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Fabulous Five

With a whopping 480 past 40 Under Forty winners, it’s no easy task to choose the one who has accomplished the most since his or her selection. But, for the fifth straight year, our judges are giving it a try.

“So many 40 Under Forty honorees have refused to rest on their laurels,” said Kate Campiti, associate publisher of BusinessWest. “Once again, we want to honor those who continue to build upon their strong records of service in business, within the community, and as regional leaders. And, like previous years’ finalists, these five individuals have certainly done that.”

This year’s crop of finalists were chosen from a field of 60 nominations by three independent judges: Elizabeth Cardona, executive director of Multicultural Affairs and International Student Life at Bay Path University; Scott Foster, partner with Bulkley, Richardson and Gelinas; and Susan O’Connor, vice president and general counsel at Health New England.

Four years ago, BusinessWest inaugurated the award to recognize past 40 Under Forty honorees who had significantly built on their achievements since they were honored.

The first two winners were Delcie Bean, president of Paragus Strategic IT, and Dr. Jonathan Bayuk, president of Allergy and Immunology Associates of Western Mass. and chief of Allergy and Immunology at Baystate Medical Center. Both were originally named to the 40 Under Forty class of 2008. The judges chose two winners in 2017: Foster (class of 2011); and Nicole Griffin, owner of Griffin Staffing Network (class of 2014). Last year, Samalid Hogan, regional director of the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center (class of 2013), took home the honor.

The winner of the fifth annual Continued Excellence Award will be announced at this year’s 40 Under Forty Gala, slated for Thursday, June 20 at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House in Holyoke. The nominees are:

Michael Fenton

Michael Fenton

Michael Fenton

When Fenton was named to the 40 Under Forty in 2012, he was serving his second term on Springfield’s City Council and preparing to graduate from law school. He was also a trustee at his alma mater, Cathedral High School, where he dedicated countless hours to help rebuild the school following the 2011 tornado.

Since then, Fenton continues to serve on the City Council — including as its president from 2014 to 2016 — and is a shareholder at Shatz, Schwartz & Fentin, P.C., practicing in the areas of business planning, commercial real estate, commercial finance, and estate planning. He received an Excellence in the Law honor from Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly and was named a Super Lawyers Rising Star from 2014 through 2017.

Meanwhile, in the community, he is a founding member of Suit Up Springfield; a corporator with Mason Wright Foundation; a volunteer teacher at Junior Achievement; a member of the Hungry Hill, Atwater Park, and East Springfield civic associations; and an advisory board member at Roca Inc., which helps high-risk young people transform their lives.

Anthony Gleason II

Anthony Gleason II

Anthony Gleason II

Gleason was just 24 when he earned the 40 Under Forty designation in 2010. At the time, he was commercial sales manager at Roger Sitterly and Son, overseeing about 20 people, while also managing the operations of his own company, Gleason Landscaping, which at the time was bringing in $500,000 in annual revenues.

Today, he’s no longer affiliated with Sitterly, as his landscaping and snow-removal outfit now services all of New England, employing more than 100 people during the landscaping season and 300 during the winter. The firm grosses more than $10 million annually and is the 32nd-largest snow-removal company in the country. He also co-owns Gleason Johndrow Rentals, which has a portfolio of properties valued at $10 million. He’s also a co-owner of MAPAM-1, LLC and a director of Gleason Brothers Inc.

Meanwhile, Gleason is active with Spirit of Springfield, leading the largest cadre of volunteers for the annual World’s Largest Pancake Breakfast, serving on the organization’s golf committee, and sponsoring Bright Nights and the Bright Nights Ball. He has also donated landscaping services to a number of municipal and nonprofit projects.

Cinda Jones

Cinda Jones

Cinda Jones

Jones was a member of the inaugural 40 Under Forty class of 2007, chosen not just for her role as president of the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce board of directors, but for her ninth-generation leadership of WD Cowls Inc., which managed timberland in 31 communities. At the time, she managed the company’s real-estate division and oversaw its sawmill and planing mill.

Since then, Jones has grown Cowls’ timberland base by more than 1,000 acres, closed the unprofitable sawmill, and built nothing short of a new town center, called North Square, in its place. She also hosts two major solar farms and is planning more, and sold the largest conservation restriction in state history; the 3,486-acre Paul C. Jones Working Forest raised $8.8 million and was named for her father. This year, she will add 2,000 more across to her conservation legacy.

Jones also stays active in the community with the Amherst Survival Center, donating her contractors’ time to mow and plow for this food bank and sponsoring community food-collection programs.

Eric Lesser

Lesser was chosen for the 40 Under Forty class of 2015 following his election to the state Senate in November 2014. Elected at just 29 years old, he represents nine communities in the First Hampden & Hampshire District. His legislative agenda focuses on the fight for greater economic opportunity and quality of life for Western Mass., with initiatives around high-speed rail, a high-tech economy, job training, and innovation in government. He also spearheads the Senate’s agenda on millennial issues, including technology policy, student debt, and greater youth engagement in public affairs.

Since 2015, in addition to securing several leadership positions in the Legislature, Lesser has been overwhelmingly re-elected senator twice, and has authored several pieces of successful legislation, including lowering the cost of Narcan for first responders, which has contributed to a decrease in the Commonwealth’s overall opioid deaths for two straight years.

Lesser has also supported economic programs that bridge the gap between Boston and Springfield and has secured hundreds of thousands of dollars for area organizations, including Valley Venture Mentors, the Women’s Fund of Western Massachusetts, Greentown Labs, and more.

Meghan Rothschild

Rothschild, then development and marketing manager for the Food Bank of Western Mass., was named to the 40 Under Forty class of 2011 mainly for her tireless work in melanoma awareness. A survivor herself, she began organizing local events to raise funds for the fight against this common killer, and launched a website, SurvivingSkin.org, and TV show, Skin Talk, that brought wider attention to her work.

Since then, Rothschild has stayed busy, increasing her profile with the Melanoma Foundation of New England and IMPACT Melanoma, and hosting a community talk show on 94.3 FM. Most notably, however, she has grown Chikmedia, a woman-focused marketing firm, into a true regional force. The firm recently marked its fifth anniversary and continues to expand its roster of clients, community workshops, branded events, and social-media impact.

Rothschild also teaches at Springfield College and is a board member at the Zoo at Forest Park, donating her time to its marketing and PR initiatives. She has also participated in events benefiting the Holyoke Children’s Museum, Junior Achievement, and a host of other groups.

Features

This Isn’t Your Grandparents’ HR Department

By Michael Klein

Michael Klein

Michael Klein

When Showtime network’s Wall Street drama Billions launched its fourth season this year, most viewers did not realize one of its main characters is modeled after a job that exists in the real world — a role that is quite familiar to business coaches and HR directors who have specialized training in mental health.

In fact, in companies similar to the fictitious Axe Capital on Billions, the role of the in-house performance coach and psychiatrist Wendy Rhoades is not new. Wall Street traders have used psychologists and psychiatrists for years to make sure that they maximize their confidence, optimism, performance, and earning potential in stressful and highly demanding situations.

It’s impossible to work effectively in any job without running into roadblocks periodically. The character of Wendy Rhoades has had an important educational impact. We know that one of the biggest differentiators regarding success at work is managing internal roadblocks and reacting thoughtfully to external ones. While a few industries understand the benefit to the bottom line in having highly trained, in-house advisors and coaches for employees and managers, most haven’t caught on yet.

This is not personal therapy or counseling at work like employee-assistance programs (EAPs). It is helping employees perform at peak capacity in their jobs based on their own drive to do well and manage barriers at work.

On Wall Street, the work of Ari Kiev is often referenced as the first clear example of this unique in-house role in businesses. Kiev, a psychiatrist, focused early in his career on depression and suicide, leading ultimately to a career helping athletes and Wall Street traders achieve peak performance.

By studying their behavior patterns and subconscious fears, he helped traders gain insight into their tendencies toward denial and rationalization that could subvert their investment goals. He helped traders develop visualization and relaxation techniques to escape their fear of failure and achieve their performance goals.

It is critical that companies and their employees know these are not medical or psychiatric interventions. Referrals to local therapists can be made when the conversations steer toward personal issues and history.

Many people confuse this with therapy because it does involve conversations about personality, behavioral habits, and self-awareness. But this work at small companies with managers and employees is not about mental health; we don’t discuss parenting, family, substance-abuse, or any other personal issues. It is exclusively about work performance and professional development.

Chicago-based management psychologist Gail Golden believes the psychologist’s toolkit is relevant and tremendously useful in this role.

“Reframing, confrontation, changing perspectives — all of these can rapidly accelerate performance when used by a professional,” she said. “A large part of performance coaching is about managing energy — teaching leaders to utilize their physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual energy for maximum stamina and effectiveness.”

Unlike the Billions coach’s focus on maximizing performance in service of profitable stock trades and income potential, in-house psychologist-advisors work with a much broader variety of issues, including:

• Staff supervision;

• Interpersonal communication;

• Career development;

• Organizational change;

• Team effectiveness;

• Employee conflict;

• Role clarity;

• Transition management;

• Working with new leaders; and

• Other topics related to work roles, responsibilites, and performance.

While these types of ‘soft skills’ are often addressed via training workshops and seminars, data shows that, without one-on-one coaching, these skills typically do not transfer from the classroom to the job. And even when they do, they are quickly lost without ongoing attention and energy.

While these topics often overlap with the responsibilities and tasks of human-resource professionals, a key difference lies in the (part-time) on-site coach’s objectivity, ‘outsider’ status, and not being part of the organization’s HR department or management processes.

When managers and employees consult with an in-house psychologist or performance coach, they know the insight, advice, and challenges they are confronting are designed to help them be more productive, advance their career, or minimize some difficulty they are having at work. They share information and concerns they would never share with HR, or any other employee, for fear of it hurting their career, getting back to their manager, or, often, just causing painful embarrassment.

What many companies haven’t realized is that having a highly trained and experienced professional in this role can benefit the organization, whether it results in a better manager, higher-performing employees, less workplace conflict and drama, or simply greater employee-driven professional development.

Michael A. Klein, Psy.D. is a Northampton-based performance advisor and business coach. Klein, who holds a doctorate in clinical psychology, has worked with small and mid-size businesses in the Pioneer Valley in an on-site capacity since 2008, including Paragus Strategic IT, American Benefits Group, and Westside Finishing, among others; (413) 320-4664; [email protected]

Features

Striking a Chord

By Kayla Ebner

Evan Plotkin has always been a firm believer in the arts as an economic-development strategy and vehicle for “changing the conversation about Springfield,” as he likes to say.

