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Complex Equation

Dinesh Patel, left, and Vid Mitta in the soon-to-be-renovated lobby of the Tower Square Hotel.

Dinesh Patel, left, and Vid Mitta in the soon-to-be-renovated lobby of the Tower Square Hotel.

Both the office/retail complex known as Tower Square and the hotel that sits on the property would be considered somewhat risky investments, given their recent history. But the investment group Springfield Hospitality believes otherwise — in both cases. The new ownership group has announced an ambitious plan to get the Marriott flag back on the hotel, and it is confident about gaining a wide range of new tenants on the retail side of the equation.

As they talked about their plans for Tower Square, the downtown Springfield landmark they acquired last year, and the hotel that is a prominent part of the complex, Vid Mitta and Dinesh Patel had to be careful, even cryptic, with some of their comments.

Especially when it came to the long-rumored signing of the YMCA of Greater Springfield as a major new tenant. That deal has not been finalized, said the partners as they talked with BusinessWest following a press conference late last month on their plans for the complex. And when it is, that news will be announced by the Y.

But also when it came to the small park across Main Street from Tower Square. They hinted quietly that this acreage — dubbed the ‘Little Park for a Little While’ after the Steiger’s department store that sat on the site was torn down (yes, that was 24 years ago now) — will likely become the site of another “hospitality-related business,” probably a boutique hotel.

“We really can’t say anything about that at this time; that’s for … later; that will be phase two,” said Mitta, president and CEO of Mitta’s Group and a partner with Patel and also Rohit Patel and Kamlesh Patel of Maine in the Tower Square project.

As for what’s happening now, Mitta and Patel were not at all cryptic or even careful as they talked about Tower Square, the hotel, their plans for both, and their optimism when it comes to achieving progress and profitability at the office/retail complex that has certainly seen better days.

Peter Marks

Peter Marks says a long list of renovations and upgrades must be undertaken to get the Marriott flag back over the hotel, and the new ownership group is committed to making them.

“When we looked at Tower Square as a possible investment, we saw opportunity where perhaps some didn’t,” said Patel, owner of the Hampton Inn on Columbus Avenue in Springfield, a Quality Inn in Chicopee, and other hotels across the region, adding that, while there is a good deal of vacant space in the complex, especially on the retail side, there is a solid foundation on which to build, with two colleges, UMass Amherst and Cambridge College, assuming large footprints in the building.

And there are already some new building blocks in place, including White Lion Brewing, which is constructing a brewery and tasting area in the long-vacant Spaghetti Freddy’s space along Bridge Street.

As for the hotel, the press conference was called to announce that the ownership group is on schedule and on target to get the ‘Marriott’ name back on the façade. It was removed and replaced with ‘Tower Square Hotel’ in the summer of 2017 as the complex’s former owner, MassMutual, was putting the property on the market.

“When we looked at Tower Square as a possible investment, we saw opportunity where perhaps some didn’t.”

To get that brand name back, the owners must complete a comprehensive renovation and upgrade, said Peter Marks, general manager of the hotel, adding that plans have been blueprinted, considerable infrastructure work has already been completed, and the owners are committed to spending “tens of millions of dollars” to return the hotel to prominence and make it a vital cog in the ongoing resurgence in downtown Springfield.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with Marks and members of the ownership team about Tower Square and its future (or at least the subjects they could talk about at this time) and why they believe this was a solid investment for them, and the city.

New Lease on Life

Mitta acknowledged that, to the casual observer, anyway, the glass at Tower Square probably looks more half-empty (at least) than half-full.

But the total amount of vacant space (perhaps 20% of the complex) is less than most would think, and there has been, as noted, some progress made toward bringing that number down further.

White Lion will make Tower Square its mailing — and brewing — address, he said, adding quickly that a staffing company and AT&T have come on as tenants recently.

And there is that solid foundation of education facilities on which to build, he said, adding that there are a number of different ways the space may be repurposed in the future.

This is what the new ownership group — operating under name Springfield Hospitality Group — saw when it began looking at Tower Square as a potential investment in 2018. The group paid $7 million for the 25-story office tower and attached retail space, parking garages, and the Steiger’s parcel. The hotel, a separate purchase, was acquired for $10.5 million.

“With Tower Square as a prominent landmark in the city’s downtown, we think we can bring all kinds of businesses, not just retail, to this location,” he told BusinessWest. “We think we can transform the mall into different kinds of uses.”

As an example, he said the complex could become an ‘educational hub,’ or a bigger one, given that there are already two institutions with classrooms and other facilities there.

“We’re working with two other local colleges,” he said, adding that he could not disclose their names because the talks were very preliminary. “Meanwhile, we want to bring in some basic amenities such as a nail salon or a massage parlor or banking. Overall, there are many ways we can fill the available spaces, and we have already started implementing them.”

By that, he meant the AT&T store, the new staffing agency, and the fitness center and daycare components of the YMCA’s operation, which, as noted, have not been finalized.

Overall, flexibility will be the watchword moving forward, he said, and while there are certain visions that have developed for what might the Tower Square complex might look like in a year, or five years, the shape it takes will ultimately be determined by the marketplace and the types of opportunities that present themselves.

“With Tower Square as a prominent landmark in the city’s downtown, we think we can bring all kinds of businesses, not just retail, to this location. We think we can transform the mall into different kinds of uses.”

“We didn’t have a full plan for Tower Square, because as a businessman, you have to take what is available and turn it into opportunity,” Mitta noted, adding that the business plan calls for being profitable “from day one,” and more so with each passing quarter and year.

As for the hotel, it was “unflagged” — yes, that’s the industry term — when Marriott presented a long list of needed renovations and upgrades to the previous owner, MassMutual, which decided those expenditures were not worth making.

As with Tower Square itself, the Springfield Hospitality Group saw things differently, said Patel, adding that he and his partners believe the sizable investment — whatever it will be — will ultimately translate into enough room bookings, weddings, meetings, and other events to justify the expense of getting the Marriott name back over the front desk.

Mitta agreed. He said new construction of a Marriott would require an investment of between $200,000 and $300,000 per room, based on where this building project was taking place. Between the acquisition price of the hotel and the cost of the planned renovations and upgrades, the Springfield Hospitality Group is in that ballpark and probably just below.

“And if those new construction projects are going to work, why not renovations at this prestigious landmark?” he asked, before answering that question himself, in the affirmative.

Plans call for what Marks called an ‘inside-out’ concept, where elements of the city are incorporated into the design and décor of the renovated hotel. Specific improvements call for renovations to each room and the addition of one room, a suite, bringing the total to 266, said Marks. Also, the sixth floor, familiar to most area business owners and managers because it’s home to the banquet space and conference rooms, will get a makeover that includes a new fitness center with glass walls overlooking the rooftop garden.

A new, much larger bridal suite will be added, he went on, noting that the lobby will be given a new look as well.

“There are a lot of exciting changes,” he said, adding that the hotel will become part of what’s called the ‘Reimagined Marriott World,’ a comprehensive survey of customers and potential customers to determine what they want in a hotel — and a Marriott.

“The feedback was, ‘we want more than a place to sleep,’” he told BusinessWest. “They said, ‘we want a place where we can connect, relax, entertain, and do all the things we want to do.’”

And this led to the conceptualization of what he called a ‘great room’ in the lobby.

“The entire great room is the one place to be,” he said. “There’s a bar there, you can eat anywhere in that whole great-room area, and technology will allow our staff to deliver unsurpassed hospitality in the market by going out and greeting the customer with tablet in hand and checking them in the lobby.”

Model rooms will be available for viewing this spring, he went on, adding that construction, already underway on infrastructure systems, will move to more visible areas in the coming weeks.

Staying Power

“We’re going to be the number-one, most prestigious hotel in Western Mass.,” said Mitta, adding that the planned renovations and improvements should position the hotel to fully capitalize on the momentum being seen in downtown Springfield.

He noted that the arrival of MGM Springfield, as well as the performances and events it will bring, add up to considerable opportunity for a name-brand hotel located in the heart of downtown.

“Usually, a casino like this has 1,000 rooms, and some have 1,800 or 2,000 rooms,” Mitta explained. “This one has 250 rooms. That’s not enough when you bring events like Stevie Wonder and Cher to your city. This creates opportunities. If we make this hotel business-friendly with a lot of amenities, people will stay downtown.”

That was the thinking behind this large investment, and the partners who made it are confident their investment will soon start paying real dividends.

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

Features

Cruising Altitude

Two Roads Tap Room

Two Roads Tap Room is among several food and drink options Bradley has either added recently or plans to open in the coming year.

It’s no secret that the air-travel industry is a competitive one. But Kevin Dillon said it’s doubly so for the airports themselves.

“We’re competing with many regional airports for passengers, but we’re also competing with every airport in the country for limited assets — meaning aircraft,” he told BusinessWest. “Airlines will put aircraft where they get the best return. So we have to provide the best customer service possible, along with keeping operating costs low for airlines. Airports that can do both will be very successful.”

