changing the Conversation

Tracing the history of the HRIPV, Davis turned back the clock almost a decade, to a trip to Grand Rapids that was part of the City2City program that also took leaders of this region to Greensboro, N.C., Bethlehem, Pa., and Chattanooga, Tenn. During that visit to Michigan, while hearing about efforts to drive economic development, revitalize the central business district, and improve schools, participants also heard about a program within the local chamber of commerce called the Institute for Healing Racism.

A small group of those participants returned to Grand Rapids to experience the two-day Facing Racism program firsthand, and upon returning, they established the regional anti-racism workgroup to gauge interest in pursuing the development of a similar initiative in Western Mass., said Davis, noting that, with the Grand Rapids program as a model, the Healing Racism two-day program and curriculum was established.

“The minute I saw it, I said, ‘we’ve got to get this going in Springfield,” said Davis, noting that this wasn’t the first effort to create such a program in Greater Springfield — others had been attempted in the ’90s — but it was the first that gained enough traction to get off the ground. And it was clearly needed, he noted.

“It was something I could see in the community — there was a clear lack of understanding about racism; no one wanted to talk about it,” he told BusinessWest. “Everybody talked about it in their own little worlds, but the conversations I witnessed were not the conversations that were needed. If you did a survey of the white population and asked them how many were racist, 99% would say they weren’t racists. But if you did a survey of people of color and asked them if they lived in a racist society, they’d all say ‘yes.’ So there was a huge disconnect that I could see.”

Frank Robinson

Frank Robinson says the COVID-19 pandemic has magnified issues of racism and inequality and helped provide a real opportunity to take the conversation to a higher plane.

In an effort to address this disconnect, two-day sessions, again modeled on those in Grand Rapids, were created where participants did a good amount of listening to those of other races. And by listening, participants, which included police, business leaders, nonprofit leaders, a district attorney, members of the media, and other constituencies, learned that issues of racism and inequality were real in the Pioneer Valley.

The challenge, and the assignment, moving forward is to continue the dialogue, but also take this initiative to a higher plane, Otero said.

“We’d like to get to the point where, as in Grand Rapids, we’re embedded in organizations so that we can leave them with capacity to train and have these conversations in institutions so that they become anti-racist institutions,” said Otero, who took the helm of this agency just a few weeks ago and is still awaiting her business cards. “Because the antidote to out-and-out racism is ‘I’m anti-racist,’ which means you’re taking action to address this issue and you realize your privilege within that system and are taking action against it.”

Elaborating, she circled back to those phone calls and e-mails and inquiries about ‘what now’ when it comes to educating people about racism, broadening the conversation, and institutionalizing new policies and ways of doing things.

“Building on what’s already there, we’ve created a menu of services that we could work with organizations to implement,” Otero explained, “to ensure that anti-racism conversations continue to happen and grow, to the point where the organization itself can make the decision to be anti-racist, because that’s the key to institutionalizing this kind of work and this kind of thinking.”

“We’ve done a good job of getting folks to understand racism and perhaps their role in it. Now is the time to deepen that conversation so we look at some of the structural and systemic issues that perpetuate the problem — and that’s a slightly different conversation than the ones we’ve been having.”

This ‘what now’ has been in place for some time, she went on, but it hasn’t been effectively “activated.” To provide this deeper roster of services, the HRIPV will need an infrastructure, she said, as well as a large cadre of trainers and facilities. And this will likely require funding in the form of a capital campaign.

But the need is real, and the agency is committed to having these programs in place later this year, she told BusinessWest.

Moving Beyond Words

Johnson acknowledged that, in the wake of the Floyd killing, statements condemning police violence and systemic racism have come from all corners of society — CEOs of major corporations, athletes, political figures, prominent actors and musicians, nonprofit leaders, and ordinary citizens.

These statements are appreciated, and do have value, he told BusinessWest, but the emphasis now must be on moving beyond words and into the realm of action to recognize, understand, and address actions and policies that contribute to systemic racism and inequality.

And this is starting to happen on a number of levels, he and others noted, citing everything from NASCAR’s decision to ban the confederate flag at its events to the NFL acknowledging it was wrong to discourage its players from kneeling during the national anthem to protest racial inequality and police brutality, to new bills aimed at banning police use of chokeholds.

But if the region and the nation are to fully seize this moment in time, they say, every business, institution, and municipality has to take a truly deep dive on this matter and make a commitment to effect real change.

And those we talked with expressed optimism there is now the requisite amount of momentum to do just that. And it has been created by what many described as a perfect storm of conditions — the incidents involving George Floyd, Rayshard Brooks, and many others over the years; the racial inequalities exposed by the COVID-19 pandemic; and the fact that so many were home watching these events unfold. Despite incidents of violence and looting, those we spoke with believe the protests and marches, such as those in Springfield and other area communities, have created mostly positive energy and, in many respects, resolve not to let this opportunity be lost.

“I give credit to the young people for doing this — they’re carrying the passion,” Johnson said. “I was talking to a vice president at one of the local colleges; he’s talking about meeting with students who are not even on campus and may not return to campus, but are intent on finding out what this particular college is going to have to do to change in terms of some of the social conditions they’ve experienced.”

John Davis

John Davis, one of the founders of the Healing Racism Institute, says the agency was created to start a much-needed dialogue about race and racism.

Others we spoke with agreed, but acknowledged that progress can only come if the words in those statements and advertisements that so many businesses and institutions have generated in recent weeks are backed up with action and a lasting commitment to change.

“I would to say to my colleagues at other nonprofits … ‘look at your organizational structures — you’re serving largely Latino and African-American families, but your boards are almost all white,’” said Johnson, adding that, at many of these agencies, diversity exists at the lower levels of the employment spectrum, but not at the top. “They need to take a look at the leadership and make sure it reflects the composition of the folks they are servicing; that’s important for us to do.”

Even before the events of these past few weeks, many area businesses, institutions, and nonprofits were already looking inward — at policies, practices, and procedures — with an eye toward making them more anti-racist, to borrow Otero’s phrase.

And now, this confluence of circumstances is compelling some to look harder and deeper at what they’re doing (or not doing) and how.

At Baystate Health, Keroack said, the events of past several weeks have brought greater urgency to the discussion about the many forms of systemic racism, especially when it comes to public health.

“Here, as in so many communities across the country, communities of color are disadvantaged in some very fundamental ways when it comes to chronic disease burden — more asthma, more diabetes, more obesity, more hospitalizations for mental health, more maternal mortality, more infant mortality,” he explained. “And a shorter life span at birth; in some neighborhoods in Springfield, the average life span is 70, versus other neighborhoods where it’s 80, and suburban communities where it’s over 80. Your zip code really affects your health status in a very fundamental way.”

In response to this, Baystate is working with accountable-care organizations to address the health concerns of an assigned group of people — in this case, 40,000 people who receive care at inner-city health centers.

“But practicing medical care is not going to get where you need to be,” he went on. “You need to address the social determinants of health — housing, nutrition, transportation, legal aid, and public safety … and there’s a ton of work to be done.”

Meanwhile, the company is looking internally, at its practices and systems, with an eye toward creating greater diversity at all levels.

“We need to look at the systems that are in place, both in society and for me in this large organization, around hiring, advancement, and representation around the table of diverse voices,” he told BusinessWest. “We’ve worked very hard to build diversity on our board of trustees, but we still have a long way to go in terms of our leadership ranks.”

At the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission (PVPC), there has been action in the form of new policies and procedures when it comes to hiring and posting positions, said the agency’s executive director, Kim Robinson.

These included the formation of something called the Race, Equity, Inclusion, and Social Justice Committee, which was formed by employees at the agency last year to address such issues within the organization. It was spawned in part by a housing study undertaken by the PVPC that revealed a number of disparities and what she called a “segregated community” across the region.

Christina Royal

Holyoke Community College President Christina Royal says racism is “structural and systemic,” so Band-Aid solutions are not going to fix root-cause issues.

“From that time on, we’ve been talking more and more within our organization about the need to do a race and equity plan for a region,” she said. “We think this is work that would be very interesting to undertake with other groups committed to this kind of work and seeing equity, social justice, and economic opportunity.”

While exploring when and how such a study might be undertaken, the PVPC has looked inward and seen a need to change language in its handbook and adopt several new policies when it comes to hiring.

“We’re going to require race, equity, and diversity training for every single one of our employees,” Robinson said. “And we’ve been evaluating where we post jobs to see if there was any inherent bias in that. We’ve added some additional avenues because we want to make sure we’re getting the word out to lots and lots of people.”

Looking Ahead — with Hope

At Holyoke Community College, Royal said the school continues to address issues of race and equality through initiatives designed to remove barriers and help see students through to completion of what they’re working to achieve. And it does so with the understanding that the problems are real and require lasting solutions.

“Racism is structural, and it’s systemic, so a Band-Aid solution is not going to fix the root-cause issues,” she explained. “It does start with having a commitment and an obligation to speak out against hatred, intolerance, and prejudice so we can really work toward building a truly equitable society.

“I feel a lot of pain with what’s happening in the world, but I also feel there’s a purpose to it,” said Royal, who is biracial and acknowledged that, five years before she was born, it would have been illegal for her parents to marry. “I do feel a sense of urgency and responsibility to contribute toward making our world better and our Pioneer Valley region better.”

She said equity remains a huge issue at her school and within society in general, and thus HCC has made it a priority to level the playing field when possible.

“We know that there are achievement gaps between our white students and our students of color,” she noted. “And we have a responsibility and a commitment to do better in this regard.”

She started with a town-hall meeting on June 3 to create dialogue about what was playing out on the news, but acknowledged that the school’s commitment goes beyond conversation.

“It starts with speaking out, but it doesn’t end there,” she said. “Authenticity of commitment to these issues is very important because, as I said, a Band-Aid approach isn’t going to work.”

Surveying the landscape around him, including a new mural at Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services that memorializes victims of police aggression and the people who have come to see it and take a selfie in front of it, Ronn Johnson reiterated his belief — and his hope — that real change is possible and perhaps even imminent, and that he feels privileged to be part of all that’s happening.

“I’m proud to be alive at this particular point in time,” he told BusinessWest. “I just feel that we’re at a place where we’ve really turned a corner; we’ve hit that tipping point where we’ll be able to look back two or three years from now and say, ‘that moment was worth it.’”

He’s certainly not alone in that sentiment — or the knowledge that much has to happen for people to be able to utter those words.

A seminal moment has arrived, and an opportunity has presented itself. It’s now incumbent on the businesses, institutions, and residents of this region to seize this moment.

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

Coronavirus Cover Story

Shell-shocked Businesses Respond with Grit, Determination

The COVID-19 pandemic has rocked businesses large and small in virtually every sector of the economy. The individual stories vary somewhat, but there are several common themes — lost revenue streams, struggles to make payroll and pay the bills, and large amounts of uncertainty about what the future holds. But there are other commonalities as well, including a willingness, born of necessity, to respond to this crisis — the worst situation any of these business owners have faced — with determination, imagination, and the will to find a way to get to the ‘other side.’ For this issue, BusinessWest talked with 10 business owners about what has happened since the pandemic arrived with brutal force three incredibly long months ago, and how they’re battling back. These are their COVID stories.

Zasco Productions

Event company works to pivot, position itself for the long term

Jim White says business at Go Graphix is down considerably

Go Graphix

In a sign of the times, this company has pivoted into new products

Dr. Yolanda Lenzy

Lenzy Dermatology

Practice owner says many patients still wary of returning to her office

Liz Rosenberg

TheToy Box

Shop owner finds ways to share joy at a time when it’s badly needed

Teddy Bear Pools

During peak season, this area fixture is making up for lost weeks

Sarah Eustis

Main Street Hospitality

Hotel group continues to grow through an uncertain time

Lenny Underwood

Lenny Underwood

For this photographer and sock maker, the pandemic is a developing story

Doug Mercier, right, with brother and partner Chuck

Mercier Carpet

Pandemic poses challenges, opportunities for flooring company

Bernie Gelinas said his appointment book has been full

Cuts Plus

Salon owner says he missed the relationships the most

Eastside Grill’s new outdoor seating area

Eastside Grill

Restaurant owner says reopening will be exciting, but scary, too

Coronavirus Cover Story

Baby Steps

After more than two months of a widespread economic shutdown, Massachusetts is opening its economy again — sort of. The plan, announced by Gov. Charlie Baker on May 18, allows some businesses to open their doors under tight health restrictions, while others — including restaurants, spas, and most retail — have to wait longer to invite the public inside. What’s got businesses frustrated is not knowing exactly when their turn will come — and the financial impact they continue to endure every week they have to wait.

Massachusetts is the 15th-most populous state in the U.S., yet, the day Gov. Charlie Baker released his economic reopening report, it had reported the fourth-most total COVID-19 cases in the country.

So, the reopening was never going to be a free-for-all.

“We were all very aware that, no matter what we went forward with, there will be more infection and more deaths,” said Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle, one of 17 members of the governor’s Reopening Advisory Board. “While the public-health metrics are numbers, statistics, they’re also people — they’re your neighbors, maybe your mother or father.

“People want to open,” she told BusinessWest, “but they don’t want to put people at risk — themselves, their customers, their parents. The compassion is remarkable.”

