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Driving Forces

Peter Picknelly says Peter Pan is taking steps

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Route Causes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Ride Stuff

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

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

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

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

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mayor David Narkewicz cuts the ribbon

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

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

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

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

It Takes a Village

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

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

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

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

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

The $6.5 million Columns at Rockwell Place

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Show Time

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

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

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

Northampton at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1883
Population: 28,483
Area: 35.8 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential tax rate: $17.29
Commercial tax rate: $17.29
Median Household Income: $56,999
Median Family Income: $80,179
Type of government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Cooley Dickinson Hospital; ServiceNet Inc.; Smith College; L-3 KEO
* Latest information available

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Features

The Stars Were Aligned

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The LMT (Large Millimeter Telescope) in Mexico

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

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

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

It’s All Relative

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Coming into Focus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bottom Line

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

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

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

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

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Mayor Will Reichelt

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ale’s Well

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

West Springfield at a glance

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

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

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

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

Forward Progress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Location, Location, Location

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

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

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

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

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

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

Features

Hopes Are High

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark  Zatyrka says INSA has attracted a diverse array of customers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Green Growth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making a Name

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]m

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Charlie Blanchard says Palmer continues to make progress

Charlie Blanchard says Palmer continues to make progress in its commerce centers and with green-energy projects.

Palmer’s leaders see the town as a destination — and hope the myriad players investigating east-west passenger rail service in Massachusetts view it the same way.

That’s why the Palmer Town Council recently established a citizens’ advisory committee and contracted with the UMass Center for Economic Development to study — and prepare a report on — the merits of an east-west passenger rail stop in Palmer, to be submitted to the state advisory committee currently looking into the feasibility of expanded east-west passenger service.

Those efforts included a recent meeting with community members to brainstorm about the pros and cons of the entire concept of east-west rail and Palmer’s place on any proposed line.

“Originally, the discussion was to have a relatively high-speed east-west route between, say, Boston and Springfield, or Boston, Worcester, Springfield,” said Charlie Blanchard, Palmer’s town manager. “If you add a stop in Palmer, what does it do to the timing? In fact, the timing doesn’t change that much. But the big benefit would be more ridership coming in or getting off the train, which would be a big deal.”

In a recent letter to state Sen. Anne Gobi, who attended the community meeting, Blanchard pointed out that Palmer is roughly central to Springfield and Worcester, and also at the center of a market that extends north to Amherst — and to institutions like UMass Amherst and Amherst College — and south to Storrs and the University of Connecticut. In short, it’s a point of connection in many directions that would benefit from expanded rail service.

Palmer at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1775
Population: 13,050 (2015)
Area: 32 square miles
County: Hampden
Tax Rate, residential and commercial: Palmer, $22.14; Three Rivers, $22.90; Bondsville, $22.97; Thorndike, $23.78
Median Household Income: $41,443
Median Family Income: $49,358
Type of government: Town Manager; Town Council
Largest Employers: Baystate Wing Hospital; Sanderson MacLeod Inc., Camp Ramah of New England; Big Y
* Latest information available

Furthermore, the absence of a stop in what’s nicknamed the Town of Seven Railroads would mean commuters from the Quaboag region who want to travel by train to Boston would have to drive roughly 40 minutes per day to use Springfield’s Union Station or slightly more to access Worcester. Participants at the meeting believed Palmer-area residents would be loath to do either, limiting total ridership at a time when the state would be clamoring to maximize it.

In addition, “a train stop in Palmer would be a major stimulus in helping to provide quality housing for commuters at an affordable price. With the ability to commute by train, this would open up a very affordable housing market,” Blanchard wrote in his letter, adding that a stop would also stimulate the economy of a set of communities that have yet to capture the growth found to the east, while boosting Palmer’s own downtown revitalization and encouraging hospitality companies to build more lodging there.

In short, it would inject energy into a town that, while it has plenty to tout in recent years, could always use more.

Projects and Progress

Baystate Wing Hospital’s $17.2 million project to expand its Emergency Department was perhaps the town’s biggest development last year. Aimed at better supporting the current annual patient volume of 24,000 visits, the 17,800-square-foot space includes separate ambulance and public entryways and features 20 patient rooms, including trauma, behavioral health, and other dedicated specialty-care areas.

