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Community Spotlight

Agawam Mayor William Sapelli

William Sapelli inherited a long to-do list when he took on his new role as mayor, from infrastructure projects to economic-development concerns, and has only added more items to that list.

Very soon after William Sapelli announced he would be retiring as Agawam’s superintendent of schools — ending four decades of work in education — people started suggesting that he run for mayor that fall.

“They said, ‘you have the skill set — you have a $45 million school budget, which is half the town budget, you deal with 700 employees, you’ve negotiated five contracts, and you know all the city departments,’” recalled Sapelli, who took the suggestions under advisement and eventually took the idea to his family.

At first, he recalled with a laugh, he interpreted their unbridled support as perhaps a loud hint that they weren’t ready to have him home full-time. But soon they convinced him, as did others, that their backing was grounded in the belief that Agawam needed a change — and a fresh perspective — in City Hall. And that he could provide it.

Although he eventually embraced the calls for him to seek the corner office, Sapelli rejected recommendations that he formally announce his intentions before he actually retired almost a year ago (early July, to be exact) because he wanted to avoid any and all suggestions that he might be using the resources of his office as superintendent to help gain the mayor’s chair and focusing on his next job before he finished up in the one he was in.

“I got in late — I was really behind the 8-ball, and people said you can’t get in that late,” said Sapelli, who nonetheless triumphed in the September primary and then the November election. And he attributes that victory, in large part, to his message of needed change and the promise that he can provide it.

“This sounds corny, but I grew up here in town, and I care about this town,” he told BusinessWest. “I personally didn’t like the way things were going; it seemed that elected officials weren’t really getting along. It seemed like things were going off the rails — people not communicating, people sniping at each other — and I thought we could do better, and do better for Agawam.”

Five months in, he said the office is, well, busier than he thought it would be, in part because there are a great many meetings and official functions at which his attendance is required, or at least requested. But another big part of it is that Sapelli inherited a lengthy to-do list, and he’s only added more to it.

Among those line items are a host of important infrastructure projects, especially the rebuilding of the Morgan/Sullivan Bridge, which connects Agawam to West Springfield. There are also specific business concerns, such as the nagging question about how to inject new life into the tired commercial district known as Walnut Street Extension, home to the now-infamous Games & Lanes, which no longer exists; however, the problem of finding a new use for the property does.

And then, there are broader, more complex business and economic-development concerns, such as Agawam’s notorious — and in many ways debilitating — spot-zoning practices.

“There’s so much spot zoning in Agawam … our system is so archaic,” said Sapelli with some exasperation in his voice. “In most communities, it’s an issue; in our community … well, I’ve had the experts from the Pioneer Valley Planning Commission get involved through a grant we received, and they used the word ‘unique’ to describe the problem.”

To address it, Sapelli has created a zoning-review committee, which is expected to make some recommendations in the months to come.

An even bigger issue — although the zoning problem is quite extensive — is the recognized need (on Sapelli’s part, anyway) to make the city more business-friendly.

Walnut Street Extension

Improving the Walnut Street Extension area remains a problem without an immediate solution in Agawam.

“People ask how we can become more business-friendly, and one of the ways is to expedite the permitting process,” he explained. “From what I was hearing from individuals who came in and tried to start businesses and get permits for different things was that it took longer than they expected. I thought it was important to go out and try to make this community attractive to businesses.”

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest talked at length with Agawam’s mayor (he’s no longer the ‘new mayor’) about the challenge he accepted and how he’s working to fulfill that campaign pledge of bringing positive change to the community.

Learning the Ropes

As he provided a chronology of a career in the Agawam school system that began when Jimmy Carter was in the White House, Sapelli said there were a number of stops.

They started with a stint coaching junior-varsity hockey and substitute-teaching assignments at the high school. A year later, he was coaching the varsity team and teaching social studies at the junior high. Later, he taught science for six years, then became assistant principal at the middle school, then an elementary-school principal, assistant superintendent, and, starting in 2011, superintendent.

During the campaign last fall, he encountered — and earned a good deal of support from — people who were students during each one of those stops. When it came to people making such claims about the earliest stages of his career, he admits to having to take their word for it.

“People will say, ‘remember when I had you in school?’” he said. “And I’ll say, ‘I don’t think you looked like this when you were 10 or 12, so I don’t recognize you, but I believe that you were one of my students.”

Support from all those former students and colleagues was certainly a factor in Sapelli’s rather large margin of victory over former City Council President Jimmy Cichetti last November.

As was, he believes, the desire for change in a community that had seen little progress on many of the key issues facing it — and his ability to bring about that change.

“I really thought we could do a better job of having local, city, and state government be a kinder, gentler group, if you will,” he said, “and be able to have open, honest discussions and not take things personally.”

While working to stimulate change and progress, Sapelli is also leading efforts on a number of issues, or fronts, that, as noted, have challenged several of his predecessors.

At or near the top of that list is the Morgan/Sullivan Bridge, the rebuilding and widening of which has been talked about for years. State funding has been secured for the project, and a bid should be awarded shortly, said Sapelli, adding that work was to have started this spring.

But it’s already late June, and construction still hasn’t started, said the mayor, adding that, since work is due to be halted during the 17-day run of the Big E — which is just a few hundred yards to the east of the bridge — in September, there is now a good chance the project may not see much progress this calendar year.

“They may be doing some preliminary set-up work this fall,” said Sapelli, adding quickly that there will be more definitive timelines for this project emerging shortly. “But I don’t think anything major will happen until next spring.”

The bridge, projected to be a two-and-a-half-year project, is an important initiative, he went on, referring to the traffic bottlenecks that are regular — and problematic — for residents and businesses trying to attract people to that area. And during the Big E, the traffic problems reach nightmare proportions.

To ease those problems, the city plans to improve not only the bridge intersection, but also the one a few hundred yards to the north at Springfield and Walnut streets.

Meawhile, improvement of another key intersection, in Feeding Halls on Route 187, is on the drawing board — it has been for some time, actually, said the mayor, adding that is part of approximately $8 million in road, sidewalk, and intersection improvements that will be undertaken city-wide.

While addressing those infrastructure matters, there are a number of specific business and economic-development-related issues that demand attention as well, said Sapelli.

Chief among them is the ongoing issue of Walnut Street Extension. The Games & Lanes property has been razed, said the mayor, and the property’s owner reports there has been some interest, but nothing likely to translate into redevelopment in the near future.

Meanwhile, that property is just part of the story. The Walnut Street Extension area remains a problem without an immediate solution. Last spring, the City Council first rejected a $5.3 million streetscape-improvement project for that area and then a subsequent, scaled-down, $3.6 million initiative.

The strategy moving forward, said Sapelli, is to create what’s known as a DIF (district improvement financing) program for that area. With a DIF, a community can pledge all or a portion of tax increments — additional tax revenue stemming from development or increases in property value — to fund district improvements over time.

“That money gets set aside and earmarked strictly for development in that area that’s mapped out, and that area alone,” said the mayor. “It’s a way of creating a fund to improve that depressed area without using taxpayer dollars or increasing taxes on the people in that area.”

A DIF is a close cousin of the better-known TIF, whereby municipalities may grant property-tax exemptions to landowners of up to 100% of the tax increments for a fixed period. Agawam intends to use both DIFs and TIFs to generate economic development, said Sapelli.

Other specific initiatives include redevelopment of the former Buxton property, later Southworth Paper and Turners Falls Paper, on Main Street, said the mayor, adding that the emerging plan is to subdivide the sprawling plant and attract multiple tenants.

There are also the many smaller retail centers and strip malls within the community, he went on, adding that the town has seen some new businesses come in and fill vacancies, and the goal is to attract more.

As for work on the town’s archaic zoning, Sapelli said his administration is “attacking” the problem.

“It’s going to be a big job, so we’re taking it little bites at a time,” he noted, adding that the Planning Commission has been a big help in this regard. “But we’re going to get it done.”

By the Book

Sapelli said he’s not sure if he’s the only the school superintendent to move the corner office in this region in recent times. But he does know that his route is certainly one that’s not well-traveled.

As his supporters note, he brings considerable experience to the job and knowledge of city departments and how they operate. Those skills have certainly helped him make the transition and advance many different kinds of initiatives.

But his comments — and his body language — convey the message that behind every challenge … there are many more challenges.

He says he’s up for them, because of that dedication to the town where he grew up, and also because he brings a new school of thought to managing this community — literally and figuratively.

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

Community Spotlight Features

Community Spotlight

An architect’s rendering of the Ludlow Mills complex, redevelopment of which is an ongoing process.

An architect’s rendering of the Ludlow Mills complex, redevelopment of which is an ongoing process.

Eric Nelson said he recently had cause to look over the occupancy permit issued to Westmass Area Development Corp. for the property now known as Ludlow Mills.

The date on the document — April 2012 — gave him both pause and more evidence that time does, indeed, fly.

Yes, it’s been more than six years since this ambitious project — a blend of both brownfield and greenfield development — was launched, and, for the most part, it is on schedule, said Nelson, president of Westmass for roughly half the duration of this effort.

And by on schedule, he was referring to the pace of development, or redevelopment, at this complex of 60 buildings and adjoining undeveloped land. When it started the clock back in 2011 when the property was actually acquired, Westmass said this would be a 20-year project that would generate $300 million in public and private investments, more than 2,000 jobs, and a more than $2 million increase in municipal property taxes.

To date, there have been several high-profile initiatives on the site, most notably the building of a new HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital ($28 million), WinnDevelopment’s overhaul of the structure known as Mill 10 into over-55 housing ($24 million), and several smaller developments.

And there is more on the drawing board, most notably WinnDevelopment’s planned conversion of Mill 8, the so-called Clock Tower Building — because it’s home to the clock tower that is perhaps the most recognizable landmark in this community — into a mixed-used project featuring commercial space on the ground floor and more housing in the floors above. That’s a $50 million project, according to current but very preliminary estimates, that was announced nearly two years ago.

“So far, we’ve either constructed or leveraged $127 million in private and public investments,” said Nelson, tallying up the two completed projects, the announced Clock Tower initiative, and a host of smaller line items, if you will, such as brownfield cleanup, infrastructure work, and other publicly funded initiatives.

The next key milestone for the project is the construction of Riverside Drive, which will open up approximately 60 acres of pre-permitted light-industrial property in the easternmost area of the mill site. A $3.5 million MassWorks grant from the state was earmarked for the project, and Westmass and town officials are working with congressional leaders to secure a matching $3.5 million grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration to cover the $7 million cost of the roadwork.

The Ludlow Mills project is on schedule, if not ahead of it, in another respect, said Town Planner Doug Stefancik. This would be what could be called the trickle-down effect to the town and the region in terms of jobs and other benefits.

Doug Stefancik says the ‘trickle-down effect’ from redevelopment of the Ludlow Mills complex is already in evidence.

Doug Stefancik says the ‘trickle-down effect’ from redevelopment of the Ludlow Mills complex is already in evidence.

That list would have to include the riverwalk that was inspired by the project and has become a popular recreational facility within the town, as well as the jobs created and kept in Ludlow by the mill project (HealthSouth would certainly fall into that category), the new housing option of the form of Building 10 (many of those with that address were already town residents) and the promise of more at the Clock Tower Building, and early signs of additional vibrancy and new businesses to support those residents and business tenants at the mill.

