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Golden Opportunities Maintains a Torrid Pace of Growth, Diversification

From left, Golden Years principals Brian Santaniello, Mary Flahive-Dickson, and Cesar Ruiz Jr.

From left, Golden Years principals Brian Santaniello, Mary Flahive-Dickson, and Cesar Ruiz Jr.

Cesar Ruiz Jr. describes the business plan for Golden Years Homecare Services as “a living, breathing document.”

That intriguing phrase was chosen to convey many things all at once — especially movement, flexibility, seemingly constant change, and a certain ambitious tone.

Indeed, while every business plan is fluid and most are written in pencil — figuratively speaking, anyway — this one has been altered countless times since it was first drafted more than eight years ago, and the new lines on the page reflect why Ruiz, the company’s president, and the entire leadership team at this East Longmeadow-based venture have been named Top Entrepreneur for 2020 by BusinessWest.

Indeed, since being launched in 2016, this company, which started with home-care services, has expanded in every way imaginable. That includes its geographic footprint — it has moved well beyond its Greater Springfield roots and into Central Mass. and Northern Conn., with a new satellite office in downtown Boston set to open later this year. It also includes services; sensing opportunities, the company has expanded into behavioral health and will soon open a staffing component as well. And with a planned acquisition that Ruiz said is now “on the 2-yard line” — which means he can’t talk about it in any real detail, as much as he would like to — Golden Years will expand the portfolio to skilled care in the home.

There’s also been seemingly constant expansion of the facilities in East Longmeadow, with a buildout now in progress for the staffing and behavioral-health pieces of this ever-changing puzzle. And, looking ahead, plans are taking shape to franchise some of the services, expand into many more states, and perhaps take the company public to raise the capital to fuel all this expansion.

“The exciting thing is that we’ve only scratched the surface.”

Like an artist’s canvas, Golden Years is taking shape — and changing shape — quickly and dramatically, with those holding the brushes not exactly sure what the picture will look like when they’re done — or what ‘done’ will mean.

“We’re beginning our fifth year of operation, and it’s said that when you hit that fifth year, that’s when you really lay down that foundation,” said Ruiz. “We have grown by leaps and bounds in terms of our census, not only with our clients, but also with our caregivers; overall, we’re an organization that’s now managing more than 1,000 people, including administrative, caregiver staff, and clients.

“And the exciting thing,” he went on, “is that we’ve only scratched the surface.”

Not even a global pandemic has been able to slow this company down.

The sign on the property in East Longmeadow’s center announced the arrival of the Golden Years Behavioral Health Group, one of many indicators of growth at this company.

The sign on the property in East Longmeadow’s center announced the arrival of the Golden Years Behavioral Health Group, one of many indicators of growth at this company.

OK, it did slow it down a little. Last spring, as the virus invaded the region, some of the company’s home-care clients became understandably concerned about bringing people into the home and canceled or suspended services, and some caregivers decided they no longer wanted to be in that line of work, said Mary Flahive-Dickson, the company’s chief operating officer and a 30-year healthcare veteran, adding that the virus also slowed the pace of expansion into the Central Mass. market.

But, ultimately, opinions concerning homecare during this pandemic changed, she said, adding that many came to view that option as being far more attractive than a nursing home or other types of long-term-care facility, places that saw outbreaks of the pandemic and, in some cases, large numbers of deaths.

This change in attitude is reflected in the growing numbers of clients in the Greater Springfield area, she said, adding that the census is now approaching and perhaps over the 500 mark, representing roughly 20% growth over the past year — again, in the middle of a pandemic.

“Having been in home care for more than two decades, and in healthcare for more than three, the home is far less of a risk, with the pandemic protocols that are going on now, than a facility,” she said, adding there is growing sentiment within the healthcare profession that this trend, or movement, if it can be called either, could have a degree of permanence, especially at a time when some are warning that COVID-19 will certainly not be the last deadly virus to threaten the world’s population.

Meanwhile, the pandemic and its impact on the overall mental health of area residents certainly played a role in propelling the company into the behavioral-health realm, said Ruiz.

Cesar Ruiz Jr. projects that Golden Years could again double in size

Cesar Ruiz Jr. projects that Golden Years could again double in size over the next five years as the venture expands into new markets and new service areas.

That division of the company, if you will, was launched roughly a year ago, but the pandemic has certainly elevated the level of need and validated the decision to again rewrite that business plan and move into this field.

“Even though there’s a lot of agencies in the behavioral-health realm, we still felt there was an opportunity for us,” said Ruiz, noting that this division provides an array of services, including alcohol- and drug-addiction services and counseling to frontline workers such as police and firefighters.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with the principals of Golden Years about how far this company has come in five short years, and just what Ruiz meant when he said they had barely scratched the surface.

 

Shining Examples

“We don’t look at ourselves as competitors — that’s a word that we don’t use here. We’re creators — we create our niche. And we do that by telling our story and emphasizing our services.”

That’s what Ruiz told BusinessWest when we talked with him roughly 14 months ago. That was his answer to a question concerning the home-care market in the Greater Boston region (and this one, as well), the many players already on that field, if you will, and his thoughts on why he thought there was room for one more.

His reply speaks to the confident operating tone at this venture, and offers, all by itself, some insight into why the company’s principals have been chosen for the prestigious Top Entrepreneur award, launched in 1996, and join an elite group of honorees (see chart, page 19) that includes college and hospital presidents, tech-startup founders, and many others.

“Over dinner, we realized that we had the same thoughts of creating a company that would satisfy a recognized need. We thought we could do better; we knew we could do better.”

Indeed, at Golden Years, they do look for niches, they really enjoy telling their story (we’ll get to it in a minute), and they put the emphasis on services. And, as Ruiz said, they don’t view themselves as merely another competitor in whatever field they happen to be entering, but as creators … of opportunities and, yes, niches.

That was true in homecare and in staffing, and it’s also true in behavioral healthcare, as Tracy Mineo, executive vice president of Golden Years Behavioral Health Services, explained when she was asked essentially the same question Ruiz was asked — about the playing field and why Golden Years saw opportunity within it.

“There are a lot of fine agencies operating in this region,” she said, noting that she worked for many years at one of them — Behavioral Health Network. “But even the bigger agencies … there is only so much that they can handle, especially during this time of COVID, when people are isolating; the agencies can only take on so many clients.

“So I think there’s more than enough room for these services,” she went on, adding, again, in the same fashion that Ruiz and others talk about the home-care side, that it is not merely about which services are being provided, but how.

And this brings us back to the Golden Years story. There are several, but this one is about Ruiz and his grandmother, who became the real inspiration for this venture. She needed home care in Florida more than 15 years ago, and Ruiz recalled for BusinessWest not only how poor that care was (he said family members generally provided the care for her), but also his resolve to create something much better.

That something better would eventually become Golden Years. That’s eventually. The timing and the setting were not exactly right for a new venture back then, he recalled, adding quickly that, after he relocated to this region, and especially after his father died in late 2016, he picked up the dream where he had left off.

Partnering with Lisa and Vincent Santaniello, who had similar experiences with caring for loved ones in the home, he launched Golden Years in early 2017.

“Over dinner, we realized that we had the same thoughts of creating a company that would satisfy a recognized need,” he explained. “We thought we could do better; we knew we could do better.”

Lisa Santaniello, executive vice president of Golden Years Homecare Services, agreed, noting that, from her first-hand knowledge, she understands the importance of home-care services to those suffering from a chronic condition, a devastating injury, a debilitating illness, or even loneliness, and that such individuals would certainly benefit from companion services.

Mary Flahive-Dickson says the pandemic initially forced many to cancel or suspend home-care services.

Mary Flahive-Dickson says the pandemic initially forced many to cancel or suspend home-care services. But as time went on, many came to see the home as a safer alternative to nursing homes and other facilities.

“When chronic care is needed or a medical crisis occurs, I am very aware the entire extended family is affected along with the patient,” she told BusinessWest. “Lives are turned upside-down; schedules are disrupted. Sometimes, needed care is short-term; the patient will recover, and normalcy will be restored. Other times, health conditions are far more long-lasting, and improvement does not occur.

“My own mother suffered from a debilitating and chronic disease. She had the benefit of a large, extended family who could assist in coordinating care and provide the services she needed,” Santaniello went on. “Many people aren’t that fortunate; that’s where Golden Years comes in. We provide necessary home-care services to the patient, while also providing respite for their weary caretakers.”

Business was slow to start — Ruiz recalls that it was weeks after opening before the phone really started ringing — but it picked up quickly.

Flahive-Dickson, a long-time healthcare consultant and educator focusing on healthcare management, joined the company in 2019 to essentially take the home-care component to the next stage — or stages. These include expansion within this market and also into other regions, starting with Central Mass. She said her role has evolved over time and now includes elements of operations, development, and strategic planning.

