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Providing a Light

Executive Director Elizabeth Dineen

Executive Director Elizabeth Dineen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Answering the Call

‘Survivors.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forward Progress

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

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

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

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

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

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

The YWCA facility on Clough Street

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Courses of Action

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Seeing the Light

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

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

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

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

Cover Story

Pivotal Support

India Russell and Lamont Stuckey, makers of Everything Sauce

India Russell and Lamont Stuckey, makers of Everything Sauce

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

They call it ‘Everything Sauce.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Positive Steps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And she decided she wanted to be part of it.

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

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

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

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

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

Getting Down to Business

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Spicing Things Up

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In Good Company

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

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

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

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

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

Cover Story

Bridging the Gulf

Sen. Eric Lesser

Sen. Eric Lesser

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eric Lesser says a strong precision-manufacturing sector

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

State of the Economy

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

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

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

And while jobs have left, so too have people.

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

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

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

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

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

Which brings us back to high-speed rail.

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

Eric Lesser, seen here at a recent roundtable

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

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

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

Making Progress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Connecting the Dots

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

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

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

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

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

Cover Story

A Six-month Checkup

Mike Mathis, foreground, with recently promoted MGM employees

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

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

‘Ramping.’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And, overall, the casino is still ramping.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Driven by Data

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Laughing Matter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Driving Force

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

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

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

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

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

Cover Story

Century Unlimited

Jeb Balise

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

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

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

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

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

Honda models mingle with Chevys in the early 1970s.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

History Lessons

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Driving Forces

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

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

Bobby Balise is the Balise company’s unofficial historian

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Past Is Prologue

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Class of 2019 Cover Story Difference Makers

Celebrating the 2019 Class

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

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

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

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

Submit Nominations Here!

2019 Difference Makers

Carla Cosenzi, Co-president, TommyCar Auto Group

She’s Been a Driving Force in Business and Philanthropy

The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts

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

Peter Gagliardi, President and CEO, of Way Finders

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

Frederick and Marjorie Hurst

They’ve Shared a Lifetime Working for Social Change

Joe Peters, Vice Chairman, Former President, Universal Plastics

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

The Springfield Museums

Institution Has Mastered the Art and Science of Being Entrepreneurial

2019 Presenting Sponsor

2019 Sponsors

Photography for this special section by Leah Martin Photography
Cover Story

Form and Function

Interim Dean Tom Moliterno

Interim Dean Tom Moliterno

The Isenberg Innovation Hub, a $62 million expansion and renovation of the business school’s facilities on the UMass Amherst campus, will open its doors to students later this month. The building’s exterior design is stunning, and it gives a new face to Isenberg and perhaps the university, but the architects have made it functional as well.

Dramatic. Striking. Stunning. Powerful. Distinctive.

Those are some of the words that come to mind as one takes in the Isenberg Business Innovation Hub, a $62 million, 70,000-square-foot addition and renovation to the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst, and its copper cladding, circular design, and falling-dominoes effect.

And those who conceptualized this project and then went about raising the money for it certainly had all those adjectives in mind when they went about hiring architects to create something that would effectively, and loudly, announce the Isenberg school’s ascension to the ranks of the best business schools in the country — and also help recruit the next generation of top students.

“Now that we are a top-20 business school, the students who are considering us are also considering a lot of other exceptional business schools. And one of the things that a student and his or her parents think about is the physical space.”

But that’s certainly not all they wanted — or demanded.

“Now that we are a top-20 business school, the students who are considering us are also considering a lot of other exceptional business schools,” said Tom Moliterno, interim dean at Isenberg. “And one of the things that a student and his or her parents think about is the physical space; there is a requirement, much like a football team needs good facilities, for facilities of a certain caliber in order to ensure that we get the best students.

The learning commons in the Isenberg Business Innovation Hub, like the building itself, has both a striking design and a great deal of functionality; it also doubles as event space.

The learning commons in the Isenberg Business Innovation Hub, like the building itself, has both a striking design and a great deal of functionality; it also doubles as event space.

“But there’s more to it than that,” he went on. “You need more than a pretty building; you need a building that’s designed to train students and to prepare students for careers in the 21st century.”

Elaborating, he said business schools today require space that is geared far more toward student collaboration, team working environments, distance learning, and career services than even a decade or two ago.

And all of this is reflected in what’s behind the flashy exterior of the Business Innovation Hub. Indeed, as he conducted his formal tour of the new facility, Moliterno seemed to be constantly pointing out places where people, and especially students, could come together and collaborate.

The hallways, like all the areas in the Business Innovation Hub, are designed to promote collaboration.

The hallways, like all the areas in the Business Innovation Hub, are designed to promote collaboration.

In the learning commons, which doubles as event space, there are dozens of soft chairs and small round tables at which people can gather; in the classrooms, the chairs have wheels, and for a reason — so they can be moved and maneuvered to face in any direction, toward the instructor in the front of the room or the student across the table; in the hallway outside the classrooms, there are more soft chairs and gathering spaces; in the courtyard, there are stone benches; on the grand stairway, there are wooden planks affixed to one set of the concrete stairs — again, for a reason.

“If you’re heading up the stairs and you see someone coming down that you want to talk to, you can pull over, sit down on the stairs, and talk,” said Moliterno, adding that the architects — Boston-based Goody Clancy, in partnership with the Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG) of New York and Denmark — went to extremely great lengths to inspire and facilitate collaboration, and this, perhaps even more than the stunning exterior and interior designs, is what the new addition is all about.