“As the mills develop, they will generate additional interest outside that area,” he explained. “That’s because now, you’re putting people down at the mills; you have people who are 55 and over in that housing project, and that’s going to carry over into the community.”

Within walking distance, he added, are a post office, a library, restaurants and shops on East Street, and convenience stores. “There is a trickle down; people are getting into their routines [at Mill 10], and it’s going to be a positive for the whole area.”

The mill project is the story in Ludlow, but it’s not the only story, said Stefancik, adding that the community continues to add new residential projects — it has large amounts of developable land, and as the housing market continues to build momentum, more building permits are being issued — and there are infrastructure projects planned that should spur more private investment.

Chief among them is a $6 million project to improve the aptly named Center Street, the town’s main commercial throughfare and the one that handles traffic getting onto and coming off turnpike exit 7 (more about that later).

For this, the latest installment in its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest turns its focus onto Ludlow and especially a project that recalls the town’s past and will play a huge role in its future.

Milling About

As he talked about the mill project, Nelson said there are obviously a lot of moving parts, and the broad goal is to keep the initiative moving so that those ambitious goals for everything from jobs to tax revenue can be met.

And the construction of Riverside Drive is a linchpin to those efforts, he said, adding that there is an existing road, but it is not adequate to support development of the 60 acres of greenfield in the Ludlow Mills master plan.

The MassWorks grant, secured with the help of State Sen. Eric Lesser and state Rep. Thomas Petrolati, was a big step forward in the effort to secure the needed federal funds, said Nelson.

“It’s a pretty effective argument when you can say to grant-funding agencies, ‘you’re going to pay 50% because there’s another entity that will kick in 50%,’” he told BusinessWest. “It’s a very competitive environment for grants, and it helps to have that kind of support from the state.”

Ludlow at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1774
Population: 21,103
Area: 28.2 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $19.01
Commercial Tax Rate: $19.01
Median Household Income: $53,244
Median Family Income: $67,797
Type of government: Town Council, Representative Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Hampden County House of Correction; HealthSouth Rehabilitation Hospital; Mass. Air National Guard; Kleeberg Sheet Metal Inc.
*Latest information available

As noted earlier, there has been considerable momentum created at the site since it was acquired by Westmass. The first triumph was the HealthSouth project, which amounted to new construction, but with use of many materials from the mill complex itself.

And last fall, the Mill 10 over-55 project opened to considerable fanfare. The complex is fully occupied, and there is, according to some reports, a lengthy waiting list for units that do become available.

Not all has gone according to plan, most notably the very public pending loss of high-profile tenant Iron Duke Brewery. A disagreement developed between tenant and landlord concerning the former’s taproom, which, Westmass argued, had become more of a tavern, attracting large numbers of patrons taking up a considerable amount of the mill’s available parking spaces.

The discord has been marked by acrimony, considerable press coverage, and even a little humor — Iron Duke created a brew called ‘Eviction Notice Black IPA’ at one point — and the company is apparently set to take its act to Wilbraham when its lease expires.

But there is still plenty of forward movement at the historic site, developed by Ludlow Manufacturing and Sales Co., which made a variety of products out of Indian-grown jute and employed more than 4,000 people at its high-water mark.

The goal moving forward is to have people working, living, shopping, dining, recreating, and receiving a wide range of services at the site, said Nelson.

And housing will be a big part of that mix, he noted, adding that the success story that is the Mill 10 project provides ample evidence that there is a need for more housing, including units in the affordable, or subsidized, category, and there are 68 of those among the 75 units at Mill 10.

Actually, what’s planned for the Clock Tower Building is what’s called ‘workforce housing,’ meaning that it will not be for those over 55 exclusively, and will be priced for teachers, firefighters, and others at the lower ends of the pay scale.

Nelson noted that $300,000 in Massachusetts historical tax credits have been secured for the project, said Nelson, an important foundation on which to build in the challenging task of financing the initiative.

Meanwhile, there are other forms of progress on the site, he said, including early movement toward locating a restaurant on the property, one that will have views of the river, and reuse of more of the so-called stock houses once used to store jute and other raw materials.

There are roughly 30 of them, and maybe two dozen are occupied by companies doing everything from precision machining to car-seat repair, said Nelson, adding that the goal is to bring more of them into use and thus continue that process of creating a critical mass of people and businesses that generates more traffic at the mill and, ultimately, more momentum.

“The residential component of Mill 10 presents opportunities for other uses that might come in there and pivot off that residential component,” he told BusinessWest. “If we get a critical mass, and HealthSouth certainly helps with this, we get more traffic, more interest, and more people are exposed to the mill; we’re trying to get more interest from that 8-to-5 window.”

And as momentum swells inside the mill, there is a trickle-down effect, said Stefancik, noting, as just one example, that the river walk has indeed become a popular new attraction in town.

“A lot of people now have that as part of their walking routine,” he told BusinessWest, adding that the amenity is drawing people of all ages and making the river something it really hasn’t been for some time — a community resource.

The town is looking to create more momentum with the planned reconstruction of Center Street (Route 21), a project that will include work on the roadway, shoulders, sidewalks, curbs, drainage, and more.

This will be a $6 million project that bring some inconvenience to people traveling on this main commercial throughfare, but ultimately, it will improve traffic flow through the city. Work is scheduled to start this summer.

Overall, there have been a number of new developments in recent years, he explained, listing everything from solar-energy installations — three of them in all — to new condominium and subdivision projects to another brewery, Vanished Valley, all providing ample evidence that Ludlow is a place where people want to live, work, and even generate electricity.

Bottom Line

Time really does fly, and the Ludlow Mills project offers plenty of evidence to that effect.

A project that was launched six years ago amid considerable fanfare and expectation is, as Nelson noted, on schedule when it comes to those measurables such as a jobs, tax dollars, and public and private investment.

It is also on schedule, as Stefancik said, when it comes to the trickle-down effect and creating more momentum within the community.

And, by all indications, the project — and the community — will only build on what has already been accomplished.

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

Features

The Fab Five

Scores submitted by a panel of three judges have determined the five finalists for this year’s Continued Excellence Award, an honor created in 2015 to recognize past 40 Under Forty honorees who have built on the business success and civic commitment that initially earned them that honor.

They are:

Michael Fenton, associate at Shatz, Schwartz & Fentin, P.C.;

William Gagnon, vice president of Marketing & Key Accounts for Excel Dryer Inc.;

Samalid Hogan, regional director of the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center;

James Leahy, assistant director, Business Development and Promotion Sales for the regional office of the Massachusetts State Lottery Commission; and

• Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse.

The winner of the fourth annual award will be announced at this year’s 40 Under Forty gala, slated for June 21 at the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House in Holyoke.

The winners in 2015 and 2016, respectively, were Delcie Bean, president of Paragus Strategic IT, and Dr. Jonathan Bayuk, president of Allergy and Immunology Associates of Western Mass. and chief of Allergy and Immunology at Baystate Medical Center. Both were originally named to the 40 Under Forty class of 2008. Last year, the judges chose two winners: Scott Foster, an attorney with Bulkley, Richardson and Gelinas (class of 2011), and Nicole Griffin, owner of Griffin Staffing Network, now ManeHire (class of 2014).

This year’s five finalists were determined by scores submitted by three judges — Matthew Bannister, first vice president, Marketing and Innovation at PeoplesBank; Ira Bryck, president of the Family Business Center of Pioneer Valley; and former winner Griffin.

Read on for more details about the nominees.

Michael Fenton

Michael Fenton

Michael Fenton

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

Now an associate at Shatz, Schwartz & Fentin, P.C., practicing in the areas of business planning, commercial real estate, estate planning, and elder law, he received an Excellence in the Law honor from Massachusetts Lawyers Weekly and was named a Super Lawyers Rising Star in 2014. In 2014, he became Springfield’s youngest-ever City Council president, overseeing the creation of the young professionals committee and the Community Preservation Act committee, which is bringing money into the community to benefit historic preservation, recreation, and open space. He also continues to serve on numerous civic organizations.

William Gagnon

William Gagnon

William Gagnon

A 40 Under Forty honoree in 2013, Gagnon was recognized for his work as vice president of marketing at Excel Dryer, the business launched by his father. In that role, he not only saw the company’s staff double, but was an original seed sponsor of a U.S. Green Building Council’s Green Apple program, which helps build healthy learning environments for kids around the globe.

Today, Gagnon continues to give back to the community through his position on the board of the Children’s Study Home. He has also continued to lead the green movement, spearheading energy efficiency within his industry by recently developing a new product that not only dries hands fast, but uses less energy, making it the most environmentally friendly hand dryer on the planet. He has also been working on a new, ADA-compliant hand dryer designed for easy access for individuals who are disabled or mobility-impaired.

Samalid Hogan

Samalid Hogan

Samalid Hogan

A 40 Under Forty honoree in 2013, Hogan is the regional director for the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center Network’s Western Regional Office. She has built partnerships across public, private, and civic sectors to achieve economic-development goals for the Pioneer Valley region.

In 2014, Hogan founded CoWork Springfield, the city’s first co-working space, which focuses on serving women and minority-owned businesses. In addition, she was appointed to the Governor’s Latino Advisory Commission in 2017, and serves on the boards of several organizations, including Common Capital, the New England Public Radio Foundation, the Minority Business Alliance, and National Junior Tennis and Learning of Greater Springfield. She was awarded the Grinspoon Entrepreneurial Spirit Award in 2017 and was recognized as a Woman Trailblazer and Trendsetter by the Massachusetts Latino Chamber of Commerce in 2016.

James Leahy

James Leahy

James Leahy

When Leahy was selected to the 40 Under Forty class of 2010, he was a five-time Holyoke city councilor, as well as the CEO and president of the city’s St. Patrick’s Day Parade and Road Race. He was also working for Alco Labs, a leader in eye-care medicine, and had won several awards for his business acumen, as well as serving on the boards of directors of the YMCA, the Holyoke Children’s Museum, the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round, the Boys and Girls Club of America.

Since then, Leahy has expanded his roles with the parade and road race, as well as serving as president of the Volleyball Hall of Fame and president of the Westfield State University Foundation board of directors. He is also assistant director of Business Development and Promotion Sales for the State Lottery Commission. Meanwhile, he has grown his civic volunteerism with service on numerous community organizations.

Alex Morse

Alex Morse

Alex Morse

Morse’s story is well-known, being elected Holyoke’s youngest mayor at age 22 in 2012 — reason enough to be named to the 40 Under Forty class of 2014. He’s since then won re-election twice, time enough to put his leadership in perspective.

Morse and his team have spurred a pipeline of some $125 million in private projects over the past few years, and overseen significant streetscape improvements, new and renovated parks, ongoing rehabilitation of the mill buildings, a partnership with the Greater Holyoke Chamber of Commerce to launch the SPARK entrepreneurship program, and many new development projects. During his terms, community policing strategies have led to drops in crime, property values have gone up, and the unemployment rate has dropped. All this has helped create a new energy around a city that has in many ways been an afterthought in the region’s economic-development picture over the past few decades, but one that is clearly on the rise.