That’s why it was no surprise that Massachusetts is reopening slowly and cautiously. Last week, manufacturing facilities, construction sites, and places of worship were allowed to return under strict guidelines (more on those later), and on May 25, the list will expand to offices (except in Boston) and labs; hair salons, pet grooming, and car washes; retail, with remote fulfillment and curbside pickup only; beaches, parks, drive-in movies, and some athletic fields and courts; fishing, hunting, and boating; and outdoor gardens, zoos, reserves, and public installations.

That covers what Baker is calling phase 1, with three more reopening phases to follow. Conspicuously not on the phase-1 list? Restaurants, spas, daycare centers, in-store retail … it’s a long list. And, for many business leaders, a frustrating one.

Nancy Creed

Nancy Creed says businesses in phase 1 got the clarity they were seeking, but those in phase 2 are still waiting.

“There’s certainly an appreciation for public health, but there also needs to be some common sense, and I think it’s very hard to explain why it’s OK for 200 people to be in line at Home Depot, but a small, downtown store can’t have two or three people in it,” Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Economic Development Council of Western Massachusetts, told BusinessWest.

“Certainly everyone has to be smart,” he added, “but I think there needs to be more common sense brought into the reopening. I appreciate where the governor is — the balancing act — and I think the reopening committee did a great job with outreach, but there needs to be clear guidance and some common sense.”

Others were less diplomatic.

“While protecting public health is important and something we all support, it defies logic to declare that the opening of barbershops and hair salons is safe, while claiming opening small retail businesses is not,” Jon Hurst, president of the Retailers Assoc. of Massachusetts, said in a statement.

“The same is true for the opening of churches and large office buildings,” he went on. “Having two or three people in a retail shop is every bit as safe, if not safer, than the allowable businesses in phase 1. The Baker administration has consistently picked winners and losers during this crisis, and it is disappointing to see that trend continue in the reopening plan.”

As president of the Springfield Regional Chamber, Nancy Creed has been in touch with her members for almost three months now on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. She, like Sullivan, understands the delicate balance the state is walking.

“When we were part of the presentation to the advisory board, the last thing I said to them was, ‘our businesses are struggling, but they are surviving this. What they can’t survive is for it to happen again.”

“Certain sectors thought they’d be in phase 1, so there’s always that frustration,” she told BusinessWest. “When we were part of the presentation to the advisory board, the last thing I said to them was, ‘our businesses are struggling, but they are surviving this. What they can’t survive is for it to happen again. So we need to be smart about it and make sure we’re doing everything we can so the reopening is successful, and this doesn’t happen again.’”

She knows that’s not easy for many small businesses to hear, particularly ones with no revenue stream at all during this time.

“This is different for everyone, but businesses are muddling through it, pivoting, doing the things they need to do for basic economic survival,” she added. “But if it happens again, I don’t think we’ll survive the second round.”

Hence, baby steps, and a multi-phase reopening that offers real hope for many sectors, but continues to draw no small amount of criticism as well.

Guidance — and Lack Thereof

According to Baker’s plan, each phase of the reopening will be guided by public-health data that will be continually monitored and used to determine advancement to future phases. The goal of a phased plan is to methodically allow businesses, services, and activities to resume, while avoiding a resurgence of COVID-19 that could overwhelm the state’s healthcare system and erase the progress made so far.

Each phase will last a minimum of three weeks and could last longer before moving to the next phase. If public-health data trends are negative, specific industries, regions, or even the entire Commonwealth may need to return to an earlier phase.

Nicole LaChapelle

Nicole LaChapelle

“When talking to businesses and different groups and unions, the question was always, ‘what are the barriers right now, what are your biggest challenges, but more importantly, what do you need to see happen in order for your industry to open, and what is the timeline for that to happen for you?’”

In addition, success in earlier phases will refine criteria for future phases, including travel, gathering sizes, as well as additional openings in retail, restaurants, lodging, arts, entertainment, fitness centers, museums, youth sports, and other activities.

“Going in, the goals were, how do we safely and slowly open the Massachusetts economy?” LaChapelle said. “And that is directly tied to public-health metrics. When talking to businesses and different groups and unions, the question was always, ‘what are the barriers right now, what are your biggest challenges, but more importantly, what do you need to see happen in order for your industry to open, and what is the timeline for that to happen for you?’”

It was helpful, she explained, to seek input from myriad sectors and businesses — those deemed essential and never forced to shutter; those that had to pivot, such as retailers boosting their online presence and manufacturers shifting to making masks and face shields; and businesses that have been effectively sidelined.

“The board, at no point, even at the beginning, was like, ‘let’s get this thing going and roll it out immediately,’” she added, noting that she understands the need for companies to start ramping back up. “They may be a little disappointed, but they’ve been very understanding. There’s some education we have to do, but nobody is really upside-down about it.”

In order to reopen, businesses must develop a written COVID-19 control plan outlining how its workplace will prevent the spread of the virus. They must also create and display posters and signs describing rules for maintaining social distancing, hygiene protocols, as well as cleaning and disinfecting.

“I think there needs to be an appreciation for restaurants and small Main Street businesses that are not going to be able to just comply with the state’s protocols immediately.”

Sullivan appreciates the attention to public-health concerns, but said it offers little comfort for businesses stuck in an as-yet-undefined phase 2 — or beyond. While the reopening plan gives clear guidance for businesses in phase 1, those in phase 2 don’t even get a target date they can work toward or a set of protocols they can begin to develop. And that lack of clarity has led to frustration.

“I do think many businesses, especially smaller businesses, were kind of expecting more things to open up,” he said. “I think there needs to be an appreciation for restaurants and small Main Street businesses that are not going to be able to just comply with the state’s protocols immediately. They’ll need to plan, order some equipment, and spend some time reorganizing their business, because it’s going to be different than it was pre-COVID. And it’s not something they can do overnight. Many businesses are just looking at lead time — they want to open sooner than later, but they want lead time so they can be ready to go.”

Creed agreed.

“I think what businesses wanted, at least in the beginning, was some clarity about the guidelines, about the timelines, about the standards, about the checklists, all those things, so they can create their own plan — and that was achieved, at least for phase 1,” she explained. “But I am hearing the phase-2 people saying, ‘well, I wanted to be able to plan, but I don’t have enough guidance right now,’ so there’s some frustration.”

The Massachusetts Restaurant Assoc. said as much in a statement following the plan’s release.

“Obviously, every restaurateur is disappointed with the lack of a defined reopening date in today’s announcement,” it noted. “Massachusetts restaurants need their suppliers to have time to restock perishable inventory before it can be delivered to them. They need to notify employees about returning to work and conduct other due diligence to ensure restaurants can open effectively.”

Safety and Numbers

Across Massachusetts, the reopening plan sparked a spectrum of reactions, all acknowledging the competing health and economic interests in play, but expressing different levels of understanding and frustration — and often both.

“We realize that every employer in Massachusetts would love to hear that they can reopen immediately. But we also acknowledge that a phased reopening balances the need to restart the economy with the need to manage a public-health crisis that continues to claim 100 lives a day in Massachusetts,” John Regan, president and CEO of the Associated Industries of Massachusetts, noted in a statement.

Even as some businesses start to reopen and others plan to do so, the state Department of Public Health updated its stay-at-home advisory, replacing it with a new “Safer at Home” advisory, which instructs everyone to stay home unless they are headed to a newly opened facility or activity. It also advises those over age 65 and those with underlying health conditions to stay home, with the exception of trips required for healthcare, groceries, or that are otherwise absolutely necessary. All residents must continue to wear a face covering in public when social distancing is not possible, and individuals are advised to wash their hands frequently and be vigilant in monitoring for symptoms. Restrictions on gatherings of more than 10 people remain in effect.

The state also encourages working from home when possible, and Baker’s office released a list of 54 large companies — employing about 150,000 workers among them — that have issued statements extending work-from-home policies for the remainder of the spring, with numerous reporting intentions to extend into the summer and, in some cases, for the remainder of 2020.

“As MassMutual develops our plan to gradually return to the office, the health and safety of our employees is our top priority,” said Roger Crandall, chairman, president, and CEO of MassMutual, noting that his employees will return to the office no sooner than the beginning of September.

“We expect to come back in a slow, phased manner,” he added. “We will continue to monitor and reassess and will be factoring in a number of considerations — from federal, state, and local government and health officials’ guidance to a sustained reduction in cases in our operating locations, to broader available testing and our employees’ personal circumstances and comfort.”

Patrick Sullivan, Massachusetts President of People’s United Bank, is also promoting continued work from home where possible.

“People’s United Bank is assessing re-entry conditions and protocols to ensure the safety of our team members and our customers,” he said. “Our approach will balance the needs of employees with the needs of the business. As we have been successful in pivoting and adjusting to working from home, we will continue to encourage this behavior.”

Still, those are businesses that can at least operate in most aspects. Retail stores can’t so easily adjust — and have been devastated by the inability to invite shoppers into their stores.

“We are incredibly disappointed with how Governor Baker has treated retail businesses throughout the health and economic crisis. Massachusetts has been one of the most hostile states in the nation toward small retailers.”

“We are incredibly disappointed with how Governor Baker has treated retail businesses throughout the health and economic crisis. Massachusetts has been one of the most hostile states in the nation toward small retailers,” said Hurst, noting that Massachusetts stores are losing Memorial Day weekend at a time when other states have let them open up shop by now. “Retail businesses are ready and able to open safely now with a limited number of people in stores and for appointment shopping. By not allowing that until late June, many small, Main Street businesses will close forever.”

That’s not hyperbole for small businesses of many kinds. Matt Haskins, who operates the popular Matt’s Barber Shop in Amherst, said a recent grant from the Downtown Amherst Foundation has helped him stay afloat at a time when he doesn’t know when college business will return.

“Just five minutes before [receiving word of the grant], I was on a phone call discussing if Matt’s Barber Shop was going to make it or break it,” he told foundation officials. “The grant helps me think we’re going to make it.”

So will being able to open his doors again on May 25. And that’s all most business owners want right now — a target. Creed hears that, but at the same time, she’s encouraged by recent chamber polling suggesting the percentage of business owners who feel they’ll survive this crisis is rising.

“What that says to me is people are finding a way to make sure it doesn’t put them out of business,” she said, “which shows the resilience of the businesses we have here.”

Yes, they have resilience, in spades. Now, they want clarity — and some hard dates.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Class of 2020 Cover Story

40 Under Forty Class of 2020

‘The class of 2020.’

That phrase will forever have special meaning at colleges, high schools, and even grammar schools across this country. Indeed, 2020 has been a different year in every way imaginable.

And the same is true of BusinessWest’s 40 Under Forty class of rising stars. When the JUDGES received their six-inch-thick packets of nominations — which detailed the credentials of more than 200 candidates — in February, COVID-19 hadn’t yet arrived in Western Mass. By the time the scores were tabulated and the winners were sent their letters of congratulations, the world had changed in a profound way.

These changes are reflected in this special edition of BusinessWest, and also in the scheduling of the gala to celebrate this year’s class. Traditionally slated for late June, it is now scheduled to be held Oct. 8 with location TBD.

As for this section, the biggest difference is the photographs. In past years, they were taken in the studio of photographer Leah Martin. With social-distancing guidelines in place and non-essential businesses (like photo studios) closed, that wasn’t possible.

So we improvised. Many members of the class of 2020 took their own photos, while Martin took to the road and photographed several honorees on their front porches and in their backyards — from a safe distance. Collectively, these photos speak not only to how different these times are, but to how people have used their imaginations and creativity to cope.

Overall, while the class of 2020 has had, and will continue to have, a different experience than those who preceded it, it is like those other classes in how it reflects the high levels of young talent now emerging in this region. And it paints an impressive picture of leadership for decades to come.

Let’s salute the class of 2020!

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2020 Exclusive Media Sponsor

Coronavirus Cover Story

Hard Lessons

Vacant Elms College Campus

‘Extraordinary.’ That’s how one area college president described the massive shift to online learning that colleges and universities nationwide were forced to undertake back in March. And he’s right. But these are extraordinary times — and beyond the questions about when students can safety return to campus, and concerns about declining enrollment and revenues going forward, are a series of equally extraordinary conversations about what higher education might look like on the other side of the COVID-19 crisis, and why.

Back in March, when colleges and universities everywhere began sending students home, the obvious question was, ‘when will they come back?’

That’s still the question — or, more accurately, one of many, many pressing questions.

Here’s another one: when students do eventually come back, how many will not? At a time when enrollment is already declining nationally, mainly due to smaller high-school graduating classes, some trade groups, like the American Council on Education, are predicting a national enrollment drop of 15% this fall, higher for international students.

“On one hand, it could be anxiety about students returning to the campus environment or students wanting to take a pause and see how things are going,” said Harry Dumay president of Elms College. “Then, their financial circumstances might make it difficult for them — although, with the stimulus funds, we are working with families to help them with those concerns.”

Dumay said Elms leaders are preparing for all contingencies when it comes to how and where summer and fall classes will be delivered, though it seems likely that at least the initial summer sessions, starting in May, will have to be remote.

“Every one of us is looking at potential loss in revenue. Obviously, if the parents lost jobs, or if students lost jobs, will they be able to afford to go back?”

“What’s less certain is what will happen in the fall. A number of factors go into making this decision, beginning, of course, with when it’s safe for our students, safe for our employees and faculty, and safe for the general public,” he noted, adding that Elms leadership constantly tracks the guidelines it receives from the Massachusetts Department of Public Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and will not reopen the campus if doing so would provide an opportunity for the pandemic to spike, even if the curve is starting to flatten now.