By any standard, Bradley International Airport has been exactly that in recent years, said Dillon, executive director of the Connecticut Airport Authority (CAA), which has managed the airport in Windsor Locks since 2013 — during which time it has enjoyed six straight years of passenger growth.

Part of that momentum stems from giving passengers what they need, and that’s more flight destinations. Recently announced non-stop additions include service to Denver, Raleigh-Durham, and Orlando on Frontier Airlines; to Pittsburgh on Via Airlines, and to St. Louis on Southwest Airlines.

Kevin Dillon

Kevin Dillon

“We continue to be very heavily focused on airline route development, and we continue to push for additional non-stop routes,” Dillon said, adding that the top goal these days is to boost West Coast service, particularly to Seattle, which would allow easy, one-stop access to Asia from Bradley.

“We already have service into Los Angeles and San Francisco, but Seattle would complement those very nicely,” he explained, adding that the CAA is also focused on Phoenix, Austin, Milwaukee, Nashville, and Jacksonville. “As it stands today, we feel we have a very healthy non-stop menu, but we want to expand that.”

Internationally, the daily Aer Lingus flight to Dublin introduced in 2016 has becoming increasingly popular with area business and leisure flyers, and the airline recently committed to another four years at Bradley.

“That service has been a success, especially during the spring and summer months, when business travel to Europe is supplemented by more leisure travel to Ireland,” he added. “We’ll be exploring additional trans-Atlantic service, but we also want to be very careful to make sure we’re fully supporting the Aer Lingus service.”

“Airlines will put aircraft where they get the best return. So we have to provide the best customer service possible, along with keeping operating costs low for airlines. Airports that can do both will be very successful.”

So, Bradley continues to give flyers what they need in terms of destinations. But just as important is giving them what they want. That’s where customer service comes in — and it’s a much more involved game than it was a few decades ago.

Comfort Zone

When Dillon entered the air-travel world in 1975, he said, operating airports was viewed exclusively as a government function, and airports were largely utilitarian in design. Now, it’s a very competitive business that’s laser-focused on pleasing its customers.

Bradley is doing so in a number of ways, including new eateries, such as recent additions Phillips Seafood and Two Roads Tap Room. “We’re looking to add additional concessions in 2019 — particularly in the concourse that houses United and American. Folks can look forward to some new brands coming in 2019; we’re negotiating the deals right now.

“That nicely complements some improvements made in other areas of the airport,” he went on. “Two Roads and Phillips are doing very well, and so is our club, the Escape Lounge. Black Bear restaurant closed down, and it’s going to be redone and refreshed. A lot of good things are coming to the terminal building.”

On that list is a planned $5 million renovation of all public restrooms in the complex, he added. “Everything we do here in the terminal building, all the improvements we make at Bradley, are with an eye toward improved customer service, whether it’s new concessions or something as routine as adding a new elevator. We’re constantly looking to make someone’s journey through the terminal building better.”

Meanwhile, the CAA recently announced that Travelers Aid International has begun serving Bradley’s passengers with a guest-service volunteer program. Forty-five volunteers currently staff the service — which operates out of the Information Center on the lower level of Terminal A, the baggage-claim level — while Travelers Aid continues to recruit more of them.

Travelers Aid currently operates similar guest-service volunteer programs at four other airports: New York JFK, Newark Liberty, Washington Dulles, and Washington Reagan. In addition, it operates the information booth at Washington Union Station. At these five locations, more than 750 Travelers Aid volunteers assisted more than 4.2 million passengers in 2017.

These service-focused improvements have all contributed to Bradley’s continued rise up the annual Condé Nast Traveler poll. The publication’s most recent Readers’ Choice Awards recognized Bradley as the third-best airport in the U.S. Travelers gave the airport high marks for “convenient on-site parking, plentiful charging stations and free wi-fi, decent restaurant options, and an overall relaxed atmosphere.”

airport terminals must be attractive and packed with convenient amenities

Kevin Dillon says airport terminals must be attractive and packed with convenient amenities in order to draw business in a competitive market.10

Selling Convenience

Dillon hopes they have similar praise for Bradley’s planned, $210 million ground transportation center, which is the final stages of design and financing. Construction may begin as soon as this year.

When it’s open, passengers will be able to fly into Bradley and connect to the transportation center via a walkway from the terminal. All the rental-car companies serving Bradley will be located there, as well as 830 spaces of public parking.

“We have rental cars scattered all around airport,” Dillon said. “Being able to walk right into the new center to get a car is, by itself, a great customer-service improvement.”

“We continue to be very heavily focused on airline route development, and we continue to push for additional non-stop routes.”

The transportation facility will also serve as a transit hub for the various bus services into and out of Bradley, as a connecting point to the rail line that now connects New Haven with Springfield. “We feel this is a real opportunity to connect the airport to that rail service,” he added. “We want to have a location within this transportation center where we can process rail and bus passengers.”

Meanwhile, the CAA expects to complete the new airport entrance roadway this summer, he noted.

“That was a safety improvement as well as a capacity improvement, as we look to grow the airport. We want to be sure people can easily access ground transportation, and make sure that driving into airport is just as convenient as the terminal building.”

When the CAA took over operations at Bradley in 2013, it was handling roughly 5.5 million passengers a year. Now, that figure is more than 6.5 million. But Dillon doesn’t think the airport is close to its potential.

“How big can Bradley Airport get? I do think we can be a 10 million passenger airport,” he told BusinessWest — but only if it continues to drive improvements in what passengers need, and also what they want.

“We know, at the end of the day, that what we’re selling is convenience,” he said. “When you compare Bradley with Logan or the New York airports, what differentiates us is that people look at Bradley as the most convenient option.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Joseph Bednar

Mayor Linda Tyer

Mayor Linda Tyer says Pittsfield’s leaders remain focused on the needs of its individual neighborhoods in order to generate economic development.

As part of her annual state-of-the-city address recently, Pittsfield Mayor Linda Tyer praised the arrival of Wayfair — the fastest-growing e-commerce home-décor company in the world — on a number of levels.

Perhaps most importantly, by opening a sales and service center, the company has created 300 new jobs in Pittsfield. Wayfair is also a locally grown success story, founded by Pittsfield High School graduate Niraj Shah. And, Tyer said, Wayfair’s presence signals to other major employers that they can be successful in this city of about 45,000 people in the heart of Berkshire County.

But Wayfair’s arrival speaks to a broader success story as well — that of a city-wide development strategy that’s bearing fruit.

“Wayfair choosing Pittsfield wasn’t happenstance,” she said. “Rather, the foundation was set with the alignment of the city’s economic-development strategy. The city joined forces with the Pittsfield Economic Development Authority and the Pittsfield Economic Revitalization Corporation. Together, we created the ‘red-carpet team,’ the Mayor’s Economic Development Council, and a new position of Business Development manager.”

In their discussions with companies looking to set up shop in Pittsfield, Tyer noted, those entities are touting not only the economic benefits of doing business here, but quality of life. And people are listening.

“We prepared our presentation assuming that Wayfair will want to know what incentives we might be able to offer them,” she explained. “As the first session got underway, Wayfair’s representatives said they’re not yet interested in the financial incentives. They’d rather learn about Pittsfield’s lifestyle, our schools, our neighborhoods. They wanted to make sure that our community culture aligned with Wayfair’s culture.”

Pittsfield at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1761
Population: 44,737
Area: 42.5 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $19.42
Commercial Tax Rate: $39.94
Median Household Income: $35,655
Median family Income: $46,228
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Berkshire Health Systems; General Dynamics; Petricca Industries Inc.; SABIC Innovative Plastics; Berkshire Bank
* Latest information available

The city’s red-carpet team, made up of city and state officials whose purpose is to develop strategies and explore incentives to support business expansion or startups, has been deployed in myriad cases to help companies move and expand in Pittsfield. Another resource Tyer is excited about is the Berkshire Innovation Center, which broke ground in September at the William Stanley Business Park.

This 20,000-square-foot facility that will support and advance the work of small and medium companies in the life sciences, advanced manufacturing, and technology, featuring cutting-edge equipment available to advanced manufacturers for research and development of new products. In partnership with Berkshire Community College, the center will be a place of teaching and learning, creating a pipeline of trained employees that area companies desperately need.

Neighborhoods on the Rise

Meanwhile, Tyer touted a downtown district generating energy through its mix of eateries, boutiques, and urban apartments, not mention a renovation of the historic Beacon Cinema on North Street by new owner Phoenix Theatres, which refreshed the interior, enhanced the seats, and added more showtimes.

“Downtown is Pittsfield’s front porch,” Tyer said. “We must remain watchful, always, to ensure a spirited, vibrant experience for all who live in and visit our city.”

She added that it’s time for the city to build on the successes of the North Street revitalization and focus more attention on the historic Tyler Street artery.

“My grandmother, who just turned 95, grew up on Tyler Street,” the mayor said. “She has fond memories of sitting on the front porch, getting an ice cream, and walking to North Street with her sisters to buy fabric at Newbury’s. Tyler Street can be that again, but with a modern twist.”