And this belief has manifested itself in a number of ways, from the manner in which he has turned 1350 Main St. (the downtown Springfield office building he co-owns) into a type of art gallery to the sculptures he has helped bring to the central business district, to his long-time support of the Springfield Museums and other institutions.

But perhaps the most visible, and impactful, example of his work to use the arts to bring people — and energy — to the city and its downtown is the annual Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival, the sixth edition of which is slated for Aug. 10.

“We’re putting a light on Springfield that is very positive,” said Plotkin, one of the founders of the festival. “The reputation of the jazz festival has been very positively received throughout the music world, regionally and beyond. That has a lot of benefits to changing the conversation about Springfield; you can talk about a lot of things about Springfield, but now you can add the festival to those things.”

The festival strives to connect people of all ages, races, and backgrounds through music and the arts, said Plotkin, and also connect people to Springfield, a city clearly on the rise.

The festival is known for bringing both established and up-and-coming artists together to perform on the same stage — actually, several stages. The 2019 festival headliner is Elan Trotman, who will perform on a stage in the plaza at MGM Springfield at 10 p.m., kicking off the festival’s after-party.

Other performers of the day are split between two stages of equal importance in or near Court Square; the Charles Neville Main Stage and the Urban Roots Stage will offer performances simultaneously.

Artists for the 2019 lineup include Cory Henry and the Funk Apostles, Elio Villafranca & the Jass Syncopators, Tia Fuller, Samite, Firey String Sistas!, Kotoko Brass, Molly Tigre, Convergence Project Trio, Tap Roots, and the Holyoke Community Jazz Ensemble. Local artists from the Springfield area include the Billy Arnold Trio, Bomba De Aqui, and Ryan Hollander.

This year marks the festival’s second without Charles Neville, member of the Neville Brothers and beloved performer at the event, who died in April 2018. Neville’s wife, Kristin, co-founded the event with Plotkin and Blues to Green, a nonprofit organization that uses music to bring people together through performances, and hopes to unite people from many different communities in Springfield that share a common love for art and music.

The organization also works to create a more positive image for Springfield and help erase negative perceptions about the City of Homes. Plotkin told BusinessWest that Charles Neville’s impact on the festival lives on through the performances at the annual event.

“I think he really believed in the healing power of music and its ability to bring people together as one people,” said Plotkin, adding that Neville acted as a guiding light for the festival. “His presence spoke more than almost anything.”

The free outdoor festival has drawn thousands of people to Court Square, giving people the opportunity to meet other music lovers. The $200,000 budget for the event comes completely from sponsors and volunteers.

Plotkin said support for the event has been tremendously helpful, and the positive reactions from attendees are what drive the producers to make it bigger and better each year.

“I love the fact that people are so animated and excited about the music,” said Plotkin, adding that the music ranges from Latino bands to blues artists to gospel singers. “The audience embraces the variety of different genres and feels like this is something that belongs to them.”

Hollander, one of the local artists set to perform at the 2019 festival, agreed that jazz music has the ability to bring people together. “I think jazz music is intended to be the music of the people,” he said.

City on the Rise

The Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival comes at a time where the arts are playing a significant, and growing, role in the revitalization of Springfield and also in creating a better vibe in the city. Examples abound, including everything from high-profile, MGM-organized concerts at the MassMutual Center (Stevie Wonder and Cher have performed, and Aerosmith is booked for this summer) to Fresh Paint Springfield, a mural project downtown that has changed the face of many buildings and structures.

“I think this festival coming off of the mural festival is going to push us forward in terms of really positive impressions that people will have about the city,” Plotkin said.

Hollander agreed, noting that the opening of MGM and other initiatives have created more vibrancy and more nightlife, complemented by a greater police presence and, overall, fewer concerns about crime and safety.

“I think that Springfield is definitely on the rise,” he told BusinessWest. “The general downtown just feels safer in most parts. I think any time we find other things to occupy ourselves with, we’re less likely to resort to crime or violence. The festival is an opportunity to do something non-violent and be entertained.”

In 2016, Jazz Times magazine named the Springfield Jazz & Roots Festival one of the best jazz festivals to attend, and Plotkin hopes the event can continue to grow in both size and stature.

“The jazz festival helps to define the downtown from its walkability,” he said, adding that his goal would be to model the festival after other famous ones in the region, like the Newport Jazz Festival, and set up several different stages and venues around the downtown area.

“Ultimately, a really cool concept to grasp is how walkable the city is, because that implies that it’s safe,” he said. “A walkable city is a safe city. The more people who are walking the streets, the less worries you have about crime and safety.”

As an example of this phenomenon, he cited the underpass that connects the downtown with Riverfront Park, which has been painted into a Dr. Seuss mural by John Simpson. This connector, Plotkin said, used to be a place where people did not want to go because they were afraid to cross the highway to go to the riverfront.

“Now, by painting that underpass and creating activities on that side of the river as well as downtown, you’re creating this connector,” he explained, adding that the jazz festival acts similarly, showing how possible it is to bring all communities in Springfield together as one. “We haven’t reached that ultimate goal of having this festival throughout the downtown, but by doing the jazz festival, you can see the potential of what can happen if we carry this throughout downtown.”

Plotkin remembers a time in his early 20s where he was able to walk to bars and restaurants downtown and feel completely safe, and feels that Springfield is making its way there once again.

“I think, today, it’s the safest the city has ever been downtown,” he said. “And it can only get better as we finish construction on several parks and as we start to program them with music. That’s where a wall becomes a bridge.”

Features

A Different Time

Jessica Roncariti-Howe, here displaying one of her own paintings

Jessica Roncariti-Howe, here displaying one of her own paintings, says efforts to shine a spotlight on the arts and culture is just one of the ways the Greater Chicopee Chamber is working to build a stronger community.

Years ago, joining the local chamber of commerce was a knee-jerk reaction for a new business or a venture moving to a new community. Today, it’s far less a given, especially with the budgetary and time constraints facing all business members. To attract and properly serve members — and their communities — chambers must focus on creativity and collaboration, as we learned from several chamber leaders relatively new to their roles.

They call it ‘Run the Runway.’

Because that’s what you do.

Indeed, participants in this reincarnated version of the Greater Chicopee Chamber’s fundraising 5K road race actually run down the runway at Westover Air Reserve Base on part of the course. They traverse roughly three-quarters of the main runway’s length, turn off along one of the aprons, pass under the wing of one of the giant C-5s, and then back again.

The second edition of the event will be staged June 8, and while the inaugural run was hugely successful, this year’s version will raise the bar much higher — and probably raise considerably more money. That’s because organizers have added a large ampersand to the event logo, as well as the words ‘Festival’ and ‘Car Show.’

“This used to be a minor fundraiser, but now it’s probably our biggest,” said Jessica Roncariti-Howe, president of the Greater Chicopee Chamber of Commerce. “And having our major fundraiser be an event that is signature to Chicopee and highlights some things are very unique to our city is really heartening to us; it’s very exciting.”

“We try very hard to stay away from the ‘mingle around the bar with a glass of wine’ model; our goal is to bring some fun to everything we do.”

Thus, Run the Runway is in many ways a solid example of changing times for area chambers of commerce and the need to adapt to these changes. In this climate, chambers are being more creative, finding ways to bring more value to members and the communities they serve, and doing far more partnering and collaborating — with other chambers, different business- and economic-development-related agencies, and civic groups.

In the case of Run the Runway, these partnerships are with Westover itself, Westover Metropolitan Airport, and the Galaxy Community Council, said Roncariti-Howe, who is one of several area chamber leaders relatively new to their assignment — she’s been at the helm for roughly two years.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked to several of the region’s new chamber leaders about their work, how it is changing in many ways, and what chambers must do to remain relevant and maintain strong membership at a time when joining such an organization is far from the given it was a generation ago.

Claudia Pazmany is another of these new chamber leaders. She took the helm at the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce roughly a year ago, at a critical time in the history of the agency.

Indeed, the Amherst chamber had gone through several directors over the previous decade and had become a volunteer organization for a short time before the board handed the reins to Pazmany, a veteran development strategist and consultant — she’s worked for agencies ranging from Providence Ministries for the Needy to CHD’s Big Brothers Big Sisters of Hampshire County — with the goal of putting the chamber on far more solid footing.

She told BusinessWest her basic strategy has been to raise the chamber’s profile, inject some energy, and establish the chamber as a valuable resource for members, and she believes she’s achieving results. Those efforts are summed up nicely in the name she chose for the newsletter she distributes weekly: “In Your Corner.”

Claudia Pazmany

Claudia Pazmany says signing on with a chamber is the easy part for a business. Leveraging membership and getting the most of it takes some work.

“I’ve been reintroducing the chamber to people and sending a consistent message — we’ve really upped our game with our e-contacts and e-newsletter,” she said, describing these efforts as ‘Marketing 101,’ but something that wasn’t being done at the chamber.

She added quickly that there are many challenges facing chambers today, and, more than ever, these agencies must be focused on those three letters so well-known to everyone who sells a product or service: ROI.

Diana Szynal, executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce (FCCC) since late last fall, agreed.

Szynal was looking for a challenge — and a job, really — after coming up short in her bid to succeed the late Peter Kocut, the state representative she served for many years as district representative.

She said the chamber job is in many ways a natural for her because she can easily find a number of similarities between serving constituents and serving business owners — and the communities of Franklin County.

“This was a natural progression, to trade constituents for businesses. In both cases, there’s a lot of listening and responding to what you hear,” said Szynal, adding that the FCCC will be celebrating its centennial this year, a milestone that will be marked in a number of ways.

As it looks toward the next hundred years — or even the next few years — the goal will be to continuously find new and different ways to make membership not a cost, but an investment — a challenge shared by all the area chambers.

Mission Statements

As Roncariti-Howe talked with BusinessWest in the Greater Chicopee Chamber’s conference room, the office was noticeably quiet.

She was the only one in that moment — and in a few weeks, she noted, that would be the situation for some time to come.

Her two staff members are both leaving the agency (one is going to work in the mayor’s office), leaving Roncariti-Howe alone — and also with a chance to take a hard look at the organization and perhaps do some restructuring and reorganizing.