Working in Elms’ favor, he noted, is the fact that it draws mainly from the Greater Springfield region, and in this current environment, graduating high-school seniors, whether in 2020 or 2021, and their families might prefer to choose a college closer to home.

“Those are discussions seniors and their parents are making around the kitchen table,” Dumay said. “We are certainly working with all of those students who have been admitted to Elms, trying to answer their questions so they can continue to pursue their dreams in a safe manner, and guide them in making those critical decisions in this critical time.”

From its perspective, Elms — and all colleges, for that matter — is making contingency plans of its own if enrollment does come in lower than the target.

“We’ll have a plan-A budget, a plan-B budget, and a plan-C budget. But Elms is on solid financial footing. We’re not wealthy — we don’t have a large endowment — but the institution is financially healthy, and we can withstand some shock in enrollment.”

Carol Leary, who is stepping down in June after 25 years as president of Bay Path University, certainly didn’t expect to spend her final weeks communicating with her staff remotely.

“Every one of us is looking at potential loss in revenue,” Leary said of … well, virtually all colleges and universities. “Obviously, if the parents lost jobs, or if students lost jobs, will they be able to afford to go back?”

With that in mind, she said, “everyone is doing their business-continuity planning and deciding what to do if there’s a decrease in enrollment for the fall. It’s on the table for most institutions, and certainly, at Bay Path, we’re talking about it. But we’re very well-placed in some ways; we usually use 4% or less of our endowment on operating costs. Obviously, when enrollment goes down, it will hit schools harder that rely more heavily on their endowment for the operating budget. I’m not sure that’s going to be an issue here.”

That said, Bay Path may freeze hiring and not fill open positions that aren’t absolutely essential, Leary said, while curtailing travel in the short term as well. “Every institution is looking at how the budget is crafted and may have to make some tough decisions — maybe even some furloughs and layoffs in the future.”

At the same time, she added, most institutions will have to start looking at themselves through a different lens — a topic she recently wrote about in an article marking 25 years in the president’s chair. Specifically, how can higher education, with its ever-spiraling costs, better reach and serve the majority of Americans, including those in lower income strata?

“I think the model and the cost are definitely areas that will change in the future, and the COVID crisis has forced all of us to look internally at how to begin to address those two issues,” she said.

With that, she raised perhaps the most intriguing question of all — how will higher education look when it emerges on the other side of the pandemic, and students do return to campus? Because most in this critical industry — and all four area presidents BusinessWest spoke with for this story — don’t believe it’s going to be status quo.

Digital Dilemma

Before considering those questions, John Cook took a moment to appreciate what a momentous challenge it has been for an entire nation’s higher-education system to go online with very little preparation.

John Cook says STCC is modeling fall enrollment

John Cook says STCC is modeling fall enrollment forecasts and developing budget options that consider all contingencies.

“It’s been extraordinary for higher education, and certainly at STCC, to make such a comprehensive change,” said Cook, president of Springfield Technical Community College. He explained that the college, like most others in Western Mass., was fortunate to be able to leverage spring break to transition to distance learning.

Christina Royal, president of Holyoke Community College (HCC), said it was a challenge to help 4,500 students, many of whom had never experienced online learning, to become familiar with all the technology, software, and scheduling. At the same time, many students were losing their jobs — for example, in restaurants and hospitality — and exacerbating issues of food and housing insecurity among lower-income students.

“That creates a lot of extra stress with students — ‘I’m losing my job and trying to figure out how to take classes online.’ We’ve had to spend a lot of time helping students through that,” she said, adding that HCC has hooked students up with Chromebooks and other equipment as needed. “I’ve done several town-hall meetings with faculty and staff, and meetings with students, to answer their questions and validate their feelings and acknowledge the uncertainty they’re feeling.”

Dumay was similarly thankful for the spring-break cushion that gave professors extra time to adapt their courses to the online environment.

“That creates a lot of extra stress with students — ‘I’m losing my job and trying to figure out how to take classes online.’ We’ve had to spend a lot of time helping students through that.”

“The faculty were amazing, and they turned it around,” he said. “The courses are being delivered in different ways — some are using live Zoom sessions, some are using asynchronous Zoom sessions, and some used narrated PowerPoint delivery that students can access on their own time.”

Elms recently reached out to all students to poll them on how classes were going, and 30% responded, Dumay said. Of those, the vast majority said they had what they needed to continue their learning online, while about 2.5% reported difficulty with Internet access. In response, Elms is keeping its library open for that reason — with social-distancing measures in place, of course.

“More than 86% feel confident being successful in the online environment; some students said this is a lot more work,” Dumay said, conceding that in-person learning is preferable in most cases, and for myriad reasons. “Elms is a lot more than being academically successful. Part of the value proposition for Elms College is its small, very intimate environment that emphasizes growth of the whole person — the spiritual component, the psychosocial component.”

Trying to replicate that online is difficult, Dumay said, but the college is doing what it can to build an online community where students can connect with each other and access the campus resources they need.

Perhaps no institution in the region was more prepared for the online transition than Bay Path, which has been offering its graduate programs almost entirely online since 2006, and its undergraduate American Women’s College is totally online as well. Leary feels like that’s a path forward to help all students afford an education.

“There will always be people who can afford institutions like Harvard and Princeton and Yale, but the majority of Americans can’t afford that type of education,” she said. “That’s why we’ve created a very low-cost model in the American Women’s College, putting together a well-crafted curriculum and a model that supports students, so very few will fall through the cracks.”

For now, she added, the percentage of classes that will continue online is up in the air.

“Most of us are thinking that summer school will be online, and then then we start looking at the fall. Even if social distancing is lifted, we don’t know what the impact on the college will be — on the residence halls, the classrooms, the dining rooms. As we look to the fall, we’ll be prepared to open, and we’ll also be prepared to go online. We have to be nimble.”

Profit and Loss

Leaders of the 15 community colleges in Massachusetts have kept in touch about when they might open campuses up, and even then, under what kind of social-distancing parameters, Royal said. As for summer programs, HCC’s first session has already been moved fully online, but because a handful of second-session classes will be more difficult to deliver remotely, that decision is in limbo — not to mention what will happen in the fall.

Christina Royal says many students are dealing

Christina Royal says many students are dealing with not just a shift to online classes, but job loss and food and housing insecurity.

“It’s hard to say definitively what the situation will be in September or October,” she told BusinessWest. “What I’m trying to do is position us so that, whatever the situation, we can pivot on very short notice, and respond even faster than we did this time around, because all the parameters are in place to do so.”

Cook said STCC is currently modeling enrollment projections and working with trustees on a budget that takes into consideration a possible enrollment hit. He noted, however, that community colleges in Massachusetts tend to do well during economic downturns.

Royal noted that trend as well. “We run counter-cyclical to the economy. When the economy starts to go down, people start thinking, ‘what do I need to retool myself, and how can I prepare for a career change?’ — and our enrollment goes up.”

She noted the trend becomes noticeable about 12 months after a recession begins, and, indeed, 2010 — the height of the Great Recession, which began in late 2008 — was HCC’s most recent enrollment peak; as the economy has improved, enrollment has steadily declined.

The question, both she and Cook said, is whether the same rules apply in the current environment, which is not a slow-building recession, but a full-stop economic shutdown that could, in turn, lead to an extended economic lull.

“When you think of recessions we’ve had in the past, we built toward them, but this is so sudden, with high numbers of people filing for unemployment,” Royal said. “It’s very unexpected, and we’re not sure how it’s going to play out.”

One wild card in the mix is what she called the “emotional recovery” from what’s happening now. “People have been jarred to their core; they’re concerned about their own safety and concerned about engaging in the world.”

That said, HCC was already planning for a 5% enrollment reduction this fall — largely due to demographic trends — but is now thinking in terms of 10%. “We have to plan for that contingency, and we have to deliver a balanced budget to the trustees. So that’s what we’re looking at.”

“When you think of recessions we’ve had in the past, we built toward them, but this is so sudden, with high numbers of people filing for unemployment. It’s very unexpected, and we’re not sure how it’s going to play out.”

If enrollment does decline by 15% nationally, that represents a $23 billion revenue loss for colleges — money that will be only partly offset by government relief funds. For example, more than 80 colleges and universities in Massachusetts will collectively receive more than $270 million as part of a federal relief package intended to help schools and students during the pandemic. UMass Amherst tops that list with an estimated $18.3 million in aid. Nationally, the Higher Education Relief Fund allocated $12.5 billion to 5,125 colleges and universities.

Collectively, the 15 community colleges in Massachusetts will receive $48.8 million in aid — certainly a help, but not enough to ease enrollment concerns going forward. Cook agreed with Royal that community colleges shouldn’t assume the sort of enrollment bump they usually see during recessions, even though they offer a more affordable model than private, residential colleges.

“This isn’t like any economic downturn the nation has ever experienced in the past, even the Great Recession,” he said. “Because of the public-health impact on people’s lives, it’s hard to assume enrollment will be up in the near future. People are dealing with so much else in their lives, they’re not able to turn their attention to education and workforce development.”

Future Shock

If there’s a positive lesson from the pandemic to bring into the future, Royal said, it’s the massive potential of technology to streamline education and make it more affordable and accessible.

“What’s happening now isn’t online learning; it’s emergency remote learning. I don’t want people to think that someone having to pivot and put together course materials with one or two weeks notice to deliver for the second half of the semester is the bar of online learning,” said Royal, who has a Ph.D. in instructional design and spent years heading up distance learning for a large community college in Ohio.

“I think of the potential for more innovative learning designs, highly interactive simulation labs augmented in virtual reality — those are more sophisticated than what we see in online courses now,” she added. “I believe the promise of online learning will be realized someday, but that’s going to require more inclusion and investment and professional development to really expose our educators to the possibilities.”

Some good can come out of every crisis, Leary said, citing in particular the rise of telemedicine, which will likely get a permanent boost from the COVID-19 crisis, as well as companies learning the value of remote work, lower emissions generating cleaner air in cities right now, and, yes, a greater focus on how to not only teach students remotely, but do it better.

Another takeaway, Royal said, might be a new focus on process improvement that extends well beyond remote learning. “If something takes six steps but we’ve learned how to do it in three, why are we going back to six? So, when we open our doors again, we’ll be looking at how we can streamline processes — and how to offer more virtual services in general.”

She’s not speaking about classes here; rather, it’s the routine business of paying bills, getting forms signed, and other administrative functions. “They might want to do that remotely, at 8 in the evening, at their computer, while they’re thinking about it. So, I see a lot of room for process improvement and streamlining student services overall.”

STCC is also learning it can offer value through streamlining its admissions, enrollment, and financial-aid operations online, “to make it more seamless for our students to work through the experience of getting into college and staying with the college,” Cook said — even while continuing to promote the face-to-face value of its campus advising center.

Meanwhile, through the online transition, “we’ve learned that we can move pretty quickly,” Cook said. “Sometimes higher education gets painted as slow to respond, slow to adapt, but we’ve demonstrated that we can move quickly and with a degree of grace when we need to.”

Dumay said lessons learned from the COVID-19 shutdown might change college life in America in ways both good and bad. On the positive side, while online learning can’t replicate the important interpersonal development built by campus life, going online has demonstrated there is a bigger place than college leaders might have imagined for remote programs.

“This will alleviate a lot of the fears people have about the efficacy of online learning. They’ll realize they can do it where it works, so we can have a lot more learning in the online environment,” he said. “But that doesn’t mean education will move completely online. The residential experience is a rite of passage for the growth of a lot of American youth. It would be a loss if we didn’t return to that at some point in the future.”

More worrisome, Dumay said, is the potential this crisis has to shut down many schools completely.

“It may be that some don’t make it and close their doors,” he said, noting that the most vulnerable colleges include many that serve lower-income, first-generation students, often students of color. “If higher education became less accessible, that would be an unfortunate casualty of this pandemic.”

Grade: Incomplete

The presidents who spoke with BusinessWest had a lot to say — much, much more than could fit in this story — but, while their comments were insightful, they were in many cases less than definitive. After all, it’s hard to speak definitively about a pandemic — and an economic shutdown — that offer no sure timeline.

“Within our student body and our employees, people are really hoping for clarity — that’s the element in short supply right now,” Cook said. “As we continue to work with these health guidelines, as we flatten the curve and pay attention to social distancing, when and how will that allow us to get back to some version of where our value lies — leveraging on-campus resources like labs and simulation?

“No one knows when we’ll get back to leveraging those resources,” he added, “but there’s still a lot of hope around that — and worry, because those are incredible resources for our students.”

In short, it’s impossible to deliver all the value a college offers over a computer screen, from miles away. In the meantime, everyone is learning valuable lessons — which is, after all, the point of higher education.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus Cover Story

On the Home Front

On one hand, it’s good to be working — many people during the COVID-19 crisis have lost their jobs. However, those who continue to clock in every day, only from home, often face challenges they never had to contend with before, from balancing work with their kids’ education to the anxiety and loneliness that can accompany a lack of face-to-face contact. But that’s today’s new normal, and no one can predict for sure when people might start heading back to the office.

As the office manager at Architecture EL in East Longmeadow, Allison Lapierre-Houle has plenty to do, but enough time to do it. Usually.

