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Feeding Frenzy

Cheryl Malandrinos says the pandemic changed

Cheryl Malandrinos says the pandemic changed how people look at how they work and where they live, sparking greater demand for homes in Western Mass.

“A $180,000 house going for $275,000 … it can’t continue this way, or else the average homeowner won’t be able to afford a mortgage, and then the market will have to stabilize.” That’s a quote from a Realtor who spoke with BusinessWest last January about the low supply and high prices of homes in Western Mass. A year later, the situation has, simply put, not stabilized, with the region remaining an in-demand destination for remote workers and new housing stock still lagging. For potential buyers, it’s a situation that demands patience — and, again, hope for a correction down the road.

In her 25 years as a Realtor, Nancy Hamel has never seen anything like it.

Looking back at 174 houses sold in Amherst last year, 63 sold for more than $500,000, said Hamel, who is a top-producing agent with Jones Group Realtors. “That’s crazy. For years, we just had a handful sell for over $500,000.”

She rattled off some actual examples: a home with an asking price of $410,000 going for $511,000. A $595,000 listing selling for $675,000. A $649,000 listing topping out at $740,000. “It could just be underpriced, or it could be it rang all the right bells.”

Mostly, though, it’s supply — and that’s an issue in residential real estate that has pushed home prices into the stratosphere.

“Supply has just been very strange,” said Amy Hamel, Nancy’s daughter and partner on her team at Jones — and someone who, unlike Nancy, focuses primarily on the buyers’ side. It can be hugely frustrating.

“Lack of inventory has played a role in people panicking to find suitable housing,” Amy continued. “More people are able to work remotely now because a lot of companies decided to do that long-term because it’s worked so well. They’re saying, ‘why have communal space when we’re doing the same amount of revenue, or more, having employees work from home?’”

As a result, buyers have flocked to Western Mass. — and other attractive regions of the U.S. when it comes to quality of life — and the existing housing stock is not sufficient to meet demand.

“We see a lot of people moving here from all over — from New York, or from out west, Arizona, New Mexico. People are picking a place on a map, and Amherst is definitely a top place for people to come to,” she explained. “So prices are going up more than I could have ever imagined. Money is coming in from all over the place.”

“When it comes from high-home-value regions like California, where a half-million doesn’t seem as expensive for a home, that drives up prices for locals, for whom that is an intimidating chunk of change,” Amy said. “What they’re paying beyond the asking price is unlike anything I’ve seen in my 15 years.

“A lot of people are saying it’s been the best year for Realtors,” she went on. “Not really, unless you’re a top listing agent. Working on the buying-agent side has been very frustrating. I’ve had a lot of buyers put in many, many different offers before they found something, and still I have a lot of buyers laboring because they’re being outbid. And it’s not like they haven’t put in strong offers.”

Nancy noted that her daughter lost out on $14 million in offers last year. “She just got outbid — by people with cash, people offering $50,000 over asking price and still not getting it.”

“A lot of people are saying it’s been the best year for Realtors. Not really, unless you’re a top listing agent. Working on the buying-agent side has been very frustrating.”

She took one buyer from California on a virtual tour over FaceTime, who made an offer immediately, and well over asking price.

That’s great for sellers and listing agents, she admits, “but I’m having concerns. What are working people going to do? If you haven’t made money in real estate, it’s very hard to buy in now.”

Locally, in her Amherst-area market, “it could affect people who apply to UMass because professors don’t want to live far away and teach; they want to live in a 20-mile radius,” she noted. “But South Hadley’s expensive, Belchertown’s exploding, Hadley … forget it, and Northampton’s out of sight.”

The pricing has forced some creativity, to say the least, Nancy said. “People are waiving inspections; that’s scary to me. And I’m seeing an awful lot of parents step up to the plate and help. They say, ‘I’d rather help my kids when my eyes are open, rather than having them get it when I’m gone, and I don’t get to see the joy.’

Amy (left) and Nancy Hamel say they’ve never seen home prices where they are now

Amy (left) and Nancy Hamel say they’ve never seen home prices where they are now, sometimes selling close to $100,000 over the asking price.

“I’m grateful — we’re lucky to be a listing agency,” she went on. “But a lot of my colleagues are disappointed they’re in this feeding frenzy. If they’re new and working with buyers, it’s a lot of work to place an offer — a lot of paperwork, disclosures, everyone has to sign, get pre-approval … to do all that work just to be disappointed. The feeding frenzy is just cuckoo.”

 

Shifting Sands

Cheryl Malandrinos, president of the Realtor Assoc. of Pioneer Valley (RAPV), said the pandemic caused people to look differently at how they work and, in turn, where they live.

“They decided they didn’t really need to live as close to their offices if they were going to be able to stay remote for the time being. So we’ve definitely seen a shift here,” she told BusinessWest. “We did see buyers from the outside area, from other states, come into the Valley as well. So we continue to struggle with low inventory and rising prices throughout. The reality is, we haven’t been able to produce housing for quite some time. That has not helped us any.”

At the end of 2021, inventory in the region was 30% down when compared to December 2020, and prices rose about 15.4%, on average, over that same time period — which is remarkable, considering that articles like this one — discussing the same issues of a supply crunch and high selling prices — were being written a year ago, too.

One issue is that Millennials are increasingly entering the market, and they’re looking for affordable homes. “The reality is 41% of total buyers are first-time homebuyers, so entry-level homes are high demand,” Malandrinos said, and those homes aren’t being built at the rate buyers demand — especially during a lumber shortage. “It’s hard to build that first-time-homebuyer, entry-level home and make it affordable.”

“A lot of my colleagues are disappointed they’re in this feeding frenzy.”

For that reason and others, she said, Realtors and economists expect demand to continue to soar in 2022, especially with the prospect of the Fed raising interest rates. “Buyers will keep us busy in the winter season, looking for homes and hoping to secure them while the rates are still historically low, which gives them more purchasing power.”

Last year, the median price of an existing single-family home nationally jumped to an all-time high of $357,900, up 23% from 2020, according to the National Assoc. of Realtors (NAR).

“Supply-chain disruptions for building new homes and labor shortages have hindered bringing more inventory to the market,” said Lawrence Yun, NAR’s chief economist. “Therefore, housing prices continue to march higher due to the near record-low supply levels.”

Yun noted that inflation and the pace of price appreciation is expected to subside next year. At NAR’s recent Real Estate Forecast Summit, economists and housing experts agreed that inflation would likely ease in 2022 at a 4% rate, while home prices are expected to rise at a moderate pace of 5.7%.

So what does that mean for buyers? “You have to be prepared because you’re going to face a fair amount of competition in the marketplace,” Malandrinos said. “Gone are the days when you could find something and, a few days later, think about talking to a lender.

“You need to be prepared right away — engaging a Realtor as soon as possible, getting pre-approved, so you’re all set once you find what you want, because you’re not going to have time to second-guess it,” she continued. “You have to move forward with a strong offer. We’re still most likely going to see things selling over asking price, with multiple offers on properties that are well-priced.”

At the end of 2021, listings lingered on the market 22 days on average, but that number is skewed by a few outliers. “In reality, many properties are leaving the market before that.”

What she doesn’t recommend is acting out of panic — for instance, by waiving inspections. “I’m not one, in good conscience, to recommend that. Maybe you’re saying, ‘I want to hold off my inspection and reserve the right to withdraw, but don’t expect you to do any repairs.’ That’s also a way to get around that.”

 

Street-level View

Nancy Hamil has seen downtown Amherst values rise to 20% higher than similar properties in other neighborhoods, and one factor might be that migration into Western Mass. from people in urban centers who still want to live near amenities.

Lawrence Yun

“Supply-chain disruptions for building new homes and labor shortages have hindered bringing more inventory to the market. Therefore, housing prices continue to march higher due to the near record-low supply levels.”

“People covet living in downtown Amherst; they love to be able to walk places. Northampton is the same,” she said, noting that apartment rents are also on the rise, again impacted by supply and demand, and people priced out of the home-buying market needing a place to live.

“I do think affordable housing needs to stabilize to some extent because prices have gone a little beyond where I thought they would be in our area,” Amy Hamel added. “I do wonder what this year is going to be like. There are many factors that play into the market, and especially with COVID still running rampant, it’s going to be interesting to see how this year plays out.”

The pandemic did change the way homes are shown, Malandrinos said, with 2020 givijg rise to virtual tours using 360-degree videography.”

“That stayed with us and likely will continue, as it makes everyone feel safer,” she said, while noting that in-person tours are still common, though some sellers are leaning more toward open houses instead of many individual showings.

“Some people are still concerned about safety, so you have to work with your Realtor and make a plan that makes sense for you,” she noted. “Often, properties come on the market, and Realtors defer showings and have many people come in at once instead of private showings.”

It’s not unusual, she added, for those tours to have a set layout, with interested buyers entering by one door, following a path, and leaving by a different door. “As we go back to in-person showings, we’re trying to keep it as normal as possible, but as safe as possible, too.”

She pointed to the state’s Housing Choice Initiative, created a few years ago to incentivize communities to build more housing stock, as one way to increase supply.

“I really hope for a market correction so more people can afford to come into the market,” Nancy Hamel said. “I remember, when I was young, we didn’t require these huge down payments, and a house cost $50,000. Home ownership shouldn’t be only for the wealthy.”

Malandrinos agreed. “Buyers are tired,” she said. “It’s not unusual to hear, ‘my buyer lost out on their third property.’ Everyone benefits when there’s more equity in the market. I hope we get there, but we’re not there yet.”

There’s only so much comfort those words bring to people who feel they’re priced out of the kind of home they want in Western Mass.

“It’s easy for people to get frustrated, but stick with it. There is a property for you,” she added. “You need to be confident and come in with a strong offer you’re comfortable with — and hang tight.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Features Special Coverage

Missed Connections

It’s a widely quoted statistic that, unfortunately, hasn’t changed much in recent years — only about one-quarter of information-technology (IT) jobs are held by women, and the percentages are much less for women of color — and women in IT leadership, for that matter. That will change, those working and teaching in the field say — but only with a stronger emphasis on making not only women aware of the wide array of careers available in IT, but girls as well.

Hilary LeBrun

Hilary LeBrun says stereotypes have obscured what a rich, varied field IT is — and kept many women from exploring it.

As an associate professor of Computer Science at Elms College, Beryl Hoffman is somewhat far afield of her first chosen college major: biology.

“I had not really heard about computer science as a career at all — my high school didn’t offer it,” she told BusinessWest. “But a friend talked me into taking a coding class for fun.”

And she enjoyed it — enough to eventually push her studies in a different direction.

“As soon as I started it, I felt that, if girls had that experience early on, they would also really enjoy it,” Hoffman recalled. “What hooked me was the problem-solving aspect, plus the creativity. A lot of girls don’t get introduced to that, even after school or at home, where it’s boys gaming and building robots. Girls don’t get to experience that as much.”

That reality has no doubt contributed to a wide gender disparity in the IT world. According to data from the National Center for Women & Information Technology, women make up 47% of all employed adults in the U.S., but hold only 25% of computing roles. It’s more dire for minority women; of the 25% of women working in technology, Asian women make up just 5% of that number, while black and Hispanic women account for 3% and 1%, respectively.

“What hooked me was the problem-solving aspect, plus the creativity. A lot of girls don’t get introduced to that, even after school or at home, where it’s boys gaming and building robots.”

“It’s mostly societal expectations and stereotypes,” Hoffman said. “I do believe we need to start introducing people, especially young girls, to computer science and technology when they’re young. That’s happening more and more — I’m seeing more computer science even in elementary schools. It will change; it’s just slow. But I have been seeing slight improvements every year.”

Hilary LeBrun didn’t start out in computer science, and she certainly never thought she’d eventually be COO of Paragus IT when she was working in the hotel industry.

“I was up for a change — I wanted to work in a more family-friendly industry, and the hotel industry isn’t family-friendly. I also wanted to work for a growing company with a good culture that was doing something important. And I found it in Paragus.”

She started as an assistant to CEO Delcie Bean and was quickly excited about how the company helps other businesses — keeping networks secure, creating efficiencies, finding budget-friendly solutions for clients, and the like. She sees the wide variety of work available in IT, and the relationship-centered focus of much of it, and has thought about why more women aren’t plugging in to these careers.

Beryl Hoffman

Beryl Hoffman says one key to closing the gender gap in IT is introducing girls to computers at much earlier ages.

“Part of it is the stereotype,” LeBrun said, echoing Hoffman’s thoughts. “It’s always been this predominantly male industry, and it’s something that’s taken women a little while to get into. There’s almost a stigma around it, that it’s this geeky industry, it’s the gamers that get into it, but people aren’t seeing there’s so much more to it.”

For instance, “it can attract somebody who wants to solve problems, and also create efficiencies, even someone who wants to go into management — there are just so many different aspects. There’s a lack of awareness around that, and the ways that women — and even men — can learn and get that education, get that foot in the door.”

“It’s always been this predominantly male industry, and it’s something that’s taken women a little while to get into. There’s almost a stigma around it, that it’s this geeky industry, it’s the gamers that get into it, but people aren’t seeing there’s so much more to it.”

Zoe Alfano got her foot in the door as a college student at UConn, where she had her eyes on an engineering degree but began working in campus tech support and realized she was good at solving problems. With four years of that work experience in hand, she was hired by Paragus as a client support engineer. She cited a couple of reasons why women don’t follow a similar path.

“It depends a lot on the person, their experience. They might not have been exposed, or didn’t have someone in their lives say, ‘try it out, you might be good at it.’ Or, some people just don’t consider themselves technical; they think they’re not good at it. But they might be good at problem-solving, and solving a problem with a piece of technology isn’t a whole lot different than figuring out what’s wrong with the stove when it’s not working, or solving a math problem. Some people might be better than they anticipate, but don’t have the opportunity to try.”

Constant Change

When they do try, Alfano said, they find that it’s a field that’s constantly evolving, with always something new to learn.

“There’s such a wealth of knowledge, it’s impossible to be a jack of all trades, with so many things to specialize in. A network manager can prevent attacks. A technician like me is good at solving day-to-day issues but might not be as good at solving network-related issues. There are so many different things to know about and learn, and you always have an opportunity to learn something new and choose where want to go.”

Zoe Alfano

Zoe Alfano

“Solving a problem with a piece of technology isn’t a whole lot different than figuring out what’s wrong with the stove when it’s not working, or solving a math problem.”

That can be appealing for women who love learning and working collaboratively, she added — and, often, helping people.

“You’re able to say, ‘hey, I can help with your issue,’ and if you value getting a positive response from someone, that’s a big reason to stick with the field. You talk on the phone, and they’re so grateful their problem isn’t happening anymore. It just makes you feel good.”

LeBrun finds a gratifying challenge in how quickly IT changes.

“Even just the technology we support — 10 years ago, every company had a server. Now servers are dying; everyone’s going to the cloud,” she noted. “So we always need to adapt, always need to change, and that’s one of the aspects I love about it. The industry is not stagnant. There’s always something to learn, new technology to adapt and bring to our clients.”

Beverly Benson, IT and Security program director at Bay Path University, first became interested in the field when her own information was compromised. The more she learned about cybersecurity, the more she related it to the non-technical things people do every day to keep safe, from locking doors to watching over their kids. In short, she saw an appealing human element to a technical field.

“We do that as mothers naturally, always trying to protect our children, always checking in and protecting. I just get paid to do it,” she said. “I think it comes naturally as a woman; we’re the nurturers in a positive sense, a protective sense.”

She agreed with the others BusinessWest spoke with that more awareness of the breadth of IT careers, from the highly technical side to the more relationship-driven side, would boost the number of women interested in pursuing it. “There are a variety of careers within the field — they need to know it’s much more than coding,” she noted.

“There is a need to protect information and infrastructure in every sector,” Benson went on. “It has the potential to impact the food you eat, the vehicles that you drive, it can impact healthcare and your medical records … everyone is now living in such a connected world that there is a need to protect every aspect of our lives.”

Hoffman agreed. “It’s a really awesome field of high-growth, high-paying jobs,” she said. “Also, technology is essential in any field now. A lot of folks are missing out on the opportunities out there. And I think a lot of it starts with education. We need to let people know about these careers and have girls experience them.”

To that end, Hoffman is part of a nonprofit, Holyoke Codes, that aims to bring coding and robotics to kids in Holyoke. She also received grant to build a high-school curriculum called CSAwesome, a free e-book that teaches AP CS A and Java and is becoming more widely used in high schools.

“That’s great to see, too,” she said. “And the AP College Board has done a lot to try to get girls to take AP classes in computer science. It’s nice to see as we try to grow that pipeline, and see it broaden and become more diverse.”

Beverly Benson

Beverly Benson

“Everyone is now living in such a connected world that there is a need to protect every aspect of our lives.”

The education needs to start earlier than high school, though. “They say that most kids start thinking about careers in middle school. So we need to start educating them there,” Hoffman said, adding that girls need to see more female role models from the IT world.

“As more women go into IT, they will encourage even more women to go into IT. But it’s just slow. We should start them young — even at home, often the robotics and the computers are bought for the boys, not the girls.”

Disparities linger in school districts as well, she said, noting that suburban schools are more likely to present robust computer-science programs than urban and rural schools.

That’s a lot of factors in play, she told BusinessWest, “but it’s slowly changing.”

 

Serve and Protect

LeBrun admits IT can be an intimidating field for women, considering the gender disparity and stereotypes, and is glad she found a company in Paragus that employs — and promotes — plenty of women. She hopes others will find similarly supportive cultures.

But she also believes women need to consider how important IT is to the work world as a whole and how gratifying it can be to be a part of that.

“COVID really opened up businesses’ eyes to how important their IT is and how much they depend on it,” she said. “We try to tell our clients, ‘picking your IT firm should be as important a decision as picking your lawyer or accountant.’ We’re a partner. We’re working to protect their business.

“And I think that’s really exciting,” she added, “to be in an industry that can protect other companies so much — it just creates so many opportunities. Again, it’s about bringing that awareness to girls in school who are still trying to figure it out.”

For older women and career changers, Tech Foundry, a workforce training program affiliated with Paragus, is one example of how to create opportunity — “to just make it doable for them, because it can be scary,” LeBrun said. “There’s a lot to learn in the field.”

“A lot of people don’t realize the stereotype of a nerd in his basement, coding away, it’s not like that anymore. It takes a team to create software.”

IT companies would do well, she added, to seek employees who might not have every technical skill, but brings fresh perspectives to an organization. “They might not have the traditional background, but have the drive and personality, and the rest can be taught.”

The collaborative nature of much IT work is appealing as well, Hoffman said. “A lot of people don’t realize the stereotype of a nerd in his basement, coding away, it’s not like that anymore. It takes a team to create software.”

The IT industry is also becoming integrated into other careers, she added, from healthcare to finance. “More and more, all fields are integrating IT, so no matter what you do, those skills are going to be useful in the future, especially in Massachusetts, with so much growth in biotechnology and health sciences.”

The ability to work remotely is another plus — for many firms, a fairly recent one, Benson said.

“Because we had no other choice, we had to work remotely during the pandemic. That has opened doors of possibilities for all people, including women. You don’t have to uproot your family to move to a state heavily populated by cybersecurity opportunities. Now some organizations are OK with you working remotely.”

In short, opportunity abounds. Hopefully, the women we spoke with said, awareness will follow — and stereotypes will continue to crumble.

“I try to encourage women to give it a try,” Benson said. “My mantra is ‘dare to dream.’ I want to see more women in this field. We need them.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Mayor John Vieau

Mayor John Vieau says public safety and public health have been priorities of his first term.

 

Fresh off his re-election, Chicopee Mayor John Vieau said the main goal for his second term is the same when he first campaigned for the office two years ago: a focus on public safety.

“A city can have great schools, great trash pickup, and low taxes, but if you don’t feel safe, those other things aren’t so important,” Vieau said.

In the mid-1980s, Chicopee bolstered its police force by hiring a large number of officers. Nearly 40 years later, the city has seen many of those officers retire from the force, while others have left due to COVID-19 concerns to pursue other careers. For Vieau, this created multiple challenges.

“Based on civil-service exams, we hired 10 replacements for our retiring officers,” he said. “Then we ran into a quagmire because at first we couldn’t send them to the police academy because it was closed during the worst of the pandemic.”

As the academy eased its mandates, those officers completed training, and Vieau has hired an additional 15 officers with the intent of bringing the police force back to full strength.

“A city can have great schools, great trash pickup, and low taxes, but if you don’t feel safe, those other things aren’t so important.”

In addition to new officers, Chicopee is encouraging a new style of policing by introducing community policing at a substation on Center Street. With officers on walking beats, they are better able to make connections with people.

“This has been very successful because people are seeing the same officers who are building relationships and rapport with folks in the neighborhood,” the mayor said, adding that he’s looking to eventually bring a substation to Willimansett as well as other parts of the city.

The concern for public safety also extends to the Fire Department, which staffs two ambulances 24/7. Recently the fire chief suggested a pilot program to add a third ambulance for overnight coverage. The suggestion came about due to demand for more coverage during those hours as well as the closing of the private ambulance company that lent assistance when Chicopee ambulances were busy. The success of the pilot program will result in Chicopee adding a new ambulance along with the new fire pumper trucks that had been ordered.

“Just like with the police, we want to make sure our Fire Department has the tools they need to keep themselves and our city safe,” Vieau said.

Part of public safety includes fighting the spread of COVID-19. Chicopee received 15,000 rapid test kits from the state and has been distributing them to residents in low-income areas and at the senior center.

“Our message remains the same — we believe everyone should get vaccinated,” Vieau said.

 

Supporting Businesses

Keeping Chicopee businesses healthy also remains a priority. Through the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act, more than 70 businesses received support. Julie Copoulos, executive director of the Chicopee Chamber of Commerce, said her organization helped small-business owners receive more than a half-million dollars in grant money during the pandemic.

“For us, it meant coming back to our core mission of supporting businesses and enhancing the economic climate,” Copoulos said. “Many of the small-business grants went to minority- and women-owned businesses.”

Julie Copoulos is enthusiastic about progress on development at the former Uniroyal and Facemate sites, among others.

The city will also receive $38 million through the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Vieau has formed a committee to determine how to use that money in a way that will have a long-term impact for taxpayers in Chicopee.

“For us, it meant coming back to our core mission of supporting businesses and enhancing the economic climate.”

“I have a smart group of people who are looking into the best way to use the ARPA funds,” he said. “We’ve also surveyed residents for their ideas on how to spend the money.”

Vieau wants to proceed with caution on how to use these one-time funds because it would be easy to spend it all in one place.

Chicopee at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1848
Population: 55,560
Area: 23.9 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $16.99
Commercial Tax Rate: $37.39
Median Household Income: $35,672
Median Family Income: $44,136
Type of Government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: Westover Air Reserve Base; J. Polep Distribution Services; Callaway Golf Ball Operations; Dielectrics; MicroTek
* Latest information available

“I could target one infrastructure project and use all that money and more,” he said. “For example, the wastewater treatment plant needs upgrades to keep up with current pollution standards, and that project alone will cost around $50 million.”

For bigger projects like this, Vieau is hopeful about Chicopee’s prospects for funding through the recently passed federal infrastructure deal. “I’m going to fight for as much of that infrastructure money as we can get,” he said.

In the meantime, the mayor shared with BusinessWest an important development regarding the former Uniroyal site. After more than a decade of investing millions of dollars in hazardous-waste cleanup at the site, by this spring, the city will begin looking for potential new owners of both the headquarters and an adjacent building on the site.

“We are all looking forward to getting the Uniroyal property back on the tax rolls,” Vieau said. “It’s been a long time coming, and we are super excited about it.”

Right now Michelin, which owns the Uniroyal brand, is completing $1.5 million in cleanup efforts at the site. Once that’s done, the mayor explained, the city will launch a request for proposals in search of prospective buyers of the property.

Because Chicopee represents a good number of manufacturers, Copoulos believes this gives the city an advantage in the years ahead. She noted that economists have pointed out that manufacturing industries have come back to pre-COVID levels while more customer-facing industries continue to have challenges.

“I’m enthusiastic about the development while also reminding myself to be patient because big projects like this take time.”

“As a community with so many manufacturers, this can potentially give us a leg up,” she said. “Supply-chain issues will make domestic manufacturing more of a priority, and that makes me hopeful about prospects for Chicopee.”

The spring will also mark the beginning of construction for the new headquarters of the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts. After many years in Hatfield, the Food Bank purchased 16.5 acres in the Chicopee River Industrial Park in order to expand its warehouse in a more environmentally friendly building. Selecting Chicopee was a strategic decision on a couple of fronts. The location on Carew and East Main streets gives the Food Bank easy access to major highways, and because the city is in Hampden County, where the issue of hunger and food insecurity are more severe, the organization is in a better position to address the problem.

“The Food Bank location in Chicopee will be at the hub of addressing food insecurity in Western Mass.,” Vieau said.

Dino Facente

Dino Facente says his bakery’s move from Springfield to Chicopee has been a positive one.

Anticipation is also growing for the former Facemate property in Chicopee Center. Final plans and permits are being approved for a 54,000-square-foot, multi-sport facility; a 102-unit residential building; and renovation of the former Baskin building into a 10,000-square-foot restaurant and brewery, where Loophole Brewing will locate.

Both Vieau and Copoulos praised Singing Bridge LLC, a local developer, for leading the project because it shows a commitment to the success of Chicopee. For Copoulos, completion of the project can’t arrive soon enough.

“I’m enthusiastic about the development while also reminding myself to be patient because big projects like this take time,” she said.

Vieau noted in particular the 102 units of housing that will be added to Chicopee Center.

“Many people want to stay in Chicopee but are looking for empty-nest housing,” he said. “Realtors have told me if more condominiums were on the market, they could immediately sell them.”

 

Stops and Starts

The city had a setback recently when the Silverbrook Group said it may not be able to develop 600 apartments in the former Cabotville Mill in the center of town, citing rising construction costs as the main culprit. Vieau remains optimistic that both the Cabotville and Lyman mills will eventually be developed for housing and other uses.

While the next step for the mills is uncertain, that hasn’t stopped Vieau from moving forward with what he called a renaissance of Chicopee’s downtown. The city received a grant to convert the old library building, adjacent to City Hall, into an incubator space for budding entrepreneurs. The first steps involve bringing the building up to compliance with current ADA regulations. Vieau would like to eventually see the cultural council or the chamber take office space there, too.

“I liked the location because it’s not far from the plaza, and I could keep the customers who enjoyed coming in.”

“Entrepreneurs have to start somewhere, so why not start at our old library?” he wondered.

Next door to the old library, the former Rivoli Theatre has just gone up for sale. The mayor called this another space with great potential for the city.

In addition to new entrepreneurs, Chicopee still manages to attract established businesses to locate there. After decades at the Springfield Plaza, Dino Facente had been looking to move the Koffee Kup Bakery. In his words, he “stumbled on” Mickey’s Bike Shop, which had recently closed. The East Street location turned out to be the right spot to move the bakery.

“I liked the location because it’s not far from the plaza, and I could keep the customers who enjoyed coming in,” Facente said. He also credited Chicopee officials at all levels for making the move easy and successful.

“I’ve picked up a lot of business since I’ve been here,” he said. “I’ll be staying here until I retire.”

Features Special Coverage

By Jodi K. Miller, Esq. and Ryan J. Barry, Esq.

Jodi K. Miller

Jodi K. Miller

Ryan J. Barry

Ryan J. Barry

A woman injures her ankle while jogging and goes to the local emergency department for treatment. Despite her injury, she makes sure to go to a hospital in her health plan’s network. Some weeks later, she receives a significant — and unexpected — bill from an emergency department physician. While the hospital was in her health plan’s network, it turns out the treating physician was not. Her health plan paid a portion of the physician’s charges, but she is responsible for the remainder.

This type of ‘balance’ or ‘surprise’ bill has been an ongoing issue when patients receive care from out-of-network providers, some of whom then bill patients the difference between their charges and the health plan’s benefit payment for out-of-network services. These bills are often a surprise because the patient either was not able to choose an in-network provider or was unaware that the provider was out of network until after the services were rendered.

Recently enacted legislation at the federal level and in Massachusetts attempt to address this issue.

A new federal law, the No Surprises Act, went into effect on Jan. 1. The No Surprises Act imposes requirements on healthcare facilities and providers, as well as on health plans, in three key areas: emergency services, non-emergency services provided by out-of-network providers at in-network facilities, and air ambulance services. When those services are rendered, health plans must make a payment to the out-of-network providers, and patients are responsible only for the cost-sharing obligations they would have incurred had the care been provided in network (e.g., co-payments and deductibles).

If the provider does not accept the health plan’s payment, the plan and the provider must attempt to negotiate a reimbursement rate. If negotiations fail, the plan or the provider can initiate a dispute-resolution process to resolve the issue. In these cases, providers may not bill the patient more than the cost-sharing amount, and they are potentially subject to civil monetary penalties of up to $10,000 per violation if they do so.

The No Surprises Act also provides that out-of-network providers of certain scheduled services may not balance-bill patients unless the provider has given advance notice and obtained written consent from the patient. The act sets out specific requirements for the content of the notice, including a good-faith estimate of the costs incurred and a list of in-network options for the patient. This notice and consent process, however, is not available for out-of-network providers of emergency services and other ancillary services (such as anesthesiology, pathology, radiology, and other diagnostic services), or in circumstances where there no in-network provider is available.

Other provisions of the No Surprises Act, including disclosure requirements for both providers and health plans, also aim to increase transparency and consumer protections. Providers are required to publicly disclose and provide to patients a one-page notice about the balance-billing requirements and prohibitions of the No Surprises Act, as well as state law. As discussed below, Massachusetts, too, has recently imposed new disclosure requirements for providers.

Notably, the protections of the No Surprises Act do not apply to emergency services by ground ambulance providers. In those circumstances, out-of-network ground ambulance providers may still bill patients for significant balances, which are invariably a surprise to patients who had no ability to choose an in-plan ambulance provider in an emergency.
Regulations implementing the No Surprises Act have not been without controversy. Medical associations have criticized the regulations implementing the dispute-resolution process as unfairly favoring health plans. Health plans, on the other hand, have lauded the regulations, maintaining that the process will make healthcare more affordable and avoid unnecessary increases in health-insurance premiums.

On Jan. 1, 2021, Massachusetts passed its own law to address balance billing for non-emergency services. That law, which also took effect on Jan. 1, requires healthcare providers to disclose to patients certain information regarding their participation in patients’ insurance plans and patients’ financial obligations for scheduled procedures and services.

Generally, providers are required to tell patients whether they participate in the patient’s insurance plan. If the provider does not participate in the patient’s plan, the provider must disclose the charges and any facility fees for the procedure or service. The provider must also inform the patient they will be responsible for the charges and any facility fees not covered through the patient’s health plan and that they may be able to obtain the procedure or service at a lower cost from an in-network provider.

The law also imposes new requirements on in-network providers to disclose information to patients regarding charges for procedures or services. Providers must also inform patients if their participation in the patient’s health plan changes during a continued course of treatment and make various disclosures when referring a patient to another provider.

There are two consequences if a provider violates the Massachusetts law. First, if an out-of-network provider fails to provide the required notifications and information, the provider cannot bill the patient at all, except for any co-payment, co-insurance, or deductible that would be payable had the patient received the service from an in-network provider. Second, the commissioner of the Department of Public Health is authorized to fine non-compliant providers up to $2,500 per violation.

The recently enacted federal and state laws seek to provide protections to consumers to avoid inadvertent balance bills from out-of-network providers. As these laws go into effect at the start of the new year, providers and health plans should be ready to implement the requirements, and consumers should see fewer surprises in their mailboxes.

Jodi Miller and Ryan Barry are partners in Bulkley Richardson’s healthcare practice.

Features Special Coverage

The Year in Review

You could have called it ‘COVID — year 2.’ Many people did. It was supposed to be the year the pandemic was put in the rear view. But it didn’t work out that way. Instead, 2021 was a year in which COVID-19 not only stayed with us, but multiplied its impact in numerous ways, especially within the business community. The shutdowns, heavy restrictions, canceled events, and long lines for testing in 2020 gave way to vaccinations, a general reopening of the economy, and the return of many events and institutions — from the Big E to the Thunderbirds to the local chambers’ After-5 gatherings — in 2021. But there was also inflation, supply-chain issues, a workforce crisis, profound changes in how and where work is done, and something that came to be known as the Great Resignation. But it was also a year when the local cannabis industry continued to grow and broaden its already significant impact on the region, Smith & Wesson announced it was moving its headquarters to Tennessee, tourism bounced back in a big way, and the region lost one its iconic entrepreneurs and restaurateurs. It was another year to remember — or forget, depending on your point of view. With that, here’s a look back at the biggest stories of the past year.

 

 

COVID-19

Actually, COVID wasn’t one story; it was perhaps a dozen different stories all happening at once, some of which you’ll read about below. There was the virus itself, which evolved into different variants, including Delta and, most recently, Omicron. But there were many side effects from the pandemic, each one being a big story in its own way.

That list includes vaccinations — and there are several different aspects to that story — and also ongoing changes to the workplace, a workforce crisis spawned in many ways by the pandemic, supply-chain shortages, inflation generated by huge amounts of money being infused into the economy at a time when there were shortages of many items, and much more.

The news that everyone had been waiting for — the lifting of all restrictions placed on businesses as a result of COVID — came just before Memorial Day. BusinessWest announced this critical turn with the cover headline ‘The Next Stage.’ In actuality, the next stage wasn’t all that most businesses thought it would be, as many of them were now facing new challenges, such as severe labor shortages, the inability to order parts and supplies, lingering issues regarding remote work, and, much later, matters regarding vaccination (more on all these later).

“In most all respects, things were much better in 2021 than they were in 2020, but ‘normal,’ as in pre-COVID, was elusive for many businesses, large and small.”

Still, in most all respects, things were much better in 2021 than they were in 2020, but ‘normal,’ as in pre-COVID, was elusive for many businesses, large and small. From car dealerships with very few new cars on the lots — and used cars taking up showroom space — to restaurants having to close an extra day during the week because they couldn’t get enough help, there were many signs that the pandemic wasn’t going to be relegated to the past tense any time soon. And with the number of cases and hospitalizations spiking this month, it seems certain there will be a ‘year 3’ of COVID — and, for now, great uncertainty about what that will bring.

The Workforce Crisis

Perhaps the most enduring image from this past year, at least within the business community, was the help-wanted sign. It appeared in the window of every kind of business imaginable, from restaurants to manufacturing plants; from roofing companies to landscapers; from golf courses to supermarkets. The list goes on. Everyone was looking for help. And most of them still are.

Indeed, what can only be called a workforce crisis shows no signs of letting up, with signs saying ‘Help Wanted,’ ‘Join Our Team,’ and ‘We’re Hiring’ still dominating the landscape. BusinessWest covered the story extensively and from many different angles in 2021, interviewing everyone from law-firm managing partners to hospital administrators to restaurant owners. They were all saying the same thing: good help is very hard to find, and for many reasons.

For much of the year, one of the presumed factors was attractive (many would say too attractive) federal unemployment benefits. But when those benefits ended in September, the problem did not improve appreciably. Meanwhile, the workforce crisis has had a number of side effects of its own, including higher wages, the need for sign-on bonuses and other incentives, and, most importantly, lost business opportunities from simply not having enough help. And the matter of finding help became greatly complicated by the growing need for help.

“Perhaps the most enduring image from this past year, at least within the business community, was the help-wanted sign. It appeared in the window of every kind of business imaginable.”

That’s why the phrase ‘Great Resignation’ entered the lexicon in 2021, a reference to the millions of people who left their jobs over the course of the year for reasons ranging from the ability to retire early to job dissatisfaction to mandated vaccinations. Overall, it was a good year to be looking for work, and a very difficult year for those looking for help.

 

Inflation and the Supply Chain

‘The Rising Cost of Everything.’ That was the headline on a BusinessWest cover story in late May. That same headline could have worked in every month since. Indeed, the price of just about everything, from steak to lumber to used cars, kept heading skyward.

Last month, in fact, inflation hit its highest point in almost 40 years. The Consumer Price Index, which tracks the price of a broad range of goods, rose 0.8% in November and is up 6.8% from a year earlier. The biggest risers included food, housing, cars (both new and used), and gasoline. Energy costs in November were up 33% over a year earlier, food costs were up 6%, and used car and truck prices climbed 31%.

The most recent echo of such severe inflation took place in the 1970s, a situation spurred by disruptions in global oil supplies. Inflation rose from below 3% in 1972 to above 13% in 1979, prompting the Federal Reserve to hike interest rates to as high as 20%. By 1982, inflation had receded, but the experience shaped monetary policy for decades.

“One of the main drivers to the current inflation crisis, of course, has been a broken global supply chain — an issue with so many interlocking factors, it’s hard to see it resolving any time soon.”

One of the main drivers to the current inflation crisis, of course, has been a broken global supply chain — an issue with so many interlocking factors, it’s hard to see it resolving any time soon. The earliest factor was a widespread economic shutdown in the spring of 2020; when the economy began reopening at high speed later that year, supply chains — for products like steel, lumber, and other key supplies — were slow to respond to growing consumer demand, and never caught up.