Her comments about why she joined the venture speak volumes about the ambitious mindset that prevails and the entrepreneurial nature of the company.

“I saw a wonderful vision and a throwback to the way care was provided,” she explained. “My dad was a physician in the Springfield area, and his care was real and positive and forward-thinking care, and I felt that same feeling when I first came here.”

 

Showing Their Metal

While the home-care operation has become a regional success story, to be sure, there have been some growing pains, and the pandemic certainly created a number of challenges.

As for the growing pains, they involve everything from finding adequate numbers of caregivers — a challenge for every player in this business — to breaking into established markets with large numbers of competitors, like Worcester and Boston, and, to a lesser extent, Northern Connecticut.

Finding adequate numbers of caregivers has been a constant challenge, said all those we spoke with, but an array of factors, from what had been historically low unemployment rates to the pandemic-induced anxiety about going into others’ homes, to the company’s torrid pace of growth, has only exacerbated the problem.

And the company has responded in what can only be called an entrepreneurial way, with creation of its own education program and a collaborative initiative with the city of Springfield to help train young, homeless individuals and bring them into this profession.

Meanwhile, the pandemic has created more hurdles, said Ruiz, listing everything from those initial fears about bringing people into the home — he estimates that between 60 and 80 clients suspended service for some period of time last spring — to what to do with caregivers sidelined by those suspensions of services (they kept them on the payroll); from the need to secure PPE for staff and train them in how to use it, to paying what became exorbitantly high prices for that PPE.

Brian Santaniello, chief of staff at Golden Years

Brian Santaniello, chief of staff at Golden Years, says the pandemic, and its broad, negative impact on mental health, validated the company’s expansion into behavioral-health services.

“We were experiencing the same problem everyone else was encountering — where to buy it,” he recalled. “And if we could find it … it was a terrible experience; things that we were paying 30 cents for were now costing us $1.25 or $1.50. The N-95s that were costing us 95 cents or a dollar … we were now paying $4.50 to $6 per mask.”

Flahive-Dickson agreed, and said procuring the needed supplies became a “24-hour mission” that involved all those at the company. But elements of that experience were rewarding, and even uplifting, she went on, citing volunteer efforts to not only make masks for some of the home-care providers, but also donate supplies to other institutions that were having issues, as well as gift bags to seniors and veterans.

But despite the pandemic, and in some ways because of it, the company has been able to maintain its strong pace of growth.

As Flahive-Dickson noted, attitudes about bringing people into the home — at least when viewed through the lens of a nursing home or similar facility being the most logical alternative — have certainly changed.

“We were getting calls all the time — the phone was ringing off the hook,” she said. “People were taking their loved ones out of facilities and saying, ‘now I need help.’

“There are many reasons why the home is now a safer haven than a facility, with the most obvious being that, if you’re having someone being taken care in the home, you have less than a handful of people taking care of that person,” she went on. “It’s the same person or the same team, and they are fully equipped with PPE. And they see only that one person, rather than going from room to room to room.”

These changing perceptions, along with a contract with the Commonwealth Care Alliance, one if its largest providers, and a growing relationship with the Veterans Administration, should help the company as it now moves forward with its expansion into Central Mass. — it now has a small number of clients in the Worcester area and a satellite office in Marlboro — and also into Boston, with another satellite office to open soon on Cambridge Street, said Brian Santaniello, the company’s chief of staff and a stakeholder.

“One of our primary goals for 2021 is to expand in those markets,” he said, adding that the company has a toehold in Worcester and Northern Connecticut, and is still in the infancy stages of its push into Boston, but expects the market share to grow steadily in all three regions over the next few years.

 

Forward Thinking

Moving forward, Golden Years is advancing plans to provide home care in multiple states, and that’s just one component of a larger expansion strategy.

Indeed, Ruiz and his team are preparing to unveil a staffing component, and it has already launched its behavioral-health division, one that was, as noted, partly inspired by the pandemic and the dramatically rising need for behavioral- and mental-health services, and likewise driven by recognized need for such services among the home-care clientele.

Indeed, Ruiz estimated that at least 15% to 20% of the company’s 500 clients are receiving some type of counseling service. With their entrepreneurial mindset, the company’s leaders began asking the question, ‘are these services that we can and should provide ourselves?’

The answer that came back was a resounding ‘yes,’ he went on. “We didn’t want to leave anything on the table; this was an opportunity for us to provide these kinds of services to our existing clients.”

Previous Top Entrepreneurs

2019: Cinda Jones, president of W.D. Cowls Inc.
2018: Antonacci Family, owners of USA Hauling, GreatHorse, and Sonny’s Place
2017: Owners and managers of the Springfield Thunderbirds
2016: Paul Kozub, founder and president of V-One Vodka
2015: The D’Amour Family, founders of Big Y
2014: Delcie Bean, president of Paragus Strategic IT
2013: Tim Van Epps, president and CEO of Sandri LLC
2012: Rick Crews and Jim Brennan, franchisees of Doctors Express
2011: Heriberto Flores, director of the New England Farm Workers’ Council and Partners for Community
2010: Bob Bolduc, founder and CEO of Pride
• 2009: Holyoke Gas & Electric
• 2008: Arlene Kelly and Kim Sanborn, founders of Human Resource Solutions and Convergent Solutions Inc.
• 2007: John Maybury, president of Maybury Material Handling
• 2006: Rocco, Jim, and Jayson Falcone, principals of Rocky’s Hardware Stores and Falcone Retail Properties
• 2005: James (Jeb) Balise, president of Balise Motor Sales
2004: Craig Melin, then-president and CEO of Cooley Dickinson Hospital
• 2003: Tony Dolphin, president of Springboard Technologies
• 2002: Timm Tobin, then-president of Tobin Systems Inc.
• 2001: Dan Kelley, then-president of Equal Access Partners
• 2000: Jim Ross, Doug Brown, and Richard DiGeronimo, then-principals of Concourse Communications
• 1999: Andrew Scibelli, then-president of Springfield Technical Community College
• 1998: Eric Suher, president of E.S. Sports
• 1997: Peter Rosskothen and Larry Perreault, then-co-owners of the Log Cabin Banquet and Meeting House
• 1996: David Epstein, president and co-founder of JavaNet and the JavaNet Café

Santaniello agreed. “This pandemic is having a tremendous negative impact on mental health and drug addiction, and we see the need,” he said. “And we’re going to meet that need.”

The company hired Mineo and also Deborah Rodrigues, now the clinical director, and gave them equity stakes in the venture.

Mineo, as noted earlier, said there is clearly unmet need in the region that this new division will meet. And the division is starting with outpatient services, including addiction, mental-health, and behavioral-health services for those 18 and over, with priority populations being seniors, pregnant and postpartum women, IV drug users, and first responders, a constituency that has been traditionally been underserved, in her view.

“We had identified that there are so many services going on in the community, including our local police departments, but no one is really providing services for our first responders,” she explained. “This includes the police officers, the EMTs, the fire departments that are right on the front line.

“With this pandemic, the civil unrest that’s going on, and everything else … all this is traumatizing and retraumatizing people on a daily basis,” she went on. “This is an unmet need in the community.”

As for that acquisition that was on the 2-yard line and that the team couldn’t talk much about, Flahive-Dickson, who likened it to a VNA, said it will broaden the client portfolio by 150 or so, add to the staff, obviously, and broaden the roster of services provided in the home.

“It’s home healthcare, not home care,” she explained, adding that this will be an important addition to the portfolio, one that provides both synergies and growth opportunities.

Looking further out, Ruiz, when asked where he expects this company to be in five years, said he expects to continue the current pace and effectively double in size. He also expects to be in many more states and possibly have franchises of the Golden Years operation — or operations, to be more exact.

That expansion will come in a number of forms, he went on, listing both organic growth and additional acquisitions, with the latter becoming more feasible, and practical, as many smaller ventures, many of them operated by Baby Boomers approaching retirement, face succession issues and other challenges.

“On the home-care front, some of the individuals that have started now want to step back,” he explained. “And because of our vision, we have a larger appetite.”

Meanwhile, Ruiz and other company leaders are in the exploratory phases of perhaps franchising the concept and even going public, to provide the capital for such steps.

“Franchising is part of our thought process; it’s part of our business plan,” he noted. “And there’s also a public initiative. Those conversations have been ongoing, and now, in 2021, they will escalate, because those things take time to structure.”

Elaborating, he said the company has hired a CPA firm and a legal team with those plans in mind and with the goal of being ready when the time and opportunity are right to move quickly and decisively.

And, in many important ways, that has been the MO from the very start.

 

Good as Gold

When asked to sum up what has enabled Golden Years to get off to such a fast and dramatic start, Ruiz said it comes down to two words: culture and teamwork.