“I handle all the administrative tasks — anything HR-related, financial-related, pretty much everything outside what the architects do,” she said, adding that she’s never had to work outside her set hours — until recently.

“Now, I’ve been working on weekends a little bit, at night a little bit, because I have to take constant breaks in between for homeschooling, and all of the distractions that come with running a house and doing my job at the same time.”

Like so many others right now, Lapierre-Houle is still doing that job, only she’s doing it from home — as a single mother of a first-grader and a third-grader, ages 6 and 9.

While the school provides a remote learning plan that students are expected to follow, and daily assignments to complete every day using Chromebooks and Google software — as well as Zoom meetings with classmates — children that young aren’t exactly self-directed, she noted.

“If they were in high school, it would be completely different. In first grade, she literally just learned to read, and now she’s expected to go on the Chromebook and complete assignments. So I do lot of side-by-side work with the kids, while also trying to manage the eight employees for the company, who are all working remotely as well. That’s been the biggest challenge.”

Allison Lapierre-Houle to balance working at home

It’s challenging for Allison Lapierre-Houle to balance working at home with two young kids — but at least they can help take a photo for BusinessWest.

David Griffin Jr., vice president of the Dowd Insurance Agencies in Holyoke, is able to split the child-tending duties with his wife, who works for Travelers in Hartford. They’re both home these days, juggling their jobs and home responsibilities as parents of two young ones, ages 2 and 3.

“We’re making the most of it,” Griffin said. “She has a more set schedule than me. Obviously, I have clients calling me, and I can’t plan when the client calls me with questions I have to go through. I get as much done as I can in the morning and late at night, and answer calls and help customers throughout the day. Right now is their greatest time of need, so I have to make myself available and be there for them to lend an ear and give some advice.”

Jim Martin knows that feeling — of working from home at a time when customers have more pressing needs than perhaps ever before. As a partner at Robinson Donovan specializing in corporate law and commercial real estate, he’s been working with clients on their submissions for the Paycheck Protection Program, deciphering the regulations and grappling with an ongoing series of often-confounding changes to them. “My clients need straightforward legal advice on what needs to be included,” he told BusinessWest.

“I do lot of side-by-side work with the kids, while also trying to manage the eight employees for the company, who are all working remotely as well. That’s been the biggest challenge.”

He’s providing that advice — and much more — largely from home, as the firm’s Springfield office is maintaining the core minimum of personnel needed to connect everyone else during a trying time.

“We were well-prepared for this; we had anticipated this may be necessary, so we had a network in place that allowed people to remotely access their desktops from home,” he explained. We got everyone equipped, so when someone comes in with mail, it’s scanned and distributed to every lawyer and the support staff. And we have remote dictation, so I can dictate right to my adminstrative assistant from home. We feel we were pretty well-prepared to make the transition to working remotely.”

While Martin doesn’t have children at home, he empathizes with those who do, as day cares are closed and people generally can’t come by to babysit.

He does, however, sometimes have to vie for the landline with his wife, a clinical doctor of psychology who continues to see patients, who are dealing with all sorts of issues, from depression to anxiety to domestic violence, all of which can be exacerbated by the current health and economic crises.

“People who need therapy, they need it more now,” he said. “She fortunately has access to certified confidential means of communication, video communication and things, but sometimes it’s over the phone if folks don’t have technology. So, I’m in one room, she’s in another, and sometimes it’s stressful in the house.”

Workers from most sectors are dealing with the same situation — doing their part to keep their companies afloat while often keeping a household together. But they’re recognizing something else as well — a general patience and understanding among those they deal with, and a recognition that we’re all in this together, even as people grow more anxious to get back to their old routines.

Alone Time

Before COVID-19, Seth Kaye, a Chicopee-based photographer, would get up each morning and go to his office to work and have meetings with clients.

“For me, that’s the biggest difference right now, just not being around people at all,” he said. “I would routinely have coffee breaks or lunch with friends and colleagues; that’s how meetings would be done, face to face. Right now, everything’s over Zoom, which has been fantastic, but nothing face to face.”

Seth Kaye

Seth Kaye is among many professionals who miss face-to-face interaction with clients.

He brought his entire workstation home, so he’s able to stay in contact with clients and even book new work.

“In terms of contracts, there’s nothing for me to photograph right now, as the commercial events have all been canceled for the foreseeable future. Weddings are the lion’s share of what I do, and people are postponing those to later this year or 2021. But business is still going on. People are still getting engaged. I’m still booking new couples to 2021. The world hasn’t stopped, and people are still planning for the future. That gives me an enormous amount of optimism.”

And also a chance to pivot to other business needs, Kaye added. “I’m trying to take the to work on my marketing and work on personal projects and try new things.”

Griffin said the team at Dowd is pivoting in other ways. “We have five offices and 47 employees, and we’ve been able to get everyone up and running from home; we’re still at full capacity. Of course, the insurance industry is considered an essential business.

“Everyone wants to make this work, but it’s been tricky to say the least,” he added, noting that technology has been a huge help. Because the company uses an internet-based telephone system, everyone was able to take their phones home and plug them into their computers.

“Our receptionist is working from home, and she answers live and transfers the calls,” he said. “And most of the staff have two computer screens in the office, and they brought one of the screens home. So it’s funny — if you go into the office and see all the desks with nothing on them, it looks like we’ve been robbed, but that’s not the case.”

Lawyers are as busy as insurance agents these days, and Martin is a good example, whether it’s helping small businesses with federal stimulus programs or assisting companies scrambling to prepare for all contingencies during the pandemic.

“I spent some time over the last two weeks dealing with transfer ownership issues between shareholders and and/or partners, so if people own a company, either shares or in a partnership, they are now feeling it’s important to establish and confirm in writing how the shares will be transferred … and what the conditions are,” he explained.

Meanwhile, employment laywers are dealing with unemployment and leave issues, while real-estate attorneys grapple with pending projects held up by wholesale postponements of meetings with planning and zoning officials, and estate planners see an uptick in business from families getting their affairs in order (see story on page 24).

The list goes on — and most of the work is being done remotely.

“It is a challenge, if you haven’t worked from home before,” Martin said. “I know some people work from home regularly, but for those of us who haven’t, it’s a big adjustment period. At least it is for me.”

It certainly has been for Lapierre-Houle, and also her kids.

“I definitely find myself, especially in the evening, saying to them, ‘it’s a school night,’” she said. “For them, it doesn’t feel like a school night. They think they can get up whenever they want and stay up as late as they want, but I’m trying to keep us on schedule — they get up like for school, and I sign on to work at 8.”

Convincing students to treat these days like regular school days is undoubtedly something parents of older kids grapple with as well. And kids of all ages are likely tiring of the social isolation.

“They can’t see their friends except behind a computer screen … that’s a significant emotional challenge because they don’t understand the social aspect. But they still have to learn and do their schoolwork,” Lapierre-Houle noted, adding that the warmer weather gives a reprieve in that they can go outside — but also provides an additional distraction because they want to be outside, rather than inside doing schoolwork.

She does appreciate her boss, company president Kevin Rothschild-Shea, who, she says, has always emphasized work-life balance, which has made this transition a little easier for employees. “He’s always been very flexible with families or children, but there’s still pressure to get work done, not to mention all the distractions at home.”

New Routine

Clients have been equally understanding of the current situation, Griffin said. “They’re not giving us a hard time — ‘I need this in two hours.’ Again, turnaround times are out the window, and people have been very accommodating and very understanding of that.”

On a personal level, he does miss meeting clients in person. “There’s nothing like going out and seeing clients face to face and talking with them, trying to see what their energy level is, how business is going … I do miss that. I’ll be excited to get that aspect of things back because it is missed. Now we have to make do with what we have, and everyone is in the same boat together — it’s not like we’re at a competitive disadvantage because of it.”

“It’s funny — if you go into the office and see all the desks with nothing on them, it looks like we’ve been robbed, but that’s not the case.”

Kaye told BusinessWest that’s been a challenge for him as well.

“I would see people regularly, just in passing or at the coffee shop — the day-to-day stuff we take for granted, now that we’re not able to have that routine. The routine now is different,” he said. “Hopefully, it’s a temporary new normal, but that human contact is gone right now.

“I’m taking the quarantine thing seriously, aside from pharmacy drives and having people put food into the trunk of my car when I order it from local farms,” he added. “I haven’t had any face-to-face contact in about three weeks. Some of my friends are doing the same. Some of our parents are not, which is interesting. But the social aspect being gone is definitely challenging.”

As the virus has still not peaked, the next couple weeks will bring more of the same, and though people he talks to are starting to go a bit stir crazy, they’re adapting as best they can, Kaye said.

“The people I’ve been speaking with, whether it’s clients not sure what their plans are going to be for 2020 or talking about postponements, they’ve been really nice about it. They have their needs as business owners, and I have my needs and concerns, and so far everyone has been really great.”

That first coffee-shop meeting will still be pretty satisfying, though — whenever that might be.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Coronavirus Cover Story

Experts Stress Everything from Communication to Listening to Millennials

Ross Giombetti acknowledged that it’s never easy to be a leader.

But it’s certainly much easier when times are good and the decisions are not that difficult. It’s when times are stressful and uncertain — and those two adjectives clearly and effectively define what it has happening locally, regionally, nationally, and globally due to COVID-19 — that leaders have to earn their pay and be … leaders.

“What’s that phrase — a rising tide lifts all boats,” said Giombetti, president of Wilbraham-based Giombetti Associates, a consulting firm that specializes in helping individuals, teams, and businesses reach maximum potential. “When everything’s going right, it’s easy to act the right way and manage the right way. The real test for a leader is how they act, behave, handle themselves, and make decisions in times of pressure, stress, or crisis.”

So, how does one lead effectively in such times? We talked with Giombetti and two others who would be considered experts on leadership — Jim Young, a Northampton-based coach, consultant, and founder of the Centered Coach, and Anne Weiss, a Longmeadow-based coach and consultant who specializes in everything from executive and team coaching to transition and succession planning. Suffice to say they had a lot to share on this subject. Here are some of their collective thoughts and words of advice on providing effective leadership in these unprecedented times:

• Be compassionate. “First and foremost, people need to be compassionate and understanding,” said Giombetti. “They need to listen to people and understand how all this is impacting them. And then be responsive. But first, you have to be compassionate, you have to be understanding, and you have to listen.”

Weiss agreed. “Listen to what people are having to deal with,” she said. “You don’t know what people are having to cope with — it might be their finances, it might be their kids, especially if school is closed. Leaders should have listening lessons where they say, ‘tell me what you’re dealing with, so I know.’”

• Be flexible. “You have to be flexible in times of stress and pressure,” Weiss noted. “In situations like the one we’re facing now, if you’re not flexible with your approach and mentality, that would probably make the situation with those around you far worse.”

• Gain the input of others. “Leaders need to open things up,” Young said. “They should say, ‘we’re in this together; I’m going to take the lead because that’s my role. But I’m also open to hearing what ideas you have.’ The strength of the organization as a whole is greater than the leader.”

• Be emotionally honest. “Leaders are looked to for answers at times like this,” Young continued. “And especially in this situation, there are no easy answers. It can an alluring trap to fall into — ‘I need to be in command, and I need to come up with answers and be in control’ — but they need the vulnerability of saying, ‘this is unprecedented. I don’t know what the answers are here, but I’m going to be here to work with you and take care of you, and I want to know what’s going on with you.’”

• But make the tough decisions. “Once you’ve heard people out and been compassionate with your ears by listening and showing that you really care, then it’s the leader’s responsibility to take bold action,” Giombetti said. “He or she has to make the tough decision. It may be unpopular, it might be one that gets ridiculed, but a real leader doesn’t worry about getting flak or being ridiculed, because they’re going to get it regardless of what they do. So you must have broad shoulders.

“If you worry too much, if you panic, if you’re indecisive, if you’re not committed to taking bold action,” he went on, “I think that’s when things can get far worse.”

• Maintain morale. “You keep morale up by acknowledging the leadership and what they’re having to deal with,” said Weiss. “You recognize the hard work people are doing, and you thank them for what they’re doing in these difficult times. Talk to people and show that you appreciate them.”

• Slow it down. “This is counterintuitive, but in situations like this, the best leaders will slow things down a little bit,” noted Young. “They’ll take an extra moment to assess what their plan is going to be and how they’re going to communicate that. Rushing with answers in a complex situation like this can create more damage because you might have to walk things back.

• Create a balance between thought and action. “A majority of us tend to react to situations of stress and pressure emotionally — it’s how our brains work,” Giombetti said. “We’re wired to react emotionally to most difficult situations. What leaders have to fall back on in times like this is, before they react or make a decision or even say something, just think through it; spend some time and think through it. Most people jump too quick to action, and most of it is based on emotion.”

• Show your emotions, but try not to panic or overreact. “Leaders have to balance being responsive, being compassionate, and caring about doing the right thing, and remaining calm,” Giombetti went on. “If you’re a leader and you panic and you show it, as kids do with their parents, your people will feed off that.”

• Listen to young people. “Generally, they’re not as stuck in their ways as many older people are,” noted Weiss. “They see opportunities and ways of doing things that we might not see.”

• Look for new opportunities. “Instead of looking at this as doomsday, leaders should be thinking about where there might be opportunities,” said Young, who is doing this himself. Indeed, he traditionally presents programs in front of large audiences, something he won’t be able to do for the foreseeable future. In response, he’s looking to present more programming virtually.