“That opened in September, and was quite a big expansion,” Blanchard said.

Meanwhile, Palmer joined the ranks of the many Western Mass. communities to welcome the burgeoning cannabis industry in Massachusetts (see story, page 6), approving its first medical-marijuana facility on Chamber Road, including a 25,000-square-foot greenhouse and 3,200 square feet of retail space. Altitude Organic Corp. will move its headquarters from Colorado to a property on Thorndike Street in Palmer as part of the development, and expects to have plants growing in an indoor facility by October.

“It really is interesting to see the public acceptance of this new type of business,” Blanchard added, noting that the town’s laws allow for three retail cannabis locations in its commercial business district. “We’re looking forward to having them and seeing how successful they can be.”

In the Three Rivers section of town, progress continues at 2032 Main St., where the South Middlesex Opportunity Council is renovating the top floor to apartments and the bottom to retail — a mixed-use plan expected to infuse new residents into the neighborhood while attracting more shoppers.

“They ran into some structural issues — it was a bigger project than they thought — but activity continues,” Blanchard said. “It was completely gutted, and they had to do some reinforcing, but now it’s back on track.”

Property and business owners in Three Rivers have been engaging in a grass-roots revitalization effort for years, which includes changing the perception of the area and filling vacant storefronts. At the same time, the consortium known as On the Right TRACK (Three Rivers Arts Community Knowledge) has been working for some time to build a cultural and creative economy in the village.

On the culinary front in town, Stables Restaurant of Hadley recently opened a new restaurant at Burgundy Brook, on Route 181 on the north side of town. “When you go by there, you see a lot of cars and a lot of activity,” Blanchard noted.

Finally, the new rail spur installed at Sherwood Lumber Yard, in the town’s industrial park — a project that has been in the works since 2013, and funded through an Industrial Rail Access Program grant — allows the business to bring in materials by train, spurring significant expansion of the operation and helping the entire industrial park by unloading without clogging up other traffic.

“Now that the rail spur is completed, there’s more activity up there,” Blanchard said. “It also helped increase the rail capacity for the rest of the businesses there.”

Powering an Economy

Palmer also continues to embrace green-energy projects. In addition to 10 large-scale solar projects — producing 29.3 megawatts of electricity every year — and the installationin early 2018 of car-charging stations at Town Hall and the public library, the town has been working with Thorndike Energy and the Microgrid Institute to explore the benefits of a microgrid system that would access the hydropower and solar power generated at Thorndike Mills for emergency power.

“Thorndike Energy has hyropower over there, and generates electricity through hydropower,” Blanchard said. “They’re going to be adding some solar to it as well. You take those two renewable sources of electricity, and you add battery or other types of standby storage, so that you can store some of this power generated through a renewable source, and have it available in the event of an emergency.”

Project objectives include improved resiliency of electrical services for critical community facilities, expanded storage capacity to better integrate local renewable energy, and supporting National Grid goals in terms of modernization, storage, and renewables. Then, of course, there’s the benefit of job growth and retention.

“Obviously, anything located at Thorndike Mills would benefit from it,” Blanchard said. “The benefit to overall economic growth would be to attract new businesses to Thorndike Mills, which right now is pretty underutilized. It would enhance their marketability to show they have this renewable stored energy there.”

It’s just one way in which Palmer is generating energy from an economic-development standpoint, and raising its profile as a destination and a connecting point to the rest of Central Mass. — a role it will continue to embrace regardless of the eventual fate of any east-west rail line.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Jennifer Tabakin

Jennifer Tabakin says initiatives like high-speed broadband, environmental sustainability, and the arts all contribute to quality of life and help attract young people to town.

Jennifer Tabakin is a believer in using public investment to spur private investment. After six years as Great Barrington’s town manager — she’s stepping down in June — she has seen plenty of evidence to back up that philosophy.

“We’ve talked a lot about the investments we’ve made in Bridge Street, which is one of our side streets off Main Street,” she told BusinessWest. “Over the years, the public money put into it has been significant, and we’ve been able to see private development come along in response to it.”

Projects like Powerhouse Square, a mixed-use development on Bridge Street. “It’s literally steps from Main Street — exactly where new development should be,” said Town Planner Chris Rembold.