Meet the Judges

Three independent judges were tasked with reviewing dozens of nominations for the 2018 Continued Excellence Award and determining the five finalists. They are:

Matthew Bannister

Matthew Bannister

Matthew Bannister is first vice president of Marketing and Corporate Responsibility for PeoplesBank, a leader in green values, sustainable-energy financing, and charitable giving. He manages the corporate philanthropy program through grants and sponsorships, focusing on key areas including academics, innovation, economic growth, and community vibrancy. He also plans and directs the marketing and public-relations programs, and represents the bank in public, social, and business events.

Ira Bryck

Ira Bryck

Ira Bryck is president of the Family Business Center of Pioneer Valley. Since 1994, the center has provided a practical learning community for family-owned and closely held companies throughout Western Mass. Bryck also writes an online advice column for family businesses, and has written and produced three plays about life in family business that have been performed more than 50 times internationally.  His third play, A Tough Nut to Crack, is based on his 17 years in his family’s fourth-generation childrenswear business on Long Island, which he ran with his parents. He also hosts The Western Mass Business Show on WHMP, featuring interviews with business owners and expert advisors.

Nicole Griffin

Nicole Griffin

Nicole Griffin is a 40 Under Forty winner in 2014 and recipient of the Continued Excellence Award in 2017. She is the founder and chief talent officer of ManeHire (formerly known as Griffin Staffing Network). ManeHire is a full-service staffing agency that offers payroll services, corporate training, and temporary, temp-to-hire, and permanent placement. Griffin currently serves as a member of the board of directors for the YWCA of Western Massachusetts and the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County. She is also the 2015 recipient of the Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses Scholarship at Babson College, the 2015 National Urban League Community Builder Award recipient, and an alumna of the Leadership Institute for Political and Public Impacts.

Features

Photos from the June 2 Event

Gala sponsor Sarat Ford Lincoln with special guest judge Lindsay Arnold (fourth from left) and Bay Path President Carol Leary (fourth from right).

Gala sponsor Sarat Ford Lincoln with special guest judge Lindsay Arnold (fourth from left) and Bay Path President Carol Leary (fourth from right).

Andrew Associates, Mirror Ball sponsors of the Gala.

Andrew Associates, Mirror Ball sponsors of the Gala.

From left to right, Prestley and Helen Blake; President Carol Leary and Noel Leary

From left to right, Prestley and Helen Blake; President Carol Leary and Noel Leary

Emcee Ashley Kohl and special guest judge Lindsay Arnold from ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars.”

Emcee Ashley Kohl and special guest judge Lindsay Arnold from ABC’s “Dancing with the Stars.”

Gala Honorary Chairs: (from left to right) Steven and Alissa Korn; Drew and Lauren Davis; and Carrie ’86 and Tim Burr.

Gala Honorary Chairs: (from left to right) Steven and Alissa Korn; Drew and Lauren Davis; and Carrie ’86 and Tim Burr.

From left to right, Gala judges Jonathan Besse, vice chair of the Board of Trustees; Lamont Clemons, Springfield business leader; and Lindsay Arnold from “Dancing With the Stars” provided comments on the dancers.

From left to right, Gala judges Jonathan Besse, vice chair of the Board of Trustees; Lamont Clemons, Springfield business leader; and Lindsay Arnold from “Dancing With the Stars” provided comments on the dancers.

A shot of the dance floor!

A shot of the dance floor!

Founder and CEO Delcie Bean IV from Paragus Strategic IT with partner Daryll Sverrisson’98.

Founder and CEO Delcie Bean IV from Paragus Strategic IT with partner Daryll Sverrisson’98.

Patricia Faginski, vice president and financial advisor at St. Germain Investment Management danced with Gunnar Sverrisson of Ballroom Fever in Enfield, CT.

Patricia Faginski, vice president and financial advisor at St. Germain Investment Management danced with Gunnar Sverrisson of Ballroom Fever in Enfield, CT.

From left to right, President Leary joins the dancers at the end of the competition, Daryll Sverrisson ’98, Delcie Bean IV, Maria Rodriguez-Furlow ‘’10 G’12 of Bay Path, Gunnar Sverrisson, and the winner of the Mirror Ball Trophy:  Patricia Faginski.

From left to right, President Leary joins the dancers at the end of the competition, Daryll Sverrisson ’98, Delcie Bean IV, Maria Rodriguez-Furlow ‘’10 G’12 of Bay Path, Gunnar Sverrisson, and the winner of the Mirror Ball Trophy: Patricia Faginski.

Features

Along for the Ride

Anita Bird, now an HR coordinator for MGM Springfield, knocked on the door of the company’s office back in 2012 not knowing what to expect.

Anita Bird, now an HR coordinator for MGM Springfield, knocked on the door of the company’s office back in 2012 not knowing what to expect.

As the final, final countdown begins for MGM Springfield, the opening of the nearly $1 billion project offers a different level of poignancy for a small group of individuals. They are known as first-generation, or first-gen employees. In many cases, they were the boots on the ground, stuffing envelopes and staging letter-writing parties when this was only a concept, not even an architect’s rendering. Today, they’re no longer volunteers; in fact, they’re already casino-industry veterans who have found not only a job but a career.

Anita Bird remembers knocking on the door not knowing who or what might lie on the other side.

She had left Temple University in Philadelphia that fall of 2012, and come home to Springfield looking for … well, she wasn’t exactly sure what. A “restart” was how she phrased it for BusinessWest. She had heard that MGM was looking at Springfield as the possible site for one of the Commonwealth’s first resort casinos and also that the company had opened a small office at 1441 Main St.

“I was trying to figure out what I was going to do,” she recalled, “and I’d heard that MGM was here, and I wanted some more information, mainly because I was surprised and confused and was just looking to see what all this was about.”

So she knocked on the door.

Fast-forwarding considerably, she was met by Brian Bass, manager of the company’s casino-referendum efforts, who would offer her an opportunity to volunteer for the entertainment giant as it sought to clear what would be merely the first of many hurdles it would face to gain a casino license.

That stint as a volunteer would eventually lead to a job and what has all the makings of a career in the casino business. Her business card now declares that she is HR coordinator for MGM Springfield, handling a wide array of responsibilities, from events to make people aware of career opportunities at the casino to birthday parties for those already on the payroll.

What it will read several years, or even several months, from now, she doesn’t know.

“You get a glimpse of every piece, a little of everyone’s world,” she said of her time at MGM to date and her exposure to a wide array of career paths. “I’m open to the many opportunities that MGM has; we have so many great properties and great opportunities.”

Bird is what’s known within the company as a ‘first-generation’ employee of MGM Springfield, which means, in most cases, that she’s been here from the very start, long before the very first architect’s renderings of the $950 million casino now nearing completion in the South End were drawn. Back before Springfield voters had even approved a referendum that would allow a company to build a casino within the city’s borders. Back before anyone around here had ever heard of Mike Mathis or Bill Hornbuckle.

Amanda Gagnon may have lost the battle for Ward 6 in the casino referendum fight, but she’s won not only a job but what has the makings of a career in the gaming industry.

Amanda Gagnon may have lost the battle for Ward 6 in the casino referendum fight, but she’s won not only a job but what has the makings of a career in the gaming industry.

There are several of these first-gen employees, many of whom, like Bird, started as volunteers. Sometimes they knocked on that office door, other times they joined a line at the MGM table at a job fair.

After volunteering, they then earned jobs with a wide array of titles, and now are in what appears to be the early stage of a career in the gaming industry. Many of them tell stories of ‘letter-writing parties’ from the days leading up to the city’s referendum vote and then, a year later, a statewide ballot initiative to undo the Legislature’s approval of casino gambling. And of long days and nights working toward something that was then only a concept. And of doing ‘anything and everything that needed to be done,’ a phrase many of them used.

“We were the feet on the ground — this little army of recent college graduates just knocking on doors, making phone calls, having house parties and letter-writing parties; if there was a way to get the word out, we were going to do it,” said Amanda Gagnon, who, after her time volunteering, wound up serving on the community relations staff, then as exective assistant to both Mathis, president and chief operating officer of MGM Springfield, and Alex Dixon, the general manager, and now, as project coordinator on the operations side.

Some have seen their journey take them to Las Vegas for management training or to MGM’s National Harbor casino in Maryland, which opened roughly 18 months ago. But they are all in Springfield, or back in Springfield, as the case may be.

And now that it’s reality and just a few months from opening its doors, the casino has become for them not only a place of employment, but a source of pride, something they’ve helped bring to fruition, something that, for those who grew up in and around Springfield, has changed their outlook on the city and its future.

“Back when I was going to college at Western New England, I would never have patronized any of the outlets down here,” said Thuy Nguyen, a first-gen employee now working in HR. “I wouldn’t even think to set foot downtown because you always thought it was too dangerous to be down there. Fast-forward five years, and I’m downtown almost every week — outside of work. It’s a nice, very refreshing change.”

For this issue, and as the opening date for the casino draws ever closer, BusinessWest turns the spotlight on an intriguing group of MGM team members — those first-generation employees who knocked on the door of opportunity, sometimes quite literally, and found a fulfilling career on the other side.

Rolling the Dice

Gagnon can laugh about it now, but, for the most part, she still doesn’t. That’s because, on many levels, it remains a sore subject.

In the run-up to Springfield’s referendum vote on casino gambling in the fall of 2013, Gagnon, an East Longmeadow native, was essentially assigned Ward 6, the Forest Park area. As things turned out, that was the only ward to vote against the casino measure.

“I had a tough community, and I wore that scarlet letter for a while, but they didn’t hold it against me, obviously,” said Gagnon with a laugh. She took those numbers hard, but quickly focused on the much bigger picture — all the work that still lay ahead, including another campaign — the ballot initiative (which was defeated by a wide margin) — and she’s embraced all of it.

Gagnon’s story, like that of all of the first-generation employees, has its unique elements and fate-filled moments; there’s even what is now a husband-and-wife team that went to Las Vegas together for management training and now work on different floors of MGM’s headquarters at 95 State St. (we’ll meet them in a bit).

But there are many common threads as well. Most weren’t looking for a job with MGM per se when they started, just a job, or a restart, like the one Bird described.

Thuy Nguyen says she never skipped school before attending that job fair where she connected with MGM Resorts. She certainly has no regrets now.

Thuy Nguyen says she never skipped school before attending that job fair where she connected with MGM Resorts. She certainly has no regrets now.

Gagnon was certainly looking for one of those after returning from New York — and a short stint on Broadway in company management and casting — as so many do who venture to the Big Apple, with big dreams mostly unfulfilled.

“I was working in entertainment because that’s my strongest passion,” she said. “But New York is expensive, and I came back with my tail between my legs, ready to reassess what my future should be. I felt defeated — but I heard that MGM was interested in coming to the area.”

But at first, the East Longmeadow native disregarded those reports as illogical, based largely on the city’s troubles at the time and her own perceptions of the community. “I said, ‘I know this area, and MGM and Springfield weren’t two words that went together at the time.’”

But she was pushed and prodded by family members to investigate the rumors and, more specifically, show up at a career showcase at the MassMutual Center and report back in detail on what transpired.