Add in serious delays in freight shipping, a bottleneck of shipping containers across the globe, and a persistent shortage of workers, and the result is additional strain on businesses and soaring prices all the way down the supply line — which eventually reach consumers in the form of, you guessed it, inflation. Untangling all of this will be one of the big challenges facing policymakers and business leaders in 2022.

 

Changes in the Workplace

If 2020 was the year of remote work, then 2021 was the year of deciding if, when, and under what circumstances people would continue to work remotely. And for many businesses, deciding just what to do became a stern challenge.

Many arrived at a hybrid format as the most common-sense solution, a mixed approach that had employees working remotely most days but in the office at least one or two. However, many employees, citing how well they worked at home, questioned whether the hybrid approach was needed or even effective.

Meanwhile, the changing dynamic created still more challenges for those confronting the ongoing workforce challenge. Indeed, beyond salary, benefits, and workplace culture, many job seekers put the ability to work remotely high on their wish list — or demand list, as the case may be.

Sarah Rose Stack, recruiting director for Holyoke-based Meyers Brothers Kalicka, summed things up poignantly in a piece she wrote for BusinessWest in October. “Employees are actively seeking remote or hybrid work opportunities just as many companies are now demanding that employees return to in-person work,” she explained. “Some have even pre-emptively started seeking flexible work opportunities out of fear that their current remote-work situation might change. Many are expressing that the ability to work from home and have more flexible work schedules in general have helped to prevent burnout. People have enjoyed ditching the morning commute and 5 p.m. rush hour. The returned pockets of time have come with myriad benefits, including more sleep, more time with family before and after work, less wear and tear on vehicles, more time with pets, and an overall more comfortable environment.”

“If 2020 was the year of remote work, then 2021 was the year of deciding if, when, and under what circumstances people would continue to work remotely. And for many businesses, deciding just what to do became a stern challenge.”

But while remote work presents challenges, there are opportunities for businesses as well; managers in many different sectors told BusinessWest that remote work gives them the opportunity to recruit talent from across the country, not simply from within the 413. That same opportunity could be a boon for this region and, especially, rural areas like the Berkshires and Franklin County, which offer quality of life, lower cost of living, and, now, an opportunity to live there and work almost anywhere. Like many of the stories on our list, this one will take some time to play out.

 

Smith & Wesson Heads to Tennessee

The press release found its way into the inbox of area media outlets early in the morning of Sept. 30. And it was a bombshell. Smith & Wesson President Mark Smith was announcing that the company was moving its corporate headquarters — and roughly 500 jobs — from Springfield, where the company was launched more than 150 years ago, to Blount County, Tennessee.

The stated reason was that the company did not want to remain headquartered in a state where legislation had been filed that would ban the manufacturing of more than half the products (specifically assault weapons) made by the company. Smith & Wesson’s new home is a county that bills itself as a ‘Second Amendment sanctuary.’

While the stated case for leaving was greeted with significant skepticism — many elected officials stated that the company was simply taking advantage of huge tax breaks and other incentives — there was considerable discussion about just what Springfield and this region would be losing. The 500 jobs were at the top of that list, obviously, but some were saying the city was also losing some of its business and manufacturing heritage (even if 1,000 of the company’s jobs were staying in the city) and some bragging rights, given that S&W is among the most recognizable brands in the world.

As for the lost jobs, some elected officials, and some area manufacturers as well, see this as an opportunity for the region, given the ongoing workforce crisis and shortage of good help (see how the stories on this list are all interconnected?). One firm, Indian Orchard-based Eastman, actually started advertising directly to those impacted Smith & Wesson workers, welcoming them to seek work at that firm.

 

Cannabis Continues to Flourish

In the three years and one month since NETA opened on Conz Street in Northampton and became the state’s very first dispensary for legal, recreational cannabis, almost 200 cannabis businesses — not just retail shops, but growers, manufacturers, labs, and wholesalers — have cropped up across Massachusetts. Last month, total sales in Massachusetts crossed the $2 billion mark … and the second billion arrived in a much shorter timespan than the first billion.

What this tells industry proponents is that constant expansion of competition isn’t simply spreading out a limited pool of customers; it’s creating more, and many believe there remains a significant well of individuals who haven’t yet turned on, but will eventually, as they hear good things from friends and family and the last barriers of stigma fall.

Locally, that’s good news on a couple of economic fronts: municipal tax revenues and jobs. In Northampton, for instance, which boasts at least 20 cannabis-related businesses, excise taxes have brought in more than $4.3 million over three years, to help pay for much-neede city services. And just down the road in Holyoke, a surge in employment in this new industry — hundreds of jobs and counting in that city alone — has led to new job-training programs to feed the growing demand.

If there has been one hiccup, the Cannabis Control Commission’s stated commitment to social-equity opportunities — with the goal of helping communities and demographics negatively impacted by the war on drugs to access entrepreneurship opportunities in cannabis — has met with inconsistent results. But commissioners have heard those complaints, and the conversation continues.

“Last month, total sales in Massachusetts crossed the $2 billion mark … and the second billion arrived in a much shorter timespan than the first billion.”

Meanwhile, the sheer number of cannabis businesses in Massachusetts is actually making it easier for all players — even small ones — to succeed, because of the cross-pollination making vertical integration less of a necessity these days. It’s an industry of many niches, and every niche is reporting tremendous oppportunity.

 

Tourism Industry Rebounds

While full recovery is still a ways off, the region’s large and vital tourism and hospitality industry staged an inspiring comeback in 2021. The biggest story, on many levels, was the return of the Big E after a one-year hiatus due to COVID. The 17-day fair drew large crowds — nearly 1.5 million in total — and on the final Saturday, it topped the all-time single-day attendance mark with 177,238 visitors.

Meanwhile, the fair boosted the fortunes of a number of other businesses, from hotels and restaurants to tent-renting companies. But there were other signs of progress as well, including solid visitation numbers at a renovated Basketball Hall of Fame, the return of live performances at Jacob’s Pillow and a host of other cultural venues, a steady if unspectacular year for MGM Springfield, and, of course, the return of the Springfield Thunderbirds, which were in first place as of this writing.

As for restaurants, they rebounded as well, with patrons returning in large numbers, especially after the state lifted all restrictions on such businesses just before Memorial Day. But for most all restaurants, reopening came with challenges, especially on the workforce side, with many forced to close more than one day a week (the traditional number) because of a lack of workers.

“While full recovery is still a ways off, the region’s large and vital tourism and hospitality industry staged an inspiring comeback in 2021. The biggest story, on many levels, was the return of the Big E after a one-year hiatus due to COVID.”

As for hotels and event venues, weddings and similar events returned in full force, but the story was different on the corporate side, with travel and events still well below pre-COVID levels. So, while the tourism sector has recovered to some degree, there is still some work to do.

 

The Vaccination Issue

Businesses already facing a number of challenges as a result of COVID were handed another with the arrival of vaccinations to combat the virus.

The efficacy of vaccines isn’t in doubt. While they don’t totally prevent spread or infection, their impact on severity is well-documented, with hospital ICUs reporting that 95% or more of the most severe cases — and deaths — in 2021 have been among the unvaccinated. And those deaths are nothing to scoff at. As the pandemic approaches the end of a second year, the U.S. is about to surpass 800,000 deaths from the virus, hitting the elderly the hardest; roughly one in 100 older Americans has died from the virus, while, for people younger than 65, that ratio is closer to 1 in 1,400.

So it’s natural that business and political leaders have been frustrated by vaccine hesitancy among wide swaths of Americans. While the vaccines have certainly prompted decreases in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths from COVID, they have left employers with hard decisions — and some dilemmas.

“While the vaccines have certainly prompted decreases in cases, hospitalizations, and deaths from COVID, they have left employers with hard decisions — and some dilemmas.”

Many business owners didn’t want to be in a position to require vaccinations, but this fall, the Biden administration made the decision for them, requiring vaccinations for all businesses with more than 100 employees and those working on federal contracts (or subcontracts), healthcare workers, and federal government workers.

Legal challenges have gone back and forth on these vaccination mandates, putting the mandate for federal workers in limbo for a time (though it’s back on for the time being), while private employers moving forward with the mandate must cope with employees leaving because they don’t wish to be vaccinated, adding to an already-difficult workforce environment. It’s another story that will play itself out over the coming weeks and months.

 

Data Center Proposed in Westfield

It’s being called the largest private-sector development proposal in the region’s history. That some of the language attached to a plan to build a $2.7 billion data center on a 165-acre parcel off Servistar Industrial Way in Westfield.

The proposal’s developers, Servistar Industrial Realties, have presented plans calling for a complex of 10 buildings totaling more than 2.74 million square feet, with projected customers expected to include the likes of Google, Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, and Facebook. The project, which still has a number of hurdles to clear before it becomes reality, has received approval from the Planning Board and City Council, with the state now considering a 40-year tax-abatement package.

The developers focused in on Westfield and the large parcel in question — actually, several smaller parcels knitted together — because the site could check a number of boxes, including the ability to draw power, and large amounts of it, directly from the grid, as well as access to a reliable, high-speed fiber communications network. Competitive cost of doing business is also high on the list, as is a skilled workforce and easy access to major markets.

Area economic-development officials note that, while sites for such massive initiatives, called ‘hyperscale’ projects, are rare, there is the potential for smaller-scale data-center ventures, and success with the Westfield project could create other opportunities for the region.

 

Housing Prices Soar

Have you tried to buy a house lately? How frustrating has it been?

Probably plenty frustrating, because of a simple supply-and-demand equation: there are far fewer available houses on the market, especially in Western Mass., than there are buyers, and that’s caused prices to soar. Homes are often publicly on the market for a day or two before they’re snapped up, often at more than the asking price, sometimes without an inspection.

Statistics from the Realtor Assoc. of Pioneer Valley bear this out. Last December, home sales in the Pioneer Valley were up 29.2%, and median price was up 10.1%, from December 2019. And the trend has continued through 2021, with sales down slightly from 12 months earlier, but the median price up another 15%.

A few different factors have been in play. Since the start of the pandemic, especially since the advent of widespread remote work, families have been trying to escape urban areas, driving sales in Berkshire and Franklin counties, but also in more populous Hampden and Hampshire counties as well. Demand has outpaced supply, and home buyers aren’t putting their own houses on the market until they’ve got a new home nailed down.

Meanwhile, interest rates have been at historic lows, even creeping below 3%. “The rates are so low that a lot of people are realizing it’s much cheaper than renting,” Realtor Tanya Vitale-Basile told BusinessWest earlier this year, adding that sellers from the Boston area find they can get much more living space for their money in the Pioneer Valley.

In short, families spending much more time at home have decided they want a different one — and for many, it’s been tough to buy one.

 

Other Stories from 2021

There were many of them, including the death in May of serial entrepreneur and restaurateur Andy Yee. What would have been his 60th birthday a few weeks later was one of the bigger parties of the year. It was a celebration of a life well-lived.

There was a loss of another kind in late November, when a four-alarm fire ravaged the Maple Center Shopping Plaza in Longmeadow, which left five businesses, which collectively employed 74 people, homeless. The community has rallied around the business owners and employees to help them recover.

In news that affects businesses of all kinds, 2021 will be a record-breaking year for data breaches. According to Identity Theft Resource Center research, the total number of data breaches through three quarters has already exceeded the total number of events in 2020 by 17%, with 1,291 breaches from January through September 2021 compared to 1,108 breaches in 2020.

Ambitious proposals for east-west rail, connecting Pittsfield and Boston along the southern half of the state and North Adams and Boston up north, have gained steam, with MassDOT just last week convening stakeholders and launching a study of the latter. Meanwhile, north-south service on the Amtrak Valley Flyer and Vermonter lines was restored over the summer after pandemic cutbacks.

“In news that affects businesses of all kinds, 2021 will be a record-breaking year for data breaches. According to Identity Theft Resource Center research, the total number of data breaches through three quarters has already exceeded the total number of events in 2020 by 17%, with 1,291 breaches from January through September 2021 compared to 1,108 breaches in 2020.”

Plans by Carvana to build a large car-processing facility in Southwick were scuttled over the summer when the company withdrew its proposal hours before a public meeting where residents were expected to oppose it by a wide margin, mainly due to traffic concerns.

One ongoing story from 2021 is an apparent surge in entrepreneurship prompted by COVID and its many side effects. Indeed, the pandemic left many with the time and inclination to move on with their dreams of owning their own businesses, and many of them seized the opportunity, with new ventures ranging from breweries to a Latino marketing agency to a wine-distribution business.

As for BusinessWest, it was a busy year, especially when it came to events. Due to COVID, there were actually six this year, with two slated for late in 2020 rescheduled for this past January. Live events returned with a raucous 40 Under Forty gala at the Log Cabin in September, followed by the Healthcare Heroes and Women of Impact celebrations in October and December, respectively. Nominations are open for these recognition programs for 2022.

 

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Lyn Simmons says the town’s former adult center may become the future home of municipal offices.

Lyn Simmons says the town’s former adult center may become the future home of municipal offices.

While two major construction projects reached completion in 2021, it’s no time to slow down for Longmeadow officials, who are planning several more projects for 2022 and beyond.

In June, Department of Public Works staff moved into their new $24 million facility on Dwight Road. Town Manager Lyn Simmons said the new location provides a cleaner, safer work environment with amenities that save money for the town over time.

“The DPW now has vehicle wash bays to clean dirt and salt off their equipment as well as lifts that are appropriate for the vehicles we have,” Simmons said. “We also have covered storage for everything, which, in New England, is critical for maintaining all this expensive equipment.”

Marybeth Bergeron, who chairs the Permanent Town Building Committee, said the DPW facility has come a long way from its old location on Pondside Road. After operating out of a couple buildings constructed in the early 1930s that she described as “incredibly poor condition,” the new location improves efficiency and morale.

“Our new DPW director, Geoff McAlmond, is working to unify all the entities in Public Works, and it’s much easier to do that with all the staff and department heads in one place,” Bergeron said.

Simmons said the new facility will have a positive impact on town business beyond the DPW. “Police, fire, and other departments that have town vehicles now have a fueling facility they can use as well.”

“People who never set foot in the old center are coming to the new one because it is, quite frankly, gorgeous, and it offers people what they want.”

In early November, Simmons cut the ribbon for the new Longmeadow Adult Community Center on Maple Road. The $14 million building features plenty of space for seniors looking to take part in exercise, activities, or one of the many other programs available.

Bergeron pointed out that older residents use fewer town resources, such as the school system and even trash pickup, because their households are smaller. At the same time, their numbers are growing as more people retire every day, and they are looking to stay active and social. For all those reasons, she said many communities are investing in their elders.

“People who never set foot in the old center are coming to the new one because it is, quite frankly, gorgeous, and it offers people what they want,” she added.

Thanks to a $250,000 donation from S. Prestley Blake toward the end of his life, the center has something few such facilities have: a dedicated gymnasium at one end of the building, featuring a full court that can be used for basketball or volleyball and an elevated walking track around the perimeter. On the day BusinessWest toured, three pickleball courts were set up, with games in progress.

The new facility is located less than 100 yards away from the old adult center, which was a former elementary school at Greenwood Park. In the immediate short term, the commercial kitchen in the old center will be used by staff from Armata’s Market to prepare holiday meals for their customers after a fire in November destroyed the market, a longtime fixture in Longmeadow (see story on page 15).

Looking ahead, the former adult center may be the future home for the town municipal offices. Currently, municipal staff are located in Town Hall and the adjacent Community Hall. Town Hall offers limited space, and Simmons said bringing it into compliance with current standards under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) would be cost-prohibitive. A recent feasibility study looked at reusing the Greenwood site as combined office space for the town.

“We would move municipal employees from Town Hall and Community Hall to one location and consolidate under one roof,” Simmons said. If the plan is approved, Simmons said the town can pay for renovations to the Greenwood site out of the $4.6 million allocated to Longmeadow under the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA).

Before the town can consider re-using the former DPW site, Simmons said the first goal is to demolish the old buildings which are deemed unsafe.

“We’ve done a feasibility study to see if ground mounted solar panels would make sense for us financially,” she said. “It looks like that would be a good use, but we have a ton of work to do before it can go out to bid.” Right now, it looks like the town will tackle this project in the spring or summer of 2022.

 

Doing Their Homework

Though mask measures are still in place and students are still adjusting to daily in-person learning, Longmeadow Schools Superintendent Martin O’Shea said having students back in class full-time makes it feel more like a typical school year.

In addition to what he termed as “the ebbs and flows of the school day,” he also recognizes the town is at a crossroads when it comes to deciding the future of its two middle schools.

Glenbrook Middle School, built in 1967, and Williams Middle School, built in 1959, are two well-maintained buildings, neither of which has had any significant renovation work since they were completed. Despite all the care and maintenance, time has a way of catching up with many of core systems, and the HVAC, plumbing, and electrical infrastructure in both buildings have reached the end of their useful life. A study by Colliers Project Leaders identified more than $30 million of essential maintenance and repair issues at the two schools.

O’Shea said the Longmeadow School Committee has petitioned the Massachusetts School Building Authority (MSBA) to help answer the question: should Longmeadow repair the two schools or bring all the middle-school students into one new building?

“If we commit to the repairs Colliers identified, we would make critical improvements to the two schools, but we’re left with the old footprint and the old design,” he explained. “We still wouldn’t have the types of learning spaces we think would be best for students for the next 50 years.”

Longmeadow at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1783
Population: 15,853
Area: 9.7 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $24.74
Commercial Tax Rate: $24.74
Median Household Income: $109,586
Median Family Income: $115,578
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting; Town Manager; Board of Selectmen
Largest Employers: Bay Path University; JGS Lifecare; Glenmeadow
* Latest information available

Working with the MSBA can be a six- or seven-year process. That’s why O’Shea believes Longmeadow is at a crossroads right now. He and others in town support building new rather than investing in the old.

“Our sense is that it would be more cost-effective and more educationally effective to build a new school,” he said, adding that modern schools are built to be fully accessible, with rich digital-learning spaces, as well as spaces for small-group support and intervention.

O’Shea recognizes many residents value having two neighborhood-based middle schools in town, but both need extensive repairs and modernization to continue to serve today’s students. One new middle school can easily accommodate the 648 students currently attending Glenbrook and Williams.

“If we combined our two middle schools under one roof, we could potentially create educational economies of scale, and the new building would reflect a more typically sized middle school,” he said. “The average middle school in Massachusetts accommodates right around 600 students.”

Unlike many communities, Longmeadow does not experience significant school-enrollment swings, but instead stays fairly steady over many years. O’Shea said that’s an important consideration when going through the MSBA process.

“The whole building project begins when MSBA engages the community in demographic studies to better understand enrollment and population trends,” he noted. “That way, they can make sure the school that is eventually built is positioned for future enrollment.”

The middle-school project represents another chapter in Longmeadow’s continued commitment to academic excellence. O’Shea said education is an important part of the town’s economic engine.

“Longmeadow places a premium on education,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s the reason people move here and why it’s a great place to raise a family.”

 

Great Outdoors

Longmeadow also prides itself on its many recreation areas. Simmons is looking to bring in a consultant to assess all swimming pools, basketball courts, playgrounds, and other sites to assess their condition. Once the town has a baseline on the needs for each area, Simmons’ goal is to have a community conversation with town departments and committees as well as with residents to identify the most pressing projects.

“We want a roadmap so we can get strategic on how we eventually fund that work and complete those projects,” she said.

With these projects and others on the horizon for Longmeadow, Bergeron acknowledged she and the Building Committee will have plenty of work ahead. “I’m looking forward to the next five to 10 years as we get some of these projects off the ground and up and running.”

Features

Picking Up the Pieces

The aftermath of the Nov. 23 fire

The aftermath of the Nov. 23 fire that ravaged the Maple Center shopping plaza.

Alexis Vallides has some experience bouncing back from disaster.

Actually, it was her bother who had that experience. His business, Latino Food Distribution, was one of many in West Springfield that were leveled by the tornado that tore through many area communities in 2011.

Vallides has been leaning hard on her brother, and certainly gaining inspiration from his comeback, as she embarks on one of her own.

Indeed, Vallides is one of many business owners who were left homeless by the massive fire just before Thanksgiving that engulfed the plaza in Longmeadow that unofficially took of the name of her business, Armata’s Market.

She was called early in the morning on Nov. 23 to let her know about a fire in the neighboring liquor store. Less than a few hours later, her store was almost completely leveled.

Like others impacted by the blaze, she is starting to write the next chapter in her business story, and, while there are many emotions attached to this rebuilding process, she is, well, very businesslike about it.

“As a business owner, things happen; we take a lot of risks,” she said. “Every day, we’re susceptible to catastrophes and disasters like that; you have to cope and move on.”

That’s what her team did the morning of the fire — she recalls employees standing and watching the fire, and also conceiving ways to prepare and distribute prepared meals for customers.

Armata’s was one of five businesses impacted by the fire at the Maple Center shopping plaza, which left 74 people unemployed initially. The others are the Bottle Shop liquor store, Iron Chef Asian Cuisine, Longmeadow Salon, and Dream Nail and Salon. Most, if not all, have expressed a desire to reopen — in Longmeadow if they can, said Lyn Simmons, town manager, noting, as others did, that there isn’t a large inventory of retail space, and especially vacant space, in this mostly residential community.

One business, the salon, has already reopened in East Longmeadow, she said, adding that, as these business owners grapple with the many challenges facing them, the town, the state, and several area business and economic-development-focused agencies are bringing resources to bear aiding in the recovery process, and connecting impacted business owners with grants, loans, and whatever else is needed to start anew.

Grace Barone, who leads one of those agencies, the East of the River Five Town Chamber of Commerce, knows firsthand what it’s like to claw back after a fire has destroyed a business and left dreams in a state of perilous limbo. Indeed, she owned Bridal Reflections, one of 20 ventures left homeless by a massive blaze in a retail plaza in Palmer.

She told BusinessWest that, in the wake of such a disaster, business owners go through a wide range of emotions, from the initial shock to what amounts to grief concerning their loss, to the frustration that comes from dealing with insurance companies and the myriad other issues related to getting back on one’s feet.

“As a business owner, things happen; we take a lot of risks. Every day, we’re susceptible to catastrophes and disasters like that; you have to cope and move on.”

“This is a challenging time, and it can be so overwhelming,” she said, adding that, in such a situation, the best her agency and others can do is stand by those impacted by it and provide whatever support they can.

“You go through the shock of ‘oh my gosh, everything I’ve worked for is gone; what do I do next?’” she said. “You try to formulate a plan and determine whether you’re going to rebuild and where you will conduct business in the meantime. And you go forward from there. But every time you think you’ve taken a few steps forward, there’s always something that pops up, and then you have a setback. We want to make sure we’re there for our members when those times come.”

As for Vallides, she is moving forward with plans to find both a temporary location and, if the Maple Center owners rebuild, as she expects they will, return to Shaker Road in the future.

“I’m checking out places in Longmeadow and Enfield for a temporary location, but, unfortunately, Longmeadow doesn’t seem to have anything quite big enough for our needs,” she said, noting that the operation requires roughly 5,000 square feet. “There are a few potential landing spots in February, and maybe by February we can get something up and running.

“We’re in it for the long run, and if we can set up something temporarily, close to our customers, we’ll do that,” she went on. “But, ultimately, we want to be back on Shaker Road.”

As for what she learned from her brother’s experience and is using to help her in her comeback efforts, she said there were many lessons from that story.

“It’s important to be strong and hang in there, not just for myself, but my employees as well,” she said. “Everyone counts here.”

And with that, she spoke for everyone impacted by that fateful fire.

 

—George O’Brien

Features

Thinking About Better.com

By John Gannon

 

A few weeks ago, about 900 employees working at Better.com were asked to simultaneously attend a virtual Zoom meeting. They were probably expecting information about updated company policies or perhaps some sort of holiday bonus. Instead, Better.com CEO Vishal Garg notified all attendees during the three-minute video call that their employment was terminated “effective immediately.”

Apparently, Better.com, which is a popular online mortgage-lending service, claimed that hundreds of the employees who were let go had been “stealing” from the company by working remotely only a few hours a day. After videos of the termination meeting surfaced on social media, Garg faced significant criticism for his seemingly crass and heartless actions during the holiday season. He subsequently apologized, saying he “failed to show the appropriate amount of respect and appreciation for the individuals who were affected and for their contributions to Better.” He then took a leave of absence from work.

John S. Gannon

John S. Gannon

“The bigger issue here seems to be that Better.com was not doing an effective job monitoring and motivating their remote workforce. This can certainly be a challenge when employees are home in their pajamas instead of in the office.”

There is a lot to unpack here from an employment-law perspective. For starters, was there anything unlawful about Better.com’s actions? Coldness aside, the answer is no, assuming none of the more than 900 employees were let go for discriminatory reasons, such as age, race, or taking medical leave (just to name a few). However, given the media spotlight on Better.com right now, I would not be surprised if at least a few of those fired employees brought lawsuits contending they were let go for unlawful reasons.

Let’s move on to the suspected stealing — can you fire employees who steal from you? That’s an easy one. Of course you can. But were these folks stealing by working less than an expected eight-hour day while at home? I don’t think they were. Employees often fail to work their expected hours in a day, week, or month, while being paid their full salaries at the same time. This is not stealing. Instead, it sounds more like a performance and time-management problem that should be addressed by managers and supervisors. If there is a significant gap between expected and actual hours worked, this could be a problem that warrants discipline or even termination from employment if particularly severe. But it should not be labeled or viewed as company theft.

The bigger issue here seems to be that Better.com was not doing an effective job monitoring and motivating their remote workforce. This can certainly be a challenge when employees are home in their pajamas instead of in the office. I have talked to executives who feel strongly that people simply are not going to get as much done at home because the temptation to slack off is too great. That may be so, but there are tools that businesses can implement to track and monitor employee work habits and productivity while at home.

For starters, daily Zoom meetings, or at least a few video calls per week, put people in the mindset of being at work while giving colleagues a chance to see and interact with their peers, even if it is through a video screen. Second, if a business has real concerns about employees slacking off at home, there are all sorts of employee-monitoring software products out there that do everything from tracking keystrokes to measuring time away from the computer. Just be sure these tracking tools do not run afoul of workplace privacy laws.

In order to satisfy these laws, you generally have to disclose to the employee that they are being tracked and/or monitored, which undoubtedly will cause concern to some of your workforce who feel ‘Big Brother’ is looking over their shoulder.

“The final and most important lesson brought to us courtesy of Better.com was how not to communicate a 900-person layoff to your workforce.”

The final and most important lesson brought to us courtesy of Better.com was how not to communicate a 900-person layoff to your workforce. Losing your job over a three-minute video chat alongside 900 peers is just awful. Many of those employees undoubtedly provided numerous years of service to Better.com. They were rewarded with no chance to ask questions about the layoff decision, no chance to talk about other opportunities within the organization, and apparently no offer of severance to get them through the holidays. Garg faced severe criticism in the media for his callous approach to firing 900 people at once — and deservedly so.

But is there an easy way to tell people they are getting laid off? No, there is not. But there is a right way and a wrong way. The wrong way was illustrated by Garg — cold and impersonal, and showing no signs that you care in any way about the employees’ future endeavors.

Based on my experience, the right way to conduct a layoff involves three things. First, employers need a polished communication strategy that involves one-on-one meetings with affected employees that gives them an opportunity to have some real dialogue about the decision-making process and suggestions for future success with another company.

Second, consider offering outplacement services to all employees who are part of a reduction in force. Outplacement services are coaching and mentoring programs that help separated employees find a new position. These services are typically affordable and demonstrate that the business cares about its workforce.

Finally, providing some severance to affected employees is always recommended. This may not be an option if the reason for the layoff is driven by financial considerations, which is often the case. Even so, severance should absolutely be part of the conversation when thinking through a layoff, and, in my opinion, should be offered as a gesture of goodwill unless the bottom line just will not allow for it.

 

John Gannon is a partner with Springfield-based Skoler, Abbott & Presser, specializing in employment law and regularly counseling employers on compliance with state and federal laws, including the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Fair Labor Standards Act, and the Occupational Safety and Health Act; (413) 737-4753.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Mayor Bob Cressotti

Mayor Bob Cressotti says soaring real-estate activity may lead to the tough decision to re-evaluate Enfield homes and businesses.

There is no shortage of activity in development projects for Enfield.

The most significant project involves the town, with the support of state and federal officials, constructing a train-station platform in the Thompsonville section of town. The planned station will be a stop for Amtrak trains coming from Hartford and Springfield. Mayor Bob Cressotti called it a key to Enfield’s future growth.

“If we have rail access to Hartford, New York City, and points north, such as Springfield and Vermont, we can encourage more young people to live in Enfield,” Cressotti said, noting that funding for the station will come from the infrastructure bill recently signed by President Biden. In the final legislation, Connecticut is scheduled to receive $1.2 billion for roads and transit over the next five years.

When built, the station will be located just beyond Bigelow Commons, a 700-unit apartment complex that was once the Bigelow Carpet Mill. Nelson Tereso, the town’s deputy director of Economic & Community Development, said plans by the Connecticut Department of Transportation call for a covered 220-foot platform that would accommodate entrances to four train cars. As a high-level platform, passengers would be able to walk directly into the cars.

“If we have rail access to Hartford, New York City, and points north, such as Springfield and Vermont, we can encourage more young people to live in Enfield.”

Tereso is working on a number of details for the project, among them securing a right-of-way agreement with Bigelow Commons for parking at the station. Northland, the company that owns the Commons, has indicated it supports the train-station project in Enfield.

“They’ve been very good to work with,” he noted. “In fact, many of their apartment complexes around the country are located near transportation hubs.” 

In anticipation of the train station, Tereso said the town has identified several properties within walking distance that would be ideal candidates for redevelopment. With the success of Bigelow Commons, he sees more potential for housing in that area.

On North Main Street, the Strand Theater has been closed for nearly 30 years and is slated for demolition by next summer. Next door sits the Angelo Lamanga Community Center. Tereso said the town has appropriated money for its demolition, too, but he is talking with developers to see if it’s possible to find a new use for the 27,000-square-foot building.

“We want to sell the Lamanga Center to a developer who is forward-thinking and looking ahead at the train station our town will have in a few years,” he explained. “While not as large as Bigelow, these parcels represent an opportunity to build additional market-rate apartments, especially for young professionals who are working in Hartford and Springfield.”

 

On the Home Front

According to Cressotti, demand for housing is certainly up Enfield. Since the pandemic began, nearly 2,200 property transfers have been recorded in Enfield. The rising real-estate market is leading to what he called the tough decision of re-evaluating houses and businesses in town.

“Residential property values have increased by 25% to 30% on average,” he said. “We’re going to adjust the mill rate to prevent a huge spike in the tax bills.”

With such large increases in home prices, getting families to locate to Enfield can be a challenge. Tereso talked about a first-time homebuyer program the town offers to increase purchasing power for eligible buyers. The program provides a deferred loan up to $10,000 at a 0% interest rate for first-time buyers who purchase a home in Enfield. For those who choose a home in the Thompsonville or North Thompsonville section of town, the loan is forgivable.

“This program provides the gap funding that many folks need in order to afford a mortgage,” he said, noting that starter homes in Enfield typically cost between $150,000 and $250,000. “It has especially helped younger families to buy their first home.”

With families in mind, the town is currently transforming Higgins Park from a softball field into a multi-faceted park. Plans call for expanding Higgins, as the town plans to purchase the gymnasium building that belonged to the former St. Adalbert parish that abuts the park. Cressotti said the final layout will feature walking trails, a new basketball court, a swimming pool, a splash pad, and a band shell for outdoor concerts.

“We are making five- and 10-year plans instead of just reacting to what’s happening now. Sure, there are challenges ahead of us, but we’ll take each one as they come and always try to do what’s right for the town of Enfield.”

“When it’s complete, the park will have appeal to all ages, and we will be able to hold sponsored events there on a consistent basis,” he noted.

When the pandemic hit in early 2020, officials tried to figure out how to keep town business operating. It so happened that a Santander Bank branch two doors down from Town Hall had recently closed and was on the market. The idea was floated to lease the former bank and use its drive-up window as a convenient and contact-free way to conduct town business during the pandemic.

“The drive-up window worked great for residents looking to apply for building permits, pick up a dog license, or pay their taxes,” Tereso said.

The town moved the entire Tax Department into the former bank and renamed it Enfield Express. The site also had enough room to locate a police substation in the rear of the building. Tereso said the town just finalized the purchase of the building, making it official that Enfield Express is here to stay.

“People love it,” he added. “We will absolutely continue the drive-up service after the pandemic is over.”

Purchasing the former bank branch also expands the amount of municipal parking and provides another entry point for the newly configured Higgins Park.

“When the Tax Department moved out of Town Hall, we turned their old space into a new conference room,” Tereso said, noting yet another benefit of creating Enfield Express.

Finding new uses for existing structures is all part of the plan in Enfield. For example, the Social Services Department recently moved from 110 High St. to the former Alcorn School, where the town’s IT Department is located, while 110 High St. is one of seven town properties Enfield has sold while it strives to efficiently use municipal space.

Enfield at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1683
Population: 44,626
Area: 34.2 square miles
County: Hartford
Residential Tax Rate: $34.23
Commercial Tax Rate: $34.23
Median Household Income: $67,402
Median Family Income: $77,554
Type of Government: Town Council, Town Manager
Largest Employers: Lego Systems Inc., MassMutual, Retail Brand Alliance, Enfield Distribution Center
* Latest information available

As Tereso explained, “110 High Street was once a day-care center. We sold it to a day-care provider who will now be able to expand their presence in Enfield.”

Enfield Square, purchased by Namdar Realty in 2018, could be another candidate for redevelopment. The new owners were granted a zone change to reconfigure the mall and subdivide the parcels.

While malls all over the country are being redeveloped, Tereso believes Enfield Square’s close proximity to two I-91 exits is a big selling point for future use. He plans to survey residents on possible redevelopment options to get a read on what people would like to see at the mall.

“Whether it’s entertainment, market-rate housing, or outlet shops, all those things could be a successful way to develop the mall for new use,” he said.

 

Life in the Fast Lane

For Cressotti, life these past months has been moving fast.

In October, he won the election to be Enfield’s new mayor. On Nov. 6, he took over the position, and on Nov. 15, longtime Town Manager Christopher Bromson abruptly resigned after a heated exchange with several Town Council members.

After serving in different positions with the town since 1989, Bromson decided to retire and was recently quoted saying he is grateful to see many of the projects started during his time are now going forward. Enfield Police Chief Alaric Fox has added interim Town Manager to his job title until a new manager is hired.

Even with all that happening, Cressotti likes the direction Enfield is headed.

“We are making five- and 10-year plans instead of just reacting to what’s happening now,” he said. “Sure, there are challenges ahead of us, but we’ll take each one as they come and always try to do what’s right for the town of Enfield.”

Features Special Coverage

Changing the Script

Jordan Hart

As part of a broad rebranding and rebuilding effort at the Greater Holyoke Chamber, Jordan Hart is working to build a stronger relationship with the Hispanic business community.

 

Area chambers of commerce, like businesses in all sectors, have suffered during the pandemic and faced a number of stern challenges. For the most part, they have come through these tough times — smaller in many cases, with many chambers now one-person shows — having proven their value and relevance after helping their members survive upheaval without precedence. The challenge moving forward is to rebuild their memberships, their financial foundations, and, yes, their staffs, while also creating new and different ways to maintain that relevance they found during the pandemic.

 

Jordan Hart admits to sometimes getting lonely at the Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce’s spacious offices on High Street.

There are still monthly board meetings in the large conference room and an occasional visitor. And the entrepreneur leasing a small office toward the back of the space comes in now and then.

But mostly, it’s just Hart.

Indeed, this chamber is now essentially a one-person operation, the culmination of a trend that started before the pandemic and has only been accelerated by COVID-19.

“I am the chamber,” said Hart, one several relatively new chamber leaders in the region — she became executive director almost a year ago after more than nine years with the agency in various roles, adding that there were five people working in the same space when she first started there.

And Holyoke’s is not the only area chamber to be run by a staff of one. That’s the model now in place at several agencies, including the Springfield Regional Chamber (SRC), which had five staff members just prior to COVID, but now there’s just one computer humming at its suite of offices at the TD Bank Building, a downsizing that happened over time.

“Part of it was attrition, part of its was budgetary as a result of COVID,” said Nancy Creed, president of the SRC, who announced earlier this month that she will be stepping down from her position no later than next spring to care for her elderly mother.

Coping with smaller staffs — and, in some cases, some loneliness — has been just one of the adjustments area chambers have had to make over the last few years, and especially since COVID. There have been some changes in the services they provide and how they are provided, and there has been somewhat of a change in role as well.

“As chambers stepped up, people saw us as a lifeline. We’re in the business of serving businesses, but never did we realize that we would actually be saving businesses.”

Indeed, where once chambers existed to help promote members and connect them to one another and the community, while also providing needed information on matters ranging from new legislation to changes in tax laws, the mission escalated during COVID — up to and including simply helping members survive an unprecedented disruption to their business and their life.