“There’s always light waiting on the other side of the dark,” he went on. “Sometimes, what’s required in these moments when the lights have seemingly gone out is an attitude of ‘what can we discover? What can we do differently?’

Weiss agreed, noting that many restaurants in the Boston area — and they are among the hardest-hit by the crisis — are responding by creating new takeout and delivery services.

• Finally, take care of your health. “Leaders have to be available to address what’s happening,” said Weiss. “So, while watching out for everyone else, they need to take care of their own health.”

 

Coronavirus Cover Story Features Special Coverage

Life in Limbo

It was becoming clear weeks ago that the novel coronavirus would have some sort of economic impact once it washed ashore in the U.S. — but it’s still not clear, and perhaps won’t be for some time, how severe and wide-ranging the damage could be, as people cancel travel plans, curtail business operations, shut down college campuses, and take any number of other actions to stay safe. It’s a fast-moving story, and one that’s only beginning.

The first confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus had barely shown up in the U.S. when some of Bob Nakosteen’s students in an online graduate economics course started dropping the course because they were dealing with a more immediate issue: supply-chain interruptions in their own companies.

“These companies have supply chains that stretch into China, and, well … the word ‘disruptive’ doesn’t even capture it,” Nakosteen said. “Those chains have been completely severed. These people are absolutely in crisis mode.

“A situation like this interacts with the ethic of lean production,” he went on. “People keep limited inventories — and that’s great as long as there’s a supply chain that’s frictionless and reliable. As soon as you get a disruption in the supply chain, which could happen because of a strike, because of a virus, for any number of reasons, there’s no inventory buffer. It doesn’t cause delayed difficulty to the firm; it causes an immediate one. And that’s what you’ve got now.”

Editor’s Note:

The coronavirus pandemic is impacting this region and its business community in ways that are far-reaching and unprecedented. Visit COVID-19 News & Updates  and opt into BusinessWest Daily News to stay informed with daily updates.

More than a week has passed since we spoke with Nakosteen — a professor and chair of the Department of Operations and Information Management at Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst — for this story, meaning another week for the supply-chain situation for manufacturers and other companies to deteriorate.

In fact, when it comes to the economic impact of the virus that causes the respiratory illness known as COVID-19, now officially a pandemic, virtually everything has only gotten worse.

“We have to assume everything will be affected. Airlines are experiencing reduced demand, cancelling hundreds and thousands of flights,” he said, noting that reduced tourism will hit numerous sectors, from hotels and restaurants to ground transportation and convention halls, that rely on travelers.

“How many firms are curtailing business travel? The NCAA now plans to play playing games with empty stands,” he went on, a decision that became official soon after — not to mention the NBA suspending its season outright. “What happens to the people who provide parking and concessions? Now multiply that over hundreds or thousands of events that are scheduled to take place over the next couple of months. It’s going to have an economic effect.”

UMass Amherst

UMass Amherst is one of several area colleges and universities that are sending students home and will conduct remote classes only for the time being.

Nakosteen’s own campus is certainly feeling that impact. The day before BusinessWest went to press, the five campuses in the UMass system suspended in-person instruction and will transition to online course delivery, at least through early April and perhaps beyond. That followed a similar move by Amherst College, whose president, Carolyn Martin, told students the college was taking to heart the announcement by Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, that the U.S. is past the point of totally containing COVID-19. Other area colleges have since followed suit, or are considering their options.

“While there continue to be no reported cases of the virus on our campus, we need to focus on mitigating its possible effects,” she said, using language that will no doubt be similar to the statements other colleges, in Massachusetts and across the U.S., are currently preparing. “We know that many people will travel widely during spring break, no matter how hard we try to discourage it. The risk of having hundreds of people return from their travels to the campus is too great. The best time to act in ways that slow the spread of the virus is now.”

While all travel is slowing — for example, the governors of Massachusetts and Connecticut have both curtailed out-of-state business travel by government employees, and President Trump issued a European travel ban — Don Anderson, owner of the Cruise Store in East Longmeadow, has seen vacation travel take a major hit.

“We’re a society where, when you’re growing up, you eat your meal, and then you get your dessert. Now we have a situation where people are not having their dessert — their vacation,” he told BusinessWest. “Imagine kids not going to the islands or not going to a park, to the annual parade, not going anywhere. We are a society that works our butts off, we put in overtime, so we can have our time off. To have a year with no time off, that’s not who we are. As Americans, we want our vacation, we want our escape, so we can recharge and come back and work our butts off again.”

But they’re increasingly calling off those vacations, even though Fauci told reporters last week that cruise ships, with all the precautions they’re taking (more on that later), are safe for healthy young people.

“These companies have supply chains that stretch into China, and, well … the word ‘disruptive’ doesn’t even capture it. Those chains have been completely severed. These people are absolutely in crisis mode.”

“The bottom line is, we are unintentionally punishing ourselves by not having an escape. A good portion of our customers are going on trips, but many are not,” Anderson said, adding that he expects the industry to recover after the crisis is over. “That’s what we’re all hoping. Otherwise, it’s a dire situation for the industry and even more so for the economies that travel impacts directly and indirectly, including the United States.”

For now, though, businesses of all kinds are in a sort of limbo, bearing the initial brunt of an economic storm spreading as quickly as coronavirus itself — no one really sure how severe it will get, and when it will turn around.

Sobering Education

Many companies, from small outfits with a few employees to regional giants, are grappling with similar questions about what to do if the virus threatens their workforce. On that upper end, size-wise, is MassMutual in Springfield, which has certainly talked strategy in recent days.

“MassMutual is taking appropriate action to protect the health of our employees, their families, and our community and assure the continuity of our business operations,” Laura Crisco, head of Media Relations and Strategic Communications, told BusinessWest. “This includes limiting non-essential domestic and international business travel and ensuring employees are prepared to work remotely, including proactively testing work-from-home capabilities.”

In the meantime, MassMutual is limiting non-essential guests at its offices, enhancing cleaning protocols at its facilities, and limiting large-scale meetings, she added. “We are continuously monitoring this evolving situation, reassessing our approach, and staying in close communication with our employees.”

Most importantly, Crisco said, anyone who is sick is encouraged to stay home, and the company is also communicating basic guidance on how to prevent the spread of germs, such as thorough hand washing, using hand sanitizer, covering coughs and sneezes, avoiding close contact with people who are sick, avoiding touching faces with unwashed hands, and frequently cleaning and disinfecting touched objects and surfaces.

Kevin Day, president of Florence Bank, told BusinessWest the institution has disaster plans in place for a host of circumstances, from epidemics to natural disasters, and has developed strategies for meeting basic customer needs in case staffing is reduced.

Bob Nakosteen

“As soon as you get a disruption in the supply chain, which could happen because of a strike, because of a virus, for any number of reasons, there’s no inventory buffer. It doesn’t cause delayed difficulty to the firm; it causes an immediate one.”

“We just checked with all our managers and asked, ‘are we comfortable that everyone is cross-trained enough, so that, if your area was out, we could function?’ Pretty much everyone said, ‘yes, we have the plans right here, we know exactly what we’d do.’

He understands, however, that no one can anticipate the extent of the crisis quite yet.

“It’s not like we haven’t seen challenges in the past. Whatever challenge is presented, we’ve just got to get the right people in the building together and think about how to continue to do what we do, which is open the door and serve the customers. We have those things in place,” Day said. “As it ramps up, and all of a sudden your employees start coming down with it, the escalation would get much greater, and you might have to take more draconian steps.”

‘Draconian’ might be a word some people used when they first heard about the college shutdowns, but there’s a logic behind that move.

“While at this time there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 on our campus or in the surrounding community, we are taking these steps as a precautionary measure to protect the health and well-being of our students, faculty, and staff,” Kumble Subbaswamy, chancellor of UMass Amherst, said in a statement to students. “By reducing population density on campus, we will enable the social distancing that will mitigate the spread of the virus. There is presently no evidence that our campus is unsafe, but our transition to remote learning is intended to create a safer environment for all — for the students who return home and the faculty and staff who remain.”

He conceded that the move is a massive disruption for students and families, but said the university is committed to helping those with the greatest needs on an individual basis. Meanwhile, the Provost’s office is working with the deans to identify laboratory, studio, and capstone courses where face-to-face instruction is essential, and students in these courses will be notified whether they can return to campus after spring break.

At the same time, Martin said Amherst College will consider making exceptions for students who say it’s impossible to find another place to stay.

“It saddens us to be taking these measures,” she added. “It will be hard to give up, even temporarily, the close colloquy and individual attention that defines Amherst College, but our faculty and staff will make this change rewarding in its own way, and we will have acted in one another’s best interests.”

Elementary-, middle- and high schools may close as well, after Gov. Charlie Baker, as part of his emergency declaration last week, freed school districts from mandatory-days rules, so that they have the flexibility to make decisions on temporary closures due to coronavirus.

Specifically, the longest any school district will be required to go is its already-scheduled 185th day. No schools will be required to be in session after June 30. Schools may also disregard all attendance data for the remainder of the school year.

Reaction or Overreaction?

While some economic impacts may be inevitable, Anderson questioned whether some businesses are being hurt more than others based on, in his case, media spin that has focused on a couple of recent outbreaks on cruise ships.

“Honestly, I’m more concerned walking into the supermarket — that tomato I’m grabbing or fresh produce I’m purchasing, I don’t know how many people before me have touched it. I don’t know who’s touching the elevator button. I don’t know who entered their pin number on the debit/credit-card reader. Even when we voted, everyone who used the polling booth shared the same pens,” he said, adding quickly that election officials in East Longmeadow, where he is a Town Council member, did occasionally wipe down the voting surfaces and pens, as did other communities.

“What we do know is there’s been well over 20,000 deaths of American citizens from the flu this season alone, but I’m not seeing large, front-page stories about that,” Anderson noted. “Why aren’t there long lines out of the local CVS or Walgreens to get the flu vaccine?”

Dr. Robert Roose

Dr. Robert Roose

“We are regularly in touch with the state Department of Health as well as monitoring guidance from the Centers for Disease Control. That’s important to ensure all of our activities are aligned with the latest data and resources.”

The key, he said, is a balanced and measured response — and for people to use healthy practices all the time. As one example, he noted the hand-washing stations at the entrance of all restaurants on cruise ships. While at least two cruise lines have temporarily suspended voyages, those still operating strictly follow those protocols.

“You have dedicated crew reminding everyone and watching so you wash your hands before going in,” he said. “It’s not something you see in stateside restaurants. But on cruise ships, you have to wash your hands. These washing stations were a consequence years ago of the norovirus impacting a small number of cruise-ship passengers. As a result, the incidences onboard ships has lowered.”

Meanwhile, U.S. Travel Assoc. President and CEO Roger Dow worried about bold moves like barring European travel. “Temporarily shutting off travel from Europe is going to exacerbate the already-heavy impact of coronavirus on the travel industry and the 15.7 million Americans whose jobs depend on travel,” Dow said in a statement.

While many businesses struggle with the economic impact of the novel coronavirus and the anxiety it’s causing among Americans, others see it as a chance to expand their services.

For example, the Springfield-based law firm Bulkley Richardson launched a COVID-19 response team last week comprised of attorneys in the areas of business, finance, employment, schools, healthcare, and cybersecurity. Understanding that each business will be affected differently, the firm noted that taking proactive measures may help minimize the risk of business interruptions, and the COVID-19 response team has developed — and posted on its website — a catalog of issues to be considered by each business owner or manager.

Meanwhile, Associated Industries of Massachusetts published an expansive guide to employment-law issues that might arise due to the virus, dealing with everything from quarantines and temporary shutdowns to remote work and employee privacy issues. That guide is available at aimnet.org/blog/the-employers-guide-to-covid-19. John Gannon, a partner with Skoler, Abbott & Presser, also answers some relevant questions in this issue.

Righting the ship if COVID-19 sparks an actual recession could be difficult, for a number of reasons, writes Annie Lowrey, who covers economic policy for the Atlantic. She notes several reasons why a coronavirus recession could be difficult to reverse in the short term, including its uncertainty, demand and supply shocks at the same time (that supply-chain issue again), political polarization in the U.S., the global nature of COVID-19, and the fact that monetary policy is near exhaustion, as the Federal Reserve has already cut rates to near-historic lows, leaving little room to maneuver in the coming months

“They really don’t have much space to cut,” Nakosteen added. “Normally when the economy runs into trouble, the Federal Reserve runs in to the rescue. The problem now is we don’t have much room to rescue.”

He also cited the psychological factor that can quickly turn economic anxiety into something worse. “People say, ‘oh my God,’ they start drawing in their tentacles, and that’s when you have a recession.”

Lives in the Balance

None of this is to suggest that the economic impacts of COVID-19 outweigh the human ones. This is, foremost, a health crisis, one the healthcare community, particularly hospitals, are bracing for.

“We have an emergency preparedness committee, but those policies are sort of general,” said Dr. Joanne Levin, medical director of Infection Prevention at Cooley Dickinson Hospital. “We’ve had a lot of incidents in the past decade — we’ve prepared for Ebola, measles, H1N1, a lot of things. But each epidemic is different in how it’s transmitted and what to watch for. With each epidemic, we have to go through the emergency preparation plan and figure things out.”