Again.

Indeed, she went through this same scenario roughly a year ago, she noted, adding quickly that finding, retaining, and ultimately replacing talent is just one of the challenges she’s taken on since coming to the chamber after several years spent in nonprofit management, most recently with the AIDS Foundation. And she acknowledged that she’s certainly not alone.

“I tell people I’m in their corner. I want people to know that we’re reliable, we’re consistent, and our marketing is here to support them; we’re here to highlight our members.”

Other challenges include membership — numbers are way down from years ago, when chambers were able to include health insurance to members as part of their package, and maintaining current levels is always a struggle — as well as finding new and creative ways to engage members and bring value to their participation.

Roncariti-Howe explained her work this way: “Working for a nonprofit, I always served one mission. This job gave me the opportunity to serve 300 — to figure out what helped the local business community, what made all these individual organizations tick, and how to build relationships among them and bring them together.”

To explain how she goes about all that, she summoned two words that provide some alliteration — ‘creativity’ and ‘collaboration’ — and offered a quick explanation.

“Creativity manifests in the form of creating events that are either in unique or attractive venues or have some sort of draw that’s different than what other people would typically get,” she said. “We try very hard to stay away from the ‘mingle around the bar with a glass of wine’ model; our goal is to bring some fun to everything we do.”

Diana Szynal

Diana Szynal, who recently took the helm at the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, says collaboration is the key to getting things done in that rural region.

A few decades ago, chamber leaders didn’t have to worry much about providing fun — or about membership in general. Pazmany, like the others we spoke with, noted that, in the past, chamber membership was in many ways a knee-jerk reaction for new business ventures or those moving into a community. Today, it is anything but, especially with the time and budget constraints facing small-business owners today.

So the chamber has to make membership worth the time and expense, said those we spoke with, adding that this is being done in a number of ways, from offering resources to providing valuable content in newsletters, and creating networking opportunities that, as Roncariti-Howe noted, go well beyond a glass of wine at the bar.

“I tell people I’m in their corner,” said Pazmany, adding that her chamber lives up to the name on its publication. “I want people to know that we’re reliable, we’re consistent, and our marketing is here to support them; we’re here to highlight our members.”

Working with graduate research students at UMass Amherst, the Amherst Area Chamber, which also represents Hadley, Pelham, and other communities, has worked to fill holes on its website and update Google Analytics to provide optimal exposure for members on that website.

“Some people’s member listings are coming up higher than their own,” said Pazmany, with a large dose of pride in her voice, adding that this is one of the ways the chamber is providing value and ROI. “We want to remind people that a chamber membership can be part of their marketing plan, and if they do it well — meaning they’re networking, they’re showing up at events, they’re sponsoring an event or speaking at an event — they can really benefit.

“But they need to take full advantage of it — it’s a partnership,” she said of chamber membership. “Signing on is the easy part; it’s how you show up. You get out what you put in.”

Concepts That Are Taking Off

That’s especially true with the FCCC, which, as that acronym denotes, represents not a city or a few communities but an entire county, one populated by small and very small communities, some with fewer than 100 residents.

“We try to focus on things that can help county-wide,” said Szynal. “We focus on supporting businesses and social-service agencies — we have many of them in this region — but we also focus on tourism and especially outdoor recreation, and in doing that, we’re able to help communities across the entire county. We’re unique — most chambers are much more focused in terms of the number of communities they serve — and we have our hands full, but we’re doing it.”

And doing it largely through a focus on collaborative efforts with other agencies — because that’s how things get done in such a rural setting, she went on.

“I’ve learned there’s a huge amount of collaboration up here, more so than I’ve ever witnessed anywhere,” she explained. “Businesses and organizations really want to work together to grow the economy in Franklin County and make this a place that’s great to live and work in, and it’s very encouraging to see that; by working together, we can do so much more than we could by ourselves.”

Those sentiments bring us back to Run the Runway.

Only a few years ago, the chamber was hosting a 5K run as one of many annual fundraisers, said Roncariti-Howe, adding that, by collaborating with the Galaxy Council and other entities, it has become a much larger community event.

As noted earlier, the run is a particularly poignant example of what all chambers must do today to effectively carry out their missions — collaborate, be creative, and focus on ways to not only serve members, but strengthen the communities they serve.

The Greater Chicopee Chamber is doing that in a number of ways, said Roncariti-Howe, who had only to gesture around the conference room to get that point across.

“They need to take full advantage of it — it’s a partnership. Signing on is the easy part; it’s how you show up. You get out what you put in.”

Indeed, that room — and the outside rooms as well — were crowded with works of art as part of the Lights on Art and Culture program, which, as the name suggests, puts a spotlight on the arts by engaging local businesses, and the chamber, in displaying the works of local artists, a constituency that now includes Roncariti-Howe, who showed off one of her paintings.

“We do this quarterly, and we do something different each time,” she said, adding that the most recent offering featured live music, tours of new living units in redeveloped mills, food trucks, and more. “It’s a collaboration among the chamber, Cultural Council, city, and downtown businesses, and it’s one of the ways we support our local businesses and our community, which is an important part of our mission.”

Szynal agreed, noting again that, with the FCCC, ‘community’ means one city (Greenfield) and 25 small towns with a total population of roughly 70,000 people.

“There are differences among the communities and what their focus points are,” she said. “But they’re all unique, and they all contribute to the rich fabric here in Franklin County in their own special way, and we work to support each one of them.”

Bottom Line

Pazmany told BusinessWest that some of her members had remarked that there weren’t enough pictures of her in “In Your Corner.”

“I told them that it’s not about me, it’s about them,” she said with a laugh. “It’s all about our members.”

It always has been, but today, that mantra is even more important than at any time in the past. And as these chamber leaders noted, it’s not about getting members, it’s about providing value to them, retaining them, and working with them to improve their community.

That’s why you can now run the runway — and many people are.

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

Features

Getting Creative

Kristin Leutz

Kristin Leutz says the inaugural Innovation Fest will provide a solid foundation on which to build.

HUBweek in Boston. Denver Startup Week. The Tom Tom Summit & Festival in Charlottesville, Va. South by Southwest in Austin, Texas.

These are just a few of the many highly successful and very well-attended entrepreneurship and innovation events now taking place across the country.

Some of them go on for a few days, others for a whole week, as their names make clear, said Kristen Leutz, executive director of Springfield-based Valley Venture Mentors (VVM), who has been to Startup Week and will likely attend some of those other gatherings in the months and years to come as she seeks to learn more about entrepreneurship ecosystems, how they work, and how they can be developed and expanded.

For right now, though, she’s busy putting together the latest addition to that list of summits. It will be called the Springfield Innovation Fest, or SIF for short, although its probably too early for an acronym to take hold.

Indeed, Leutz and her team at VVM are essentially starting from scratch and scrambling to pull things together for the June 12 event, to be staged at the Innovation Center on Bridge Street in Springfield. As she tells the story, those at VVM had been thinking about and talking about a summit — an event that would showcase this region’s burgeoning entrepreneurship ecosystem (and the many other things that are happening in and around Springfield) and take VVM’s Accelerator Awards banquet to a new and much higher plane. But they were initially focused on 2020, a round-number year with all kinds of meaning — until they decided not to wait that long to get the ball rolling.

“We decided to do this on a very short time frame,” she said. “Once we came up with the vision, we were all excited; we didn’t want to wait a another year. We said, ‘let’s lean into it and see what we can pull off.’”

Leutz told BusinessWest that the Springfield Innovation Fest certainly has a long way to go before it can be mentioned in the same sentence as those events in Boston, Denver, Central Texas, and Northern Virginia, but one has to start somewhere, create some buzz, and continually build on the foundation that’s been laid, and that is the very informal business plan for the festival.

“We decided to do this on a very short time frame. Once we came up with the vision, we were all excited; we didn’t want to wait a another year. We said, ‘let’s lean into it and see what we can pull off.’”

“Startup Week certainly wasn’t built in a day — or a week,” she said. “We want to see if we can gain some excitement and momentum for next year.”

The inaugural event, still very much in the planning stages, as noted, will feature a number of speakers, ample amounts of networking, and opportunities to get a taste of Springfield — figuratively and quite literally, with tours of the Springfield Museums and Fresh Paint mural art, as well as a visit to What’s on Tap Wednesday.

There are many goals for this year, said Leutz, listing everything from celebrating this region’s history of innovation and ‘firsts’ to recognizing the winners (and all the companies) in this year’s VVM Accelerator class, to moving the needle when it comes to putting Springfield and this region on the map as a startup and innovation hub.

“In the vein of these other festivals that showcase the startup and innovation economies, I thought that, given all that’s happening in Springfield, it was time for our own startup event,” she explained. “I want visibility for the work of entrepreneurship and innovation and how it affects our economy and how it affects traditional businesses as well as startups.

“The idea of being innovative goes beyond a startup company — it infiltrates everything that we do,” she went on. “Springfield is a city of firsts, and we really believe in that heritage and history, and we want people to see that it still is a city of innovation.”

For this issue and focus on business innovation, BusinessWest talked with Leutz about the launch of the SIF, what to expect this year, and where this summit can go in the years to come.

Summit Meeting

“How to Bootstrap the Bejeezus out of Your Startup.” “Think Like a Placemaker Transforming Neighborhoods.” “Future Forward: Live Better with Innovation in Healthcare.” “How to Help Female Founders Succeed (and Every Other Founder, Too).”

These are titles for just some of the presentations scheduled for the SIF, said Leutz, noting that they will cover two tracks — a startup track and an innovator track — and feature speakers that include both young entrepreneurs and leaders of several of the groups within that aforementioned entrepreneurship ecosystem.

And these presentations represent just one aspect of the festival, she went on, adding that there will be, as mentioned, several breaks for networking and collision-making, a showcase and lunch at which attendees can meet the VVM Accelerator and Summer Collegiate Accelerator startups as they showcase their businesses and compete for ‘VVM bucks,’ and also a pitch competition featuring the top five in the Accelerator and the awarding of prizes.

The full lineup is still very much a work in progress, even at this late date (remember, they started late), and the general ideas are to both call attention to the growing startup community and innovative energy in the region, and also give attendees something to take back home — whether that’s across the state or maybe cross-country (although that’s more likely to happen down the road).

This is the formula that those festivals mentioned at the top have followed, said Leutz, noting that many of them are works in progress as well.