The culture rests in an attitude Ruiz has instilled, one where he treats each client as if the individual was his mother or father — a culture that has resonated with Flahive-Dickson, Mineo, and others who have joined the company.

“We’ve communicated that throughout the system — we’ve built it in,” he explained. “And I think that makes a big difference. We’re hands-on, and every caregiver knows, every admin, every director here knows, how passionate I am and how serious I am; this is the collaboration of a team.”

It’s also the byproduct of an ambitious, ever-changing business plan, one that really is a living, breathing document.

 

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

Coronavirus Features Special Coverage

Impact Statements

Jeanette Wilburn (left) and Stephanie Nascimento

Jeanette Wilburn (left) and Stephanie Nascimento say the pandemic has increased people’s anxiety — and the need for self-care.

Stephanie Nascimento and Jeanette Wilburn have long explored the connections between physical and emotional health at their decade-old practice, Be Vital Wellness. These days, they say, with so much anxiety gripping Americans, it’s more critical than ever to understand those connections.

“Obviously, mental illness has always been a crisis, but it’s at an all-time high now,” Nascimento said. “We spend a lot of time digging with our clients. They don’t always walk in the door and say, ‘I’m depressed.’”

In fact, the Hadley-based business began as a weight-loss and nutrition enterprise, and that’s still a major part of it. But Wilburn said it’s gratifying when clients begin to understand how their choices and circumstances affect them in ways they’ve never considered.

“Sometimes people don’t even know they’re depressed; they don’t know they’re anxious,” she explained. “They just know that they can’t fall asleep, or they can’t stay asleep, or they wake up at 3 o’clock in the morning. A lot of people call it ‘busy brain,’ but they don’t realize that’s actually anxiety. I liken it to a hamster on a wheel, and the hamster is going way too fast. You need to either slow down the wheel or get the hamster off the wheel altogether.”

The problem is, almost a year of living with the COVID-19 pandemic, and its impacts on physical and mental health, relationships, and finances, has only cranked the wheel faster, and too many people are coping with unhealthy habits like overeating and alcohol abuse.

“ I liken it to a hamster on a wheel, and the hamster is going way too fast. You need to either slow down the wheel or get the hamster off the wheel altogether.”

“Those bad habits were there before COVID — then the pandemic arrived,” Nascimento said. “There’s so much fear, not to mention people’s whole lives are changing. Kids are home from school, parents are trying to be teachers while also working and managing Zoom calls … there’s been a lot of stress on families. We’ve had clients who were managing well, but are now struggling to maintain good habits.”

Kristy Navarro, clinical supervisor for BestLife Emotional Health & Wellness Center, a program of MHA, said the causes of increased anxiety are easy to understand.

“A lot of it is the stress people are going through financially. People have had to close down businesses they owned and lost all their income. So that produces this feeling of anxiety — ‘where am I going to get the money to pay my bills? How am I going to stay in my house? I wasn’t in debt, and now I am, so how am I going to do this?’”

That anxiety can manifest in different ways, she added.

Alane Burgess (left) and Kristy Navarro

Alane Burgess (left) and Kristy Navarro say the first step to dealing with anxiety and mental-health stresses is talking about them.

“It can be physical — the shaking, the heart pounding, sweating. It can look like avoidance — maybe not checking your mail or not going outside. It’s not just being worried, but genuine fear. Fear and feeling worried are two different things.”

Dr. Mark Kenton says healthcare workers have been feeling anxious, to varying degrees, since the start of the pandemic.

“The anxiety, depression, and worry all got heightened,” he said, especially in the early days last winter, when so little was known about coronavirus, and news media reported on soaring death counts in places like New York City. “It made you think, ‘if I get this, am I going to die?’ You think of the worst-case scenario. Healthcare providers had that anxiety, and a lot of us had to find ways to get through.”

These days, as the pandemic wears on, Kenton, an emergency medicine physician at Mercy Medical Center, still worries about such issues — and not just for providers.

“I’m definitely worried about healthcare providers getting exhausted or getting sick, but also the mental health of patients, and especially the mental health of children who have to do this remote schooling for a year and a half. What is the actual impact on children going forward?”

It’s a question being asked across the U.S., and it has no one-size-fits-all answer. But the overwhelming sentiment BusinessWest heard from health and wellness experts in the region is this: help is available. Don’t be afraid to ask for it.

 

Take Control — but Know When to Let Go

Navarro said much of the anxiety and depression related to the pandemic has to do with isolation — and not just physical isolation.

“We’re asking people to physically isolate,” Navarro said. “What’s more concerning is when we emotionally disconnect from people — the inability to reach out, or to get the support we need when we feel we need it.”

Kenton agreed. “Our lives have been completely turned upside-down. We’re supposed to be social beings; that’s part of our underlying nature. Now everyone has lost that element. We have elderly people who have been completely isolated and haven’t seen loved ones since March.”

It doesn’t help that many things people like to do to escape from their troubles — and get some exercise — have been eliminated or limited.

Dr. Mark Kenton

Dr. Mark Kenton

“Our lives have been completely turned upside-down. We’re supposed to be social beings; that’s part of our underlying nature. Now everyone has lost that element.”

“They gain weight, they don’t eat well, they get depressed or drink more alcohol. It’s a vicious cycle,” he said. “We already have difficult winters in the Northeast, between the snow and the cold; we can’t do much of anything, and now we’re completely isolated at home. We can’t even take a trip to Florida with the family for a week to get away from the cold weather.”

That said, many activities are still possible, Navarro said.

“What is it you like to do? If we’re able to continue to do those things that we enjoy doing, we can feel better,” she explained. “And also, what in this situation can you control? We know that COVID is out of our control. So, what is it that you can control in that context? Maybe the only thing you can control is wearing your mask outside and not being around other people. So control that piece, and have ownership over what you are able to do.”

Alane Burgess, clinic director at BestLife, tells clients to take some time every single day — even if it’s just 10 minutes, although 30 minutes would be better — to “relax and rejuvenate.”

“That means, allow yourself to take that step back from everything that’s going on — all the fears, the worries, and the anxieties — and do something that makes you feel really good about yourself. Maybe it’s a hobby or activity, or doing a teleconference with a family member or a loved one or somebody who is really going to make you feel good about yourself. That way, you can focus on the good feelings that some people are losing in the midst of the isolation and all the things in our lives that we can’t control.”

Wilburn promotes mindfulness, meditation, healthy eating, and a host of other ways in which people have the power to change their health and mindset — and, again, she’s a believer in the two being intertwined holistically. At a time when the world presents so many reasons to be anxious — and, if you read the news these days, it’s not just COVID-19 — she wants to teach people self-care.

“We don’t know about that as Americans,” Nascimento added. “Or we think it’s selfish. ‘Push harder, push harder, don’t take vacations.’ We’re teaching people you can work hard, but your play should be self-care — taking a long walk, getting body work done, taking five minutes to meditate.”

It’s important, Wilburn noted, because, even in better times, Americans too often live in fight-or-flight mode.

“Our nervous systems think we’re running away from a tiger, which means we’re not properly digesting our food, our heart rate doesn’t come down, and we’re not sleeping as well, because if you’re running away from a tiger, why would you be sleeping?”

She and Nascimento say people need to be educated on why it’s important to step back and take time for their own needs — but they also often need permission, especially men, who are quicker than women to dismiss the need for self-care. They’ll find that encouragement at Be Vital Wellness.

“They think, ‘I’m tough; I just need to tough this out,’” Wilburn said. “Women are better at it, but everyone needs permission.”

 

Don’t Ignore the Signs

While mental-health concerns have certainly been at the forefront lately, Kenton said it’s also important not to neglect physical health, especially when symptoms of serious problems arise.

“Looking back to March and April, we shut everything down and told patients that, unless they absolutely need to be in the Emergency Department, do not come,” he explained, noting that many patients use the ER as primary care because they lack a primary-care provider or health insurance. “We saw the wave in New York, then Boston, and we didn’t know what we were in for, so the message was, don’t come to the ER unless you’re sick.”

It worked — Mercy’s ER traffic fell from a daily average of around 225 to 110, with a low point of 72. And that caused concerns of a different kind.

“Before long, we were all wondering, where did the appendicitis go? Where did the heart attacks go? We started to worry that patients with symptoms were staying home, or coming in after four days of symptoms, and by then it’s really bad.”

By summer, ER volumes gradually rose again, but many patients still feared coming to the hospital — and still do — despite the safety measures in place to separate COVID-19 patients from those who have not been exposed. With elective surgeries being curtailed again and patients having trouble seeing their primary-care doctors in person — though telehealth is better than nothing — “there are a lot of challenges for patients trying to navigate the healthcare system right now,” Kenton said.

The challenges for kids and teenagers, on the other hand, have resided almost completely in the realm of mental and emotional health.