Roger Goldstein, the principal at Goody Clancy who headed the Isenberg project, agreed, and said the firm applied lessons from two decades of work designing college business schools and additions to the Isenberg initiative.

An aerial view of the expansion project

“Their aspiration was for something with real distinction — something that would be forward-looking and quite contemporary,” he explained, referring to Moliterno and Mark Fuller, the former dean of the Isenberg School and now associate chancellor at UMass Amherst. “But also a building that works really well and will stand up in the long run.”

Yu Inamoto, lead architect for the BIG group on this project, concurred. “One of the desires put forth by the dean, the faculty, and all the others we interacted with was to have a space that was not only impressive, but a place for gathering, and this is reflected throughout.”

Faculty and staff are currently moving into the new facilities, said Moliterno, adding that the building will be ready when students return to classes later this month.

One of the state-of-the-art classrooms in the Business Innovation Hub.

One of the state-of-the-art classrooms in the Business Innovation Hub.

What they’ll find is a state-of-the-art, user-friendly facility that does a lot for Isenberg, and UMass Amherst on the whole.

It gives the business school — and perhaps the university itself — a bold new face. It also gives the school a powerful new recruiting tool and perhaps the ability to rise still higher in the rankings, something that’s difficult to do as it moves up the ladder.

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest toured the Business Innovation Hub and learned how it blends form and function and punctuates the Isenberg School’s ongoing ascent among the nation’s top business schools.

Space Exploration

While obviously proud of the expansion’s ground floor, with its learning commons, courtyard, hallways crowded with gathering spaces, and generous amounts of glass, Moliterno was anxious for his tour to reach the second floor.

Because this is where more of that all-important functionality can be found. And it manifests itself in a number of ways, from greatly expanded and enhanced space for the Chase Career Center to separate lounges for students waiting to be interviewed and recruiters waiting to do some interviewing, to the small interviewing rooms that, when not being used for that purpose, can double as additional gathering spaces for students, thus maximizing each available square foot of space.

“Those rooms are sized and furnished to swing one way or the other depending on what the need is,” said Goldstein. “And that improves efficiency because you’re not creating spaces that have only one use and are empty half the time.”

Before elaborating on this mindset and what the Business Innovation Hub means for Isenberg, its students, faculty, the recruiters who will visit it to query job candidates, and other constituencies, Moliterno first went back to roughly the start of this decade, when the seeds for this facility were planted.

And they were planted out of need, he went on, which came in many forms.

The first was simply spacial. Indeed, while the original Isenberg building, built in 1964, was expanded with the so-called Alfond addition in 2002, by the start of this decade, and actually long before that, a growing Isenberg was busting at the seams.

Architect Yu Inamoto says the copper used in the building’s exterior was chosen in an effort to give it a look that is “authentic and real.”

Architect Yu Inamoto says the copper used in the building’s exterior was chosen in an effort to give it a look that is “authentic and real.”

“What we used to say is that we were a family of eight living in a two-bedroom apartment,” said Moliterno, noting that undergraduate enrollment at Isenberg had risen from 2,500 in to 3,400 in just a few years earlier this decade.

Facilities were so cramped that some departments within Isenberg, such as Hospitality & Tourism Management and the Mark H. McCormack Department of Sport Management, were spread out in other buildings, said Goldstein, creating an inconvenience for students and faculty alike. The Business and Innovation Hub brings all of Isenberg’s departments and offices together under one roof.

Beyond the need for more space, though, Isenberg also needed better space, said Moliterno — space that reflected its climb in the rankings in the U.S. News & World Report listings of business schools — both public institutions (it’s now 26th nationwide and first among undergraduate programs in the Northeast) and overall (44th in the nation). And space that would help Isenberg compete for students applying to the other schools just above or below them on those lists.

“Relatively early in his tenure, Mark Fuller realized that the school was on a trajectory, both in terms of growth and in terms of quality, that was going to necessitate new physical space,” said Moliterno, adding that the first discussions and estimates on square footage required date back to 2010 or even 2009.

At this point, the project essentially “went into the queue,” as Moliterno called it, noting that there were a number of building projects being forwarded for consideration and funding. To move up in the queue — something deemed necessary as the school continued its torrid pace of growth as well as its ascent in the rankings — the Isenberg School took the unusual step of committing to provide 60% of the funding for the project, with the rest covered by the university.

This commitment translated into the largest ever made by a specific school for a campus building project, he went on, adding that this bold step did, indeed, move the initiative up in the queue. And in 2014, formal planning — including specific space requirements and preliminary cost estimates — began in earnest.

However, in the two to three years since the initial discussions and rough sketching were undertaken, construction costs had increased 50%, he said, bringing the total cost to $62 million.

While raising that sum was a challenge — met by tapping into a growing base of successful Isenberg alums — it would be only one of many to overcome.

Another would be fitting the building into that crowded area of the campus while also negotiating a veritable rat’s nest of underground utilities in that quadrant.

“There was this bowl of spaghetti of steam lines, electrical conduits, and high-speed data lines,” said Moliterno. “And one of the real design challenges was figuring out how to put a building on this part of campus given everything that was underground.”