That’s certainly the case with HUBweek, which was launched just three years ago, but now brings together attendees from 59 countries, 46 states, and 38 industries, according to the event’s website. Marketed as a gathering “where art, science, and technology collide,” HUBweek was founded by the Boston Globe, Harvard, MIT, and Massachusetts General Hospital, and its website describes it as “a giant petri dish welcoming impact-oriented artists, entrepreneurs, researchers, executives, makers, and up-and-comers. HUBweek brings together the curious, those building our future.”

Startup Week in Denver is in many ways similar, said Leutz, adding that she attended last fall’s festival and came away inspired to bring something with the same vibe, and energy, to the City of Homes.

“It was incredible,” she said, using that adjective to describe the scope of the show, the depth of the speakers, and the amount of planning and marketing that went into the event. “They had 1,000 applications for talks.”

While something to aspire to, these shows more importantly represent a model that can be replicated on a considerably smaller scale, she said, adding that, like the Boston show, she wants an event where worlds can collide, and, like Denver, she wants a “community-created event,” where people submit ideas for talks.

For this first show, organizers have put together a schedule of talks targeted toward entrepreneurs and would-be entrepreneurs, and ‘innovators,’ a broad constituency to be sure, said Leutz. Speakers, many of them still to be confirmed, include Christian Lagier, executive director of TechSpring; Mo Reed-McNally of the MassMutual Foundation, and Laura Masulis, transformative development fellow with MassDevelopment (they’re handling the talk on transforming neighborhoods); Bill Cole, leader of Living Local, and Tessa Murphy-Romboletti, director of SPARK EforAll Holyoke, who will lead a discussion titled “How to Revive Main Street”; and Daquan Oliver, president of WeThrive, the first-prize winner in last year’s VVM Accelerator Awards.

As for this year’s Accelerator class, it is smaller — by design (16 companies) — in order to provide more in-depth, customized support to the startups, said Leutz, adding that a smaller group enabled VVM to have a higher ratio of entrepreneurs in residence to startups.

Meanwhile, some of the cash traditionally handed out at the annual banquet as prizes has been awarded already in order to help the startups advance their ventures, said Leutz, adding that there is still plenty at stake at the June 12 showcase and final pitch.

All-day passes to the SIF are $50 each ($45 each for blocks of three or more), and potential attendees can buy an extra ticket so an entrepreneur can attend for free, said Leutz, adding that the admission charge is essentially to cover the cost of the event. Sponsorship opportunities are available, starting at $1,000. For more information, visit www.valleyventurementors.org.

Getting Started

Like the companies taking part in the VVM Accelerator, the SIF is essentially a startup venture, Leutz acknowledged, and one with considerable promise to grow well beyond its current size and scope.

It will likely never be on the same level as HUBweek or Denver Startup Week, but like those other events, it provides an opportunity to bring several worlds together and spark more innovation.

SIF is not part of the local lexicon yet, but Leutz and her team believe it soon will be.

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

Features

Driving Forces

Peter Picknelly says Peter Pan is taking steps

Peter Picknelly says Peter Pan is taking steps that make the company more agile, a necessary trait in a changing bus business.

Peter Picknelly says the higher prices that consumers are experiencing at the gas pump are a fairly recent phenomenon, with the surge coming over the past few months or so.

But in the bus business, such changes to the landscape can, and usually do, have a quick and profound impact. And Easter weekend provided ample evidence of this.

“Business was up 18% over the same period a year ago — we were really busy over Easter weekend,” said Picknelly. “When gas prices go up, we see an increase in ridership, and they’ve been going up.

“It’s almost instantaneous — when fuel prices go up, it hurts our customers, and they look for alternatives,” he went on. “Meanwhile, holidays are generally a pretty good barometer of how business is going overall, and we saw that Easter weekend.”

Elaborating, he said that fluctuating gas prices — they come down as often as they go up — are just one of the reasons why agility is perhaps the best quality a bus company can possess these days, and also why Springfield-based Peter Pan is currently taking a number of steps to become even more agile.

“It’s almost instantaneous — when fuel prices go up, it hurts our customers, and they look for alternatives.”

Indeed, the company is expanding its fleet — five new buses were recently delivered, and 10 more are on order, far more than the number replaced in what would be considered a typical year — and also adding new routes, hiring more drivers, and utilizing technology (a revamped website and a new app) to make it easier to know where all those buses are going and to buy seats on them.

Meanwhile, Peter Pan will soon have its own ticket counter at the Port Authority Bus Terminal in Manhattan, a long-awaited, very expensive, and logistically complicated undertaking that Picknelly said will give the company invaluable visibility in the city where it does its highest volume of business.

All these steps, as noted, are designed to make the company more agile and better able to thrive in an always-changing marketplace, but one where bus travel is seemingly as popular as ever, and perhaps even more so as younger generations eschew the automobile and look to other — generally simple and inexpensive — ways to get from here to there.

Peter Pan is currently in an expansion mode, adding new buses, drivers, and routes.

Peter Pan is currently in an expansion mode, adding new buses, drivers, and routes.

“What the buses specialize in is high-frequency service at very reasonable fares — and that’s what people are looking for,” said Picknelly, who described Peter Pan as “once again the fastest-growing bus line in America,” meaning it has held that distinction once, if not a few times, and he believes it does again, especially as he watches many competitors scale back.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Picknelly about why he feels he can make that claim and the specific steps that back up that boast.

Route Causes

Picknelly told BusinessWest that as part of the process of ordering those new coaches he mentioned — each with a price tag of roughly $550,000 — he a few other team members (his wife, Melissa Picknelly, vice president, and Marketing Director Danielle Veronesi, to be specific) spent a considerable amount of time recently trying out some options for the seats in those vehicles.

Decades ago, there probably wouldn’t have been a need for such an exercise — a seat was a seat. But that was then. These days, as with seemingly everything else you can buy, there are options, and lots of them.

“The average ride on our buses is three and a half hours, and we’re looking to make it as comfortable as possible,” he explained. “There’s a lot to look at with these seats — how the seatbelt clicks, how they adjust, how comfortable they are … the one I think we’re going to go with is actually an inch and a half lower than others, which we think will provide for a better ride.”

That attention to detail with seats speaks volumes about the overall mindset driving the company — pun intended. It’s a customer-based approach that is spawning a number of new initiatives, starting with the new buses and why they’ve been ordered.

Picknelly said the coaches the company buys, like workhorse planes bought by the airlines, can be in service for decades. But eventually they need to be replaced, and in a typical year the company will cycle out a least a few.
But this year’s order placed with Motor Coach Industries (MCI) is especially large and includes not only replacement buses, but ones needed to cover new routes and expected heavier traffic on some existing routes.

In that first category are new routes on Cape Cod and between New York, Philadelphia, and Washington, D.C.

On the Cape, the company, which in the past only brought riders as far as Hyannis, now services just about every community between there and Provincetown, said Picknelly, an aggressive expansion effort that began at the start of this year.

“We’re expecting that to be huge,” he said, adding that bus service can and should be viewed as an alternative to trying to drive to those communities, especially in the summer. “We’re running express service and we’re connecting in from Logan Airport, downtown Boston, and New York City — those are our biggest destinations to Cape Cod.”

Elaborating, he said the company currently runs eight buses a day between Boston and Hyannis, and will expand that number to 12 in the summer. Meanwhile, it currently runs two a day between Hyannis and Provincetown, and will at least double that with the summer schedule.

Further down the coast, the company recently (meaning just last week) expanded service between three of the biggest cities it serves — New York, Baltimore, and Washington — to essentially provide more options for customers.

“We currently serve Philly to New York, Baltimore to New York, and D.C. to New York,” he said, prior to the expansion of the schedule. “We’re now going be serving Philadelphia to Baltimore and Philadelphia to D.C.; we’re expanding our route to connect those cities together.”

The reason for such expansion is obvious — demand, he went on, adding that the company will start with seven buses a day to each city, but those numbers could rise.

And there could be still more additions to the schedule after the Encore Boston Harbor casino opens its doors next month, said Picknelly, adding that the company is in discussions with ownership about running buses from the casino to South Station and other connecting points, shuttles, and other work.

As he talked about all this growth and the potential for more to come, Picknelly said technology has played a big part in it. As one example, he cited a revamped website that went live just before Easter, one that not only heightens awareness of routes and schedules, but greatly simplifies the process of buying a ticket online.

And the buying public is moving increasingly in that direction, he said, noting that today, 80% of tickets are purchased online, a number that moves higher with each passing year, although there are still many who still walk up and buy at the counter — especially in New York, which explains the company’s huge investment at the Port Authority.

This heavy volume of online sales brings benefits for the customers, obviously, but also for Peter Pan, said Picknelly, adding that they take a lot of the guesswork out of scheduling and staffing buses.

“In the olden days, for lack of a better term, we would have a consistent schedule, seven days a week the same schedule,” he explained. “Now, because people buy tickets in advance — it’s a reservation and it’s a guaranteed seat — we know exactly how many people are going to be on the bus, and we modify our schedules accordingly.

“In many cases, our schedules are different on Tuesdays and Wednesdays than they are on Thursdays, and very different from what they are on Fridays, Saturdays, or Mondays,” he went on. “We adjust our schedule product based on consumer demand on a daily basis; before it was guesswork and ‘set it and kind of forget it.’ Now, we have staff looking at the numbers and the trends, and we adjust every day.”

Elaborating, he said that, if the 2 o’clock bus to Philadelphia is filling up, the company may well add a 2:30 run. And with a new app the company is rolling out in a few days, a customer can, among other things, change his or reservation from the 2 to the 2:30, if they know well in advance that they’re going to be running a little late.

The app will also make buying tickets even easier, because it will log previous purchases, recognize trends, and enable the consumer to rebook a schedule with one click, said Picknelly, adding that many of these developments are unique within the industry.

Also unique will be the ability to buy what Picknelly called ‘commuter tickets,’ 10 tickets at once, for example, at a discount price that consumers can load onto their phone and use whenever they want.

“No one else is doing that in our industry,” he said, using that phrase to refer to many of the recent innovations. “And these are things that we think are game changers.”

The Ride Stuff

Returning to the subject of online buying and the benefits it brings, Picknelly said the company can make adjustments for weather, holidays, special events, and, yes, soaring gas prices.