“As chambers stepped up, people saw us as a lifeline,” said Claudia Pazmany, executive director of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce. “We’re in the business of serving businesses, but never did we realize that we would actually be saving businesses.”

Overall, the chamber members we spoke with summarized what’s happened over the past 21 months or so by saying chambers became more relevant during the pandemic, as evidenced by the fact that membership didn’t decrease for many of them at a time of extreme financial duress for many of their members. In some cases, it actually increased.

“Throughout all of this, chambers have really shown their relevance,” Creed said. “It’s like having health insurance in some respects; you don’t ever want to use it, but you’re glad that it’s there when you need to use it, and we’ve shown what we can do and what our value proposition is.”

Now, the challenge is to remain relevant, they said with one voice, noting that they’re going about this assignment in many different ways.

At the Holyoke Chamber, for example, there has been a rebranding — a new logo and a new website, for starters — but also some strong outreach to Hispanic business owners, said Hart, adding that, historically, that population hasn’t felt as if the chamber represented them.

“It was really important to me to become a more inclusive organization, fostering not only our current members, but growing that and extending that into the Hispanic business community, which has really not had the same opportunities that the chamber has offered to other businesses,” she told BusinessWest, adding that she considers 2021 to be a comeback year for a beleaguered chamber. “I don’t want to continue to segregate the two different business communities, but instead find ways to become more unified and be the business community of Holyoke.”

Grace Barone

Grace Barone says the East of the River Five Town Chamber has brought back many of its events, but with adjustments due to COVID.

At the East of the River Five Town Chamber of Commerce, which includes Longmeadow, East Longmeadow, Ludlow, and other communities south and east of Springfield, there has been a return to many of the gatherings staged before COVID, including the popular breakfasts, an important value-added service for members.

“There’s definitely a need for these kinds of networking events,” said Grace Barone, who came on as executive director of the chamber in June. “Everyone needed to know how folks were doing, how to adjust sales, and how to move forward in this world, so we set out to do that, to bring people together again.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with several chamber leaders about this process of ‘moving forward,’ and all that this phrase entails. As with businesses in every sector of the economy, it means pivoting when necessary and finding new and sometimes different ways to be relevant and present value to members.

 

Meeting Expectations

As she talked about her chamber’s recent trade show and fundraising event, the ERC5 Talkin’ Turkey Table Top 2021, Barone said she took a page from the playbook BusinessWest used at its 40 Under Forty gala in September — the one that called for spreading people out to help reduce risks during a surge in COVID.

“We utilized all the different spaces at Twin Hills Country Club that we could,” she explained. “We had some vendors outside and in the lobby — we provided people with more room. People had to do a little more traveling through Twin Hills, but it happened, and it was a success, and everyone was very happy.”

It was the same at an earlier networking event, staged outdoors in another nod to COVID, at the Apple Place in East Longmeadow, which boasts a creamery and a number of farm animals. It wasn’t your typical networking event setting, but it worked, serving as an example of thinking outside the box and making needed adjustments to how things are normally done, Barone said.

“Throughout all of this, chambers have really shown their relevance. It’s like having health insurance in some respects; you don’t ever want to use it, but you’re glad that it’s there when you need to use it, and we’ve shown what we can do and what our value proposition is.”

Making adjustments at events — and conducting fewer events overall — while also making due with smaller staffs, and often one person, are just some of the changes area chambers have been making since COVID changed the landscape.

“It has certainly not been easy, and chambers have to do more with less now,” Creed said. “But that’s not necessarily a bad thing — I think that’s just business, and everyone needs to learn how to do that.”

Overall, most chambers have handled the adjustments they’ve had to make. There have been cutbacks in staffing for many of the agencies — again, through attrition and some cuts — and other forms of downsizing. But while chambers have closed and merged in other parts of the country and even other parts of this state, all of the chambers in the 413 have kept their names and their identities.

That’s not to say there weren’t some precarious times. Indeed, when Kate Phelon, the long-time executive director of the Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce, announced she would retire at the end of 2020, a search for a successor commenced that September. It was halted a few months later amid some concerns about the chamber’s future — and fiscal concerns stemming from the pandemic — but then started again as arrangements were made to collect past-due membership fees and take other steps to put the agency on solid financial footing.

“Dues started coming in, and people started getting creative about getting businesses into the chamber,” said Eric Oulette, who would eventually become that successor, adding that, today, membership is solid, at nearly 240 members, or roughly where things stood before the pandemic, with the ambitious goal of getting to 300 in the months to come.

Nancy Creed

Nancy Creed says area chambers certainly proved their relevance during COVID, and the challenge now is to maintain that relevance.

He’s confident the chamber can continue adding members and perhaps reach that lofty goal because of the value it has put on display during the pandemic, especially as a resource to members looking for needed information and guidance on relief programs.

Barone agreed. “We’ve been climbing higher and adding new members since I’ve come onboard,” she said, adding that the numbers have been steady and the chamber is on solid ground moving forward.

At the Holyoke Chamber, amid several changes in leadership, the agency fell out of view of many business owners and needed to not only rebrand but reintroduce itself to the business community and in some ways even reinvent itself. And Hart, because of her long tenure with the organization and familiarity with many of the business owners, thought she was in a position to orchestrate what could be called a turnaround.

“I thought I was in a position to really rebrand us and make it known that we’re here to help the community, because there was talk that the chamber was idle,” she told BusinessWest. “We were administering grants, but other than that, we had a very idle pandemic, so I took that opportunity last spring to rebrand us, with a new logo, new website, and new dues structure.”

The more significant aspect of what she is calling a ‘renaissance’ for this chamber is its efforts to promote inclusion and broaden the membership base by putting out a proverbial welcome mat to Hispanic business owners. It is doing this through a number of vehicles, including everything from diversity, equity, and inclusion seminars to complementary Spanish classes (Hart is taking one herself) and English classes as well.

“What I’ve noticed from working here almost a decade is that there are a lot of roadblocks preventing unification within our business community,” she said. “So if can we cross-pollinate and promote one another and highlight one another, using the power of the chamber to become an ally with everyone in our community, we can see tremendous growth. The potential is really endless, in my opinion.”

 

Getting Down to Business

As he talked with BusinessWest, Oulette was just returning from a ribbon-cutting ceremony, one of many he’s been part of over the past few months.

The giant scissors have been given a workout, he said, thanks in part to a surge in entrepreneurship fueled in some ways by the pandemic and the time it gave people to think about, and act on, their dreams of owning their own business.

“It was really important to me to become a more inclusive organization, fostering not only our current members, but growing that and extending that into the Hispanic business community, which has really not had the same opportunities that the chamber has offered to other businesses.”

“More than 20 businesses have opened up in the Greater Westfield area this year alone,” he said, adding that, from what he can gather, most area chambers are equally busy with those ribbon cuttings, and they represent just one of many ways chambers are showing up during these still-challenging times.

Indeed, with federal PPP money and other sources of funding, such as a large grant the Holyoke chamber has secured through its partnership with EforAll Holyoke, area chambers have been able to carry on — in somewhat different fashion, in some cases, and with a somewhat different mentality in others. And, yes, with fewer people at many agencies.

“We’ve transitioned to be more of a mission-driven organization than an events-driven organization,” said Creed, noting quickly that spending less time on events, such as those monthly or quarterly breakfasts that so many area chambers are known for, has freed up time for “things that truly matter.”

Using different words and phrases, all those we spoke with said essentially the same thing — although, for many, those events are still critical as ways to serve members and raise needed operating revenue.

But the pandemic has inspired all the chambers to look beyond those events and at different ways to help members, especially as they continue to battle not only the pandemic, but also a workforce crisis that is without precedent, and now new challenges to their existence, such as inflation and supply-chain woes.

Eric Oulette says he has been busy at ribbon cuttings

Eric Oulette says he has been busy at ribbon cuttings, one of the many ways the Greater Westfield Chamber has been visible and involved.

While the pandemic has eased in some ways, said Pazmany, area chambers are still working to not only serve but save area businesses. And this work takes many forms, from supporting the Amherst BID’s proposal to build a new parking garage downtown to more global efforts to inspire people to buy local.

But the biggest issues, one that chambers are struggling to help with, are the supply-chain woes and the workforce crisis. And they have Pazmany worried because they are preventing businesses from fully bouncing back from the pandemic, and in some ways still threatening their existence.

“I’m worried that, though our business are performing and they’re still open … they’re often just hanging on because of staffing and because of supply-chain issues,” she said. “Look at restaurants; they can’t stay open and serve the same number of people they used to. Most restaurants are busy, but they have to close two days a week, and if a restaurant has to close two days a week, they’re not doing what they were doing before the pandemic.”

And because a chamber’s fortunes are tied to the relative health of the business community it serves, there is understandable cause for concern, she went on.

“I’m a chamber, I’m a member-driven organization, all my support comes from my members and dues and sponsorships,” she explained. “I certainly have a right to worry; we’ve certainly proven ourselves in terms of our value, but if you’re not making the money, you’re going to cut somewhere. And what we don’t know is how long this staffing shortage and these other issues are going to go on.”

“It has certainly not been easy, and chambers have to do more with less now. But that’s not necessarily a bad thing — I think that’s just business, and everyone needs to learn how to do that.”

Barone agreed, but noted that one of the enduring lessons from the pandemic is that challenges can be met if groups and individuals work together and think outside the box.

“If we learned anything from this, it’s that the community comes together; if it weren’t for the residents in our small towns, a lot of businesses, a lot of restaurants, would not have survived,” she said. “But the community rallied, and that’s the piece that we’ve got to take forward — not that we didn’t before, but we need to focus on that with chambers. If our businesses are doing well and they’re successful, they give back to the communities they’re in, and everyone thrives.”

Bottom Line

As she walked and talked with BusinessWest during a visit to the space on High Street, Hart pointed to the desk positioned in the front lobby, the one she occupied when she started with the agency a decade or so ago.

When she became executive director, she recalled, she sat at that desk for some time, partly because of the familiarity, but also, as a one-person show, she wanted to be out front, greeting whoever came through the front door.

She has since settled into her office located behind the conference room, her “zen space,” as she called it. The broad goal for 2022 is to rebuild the chamber’s finances and, hopefully, place another employee at that desk out front — or one of the other unoccupied workstations.

Getting Hart some company is just one of the many challenges to address, and hopefully overcome, as chambers — like the businesses they serve — move on from surviving the pandemic to life after it.

 

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

William Rosenblum

William Rosenblum says Ludlow needs to use available funds to benefit the most people and invest in the future, not just immediate needs.

This fall, two long-anticipated projects in Ludlow opened to the public, and officials say there’s more to come.

In September, the Harris Brook Elementary School on Fuller Street opened for full classes for students in grades 2-5. And in early November, the new Ludlow Senior Center officially opened on State Street. Board of Selectmen Chairman William Rosenblum said that, while Ludlow is already a desirable community, the new school and senior center make it even more so.

“We’ve addressed the bookends of our lives by investing in our children and our seniors,” Rosenblum told BusinessWest, adding that next up for this community is determining the best ways to spend $6.3 million in funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA). Rosenblum said the Board of Selectmen is asking for input from town department heads and Ludlow citizens on how to spend the funds in a way that will benefit the most people in the community and act as investments for the future.

“It’s like the quote from Star Trek — ‘the needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few,’” he said, citing a line credited to Mr. Spock.

Rosenblum added that using the funds to make improvements and updates to existing facilities will take priority over embarking on new projects.

“For example, we’ll be upgrading the HVAC system at the safety complex,” he said. “It’s something that needs to be done, and we will most likely use ARPA funds for it.”

Ludlow Town Planner Doug Stefancik said the guidelines in spending ARPA money focus on helping public health departments and businesses that were hit hard by the pandemic. They also allow towns to address recreational areas such as community centers and parks.

“This might be an opportunity to upgrade some of the existing facilities in our parks,” he added.

“The mill developments are such a game changer for the town. It’s also where a lot of our major economic development will be going forward.”

Another type of project allowed by ARPA involves investments in broadband. Rosenblum said he’d like the town to explore a fiber-optic installation in Ludlow, an idea that was inspired by his work-from-home experience. During the pandemic, while he stayed connected to work through the internet, his two children also attended school online, which severely taxed his home internet capabilities.

“I learned the 19 IP addresses that were in my house, so I could shut down different devices in order to get better internet reception,” he said.

Rosenblum acknowledges that, while fiber optics certainly fits the Star Trek criteria in benefiting many people, such a move requires considerable research to see if it’s even remotely affordable for the town.

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest looks at ARPA options and other pressing matters in Ludlow, a community that has seen considerable residential growth in recent years and is now seeing business growth as well.

 

At a Crossroads

According to Rosenblum, home sales remain brisk, largely because interest rates have stayed low. Meanwhile, over the past two years, home prices in Ludlow have increased 30%, with the average list price topping out at $376,000.

While some residents are concerned about the tax rate, he pointed out that increasing home values are what leads to higher tax bills.

“When you look at tax rates in communities across Massachusetts, Ludlow is right in the middle,” he noted.

Stefancik added that some of the larger McMansion-type homes in town bring in more than $10,000 a year in taxes.

“While that may seem high, taxpayers are getting a new school and a new senior center, which are both good things for the community,” he said. “The new school might even convince a family to move here.”

As Stefancik reviewed the many activities happening through his department with BusinessWest, one interesting trend stood out. Last year, 17 homeowners applied for special permits for home-based businesses, a high-water mark for the community.

“It’s easy to get hung up on what’s going on at the federal level, but people need to look in their own backyard. The decisions that are made in town are the ones that affect people the most.”

While it would be easy to assume the pandemic sparked this increase in home-based business permits, Stefancik said it’s a trend that actually started before COVID arrived.

“The permits range from electricians and carpenters to artists and consultants,” he noted. “Back when I started in the job, these requests might occasionally trickle in, but now it’s our most common special permit.”

This trend was certainly in evidence back in October when the Ludlow Cultural Commission held a Community Market event at Memorial Park. Grace Barone, executive director for the East of the River Chamber, an event sponsor, was impressed with the community support and the number of home-based businesses represented at the market.

Doug Stefancik

Doug Stefancik says home values have soared in Ludlow, and so has the prevalence of home-based businesses.

“I saw some wonderful business ideas, and the community market provided a great showcase for them,” Barone said. “It would not be a surprise to see some of these vendors become future storefronts in town.”

The original idea for a community market was to bring together small businesses, artists, and community organizations, according to Michelle Goncalves, chair of the Ludlow Cultural Commission. Because the pandemic’s impact hurt many small businesses, especially those in arts and culture, the event’s focus shifted to become an occasion to support these entities.

For a first-year event, Goncalves was surprised to see nearly 40 vendors reserve space. She speculated that most of the smaller vendors were home-based businesses.

“In addition to businesses that have storefronts, I would guess that many of our vendors were based at home,” she said. “For example, we had a person who makes wreaths, a photographer who uses his home for a studio, one person who sells essential oils, and another who makes charcuterie boards.”

Planning has begun to bring the community market back next fall. “We definitely want to do this again,” Goncalves said.

While the population of Ludlow has remained fairly steady over the last several years, Rosenblum noted the town is seemingly growing based on the increased activity that happens there.

“Folks in Chicopee like to say they are the crossroads of New England,” Rosenblum said. “Well, Ludlow is the crossroads of about four or five towns, too.” Indeed, from the Ludlow exit on the Mass Pike, travelers head to Granby, South Hadley, Belchertown, Palmer, Indian Orchard, Wilbraham, and other communities.

The busy Ludlow exit from the turnpike feeds into Center Street, which is part of Route 21. Even after the state completed a comprehensive upgrade of the roadway last year, traffic has never been busier.

“I think we got used to traffic during the pandemic, which was very light because people weren’t commuting to work,” Stefancik said. “Now there’s traffic all week, and it’s still busy on the weekends.”

Don’t expect traffic to lessen anytime soon because Ludlow continues to invest in its future. In 2017, town officials working with Westmass Area Development Corp. and Winn Development transformed one of the old mill buildings in the sprawling Ludlow Mills complex into Residences at Mill 10, providing 75 units of age-55-plus, mixed-income housing. In 2022, construction begins on Mill 8, the mill building with its iconic clock tower. Once complete, that project will bring an additional 95 units of senior housing to Ludlow. Town officials offered high praise both for what’s been done so far and the potential for the entire area.

“The mill developments are such a game changer for the town,” Stefancik said. “It’s also where a lot of our major economic development will be going forward.”

Rosenblum concurred, adding that “the mills are a long-term investment for Ludlow, and we enjoy a great partnership with the developers.”

Like Mill 10, Mill 8 will also offer mixed-income housing. Considering the mills, the new single-family houses being built, and the condominiums that exist and are under construction, Stefancik said, Ludlow gives potential residents many options on where to live.

“Looking forward,” he added, “we’re a community that can offer a wide range of housing and provide a great place to live and do business.”

 

 

Right Place, Right Time

As a selectman, Rosenblum enjoys his involvement in projects that make a positive impact on Ludlow, and he believes local politics is “where it’s at.”

“It’s easy to get hung up on what’s going on at the federal level, but people need to look in their own backyard,” he said. “The decisions that are made in town are the ones that affect people the most.”

Mr. Spock couldn’t have said it better.

Features Special Coverage

A Changing Dynamic

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the business landscape in countless ways — from where and how employees work to how people communicate. It has also prompted businesses large and small to stop, think about that phrase ‘corporate stewardship’ and what it means to them, and perhaps re-evaluate this all-important concept. We put together a panel of local business and nonprofit managers to discuss the broad topic of corporate stewardship and how COVID may have provided new definition — in every aspect of that phrase — to this issue. For businesses, the pandemic has provided an opportunity to revisit the matter of community involvement and often find new and different ways to give back.
For nonprofits, missions have been broadened, and there has some been pivoting, out of both necessity and a desire to serve in different ways. The panelists are: Paul Scully, president and CEO of Country Bank; Theresa Jasmin, chief financial officer at Big Y Foods; Amy Scribner, partnership director at East School-to-Career Inc., a nonprofit that provides internships, or work-based learning opportunities and other career-education initiatives, for students; Jack Verducci, vice president of Corporate Partnership for the Worcester Red Sox; Dexter Johnson, president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Springfield; and Michelle D’Amore, executive director of Ronald McDonald House. Scully may have set the tone for the discission when he said, “I think the pandemic has been exhausting and aging, but it’s also been reflective, and I think it’s prompting people to be reflective about how to live your life and how to make a difference.”

BusinessWest: Let’s start by getting your take on — and your working definition of — those phrases ‘corporate stewardship’ and ‘being a good corporate citizen.’

Scully: “Country Bank has been around for 172 years, and its legacy for all those years has been the belief that healthy communities thrive. We’re all in business for our companies to do well, but from a community perspective, we need communities that are healthy — healthy economically, heathy demographically, educationally, with regard to healthcare. So giving back has always been a focus here, and in recent years we’ve taken it to a higher level, both with writing checks and having people on the street giving back and being part of the community. And it differs, depending on what the needs are. There can be very significant multi-year pledges — we just pledged $1 million for hunger awareness in June, with $500,000 for food banks in both Central and Western Mass., because if people have good nutrition, healthy communities will thrive — or having 14 people at Habitat for Humanity helping to build a house. It’s a focus that we do big and small.”

Jasmin: “Being involved in the community is part of the fabric of our company; we consider ourselves a family, we have a culture of caring, and we focus on personal connection, whether that’s with our customers, our employees, or throughout the community. And that manifests itself in many different ways, from large donations to capital campaigns to investments in time and talent. For us, though, it’s about relationships and creating strong vibrant communities; that’s what corporate stewardship means to us.”

Scribner: “For our organization, it’s not so much the money; it’s about organizations allowing these students to come in for semester and do a work-based learning opportunity, and that has long been a challenge for us. We’re trying to create a pipeline for employment, and to do that, we need businesses to assist us and open their doors to students. Often, it’s not about just writing a check, but getting involved on a deeper level.”

D’Amore: “We as a nonprofit are always seeking — and grateful to receive — financial support from the community. But we also rely on our volunteer base. Our organization was built on volunteers; it is the foundation of what we do. For us, we’re continuing our outreach and working with the community to ensure that what we receive is supporting the families who are with us — and there are many forms that this support can take.”

Verducci: “Our WooSox Foundation is a new foundation and not heavily funded, but what we do have is a platform to provide valuable and equitable experiences to the community; specifically, we tend to focus on pediatric oncology, recreation, education, and social justice. So while we love to donate the funds that we do have, we tend to be able to do the most good through corporate partners and partnerships within the community.”

BusinessWest: Has the pandemic changed the dynamic when it comes to corporate stewardship, and if so, how?

Jasmin: “What changed was how urgent the need was and the need to move quickly to respond to those needs. We have a pretty structured mechanism for people who are looking for financial assistance. But during the pandemic, that was accelerated because there was a high sense of urgency. For example, within a week of the shelter-in-place order in March of 2020, we gave some sizable donations to each of the five food banks in our operating area because businesses were shutting down, and people were out of work; the social structure to support those people was not in place yet, so food banks were being taxed. We made that gift quickly, and we made a second gift four weeks later when the need was continuing. That’s one of the ways we adjusted — moving more quickly to meet needs.”

Theresa Jasmin

Theresa Jasmin

“What changed was how urgent the need was and the need to move quickly to respond to those needs.”

Scully: “The urgency absolutely was escalated, but so has the dynamic. When I think of the nonprofits I sit on, so many of them rely on not only corporate giving, but some type of event or two over the course of the year. We’ve all been to a million chicken dinners; what I say to my group is that, when the auction is there, bid high and bid often, because that’s what it’s all about. The big piece that we saw was that people weren’t going to events because they weren’t being held. And it was a case of ‘out of sight, out of mind,’ unfortunately. The money was needed, the funding was needed, but the money wasn’t coming in, and yet all of those organizations had a more dire need than is typical because there were so many people impacted by the pandemic. We looked at it and said, ‘yeah, we can stay with our traditional model of what we do, but there’s a big need to step in here.’ When we look at corporate stewardship and how things have changed over the past 20 months, the need has increased exponentially. So many were hoping that this was the year — we all had our calendars ready for events, and then, they had to switch to virtual events, which don’t raise enough money. So the corporate community needs to realize that, even if there isn’t an event, the needs are so great, and they need to get out there and make a difference.”

D’Amore: “From a nonprofit perspective, we had to figure out how we could support our mission differently. When the pandemic was creeping, we were mandated by our global entity, which holds our licensing agreement, that we could no longer accept new families. And when the last of the families went home, we actually turned it around to provide support to frontline healthcare workers. We opened the house to workers at Baystate to give them an opportunity — if they needed a place to stay, if they needed to take a shower or get a cup of coffee. So our team was committed to support healthcare and support our partner hospitals who are there for us all the time. The tables turned a little bit, but we are able to continue to support our mission in this time of need, and you saw many organizations doing similar things. We pivoted and reinvented ourselves.”

Scribner: “Last year was a real struggle for students; 20% of those students in the Commonwealth just fell off the radar. So we had to change our mindset and pivot, just to help these students communicate how they were feeling. We would have speakers come in an talk about that — how they’re dealing with it, how their companies and themselves personally are dealing with COVID and being on Zoom meetings and not being in school and not being at work. Kids, while resilient, really had a tough time; they missed going to work and interacting with people. It’s those little things that we don’t think about — like going to a company or going to UMass on a field trip. We’re slowly getting back to whatever the new normal is. But last year, we had to have an open mindset and be really flexible about what we could do for the students and also about what we can learn from all these experiences and take those best practices.”

Amy Scribner

Amy Scribner

“Last year, we had to have an open mindset and be really flexible about what we could do for the students and also about what we can learn from all these experiences and take those best practices.”

Johnson: “With the pivot in funding that happened when a lot of companies started steering dollars toward COVID-related things, we also steered a lot of what we were doing toward COVID-related things; we were one of the few places that didn’t really close. When childcare was shut down for the Commonwealth essentially, and then an emergency first-responder-type childcare reopened for those working in retail or transportation or hospitals, we pivoted; our centers closed for one week and then reopened as an emergency childcare facility. We did continue to operate during that time, and on the youth-development side, there were still a lot of great opportunities from a funding standpoint to continue to be involved with some of our corporate sponsors that were changing direction and focusing on COVID.”

Verducci: “We essentially became volunteers; we turned our ballpark in Rhode Island, where we were still based until May, into a food-distribution network. Food insecurity became a huge issue in the region, so we were able to partner with Ocean State Job Lot, which would donate the food, and we would use McCoy Stadium as a vehicle to get that food to people who needed it. We also did coat drives, and we turned the park over to the state to become a testing facility. We tried to use our resources to help where it would do the most good. And once we transitioned to Worcester, we again became volunteers, going to Worcester State University to do food drives and coat drives, and most of those partnerships were with our corporate partners that we’ve had long-time relationships with. We all came together and said, ‘how can we do the best thing for the community, and what do we have at our disposal to move quickly in this challenging environment?’”

Jack Verducci

Jack Verducci

“We all came together and said, ‘how can we do the best thing for the community, and what do we have at our disposal to move quickly in this challenging environment?’”

Scully: “It was suddenly about putting on a different pair of glasses and switching gears when it comes to how you do things. It’s all about, as everyone has talked about, switching gears and saying ‘how do we adapt?’ much like we’ve all had to adapt to how we run our businesses remotely and attend meetings via Zoom.”

BusinessWest: What are the lessons we’ve learned from all this, from having to put a different pair of glasses, and how will this carry over into the future in terms of how we look at corporate stewardship and giving back?

Scully: “If we say that this is the end of the pandemic — and that’s a stretch, certainly — I think what all this has done for us is provide reassurance about how just how good people are and that everyone wants to be a part of something greater. We have a big building here, and for a while there, about four of us were here. You weren’t connecting with people. But as soon as the opportunity came for people to come back, not only to the office, but to get involved with volunteering again, they really wanted to. I think the pandemic has been exhausting and aging, but it’s also been reflective, and I think it’s prompting people to be reflective about how to live your life and how to make a difference. I think people want to be part of something greater, so I think that stewardship will be stronger than ever because this has almost been that switch that has prompted us all to rethink what’s important. There’s a silver lining to everything, and sometimes it’s hard to find, but I think this is it.”

Paul Scully

Paul Scully

“If we say that this is the end of the pandemic — and that’s a stretch, certainly — I think what all this has done for us is provide reassurance about how just how good people are and that everyone wants to be a part of something greater.”

Jasmin: “It was reinforcing for us in terms of our viewpoint on our being involved in the community. We took a look at what our philosophy was and really came out with an even greater understanding that these are the pillars we want to focus on. We’re a food company, first and foremost, and one of our pillars is hunger relief and helping with food insecurity. And that was reinforced for us — this is a continuing need, and we should be involved with it. And just in general, it’s also reinforced that we should continue to be involved — that our investment that we’re making in time and money and people is needed and is valuable. What this has taught us is that we need to be invested continuously, so when a crisis occurs, you can react quickly. It’s not something you can develop from scratch. Overall, it was reinforcing.”

Verducci: “I think the pandemic was a catalyst for empathy amongst companies; it was shared experience that was totally unprecedented, so people were empathetic with each other, and they really did understand what was happening with everyone. Instead of people saying ‘maybe not this year’ when we reached out, everyone we contacted over the past 18 months was willing to help in some way. The other thing we realized was that even the best-laid plans are not going to go the way we anticipate, so you need to be flexible and, more importantly, creative, and this will carry forward.”

D’Amore: “As challenging as the pandemic has been, I think a lot of good has come from it in terms of pausing. Whether as an individual, business, or nonprofit, we all took the time to pause, re-evaluate, and say, ‘what’s the need? How can we help each other?’ Sometimes, prior to the pandemic, we were very focused on our own business model or our own mission, and where it was going. But we were all in the same boat essentially wanting to row in the same direction, so we collectively said, ‘how can we do this together?’”

Michelle D’Amour

Michelle D’Amore

“As challenging as the pandemic has been, I think a lot of good has come from it in terms of pausing. Whether as an individual, business, or nonprofit, we all took the time to pause, re-evaluate, and say, ‘what’s the need? How can we help each other?’”

Johnson: “I think the pandemic pushed us [nonprofits] to work closer together in different ways, such as going after joint funding as one large organization rather than individually, so it has definitely had that benefit.”

BusinessWest: Going forward, how do we maintain this new spirit of cooperation, this new sense of urgency, when it comes to giving back?

Jasmin: “One of the things we lost during the pandemic was that personal connection. We missed seeing our colleagues, our families, and people in the community at large; through corporate stewardship and giving back, we can create those personal connections, and people are recognizing how important this is. The community is us, so when you’re giving back to the community, you’re giving back to yourself, your family, your friends, and your co-workers.”

Scully: It starts with all of us — the leaders or organizations — to set the pace. The pandemic may not be over, but I think that what is over is the hunker-down mentality of being locked up at home in the basement on a computer talking to your colleagues all day. It’s time to get on with life. It won’t be the old normal, it will be the new normal, and the new normal is going to be dependent on so many of us to set that tone — that it’s time to get back out there for a Habitat event, with getting over to the Ronald McDonald House to help prepare a dinner when that becomes available to do. It’s dependent on the leadership or organizations to reinforce that tone.”

Scribner: “This pandemic has really allowed people to take time to reflect on their own lives and what’s important to them and their priorities. And when you’re given that time, I think you realize what’s important in life. When it comes to being hunkered down, I think the pandemic provided time and opportunity for people to say, ‘I don’t want to do this anymore; I want to get out, and I want to be part of my community. I want to be part of making a difference.’ People are realizing just how precious things are now, whether it’s shoveling the sidewalk for a neighbor or providing food for a food bank.”

Dexter Johnson

Dexter Johnson

“I think the pandemic pushed us [nonprofits] to work closer together in different ways, such as going after joint funding as one large organization rather than individually, so it has definitely had that benefit.”

Johnson: “In the normal ebb and flow of things, we get hyped up because something’s happened, whether it’s 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina or the tornado — things that bring us together for a short time. And then, life gets back to normal, and human nature tends to make us drift back to how we were. I think COVID is very different … it impacted everyone, every state, every city — we all know someone who has lost their life or lost their job because of it. It’s had a more far-reaching impact than any of those other tragedies, and, hopefully, that will allow it to stick with us and keep that mentality of realizing how fragile life can be.”

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Jennifer Wolowicz says developers have been looking at some of the town’s old mills and other sites for redevelopment.

Jennifer Wolowicz says developers have been looking at some of the town’s old mills and other sites for redevelopment.

It’s a classic small-town balancing act. As Monson leaders look forward to new infrastructure and energy projects, many residents also want to maintain a small-town feel.

But progress is important, Town Administrator Jennifer Wolowicz says. With the town about to receive $1.7 million from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), and a team at Town Hall looking at ways to use those funds, she favors infrastructure projects because she believes they offer the best return on investment.

“There are plenty of projects we could pursue that serve only part of the community, but everyone benefits from improved roads, water, and sewers,” Wolowicz said, adding that she is grateful the town has until 2026 to spend the ARPA funds. “That timetable allows us to be thoughtful in how we use the money.”

In April, Wolowicz was appointed full-time Town Administrator after working in the position since February in an interim capacity. When she first came on board, Town Hall was closed to the public due to COVID-19 mandates while the staff inside were busy trying to figure out how to provide the services residents needed. Some town business moved online, but many residents prefer to pay their bills in person, so Wolowicz and her staff installed drop boxes and even offered some outdoor service.

“With a little education and reassurance, we helped people figure out different ways to get business done,” she said.

These days, Town Hall is fully open. The Monson Select Board has relaxed mask mandates in general, but they are still required in schools. Wolowicz pointed out that COVID numbers have been trending lower than in the past, and currently, 56% of residents have been vaccinated.

“There are plenty of projects we could pursue that serve only part of the community, but everyone benefits from improved roads, water, and sewers.”

Meanwhile, back in January, Andrew Surprise became the new CEO of the Quabaog Hills Chamber of Commerce, which covers 15 towns in the region, including Monson. Surprise admits that, in the past, the chamber had been losing touch with local communities. To address that, he has begun reaching out to Monson businesses to establish a business civic association (BCA).

“The idea is to form a business community in Monson,” Surprise said. “With local people concentrating on the issues that are important to their business and community, it helps the chamber to better focus on ways they can help.”

Upon joining Quabaog Hills, Surprise noticed the chamber did not have strong contacts with local officials at the town or state level.

“As a former city councilor [in Westfield], I’ve seen how important it is for the chamber to have these relationships,” he said. “By connecting businesses and local officials, we can offer better value to everyone involved.”

Andrew Surprise, CEO of Quabaog Hills Chamber of Commerce

Andrew Surprise, CEO of Quabaog Hills Chamber of Commerce, is on a mission to introduce himself to businesses in Monson.

Coordinating efforts is already paying off. Surprise began working with Wolowicz on the idea of a BCA while the town was in the process of seeking a Rapid Recovery grant from the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission. Knowing that Monson was looking to have a business organization focused on its needs, the PVPC advised Surprise and Wolowicz to make it a joint request. Surprise said the BCA will be formed no matter what, but a grant makes a more robust effort possible.

“The grant would allow a much more expansive implementation and enable us to speed up the building of the BCA,” Surprise said. “Also, the grant makes it possible for the chamber to hire a person dedicated to establishing and recruiting for BCAs in both Monson and Belchertown.”

 

Main Concerns

Much of Monson’s business community can be found right in the heart of town, so BusinessWest asked three Main Street business owners about the idea of a business civic association.

Nissa Lempart, owner of Monson Optical, said the BCA is a good idea if the goal is to reach more people outside of town. “My customers already know where we are, and they tend to keep their business in Monson.”

Richard Green, who owns Richard R. Green Insurance Agency, said that, in his experience, many people tend not to do business in town, so he believes a BCA would be a big plus for Monson.

“It would be a way for local businesses to interact more with the community while benefiting each business and the community at large,” he noted. “I think it would be fantastic.”

Bill Belanger, who has owned Belanger Jewelers for more than 30 years, called Monson a wonderful community, and he’s open to the town taking a different approach to business.

“While the small-business model remains an important part of Monson, we also need to open our doors to new thinking.”

“While the small-business model remains an important part of Monson, we also need to open our doors to new thinking,” he explained.

Part of that new thinking would allow larger franchises to do business in Monson. In 2020, residents staged a vocal rejection when Dollar General proposed a location in town.

“Dollar General might not have been the right fit for our town,” Belanger said. “But there are many other types of national businesses that would work well here.”

One example of Monson welcoming new thinking involves a 26,000-square-foot building on Route 32 where Holistic Industries runs a cannabis growing facility.

Monson at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1775
Population: 8,560
Area: 44.8 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $18.12
Commercial Tax Rate: $18.12
Median Household Income: $52,030
Median Family Income: $58,607
Type of Government: Select Board, Open Town Meeting
Latest information available

Wolowicz noted that Holistic represents a large tax base for Monson, as the town received $500,000 in tax revenues from the company in June. Holistic-grown products are sold by Liberty Cannabis retail stores in Springfield, Somerville, and Easthampton. “COVID was good for cannabis sales,” she noted.

In terms of seeking other growth for the town, Wolowicz said discussions are taking place with developers about reusing some of the older mills in town. There is also activity at the former site of the state-owned Monson Developmental Center, where several buildings are being taken down. She said some residents have questioned why the town isn’t involved in redevelopment of this parcel.

“These folks don’t understand this is state property and the cleanup is their project,” she noted. “Their plan is to bring it back to green space and hopefully give the land back to the town at some point.”

For the last year and a half Monson, has been making energy-saving improvements to schools and municipal buildings. Part of the project involves converting the current street lights to LED fixtures.

“Even Town Hall, which was built in 2014, will be getting new lighting because that’s how fast technology has changed,” Wolowicz said.

The town also works with neighboring communities on wider-ranging projects. For example, Monson has signed an agreement with Palmer and Ware to convert the town dog pound into a regional animal-control facility for use by the three communities. That project is expected to take place next year.

 

Steady On

That’s a fair amount of activity for a town whose Main Street has no traffic signals.

“There are many folks in town who are passionate about keeping it that way,” Wolowicz said, adding that she favors controlled development to keep Monson a vital community.

Belanger expressed a similar sentiment. “Encouraging more business is a way for the community to advance without losing what makes it special.”

While Monson keeps its small-town feel, there is no shortage of new business proposals landing on Wolowicz’s desk.

“We many not be a booming metropolis,” she said, “but we still have opportunities to pursue controlled development.”

Features Special Coverage

A New Kind of Challenge

The COVID-19 pandemic has tested area employers in every way imaginable. And soon, it will test many in a way that probably couldn’t have been imagined even a few months ago — vaccine mandates put in place by the Biden administration and set to take effect probably before the end of the year. The mandates are prompting lawsuits, generating questions that are often hard to answer, and creating high levels of anxiety for employers who are already dealing with a host of problems, especially an ongoing workforce crisis.

Amy Royal says she’s seen all manner of new regulations — state, federal, and local — that employers and their HR departments must contend with as they carry out business day to day.