Anchored by Berkshire Medical Center, General Dynamics, and the William Stanley Business Park, the neighborhood is ripe for a renaissance, she argued. One development toward that goal is the conversion of the former St. Mary the Morningstar Church to 29 units of market-rate housing, a project that drew on $125,000 in state finding for infrastructure improvements around the building.

In addition, the Baker-Polito administration awarded a $30,000 grant last May to support small businesses in the neighborhood. The funding, Tyer explained, will be applied to Pittsfield’s Storefront Enhancement Program. “This is vital financial assistance for businesses to make façade improvements to boost visibility, attractiveness, and ensure accessibility.”

Work also began last summer on the Tyler Street Streetscape Design Project, which aims to create a curated throughway that addresses the needs of pedestrians and bicycles, improves lighting and landscaping, identifies dedicated bus stops, preserves on-street parking, and elevates public spaces. The completed design work is expected to be unveiled early this year.

Going forward, the city will continue to seek ways to take advantage of private investment in North Street and Tyler Street, both designated as Opportunity Zones, Tyer said. “Alliances with local and state representatives, financial institutions, and developers will spur capital investment and job creation.”

On the public-safety front, the mayor focused on several incidents in the Westside area of town, citing a meeting with neighborhood residents who expressed their fears and shared their ideas on ways to enhance the work of the police department, while they in turn tried to understand police protocols.

One idea — to establish a Police Department community outreach office in Westside — is becoming a reality, she added, thanks to space being offered by Central Berkshire Habitat for Humanity in its building on Columbus Avenue.

Meanwhile, a series of high-visibility patrol operations were conducted in November and December. The operation, led by the Police Department’s uniformed patrol and anti-crime unit, brought in reinforcements from the Berkshire County Sheriff’s Office, Massachusetts State Police, and the state Alcohol Beverages Control Commission, which, in total, netted 32 arrests, including the seizure of approximately 340 grams of cocaine with an estimated value of $34,000 and a variety of illicit pills.

“While we tackle the complex issue of crime, our Police Department has established a strong philosophy of community policing,” Tyer added, noting that officers have hosted free movie events, back-to-school meet and greets, and other community activities. “All of these interactions create trusting relationships that will endure with our kids, their families, and our police officers.”

Collaborative Efforts

Still, making the community a more desirable one — again, a factor in attracting new business — doesn’t end with public safety. To that end, an LED street-light conversion will be complete by the spring, replacing some 5,300 streetlights in all, with the dual goal of brighter streets and lower utility bills. Meanwhile, the Westside Riverway Park, a new outdoor space along the west branch of the Housatonic River, extends from Wahconah Park to Clapp Park.

“Paying attention to what’s happening within our neighborhoods continues to be a primary focus. And our efforts are paying dividends,” Tyer said, noting that a surging housing market has increased home values in the city. Still, she added, vigilance against blight and decay in neighborhoods remains a priority for her administration.

“We have cataloged about 100 problem properties,” she noted. “The city’s code-enforcement team tries to identify and exercise all viable options. Our objective is always to preserve as much as possible. Sometimes, demolition is the only option. We continuously balance the cost of demotion against the very real gains that come with keeping our city appealing.”

Finally, 2018 was the first year of Community Preservation projects, the mayor noted. Drawing from a 1% surcharge on property values, the endeavor resulted in a $580,000 appropriation of funds for investing in historic resources, open space, and recreation. Eleven projects were funded, including the preservation of the Melville Art and Artifacts collection in the Berkshire Athenaeum, the Arrowhead stone wall, restoration of the Springside House, siting and design for pickleball courts, the turf field at Berkshire Community College, and infield restoration at the Pellerin baseball field.

Meanwhile, she said, local partners continue to support improvements in public spaces. This past year, the pavilion at Durant Park went up thanks to a gift from Greylock Federal Credit Union. A Berkshire Bank contribution facilitated the renovation of the basketball court at Lakewood Park, while the Buddy Pellerin Foundation and the Rotary Club are making significant investments in Clapp Park.

The progress Pittsfield has made on these fronts and others are, of course, a collective effort by myriad agencies, businesses, and individuals, Tyer noted. But she wants her administration to set the tone for growth.

“We cultivate an organizational culture that encompasses shared responsibility, proactive long-term planning, dynamic communication and professional development,” she said. “My philosophy around this is simple: when we make decisions that affect the people that we serve, these principles must be in the forefront of our minds.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Features

Collision Course

Kristin Leutz in VVM’s new space at Springfield’s Innovation Center.

Kristin Leutz in VVM’s new space at Springfield’s Innovation Center.

As Valley Venture Mentors completes its move into Springfield’s Innovation Center on Bridge Street, it is also moving into a new era in its history, one that is very entrepreneurial in nature — in keeping with its broad mission — and strives to continually expand and strengthen the region’s ecosystem for supporting and inspiring entrepreneurs.

‘Pivot.’

In the startup world, this term has become incredibly versatile, now serving as a verb, a noun, and an adjective. It has become the subject of lectures, books, and articles bearing titles that hint at its emergence — as in “The Art of the Pivot,” “Three Rules for Making a Successful Pivot,” “Five Steps for Pivoting into Entrepreneurship,” and countless others.

In simple terms, to pivot means to adapt, or to change the course or strategy of an emerging business based largely on customer wants and needs. Some of the most prominent companies in the world owe their success to a pivot, or several of them.

There are various methods of pivoting, as indicated by those article titles above, but the bottom line — both literally and figuratively — is for entrepreneurs to understand the importance of flexibility and the need to pivot, and to not be afraid to so.

Administrators and mentors at Valley Venture Mentors (VVM) have been preaching the need to pivot and showing people how since the nonprofit was launched eight years ago now. And these days, one might say it is practicing what it’s been preaching.

Well, sort of.

What VVM is engaged in now could be called a pivot, although its overall mission and strategy are not really changing. They are evolving, though, and being taken to a new and higher level as the organization completes its move into the long-anticipated, $7 million Innovation Center on Bridge Street in downtown Springfield.

“One of the barriers, especially in a region and city that smaller, like Springfield, is a lack of connectivity. Place-making is a foundational piece of that, creating a physical home for people to collide in and meet and have natural connection with each other across industry.”

The move began last summer, said Kristin Leutz, who assumed the role of CEO at VVM about the same time as the moving trucks started unpacking furniture. And it is ongoing, she said, as new furnishings arrive and new strategies emerge for making the best and most efficient use of the intriguing 10,000 square feet of space VVM now commands.

The agency will be using a small percentage of that space for its own administrative needs, with the rest devoted to revenue-producing, entrepreneurial-ecosystem-building endeavors, from signing on tenants for various co-working spaces and small offices to renting out the large, 175-seat auditorium that dominates the ground floor of VVM’s suite.

And this is where the pivoting comes in, said Leutz, adding that VVM is moving to a slightly adjusted, more entrepreneurial model, necessitated by the need to cover the expenses of what is, in many respects, a growing business in its own right.

These include the nearly $4,000 in monthly rent — a great bargain given the amount of space and the going rates downtown these days — as well as a growing staff and the myriad other costs of running such an operation.

From left, Stephanie Kirby, VVM’s director of Mentorship; Kristin Leutz, CEO; and Ron Molina-Brantley, COO.

From left, Stephanie Kirby, VVM’s director of Mentorship; Kristin Leutz, CEO; and Ron Molina-Brantley, COO.

“This space represents a micro entrepreneurship venture of our own,” she explained, adding that, like the startups mentored and supported by VVM, it has a business plan and a strategy for executing it.

In simple terms, it involves making the Innovation Center not merely a revenue center, although it will become that as well, but an entrepreneurial hub and a place where collisions can and will happen — collisions between fellow entrepreneurs, business owners and mentors, entrepreneurs and potential investors, and more.

“When we think about how to introduce people from Springfield and Western Mass. to the entry point when it comes to entrepreneurship and remove any barriers that exist, we come back to the all-important concept of place-making,” she told BusinessWest. “One of the barriers, especially in a region and city that’s smaller, like Springfield, is a lack of connectivity. Place-making is a foundational piece of that, creating a physical home for people to collide in and meet and have natural connection with each other across industries.”

Summings things up, Leutz noted VVM’s working slogan (“Give. Get. Grow.”) and said the new location and all its facilities — from different kinds of co-working space to a nursing room for new mothers; from a shared kitchen to areas where startups and mentors can meet and collaborate — provide individuals, startups, and the entrepreneurial ecosystem as a whole with more opportunities to do all of the above.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with the staff at VVM about not only the move into the Innovation Center, but the organization’s pivoting action and the next crucial steps in its history.

Right Place, Right Time

VVM will stage a grand-opening ceremony at its new space on Thursday, Feb. 7, when it co-hosts the annual State of Entrepreneurship Conference with the Economic Development Council of Western Mass. The invite list for that event, and the ribbon cutting to follow, is rather lengthy, said Leutz, noting that it includes representatives of a number of entrepreneurial ecosystem partners — from the Grinspoon Foundation to TechSpring to area colleges and universities — as well as a number of other constituencies, including elected officials, VVM alums, mentors, and long-time supporters.