On the ground floor is Berkshire Co-op Market, a grocery store that’s moving from a different location and doubling its size. The development also includes space for smaller retail outlets and 20 new residential apartments on the second and third levels. In fact, that’s just a sample of a recent housing boom in town; in the past year alone, 228 new housing units were either built or permitted.

“We’ve been able to get far more downtown than I ever expected, ranging from affordable units to downtown condos. That meets the needs people have for a more walkable lifestyle” — one where residences are in close proximity to shopping, restaurants, and cultural amenities, Tabakin said.

One example of the latter is Saint James Place, which opened in 2017 as a home to small and mid-sized Berkshire County arts groups in need of performance, rehearsal, and office space. Created out of the historic St. James Episcopal Church on Main Street, several of its office spaces for lease have been filled by arts-related groups such the Berkshire Playwrights Lab, Flying Cloud, and the Berkshire Opera.

“It’s kind of a hub of supporting businesses and people. Not only are there traditional performing arts, but a dance studio, literary arts, and visual arts — and new media like computer design and software design.”

Saint James Place is now a thriving cultural venue, and we’re thrilled to have them here,” Tabakin said.

In October, in recognition of its vibrant arts life, the downtown was designated one of the state’s cultural districts by the Massachusetts Cultural Council.

“It’s a geographic area with not only plenty of cultural venues and things to do — like the Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center and Saint James Place as performing-arts venues — but it’s kind of a hub of supporting businesses and people,” Rembold said. “Not only are there traditional performing arts, but a dance studio, literary arts, and visual arts — and new media like computer design and software design.”

The cultural-district designation, he added, is a recognition of the vitality of the arts and culture in downtown Great Barrington, but it also serves a practical purpose. Cultural districts can access a stream of services including tax credits, economic incentives, planning assistance, grants, historic-preservation help, signs, and tourism promotion. Among the town’s plans is a shared cultural events calendar, which will help the various venues better coordinate their booking schedules, making it easier for visitors to know what’s happening when they spend a weekend or more here.

“It’s kind of an organizational effort, a marketing effort for the downtown,” Rembold said, adding that there’s much to market: the Mahaiwe and Saint James Place alone offer some 200 nights of entertainment a year. “And if something’s not going on there, you can go see a movie or a poetry reading or a Friday night film at the library. If you’re bored in Great Barrington, that’s your own fault.”

Getting with the Times

Another recent boon for downtown is the installation of fiber service. “It’s a strategy to make sure our downtown has the highest-speed broadband and can be competitive with our neighbors in the area, so people can locate here and take advantage of that higher speed,” Tabakin said.

“We have a private company covering all the development cost and infrastructure cost to bring fiber to downtown, and we’ll eventually start moving out to the rest of the community,” said Ed Abrahams, vice chair of the Select Board.

Great Barrington at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1761
Population: 7,104
Area: 45.8 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $14.98
Commercial Tax Rate: $14.98
Median Household Income: $95,490
Median Family Income: $103,135
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Fairview Hospital; Kutscher’s Sports Academy; Prairie Whale
* Latest information available

Meanwhile, the town continues to make environmental sustainability common practice, moving all municipal, school, and community buildings to green energy sources and reducing use of single-use plastic products.

“For the past four years, we’ve supported eight large solar projects with a combined value of $16 million,” Tabakin added, while many town residents have gone solar as well.

All these factors — culture, high-speed broadband, sustainability — aim to position Great Barrington as a thoroughly modern community, even as it retains much of its quintessential old New England character, thus attracting more young families. Like other towns in rural Berkshire and Franklin counties, Great Barrington has seen the average age of its residents rise in recent years; the community has always been a popular spot for retirees, and there are a number of New Yorkers with summer homes in town.

But by bolstering ingredients like attractive (and affordable) housing, a vibrant downtown, a burgeoning cultural community, and outdoor activities (Ski Butternut is a prominent attraction), Great Barrington’s leaders are looking clearly at the future, which means attracting young people and especially young families.

Of course, those families will need to find find jobs here, and Great Barrington boasts strengths in a number of sectors, including education (Simons Rock of Bard College is located in town), healthcare (Fairview Hospital), technology (perhaps a dozen IT companies call the town home), the arts and tourism, the nonprofit community, and restaurants (the town is home to around 80 of them).

“We have challenges like other places, and we have to deal with the limited resources of a small town, but we have a very committed group here, and I have no doubt that will continue.”