But she speaks for all employment-law specialists — and those HR professionals as well — when she says she’s never seen anything quite like the COVID-19 vaccine mandates either already in effect or soon to be.

The mandates are far-reaching in their impact, in terms of everything from the number of businesses affected to the costs they will have to absorb to the very real possibility of losing more valued employees, said Royal, a principal with the Indian Orchard-based Royal Law Firm, which specializes in employment law, specifically representing employers. She summed up the measures and their bearing on employers with a single word. “It’s exhausting for companies.”

That would be an understatement.

Already, vaccine mandates enacted by states, individual cities and towns, healthcare providers, and private companies are resulting in thousands of people being fired or simply walking off the job. That list includes the football coach and several assistants at Washington State University, more than 100 state troopers in Massachusetts, police officers in countless communities, and a wide range of healthcare workers, especially nurses.

The recent developments raise questions on everything from just how safe many cities now are to which games NBA star Kyrie Irving can actually play in — none at his home court in Brooklyn, for starters.

And the next shoe — a rather large one — is set to drop in this unfolding drama. That would be the Biden administration’s vaccine and testing mandates, the ones affecting companies of more than 100 employees, any business with federal contracts, and federal employees — mandates the administration estimates will impact more than 80 million workers.

“People would be surprised at the array of businesses, both for-profit and nonprofit, that meet that federal-contractor test.”

Royal and other employment-law specialists we spoke with said there are far more businesses in the 413 in those categories than most people would think, and all of them are, or should be, working diligently to prepare for these mandates — which will take effect soon, although exactly when is a question.

Actually, that’s one of many, many questions, said John Gannon, an employment-law specialist with Springfield-based Skoler, Abbott & Presser, who said others include everything from whether employees get paid while they’re getting vaccinated or tested to who pays for those tests, to whether employees who ultimately lose their jobs to these mandates are eligible for unemployment benefits.

Amy Royal says far more businesses and nonprofits in the 413

Amy Royal says far more businesses and nonprofits in the 413 will be impacted by the Biden administration’s vaccine mandate than most people would believe.

“People are asking, ‘what do we do now — what can we do once the mandate is rolled out?’” he said. “They also want to know when it is going to release and how much lead time they’re going to have for compliance. And, unfortunately, we just don’t know the answers to those kinds of questions.”

Meredith Wise, president and CEO of the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast, agreed, noting, as others did, that the vaccine mandates add new layers of intrigue, challenge, and polarization for employers who have seen more than enough of all three over the past 20 months.

When she talked with BusinessWest, Wise had recently left a roundtable of CHROs — chief human-resource officers — representing companies across the Northeast. The group meets every six weeks to discuss the challenges its members are facing, she noted, adding that the dominant topic of conversation was the new vaccine mandates and what they might mean for companies, especially in the broad realm of employee relations.

“People who have not wanted to get vaccinated may get tired of the testing and may eventually get vaccinated, but be disgruntled about it,” she said, adding quickly that, if employers have to pay the cost of testing — and pay employees while they’re getting tested — then there is little incentive, if any, to get vaccinated.

“There’s still a lot of questions about what the mandates are going to say, how it’s all going to come down, and whether we’re going to lose employees,” she went on, adding that employers may have to pay a steep price for a policy they didn’t implement themselves.

The best advice Gannon and the others we spoke with have for employers and the HR departments is to be as ready as they can be for these mandates and fully understand just what they are up against. This means knowing how many employees are vaccinated (and not) and having a plan in place for meeting the mandates.

Above all else, Wise and the employment-law specialists advise that businesses take the mandates seriously — even if enforcement of its provisions will be extremely difficult, if not impossible — and to be prepared.

 

Taking More Shots

BusinessWest asked a number of area business owners and nonprofit managers who fall under the categories of the Biden vaccination mandates to discuss the measures and what they could mean.

Not surprisingly, none really wanted to talk about it — on the record or even off. Indeed, the subject of vaccinations and the mandates regarding them are a hot-button, polarizing topic, to say the least. Most employers are staying away from it, figuring it’s best not to say anything than delve into a matter drenched in controversy.

Meredith Wise

Meredith Wise

“There’s still a lot of questions about what the mandates are going to say, how it’s all going to come down, and whether we’re going to lose employees.”

That goes for MassMutual, one of the region’s largest employers, with more than 6,000 workers, which offered only this statement from a spokesperson:

“We are waiting for the specifics of the OHSA guidance to be issued, after which we will be able to better evaluate what it will mean for our company and employees. In the meantime, we have begun to prepare by determining how much of our employee base is vaccinated, which is currently approximately 85%. We are also encouraging fully vaccinated employees to begin coming into the office if they are comfortable doing so and on a schedule that makes sense for them. We’ll continue to evaluate our broader return based on the status of COVID-19 as well as guidance from medical experts and government officials to ensure the health, safety, and well-being of our employees.”

With that, the company probably spoke for most employers in the region, who are waiting for OSHA (the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Administration) to offer specifics while also assessing just where they stand with regard to what percentage of their workforce is vaccinated.

Here’s what is known at this juncture. The Biden action plan directs OSHA to issue an emergency temporary standard (ETS) that requires all employers with 100 or more employees to ensure their workers are either fully vaccinated or get tested weekly for COVID-19, Gannon said. Employers will also be required to provide paid time off to employees to get vaccinated and recover from any side effects from the vaccine.

Meanwhile, the Biden administration’s plan also includes two executive orders requiring federal employees and federal contractors (and subcontractors) to get vaccinated, regardless of workforce size. There is no weekly testing exception; employees working on or in connection with a federal contract, including subcontractors, must be fully vaccinated by Dec. 8.

And, as noted, there are more companies in the 413 that will be impacted by these measures than most would think. Indeed, while most businesses in this region fit the textbook definition of ‘small’ — under 100 employees — there are hundreds of companies, nonprofits, and institutions that count at least that many workers. That includes healthcare-related agencies, manufacturers, nursing homes, municipal departments, a few banks, and many more. Meanwhile, the provision regarding federal contractors — and subcontractors — brings many more businesses under the auspices of the Biden mandates.

“People would be surprised at the array of businesses, both for-profit and nonprofit, that meet that federal-contractor test,” said Royal, noting that her own firm has had federal contracts at different points in its history. “So this has an impact on a number of organizations up and down the valley — including small businesses and human-service agencies that may provide a service to the federal government in some way and come under the umbrella of being a federal contractor.

John Gannon

John Gannon

“When President Biden first issued his plan in early September, we told people, ‘let’s see what happens over the next 30 days.’ But now, we’re getting to a situation where employers have to begin planning and preparing.”

“It might even be retail-type product that is sold on a military base,” she went on, while detailing the broad scope of these measures. “This definitely has widespread implications.”

Beyond waiting — and perhaps hoping that the measure is delayed, which most experts say is possible but not likely — the best area employers can try to do is be ready, said Gannon, adding that, while it’s anyone’s guess as to just when the OSHA standard for companies with 100 or more employees will be issued, it will almost certainly be released before the end of the year.

“When President Biden first issued his plan in early September, we told people, ‘let’s see what happens over the next 30 days,’” he explained. “But now, we’re getting to a situation where employers have to begin planning and preparing.”

Indeed, the clock is certainly ticking on the Dec. 8 deadline for federal contractors, he noted, adding that anyone who takes a vaccine that requires two shots must wait several weeks after the first shot to get the second. And full vaccination, regardless of whether it’s a one-dose or two-dose vaccine, is not achieved until two weeks after the final dose.

“It can take employees at least 45 days, and that’s if they act as soon as possible, to make sure they’re vaccinated,” Gannon went on. “Meanwhile, employers are going to have to get testing programs in place and provide options for employees on how they get tested weekly if they are opposed to getting vaccinated.”

The logical next step for employers, if they haven’t done it already, is to determine their vaccination rates and thus get a handle on the scope of the problem they’re facing, he added.

“We’ve seen all sorts of numbers, but generally, employers fall somewhere in the 60% to 80% range,” he said. “And you’re allowed to ask people if they are vaccinated or not — several agencies have confirmed that there is nothing unlawful about that. You can’t ask them why, but you can generally survey your workforce population, and that should be the first step.”

 

Compounding the Problems

Flashing back to those days — it might even have been hours — after Biden announced his vaccination mandates, when the phone calls started coming in, Royal said the initial reaction was shock, followed by incredulousness.

“That’s because it represents a whole new layer of challenges for employers when they’ve already been navigating a number of challenges related to the pandemic, or just workforce-related issues,” she explained, adding that the overriding concern, beyond all the planning, logistics, and costs of meeting the new standards, regards the potential loss of valued employees at a time when workers are retiring and resigning at unprecedented rates (see related story on page 61), and replacing them has been increasingly difficult.

“Whether you’re in manufacturing or in human services, or are a professional service, there is a general worker shortage and shortage of prospects,” Royal noted, adding that the mandates, especially the one regarding federal contracts (because there is no provision for testing, only required vaccination), will make a serious problem that much worse.

Wise agreed. While she noted that the vaccine mandates for those companies in the listed categories relieve employers from having to implement such a polarizing policy themselves, it does bring a new and unwanted layer of challenge to the table, especially when it comes to workforce.

“They’re already hurting for staff as it is,” she told BusinessWest. “If they lose employees over this, that’s going to make it even harder for them to meet their customer demands and fulfill their orders.”

But there are other considerations, including the costs attached to all this and uncertainty over whether employers who don’t want to get vaccinated or tested can become eligible for unemployment benefits.

She said there has been no clear guidance on that, but she speculates that, if the federal government issues a mandate and an employee is unwilling to comply with that mandate, then the employee would not be eligible to collect unemployment benefits.

But that’s just one of many questions that remain unanswered at this juncture, she said, adding that employers of all sizes are pondering how to get ready for these mandates, but also just how seriously to take them, especially since the T in ETS stands for temporary.

“Apparently, under OSHA guidelines, unless OSHA makes it permanent, within six months this ETS will expire,” she said, adding that some employers may roll the dice and try to wait this out.

Indeed, while there are steep fines attached to the mandates — up to $13,653 per violation — Wise said some employers are wondering out loud just who is going to enforce all this.

“In my mind, this would be a risk that I, as a business owner, don’t think I’d be willing to take,” she told BusinessWest. “But there’s a piece to this that says, ‘how am I going to get caught?’

“OSHA isn’t going to be able to come in and audit every workplace, so there would probably have to be a complaint filed,” she went on, adding that, if an employee doesn’t want to get vaccinated, he or she is unlikely to file a complaint that their employer is not in compliance.

 

Bottom Line

Like Royal and Gannon, Wise said she’s never seen anything quite like the vaccine mandates when it comes to the many ways they might impact an employer.

“I’ve been in HR for more than 40 years, and I can say that there’s been nothing like this,” she noted. “There’s been a lot of regulations and guidelines that employers have to put in place — certain safety precautions, pay requirements, overtime laws — but there really hasn’t been anything that’s come down that has affected the individual and their bodies like this.”

Indeed, these measures are unprecedented in many respects, and they come at a time when beleaguered employers are already being challenged in every way imaginable.

Only time will tell what happens next, but it’s clear that employers will have their mettle tested even further.

 

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

Community Spotlight

Stockbridge Looks Forward, Honors Its Heritage

By Mark Morris

Town Administrator Michael Canales

Town Administrator Michael Canales says a number of municipal projects speak to Stockbridge’s progress during the pandemic.

One of Norman Rockwell’s most famous paintings depicts a snow-covered Main Street in Stockbridge. The painting “Home for Christmas” was intended to celebrate small towns all over America, but these days, it’s nearly impossible for modern-day photographers to recreate the artist’s vision without including a constant stream of traffic.

While that might frustrate photographers, Margaret Kerswill is encouraged by all the activity she has seen this summer and into the fall.

“There’s more tourism than I expected to see in Stockbridge,” the board president of the Stockbridge Chamber of Commerce told BusinessWest. “It’s rare to go into town and not see it full of people.”

Kerswill said the pandemic encouraged business owners to find creative ways to keep people safe while maintaining their operations — and revenues. Despite the many challenges last year, they’ve largely come back strong.

“As rules and mandates kept changing, our business owners rolled with it,” she said. “It was wonderful to see everyone rise to the top of their game.”

Tri Town Health acts as a regional health department for the towns of Lee, Lenox, and Stockbridge. When the Delta variant of COVID-19 began spreading, Tri Town Health imposed mask mandates for indoor common spaces.

“There’s more tourism than I expected to see in Stockbridge. It’s rare to go into town and not see it full of people.”

Stockbridge Town Administrator Michael Canales appreciates the agency’s work to keep the community as safe as possible. As of Oct. 15, 68% of Berkshire residents are fully vaccinated, while 78% have received at least one dose.

On the job for just over a year, Canales has not yet had the chance to lead the community in the absence of a pandemic. “It will be a little difficult for me to compare what normally happens in town because I have yet to see what normal looks like,” he noted.

Children’s Chime Tower

Repair work will begin next year on the Children’s Chime Tower, a fixture since 1878.

For now, he believes longtime residents who tell him Stockbridge is starting to look normal again. Canales himself has certainly noticed the busy summer and fall seasons, and credits that in part to the return of Tanglewood, which offered a limited schedule for audiences half the size of a normal show.

“Tanglewood is an example of one of the big events that happened as a smaller event for this year,” he said.

Despite the limited schedule, Kerswill said it was important that Tanglewood held events this year. “Tanglewood is integral to the local economy. It provides so many jobs in the area and definitely brings visitors to town for dining and shopping.”

Kerswill also wanted to set the record straight for BusinessWest about “a broad misconception” that Tanglewood is located in Lenox. “The entrance is in Lenox, but nearly 85% of Tanglewood’s land is actually in Stockbridge.”

 

Change and Progress

For several years, Kerswill co-owned Mutability in Motion, a gift shop she ran with her wife, Laureen Vizza. When COVID hit, they made the decision to close the shop.

“We’re working on new endeavors, still keeping our efforts local, but in new areas,” she explained. In addition to starting a personal blog called artmeditationlife.com, Kerswill has become a licensed realtor.

“The real-estate market is doing well — in fact, it’s crazy,” she said, adding that home-improvement services are also coming back strong, as evidenced by long wait times for many home projects.

In terms of municipal projects, Stockbridge added a new highway garage this past spring, though supply-chain issues caused delays in finishing it even sooner.

A current project nearing completion is the Larrywaug Bridge on Route 183. Canales expects this busy connector road will be open by the winter, with finishing touches to be completed in the spring.

“The real-estate market is doing well — in fact, it’s crazy.”

Next year, repair work will begin on the Children’s Chimes Tower, a fixture in Stockbridge built in 1878. Canales said the town has approved funding to refurbish all the internal mechanisms.

“It’s a neat structure, but it needs some tender loving care,” he added. “We’re hoping to make repairs that will keep it playing for the next 50 years.”

Still relatively new in the job, Canales said it’s been exciting to learn about the rich history of Stockbridge. While people all over the world are familiar with Tanglewood, the Norman Rockwell Museum, and the town’s mention in James Taylor’s song “Sweet Baby James,” there are even deeper historical references to be found which Canales said “makes it a fascinating community.”

For example, the town is working on a project to protect old-growth forests, specifically Ice Glen, a ravine in the southeast area of Stockbridge. Its name comes from the many moss-covered rocks with deep crevices that can sustain ice into the summer.

During the time he wrote Moby Dick, Herman Melville lived in Pittsfield and is said to have visited Ice Glen at least once. The Stockbridge ravine is referenced in the novel when narrator Ishmael describes Pupella, a seaside glen, as “a wondrous sight. The wood was green as mosses of the Icy Glen.”

These days, the town is exploring several options to protect the old-growth trees from insects that are causing damage in Ice Glen.

The Chamber of Commerce has joined the effort to help tourists find both famous and lesser-known sites in Stockbridge. As an ongoing project, it has developed and begun installing new signs to help direct people to the many attractions in town. Right now, they’ve been installed downtown, but the plan is to expand the green-and-white signs to more areas of the community.

“We want to help people get around outside the downtown area because there is a lot to see,” Kerswill said. “If someone is here only for a weekend, we want to make sure they can find all the attractions that interest them.”

 

Better Days

While the town navigates the various stages of the pandemic, Canales said he and many others are looking ahead.

“We are staying on top of things and keeping an eye on trends so that when we come out of this, Stockbridge will be in the best possible shape to return to normal, or as close as we can get to normal,” he noted.

Kerswill added that Stockbridge is a place that continues to amaze her.

“Whether we’re going through good times or difficult times, it’s a community that comes together to get things done. I couldn’t be prouder of that.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Mayor Thomas Bernard

Mayor Thomas Bernard is gratified to see events like the FreshGrass Festival and the Fall Foliage Parade return to North Adams.

While North Adams tries to return to familiar norms, many are prepared to adjust if new pandemic concerns arise.

That’s the perspective of Mayor Thomas Bernard, anyway, who said his community has slowly and cautiously taken steps to bring back the positive routines of daily life.

“The moment that stands out for me is our first concert at Windsor Lake in early to mid-June,” Bernard said. “There were people who hadn’t seen neighbors and friends for more than a year. The sound of kids laughing and playing, great music, the spirit was unbelievable.”

More recently, he pointed to MASS MoCA’s FreshGrass Festival in September as an example of holding a popular event and exercising caution, as attendees had to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test before entering.

“Returning to these events is the fulfillment of the promise we made to each other when things were shutting down — that we would be back,” Bernard said.

Though no one can predict what the future holds, Nico Dery said North Adams businesses are prepared to make a quick pivot if necessary.

“Businesses now have COVID plans in place that were developed from an entire season of figuring out what worked and what didn’t,” said Dery, business development coordinator for the North Adams Chamber of Commerce.

The city was the site for a robust vaccination effort that began in January and ran through June, during which time volunteers at the Northern Berkshire regional vaccination center held 40 clinics and administered nearly 25,000 vaccines to residents.

Right now, the vaccination rate in North Adams is around 65%, but that percentage does not reflect a fair number of residents who received their vaccine in Vermont or New York, the mayor pointed out. With North Adams located in the northwest corner of the state, the borders to both adjacent states are easily accessible.

“However you figure it, I’m not going to be happy until the numbers get above 80%,” he added.

“I’m optimistic and believe we’re going to have a great foliage season. Many businesses I’ve spoken with are preparing for lots of visitors this fall.”

Members of the regional emergency-planning committee who ran the COVID-19 operations center were honored at the 65th annual Fall Foliage Parade on Oct. 3.

“Everyone who was involved in the public-health response and the vaccination efforts are the folks who will be celebrated and honored as a sign of how far we have come,” Bernard said the week before the event — and a year after the parade was cancelled due to the coronavirus.

“The theme of this year’s parade was “Games, Movies, Takeout” — “everything that kept many of us going during the darkest times of the pandemic,” the mayor added.

 

No Summertime Blues

Businesses in North Adams experienced what Dery called a “great summer,” with lots of visitors exploring the Berkshires.

“In the past, we had seen many people come here from New York City, but because of COVID, we’ve seen a big increase of people from the Boston metro area,” she noted, crediting the increased visitor traffic to people choosing to forgo a European or cross-country vacation and instead stay closer to home.

Emilee Yawn and Bonnie Marks, co-owners of the Plant Connector

Emilee Yawn and Bonnie Marks, co-owners of the Plant Connector, recently shared this photo on social media depicting their opening day last fall.

“I’m optimistic and believe we’re going to have a great foliage season,” she added. “Many businesses I’ve spoken with are preparing for lots of visitors this fall.”

North Adams has also seen a number of businesses open during the pandemic. Bernard pointed to the Clear Sky Cannabis dispensary, which opened in March, and the Bear and Bee Bookshop in June.

The Plant Connector opened in September 2020 before vaccines were available. Emilee Yawn, a co-owner of the shop, heard from naysayers who said North Adams was a tourist destination and, since there were no tourists during the pandemic, no one would come in.

However, “from the moment we opened, we’ve been bustling,” she said. “I had been growing plants in my one-bedroom apartment, and in no time, we had sold 120 plants. We had to quickly find a wholesaler and become a real business.”

Yawn and co-owner Bonnie Marks met at Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, where Yawn was office manager and Marks was a bookkeeper. When Yawn was laid off at the beginning of the pandemic, the idea of a store to promote their mutual passion for plants became more real.

Recently celebrating the first anniversary of the Plant Connector, Yawn noted that, since the opening, more than 6,700 people have walked through the door, and they’ve been averaging around 800 people a month — not bad for a 400-square-foot space.

While they have a website and have recently sold plants to customers in New Jersey, nearly 90% of their sales are from local people in the Berkshires.

North Adams at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1878
Population: 13,708
Area: 20.6 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $18.64
Commercial Tax Rate: $39.83
Median Household Income: $35,020
Family Household Income: $57,522
Type of government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: BFAIR Inc.; Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts
* Latest information available

“We feel very supported by the community,” Yawn said. “North Adams is a special place; I’ve never felt connected to so many awesome people.”

As the weather starts getting cooler, business is picking up, and Yawn is looking forward to leaf peepers drawn to the Mohawk Trail and surrounding areas. “We’re excited for them to come peep around our shop,” she added.

Businesses in North Adams are also gearing up for the holiday season and what’s known as Plaid Friday. The North Adams Chamber promotes this annual effort with posters and through social media to businesses throughout the Northern Berkshires.

“We started this initiative to encourage people to spend money in their communities on the day after Thanksgiving instead of going to the big-box stores,” Dery said. “Many retailers will run Plaid Friday all that weekend.”

Similar to most communities, hiring in North Adams, particularly in restaurants, remains a challenge. So far, many restaurants are operating at reduced hours to retain staff and prevent burnout.

“This upcoming winter will be interesting because many people are thinking outside the box on how to best manage this,” Dery said.

 

The Next Phase

Bernard will also have an interesting winter after deciding not to run again for mayor. On the job since 2018, he called his time in office a “privilege of a lifetime, to serve North Adams, the community where I grew up.”

He looks forward to an historic election as voters will choose the first woman mayor in the city’s history. The two candidates who emerged from the runoff election, Jennifer Macksey and Lynette Bond, will face each other in the mayor’s race in November.

Bernard said he is still exploring the next move in his career. “I’m asked so often about my future plans, I feel like a senior in college,” he said with a laugh.

As she reflected on the success of the Plant Connector, Yawn admitted she thought the store would flop and she would have to sell plants on eBay and Etsy to survive. Shortly after opening, however, she saw they had something special there.

“I always say this about North Adams,” Yawn said. “This city chooses its people, and people don’t choose it. That’s why there’s a high concentration of awesome people here.”

Features Special Coverage

Putting the Pieces Together

It’s called a ‘hyper-scale data center.’ That’s the name attached to a $2.7 billion proposal planned for a 155-acre parcel in Westfield. The complicated project, now entering the local-approval phase, has cleared perhaps the biggest hurdle — the aggregation of a site that can check a unique set of boxes, including accessibility to huge amounts of power and data. If it comes to fruition — and there are still many challenges to overcome — the project could make the region a player in the emerging sector known as Big Data.

Demetrios Panteleakis

Demetrios Panteleakis

 

Demetrios Panteleakis says he spent a good part of the winter, spring, and some of the summer walking through all 150 acres of mostly raw land in the northwest corner of Westfield.

“I probably know every inch of it by now,” Panteleakis, the principal commercial broker with Springfield-based Macmillan Group, who was charged with assembling the parcel, told BusinessWest, adding that he’s been through it in every type of weather imaginable. “I think my family thought I had gotten into hiking and the outdoors.”

These walks in the woods — and wetlands — were a necessary part of a complicated process to aggregate land for what could be the largest private development the region has ever seen and one of the largest initiatives of its kind anywhere — a $2.7 billion proposal to build a massive data center (a ‘hyper-scale data center,’ as it’s called) that will attract the likes of Amazon, Google, and Facebook.

Plans call for constructing 10 buildings totaling 2.7 million square feet over the next 12 to 18 years, said Erik Bartone, CEO of Servistar Realty, the project’s developer. He told BusinessWest he hopes to obtain local approvals by the end of the year and state approvals by mid-2022, and break ground in 2023.

It’s a daring project, one that comes complete with all kinds of large numbers and adjectives (like hyper-scale) that connote size and scope affixed to everything from acreage to the projected cost of the initiative to the number of landowners with which Panteleakis and the Servistar had to negotiate.

That last number would be 11, just one indicator of the level of complexity involved with getting just this far, said Panteleakis, adding that finding a location and assembling the land are perhaps the biggest hurdle for a project that will face many of them — everything from required approvals for a tax-incentive plan to steps to protect endangered species, such as the eastern box turtle.

As for securing a site … a project of this nature and scope requires that a number of unique boxes be checked, said Panteleakis. These include the ability to draw power, and large amounts of it, straight from the grid — two recently upgraded 115 kV high-transmission lines run through the center of the site — as well as access to a reliable, high-speed fiber communications network. Competitive cost of doing business is also high on the list, as is a skilled workforce and easy access to major markets.

“Finding the right location in New England for a hyper-scale data-center development is difficult.”

When all is said and done, it certainly isn’t easy to find a parcel — or parcels that can be aggregated — that can check all those boxes.

“Finding the right location in New England for a hyper-scale data-center development is difficult,” Bartone said. “Access to the electric transmission grid, robust fiber communication network, sufficient land, and the ability to develop the project in an environmentally responsible manner are all very important issues that must be fully evaluated before proceeding with a particular location.”

As noted, the proposal still has many hurdles to clear, but it’s not too early to speculate on what this could mean for the city and the region.

Rick Sullivan, who can speak about the project from a number of perspectives — he’s president and CEO of the Western Mass. Economic Development Council, but also former mayor of Westfield and a current city councilor — said it represents an opportunity to show what the region can do for the emerging sector known as Big Data — and perhaps do more of.

Rick Sullivan says the Westfield data-center project

Rick Sullivan says the Westfield data-center project, if it becomes reality, could open the door to new opportunities in the realm known as Big Data.

“This is somewhat of a new sector for us, so I think there’s an opportunity to get attention,” he explained. “Sometimes, getting that first development in a sector is the hardest thing, and then, once that happens, the others do take notice.”

Jeff Daley, president and CEO of WestMass Area Development Corp., which has been hired as a consultant on the Westfield project, agreed.

“It’s an exciting project — this is a game changer,” he said. “If we get this project across the goal line, it opens up an entire industry; we would have the potential to bring other data centers here.”

As for Panteleakis, the data-center project represents another bullet point on a résumé complete with a number of big projects with complicated logistics, something he’s becoming known for within the development industry.

Indeed, when he was not walking the Westfield property and negotiating with all those owners, he was flying to Miami to put the final touches on a massive, $1 billion project that combines residential living with transportation, retail, and office space.

“This is somewhat of a new sector for us, so I think there’s an opportunity to get attention. Sometimes, getting that first development in a sector is the hardest thing, and then, once that happens, the others do take notice.”

The two projects offered a number of different challenges, with COVID presenting new and different issues to contend with, he said, adding that they epitomize what has come to be one of his trademark talents — putting the many pieces together on complicated real-estate puzzles.

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at how this complicated Westfield project came together and how this initiative could change the landscape — in all kinds of ways.

 

Big Bytes

Panteleakis told BusinessWest that, on many of his flights to and from Florida, he didn’t have much company on the airplane.

“I was on a 747 out of Boston — because you couldn’t fly out of Bradley to Florida — that had two other people on it,” he said. “It was weird. Logan was a ghost town, Miami International was a ghost town; it was very strange.”

That was how things were as he was working on two massive projects on opposite ends of the Atlantic seaboard.

The Miami initiative was a complicated matter of putting the pieces together for a project called Virgin MiamiCentral, a nine-acre living center in the heart of the city that includes 3 million square feet of commercial, office, and retail space, capped with twin residential towers, each more than 40 stories high, sitting atop a train station and retail hub.

Jeff Daley says the data-center project could be a game changer for the region.

Jeff Daley says the data-center project could be a game changer for the region.

Meanwhile, what is now known as the Westfield data-center campus became a very complicated matter of aggregating property that could meet all those unique requirements listed earlier.

In most all cases, the land required for such projects doesn’t come in one parcel, but several of them, which means negotiations on acquiring options — as in quiet negotiations — have to take place with a number of parties simultaneously.

Panteleakis, who compared it to cutting the Gordian knot, tried to put it in perspective for BusinessWest.

“We worked with about four or five different brokers in Western Mass. who represented some of the 11 owners, which at times made things easier, but a predominance of the owners self-represented,” he explained. “And that included people who had ongoing businesses, and it was very arduous and long and, of course, highly confidential.

“It was heavy lifting,” he went on, “and to see it at this stage is very gratifying.”

Overall, it took roughly 14 months to put the parcel in place to the point where the developer could move forward, he said, adding that the site, while challenged by wetlands and environmental issues, provides the size, location, and direct access to the grid needed by Servistar and its eventual clients.

“There’s currently nothing of this scale in the region due primarily to very high retail electricity costs, high property taxes, and significant regulatory challenges.”

The company has a considerable amount of experience with such projects, said Bartone, adding that Servistar has been in the electricity-procurement and energy- management business for 30 years, supporting large-scale commercial and industrial clients, including data and IT service clients.

“Our firm has provided advisory services to several data-center clients, including the management and procurement of their wholesale electricity requirements,” he told BusinessWest, adding that the company currently represents a hyper-scale data-center client that is looking to enter the New England market once local approvals are obtained for the Westfield project.

Elaborating, he said there are several smaller-edge data centers in New England, including in the Boston area, but there are currently no hyper-scale data centers in New England, and for several reasons.

“There’s currently nothing of this scale in the region due primarily to very high retail electricity costs, high property taxes, and significant regulatory challenges,” he explained. “Our firm specializes in the wholesale electricity-procurement markets along with the integration of innovative load-management strategies to proactively reduce the electricity costs for data centers and large power users. 

“This is a key cost driver for the industry and critical to making the hyper-scale data-center project feasible,” he went on. “Electricity expenditures typically represent 50% to 60% of the operating costs of a data center. Property taxes typically represent 10% to 15% of operating expenses. These two operating cost components, along with local regulatory approvals, are the primary drivers to locate hyper-scale data centers to New England.”

Bartone said Servistar reviewed numerous sites in Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Massachusetts before focusing on Westfield, a community that emerged in this search roughly 18 months ago.  

“We identified various parcels in the city’s industrial zones that met the requirements for the site, but the area is challenging to develop due to wetlands and endangered species, including the eastern box turtle,” he noted. “So we needed a substantial amount of land that would support the 10 data-center building development while also allowing us to minimize environmental impacts.”

Beyond meeting the energy, fiber, and property-tax requirements, the site is also centrally located between Boston, New York City, Providence, Albany, and Hartford, said Bartone, thus providing access to more than 34 million people in the Greater New York metropolitan area and New England. It is also in close proximity to the Westfield-Barnes regional airport with corporate service, only 20 miles from Bradley International Airport, and approximately 100 miles from Logan International Airport.

“Boston also has a high-tech, information-based economy that is an attractive market for corporate offices of companies locating to Westfield for their IT services,” he said, adding that this concentration of trained tech workers was still another selling point.

 

Powerful Statement

As he talked about the project and its prospects for becoming reality, Sullivan turned to the often-used analogy of getting over the goal line.

He said this project isn’t in the proverbial red zone yet, but it is certainly past midfield and making steady progress.

“There’s still a long way to go, but once they have options on the property and they’re doing work around wetlands and having discussions with the electricity suppliers, you’re past midfield, but you’re not home yet,” he explained. “I don’t think you can have a higher, better use of that property.”

Daley said the next important step is approval of what’s known as a 121A, or PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) property-tax agreement that locks in the assessed value of the property, with built-in annual increases in property-tax payments. Westfield officials have said the project would bring in $1.2 million in tax payments within three years, making the campus the largest taxpayer in the city.

A joint public hearing between the Planning Board and City Council on the proposed agreement is slated for early October, said Daley, adding that there are other approvals, on both the local and state levels, that must be secured in the coming months.

“We’re hoping to have all local permits in hand by the end of the year,” he explained. “Shortly thereafter, we’d begin work on designs and infrastructure; it would be about 18 to 24 months from go date to being operational.”

Meanwhile, speculation continues about what this project could mean for Westfield and the region. That discussion takes place on many levels, starting with immediate, tangible benefits.

That list includes 1,800 construction jobs, 1,200 indirect jobs that will result from creation of the center, and what is projected to be 400 jobs that will pay between $85,000 to $100,000 at the entry level.

“When people in economic development talk about job creation, these are the kinds of jobs that you’re looking to create,” Sullivan said. “These employees will live in our communities, they’ll invest in our communities, they’ll shop in our communities, and they’ll support the charities in our communities, as will the companies.”

There’s also the tax revenue; Servistar has negotiated a 40-year property-tax agreement with the city that is expected to produce more than $350 million in direct property-tax payments over the term of that agreement. 

Beyond these direct benefits, though, is that opportunity Sullivan and Daley mentioned for the region to not only get in the game when it comes to Big Data, but become a player in that sector, which would appear to have almost unlimited potential.

“If you look in the crystal ball, this is a sector that’s only going to grow,” Sullivan said. “And of you overlay data storage and data transmission and all the issues that are somewhat related, such as cybersecurity and other Big Data, I think there’s a real opportunity for us in Western Massachusetts to grow and in some ways lead, if you will, in this sector.

“We have out colleges, especially Bay Path and the University of Massachusetts, that are doing a lot of cutting-edge work in cybersecurity and Big Data, and others will certainly follow,” he went on. “And this will help train a workforce, which is always significant as these companies look to grow.”

As for some of those other boxes that need to be checked, Sullivan acknowledged that the cost of doing business in this state is not as low as in some other areas of the Northeast, but Western Mass. is certainly more cost-friendly that Boston and other metropolitan areas. “Developing in New England may not be the cheapest, but we’re still competitive.”

 

Bottom Line

Panteleakis — who, as noted, has been involved in large development projects in many areas of the country — said the Westfield data-center campus project represents the type of development that all regions are striving for.

“I’ve done a lot of work in Florida and Texas, and this is how they drive economic development for the 21st century in their areas; they’re focusing on new sectors and technologies,” he explained. “This project will have a tremendous impact on quality of life in Westfield and across the region. It will have a very broad impact.”

As those we spoke with noted, there are still many hurdles to overcome before this proposal becomes reality. If it can clear those obstacles, it could be transformative in many different ways.

 

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Amy Cahillane says the city is in a better place

Amy Cahillane says the city is in a better place than it was a year ago, but staffing remains a problem for businesses.

As Northampton works through the various stages of the pandemic, one term best describes any discussion about looking ahead.

“I’ve used the phrase ‘cautiously optimistic’ hundreds of times in the last several weeks, never mind the last year and a half,” said Amy Cahillane, executive director of Downtown Northampton Assoc. (DNA) — cautious because the city reimposed mask mandates before many other communities did, and optimistic because, despite all the challenges, Northampton can point to many successes.

Janet Egelston, owner of Northampton Brewery, said the last 18 months have been an ongoing process of pivoting, adapting, and learning, adding that “we call what we’re going through ‘pandemic university.’”

Northampton enjoys a long tradition as a dining destination. With more than 100 places to eat in the city, restaurants are a key sector to Northampton’s economy. Vince Jackson, executive director of the Northampton Chamber of Commerce, said economic studies have shown that, when restaurants are thriving, other business sectors do, too.

“Every job a restaurant creates results in another job in the community,” he explained. “Think about a typical date night — go out for dinner, go see a show, and then maybe a drink at the end of the evening.”

That’s why the pandemic, and the business restrictions that have accompanied it, have been so disruptive to the city’s economy. And the disruptions have come in waves; earlier this spring, when vaccines became widely available and COVID-19 infection numbers began to decrease, Northampton, like many communities, was able to relax masking requirements. Once vaccination levels began to plateau and the Delta variant of the virus kicked in, infections began to trend back up.

And when the city’s Health Department found several breakthrough cases that forced a couple restaurants to close for testing and quarantine, Mayor David Narkewicz made the decision to bring back indoor mask mandates.

“We are very fortunate to have this outdoor space, but it wasn’t as simple as opening the doors.”

“It’s never easy to be out front and be the first, but since we brought back masking, the communities around us have followed suit,” he said, adding that the city’s priority is keeping everyone safe and healthy. “We need businesses open for customers. Otherwise, the engine that drives Northampton isn’t going to run.”

The return to wearing masks was an easy change for Egelston’s staff at Northampton Brewery.

“In the restaurant business, we often make quick adjustments,” she said. “We also have a box of masks at our entrance for customers who arrive without one.”

In 2020, when the first wave of the pandemic closed all kinds of businesses for several months, Egelston delayed her reopening until Aug. 10, the 33rd anniversary of the brewery. Even though outdoor dining has always been a part of the restaurant, with two levels of rooftop decks, she still had to retrofit the space for the times.

“We installed plexiglass barriers and socially distanced our tables outside as if we were inside. We are very fortunate to have this outdoor space, but it wasn’t as simple as opening the doors,” she said, adding that all employees are vaccinated. “It’s our policy.”