“If we know there’s a snowstorm coming, we can cut schedules and combine them,” he explained. “We’re able to forecast much better and adjust our product based on consumer demand. We’re much more agile than we used to be, and the consumer benefits from that.”

There’s that word again, and it’s a word you didn’t hear much when it came to transportation in general and bus companies in particular. But you do now, and Peter Pan keeps finding new ways to be agile and benefit from that important quality.

That’s a big reason why Picknelly believes that, once again, this is the fastest-growing bus company in the country.

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

A rendering of the rail station expansion and renovation, scheduled to be completed this summer.

A Knowledge Corridor study before the Amtrak Vermonter line opened four years ago projected 28 riders per day at the Northampton station. In fact, the average is 59 for the two trains per day — a southbound run that arrives at 2 p.m. and a northbound train at 4 p.m., noted Masterson, the city’s Economic Development director.

“And that’s inconvenient service, in the middle of the afternoon,” added Mayor David Narkewicz. “If they made it convenient — get on in the morning, go to Manhattan, and come back the same day — it would be interesting to see the numbers. Even now, on the weekend, there’s a line around the parking lot, with students and other folks trying to use the service.”

The proposed broadening of the Vermonter service, which would bring two morning trains to Northampton and two more late in the day, will be supported by the expansion of the rail platform at the station. The project to lengthen it and bring it up to ADA code is expected to be completed this summer.

That’s been complemented by a series of major projects on the Pleasant Street corridor, from a $2.9 million infrastructure upgrade, making the street safer and more navigable for motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians, to the completion of the roundabout at Pleasant and Conz streets and a number of residential and mixed-use developments along the thoroughfare.

Currently, Valley Community Development Corp. is building a $20 million, mixed-use project called the Lumberyard, which will feature 55 residential units, 3,100 square feet of retail space, and 2,200 square feet of office space.

Mayor David Narkewicz cuts the ribbon

Mayor David Narkewicz cuts the ribbon at the opening of Conway School of Landscape Design last fall.

“We’ve seen lots of development on Pleasant around the rail,” Narkewicz said, and with good reason. “Millennials and younger people want to live in a place where they don’t have to own a car — they want Uber, car share, bike share, access to rail, access to good bus service. And businesses and housing developers see that and are interested in locating here.

“The whole entrance to the city has been upgraded and improved,” he went on, “and in a way, it helps grow the downtown and creates another corridor for Northampton.”

It’s just one example, Masterson added, of the ways public and private investment spur each other, pumping new life into a city already known for its vibrant economic and cultural life.

It Takes a Village

Take, for instance, the impressive volume of work that continues in the Village Hill neighborhood, including a new, $4.1 million headquarters for ServiceNet and the $1 million renovation of a long-vacant Northampton State Hospital building that now houses the Conway School of Landscape Design.

“They used to be in Conway,” the mayor noted, “but they basically decided that students that want to go to a landscape school want to be in a more urban environment, so it’s a perfect fit, and we’re excited they’ve moved to Northampton.”

Meanwhile, the $6.5 million Columns at Rockwell Place transformed another long-dormant hospital structure into a 25-unit residence, with 12 units currently sold, five leased, and eight available. Behind that is Christopher Heights, an assisted-living facility that opened in 2016, and Village Hill Cohousing broke ground last fall.

“So you have this whole diversity of senior living, independent living, and you’ve got some commercial redevelopments, which is very exciting,” Narkewicz said. “And the campus itself has walking trails, open space, community gardens, and it’s only a 10-minute walk from downtown. So, from a sustainability standpoint, it fits the model of not wanting people building subdivisions way out on the edge of town that require roads, services, and more car trips. There’s even a bike-share station there, so you can hop on a bike and go downtown.”

In addition to the usual ebb and flow of small businesses, the Atwood Drive Business Park is fully open just off 1-91 exit 18, boasting a 60,000-square-foot building for the Family Probate Court and other judicial tenants, and two 40,000-square-foot buildings with a host of healthcare tenants, including Cooley Dickinson Health Care and Clinical & Support Options.

The $6.5 million Columns at Rockwell Place

The $6.5 million Columns at Rockwell Place transformed a long-dormant building into a 25-unit residence, one of many recent developments at Village Hill.

Meanwhile, the venerable Autumn Inn on Elm Street was sold last year for $2.25 million to Saltaire Properties, which specializes in breathing new life into outdated hotels. At 60% occupancy, the 32-room inn — which has been renamed the Ellery — would generate annual guest spending of $500,000 and room revenues of $1.1 million, in addition to $34,000 in property taxes and $66,000 in hotel taxes to the city.

And, of course, the cannabis trade continues to be an economic driver. Masterson noted that the city’s 0.75% meals tax brought in $171,000 from November 2017 through January 2018, representing taxes on $22 million revenue. Over the same three months a year later, following the launch of adult-use cannabis sales at New England Treatment Access (NETA), the figure was $187,000, a 9.3% increase that reflected $24 million in revenue.

“One can fairly assume that people who came to NETA also spent some money in the city, and a number of store owners recently said they had seen an uptick in business, so we’ll see if that continues.”

The mayor has been quick to temper people’s long-term expectations because, for most of that recent three-month period, NETA was one of only two recreational marijuana retailers in the state. Since then, INSA in Northampton began selling, and other communities, like Amherst and Chicopee, are expecting businesses to open soon.

“It’ll be interesting to see how the market shakes out once there are more available — and Connecticut and New York are moving quickly to legalize, too,” he said. “We definitely see a lot of Connecticut and New York plates.”

What he hasn’t seen is an uptick in crime or other negative impacts. NETA has been diligent in paying police officers to help manage traffic and renting parking from surrounding businesses and property owners to manage the rush, which was especially significant early on.

That bodes well for other cannabis businesses that have approached Northampton, not only on the retail side, but also manufacturers making food products, a testing lab, and a major cultivation facility to be located at a former gravel pit in Florence.

“For whatever reason, Northampton is viewed as a good place for the cannabis industry,” Narkewicz said. “We’ve been very open and welcoming, our zoning is straightforward and not discriminatory toward cannabis, and we did not put any caps on the number of retailers we would allow here, like many communities have.

“I think people feel Northampton has a kind of built-in visitorship and vibrancy and is a regional destination,” he went on, “so I think they feel like cannabis will incorporate well into the rest of the retail and cultural market here in Northampton.”

Show Time

Speaking of culture, Northampton continues to thrive on that front, thanks to successful developments like CLICK Workspace, which has melded co-working with a robust arts calendar at its Market Street location since 2016, and the purchase of 33 Hawley St. by the Northampton Arts Trust, which is spending $6.8 million to convert it into a multi-dimensional arts, cultural, and education center.

“That’s one reason tech entrepreneurs want to be downtown,” the mayor said. “They want to be in a place that has culture.”

Meanwhile, annual visitorship to the Academy of Music, Three County Fairgrounds, the Paradise City Arts Festival, Smith College Museum of Art, WEBS, Thornes Marketplace, the city’s hotels, and its major one-day downtown events totals nearly 1.24 million annually.

Northampton at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1883
Population: 28,483
Area: 35.8 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential tax rate: $17.29
Commercial tax rate: $17.29
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

Northampton has seen a number of generational business transactions in recent years, as entrepreneurs who were part of the city’s original renaissance 30 to 40 years ago are retiring and passing their enterprises to family. The downtown also sees continual lateral moves, and vacancies fill quickly.

“We are still viewed as a very vibrant destination downtown where people want to locate their business,” Narkewicz said. “And they’re local businesses. We do have a few national chains, but mostly locally owned businesses.”

They’re drawn by the city’s low single tax rate — $17.29, which falls well below the commercial rate in nearby communities — but also by a culture of local loyalty, he added.

“People here support local businesses. Our neighbors are running these businesses, and the people who work in them are our neighbors, too, and when you spend money in these stores, it has a multiplier effect in the community.”

He said editorial writers have occasionally written the city’s obituary over the years, or at least wondered when the decline will occur, but when he attends conferences with other mayors and municipal officials, the feeling he gets is that everyone wants to be like Northampton.

“We’re proud of what we have here, but we don’t take it for granted, and we don’t rest on our laurels,” he told BusinessWest. “We continue to do what we can to promote local businesses and make strategic investments that will help our local economy grow and thrive, and provide jobs and revenues the city needs to provide the services we want to provide.”

It’s a cycle that keeps chugging along, like the morning trains that could start pulling into Northampton’s station later this summer.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Features

The Stars Were Aligned

A high-resolution image of the black hole at the center of the galaxy known as M87.

A high-resolution image of the black hole at the center of the galaxy known as M87.

The image of the black hole in the center of the galaxy known as M87 that was released earlier this month was a groundbreaking development in many respects. It was the first direct visual evidence of a black hole, and it validated Einstein’s century-old theories of relativity. But it also put the spotlight on astronomers at UMass Amherst and a telescope, known as the LMT, that the university operates in partnership with the Mexican government.

Gopal Narayanan wasn’t totally sure, but he recalls that his gut told him “that we had … something.”

‘We’ is the collective that Narayanan, a research Astronomy professor at UMass Amherst, used to describe both his team stationed in April 2017 at the LMT (Large Millimeter Telescope) erected atop a 15,000-foot-high volcano in southern Mexico, and teams at seven other telescopes around the world. And the ‘something,’ as the world now knows, was what would become the first direct visual evidence of a supermassive black hole and its shadow.

Indeed, after a series of new conferences staged around the world announced the breakthrough on April 10, media outlets published what many would call a ‘photograph’ (see above) of the black hole at the center of Messier 87, or M87, as it’s called, a massive galaxy in the Virgo galaxy cluster, some 55 million light years from Earth.

It’s not a photograph in the traditional sense of the word, said Narayanan, but rather, as he’ll explain later, what amounts to a mathematical interpretation of data retrieved from those eight radio telescopes, known collectively as the Event Horizon Telescope, or EHT, a name that denotes the point at which light, matter, and other energy fall into a black hole.

From left: Aleks Popsefanija, Gopal Narayanan, and Peter Schloerb, members of the team at UMass Amherst that helped capture that first image of a black hole.

From left: Aleks Popsefanija, Gopal Narayanan, and Peter Schloerb, members of the team at UMass Amherst that helped capture that first image of a black hole.

While most of the world’s focus has been on that image, what it shows, and what it means — essentially validation of Einstein’s theories of relatively forged nearly a century ago — the collaborative effort that produced that image is an equally compelling and far-less-known story.