“We’re definitely seeing the impact on children,” Navarro said. “I’ve heard a lot of parents say to me, ‘my child is failing all their classes. They can’t concentrate.’ I’ve had children I work with talk about how there’s just too much, there’s not a break, there’s not a way to leave a home that maybe is having some turmoil — not being able to get a break from all that. They’re not going to school and having any socialization with friends. Yes, they see them through Zoom, but they’re not able to have those close conversations, the play time, those moments of friendship.”

One key, she said, is to keep kids connected, somehow, to other people, even if it’s just family, and don’t let them suffer in silence.

“I tell parents all the time, ‘talk to them. Have those conversations. Talk to them about what is going on, how they can cope with their feelings in an age-appropriate way.’”

For anyone struggling in any way — adults or children — it can be helpful to seek professional help. “Even with the smallest amount of anxiety, it does not hurt to talk to someone, whether it’s a professional or a friend or family member you trust,” Navarro said. “To talk about our feelings helps us gain control over them. Just talk to someone.”

MHA launched a program a couple of years ago called “Start Talking,” which promoted the importance of starting a conversation on mental-health concerns.

“Sometimes, when we just start talking to someone we trust — or, for some people, it may be a stranger they feel most comfortable talking to — when we start having a dialogue, we see how many things start coming up,” Burgess said, adding that holding these feelings in often causes them to fester and build, compounding anxiety and depression in the long run.

“People ask every day, ‘how are you?’” Navarro noted. “But when do you actually have the opportunity to tell someone how you really are? What do we usually say? ‘I’m good. Things are fine.’ But are they really?”

Most people have no problem talking about their physical pain — an aching back, for example — but feel stigmatized when it comes to discussing their emotional wellness, Burgess added. But if there was ever a time to push past that barrier, the era of COVID-19 is it.

“Every single person in the world is being impacted by this on some level. This is something we’re all collaboratively experiencing and going through — at different degrees for different people, of course. So, how do we manage a continuation of something many of us thought would end in April?”

Talking about it, she said, is a good place to begin.

With social-distancing regulations in place, telehealth has been a tremendous help for providers and clients in her field, she added, as it has helped clients continue critical conversations. One patient even kept an appointment while on vacation in Aruba because she didn’t want to miss one.

“I’m grateful for the ability to provide services this way,” Navarro added. “If we weren’t, it would be a very difficult world.”

 

Journey to Wellness

Many clients at Be Vital Wellness are folks who deal with crisis every day — firefighters, police officers, doctors, nurses, EMTs — and who have grappled with their own rising anxiety and depression during an unprecedented year.

“PTSD is definitely a thing for anyone in crisis care. They often don’t realize there are other options besides pharmaceuticals, and that they can increase their quality of life, decrease their stress, and decrease their anxiety,” Wilburn said, although she and Nascimento encourage clients to see their primary-care doctors regularly too, as part of a network of treatment.

“I feel like, in America, most people have depression or anxiety or both, and COVID has only upped the ante on all those things,” Wilburn noted. “People who previously didn’t struggle with those things are struggling with those things. I just saw a woman this morning — she’s dealing with severe depression, and we’re talking about getting into therapy.

“We’re not a one-stop shop,” she added. “People come to us and say, ‘help me with my weight loss,’ but then they realize there are a lot of other things they can get support around, and it becomes truly wellness.”

In this unsettled time, that’s a goal worth striving for — and talking about.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Banking and Financial Services Special Coverage

They’re Still Goal-oriented

Dan Moriarty, left, and Mike Rouette.

Dan Moriarty, left, and Mike Rouette.

Michael Rouette says he keeps a copy of the 36-year-old news story in his office. He’ll take it out and read it on occasion, and will proudly show it others, usually without much prompting.

“Moriarty-Rouette Team Buys Ticket to Finals” is the headline over that item in the Palmer Journal Register from November 1984, which goes on to note how goals by Rouette, then a junior, and Dan Moriarty, a freshman, along with a “tenacious defense,” propelled the Monson High School soccer team to a 2-1 win over Monument Mountain, giving the Mustangs, as that headline noted, a ticket to the regional finals in Chicopee a few days later.

Today, the Moriarty-Rouette team is still focused on goals, but now as president and executive vice president and chief operating officer (a new position), respectively, at Monson Savings Bank. They are the leaders writing the next chapter in the bank’s history after the retirement of long-term president Steve Lowell.

As the two talked with BusinessWest earlier this month, just weeks before Moriarty was to add the title CEO to his business card (Lowell is still acting in that capacity until mid-February), they talked often about their time on various fields together — they were both three-sport stars — and made frequent use of sports terms and phrases.

Indeed, when talking about the transition in leadership at the top and work to make it seamless, Moriarty said he will try to act as a good referee would — “you don’t know he’s on the field during the game.” And the two of them made early and very frequent references to the importance of teamwork at this (and any) institution.

Meanwhile, when it comes to the pandemic and this transition in leadership, both said there is no playbook for a such a challenging passing of the baton, so they will essentially write their own.

“We’re driven, we’re motivated, but we’re humble enough to know that teamwork gets you further than individual performance.”

“As far as meeting with customers and being out in the community more, Mike and I haven’t had the opportunity to really do that, for safety reasons,” Moriarty said. “And that makes things more difficult, but we’re adjusting and preparing for that day when this is over.”

As for that article, both men say it conveys more than coincidence that two high-school soccer teammates, now in their 50s, are leading the bank headquartered in the town where they grew up. Much more. They say it conveys other ‘C’ words, including commitment to the community and continuity.

“That article reminds me of who we are and where we’re from, and not to ever forget that,” Rouette said. “But it also speaks to how we’ve grown as individuals, as friends, as co-workers, as partners, and as leaders. That article symbolizes how our lives have changed but really haven’t changed, and how success can be built on people who have the same vision, the same mindset, and the same family values.”

Moriarty concurred. “We’ve known each other for so long, but the values are the same, even though we’re a long way from the soccer field. “We’re driven, we’re motivated, but we’re humble enough to know that teamwork gets you further than individual performance; we try to bring that culture to the bank and to our employees, and we try to lead by example. But we also understand that each individual in the bank is a contributor, and we want them to be part of the team and the success of the bank. We did that before we became leaders of the bank, and we’re just going to continue that and build on that culture of teamwork.”

The two take on their new roles at an intriguing time for the bank — and all banks. The pandemic has created both challenges and opportunities — certainly more of the former than the latter, and made some aspects of being a bank leader more difficult. Meanwhile, there is immense competition in a region described by most in the industry as ‘overbanked.’

Monson Savings’ newest branch, on North Main Street in East Longmeadow

Monson Savings’ newest branch, on North Main Street in East Longmeadow, was opened at the height of the pandemic last year, but it is nonetheless off to a solid start.

Both Moriarity and Rouette said that Monson Savings, now with more than $508 million in assets, has been on a steady growth trajectory and they are committed to moving the bank toward further expansion, geographically and otherwise.

 

They’re on the Ball

As noted earlier, Moriarty and Rouette were both three-sport athletes. While most noted for their exploits on their soccer field — both would go to play in college; Moriarty at Providence College and Rouette at Old Dominion — they were also teammates in baseball and basketball.

And as they recalled those days, they often leaned on some self-deprecating humor to make their points.

Indeed, when discussing their time as starting guards (and captains) on the hardwood, they made it clear they were not exactly go-to options when the Mustangs were looking for points.

“I was the point guard, and I couldn’t shoot,” said Moriarty, as he looked at Rouette, who nodded energetically, but said his front-court mate was ultimately the better alternative.

“I was pretty fast … I could steal the ball, but I could only dribble left-handed,” Rouette recalled. “I would have a breakaway, and our coach, Bill Devine, would essentially tell me to stop, hand the ball to Moriarty, and let him shoot it, because it would be like throwing a brick against the backboard when I let it go. I couldn’t put the ball in the ocean.”

Despite those references, the two were much-heralded for their exploits on various fields, and for their work together, even if it was only for two years.

Indeed, while Moriarty continued to make headlines at Monson High in the mid-’80s, Rouette was playing soccer at Old Dominion, majoring in Economics, and, when home from school in the summer and winter, working as a teller at Monson Savings Bank. During those short stints, he impressed those at the bank enough to get a job offer of sorts — specifically an invitation to become part of the lending team when he graduated.

“When I was a junior at Old Dominion, I already knew where I was heading,” he said, adding that he did join the bank and has been there ever since.

Moriarty, who would take a far more circuitous route to his hometown bank, has memories of seeing Rouette heading for a work in a suit while he was toiling for the town’s Highway Department while he was home from college for the summer. “It’s 95 degrees out, Michael’s going to work in a tie, and I’m thinking, ‘I want to work in air conditioning.’”

He would, first at Coopers & Lybrand in Hartford, and later at Aetna, HealthSouth, and then Unicare.