Janet Egelston says she is “eternally optimistic”

Janet Egelston says she is “eternally optimistic” despite 18 months of pivoting and persistent staffing challenges.

Since reopening last August, the brewery has operated at a lower capacity, not due to mandates, but because of trouble finding enough staff.

“The core staff who work here are great,” Egelston said, adding that, while there is always some amount of turnover, she hasn’t received many applications in the last several months. “That’s starting to improve, but we’re not yet ready to go to full capacity.”

 

Workforce Crunch

While the city is in a better place than it was a year ago, Cahillane said, staffing remains a challenge for most businesses.

“When everyone is hiring, it perpetuates the issue further because employers are all looking for the same people,” she noted. “They are also filling positions at every conceivable level, from dishwasher to front of house to store manager.”

Despite the staffing challenges, Jackson said most businesses in Northampton had a great summer. In talking with business owners in the restaurant, retail, and construction sectors, he said many reported success at pre-pandemic levels.

“A caterer I spoke with has 200 events booked through the end of the year,” he said. “One restaurant owner said her numbers are better than they’ve been in a long time.”

Northampton at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1883
Population: 28,483
Area: 35.8 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential tax rate: $17.37
Commercial tax rate: $17.37
Median Household Income: $56,999
Median Family Income: $80,179
Type of government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Cooley Dickinson Hospital; ServiceNet Inc.; Smith College; L-3 KEO
* Latest information available

‘Summer on Strong’ was a successful effort to close an entire section of Strong Avenue to traffic and turn it into an outdoor dining pavilion shared by a few different eateries. Narkewicz credited local restaurants for suggesting and leading the effort. When ideas like this were proposed, the mayor said the city would “move mountains” to streamline the permitting process to make them happen.

“Northampton is a regional magnet for people who want to come here for entertainment, arts, dining, and the vibe of a walkable city where people like to hang out,” he noted.

The city lost businesses during the pandemic, including Silverscape Designs, which closed at the end of 2020. Despite the optics of that vacancy in the middle of downtown, Cahillane said a mix of new businesses have been opening at an encouraging pace.

“Between Northampton and Florence, we had roughly 18 businesses that left,” she noted. “And nearly 17 new places opened.”

The return of students to Smith College and campuses in the surrounding towns marked a sign of life before the pandemic. Cahillane said the students brought a needed emotional lift. “There has been a noticeable lightening and brightening downtown since the students have come back. Their return is what Northampton usually feels like in the fall.”

The return of events this summer has also provided a boost to Northampton. Cahillane said it’s satisfying to look at a calendar and see events scheduled once again. “The Arts Council held several concerts this summer, we recently started Arts Night Out, and the Jazz Festival is coming back the first weekend in October.”

Jackson is “cautiously optimistic” that momentum from the summer will continue into fall leaf-peeping season. In this area, Indigenous Peoples Weekend marks prime time for leaf peepers.

“One hotelier told me if you don’t book early for that weekend, you won’t find a place to stay,” he said, adding that he’s hopeful activities in November and December will also bring people to the city and surrounding towns.

This fall will be different for Narkewicz, as he will not seek re-election as Northampton’s mayor. Looking back on his 10 years in office, he discussed several areas in which he’s proud of his administration’s achievements, such as improving the fiscal health of the city and being one of the first communities to stand up for the important role immigration plays in the U.S.

“We stand up for equality for all our residents,” he said. “We’ve received high marks for our commitment to LGBTQ folks and have been doing more work around racial equality.”

For the next few months, he hopes to develop a blueprint for the next mayor. “My goal is to provide a map of the immediate needs and available resources, so the next administration can work with stakeholders in the community to make sure we see a strong, equitable recovery to COVID.”

 

Keep Moving Forward

Among many in Northampton, the consensus is to keep moving forward, but also stay safe.

“I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I am eternally optimistic,” Egelston said. “It’s the only way I’ve been able to be in the restaurant business for so many years.”

Jackson said having events return to the city, sometimes in different forms, went a long way to giving people reasons to come to Northampton. “I won’t say this is a new normal, but it feels right for this moment.”

Features

Doing More with Less

 

At a recent virtual seminar, Delcie Bean asked attendees to think back 20 years and ask themselves, did they foresee a time when phone books and yellow pages would not be a thing?

After all, he asked, every home had one, and they were the primary way small businesses advertised and shared their contact information with the public.

Now, “look at what’s happened to that world,” said Bean, president of Paragus Strategic IT. “That’s the pace at which technology is changing. These things we took for granted, that we felt were never going to change, that were part of the fabric of our ecosystem, have changed. And it’s not just phone books. Think of all the landfills that are chock full of technology that, at one point in time, we didn’t think we could live without.”

And it’s not just tools, but the way we do business, he said, pointing out the short jumps between dominant communication methods over the past century. That idea was one jumping-off point for Bean’s virtual seminar on Sept. 15, titled “Automation: the Time Is Now,” and subtitled “How Automation Can Streamline Your Business and Offset the Labor Shortage.”

At this event, presented by BusinessWest and Comcast Business, he said everyone should ask themselves a simple question: “What’s my phone book? What’s the thing in my business that is still antiquated and should have been replaced by now?

“What’s my phone book? What’s the thing in my business that is still antiquated and should have been replaced by now?”

For example, he went on, “do I have employees entering data into a system that could easily be automated? Am I still doing things on paper forms that then need to be scanned into a system or, God forbid, typed in manually into another system? Do I have antiquated processes that require people to get manual approval and shuffle things around and put things in inboxes and outboxes, and do I still have tasks being done manually that are just ripe to automate?”

The 60-minute presentation focused on the benefits of automation and the ways it can be utilized to save businesses time, trouble, and expense — anything from onboarding a new employee or client to gathering information when someone signs up for something on a website, to the steps involved in the approval process when employees want to request a new computer. All of this, and more, can be automated, Bean said.

One common tool helping businesses do that today is the Microsoft 365 platform, an evolution of the Microsoft Office suite that offers subscription tiers and features including secure cloud storage, business e-mail, advanced cyberthreat protection, and the popular Microsoft Teams program.

“Microsoft has made a very deliberate, very intelligent decision to be the leader in small-business workforce automation, and they have invested infinite money in trying to do that,” Bean said. “And it’s actually paid off.”

 

Perfect Storm

The need to streamline processes through automation impacts most businesses and, as such, is a timely topic of discussion, Bean said — “maybe more than we’d want it to be.” And that’s partly because of the unique set of economic stressors that have emerged over the past 18 months.

“We’re probably all feeling busier right now than we’ve ever felt,” he said. “I know there’s a lot going on that’s causing us to have a lot more on our plates, a lot more challenges to solve, a lot more obstacles to overcome than we’ve had to in the past. So why are we taking time out of our day to have this conversation?”

Well, first of all, businesses are being forced to do more with less. Roughly 3.5 million Americans are not in the workforce but used to be — largely because of the pandemic, but not totally. Population growth has slowed, and the massive exodus of Baby Boomers from the workforce has accelerated somewhat.

“That has a huge impact on the ecomomy, one we cannot minimize,” Bean noted — and one that will continue to ripple throughout organizations of all sizes at a time when everyone seems to be wearing more hats than before, juggling more tasks, and trying to keep up with less help. And that leads to more stress in the workforce.

“We’re seeing more employees comment that they feel overwhelmed, people are leaving their jobs, looking for new jobs, changing industries,” he said. “Or they’re managing the working-remote, working-in-the-office challenges, healthcare challenges … it’s a lot of stress and pressure on the workforce that’s still working.”

On the other hand, the workforce crunch has also created a talent shortage and one of the best-ever markets for job seekers, who have more leverage than before, Bean said, making it harder to hire and retain employees.

Wage growth has accelerated, and so have employee demands regarding everything from remote work to more autonomy to relaxed dress codes, he noted. “Employers are working really hard to try to manage and keep up with those demands while also managing the business.”

It’s an incredibly difficult economy, he added, and just for small employers; the situation is really trickling up to larger and higher-paying employers as well. “It’s not ignoring anybody.”

And it comes, Bean explained, in the midst of what’s known as the Fourth Industrial Revolution, which builds on the third (which began in the mid-20th century and was known as the digital revolution, marked by the rise of computerization). This fourth revolution is melding technologies like artificial intelligence, robotics, cloud computing, augmented reality, smart sensors, 3D printing, and many other advances, and promises to transform the way people live and work.

“There’s a lot going on right now that is digitizing and changing the way we interact with pretty much every aspect of our life,” he said. “And it’s happening at a rate we are very unaccustomed to handle.”

As noted, businesses trying to adapt to this fast-changing world are doing so amid all the recent challenges stemming from the pandemic and the labor situation. Small businesses also lament the growing culture of acquisition, and find it difficult to compete with larger companies with more resources, more innovation, and the ability to pay more for talent.

“All in all, it makes you feel like, if you’re a small firm, you’re in a race that’s a losing battle,” Bean said. “Exhausted? I don’t blame you.”

 

No Standing Still

But exhaustion is no excuse for inaction, he argued, before refuting the common myths around automation: that it’s too expensive, too complicated, and takes too long to implement. All are untrue, he explained during the virtual seminar, and again during a sit-down with BusinessWest Editor George O’Brien during a recent edition of the magazine’s podcast, Business Talk (businesswest.com/blog/businesstalk-with-delcie-bean-ceo-of-paragus-strategic-it).

In other words, there’s no excuse for any business to avoid this conversation any longer.

“We don’t want to be the next Blockbuster,” Bean told the seminar attendees. “We don’t want to be the company that could see that things were changing, stuck to our guns, hung on, and ultimately worked their way into oblivion.”

 

—Joseph Bednar

Features

2021 Women of Impact Judges

Soon, BusinessWest will unveil its Women of Impact for 2021, our fourth annual celebration of area women who are accomplishing great things, standing out in their field, and doing impactful work in the community. As in past years, we’ve asked a panel of three independent judges to read and review dozens of nominations to determine the class of 2021. They are:

Michele Cabral is interim executive director of Professional Education and Corporate Learning at Holyoke Community College and director of Training & Workforce Options. She started her career as a CPA for KPMG Peat Marwick, graduated from the Leadership Development Program at CIGNA Insurance Companies, and joined Farm Credit Financial Partners Inc. as CFO and COO. At HCC, Cabral has held positions as an Accounting professor, then dean of the Business and Technology Division, and she currently leads the HCC Women’s Leadership Series.

Dawn Fleury is the first senior vice president of Corporate Risk at Country Bank in Ware. In her current role, she oversees the bank’s comprehensive risk-management programs. Before joining Country Bank, she had a 21-year career with the FDIC as a commissioned senior bank examiner in the Division of Supervision. Fleury serves on the board of Christina’s House in Springfield, which provides transitional housing for women and their children, as well as educational programming as families transition from homelessness to permanent, stable living environments.

Ellen Freyman is a shareholder with Shatz, Schwartz and Fentin, P.C. in Springfield. Her practice is concentrated in all aspects of commercial real estate: acquisitions and sales, development, leasing, permitting, environmental, and financing. She has been recognized for her community work and was named to Difference Makers and Women of Impact by BusinessWest, Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly Excellence in Law, and the Professional Women’s Chamber Women of the Year. She also earned a Pynchon Award from the Ad Club of Western Massachusetts.

Features Special Coverage

Hire Ground?

 

For months now, business owners and elected officials have pinned the region’s mounting labor woes and all those ‘help wanted’ signs on too-generous federal unemployment assistance. Now that those benefits have expired for more than 3 million Americans, we’ll soon find out just how much of a factor those benefits were. Many involved in economic development and workforce matters say the problem has much deeper roots and that it might be some time before there is a return to anything approaching normal — whatever that is.

 

Dave Gadaire says considerable thought went into the timing of the massive, statewide job fair he helped coordinate last month.

Indeed, he said the week-long virtual gathering, said to be the largest such event ever staged, was scheduled for a time when employers across every sector of the economy were struggling to fill vacancies, often to the point where it was impacting productivity, if not profits — and when large numbers of individuals would be staring down the loss of federal unemployment benefits (specifically those weekly $300 bonus checks) in less than a month.

The thinking was that the convergence of these factors would create a sense of urgency and that the foundation would be laid for some good matches between employers and job seekers at this job fair.

And while that happened, and all those involved with the job fair, from the governor on down, have declared it a success, there are certainly question marks as to just how many matches will be made and whether this event will put a dent in a labor shortage that is, by all accounts, without precedent.

In many ways, the job fair, and the uncertainty concerning the bottom-line results from it, are a microcosm of what’s happening with the job market here and elsewhere, said Gadaire, president and CEO of MassHire Holyoke Career Center. The ongoing plight of employers seeking help and the end of those federal benefits would, logically, seem to indicate that jobs are going to be filled — probably sooner than later.

Rick Sullivan

Rick Sullivan

“States that ceased the incentive on their unemployment earlier have not seen huge upticks in labor participation. But we’ll see what happens; we certainly think some people will enter the workforce when the benefit goes away.”

But more evidence is indicating this is not going to be the easy fix that some employers and many elected officials — people who have been pinning the ‘workforce crisis,’ as it’s called, on an over-generous federal government — thought it would be.

Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council (EDC), told BusinessWest that data and anecdotal evidence from states that did away with the federal bonus checks months ago indicate this has not been the cure most thought it would be.

“States that ceased the incentive on their unemployment earlier have not seen huge upticks in labor participation,” he noted. “But we’ll see what happens; we certainly think some people will enter the workforce when the benefit goes away.”

He was quick to note, however, that he has heard from some of his members that, through smaller, more-targeted job fairs and other recruiting efforts, they are seeing an uptick in the numbers of applications and hirings. Still, he said far more evidence is needed to get a real grasp of what’s happening with the labor market, let alone project what will happen over the next few quarters and beyond.

Kevin Lynn, president and CEO of MassHire Springfield Career Center, agreed. “Murky” was the word he used repeatedly to describe the future of the jobs market in this region.

“This whole thing is not new. We’ve been hanging this lack of applicants on COVID and the unemployment situation. But if you go back to, let’s say July through December of 2019, all you heard from companies was that they had no applicants, and when they did have an applicant, they were being ghosted — ghosting became the new term.”

“It’s an incredibly murky time, because it’s all unprecedented,” he explained. “And there are so any variables. This is not a recession, it’s a healthcare crisis, and it’s been like a rollercoaster; we seem to be on a rollercoaster going down again, and that does not play well psychologically.”

Lynn went further and said that, while the problems and frustrations currently being experienced by area employers may be heightened by the pandemic and factors related to it — childcare shortages, fear of returning to the office, mass retirements, and an unwillingness to work for low wages (he and others would get into all those) — in many ways, it’s all simply a continuation of what was happening before the pandemic.

“This whole thing is not new,” he said. “We’ve been hanging this lack of applicants on COVID and the unemployment situation. But if you go back to, let’s say July through December of 2019, all you heard from companies was that they had no applicants, and when they did have an applicant, they were being ghosted — ghosting became the new term.

“Companies were having major recruiting problems prior to COVID,” he went on. “What we’re seeing is nothing new.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with several area economic-development leaders about the workforce crisis and the murkiness that surrounds just what will come next.

 

Food for Thought

Lynn told BusinessWest he was in Boston over Labor Day weekend. During his time there, he had an experience at a restaurant that was eye-opening if not frightening — a hard look at how things are for employers, especially in hospitality, and how they might — that’s might — continue to be.

“There were 15 tables there, and one woman was waiting on all 15 tables — I couldn’t believe it,” he said, using exasperation in his voice to add an exclamation point. “She was hustling, and I mean hustling. They had one woman on the tables, they had one person busing, and they had a bartender — I don’t know how many they had in the kitchen. The food was coming out, and she was hustling.”

Nancy Creed

Nancy Creed

“It’s such a competitive market, and it’s so hard to find talent that … you may hire some great talent, and two weeks later another company scoops them from you. And there is no employee loyalty.”

While that situation represents an extreme, it encapsulates what many employers are facing these days — an inability to staff up in the manner they want and need, often in ways that impact service, the customer experience, and, in many cases, the bottom line.

In Western Mass. and many other regions, print shops have been working overtime filling orders for ‘Help Wanted,’ ‘We’re Hiring,’ and ‘Join Our Team’ signs. Meanwhile, other signs get far more specific, listing benefits as well as as wage scales and sign-on bonuses. Meanwhile, most restaurants in the region have cut back days of operation and closed portions of their establishments, school systems struggle to hire bus drivers, and healthcare providers tussle with one another to find nurses and other professionals.

And the fight certainly doesn’t end when the person is hired, said Nancy Creed, executive director the Springfield Regional Chamber, adding that loyalty among employees is a thing of the past, and retention is every bit as challenging as hiring.

“It’s such a competitive market, and it’s so hard to find talent that … you may hire some great talent, and two weeks later another company scoops them from you,” she noted. “And there is no employee loyalty.”

The questions on the minds of everyone in business and economic development concern just when, and to what extent, the pendulum will swing back in the direction of an employers’ labor market.

And the answer is a universal ‘I don’t know … we’ll have to wait and see,’ or words to that effect.

While the massive virtual job fair didn’t provide any hard answers to what’s ahead, neither did the most recent jobs report, which was a headscratcher to most analysts; only 235,000 jobs were added in August, the lowest number since January, following expectations for three times that number.

Getting back to the job fair, it was large in every respect, said Gadaire, who broke down the numbers. The event drew more than 1,700 employers from across the state and across all sectors of the economy, and 17,264 job seekers. Over the course of week, 21,046 résumés were exchanged, and there were nearly 1.4 million virtual visits to the companies’ booths.

While those totals are all impressive, they will not ultimately define how successful this event was, he went on, because the numbers that really count concern the number of jobs to be added in the weeks and months to come.

“We felt we at least got some mass when it comes to what we were trying to do,” said Gadaire. “What we’re doing now is doing all the follow-up to find out how much of that turned into job offers and hires; we’re getting that information back from the companies now as we speak, and it looks like a pretty successful event.”

Time will tell, obviously, and there are a number of factors that will ultimately determine how much of a dent will be put in the state’s labor crisis.

Indeed, those we spoke with said the federal unemployment benefits were certainly a contributor to the deepening of the labor shortage that’s been witnessed over the past year and especially the past nine months. But it appears it’s not as big a factor as many thought, and in the meantime, there are many other factors.

Childcare, or a lack thereof, is a huge issue, said Creed, noting that many working parents — or parents who were working, especially single mothers — cannot return to the workplace without childcare, which is suffering from its own workforce crisis and other issues. Fear of COVID is another factor, she added, noting that the recent surge in cases spawned by the Delta variant will, in all likelihood, slow any kind of return to something approaching normalcy when it comes to the labor market.

“There are three large contributors — the federal stimulus, childcare, and the virus itself,” Creed said. “They all play a role to some degree within specific demographics and populations, and we just need to give it some time to play out and see what happens.”

 

Money Talks

Which leads to another question: just what constitutes normal these days?

Is normal what was seen in 2019, as described by Lynn and others? Is normal what existed a decade or more ago when unemployment was low, yet candidates were far more plentiful?

More to the point, what will be … wait for it … the new normal? And what do employers have to be thinking about as they try to navigate that new normal?

That’s a lot of questions, many of them without easy answers.

Indeed, as a result of the labor shortage of the past several months, wage inflation has become a matter to contend with, and it is one of many factors keeping matches from being made.

“Job seekers have realized that they’re in a bit of a buyer’s market right now,” Gadaire said. “They are in high demand, so they’re asking for higher wages than what most companies are offering or can offer, and that’s certainly a problem.”

Creed agreed. “Not every business can afford to pay $40 an hour,” she noted. “So when you hire someone, and they get pennies more at another company, they’re going to switch; it creates a wage competition that small businesses just can’t afford.

“A lot of these businesses already have very thin margins — so there’s not a lot of wiggle room,” she went on, adding that budget concerns are further compounded by unemployment-insurance issues, paid family leave, hiring incentives and bonuses, and more.

Also, the surge in the pandemic has brought a whole new level of concern, as some people are afraid to enter the workforce, Gadaire noted. “A few months ago, I thought that problem was going away, but now, here we are again.

“And that has the ripple effects attached to it, like childcare and transportation,” he went on. “And then there’s the very real onset of people realizing, and businesses realizing, that remote work is now not just a luxury, it’s a reality, and people are redefining how they do work.”

For some companies, he explained, especially those in hospitality or the broad service sector where workers are face to face with customers, remote work is simply not an option. But for those where it is an option … those companies should look long and hard at creating such remote-work opportunities because doing so will greatly increase the amount of talent available to them.

Creed said the companies may also need to rethink how they hire and whom they hire moving forward.

“Does that position really need a four-year degree? Can it be a two-year degree, or a certificate, or just a GED?” she asked rhetorically, while noting just one way companies may be able to widen the pool of applicants for a job. “We need to rethink our recruitment practices, which is something we’ve always talked about, but now, I think you have to start digging deep into your workforce and saying, ‘how can I adjust?’”

While companies have to be creative and innovative, so too does the region, said Sullivan, adding that a new ‘job trail,’ created by the Greater Springfield Convention & Visitors Bureau and supported by the EDC, is one such example.

On Sept. 8 and 15, participating businesses throughout this region put out signage and orange and blue balloons to identify the ‘trail.’ Interested applicants could visit those businesses, fill out an application, and perhaps schedule an interview (participating companies were required to have people on site to handle inquiries during designated hours).

“There’s a focus on restaurant and hospitality jobs, but we have Yankee Candle, United Personnel, Big Y, Monson Savings Bank … we’ve had a really good response,” he said. “It’s a good cross-section of jobs, and the timing of it is not incidental — we appreciate the fact that the unemployment benefits are running out.”

 

The Job at Hand

As with so much else with this evolving story, time will tell regarding how effective outreaches like the job trail have been when it comes to easing what has become a historically challenging labor market for employers.

For months, experts have speculated about why so many jobs have gone unfilled when so many people are out of work and supposedly looking for work. The federal unemployment benefits were presumed to be the main culprit, but as the weeks and months go by, it’s becoming clear that there is far more to this story. And, as Lynn and others noted, what’s going on is really a continuation, and perhaps an escalation, of what was already happening before the pandemic.

Answers to this crisis have been slow to emerge, and the hope is that, in the weeks and months to come, matters will become more clear and the pendulum will finally begin to swing back.

 

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

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Russell Fox (left) and Karl Stinehart say Southwick benefits from its recreational amenities

Russell Fox (left) and Karl Stinehart say Southwick benefits from its recreational amenities, but needs commercial and industrial development as well.

When they talk about managing their town into the future, officials in Southwick emphasize the word “balance.”

In order for the town to remain a desirable place to live, said Karl Stinehart, chief administrative officer, there needs to be a combination of housing and recreation areas as well as commercial and industrial development.

“We like to point out that Southwick is a recreational community,” he noted. “We also want to make sure our zoning allows for commercial and industrial developments because the taxes they contribute will keep our town an affordable place to live.”

Russell Fox, vice chair of the Southwick Select Board, reinforced the recreational community description by pointing to the Congamond Lakes, which make up nearly 500 acres of recreational space in town. “Also, the Southwick Rail Trail has become a gem in our community, running 6.5 miles through town.”

Another big recreation activity happens at the Wick 338, the popular motocross track that hosted a national event in July and drew more than 30,000 people to Southwick.

In recent years, living at the lakes has become more desirable, and, as a result, prices for houses and lots are skyrocketing. As lake property increases in value, it also drives up the tax bill for residents there.

“I’m concerned about the retirees who have lived on the lake for years who may now have trouble staying in their homes because of the tax increases,” Fox said. “If we can attract more business to Southwick, we can help offset that tax burden.”

One company, Carvana, proposed to build a 200,000-square-foot facility off Route 10 and 202 in Southwick. Carvana is a website that allows consumers to buy used cars completely online and have them delivered to their home. The $100 million facility would have stored, repaired, and cleaned cars for delivery across the Northeast. Carvana projected the Southwick site would have employed 400 people and paid $900,000 each year in property taxes to the town.

The project was initially approved by the town’s Planning Board and Select Board, but hit a snag when a local group called Save Southwick strongly opposed the facility. In a series of public meetings, the group cited concerns about safety, traffic, and burdens on the town’s infrastructure. As the project became more controversial, Carvana withdrew its proposal this summer.

To kill the project that late in the process was frustrating for some, but Fox looks at the Carvana situation as a learning experience for everyone involved.

“It became clear from a vocal group that if a project is too big, they won’t support it,” Fox said. “Even those opposed to Carvana learned how government works, so if that encourages more civic engagement, then we’re all for it.”

Stinehart said the town is currently developing a new master plan that includes a process to allow earlier citizen input on zoning decisions to avoid episodes like Carvana in the future.

“The idea is to have these discussions sooner rather than later when we are considering a project,” he explained. “This also gives citizens an opportunity to learn more about the laws and the process of getting things done.”

 

Responding to a Crisis

When the pandemic struck last year, Southwick was still able to keep the town’s services running.

“All our departments in town continued to provide services and got us through the height of the pandemic by being flexible and adaptive,” Stinehart said.

The Town Hall building where many municipal functions are located remained open for most of the pandemic. Like towns everywhere, Southwick relied on remote online platforms like Zoom for meetings when necessary.

In March 2020, Southwick was one of the first communities to hold a town meeting outside. Because Southwick has an open-meeting form of government, Fox explained, a town meeting was held in the Southwick High School parking lot.

The west side of the Greens of Southwick

The west side of the Greens of Southwick is almost full, while homes on the east side have yet to be constructed.

“It was a special meeting with one agenda item, the decision to treat the lakes with alum,” he noted. Alum — or aluminum sulfate — is commonly used to keep algae blooms down and improve water quality. “The timing was important because we had to treat the lakes by the first week of April, otherwise the alum would not be effective.”

In 2020, Stinehart noted, it was especially important to make the lakes usable. “People couldn’t wait to get outside and do something recreational, so we made sure the lakes were ready for the summer.”

Southwick at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1770
Population: 9,502
Area: 31.7 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $17.59
Commercial Tax Rate: $17.59
Median Household Income: $52,296
Family Household Income: $64,456
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting; Select Board
Largest Employers: Big Y; Whalley Computer Associates; Southwick Regional School District
*Latest information available

People also spent more time in their yards, which benefited Southwick farmers. Fox said area farms sold more plants for flower beds than ever before in 2020. “Most plants sold out early because people were stuck at home and wanted to get outside to do things in their yard.”

The pandemic also delayed the full celebration of Southwick’s 250th anniversary from happening in 2020. After a kickoff event on New Year’s Eve in 2019 that brought out hundreds of residents and featured fireworks, an outdoor event in February 2020 followed, featuring ice sculptures. Then the pandemic kicked in and put further events on hold.

On Nov. 7, the actual 250th anniversary of the town’s founding, officials in Southwick arranged a call with officials in Southwick, England. That was followed by a parade that traveled through all the neighborhoods in town.

“It was a rolling parade that was well-received because people could go out their door or to the end of their street to see it,” Stinehart said. “The people in town really appreciated it.”

The 250th celebration still has one event remaining, a full parade for people to attend on Oct. 16 with fireworks later that evening at Whalley Park. Fox called the October events a “belated birthday celebration.”

Both Stinehart and Fox have been impressed with the interest in the anniversary, as more than 50 residents joined the organizing committee for the 250th celebration.

“We had a good mix of people on the committee, some who had just moved to town and others who have lived here their entire lives,” Fox said.

Stinehart quickly added, “no other committee in town has that kind of turnout.”

As the town gradually makes its way out of the pandemic, Stinehart mentioned a regional grant program undertaken with the town of Agawam to provide microlending for small businesses.

The town treated the Congamond Lakes in the spring of 2020

The town treated the Congamond Lakes in the spring of 2020 to improve water quality for people clamoring to enjoy the outdoors during the pandemic.

“We are encouraging small businesses that need help to apply for these grants,” he said, adding that Agawam is the lead community on the grant.

Looking forward, Stinehart hopes to use funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) to address water and sewer projects in Southwick. Fox spoke in particular about a water-pressure situation town leaders are hoping to address with the ARPA funds. He said projects like this sound like mundane details but can have real and lasting impacts on the town.

“If we address the water-pressure problem, it improves our fire-protection ability and ultimately affects homeowners’ insurance rates for residents,” Fox added.

 

Places to Call Home

The town has more new homes in the works, most notably the Greens of Southwick, where new, homes are being custom-built on each side of College Highway on the property of the former Southwick Country Club. The west side of the Greens development is nearly full, while construction on the east side has not yet begun.

Stinehart said he would like to leverage ARPA funding to increase broadband infrastructure in Southwick. In a separate effort, the town has met with Westfield Gas + Electric’s Whip City Fiber division to explore the feasibility of fiber-optic internet service for Southwick.

To address future energy savings for the town, Southwick has applied for a Massachusetts Green Community designation which would make it eligible for grant funding on a number of energy-efficient projects.

The tax rate for Southwick is scheduled to be released in the fall, and Stinehart said the goal is for a single uniform rate that will be competitive with other communities “because that’s good for business.”

Despite the issues around Carvana, Fox added, Southwick has welcomed plenty of new businesses and has seen expansion for some already there.

“By letting everyone know Southwick is open for business, we can keep this beautiful place where people want to live,” he said. “It’s all about that balance.”

Features

Moving Up to the Show

 

documentary on his one-man show, Yield of Dreams, Charlie Epstein

For the documentary on his one-man show, Yield of Dreams, Charlie Epstein visited the actual ‘field of dreams’ stadium in Iowa, a visit he said was inspirational on many levels.

Charlie Epstein joked that he has more people working for him on his one-man show — Yield of Dreams: A Financially Entertaining Experience — than he does at the financial-services company he founded, now part of Hub International.

Only … it’s no joke.

Indeed, over the past 21 months or so, Epstein, known to many as the 401k Coach, has hired comedians, directors, stage managers, animators, and more (the cast of supporters keeps growing) as he prepares to bring his show to the stage — in this case, the Northampton Arts Center — on Aug. 26 and 27.

That show, which has been delayed in some respects by COVID-19, will indulge both of Epstein’s passions — acting and financial advising, both of which he’s been doing for decades now.

The acting? That’s been a passion since childhood, and a diversion that was a big part of his life for more than a dozen years. He’s done everything from standup comedy in New York to another one-man show at the former CityStage called Solitary Confinement, in which he played seven roles.

The financial advising? That, too, has been a passion that has taken a number of forms, from books — Paychecks for Life and Save America, Save! — to a podcast to a video series.

Bringing the two worlds together has become yet another passion for Epstein, one that will put him on a live stage for the first time since he did an off-off-Broadway show just before 9/11.

After the final production of that show, he said a voice inside him told him it was time to leave the stage and move onto other things, including the books and the 401k Coach entrepreneurial endeavor.

“I’d pretty much accomplished everything I wanted to,” he recalled of his acting career. “I was done.”

Turns out, he was only done for a while. OK, a long while.

What brought him back was a desire to present his message in a new, different, and more entertaining way, and in the process, spread the message and attract new customers.

“We’re calling this a financially entertaining experience,” he said, “because the show asks the question: ‘what did you want to be when you grew up? And what happened to that promise?’ Everyone made a promise to themself growing up, only how many people kept the promise? My promise to myself was I always wanted to be an entertainer, and I kept the promise and figured out to successfully navigate living in both worlds.

“Most people are not pursuing their life’s passions — they are stuck in a job that is less than fulfilling, working for a paycheck, hoping one day they will finally get to do what they have always dreamed of.”

“Most people are not pursuing their life’s passions — they are stuck in a job that is less than fulfilling, working for a paycheck, hoping one day they will finally get to do what they have always dreamed of,” he went on. “In this show, I’ll bust your myths about money that hold you back from living the life you have always dreamed of.”

To do so, he’ll draw on some of his own real-life experiences, specifically with his acting career.

“I had basically taken three to five months off a year from 1988 to 2001,” he told BusinessWest. “And I discovered that the more time I took off from my financial business to pursue my acting and entertainment career, the more money I made every year.”

As noted, this show has been in the works for more than two years now and was inspired by a desire to return to the stage. Epstein said he met with Mike Koenig, serial entrepreneur, author, podcaster, and founder of the Superpower Accelerator, in the early fall of 2019 to discuss his plans.

“He told me that I should be like Leno and Letterman and all the great comics who have shows and hire my own comedy team to help me write these ideas that I had,” Epstein recalled, adding that, in exchange for being named producer of the show, Koenig said he would find the comedians — which he did.

“I flew out to La Jolla, California, and holed up for two days in a condo he [Koenig] has overlooking the Pacific,” Epstein went on. “I was there with three comedians, and I basically acted out all the ideas I had in my head. And with those three comedians, we crafted the outline of the one-man show. Then I went home and wrote 168 pages from October to Thanksgiving, then went back out to California in January for another two days of going over things. Then COVID hit, and we spent the next three or four months on Zoom, editing, writing, and acting things out.”

Subsequently, he has hired a director, a stage manager, a lighting designer, animators, and more to bring the show to life. He also traveled across the country for the filming of a documentary on the making of the show, created by Emmy Award winner Nick Nanton. There were location shoots in a variety of settings, including a mountaintop in California, New England, and the actual ‘field of dreams’ in Iowa, the one made famous in the movie starring Kevin Costner, a visit that Epstein said was inspirational on a number of levels.

“It’s like a shrine — it was fantastic being there,” he said, noting that he rented out for the field for two days so he and his crew could film at dusk. “I finally got to do what I always wanted to do, like James Earl Jones — walk into that cornfield like a ghost.”

Epstein, who is now spending several hours a day rehearsing, will perform Yield of Dreams: A Financially Entertaining Experience twice at the Northampton Arts Center, on Aug. 26 and 27 at 7 p.m. There is no cost to attend those shows; seats can be reserved, and that aforementioned documentary can be viewed, by downloading the app at yieldof dreams.live.

After those shows … the plan is to take the show on the road, as they say.

“The goal is to go city to city, tour the country, and teach people that they, too, can achieve their dreams,” he said, adding that the timing for such a show is ideal because many people have been cooped up during COVID, thinking about the present — and the future.

“They’re thinking, ‘I’m working in a job I can’t stand for a paycheck, and I’m miserable. Why don’t I just go for my dream?” Epstein said. “That’s what this show is. It’s me living my passion and trying to be an inspiration to other people.”

 

—George O’Brien

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Bob Boilard says infrastructure improvements, including a broadband plan for the town, have moved forward during the pandemic.

Bob Boilard says infrastructure improvements, including a broadband plan for the town, have moved forward during the pandemic.

 

Robert Boilard credits people in town working together as the reason Wilbraham has come through the pandemic so far with minimal impact on the community.

“We incorporated our protocols early and have been very fortunate that most people have remained safe from COVID,” said Boilard, who chairs the Wilbraham Board of Selectmen.

Officials from the Police and Fire departments, as well as the town’s public-health nurse, provide weekly updates to the selectmen of the number of positive cases, illnesses, and hospitalizations so they can continue to closely monitor the community’s health.

Boilard pointed to a new DPW garage and a storage facility for the Parks and Recreation department as two projects the town was able to complete during the pandemic. As a community that has received funds from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), the board is hoping to use the money on water-infrastructure projects and expanding broadband internet.

“We have a master plan to install broadband throughout Wilbraham,” Boilard said. “This is a project that will be ongoing for the next few years.”

Another big project on the horizon involves a new senior center. On Oct. 18, Wilbraham will hold a special town meeting to discuss building the facility behind Town Hall. Paula Dubord, the town’s director of Elder Affairs, said she and others have led a 10-year effort for a senior center that can better accommodate the community’s growing senior population.

“Our current location is in a lovely building, but the space is only 3,840 square feet,” Dubord said. “With more than 4,000 seniors in town, it’s just too small.”

The drive for a new senior center began in 2012 with a study committee, which concluded the existing senior center did not meet the town’s needs, even at that time. Next, a feasibility committee was formed and brought in an architect to do a deep dive on what made sense for a new facility. After seven years and consideration of nearly 40 different sites in Wilbraham, the feasibility study recommended building a new structure on municipally owned land behind Town Hall. October’s town meeting will give residents a chance to vote on that recommendation.

“Our current location is in a lovely building, but the space is only 3,840 square feet. With more than 4,000 seniors in town, it’s just too small.”

There were some in town who pushed for locating the new senior center in an available former school. Dubord said the senior center has been located in old schools twice before, and it’s an approach that just doesn’t work.

“The experts who took part in the feasibility study told us a new building was a more practical way to meet the current and future needs for Wilbraham residents,” he said.

 

Booming Population

When the study committee began its work in 2012, members looked at the potential growth in the over-60 population in Wilbraham.

“We projected that, by 2025, nearly 40% of our town — with a population of nearly 15,000 — will be considered a senior,” Dubord said. “We are very close to that projection right now.”

As Wilbraham residents age, she added, many of them say they prefer to stay in their own home or move to one of the 55+ communities in town.

In its current location, more than 100 residents visit the senior center every day. Dubord emphasized that the real goal of the center is to keep people socially connected. Last March, when the pandemic forced the center to shut down, she and her staff quickly found new ways to stay connected with local seniors.