“We’re checking our occupancy level to see how many we can have in here legally,” she said, adding that the agency will test the upper limit of that number, whatever it is.

Getting to this ribbon-cutting ceremony has been an adventure, she noted, and a long journey that started when she and many other representatives of this region toured the Cambridge Innovation Center and came back determined to create a similar place-making facility in this region, preferably in downtown Springfield.

Fast-forwarding somewhat — this story has been well-chronicled — the historic structure at 270-276 Bridge St. was eventually chosen, and a number of funding partners, including MassDevelopment, MassMutual, Common Capital, and others, were secured. The project got underway in 2017, but as work proceeded and walls were taken down, it became clear that the cost of the work would far exceed preliminary estimates — and the amount raised.

Work was stopped for several months before eventually starting up again last spring. Leutz recalled the occasion.

“It was like a reunion — we got the architects back together with the contractor, we were meeting weekly in the space, there were holes in the floor … there was drama, but we were doing it,” she said. “And things moved fast; we knew in June that we were going to fast-track this thing and get it open by January, and we did.”

But as work was starting up again, VVM was going through a transformation of its own, starting at the top, where Leutz, who joined the organization as COO in the fall of 2017, was chosen to succeed Liz Roberts as CEO.

Kristin Leutz says VVM’s new co-working spaces, like the dedicated spaces for lease seen here, are “the beating heart of the startup community.”

Kristin Leutz says VVM’s new co-working spaces, like the dedicated spaces for lease seen here, are “the beating heart of the startup community.”

“I’ve always been a big fan of VVM,” said Leutz, who was a mentor with the organization in its earliest days and is perhaps best-known locally for the decade she spent as vice president for Philanthropic Services at the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts.

She noted that, while at the Community Foundation, she helped VVM secure one of the first innovation grants awarded by that organization, a three-year commitment made to help launch its accelerator, among other programs. “I understood early on that this was something unique in Western Mass. and that it would really take off.”

And now that it has, she and fellow team members take on the assignment of plotting an ambitious course — and keeping it on the course, again, much like the startup businesses it helps mentor, she said, adding that when she came on board as COO it was to essentially help blueprint a new strategic plan for the nonprofit centered on its home and the new opportunities it offered, and she was intrigued by the assignment.

As was Ron Molina-Brantley, who joined VVM a few months before Leutz did and would eventually succeed her as COO.

Formerly an employee of the city of Springfield, working first in the Finance Department and then the Facilities Department as senior program manager — a perfect blend of skills for an organization moving into new space and also assuming new fiscal responsibilities — Molina-Brantley said he was looking to grow professionally, and VVM and the next stage in its development offered an intriguing challenge.

“VVM was the right place at the right time,” he told BusinessWest. “The environment and ecosystem they were trying to build really appealed to me; there was an instant love affair between me and VVM and the community. The atmosphere is amazing, the startups are amazing, and you just want to be part of it. It’s contagious.”

It was, and is, for Stephanie Kirby, as well, VVM’s director of Mentorship. An alum of the agency’s collegiate accelerator program, she started her own business (a music label) at age 14, and has continually honed and reshaped it over the years — so much so that she was known as the “pivot queen” when she took part in VVM’s first collegiate accelerator while attending Five Towns College in New York.

“I would pivot a lot within my business, and when you come to VVM, that’s what they teach you — how do you actually build your business,” she said, adding that she’s now working to help others master that skill.

Writing the Next Chapter

Together, these and other team members have taken on the assignment of moving VVM into a new era, if you will, one that poses some challenges for the agency, but myriad new opportunities for entrepreneurs and those mentoring them — and for strengthening the entrepreneurial ecosystem the region has built and that has gained considerable momentum in recent years.

To explain it in simple terms, Leutz said the VVM operation is in some ways similar in structure to a pyramid. At the base is the place — in this case, the Innovation Center — where things, meaning those collisions she mentioned, can happen. The next level in the pyramid is programming, which at VVM means mentorship and acceleration, specifically its two popular accelerator programs — a startup accelerator and a collegiate accelerator. And the top of the pyramid is what she called “an ecosystem builder,” meaning systems to support what others across the region, like the Grinspoon Foundation and the area’s colleges and universities, are doing.

VVM’s mentorship lounge, top, and the shared community kitchen are just some of the spaces carefully designed to promote collisions.

VVM’s mentorship lounge, top, and the shared community kitchen are just some of the spaces carefully designed to promote collisions.

“Within these realms, we hope to serve everyone, from the ideation stage, early, early, person-with-an-idea-on-napkin type of entrepreneur, to someone who has a venture and is on their way to raising their first round of capital or beyond,” she said. “It’s usually seed stage for us, and our programs are customized for that entrepreneur’s unique goals and challenges. What’s new for VVM, and what we’re really zeroing in on, is ‘how do we take a particular venture and uniquely help it to succeed?’

“Our big focus now is to think about 1,000 startups in the Pioneer Valley — what would that look like and how would that change the success rate, because we know a large number of startups fail,” she went on. “The more that you create, the greater chance you have for seeing transformational companies.”

And the Innovation Center and VVM’s new facilities are designed to help make that vision reality, she went on as she offered a tour that started on the ground floor, devoted to programming, and the auditorium, which is community space in every sense of that phrase.

“We encourage anyone and everyone to think about how to promote entrepreneurship in their industry, their business, or their community, and come talk to us, and we’ll make this space available,” she said, adding that the space was essentially created to showcase people’s ideas and their notion of entrepreneurship.

That first floor also includes a mentorship lounge, which represents a major upgrade from the spaces where mentors and entrepreneurs would get together in recent years when VVM was located in donated space in Tower Square. “We’ve never had a space like this; before, people were just hanging out on folding chairs in a big, open room.”

It also includes two private offices that can be rented out and café space as well.

The second floor, what she called the “beating heart of our startup community,” is where the co-working space is to be found. Half of the floor is dedicated to people who rent permanent spots on a month-to-month basis, she said, adding that three startups are currently doing so. There’s also the so-called ‘hot desk’ space — unassigned space that be rented for $25 a day, with other rates for more regular use — as well as a ‘brainstorming nook,’ a community kitchen, private phone rooms for entrepreneurs seeking some privacy, the private room for nursing mothers, and more.

Roughly 50% of the space that can be rented is now under lease, she said, adding that the goal is to get that number to 75% and perhaps 100% by the end of this year.

Describing the look and feel of VVM’s new home, Leutz noted that, while these spaces may have been inspired by similar facilities in other communities, they don’t look like those spaces.

“This space is meant to feel like it belongs in Springfield,” she said, adding that there is furniture made by local artists and the walls will feature what she described as ‘community-driven’ art. “It’s beautiful, and it’s aspirational, but it also feels like it’s home. It won’t feel like you’ve stepped into some place in downtown Manhattan, and it shouldn’t. It should feel like Springfield.”

Bottom Line

Summing up what’s been created on Bridge Street, Leutz went back to the goals put down on paper after the group visiting the Cambridge Innovation Center returned to Springfield and set about replicating what they encountered.

“This intention of this project was always to have it be a community-driven space focusing on the innovation economy and enlivening the economic activity downtown,” she said, adding that this is a broad mission, and, as noted, somewhat of a pivot for VVM.

An exciting pivot, for sure, and one that certainly bears watching in the months and years to come.

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

M.J. Adams says Greenfield’s status as a 4/20-friendly community is one of many forces driving economic development in the city.

M.J. Adams says Greenfield’s status as a 4/20-friendly community is one of many forces driving economic development in the city.

The phrase ‘4/20-friendly’ has been around a while now.

April 20 las long been an international counterculture holiday of sorts, when people gather to celebrate and consume cannabis. In recent years, it was also a day to call for legalization of the drug, and even more recently, as legalization spread, the term has morphed into a form of acceptance and, yes, business-friendliness when it comes to the many types of ventures within this industry.

Greenfield could now be considered 4/20-friendly, said M.J. Adams, the city’s director of Community Development and Economic Development, adding that there is already a medical marijuana dispensary, Patriot Care, located within the community, and it is poised to become a recreational dispensary next month. And there are many other parties expressing interest in establishing different forms of cannabis-related businesses within Franklin County’s largest community.

“Our zoning is pretty flexible, and we have the opportunity to issue eight [cannabis] icenses, and we already have nine entities that are interested in accessing those licenses.”

“We’ve had a lot of interest from people that want to grow and do recreational retail,” said Adams, noting that Greenfield’s efforts to build a cannabis cluster, if you will, are bolstered by its status as one of the 29 communities across the Commonwealth designated as “an area of disproportionate impact,” as defined by the state’s Cannabis Control Commission.

Such communities — Amherst, Springfield, Holyoke, West Springfield, and Pittsfield are among some of the others — have been deemed “disproportionately harmed by marijuana-law enforcement,” according the commission, and therefore, priority review is given to applicants who can meet several criteria involving these areas, including residency.