She did show up, and she did report back — that MGM had no job openings, per se, but it was looking for interns to help with the campaign.

She interned for about a month and then was brought on full-time to work on the referendum campaign — work that is far removed from the lights of Broadway and also from what most people think about when they sign on to work for MGM Resorts.

Derek and Jennifer Russell arrived at MGM Springfield by way of Las Vegas (management training) and an assignment to help open MGM’s National Harbor casino in Maryland.

Derek and Jennifer Russell arrived at MGM Springfield by way of Las Vegas (management training) and an assignment to help open MGM’s National Harbor casino in Maryland.

As noted, these first-gen employees weren’t working for a casino, but for a company with aspirations for building a casino in the City of Homes. In the late spring of 2018, it might be hard for some to remember how all this started — with a grassroots effort to garner support for casino gambling in the city.

Those who were there certainly can’t forget; the images, and memories, are embedded in their minds.

“By October, when I arrived, MGM was just sort of putting the feelers out,” said Bird, who would eventually be appointed manager of that office bearing the door she knocked on, the first of many steps up the ladder. “That’s when we sent out all those mailers asking people what their feelings were on casino gambling and what they thought about a casino here; that’s where we started, with those mailers, and eventually there were house parties, letter-writing efforts, and other things to feel out where the support was and what people thought about the project.

“We would do fireside chats, we would go to hockey games and sign people up, we’d do giveaways — anything we could to get to talk to people,” she went on, adding that the goals back then were to build support but also a large army of people to carry on the fight.

Joining the Army

And the recruitment process for that army was quite involved, and many would join by what could only be called the indirect route. Nguyen enlisted by way of a career fair in 2013 staged not by her school, Western New England University, but UMass Amherst.

“I didn’t know what I was doing with my life, and UMass has, historically, one of the largest career fairs in the area,” she recalled. “I was searching on their database to see what companies were going to be represented, and almost fell off my chair when I saw ‘MGM Resorts’ on the list.

“I swear that, prior to that, I had never skipped school,” she went on. “But I skipped on that day, took a chance, stood in line for what felt like hours, and once I got to the table and spoke to a representative, I found they were recruiting for their Las Vegas properties.”

That news left her feeling quite deflated — she remembers almost being in tears as she left the career fair — but the picture changed quickly and dramatically when Bass, who was forwarded her résumé by MGM colleagues at the career fair, gave her a call, inquiring about whether she’d like to join the campaign as an intern.

“He hired me on the spot, and it’s history from there,” she told BusinessWest before offering, when prodded, a much slower version of the story.

That account featured a dramatic shift in scenery as Thuy ventured off to Las Vegas and the MGM Grand, where she took part in the management-associate program, a stint that lasted three years.

For someone who grew up in Springfield and then moved to rural Maine, it was quite a culture shock — “life-changing,” as she called it.

But her goal was always to come back to Springfield and open the MGM property here, and late last year, she did. Her business card declares that she is an HR business partner, handling a wide array of responsibilities, from internal investigations to counseling to workers’ comp claims — “all the fun stuff” — for a workforce now numbering more than 200 and on its way to 3,000.

From left: Derek and Jennifer Russell, Amanda Gagnon, Thuy Nguyen, and Anita Bird.

From left: Derek and Jennifer Russell, Amanda Gagnon, Thuy Nguyen, and Anita Bird.

Among those 200 are Jennifer and Derek Russell. They have different jobs — she’s the manager of Talent and Acquisition, and he’s manager of Financial Planning & Analysis — and they work on different floors, but they took the same basic route here.

The same one Nguyen did.

Indeed, Jennifer, a graduate of the Isenberg School of Management at UMass, was at that very same career fair, also looking for a summer internship. She was thinking about Boston or Hartford as a landing spot, but was mostly focused on just getting some experience and making a little money.

“I talked to 18 companies, and saw this really long line at this last booth that turned out to be MGM,” she recalled. “I remember thinking, ‘this is a hospitality company; I don’t know much about it, but it seems really popular right now.

“I ended up waiting in line for a good 15 minutes just to talk with one person,” she went on. “I was asking if they had any HR positions or project-management roles.”

The person she spoke with was recruiting for Las Vegas, and she handed her over to the vice president of MGM Grand, who took one of Russell’s homemade business cards and dialed the number on it several days later, asking specifically if Russell would be interested in coming out to Las Vegas.

She was, went out for an initial 10 weeks, and “fell in love with all of it,” in her recollection.

She came back home to East Longmeadow and to Derek, whom she had started dating a few months earlier, and essentially talked him into going back out to Vegas with her.

As he recalls, it wasn’t exactly a hard sell.

“I spent the better part of a year in Boston doing something I probably wasn’t enjoying, and was looking for something different,” he said. “Jen decided she wanted to move to Vegas to take part in this management-associate program and wanted me to go with her.

“I said, ‘why not?’ — I wasn’t doing anything all that great for work,” he went on, adding that he applied for the MGM program, also known as MAP, and was accepted. “I told my boss at the time that I was moving to Vegas; he said, ‘you’re young … that’s probably not the craziest thing you’ll ever do.’ And I remember telling him, ‘I’m pretty sure moving to Vegas is one of the greatest things I’ll ever do.’”

Moving the story along, they spent a year in the MAP program, getting a holistic view of how a casino company like MGM operates, choosing a career path — again, his in finance and hers in talent acquisition — and then getting on with those careers.

While doing so, they were ever mindful of a pledge they made to each other that they would eventually return to Massachusetts and the families they left behind. They would do that, but first made a stop at National Harbor to be part of the team that opened that casino.

Today, like many of the other first-gen employees, their travels have taken them well beyond Greater Springfield, but they are happy to be here now at this pivotal moment in the city’s history.

It’s a moment they are part of on many levels. Indeed, the Russells not only work downtown, they live there, literally a few hundred yards from the front door of the casino’s hotel, in Stockbridge Court.

“It’s exciting to see the city come to life and be restored after so long,” said Derek. “The city is changing, and it’s great to be part of all that’s happening here.”

Others shared that sentiment and said they’re proud that the project they’ve been involved with for so much of their young lives is helping to transform the region they knew and make the memories — and sentiments — they had seem very distant.

“The Springfield we see now isn’t the same Springfield I left when I went to New York,” said Gagnon. “There’s new restaurants on Worthington Street, new events in Court Square. Springfield isn’t just a city people drive through anymore; we’ve become a place to stop, not just somewhere on the way.

Nguyen agreed.

“MGM is Springfield’s lifeline,” she told BusinessWest. “And I’m a true believer that, without MGM, we wouldn’t be anywhere near where we are today.”

In the Beginning…

Flashbacks.

All those we spoke with say they have them. Lots of them.

They flash back to selected moments in time that, for obvious reasons, have become indelible — because of the work being done, the time of day, the fatigue they were feeling, the emotions they were expressing, or, very often, the people they were working beside.

Many of those people are now on a different floor or, in some cases, just a few cubicles away. But they’re still ‘beside’ them, wearing MGM nametags and bearing business cards with the company’s logo. And that makes the flashbacks come more easily.

“I can think back on those nights when it was 1 o’clock in the morning and we were counting how many phone calls we had made,” recalled Gagnon with a heavy sigh. “That’s just one of many memories I have — and will always have. And every second of that is worth it to be able to be here today.”

With that, she certainly spoke for all of the first-gen employees.

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

Community Spotlight Features

Community Spotlight

Amy Cahillane says the DNA strives to promote and build on Northampton’s energy, understanding that it has competition from other area downtowns.

Amy Cahillane says the DNA strives to promote and build on Northampton’s energy, understanding that it has competition from other area downtowns.

Northampton’s downtown, Amy Cahillane says, is nothing if not eclectic.

“We have a great mix of businesses,” said the director of the Downtown Northampton Assoc., a two-year-old organization dedicated to boosting vibrancy in the city’s center. “We have a lot of different clothing stores, coffee shops, restaurants and bars — there’s a lot of room to find your niche here.”

She said business owners downtown are very much a network of mom-and-pop outfits that take pride in the district’s economic vibrancy and work hard to welcome new shop owners into the fold as they’re launching their enterprises.

“We’re a community that really works hard to make things attractive and make sure there’s stuff to do downtown, and welcome people in our downtown. We’re not just a Walmart and a Target and a parking lot.”

It’s a place, Cahillane said, where small-business owners, many of them first-time entrepreneurs, have no qualms about asking each other about the smallest details, from the best point-of-sale systems to how to keep customers coming in despite a raft of construction projects making it more difficult than usual to get around and find parking.

“All of our small businesses know it’s tough to take that risk and open your own business,” she said. “Business owners who have been around 30 years have had these conversations a million times — they’re very happy to share information, share stories, and lend support. Nobody wants to see a vacant storefront; people want to support other fellow business owners that are taking that gamble. And a lot of times, these business owners are our neighbors or friends, or kids of our friends.”

Aimee Francaes, who opened Belly of the Beast a year ago with her partner, Jesse Hassinger, can vouch for the support of downtown businesses, adding that such an atmosphere suits a restaurant that has forged some other important relationships — with local farms.

“The concept is ‘comfort food mindfully made,’ she said, noting that all meats are sourced from farms throughout the Northeast — and are smoked and cured on site — and 90% of produce in season comes from the Valley, or just over the border in surrounding states.

“We’re very much focused on being part of the community,” she went on. “And we feel like the community has really welcomed us and brought us into the fold. People tend to be very warm and welcoming, and happy to have us here, and happy to have us so active with local farms. Being on Main Street, right across from Thornes, gives us wonderful visibility.”

Speaking of Thornes Marketplace, which houses its own eclectic range of small businesses, it recently undertook a major renovation of its iconic front entrance, making changes both aesthetic and aimed at preserving the building’s historic elements.

It’s the sort of project that pleases the DNA, a voluntary organization open to property owners, businesses, and city residents, whose members work to improve the business and cultural strength of the downtown area through investments in programming, beautification, and advocacy.

The DNA handles such things as city plantings and holiday lights, and sponsors events that bring visitors to downtown, like the first Summer Stroll and Holiday Stroll, Arts Night Out, and sidewalk sales. The city has also given the DNA a full-time worker who cleans and maintains public property in the downtown business district.

Beyond that, Cahillane said, “we do advocacy, and we make sure the downtown community has a voice at City Hall, that people feel their voice is heard, and that there are public meetings and community forums on issues that will impact downtown, so everybody has a chance to voice their opinions and thoughts.”

The organization rose up after the dissolution of the Northampton Business Improvement District, and has since taken under its umbrella events and projects once handled by the BID and other entities.

“We’re always looking to do new events and create new partnerships,” she told BusinessWest. “We’re open to it all. The focus this year is to tighten up events we already do, but we’re always game to bring new stuff into the fold.”

Positive Trends

Several years into a strong regional economy, indicators such as property taxes, meals-tax revenue, and the number of visitors to the city show plenty of life, and Northampton’s downtown district, home to unique retailers, eclectic dining choices, and active arts organizations, reflects that health.