“But the attraction to Monson Savings was always in the back of my mind,” he recalled, adding that, during some conversations with Rouette, he brought up the possibility of joining the bank, and eventually did so in 1998 as an accounting manager.

The two have risen in the ranks over the years, with Rouette rising to senior vice president and chief lending officer, and Moriarty eventually climbing to senior vice president and chief financial officer in 2011.

When Lowell announced his intentions to retire not quite a year ago, both men sought to succeed him as president and CEO. Those titles would eventually go to Moriarty, but the two essentially form a new leadership team, one that brings complementary strengths and shared values.

Moriarty noted that, through his career at the bank, he’s been focused on the finance side of the equation, while Rouette has concentrated on lending and customer relationships, and, in his new role, will add retail to his list of responsibilities.

“Mike is very customer-focused, while I have somewhat different responsibilities — strategy, human resources, finance, marketing, compliance, and technology,” said Moriarty. “I think the bank is positioned to use our strengths in a proper way.”

 

Net Results

All this prompts more flashbacks, and the inevitable analogies, to 1984 and that soccer semifinal against Monument Mountain, where Moriarty notched the first goal of the game, and Rouette, then the all-time scoring leader for the Mustangs, recorded the game clincher.

As for the finals game … that did not go as well — a loss to an undefeated Wahconah team that still stings three and half decades later. (Moriarty wasn’t able to play in that contest due to a broken ankle he suffered in the semifinal.)

But while they do like to look back, Moriarty and Rouette are obviously far more focused on the present and the future.

As for the former, that means everything from coping with the many aspects of COVID-19 to growing the bank’s latest branch, on North Main Street in East Longmeadow, which opened last summer, in the middle of the pandemic.

That timing wasn’t perfect — many branch lobbies were still closed — but the new facility is off to a solid start.

“We had a good core group of customers in Longmeadow and East Longmeadow,” Moriarty said. “We transitioned them internally to the East Longmeadow branch, so we had a good start, and we’re looking to have that branch in a good position in a shorter period than you normally would in a new market.”

As for the pandemic itself, it’s been a time for the bank to play to its strengths — yes, that’s still another sports phrase — and use its focus on customer service to not only take care of (and retain) existing customers, but also gain some new ones. This has been the case on all fronts, but especially with the commercial lending portfolio and the bank’s strong track record handling applications for Paycheck Protection Plan (PPP) loans.

“We basically got out in front of it,” said Rouette as he explained the bank’s basic strategy with the PPP program and its commercial customers in general. “We knew that that they [customers] couldn’t be chasing us. We had a great team effort to reach out to all our business customers; we said, ‘we know there’s an issue, we know PPP is coming down the road, and when the spigot opens, we’ll be there for you.’ And we did it.

“People needed to hear your voice,” he went on, adding that every commercial customer was called in an effort to gauge their needs and concerns and update them on the status of their application. “And that calmed people, that they weren’t on voice mail or weren’t able to get through.”

This high level of customer service enabled the bank to handle PPP loans for non-customers, gains that both Moriarty and Rouette chalked up to word-of-mouth referrals that should have some long-term benefits for the institution as a new round of the program begins later this month.

Dan Moriarty, left, and Mike Rouette both found a common denominator

Dan Moriarty, left, and Mike Rouette both found a common denominator between their soccer squad from the ‘80s and the staff at Monson Savings — the importance of solid teamwork.

Looking back, and ahead, Moriarty said he was mentored by his two immediate predecessors, Lowell and Roland Desrochers, and he understands what has made the bank successful — especially its employees and community-bank look, feel, and operating values — and has no intention of altering the game plan.

“The vision for the bank is to continue to be the community bank that these communities need,” he told BusinessWest. “From a business side, commercial customers as well as retail customers, we want to stay competitive in our delivery systems — digital, mobile … we can have people bank with us from Monson to the Cape and into Connecticut. We want to be relevant in the communities we serve for not just today, but for years to come.

“The culture will remain the same,” he went on. “And we’re just going to leverage the talent we have inside the bank.”

Meanwhile, both men intend to continue their active involvement in the community, which mirrors the work of Lowell, Desrochers, and others that came before them. This work comes in many forms, with Moriarty devoting time and energy to several groups, including the East of the River Chamber of Commerce (he’s a board member), the Baystate Health Community Benefits Advisory Council, the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, the Brightside Golf Classic, and Monson High School, where he’s the assistant varsity soccer coach.

As for Rouette, he is similarly involved, but focuses most of his time on the YMCA of Greater Springfield, with which the bank has long enjoyed close ties. “Everyone has a passion, and that’s mine,” he said, adding that he’s been a long-time board member and supporter on many levels.

 

Bottom Line

Summoning still another sports analogy of sorts, Moriarty said it is customary, at least with good teams, to look ahead, not back, when a season ends.

“Because it’s January, we say, ‘last season’s over … we finished December, we did well, but now it’s 0-0, and we’ve got a new season ahead of us,’” he noted, adding that, given the many variables confronting banks — and all businesses, for that matter — it’s impossible to know how this new season will go.

What these two do know is that Monson Savings Bank will, as noted, continue to play to its strengths, honed over many years and under leaders that these two have learned from.

In short, there’s a winning formula at the bank, and their only real plans for the future are to continue using it.

 

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

 

Construction Special Coverage

Space Jam

By Mark Morris

Nick Riley

Nick Riley says he had to reschedule in-home jobs at the start of the pandemic until he could figure out how to do them safely.

For home builders in Western Mass., 2020 brought opportunity and challenge in equal measure.

For example, Nick Riley, owner of N. Riley Construction, said 2020 was his best year based on the number of projects, but COVID-19 posed obstacles to nearly all facets of the job. In fact, when the pandemic first arrived, he rescheduled all his in-home projects until he could learn how to safely do those jobs.

“We were fortunate that we had several new construction projects that kept us working until we could figure out the right way to get our in-home jobs done,” Riley said.

Other home builders shared similar stories of adjusting to a new reality on the fly.

When many industries were mandated to stop working back in March, home builders were deemed an essential business by Gov. Charlie Baker’s administration. That was the right call, said Bill Laplante, president of Laplante Construction. “We had projects with critical work that needed to be completed so people, in some cases, could get back into their homes.”

“We had to postpone jobs like kitchen renovations where people were still trying to live in the space we were working on.”

The builders who spoke with BusinessWest all construct new houses as well as additions and renovations to existing homes. On balance, they say, renovations and additions account for more business than new home construction.

“Most of the calls we get are from people who want to stay where they are, so many of them are looking to build additions or do a renovation,” said A.J. Crane, partner at A. Crane Construction.

Of course, staying put became nearly universal as COVID-19 mandates resulted in many people working from home. Even those who continued to work at their place of business found themselves at home more often because so many recreational activities and destinations had been curtailed or shut down.

And that posed opportunity for builders. As Laplante observed, the more time people spend at home, the more looking around they do. “They start thinking about adding a room or renovating part of the house to make their space more comfortable.”

In the age of COVID, that means builders must approach job sites differently than in the past. For starters, more people — both adults and children — are likely to be at home while the work is getting done. While workers follow screening protocols before going into the home and wear PPE once there, Laplante instructs his crews to isolate the work area from the residents as much as possible. That’s easy to do for additions and outside renovations, but some work is just more intrusive.

“We had to postpone jobs like kitchen renovations where people were still trying to live in the space we were working on,” he said, adding that other projects were pushed off because customers were simply not yet comfortable with outside workers in their homes during the pandemic.

But enough homeowners were OK with their presence to generate a successful, if unusual, year for the home-building and renovation industry.

 

Slow-building Issues

Keeping work crews and homeowners safe was only one challenge builders faced due to COVID-19. In a normal year, the process of getting a permit for a new home or addition is fairly straightforward. Builders bring plans to the appropriate municipal office and pick up the permit a week or two later. As COVID-19 shifted city and town business to e-mails and Zoom calls, it delayed the permitting process — in some cases, for months.

“When you go down the street to the local lumber yard to pick up a pressure-treated two-by-four and they don’t have any, it throws you for a loop.”

Meanwhile, supply-chain shortages of common consumer goods such as toilet paper and cleaning products marked the early days of the pandemic. The manufacturing supply chain around the world was disrupted for many building products as well. Riley said appliances and electrical components such as circuit breakers were often delayed by as much as three or four months. As another example, Crane learned that window companies were having trouble getting glass.

“As a result, we were only getting three-fourths of the windows we ordered for a job,” he said. “This created a delay that frustrates the homeowner and puts a big dent into our profit margin.”

In short, COVID-19 kept people at home, they wanted to improve their space, creating high demand for building materials at a time when many manufacturers were already experiencing delays due to the coronavirus, resulting in shortages. And in the wake of those delays, price increases followed.

