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Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Folks in Western Mass. know they’re often dismissed by residents out east, Lisa Stowe says. So how does a city like Westfield make its case as a vibrant destination for a business looking to plant roots?

By working together.

That’s exactly what a handful of partners — municipal leaders, Westfield Gas + Electric (WG+E), Whip City Fiber, the Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce, and corporate sponsor Westfield Bank — have done by launching Go Westfield, a still-evolving engine to encapsulate what makes this city a desirable landing spot, and, more importantly, tell people about it.

“We worked on this for six or eight months,” said Stowe, marketing and communications specialist for WG+E. “We want to use this opportunity to highlight what makes Westfield unique and a good place to do business. So many people think Massachusetts stops at 495, but there are a lot of things that are not so great about living in that part of the state — cost of living, high traffic, the cost of buying a piece of land. We wanted to draw attention to the things that make Westfield really attractive for people who are looking to relocate.”

The partners in Go Westfield had been doing that, to varying degrees, in their own ways, she added, but a focused partnership allows them to broadcast the message more efficiently.

“If you’re a site selector, we check a lot of boxes,” Stowe said, citing not only the city’s access to Mass Pike, an airport, and rail service, but its strong inventory of developable land — not to mention the municipal utility.

“If you’re a commercial customer, you pay 18% less than the state average for electricity, and 13% lower for gas rates than the state average,” she added. “If you’re an organization doing manufacturing, that’s significant. We feel that’s a good piece of the story to tell.”

Kate Phelon

Kate Phelon

“We really want to promote our city and the positive aspects of it. It’s an ongoing joint effort to drive the message that businesses should come look at Westfield to develop. We have quite a bit of developable land, but how do you get the word out to a company in Texas or Minnesota?”

So is Whip City Fiber, a division of WG+E that now reaches 70% of residences and businesses with high-speed internet. “The fiber project is a big deal,” she said, noting that customers like not only the speed, but the fact that service comes from a local company, not a national behemoth. “We’ve easily met the targets we had set in the business plan.”

Kate Phelon, executive director of the Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce, said early meetings with the Go Westfield partners focused on how to promote the economic-development landscape in Westfield.

“We wanted a way to really persuade businesses to come to Westfield,” she told BusinessWest. “There are the usual assets everyone knows, like the turnpike exchange, airport, and rail, but we wanted to get a group of stakeholders together and come up with a marketing plan for all of it. We’re very excited about this initiative. There’s a local component to it, but the bigger initiative is a push outside the region to get companies to look at Westfield for commercial developments.”

The group has been discussing marketing strategies as well as ideas like industry-specific focus groups.

“We really want to promote our city and the positive aspects of it,” she said. “It’s an ongoing joint effort to drive the message that businesses should come look at Westfield to develop. We have quite a bit of developable land, but how do you get the word out to a company in Texas or Minnesota?

Westfield also boasts strong schools, a state university, and proximity to numerous other colleges, she added, as well as a chamber of commerce that continually strives to keep businesses informed of state and national trends and developments that could affect them.

In short, the Whip City has a lot going for it, and Go Westfield is just starting to broadcast that message far and wide.

Heart of the City

Meanwhile, the Elm Street Urban Renewal Plan, approved in 2013, focuses on revitalizing 4.88 acres in a two-block area in the heart of downtown Westfield running along both sides of Elm Street, the city’s main commercial thoroughfare. The city has also directed funding to revitalize the so-called Gaslight District adjacent to it.

One recent success story is the $6.6 million Olver Transit Pavilion, which opened in April 2017. The transit center was designed to both catalyze related economic development and increase the use of public transportation. The state-of-the-art center includes parking space for four buses with bicycle racks, as well as a bicycle-repair station, which speaks to the proximity of the Columbia Greenway Rail Trail only a block away.

The Westfield Redevelopment Authority also demolished a former bowling alley near the transit center, with plans to create a multi-story, mixed-use building with retail, restaurants, office space, and market-rate apartments. The city recently issued a request for proposals for the project, taking advantage of the area’s designation as an ‘opportunity zone,’ a state program that provides tax relief for people willing to invest in certain neighborhoods in need of economic development.

“The PVTA project was the first phase of renewal,” said Peter Miller, Westfield’s director of Community Development. “We’re looking for private development to get some mixed-use retail space on the ground floor, and residential space on the top floors.”

Joe Mitchell, the city Advancement officer, noted that Millennials in particular are drawn to urban, mixed-use living, one reason why such projects have popped up around the region in recent years.

“A three-bedroom house and a white picket fence on a half-acre is not what young people are looking for,” he said. “They want a coffee shop downstairs and a bike rack, and being part of a tight-knit community where there’s activity going on right at their doorstep.”

Another $25,000 in state money will soon fund a wayfinding project for downtown, not just to point visitors to destinations off the main thoroughfare but to help them access parking as well. “We have sufficient parking in our downtown, but people don’t always know where it is,” Miller said. “This infusion of money from the state will allow us to better direct people to where the parking is.”

Phelon noted that the city recently switched all on-street parking, which had been a mix of one-hour and two-hour time limits, to two hours across the board — a small change, maybe, but a good example of how quality-of-life issues can be communicated and remedied across departments.

The momentum downtown has spurred some organic growth, too, Mitchell added, noting that Myers Information Systems is relocating there from Northampton, bringing 20 software-development professionals and renovating 110 Elm St., which used to be a restaurant with industrial space above it.

“They’re moving from an urban, walkable space they’ve outgrown in Northampton to buying one of our old buildings and investing private dollars here,” he added. “It was an extremely underutilized building, and they’re converting it into modern office space. They have a real vision for it.”

He doesn’t think Myers will be the last to make that move. “One of the reasons to relocate to Westfield is that we’re at the cusp of something, and people want to be a part of it.”

Back to School

Phelon says Westfield has accomplished more in recent years because of its culture of collaboration. One example is the Westfield Education to Business Alliance, which connects the city’s schools, where students are beginning to contemplate their career paths, with companies that are eager to mine local talent.

At a time when the state is looking for public schools to forge more meaningful pathways to economic development, she added, the alliance puts the Whip City at the forefront of an important trend.

Westfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1669
Population: 41,552
Area: 47.4 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $19.36
Commercial Tax Rate: $36.82
Median Household Income: $45,240
Median Family Income: $55,327
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Westfield State College, Baystate Noble Hospital, Savage Arms Inc., Mestek Inc., Advance Manufacturing Co.
* Latest information available

She said the next phase could be an adopt-a-classroom program in which area businesses could engage repeatedly with a teacher and his or her students. “I also think we need to get students and teachers into the business world on a regular basis. The work environment is changing so rapidly, with technology and robotics and social media.”

Because of this, she went on, it would benefit teachers to see what employees at area companies do on a day-to-day basis, and how. “That’s what they need to be teaching, so they need to see that.”

The Westfield Education to Business Alliance also facilitates a career fair at Westfield High School that gives students exposure to the types of career opportunities available at local companies — and, more important, what skill sets they will need to take advantage of them.

The goal of the next career fair will be to attract 75 companies, up from 51 last time, to interact with the 500 or so students who show up.

“It’s not a job fair; it’s a career fair,” Phelon stressed. “The message is twofold: for students to see what companies are here, and see that they can go away to college and come back here and get good jobs. It’s also good for these students to talk to these employees about their hiring practices, what degree do I need, should I expect a drug test or a CORI check, what are your procedures. And they could talk to students about internships and co-ops.”

The alliance one of many examples of how Westfield continues to bring people and organizations together to raise the fortunes of all.

“The mayor [Brian Sullivan] has been very supportive of these collaborations,” Miller said. “He made building bridges his theme. That’s how we’ll get the most out of the assets we have — not by operating in silos.”

Phelon agreed. “We have our individual purposes and missions, but there’s a bigger picture of working together and collaborating. It’s such a great city, and we’re fortunate to have the assets we have.”

Now it’s time to let everyone know it.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Once a dominant retail force, Enfield Square Mall has struggled in recent years.

Once a dominant retail force, Enfield Square Mall has struggled in recent years.

While Laurie Whitten doesn’t think the recent opening of MGM Springfield, a few miles north over the Massachusetts border, is a negative, neither is she convinced the incoming traffic does much for nearby Enfield, Conn. The same goes for a casino expected to open in East Windsor, Conn. in the spring of 2020.

“For the most part, casinos are pretty much on their own,” said Whitten, Enfield’s recently appointed director of Development Services. “A lot of people think if you’re across the street, you’ll get all sorts of business, but for the most part, people leave and don’t go shopping or out to eat.”

The way she sees it, any benefit to nearby towns, like Enfield, might be in housing or hotel development, as workers new to the area might be looking for somewhere to live, and casino visitors increase demand for hotel rooms. “That’s where the trickle-down would be when it comes to development.”