Designs on Continued Growth

Creating a road map for navigating this bowl of spaghetti was just one component of the assignment eventually awarded to Goody Clancy and the Bjarke Ingels Group — a partnership that Moliterno called a ‘perfect marriage’ of an emerging force in the design world (BIG) and a company with vast experience in designing not only academic buildings, but business-school facilities.

“There was this bowl of spaghetti of steam lines, electrical conduits, and high-speed data lines. And one of the real design challenges was figuring out how to put a building on this part of campus given everything that was underground.”

Indeed, BIG has been on a meteoric rise, with a portfolio now boasting Two World Trade Center in New York, Google’s Mountain View, Calif. headquarters building, and several dozen other projects either under construction or in the planning stages.

As for Goody Clancy, as noted, it has spent the past 20 years or so developing a strong niche designing new buildings and additions for business schools, and the portfolio includes recent work at Harvard, Boston University, Georgetown University, Texas Tech, and the University of New Hampshire.

Development of this niche wasn’t exactly by design, to use an industry term, said Goldstein, but as often happens in this business, a single project or two can lead to additional opportunities.

And that’s what happened after the firm took on a project for Babson University, known for its programs in entrepreneurship.

“We then did a few more, and before you knew it, we had three business-school buildings, and we thought, ‘OK, this looks like a specialty,’” he told BusinessWest, adding that the company has another four or five business-school projects in various stages of completion, a reflection of the need for such institutions to keep up with the Joneses, if you will, so they can effectively compete for the best students.

“Business schools have wealthy donors and want to build buildings that will advance their brand,” he said. “They want something that will differentiate them.”

Inamoto agreed. “Schools definitely want to make a statement with these buildings,” he said, adding that the Isenberg addition is the first academic project taken on by the firm in this country, and thus it sought to partner with a firm with a deep portfolio in that realm.

As they went about designing the addition, the team of architects focused on both of their priorities — form and function. They conceptualized an exterior that would fit in — sort of — and respect the brutalist style so prominent in other buildings in that part of the campus, such as the Fine Arts Center and the Whitmore Administration Building.

The circular design, meanwhile, would create a dynamic look that would also connect, in dramatic fashion, with the existing Isenberg facility (as the aerial architect’s rendering on page 18 shows) and “close the loop,” as Goldstein put it.

As for the copper exterior, Inamoto said it was chosen — after aluminum was first considered — because the material, like the school itself, isn’t stagnant; it changes over time.

“As a firm, we like the look of copper, and we like to recommend naturally aging materials,” he explained. “The copper panels are already starting to weather; when they’re first installed, they’re a bright, shiny orange, and within weeks, that starts to become darker and brown, and over time, they’ll oxidize to a green copper look.

“Over time, the building weathers,” he went on. “And we didn’t want something that was too flat or too plasticky, if you will. That’s part of our design strategy; we try to select something that’s authentic and real.”

In designing what’s behind the copper façade, they started by gathering extensive feedback, via focus groups, from a number of constituencies, including Isenberg administrators and staff, students, faculty, and others. And they incorporated what they learned into the final design, said Moliterno, citing everything from a café to greatly expanded space for the career center and undergraduate advising.

“They brought in Career Services and said, ‘walk us through everything you do — what are your space needs? You have interviewers here — how many, and what do they need?’” he recalled. “And then, they had that same conversation with Undergraduate Programs and with a committee of faculty who talked about the classroom space.

“And they had the same conversations with students,” he went on. “And this is where we learned that students are often here from 8 in the morning until 10 at night, and thus they want a place to eat in the building, because if they leave the building, they break up their team process.”

As for the career center and undergraduate advising facilities, these are as important to the ultimate success of Isenberg students (and the school itself) as the classrooms, said Moliterno, adding that these facilities provide more services to far more students than they did even a few years ago.

“Students don’t just show up when they’re juniors and look for job postings,” he explained. “They’re working with the career services offices constantly in order to get internships, résumé review, and structure their social-media profile. The hands-on career prep, the number of hours one spends in career services, has grown dramatically over the years, and this is reflected in the design of this building.”

Seeing the Light

As he walked through the expanded career services office during his tour, Moliterno put the Business Innovation Hub and the chosen designs for it in their proper perspective.

“At the initial bid process, when I was speaking to all the architects who were bidding, I said, ‘I want to be clear about something: this might be the most beautiful building in the world, but if it doesn’t work for the students, if it doesn’t enhance and improve the student experience, it will be a failure — full stop,’” he recalled.

‘Most beautiful building in the world’ is a purely subjective matter for discussion, he went on, while the matter of whether a building works for students certainly isn’t.

He’s quite sure that this one does, and while that quality generally doesn’t warrant adjectives like ‘dramatic, ‘striking,’ ‘stunning,’ or ‘powerful,’ it probably should.

And it explains, even more than that façade, why the Isenberg Business Innovation Hub is such an important development for the school and the university.

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

Cover Story

A Breed Apart: Antonacci Family Continues to Bring Businesses to the Winner’s Circle

Frank M. Antonacci with ‘Lindy the Great.’ Frank M. Antonacci with ‘Lindy the Great.’

In the early 1950s, Guy ‘Sonny’ Antonacci started a sanitation business with a single truck. That venture has evolved into a diversified, multi-generational family business that includes a horse-racing farm, a family-entertainment facility known as Sonny’s Place, and a country club in Hampden known as GreatHorse. Each component of this conglomerate was the product of vision, entrepreneurial spirit, hard work (lots of that), and some luck. For their ability to breed winners — at the track and in business — the Antonacci family has been named BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneurs for 2018.