“We immediately started grocery shopping for people and picking up essential items like masks and toilet paper — both of which were hard to get in the beginning — as well as their prescription medicines,” she said.

The staff at the center put their full focus on meeting the needs of Wilbraham seniors, she added. “Because everyone was isolated, we did lots of phone check-ins with people to keep them engaged.”

In the spring, when vaccines first became available for people 65 and older, Dubord and her staff helped seniors sign up online to receive their shots when the state made them available at the nearby Eastfield Mall in Springfield.

“The registration process was not easy for seniors to complete, so we became like vaccination headquarters,” she said. “Because we had done a number of them, our staff was able to quickly get people registered for their shot.”

Dubord estimates they helped nearly 400 residents sign up for the initial vaccine offering. Later, the senior center hosted its own vaccine clinic run by staff from the Public Health and Fire departments.

Grace Barone says Wilbraham businesses are looking forward

Grace Barone says Wilbraham businesses are looking forward to getting back to some semblance of normalcy.

“Through all those efforts, we are confident that everyone who wanted to get a shot was able to get one,” she said.

Like many senior centers in the area, Wilbraham also offed a grab-and-go lunch program when it could not open the center for meals. “The real plus to the grab-and-go was it introduced us to people we’ve never seen before at the senior center,” Dubord said.

Happy to open the doors at the senior center almost three months ago, she said having someplace to go gives people a purpose and plays a key role in our health as we age.

“Many of our seniors live alone, so the center is important because it gives them access to vital community services and for the social connections they make,” she noted. Indeed, according to a Harvard Health study, the negative health risks of social isolation are comparable to smoking and obesity, increasing mortality risk by up to 30%.

Wilbraham at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1763
Population: 14,868
Area: 22.4 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $22.96
Commercial Tax Rate: $22.96
Median Household Income: $65,014
Median Family Income: $73,825
Type of government: Board of Selectmen, Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Baystate Wing Wilbraham Medical Center; Friendly Ice Cream Corp.; Big Y; Home Depot; Wilbraham & Monson Academy
*Latest information available

While a new senior center can address the needs of Wilbraham’s growing elder population, Dubord said the plan is for the new building to also house services for veterans in town.

“There are benefits for the new center beyond seniors,” she explained. “The larger space can be used by Boy and Girl Scouts, as well as women’s groups or other organizations in town.”

 

Moving Forward

Gradual easing of COVID-19 mandates is also good news for Wilbraham businesses. Grace Barone, executive director of East of the River Five Town Chamber of Commerce, noted that, like everyone else, Wilbraham businesses are looking forward to something resembling business as usual once again.

She pointed to a recent annual meeting of the chamber which more than 130 members attended in person while others joined remotely as an example of gradually getting back to attending events while still staying safe.

“The chamber’s golf tournament at the end of September is another way to get back to networking and taking advantage of the outdoors while we can,” she added.

New to her role at the chamber, Barone has been in the job since late June after working with the Keystone Commons retirement community in Ludlow for the last five years.

“I’m hoping to take what we’ve learned from the past 18 months to help our businesses succeed going forward,” she said. “It’s going to take some time, but we can get there together.”

Boilard shares Barone’s optimism about the future.

“It’s awesome to see how well everyone works together,” he said. “From boards to community groups, they are all focused on making Wilbraham a better place to live.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Mark Pruhenski says Great Barrington

Mark Pruhenski says Great Barrington has seen an influx of new residents during the pandemic.

 

On a summer Friday night in Great Barrington, Mark Pruhenski simply enjoyed the sight of dozens of diners eating outside and the sound of musicians playing from various spots around downtown.

Town manager since 2019, Pruhenski said Great Barrington is fortunate to have weathered the pandemic well. He gave much of the credit to a task force formed early on that included town staff and a strong network of partners, including Fairview Hospital, local food banks, and others who lent support.

With its location in the Berkshires, Great Barrington has long been a popular spot for second homes. During the pandemic, many people relocated to their second homes to get away from populated metro areas and work remotely. As time went on, many decided to make Great Barrington their permanent home.

“Along with those who moved into their second homes, we had hundreds of new residents move to the area,” Pruhenski said. “Folks who enjoyed visiting the Berkshires for culture and entertainment were now permanently moving here.”

Betsy Andrus, executive director of the Southern Berkshire Chamber of Commerce, noted that, even at the height of the pandemic, when restaurants and cultural venues were closed, people were still looking for a place to rent or buy. She believes the consistently low COVID-19 infection rates were a strong part of the town’s appeal.

“Along with those who moved into their second homes, we had hundreds of new residents move to the area. Folks who enjoyed visiting the Berkshires for culture and entertainment were now permanently moving here.”

“People from larger metro areas came to Great Barrington in droves,” Andrus said. “You could not keep a house on the market, with some sales happening in only a few hours. Others took a virtual tour and bought sight unseen.”

While admitting it’s difficult to find positives from a worldwide pandemic, Andrus said one benefit was forcing businesses in town to change the way they had been operating.

“I think we were kind of stagnant before,” she said. “Then, suddenly, our businesses had to put a lot of energy into how they could reinvent themselves.”

In addition to sit-down restaurants figuring out how to become takeout places, Andrus pointed to Robin’s Candy Shop, which could no longer allow customers to serve themselves in the shop.

“They moved the store around overnight, so now the staff gets you everything you want,” she said. “Then Robin’s quickly switched over to online sales, which is no small feat, either.”

Great Barrington used its Shared Streets grant

Great Barrington used its Shared Streets grant to develop an outdoor dining area on Railroad Street.

While Great Barrington saw some stores permanently shutter their businesses during the pandemic, Andrus said COVID was not usually the main reason for closing. In some cases, the businesses that did not survive the pandemic were struggling before COVID hit. For others, the pandemic provided the opportunity for owners to change professions or retire.

“We had a huge movement of stores that was similar to musical chairs,” she said. “When a business would close and make their space available, multiple people were trying to sign up for it.”

 

Filling the Gaps

Like musical chairs, there are no empty spaces now in downtown Great Barrington. As a lifelong resident, Andrus said she’s never seen so much activity.

“In some ways, this big shift is the best thing that could have happened,” she noted. “The stores have all settled in to the right locations for what they are selling, and it has really changed the atmosphere in town.”

With retail storefronts full, the second- and third-story office spaces are also reaching full occupancy. Pruhenski hopes the current boom can address a long-term concern in town.

“We’ve always anticipated that Great Barrington would see a population decline over the next decade and beyond,” he said. “It would be great to see the influx of new residents flatten or even reverse that decline.”

While many town halls closed during the pandemic and conducted business remotely, Pruhenski said Great Barrington Town Hall closed only twice, for a month each time. Otherwise, he and his staff came in every day to keep several town projects moving forward.

In 2019, the state Department of Transportation had closed the Division Street bridge. Right now, the project is in the permitting and design phase for a new bridge, which is scheduled to open next summer.

“Everyone was forced to jump out of their comfort zone, and I believe that made us all better for it.”

“Division Street is an important bridge because it links the east side of town to the west,” Pruhenski said. “It’s a shortcut everyone in town likes to use.”

In the northern part of Great Barrington, a private water company serves the village of Housatonic that has been struggling with insufficient water pressure. While Great Barrington doesn’t regulate or own the system, the town is involved to make sure residents there receive clean water and to make sure there is plenty of pressure for firefighters when they need it. Pruhenski said he and the Select Board are looking at several options, including a merger with the town’s water system.

“We were working on this during the pandemic because it has an impact on so many residents,” he noted.

After a transportation service for seniors abruptly closed, town officials took the lead to quickly revive the regional van service that now provides transportation to elderly and disabled residents in Great Barrington and five neighboring towns.

Meanwhile, in the spring of 2020, the town launched a project to paint the downtown crosswalks as a way to recognize diversity in town. Pruhenski said the reaction by residents was more encouraging than he could have expected.

“We just did our little project, and the timing happened to be perfect that the rainbow was being used as a symbol of hope at the height of the pandemic,” he recalled. “After we painted our first crosswalks, people were encouraged to come outside to see them and take pictures with them. It’s been a fun project that’s made everyone happy.”

For 2021, the town added more rainbow crosswalks, and now the entire downtown corridor has replaced its white crosswalks with rainbows.

“People from other communities are calling us because they want rainbow crosswalks in their town,” Pruhenski said. “They are asking us how we did it and where we bought the paint. This project has been so rewarding during such a challenging time.”

For several years, Great Barrington has been pursuing projects to encourage environmental sustainability. One big step was to ban plastic water bottles in town. In return, the town has built three public water stations to make up for the bottle ban.

Another sustainability effort involves the Housatonic Community Center, a popular gym built shortly after World War II. Pruhenski said the center is used a great deal in the winter, so the town has bulked up on insulation and added LED lighting. He hopes to see big savings in energy use and operating costs for the facility.

Great Barrington also has the distinction of hosting the first retail cannabis store in Berkshire County. Theory Wellness opened January 2019 and is now one of four cannabis establishments in town. Pruhenski said sales at all four stores have been strong, and they have returned some welcome revenue to the town.

Great Barrington at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1761
Population: 7,104
Area: 45.8 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $15.99
Commercial Tax Rate: $15.99
Median Household Income: $95,490
Median Family Income: $103,135
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Fairview Hospital; Iredale Mineral Cosmetics; Kutscher’s Sports Academy; Prairie Whale
* Latest information available

“For fiscal year 2022, we were able to use $3.5 million in cannabis revenue to offset taxes,” he noted. “Capital budget items, like new police cruisers that we normally have to borrow for, were paid for in cash thanks to the cannabis revenues.”

The town also collects 3% from cannabis stores to mitigate the negative effects of cannabis on the community. After awarding $185,000 in fiscal 2021, Pruhenski said the town will be awarding $350,000 in fiscal 2022 to five social agencies in the form of community-impact grants.

Andrus agreed that cannabis has had an overall positive impact on Great Barrington.

“Despite all the traffic cannabis brings to town, I’m surprised at how unintrusive it has been,” she said. “For people with health issues, cannabis allows them to live with much less pain.”

 

Hit the Road

When Massachusetts launched the Shared Streets and Spaces Grant Program in June 2020, it was immediately popular across the state. Pruhenski called the program a “silver lining” resulting from the dark cloud of COVID. Great Barrington used its Shared Streets grant to develop an outdoor dining area on Railroad Street to support several restaurants located there. Every Friday and Saturday night in the summer, two-thirds of the street is dedicated to outdoor dining. Pruhenski enjoys seeing Railroad Street turn into a café each weekend.

“When we started this in 2020, vaccines were not yet available, and the only way to dine out was to eat outside,” he said. “Restaurants nearby also use their outdoor space, so it creates a lively downtown experience.”

Andrus said outdoor dining on Railroad Street was a huge effort that was well worth it. “It works great, and people love it. The restaurants want to see this keep going, so they are all taking part.” The town also participates in an effort called Berkshire Busk, in which a dozen entertainers perform at different spots around downtown Great Barrington during the outdoor dining season.

Andrus said the town’s response the to pandemic reminds her of the expression, “don’t waste a good crisis.”

“Everyone was forced to jump out of their comfort zone, and I believe that made us all better for it,” she added. “Because we were all kind of stagnant before the pandemic, it made us try something different.”

Pruhenski would be the first to say that Great Barrington is moving in a positive direction as more people move in, and many are locating their businesses here, too.

“School enrollments are increasing, and Main Street is busier than it’s ever been,” he said. “It’s a really exciting time for the town.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Mayor Nicole LaChapelle

Mayor Nicole LaChapelle says she is concerned about the deeper effects of COVID, and is thus stressing the importance of public health.

 

While grateful that Easthampton is reaching the other side of COVID-19, Mayor Nicole LaChapelle understands there is still plenty of work ahead.

Even though her city came through the pandemic in better shape than many communities, she has prioritized building up the Public Health department to help the city move forward.

“We’re looking at public health as a part of public safety,” LaChapelle said. To that end, the mayor hopes to add more clinical staff to the department as well as encourage other city departments to collaborate with Public Health.

“I’m concerned about the deeper effects of COVID, from people who had COVID and survived to the mental-health aspects of it on so many people,” she went on. “In Easthampton, we need to support those with medical needs as well as mental-health needs.”

There may be some help on the way. Recently, the Center for Human Development (CHD) purchased the former Manchester Hardware store on Union Street. While CHD currently has a small presence in Easthampton, moving to the nearly 18,000-square-foot building will allow it to expand its services.

Right now, plans include outpatient mental-health counseling services for all ages and primary medical care at the site. LaChapelle said CHD could go a long way to filling the gaps in behavioral-health services in the city.

“CHD has been a good partner, and they are listening to the needs of our community members,” she said. “I feel good about what they will bring to Easthampton.”

After 125 years in business, Manchester Hardware closed its doors late last year. Owner Carol Perman had tried to sell the business to a regional hardware chain, but when that and several other possible suitors didn’t pan out, she decided to retire and just sell the building.

Some in Easthampton were critical of LaChapelle for not trying harder to locate a for-profit business at the Manchester property. Yet, “Easthampton has historically had community-based services downtown. This is not a new placement of services,” she said, noting that Manchester Hardware’s location on a public bus route helps it fit in with City Hall, the Council on Aging, and Veterans’ Services, which are all located downtown.

“As businesses reopen and start to come back, we as a city want to help them readjust to be successful for the long term.”

While there have been calls to model Northampton by pursuing a robust Main Street business district, LaChapelle said she would be negligent as mayor to try to imitate other communities and ignore her own city’s strengths. “Having centrally located services for our residents is a real strength of Easthampton, and we need to pursue those things we do well.”

The mayor’s emphasis on public health is about bringing the entire community back, she noted, especially businesses in Easthampton. “As businesses reopen and start to come back, we as a city want to help them readjust to be successful for the long term.”

 

Back on Track

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the Greater Easthampton Chamber of Commerce has also worked closely with businesses to get them back on track.

“Even as COVID nears its end, business owners are trying to get their sea legs back,” said Moe Belliveau, the chamber’s executive director.

For the past 15 months, the chamber has shifted its role to become a central information resource in helping local businesses identify and apply for financial assistance during COVID.

“We sifted through all the extraneous information that comes with forms that apply to many situations,” Belliveau said. “Our members knew they could rely on us to get the right information and avoid the firehose effect of too many forms.”

In addition to securing federal grants, the chamber partnered with the city on a state economic-development project that enabled 31 businesses in Easthampton to each receive $1,500 grants.

Belliveau is currently working with the city planner on a COVID-recovery strategic plan. “There are still unknowns as we come out of COVID, so we’re trying to keep communication pathways open so we can make adjustments when necessary,” she said. “The chamber’s mission in this becomes to remain agile so we can provide help where needed and respond to opportunities when we see them.”

Like many communities, Easthampton businesses are having trouble filling open jobs. LaChapelle hopes to address this by possibly using state and federal money to subsidize local businesses so they can pay higher wages to get people back to work.

River Valley Co-op, a full-service supermarket

The opening of the River Valley Co-op, a full-service supermarket, is one of many intriguing developments in Easthampton.

The opening of the River Valley Co-op, a full-service supermarket with an emphasis on local and organically grown foods, is bringing lots of excitement to Easthampton. With its grand opening in July, River Valley will offer a 22,000-square-foot market to Easthampton employing 83 unionized workers with hopes of growing that number. By installing solar canopies in the parking lot and solar collectors on the roof, it produces enough power to offset the energy required to run the market, making it a net-zero building.

LaChapelle said River Valley is already inspiring the city to pursue its own energy-saving projects. “We’ll be putting solar canopies in the parking lot and on the roof of City Hall, as well as behind the Public Safety department. It won’t bring us to net zero, but it’s a good start.”

Easthampton at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1785
Population: 16,059
Area: 13.6 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $17.46
Commercial Tax Rate: $17.46
Median Household Income: $45,185
Median Family Income: $54,312
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Berry Plastics Corp., INSA, Williston Northampton School, National Nonwovens Co.
* Latest information available

Mountain View School, which will serve students from pre-kindergarten through grade 8, is nearing completion and expects to welcome middle-schoolers in January 2022, after the holiday break. LaChapelle said the plan is to move some of the younger grades into the new school next spring, and by fall 2022, all grades will be attending Mountain View.

“A couple years ago, we discussed the fear of moving young children during the school year and how disorienting that might be,” the mayor noted. “Since COVID and all the adjustments students have had to make, we no longer see that as an issue.”

Once all the students move to the new school, Easthampton will try to sell the Maple, Center, and Pepin school buildings, all of which are more than 100 years old. LaChapelle hopes to see those buildings developed into affordable housing, and the city is marketing all three schools as one project to make it more attractive to developers.

“There are still unknowns as we come out of COVID, so we’re trying to keep communication pathways open so we can make adjustments when necessary.”

“If we converted just one of these schools for affordable housing, it would be tough because it may result in only 12 units,” LaChapelle said, adding that several developers are considering the three schools as one package, and she remains optimistic that a deal might soon be in the works.

At one time, Easthampton was known for its mills. Long after they were shut down and no longer viable, the mill buildings are now a way to address economic development and to make more housing available. One Ferry Street is a project that is renovating old mill buildings into mixed-use properties featuring condominium and rental housing, as well as office space. One building, 3 Ferry, is already open, and several businesses are currently leasing space there. The next two buildings slated for renovation sit behind it and present a sort of before-and-after contrast to illustrate the potential at the site. Once complete, those two buildings, both much larger than 3 Ferry, will add more than 100 new housing units to Easthampton.

While many businesses either slowed down or shut down during the pandemic, the four cannabis dispensaries located in Easthampton continued to generate income for the city. LaChapelle is hoping to use some of that revenue for a clean-buildings initiative. With several buildings in need of new HVAC systems and some state money available, she sees this as an opportunity to invest in public infrastructure that will benefit the city well into the future.

“It’s a big step, and, where appropriate, we could offset some of the one-time expenses with our cannabis revenues,” she added.

 

Change Agents

Belliveau said one of the strengths of Easthampton is an eclectic entrepreneurial base. Last year, the National League of Cities selected Easthampton as part of its City Innovation Ecosystem program designed to drive entrepreneurship and innovation. The city’s effort, titled Blueprint Easthampton, currently features an online resource navigator to connect entrepreneurs with everyone from suppliers to counselors to help advance their enterprises.

The Massachusetts LGBT Chamber of Commerce and the Assoc. of Black Business & Professionals are also working with Blueprint Easthampton, which puts a focus on informal entrepreneurs who might not qualify for traditional grants, LaChapelle said, adding that she’s most excited about the coaching aspect of the program.

“[JPMorgan Chase CEO] Jamie Dimon has executive coaches — why not someone who’s making a product for sale on Etsy?” she said. Through coaching, entrepreneurs can learn how to take advantage of the many resources that are available.

“We’re seeing all kinds of people, including single parents and people of color, who are all trying to figure out how to grow,” the mayor said. “We’re giving them technical support, executive coaching, and, at the end of the program, a gift of capital to help them get ready for the next step in their venture. We just ask they register as a business in Easthampton.”

Through all its challenges, LaChapelle remains optimistic about Easthampton because she feels there is a real dialogue between the city and its residents.

“In Easthampton, you can get involved in your government and make a difference,” she said, crediting, as an example, efforts by volunteer groups who worked with the city to create open public spaces.

“Easthampton has really embraced change and the ability to evolve and grow,” Belliveau added. “In general, I’ve found people are excited about the positivity and potential that comes with change, even when it’s scary.”

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

The final phase of the Columbia Greenway Rail Trail in Westfield should be complete this fall.

The final phase of the Columbia Greenway Rail Trail in Westfield should be complete this fall.

For Donald Humason, the phones ringing at Westfield City Hall is a sure sign the pandemic is nearing its end.

While recognizing that some people suffered devastating personal and economic loss, Humason remains grateful that, on the whole, Westfield came through the last 14 months better than expected. He credits the team at City Hall for working tirelessly with state officials to secure grants for Westfield agencies and businesses.

“At our weekly department meetings, I would always ask if we were prepared for the eventual end of the pandemic, so we would be ready when the phones start ringing again,” the mayor said. “Thanks to everyone’s efforts, I feel we are ready.”

Because construction crews continued working through the pandemic, Westfield saw progress on several infrastructure projects. In April, the main structure was installed for the Greenway Rail Trail bridge that crosses Main Street. As the trail continues through Westfield, it will be an elevated path with exit ramps that drop down to local neighborhoods and businesses. Humason expects the final phase of the trail to be complete this fall.

“This last section of the trail is taking longer because there are several overpass bridges which are more complicated to build than the pathway itself,” he said.

Meanwhile, Westfield-Barnes Regional Airport recently broke ground for a $4.7 million taxiway project that will benefit both military and civilian air traffic. Another improvement at Barnes involves a private company looking to build three new aircraft hangars, Humason noted.

“These are not the sexy projects, but they need to get done so we can keep everything working.”

Massachusetts state and federal legislators are currently on a campaign to bring the next generation F-35 fighter jets to the Air National Guard’s 104th Fighter Wing at Barnes.

Humason said he appreciates having a fleet of F-15 fighter jets based at Barnes, but it’s worth pursuing the newer jets, too. “We are competing with several states in the Northeast to get the F-35s. We’ve modernized the base, and we’re ready to accommodate them if we are chosen.”

On the other side of the city, work has begun to replace Cowles Bridge on Route 202 that connects Westfield to Southwick. This state project marks one of the last bridges in Westfield that hasn’t yet been updated. Because the city is situated between several rivers, Humason said, Westfield is like an island in some ways because many entries into town involve crossing a bridge. He predicts Cowles Bridge will be completed in about two years.

“While it’s not a big bridge, it carries every important infrastructure in the city, so that makes it a more complex project because several utilities have to be involved in moving the structures under the bridge,” he explained.

Other projects, such as pump stations and sewer replacements, are also in the works. While these projects are not as high-profile as bridges and bike paths, they are essential, the mayor said. “These are not the sexy projects, but they need to get done so we can keep everything working.”

Meanwhile, infrastructure work of a different kind — expansion of Whip City Fiber, a division of Westfield Gas & Electric — continues to build momentum and become an increasingly powerful force in efforts to attract and retain businesses (and residents) in Westfield and several surrounding communities.

Tom Flaherty, general manager of the G&E, told BusinessWest there are now just under 11,000 subscribers in Westfield and 19 surrounding hilltowns, with the goal, one he considers very attainable, of reaching 15,000 within the next three years.

The high-speed internet, as well as low-cost, reliable electric service from the municipal utility, have become strong selling points for the city, said Flaherty, noting that businesses looking to relocate or expand put such services at or near the top of their list of considerations for such initiatives.

“The reliability of our electric and natural-gas infrastructures and the lower cost in comparison with other utilities — we’re more than 40% cheaper — are a huge consideration when people are coming out this way looking for houses,” he explained. “Whip City Fiber is a significant selling point when people are relocating and when businesses are relocating.”

As an example, he cited Myers Infosystems, which recently relocated from Northampton into the site of the former Piccolo’s restaurant on Elm Street, and cited energy costs and high-speed internet as key considerations in that decision.

 

Survive and Thrive

Eric Oulette, executive director of the Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce, said many of the businesses in Westfield were able to stay open last year because they quickly adapted once the pandemic hit. In particular, he pointed to the adjustment restaurants made last June when they were able to offer outdoor dining.

“They figured it out and made outdoor dining another feature they could offer,” Oulette said. “It was successful and allowed them to keep their doors open.”

With only a few chain restaurants in the city, Oulette said local restaurants are able to promote their individual personalities and offer many different experiences. That environment also encourages other types of small businesses to locate in Westfield.

Mayor Donald Humason

Mayor Donald Humason said the city was successful meeting the needs of residents, students, and seniors during the pandemic, and will now put more focus on business needs.

Humason told the story of three new businesses that opened in April on School Street. Hilltown Chic (small gifts, candles, etc.), Be Bella Boutique (clothing), and Boho Hair Studio are all women-owned businesses. The owners got together and decided to hold their grand openings on the same day.

“We went right down the street and cut the ribbon in front of each shop,” Humason said. “It felt like a street carnival, and the businesses all received extra publicity for it.”

Speaking of new businesses, Westfield has granted four licenses for cannabis dispensaries. Only one, Cannabis Connection, is currently open, with the others at various stages of getting ready to open.

“We are still early in the process with cannabis in Westfield, so, from a revenue perspective, we consider these eggs we have not yet put in our basket,” Humason said.

As businesses pick up their activity, he added, they will need more workers — and, like everywhere else, Westfield has far more job openings than candidates.

In May, Mestek joined with the chamber and about a dozen other businesses and held a job fair in the field across from Mestek, with each exhibitor setting up a tent to speak with interested job seekers.

“We are still early in the process with cannabis in Westfield, so, from a revenue perspective, we consider these eggs we have not yet put in our basket.”

The idea for the job fair started with Peter Letendre, plant manager at Mestek, which manufactures HVAC equipment and performs metal fabrication for other industries. The company had recently acquired its main competitor and was relocating the operation from Long Island to Westfield, bringing 60 to 70 new manufacturing positions along with the move. Traditional recruiting wasn’t working to fill those jobs, so Letendre had to look at other ways to find people.

“I’m on the board at the chamber and began talking with other members about holding a job fair,” he said. “That way, we could all help each other by attracting candidates for our respective companies.”

In addition to Mestek, exhibitors included Six Flags of New England, C&S Wholesale Grocers, Northwestern Mutual, and several others. A few weeks after the job fair, Letendre reported that Mestek had hired about 15 employees, with another 10 in the process of coming on board.

Many of the positions offered by the job-fair exhibitors offered starting pay that was higher than minimum wage. For instance, Letendre said, the entry-level starting rate at Mestek is $15.50 an hour, and after 90 days, if the employee performs well and demonstrates good attendance, the pay increases to $16. As they acquire more skills, their wage can rapidly increase from there.

From working with sheet metal to assembling HVAC units and warehouse work, Letendre said Mestek offers lots of opportunity for growth. “You can start off in manufacturing, then keep improving your skills and build a solid career here.”

Plans are underway for a second job fair at the end of the summer. While many would-be job seekers are currently receiving supplemental unemployment benefits, that program ends in September, Oulette noted. “Right now, there are lots of companies looking to hire above minimum wage, so my one message to job seekers is, don’t wait until the fall when the unemployment benefits end, because there will be much more competition.”

While he is the new executive director of the chamber, Oulette is no stranger to Westfield. He worked with the Boy Scouts of America Western Massachusetts Council for five years and was president of the Rotary Club of Westfield in 2019 and 2020. He accepted a director of Development position for the Boy Scouts in 2020 that had him spending several days a week in New Hampshire. When the pandemic kept him at home, he wanted to stay in Western Mass. and accepted the chamber position in April.

While new to chamber leadership, Eric Oulette

While new to chamber leadership, Eric Oulette is no stranger to civic life in Westfield, including service with the Boy Scouts and the Rotary.

Oulette is the first to admit he had to “fill some big shoes” following Kate Phelon, who retired in September after 12 years leading the chamber. He appreciates how welcoming everyone has been as he transitions into the new post.

“It’s just like starting any new job where information is coming at you like you’re drinking from a firehose,” he said with a laugh.

 

Back to Business

Flaherty, like Oulette, is optimistic about the city’s prospects for continued residential and commercial growth, noting that it has a number of strong selling points, including location, strong schools and neighborhoods, and, as mentioned earlier, lower-cost energy and an expanding fiber-optic network.

And this expansion may soon take Whip City Fiber well beyond the city’s borders, he said, adding that the utility is in discussions with West Springfield about a pilot program to bring high-speed internet service to areas of that city as it advances plans to build a town-owned internet utility in partnership with Westfield G&E.

“We’re looking at four potential pilot areas that would be installed over the next year while the city goes through the process for the community to become a municipal light plant, or MLP,” he explained, adding that expansion into the neighboring city could eventually bring another 13,000 subscribers to the service.

Meanwhile, there are preliminary talks about taking the service to other communities as well, Flaherty said.

“There’s a good level of trust concerning our product and our capabilities — we have all the infrastructure, we have the billing system, we have the customer in place, we have the utility capabilities, the bucket trucks, and the line personnel,” he noted, adding that the company is well-positioned for continued growth.

As is Westfield itself. Oulette and Humason are grateful the city was not forced to confront big job losses or high numbers of business closings. Despite the pandemic, the mayor noted, Westfield kept moving forward.

“While our schools faced issues of whether they were going to hold classes remotely or in-person, we still continued with education,” he said. “We were still able to serve our senior citizens even though we couldn’t meet at the Council on Aging. We were also able to keep our infrastructure projects moving despite the pandemic.”

Humason added that, because Westfield has taken care of residents, schools, and seniors, he now looks forward to giving more attention to expanding businesses in the city. “I’ve said this since the day I was sworn into office: Westfield is open for business.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Michelle Theroux

Michelle Theroux says businesses in town, including her own, Berkshire Hills Music Academy, are anxious to ramp up operations as the economy reopens.

 

For Mike Sullivan, the past 15 months have been a learning experience on many levels.

As town administrator in South Hadley, Sullivan has learned just how essential online payment systems and Zoom meetings have become for residents who need to do business with the town.

“As we make more access points available to the public, we’ve seen participation in government increase,” Sullivan said, adding that, while many people are looking forward to meeting in person again, Zoom is also here to stay.

The pandemic also taught him about the efficiencies of running Town Hall. By limiting in-person visits to appointment only, staff have been able to more efficiently get business done. Going forward, he looks to follow a model other towns have adopted of limiting hours or closing to the public one day a week.

“There are multiple ways to take care of business,” Sullivan said. “I appreciate that some people have complicated business they need to conduct in person, and we will accommodate them. When residents use online platforms or even ‘snail mail’ instead of visiting Town Hall, it saves money for the town and for everyone’s individual taxes.”

Sullivan made plenty of adjustments to keep South Hadley moving forward during the pandemic. Attendees to last year’s town meeting, for example, never left their cars.

“People tuned into the discussion over their car radios, just like an old drive-in movie,” he said. A similar drive-in town meeting is planned for this year, but there will also be a seating area for those who feel safe enough to leave their cars. “We’re looking forward to getting back to some semblance of normalcy.”

Michelle Theroux, president of the South Hadley and Granby Chamber of Commerce, said one indication of a return to normalcy is the “we’re hiring” signs around town. She acknowledges there are many factors why people are not immediately returning to work, but even with recruitment issues, the signs represent a positive step.

“The good news is that people are looking to hire, and they are in a position to bring people back into the workforce,” she said.

As the end of the pandemic nears, Theroux credits the South Hadley community for its support of small business. From restaurant takeout orders to holiday shopping, it was local people who provided enough support so that no chamber-member businesses permanently closed due to the pandemic.

“Certainly, many downsized and did what they had to do to survive,” she said. “It’s a real credit to community support because small business is such an important part of South Hadley.”

Because small business is such an essential part of South Hadley, banks in town worked with the chamber to secure Paycheck Protection Program funds for businesses in town. In addition, the chamber recently partnered with the Northampton chamber and the Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism to secure $20,000 in state grants.

“The good news is that people are looking to hire, and they are in a position to bring people back into the workforce.”

The chamber also spread the word among its members on how they could help each other, as well as support businesses that are not necessarily top of mind.

“If you look at the South Hadley Commons, we all think of the great restaurants there,” Theroux said. “The Commons also has a movie theater and a number of small boutiques that offer unique and personalized items you can’t find at a big-box store.”

 

Forward Momentum

One key project that kept going during the pandemic involves the Woodlawn Shopping Plaza. At one time the site of a Big Y supermarket, the parcel now features various retail stores anchored by Rocky’s Hardware. The site has been approved for a 60-unit, mixed-income apartment complex that will occupy three acres in the back of the parcel.

“Way Finders of Springfield is running the housing-complex project, and they are waiting for federal funding to come through before they break ground,” Sullivan said.

Theroux is excited about the project because it provides a glimpse at the future of development.

“At Woodlawn, you have a multi-use site with different types of businesses and living options all in one central location,” she said, while predicting that the entire area surrounding Woodlawn will see a revitalization over the next several years. As one example, Northampton Cooperative Bank and PeoplesBank have recently opened branches in or near the Woodlawn Plaza.

Sullivan also pointed with pride to the new senior center on Dayton Street, which is scheduled to open June 30.

“We were able to successfully build the senior center during the pandemic, and the costs were below the estimated bids,” he said. “Even with increases in some of the materials, we will still come in nearly $700,000 under the original estimate.”

South Hadley at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1775
Population: 17,791
Area: 18.4 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential and commercial tax rate: $19.46 (Fire District 1); $19.80 (Fire District 2)
Median Household Income: $46,678
Median Family Income: $58,693
Type of government: Town meeting
Largest Employers: Mount Holyoke College; the Loomis Communities; Coveris Advanced Coatings; Big Y
* Latest information available

Six years ago, Mohawk Paper opened a plant in South Hadley to great fanfare and optimism for a long relationship with the community. Last year, in pursuit of more favorable taxes and incentives, the company closed its operations in South Hadley and moved to Ohio.

As tough as it was to see Mohawk pack up and leave, Sullivan noted that E Ink, the company located across Gaylord Street from the former Mohawk plant, has good news moving forward. “E Ink is planning to double in size because they have a new product line coming out.”

E Ink makes the agent used in tablets like the Amazon Kindle, which allows an electronic page to read like a physical book. In addition to tablets, E Ink screens are used in a variety of applications ranging from signage at MBTA stations and international airports to retail price signs.

On top of contributing as a successful company, Sullivan noted that E Ink is a strong supporter of community projects and events in South Hadley.

Meanwhile, the Ledges Golf Club, owned by the town and a financial drag for many years, is on its way to performing at par. At the beginning of the pandemic last year, golf courses across the state were mandated to stay closed for several weeks. Sullivan called the lost months a “kick in the shins” because, once it opened, the Ledges did brisk business all season and came close to hitting a break-even point.

“This year, we made $200,000 in revenue in just March and April,” Sullivan said. “By the end of the fiscal year next June, we think the Ledges will break even.”

In addition to her duties as chamber president, Theroux’s full time job is executive director of Berkshire Hills Music Academy (BHMA), a music-infused program that helps young adults with special needs to expand their social, vocational, and life skills. Before the pandemic, BHMA employed just over 100 people. Though it normally offers both residential and day programs, state mandates forced BHMA to quickly shift to remote classes for its day students. After furloughs and layoffs due to the new mandates, 64 staff remain.

“Our current state is a hybrid model where we have about 40% of our day students back on campus, with the rest joining us by remote,” Theroux said. “Once we can fully reopen, we’d like to staff up to where we were before the pandemic.”

Looking ahead to the fall, she wasn’t sure what to expect for new enrollments, but was pleasantly surprised to see strong numbers for BHMA’s incoming class.

“Once their loved one is vaccinated, many families are all in on our program, and that’s a huge positive for us,” Theroux said. “Three months ago, I would not have been as confident about what next year would look like.”

 

Back to School

After more than a year of remote learning, Mount Holyoke College students have begun to return to campus. While remote learning is still available, many have indicated they plan to return to campus in the fall.

“The presence of Mount Holyoke students back on campus will provide a real boost to South Hadley feeling normal again,” Theroux said.

Sullivan is on the move, too. After a long career of public service, he has announced he will retire in June. Looking back, he points to a number of projects he’s helped shepherd to success. One area of particular pride is the progress South Hadley has made in hiring a more diverse workforce. As an example, he mentioned Police Chief Jennifer Gundersen, who recently joined South Hadley’s force after several years in Amherst.

“Certainly, many downsized and did what they had to do to survive. It’s a real credit to community support because small business is such an important part of South Hadley.”

Sullivan in only one of South Hadley’s leaders who are moving on. Planning Director Richard Harris is also retiring, and the superintendent of schools left in December to pursue another professional path.

While grateful for their service to the town, Theroux sees this as a time for South Hadley to bring new faces into leadership roles.

“As we emerge from the pandemic, I’m optimistic about the future and a new era of leadership for our town,” she said, adding that she looks forward to people once again enjoying all that South Hadley has to offer.

Features

Facility Gains Altitude After Pandemic-induced Declines

The addition of new flights from carriers

The addition of new flights from carriers Breeze Airways and Sun Country Airlines is one of many signs of progress and vibrancy at Bradley International Airport.

Kevin Dillon can see a number of signs of much-needed progress at Bradley International Airport, starting with the parking garage.

Until quite recently, it was all the parking the airport needed to handle not only the passenger volume at the facility, but all the employees as well. In fact, it was far more than enough. But over the past few months, things have started changing.

“Now, most days, we’re starting to fill the parking garage, and we opened up two additional surface lots — and that’s a good sign,” said Dillon, executive director of the Connecticut Airport Authority, adding that there are many others indicating that Bradley is gradually returning to pre-pandemic levels of vibrancy, including the restaurants and retail shops that are reopening their doors after being closed for months, new carriers introducing routes out of the airport, and, most important, climbing passenger totals.