But Enfield isn’t looking to surrounding towns for energy, she added; instead, it’s busy creating its own — and she’s excited about the future.

Take the planned transformation of the Thompsonville neighborhood on the Connecticut River, with an intermodal transit center as the centerpiece of a walker-friendly village.

Part of this effort is a river-access project to be funded through a $3.4 million Federal Highway Administration grant. The bulk of the money is being used for riverfront improvements, including the construction of a biking and walking path from Freshwater Pond to the riverfront.

In addition, last year, Eversource signed an access agreement with the town to allow environmental site assessment work to be done to determine the extent of contamination on its North River Street property near the station. TRC Solutions is under contract to perform the work.

Depending on the results of that survey, if the site needs to be remediated or capped, the transit center could be looking at a three- to five-year timeline. In the meantime, the state will build a basic rail station, with an elevated, double-tracked platform on each side. Later on, the town will build in some parking, bus facilities, and outdoor recreation, including walking trails and overlook areas so people can enjoy the view of the river.

Enfield at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1683
Population: 44,654
Area: 34.2 square miles
County: Hartford
Residential Tax Rate: $33.40
Commercial Tax Rate: $33.40
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

“There are a lot of different things happening down there,” Whitten said. “We’re certainly working toward being prepared for a new train station and focusing on some adapted reuse of dilapidated buildings down there. We will also be adopting new regulations for downtown Thompsonville, promoting mixed use and higher densities in that area.”

Meanwhile, a Complete Streets plan with new bike paths is under consideration, and renovations at the former St. Adalbert School, which stood vacant for 12 years, are almost complete as developer William Bellock turns it into an apartment building with 20 one-bedroom units, less than a quarter-mile from Town Hall.

“When you’re developing transit-oriented development, the idea is to create higher density,” Whitten said. “Millennials, especially, like to live someplace where they don’t need a car. With high density, they can walk to the train station or ride a bike.”

Moving In

Speaking of housing, development in that sector is on the rise, Whitten noted. “We have some high-end apartments under construction on the north end, and we just adopted some new regulations to allow apartments in transition zones along the I-91 corridor — that would be the transition between commercial, industrial, and residential.”

Meanwhile, a design-district overlay was approved for the Hazardville area of town to promote some historic-style achitecture and mixed use, Whitten said. “We’re also working with developers about the reuse or expansion of some of the larger buildings in downtown, and we just approved a large industrial warehouse distribution center on the south end of King Street, in Metro Park North.”

Enfield has seen an influx of manufacturing, warehousing, and distribution businesses over the past few years, which is a positive for a town that continues to diversify away from its traditional reputation as a retail center. The corridors of Routes 220 and 190, bordering Enfield Square Mall, continue to be a bustling mix of restaurants and retail, but the mall itself, heavily buffeted by store departures over the past decade, doesn’t draw nearly the traffic it used to.

An example is Panera Bread, which was recently approved for an outbuilding in the nearby Home Depot plaza — but will be leaving the mall to get there.

“We’re going to be working diligently to promote smart growth and customer-friendly service, which will probably include some new software; we want to streamline the development process.”

Still, Enfield’s growth in the manufacturing, warehousing, and distribution sectors, as well as a strong uptick in small and sole-proprietor businesses over the past few years — reflecting an entrepreneurial wave the entire region has experienced — remain positive signs.

So are community-building events like the popular Enfield Regional Farmers Market, which runs every Wednesday from July through mid-October, featuring farm-fresh fruit and vegetables, artisan goods, musical entertainment, and a food truck.

Meanwhile, the Thompsonville Community Garden, established a decade ago by the town of Enfield, the University of Connecticut Master Gardener Program, and a grant from the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, has been a popular program as well.

The garden features 50 raised garden beds, which are rented for the planting season; the rental includes use of tools, seeds, starter plants, compost, water, and educational sessions — and a sense of community for Enfield gardeners who want to grow their own organic vegetables.

Location, Location, Location

Organic growth is something Whitten would like to see on a town-wide basis, of course, noting that Enfield is an attractive location for a number of reasons, including its location between Boston and New York, along I-91, and close to Bradley Airport. “I think there’s a lot of potential in our location,” she told BusinessWest.

That said, she called Enfield a town in transition in some ways, especially when it comes to economic development. “We have a lot of new members on the Town Council, and there’s been a complete reorganization of the Land Use Department. They lose a lot of their top people, so we’re trying to get reorganized and get some good people in there and work as a team.”

Meanwhile, “we’re going to be working diligently to promote smart growth and customer-friendly service, which will probably include some new software; we want to streamline the development process.”

And the development potential is there, she added, pointing again to Enfield’s surplus of available land and possible reuse sites. To that end, officials will be looking at establishing some tax-abatement policies to help businesses access some of those opportunities. “We’re going to be here to help them through the process.”

With the Thompsonville transit center on the horizon and the town continuing to leverage its location and amenities, this community that lies between what will eventually be two casinos is betting big on its future as a business and lifestyle destination.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

The former Cranwell Spa & Golf Resort

The former Cranwell Spa & Golf Resort is undergoing a $60 million renovation and expansion by the Miraval Group.

As its town manager, Christopher Ketchen is certainly bullish on Lenox.

“If you’re moving to the Berkshires, Lenox has clearly got to be on your radar for many reasons,” he told BusinessWest, adding that he’s one of the more recent converts. “I made the move here myself from the Boston area four years ago. I’m originally from Alford, and when I moved back to this area, I chose to live in Lenox.”

Lenox may be known mainly — and deservedly — for its cultural and recreational attractions, from Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, to Shakespeare & Co., to the town’s collection of rustic inns and bed and breakfasts.

But a different sort of economic energy has been bubbling up in recent years, from the small businesses, hotels, and motels springing up along the Route 7 corridor to an ongoing, $60 million expansion and renovation at the former Cranwell Spa & Golf Resort. The Miraval Group, a subsidiary of Hyatt Hotels, purchased the property in 2016 for $22 million and plans to transform it into a high-end wellness resort.

Then there’s the new Courtyard by Marriott, which opened last year and features 92 rooms with panoramic views, an indoor pool, a large patio with firepits, a restaurant, and a 12,000-square-foot event space. Meanwhile, the 112-room Travaasa Experimental Resort at Elm Court, which straddles the Lenox and Strockbridge line, is moving forward as well.

Other projects in recent years include the relocation of Morrison’s Home Improvement Specialists Inc. from Pittsfield and its adaptive reuse of a blighted building that had been vacant for 10 years, an apartment conversion at the Walker Street Residences by the Allegrone Companies, and the construction of Allegrone’s headquarters and co-working office space using green design and technology in a building on Route 7.

Chris Ketchen says Lenox is a draw

Chris Ketchen says Lenox is a draw because of its schools, healthy finances, cultural offerings, and a host of other factors.

“The hospitality industry is probably the biggest economic driver locally,” Ketchen told BusinessWest. “Miravar, the Cranwell development, is still in progress, Elm Court is still in progress, Marriott is up and running. As far as new projects coming in the door, there’s nothing else on that scale today, but that could change tomorrow.”

Moving On Up

In some ways, Lenox doesn’t need the kind of business growth other towns and cities do, because its strengths have long lay in both tourism for visitors and quality of life for residents.

“The town has gotten a fair amount of regional and national recognition in recent years for the schools and for the town’s financial practices,” Ketchen said, noting that Lenox is just one of two Massachusetts municipalities west of the Connecticut River whose finances have AAA ratings from Standard & Poor’s, the other being Great Barrington.

Meanwhile, “our schools are knocking it out of the park year after year in terms of their recognition at both the federal Department of Education and various statewide rankings. The high school ranked number four by U.S. News & World Report, the annual benchmark rating a lot of districts measure themselves by, so a very attractive place for families to locate and make a home.”

Lenox at a glance:

Year Incorporated: 1767
Population: 5,025
<strong>Area: 21.7 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $12.14 
Commercial Tax Rate: $14.98
Median Household Income: $85,581
Median Family Income: $111,413
Type of Government: Board of Selectmen, Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Canyon Ranch, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Kimball Farms

* Latest information available

Not wanting to rest on its laurels, Lenox residents recently approved an appropriation to work with regional agencies to update the town’s comprehensive master plan. “The Planning Board is undertaking that as we speak,” Ketchen said, “and we’ve created a housing production plan through the affordable housing committee, so we’re tackling those issues in a thoughtful way moving forward.”

The state seeks 10% of housing units in any town to be affordable, but in Lenox, the current level is just over 7%, based on the 2010 Census.

The town has also been undertaking significant infrastructure improvements in recent years, the latest announcement being a $9 million, federally funded widening and improvement of a stretch of Walker Street, in addition to water and sewer improvements there.