Frank M. Antonacci was asked to talk about his grandfather, the late Guy ‘Sonny’ Antonacci, and put his life and entrepreneurial spirit into some kind of perspective.

It was a straightforward request, but Frank M. (the M is to distinguish him from his father, Frank A. — “I’m not a junior, and he’s not a senior”) paused and then struggled somewhat as he searched for the words and phrases to get the job done.

“He was … a special man,” he said finally. “He was a visionary; he was incredibly spiritual, but tough. He was incredibly kind, yet aggressive.”

Frank’s cousin, Guy, named after his grandfather, obviously, agreed, and also put the word ‘visionary’ to heavy use.

“He would see things 20 years before anyone else would,” he told BusinessWest. “He wanted to get in the bottled-water business in the ’70s with my father and uncle, but they asked him, ‘who’s going to pay for a bottle of water?’ He’s laughing up there now, that’s for sure.”

It was Sonny who started a trash business in New York, back roughly 65 years ago, with a single truck named the ‘Mary Anne,’ after his wife. With that one truck — more or less — he and subsequent generations would go on to build a number of successful, high-profile businesses, including the enterprise that sprang from the Mary Anne, USA Waste & Recycling, one of the largest companies of its kind in the region.

There’s also a horse farm, Lindy Farms in Somers, that has bred and trained a string of champion trotters; Sonny’s Place in Somers, named, obviously, after the patriarch, a huge and continually growing family-entertainment venue that now includes everything from miniature golf to ziplining to a century-old carousel (more on it later); and, last but not least, GreatHorse, the high-end private golf club created on the site of the old Hampden Country Club but looking nothing much like its predecessor; in a nod to Lindy Farms, there are horse references throughout, right down to the banquet hall, named the Starting Gate.

 

Guy, left, and Frank Antonacci Guy, left, and Frank Antonacci stand by a photo of their grandfather, ‘Sonny,’ in the lobby of USA Waste & Recycling.

As we examine this stable of successful businesses (yes, that’s the first of many horse and racing terms you’ll read), we’ll start by going in the wayback machine to July 1969 and, more specifically, a Sports Illustrated article (printed in an issue with Vince Lombardi on the cover) chronicling the meteoric rise of a horse called Lindy’s Pride, bought for $15,000 by Sonny Antonacci and several cousins.

All of whom, the SI writer recalled, grew up working on ice trucks before they worked on garbage trucks, and struggled for many years to build the business.

“We’re still down to earth,” a different Frank Antonacci, Guy’s cousin, told SI as their horse was preparing to race in the prestigious Hambletonian, the number-one prize in harness racing, which he would win. “We’ve all been working since we were 13; we know what a buck is. Today … there’s not one of us who’s not successful. We’ve been lucky.”

Maybe. But in many respects, this family has made its own luck, and continues to do so today. Indeed while it’s easy to say that all of this — and ‘all’ means the horses, the go-karts at Sonny’s Place, and the country club — was born of New York trash. But in reality, it was all born of an entrepreneurial spirit and an ability to see something that wasn’t there before.

Indeed, Sonny’s Place was formerly a ramshackle driving range, said Guy Antonacci. “There were days when we’d see maybe a few people come in; it was like that driving range in Tin Cup, with a pink 1960 Volkswagen Beetle out front,” he recalled, making a reference to the popular movie starring Kevin Costner, who played a down-on-his-luck golf pro and operator of a range frequented by more armadillos than duffers.

And Hampden Country Club was essentially dying on the vine when the family bought it a decade ago and decided, eventually, after an initial attempt at a mere makeover, to transform it into the most luxurious, and exclusive, club in the region.

Sonny’s Place, the elaborate family-entertainment complex in Somers, now stands on the site of a little-used driving range likened to the one in the movie ‘Tin Cup.’

For their efforts over the past seven decades or so, the Antonacci family — and yes, that includes Sonny, his brothers, and cousins — have been chosen as BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneurs for 2018. This amounts to a lifetime achievement award for the family — actually, several lifetimes.

Because today, as decades ago, members of this family stay humble and understand the meaning of a buck — and how to make one as well.

This becomes clear in an extensive interview with Guy and Frank M., chosen spokespeople for a family that knows what it’s like to breed winners — as in horses and business ventures.

Harnessing Entrepreneurial Spirit

There was a light snow falling on Christmas Eve morning, and it lent even more beauty to a place where it abounds — Lindy Farms.

There, Frank M. talked about the business and especially the large, handsome horse called Lindy the Great. A trotter, he enjoyed a successful 2018, winning several races, and on this morning was getting a brushing and some R&R before heading to Florida for the off season.

“We’re still down to earth. We’ve all been working since we were 13; we know what a buck is. Today … there’s not one of us who’s not successful. We’ve been lucky.”

Lindy the Great, 16.1 hands high (not 16.2 or 16.3), by Frank’s guess, is the embodiment — one of many, actually — of the multi-faceted businesses ventures that did, indeed, spring from New York trash.

Our story begins with that trash truck called the Mary Anne and the venture that became known as the South Shore Sanitation. While remaining a relatively small operation, it provided the wherewithal to venture into horses — and much more.

In 1974, Sonny, following a priest who had been reassigned to a church in Somers, moved his family there, said Frank, adding that, while he was ‘retired’ at age 40, he didn’t stay retired for long at all.