It can be slightly more difficult to navigate the area, however, thanks to a good reason — the city’s investment in infrastructure on Main and Pleasant streets, which includes ongoing roadwork and utility upgrades, supporting, among other developments, two housing complexes going up on Pleasant Street. Work along that thoroughfare also includes a small park, more parking spaces, and improved sidewalks and bike lanes.

Northampton
at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1883
Population: 28,483
Area: 35.8 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $17.04
Commercial Tax Rate: $17.04
Median Household Income: $56,999
Median Family Income: $80,179
Type of government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: Cooley Dickinson Hospital; ServiceNet Inc.; Smith College; L-3 KEO
*Latest information available

Cahillane said new businesses like Belly of the Beast have entered this landscape with aplomb, while occasional special events shine a spotlight on other businesses, like Sutter Meats on King Street, which ran a successful, two-day pop-up event in conjunction with the Little Truc food truck, serving up pho to sellout crowds.

Typically, she added, retail establishments participate enthusiastically in special events downtown — such as a fundraiser for Hampshire County Friends of the Homeless, in which music groups were stationed downtown, performing and passing the hat — but it’s harder for restaurants to do the same.

“The retailers are always game for everything. The restaurants, when we have events, are so busy with the people who come downtown for these events that it’s hard for them to also simultaneously staff a second, separate thing on that same day. So we try to bring the people downtown and then encourage them to eat at the restaurants. But they’re very supportive of our organization.”

Homestead, which set up shop in the former Ibiza Tapas location on Strong Avenue, is another fairly recent addition to the restaurant scene.

“They are doing very well and have made a lot of local relationships to bring products into their restaurant that are locally sourced,” Cahillane said, before adding that such a designation is par for the course in this city.

“I would say just about every restaurant in our downtown does some version of locally sourced,” she noted. “We have thought about ‘let’s do some sort of downtown festival where each restaurant could feature maybe a locally sourced dish,’ but that’s their whole menu at every restaurant. That’s not a Northampton festival; that’s an everyday reality. But some of them have had some really interesting or unique things that they have done with those local partnerships.”

Cahillane added that there should be more news of new businesses on the horizon. “They’re not ready to make it public yet, but I’d say, over the next six months, there will be some exciting storefronts popping up.”

That’s always a welcome development, she said, because even Northampton, known regionally and beyond for its downtown life, does grapple with occasional vacant storefronts. But in context, and relative to the struggles of many other communities, Paradise City is in a good place.

“I think it’s a great downtown,” she said, “and I think people are looking to come downtown.”

Making Contact

To cultivate that spirit, the DNA conducts monthly meetings with downtown businesses on a variety of topics.

“That’s a great opportunity for them do some networking with new businesses — and older businesses, too — and talk about things that might be mundane to the outside person, but are still important,” Cahillane said. “Recently, there was going to be construction, and some of them wanted to know how people dealt with the scaffolding outside and putting a banner on it. Other businesses were able to say, ‘make sure it’s really big, and make sure there’s not a lot of words on it, because no one’s going to stop and read it.’ So, things like that, which would not necessarily occur to me, are real issues, and we’re able to facilitate some of those conversations.”

Thornes Market

These connections are important in the big picture — one in which individual success stories become shared successes, she added.

“There is a feeling that all boats rise with the tide, that having a beautiful downtown can only help encourage people to come downtown, and there’s a recognition that is only going to happen if everybody pitches in.”

After all, Cahillane noted, Northampton isn’t the only downtown destination in the region, and shouldn’t rest on its laurels or take its visitors for granted.

“We’re fortunate to live in the Valley where there are a lot of great communities, and there are some, like Turners Falls and Easthampton, that are becoming up-and-coming, hip, trendy places to go and hang out,” she said. “Then there’s the casino that’s opening in downtown Springfield.

“We love our downtown,” she went on, “but we don’t want to just assume that everybody else knows and loves it, and I think you risk getting stagnant and a little boring if you don’t work to improve or at least maintain what you already have. So that’s what we’re trying to do.”

Francaes appreciates the effort, as she does the business owners downtown, from the owners of Thornes Marketplace to established restaurateurs, who acted as informal business consultants when she and Hassinger were getting ready to open their doors.

“We haven’t talked to anyone who hasn’t been supportive,” she told BusinessWest. “That’s part of the reason we chose Northampton — that vibe and warm, welcoming spirit.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Features

A Mindset That Pays Off

Amy Jamrog

Amy Jamrog says individuals, couples, and families make many mistakes when it comes to retirement planning. The biggest, perhaps, is not starting that planning soon enough.

‘Not practicing for retirement.’

OK, that’s not one of Amy Jamrog’s official 10 ‘mistakes business owners make before and after retirement,’ but it is certainly a related topic and one worth thinking about as that day approaches.

Practice for retirement? “Yes, definitely,” said Jamrog, a financial advisor with Northwestern Mutual as she delivered the second installment in a series BusinessWest calls Future Tense on May 17 at Tech Foundry in Springfield, using that word ‘practice’ loosely to describe how individuals and especially married couples should get ready for something they’ve never experienced before and are, in most cases, not really ready for.

“Practicing retirement is a big deal,” she said, relating a story about a couple intent on retiring and moving to Cambridge. She suggested they try before they buy when it came to that concept, and they did, spending quite a bit of time in that college town.

“They loved it in the summer and hated it in the winter,” Jamrog went on. “So they’re going to split their time — keep their house here and buy a condo there; they’re not going to move there.”

The moral to the story? Prepare — for everything you can possibly prepare for.

And this brings us to those ‘official’ mistakes. They’re listed in the box on page 19, and include everything from not understanding the impact of taxes on one’s retirement to not matching beneficiaries with the right assets, to what might well be the biggest of them — not planning early enough.

And that’s just a partial list, said Jamrog, who noted that, to the casual observer, most of the points on this list seem obvious, things that most people, and certainly successful business owners, would know about and be thinking about as they progress through their career toward retirement.

Future Tense

But the truth of the matter is that many don’t know about such matters. And what’s worse, she told her audience, is that they think they know.

Indeed, using quite a few hypotheticals — financial advisors rely on those — but even more true but sometimes scary stories (such as the one about the owner of a $10 million business who is still using TurboTax instead of a CPA) that come in the form of conversations she’s had with her clients over the years, Jamrog drove home the point that retirement isn’t something to be entered into lightly.

And with that overriding concept, she hit many of the same chords struck by Delcie Bean, founder of Paragus Strategic IT, in the first talk in the Future Tense series, titled “An Unprecedented Technology Disruption.” Slicing through that talk, which touched on the potential impact of everything from driverless cars to artificial intelligence, Bean told his audience that, while the future is difficult if not impossible to predict, business owners must nonetheless be proactive and energetic in their efforts to prepare for what is to come — whatever that may be.

Paraphrasing considerably, Jamrog said essentially the same in her ‘10 mistakes’ talk. And that idea will be conveyed once again in September with the final talk in this series, to be presented by Meyers Brothers Kalicka.

It will be titled “Change Considerations: An Examination of Lean Process, Market Disruption, and the Future of Your Business,” and will feature Mark Borsari, president of Sanderson McLeod, who will discuss change and innovation through lean concepts, and focus on resulting cultural considerations. The program will also feature commentary from Jim Barrett, managing partner at MBK, who will address already-active market disrupters that affect business processes in various industries.

But that’s in September. First, those mistakes that business owners make before and after retirement.

Taxing Situation

To show just how common these mistakes are, Jamrog started not with a hypothetical or a conversation with a typical client, but with a reference to her own parents, who began teaching her about money and how to manage it at a very early age.

“My parents taught us to balance a checkbook, we had small stock portfolios as kids … they did a really good job teaching us about money; it’s no surprise that I ended up being a financial advisor,” she said. “But we never talked about their money; we grew up in a private, ‘it-wasn’t-polite-to-ask’ kind of household.”

Fast-forwarding a little, Jamrog said that when, at the advice of her mentor, she brought her parents in for a financial review, she was shocked at how ill-prepared the people who taught her so much about money were for the retirement that was coming up on them fast.

“My father was co-owner of PolyPlating in Chicopee; he and his business partner started the business when they were 20, they had a handshake agreement, no buy-sell agreement, nothing in writing. They hadn’t done anything with their 401(k) in 20 years, they had no life insurance for other. They basically said, ‘we’ll take care of each other if anything happens.’

“The first thing I learned about business owners from working with my parents is to not assume, just because someone looks like they’re in good shape, that they’ve got it all figured out,” she said. “They had no ducks in order at all. My dad said, ‘all I do is work; the plan is to work and then retire, so I haven’t taken any time out to see if we’re doing it right.’”

That last comment — that one about not taking the time to out to see if he was doing it right — is the keeper in this discussion, the one Jamrog wanted her audience to remember as they walked out the door.

Amy Jamrog’s 10 Retirement Mistakes

• Not having the right people on your team;
• Not applying an accumulation strategy to your distribution plan;
• Not preparing your children for the future;
• Not understanding the impact of taxes on your retirement;
• Not prepping for important age milestones: 59½, 62, 65, 70½, and 85;
• Not understand the issues inherent in your IRA;
• Not having a philanthropic plan;
• Not matching your beneficiaries with the right assets;
• Not understanding the correlations between happiness and aging (this pertains to you and your parents); and
• Not planning early enough.

Those 10 mistakes are all common, they’re all important, and they offer specific thoughts to digest. But the common denominator and the overriding assignment is to take the time to make sure you’re doing it right.

That applies to specific issues such as taxes, distribution plans, issues with individual retirement accounts, matching beneficiaries with assets, having a philanthropic plan, and much more, said Jamrog, who encouraged those in the audience to embrace issues and discussions that are often difficult for married couples to engage in and then do some hard planning.

That’s because the worst-case scenario can and often does happen, and Jamrog, sadly, can go back to her family for solid evidence. Her father died at 50 after suffering a major heart attack. Jamrog was 26 at the time, and that incident created a passion within her to work with people in their 50s, and before that, to make sure they have their ducks in a row.

“I freaked out … I started calling all my parents’ friends and asked them to come in and meet with me,” she said, adding that, when they do come in, she often sees people making some of those common mistakes because, again, they think they know what they should be doing.

That is often the case when it comes to taxes and retirement, said Jamrog, who said mistakes in this realm can have serious consequences.

Elaborating, she said retirement plans, and specifically 401(k)s, constitute the most expensive money people have in retirement, meaning they are 100% taxable.

“And yet, I see it all the time — all people want to do is pre-tax, pre-tax, pre-tax everything they’ve got,” she explained, referring to the options for those looking to put money aside. “They don’t understand that, when they get to retirement, they have a growing tax problem, a deferred tax problem. And then that’s further compounded when people think they’re going to leave that to their kids.”

That wasn’t a direct segue into some of those other common mistakes — ‘not understanding the issues inherent in your IRA’ and ‘not matching beneficiaries with the right assets’ both came several items down on the PowerPoint — but it served that role.

“The worst thing you can leave your kids, besides nothing, is a 401(k) or an IRA,” she said. “It’s the most expensive money to leave behind.”

To get that point across, she related the story of a bank president who was, that’s was, very proud that he was going to leave a $2 million IRA to his four children.