Dr. Robert Roose, chief medical officer at Mercy Medical Center, echoed that idea. “We have a standard infection-control committee and a plan that we would activate whenever we have a surge of infectious-disease patients,” he told BusinessWest. “This particular situation is rapidly evolving. We are regularly in touch with the state Department of Health as well as monitoring guidance from the Centers for Disease Control. That’s important to ensure all of our activities are aligned with the latest data and resources.”

Meanwhile, the state Department of Public Health (DPH) continues to offer guidance to the public at www.mass.gov/2019coronavirus. It’s also urging older adults and those with health issues to avoid large crowds and events, while individuals who live in households with vulnerable people, like elderly parents, should also consider avoiding crowds. The DPH is also issuing guidance to long-term-care facilities, where sick visitors could endanger dozens of people very quickly.

Still, coronavirus is also an economic story, one with a plot that’s only beginning to take shape. It also may be a long story, with no end in sight.

“We’re in a position where we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, but we can speculate on what parts of the economy are going to be affected,” Nakosteen said. “We’re all watching it play out without a whole lot of idea how it will play out.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Meetings & Conventions

Nothing but Net

John Doleva, left, and Eugene Cassidy say Hooplandia could have a huge economic impact on the Greater Springfield region.

One observer referred to Hoopfest, the giant 3-on-3 basketball tournament in Spokane, Wash., as a ‘phenomenon,’ and the adjective fits. The event consumes 40 blocks in the downtown and literally takes over the city each June. Inspired, a group of organizers are looking to do something similar — although Springfield won’t be taken over — in just four months. The event is called Hooplandia, and it’s already being hailed as a slam dunk for the region.

Mark Rivers called it “an a-ha moment.’ Then he quickly amended the phrase in a poignant manner.

“It was an ‘aha/duh!’ moment.”

He was referring to his visit last summer to the giant 3-on-3 basketball tournament in downtown Spokane, Wash., called Hoopfest. And by giant, we mean giant. Indeed, it is billed as the largest event of its kind in the world, and no one doubts that claim. It annually draws more than 7,000 teams, or 28,000 participants (four people to a team on average), and total visitation for the tournament, staged the final weekend in June, approaches 200,000‚ which is roughly the city’s population.

While taking in Hoopfest and marveling at its size and the manner in which it has become synonymous with Spokane, Rivers, an event promoter by trade who has developed strong ties to both the Basketball Hall of Fame and the Big E, had that aforementioned ‘moment,’ during which he concluded that this event, or something like it, would be an even more natural fit in the birthplace of basketball.

“I was thinking, ‘why isn’t there an event like this in Springfield?’”

“I was thinking, ‘why isn’t there an event like this in Springfield?’” he recalled, adding that not only is the city home to the Hall of Fame, it’s located in the heavily populated Northeast, whereas Spokane is in decidedly rural Central Washington.

“It just seemed to make a whole lot of sense,” he went on, adding that what also made sense was to stage the event in the wide-open spaces of the Big E, which has all the needed infrastructure, and also at the Hall of Fame and its Center Court, which would be a special place to play games and act as a magnet for teams around the world.

Fast-forward eight months or so, and Hooplandia, the name chosen for this event, is moving on a fast train toward its June 26-28 debut. Such speed is attainable because of the partners involved — especially the Big E, where most of the games will be staged, and the Hall of Game, which is, indeed, proving to be a strong selling point.

Mark Rivers, seen here at a recent press event announcing Hooplandia, says the gathering has the potential to be a legacy event for the region.

“I’ve already had inquiries from teams in Russia, Belgium, Slovakia, Latvia, Poland, and Brazil,” Rivers explained. “I don’t know if we’ll get teams from all those countries, but we’ve had inquiries — a lot of these teams have expressed an interest in playing in the hometown of basketball and increasing their profile with games in the U.S.”

The goals for this first edition of Hooplandia — and specifically the one for participation (2,500 teams) — are ambitious, said Eugene Cassidy, president and CEO of the Big E, but they are also attainable — and sustainable.

“I firmly believe that, first year out of the box, we can be the second-largest 3-on-3 in the country,” said Cassidy, who experienced Hoopfest while visiting Spokane for a fair-association meeting a few years ago and had the same reaction as Rivers. “And my goal is to supersede Spokane within three to five years.”

Even if the first-year goals are met, or even approached, then Hooplandia could well wind up being one of the biggest single events (the 16-day Big E aside, obviously) the region has seen.

That becomes apparent in the projections for overall economic impact, a formula with a number of factors, including hotel stays, restaurant meals, rental cars, and many others, that Mary Kay Wydra, executive director of the Greater Springfield Convention and Visitors Bureau, describes this way:

“It’s an industry standard, and we use it for all our conventions. We populate different data fields, like the average daily rate they’ll pay, how many people are coming, how many rooms they’ll be utilizing … we put that into the calculator, and it spits out a number for us.”

However the number is derived, for this first edition of Hooplandia, the projected total is roughly $7.3 million. For some perspective, the recently staged Red Sox Winter Weekend, which brought a host of star players, past and present, fans from across the broad Red Sox nation, and a horde of media, was projected to bring in $2 million (the final numbers are still being tabulated). Meanwhile, the AHL All-Star Classic weekend, staged just over a year ago, brought in $2.8 million, according to Wydra, and the much-publicized square-dancing convention in 2015 that brought 4,000 people to Springfield for eight days brought in $2.3 million.

“I firmly believe that, first year out of the box, we can be the second-largest 3-on-3 in the country. And my goal is to supersede Spokane within three to five years.”

“This is certainly about basketball, but it’s also about economic development and tourism,” said John Doleva, president and CEO of the Hall of Fame. “It’s about filling hotel rooms and having people come to the Hall and the Seuss museum and the Armory and local restaurants … this is a multi-day event, and people will stay for the duration and perhaps longer.”

For this issue and its focus on meetings and conventions, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Hooplandia, what it can become, and what it might mean to the region.

Court of Opinion

Rivers calls it “getting the plane off the ground.”

That’s an industry phrase of sorts for launching an event of this magnitude. It’s never easy, he said, but with Hooplandia, there are a number of factors contributing to make it somewhat easier.

Especially the ability to stage this huge event at the Big E, a place — and a business — that’s well-versed in hosting large events, everything from the fair itself to a wide range of shows and competitions that fill the calendar.

To help explain, Rivers first referenced Hoopfest, which, essentially takes over downtown Spokane for three days, shutting down roughly 40 blocks in the heart of the city, a logistically difficult and expensive undertaking.

“Typically, when an event like this comes together, you do have a hard time getting the plane off the ground because your first expenses are renting port-a-potties, tents and road barricades, permits, shutting down streets, and doing all those things,” he went on. “You won’t have to do any of those at the fairgrounds, so it just seemed like a natural fit.”

Indeed, the majority of Hooplandia’s thousands of individual games will take place on the roads within the Big E’s 39 acres, although some will be played in its historic Coliseum, said Cassidy, adding that there is infrastructure in place to effectively handle the teams, spectators, media, and anyone else who descends on the area.

“We can handle large numbers of people; we have the capacity to host huge events — it’s what we do,” he said, adding that he has always viewed the Big E as an economic driver for the region — again, not just with the annual fair but all the events staged there — and Hooplandia provides another opportunity to build upon that role.

At the same time, the event provides an opportunity to further leverage basketball for the benefit of the region’s economy.

“It occurred to me that basketball should be an economic growth industry for Springfield,” he noted. “Hooplandia can help drive attendance to the Hall, drive awareness, and build the brand of basketball in the city where it was invented.”

Planning continues for the event, which, as noted earlier, has the ambitious goal of attracting 2,500 teams. And these teams will cover a broad spectrum, said all those we spoke with, adding that this will differentiate this tourney and festival from some others like it and add to its already strong drawing power.

Mark Rivers says the Big E’s vast spaces and deep infrastructure will help ‘get the plane off the ground’ when it comes to Hooplandia.

Indeed, there will be divisions for youths, high-school and college players, professionals, first responders, veterans, military, wheelchair, Special Olympics, and more, said Rivers.

There will also be an under-8, or U8, division, for which entrance fees will be waived in honor of the late Kobe Bryant, the former NBA superstar who died in a recent helicopter crash (and wore number 8 in his playing days).

In addition to the hoop tournaments, a number of other activities are on the agenda, many to take place the Friday night before the playing starts in the Coliseum, said Doleva. These include slam dunk, 3-point shot, free throw, full-court shot, dribble course, and vertical jump competitions.

To date, several partners have signed on, including Chevrolet, the first national-level sponsor, as well as USA Basketball, Springfield College, and Boys & Girls Clubs, which Hooplandia has designated as its charitable partner, offering financial support and playing opportunities for boys and girls in the region. For more information, visit www.hooplandia.com.

Overall, in the opinion of those now planning it, this is the right event at the right time, and the right city (or region), and we’ll address each of those in turn.

Actually, the first two go together. The event is 3-on-3 basketball, and the timing could not be better, because the sport — already described as the largest urban team sport in the world in one study — is enjoying a surge in popularity, said Doleva, with new leagues such as Big3, a league founded by Ice Cube featuring mostly former NBA stars.

And it will almost certainly enjoy another growth spurt after the Summer Olympics in Tokyo, where 3-on-3 basketball will make its debut as an Olympic sport.

“3-on-3 has become sort of the hot segment of the sport, and for a bunch of reasons,” said Rivers. “The Olympics is part of it, but beyond that, 3-on-3 makes the sport more accessible because you only need six players, and you only need half a court; it’s particularly hot in Europe, and many of the best teams come from former Soviet Bloc countries — that’s where a lot of the great ball is being played.”

As for the place, as Rivers and others noted, Springfield, and in this case Greater Springfield (the Big E is across the river), is a natural location.

Not only it is the home of the game and its Hall of Fame, but it’s located in the Northeast, two hours from New York, 90 minutes from Boston, and well within reach of a number of large metropolitan areas.

And, as noted, some of those great teams from Europe — and individuals from across the country — are already expressing interest in playing on what could truly be called the sport’s home court.

A Slam Dunk

This brings us back to those projections about overall economic impact. The numbers are still being crunched and there are a number of factors that go into the final projection, said Wydra, but at the moment, the number is $7 million.

That’s based on the assumption that, while many participating teams will be local, meaning they will drive to and from the Big E each day to compete, a good number — again, just how many is not yet known — will have to travel into the region and stay a few nights.

At the moment, the projected number of hotel-room nights is 1,500, said Wydra. Again, to put things in perspective, there were 840 room nights for Red Sox Winter Weekend and 4,666 for the square-dance convention, and for Hall of Fame induction ceremonies, the number varies depending on who is being inducted, but the 2019 edition had 850.

And for Hooplandia, these room nights will be coming at an important time for the region’s hospitality-related businesses, she went on, adding that the college-graduation season will have ended, but summer won’t be in highest gear.

“I love the timing — school is just out, and people have the ability to travel,” she said. “The other good thing about the June weekend is that Six Flags is up and running, and we have a lot of things for people to do when they’re not at the event. You bring people in for specific purpose, but if we can expose them to other things, we have the ability to bring them back again as a leisure visitor, and that’s very important.”

Wydra said that a now-former member of her team had a chance to observe and absorb Hoopfest first-hand — and somewhat by accident.

Coincidentally, Spokane was hosting the square-dance convention mentioned earlier the year before Springfield was scheduled to do so — and on the same weekend as Hoopfest. The GSCVB had someone on hand to observe the dance gathering and promote the following year’s edition.

But while doing so, she got a good taste of the reach — and the deep impact — of the 3-on-3 festival.

“I remember her calling in and us asking about the square-dance event, and she said, ‘the city’s been taken over by this massive basketball event, and everywhere you look there’s basketball courts, traffic’s been rerouted … it’s huge.”

It won’t be quite like that in Greater Springfield because the event will mostly take place at the Big E. But the impact will be significant, and the region — and especially its hospitality sector — will know that there are thousands of people in the area to play 3-on-3 basketball.

And organizers say it has the potential to not only reach the size of Hoopfest in terms of teams and visitation, but perhaps match it in terms of impact and providing an identity for the region — which would be saying something given what the Spokane event has become.

“Hoopfest is truly part of the culture of that community,” said Rivers. “Hoopfest is to Spokane what the Tournament of Roses is to Pasadena — it’s the fair-haired community phenomenon of that region, and it’s wonderfully done.

“With Hooplandia, I believe we have the makings of a true legacy event, something that could last for decades, much like Hoopfest,” he went on. “I think it will have meaningful, long-lasting economic impact, and I also think that, over the years, it will become a week in June that will be about more than basketball — it will be a week-long celebration of the sport.”

Cassidy agreed. While in Spokane, he saw and heard that the city referred to itself as ‘Hoop Town USA,’ and has trademarked that brand. “Quite honestly, I was offended by that,” he told BusinessWest, noting that Springfield should have that designation. With Hooplandia, hopefully it will — trademark aside.

Getting a Bounce

Returning to Spokane one last time, figuratively, anyway, Rivers described it as a “phenomenon.”

“It’s unbelievable … you can’t get a hotel room, you can’t get a rental car, you can’t get a dinner reservation,” he said. “It’s exciting, and it’s fun.”

Whether Hooplandia can approach that same kind of impact remains to be seen, but all those involved believe it has the potential to be, as they say in this sport, a slam dunk.