He and Mary Anne started Somers Sanitation, again, with one truck (this one didn’t have a name), and quickly grew the enterprise, which now stretches from the Vermont border to Southern Connecticut.

What was originally envisioned as a ‘makeover’ became the total transformation known as GreatHorse. What was originally envisioned as a ‘makeover’ became the total transformation known as GreatHorse.

Today, it boasts five hubs and 16 transfer stations, serving a wide range of businesses and communities in Connecticut and Western Mass.

It was with profits from the trash business that Sonny Antonacci and several cousins ventured into horse racing. Their passion for the sport began when they attended races at Roosevelt Raceway on Long Island, and it went to a much higher and different level when they bought their first horse, named Galahad Hanover, and shortly renamed Lindy’s Pride, in 1967.

That horse would go on to win not only the Hambletonian, but the illustrious trotting Triple Crown, and essentially set a tone for Lindy Farms, named, sort of, after the town of Lindenhurst on Long Island, where the Antonaccis grew up.

Over the years, the operation, now in Somers, Enfield, and Hampden, Mass., has continued its winning ways and expanded on several fronts.

“Until about 15 years ago, it was focused on standardbreds — trotters and pacers,” Frank explained. “But in recent years, we’re expanded into thoroughbred racing, and we’ve had some success there, as well.”

Especially with a stallion called No Nay Never. “He might be the hottest freshman stallion in the world this year,” he said, noting that, as a 2-year-old, he won honors as ‘Thoroughbred of the Year’ in Europe.

The racing business, like the trash business before it, typifies how this family approaches business — by going all in. They don’t just want to be a player in an industry; they want to dominate that industry.

Indeed, horse breeding and racing has become a passion for three generations of family members, and the level of excellence attained becomes apparent in the number of trophies and awards on display at the offices of USA Waste & Recycling.

Sonny Antonacci is considered a visionary when it comes to breeding standardbred racehorses, said his grandson, Frank, and he bred more Hambletonian horses than any individual breeder. In 2001, Sonny, along with his cousin Frank, were elected to the Harness Racing Hall of Fame’s Hall of Immortals.

That racing tradition continued with the next generation, his sons, Jerry and Frank, who have remained active in promoting the industry. Frank is currently director of the Hambletonian Society, which oversees the development, administration, and promotion of the harness-racing industry throughout the country, and he’s also director of the U.S. Trotting Assoc., the governing body of the entire domestic industry.

And Frank M. (known as Frankie to family members) has taken up that mantle. He’s now the head trainer at Lindy Racing Stable and has been making a name for himself within the sport, winning the U.S. Trotting Assoc. ‘Breakthrough Award’ in 2010.

Positive Turns

While there are no trophies, ribbons, plaques, or prize winnings to quantify success in their other business ventures, the Antonaccis’ drive to take the lead — and keep it — in whatever field they happen to get into is clearly evident.

It can be seen with both Sonny’s Place and GreatHorse, which came to fruition the same way the trash and horse-racing ventures did — through vision and a lot of hard work.

And a conversation at the dinner table, said Guy, who vividly remembers this one regarding that old, run-down driving range the family acquired a dozen or so years ago and what might be done with it.

Previous Top Entrepreneurs

• 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

“There were days when we’d have one customer come and spend $8 on a bucket of balls, and we kept thinking, ‘what else can we do with this place?’” he recalled. “My brother and Frankie’s youngest brother were probably about 10, 11, or 12 at the time, and really looking for something that they could grow up having fun at. So we said, ‘everyone loves miniature golf; maybe we should try that.’”

They did, and from those humble beginnings — miniature golf and a food truck with ice cream — new additions have been added seemingly every year since. Go-karts and batting cages came next, followed by a full restaurant, an arcade, a pavilion, rock-climbing walls, laser tag, miniature bowling, virtual reality, live concerts, and more.

The facility has become a destination not just for families, but for a growing number of companies looking to host outings or team-building exercises. The business plan, unofficial in nature, has always been to continually build on the foundation and — in keeping with the tone of those original conversations — keep looking for new ways to utilize a large and highly visible tract of land.

The latest manifestation of this philosophy was the addition, in 2017, of a carousel with a long and proud history and, yes, a number of handsome horses.

Built by the Philadelphia Toboggan Company in 1925, the ride’s first home was Delaware Beach. It then had a lengthy stay at Lakewood Park in Waterbury, Conn., and then, after refurbishment, at Kiddieland Park in Melrose, Ill.

It was languishing in a storage container at Chicago Land when Guy’s father, Jerry, the main driver in the creation and continued growth of Sonny’s Place, found it and concluded that it was the next big piece in the puzzle.

“It’s a work of art, all hard-carved wooden horses and sleighs,” said Guy, noting that it opened for business last August. “We’re having it refinished now, and maybe a third of the 48 horses have been restored; it’s been a labor of love.”

The same can be said of Greathorse, which, like the carousel — and the old driving range itself — was a restoration effort that required some vision, and then some capital and a good business plan.

As Guy — who turned pro and played on a few of golf’s mini-tours before coming to the realization that the big stage was beyond his skill level — recalls the story, the family actually started looking for a golf course to buy nearly 20 years ago to further diversify the family business beyond trash and horses.

The search was put aside, especially as Sonny’s Place was being developed, and then taken up again at the start of this decade, with a number of options in play before settling on the former Hampden Country Club, then heading for the auction block.