“We’re quite 4/20-friendly,” she went on, adding that this has become code for communities that are “pretty OK” when it comes to marijuana use. “Our zoning is pretty flexible, and we have the opportunity to issue eight licenses, and we already have nine entities that are interested in accessing those licenses.”

But cannabis and the prospect of more businesses in that intriguing industry is just one of positive forces shaping the picture in this community of 18,000 people.

Diana Szynal says Greenfield’s downtown is an attractive mix of new businesses and stalwarts that have been part of the landscape for decades.

Diana Szynal says Greenfield’s downtown is an attractive mix of new businesses and stalwarts that have been part of the landscape for decades.

Others include the opening of a long-awaited parking garage on the west end of downtown; the arrival of many new restaurants and clubs downtown, punctuated by the emergence of the Hawks & Reed Performing Arts Center as a force for attracting diverse audiences to Greenfield; emerging plans to expand the city’s industrial park amid heightened interest in space for manufacturing and warehouse ventures; some new ventures, including the conversion of a Roadway Inn into a 90-bed Marriott Grand Hotel and plans for UMassFive College Federal Credit Union to build a branch within the city; ongoing redevelopment of the former Lunt Silversmith property; and perhaps some forward progress in efforts to forge a new life for the long-dormant First National Bank building on the stretch known as Bank Row.

Meanwhile, from the big-picture perspective, the broad economic-development strategy for the city involves making the community, and especially its downtown area, more of a destination for many constituencies, including tourists, entrepreneurs and small-business owners, and families.

That’s the assignment for the city, but also for the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce, said its new executive director, Diana Szynal, who takes the reins in somewhat ironic fashion. Indeed, she succeeds Natalie Blais, who was recently sworn in as the state representative for the First Franklin District. Szynal, meanwhile, was the long-time district director for the late Peter Kocut, long-time state representative for the First Hampshire District, and was unsuccessful in her bid to win that seat last fall.

She inherits a chamber that will celebrate its centennial this year, and while a good deal of her time will obviously go toward marking that milestone, another priority will be helping to get the word out on all that Greenfield and Franklin County have to offer.

“One thing we have to do is spread the word about all the things that happen here and some of the opportunities that are here,” she said. “And Franklin County is a place that young people and young professionals just starting out and looking for a place to put down roots should consider; this is the perfect place for that.”

For this, the latest installment in our ongoing Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Greenfield and the many forms of progress being seen there.

Getting Down to Business

Szynal told BusinessWest that she worked in downtown Greenfield a quarter-century ago, and that moving into the chamber’s office on Main Street is like coming home again.

“I just came from lunch at Taylor’s [Tavern] and was at Wilson’s [department store] recently,” she said, mentioning two mainstays in the downtown for decades and noting that there are many more that fit that category. “Downtown has many of the same businesses it had years ago; it hasn’t lost its charm — it has that same old feeling.”

But there are also many new ventures in the city that are giving it a somewhat new and different feeling as well, she said, especially in the broad realm of hospitality and entertainment.

“There’s Indian food, there’s Thai food, there’s some fabulous Mexican food,” she noted. “So in a way, it has that perfect balance; things you can count on like Wilson’s, combined with new places.”

Building upon this balance and creating an ever-more diverse mix of businesses in the downtown is one of the main strategic initiatives for the city, said both Szynal and Adams, adding that that there are many components to this assignment.

“There are a number of properties that have remained vacant longer than we would have liked them to remain vacant, and one of my major goals for this spring is to get a handle on that and fill some of those spaces.”

They include everything from efforts to bring high-speed broadband service to more neighborhoods within the community — a prerequisite for attracting many types of businesses — to formal and informal efforts to help spread the word about all this city and this region have to offer; from making the most of that “area of disproportionate impact” designation when it comes to cannabis to making the First National Bank building a fitting final piece to the puzzle that has been Bank Row.

Indeed, while significant progress has been made in rehabbing and repurposing the buildings along that stretch across from City Hall — the so-called Abercrombie building, now home to the Franklin County district attorney, being the latest — the former First National Bank remains a stern challenge, said Adams.

So much so that the city applied for, and received, a technical-assistance grant from MassDevelopment that will fund a consultant charged specifically with blueprinting a reuse plan for the structure.

Greenfield at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1753
Population: 17,456
Area: 21.9 square miles
County: Franklin
Residential Tax Rate: $22.36
Commercial Tax Rate: $22.36
Median Household Income: $33,110
Median Family Income: $46,412
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Baystate Franklin Medical Center, Greenfield Community College, the Sandri Companies
* Latest information available

Built in 1929, the building has been essentially unoccupied for the better part of 40 years, said Adams, adding that the Greenfield Redevelopment Authority took ownership of the property in 2017 with the goal of determining the best reuse option.

“We’re waiting for the consultant that’s been assigned to us to come aboard, and we expect that to happen later this month, and have that individual work through this spring on a potential-reuse study of the building,” she said, adding that she expects this work to be completed by June. “We’re also spending some funding on some engineering to take a look at the building envelope — the structure, the fire-protection systems, and more — and then doing some preliminary cost estimates for getting a clean shell that can be developed.”

The project is important, she said, because the property has a prominent place in the city’s history and a prominent location as well. Its redevelopment could act as a catalyst for other investments and make the city more of a destination.

Speaking of catalysts, the cannabis industry could become one as well, Adams went on, adding that retail operations could help create still more vibrancy in the downtown, and the cultivation businesses could help fill various types of commercial properties, including old mill buildings.

Overall, the goal downtown, and just outside it, is to attract a diverse mix of businesses, said Adams, adding that, while there are have been some new arrivals, there are still many vacant storefronts in the central business district — more than city officials would prefer.

“We did an inventory about two years ago that looked at the properties downtown and especially the ground-floor retail spaces,” she noted. “There are a number of properties that have remained vacant longer than we would have liked them to remain vacant, and one of my major goals for this spring is to get a handle on that and fill some of those spaces.”

As for the chamber, as it celebrates its centennial, it will focus on a number of initiatives, including efforts to support and promote not only Greenfield but the entire county. One key to doing so is through collaboration with other entities involved in promoting business and economic development, said Szynal.

“There’s an active business association for Shelburne Falls, there’s one for Greenfield, Nortfield has a business association … there are several of these organizations,” she said. “One of my top priorities is to figure out how to work collaboratively to promote more business growth and keep our businesses strong county-wide.”

One challenge to overcome is enabling Greenfield, and the rest of the county, to shed its ‘best-kept secret’ status.

“We have some incredible outdoor recreation opportunities in Franklin County, and that’s something we’re looking to highlight in the coming year,” she said. “It’s a big part of the economy, and it can be even bigger; there are some people who don’t know that these opportunities are here in Franklin County and that you don’t have to drive far to experience them.”

Balancing Act

Reflecting upon her return to downtown Greenfield a quarter-century since she last worked there, Szynal said she is impressed by, and increasingly enamored with, its mix of old and new.

“To some extent, Greenfield is growing and changing, but it’s also staying true to its roots,” she explained. “There’s a familiar feeling as you walk down the street, but there is exciting change as well.”

Moving forward, the goal is to create … well, much more of that, and there has been considerable progress in that regard as well as the promise of more.

Some might result from being 4/20-friendly, as the saying goes, but the bulk of it will come from being plain old business-friendly and willing to take advantage of the opportunities that develop.

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

Features STUFF Made in Western Mass

Introducing a new publication aimed at the workforce of tomorrow

>> Go to the FLIPbook HERE

Manufacturing jobs have been hard to fill and qualified employees difficult to find –

While the manufacturing sector represents a robust 160,000 jobs in the state, the industry has a PR problem, especially with younger workers. The message of GOOD JOBS AT GOOD WAGES and a future career offering advancement in a growing company is just not getting through. And even with the state’s unemployment rate at 4.4% the industry struggles with recruiting, and needs potential workers to take a fresh look at manufacturing.

Introducing a new publication aimed at the workforce of tomorrow – A Guide to Cool STUFF Made in Western Massachusetts. STUFF is a cool, interactive publication and website profiling area manufacturers, showcasing what they make, who uses it, and what kinds of jobs/careers there are in each company. This special publication is an awareness and recruitment tool for western Mass. manufacturers like no other before it.

If you are manufacturing in Western Mass. and have workforce development as a top priority, make sure your company has a profile in STUFF! Read about how this publication will become part of the efforts to expand the manufacturing workforce and area supporters. 