Andy Crane

Andy Crane says he wants to present a home show this year, but only if he can do so safely.

“We saw a 45% spike in the cost of building materials,” Laplante said. “That was difficult to deal with because we had jobs that were already under contract.”

Shortages of special-order or custom materials were no surprise to the builders, but everyday items were affected, too.

“When you go down the street to the local lumber yard to pick up a pressure-treated two-by-four and they don’t have any, it throws you for a loop,” Crane said.

While they acknowledge that delays, shortages, and price hikes will be here for the near term, all three builders are optimistic about 2021. Because mortgage interest rates remain at historic lows, Riley does not expect a slowdown anytime soon. “For 2021, our company is operating full steam ahead for both new construction and remodeling projects.”

“I know a lot of folks who switched to remote work, and they are not going back into the office. I believe people working from home or their vacation home will continue into the foreseeable future.”

One challenge going forward, he noted, is finding property in Western Mass. to purchase at a reasonable price where he can make a profit on new construction.

For 2021, Laplante has plenty of new construction and renovation projects in the pipeline both in Western Mass. and on Cape Cod, where he recently opened a satellite office.

“We’ve always done work on the Cape, but this is the first year we made it official with an office,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re seeing a tremendous amount of activity and opportunity there.”

Expanding to Cape Cod is a bet Laplante is willing to make because he believes that the pandemic has severely shifted consumer trends. As he sees it, the people who would have sought out exotic travel to places like Europe are now spending their money on their home or investing in a vacation home close to where they live.

 

On with the Show?

For 66 years, hundreds of home projects started with a tour of the Western Mass Home and Garden Show held in late March on the Big E fairgrounds. In 2020, the show was canceled for the first time in its history as the initial wave of COVID-19 swept across Massachusetts just before the event.

Will there be a show in 2021? Andrew Crane, executive director of the Home Builders and Remodelers Assoc. of Western Massachusetts, faces a common dilemma in this time of COVID-19: there is plenty of interest in holding the show, but no one knows if conditions will allow it to take place.

“When things clear up and people can safely go out and stay healthy, we will run a home show, and not until then,” he said. At the same time, his organization, which runs the home show, has nearly sold out all available booths.

“We don’t even have dates for when the home show will happen, but I sold two booths this week,” Crane said, noting that his members are involved in nearly all areas of home improvements. As most of them had success in 2020, they would like to keep the momentum going this year.

Bill Laplante

Bill Laplante says the more time people spend at home, the more they think about how to improve their homes.

When BusinessWest spoke with vendors in preparation for last year’s event, several said a key strength of the home show was the opportunity for people and contractors to speak with each other, as well as the ability to see and touch the latest products in home improvements.

Plexiglass dividers, one-way aisles, and mandatory mask wearing are among the different ways Crane and his staff are looking to configure this year’s show. He doesn’t want a situation, however, in which a member pays for an expensive booth only to allow one person at a time to visit.

“That’s not fair to the vendor or the people attending the show,” he said. “It’s not even fair to the folks who just drop by a booth to take the candy.”

Because planning events is so difficult these days, Crane continues to move forward in planning the home show, but understands that nothing is certain. “There’s a light at the end of the tunnel, but we don’t know if it’s a freight train or if it’s the vaccine coming to solve our problems.”

Even with an effective vaccination rollout, Laplante predicts the home-building industry will continue to thrive locally. In addition to new construction, he has several whole-house renovations in the works — projects in which an existing house is torn down and a new one is built on the same lot. With many projects in the pipeline, Laplante believes people have changed their behavior long-term, and the home will continue to be a focal point long after COVID-19 is under control.

“I know a lot of folks who switched to remote work, and they are not going back into the office,” he said. “I believe people working from home or their vacation home will continue into the foreseeable future.”

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

For MJ Adams, 2020 felt like someone had pushed a ‘pause’ button.

Adams, director of Community and Economic Development for the city of Greenfield, had taken part in a dynamic public forum early in the year titled “A Deliberate Downtown” that focused on revitalization plans for Greenfield.

Then the pandemic hit. And when it became clear the pause would last for more than a few weeks, she and her staff shifted their focus.

“We knew there was going to be an immediate cash-flow problem for local businesses, so we moved quickly to develop a small-business assistance program to provide micro-enterprise grants,” Adams said.

Working with other Franklin County towns, Greenfield pooled its available block-grant funds with those from Montague, Shelburne, and Buckland.

“Because small businesses are such a critical piece of the economy in Greenfield and Franklin County, we worked together to quickly design a program that didn’t exist before,” Adams said. “The micro-enterprise grants provided a cash source for small businesses until they were able to access funds from the federal Paycheck Protection Program.”

On the public-health side of the pandemic, Mayor Roxann Wedegartner credited the emergency-management team in Greenfield for their early and quick action.

“We were one of the first communities in the state to attempt to manage the public-health side of COVID-19 from the get-go,” she said, adding that her team also set up contact tracing early in the pandemic. The John Zon Community Center has served as an emergency-command area for COVID testing for Greenfield and surrounding communities. First responders are now able to receive COVID-19 vaccinations at the facility.

Greenfield Mayor Roxann Wedegartner

Greenfield Mayor Roxann Wedegartner says major projects along Main Street speak to a sense of momentum despite pandemic-related obstacles.

Like most communities, Wedegartner admits Greenfield has taken an economic hit due to the pandemic. She pointed to the micro-enterprise grants as an important early step that prevented a tough situation from becoming worse. Inaugurated to her first term as mayor a year ago, Wedegartner said finding herself in emergency public-health and safety meetings a month later was quite a shock.

“While I’m pleased that we started planning early for the pandemic, I have to say it’s not where I thought I would be in my first year in office.”

 

Great Outdoors

Wedegartner is not letting COVID-19 challenges dampen the many good things happening in Greenfield. She pointed with pride to the approval of a new, $20 million library and the ongoing construction of a new, $17 million fire station. Groundbreaking at the library is scheduled for April 21, while firefighters are expected to move into their new facility in July. Once complete, Adams noted that both ends of Main Street will be anchored with major public investments.

“It’s a clear statement that the town is very much committed to public safety, as well as culture and education,” she said.

These qualities, and a resilient business community, are why Greenfield is poised to bounce back quickly, according to Diana Szynal, executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce. She specifically mentioned the area’s many outdoor recreation options as assets that contribute to the local economy.

“Because small businesses are such a critical piece of the economy in Greenfield and Franklin County, we worked together to quickly design a program that didn’t exist before.”

“For spring and summer, we will put a strong focus on outdoor recreation because it’s a safe and healthy thing to do,” Szynal said. “You don’t have to travel far, and you can access some of the best river rapids around. We have ski areas and great golf courses — basically four seasons of outdoor activities.”

Before the pandemic, Adams and her staff were working with local restaurants to consider outdoor dining. Of course, COVID-19 accelerated those plans as moving outside was one way eateries could generate at least some revenue. With restaurants scrambled to figure out ad hoc ways to set up outside, Adams said now is the time to see how to make this concept work better for everyone for the long haul.

“We’re looking at Court Square to see if we can shut down the street that runs in front of City Hall to make that a more permanent outdoor dining space,” she said, admitting there are traffic-impact and access issues that need to be considered before the street can be closed. “We’ve been wanting to do this for some time and even have conceptual drawings to see how that space would look.”

Szynal emphasized that restaurants are one key to bringing more people to downtown Greenfield, so she hopes to draw more places to eat. While outdoor dining presents challenges, she believes the net result is positive. “Dining outside helps the downtown become a little more pedestrian. It’s a different vibe, a good vibe.”

Greenfield at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1753
Population: 17,456
Area: 21.9 square miles
County: Franklin
Residential Tax Rate: $23.55
Commercial Tax Rate: $23.55
Median Household Income: $33,110
Median Family Income: $46,412
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Baystate Franklin Medical Center, Greenfield Community College, the Sandri Companies
* Latest information available

Wedegartner promotes the fact that Greenfield has a walkable downtown and plenty of housing within a short walk of it. A former Realtor in Franklin County, she still has contacts in real estate who tell her that houses in Greenfield barely hit the market before they are sold.

Adams said the city is poised to take advantage of welcoming new people to the area. “As we start to emerge from the pandemic, there’s a discussion about how much people miss the feeling of community and how to re-establish that. At the same time, there are people who want to live closer to nature and further away from the heavily populated cities. Greenfield can satisfy both of those concerns.”

Because the pandemic has resulted in so many people working from home, Szynal predicts a shift in where people choose to live.

Wedegartner concurred, citing the example of a couple who recently moved to Greenfield from the Boston area after learning they would be working from home for the next two years. “They bought one of the more beautiful homes in town for a fraction of what they would have paid for that type of home in the Boston area.”