“We’re pleased with the way the numbers are starting to roll out, although we still have a ways to go,” he said, noting that most all travel at present is leisure in nature. “At the beginning of the year, we were still down 60% compared to pre-pandemic levels; now, on any given day, we’re down 40% to 50% — it can shift any day. And it really does seem to correspond with the vaccine rollout here in the region. The more people got vaccinated, the more people started to fly. The more people start to fly, the more people see that, and they start to get a level of confidence.

“As we look toward the summer, we are expecting a very healthy summer travel period,” he went on. “What you’re starting to see in terms of some of these airline announcements and route announcements is a recognition on the part of the airlines, as well, that this recovery is well underway.”

Elaborating, he said it’s difficult to project where the airport will be by the end of the summer in terms of those passenger-volume numbers, but he believes that, if current trends continue (and most all signs point toward that eventuality), then Bradley might be down only about 25% from pre-pandemic levels — a big number, to be sure, but a vast improvement over the past 14 months.

Overall, a number of factors will determine when and to what extent Bradley fully recovers all it has lost to the pandemic, including everything from business travel to international flights.

Let’s start with the former, which, by Dillon’s estimates, accounts for roughly half the travel in and out of Bradley.

While some business travel has returned, the numbers are still way down from before the pandemic, he said, adding that the next several months could be critical when it comes to the question of when, and to what extent, business travel comes back.

He expects the numbers to start to improve once businesses set their own internal policies for when employees can return to the office and resume many of the patterns that saw wholesale changes after COVID-19 arrived in March 2020.

“If you still have people telecommuting for COVID purposes, what does that say to the employee about required business travel?” he asked, adding that there has to be a “reckoning” within the business community as to where it’s going with some of its pandemic-related policies.

“If you still have people telecommuting for COVID purposes, what does that say to the employee about required business travel?”

Dillon said there are two types of business travel. One involves businesses traveling to see customers, a tradition he expects will return once COVID-related fears subside. The other is inter-company travel, where a business sends an employee from one of its locations to a different one. It’s this kind of travel that seems most imperiled, if that’s the proper word, by teleconferencing, Zoom, and other forms of technology, and it’s this mode that will likely lag behind the other.

As for international flights, these, too, will be among the last aspects of the airport’s business to return to something approaching pre-COVID conditions, said Dillon, noting that Air Canada is severely limited by severe restrictions on travel to that country. Meanwhile, Aer Lingus, which initiated flights out of Bradley in 2016, is still ramping up after restrictions on overseas flights were lifted in the fall of 2020. Nothing has been confirmed, but he is anticipating a return of that carrier in the spring of 2022.

Meanwhile, getting back to those signs of life — and progress — that Dillon noted, some new additions to the list were added late last month in the form of two new carriers. Actually, one is new, the other is an existing freight and charter carrier expanding into passenger service.

The former is Salt Lake City-based Breeze Airways, the fifth airline startup founded by David Neeleman, which will launch non-stop flights out of Bradley this summer, including Charleston, Columbus, Norfolk, and Pittsburgh. The latter is Sun Country Airlines, which will be expanding its footprint at the airport with the introduction of passenger service to Minneapolis.

Dillon noted that several of those new destinations, and especially Charleston and Norfolk, are primarily leisure-travel spots, meaning they could get off to solid starts as Americans look to make up for lost time when it comes to getting away from it all.

Looking at the big picture, Dillon said decisions in Connecticut and Massachusetts to move up their ‘reopening’ dates and accelerate the return to a ‘new normal’ will only help Bradley gain altitude as it continues to climb back from what has been a dismal 14 months since the pandemic struck.

 

—George O’Brien

Features

This Berkshires Staple Has Exhibited Patience and Flexibility

The Clark, which now features exhibits

The Clark, which now features exhibits indoors and outdoors at its Williamstown campus, will take it slow as the state enters the ‘new normal’ and gradually increase capacity. Photo by of Jeff Goldberg coutesy of Clark Art Institute

Victoria Tanner Salzman says it was a complete coincidence that the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute’s first-ever outdoor exhibition opened just a few months after COVID-19 arrived in Western Mass.

It takes years of planning to bring such an exhibit to fruition, she explained, and that was certainly the case with Ground/work, a collection of eight works created by six international artists that are found in varied locations across the Clark’s sprawling, 140-acre campus in Williamstown.

“These installations are embedded in a landscape that is ever-changing — both daily and seasonally,” according to a description on the institute’s website. “Ground/work highlights the balance between fragility and resilience that both nature and the passage of time reveal, while offering fresh experiences with every visit.”

Tanner Salzman, the Clark’s director of Communications, noted that “this exhibit has given our visitors the opportunity to see art outdoors, indoors, or both. And we’ve gotten tremendous response from our visitors about the experience; you can wander our trails and walk through our meadow and come upon these pieces and hopefully enjoy them.”

The phenomenal timing of Ground/work has been one of the many factors that has enabled the Clark to more than weather what has been a protracted and quite challenging storm, said Tanner Salzman, adding that others include a host of virtual initiatives and limited visitation marked by strict adherence to COVID policies and best practices to keep visitors and staff safe at all times.

“We’re taking this as opportunity to put our toes in the water and begin to feel more acclimated to going back to the new normal, if you will.”

“At certain points over the past year, the governor’s orders increased capacity, but we chose, at those points, to remain at a lower capacity just out of concern for the comfort of our visitors and the safety of everyone,” she explained. “We’ve either been at the capacity level prescribed by the state or below it.”

And as the state moves up its timetable for fully reopening the economy and removing restrictions on businesses of all kinds, the Clark will continue to be diligent and err, if that’s even the right word, on the side of caution, she told BusinessWest.

“We are taking it slowly, but we will increase our capacity; our current operating capacity is permitted to be 50%, but we’ve chosen to operate at a lower capacity,” she explained, adding that the facility planned to increase to that 50% level on May 29. And moving forward, it plans to increase the numbers as the conditions permit. “We will adjust upwards as we feel it’s best for everyone to do so.

“We’re taking this as opportunity to put our toes in the water and begin to feel more acclimated to going back to the new normal, if you will,” she went on. “We’ll take a look at it on a weekly basis, and certainly our hope is to be in a position in the summer where we’ll hopefully bump it back up. But we have not made that decision yet.”

While watching and adjusting as the conditions permit, the Clark will apply some of the lessons it learned during the pandemic, said Tanner Salzman, echoing the sentiments of business owners and managers across virtually every sector of the economy.

And many of these lessons involve using technology to broaden the Clark’s audience and bring its collections and programs to people who might not otherwise make it to Williamstown.

“We were learning lessons every day throughout this, and I’m sure that some of the practices that we adopted during this period will find a carry-over life as we move forward,” she explained. “We are certainly looking very hard at virtual events and continuing them; we found great success in doing such events, and we recognize that it allows us to open our doors to people who cannot necessarily be here to walk through them for an event. Instead of just having people at a live event at the Clark, we’ve had people tuning in from all around the world, people regularly coming onto live Zoom calls from California, Florida, all over, so we will want to continue that.

“I think there’s a hybrid model out there that we settle into as we move forward,” she went on, adding that there was a very limited amount of virtual programming before COVID. “We’ve done all sorts of things over the past year-plus, from gallery tours to lectures; Q&A conversations with curators to podcasts. We’re enthusiastic about finding ways to adapt these virtual programs into the menu we offer on a regular basis.”

Looking back on 2020, Tanner Salzman said the opening of Ground/work was certainly slowed by COVID. Pieces were arriving from the around the world, she explained, and as borders were closing and studios were closing as well, the process of bringing those works to Williamstown became more complicated and time-consuming, with the exhibit taking shape over time.

“We had to be more flexible and a little more patient,” she said, adding that these qualities have served the Clark well in very aspect of coping with the pandemic and effectively serving art lovers from across the country and around the world.

And flexibility and patience will continue to be the watchwords as this institution continues through that phase known as the ‘new normal.’

 

—George O’Brien

Features

Downtown Mainstay Sees New Signs of Life, Anticipates Many More

Stacey Gravanis

Stacey Gravanis says the phones starting ringing seemingly within minutes after the governor announced the new timetable for the final stage of his reopening plan.

 

Stacey Gravanis doesn’t particularly like that phrase ‘new normal’ (and she’s certainly not alone in that opinion). She prefers ‘return to life’ to describe what’s happening at her business, the Sheraton Springfield, and the broad hospitality sector.

And that choice of phrase certainly speaks volumes about what’s been happening — or not happening, as the case may be — in the hotel industry over the past 14 months. In short, there haven’t been many signs of life, at least life as these facilities knew it before COVID-19.

“The bottom just fell out,” she said, for all categories of business for the hotel — corporate and leisure stays, events, conventions, visitors to the casino, weddings, even the business from the military and airlines (flight crews flying into Bradley staying overnight came to a screeching halt in mid-March 2020). And it would be months before any of that came back, and then it was mostly the airline and military business, said Gravanis.

“Our customers are reacting. I have said there’s not going to be this switch that flips, and the business is just going to come back. But it felt like that day, someone did flip a switch because the phones were going crazy. What we budgeted for June … we already have it on the books.”

“When it first started, we were tracking the loss on a weekly basis; we had a spread sheet that we would review,” she recalled. “And then we just stopped reviewing it, because everything, everything, canceled. Reviewing it was pointless; we were just focused on how to rebuild.”

That rebuilding process started over the last two quarters of 2020, she said, adding that, by May, occupancy reached 40%, 10% above what she actually budgeted, said Gravanis, who then provided needed perspective by noting that, in a ‘normal’ May, buffeted by college graduations and other events, occupancy reaches 90%.

She expects the numbers to continue climbing, and while she expected the timeline for fully reopening to be accelerated, and was preparing for that eventuality, the response from the public has been more immediate and more pronounced than she anticipated.

“Our customers are reacting,” she told BusinessWest. “I have said there’s not going to be this switch that flips, and the business is just going to come back. But it felt like that day, someone did flip a switch because the phones were going crazy. What we budgeted for June … we already have it on the books.”

On the other end of those phone calls have been clients across a broad spectrum, including everything from leisure travelers with newfound confidence to book rooms for this summer to those planning to participate in a recently announced three-on-three basketball tournament, to brides looking to bring more guests to weddings that were booked for this June and July.

“Some wanted to double their numbers,” she recalled. “We had a wedding for 175 people that’s now 250 people, booked for the end of June.”

The hotel can handle such developments, she said, but it requires staffing up, which is one of the question marks and challenges moving forward, said Gravanis, adding that another concerns just when — and to what extent — corporate travel, a large and important part of the portfolio at the Sheraton, returns.

“We’re seeing a slow, slow return of business travel,” she explained, adding that corporate gatherings are critical to the hotel’s success, accounting for perhaps 40% of overall group/convention business. “We have heard some encouraging news from some of our tower tenants [Monarch Place] that they will be starting to return in June. We knew it would be the last to come back.”

But will it return to pre-COVID levels?

“I feel that it will,” she said, offering a few questions, the answers to which are on the minds of everyone who relies on business travel. “Who’s not sick of being behind a screen? And are those Zoom meetings as productive as bringing everyone together and putting them in the same room?”

As for staffing, she said the Sheraton has benefited greatly from corporate direction to keep key personnel amid large-scale furloughs and layoffs, on the theory that it would be difficult to replace them. That theory certainly has validity, she said, and keeping those personnel has helped the hotel as it returns to life.

Still, the Sheraton, like most businesses in this sector, is struggling to find enough help to handle the new waves of business now arriving.

“You may have 25% of your interviews actually show up,” she said with a noticeable amount of frustration in her voice — because she handles the interviews. “The hiring crisis hasn’t really hurt us yet because we have such talented managers, and every employee who works for us can work in multiple disciplines — they’re all cross-trained; our front-desk people can also drive a shuttle and jump into laundry. That said, we’re struggling just like everyone else.”

She remains optimistic, though, that these struggles won’t interfere with this downtown landmark’s long-awaited return to life.

 

—George O’Brien

Features

The Basketball Hall of Fame

 

John Doleva

John Doleva stands in the new Kobe Bryant exhibit at the Basketball Hall of Fame, which is drawing considerable attention and is now one of many reasons for optimism at the shrine.

 

John Doleva says it was probably within minutes after Vanessa Bryant, widow of the NBA star and entrepreneur Kobe Bryant, posted an Instagram photo of her in the new exhibit at the Basketball Hall of Fame dedicated to Kobe — a photo that has garnered 17 million ‘likes’ — when the phone started ringing.

On the other end were people — from this region, but also across the country — who wanted to know more about the exhibit and how long it would be running.

“The phones been ringing off the hook,” said Doleva, the long-time president and CEO of the Hall. “We’ve had calls from all across the country, but especially from California, with people saying, ‘I want to come see it; don’t take it down.’”

Vanessa Bryant’s Instagram post, followed soon thereafter by an article on her visit to the Hall in Us Weekly magazine and the response to both, is one of many things going right for the Hall of Fame a year and change after everything — as in everything — started going wrong.

Indeed, at the start of 2020, the year was shaping up as potentially the best in the Hall’s history. A star-studded class, headlined by Bryant, Tim Duncan, and Kevin Garnett, was going to be inducted that September. Meanwhile, a series of major additions and renovations to the Hall were being completed, prompting expectations for a surge in visitation. A commemorative coin was slated to be launched, one that was projected to become a major fundraiser for the shrine. And plans were being finalized for a massive three-on-three basketball tournament, with the Hall as a major player — and drawing card for participating teams.

And then … it all went away.

The induction ceremonies, a major source of funding for the Hall, were pushed back several times, and eventually to last month, and moved to Mohegan Sun in Connecticut. The commemorative coin was scrapped, and the three-on-three tournament, dubbed Hooplandia, was scrubbed as well.

“The phones been ringing off the hook. We’ve had calls from all across the country, but especially from California, with people saying, ‘I want to come see it; don’t take it down.’”

As for the Hall’s renovation, COVID-19 actually provided an opportunity to slow down the pace of work and add two new attractions — the Kobe Bryant exhibit and another exhibit that allows visitors to virtually join the set with TNT’s NBA broadcast team, which includes Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal, and read a few highlights.

In recent weeks, visitation to this new, more modern, more immersive Hall has been steadily increasing, said Doleva, who expects that pattern to continue, and for a number of reasons, ranging from Vanessa Bryant’s Instagram post to the fact that many people who might otherwise be heading to the Cape or Martha’s Vineyard this summer will be coming to Western Mass. for day trips because they can’t book rooms or cottages at those destinations.

“Our traffic right now is ahead of pre-pandemic, 2019 numbers, and our pre-bookings for upcoming weekends are excellent,” he noted. “On a normal Saturday in May, we would get 300 to 400 people; last Saturday (May 22), we had 660. School is not out yet, and yet we’re still seeing a few hundred on a weekday.

“Our projections are that this will be the best summer we’ve ever had; we’re going to be aggressive in our promotion of visitation — we didn’t invest $21 million to hope and pray people come,” he went on, adding that he’s expecting 100,000 visitors to visit this summer, a 30% to 40% increase over what has been typical over the years.

And the governor’s moving of the reopening date from Aug. 1 to May 29 will certainly help in this regard, he said, adding that June and especially July are key months for the shrine.

“We were anxiously awaiting the green flag — and now we’re ready to run,” he told BusinessWest, noting that, while some businesses were not fully ready for May 29, the Hall was, and especially grateful for gaining nine critical weeks.

Overall, Doleva believes 2021 will, in many respects, be the year that 2020 wasn’t for the Hall. There will actually be two induction ceremonies, with the class of 2021, headlined by former Celtics Paul Pearce and Bill Russell (to be honored as the first black coach in the NBA), to be celebrated in September at the MassMutual Center, as well as a return of collegiate basketball tournaments that benefit the Hall. Meanwhile, Doleva is also projecting a strong surge in corporate events and outings at the Hall as the business world gradually returns to something approaching normal.

He said the Hall boasts a number of amenities, including a theater with seating for several hundred and Center Court, which can seat more than 400 for a sit-down dinner and now includes a 14-by-40-foot video screen.

“We’re getting a lot of interest, a lot of calls,” he said, noting that a few banquet facilities closed due to COVID, and the Hall stands to benefit whenever the business community and other constituencies are ready and willing to gather in large numbers again.

Getting back to those calls from California and the Kobe Bryant exhibit, Doleva said the typical lifespan for such a display is at least three to five years, and perhaps longer. He joked that those at the Hall are telling those callers, ‘why don’t you buy your tickets today, and we’ll hold it until you come.’”

Enthusiasm for that exhibit is just one of many reasons why those at the Hall of Fame believe they can fully rebound from a year that saw a number of hard losses.

 

—George O’Brien

Features

Reopening Timeline Prompts Excitement, but Also Trepidation

Greathorse GM Bryan Smithwick

Greathorse GM Bryan Smithwick is optimistic about the last two quarters of 2021, but, like all those in the hospitality sector, he has real concerns about the process of staffing up.

Bryan Smithwick believes he’s like most business owners and managers in the broad hospitality sector when he says that the news of the accelerated timeline for fully reopening the state was greeted with a mix of excitement, anticipation, and trepidation.

The first two elements are a function of just how bad 2020 was — we’ll get to that in a minute — while the third is obviously a reflection of a labor market the likes of which even those businesses owners with several decades of experience have never seen before.

“It’s like … great, we got the green light to go ahead and reopen and start hosting large audiences,” said Smithwick, general manager of the Starting Gate at GreatHorse, the high-end private golf club in Hampden. “But the labor market is so challenging right now. It’s awesome that the deadline was moved up, and moved up so significantly, but I think businesses thought they would have more time to plan, more time to really get their employees re-engaged with work — those employees who had been laid off — and even find new employees.

“The time frame was greatly reduced,” he went on. “And in the post-COVID world — I think I can say we’re in the post-COVID world now — that’s the greatest challenge we face, finding employees and getting geared up. We’re going to execute well over 80 weddings in 2021, and finding staff that can meet the business levels and get prepared is something we’re really struggling with right now.”

Looking back on 2020, Smithwick said it was certainly a great year for the golf business.

Indeed, while play was up at the public and semi-public courses, the private clubs benefited as well, with individuals and families deciding that, if they couldn’t travel, they should invest in a country-club membership.

That was certainly true at GreatHorse, which opened in 2015.

“For people who had been contemplating private-club membership, COVID really was the stimulus that made people take a hard look at all that private clubs have to offer,” he noted. “The safe-haven effect, and the relevance of clubs, was certainly strengthened during that emotional time, and we saw tremendous growth in our membership at GreatHorse, and we’ve continued to see that into the first and second quarters of 2021; we’ve really grown that side of our business.”

Unfortunately, the same could not be said of the banquet and event side of the ledger, one that has become an all-important part of the portfolio at the club.

“It’s awesome that the deadline was moved up, and moved up so significantly, but I think businesses thought they would have more time to plan, more time to really get their employees re-engaged with work — those employees who had been laid off — and even find new employees.”

Pretty much every event that was on the books after March 2020 was canceled or, in the case of weddings, pushed back a year or two, said Smithwick, adding that it was a year of “emotional conversations” with clients (and especially brides), pivoting, and trying to make the most of an extremely difficult time.

“We were only able to execute about 15% of the weddings that we had planned in 2020,” he told BusinessWest. “We were able to salvage the overwhelming majority of our weddings and shift them into 2021 and some even into 2022, but, overall, it was a lost year for revenue on that side of the business.”

While the outlook for this year is gradually improving, the shifting of those weddings slated for 2020 consumed a number of the dates in 2021 — and some in 2022 — limiting the overall revenue potential of this year and next, said Smithwick, adding quickly that projections are for a solid balance of the year — even if most weddings will not increase in size in proportion with the loosening of COVID restrictions — and an especially strong fourth quarter, with the anticipated return of holiday parties.

“It’s nice to know that we will have an opportunity this year to secure some December revenue,” he noted. “Without holiday parties, December can really be a soft month.”

But while the general outlook is positive, some question marks remain concerning the ‘new normal’ and challenges when it comes to making a full recovery, especially in regard to staffing.

Returning to that subject, and speaking for everyone who shares his title or something approximating it, Smithwick repeatedly stressed that finding and retaining good help is the most pressing issue facing those in this sector, and one that has made this transition into the new normal exciting but also daunting on several levels.

Taking a deep dive into the matter, he said a number of factors influence this problem. That list includes veterans of this industry (servers, bartenders, even managers) simply leaving it for something else during a very difficult 2020, generous unemployment benefits that have made sitting on the sidelines even when jobs are available an attractive proposition, and difficulty with bringing on interns from overseas, something GreatHorse had done with great success prior to COVID.

“Traditionally, we would work with J1 students from South Africa to England,” he explained, referring to the visa program that offers cultural and exchange opportunities in this country through initiatives overseen by the U.S. State Department. “With COVID being a world pandemic, we have not had access to the students looking to do internships in the hospitality sector; we’re really hit a roadblock with every avenue we’ve chosen, from job fairs to working with local hospitality schools to putting referral bonuses in place for existing employees.

“It’s tough, really tough. I’m not going to lie — it’s the most suppressed labor market for hospitality that I’ve seen in my career,” Smithwick went on. “Our staffing levels are not where they need to be; we’re just not having much success finding servers and bartenders, which is the key for our business model here.”

That’s why an otherwise joyous and exciting time is also being met with a dose of trepidation on the side.

 

—George O’Brien

Features

After a Year to Forget, This Springfield Label Is Ready to Roar

Ray Berry, seen here at the canning line at White Lion’s downtown Springfield brewery

Ray Berry, seen here at the canning line at White Lion’s downtown Springfield brewery, is moving on from ‘cans to go’ to the next chapter in the story of this intriguing business venture.

 

He called the promotion ‘cans to go,’ which pretty much says it all.

Indeed, while he could brew his craft-beer label, White Lion, at his new facility on the ground floor in Tower Square, Ray Berry couldn’t sit any visitors at the attached pub because the facility wasn’t finished and painstakingly slow in its progress. But he could sell cans to go — and he did, quite a few of them, in fact — on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 2:30 to 7 p.m.

May 26 was the last of those Wednesdays, and the last day for the promotion. Berry was sad to see them go. Well … sort of, but not really.

He called a halt to cans to go so he could direct 100% of his energies into the next phase of the White Lion story, a chapter that has been delayed more than a full year by COVID-19 — the opening of that much-anticipated downtown brew pub and a resumption of outdoor events with the now familiar White Lion logo attached to them.

“We want to make sure all the I’s are dotted and T’s are crossed, take a pause, exhale, and made sure everything is in place for our June opening,” he said. “We want to be ready to really hit the ground running.”

As he talked with BusinessWest, Berry was checking the schedules of a number of prominent elected officials, trying to find a date when most of them could attend a ribbon-cutting for the opening of his downtown facility. That ceremony will be both a beginning and an end — a beginning, as we noted, of an exciting new chapter, and the end of 15 months of COVID-fueled frustration that didn’t derail White Lion, but struck at the absolute worst time for the brand born in 2014.

“COVID set us back a full year,” he said, adding that the owners of Tower Square, who also act as the general contractor for the buildout of his facility, had set May 2020 as the date for that project to turn the key and open for business. “We’ve been creative, and we’ve made a number of pivots along the way and diversified our portfolio, but the bottom line is we lost a full year and more.”

He said moving up the timetable for fully reopening the state will certainly help, giving him an additional 10 weeks of operating without restrictions that he wasn’t anticipating — although he was watching the situation closely and was hoping the date would be moved.

“We’ve been creative, and we’ve made a number of pivots along the way and diversified our portfolio, but the bottom line is we lost a full year and more.”

“We were already going to gear up for some sort of opening during the month of June,” he explained. “But we always wanted to be in a situation where any opening would be an unrestricted opening first, rather than a restricted opening, so we’re very happy to be in this new normal.”

Berry acknowledged that the office crowd that has helped make his outdoor events so successful — and will be one of his target groups for his Tower Square facility — hasn’t come back yet, may not return until the fall, and certainly may not be all that it was, sizewise, at the start of 2020. But he said that audience is just part of the success formula for this endeavor and that the ultimate goal is to bring people into downtown from outside it.

“We’ve never predicated our business model on one particular group,” he explained. “Craft breweries are destinations — they are considered experiences to the consumer. So consumers will take it upon themselves to find out where the local craft breweries are.

“Even when we had cans to go two days a week, we would have an influx of people from outside the area who would say they were driving through or were eating somewhere local downtown and looked up ‘local breweries,’ and White Lion popped up, so they came in.”

As for other aspects of the White Lion business, Berry said the beer garden that was a fixture in the park across Main Street from Tower Square will return in some form in 2021 — and at multiple locations. He’s currently in discussions with those running Springfield’s Business Improvement District and other business partners to schedule what he called “a series of special events that will encourage people to come out and support the local businesses in the downtown corridor.”

Overall, a dream that was years in the making took another full year to finally be fully realized. But, at long last, White Lion is ready to roar to life in downtown Springfield.

 

—George O’Brien

Features

At These Eateries, Guests Will Determine Pace of Reopening

Ralph Santaniello

Ralph Santaniello says his customers, and not the governor, will determine how quickly and how profoundly he increases capacity at the venues within the Federal Restaurant Group.

Ralph Santaniello says he’s read the language contained in Gov. Charlie Baker’s decision to bring the state into the final stage of his reopening plan at least a dozen times.

And each time, he came away with the conclusion that the phrase ‘no restrictions’ means … well, no restrictions.

“That means no more mask requirements, no more tables being six feet apart, no barriers, no restrictions on capacity,” said Santaniello, director of Operations for the Federal Restaurant Group, which includes the Federal in Agawam, Vinted in West Hartford, and Posto in Longmeadow.

But just because it’s there in black and white doesn’t mean this restaurant group has to go as far and especially as fast (the date for full reopening was moved from Aug. 1 to May 29, as everyone knows by now) as the governor says it can.

And it won’t.

Indeed, Santaniello — several times, in fact — said it will be customers, the buying public, and not the governor who ultimately determines the pace at which these restaurants work their way back to where they were in the winter of 2020, before COVID-19 reached Western Mass.

“We’re not just going to turn on the faucet right away and have everything back to normal day one — the guests are going to decide things,” he noted. “What we’ll probably do is eliminate the barriers and slowly introduce more seating so the guests get comfortable. We’ll start to ramp up and ease our way back and see how things go.”

For example, while the requirement that tables be six feet apart has been lifted, the three restaurants in the group won’t immediately turn back the clock on such spacing, and will likely start with tables four feet apart and gradually reduce that number, again, with the pace of change and distance set by the public and its perceived comfort level with the surroundings.

“We’re not just going to turn on the faucet right away and have everything back to normal day one — the guests are going to decide things.”

Overall, as his group ramps up in the wake of the reopening announcement, Santaniello is projecting a solid balance to 2021, although projecting numbers is somewhat difficult. He noted, for example, that last summer was very strong for the three restaurants, all of which had outdoor dining, and one reason was because far fewer people were able to vacation out of the area. This summer, more might be able to, but most spots on the Cape and elsewhere are sold out.

“If spring is any indication, our reservations are up — they’re up to even 2019 levels,” he said, adding that the calls for reservations and booking events started picking up several weeks ago as the number of COVID cases started declining and the number of people vaccinated kept increasing.

Santaniello is projecting a strong fourth quarter, which is traditionally the most important three months for most restaurants, and especially the one he was sitting in while talking with BusinessWest, the Federal in Agawam, located in an historic home built just before the Civil War.

It has become a popular gathering spot year-round, he said, but business peaks during the holidays, and he is expecting a hard run on dates in December for holiday parties, especially after most companies, and families, went without last year.

But the next several months will feature a number of challenges, said Santaniello, noting rising food prices and especially the ongoing labor shortages as the two most pressing items on the list. The latter is the one keeping most restaurateurs up at night, he noted, adding quickly that he’s certainly in that group counting sheep.

“Last year, I had employees I was trying to keep on the payroll and no customers; this year, it feels like I have a ton of customers and no employees,” he said. “A good percentage of our employees have not come back yet, or some have left the industry; some are not ready to come to work for any of a number of reasons. Everyone has to do what’s right for them.”

He noted that the problem will actually limit the amount of business he can take on for the foreseeable future.

“Last year, I had employees I was trying to keep on the payroll and no customers; this year, it feels like I have a ton of customers and no employees.”

Indeed, while the Federal has historically been open six nights a week (Sundays are reserved for events), it will go down to five and possibly to four (Wednesday through Saturday, with events on Sunday), in large part due to the staffing situation.

Overall, though, the outlook for 2021 is obviously much better than 2020, he said, adding that he’s optimistic that the employment situation will eventually stabilize, probably by the fall, and overall business, by most projections, will continue to improve as customers feel more comfortable with being indoors and around other people.

“I think we’re going to have a great summer, and it’s going to be an even better fourth quarter,” Santaniello said. “The second quarter is shaping out great, the third quarter will be good, and the fourth quarter and the holiday season will be really, really good.”

 

—George O’Brien

Features Special Coverage

Relief, Joy … and Anxiety, Too

 

While it was not exactly unexpected news, in some quarters, at least, Gov. Charlie Baker’s recent announcement that he was accelerating the reopening of Massachusetts — shifting the date for removing most restrictions on businesses from Aug. 1 to May 29 and also removing most mask mandates — nonetheless sent shockwaves through the business community.

And for different reasons.

For tourism-related businesses, the announcement means they gain nine precious weeks during their peak time of the year to operate without the restrictions that have hamstrung them since March 2020. Everyone was looking longingly toward that time, but it comes sooner than most anticipated.

Indeed, for those businesses and many others, the announcement comes at a time when they’re struggling to find enough workers to handle the current pace of business, let alone the surge expected to come when the restrictions are lifted, adding another rather large dose of anxiety on that issue.

And, speaking of anxiety, for those businesses that were struggling with the challenge of when and how to fully reopen their offices and bring back employees who have been working remotely, the governor’s announcement brings more layers of intrigue to what were already-complicated decisions.

As for the lifting of the mask mandate — the governor and CDC have decided that vaccinated individuals no longer have to wear masks indoors or outdoors — it has created a whole new set of headaches for employers who already had enough to deal with, said Meredith Wise, president of the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast, adding that faith in the honor system is not shared by many employers and employees alike.

Meredith Wise

“Things are very volatile in many respects. One of our members said, ‘we’ve gotten into a period where we’re intolerant of other people’s views and perspectives, and all this adds one more layer that can potentially cause a problem in the workplace.’”

“Things are very volatile in many respects,” she said, adding that differing opinions about whether vaccinated individuals should still wear masks in the workplace prompted a fistfight recently between two now-former employees of a company in Rhode Island, an EANE member. “One of our members said, ‘we’ve gotten into a period where we’re intolerant of other people’s views and perspectives, and all this adds one more layer that can potentially cause a problem in the workplace.’”

So it was certainly with a mix of emotions that the business community greeted the news that the state has finally reached the fourth stage of the reopening plan the governor announced almost exactly a year ago: what Baker calls the ‘new normal.’

There was definitely some joy and relief, especially in the beleaguered hospitality sector, said Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council, who predicted both a quick and profound impact on such businesses.

Rick Sullivan

Rick Sullivan

“All of our destination locations are going to see a pretty quick uptick in business; I think there’s a huge amount of pent-up demand in the travel and tourism industry for people to get away.”

“I know people are pretty excited about it,” he said, adding that he’s had discussions with many in the hospitality sector who were looking forward to the day when they could be at full capacity — and now it’s almost here. “All of our destination locations are going to see a pretty quick uptick in business; I think there’s a huge amount of pent-up demand in the travel and tourism industry for people to get away.

“I think people are really ready for some quality time,” he went on. “And that means travel and taking advantage of the venues we have here in Western Mass. for day trips.”

Nancy Creed, president of the Springfield Regional Chamber, agreed, noting that gaining those two all-important summer months will provide a much-needed lift for businesses in that sector.

“This is great for the hospitality sector — they really need those summer months,” she said, adding that the difference between May 29 and Aug. 1 for that sector is immense.

That said, the governor’s announcement is only the latest of many that have caught business owners and managers by surprise and left them somewhat flat-footed, with little time to adjust to changing conditions.

Nancy Creed

Nancy Creed

“Some people were a little shell-shocked with the announcement.”

“Some people were a little shell-shocked with the announcement,” said Creed, adding that this sentiment applies to everything from restaurants and tourist attractions ramping up for full capacity to business owners of all sizes now having to deal with questions on mask wearing, requiring vaccinations, bringing remote workers back to the office, and more.

Wise agreed. She said the announcement from the governor has left some wondering just what to do, especially when it comes to many of the precautions they’ve been taking for the past 14 months.

“There are definitely factions within management teams and organizations that are saying, ‘yay … let’s throw away all the masks and do away with all the social distancing and just get back to the way we used to operate,” said Wise, noting that EANE’s hotline has been flooded with calls on various aspects of the reopening plan and mask mandates. “But then there are concerns about whether people have been vaccinated or not. Do businesses put something out that says, ‘if you’re vaccinated, you don’t have to wear a mask?’ And if they do, will there then be peer pressure for people who haven’t been vaccinated to stop wearing a mask because they don’t want to stand out?”

 

Changing on the Fly — Again

Peter Rosskothen, owner of the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House, the Delaney House restaurant, and other hospitality-related businesses, has lived through a number of announcements from the governor and has become adept at changing on the fly. Still, this change is abrupt and huge in scale.

“This reversal is traumatic in some ways,” he said the day after the announcement came down. “Everything we’ve been doing for the last year and half is out the door in 10 days. Think of all the things we were doing … and now we’re just flipping a switch and going back to the old way, like with buffets. Now it’s suddenly OK to let people serve themselves? It just doesn’t seem right mentally.”

This change has him excited on some levels — he has a number of weddings booked for those two months, and now the bride and groom can invite more people to those ceremonies — but there is some apprehension as well, especially when it comes to the daunting task of staffing up for larger volumes of business.

“This reversal is traumatic in some ways. Everything we’ve been doing for the last year and half is out the door in 10 days.”

In no way is this remotely one of those proverbial good problems to have, he told BusinessWest, adding that businesses across the hospitality sector have been struggling mightily to not just hire people, but keep them for any length of time amid immense competition for good help.

“I’ve heard that there’s one restaurant that’s paying people $1,000 if they stay for three months,” he noted, adding that many others have resorted to sign-on bonuses and other types of incentives to get people in the door.

He hasn’t taken that step yet (he’s thinking about it), but he is increasing hourly wages, a step he believes will help but certainly not solve what has been a persistent problem made worse, in his opinion and that of many others, by generous unemployment benefits and an overall relaxing of rules requiring those out of work to look for employment. Meanwhile, he’s not sure how these soaring labor costs will impact his ability to do business.

“This labor shortage is going to radically increase our labor costs,” he explained. “We were ready for a minimum wage of $15, and we were planning on that in our pricing. But $15 is not good enough post-COVID.”

As for people who are employed, the governor’s decision to move up the timetable for fully reopening the state is, as noted, bringing fresh emphasis to a problem many employers were looking to deal with later, rather than sooner.

That problem is simply deciding who comes back, when, and under what circumstances. Wise told BusinessWest several weeks ago that many employers were struggling with this issue because employees had grown accustomed to working from home and many of them would prefer to keep on doing so, even as their managers would prefer they return.

Compromises in the form of hybrid schedules are one solution, said Wise, adding that the new timetable for fully reopening the state is creating a new sense of urgency among some employers, whether they like it or not.

“Organizations probably thought they had a few more months before they had to actually roll out any new policies and procedures regarding how and when they’re going to bring people back and whether they’re going to require them to come back full-time or work a hybrid schedule,” she told BusinessWest. “Now, with everything being lifted as of May 29, do they rush this, do they put it on steroids and get it going a lot faster, or do they still take their time and be more thoughtful and more planned?”

Knowing that business owners are uncertain about how to handle this situation, EANE is preparing to survey its members on this matter, said Wise, adding that the results will be eagerly awaited by those pressed to make decisions.

“Everyone wants to know what everyone else is doing,” she told BusinessWest. “They want to know how to compare and benchmark against everyone else.”

What happens in offices in Springfield, Northampton, and other communities will certainly play a role in how quickly and profoundly some businesses bounce back, said Sullivan, adding that he expects that aspect of the economy to emerge much more slowly than the tourism sector.

“The bounceback to the office work as it was before the pandemic is going to be slower than the travel and tourism industry because everyone is going to be careful and methodical when it comes to opening back up,” he explained, adding that it might be fall or a little sooner before most offices are back to something approaching pre-pandemic conditions. “There will still be a significant amount of mask wearing and social distancing, especially in a larger office setting, even with the relaxed CDC guidelines.”

 

 

Back to Normal?

In many respects, the governor’s announcement amounts to more pivoting, said Creed, adding that, by now, most businesses have gotten pretty good at it — a trend she expects to continue into the governor’s ‘new normal’ stage of reopening the state.

“If there’s one thing we’ve learned through all of this, it’s that we can absolutely can pivot, and we’re incredibly resilient and can adjust,” she said. “So now, we just have to adjust to slowly getting back to normal.”

Meanwhile, for Rosskothen, the acceleration of the state’s reopening plan means something else — getting back to doing business as he did before the pandemic.