“Good news/bad news, those four children are very successful and all in high tax brackets,” Jamrog told her audience. “So if he leaves $500,000 to each of these four kids, they’ll each lose about 45% of it to taxes; they can stretch it out over their lifetime, but they’re still going to lose almost half of it in taxes.

“When he found this out, he was angry,” she went on, putting heavy emphasis on that last word. “And did not understand how he did not know that. So we came up with a plan — a $2 million life-insurance policy, which gives each of those kids $500,000 in tax-free money, plus whatever’s left in the IRA.”

This is an example of people thinking they know what to do, but in reality not knowing, said Jamrog, adding that she could fill a talk that would last several hours with such examples.

Still another common mistake, and this is related to all of those listed above, Jamrog said, is parents not doing what her parents did — compelling their children to be both informed and responsible when it comes to money.

“I have clients whose kids are in their 40s and 50s, and the parents are still prepping their taxes for them,” she said in an effort to get her point across. “They just sign their tax return and have no idea what they’re signing.

“Teach your kids how to read a tax return, introduce your kids to your accountant,” she said. “If your kid is graduating from college and getting their first job, sit down and teach them what their benefits are, show them what a 401(k) is, and encourage them to enroll in a 401(k). And if your kids don’t listen to you, introduce them to your financial advisor.”

Bottom Line

Among the many anecdotes she shared, Jamrog said one in particular probably sums up the essence of her presentation better than any other.

“I had a man in my office last week, 62 years old, say to me, ‘I’ve been meaning to meet with you for six years, but I was afraid to meet with you because I was afraid you were going to tell me I was doing it wrong, and that it would be too late,’” she said. “And I said, ‘so you waited six more years?’”

Pride, insecurity, and ego all contributed to that six-year delay, she went on, adding that, while it’s difficult to remove those factors from the equation, individuals and couples should try and put their energy into planning.

And while they’re at it, they should try practicing retirement as well.

By doing so, they may just make the future less tense.

 

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

Community Spotlight Features

Community Spotlight

Downtown Greenfield may look the same as it did decades ago, in many respects, but it has evolved considerably and morphed into a true neighborhood.

Downtown Greenfield may look the same as it did decades ago, in many respects, but it has evolved considerably and morphed into a true neighborhood.

Greenfield Mayor William Martin acknowledged that it isn’t exactly a scientific measure of either his downtown’s vibrancy or the efficiency of his long-term strategic plan for the central business district. But it certainly works for him.

He’s being told there’s a parking problem downtown. Actually, he’s been told that for some time. Until recently, the commentary involved the east end of that district by Town Hall, and the chorus was so loud and so persistent that the community is now building a 272-lot parking garage in that area, due to open in the fall.

But now, he’s also hearing that complaint about the east side of downtown, and he’s expecting to hear it a lot more with the opening of the Community Health Center of Franklin County on the site of the old Sears store on Main Street, a facility that will bring more than 100 clients and employees to that location every day.

In the realm of municipal government, parking problems generally, but certainly not always, fall into that category of the proverbial good problem to have, said the mayor, adding that a far worse problem is to have no parking woes — not because you have plenty of parking, but because no one is coming to your downtown.

And that was more the state of things in Greenfield for some time, Martin intimated, putting the accent on ‘was.’

Indeed, while Main Street may look pretty much the same as it did a few decades ago, at least at a quick glance, it is vastly different, and in some very positive ways, said the mayor, adding that his administration’s broad strategy has been to bring people downtown for goods and services and let this critical mass trigger economic development on many levels. And it’s working.

“We thought that, if we can bring people downtown and provide what they need, the free market will take care of people want,” he said, adding that the theory has been validated with everything from new restaurants to live entertainment to offices providing acupuncture and cardiology services.

Jim Lunt agreed. Now the director of GCET (Greenfield Community Energy and Technology), a municipal high-speed Internet provider, and formerly director of Economic Development for the community, he said the downtown has evolved considerably over the past decade or so.

Getting more specific, he said it has morphed from a traditional retail district, as most downtowns are, into more of a combination entertainment district and home for small businesses and startups.

“We’ve focused on small businesses that we can bring in, and we’ve worked a lot to build up the creative economy; our downtown, like many downtowns, looks a lot different now than it did 10 years ago,” Lunt told BusinessWest. “There are a lot more restaurants, a lot more opportunities for more social gathering, as opposed to what people would think of as traditional shopping.”

In addition to social gathering, there is also vocational gathering, if you will, in the form of both new businesses and also a few co-working spaces that are bringing a number of entrepreneurs together on Main Street.

To get that point across, Lunt, sitting in what amounts to the conference room in Town hall, simply pointed toward the window, a gesture toward the building next door, the Hawks & Reed Entertainment Center, which, in addition to being a hub of music, art, and culture, is also home to Greenspace CoWork.

That space, on the third floor, is now the working address for writers, a manuscript editor, a few coaches, a social-media consultant, and many others, and has become, said Lunt, maybe the best example of how Greenfield has put the often long-unoccupied upper floors of downtown buildings back into productive use.

MJ Adams, who succeeded Lunt as director of Economic Development, agreed, and she summoned another term to describe what downtown has become: neighborhood.

She said it has always been that to some extent, but it is now even moreso, with more living options and other amenities in that area.

“We’re starting to look on downtown as more of a neighborhood,” she explained. “We’ve always looked at it as the civic and service center for the county, but people are starting to perceive downtown Greenfield as a neighborhood that has a mix of housing styles, is attractive to a wide range of people, especially young people, has a lot to offer, and is very walkable.”

Greenfield didn’t get to this state overnight, said those we spoke with, noting that the process has been ongoing and more strategic in nature since the official end of the Great Recession and the arrival of Martin in the corner office (both of which happened in 2009).

Mayor William Martin says his broad strategy since being elected a decade ago has been to transform downtown into a hub for a wide range of services and make it a true destination.

Mayor William Martin says his broad strategy since being elected a decade ago has been to transform downtown into a hub for a wide range of services and make it a true destination.

That strategy has involved a number of tenets, everything from creation of GCET, which gives downtown Greenfield an important asset in a county where high-speed Internet access is a luxury, not something to be taken for granted, to a focus on making downtown a destination for a wide gamut of services, from education to healthcare.

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest examines how these pieces have come together, and also at how they have positioned Greenfield for continued growth, vibrancy, and maybe even some more parking issues — the ‘good-problem-to-have’ variety.

Hub of Activity

To explain his broad strategy for Greenfield’s downtown, Martin essentially turned the clock back more than 200 years. Sort of.

Back in those days, he explained, Greenfield, anointed the county capital, was a supplier of goods and most services to the many smaller communities surrounding it.

Small steamships and rail would bring goods north on the Connecticut River to Greenfield, he explained, and residents of surrounding towns would make their way to the center of Franklin County to get, well, pretty much whatever they needed.

“I consider that a tradition and also a responsibility,” said Martin, now serving his fourth term. “And that’s what we’ve based our downtown on — providing what people need.”

It also has always done that with regard to government functions, he said, citing everything from the county courthouse, post office, and jail to Greenfield’s library, the largest in Franklin County. But Martin’s goal was to broaden that role to include education, healthcare, and more.

And specific economic-development initiatives, technology, societal changes, the community’s many amenities, and some luck have helped make that goal reality.

In short, a large number of pieces have fallen into place nicely, said those we spoke with, enabling downtown Greenfield to become not only a destination, or hub, but also a home — for people and businesses across a diverse mix of sectors.

These pieces include:

• A burgeoning creative economy that features a number of studios, galleries, and clubs featuring live music;

• A growing number of restaurants, in many categories, that collectively provide a critical mass that makes the city a dining destination of sorts. “There are 13 different ethnic restaurants, there’s some really good bars, several places for live music that weren’t here just a few years ago, and art galleries,” said Lunt. “I think that’s the biggest change downtown”;

• Greenfield Community College, which has steadily increased its presence downtown with a campus that brings students, faculty, administrators, and community leaders to the Main Street facilities;

• The community health center, which will bring a host of complementary services, including primary care, dental, and counseling for emotional wellness together under one roof in the downtown, where before they were spread out and generally not in the central business district;

• Other healthcare services. In addition to the clinic, a cardiologist has taken over an old convenience store downtown, said the mayor, noting that there is also an acupuncturist, a holistic center, a massage therapist, and other healthcare businesses in that district; and

• Traditional retail, of which there is still plenty, including the landmark Wilson’s Department Store.

Actually, these pieces haven’t just fallen into place by accident, said Martin, noting, again, that they have come into alignment through a broad strategic plan and specific initiatives designed to make the downtown more appealing and practical for a host of businesses, as well as number of existing qualities and amenities.

“We decided that we should do everything we can to provide the infrastructure necessary to attract people and entities when the economy turned,” he explained. “And we worked on a number of things that were real problems.”

High-speed Internet access was and is a huge component of this strategy, said Lunt, noting that it has been directly responsible for a number of businesses settling in the city.

Meanwhile, other parts of that strategic initiative include renewable-energy projects that have helped bring down the cost of energy; creation of a Massachusetts Cultural District, which has made the community eligible for certain grants; a façade-improvement project that has put a new face on many properties downtown, and many others.

Destination: Greenfield

The community already had a number of strategic advantages when it came to attracting both businesses and families, said Lunt, noting that, overall, while Greenfield’s location in rural Franklin County is limiting in some ways — contrary to popular opinion, there are actually few available parcels for large-scale developments, for example — it brings advantages in many others.

From left, MJ Adams, Mayor William Martin, and Jim Lunt all see many positive signs in Greenfield’s downtown.

From left, MJ Adams, Mayor William Martin, and Jim Lunt all see many positive signs in Greenfield’s downtown.

Elaborating, he said that many younger people prefer a rural setting to an urban one — for both living and working — and can find most of what they’re looking for in Greenfield.

That list includes a lower cost of living than they would find in Boston, Amherst, or Northampton; outdoor activities ranging from hiking to whitewater rafting; culture; a large concentration of nonprofits serving the county; and, yes, high-speed Internet access, something people might not find 20 minutes outside of downtown.

“It’s a beautiful area, and real estate is quite affordable compared to much of the rest of the state,” said Lunt. “And the Springfield-Hartford metropolitan area is now 1.2 million, and that’s not that far down the road; a lot of people would happily commute for 45 minutes to live here and get to jobs there.”

This combination of factors has attracted a number of young professionals, many of whom may have gone to college in Boston or another big city and started their careers there, but later desired something different, said Adams.

It has also attracted entrepreneurs, said Lunt, including several video-game developers, many of whom now share a business address — co-working space known as Another Castle.

Located on Olive Street in space that until recently housed the Franklin County registry of Deeds, it became home to the video-game developer HitPoint, which was located in Greenfield, relocated to Springfield, and has now moved back. And it has created a co-working space that enables other small game designers to take advantage of shared equipment and facilities, effectively lowering the cost of doing business.

Moving forward, the town’s simple goal is to build on the considerable momentum it has created through a number of initiatives. These include work to redevelop the former First National Bank building, vacant for decades and the last of the properties on the stretch as Bank Row to be given a new life.

The town’s redevelopment authority has site control over the parcel, said Lunt, adding that the next steps involve working with the state, private grant writers, and the city to acquire funds to convert the property into a downtown cultural center to be used for everything from a farmers’ market to perhaps a museum of Greenfield history.