“We could see that it had a lot of potential, but also a lot of scars to it,” he recalled. “What sold the place was the view, and we knew that, with some vision and some work, the place could be something.

“I’d be lying if I sat here and told you when we bought the place we had the grand vision of doing what we did,” he went on, noting that a mere facelift was the original plan. “But as we got into it … as Frankie has said, we really don’t half-ass anything; everything we do, we do to the best of our ability.”

Spring in Their Step

Frank M. says he can’t recall not being in business or entrepreneurial.

Indeed, while he was involved with the family businesses, in some capacity, since he was teenager, he was also looking to hang out his own shingle, and did, at age 15.

The venture — born from another of those Sunday afternoon conversations at the dinner table — was called College Bound Cleanups, a “concierge-type service for old ladies who needed their basement cleaned out, or their garage.

“It was a summer kind of thing,” he recalled. “I brought in a partner who was 16 — I needed someone with a driver’s license — and we had a little dumptruck and did cleanups. We had a little ad in the Reminder, and we did OK for ourselves.”

Like the generations that came before him, he added, noting that he eventually put his own venture aside and focused on horses and trash, sometimes in that order, sometimes the other. And there was, and is, always talk about new opportunities and paths to go down, like Sonny Antonacci projecting a need for bottled water.

“Business … it’s part of every conversation we have,” said Frank, referring to the family’s entrepreneurial DNA and a passion for finding and developing new business opportunities. And these traits have been passed down from one generation to the next. Frank can even see it in his young children.

“I drive around with my kids, we’ll go past various strip malls, and they’ll look to see if it’s the good guys or the bad guys picking up the [trash] containers,” he said. “I see it my older son [age 7] already; he’s trying to understand how business works.”

Within the Antonacci stable of enterprise, business works maybe a little differently than in most places, said the third-generation spokespeople.

“What people have a hard time understanding about our business and our family is that it’s different — I call it ‘sloppy,’” said Frank, who understood that he needed to explain that term and did.

“We’re not very structured,” he told BusinessWest. “The way we do things is a little unorthodox, and there isn’t the bureaucratic organization you see in other businesses or families. People will say, ‘what’s your title?’ or this or that. It’s a lot looser than that.”

‘Loose.’ ‘Sloppy.’ ‘Unorthodox.’ Whatever it is, it seems to be working, and in the traditionally challenging setting of a multi-generational family business, or set of businesses, to be more precise.

There are actually four generations still involved. Indeed, Frankie and Guy said their fathers, Frank and Jerry, have breakfast with their mother every morning. “And they’re probably running things by her every day,” said Frank M.

The second generation, as noted, remains passionate about all aspects of the business operation, but especially the horse breeding and racing, they said.

Meanwhile, there are many third-generation members involved, or soon to be involved, including Guy’s brother Matthew, 24, and Frank’s brothers, Chris and Phillip.

Overall, said both Guy and Frank M., the generations have worked well together, and each has been allowed to make their mark — and their own contributions.

“Our fathers and uncles have allowed us to follow our passions, expand the businesses, and bring our own look and feel,” said Frank. “And to this point, everyone who’s been involved in the businesses has helped them grow and prosper. Why change the formula?”

Why indeed?

At the Finish Line

‘Sonny’ Antonacci never did get into the bottled-water business, his sons having persuaded him that there was no future in it. That’s family lore, anyway.

“His famous line was, ‘you’ll see … bottled water will be more than a gallon of gas,” said Frank M. “And he was right — and that’s just one example.”

Indeed, while the Antonacci family never became part of the multi-billion-dollar bottled-water industry, it has certainly had far more hits than misses. In business, as in harness racing, it has found the winner’s circle far more often than most.

Having capital from the trash business has certainly helped, but so too has been the ability to see other opportunities where others did not, having true entrepreneurial spirit — and, yes, being kind but also aggressive.

‘Sonny’ had all those attributes, and so have the generations that have followed him.

That’s why this family is BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneurs for 2018.

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

Cover Story

Forward Progress

 

Forward Progress

Host of Forces Create Momentum
Across the Region  Read More>>>

Running out of Gas?

Analysts Say the Economy Could Be Headed
for a Slowdown Read More>>>

The Employment Picture

With Talent Scarce, Many Employers Are
Laboring to Fill Positions … Read More>>>

Right Place, Right Time

MGM One of Many Factors Spurring
Optimism for Tourism Sector … Read More>>>

Cover Story

Getting into the Game

“We’ve been hearing this for years, but it had just reached a boiling point.” That’s how Kermit Dunkelberg chose to sum up the conversation in this region regarding how many individuals lack the soft skills and the essential skills needed to be workforce-ready. This ‘boiling point’ status helped inspire a regional response to a request for proposals for state funding — and a $247,000 grant aimed at putting more qualified workers in the pipeline.

Since the end of the Great Recession, nearly a decade ago now, the region’s economy has been in a slow-but-steady expansion mode characterized by growth in most all industry sectors and almost historically low unemployment.

It’s been a good time for employers and job seekers alike, but there are some who have just not been able to take part in this improved economy, said Kermit Dunkelberg, assistant vice president of Adult Basic Education and Workforce Development at Holyoke Community College (HCC).

These individuals are sitting on the sidelines and not getting in the game for a number of reasons, but the two most common denominators — and this is across the board, in all sectors of the economy — is that they lack hands-on experience in a given field, basic job-readiness skills, or both.