While real-estate sales have been brisk across Western Mass., Franklin County has been particularly robust. Szynal shared statistics from October that compared sales among Hampden, Hampshire, and Franklin counties. Total sales for all three were up 9.2%, while in Franklin County alone, sales increased more than 32%. She credits that growth to a number of factors, including the affordability of housing and an active arts and culture scene.

“If you have the ability to work remotely,” she asked, “why not relocate to somewhere that is beautiful and more affordable?”

 

Downtown Vision

Wilson’s Department Store, a mainstay in Greenfield for more than a century, wrapped up its final sales and closed last February. While that came as sad news to many, Wedegartner and Adams are hopeful about interest in the building from Green Fields Market, the grocery store run by the Franklin Community Co-op. While Green Fields representatives have not committed to the Wilson’s site, they have shown an interest in locating downtown.

“I would love to keep the co-op downtown,” Adams said. “A grocery store where you have residents living is an important part of a livable, walkable downtown.”

A former brownfield site, the Lunt Silversmith property has been cleaned up and will be available for redevelopment later this year. The site is near what Adams called “the recovery healthcare campus” where Behavioral Health Network and a number of other social-service agencies provide care and support for people in recovery.

Another redevelopment project involves the First National Bank building across from the town common. Adams said the initial vision was to make the building an arts and cultural space. After studying that as a possibility, it now appears that’s not going to happen.

The building is important, Adams noted, because it provides a face to the town common. “While the First National Bank building won’t be what we originally hoped it would be, our challenge is to figure out the right use for it.”

Just before COVID-19 hit, Adams and her team conducted a survey of residents and businesses to help define the future of downtown Greenfield. The large number of responses from both residents and businesses impressed even the survey consultants.

“The high rate of return on the surveys speaks to people’s interest and engagement of what our future will look like,” Adams said.

As people start receiving the vaccine, she believes the region will be able to put the coronavirus era in the rear-view mirror fairly soon.

“I’m a planner, so it’s exciting that there is a plan to get people vaccinated and that we are headed in the right direction,” she said.

Which would finally get the city off that pause button — and into ‘go’ mode.

Features

The Consumer’s Dilemma

By John Garvey

“If you’re not paying for the product, then you are the product.”

That’s a quote from Daniel Hövermann in The Social Dilemma. If you have not seen the Netflix documentary, here are the important parts: a bunch of really rich people explain how creepy and addictive social media is, how most of them repeatedly and for different companies built it to be so, and how bad they feel about doing all that.

They explain, as their makeup artist prepares them for their actual interview, how social-media algorithms monitor our every move on the platforms. Nefariously, according to The Social Dilemma interviewees, this data is provided in anonymized form to advertisers so that they can get you to buy their products. In that way, you are the product — well, actually, your data is the product — that is offered by the platform (Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Google) to the advertisers.

Actually, your attention is the product and has always been what marketers and platforms seek. Data can help get your attention, but it is a big mistake to think that data is going to drive conversion. Attention does.

Enter the feds and 46 attorneys general and one of the biggest anti-trust cases in U.S. history. They are suing Facebook essentially because, years ago, it bought Instagram (2012) and WhatsApp (2014) with FTC approval and then got really good at growing them. The charge is that they got so good at it, they made it bad for consumers and advertisers. Or, as the FTC put it, “suppressing, neutralizing, and deterring serious competitive threats.”

New York Attorney General Letitia James suggested on NPR’s Here & Now that the malfeasance goes even further. “Facebook’s monopoly means that users can’t pick up and go to another platform because they have no other meaningful alternatives.”

I’m guessing she is not on TikTok, although that platform has attracted its own turbulence from the Trump administration with the president’s determination that it is a national security risk.

It’s a safe bet that the courts will be dealing with all of this mess for some time.

John Garvey“Apple is acting to protect user privacy right now, and Facebook is freaking out. Apple’s upcoming version of iOS will require that apps ask user permission to track their activity across different apps or sites.”

So, where are the more near-term digital privacy protections and marketing changes coming from? This is a bit of a shocker because digital privacy protection is coming from two main sources these days: the European Union (EU) and Apple.

You know those annoying ‘accept cookies’ messages when you visit a new website? You can thank the EU and the General Data Protection Regulation obligations that went into full effect in May 2018. Because it is too hard to have one way of operating here and another there, generally EU regulations end up impacting if not protecting us as well.

There is regulation on the way. The EU’s Digital Service Act and Digital Markets Act are likely to create a new rulebook that will dramatically change the operations of online platforms as well as bolster the rights of consumers.

That’s all in the future. Apple is acting to protect user privacy right now, and Facebook is freaking out. Apple’s upcoming version of iOS will require that apps ask user permission to track their activity across different apps or sites. Even if the user gives that permission to track, iOS 14 — the software that runs the iPhone — will allow that user to turn it off at any time.

Think of it this way: Facebook will have to ask you, if you are an iPhone user, “hey, can I track a bunch of stuff you do on this phone and sell it to companies?” What would your answer be?

Apple’s iPhone controls more than 50% of the mobile-device market, so it’s no wonder why Facebook is freaking out. According to Inc., “Facebook is saying that iOS could result in a 50% drop in revenue for what is known as Audience Network. That’s Facebook’s advertising product that serves up ads within apps based on a user’s activity elsewhere. Audience Network is only a small part of the $70 billion in advertising revenue the company rakes in, but it isn’t hard to see why Facebook would be concerned.”

Recently, Facebook started running its own ads that highlight the harm users controlling access to their personal data will have on small business. The #SpeakUpForSmall campaign urges all users to take a stand for small businesses everywhere and add their voice in the comments section of their ad. At the time of this writing, there were three.

Facebook, whom Fast Company named “the worst brand of the year,” could use more likes.

 

John Garvey is founder of Garvey Communication Associates Inc., a digital marketing and PR agency with offices in Springfield and Los Angeles.

 

Banking and Financial Services

Checking on the Community

Paul Scully

Paul Scully says much of Country Bank’s philanthropy in 2020 was directed at “COVID-related initiatives.”

Paul Scully says local philanthropy is baked into the DNA of this region’s financial institutions.

“Banks have always been great about supporting communities. And we are fairly philanthropic,” Country Bank’s president and CEO added, noting that the bank gave $1.3 million to local nonprofits last year, touching about 400 different organizations in some way.

Those numbers aren’t atypical. What made 2020 slightly different is where that money went.

“Of that, about a half-million went to what I would call COVID-related initiatives,” Scully said, citing causes ranging from equipping frontline workers at hospitals to meeting soaring demand at local food banks due to the pandemic’s economic impact on families.

At Freedom Credit Union’s April board meeting — the first one after it and the region’s other banking institutions closed their doors in mid-March — President and CEO Glenn Welch said he asked to make larger monthly donations to the community than usual.

“I told them, ‘I’m not sure what’s going to happen, but we need to support the community.’ The board agreed and allocated a chunk of money that we could utilize in the community.”

In the days that followed, Freedom announced a donation of $55,000 to be dispersed among several community organizations at the front lines of the local fight against the COVID-19 pandemic, including Baystate Health Foundation; Mercy Medical Center; Cooley Dickinson Health Care; the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts; Hampshire Hospitality Group, whose Hampshire County Heroes feed first responders in Hampshire County; and Feed the Fight, an initiative of Peter Pan Bus Lines and area restaurants to feed healthcare workers and first responders in the community.

“If you’re still employed with no interruption in your household income, you might not realize a lot people were living on a shoestring, and that shoestring broke. The opportunity to donate and give back is huge.”

“A lot of those are things we haven’t done every year,” Welch said, noting that the credit union’s philanthropic contributions were up 17% from 2019 to 2020, even though it was a tougher financial year for financial institutions.

It’s a story being told across the region — not that banks and credit unions are being more generous this year (although, in many cases, they are), but that the pandemic has revealed different needs, causing a shift in where those grants are being targeted.

In September, for instance, the Berkshire Bank Foundation contributed an additional $1 million — over its $3 million total annual grant budget — to collaborative efforts supporting nonprofit organizations responding to rising community needs, including MHA, the YMCA of Greater Springfield, Western Massachusetts SCORE, and the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, among others.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has affected our local communities in ways that no one could have predicted, and the economic impact has created significant challenges for organizations who help so many every day,” said Jim Hickson, Berkshire Bank’s Pioneer Valley regional president.

The foundation’s grants have supported community-based organizations in the areas of housing, food security, health supplies, student aid, small-business assistance — all needs that have been heightened by a pandemic whose impacts will continue to be felt well into 2021.

 

First Response

Some of the earliest contributions from banks and credit unions, at the start of the pandemic, were targeted to hospitals and first responders. Country Bank donated $250,000 to four local hospitals, and also gave $50,000 to the Hampden County Sheriff’s Department’s First Responder Recovery Home, which provided a safe haven for doctors, nurses, EMTs, police, firefighters, and corrections professionals who were diagnosed with COVID-19, but couldn’t safely go home to recover without jeopardizing the health of a vulnerable family member.