“We’ve been investing heavily in infrastructure through aggressive capital-improvement programs,” Ketchen said.

To address an aging population — the median age of residents is 51, reflecting a trend in other towns in the Berkshires — town officials created a first-time-homebuyers program in 2016 in partnership with four banks that offers up to $10,000 in down payments to qualified applicants. They also changed zoning requirements to make it easier to build new apartments and condominiums or convert older housing stock into appealing residences, as well as adopting a Complete Streets policy that will make the town eligible for state funds to improve connectivity for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Meanwhile, to address a dearth of of market-rate apartments in Lenox, Allegrone Companies completed a renovation last year of the 1804 William Walker House, transforming it into eight market-rate apartments.

The Whole Package

To encourage companies to move to Lenox or expand, town officials have been focused on a five-year open-space plan that was adopted several years ago.

“With our proximity to employment centers in Pittsfield and also Springfield and Albany, there are options for workers who want to make Lenox their home.”

“We have an open-space and recreation plan that was really well-conceived by the Conway School in conjunction with our Land Use Department, and we’re a few years into executing that plan to preserve open space,” Ketchen said, noting projects like a major improvement to Lenox Town Beach at Laurel Lake last year. In addition, the Berkshire Natural Resources Council, the regional land trust, has been working to develop a regional trail network with a long section passing through Lenox.

Add it all up, Ketchen said, and this town of just over 5,000 residents has plenty to offer.

“With our proximity to employment centers in Pittsfield and also Springfield and Albany, there are options for workers who want to make Lenox their home — and it’s a wonderful place to make a home,” he told BusinessWest. “The town is well-managed financially. We have outstanding schools, libraries, and community center. For a town of our size, we’re providing a lot of services for residents of all ages. Our public-safety and public-works operations are some of the best in the business.”

He added that the town’s tax rates are low — $12.14 for residents and $14.98 for businesses — and relatively stable from year to year.

“Couple that with the employment opportunities and the outstanding municipal and educational programs, the arts and cultural amenities of the region, and the recreational opportunities — put that together, and you have a very attractive package.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Features

Jim Barrett was talking about the future of work, market disrupters, and, more specifically, the skills that employees will need in the future. And to get his points across, he repeatedly referenced the F-35 stealth fighter jet recently introduced into service by the Air Force, Navy, and Marines.

“The pilot has a helmet that is custom-sculpted to their head,” Barrett, managing partner of the Holyoke-based accounting firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka, explained. “They put the visor down, and they see, through cameras, 360 degrees around the plane. They’re not really using their vision anymore; they’re looking straight ahead and seeing the screen in front of them.

“Years ago, when these planes touched down, people would run out to the tarmac and say, ‘how much fuel do you need? How much ammunition do you need? Is there anything wrong?’ And they’d do all the tests,” he went on. “This new jet actually has the ability to send back information to the base about how much fuel it’s used, how much ammunition it’s used; it does a self-diagnosis of what it needs such that, when the pilot touches down on the deck, there are people already lined up with the exact parts it needs and the exact amount of ammunition. They eliminated all the time and people it took to gather all that information.”

The moral to that story? Essentially, the same thing is happening in the workplace, said Barrett, adding that, in the future — and even now, for that matter — people will need a different set of skills to succeed in the workplace.

Using his sector, financial services, as an example, he said that, years ago, people would spend large chunks of time gathering and analyzing data. “Now, machines are going to do that for you,” he went on. “So you’ll need people who can make determinations about what data is relevant, because the data is already going to gathered and analyzed.”

Barrett will get into much greater detail about all this at the third installment of BusinessWest’s Future Tense series, created to help business owners understand the future and be better prepared for it, on Sept. 20.

Fast Facts:

What: Future Tense lecture series, the third installment
When: Sept. 20, starting at 8 a.m.
Where: Tech Foundry, 1391 Main St., Springfield, 9th floor
For More Information: Call (413) 781-8600
To Register: Visit businesswest.com/lecture-series

He will be joined by Mark Borsari, president of wire-brush manufacturing firm Sanderson MacLeod, who will discuss change and innovation through lean concepts and focus on resulting cultural considerations and the broad impact on competitiveness.

Barrett and Borsari will wrap up the series, which has drawn a wide range of business owners and managers to Tech Foundry’s facilities to hear about arguably the most vexing topic in business — the future.

In the first installment, Delcie Bean, founder of Paragus Strategic IT, talked about how technology — in such forms as artificial intelligence, driverless cars, and 3-D printing, will change not only the workplace, but society as a whole. In the second installment, wealth-management advisor Amy Jamrog presented a program titled “What Got You Here Might Not Get You There: Mistakes Business Owners Make Before and After Retirement.”

The third installment will have many focus points, said Barrett, but especially the market forces and market disrupters that will shape his sector, but also all industries.

And, as noted earlier, to succeed, people will need a different skill set.

“It’s not analyzing the data as much as determining what to do with it,” he explained. “It’s about making better decisions with the date you have, as opposed to gathering and analyzing it.”

The program will begin at 8 a.m. with registration and a continental breakfast. There will be then be remarks from sponsors — Paragus and the Jamrog Group — followed by the presentation and a discussion. Tickets are $25 each, with the proceeds going to Tech Foundry.

For more information, call (413) 781-8600. To register, visit businesswest.com/lecture-series.

Features

Focused on Fiscal Fitness

Last fall, while Dexter Johnson was making up his mind to take the job being offered him — president and CEO of the YMCA of Greater Springfield — a few friends and relatives had a simple five-word question for him: ‘Are you sure about this?”

He was — and is.

But he acknowledged then and now that those asking the question had every right to do so.

That’s because this YMCA, though steeped in history and tradition (it is the fourth oldest Y in the world, after all), like a number of other Ys across the country, has been struggling financially as it adjusts to a host of changes impacting the traditional Y business model, if you will.

These struggles are nothing new — they’ve been going on … well, for as long as most can remember. And a path to more-solid footing seems as elusive as ever.

But Johnson, who has been working for this YMCA for several years now and within the organization for more than two decades — and is therefore known as a ‘Y guy’ — decided that this was a challenge to embrace, not run away from.

And he’s never had any second thoughts.

But Johnson understands that the Springfield Y’s path to fiscal fitness will be challenging and, undoubtedly, lengthy. In short, some progress has been made, but there is still considerable work to do.

“This Y has operated with an operating deficit for a number of years now, “ he noted, adding that the organization has refinanced debt, tapped into its endowment, and taken other steps to cope with the red ink. “And we have to look at what our opportunities are to turn that around; our focus right now has been to get operations to a point where they’re approaching break-even status or creating a surplus. We’re doing better this year than we were last year, but we have a ways to go.”

The Springfield Y, like many others, has generally struggled in recent years due to a variety of factors, including changing demographics in urban centers and a proliferation of competition — there is seemingly a gym or two on every corner now.

But the difficult times have been exacerbated by some missteps, especially the opening of a branch in a strip mall in the center of Agawam. Attempting to duplicate the success of the Y’s Scantic Valley operation on Boston Road in Wilbraham, and armed with some data that said the venture could work (although there were some numbers that indicated otherwise) the center was opened in 2015.

“This Y has operated with an operating deficit for a number of years now. And we have to look at what our opportunities are to turn that around; our focus right now has been to get operations to a point where they’re approaching break-even status or creating a surplus. We’re doing better this year than we were last year, but we have a ways to go.”

But the ‘Y’ sign would come down only 18 months or so later, as the expected memberships never materialized.

“Looking back, that was just a mistake in judgment,” Johnson said. “After a year and a half of trying and making those efforts, we were losing significantly there to serve a really small population, so we decided to take the loss, which was painful, and move on.”

Moving forward, the Y will seek to avoid such mistakes and be more calculated in its attempts to be both entrepreneurial and fiscally prudent, said Johnson.

The key, he told BusinessWest, is to firmly identify the role this Y can play and must play in the years and decades to come. Not all YMCAs play the same role, he went on, especially given the demographic and societal changes taking place.

At the Springfield Y, for example, 60% of all revenues come from child care, with the health and wellness components contributing only 30%.

All this is explained, sort of, in new wording on the front of Johnson’s business card and in other marketing material used by the organization. Specifically, there are three new lines under the huge ‘Y’:

• For Youth Development

• For Healthy Living

• For Social Responsibility

Individual YMCAs can focus on one, two, or all three, he went on, but mostly, they have to mold themselves into what the region being served requires and what will ultimately work fiscally.

“The Y becomes what that community needs,” said Johnson. “If the community needs childcare and doesn’t need health and wellness, then we’re glad to provide that; or it could be health and wellness that goes well beyond treadmills.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Johnson about this process of becoming what the community needs while also putting the Y on more solid financial footing.