“The challenge for the Select Board, and all of us, for that matter, is to maintain the vibrancy we have and support for our local retailers and existing businesses, and also be open to new businesses — to keep that appropriate balance and make sure we have diversity in the local economy,” Tabakin said. “That’s something we speak about a lot.”

One area of the economy that’s growing — literally — is the cannabis sector, which is something BusinessWest has mentioned in almost every Community Spotlight over the past six months. Great Barrington is no exception, with Theory Wellness opening the first retail marijuana store in Berkshire County in January, with others to follow. In the first month, the shop netted $2 million in sales and $90,000 in taxes paid to the town.

“They opened to long lines, which should level off as they get more competition,” said Abrahams, who quickly added that any cannabis business in Great Barrington should do well, due to the town’s proximity to Connecticut and New York, states where the drug is not legal. “This is new for all of us, but so far, there have been logistically few problems, and police report no increase in people driving under the influence.”

Continuing Commitment

As Tabakin looks back on her six years in office, she’s especially gratified at a Town Hall full of energetic and committed people, and a lot of new faces — during her tenure, 26 people were either promoted or started a career there.

“Several years ago, we were warned we had a number of people approaching retirement age,” Abrahams added, “and it’s been a really smooth transition replacing them with newer people.”

Having a well-run town, Tabakin said, speaks to a commitment to quality of life, one that’s evident in Great Barrington’s vibrant retail district, cultural attractions, quality schools, and more, she said.

“Many times, government gets a bad rap, but I don’t feel that’s the case in Great Barrington,” she told BusinessWest. “We have challenges like other places, and we have to deal with the limited resources of a small town, but we have a very committed group here, and I have no doubt that will continue.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Features

Using Brand Journalism

By John Garvey

Do you want to know what strikes fear in every marketing manager? It’s when someone from C-level walks in their office and asks, “hey, can you get this into the newspaper? Better yet, call the TV stations and have them come by for an interview.”

Sure, if you have a crisis (e.g., your CEO is being led out of the building in handcuffs or one of your employees stole money from a customer), you will have the media at your door. But this column is not going to be dedicated to crisis management. Instead, let’s focus on when you have good news. How do you get the good word out when the mainstream media these days is pretty much focused on dumpster fires?

Let’s look at the problem first. You are part of it. You and a lot of other people are not buying the newspaper anymore. Don’t even get me started on how much time you’re spending on Facebook rather than watching your local news. Here’s a shocker: media is a business, and because they have shed an incredible numbers of eyeballs, not to mention subscribers, a lot of them are having a tough time making a go at it. The first thing that gets cut under this immense pressure is reporters. The second thing is your good news story.

Where do you go with your good news story? Take heart; the answer is right in front of you. Here is a hint: the first word in PR is ‘public.’ Second word is ‘relations,’ of course. That’s it. Nobody put the word ‘media’ in there. Back in the day, media was the way you connected with the public. But, being back in the day, you had access to probably two papers (a morning paper and an evening paper) and three television stations. That black-and-white existence was a long time ago, so it is time to throw out most of the promotional tools we used back then as well.

“What is good brand journalism? You need to tell a story about something you are proud of and why, and do it without using the words ‘proud,’ ‘proudly,’ or ‘check it out.’”

The good news? Connecting with the public, your public, has never been easier. That is where brand journalism comes in.

Brand journalism, in today’s digital world, is very powerful. However, with great power comes great responsibility. Your good news has to be relevant to your audience. That relevance is not judged by you, it is judged by your target audience. If you were the king or queen of relevance, then you could post all day about how proud you are to support this or that. You would use #proud and probably an image of you giving some organization a big check. Or, you would simply start your lead sentence with “check it out,” and your audience, of course, would gobble up your good news. But, alas, you are not the king or queen, and “proudly proud/check it out” is not brand journalism.

Here is another news flash. Machines run the digital world. If your audience doesn’t like your content, chances are the machines won’t either. Quite simply, if you are relevant in your audience’s eyes, they will click, read, spend time on your page, and maybe share, and all that will be observed by the machines. They will then help your content to travel to even more eyeballs. Sure, I know, you can boost (pay to promote) “proudly proud/check it out” news, but that just means you’re shoving that content into your audience’s face. Ever try to get a toddler to eat creamed corn? It’s a mess.