Print Distribution:

Students:
Copies will go to all trade and technical high schools, with additional distribution to all area
high schools through career fairs, guidance counselors.
Community Colleges, as well as career counseling offices in all the state’s colleges.
Through regional workforce groups, employment offices and other targeted workforce
development programs

Manufacturers & MA Business Leaders:
STUFF will be direct mailed to top manufacturers – CEO’s and Sr. executives at the top firms across Western Mass.
Mailed to non-manufacturing employers in Western Mass.
To BusinessWest subscribers
Through manufacturing industry partners and at key manufacturing events throughout the year

Click for Publication Specifics & Pricing
Click for Order Form
Click for Manufacturing Questionnaire

SPACE DEADLINE FOR 2019: Aug. 30, 2019

For more information contact:
Kate Campiti 413.781.8600 (ext. 104) [email protected]
Kathleen Plante 413.781.8600 (ext. 108) [email protected]

This specialty publication is presented by BusinessWest in partnership with Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM), MassDevelopment, MassMEP, Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, and The Western Massachusetts Chapter of the National Tooling and Machining Association (WMNTMA)

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Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Paul Bockelman (left) and Geoff Kravitz

Paul Bockelman (left) and Geoff Kravitz say Amherst benefits in many ways from its reputation as an academic hub.

Amherst is a community in transition, Paul Bockelman says — in some positive ways.

The most notable change, obviously, was the seating of Amherst’s first Town Council last month; 13 members were elected following a change in the town charter last March that included a move away from the town-meeting form of government.

“Some people who advocated for the charter change felt the representative town meeting wasn’t fully representative of the town and wasn’t nimble enough to address the issues that were facing the town on a daily basis,” said Bockelman, Amherst’s town manager. Other people, he added, were angry after the town meeting failed to fund a new school building.

Either way, he went on, “they’re building a government from scratch. Some really smart, thoughtful people are putting a lot of effort into this council, and every decision they make is going to be precedent-setting. A lot of issues were put on hold during the transition period. Now that the council’s in place, there’s this backlog of things people want them to do, so those will start pouring through the system during the course of the year.”

But that’s not the only way Amherst is changing, said Geoff Kravitz, the town’s Economic Development director. He cited activity in the restaurant scene, which has welcomed a number of new names, including Asian eateries Chuan Jiao and Kaiju, Jake’s at the Mill in North Amherst, Share Amherst, and Shiru Café, an intriguing coffee shop and study space that offers free coffee to area students in exchange for their personal information, which is sold to job recruiters and advertisers.

“Some really smart, thoughtful people are putting a lot of effort into this council, and every decision they make is going to be precedent-setting.”

“For college students, it’s an interesting model where they get a cup of coffee every hour,” Bockelman said. “It’s really designed for college students to hang out and do their homework, and the only requirement is that you give them some data that you otherwise would give to Facebook or Twitter.”

“It’s not just for marketing,” Kravitz added, “but for recruiting for jobs out of college. Recruiting is really the model.”

Other restaurants are on their way as well, he added, and vacant properties, especially downtown, don’t remain unfilled for long.

“It’s not a stagnant town; it’s a town of transitions, and not just because we have a new form of government,” Bockelman added. “It seems that every time a restaurant moves out, a new restaurant comes in.”

Building on Progress

There’s plenty more activity on the development front as well. In September, Archipelago Investments, LLC of Amherst opened One East Pleasant, a mixed-use project featuring 135 residential units and 7,500 square feet of commercial space.

“That whole complex rented up very quickly and is full,” Bockelman said, noting that Archipelago has developed a handful of other properties in Amherst, and is planning another mixed-use project at 26 Spring St., which will feature 38 residential units and 1,000 square feet of commercial space.

Meanwhile, W.D. Cowls Inc. and Boston-based Beacon Communities are moving forward with North Square at the Mill District, a mixed-use development under construction in North Amherst, which will feature 130 residential units — including 26 affordable units for people at or below 50% of the area’s median income — and 22,000 square feet of commercial space.

Amherst is also among the Western Mass. communities enthusiastically exploring the marijuana industry as an economic driver. That’s not surprising, considering the town’s voters favored the 2016 ballot measure legalizing recreational marijuana by a 3-to-1 margin. RISE Amherst, a medical-marijuana dispensary, is currently in operation, with three other businesses working their way through the local and state licensing process.

With 33,000 students attending UMass Amherst, Hampshire College, and Amherst College, the town has also worked on educational efforts around adult-use marijuana, and has also passed a number of marijuana-related regulations, including a 3% local-option sales tax, a ban on public consumption, and capping at eight the number of recreational-marijuana establishments in town.

From a municipal perspective, the town has long been studying the potential renovation of the North Common/Main Street parking lot, Kravitz noted.

“There’s been a parking lot in front of Town Hall since at least the ’70s, if not earlier, and we’re trying to redesign it from both a drainage and ecological perspective,” he explained. “It’s sort of sloped oddly, so when it rains, all the rain coming off the streets washes it out; that was the primary purpose of looking at it.”

What to do with the space will be one of the Town Council’s issues to tackle in 2019, Bockelman added. “The biggest question coming up relatively soon to the Town Council will be, do you want to work on this project or leave it as is?”

Meanwhile, the overall vision for Amherst has long involved arts and culture. The Amherst Central Cultural District aims to leverage the offerings of the Emily Dickinson Museum, Jones Library, the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art, the Yiddish Book Museum at Hampshire College, the Mead Art Museum at Amherst College, and other cultural institutions, and some of those efforts bleed into the downtown area as events, such as ArtWeek, a statewide effort taking place from April 26 to May 5.

Amherst at a Glance:

Year Incorporated: 1759
Population: 39,482
Area: 27.7 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $21.80
Commercial Tax Rate: $21.80
Median Household Income: $48,059
Median Family Income: $96,005
Type of Government: Town Council, Town Manager
Largest Employers: UMass Amherst; Amherst College; Delivery Express; Hampshire College
* Latest information available

“We want to create more excitement about being downtown,” Bockelman said. “Downtowns today are less about retail, brick-and-mortar shops and more about entertainment and cultural events. Some of them can be sponsored by the town, but a lot of them come from individuals.”

Many of Amherst’s museums and cultural institutions have statewide, even national reputations, and the Hitchcock Center for the Environment and the R.W. Kern Center at Hampshire College are two of fewer than two dozen ‘living buildings’ worldwide — structures that meet strict standards for hyper-sustainability and net-zero energy use.

All these factors, plus the colleges and UMass, create a buzz and energy that attracts both new businesses and families to Amherst, Kravitz said.

“From a business perspective, there are very few communities of our size that boast three institutions of higher education,” he told BusinessWest. “I think that we have an incredibly educated population. People want to be around other people who have big ideas, so I think that’s part of the draw for some of the businesses — to be around other smart people. You saw that happening in Boston and Cambridge, you saw it happen in Silicon Valley, and I think that all starts with the academic institutions, whether it’s Stanford or MIT or UMass here.”

It’s Academic

The recent mixed-use developments are a welcome start to meeting housing needs in a growing town, as there hasn’t been much residential development over the previous couple of decades. In fact, a 2015 study determined that Amherst could use some 4,000 more units.

Still, Bockelman said, “I think it really is a place where people want to come to raise their family, for lots of different reasons.”

Last week, he met with a man who teaches two days a week in Washington, D.C. “He says he can leave his house at 6:15 in the morning, be in Washington by 10, and stays overnight. When he comes back, he takes the 5:00 and is back home at 8 to put his kid to bed. He chose to live in Amherst because he wanted a multi-cultural community with people who care about education, with excellent schools and an academic environment, and he found all that, plus easy access to open space. So he’s willing to make that weekly commute from Bradley. That’s kind of amazing to hear.”

That’s why it’s heartening, he added, to see how UMass Amherst has raised its profile in recent years as an internationally recognized research institution.

“It’s a big economic engine; thousands of people come in every day to work there,” he said. “Amherst is the largest community in Hampshire County, but it doesn’t read that way because it doesn’t look like Northampton, like a city. And in terms of our population, some people say the students are inflating that, but they’re here eight to nine months a year. And what that number does not count is the number of people who come into town every day because they’re employed by the two colleges or the university.”

In short, he concluded, “it’s a very vibrant community, even though it retains a certain college-town atmosphere that so many people love about it.”

That characteristic is one he and Kravitz both expect to remain steady, no matter what other transitions Amherst has in store.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Features

High Stakes

NETA’s Leslie Laurie (left), regional director for Western Mass. and director of patient services, and Angela Cheek, dispensary manager.

NETA’s Leslie Laurie (left), regional director for Western Mass. and director of patient services, and Angela Cheek, dispensary manager.

It’s been an eventful six years since voters first approved marijuana sales to treat medical conditions back in 2012. From that vote sprang New England Treatment Access (NETA) three years ago, and last month, the dispensary became one of just two stores in Massachusetts selling cannabis products for adult recreational use as well. NETA’s co-founder says the company has proven itself to be a good neighbor and an economic driver — and promises to be even more so in what is certainly a bold new era for marijuana in the Bay State.

When Kevin Fisher came to Massachusetts to help launch a medical-marijuana dispensary, he was already a veteran of the industry in Colorado, with plenty of passion to boot.

Fisher’s family, like so many others, has been struck by cancer, he said, and the idea — first as owner of Rocky Mountain Remedies in Colorado and then, starting in 2015, as co-founder of New England Treatment Access (NETA) — was always to draw in people with chronic and even terminal illness who may consider cannabis a viable therapy.

By the time NETA opened its doors in Northampton and Brookline, the anecdotal evidence for the drug’s effectiveness had been well-established elsewhere, he noted.