Sign of the Times

On the day he spoke with BusinessWest, work crews were busy taking the old ‘Y’ logo off the side of the YMCA building on Chestnut St., a move undertaken in accordance with a national initiative to rebrand the institution and bring more consistency to the letter ‘Y’ used by individual YMCAs. A new sign will be going up “soon,” said Johnson.

Dexter Johnson is the latest of several leaders of the YMCA of Greater Springfield

Dexter Johnson is the latest of several leaders of the YMCA of Greater Springfield to grapple with the question of what to do with the aging facility on Chestnut Street.

“They give us color options, but there is a change in the logo,” he explained, noting that the new ‘Y’ (as in the letter on the letterhead) is more rounded in its look. “All the Ys throughout the country had kind of gone out on their own and come up with all kinds of different logos, and back in 2010 the national office said ‘enough’s enough, and we need to get back to being nationally identifiable.’”

There was more than a little symbolism attached to the exercise of taking the old ‘Y’ off the building. For starters, the Springfield Y missed the seven-year deadline to rebrand set by the national organization by a wide margin, an obvious symptom of its fiscal struggles. There’s also the poetic juxtaposition of giving the letter ‘Y’ a new look, while the staff and board and of the Springfield institution have been attempting to reinvigorate the local YMCA brand on a much broader scale.

And then, there’s the physical act of taking the letter off that building. Indeed, there are a number of questions about just how much longer the more-than-half-century-old structure will continue to serve in that capacity, and in what shape and form (much more on all that later).

Like we said, quite a bit of symbolism, and sorting it all out goes a long way toward explaining the challenges Johnson faces, but also the determination and passion he brings to his work.

And with that, we need to trace the steps that brought him to Springfield and his current assignment.

Our story starts in Tampa, Fla. That’s where Johnson attended a satellite campus of Springfield College, renowned for producing future YMCA leaders, and where he began amassing experience in virtually every facet of a YMCA operation, a diverse resume he believes is serving him well at this critical stage of his career. It’s also where he worked with Kirk Smith (he actually was Smith’s supervisor), who would eventually become director of the Springfield Y and convince Johnson to join him there.

“The Y becomes what that community needs. If the community needs childcare and doesn’t need health and wellness, then we’re glad to provide that; or it could be health and wellness that goes well beyond treadmills.”

“I was going to school to be a teacher and just went to the Y to work with some kids and get some experience, and 26 years later, I’m still here,” he said, noting that he started as director of the Child Care Services/Outreach program at the Tampa Metropolitan Area YMCA. He would later go on to direct the Youth Opportunity Movement program there and then become executive director.

After then serving as a district executive in Tampa and as a regional training manager at YMCA of the USA in Chicago, he joined Smith in Springfield as senior vice president and chief operating officer.

“I was ready to get back into the operational side of the Y and decided Springfield was the move,” he told BusinessWest.

When Smith left for another opportunity in Florida, Johnson was named interim president and CEO, but the permanent job eventually went to Scott Berg, then associate vice president of Development at Springfield College and a key player in the opening of the Scantic Valley YMCA.

When Berg left less than two years later to become vice president of Philanthropy at Baystate Health, Johnson was quickly named his successor.

He takes over a Y that, as noted, is steeped in tradition (it dates back to 1852). But recent history has been marked by fiscal struggles and hard work to adapt to a changing landscape. And as Johnson addresses the many challenges facing him and the team he’s assembled, he plans to call on the many forms of experience he amassed.

“I definitely learned some valuable lessons during that time when I was interim president,” he noted. “But now that I’m in the permanent job, I’m definitely calling on all resources. During my time with Y USA I had the chance to make some great connections, and I have a number of CEOs and other leaders at Ys to give me counsel and help me through some of the challenges we have here.

“Nothing’s new when it comes to problems — they’ve all happened somewhere at some time before,” he went on. “So we’ll try to gain some advantage by learning from those experiences.”

Building Momentum

And an advantage will be helpful, because righting the fiscal ship has been an ongoing challenge, not just for this Y, but for facilities across the country, especially urban Ys; one in Pittsburgh recently filed for bankruptcy, said Johnson.

Specifically, the age-old challenge is generating revenues to meet and hopefully exceed expenses. In Springfield, the problem has been exacerbated by the downtown branch, an aging building that is expensive to maintain, and a facility that has seen its health and wellness membership numbers fall 40% over the past decade.

Creating the Scantic Valley Y has helped the Y cope with the rising costs and falling revenues downtown, and the Agawam facility was conceived with similar ambitions; however it need did not match expectations.

Moving forward, the Y has to implement a long-term strategic plan for its downtown branch, and the operation as a whole, with the goal of making it become what the community needs.

Such a plan was drafted during Berg’s tenure, Johnson said, and, not surprisingly, its main focus was the downtown location — meaning both the building and the various programs housed there — and on devising actions plans for both.

As for the property itself, the Y sold the 40,000-square-foot residential component of it (the tower that faces Chestnut Street) to Home City Development, and still owns what’s left in what amounts to a condominium-like arrangement. But that portion it still owns is large, old, in many cases under-utilized, and in all cases expensive to operate and maintain.

Talk of a ‘new Y’ has been ongoing for years, said Johnson, noting that several of his predecessors have grappled with the issue and its myriad complexities, especially the cost of a new building.

Rumors have persisted, and one very preliminary proposal — to move to a closed car dealership site on Boston Road — made its way into the newspapers. “There’s still people that ask me … what happened to the Boston Road thing?” said Johnson.

Nothing happened with it, and nothing has really happened with any of the other rumored options, he went on, adding quickly, however, that the issue is real and a solution must eventually be found — and inevitably much closer to downtown than Boston Road.

At present — and on an ongoing basis — a variety of options are being looked at, he told BusinessWest, including leasing space instead of owning it (the new owners of Tower Square have reached out, for example), extensively renovating the existing quarters, or eventually moving into much smaller, more efficient quarters.

“We probably have about 70,000 square feet, and we don’t need all that space quite frankly,” he said. “We have a whole racquet ball floor, and no one goes up there, really; if we decide to renovate and use this space, we would make it a smaller environment; 50,000 square would probably be more the right size to support the membership we have here.”

Building a new Y building is the long-term strategy, he said, adding that such a step would require significant fund-raising efforts and other steps. Shorter term, renting space might become an option, he went on, adding that there are pros and cons to any new location, temporary or permanent.

As for growing the Y, in terms of everything from its revenues to its presence within the community to its overall relevance, Johnson said the key, as it has always been, lies in partnerships with other groups and agencies across the city and the region.

“I’m looking to be a partner and be a part of any partnership that fits our mission, and that effectively serves this community,” he told BusinessWest. “We’ve had some great partnerships with the Springfield Public Schools, the United Way, the Martin Luther King Family Center, and right now, we’re doing a multi-agency youth basketball league that is going gangbusters.

“We probably have about 70,000 square feet, and we don’t need all that space quite frankly,.We have a whole racquet ball floor, and no one goes up there, really; if we decide to renovate and use this space, we would make it a smaller environment; 50,000 square would probably be more the right size to support the membership we have here.”

“To me, no agency can do it all,” he went on. “It has to be a collaborative effort, and I want to make sure that our Y is established as a strong community partner, whether that’s leading a collaboration or being a functional part of the collaboration.”

The Bottom Line

Not long after taking over as president and CEO on a permanent basis, Johnson reached out to Steve Clay, who filled that same role two decades ago.

And faced pretty much the same fiscal challenges two decades ago.

Indeed, Johnson’s talk with Clay helped put some things in perspective and provide him still more resolve to become the leader to put this venerable institution on something approaching solid financial footing.

As noted, some might have asked him if he was sure about this career, but deep down, there was no question in his mind.

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Mayor Will Reichelt

Mayor Will Reichelt says that West Springfield’s biggest challenge may be a lack of developable land, which places a priority on maximizing existing real estate.

Like just about everyone else in this region, Will Reichelt has circled August 24 on all his calendars.

That’s the day MGM Springfield opens, as most everyone knows, and it’s a day of high expectations and some anxiety. Especially in West Springfield, where Reichelt has served as mayor for nearly three years now.

West Side isn’t the host city for MGM, but it is certainly among those to be the most impacted by the $960 million development that has gone up just across the Connecticut River.

The Eastern States Exposition will handle MGM’s overflow parking on August 24, with a shuttle running between the two locations. And the annual 16-day Big E will begin only a few weeks after MGM opens, creating considerable talk — as well as that aforementioned anxiety — about just what traffic will be like on Memorial Avenue, I-91, the Turnpike’s exit 4, the Memorial Bridge, Route 5, the North End Bridge, and other arteries in and around the city.

“It’s certainly going to be an interesting weekend and couple of weeks, with the Big E opening three weeks later,” said Reichelt, in a classic bit of understatement. “It will be interesting to see how Big E traffic interacts with MGM traffic.”