Or, as Rivers and others said, a legacy event for this region.

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

Cover Story

Turning the Corner

Joao Alves, Chapter 74 Vocational Director at Roger L. Putnam Vocational Technical Academy

It wasn’t so long ago that young people — and their parents — perceived technical schools as a last resort of sorts. But a profoundly changed labor market, a workforce crisis, and a series of investments on the part of the Commonwealth have changed all that. Today, these are increasingly seen as schools of choice because of their blend of academic and vocational programs, and their students are certainly in demand.

Joao Alves has been in and around what is now known as Roger L. Putnam Vocational Technical Academy for the better part of 40 years.

He attended the school, known then as Putnam Vocational High School, in the late ’70s. He started teaching there in the early ’90s, and has been there ever since, now taking the title of Chapter 74 vocational director, which means he’s in charge of making sure the school’s many programs meet established state standards. Over all those years, he has seen what amounts to serious pendulum swings when it comes to vocational education, from his days as a student, when the school’s enrollment was at its zenith and jobs in manufacturing and the trades were plentiful, to those days when he started teaching there, when such jobs were in sharp decline and interest in vocational programs was plummeting.

To … today, when, by all accounts, vocational schools are enjoying a resurgence of sorts — as evidenced by a lengthy waiting list for valuable slots at Putnam and similar situations at other area schools.

Indeed, fueled by a number of factors, from the retirement of Baby Boomers and the resulting infusion of jobs to a huge commitment from the state to meet workforce needs and address a widely recognized skills gap, vocational/technical schools — many of them now called ‘academies’ thanks to rebranding efforts undertaken years ago — are seeing heightened and what appears to be sustainable interest in programs ranging from machine tooling to allied health; from criminal justice to culinary arts.

“What we provide today is opportunity,” Alves said. “Whether the student is going to go out and work tomorrow, as soon as they graduate, or whether they go into the military, or whether they go on to college — they’re better prepared for those options.”

Joe Langone, principal of Westfield Technical Academy, formerly Westfield Vocational High School, agreed.

“There’s been a change in perception about technical schools and the students who attend them,” he told BusinessWest, adding that his school, with nearly 600 students, is at what he called max capacity. “I’m pleased that this has come about, but, sadly, it took a skills gap for people to become aware of what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and how we’re doing it. All of a sudden, we find ourselves in a situation where people with trade skills are a commodity.

“We’re experiencing great shortages in a number of areas in our region, including healthcare, manufacturing, information technology, and education,” he went on, adding that these shortages result in part from the retirement or Baby Boomers, a trend that will only accelerate as more members of that generation reach their mid-to late ’60s.

David Cruise, president and CEO of MassHire Hampden County, concurred, and said a variety of forces — from those job opportunities to a stronger alignment of the academic and vocational programs at the area’s technical schools — have increasingly made them what he called the “schools of choice.”

Joe Langone says that, in today’s challenged workforce climate, technical-school graduates have become what he called a commodity.

“Over the past several years, both employers and parents have come to understand the importance of both college and career,” he explained. “And they find that the vocational/technical high schools offer a pretty robust academic program, but also prepare students with skills they either take to the labor market after graduation or pursue two- or four-year degrees. And with today’s labor market, where supply is in relative short supply across most industries, the value of a vocational/technical high-school education, which was always valuable, is now even more so.”

Langone said his school, like others, is responding to needs and concerns within the workforce with curriculum changes, new and updated equipment — often funded with help from community partners, including businesses that hire graduates — and new programs designed to help create a pipeline of workers for specific industry sectors.

“There’s been a change in perception about technical schools and the students who attend them. I’m pleased that this has come about, but, sadly, it took a skills gap for people to become aware of what we’re doing, why we’re doing it, and how we’re doing it. All of the sudden, we find ourselves in a situation where people with trade skills are a commodity.”

As an example, he cited his school’s Aviation Maintenance Technician program, created specifically to address the needs of companies like Gulfstream and Rectrix Aerodrome Center, located near Westfield’s Barnes Municipal Airport (more on that later).

And there may be more new programs and expansion of existing ones through a new line item in the state budget called the Career Technical Initiative. Proposed by the Baker administration, it calls for leveraging current vocational assets across the state to expand to three shifts of training per day — many currently have two, with night programs for adults looking to be trained or retrained in a vocational skill.

Cruise said the initiative would allow traditional high-school students, including many now on those aforementioned waiting lists, the opportunity to access vocational programs after school, between 2 and 5 p.m.

The goal is to add an additional 20,000 skilled technical workers to the workforce over the next four years, said Cruise, adding that such initiatives are certainly needed as companies search, often in vain, for workers, and the so-called ‘gray wave’ of retiring Baby Boomers gains intensity.

For this issue and its focus on Manufacturing and the Trades, BusinessWest takes an in-depth and how and why these institutions became the schools of choice and also at how they are helping to address the state’s workforce needs at this critical juncture.

Current Events

It’s called “Tiger Talk: In the Flow with Rob and Joe,” with Joe being Joe Langone and Rob being Rob Ollari, Student Services director at Westfield Technical Academy.

Students are seen in the Allied Health program at Roger L. Putnam Vocational Technical Academy, one of 22 programs at the school.

This is a weekly, hour-long show on Westfield Community Radio (WSBK) that features the two in studio talking about all things at the school — from the sports teams, nicknamed the Flying Tigers, to recent and upcoming events. But a good deal of that hour is spent taking to students about the programs they’ve chosen and why. On the Jan. 23 show, for example, they had several guests, including 10th-grader Caitlyn Carter, enrolled in the Electrical Wiring program. That’s not where she thought she’d be, as she told them candidly.

“I did not want to go into electrical wiring at all — I came here for either for culinary or automotive,” she explained, adding that she eventually chose the technical school over Westfield High, even though all her friends went to the latter, because she considered it the better option considering her ultimate goal — to become a Marine. “I was going to join automotive, because my grandfather knows everything in automotive. Then I thought, ‘electrical sounds pretty cool; let’s try that.’”

She also talked about the technical school being the better ticket to a good-paying job and how she was attracted to several of the non-traditional, or ‘non-trad,’ programs, as Langone called them, meaning those that have been traditionally (hence the term) dominated by men, or, in the case of Allied Health, women.

The program is one of several initiatives undertaken to build interest in technical programs and Westfield Technical Academy in particular, said Langone, and collectively they seem to be working.

“I remember my parents speaking about it, saying, ‘you have to go to college, you have to go to college, you have to go to college.’ I don’t recall anyone saying why were supposed to go to college, but that was sort of the golden rule.”

Indeed, the traditional period for applying for Westfield Vocational Academy — early spring — hasn’t really begun, but already the school has received more than 120 applications; it will only admit roughly 150.

That is one sign, amid many others, of the growing popularity of vocational programs, said those we spoke with, all noting that this represents a sea change from the way things were years ago.

For some perspective, Alves turned the clock back to 1993, when he came back to Putnam to teach, specifically in Metal Fabrication, Sheet Metal, and Welding. Actually, he went back further to when he was a student.

“When you came to this school, you knew there was work out there,” he recalled. “The connection was great; from school to industry was a good pathway, a clear pathway.”

Joe Langone, seen here with students and instructors in Westfield Technical Academy’s Aviation Maintenance Technician program, says it is now one of the most popular programs at the school.

Things were much different when he returned. “A lot of the bigger manufacturers had left, and the construction economy was very slow,” he told BusinessWest. “What I found was that the students were still focused on coming here for a trade — that was still the buzzword; you came to Putnam to work with your hands — but what I found was that, on the flip side, the jobs just weren’t there, so the numbers started to go down. We weren’t getting the same numbers of students, and some of the ones who were coming were not as focused because they didn’t think they were going to be able to get a job.”

Langone has similar recollections from when he attended Cathedral High School back in the mid-’80s.

“Back in those days, the perception, and I’m not sure how true it was, was that the highest-performing kids in Springfield went to Cathedral or Classical,” he said. “Things started to scale down from there, and Putnam was always viewed by my peers and from my parents’ generation as the point of no return; that’s where you went as a last resort. The perception was that if someone wasn’t going to be successful anywhere else, they at least might have a shot if they had a trade.”

Those sentiments were fueled by the common presumption by his parents — and by most in that generation — that, to get ahead, one had to go to college.

“I remember my parents speaking about it, saying, ‘you have to go to college, you have to go to college, you have to go to college,’” Langone recalled. “I don’t recall anyone saying why were supposed to go to college, but that was sort of the golden rule.”

Building Momentum

Back in the ’90s, Putnam struggled, Alves recalled, noting that it was the first of the state’s vocational schools to be labeled as ‘non-performing,’ thus requiring a turnaround plan, which was drafted — and executed.

“With a lot of hard work, a lot of good planning, and a lot of good people, we were able to change the image of the school,” he said, adding that these efforts were aided greatly by both a changing job market and the construction of a new Putnam.

“Parents and students started believing in the school again, and students started to come back,” he recalled. “And now, they’re performing at a higher level; they’re going on to be engineers, and if they’re in the health track, where traditionally they would go on to be RNs and LPNs, now they’re saying, ‘I can go on to be a doctor.’ And this helped attract more students.”

Today, Putnam, with 22 technical programs, ranging from Auto Tech to HVAC; Robotics to Graphics; Carpentry to Machining, is well-positioned to train people for a technology-driven economy, said Alves, and students (and their parents) are responding.

Indeed, enrollment is now roughly 1,200, not what it was when Alves was a student himself, but much higher than it was only a decade ago. And there are probably 300 to 400 people on the waiting list, a number that grows larger each year.

A somewhat similar pattern was followed at other vocational schools, and today, converging trends have the schools at or approaching capacity and looking for ways they can accommodate more students.

For starters, with the ever-rising cost of a college education and the often-crippling burden of college loans — Langone said he’s 53 and still paying off loans from his advanced-degree work — some are rethinking that golden rule. Meanwhile, as Cruise said, and others hinted strongly, the technical schools are now often considered a first, best option for many as they look to enter or re-enter the workforce.

This change, as noted, didn’t come overnight, but rather over the past 20 years or so, said Alves, adding that Putnam and other technical schools took a number of proactive steps to change perceptions and boost enrollment, including new programs and, in some cases, some rebranding and use of that word ‘Academy.’

But, as Langone noted with some regret, it took the skills gap and its very visible impact on the state’s economy, and especially its manufacturing and healthcare sectors, for these schools to gain the full appreciation they now enjoy.

Meanwhile, investments made by the Commonwealth have certainly helped these schools enhance existing programs and add new ones.

Langone said Westfield Voke has received more than $500,000 in grants over the past few years for its Aviation Maintenance Technician and Manufacturing programs, and more than $100,000 for that aforementioned Electrical Wiring program, in part to offer training to adults in the evening. It has applied for additional grants for its Culinary and Allied Health programs and is currently awaiting word.

The State of Things

As noted earlier, the state, recognizing the demographic patterns and hearing employers’ desperate pleas for qualified help, has made significant investments to counter those trends. The so-called Workforce Skills Cabinet (WSC) and its seven regional teams have worked together to design and implement a number of strategic initiatives that include:

• $67 million in capital skills grants awarded to the state’s technical schools covering some 230 training programs, supporting an additional 12,500 students;

• The Career Pathways Initiative, which aligns high-school curriculum to priority industries; the program has created 170 new pathways and attracted $4 million in philanthropic funding to complement state funding;

• The Workforce Competitiveness Trust Fund, which has awarded $12 million in fiscal years 2019 and 2020 to retrain more than 1,560 individuals for employment in careers prioritized by WSC blueprints; and

• The Workforce Training Fund (WTF), which has awarded $10.7 million to upskill nearly 7,000 workers at 119 companies in priority sectors.

These investments have helped create a number of new programs, such as the Aviation Maintenance Technician program in Westfield, now among the most popular programs at that school, said Langone, adding that the first cohort of seniors from that program graduated last spring.

It was created specifically to address the workforce needs of the aerospace-related companies at Barnes, specifically for airframe and power-plant mechanics — “the outide and the inside of the airplane,” as Langone called it — and, thus, it is a good example of how the area technical schools are responding to emerging needs.

Interestingly, many of the recent graduates didn’t go to work at Gulfstream or Rectrix. Indeed, most went on to attend college.

“Only half of those 11 kids are interested on going to work as air-frame or power-plant mechanics,” he explained. “The other half are using it as a springboard to other aviation-related career clusters; I have a graduate who’s attending the University of Kansas at Wichita for Aviation Engineering. I have some others going to Bridgewater State for Airport Management.

These are examples, and there are myriad others, of how going to technical high school no longer means not going to college, said Langone.

Alves agreed, noting that many of Putnam’s graduates, perhaps half by his estimate, go on to attend two- or four-year colleges that will enable them to broaden their career opportunities in their chosen field.

“A lot of our students come here with a bigger picture in mind,” he said. “They come here for health, but not just to be a nurse — maybe, as I said, to be a doctor. Some come here for the HVAC program, but not necessarily to be a HVAC technician; they may aspire to be a mechanical engineer. A good portion of our students have that in mind from the get-go.”

If there is one challenge for area tech schools, and it’s one they couldn’t have foreseen 20 or even five years ago, involves infrastructure and capacity. Indeed, many industry sectors — again, manufacturing and healthcare are at the top of the list, but there are others as well — are calling for more skilled graduates, but the schools are at capacity.