If all goes according to plan, all the properties on Bank Row will be back in productive use for the first time in 40 years, he told BusinessWest.

Another initiative is the parking garage, which has been years in the making, noted the mayor, noting that it took several attempts to secure funding help from the state for the project.

The facility will ease a well-recognized problem, exacerbated by the new county courthouse in that area, and provide yet another incentive for people to come to downtown Greenfield.

As for parking at the other end of Main Street … well, that’s a good problem to have. For now, anyway.

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

Features

The Trickle-down Effect

Rebeca Merigian, here with her son, Andrew Takorian

Rebeca Merigian, here with her son, Andrew Takorian, expects Park Cleaners’ contract with MGM to perhaps double the company’s current volume of business.

Rebeca Merigian says the slip was found, and promptly given to her, many years ago by a long-time customer, a description she quickly categorized as an obvious understatement.

Indeed, the date at the top is 1940, and thus this item, now displayed under glass, is a time capsule as much as it is a pick-up slip for a two-piece suit.

Start with the phone number at the top; there are just five digits because that’s all that were needed back then (ask your mother; actually, make that your grandmother). The name of the company was Park Cleaners & Dyers Inc. (the ‘& Dyers’ was dropped a long time ago because those services were discontinued). The address is Kensington Avenue in Springfield (the company moved to Allen Street in 1955). Even the slogan is different; back then it was ‘Dry cleaning as it should be done.’ Now, it’s ‘Family-owned and operated since 1935. We appreciate your business.’

Yes, much has changed since Edward Takorian, an Armenian who somehow escaped the genocide of 1915 and came to this country soon thereafter, went into business for himself.

There have been many ups and downs, said Merigian, Takorian’s great-granddaughter, who started working in the business on Saturdays when she was 9 and bought it from her mother three years ago. She noted that the company was started at the height of the Great Depression and has endured many other downturns over the next eight decades, and also the early death of her father. Not so long ago, there were more than 20 people working here; now there are four, including Merigian’s son and nephew.

But that number will be rising soon, thanks to what would have to be one of the biggest developments since that suit was picked up a year before the U.S. entered World War II — a contract with MGM Springfield, the $960 million resort casino that will open in about four months.

Park Cleaners has been awarded a contract to clean the uniforms for all 3,000 employees at the casino, and for the dry-cleaning of hotel guests and the MGM Springfield management team as well. Merigian couldn’t put a dollar figure on the contract, but she could certainly put it into perspective.

“I’m hoping that this will double our business,” she told BusinessWest, adding that the contract could give her the means to perhaps double the current workforce and pay the kind of benefits that are currently beyond the company’s reach. “My goal from this is to be able to provide health insurance for my employees who have been with through a lot of the challenges; I want to give back to them and provide more benefits and incentives so we can grow.”

Several other area businesses now have contracts with MGM or are in the process of finalizing one. Most will not be as life-changing as the one received by Park Cleaners, but they are all significant in some way.

Nick Noblit

Nick Noblit says the contract with MGM gives Yankee Mattress a new top line for its deep list of clients.

Take Agawam-based Yankee Mattress, for example. The company was originally asked to supply mattresses for all the rooms in MGM’s Springfield hotel, an order that Nick Noblit, the company’s general manager, admitted was too big to handle at this time. But the company will make California kings for the larger, high-roller suites, an assignment that will give the company additional business and some hopefully effective marketing material.

Meanwhile, Holyoke-based Kittredge Equipment Co. has secured one of the bigger contracts — this one to provide kitchen appliances and supplies to the many businesses that will do business at the casino.

There have been other contracts signed, and there will be many more agreements inked in the weeks to come as the countdown to the grand opening continues, said Courtney Wenleder, vice president and chief financial officer for MGM Springfield. She told BusinessWest that, as part of its host-community agreement, the company is required to apportion a percentage of its receivables to local companies.

But the company is striving to do more than just meet that obligation, she said, adding that MGM is looking to take the company’s philosophy regarding diversity and apply it to its vendor list. And this translates into extending opportunities to women (Kittredge is also woman-owned), minorities, and small businesses in general.

“MGM has a commitment to diversity and partnering with local vendors,” she explained. “It’s all about building the community together; there’s a symbiotic relationship — if the community does well, we do well, and vice versa.”

For this issue, BusinessWest looks at how the trickle-down effect from MGM Springfield, which began with local contractors taking part in the construction of the complex, is gathering momentum in the form of contracts to supply everything from knives and forks to marketing services. And while doing that, we’ll also shine a spotlight on some intriguing local businesses that have, by and large, flown under the radar.

The Rest of the Story

Wenleder told BusinessWest that many factors go into MGM’s decisions about which vendors to do business with and what might give a certain enterprise an edge over whatever competition emerges.

They range from quality of service and customer satisfaction, obviously, to whether, as noted, the business is minority- or women-owned. But there are some intangibles, and sometimes a little luck, that comes into play.

To get that point across, she relayed the story about how MGM Springfield now rents several apartments downtown, and they’re used, among other things, to house company executives visiting Springfield for extended stays.

Kittredge Equipment Co. owner Wendy Webber, left, with sales representative Amanda Desautels

Kittredge Equipment Co. owner Wendy Webber, left, with sales representative Amanda Desautels. The company will supply MGM Springfield with everything from appliances to glassware.

MGM CEO William Hornbuckle is one of these executives, and on one of his stays, he slept so soundly and comfortably that he took note of the label on his mattress (Yankee), later commented to those at MGM Springfield’s headquarters about his experience, and essentially initiated steps that would eventually lead to the company getting a contract.

“Bill commented about what a great night’s sleep he had on that mattress, and that pretty much secured their position,” Wenleder recalled with a laugh, adding that it wasn’t all that simple, but that bit of serendipity certainly got the ball rolling.

And the mattress contract serves as a good example of how MGM is trying to do business locally when it can and when it’s appropriate, said MGM Springfield General Manager Alex Dixon.

He noted, as Wenleder did, that there are times when MGM will simply add the Springfield casino to some existing contracts it has in place to provide certain products and services to the company’s existing properties.

Playing cards and dice would be good examples of this, he said, adding that MGM already has manufacturers providing those products. And, for the most part, there is no local company that makes such items.

But even with those products, there may be some opportunities for local businesses, he went on, noting, for example, that most playing cards are destroyed soon after they’re used, and MGM Springfield will use a local company to handle that work.

“We want to recognize what’s available in the local market and then tailor our supply chain to match what is happening in the local community,” he said while describing the company’s broad mindset when it comes to vendors.

Overall, MGM has a process in place when it comes to vendors, said Dixon, adding that the company actively solicits information from companies interested in doing business with it. The owners and managers of such ventures are invited to attend outreach events (they’re posted on the MGM Springfield website, for example), and through such events, companies become part of a database the company refers to when it needs specific products or services.

“Whenever there’s a business need, we want to find out if there are vendors, preferably local, who can help us to fulfill those needs — that’s step one,” he explained. “But informally, being members of the community, you really develop relationships.

“It’s no longer ‘hey there’s this great local brewer,’” he went on, while explaining how these relationships are created. “Now it’s ‘that’s Ray Berry from White Lion; maybe there’s an opportunity there.’”

In other words, familiarity breeds opportunity, and examples abound of how companies ranging from local caterers and computer hardware providers have come onto MGM Springfield’s radar screen — and are now doing business with the company.

The contract with Yankee Mattress is a good example of this phenomenon at work, said Dixon, confirming that the company was first presented with a proposal to furnish every room in its hotel now taking shape on Main Street.

But Noblet said such a large order would have necessitated additional hiring and other steps the company wasn’t ready to take.

But the contract to supply mattresses for the larger suites is a welcome addition and positive development for the Agawam-based company, which has been gaining traction in recent years as word-of-mouth referrals about its products proliferate.

This is another family business, started by Nick’s father, Joe, who is still active in the venture. The elder Noblit worked for a major mattress manufacturer for several years before deciding he could make a better product, and at a lower price, himself. And he did.

Yankee was launched in 1999, and it has grown and evolved other the years, said Noblit, adding that it started with a storefront and adjacent assembly area in Agawam, and now has four stores in the region.

Those outlets carry a host of lines with those huge tags that are supposedly illegal to rip off, including the top-of-line Black Collection, with models including the York, Fairhaven, Merrimac, and Nantucket.

There is a strong residential component to the customer base, obviously, said Noblit, but also many commercial clients as well, including several area B&Bs, hotels, and inns, as well as some healthcare providers, a few private schools, and a host of area fire departments.

“We custom-build those to be stronger than average — because there are some big firefighters out there and it’s important for them to have something durable,” he explained, adding that word of mouth has been the best marketing tool when it comes to adding new lines to the customer list on the company’s website.

If one were to peruse that list, the name now at the very top is MGM Resorts International, an indication of how important this contract is, not size-wise, but from a marketing and branding standpoint.

“Most hotels have a contract with a major manufacturer, and across the board, they do business with this manufacturer, and they make all of their beds,” he explained. “So for MGM to consider someone outside these big manufacturers that are nationwide, that’s significant.”

Buying Power

But if MGM Springfield found Yankee Mattress thanks to Bill Horbuckle’s good night’s sleep, most of the other vendors have had to find the casino giant.

And ‘find’ means going through a process of introducing one’s company to MGM Springfield through one of a number of vendor meet-and-greets, for lack of a better term, that the company has staged, including one at last fall’s Western Mass. Business and Innovation Expo, staged by BusinessWest.

Courtney Wenleder

Courtney Wenleder says there’s a symbiotic relationship between MGM and local vendors; when they do well, the casino operator does well, and vice versa.

Through these outreach sessions, MGM is making it much easier for companies to find it, said Wenleder, adding that MGM Springfield has a three-person purchasing team (a manager and two assistants), and one of their primary responsibilities is to go out into the community and find local vendors.

“Even though we’ve been doing a lot of communication with people when it comes to local purchasing requirements, some people aren’t hearing that message,” she explained. “We have people on the ground physically reaching out to these vendors.”

Merigian said she started attending such outreach sessions not long after MGM was granted the Western Mass. license in 2014, recognizing the casino as a rare business opportunity.

“I had my sights on it from the beginning,” she told BusinessWest. You never know how it’s going to work out with companies renting their own uniforms or owning them, but either way, I knew I would like to be part of it.”

So much so that she took steps to become a certified woman-owned business, understanding from those very first meetings that MGM had a strong interest in doing business with businesses led by women and minorities.

There would be more meetings to come over the next few years, she went on, adding that these sessions were beneficial on many levels.

“It really gets you tuned into your business,” she said, using that phrase to indicate everything from capabilities to long-term goals to what it will take to reach them. “It was an educational experience on many levels.”

The volume of work is large — most all of the 3,000 employees will wear some kind of uniform, and this contract covers all that and more — and thus MGM will likely be the largest customer in Park’s long history, said Merigian, although Park did have a contract with MassMutual for a quarter-century and still has one with the Defense Department (Westover Air Reserve Base).

“We don’t have specific numbers, but know it will be high volume,” she said of the business to start coming her way in a matter of weeks as employees are added to the payroll in waves. “But we’re ready for it, and we can feel the excitement.”