He added, as others have, that traffic and parking issues in the wake of MGM Springfield fall into the category of good problems to have, at least from a vibrancy standpoint. And looking beyond August 24 and the days to follow, Reichelt is hoping, and perhaps also expecting, that MGM will generate, in addition to traffic issues, some additional development opportunities.

“It will be interesting to see what happens long term as a result of MGM, especially just over the Memorial Bridge, where there are certainly some development opportunities,” said the mayor, referring to some of the retail areas on the eastern end of Memorial Avenue. “People have talked about a hotel, restaurants, and maybe redevelopment of the whole Memorial Avenue/Main Street area.”

More specifically, he was referring to redevelopment of some vacant or underutilized properties there and in other areas within the community, which has been the basic M.O. for this city for quite some time.

Indeed, unlike neighboring Westfield and many other area communities, West Side is, as they say in development circles, ‘land poor,’ meaning that most all developable parcels have been developed. That goes for residential development — although a few new small projects seem to materialize each year — and especially commercial development.

Most of the projects in that latter category have involved reuse of vacant or underutilized property, and examples abound — from the conversion of the former Yale Genton property and some neighboring homes on Riverdale Street into the site of the massive Balise Honda, to the conversion of the former Boston Billiards site just north on Riverdale Street into a new Marriott Courtyard.

The most recent example is the stunning transformation of a former auto body shop just off Memorial Avenue into the home of Hot Brass, an indoor firearm and bow range that opened its doors in early August.

“It will be interesting to see what happens long term as a result of MGM, especially just over the Memorial Bridge, where there are certainly some development opportunities. People have talked about a hotel, restaurants, and maybe redevelopment of the whole Memorial Avenue/Main Street area.”

Reichelt said MGM could help trigger more developments of this kind on sites ranging from the old Medallion Motel property just over the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge linking the community to Agawam and across from The Big E, to the United Bank building on Elm Street street (the bank is moving across the street into space once occupied by Webster bank), to some properties north of I-91 on Riverdale Street, which are in less demand than those on the south side of the highway.

“South of I-91 is the real hot spot; whenever there’s a vacancy, it usually fills quickly,” said Reichelt, adding that the city’s board goal is to the make the area north of the interstate just as hot.

For this, the latest installment in its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest talked with Reichelt about ongoing efforts to bring more economic development to West Side and make the very most of the property that can be developed.

Developing Story

The ambitious Hot Brass venture, which combines a retail sporting goods store with a 17-lane recreational archery and shooting range, is, indeed, only the latest example of how underutilized properties have found new lives in this community.

And, as the mayor noted, this is out of necessity, because there are very few, if any, developable spaces left in this city, for either residential or commercial development.

West Springfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1774
Population: 28,391 (2014)
Area: 17.49 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $17.05 
Commercial Tax Rate: $32.90
Median Household Income: $54,434
<strong>Median Family Income: $63,940
Type of Government: Mayor, Town Council
Largest Employers: Eversource Energy, Harris Corp., Home depot, Interim Health Care, Mercy Home Care
* Latest information available

“When I was on the Planning Board four years ago, we approved a subdivision, which I assumed would be the last one,” Reichelt recalled. “But then, when I was a lawyer for the city, they approved another one, and I said, ‘that must be the last subdivision in West Side.”

Developers keep finding ways to shoehorn in smaller residential projects, he went on, but on the commercial and industrial side, the city has essentially run out of real estate.

And, as has been the case for some time now, most development — or redevelopment — efforts have been focused on the two main retail thoroughfares, Riverdale Street, home to countless auto dealerships, the massive Riverdale Shops, a cinema complex, several hotels and motels, and more, and Memorial Avenue, home to more auto dealerships, more retail plazas, and, of course, the Big E.

Both are doing very well, and are in seemingly constant motion, development-wise, said Reichelt, adding that over the past few years, Memorial Avenue had added new Fathers & Sons Audi and Volkswagen dealerships, a Chipotle, a new Florence Bank branch, and, most recently, Hot Brass, and a Sketchers outlet store.

Meanwhile, on Riverdale Street, additions to the landscape include the Marriott Courtyard, a new Pride store (the first one with a full-service kitchen), and a Balise carwash, among others.

But there are opportunities on both main drags for additional development, said the mayor.

On Riverdale, these include the site of the closed Bertucci’s restaurant, just south of the new Marriott Courtyard, and some vacant or underutilized property on the north side of the highway.

As for Memorial Avenue, there’s the former Medallion Motel site, but also the closed Hofbrauhaus restaurant, the site of the closed Debbie Wong restaurant (across the street from the Big E), and others.

The United Bank building on Elm Street

The United Bank building on Elm Street, soon to be vacated by the bank, is one of the keys to bringing more vibrancy to the downtown area.

The Medallion Motel site, at the corner of Memorial Avenue and River Street, is intriguing because of its size and proximity to the Big E, although its location, just over the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge, a site of persistent traffic congestion, is seen by some as a drawback, said the mayor, adding quickly that reconstruction of the bridge and a broad plan to redo all of Memorial Avenue from the Morgan Sullivan Bridge to the Memorial Bridge may change that outlook.

Work is slated to begin in 2021, said Reichelt, with plans calling for maintaining four lanes between the Memorial Bridge and Union Street, with some turning lanes carved out in the center (lack of such lanes leads to considerable congestion), with three lanes between the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge and Gate 9 of the Big E, with turning lanes added on that stretch as well. Meanwhile, there will be a bike path constructed on the Big E side between the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge and Union Street, with bike lines on both sides between Union Street and the Memorial Bridge.

As for the much-anticipated reconstruction of the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge itself, that work is expected to commence after this year’s Big E concludes, said the mayor.

Back on Riverdale Street, one of the main goals at present is to stimulate more interest in the section north of the highway. And for many retailers, it remains a much tougher sell.

“We need to help more people understand that north of I-91 is still Riverdale Road and it’s still a high-traffic area,” he explained. “There are many businesses that have been there forever and they’ve done extremely well.”

But while Riverdale Street and Memorial Avenue get most of the attention, community leaders are also focusing efforts on an often-overlooked asset — what’s considered the downtown area, the stretch of Elm Street beginning at Park Street.

That section boasts the Majestic Theater, a few restaurants, including B-Napoli, the town library, a few banks, and some retail, and has considerable potential as a destination, said the mayor.

“Every mayor says they want to have a Northampton-like downtown,” he told BusinessWest. “And in a way, our downtown suits itself to that, because we have a huge common on Park Street and a smaller common on Elm Street.”

The downtown section is hampered by a lack of parking, as many downtowns are, he noted, adding that a recent renovation of the municipal lot by City Hall to add more than 100 spaces will help.

One key moving forward is the United Bank building, which sits adjacent to the Majestic Theater and is around the corner from the city’s offices.

Years ago, the space occupied by the bank was home to a number of small retail shops, said the mayor, adding that a similar mixed-use role — with residential as possibly part of the mix — could help bring more people, and more vibrancy, to that section of the city.

Meanwhile, there are a number of municipal projects ongoing, everything from construction of a new elementary school, to infrastructure work including water and sewer projects, to ongoing improvements to Mittineague Park, all aimed at making the city a better place to live and work.

Some Solid Bets

Projecting ahead to August 24 and the days to follow, Reichelt said West Springfield residents, those who commute through the city, and even retailers on Memorial Avenue should be ready for what’s to come because they’ve dealt with Big E traffic for years.

“They know what to expect,” he said, adding that long-term, it’s a little harder to predict just what will transpire.

Overall, for the city across the river from the casino, the changing landscape presents many new opportunities to put some older properties to new and exciting uses.

There’s been a lot of that in West Springfield over the past several years and there are very good odds (yes, that’s a gaming industry term) that there will be much more in the years to come.

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight: Wilbraham

Bob Boilard (left) and Jeff Smith

Bob Boilard (left) and Jeff Smith say they’d like to see more civic participation in policy discussions and planning town events.

Being pro-business, Jeff Smith says, doesn’t mean letting just any business set up shop in Wilbraham — but it does mean giving every business a fair shake.

Take, for example, Iron Duke Brewing, which is moving to town after a successful but eventually contentious stay at the Ludlow Mills. Because Wilbraham had no zoning for microbrew and brewpub establishments, the town’s Economic Development Initiative Steering Committee (EDICS) recommended a zoning change that eased the path for not just Iron Duke, but also Catch 22 Brewing, which is setting up shop at the former Dana’s Grillroom on Boston Road.

“One of the reasons why [Catch 22] said they came here was because we had specific zoning for what they wanted to do,” said Smith, the town’s Planning Board chairman, giving one example of how a zoning change can have effects beyond its initial motivation.