As is the large contribution made by UMass Amherst astronomers and the LMT, a facility the university operates jointly with Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Astrofisica, Óptica y Electrónica (INAOE).

The LMT, at 50 meters in diameter, more than half a football field, is the world’s largest single-dish, steerable, millimeter-wavelength telescope in the world, said Peter Schloerb, UMass Amherst’s LMT principal investigator professor, and early on, those working to create the EHT recognized that it could play a vital role in those efforts.

Specifically, an initiative to create what would be become, in effect, a telescope the size of the planet, Schloerb went on, adding that, by combining results from large telescopes scattered across the globe, those searching for a black hole could create a virtual telescope some 9,000 kilometers in diameter.

“It’s quite rare to get eight telescopes scattered around the world in completely different geographic locations — northern and southern hemispheres, east and west — to all have good weather for a stretch of several days, which we did. And you also need to have all the telescopes working technically well, which we did. It took a lot of doing, and there was a lot of preparatory work that had to be done for this campaign.”

“Such a telescope would have the resolution power to detect an orange on the surface of the moon or read the words on a quarter held up in Los Angeles — from Washington, D.C.,” said Schloerb, adding that getting this global telescope network in sync is a huge feat.

Narayanan agreed, noting that, to eventually create that image broadcast to the world earlier this month — nearly two years after the data was actually collected — all eight telescopes had to be operating in perfect weather and with all instrumentation functioning properly, a difficult assignment, especially for the four-day window that was needed.

“It’s quite rare to get eight telescopes scattered around the world in completely different geographic locations — northern and southern hemispheres, east and west — to all have good weather for a stretch of several days, which we did,” he explained. “And you also need to have all the telescopes working technically well, which we did. It took a lot of doing, and there was a lot of preparatory work that had to be done for this campaign.”

In many ways, the image of the M87 black hole justifies decades of hard work at the LMT, a facility located in a challenging environment that has seen its share of struggles over the years, noted Narayanan, adding that the project puts the full potential of the facility on display.

“This is a fantastic validation of all the effort we have put in on the LMT,” he said. “It shows that the telescope works and that it can do ground-breaking science.”

The LMT (Large Millimeter Telescope) in Mexico

The LMT (Large Millimeter Telescope) in Mexico is operated jointly by UMass Amherst and Mexico’s Instituto Nacional de Astrofisica, Óptica y Electrónica.

And the LMT will certainly play a large role in what will hopefully happen next when it comes to capturing images of black holes, said Narayanan. This includes attaining similar images of the black hole at the center of the galaxy known as Sagittarius A* — data is still being collected on it — and it might also include what he called a movie of a black hole — again, not one in the traditional sense (more on that later).

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Narayanan, Schloerb, and astronomy graduate student Aleks Popsefanija about the black-hole project and what will likely come next.

It’s All Relative

Returning to the subject of those observations captured by the EHT, Narayanan said they reveal the image of a black hole and the event horizon surrounding it.

The bright yellow and gold colors seen in the bright ring, which results from the incredible pull the black hole exerts on nearby matter, are not real, he told BusinessWest. They were chosen to convey the intensity of the emissions.

“Typically, astronomers use orangish-red hues to show when things are hot,” he explained. “These are super-hot objects around the black hole.”

This image has been literally decades in the making, he went on, adding that, while scientists have long coveted visual proof of a black hole to validate long-held theories on these mysterious and massively powerful objects, until recently, attaining one was merely a pipe dream.

The key to making it reality is the EHT and an earth-sized telescope it creates, said Popsefanija, an Amherst native who told BusinessWest that, after earning a degree in physics at Carnegie Mellon University in 2014, he was looking for a job, and his search took him the Astronomy department at UMass Amherst. Just a few years later, he would be part of the team at the LMT that made history.

And part of a larger team that would work in sync to gather and coordinate the data from those eight telescopes, which was, as noted, as almost herculean feat.

At the heart of it all is a 1-millimeter-length receiver built for the LMT that would be used to collect the EHT data. Essentially, this receiver, what Narayanan called a “super-conducting mixer” not built specifically for this purpose, takes signals from the black hole, brings them to lower frequencies, digitizes the signals, and sends them on to data recorders.

This same work was being done at the other seven telescopes simultaneously, he went on, adding that synchronizing the telescope network was an exercise in extreme precision, to say the least.

The engineering team responsible for building the 1-millimeter receiver that was installed on the LMT and used for the EHT campaign

The engineering team responsible for building the 1-millimeter receiver that was installed on the LMT and used for the EHT campaign. From left to right, Joe Crowley (MIT Haystack), Gopal Narayanan (UMass), and Ron Grosslein (UMass).

“We had to have very accurate timing in the collection of data,” he explained. “We had to know when the signals arrived at each telescope to a precision of a nanosecond, which is one-billionth of a second.”

So, to get the image that was eventually shared with the world earlier this month, the stars have to be aligned, in every sense of that phrase, said Narayanan, from the weather to the instrumentation. And those weren’t the only challenges to be faced.

Indeed, at 15,000 feet, the view from the LMT is spectacular — for telescopes, as well as the people working at one — but it’s difficult working at that altitude, said Narayanan, adding that one can remain at that elevation for maybe a dozen hours because there is far less oxygen than there is at sea level.

“Every step you take is hard, and thinking is hard, because your brain lacks oxygen,” he explained, adding that these conditions necessitated the need for two teams that would work in shifts at the telescope. “You always question any action you take, and it’s very strenuous work. At the same time, driving up the mountain and seeing the entire world beneath you, seeing the clouds beneath you, is a wonderful and emotional experience as well.”

Through all of that, Narayanan had that gut feeling that the teams working at those telescopes around the globe had ‘something.’

“I had a great deal of confidence that we had collected great data,” he explained, adding that this data then had to be analyzed and vetted, a lengthy, nearly two-year-long process during which astronomers had to keep quiet about their groundbreaking discovery.

Coming into Focus

With that, Narayanan explained how the image was attained. As for what it shows — that asymmetric ring-like structure around a central dark region — this is equally groundbreaking.

Indeed, the findings, as laid out in six papers published in a special issue of the Astrophysical Journal Letters, essentially support Einstein’s theories of relativity and confirm what scientists have long theorized about black holes without actually ever seeing one.

“Professor Einstein’s work has stood the test of time,” he said. “It’s been nearly 100 years since he came up with the two relativity theories — a special theory of relativity dealing with traveling near the speed of light and a general theory of relativity to do with gravitation. Black holes are direct predictions from his GR, general relativity theory, and multiple experiments show the theory works, and works in extreme regimes.

“But this particular regime, a 6-million-solar-mass black hole, was thought to be a place that would really test the limits of that theory,” he went on. “Our big hope was that we would obtain an image that would conclusively prove there is a black hole, and that was without a doubt the case, and that’s the sweet part of this.”

Part of the team in front of the LMT. From left, Gopal Narayanan, Aleks Popstefanija, Sandra Bustamante, Antonio Hernandez (Crya, Morelia, Mexico), David Sanchez, and Lindy Blackburn.

Part of the team in front of the LMT. From left, Gopal Narayanan, Aleks Popstefanija, Sandra Bustamante, Antonio Hernandez (Crya, Morelia, Mexico), David Sanchez, and Lindy Blackburn.

This is uplifting in many respects, said Narayanan, before adding quickly that he would likely have been equally excited, if not more so, if the evidence didn’t support those long-held theories.

“Perhaps if we had found something that violated the predictions of Einstein’s theories of relativity, we would come up in new, uncharted territory that makes us rethink the theories,” he told BusinessWest. “And that’s the way we basically make progress.

“You make a model of the universe and go out and observe to see if that model can be validated by actual observations, which is reality,” he went on. “And then you find out that the theory is not quite right because the observations belie the earlier predictions; that’s how you make progress. That’s not to say we didn’t make any progress — we made a lot of progress.”

And in a many different ways, he said, adding that the M87 project has certainly laid the groundwork for further developments in the search for — and study of — black holes.

And also in the emergence of the LMT. UMass has been involved with that facility for 20 years now, said Narayanan, who offered a quick history lesson.

He said UMass was one of the birthplaces of the pioneering field known as millimeter-wave astronomy back in the 1970s. As part of that effort, the university’s Astronomy department built a 14-millimeter radio telescope just north of the Quabbin Reservoir called the Five College Radioastronomy Observatory, which it operated until roughly 10 years ago, providing training for a few generations of students.

Years ago, it became apparent that the department had achieved about all it could with a facility of that size and commenced a search for a larger telescope. That search led to a partnership with the Mexican government and specifically the INAOE, and eventually the construction of the LMT, which saw what the industry calls ‘first light’ in 2010.

The first receiver built onto it was designed not to look at black holes, but rather the first galaxies to be created after the Big Bang.

The chosen site, the Sierra Negra volcano in the Mexican state of Puebla, brings many benefits, including location (close to the equator), that made it a pivotal piece of the EMT puzzle, said Narayanan, adding that its performance in that project bodes well for the future.

And that includes more work on black holes, including the one in Sagittarius A*, a much smaller black hole than that at M87, with a 4 million solar mass. Astronomers are still collecting data on that object, said Narayanan, adding that there many additional challenges (on top of those already mentioned) when it comes to observing and studying a black hole in the center of our galaxy.

“It’s a smaller black hole, so things move around faster,” he explained. “Also, looking through our galaxy itself produces some scattering of the light coming from the center of our galaxy. But we’re working through the data, and we should produce some results soon.”

As for that movie he mentioned, that may also become a reality through efforts to expand and enhance the EHT process through additional telescopes and other additions.

“We can make multiple images and stack them together to make a movie, as it were, of how things vary around a black hole,” he explained. “And that has fantastic scientific implications that will tell us a lot of things about black holes and the structure of our universe.”

Bottom Line

The image of the black hole at M87 that sped across the globe soon became the star of the show when it came to the groundbreaking discovery — pun intended.

But, in reality, there were many stars, including the teams of astronomers who collaborated on the project, and the LMT itself, a facility that, as Narayanan noted, has put its full talents on display.

Moving forward, the challenge — and the opportunity — lies in building on this breakthrough.

And the stars seem aligned for that to happen as well.

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Mayor Will Reichelt

While the city will miss out on opportunities from its full ban on cannabis-related ventures, Mayor Will Reichelt says, there are new businesses of many kinds coming to the community.