What is good brand journalism? You need to tell a story about something you are proud of and why, and do it without using the words ‘proud,’ ‘proudly,’ or ‘check it out.’ If you’re supporting a cause, tell the story of that cause and why it is important to the community. That is a story that gets read and shared. You can also have employees tell stories about how and why they feel they make a difference in the community and or in the lives of their customers. If these stories are authentic, they also will pass the relevance smell test.

It doesn’t end with just causes and good deeds. You can tell stories about products and services. ‘Check out our products’ is not a story. On the other hand, digital audiences relish how-to’s, so how to use your product or service to do something they want to do is a subject that is meaningful. If you are in business, you are an expert at something, so try to think of how your product or service improves your customers’ lives. That style of content, sometimes referred to as content marketing and a cousin of brand journalism, can be very effective.

Here is where the fun starts: you don’t have to write all this stuff. You can use video. I know, video is so scary, and cameras have been proven to make people sound stupid. Find someone who can talk on a subject and ask them to do the video. The internet loves video. Google loves video. Search-engine optimization (SEO) loves video. You need video. I’m not kidding … run out and start videotaping right this second. Then throw it away and get a pro to help you.

This content in its full form should live on your website. You do want to pay for dissemination of both your brand journalism and content marketing. Using social-media marketing or Google Ads gives you tremendous reach and targeting power and it is very affordable. Your plan should be to promote this content to your target audience and lead them back to your website for consumption. That, of course, is where the sales funnel starts, and should you have Google Analytics on your site, you can observe their behavior once they get there (traffic, unique visitors, time on page, migration to other pages, etc.).

Oh, one last thought. Those of you who are smartypants already know that this article is an example of what I was talking about: brand journalism and content marketing.

John Garvey is president of GCAi — Digital Marketing Innovation; (413) 736-2245; [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Diana Schindler

Diana Schindler says it’s key for Deerfield to balance the town’s rural character with needed economic growth.

Deerfield boasts numerous draws for businesses looking to relocate, Diana Schindler says, from its reasonable property-tax rate to its proximity to Interstate 91, Route 116, and Routes 5 and 10.

But there’s also been some pushback against some of those businesses, which reared its head when residents recently spoke out against a proposed Dollar General store in town. The Planning Board listened and turned down the project, said Schindler, Deerfield’s interim town administrator.

“There’s been a feeling in the community that they want that at arm’s length — that big-box retail development, drive-thrus, things they don’t feel are part of the culture of old Deerfield. It’s meaningful to them,” Schindler told BusinessWest.

“On the flip side, it creates more of a burden on the residential tax base,” she went on, noting that more than 80% of the town’s tax base is residential. “There’s a cost to the citizens in their tax rate and the sustainability of that tax rate. Deerfield has always readily paid for the level of service its citizenry wants and expects, but at the expense of not doing some major projects.”

For instance, the town is looking at a $1 million cost to replace a tank at the South Deerfield Wastewater Treatment Plant, which is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to needed work at the facility over the next decade or two. Then there are plans to expand the Tilton Library and develop a shared senior center with surrounding communities.

“Seniors are asking for that. But all this adds up to millions of dollars, and you have the pressure of limiting development — or, rather, wanting development that will fit into the culture, which does limit it to some capacity,” Schindler said. “Less than 20% of the tax base is commercial/industrial, which is not a lot considering the viability of the property we have along 5/10 and a couple other areas. It’s going to become a question for the citizenry — is it sustainable?”

She’s one of many in Deerfield who believe economic development — in whatever form residents may want — is critical to the future of a town known for its tourist draws, including Yankee Candle’s flagship store, Mount Sugarloaf, Historic Deerfield, and Magic Wings, but needs to diversify and broaden its commercial portfolio.

“At first, they wanted to hide it, put it on the outskirts of town, but now they want it close to downtown. And that’s where it should be — take it out of the shadows, take it away from the edge of town where people can just pop in and leave. Bring them in and use it for economic development.”

“The ideal would be to get everybody together and integrate it all. We’re spread out geographically, and there’s a dichotomy between Old Deerfield and South Deerfield. We’re working toward making sure the town is the town, and everybody recognizes that if the town does well and comes together, then all of the components, all of our events, could do better.”