“One of the reasons why [Catch 22 Brewing] said they came here was because we had specific zoning for what they wanted to do.”

“When somebody comes into town and is interested in locating a business here and we don’t have specific zoning for it,” he added, “the Planning Department, the Planning Board, and the town itself take a hard look at the zoning and say, ‘is this the type of operation we’d like to see here? Maybe we should put zoning in place, and we can pitch it to the town, and if it’s not appropriate and the town agrees, they can vote accordingly at town meeting.’”

The same thing happened when the town lifted a long-time moratorium on new gas stations. As soon as that happened, Cumberland Farms bought some real estate in Post Office Park along Boston Road, with plans to open a 24-hour facility.

“We tried to have some foresight,” Smith told BusinessWest, adding that the Route 20 corridor used to have five gas stations, but that number had shrunk to two since the moratorium went into effect. “We said, ‘OK, why don’t we allow gas stations?’ It was something a previous Planning Board had put it in, but we said, ‘why? Things have changed. Maybe this is a good time to take a look at this.’ And as soon as we did, Cumberland Farms came in and located here.”

Bob Boilard, who chairs Wilbraham’s three-member Board of Selectmen, said he’s not an advocate of locking up decent, buildable land in perpetuity, or keeping out entire classes of businesses for no reason.

“There’s got to be a common-sense approach,” he said. “There are people in town that would say, ‘let’s stop now. No more building in Wilbraham.’ But you can’t do that. You have to have a tax base and controlled growth to support the town. It’s a balancing act. Open space is great, and we do a great job with that, but we have to consider each individual thing that comes before us.”

Smith added that town officials try to be both reactive and proactive, recognizing current needs but also anticipating future ones. “We want more businesses and more enterprises to locate here in our business district.”

Open for Business

Boilard said the town has worked in recent years to streamline the process for businesses to set up shop there.

“Planning and Zoning have done a great job adjusting things to make it easier for businesses to come in, and when they do come in, they complement us on the ease of communication, the ease of getting things done,” he said. “We don’t put up brick walls every so many feet for these guys; we try to make it as easy as possible to come in and do business in Wilbraham.”

Wilbraham at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1763
Population: 14,868
Area: 22.4 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $22.64
Commercial Tax Rate: $22.64
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

The nine-member EDICS has been integral to that effort, Smith said. “Let’s say you’re XYZ Inc., and you want to locate your business in Wilbraham. What do you do? What’s your first step? Where do you go? How do you know if there’s zoning for your business?”

One project the group wants to tackle is creating a comprehensive section on the town’s website to answer all those questions.

“They’re proposing updating the website to a more modern platform that’s more user-friendly, and then adding a business or a ‘locating your business here’ page that would essentially have a checklist: the first step is to talk to this person, here’s their phone number, here’s their e-mail.

“That way, people come in prepared,” he went on. “As a member of town government, we hate to have somebody come in unprepared and then have to tell them, ‘hey, you’re going to have to come back to the next meeting, and that’s a month away.’ So if they can get a lot of questions answered and come prepared, it’s smoother for everybody.”

The committee is also looking into creating marketing materials, both online and in print, outlining what Wilbraham has to offer — such as its access to rail and a single tax rate — that make it appealing to locate a business here.

Not every development proposal has gone according to plan. A recent effort to allow a mixed-use development in the town center, in the area of Main and Springfield streets, failed to garner the necessary two-thirds approval at a town meeting, falling short by about a dozen votes.

“It’s a very sensitive area,” Smith said. “One thing I’ve learned in my six years on the Planning Board is that people are very hesitant to change. In the long run, I think we take our time in this town and we do things right, and the end result is good. But in the beginning, there’s an air of skepticism toward changing something — which I don’t think is a bad thing.”

But it can be tricky, he went on, when a developer wants to move forward with a proposal that could create added energy in the center, especially when other mixed-use facilities, grandfathered in when the town put a hold on others like it, already exist.

“People understand there’s some vacant buildings there, and we could make changes that would probably make them not vacant and make it more vibrant,” he explained, “but I think there’s a fear that would be a change they may not like. So we have to tread lightly and move carefully with the center of town and make sure we get as much input from the people of the town as possible.”

In the end, he said, town officials didn’t do the best job conveying why such a development would be a positive. “It was a close vote, which is good because there are a lot of people in favor of it, but at the same time it tells me we have more work to do.”

Changing Times

It’s a challenge, Boilard said, to build a more vibrant town in an age when people’s lifestyles have been altered by technology, declining school enrollment, and a host of other factors. “The generations are changing, and society changes, and that happens everywhere.”

For example, Smith said, the Boston Road business corridor was originally built around retail, but bricks-and-mortar retail establishments struggle in the age of Amazon, and the concept of what a downtown or business center looks like today has shifted immeasurably since the 1970s, or even the 1990s.

“When I was a kid, I would get on my bicycle — I lived near Mile Tree School — and I could drive to the center of town. My dentist was there, Louis & Clark filled all of our prescriptions, the gas station would fix your car or come jump your car in your driveway, my pediatrician was right on the road there, the post office was there, and the village store was there, selling sandwiches and stuff. Everything you needed was there.”

Today, he went on, “you don’t see as many kids out riding their bikes. Those things that I mentioned aren’t really there in one convenient package. Things are different. So we’re trying to put in or modify zoning, potentially bringing some mixed-use components or do something to revitalize those areas, and it’s tough to balance that with … I don’t want to say a fear of change, but there’s an apprehension toward change in the wrong direction.”

Boilard said Wilbraham remains an attractive destination for new residents, with a well-run and well-regarded school system, although real estate in town can be pricey. “It can be hard for new families to come in and be able to afford Wilbraham. I wish we could have an impact on that, but it’s the way economics and demographics are.”

That said, several new subdivisions have gone up in recent years, with a trend toward modestly sized houses, which are selling faster than larger homes, and developers are designing projects accordingly, Smith said.

“Residential growth, in my time here, has been pretty consistent — I would say slow but always moving in the right direction,” he explained. “There’s not a ton of available land in town. The last subdivision to go in was an old farm that was in a family for a long time, and it wasn’t being used as a farm anymore. So a developer purchased it and divided it up and put in a subdivision.”

Compared to other towns in the area, he went on, Wilbraham does a good job of protecting and managing open-space and recreation parcels. “Every time a parcel is brought to the town to be purchased or donated as open space, the town is seemingly in favor of those purchases.”

But controlled growth is the goal, he added, and a balance must be struck between commerce and open space. “There’s a tax base that has to be built, and we try to build it with as much business as we can. We’ve turned down pieces of open space offered to the town — ‘no, we’re all set; put it on the open market, develop the property and get some tax revenue going.’”

Getting to Know You

One area Wilbraham does need to improve, both Boilard and Smith said, is in the area of volunteerism and civic involvement.

“Town events are well-attended, and that’s great,” Smith said, citing examples like the Spec Pond fishing derby, the Run for Rice’s 5K, the Thursday night concert series, the revamped Peach Blossom Festival, and the Christmas tree lighting. “But I would love to see more participation in the planning.”

Boilard agreed. “People complain we don’t have an event, but nobody wants to volunteer to run it. It’s always the same core people stepping up to volunteer,” he said, adding that this trend applies to town-meeting attendance as well.

For example, a recent public hearing on raising the minimum smoking age in town to 21 drew mainly support from the residents in attendance. “Then the phone calls started rolling in — ‘I can shoot a bullet in the Army at 18; why are you doing this?’ I said, ‘where were you Monday night? Why didn’t you come in and talk to us?’”

Smith called the numbers at town meetings “painful” — particularly considering the work that officials put into preparing for them. “I like it when there’s an angry mob in here. That’s good. We want some feedback. But participation could be better.”

After all, he and Boilard said, engaged residents are informed residents, all the better equipped to steer Wilbraham into its next phase of controlled growth.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Features

Back to the Future

Opened in 1956 and hardly touched since, Westfield State University’s Parenzo Hall will soon have a 21st-century feel and house 21st-century initiatives.

Ramon Torrecilha says that when it opened in 1956, Parenzo Hall, the first building on what was then Westfield State College’s new campus on Western Avenue, housed “pretty much everything.”

That included classrooms, the dining hall, a large auditorium, administrative offices — yes, everything, said Torrecilha, president of what is now Westfield State University.

Over time, many all of those facilities moved somewhere else. The dining commons went in Scanlon Hall, new classroom facilities were built, and a number of administrative offices were moved down Western Avenue to the building, acquired by the college nearly 20 years ago, that was once the world headquarters for Stanley Home Products, later Stanhome.

But Parenzo remains an important center of activity of the school, as home to everything from a gym to labs to gatherings in that auditorium. Yet, while still relevant, Parenzo needed a 21st-century feel, and, more importantly, a 21st-century function — or several of them.