“And in many cases, it is both,” said Dunkelberg, who noted that a soon-to-be-launched, HCC-led project will address both of these concerns.

Indeed, through a $247,000 grant from the Mass. Dept. of Higher Education’s Training Resources and Internships Networks Initiative, better known by the acronym TRAIN, HCC will work with a long list of regional partners to develop a three-stage program that includes:

• Pre-training job readiness;

• Industry-specific training in culinary arts or manufacturing; and

• Some kind of work experience with a local employer.

That list of partners includes Greenfield Community College and Springfield Technical Community College; the MassHire Hampden County Workforce Board; the MassHire Franklin Hampshire Workforce Board; the MassHire career centers in Holyoke, Springfield, and Hampden, and Hampshire counties; and several local employers — University of Massachusetts Auxiliary Dining Services in Amherst, the Log Cabin Group in Holyoke, MGM Resorts in Springfield, Peerless Precision in Westfield, and BETE Fog Nozzle in Greenfield, which have agreed to provide internships, apprenticeships, or job-shadowing opportunities to program participants.

That long list of players speaks to the breadth and depth of the problem and the need for a regional solution, said Dunkelberg, adding that the TRAIN initiative is an ongoing state program, and when area agencies and institutions mulled whether to apply for grants individually or collectively, there was a clear consensus for the latter.

“We brought these partners together, and one of the questions on the table was, ‘should we develop one proposal for the region, or should we develop competing proposals — what do people want to do?’” he recalled. “There was a very strong feeling that we should collaborate and develop a proposal jointly, across the entire Pioneer Valley.

“And part of the reason for that is that we all face the same issue of job readiness,” he went on. “We wanted to develop something we can agree on with all of our partners that meets the standards of what job readiness means.”

As noted earlier, there are three components to this project — pre-training, industry-specific training, and work experience with an area employer, and all three are critical to individuals becoming able to shed those classifications ‘unemployed’ or ‘underemployed,’ said Teri Anderson, executive director of the MassHire Hampshire Franklin Hampshire Workforce Board.

“One of the primary pieces of feedback we receive from employers is that people coming to them looking for work need basic job-readiness skills, and we’ve heard that for several years now,” she told BusinessWest. The career center has been interested in creating a foundational skills program that would prepare people for any job across multiple sectors, and that’s exactly what this program is going to do.”

The job-readiness component will focus on a number of skills lacking among many of those on the outside looking in when it comes to the job market, she said, including communication skills, teamwork, customer service, basic math, reading, and computer skills, along with financial literacy, job-search skills, and more.

Kermit Dunkelberg says the TRAIN initiative

Kermit Dunkelberg says the TRAIN initiative will provide participants with not only job-readiness skills, but also hands-on experience in one of several fields.

Such skills will be provided through 60-hour pre-training courses, after which participants will have the opportunity to continue into an industry-specific training program — a four-week, 120-hour program in culinary arts and hospitality at the HCC MGM Culinary Arts Institute, or a 44-hour manufacturing training program at STCC. Also, participants might instead choose to enter another industry-specific training program offered by one of the community colleges.

The objective is make people currently not ready to enter the workforce better able to do so, said David Cruise, executive director of the MassHire Hampden County Workforce Board, adding that employers in every sector of the economy are challenged to find qualified workers, and in some fields, especially manufacturing, their inability to do so is impacting their ability to grow.

For this issue and its focus on employment, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the TRAIN-funded program and its prospects for becoming a model for helping regions like this one enable individuals to become part of the ongoing economic expansion, rather than merely spectators.

A Hire Reach

It’s called the ‘benefits cliff,’ or the ‘cliff effect.’

Both terms are used to describe what happens when public benefits programs phase down or out quickly, leading to an abrupt reduction or loss of benefits for families as household earnings increase through employment, but have not increased enough for self-sufficiency to be reached.

“What had really risen to the top as far as everyone’s sense of urgency was just basic job readiness across all sectors. We’ve been hearing this for years, but it has just reached a boiling point.”

Often, just a small increase in household earnings can trigger loss of eligibility for a benefit, making a family substantially worse off from a self-sufficiency standpoint than prior to the earnings gain. And fear of this eventuality is enough to keep many individuals from trying to enter or re-enter the workforce, said Anderson, adding that understanding and managing the benefits cliff will be an important component of the pre-training aspect of the TRAIN program.

“Oftentimes, people lose their benefits faster than their income rises, particularly if they’re moving into entry-level positions,” she explained. “So we’re incorporating into this training efforts to work with people on how to manage that cliff effect.”

And while it’s difficult to do so, this situation can be managed, or better managed, she told BusinessWest, adding that the state Department of Transitional Assistance is in the process of revising some of its procedures in an effort to ease the cliff effect, and the TRAIN program will help communicate these changes.

And that’s one example of how this program is necessarily broad in scope to address the many barriers to employment and reasons for underemployment in this region, said Dunkelberg.

Overall, and as noted earlier, the TRAIN initiative is a proactive response to a persistent and statewide problem, he noted, adding that it was launched in 2016 to engage long-term unemployed adults, offering foundational education programs, wraparound support services, and industry-specific skills that would enable entry or re-entry into the workforce.

The first funding round resulted in a number of specific training and employment pilot programs, he went on, adding that, locally, the program funded an initiative involving HCC and STCC to train and place individuals as home health aides.