“I wish I could take more, but our facility is maxed out for space and also maxed out when it comes to my ability to add more programs,” said Langone. “There are some technical programs I’d love to add, but I have no place to put them.”

Cruise said the Career Technical Initiative, as proposed by the Baker administration, will help address this problem by giving more individuals, including adults looking to be trained and students on those waiting lists, an opportunity to receive some training in a specific field.

Work in Progress

Returning to that Jan. 23 episode of “Tiger Talk: In the Flow with Rob and Joe,” Carter talked about she has some job interviews coming up — several of them, in fact — with companies she hopes to work for over the summer and perhaps land a co-op opportunity with later.

Those co-ops, traditionally for students in their junior years, often lead to permanent, well-paying jobs after graduation.

This is what Alves and Langone meant by ‘opportunity.’ And it’s what they meant when they talked about preparing students for whatever they wanted to do after graduation.

And it goes a long way toward explaining why there has been an attitude adjustment when it comes to the region’s technical high schools. u

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

Class of 2020 Cover Story

Celebrating the 2020 Class

Back in late 2008, BusinessWest conceived a new recognition program.

It was called Difference Makers because, well, that’s the best way to describe those who would be honored. No matter what their career or field or passion — and, over the years, they have been myriad — the one common thread would be making a difference in the community.

Our goal was, and remains, to show the many ways in which an individual or group can make a difference, and suffice to say this goal has been met — as you’ll find out, once again, as you read the stories generated by the 12th such class of honorees.

The regularly scheduled gathering to honor our Difference Makers had to be post-poned because of the pandemic and ongoing bans on large gatherings.

But BusinessWest is now ready to move forward with an exciting virtual-hybrid event that will enable the region to celebrate this year’s honorees — and in settings that will comply with the state’s many guidelines for gatherings in the COVID-19 era.

Our 2020 Difference Makers event will take place on Thursday,  Sept. 24, 4 p.m.-5:30 p.m. and will honor the large and distinguished Difference Makers class of 2020. This will be a ‘virtual-hybrid’ event, with the honorees and sponsors to gather at the Upper Vista at the Log Cabin Banquet and Meeting House in Holyoke — 40 are allowed under the current guidelines — with the more than 300 other guests able to take the award program proceedings virtually. Guests who have purchased tickets to the original March event will have private access to view the virtual program.

The Difference Makers program for 2020 is sponsored by Burkhart Pizzanel-li, Mercy Medical Center/Trinity Health Of New England, Royal P.C., and Tom-myCar Auto Group, with nonprofit part-ners MHA Inc., the Tom Cosenzi Driving for the Cure Charity Golf Tournament, and United Way of Pioneer Valley

2020 Difference Makers Virtual-Hybrid Event
Thursday, Sept. 24, 2020; 4 p.m.-5:30 p.m.

 

2020 Difference Makers

Christopher ‘Monte’ Belmonte

DJ at WRSI the River Radio

His March is Changing
The Conversation
on Food Insecurity

Ira Bryck

Consultant and Former Executive Director of the Family Business Center of Pioneer Valley

He’s Helped Create
Fun, Imaginative
Learning Experiences

Sandy Cassanelli

CEO of Greeno Supply

She’s Fighting to Find a Cure for Metastatic Breast Cancer

Dianne
Fuller Doherty

Retired Director of the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center

She’s Retired … but Not from Her Role as a Difference Maker

Ronn Johnson

President and CEO of Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services Inc.

This Community Leader Has Tackled Many Roles
With a Sense of Purpose

Steve Lowell

President and CEO of
Monson Savings Bank

Giving Back Has Always Been a Big Part of His Life — and His Work

Rick’s Place

This Unique Nonprofit Provides Support, Light in the Darkest of Times

2020 Sponsors

Pay it Forward Non-Profit Partners


Photography for this special section by Leah Martin Photography

Cover Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Nine Generations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Face to Face

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Land of Opportunity

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

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

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

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

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

Previous Top Entrepreneurs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Permanent Reminder

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Work in the Pipeline

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking ahead, he told BusinessWest the firm remains optimistic.

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

Work in Progress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forward Progress

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

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

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

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

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

Cover Story

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

By George O’Brien and Joseph Bednar

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

The Casino Era

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

And, of course, the story continues.

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

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

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

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

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

Springfield’s Revitalization

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

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

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

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

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

The Rise of Cannabis

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

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

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

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

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

A Decade-long Expansion

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

And 10 years later … it is still expanding.

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

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

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

The question is … just how long can this last?

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

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

Workforce Issues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Growing Entrepreneurship Ecosystem

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

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

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

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

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

The Opioid Crisis

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

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

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

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

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

The Tornado of 2011

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

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

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

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

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

The Potential of Rail

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

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

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

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

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

CRRC’s Rail Cars

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Dr. Seuss Museum

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

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

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

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

Holyoke’s Renaissance

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

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

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

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

Springfield Thunderbirds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bay Path University’s Evolution

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

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

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

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

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

Ludlow Mills on Schedule

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ideas Take Shape at IALS

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

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

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

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

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

Baystate’s Expansion

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

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

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

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

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

Transformation in North Amherst

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

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

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

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

Isenberg Climbs in the Rankings

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

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

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

EDC on a Mission

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story Giving Guide Special Publications

Regional Philanthropic Opportunities

View the PDF flipbook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Presented by:

 

 

 


 

Cover Story

Taking Hold

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

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

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

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

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

Actually, several of them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hair Apparent

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

He used the Upgrade product to get these points across.

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

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

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

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

Head Counts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making Do

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

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

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

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

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

Cover Story

Forward Thinking

Kim Robinson

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

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

But then…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Background Discussion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Moving Targets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Toward Tomorrow

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

“I applied for one job,” she explained.

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

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

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

Cover Story Event Galleries Women of Impact 2019

Scenes from the Dec. 5th Luncheon

 

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

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

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

Photos by Dani Fine Photography

The Women of Impact for 2019 are:

Tricia Canavan

President, United Personnel Services

Carol Moore Cutting

President, CEO, and general manager, Cutting Edge Broadcasting

Jean Deliso

Principal, Deliso Financial Services

Ellen Freyman

Partner, Shatz, Schwartz & Fentin

Mary Hurley

Massachusetts Governor’s Councilor

Lydia Martinez-Alvarez

Assistant superintendent, Springfield Public Schools

Suzanne Parker

Executive director, Girls Inc. of the Valley

Katherine Putnam

Managing director, Golden Seeds

Event Information

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

 

THE 2019 WOMEN OF IMPACT AWARDS LUNCHEON IS SOLD OUT

Keynote Speaker

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

Co-emcee

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

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Cover Story

The Next Steps for Springfield

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

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

But he didn’t exactly leave his birthplace behind.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tracking Results

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Down on Main Street

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Along for the Ride

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cover Story

Walking Her Way

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Achievements of Note

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

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

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

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

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

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

Then, the e-mail came.

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

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

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

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

The rest, as they say, is history.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Different Tune

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Charting Progress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kayla Ebner can be reached at [email protected]

Cover Story

Her Happy Place

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

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

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

So she gave Ohana School of Performing Arts a try.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winding Road

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Safe Space

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Living the Dream

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

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]

Cover Story

Community Spotlight

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kevin Kennedy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rising Tide

‘The New Wave.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

An architect’s rendering of a proposed new parking garage

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

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

Getting Down to Business

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mayor Domenic Sarno

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spot of Trouble

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Springfield at a glance

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

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

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

The Big Picture

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cover Story

Pedal Power

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wayne Feiden says ValleyBike organizers have several goals

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Winding Path

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

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

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

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

The ValleyBike station at Court Square

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sustainable Future

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

40 Under 40 Cover Story The Class of 2019

Announcing the Honorees of the 13th Annual 40 Under Forty

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

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

Submit Nominations for Next Year HERE!


40 Under Forty Class of 2019

Photography for this special section by Leah Martin Photography

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Cover Story

Providing a Light

Executive Director Elizabeth Dineen

Executive Director Elizabeth Dineen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Answering the Call

‘Survivors.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forward Progress

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

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

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

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

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

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

The YWCA facility on Clough Street

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courses of Action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeing the Light

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

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

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

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

Cover Story

Pivotal Support

India Russell and Lamont Stuckey, makers of Everything Sauce

India Russell and Lamont Stuckey, makers of Everything Sauce

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

They call it ‘Everything Sauce.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Positive Steps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And she decided she wanted to be part of it.

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

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

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

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

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

Getting Down to Business

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spicing Things Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Good Company

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

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

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

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

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

Cover Story

Bridging the Gulf

Sen. Eric Lesser

Sen. Eric Lesser

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eric Lesser says a strong precision-manufacturing sector

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

State of the Economy

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

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

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

And while jobs have left, so too have people.

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

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

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

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

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

Which brings us back to high-speed rail.

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

Eric Lesser, seen here at a recent roundtable

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

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

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

Making Progress

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

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

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

Thus, the legislation regarding those GE incentives, filed just last month, is an example of that creative, aggressive thinking that Lesser mentioned earlier, and an example of initiatives aimed at benefiting not just Western Mass., but the state as a whole.

It’s a measure that triggered a discussion about the prudence of granting large incentives for relocation to companies like GE, when, in Lesser’s opinion, there are plenty of better ways to invest those tens of millions of dollars.

“The idea behind that money was to create jobs,” referring to the more than $150 million awarded to GE as an incentive to move from Connecticut to Boston and invest in new facilities there. “But it was creating almost entirely high-paying, white-collar jobs in an area of the state that is already producing a lot of high-paying, white-collar jobs. We desperately need middle-class jobs in all the regions outside of Boston, which already has a red-hot economy.

“So the idea here is to direct the money to vocational and CTE programs to do things like purchase more equipment, outfit more classrooms, and hire more teachers,” he went on. “You’re going to reduce that backlog, get students off the wait list, and get them slotted right away into jobs with local employers that are already here.”

He said the measure has garnered a considerable amount of support since it was filed, and from across the state — not surprising given the priority placed on training workers for the manufacturing sector by both the Manufacturing Caucus and the Gateway Cities Caucus and efforts to get more CTE funding.

Such efforts have been going on for years, and the momentum created by such efforts, as well as changing views about granting incentives to large corporations that often don’t bring all the jobs they promise or want too much in exchange for them, may be prompting some rethinking when it comes to how this state might invest in economic development.

“If we don’t do big creative things to reverse this challenge that we face, then we’re going to be in big trouble. We’ve got to bring in new ideas, be aggressive about trying new concepts, and work with what we have, which is great people, a great legacy of innovation, and great quality of life.”

“The state is willing to shell out, with such enthusiasm, a massive tax writeoff to a huge corporation that may or may not keep that money in Massachusetts — and in fact is more likely to distribute it to its shareholders, who live all over the world,” Lesser said. “Now, this becomes a test to see if the state is committed to middle-class job creation outside of already-hot markets. How committed are we to creating jobs in Springfield, Holyoke, and Pittsfield?”

While awaiting an answer to that question, Lesser will also see if there is sufficient support for legislation that has come to be called his ‘go west’ bill, one that would award $10,000 to individuals willing to relocate to Western Mass. and work remotely.

It was sparked, he said, by both the ongoing and accelerating trend toward professionals working remotely, and also those alarming demographic trends cited earlier involving populations getting smaller and older. Instead, he wants them to get larger and younger.

“There’s a big trend globally regarding remote working, especially companies based in San Francisco, Boston, or New York,” he explained. “They’re facing sky-high commercial real-estate prices, so they’re under immense pressure to shrink their office footprints in those cities. So you can see a scenario where a bank based in New York wants to shrink its rent footprint in Manhattan; it can offer an incentive to its workers that can be matched with our incentive. Those workers can move here, buy homes here, send their kids to school here, shop here, and pay taxes here.”

Lesser enthusiastically points to an analysis of that bill authored by Hans Despain, chair of the Economics department at Nichols College, who praised Lesser’s focus on remote jobs, especially those in the FIRE (finance, insurance, and real estate) sector, and projected a benefit to the region of $60,000 for each individual who goes west.

“The first thing to underscore is that this is quite literally a jobs bill,” Despain wrote in an op-ed in the Republican. “For example, for each new citizen who relocates to Holyoke, she brings with her a job that previously did not exist in the area.”

Connecting the Dots

When asked about whether energies should be put toward incentivizing the next GE — if there is one — to locate in the western part of the state or another still-struggling region like the New Bedford area, Lesser reiterated his contention that Greater Springfield simply couldn’t contend for such a prize at this moment in its history — for the very reasons that have prompted all those measures that have come off his desk.

“We can’t bring a GE here until we make the investments, until we make the decisions we have to make that have, quite frankly, been kicked down the road far too long,” he told BusinessWest. “We need to invest in connectivity; we need the rail service. We need to continue to invest in our workforce and our local communities so we’re producing the skilled workers who can work at those companies.

“And I’m very confident that a GE or an Amazon could come here,” he went on. “But I’m more interested in the kid at Chicopee Comp who thinks up the next GE and decides to locate it here and grow it here rather than packing up and moving it to Boston or San Francisco.”

That can only happen if there’s a workforce, and if the gulf between east and west can be bridged. These are the hard facts that drive Lesser as he tries to engineer a solution to this long-standing problem.

George O’Brien can be reached at [email protected]