West Springfield Mayor Will Reichelt recalls that, after his community’s City Council voted in the spring of 2018 to place a ban on any and all cannabis-related businesses, he received some texts from his counterparts in Holyoke and Westfield.

He doesn’t remember the exact wording of either one, but he told BusinessWest that they amounted to thank-you notes, as in — and he’s paraphrasing here, obviously — ‘thank you for the tax revenue that might be coming to our cities because it won’t be coming to yours.’

More than a year after that vote and those texts, Reichelt feels confident in saying that the full ban, while obviously well-intentioned, amounts to some missed opportunities for this community, for both the short and long term.

Indeed, West Springfield exists at the intersection of the Massachusetts Turnpike and I-91 (quite literally), and therefore, in many respects, it is the retail center of this region — complete with dozens of big-box stores, car dealerships, restaurants, and more — and draws people from across the region. But this retail hub will not include any cannabis dispensaries, despite a number of ideal sites for such facilities, resulting in, as those mayors pointed out in their texts, tax revenue that will go elsewhere.

But in Reichelt’s view, the ban has potentially deeper ramifications.

“A lot of our tax revenue comes from retail, most of it on Riverdale Street and Memorial Avenue; it’s car sales, it’s big-box stores — that’s a large portion of our commercial tax revenue,” he said. “And to not be open to new discussions, new ideas, and new businesses is going to hurt us in the long run because retail is changing; Amazon is coming, and not everyone is going to want to shop in Riverdale Plaza.

“If things change, we’re really going to struggle,” he went on, quickly adding that things certainly won’t change overnight or even over the next few years. “If we’re looking out 25 to 50 years, and West Springfield gets a name for itself that it’s not into these somewhat controversial but new and innovative business ideas, and the communities around us are, it will be easy to pass West Springfield by.”

Fortunately, at present, most traditional retailers, and consumers, have no intention of passing this community by. In fact, many retailers want in — and in a big way, for those reasons (and because of those roads) listed earlier. As an example, the mayor related the story of how Starbucks is very interested in landing a spot on Riverdale Street — specifically that very popular stretch south of I-91 — and how it will certainly be challenged to find one.

So while West Side won’t be entering the high-stakes competition for cannabis-related businesses any time soon, Reichelt and his administration will be focused on doing what this community has long been able to do — take advantage of its ideal location, already-deep portfolio of retail outlets, and heavy volume of traffic to attract more new businesses.

The team at 1105 Main: from left, Joe Stevens, Eric Waldman, Alex Waldman, and Liz Stevens.

The team at 1105 Main: from left, Joe Stevens, Eric Waldman, Alex Waldman, and Liz Stevens.

And it is enjoying success in this realm, as we’ll see later, with developments ranging from a new hotel on Riverdale Street to a new life for an old landmark just off Memorial Avenue, to the community’s first brewery just down that street.

Meanwhile, beyond those two main retail corridors, there are other intriguing prospects for development. One involves the property known to most as the United Bank building on Elm Street. That’s not its official name, but the bank has long occupied it and is therefore associated with it.

But United has all but moved out, and there us now a huge ‘for sale’ sign on the side of the property.

As the mayor gestured toward it while walking downtown with BusinessWest, he noted that, years ago, there were a number of a small storefronts within that footprint along the street. Turning back the clock and creating a new generation of destinations along that block would help build on growing momentum in that area of the city, he said.

Meanwhile, a former mill property along the Westfield River just over the line from Agawam is being gifted to the city by Neenah Paper, the manufacturer soon to vacate the property, said the mayor, adding that a number of new uses, including some residential options, are being explored.

These are just a few of the intriguing developments unfolding in West Side, a city that won’t be entering the intense competition for cannabis-related ventures anytime soon, but still has a host of other emerging business and economic-development stories.

Ale’s Well

Reichelt laughed heartily as he recalled the e-mail that is at the heart of a story he’s now told more times than he can count.

It was from his city planner, and typed onto the subject line was the phrase ‘Two Weeks Notice.’ Upon further reading, the alarmed mayor learned that this was not a reference to another job opportunity seized, but rather an update on the plans for an intriguing new business coming to the community.

“After that, I said, ‘can we just put ‘brewery’ in the subject line?’” said Reichelt, noting that the Two Weeks Notice Brewing Co., located in the former Angie’s Tortellinis facility since late last year, makes some nice IPAs, and has become a solid addition to the business landscape in West Side.

And it is just one of several of those over the past several months, including a new name over a familiar door.

That would be 1105 Main, an address, but also the name of a new eatery at the site of what would have to be considered a West Side landmark — the old Hofbrahaus restaurant.

Joe Stevens, who owned and operated that German restaurant with his wife, Liz, for decades, closed it roughly a year ago. The couple thought they had the building sold, but the deal fell through, prompting a reassessment of their plans.

“We starting talking about a theme restaurant,” said Joe, adding that what eventually emerged is a true family affair, involving sons Eric Waldman, who had been sous chef at a restaurant in Westchester County, N.Y. and was looking for a new and different challenge, and Alex Waldman.

Joe told BusinessWest they are calling this “an American eatery,” offering “familiar food with a twist.” As an example, he cited the lasagna, which is pan fried after it’s baked and includes a wild boar and bison bolognese.

The property at 1105 Main St. was substantially renovated for this makeover. The bar area, popular with regulars then and now, has a fresh look, as does the dining room, which has a brighter atmosphere and a hardwood floor, found underneath an inch of carpet glue after the old flooring had been ripped out.

The new eatery is drawing a mix of families and business people, said Joe, and it even complements another new business just across the street — Hot Brass, a firearm and bow range that shares space with Guns Inc., a seller of firearms.

“We like to say, ‘after you’re done shooting, come in for a shot and a beer,’” said Stevens, adding that a number of people have done just that, thus bringing still more vibrancy to the Memorial Avenue area that has changed dramatically over the past several years.

Indeed, the face of the street — home, of course, to the Big E — has been altered by the addition of Fathers & Sons’ new Audi and Volkswagen dealerships, as well a new retail plaza featuring a Florence Savings Bank branch and new stores in the Century Plaza.

West Springfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1774
Population: 28,529
Area: 17.5 square miles
County: Hampden
residential tax rate: $16.96
commercial tax rate: $32.55
Median Household Income: $40,266
Median Family Income: $50,282
Type of government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Eversource Energy, Harris Corp., Home Depot, Interim Health Care, Mercy Home Care
* Latest information available

Memorial Avenue, like the city’s other main retail corridor, is in a seemingly constant state of change, said Reichelt, adding that still more change is likely as new tenants are sought for two locations across from the Big E — the former Monte Carlo restaurant and the former Debbie Wong eatery.

Still further down the road is more property in flux, the former Medallion Motel and the vacant lot next to it, formerly the site of an auto-repair shop. Redevelopment of those parcels will likely have to wait for another day, said Reichelt, because they sit in the shadow of the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge, which crosses the Westfield River and connects West Side with Agawam and is still in the early stages of what is expected to a four-year reconstruction and widening project.

Traffic is often backed up at the site, which is why developers are unlikely to do anything in that area for some time, said the mayor, adding, as his counterpart in Agawam did a few months ago in this space, that the goal is to minimize the disruptions from the bridge project, especially during the 17 days of the Big E, and try to incentivize construction crews to reduce that four-year timetable for this initiative.

Forward Progress

Back on Riverdale Street, a new Marriott Courtyard is set to open later this spring, one of several new developments on or around that busy retail corridor, which, like Memorial Avenue, is in a seemingly constant state of the change.

Others include a gas station at the Costco in the Riverdale Shops, a project expected to commence later this year; the opening of a 1.5-mile bike path behind those shops, due to open in May; and a $21 expansion of the Agri-Mark facility on Riverdale Street, completed last fall.

Looking down the road, Reichelt said the site of now-closed Bertucci’s, located along that stretch south of I-91, is still awaiting new development, and he’s optimistic one will come because properties don’t generally remain vacant for long on that stretch of road.

Meanwhile, as noted, there are developments unfolding outside of those two main retail corridors that could have important ramifications for the community. This is especially true of the United Bank property on Elm Street.

“That used to be a collection of small stores,” he said of the facility, adding that it was renovated to house a bank branch and several of the institution’s departments. “There was a nice bookstore and coffee shop, a restaurant … it was a real destination.”

It can be that again, he went on, adding that his vision includes the community petitioning the state for additional liquor licenses and perhaps transforming the property into a home for a number of hospitality-related businesses that would complement those already thriving in that area, such as the Majestic Theater (located on that same block) and bNapoli restaurant.

Mayor Will Reichelt says redevelopment of the former United Bank building on Elm Street could be a catalyst for growth in the city’s downtown.

Mayor Will Reichelt says redevelopment of the former United Bank building on Elm Street could be a catalyst for growth in the city’s downtown.

“I’d like to section that property back off again,” he said. “If we can get two more restaurants down there, a coffee shop or bagel place, and businesses like that, we could get a lot more life in the downtown, creating a real destination.

“Everyone always talks about how they’d like to have a mini-Northampton,” he went on. “That’s never going to happen if you don’t have stuff for people to do. This [property] represents a huge opportunity for us to create more things to do.”

And while hopefully generating more things to do with that downtown project, another initiative may well create more places to live.

The Neehah Paper Co. has donated the 100,000-square-foot mill property (formerly Strathmore Paper and then Fibermark) to the city, said the mayor, adding that residential is perhaps the best reuse option, be it elderly housing, affordable housing, or perhaps some combination, although other opportunities for development exist.

“We’ve run some breweries through it, and there’s been some interest,” he explained. “But we can’t really do much until we own it. This represents a great opportunity because we’re going to an actual section of riverfront property, which we don’t have in town.”

Location, Location, Location

Returning to the matter of cannabis-related ventures and the ban that covers the full spectrum of such businesses, Reichelt reiterated his concern that this goes well beyond lost commercial tax revenue.

“Councilors like to say that we’re business-friendly,” he told BusinessWest. “I say, ‘well, no, you’re not; you just completely wiped out an entire industry from coming to town.’”

This makes West Side an island of sorts when it comes to the cannabis trade, he went on, adding that there is still a lot of business activity happening on that island, with the promise of more to come in the months and years ahead.

The great location and easy access to major highways that would make West Side a perfect host for marijuana-related businesses also make it ideal for most any type of retail and hospitality-related venture.