“We knew patients were using these therapies for a broad range of conditions,” Fisher told BusinessWest, before praising the law crafted after voters approved legalized medical marijuana in 2012.

“In Massachusetts, they got it right. Instead of legislators playing physician, the law granted physicians the freedom to make recommendations as they saw fit. It was important to maintain the sanctity of that patient-physician relationship. And we wanted to make sure we would provide quality products for patients to meet that broad range of conversations with physicians.”

Now, another law has significantly altered NETA’s business model. On Nov. 20, the company’s Northampton site, as well as Cultivate Holdings, LLC in Leicester, became the first facilities in the Northeast to sell marijuana to the public for adult recreational use.

“We call the individuals who interact with customers our ‘customer service associates.’ We require vigorous training before they’re out on their own, interacting with customers.”

At a press event after the state’s Cannabis Control Commission gave the go-ahead, Amanda Rositano, NETA’s director of operational compliance, said the shop is “beyond thrilled to be a part of this historic moment when NETA Northampton finally gets to open its doors to adults over 21 to provide safe, legal, and regulated cannabis to the people of Massachusetts.”

It’s certainly a welcome shift for many in the Valley, but it comes with challenges — concerning consumer safety, public perceptions, even traffic on Conz Street, which backed up significantly at certain times in the days following Nov. 20. But Fisher said NETA has long been preparing to meet them.

Hannah Rosenbaum, one of NETA’s patient service associates

Hannah Rosenbaum, one of NETA’s patient service associates, with some of the ‘flower’ available for purchase.

Early on, for example, the organization brought in Leslie Laurie, former head of Tapestry Health and a long-time expert in public health in Western Mass., as its regional director. “She had expertise we could benefit from, a perspective on patients’ needs in Western Mass.,” Fisher said.

The founders also assumed — correctly, as it turned out — that the progressive culture in Northampton would prove welcoming to a dispensary that first sold cannabis products to a patients with prescriptions, and, now, to any adult with an ID.

“We felt [Northampton] was the place to go, and the process was pretty smooth,” he added. “I’m thankful for Leslie; she brought a credibility to our organization and the relationships we built with government and law enforcement. And we’ve only continued to build those relationships during the adult-use licensing, because they could appreciate the solid community partners we have been.”

Opening a medical-marijuana dispensary in Brookline, however, was a “whole different beast,” Fisher noted. “There were about 100 meetings required — some open to the media and the public, many with public officials … just meeting after meeting, a lot of hand-holding and reassurance. It was a very rigorous process.”

Despite that tougher road than the Northampton one, NETA felt affirmed when its license with Brookline came up for renewal after the first year. “The town said we didn’t even need to show up for the hearing; it was guaranteed. It made us feel like we had operated in the way we had promised.”

By contrast, Northampton was always a smoother fit, and is currently the only NETA site approved for recreational sales, as the licensing process continues in Brookline.

“A significant portion of the population embraces cannabis use,” Fisher said of the Paradise City, adding that NETA has never taken that goodwill for granted. “We did recognize the traffic and public-safety issues, and the fact that those needed to be carefully managed in a collaborative way.”

Time will tell if issues arise, of course, but for now, Fisher is pleased with the business — customers are still waiting in line most days — and NETA’s continued growth as what he calls a true community partner.

The Ayes Have It

In 2016, four years after the similar vote on medical marijuana, Massachusetts residents voted to legalize recreational sales to adults age 21 years and older. If they present a government-issued ID (such as a driver’s license, ID card, or passport) for verification, customers may purchase up to 1 ounce of ‘flower’ or 5 grams of concentrate. Certain potency restrictions, including a 5 mg serving-size limit for ‘edibles,’ apply to non-medical products.

“A significant portion of the population embraces cannabis use. We did recognize the traffic and public-safety issues, and the fact that those needed to be carefully managed in a collaborative way.”

However, Fisher was quick to note that, with the introduction of recreational sales, NETA’s medical-marijuana patients will remain the shop’s priority. Patients with prescriptions have their own lines, and at least 35% of each day’s inventory is reserved for patients. In short, the customer experience has not changed for people seeking to fill scripts.

As for those waiting in line for recreational sales, Fisher said it typically takes 20 to 30 minutes to get through, but technology is available to shorten the wait NETA uses a reserve-ahead app to view the daily menu, reserve an order online, and have it ready for pickup at a certain time later that day. In addition, for people looking to gauge the wait at any given time, NETA offers continuous live wait-time updates on its website.

It has also doubled customer service staff and remodeled the stores to offer nearly twice as many service stations.

Also ramped up are efforts to educate customers about cannabis products — a key factor, considering that many users are likely to be inexperienced.

“We call the individuals who interact with customers our ‘patient service associates,’” Fisher said, noting that he prefers that over the flip industry term ‘budtenders.’ “We require vigorous training before they’re out on their own, interacting with customers.”

That training — about two months worth — includes everything from understanding the core components of cannabis products to encouraging new users to ‘start low and go slow.’

“That’s a message we drive home again and again to our PSAs and our customers. There will always be more cannabis. So find out what works for you and what doesn’t, and start easy so you don’t have negative outcomes.”

In addition to the ‘low and slow’ guidance, NETA’s consumer-education materials emphasize elements like a ‘what product is right for me’ guide; advice against driving or using heavy machinery under the influence, public consumption, and traveling across state lines; a potency and tolerance tutorial, safe storage; and recognizing substance-abuse signs and identifying resources for additional help.

Recognizing that some of the opposition to legalized marijuana came from individuals concerned about products getting into children’s hands, all NETA product packaging is child-resistant and labeled with revised warnings and clear information to ensure that people can identify edible products as marijuana-infused and not safe for children.

In addition to training staff to emphasize responsible consumption when interacting with consumers, NETA has retained a full-time training coordinator to continuously develop and manage retail-staff training.

Understanding dosage levels is is important, Fisher said, as are reminders that the effects differ between smoking marijuana and ingesting edibles. In the latter case, “you could see a delayed onset, so don’t eat that whole bag if you don’t feel it’s working. That sounds like simple advice, but it’s a big deal for us.”

As it is for the Cannabis Control Commission, which encourages prospective customers to know the law and consume responsibly.

“This signal to open retail marijuana establishments marks a major milestone for voters who approved legal, adult-use cannabis in our state,” Chairman Steven Hoffman said last month. “To get  here, licensees underwent thorough background checks, passed multiple inspections, and had their products tested, all to ensure public health and safety as this new industry gets  up and running. As patrons look forward to visiting Massachusetts stores, we hope they will do their part by first familiarizing themselves with the law and understanding what is required of responsible consumers.”

Growing Concerns

Beyond Northampton and Brookline, Fisher said, NETA’s cultivation facility in Franklin — which has nearly doubled its capacity in anticipation of adult use — continues to invest heavily in research and is developing a pipeline of products designed to improve customers’ experiences and address specific medical conditions and symptoms.

And, make no mistake, even though adults can buy cannabis products without a doctor’s prescription, he added, it still makes sense to receive and renew certification as a patient — not just because of the lessened wait to be served, but because patients also avoid the 20% tax on adult-use sales, and can access a yearly voucher program to help offset the cost of being certified.

He’s also excited about the potential in Massachusetts, considering the scientific and medical resources available locally, to continue researching the benefits of marijuana from a medical perspective. “Clearly, we’re going to get more research; we have some of the brightest minds in the world of healthcare here in Western Mass.”

NETA’s products for sale include not just smokeable flower, but marijuana-infused capsules, lozenges, lotions, chocolate, and much more.

NETA’s products for sale include not just smokeable flower, but marijuana-infused capsules, lozenges, lotions, chocolate, and much more.

Overall, Fisher is a believer in the benefits of this industry, in terms of healthcare, quality of life, and economic benefits, like taxes paid and workers hired. The company employs close to 600 people, more than 100 in Western Mass. alone.

“Billions of dollars are spent yearly in this country [on marijuana], so by regulating it, there’s economic impact that can be realized, taxes to be paid, safety measures put in place … you’re not in someone’s car in an alley.”

And for adults who have no particular health condition but simply want to partake as an escape from life’s stresses, well, he believes there are far worse alternatives for that.

“That’s not to encourage broader consumption of cannabis, but let’s normalize it so parents can talk to their kids about it,” he told BusinessWest. “In Colorado, where it’s a mature industry, the youth rates have gone down. It’s just less cool for kids. There’s more open dialogue. Parents are having more discussions about it.”

And, he was quick to add, that guy selling pot on the corner, in states where it remains illegal, doesn’t check an ID like a responsible dispensary does.

“We’re bringing it from the darkness into the light and realizing a lot of positive outcomes,” he said. “On balance, this is a good thing.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Features

Expanding His Horizons

Peter Rosskothen

Peter Rosskothen has plans to dramatically expand his Delaney’s Market concept, and he will start in downtown Springfield.