A veteran of the Franklin Regional Council of Governments and the Hampshire Council of Governments, Schindler has some regional government experience, and she believes there’s value in taking a regional view of economic development. But she’s more concerned with Deerfield’s residents, agencies, and organizations working together to forge a common vision for community development.

“If we could come together,” she said, “especially as we come to our 350th-anniversary celebration, we could build energy off of each other.”

Forging a Path

That celebration rolls around in 2023, which should be enough time, Schindler said, to see some real development progress in town, particularly in the Elm Street corridor, the main commercial area in South Deerfield.

Town leaders know that to attract new businesses — in hospitality and other sectors as well — they need to make the downtown area more inviting and pedestrian-friendly, and they’re eyeing a host of potential improvements in the Elm Street center, which may include work on sidewalks, lights, and storefronts.

For a year before taking on her current role last month — one she is interested in pursuing on a permanent basis — Schindler was a special projects consultant in town, and one of the big projects she embraced right away was Complete Streets, mostly geared toward the South Deerfield center.

South Deerfield center

Town leaders see plenty of potential in the South Deerfield center corridor.

“We’re in the process of putting that plan together. We want to create more walkability, more accessibility, and that includes for folks in wheelchairs, people with children, people of all abilities,” she said. “We’re also looking at ways to make South Deerfield’s center more aesthetically pleasing — light it, put in streetscapes, put in wayfinding, finish the municipal parking lot we have down there; all that is being discussed as part of the plan. We want it to stay a viable downtown.”

The area is not particularly expansive, she pointed out, spanning just a few blocks, but in some ways, that presents a more enticing opportunity, by ensuring that development and improvement efforts are tightly focused. There’s some land-use complexity as well, as the Massachusetts Department of Transportation owns a small part of the corridor, and the state owns Conway Street, home to Town Hall.

“But that’s an opportunity,” she said, “because the state is also excited about Complete Streets, and we could see a wonderful economic center down here, which I’m sure the state would support in a variety of different ways.”

The downtown has seen some business change recently, with longtime restaurant Jerry’s Place closing last year, and a café called Leo’s Table setting up shop in the location, with proprietor Jennifer Howard specializing in made-from-scratch breakfast and lunch fare. The building itself — which is also home to Ciesluk’s Market, Giving Circle Thrift Shop, the Tavern, and a Subway sandwich location, as well as 19 apartments on the second floor, has new owners, Jason Kicza and Justin Killeen, who plan to touch up the property this spring.

“I would consider that the anchor building on that side,” Schindler said, “and it’s doing great.”

Cumberland Farms’ move from South Deerfield’s center to the main road — specifically, the corner of Elm Street and Routes 5 and 10 — may not have been as great for the downtown’s prospects.

Deerfield at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1677
Population: 5,400
Area: 33.4 square miles
County: Franklin
Residential and commercial Tax Rate: $16.34 (Deerfield), $18.14 (South Deerfield)
Median Household Income: $74,853
Median Family Income: $83,859
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Yankee Candle Co., Pelican Products Inc.
* Latest information available

“They have a bigger business down on the corner, but it’s not necessarily a draw into the center; now people can just pop into Cumby’s for gas and keep going,” she said. “So we are looking at ways to basically create more stability in the center of South Deerfield by doing a variety of things. Obviously, part of that is keeping businesses and attracting more businesses.”

These days, the corridor can be oddly empty at certain times of the day, she noted, but well-trafficked during morning and evening rush hours. The goal, she told BusinessWest, is to turn it into a pedestrian-friendly center at all hours, rather than a thruway.

The Complete Streets plan will be a big part of that. By the time the 350th rolls around, she’d like to see significant physical and infrastructure improvements to make the downtown more of a destination. “The sidewalks will look different, maybe more green space, and hopefully we’ll see more people down there.”

High Times

Like many area communities, Deerfield has embraced the burgeoning cannabis industry in Massachusetts, recently approving two site plans, one for a cultivation facility at Pioneer Gardens on Mill Village Road, and the other for a dispensary run by Harvest Inc. on State Road.

“The culture has changed,” Schindler said, noting that, when communities were first exploring the economic possibilities of marijuana businesses, many Deerfield residents — most of them older — were staunchly opposed. But that opposition has died down to a large degree in many towns, to the point where communities might begin to locate such businesses in more central areas.