It will get both as the university embarks on a $40 million project likely to commence in 2020.

Indeed, the building will be modernized and brought up to current codes. But even more importantly, it will be home to some forward-thinking initiatives, said Torrecilha, referring specifically to the planned Center for Innovation and Education and the Center for Student Success and Engagement.

The former will leverage technology and serve as what Torrecilha called the “nexus for innovative collaboration in Western Mass.” and partner with community colleges, K-12 school districts, and industry partners. The latter, meanwhile, will strive to improve student outcomes and also address the continuing decline in the number of working-age adults.

Parenzo’s auditorium was packed on July 10 as a number of civic and economic-development leaders, college faculty and staff members, and even some students were on hand to see and hear Gov. Charlie Baker and other members of his administration talk about the legislation known as H.4549, “An Act Providing for Capital Repairs and Improvements for the Commonwealth,” a bill Baker signed that afternoon amid considerable fanfare.

The measure authorizes nearly $4 billion to address statewide capital needs, including higher-education campuses, health and human services facilities, state office buildings, public-safety facilities, and courts.

Gov. Charlie Baker signs H.4549, which includes $21 million for Parenzo Hall.

When he was asked by BusinessWest what inspired state officials to direct $21 million of that money toward Parenzo Hall — an amount to be matched by the university itself — Torrecilha said it was much more than the need to put a modern face on a 62-year-old building that certainly needed one. “It’s never been renovated,” he noted. “We still have the original windows, there are ADA issues, and there are a host of other improvements that need to take place; it doesn’t even have air conditioning.”

Indeed, what certainly resonated, he said, was what the college intended to do with the new Parenzo.

And to determine what that new life would be, Torrecilha said he essentially “hit the road” and visited a number of the school’s partners — a large constituency that includes the four area community colleges, the K-12 community, especially in Westfield, Holyoke, and Springfield, the Economic Development Council of Western Mass., and the Greater Springfield Chamber of Commerce — asking what they would like to see and gain from a new Parenzo.

“I asked, ‘how would a renovated Parenzo help you advance your mission,’’ he recalled, adding quickly that the respective mission vary, obviously, and that fact was reflected in the answers to that inquiry.

And it also reflected in the broad new strategic plan for Parenzo and the two new centers that will be based there.

The ‘Center for Innovation in Education and Industry Partnerships,’ is aptly named, he explained, because it will focus on the two distinct and equally important initiatives.

“We intend to work very closely with industry in Western Mass. so the university can partner with them in create programs and curriculum that support their operations,” he explained, adding that the EDC and the chamber will among the partners in this endeavor. “It’s about engaging with industry, doing needs assessments, and then turning to our faculty and programs and say ‘how can we help this particular industry in developing more skills and knowledge (in perspective employees) so the business is supported.”

The university, its faculty, and administrators already engage in such conversations with industry leaders, but the new center will take the dialogue — and the various forms of response — to a much higher level.

Meanwhile, the center will also focus on innovation in education, with a strong focus on technology, Torrecilha noted, adding that there are a number of significant changes taking place in how subject is taught — or can be taught — and the center will work to help WSU various partners, including the K-12 community and the community colleges, make the most of this technology.

“Because of technology, the learning process is being revolutionized,” he explained. “Today, there are digital laboratories, and the way we are teaching chemistry, physics, and even biology is changing. Those days when people would dissect a frog … all that can now be done digitally, and one of the things I’m envisioning is for the center to work with the K-12 community and our community college partners to set up that kind of exchange and partnerships.”

Torrecilha said that work will soon begin to blueprint what the new Parenzo will look like and how its spaces will be apportioned. He doesn’t have specific answers yet, but did say the school will make the very most of what is still a valuable asset.

“The building is 90,000 square feet, and we’re going to use every inch of it,” he said.

Thus, the building most associated with the school’s past, will play a very prominent role in its future.

— George O’Brien

Features

Bridging the Digital Divide

Aneesh Raman says business owners think Facebook, with its 2.2 billion users worldwide, is a valuable tool — even if they don’t always know how best to use it.

According to a 2017 survey, said Raman, who manages Facebook’s global economic-impact programs, more than 60% of small businesses in Massachusetts said Facebook is essential to their business, and 76% said the social-media platform helps them find customers in other cities, states, and countries.

“That’s encouraging data, but as you talk to them, you see a need for more training,” Raman told BusinessWest. “That’s why we’re coming to 30 cities to provide training for small businesses across a range of subjects. No matter what their skill level is — whether businesses are coming online for the first time or are online already — we can help them grow their business.”

Earlier this year, Facebook announced that Springfield had been chosen as one of 30 markets where the company will host its Community Boost program, created to help small businesses, entrepreneurs, and job seekers grow their business and develop new digital skills. Facebook will be in Springfield on Sept. 10-11, presenting workshops on a host of topics yet to be determined.

“Our mission at Facebook is building strong communities, and we believe at the core of strong communities are thriving small businesses,” said Raman, who is also a former journalist who worked as an international correspondent for CNN, as well as a former presidential speechwriter. “Small businesses are the engine of local economies. For years, we have worked with them, trained them online and offline, and helped them grow their business and help them hire more employees.”

Since 2011, he noted, Facebook has invested more than $1 billion to support small businesses. Community Boost is simply a more visible and direct method of doing so, and will focus on small-business training and digital acumen in general, rather than simply promoting Facebook, Raman said.

“Small businesses are the engine of local economies. For years, we have worked with them, trained them online and offline, and helped them grow their business and help them hire more employees.”

During its visits to 30 cities — including Houston, St. Louis, Minneapolis, San Diego, Pittsburgh, and many other metro areas much larger than Springfield — Facebook representatives will take a three-pronged approach to economic development, working with local organizations to provide digital skills and training for people in need of work, advising entrepreneurs how to get started, and helping existing businesses and nonprofits get the most out of the internet.

A broad survey conducted by Morning Consult and co-sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and Facebook suggests that small businesses’ use of social media is creating new opportunities. For instance, in Massachusetts, 62% of surveyed businesses said Facebook is essential for their business; 76% said Facebook allows them to find customers in other cities, states, and countries; and 69% said they believe an individual’s digital and social-media skills are important when hiring.

A lot of people use Facebook for business reasons, but never any kind of training how to do it. They’re on their own,” said Paul Robbins, president of Paul Robbins Associets in Wilbraham and a communications consultant for Community Boost in Springfield.

“People feel like they’ve got this tool, but they don’t know how to use it, especially small businesses,” he went on. “Here in Springfield, we’ve got a very diverse community with a lot of small businesses. Even not-for-profits can take advantage of this free seminar. Anybody can come. The idea is to help people leverage it as a business tool.”

Logging On

Facebook pledged this year to train 1 million individuals and small business owners across the U.S. in digital and social-media skills by 2020. To do that, it will expand its in-person training programs, create more local partnerships, and build more e-learning resources.

The company cites projections that a skilled-labor shortage in America could create 85.2 million unfilled jobs by 2030, and says it is committed to helping close that skills gap and provide more people and business owners with the educational resources they need to advance at work, find new jobs, or run their companies.

Details on Springfield’s Community Boost event, which is free and open to small business and nonprofits, aren’t set yet; Facebook plans to announce a place, times, and course list at www.facebook.com/business/m/community-boost as September gets closer.

“The goal of the program isn’t to come and leave, but to kick off conversations,” Raman said, noting that Facebook has been talking to businesses and economic-development leaders on a specific program that best meets identified needs for small-business and digital-skills training in the Pioneer Valley.

“Small businesses and workers know they need skills. But they don’t always have help getting those skills,” he went on. “Once we know what the professional needs are, we’ll announce the registration date and courses online.”

According to the Morning Consult research, small businesses’ use of digital tools translates into new jobs and opportunities for communities across the country. And small businesses are the key driver, creating an estimated four out of every five new jobs in the U.S.

The survey revealed that 80% of U.S. small and medium-sized businesses on Facebook say the platform helps them connect to people in their local community, while one in three businesses on Facebook say they built their business on the platform, and 42% say they’ve hired more people due to growth since joining Facebook.

Businesses run by African-Americans, Latinos, veterans, and those with a disability are twice as likely to say that their business was built on Facebook, and one and a half times more likely to say they’ve hired more people since joining the platform.

Raman said small businesses have expressed a desire to learn more about using Facebook and Instagram, the photo- and video-sharing service owned by Facebook. “But we’re teaching skills that apply to any digital platform out there.”

After all, Robbins noted, “not everyone is digitally savvy. A small business may not have the digital skills people assume everyone has. Facebook is trying to demystify it to people, so they’re not afraid of it.”