Indeed, after her father’s death, the company had to withdraw from the MassMutual contract, and it downsized considerably, said Merigian, adding quickly, however, that “we’re ready to go; we’re ready to get back to work.”

At Kittredge, meanwhile, the MGM contract is another important step forward for that company, said Amanda Desautels, an outside sales representative now working with MGM to outfit the restaurants that will be doing business at the casino.

“This is a significant contract for us,” she said, noting that Kittredge will be supplying MGM with everything from appliances to bar equipment; glassware to silverware, and adding it to a client list that includes UMass Amherst, the Max restaurant group, and Mount Holyoke College, among many others.

The company, rapidly approaching its centennial (it was launched in 1921), started as a supplier of typewriters and cash registers and has evolved into a $50 million equipment and supply giant that now employs more than 70 people locally.

At its warehouse and retail facility in the Agawam Regional Industrial Park, one can find everything from industrial refrigerators, freezers, and stoves to dishes and glassware to individual carving knives. Desautels joked that the company provides everything that goes on the table, around it (furniture), and even under it. “If you have a wobbly table, we have table levelers.”

It also has certification as a woman-owned business (Wendy Webber succeeds her late husband, Neil, as owner and operator), a designation that has opened many doors for the company and no doubt played a role in securing the contract with MGM.

“Being a woman-owned business has created many opportunities for Kittredge, and MGM is obviously one of those,” said Desautels, noting that the addition of MGM to the client roster is significant in many respects. “It’s exciting to be doing business with a company like MGM that shares the same values we do, such as diversity and the importance of their employees.”

Pressing Engagement

As she posed for a few photos for BusinessWest, Merigian gathered her son, Andrew Takorian, and insisted that he be part of the picture.

Figuratively speaking, he has been for some time now, working at this establishment — like his mother, grandfather, and great-grandfather before him — while still in grade school.

He represents the fifth generation to carry a business card that says ‘Park Cleaners’ — or Park Cleaners & Dyers, as the case may be. The company has gone through a lot of change and evolution after the past eight and half decades, and many important developments.

Perhaps none were as big as the contract inked with MGM Springfield, which comes at a critical time and represents a huge opportunity for growth and security.

It’s just one example of the trickle-down effect that is now underway, and already changing the local business landscape in profound ways.

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

Features

Changing Expectations

Mikki Lessard, left, and Nancy Feth

Mikki Lessard, left, and Nancy Feth say they’ve created a ‘retail-tainment district,’ one that is bringing people from across the region to downtown Springfield.

Like most people who grew up in and around Springfield in the ’60s and ’70s, Mikki Lessard has fond memories of getting on a bus and spending an entire Saturday afternoon downtown.

She said most of those visits would start, and a good number would also end, at Johnson’s Bookstore, but there were plenty of other stops as well.

“We would go to Johnson’s, and Steiger’s, and many other stores. There was always something happening; it was positive, and it was fun,” said Lessard, adding that, while she acknowledges that things won’t ever be exactly like that again given changes in how and where many people shop, it can be, well, something like that again.

And she and business partner Nancy Feth are a huge part of that ‘something.’

They are the founders of an intriguing enterprise called Simply Grace, which now operates a growing portfolio of businesses operating under the name the Shops at Marketplace in downtown Springfield — almost exactly where Johnson’s Bookstore was operating until it closed 20 years ago.

There are shops, but this is also a gathering place for events ranging from Thunderbird Thursdays to a farmer’s market to a Dress for Success graduation ceremony.

The two partners have a name for what they’ve created — a ‘retail-tainment district,’ blending both retail and entertainment. They didn’t invent the phrase — it’s been in use for a while and is often summoned when the discussion turns to what traditional shopping malls must become if they want to survive — but they believe they have the first in downtown Springfield, arriving ahead of MGM Springfield.

It all started with the Simply Grace Serendipity Boutique, and ‘the Shops’ has grown to include a yoga studio, a restaurant, a new store that just opened its doors, and another now being built out.

As they tell the story — and they love to tell the story, often finishing one another’s sentences and providing complementary commentary as they do so — these entrepreneurs note that they came to downtown Springfield as one of what was supposed to be several small retailers that agreed to set up shop as part of the initial Springfield Holiday Market in 2015, a strategic initiative designed to put some underutilized space in the Marketplace complex to work in a way that would bring people downtown and generate some momentum as well as foot traffic.

As things turned out, there were only a few pop-up shops, as they were called, on that location, but they did well collectively, and the public responded to this bid to bring some retail back to Main Street.

When the holidays were over, Glenn Edwards, owner of the property, asked Feth and Lessard if they would like to stay on for a while. They said yes, but without giving any real indication of a what ‘a while’ might or should become.

“We said, ‘we’ll stay for a few more months; we’ll stay ’til Valentine’s Day,’” said Feth, before Lessard picked up for her.

“And then, we asked to stay ’til Mother’s Day,” she explained. “And then we decided we wanted to stay for the year.”

But with some conditions, specifically that they could take space one of the retailers was vacating for yoga classes in an effort to attract more people and different constituencies to the downtown.

And, overall, the two entrepreneurs have been continuing that pattern, or mindset, ever since, adding new components to Simply Grace; bringing more events, vitality, and energy to the Marketplace area; and also, for those efforts, earning an award from the Small Business Administration to coincide with Small Business Week (April 29 to May 5).

Indeed, Feth and Lessard will be at the Sheraton Needham Hotel on May 4 to accept the Microenterprise of the Year Award, one of the few enterprises from Western Mass. to win such an honor in recent years.

But before, and after, all their focus will be on Springfield, the Marketplace, and new developments for Simply Grace.

These include a recent addition called Brick & Mortar, what Lessard calls a “mercantile, apothecary, and more,” which actually has some exposed brick for effect. There’s also Alchemy, a manicure and pedicure salon now being built out; Dharma, the yoga studio; and the boutique that got things rolling.

Those four businesses, along with Nosh, an eatery across the way from the boutique, now comprise a critical mass of small, diverse shops that the two partners believe will bring more foot traffic and momentum to an area that was once the pulse of downtown Springfield a generation ago — and can, they believe, take that role again.

“Do we have mall traffic? Heck no,” said Lessard. “But it’s working. It’s always about creating curiosity and then converting that into customers, and that’s what we’re doing.”

The only downside to all this is that the space once devoted to the holiday pop-up markets is now gone, absorbed by what could be called permanent fixtures, said the partners, adding that, in most all ways, this constitutes a very good problem to have.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with Feth and Lessard about their venture and how in some ways it constitutes turning back the clock, but in most others, it’s symbolic of the downtown’s future.

What’s in Store

‘Walk. Pause. Browse. Shop. Experience.’

Those are the words the two partners have placed before ‘the Shops at Marketplace’ in their branding of the facility. And both collectively and individuality, those terms speak to what this venture is all about — as well as to some of the elements that have largely been missing from downtown since those days when Lessard and countless others would get on a bus and take it to Main Street.

The partners at Simply Grace say they carry brands with unique stories that resonate with their customers.

The partners at Simply Grace say they carry brands with unique stories that resonate with their customers.

There was far less walking, pausing, browsing, and shopping going on, and therefore there was less to experience.

Feth and Lessard weren’t exactly out to change that equation when they were first invited to bring a taste of the Simply Grace Serendipity Boutique, a shop they opened in Monson, to downtown Springfield for the holidays. But that’s what has happened.

It’s been an intriguing journey, a learning experience on many levels, said the partners, adding that they are still writing new chapters to this story.

That first Holiday Market was so successful that the BID asked the new partners to manage and staff that project moving forward, said Feth, adding that they did so, providing an opportunity for a number of new businesses to become part of the experience and gain some critical visibility. And through that work, the partners came to understand the many layers of significance to their efforts. Indeed, this wasn’t simply retail, it was economic development.

“A lot of what we do is build community and work on economic development,” Feth explained. “These are the value adds we feel we bring to Springfield in addition to our own businesses.”

Lessard agreed, and referred to Simply Grace’s broad efforts as “collaborating and incubating.”

As for their own businesses, the partners say they are doing well and succeeding in their primary mission. That would be to bring people, but especially women, downtown. Or back downtown, as is often the case.

They’re getting that done by providing reasons to do so, said Lessard, adding that these vary and include yoga, the shops — which sell products made by vendors with unique, community-minded stories — and events.

Elaborating, Lessard said the partners will utilize their indoor spaces and walkways during winter and schedule a variety of gatherings for women, and when the weather gets warmer, they will fully “activate” the indoor and outdoor space, using it to host everything from flea markets to White Lion Wednesdays; from farmers markets to live music.

In fact, the space has become a popular venue for fundraising for groups that include Rays of Hope, Unify Against Bullying, Dress for Success, and many more.

“We just want to have this lively, quintessential, unexpected experience in downtown Springfield,” Lessard explained, adding that the key word there, and perhaps unfortunately, is ‘unexpected.’

Indeed, Feth said that many of those who come to the Shops at the Marketplace will offer commentary that makes this point.

“We’ll often hear people say, ‘I don’t feel like I’m in Springfield,’” said Feth. “Or ‘I feel like I’m in New York or San Francisco.’”

Which Lessard followed with, ‘and we gladly say, ‘you’re in this wonderful city called Springfield.’”

The unofficial mission moving forward, for the partners at Simply Grace and the city as a whole, is to generate fewer of these comments and to make a fulfilling trip downtown something that’s expected, not unexpected.

And the partners believe they and the city are moving closer to that goal through their lively mix of retail, events, things to do, and things to experience.

And the retail is a big part of it, said Feth, adding that, contrary to what is becoming popular opinion, traditional retail is not dead, and not everyone wants to buy everything on Amazon and have it shipped to their home.

“What we’re finding is that customers are actually hungry for experiences where they can see the product, talk to people, feel seen and acknowledged, and have a real experience instead of just a virtual experience,” she explained, before Lessard picked up on that ‘feel seen’ comment and ran with it because of its significance.

“We have women who come in here that pause, then browse, then shop, just to be seen,” she told BusinessWest. “They feel like they’re in this hustle and bustle of life and no one’s acknowledging them. So they come in, they share stories, we give them hugs; we actually care about them as people.

“We get a lot of pushback from people from who say, ‘you should be in East Longmeadow’ or ‘you should be in Hampden or somewhere other than downtown Springfield,’” she went on. “But we’re exactly where we’re supposed to be, because the women we’re connecting to that work or live or play downtown are very stressed out, and when they come to our store, it’s a breath of fresh air, an unexpected experience.”

Bottom Line

There’s that word again — unexpected. Soon, perhaps, it can be retired, and downtown Springfield will move closer to the one Lessard remembers from her youth, a time, she recalled, when there was always something positive and fun happening.

The partners at Simply Grace are doing their part to bring those phrases back into use. They’ll soon have an award from the Small Business Administration to show for their efforts, but they’ve already received something perhaps even more significant to them.

That would be all those comments from people who say they don’t believe they’re in downtown Springfield. Such comments tell them they’re doing the right thing and in the right place.

And to think they were only going to stay a month.

Good thing they didn’t.

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