“At first, they wanted to hide it, put it on the outskirts of town, but now they want it close to downtown. And that’s where it should be — take it out of the shadows, take it away from the edge of town where people can just pop in and leave. Bring them in and use it for economic development.”

Meanwhile, Schindler and other Deerfield leaders will continue to think outside the box — even if big boxes aren’t in the cards — by examining where pockets of land already devoted to commercial and industrial businesses might have some infill potential, and continue to take pressure off the residential tax base.

“The thing I think is so tremendous about Deerfield is the huge opportunity it offers,” she said. “It’s wide open, and it’s got resources — financial resources, natural resources, culture, art, access to main roads. I get excited about it.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Features

The Spirit Moved Him

Paul Kozub stands in front of picture of his new distillery in Poland.

Paul Kozub stands in front of picture of his new distillery in Poland.

Almost from the day he started V-One Vodka, Paul Kozub has been dreaming about, and planning for, the day when he’d make his product himself, at a distillery he owned in Poland, the birthplace of his ancestors — and vodka itself. Now, that day is here, and Kozub believes this huge investment will enable him to scale up his venture on a dramatic level.

Paul Kozub says the hardest part about the whole thing was keeping it a secret.

And that’s saying something, because there were many hard parts to his ambitious plans to building his own distillery to produce the Vodka label, V-One, that he brought the marketplace nearly a decade ago.

There was the process of finding a location in Poland, birthplace of both his ancestors and vodka itself, or so the story goes, as well as designing a facility and getting it built. And none of that could happen unless he sold enough shares of his company to raise the needed capital — but not so many shares that he would lose majority ownership of the venture.

But the keeping-it-all-a-secret part? That was quite necessary because, if word ever got out to those who had been producing his vodka since he launched his label that he was going into that end of the business himself, then they would stop producing it for him posthaste and leave him scrambling to not only fill orders but find someone else to make it in the interim.

So Kozub went to great lengths to keep his search and then his building project a secret. And, as he said, it wasn’t easy.

“My family and friends knew, but I had to really keep things quiet otherwise,” he explained at a short press conference on Feb. 26 to announce the purchase and expansion of a distillery in Kamien, Poland, about two hours southeast of Warsaw. “Every time I went to Poland, I wouldn’t post it on Facebook, because my suppliers are friends of mine and they’d see that I’m there [Kamien] and not coming to see them, so they’d know something was going on.”

As noted, he said this at a press conference, which means this huge development for the company is no longer a secret. Kozub told those friends who were producing his product (the operative word there is ‘were’) about it a few weeks ago, and he said they quite happy for him. At the Feb. 26 press conference, he told several media outlets, supporters, clients such as MGM Springfield, area bars and restaurants, and more.

The distillery in Kanien, Poland has a long history, and V-One Vodka will be writing an intriguing new chapter.

The distillery in Kanien, Poland has a long history, and V-One Vodka will be writing an intriguing new chapter.

It was an emotional announcement and an intriguing new chapter in the V-One story, which started back in 2003, when Kozub started distilling in his home in Hadley after using a $6,000 inheritance from his “Polish moonshining grandfather” to buy some equipment. There have been a number of milestones along the way, from the creation of his signature bottle to expansion into different markets; from the addition of several new flavors to Kozub’s being named BusinessWest’s Top Entrepreneur for 2016 (in recognition of all of the above).

The distillery, which he describes as a “multi-million-dollar investment,” without being more specific, represents the next milestone and one Kozub believes will greatly accelerate growth of the company.

“This will allow us to produce 400 times more vodka than we produce today; we will be looking to not only expand as a national brand, but as an international brand,” he explained. “This represents the next stage of the company — and a very exciting stage.”

Elaborating, he said he doesn’t have a firm timetable, obviously, but expects to expand outside of New England and down the East Coast in the years to come, and will then look to expand globally.

For now, though, he’s focused on getting the first bottle off the line in Kamien, something that should happen on or around April 1.

For this issue, BusinessWest looks at everything that has brought Kozub to that moment and at what will likely happen next.

Proof Positive

As he announced his expansion into Poland — a return to his family’s roots, if you will — Kozub did so with a type of high-tech slideshow. Only it started with a few low-tech pictures that captured some of those milestones described earlier.