Getting Social

Increasingly, businesses are embracing 21-st century modes of building their customer base. The 2017 survey by Morning Consult found that the use of digital platforms by American small businesses is ubiquitous — in fact, 84% of small businesses in the U.S. use at least one major digital platform to provide information to customers, and three out of four small businesses use digital platforms for sales.

Yet, businesses face challenges when it comes to the internet, with 57% of small businesses saying lack of familiarity with available digital tools is a challenge.

“At Facebook, we see a big opportunity to make a difference in partnership with local organizations and local officials,” Raman told BusinessWest. “We really do think there’s a skills gap, and by closing that, we can help expand economic opportunity in Springfield and across the country.”

But it’s not just employers the Community Boost program aims to reach. For job seekers, the program will provide training to help improve their digital and social-media skills. According to the research, 62% percent of U.S. small businesses using Facebook said digital or social-media skills are an important factor in their hiring decisions — even more important than where a candidate went to school.

Community Boost will also offer entrepreneurs training programs on how to use technology to turn an idea into a business, as well as ways to create a free online presence using Facebook.

And, of course, business owners will learn how to expand their digital footprint and find new customers around the corner and around the globe. Training will also include education in digital literacy and online safety.

“We also want to teach nonprofits to be part of the programming and how Facebook can help them learn the digital skills they need to increase donations,” Raman said.

Facebook strives to evolve Community Boost based on what it’s learning in its earlier stops. For example, in St. Louis, the first stop on the tour, the company learned exactly how wide the gap is between the digital skills job seekers know they need and the skills they feel they have. In fact, according to a survey there, 93% of job and skills seekers say digital skills are important when looking for job, while only 12% rate themselves highly in this area.

Managers also see gaps in the skills they need to grow their businesses, the St. Louis survey showed. For example, the majority of managers in that city said creating a mobile-friendly interface was important to growing their business, but very few saw themselves as proficient.

Springfield — the only New England stop for Community Boost — may not have the population of the major metropolitan areas on the tour, but Raman says the needs are universal, and Facebook wants a diverse cross-section of cities represented.

“Springfield has a vibrant small-business community with a diverse population,” he noted. “We think we can make a real impact here.”


Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Moe Belliveau says there’s strength in numbers

Moe Belliveau says there’s strength in numbers, and in collaboration, when it comes to promoting a city and its region.

As executive director of the Greater Easthampton Chamber of Commerce, Moe Belliveau has a good view of what has become one of the region’s more unique and energetic small cities.

“There’s a lot of great stuff here, different stuff,” she told BusinessWest. “I think Easthampton has a very eclectic flavor to it, and that just continues to grow. I believe the community really enjoys that about itself and embraces that part of themselves, and helps to nurture that. It’s lovely to be a part of that.”

From its well-established arts culture to its rehabilitated mill complexes to its walkable, dog-friendly downtown, she said Easthampton is, quite simply, a place residents and businesses are happy to call home. “We even have a pond in the middle of our city — who else has that?”

It’s also a community where a raft of businesses have launched recently — many of them catering to leisure time and quality of life, like arts establishment #LOCAL Gallery; restaurants like Daily Operation, a casual eatery, and Kisara, a Japanese and Korean barbecue; and additions to Eastworks like Prodigy Minigolf and Gameroom, the Coffee Mill, and Puzzled Escape Games.

“I like to say that Easthampton’s hip, cool, wow, and now — as is its chamber,” said Belliveau, who arrived to lead the body four years ago after a stint with the Westfield Business Improvement District. Since then, she has been leading a shift from simply organizing events to a more holistic, collaborative approach that brings value to chamber members and creates more vibrancy in the town’s business community.

In short, the chamber has become not only more member- and community-focused, through events like ‘listening lunches’ with area businesses, but also more collaborative with other area communities and their chambers.

“We’ve continued with our listening-lunch program because it’s a good opportunity for us to hear not only what people like, but what people are perhaps yearning for in their chamber, and how we might be able to do things differently — or even to be made aware of things we might not know about. It’s helpful.”

One development from those sessions was the chamber’s universal gift card, which is redeemable at dozens of area businesses. “The chamber gift card was a direct development from that collaboration, and that continues to grow; it’s really popular,” Belliveau said. “I’m very excited and very proud of that.”

It’s one way Easthampton’s is creating energy and buzz in its growing business community — and it’s far from the only way.

Regional Approach

Take, for example, a new partnership with the Amherst Area and Greater Northampton chambers, called the Hampshire Regional Tourism Council. Among its first accomplishments was the publication last September of the first Hampshire County Tourism Guide, a colorful, comprehensive compendium of the three communities’ restaurants and hospitality businesses, tourist attractions, recreational opportunties, shopping and wellness options, and more.

“I’m really very proud of this; I don’t know how many tourism guides actually have this look and feel,” Belliveau said. “As Easthampton continues to grow into — or already is — a destination city, it’s a really great tool that highlights who we are, what we do, and why we do it.”

The concept behind the three-city collaboration is that Easthampton, Northampton, and Amherst are all known for arts and culture, food, and a generally eclectic mix of businesses that both serve residents and draw tourists — but they’re different from each other in many ways, too, and by promoting themselves as one mini-region, the hope is that all will benefit.

Easthampton at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1785
Population: 16,059
Area: 13.6 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $16.00
Commercial Tax Rate: $16.00
Median Household Income: $45,185
Median Family Income: $54,312
Type of government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Berry Plastics Corp., Williston Northampton School; National Nonwovens Co.
*Latest information available

“Don’t we all have our own flavor?” she asked rhetorically. “Yet, we add to each other’s energy and strengths, and we work quite well together. We enjoy partnering, and we do it quite often during the year. We’re looking to publish our second edition this coming September, so we’re currently pulling that together.”

Such collaborations, Belliveau said, have always been important to her. “I feel like we all have our own voice and our own character and identity, but I think when we come together, we add value for our members, and there’s strength in numbers.”

Another example is “The Art of Risk,” a women’s leadership conference the Greater Easthampton Chamber presented last fall in collaboration with the Greater Holyoke Chamber. It featured keynote speaker Angela Lussier, founder of the Speaker Sisterhood, a business devoted to helping women find their voice.

“That event was a sold-out success, so we’re looking to do that again,” Belliveau said, referring to the second annual conference, slated for Sept. 28 at the Log Cabin in Holyoke, featuring keynoter Valerie Young, an author and public speaker who’s also an expert on the impostor syndrome, a common psychological pattern that breeds doubt and fear in potential leaders, and keeps them from realizing their potential.

The event will also feature morning breakout sessions in “The Art of Self-promotion,” “The Art of Leadership,” “The Art of Balance,” and “The Art of Storytelling,” followed by an afternoon panel featuring local women sharing personal stories of personal or professional risk.

Other workshops organized by the chamber, both alone and in collaboration with other groups, have convinced Belliveau there’s an appetite for such outreaches, especially those that are interactive in design.

“It’s really helped me to see what kinds of information the business community finds helpful. It’s not just sitting all day listening, but adding tools to their toolbox,” she told BusinessWest.

“I like to say it’s not your grandfather’s chamber anymore,” she went on. “What’s really very exciting to me, in addition to these events, is the relationship that we’ve been able to foster and nurture with the city. We value them, and they value us as contributing partners to the economic-development team. So that’s been pretty exciting.”

Art of the Matter

Even the city’s cultural events reflect this desire for collaboration. For example, #LOCAL Gallery will open a new exhibit on July 14. The 12 artists displaying their works in “An Excursion in Color,” organized and curated with the help of color consultant Amy Woolf, will be joined by Prindle Music School owner Dan Prindle and musical guests to provide entertainment. Meanwhile, flowers from Passalongs Farm & Florist will add more aesthetic appeal to the event.

“There’s a lot of great partnerships, a lot of great collaborations going on,” Belliveau said. “A lot of nonprofits like to collaborate and work together, from the schools to the arts community. I really enjoy being a part of that.”

The city also continues see a continued reuse of old mill buildings — as one example, Erin Witmer opened the Boylston Rooms, a quirky meeting and event space, in the Keystone building on Pleasant Street last year. Meanwhile, Easthampton’s three breweries — Fort Hill, Abandoned Building, and New City — continue to grow, while Valley Paddler, launched last year, has been a success offering paddleboats for use on Nashawannuck Pond.

An eclectic mix? For sure. Bealliveau says Easthampton is a community that continues to attract residents and businesses to its navigability, the services offered by a wide range of small businesses, its focus on the arts as an economic driver, and much more. And she plans to continue bringing as many of those entities together as she can.

“Nobody needs to be out in front, if that makes any sense,” she told BusinessWest. “We’re all running in the same race. Actually, it’s not even a race. The goal is the same, and we all have our different perspectives on that, which just makes the endgame all the richer. And I’m not sure I’ve ever experienced that before. It’s exciting.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]