And, as it has for decades, the city will continue to make of the most of all that it has to offer.

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

Features

Hopes Are High

After recreational marijuana use became legal in Massachusetts in 2016, the expectation was that retail stores would pop up quickly within a couple of years. That hasn’t happened, as the state — and host communities — have taken a deliberately measured approach to permitting. But with early returns strong from a few shops, and towns reporting solid tax benefits and no real community disruption, the pace of openings should begin to increase — and so will the economic benefits of this new industry.

If Western Mass. was full of people who thought the sky was falling when recreational marijuana was legalized, well, Mark Zatyrka thinks fewer of them are saying the same thing now.

“I knew it would change. But I feel like it’s changed at a more rapid pace than I would have expected,” he said of public perceptions about the new access to cannabis products in the Bay State. “When we held our public meetings, we had a few folks who thought we were going to destroy the world and everything would come crashing down once we opened. But the opposite has been true.”

Take the location of INSA, the cannabis dispensary he owns in Easthampton, which has sold marijuana for medical purposes since February 2018, but began selling for recreational, or adult, use in December. Tucked beside Eastworks at the rear of the Keystone Mills building on Pleasant Street, he said some may have worried about INSA’s proximity to a nearby park where people hike.

“But, really, we bring more people to the area, we have cameras all over the place, it’s well-lit, so it’s actually a safer place to be,” Zatyrka said. “If the perception was that customers are hoodlums who come in, go out back, and get high and do crime, well, look around — we serve almost every demographic you can imagine, from seniors to millennials, rich and poor, and they’re not violent criminals. They’re not here to cause trouble. Yeah, the perception has changed pretty rapidly.”

Perceptions — pro and con — of this new industry have undoubtedly shaped a permitting process, on both the state and local levels, that has moved more slowly than first expected when recreational use became legal in 2016. The state’s first adult-use retail shops were expected to be open last July, but instead, the first two opened in November, and the pace of new shops since then has been leisurely at best.

But they’re coming. And the ones that are open are changing those worst-case perceptions.

Mark  Zatyrka says INSA has attracted a diverse array of customers

Mark Zatyrka says INSA has attracted a diverse array of customers since starting recreational sales in December.

Take New England Treatment Access (NETA) in Northampton, the Bay State’s first retailer of cannabis products for recreational use.

“For us, it’s been a positive experience,” Northampton Mayor David Narcewicz told BusinessWest. “We’re starting to see some of the economic benefits in terms of taxes, and I know our local businesses have been creative in embracing the new industry. Businesses back in November were offering specials to people who came into town and showed a receipt for shopping at NETA. If anything, I think the business community has been receptive.”

He noted that Northampton’s voters were among the most enthusiastic in their support of legal cannabis, both during the 2012 statewide vote to legalize medicinal marijuana, then for adult use in 2016. As mayor, he said, his approach has been to respect the community’s voice.

“So we’ve been very open and proactive; we created zoning regulations that essentially treat this new industry like any other business, and we did not impose caps on the number of retailers like many communities did.

“We also had the experience of having one of the first medical dispensaries in the state,” he added, speaking of NETA’s original business plan. “We had a track record of seeing how they had operated and had the chance to see what the potential impacts were. They’ve been a good member of our business community; they worked with us to make sure their opening went smoothly, and have been working with surrounding businesses to make sure there’s no disruption.”

Stories like this are why, despite the slow rollout of pot shops so far — and state tax revenue well under early projections — proponents are confident that the trends toward greater public acceptance of this industry, and tax revenues to match, will soon accelerate.

“As an industry, we’ve done a good job to ensure that things are done correctly, and the state’s done a good job putting measures in place to help ensure it is a safe industry and people are getting a safe product and it’s dispensed in a safe way,” Zatyrka said. “The state did a lot of things right, which is why we’re seeing a successful rollout. I know some people wish it moved quicker, but I understand why it didn’t. There are thousands of applications, a lot of inspections, a lot to oversee. It takes time. It’s a new industry for everybody.”

Green Growth

As part of its new marijuana laws, Massachusetts imposes a 17% tax — a 6.25% sales tax plus a 10.75% excise tax — on cannabis businesses, while cites and towns take another 3%, plus whatever else they may choose to impose as part of their host-community agreements.

In Northampton’s case, that’s an additional 3%, called a ‘community-impact fee.’ The city received two checks recently: $449,825 from the Department of Revenue representing the 3% tax rate for recreational marijuana sales in November, December, and January, and $287,506 from NETA itself, reflecting the 3% community-impact fee on recreational sales for December and January.

“When we held our public meetings, we had a few folks who thought we were going to destroy the world and everything would come crashing down once we opened. But the opposite has been true.”

Other towns are seeing their coffers benefit as well. Theory Wellness opened in Great Barrington in December, paying $90,000 in taxes to the town in its first month.

“They opened to long lines, which should level off as they get more competition,” Ed Abrahams, vice chair of the town’s Select Board, told BusinessWest last month. “This is new for all of us, but so far, there have been logistically few problems.”

Southern Berkshire County communities that embrace the cannabis trade are sure to benefit from the continued illegality of the drug in both Connecticut and New York, though leaders in both states have been talking about whether that should remain the case. Brandon Pollock, CEO of Theory Wellness, told the New York Post last week that about 15,000 New Yorkers have made purchases there since its Jan. 11 opening.

“I’d say we get dozens, if not hundreds, a day from the greater New York City area,” he noted. “We get people coming up in Zipcars, people carpooling, people who say they hardly ever drive at all — but will drive to purchase cannabis.”

That sort of consumer response is intriguing to towns that see this industry as a new economic driver.

“Some cities have been great to work with, some a little more difficult to work with,” Zatyrka said. “Easthampton is very progressive city, and early on it was very obvious they wanted us here.”

That’s important from a competition perspective, he said, because the application process is already time-consuming, and communities that want to make it even more difficult to move through permitting and craft a host-community agreement can tie up a project for years, while other shops in more amenable towns are opening and picking up crucial market share and customer loyalty.

“Easthampton was great,” he went on. “Everyone wants to find a solution instead of putting up roadblocks. They want us to be successful, to get their name on the map, and they saw the benefits early on.”

He’s seeing a gradual shift, too, in where proposed projects will be located, noting that, when INSA started cultivating marijuana for medical use, most such outfits were setting up in old mill buildings or industrial parks. “Now it’s not so restrictive — people can open up on Main Street, and wind up in locations that are made for retail use, for people to come visit.”

That’s certainly the goal in Northampton, which is looking at myriad applications from cannabis manufacturers, cultivators, testing labs, and retail establishments, Narcewicz noted. It welcomes them because it sees value in how NETA, which isn’t even located downtown, has impacted business.

“NETA has created good-paying jobs in the community, and it’s an important way to expand our tax base and grow our local economy,” he said. “We have a local economy focused on retail, dining, entertainment, and a very vibrant cultural economy. And I think this complements it.”

There have been traffic and parking challenges, he added, “but if you talk to most retailers, downtowns having too many visitors is never a bad thing. We’re kind of equipped to handle a lot of visitors. And NETA has been very responsive in terms of renting additional parking from neighboring businesses, which helps them as well by providing an income stream. So far, it’s been a very positive experience, and there’s no reason to believe that’s going to change.”

Making a Name

BRIGADE has certainly benefited from this new industry. The Hadley-based brand-services company has worked with INSA extensively, including the creation of the designs for all its products and marketing.

“Everyone calls cannabis the wild west, and it is from a branding and design perspective, too,” said Kirsten Modestow, BRIGADE’s owner and executive creative director. “The rules for a whole category are being written overnight. That’s challenging, but it’s also some of the most exciting stuff we’ve ever worked on.”

With some cannabis businesses coming out with 100 or more products, it presents a unique branding challenge, she added, because the goal is not only to create a memorable look, but to help customers, many of whom have little experience with marijuana, navigate the products.

“One of the upsides of this industry is the impact it’s having on our communities, and it’s providing a lot of new opportunities and jobs,” she said. “It’s providing a lot of work for people, even tapping into farmers and other people who have services to offer and know what they’re doing.”

The education aspect Modestow touched on is one that continues in the store, Zatyrka said. The sales associates — he prefers that title to the flip industry term ‘budtenders’ — are the same ones who have worked with medical patients for a long time, and they have the training to dig deep into the science behind the products, so they can effectively explain them.

“We understand it’s a product that needs to be consumed safely, and we take that seriously,” he said. “We don’t want to be liable for someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing and eats an entire chocolate bar and has to go to the ER. We do all in our power to prevent that from happening.”

The coming months and years will see more education (and more tax revenues) as pot-shop openings pick up the pace — including Evergreen Strategies, LLC, which recently inked a host-community agreement with Belchertown to bring a facility to that town as early as this fall.

The Boston Globe recently cited industry analysts who say Massachusetts has a much slower local approval process and a more complex system to navigate than other states, and the state Cannabis Control Commission has placed a premium on an adult-use regulatory structure that supports public health and public safety. The measured pace ensures that stores pass inspections, sell lab-tested products, hire vetted workers, and track their products.

“It’s a growing industry, and will continue to grow,” said Zatyrka, who plans to open an adult-use dispensary in Springfield and has a cultivating and manufacturing license in Pennsylvania as well. Meanwhile, INSA is doubling its cultivation — located directly above the Easthampton store — and is looking to triple it in the future. “We’re still a few years out before we can meet the demands of the state. So it’s going to be hard work until then to keep up our supply with demand.”

The work is rewarding, though, especially for someone who treated his chronic pain for more than 15 years with oxycontin, oxycodone, morphine, and methadone, and suffered side effects that drastically outweighed the benefits.

“Thanks to cannabis, I was able to stop taking them,” Zatyrka said. “Cannabis helped with the withdrawals, and now I only use cannabis to treat my chronic pain, and it works 100 times better than all the opioids. I know firsthand the power of cannabis versus painkillers.”

He tells that story not because it’s unique, but because it’s representative of many people he comes across, with stories about how cannabis has helped them with seizures, Crohn’s disease, arthritis, and multiple sclerosis. And if legal adult use is helping to tear down the last bits of stigma around cannabis, he’s all for it.

“It’s incredibly gratifying to hear the stories and how grateful people are,” he said. “They’re able to get benefits from cannabis, and don’t have to hide it like they once did.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]m