One was of his first house in Hadley, a small Cape that he moved into just a few days after his Polish grandfather died, and another captured its basement, where he first started making vodka, or “moonshine,” as he called it. A third zoomed in on the special plumbing that enabled cold water to run through the still, a development that made everything that’s happened since possible.

Other pictures captured his first V-One bottle and his first van, which he purchased soon after going into business. He would load it with 100 cases of V-One and deliver it to clients across the region himself.

The addition built onto the distillery brings all aspects of the business together in one place — from production to bottling to warehousing.

The addition built onto the distillery brings all aspects of the business together in one place — from production to bottling to warehousing.

Yes, that’s a lot of firsts. But to take the venture forward in a meaningful way, Kozub said he needed to control production of his vodka with his own distillery. He said he’s known this almost from the beginning, but the costs of such a facility have been imposing and, until recently, prohibitive.

But knowing he needed to take this step, he raised capital by taking on additional investors as part of a process that really began a few years ago. Subsequent steps included scouting locations and kicking the tires on existing distilleries available for acquisition.

With that explanation, his show shifted to video captured by his phone as he traveled through the community he eventually chose to be home to his distillery.

“There’s thousands and thousands of acres of fruit trees here … it reminds me a lot of Hadley,” he said as the car transporting him moved down a rural road. “As soon as I saw this, I knew it was the place I wanted to call home.”

Home, meaning the actual distillery itself, has been around for more than 133 years, and thus it has some history, said Kozub, noting that, during World War II, the Nazis took it over and produced different kinds of spirits.

The next chapter in its history involves a sizable expansion necessary for producing V-One in the quantities that Kozub is envisioning for the years and perhaps decades to come. Indeed, the facility will include, in addition to the distilling equipment, laboratory space (mostly for R&D and new product development), a bottling area, and warehouse space.

Thus, when asked what this ambitious move does for the company, Kozub said quickly, “it makes everything better.” Elaborating, he said that, almost from the beginning, he has understood the critical need to have more control over every aspect of the V-One operation, especially production.

“I wanted to be in control of production — I’ve had a number of production nightmares over the past 15 years,” he explained. “Literally, we’ll be planting our own grain, our own spelt, harvesting it, and processing it. We like to say that, from farm to glass, we’ll be in control of each process, and that’s the trend today.”

Beyond control, Kozub said this expansion into Poland and the opening of his own distillery allows him to accelerate the process of growing the V-One label and taking it into new markets — in this country and then eventually abroad.

“I really never wanted to make rum or tequila or gin, but I have at least two dozen other vodka products I’d like to make someday,” he told those assembled at V-One world headquarters (a converted church) on Route 9 in Hadley. “And this allows us to be really innovative with doing some of that stuff; when someone else is making your vodka, you’re limited to their schedule and their timeframe.”

Moving forward, Kozub said that, while he did a sell an interest in the company — something he could do only after its raising its value over the past decade through new products and a wider reach market-wise — he is still the overwhelming majority owner, and still one who is quite hands-on and involved in all aspects of the business. That said, he still plans to spend the vast majority of his time in this country, and probably visit Poland about as much as he does now — maybe once a quarter.

While leaving actual production in the hands of a manager in Poland, Kozub will focus on the proverbial big picture and, more specifically, territorial expansion for V-One and a scaling up of the operation.

And having his own distillery, as he said, will certainly help in this regard.

“People comment to me all the time … ‘you’re a 13-and-a-half-year-old business; how come you haven’t gotten out of the New England market?’” he told BusinessWest. “I’ve had some serious production problems and packaging issues that have worried me about getting into Florida or Texas or California, three of the biggest vodka markets. This [distillery] will really allow us to scale up and tackle those challenges.”

Expanding within the U.S. and then overseas markets will obviously require more capital, he added, and he plans to sell additional shares in the business within the next year.

Bottom Line

As he continued his slideshow presentation before the press and his supporters, Kozub placed a map of Poland on the screen to show exactly where his distillery will be located.

He did so to offer a point of reference, offer up a short lesson on Polish geography, and also show where his ancestors are from — a small town not far Krakow. But he also did it to be a touch poetic.
“This really helps put on us on the map,” he said of the distillery, using that phrase to say a great deal.

This venture is now on the map, literally, and its product will be on — meaning available to — a much larger chunk of the map in the years to come because of what this facility will enable the company to do.

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