“It was very successful; we had 56 people who went through that training, and we saw close to 90% of them get jobs,” he recalled. “Retention was high, and we received great collaboration from our employer partners.”

The program was not funded in 2017, he went on, adding that by the time the next RFP was issued earlier this year, the conversation in this region had changed somewhat.

“What had really risen to the top as far as everyone’s sense of urgency was just basic job readiness across all sectors,” he said. “We’ve been hearing this for years, but it has just reached a boiling point.”

Alyce Styles, dean of Workforce Development and Community Education at Greenfield Community College, agreed, and said surveys of area employers leading up to the grant proposal revealed that job seekers in the manufacturing sector and many others were lacking many of what are often referred to as the ‘soft’ skills needed to succeed in the workplace.

“Employers responded that they want employees and individuals who have the ability to effectively communicate orally, have ethical judgment and sound decision-making, work effectively with others and in teams, have the ability to apply knowledge and skills to real-world settings, and have critical-thinking and analytical reasoning skills,” she said. “So all of those are being embedded into this pre-training program.”

Work in Progress

The latest TRAIN initiative, proposed with the goal of creating a model for other regions, will involve up to 120 individuals from Hampden, Hampshire, and Franklin counties, and is relatively short in duration — until only next June.

Over the next six months, the regional career centers are slated to develop three-week, 60-hour ‘essential skills/job readiness’ pre-training courses that will be offered at least four times at locations in the three Pioneer Valley counties.

Teri Anderson

Teri Anderson

“One of the primary pieces of feedback we receive from employers is that people coming to them looking for work need basic job-readiness skills, and we’ve heard that for several years now.”

Dunkelberg said the area career centers will soon commence recruitment of individuals for the program, adding that they are likely to come from several different pools, if you will, each facing some unique challenges, but some common ones as well.

Older workers finding difficulty re-entering the workforce comprise one constituency, said Anderson, adding that there are more people in this group than the announced unemployment rates might lead people to believe, because the numbers generated by the state do not count those who have become discouraged and have thus stopped looking for work.

“A lot of the people we see here are older workers who have been laid off, and they’re having trouble becoming re-employed,” she said, adding that other likely recruits face barriers to employment that include everything from lower educational attainment to a lack of basic transportation.

“There are many people who want to work and are ready to work, but they can’t get access to the training or to job sites because they can’t afford a private vehicle and public transportation doesn’t get them there,” she said, adding that the grant provides for some bridge transportation and child-care services so individuals can take part in the training components of the program, and agencies will explore options for keeping such services available to individuals if and when they do find work.

Cruise concurred, and told BusinessWest that, in addition to transportation issues and the benefits cliff, many of those on the outside looking in are simply not ready for prime time.

“Two of the industries we’re identified as high priorities over the next five years are advanced manufacturing and culinary and food service,” he explained. “At MassHire, we offer a number of training programs — as does Holyoke Community College and Springfield Technical Community College — in those two areas. And whenever we go out to look for potential applicants for those seats, there are some who, from an academic perspective or a language perspective, just aren’t ready for the rigors of a 14- or 15-week intensive program.

Dave Cruise says the TRAIN initiative is designed to help those who are unemployed or under-employed

Dave Cruise says the TRAIN initiative is designed to help those who are unemployed or under-employed, and are thus on the outside looking in when it comes to the job market.

“These people are very employable; they just need some additional support,” he went. “And that’s what this program will provide.”

Beyond the needed basic job-readiness skills, many of those still unemployed or underemployed need hands-on experience in a chosen field or exposure with different fields so they can better decide on a career path. The TRAIN program will provide these as well, said Dunkelberg.

“Career exploration is an important part of this,” he told BusinessWest. “Beyond not having the skills or the soft skills, many people are not really sure what they want to do, and they’re not really clear on what some of the opportunities are.”

“Employers … want employees and individuals who have the ability to effectively communicate orally, have ethical judgment and sound decision-making, work effectively with others and in teams, have the ability to apply knowledge and skills to real-world settings, and have critical-thinking and analytical reasoning skills.”

In response to these realities, the program will provide some hands-on exploration of culinary and hospitality careers, primarily because of the many opportunities now opening up in that field across the region, and also in manufacturing, another sector where there are jobs coming available and not enough people in the pipeline.

This exposure will take a number of forms, including internships, job-shadowing experiences, and actual employment, said Dunkelberg, adding that the various employer partners, from MGM to Peerless Precision, have agreed to provide some type of hands-on experience with the goal of helping participants both understand where the opportunities are and discover if these fields are good fits.

When asked if there was a model for what the many partners involved in this initiative are working to create, Dunkelberg said the goal is to build a model for others to use.

And that’s just one of many potential quantitative and qualitative measures of success when it comes to this program. Others include everything from the number of job interviews granted to the program participants — a low bar, to be sure — to growth in enrollment in academic programs such as GCC’s CNC course of study, to ultimate progress in closing the nagging skills gap in this region.

Course of Action

That gap won’t be closed easily or soon, but movement in the right direction is the goal — and the priority — at the moment.

As Dunkelberg noted, the problem has reached a boiling point, and the TRAIN initiative, a truly regional response to the problem, will hopefully help matters cool down considerably.

By doing so, more people in this region — and probably others — can then take part in the economic expansion of which they have only been observers.

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