When asked about the long-awaited opening of MGM Springfield last August, Peter Rosskothen, whose various businesses compete against the resort casino on a number of levels, said, among other things, that he was “excited about the excitement” permeating the city’s downtown.

And he hinted broadly that he might soon be part of it.

In a few more months, he will be, opening the second location of his Delaney’s Market concept in a soon-to-be-vacated coffee shop at 1365 Main St., just a few hundred feet from the casino. He plans to open more of these facilities, which offer a variety of prepared meals to go, in Wilbraham and Westfield sometime in 2019, but for now, his time and energies are focused on getting the doors open in Springfield.

Indeed, the serial entrepreneur, owner of the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House, the Delaney House restaurant, the adjacent D. Hotel & Suites, and more, believes his concept, launched in Longmeadow 18 months ago, is the right product at the right time, and that downtown Springfield is the next right place.

“I wanted to be part of what was happening in downtown Springfield,” he told BusinessWest. “I believe this concept will work at that location. I think there is a need for this, and it will be a nice addition to the landscape there.”

Rosskothen said he’s long been thinking about expansion into Springfield — and other locations — and narrowed his search to 1365 Main St. late last summer, just as the casino was opening its doors.

That location is within a few hundred feet of several office towers, he noted, adding that the thousands of people working in those buildings fall within the broad constituency he’s targeting with this concept.

“I wanted to be part of what was happening in downtown Springfield.”

Specifically, he’s focused on busy people — and that’s just about everyone these days — both young and old who want to eat healthy, restaurant-quality food (but not at restaurant prices), but are challenged to find the time and inclination to prepare it themselves.

But he expects that those working in Springfield will become just part of his customer base. Indeed, like other close observers, he senses that the already-sizable population of people living in the downtown area will be growing in the years to come as the city becomes a more popular settling place.

“We’re going to be where people work, but also where some people live and where more people will be living in the years to come,” he noted. “There’s a lot happening in Springfield; the pieces are coming together. There is more to do, and soon there will be more places to live. And as more people come to live here, there will be more support businesses and more things to do. We’re starting to see it.”

As for the Delaney’s Market concept, Rosskothen said he did a good amount of due diligence before opening the location in Longmeadow. That research, and his own instincts, told him it was a business model with merit, one that would meet a sizable need that was not being met.

Roughly 18 months after opening, the facility is selling about 150-200 meals a day on average, verifying that need for such a service, he went on.

“The Longmeadow store is doing quite well — I wouldn’t be doing this if it wasn’t,” he told BusinessWest. “But we had to teach a lot of people the concept — you have to explain to people that we have freshly prepared meals for takeout, and we have about 80 different choices.”

The success of the Longmeadow location may mitigate the need for a similar learning process at the downtown site, he went on, adding that he will be aggressive in efforts to get the word out about Delaney’s Market and all that goes into the concept.

That includes patrons being able to pick up a bottle of wine or some microbrews as they make their dinner selection, doing some one-stop shopping.

And he believes this same model will succeed in downtown Springfield as well, and he’s adding another wrinkle — delivery, which he believes will be a popular option for those working in nearby office towers or living downtown.

Indeed, delivery is a becoming a trend among restaurants, and there are new ventures such as Uber delivers that bring meals right to one’s home or office, said Rosskothen, adding that those initiatives, and his, are simply response to what consumers are demanding.

As for expansion beyond Longmeadow, Rosskothen said he expects to move forward with locations in Westfield and Wilbraham and have four sites operating by the end of 2019.

For now, though, he is focused on Springfield — and not just being excited about the excitement, but being a big part of it.

— George O’Brien

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

On the heels of one home run for recreation and tourism, Hartford, Conn. is hoping for another — well, not a home run, exactly. More like a goal, which is appropriate in a city that has set plenty of them in recent years.

On the heels of the Hartford Yard Goats, the double-A baseball team that’s been selling out games for two years at Dunkin’ Donuts Park, Connecticut’s capital city will soon welcome the Hartford Athletic, a professional soccer team that plays in the United Soccer League.

But it’s not just the team itself causing excitement, but the development projects surrounding it. The state invested $10 million in Dillon Stadium in the Coltsville section of the city, while an entity known as Hartford Sports Group put up $7 million toward the renovation and the team’s startup.

Mayor Luke Bronin points out that, along with the restoration of the Colt Armory complex for commercial and residential use, the Hooker Brewery tasting room, planned upgrades to Colt Park, and the designation of the Coltsville National Historic Park, refurbishing Dillon Stadium and bringing in a soccer team is yet another feather in the cap of a venerable neighborhood on the rebound.

Then there’s Front Street, the downtown entertainment and restaurant district that began to see significant development a decade ago, and is now adding even more apartments and retail. A $23 million project will add 53 apartments and nearly 11,000 square feet of shop and restaurant space. That comes on the heels of Front Street Lofts, a 121-apartment development that is largely leased, and the 2017 opening of the University of Connecticut’s new downtown campus across Arch Street.

“We’ve engaged our large corporate partners in a way they haven’t been engaged in many years. In a very short period of time, we’ve moved the ball a long way down the field toward building a really vibrant innovation ecosystem.”

In fact, a recent wave of apartment construction downtown has added almost 900 units since 2013, with hundreds more to come.

“We want to make sure we have a lovely, vibrant downtown, and the core of that strategy is getting a critical mass of residential housing downtown,” Bronin told BusinessWest. “The other piece is the targeted neighborhbood redevelopment projects, especially in the three areas of Upper Albany, Blue Hills, and Coltsville.”

Hartford at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1784
Population: 123,243
Area: 18.1 square miles
COUNTY: Hartford
Residential Tax Rate: $74.29
Commercial Tax Rate: $74.29
MEDIAN HOUSEHOLD INCOME: $20,820
Family Household Income: $22,051
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Hartford Hospital; Hartford Financial Services Group; St. Francis Hospital & Medical Center; Aetna
* Latest information available

And Parkville, for that matter, one of Hartford’s more ethnically diverse neighborhoods, a mixed-use community on the west side that boasts a thriving artistic community, and has seen recent additions like Hog River Brewing, a brewery and taproom, among other activity.

Bronin is justifiably excited about all of that, but he’s even more intrigued by a big picture in Hartford that has been marrying economic and real-estate development to some cutting-edge workforce development — all of which has Hartford well-positioned to become a model of innovation and a true 21st-century city.

Start Me Up

“Besides the real-estate development and continuing progress and momentum here, an innovation ecosystem that has been growing in Hartford over the past 18 months,” Bronin said. “We put together a strategy that really focused on building on the strength of our core industries: insurance, advanced manufacturing, and healthcare.”

For example, Hartford InsurTech Hub is an initiative created by a group of executives from the Hartford area, including insurance carriers and other related firms, municipal officials, and community stakeholders. It was established to attract new talent and technology to Hartford and provide entrepreneurs with the support, resources, and industry and investor connections they need to help grow their business.

“We’ve engaged our large corporate partners in a way they haven’t been engaged in many years,” Bronin said. “In a very short period of time, we’ve moved the ball a long way down the field toward building a really vibrant innovation ecosystem here.”

In addition, Stanley Black and Decker moved its innovation center to downtown Hartford, partnering with Techstars on a mentorship-driven accelerator that attracts promising additive-manufacturing startups to the city.

“If you told people two years ago that Hartford would be home to both Techstars and the [InsurTech] accelerator, they would have doubted it,” the mayor added. “But those are two significant developments — and they don’t stand alone.”

“We’ve engaged our large corporate partners in a way they haven’t been engaged in many years. In a very short period of time, we’ve moved the ball a long way down the field toward building a really vibrant innovation ecosystem here.”

Launched in 2017, Upward Hartford transformed 34,000 square feet in Hartford’s iconic Stilts Building into a co-working space which soon became a community hub, home to entrepreneurs who connect and collaborate with fellow innovators and startups.

“Upward Hartford, a homegrown incubator and co-working space, has grown rapidly. They’ve brought dozens of startups through the doors in a very short time,” Bronin said. That’s impressive in itself, he said, but moreso in the potential for these young enterprises to partner with larger, more established companies, making it more likely they’ll set down roots in Hartford.

Meanwhile, Infosys, a global leader in consulting, technology, and next-generation services, will open its Connecticut Technology and Innovation Hub in Hartford and hire 1,000 workers in the state by 2022. The facility will have a special focus on insurance, healthcare, and manufacturing.

“I’ve always believed, with the strong corporate community we have and the corporate leaders in those three sectors, there’s a lot of potential,” Bronin said. “But the pace of progress has exceeded even my expectations.”

Time to Score

In short, Hartford is a city on the rise, the mayor noted, and not in a haphazard way; the developments happening in both real estate and the innovation economy spring from a carefully considered vision.

He said economic development will continue to focus increasing the number of residential units downtown, growing the number of medical and educational facilities, and adding new transportation options. The latter has been boosted by expanded commuter rail service this year between New Haven and Springfield, with Hartford one of the key stops — a boon for people who choose to live or work downtown.

One might say that’s another home run in a city that’s seen many of them lately — whether or not the Yard Goats are in town.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]