“The exciting thing about this is that we’re going to be real managers again,” he told BusinessWest. “Instead of thinking about how we can get free money from the government, I’m 100% switching to becoming a manager — how do we manage this labor shortage? How do we motivate staff? How do we get staff ready so we can manage this influx of business that’s right around the corner?

“It’s real management again,” he went on. “No complaining about COVID or restrictions … it’s about work, and that’s a good thing.”

That’s just one of many good things to come from an announcement that brought a large helping of joy and relief, but with some anxiety on the side.

 

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Mayor John Vieau says better control of COVID and the ongoing economic reopening have Chicopee officials excited about progress in the city.

Mayor John Vieau says better control of COVID and the ongoing economic reopening have Chicopee officials excited about progress in the city.

After a year when everyone got used to pivoting — and got sick of that word — Chicopee Mayor John Vieau is happy to be pivoting in a different direction.

Specifically, he made some adjustments to a standing meeting with his staff — but this time for a more positive reason. Since the earliest days of the pandemic, Vieau met three times a week with a COVID-19 task force made up of city department heads. He’s still meeting with the group, but their focus has now shifted from COVID to reopening Chicopee. Among the agenda items are reinstalling basketball hoops and opening essential city buildings.

“For the last year, anyone needing services at City Hall, the library, or the Council on Aging had to make an appointment, so we’re excited about welcoming the public again,” he said.

Vieau pointed with pride to municipal employees for all their efforts during the pandemic, noting that the city made it through the last 14 months without having to furlough or lay off even one employee. “The response from everyone in Chicopee has been exceptional. Because we’ve all pulled together, there is a very bright light at the end of the tunnel.”

Moving forward, proper training and advancement of city employees is a priority for the mayor. Noting that both the fire and police chiefs worked their way into the top jobs in their respective departments, Vieau wants the same opportunities for those who follow. “I want to make sure there is always a success ladder available for employees and the right training is available for them.”

Like every community, local businesses in Chicopee were hit hard by the pandemic. That’s why the city contracted with the Greater Chicopee Chamber of Commerce to offer free grant application assistance to any Chicopee business.

“The response from everyone in Chicopee has been exceptional. Because we’ve all pulled together, there is a very bright light at the end of the tunnel.”

Julie Copoulos, executive director of the chamber, noted that, because her organization has such a large network, it’s able to get information out quickly and to find out what a small business might need.

“Many business owners just needed someone who could say, ‘hey, I think this grant application fits you and would be a good one to apply for,’” Copoulos said. “These programs can save a person’s business, but the application can be complex, so it really helps to have a person who has been through the process, to sit with you and get it done.”

 

Positive Shifts

Two Chicopee chamber members did not see a slowdown during the pandemic, but instead ramped up their efforts. Universal Plastics shifted its production to make COVID testing machines and face shields, while Callaway Golf manufactured the company’s top-end Chrome Soft golf ball in a year when the golf business jumped 8%.

“Universal Plastics is an excellent example of what great companies do,” Vieau said. “During a time of uncertainty, they modified their production to meet current demands.”

Copoulos credits Chicopee businesses for being resilient and adaptable during a challenging year. “It was amazing to see these folks turn on a dime and change their business model,” she said. “Now they are in the process of changing it back.”

A new Chicopee Center project conducted in partnership with MassDevelopment is designed to bring more business to downtown and support the businesses already there, the mayor noted. “I’m excited about the future of downtown. It will be a thriving area with a small-town feel, and it will be one of the coolest downtowns you’ll see.”

Chicopee officials recently selected a developer for the last parcel of the former Facemate property. Plans for the site include a 54,000-square-foot, multi-sport facility; a 102-unit residential building; and renovation of the Baskin building into a 10,000-square-foot restaurant and brewery, where Loophole Brewing is expected to locate.

An artist’s rendering of the proposed Facemate site

An artist’s rendering of the proposed Facemate site, showing the athletic-field complex and the renovated Baskin building.

The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts recently purchased 16.5 acres in the Chicopee River Industrial Park and plans to move all its operations from its longtime location in Hadley. The Food Bank is making the move to expand its warehouse space and locate closer to major highways. “We’re going to be right at the center of the effort to solve food insecurity,” Vieau said.

In addition to businesses reopening, new ones are locating in Chicopee. On the day BusinessWest spoke with the mayor, he had just attended a ribbon cutting for La Diaspora, a new art consignment store. Vieau also noted that the pandemic did not slow down construction of a new Florence Bank branch that recently opened on Memorial Drive.

Like communities everywhere, home sales in Chicopee are booming. Copoulos said Chicopee has an advantage over neighboring communities by offering some of the lowest residential real-estate prices in the Pioneer Valley.

“Chicopee has huge opportunity right now because young families are getting priced out of towns like Easthampton and Northampton,” she said. “Chicopee is accessible for first-time homebuyers, and I look forward to young families locating here.”

 

Back to School

Vieau also looks forward to Chicopee students returning to their schools.

“Nearly all our classrooms are air-conditioned,” he noted, “and we’ve enhanced the air quality in all the school buildings as well.”

Both Vieau and Copoulos spoke of a general feeling of optimism now that COVID-19 is more under control and the economy is opening back up statewide. Both were excited to talk about the Center Fresh Farmers Market starting in June. Hosted by the chamber, Center Fresh represents a chance for people to get together again.

“I’m excited that we will be able to see people on the street again, face to face,” Copoulos said.

Added Vieau, “efforts like this help reignite downtown. We’ve been on pause far too long.”

While he admits the pandemic was a true test for Chicopee, the mayor pointed out that the city is finishing strong. In addition to hosting a regional vaccination site at the Castle of Knights, the city has partnered with Holyoke Health Center and its mobile vaccine clinic. Overall, he believes Chicopee’s success in weathering the coronavirus is due to efforts by people all over the city.

“It has been a team effort with different people stepping up to help,” Vieau said, citing examples like library staff who made comfort calls to check in on people and help them sign up for vaccines, and the Council on Aging providing up to 300 to-go lunches five days a week. “People all over Chicopee were willing to redefine their roles and their jobs because they wanted to do the right thing.”

Features Special Coverage

Generating Results

Holyoke G&E Manager Jim Lavelle

Holyoke G&E Manager Jim Lavelle at the hydroelectric facility at the Hadley Falls Dam.

Holyoke Gas & Electric was recently recognized among a handful of utilities nationwide for its leadership in transforming to a carbon-free energy system. That designation, from the Smart Electric Power Alliance, underscores a green-energy mindset at the municipal utility that is not only earth-friendly, but a powerful force when it comes to economic development in the Paper City.

Jim Lavelle acknowledged that Holyoke Gas & Electric (HG&E) has some decided advantages when it comes to clean energy and reducing its carbon footprint.

Take, for example, the hydroelectric facility at the Hadley Falls Dam on the Connecticut River, capable of generating 33 megawatts of electricity, as well as some smaller hydro units located throughout the Holyoke canal system that produce another 15 megawatts — clean-power generation that is beyond the means of many utilities, especially municipal operations.

“We’re extremely fortunate that we have this infrastructure at our disposal — 50 megawatts of hydro in our backyard,” said Lavelle, general manager of HG&E. “It’s a tremendous asset that we try to take full advantage of.”

But HG&E’s commitment to a carbon-free energy system goes well beyond the hydroelectric facility. Indeed, it also includes early adoption of utility-grade solar power (20 megawatts in all), punctuated by the Mount Tom Solar & Energy Storage System. That facility, built near the site of a former fossil-fuel plant, is a large, utility-scale battery and the second such system to be installed in the state, drawing power directly from the solar farm, the largest community solar project in the Commonwealth.

“We’re extremely fortunate that we have this infrastructure at our disposal — 50 megawatts of hydro in our backyard. It’s a tremendous asset that we try to take full advantage of.”

That commitment also includes a diverse power-supply portfolio that includes hydro, solar, nuclear, and wind, as well as efficiency and conservation programs and development of emerging clean-energy technologies, all of which have the utility well-positioned to meet the state’s net-zero target by 2050 (established in the recent clean-energy bill), as well as incremental benchmarks for 2030 (50% below 1990’s emissions levels) and 2040 (75% below).

But long before these mandates and net-zero targets were put in place, HG&E was taking full advantage of its assets, especially those in the clean-energy category, and promoting what it called “cost-competitive clean energy.”

The Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center

The Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center is located in Holyoke, in large part, because of the low-cost, green energy available there.

This track record, coupled with many recent initiatives, has earned HG&E recognition among a handful of utilities nationwide for its leadership in transforming to a carbon-free energy system by the Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA) and a spot on the 2021 Utility Transformation Leaderboard. There, it joins just nine other utilities, all of them much larger, including Southern California Edison, Green Mountain Power in Vermont, and Consolidated Edison of New York.

While Lavelle is clearly proud of the award, what it means, and what it says about his utility, he is focused as much on what it — and all of the utility’s efforts toward clean, modern energy — mean for Holyoke. Indeed, the municipal utility and its lower-cost energy have always been selling points and economic-development engines, he said, but they become even more so as the energy becomes cleaner and greener.

“We have a ‘green team’ here that does a lot of our advanced planning on carbon-footprint management, but we also have everyone involved in some way, shape, or form in this effort. Our team is really engaged, and it’s good to see how passionate people are about working toward this objective and how creative they are.”

This was in evidence with the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center, which is based in Holyoke, in large part, because of the availability of vast amounts of clean, lower-cost energy, said Lavelle, adding that these factors also played sizable roles in bringing two huge cannabis-production facilities to the city, with more on the way. And as companies of all kinds look to reduce their carbon footprints, embrace clean energy, and perhaps escape the high lease rates of major urban areas, HG&E and its drive to a carbon-free energy system could bring more businesses to the Paper City.

But while the utility has made great progress in the broad realm of clean energy, it acknowledges there will be stern challenges as it continues down this road.

“With this climate bill … if everyone’s going to convert their gas and oil and propane — their inefficient systems — to cleaner electric systems, that’s going to put a huge demand on our electric capacity,” Lavelle said. “So what we’re forecasting is that we could potentially see a tripling of our electric kilowatt-hour sales by 2050, depending on how we navigate from here to there.

“And even today, we’re seeing that, in certain neighborhoods, all it takes is one resident to put in an electric vehicle, and it taxes the transformer that’s serving that neighborhood,” he went on, adding that upgrading these transformers, built for a different time, will be just one of the many tests awaiting a utility that is committed to being ready for whatever the future brings. And that’s another reason why it’s one of just 10 utilities on SEPA’s short list.

The Mount Tom Solar facility

The Mount Tom Solar facility is the largest community solar project in the Commonwealth.

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Holyoke G&E’s ongoing efforts — and true leadership — with regard to clean-energy transformation, what it means for a city looking to make history of a different kind, and what the road to hitting the state’s benchmarks might look like.

 

Scaling Up

As he gave BusinessWest a tour of the Hadley Falls Dam facility, which has been powering businesses for more than 150 years, Lavelle talked at length about what else goes on there.

Indeed, this is the site of the Robert E. Barrett Fishway, and the fishlift there helps migrating fish over the dam. In a normal spring, the facility would be visited by dozens of school classes on field trips — and other visitors — who can watch American shad, sea lamprey, sturgeon, and (hopefully) a few Atlantic salmon make their way through the lift and over the dam to resume their journey north. This is not a normal spring, however, and the fishway is closed due to COVID-19.

The work of ferrying fish over the dam continues, however, as does the work of producing electricity at the twin turbines, production that, as noted, is just one of the reasons HG&E finds itself among those utilities identified by SEPA as taking the lead in transforming to a carbon-free energy system.

As it went about completing its report on the state of clean-energy transformation and identifying utilities now on its leaderboard, SEPA listed what it calls the “four dimensions of utility transformation” — clean-energy resources, corporate leadership, modern grid enablement, and allied actions and engagement.

As he talked about his utilities efforts, Lavelle touched on all these elements, starting with those clean-energy resources.

HG&E now has many of them, he said, listing the dam, the Mount Tom Solar and Energy Storage System, and others, which, together, create a diverse, increasingly clean power-supply portfolio.

Beyond this portfolio is a mindset to embrace clean energy, efficiency, conservation, and planning for tomorrow, a mindset that has existed for many years now, long before the state started setting net-zero goals.

“We have a ‘green team’ here that does a lot of our advanced planning on carbon-footprint management, but we also have everyone involved in some way, shape, or form in this effort,” Lavelle noted. “Our team is really engaged, and it’s good to see how passionate people are about working toward this objective and how creative they are.”

The latest example of this passion and creativity is the Mount Tom Energy Storage System. Operated by ENGIE Storage (formerly Green Charge Networks), it is designed to keep electric rates stable by reducing rising demand-based charges for HG&E and its customers by storing energy needed to reduce peak loads — in a clean, environmentally friendly manner.

“Two of the highest-cost elements in our energy ledger are capacity and transmission costs,” said Jonathon Zwirko, HG&E’s project engineer and Energy Resources coordinator. “By timing things properly and discharging the batteries at the right time, we’re able to save on both capacity and transmission costs.”

Through the use of this battery system, which can store 6 megawatt hours of energy at a rate of up to 3 megawatts per hour, the utility can save 2% to 2.5% on its total energy costs annually, a number that will go higher when a second, larger battery facility, this one on Water Street, goes online later this month.

Jim Lavelle at HG&E’s energy-storage system

Jim Lavelle at HG&E’s energy-storage system, the second such system to be installed in the state.

The solar facility and energy-storage facility are just a few components of a diverse clean-power portfolio that, as noted, also includes hydro, wind, and nuclear, a portfolio that gives the utility flexibility and the ability to offer competitive rates, Lavelle said.

As noted, this powerful combination has helped bring some businesses to Holyoke that might not otherwise have considered that zip code.

That’s especially true of the cannabis businesses, including large manufacturers, that have, well, put down roots in the city. They’ve been drawn by the hundreds of thousands of square feet of available mill space, said Zwirko, but even more important to them is the large amounts of green, comparatively cheap electricity needed for all elements of the operations, but especially the lights that enable plants to grow.

Green Thumb Industries is currently operating a plant on Appleton Street that consumes roughly 1.5 megawatts of electricity, said Zwirko, noting that Trulieve, which recently moved into the old Conklin Furniture complex just a few hundred yards from the Hadley Falls Dam, will, when operating at peak capacity, consume 4 megawatts. By contrast, Holyoke Medical Center and Holyoke Community College each consume roughly a half-megawatt.

“If we see a tripling of our load, and that power has to come from carbon-free sources, that will be a real challenge. Different camps think offshore wind will fill in a lot of the gaps, but if we’re going to see a tripling of load, every other utility is going to see a tripling of load, so there will be a huge demand.”

So these are huge users of electricity, he went on, adding quickly that HG&E can handle several more of these facilities.

“There are about 10 others that have received licenses and are in the process of construction,” he said, “and we probably have another handful that are knocking on our door, with that 5-megawatt request — each — which we’re prepared to handle.”

Lavelle agreed.

“Part of our strategy with our local grid has been anticipating this growth,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, starting with the computing center, which consumes roughly 4 megawatts, the city has anticipated that it’s blend of clean, inexpensive power would attract more large-scale users. “We weren’t anticipating the cannabis industry at that time, but were targeting and anticipating data-related loads.

The hydroelectric faciliity at the Hadley Falls Dam

The hydroelectric faciliity at the Hadley Falls Dam is just one of HG&E’s many assets when it comes to green energy.

“We’d like to see more people, more jobs, tied to these developments, and while we haven’t seen that on the data side, we’re seeing it on the cannabis side,” he went on, adding that, with improvements made to the system, the city and its utility can accommodate another 15 or 20 megawatts worth of cannabis-related businesses.

 

Watt’s Happening?

While the utility is well-positioned to handle the needs of the present — and the addition of several more cannabis-related businesses — the future, as noted, is dotted with question marks, especially when it comes to what’s becoming known as ‘electrification’ — of cars and many other things

“If we see a tripling of our load, and that power has to come from carbon-free sources, that will be a real challenge,” Lavelle said. “Different camps think offshore wind will fill in a lot of the gaps, but if we’re going to see a tripling of our load, every other utility is going to see a tripling of load, so there will be a huge demand.”

In the face of these seemingly inevitable surges in demand, utilities, including HG&E, will have to put an even greater emphasis on energy efficiency, conservation, and education to stem the tide, he went on.

“We’re going to have to do those things so we don’t see a tripling of load,” he said. “Can we mitigate, or offset, that growth through energy efficiency and energy conservation and educate people on how to use less energy? We’ll have to. We’ll need to educate people about how to charge their electric vehicles at the right time — at night, right now — at off-peak times.”

Elaborating, he said there will likely be more of what he called “behavioral incentives” that are already being used to change attitudes about clean energy and reduce surges in demand.

Summing up HG&E’s efforts toward transforming its energy system, Lavelle channeled Kermit the Frog by implying strongly that it’s not easy being green. In fact, it’s quite challenging.

But it’s necessary, and for many reasons. The state is demanding it, and, increasingly, customers, both residential and commercial, are demanding it as well.

Well before these demands became loud in nature, HG&E was committed to exploring and implementing strategies to make its power portfolio cleaner and more earth-friendly, knowing they would pay off, not with awards and accolades (although those have come, too) but in cost reductions and opportunities for the city to grow and attract new businesses.

These investments are certainly starting to pay off, and as they do so, HG&E is making a powerful statement, literally and figuratively.

 

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

 

As COVID-19 has encouraged many Americans to move out of large urban areas, a good number of them are moving to Pittsfield.

In April, the New York Times reported on a U.S. Postal Service survey that tracked the top metro areas where people moved during the pandemic. Pittsfield ranked sixth on the list.

According to Jonathan Butler, Pittsfield’s proximity to both New York City and Boston certainly put the city in a good spot to benefit from the migration away from larger metro areas.

“Our location positioned us well for people who have decided to move to a more rural setting and take advantage of telecommuting after their experiences during the pandemic,” said Butler, who is president and CEO of 1Berkshire, the economic-development and tourism organization for Berkshire County.

A USA Today article in March suggested that, as more people work from home, big cities may lose population to smaller areas that cost less and offer better quality of life. Using data from Moody’s Analytics, the article included Pittsfield among the top five cities that could stand to gain from the shift to remote work. Moody’s ranked Pittsfield in the 53rd percentile for affordability, and for quality of life it scored 90.2.

Mayor Linda Tyer

Mayor Linda Tyer says the city’s COVID-19 task force, which met daily at first, still gathers each week.

More than a statistical exercise, Butler said these trends are reflected in reality.

“There has been a 40% increase in net real-estate sales compared to last year,” he said, noting that the increase represents more properties selling, and selling at higher prices. “We’ve seen real-estate prices skyrocket in the Berkshires, anywhere from 10% to 30%.”

Still, while the pandemic may present many opportunities for Pittsfield, the city certainly faced difficult challenges when COVID first hit.

In her recent state-of-the-city address, Mayor Linda Tyer said Pittsfield entered 2020 with a robust agenda of ways to enhance the city when, suddenly, all priorities shifted to managing a pandemic.

Tyer led a COVID-19 task force in Pittsfield that brought together medical, police, fire, and education professionals who meet daily at the beginning of the crisis. They still meet weekly to review public-health data and plans of action. As a result, Tyer said Pittsfield now has a solid response infrastructure in place, as well as vaccinators and volunteers ready to deploy.

“State officials have recognized our task force as an example of best practices, and it serves as a model that could be replicated in other communities,” she noted.

Another key move early on was establishing the COVID-19 Economic Relief and Recovery Program, a comprehensive economic package to support small businesses, nonprofits, and residents. By the end of 2020, Pittsfield had awarded 90 grants to local small businesses and restaurants totaling nearly $700 thousand.

In addition, “we were able to provide easy access to food and supply Chromebooks to students after the schools were closed,” the mayor said. “We also created 13 ‘grab-and-go’ zones to support our restaurants with takeout and delivery services. These are just a few examples of the many ways we came together to support each other.”

 

Down to Business

Tyer pointed to a new, innovative company that opened in Pittsfield in 2020 despite the pandemic. United Aircraft Technologies is a veteran-owned, minority-owned, female-led business that created a new type of sensing clamp for aircraft wiring. The clamps are 65% lighter than what is currently in use, and they do not need other hardware, such as screws or bolts. Two local companies will handle production of the clamps.

“Our location positioned us well for people who have decided to move to a more rural setting and take advantage of telecommuting.”

“United Aircraft Technologies has teamed up with Sinicon Plastics to produce the clamps, and SABIC will provide the materials to make them,” she said.

For many years, officials in Pittsfield have emphasized job creation, with success stories ranging from advanced manufacturing to e-commerce. Since the pandemic, Butler said, they have a new priority. “Our emphasis is no longer on creating jobs, it’s now about filling jobs and recruiting talent to the region.”

Among its infrastructure projects, Tyer talked about several revitalization efforts happening on Tyler Street. By the end of this year, she predicts 36 new market-rate apartments and “promising new interest” in saving the historic fire station from demolition.

“There has been a 40% increase in net real-estate sales compared to last year. We’ve seen real-estate prices skyrocket in the Berkshires, anywhere from 10% to 30%.”

She also discussed a $3 million MassWorks grant for the Tyler Street streetscape project that will begin this year. “The improvements include a roundabout, upgrades to sidewalks and crosswalks, and other amenities along the corridor.”

“There has been a 40% increase in net real-estate sales compared to last year. We’ve seen real-estate prices skyrocket in the Berkshires, anywhere from 10% to 30%.”

This spring also marks the start of construction of the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail extension through Pittsfield. The bike trail will connect Adams and Pittsfield, with a plan to eventually connect the trail throughout Berkshire County.

For Butler, the trail extension is a real positive, as one of the region’s bright spots from last year was an increase in people coming to the area for outdoor activities. Whether it’s state parks or cultural attractions such as the Norman Rockwell Museum and Hancock Shaker Village, visitors were able to explore these sites while staying outside much of the time.

The past year has also brought many new hikers to the region, he added. “From Mount Greylock to October Mountain State Forest, our hiking trails have been bustling with more activity than they’ve ever had.”

Pittsfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1761
Population: 44,737
Area: 42.5 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $19.25
Commercial Tax Rate: $39.99
Median Household Income: $35,655
Median family Income: $46,228
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Berkshire Health Systems; General Dynamics; Petricca Industries Inc.; SABIC Innovative Plastics; Berkshire Bank
* Latest information available

While the additional outdoor activity couldn’t replace all the lost business in 2020, he admitted, it certainly helped, and makes him feel optimistic going forward. “We have introduced a lot of new people to the Berkshires who have not come out here previously, so that’s a positive takeaway.”

With its location in the middle of the region, Butler said Pittsfield is in a good position to benefit from the increased visitor traffic anticipated for this summer and beyond. Like every city, Pittsfield saw restaurants and retail shops struggle financially during the pandemic, with some not surviving. But as people’s comfort levels about going out increases, he believes that will generate new activity.

“The demand for those businesses is still going to be there, and it will create opportunities for new entrepreneurs to step into those closed businesses and try their own model,” he said. “It won’t happen overnight; we’re looking at it as a one- to two-year cycle.”

 

Gaining Momentum

While many Americans are expected to book flights for vacations this year, more are planning to travel by car — and shifts in air travel have tended to help the tourist economy in the Berkshires, Butler noted.

“We always benefit when people decide to book a three- or four-night getaway to the Berkshires instead of flying south or out west,” he said. “We expect there will be more of that than usual this summer.”

As more people visit the area, and even move there, it creates new opportunities and new challenges for Pittsfield. Tyer believes her city will rebound from the pandemic thanks to the resolve of its residents and business owners.

“As we emerge from this public-health crisis,” she said, “we will be stronger than ever before and ready for good things to happen.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

 

Nadim's

Nadim Kashouh says the return of office workers will be critical to the success of businesses downtown.

The wording in the initial guidance that has come down on the $2 trillion American Rescue Plan, and, more specifically, the $130.2 billion designated for city and county fiscal relief, is somewhat vague and leaves a lot to the imagination.

“Funds can be used to respond to the COVID-19 public-health emergency and its negative economic impacts, including assistance to households, small businesses, and nonprofits, or aid to impacted industries, such as tourism, travel, and hospitality,” it reads, before going on to note that such funds may also be used for everything from investments in water, sewer, and broadband infrastructure to “providing government services in a way that covers the revenue gaps created by the COVID-19 emergency.”

As he reads this guidance, Tim Sheehan, Springfield’s chief Economic Development officer, draws immediate parallels to the federal money Springfield received nearly a decade ago in the wake of the June 1, 2011 tornado that tore through several parts of the city. Even the dollar amounts — roughly $100 million, in each case — are strikingly similar.

“Some of the outcomes resulting from the funding that came from the tornado assistance were transformative for Springfield,” he noted, adding that a reconstruction fund of $96.7 million was put to a number of uses, including business assistance, housing replacement and reconstruction, infrastructure, and more. “And we’re looking to similarly deploy, very strategically, the resources we have from the rescue plan so that we have a similar result.”

How, and how effectively, Springfield can put its American Rescue Plan funds to work will likely play an important role when it comes to how quickly and profoundly the city can recover from a very different kind of disaster. And, like many area communities, Springfield has been hard hit by the pandemic, with many question marks looming over the future.

A city that was in the midst of what many were calling a renaissance in the years leading up to COVID saw much of its momentum halted or certainly slowed by the pandemic. A central business district that was thriving and teeming with events, activity, and new businesses has been eerily quiet, with many constituencies — from office workers to hockey fans; beer garden attendees to concertgoers — absent or in far smaller numbers.

As for those office workers, there are now lingering questions about when they will return (the vast majority haven’t yet) and how many of them will return, casting the future of the office towers that dominate the skyline into doubt.

But there are some signs of life and abundant optimism for the balance of this year and beyond.

Indeed, as he talked with BusinessWest on a quiet late Tuesday afternoon, Nadim Kashouh was looking forward to the upcoming weekend — moreso than any time probably since last Father’s Day, when he struggled mightily to keep up with a flood of takeout orders.

Gymnastics — in the form of youth competitions featuring teams from across New England — were returning to the MassMutual Center for the first time in more than a year. And Kashouh’s eatery, Nadim’s Downtown Mediterranean Grill, located just a block from the convention center, always does well when the gymnasts come to town.

“If they turn right when they leave the building, they find us — and a lot of them do turn right,” said Kashouh, noting that not many people have been coming to town, as in downtown, since COVID changed the landscape in March 2020. “It’s exciting to have the gymnastics back.”

And there are other signs of life as well. The AHL’s Springfield Thunderbirds are not playing hockey — they are one of three teams in the league to essentially opt out of play in a abbreviated 2021 season — but they are gearing up for the 2021-22 slate, and management is optimistic there will be considerable pent-up demand for their product (see related story HERE).

“Some of the outcomes resulting from the funding that came from the tornado assistance were transformative for Springfield. And we’re looking to similarly deploy, very strategically, the resources we have from the rescue plan so that we have a similar result.”

Meanwhile, in Pynchon Plaza, various works by the sculptor Don Gummer are now on display, yet another sign that the Quadrangle, one of the city’s tourism mainstays, is moving ever closer to something approaching normal (see related story HERE).

While COVID has certainly slowed the pace of progress in Springfield, it has also provided an opportunity to step back, look at some of the key development challenges and opportunities in the city, and work to be ready for the proverbial ‘other side’ of the pandemic. That’s been the case with two key areas downtown — the area around MGM Springfield, which is underperforming in many ways, and the so-called ‘blast zone,’ the area surrounding the site of the natural-gas explosion in November 2012 (more on these later).

“Our thought process throughout this has been to take the mindset, ‘once we’re through it, we want to be ready to go,’” Sheehan said. “And some of the funding that is coming will be able to help those initiatives be realized.”

For this latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the City of Homes and its prospects for not merely turning back the clock to the vibrancy it enjoyed pre-COVID, but taking further steps forward.

 

Food for Thought

As the owner of one of the more prominent and visible restaurants downtown, Kashouh has long been a popular voice with the local media when it comes to commentary about business downtown and the impact of everything from the casino to the Thunderbirds; from concerts at Symphony Hall and the MassMutual Center to, yes, those gymnastics competitions.

As he did son again with BusinessWest, he first flashed back to the view in very early 2020, a time when, as he put it, “the pieces had fallen into place and everything was clicking.”

Over the past 13 months, of course, most of the pieces have fallen out of place, he said, adding that most of the key ingredients for success at his establishment — the shows on weekend nights; the hockey games, conventions, and other events at the MassMutual Center; and, especially, the downtown office workers — have been mostly missing in action as a direct result of the pandemic.

He said they’re all important, but perhaps the most critical is the office traffic, which consistently filled the restaurant at lunch and often the bar area after 5 o’clock. These days, the office crowd is a fraction of what it was, and the impact is profound.

“We saw a few of the old faces back in here today, and it was exciting — you’re seeing some of the regular faces back,” he said, referring to some commercial lenders once based downtown. “But we used to see them three or four times a week and sometimes twice a day; now, you see them once, and you hope to see them again next week — maybe.

“It’s going to be a while before things go back to where they were before,” he went on. “I was hoping that by summer things would be back to normal, but now it doesn’t look like it.”

Given this obvious trickle-down effect, the question of when, and to what extent, the office workers return to downtown looms large over the city and those in the Economic Development office.

Indeed, Sheehan, citing a story he read recently involving Citibank and its announced intention to downsize its office footprint in New York by roughly 40%, said it is becoming obvious that the pandemic will change the way businesses approach their real-estate needs moving forward, leading to endless speculation about the office market and the businesses that rely on it.

The former Willys-Overland building is now accepting lease applications

The former Willys-Overland building is now accepting lease applications, one of the first signs of redevelopment in Springfield’s so-called ‘blast zone.’

As for the present tense, the situation has improved — but only marginally.

“People are starting to come back to downtown to work, but it’s not fully engaged, and I don’t think it’s going to be until sometime late fall,” Sheehan said. “And I don’t think we’re really going to get back to 100% until the turn of the calendar to 2022. And that obviously has a ripple effect on all the businesses that depend on that population coming in every day, so that’s an ongoing concern for the city.”

This brings him back to that language in the guidance concerning the American Rescue Plan, which, he said, could and likely will extend to efforts to help keep existing businesses downtown and bring new ones there.

“Our objective, in terms of deployment of resources, is to keep as many leases in place and tenants in place as possible, and maintain, to the level that we can, the value of those leases,” he explained, “so that we don’t ultimately experience a huge negative devaluation in the commercial real-estate market.”

The process, already underway, starts with understanding the needs on both sides of the equation, meaning landlord and tenant, he went on, adding that some business sectors are doing better than others, with service and hospitality (those businesses relying on direct interaction with the public) faring the worst.

Overall, the city could access as much as $127 million in Rescue Act funds, depending on how the ‘county’ portion of the award is allocated, said Sheehan, adding that city officials are having discussions with the those at the Treasury Department about how they can be deployed.

Speaking in general terms, which is all he can really do at this point, he said the broad goal of this latest round of funding will be to provide a “softer landing” to the wild, turbulent ride COVID has given the city, which differentiates this round from the funding provided in the CARES Act in 2020.

“With the CARES Act funding, we were in the throes of the virus and the public-health orders associated with it,” he explained. “That funding was basically to alleviate the distress. With this round, it’s about how we’re going to rebuild after the virus and bring the economy back to … not necessarily what we had before, but, hopefully, even better.

“The CARES Act was wound triage,” he went on. “The funding that we’re dealing with in terms of the rescue plan is more post-operative care — that’s the analogy you would use.”

 

Forward Thinking

While the city has been mostly living within the moment during the pandemic and dealing with the day to day, planning for the future has gone on, again, with an eye toward enabling the city to emerge from the pandemic with an opportunity to seize whatever opportunities present themselves.

In recent months, there has been increasing speculation, as businesses realize they may not need to be in urban centers like New York and Boston with their (previously) sky-high lease rates, and individuals realize they don’t need to live in those cities to work for companies based in them, that there are opportunities for communities like Springfield.

Sheehan acknowledged the possibilities and, like others in recent months, said the city needs to market itself and otherwise position itself as a viable, lower-cost option to Boston.

Meanwhile, as noted, planning officials have used the COVID period to closely examine two potential-laden but challenged areas of the city, one identified as the ‘Northeast Downtown District,” a.k.a. the blast zone, and the area in and around the convention center and MGM Springfield.

The latter is the focal point of a master development plan created by Chicago Consultants Studio Inc. (CCS) and approved by the City Council in March. In it, the authors write, “MGM delivered a Casino District; the city must now drive the surrounding area development.” In the report, the consultants note what has become obvious: that, despite the city’s and MGM’s significant investment in time, design, money, and commitments to “integrate the casino into the urban fabric, the MGM complex has yet to foster important catalytic economic development and vibrancy outside the confines of the casino district.”

This unexpectedly stymied market, which prompted an urgent revisiting of the so-called Implementation Blueprint drafted for that area in 2018 as the casino was preparing to open, has resulted from a number of factors, they note, including:

• MGM’s decision to “overpay” for key properties critical to the project (an average of 240% over market) has driven an artificial increase in area property valuations, which has yet to correct itself;

• Resulting area rents do not reflect realistic market rates, which has turned away high-quality tenants interested in being adjacent to a casino anchor;

• News of MGM and potential future expansion created area-wide speculation, market inactivity, and a ‘wait-and-see’ attitude in anticipation of a buyout, which is clearly not in MGM’s plans; and

• Resulting property disinvestment, code violations, foreclosures, auctions, and growing blight in prime areas adjacent to the casino were all exacerbated on some levels by the pandemic.

Recognizing the pressing need and urgency for reinvestment in the immediate areas around MGM and the MassMutual Center, the city has narrowed the near-term focus of the Implementation Blueprint to a phase-one district generally bound by I-91/East Columbus Avenue, Harrison Street, Chestnut Street, and Union Street. Within that area, CCS has identified a number of properties that are in transition, vacant, or underutilized, including the Masonic Building, Colonial Block, Old First Church, 101 State St., 13-31 Elm St. (currently being renovated into housing and other uses), and the Civic Center Parking Garage.

The property across Main Street from MGM Springfield

The property across Main Street from MGM Springfield remains underutilized and largely vacant, despite expectations the casino would prompt greater vibrancy.

For this phase-one district, the city, through CCS, has advanced a three-part master development strategy that includes a Main Street and Convention Center Zoning Overlay District and other measures designed to stimulate and facilitate investment in that area, said Sheehan, adding that, while opportunities exist, COVID may in some ways be limiting what’s possible.

“We have to very flexible in terms of looking at what can be done with those properties,” he told BusinessWest. “My concern is that most of the foreclosed portfolio has office space above the ground-floor retail, for lack of a better word. Given the existing office market, I think we have to be very flexible with regard to adaptive reuse.”

Springfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1852
Population: 154,758
Area: 33.1 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential tax rate: $18.90
Commercial tax rate: $39.23
Median Household Income: $35,236
Median Family Income: $51,110
Type of government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Baystate Health, MassMutual Financial Group, Big Y Foods, MGM Springfield, Mercy Medical Center, CHD, Smith & Wesson Inc.
* Latest information available

As for the Northeast Downtown District, or blast zone, a master plan released in January and now still in the public comment period notes that, while that area, characterized by historic brick buildings and warehouses, has suffered a number of setbacks in recent years, including the gas explosion, it still “holds tremendous potential for redevelopment as a transit-oriented neighborhood.”

“We saw a few of the old faces back in here today, and it was exciting — you’re seeing some of the regular faces back. But we used to see them three or four times a week and sometimes twice a day; now, you see them once, and you hope to see them again next week — maybe.”

Elaborating, the report’s authors note that, “anchored by the newly renovated Union Station and the potential connectivity afforded by an anticipated increase in rail service in the coming years, the district is ripe for market-rate, multi-family residential development. And, in addition to a relatively affordable cost of living, the area benefits from being within walking distance of downtown amenities and cultural attractions, including the Springfield Museums.”

This potential is reflected in the ongoing renovation of the former Willys-Overland manufacturing facility on Chestnut Street into market-rate housing, said Sheehan, adding that more developments of this kind could follow.

One key to such efforts, as well as the revitalization of such areas as Apremont Triangle and the development of a needed “mixed-use commercial spine,” as noted by the report’s authors, is making Chestnut Street a two-way corridor, said Sheehan, adding that this change will dramatically increase traffic through the area and provide better linkage to other areas of the downtown, thus stimulating development activity.

 

Bottom Line

There is little doubt that COVID has slowed the pace of momentum in Springfield, a city that spent the better part of 20 years digging out of a deep fiscal morass and successfully reinventing its downtown as a vibrant hub for business, innovation, tourism, and nightlife.

The pandemic put much of that in what can best be described as a holding pattern, one that many see as thankfully coming to an end in the coming months and certainly by the end of this year.

When and how profoundly the city recovers from all that COVID has wrought remains to be seen, but with the gymnasts returning to the MassMutual Center, sculptures now adorning Pynchon Plaza, and the Thunderbirds selling season tickets for the 2021-22 season, there are now ample signs of life and sources of optimism.

Amd with them come more expressions of confidence that the city can not only regain what’s been lost, but surge even higher than in the days before the pandemic.

 

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

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