Glenn Welch

Glenn Welch

“I told them, ‘I’m not sure what’s going to happen, but we need to support the community.’ The board agreed and allocated a chunk of money that we could utilize in the community.”

As the pandemic evolved and other nonprofits began reshaping their missions to respond to it, Country Bank directed funds to organizations like the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts, Springfield Rescue Mission, and Friends of the Homeless, as well as similar organizations in the Worcester area.

PeoplesBank’s charitable giving in 2020 surpassed its previous record high, totaling $1,300,000, and benefiting 292 different nonprofits in the region. While the long-standing funding priorities of PeoplesBank include education, community vibrancy, and environmental sustainability, support in 2020 also included donations to COVID-19 emergency relief funds, purchases of PPE for frontline responders, organizations fighting food insecurity and homelessness, and many area youth groups and early-childhood education centers.

“We try to say ‘no’ as infrequently as possible,” said Matt Bannister, the bank’s senior vice president of Marketing and Corporate Responsibility — even though last year’s needs definitely widened, especially considering that many nonprofits gain much of their funding from annual events that never happened.

“When the COVID hit the fan, we said to all our nonprofits we had agreements with, ‘we are going to honor all our commitments, even if you can’t hold your gala or your walk. The money’s still yours,’” Bannister said.

“The event may go away, but the need doesn’t,” he continued. “On one hand, if they don’t have the event, they don’t have to spend money on it, so that’s good. But these events are money makers. They were counting on this revenue. The visibility we get from these events is nice, but the real reason we do it is to support that cause, not because they put our logo on a T-shirt.”

Matt Bannister

Matt Bannister

“The event may go away, but the need doesn’t. On one hand, if they don’t have the event, they don’t have to spend money on it, so that’s good. But these events are money makers. They were counting on this revenue. The visibility we get from these events is nice, but the real reason we do it is to support that cause, not because they put our logo on a T-shirt.”

 

Kevin Day, president and CEO of Florence Bank, said his institution had no inclination to take back money spent to support such events.

“COVID drove everyone indoors this year, and a lot of events got canceled,” Day said. “We usually sign up for events, and we send money ahead of time. The nonprofits all reached out and said, “we’re not going to hold this ball or gala. Do you need the money back?’ But we’re here to support you, and the fact that you can’t throw a ball actually makes it more important that we support you. So even though we didn’t get to go to these events, we still made the donations; that didn’t change a bit.”

Later in the year, as nonprofits scrambled to find other ways to raise funds, banks looked for new ways to support them, Bannister added. “Like, the Community Foundation put together an emergency COVID fund — there’s a new need. We contributed to buy PPE for the frontline workers — that was something that wasn’t a need before. And a number of chambers put together microgrant programs for the members in their communities, with a special round of fundraising for that, and we supported that, too.”

 

Food for Thought

Like PeoplesBank, Florence Bank directs its philanthropy in a few general ways.

“We’ve always focused on what we call the three H’s: hungry, hurt, homeless. We thought food-insecure people having trouble getting food and buying food might be a big deal this year, so we said, ‘hey, let’s do everything we can in that area, if possible,’” Day said, adding that Florence has made good on that pledge by supporting 11 different food pantries and homeless shelters.

“We’ve always supported many of these organizations,” he was quick to add, but cast a wider net this year, donating nearly $100,000 to 10 organizations that address food insecurity.

Kevin Day

“We’ve always focused on what we call the three H’s: hungry, hurt, homeless.”

“We are so grateful. Without the support of donors, we would not have been able to continue our mission,” Ruben Reyes, executive director of Lorraine’s Soup Kitchen & Pantry in Chicopee, one of the recipients, said in December. “COVID has affected us very hard. All of our fundraisers were canceled, and we were very worried about how to fund our programs.”

Compounding the problem, COVID-19 has also affected Lorraine’s clientele. Reyes said he is seeing an additional 200 to 300 families each month, and provides a month’s supply of groceries and dinners five nights a week to a total of 600 to 700 families. “We’re seeing a lot more families who typically would not need pantry services. They are coming to our doors for the very first time.”

Meanwhile, Scully noted that a Greater Boston Food Bank report that food insecurity in Massachusetts reached an all-time high in November. The state has experienced a 59% increase since 2018, representing more than 1 million people in need of food assistance. Most people are using food pantries for the first time.

“We’ve seen the demand at the food banks, and in so many other different areas,” he told BusinessWest, noting that Country has donated more than $130,000 to local food pantries throughout the year. “We’ve always supported local food pantries and food banks, and we made significant contributions to them as well. Everyone is feeling the demands are greater than ever.”

As another example of the way financial institutions have rallied to the cause of food insecurity, Freedom Credit Union partnered with its members and the local community in December by matching funds donated to benefit the Pioneer Valley USO.

Located at Westover Air Reserve Base in Chicopee, that organization provides more than 102,000 pounds of food to more than 3,200 individuals annually through the Emergency Food Pantry, among other efforts.

“We’d heard that some of the people who serve us in the military are having trouble feeding their families, and the food pantries need to be stocked,” Welch said. “It’s pretty sad when people in the U.S. have to be going to the food banks, with the loss of jobs due to COVID. A lot of people are hurting this year.”

All the region’s banks and credit unions helped customers who were struggling financially in other ways as well, such as mortgage and loan deferrals and relief loans.

“All the institutions did a lot to help members by deferring payments and coming up with loan programs,” Welch said. “It’s important to help people out, and we’re still doing that.”

 

Community Partners

While food insecurity and other basic needs are front of mind these days, banks and credit unions support a host of other nonprofits as well, many of which rely on performances, events, and member activity to pay their bills. Many of these were able to pivot to virtual events to maintain connections with the community until they can go back to live events, but those don’t bring in nearly as much funding as in-person gatherings.

Through its philanthropic efforts, Scully said “what we try to do is help communities thrive, whether it’s economic health, physical health, or nutritional health. Put all those pieces together, and these communities will thrive. If there’s a need and we’re able to help satisfy some of these needs, we’ll do our part to the extent we can.”

That attitude, at most local financial institutions, extends beyond monetary donations into volunteerism, Bannister noted.

“We’ve averaged about 10,000 volunteer hours across the organization pretty consistently for the past four or five years,” he said, adding that the total in 2020 was closer to 5,000, due to organizations moving to remote operations and events being canceled. “That wasn’t from a lack of desire; people were concerned about going out in public, so there was a lack of opportunity. We expect that to come back this year as things start to open up again.”

At an employee giving campaign in November, the bank actually had more associates give more money this year than ever before, Bannister added. “That could have gone the other way. There’s a lot more economic insecurity out there. So that, to us, was a sign that folks are still engaged, and they still want to give.”

While nonprofits have cut back hours and volunteers can’t always come in, especially at organizations that deal with an older population. “people have been creative,” Scully said. “We work once a month with the Ware mobile food pantry. We were there the week before Christmas, and that had upwards of 300 cars coming in. They turned it into a mobile experience. There’s a group of us there, you’re outside, masks on. It’s a way to give back, volunteer, and be safe.”

After all, he added, people want to help, and so do banks.

Day said the outpouring of concern was so great in 2020 that some nonprofits actually weathered the early months of the pandemic well.

“In March, maybe the first week of April, I think my supposition would have been that everyone is going to be hurting instantly,” he said. “But I’m involved in several nonprofit boards, and across the region, many are saying their needs have been met, in my view, pretty well.”

But 2021 poses a trap of sorts.

“The critical aspect is coming in the next year,” Day said. “Many of them received a great deal of donations during this past year, and we’re happy to do our part. I think the needs will come as the recovery moves along this year, once the perception of need goes away.”

That’s because human needs are still great among families that come to nonprofits for help, especially those in the lower economic strata who have experienced economic devastation. “They’re going to need continued support, and I expect that need will continue through 2021, easily.”

Scully agreed. “The needs are greater than the average person realizes. If you’re still employed with no interruption in your household income, you might not realize a lot people were living on a shoestring, and that shoestring broke. The opportunity to donate and give back is huge.”

And will remain so going forward, Day added.

“We gave more money this year than we ever have, sprayed it around, touched every aspect of the nonprofit world,” he said. “People know we’re a good partner of the community, and we’re happy to help out those in need.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Banking and Financial Services

Tax Planning in a Gig Economy

By Ian Coddington

 

In recent years, we have seen a rise in so-called side hustles and gig work, where individuals take on part-time jobs or project-based work for additional income.

This ‘gig economy’ has been accelerated by the effects of the coronavirus outbreak; Americans are being laid off or have to remain at home or socially distance. Without a primary income source, people have turned to other solutions to pay their bills.

Ventures like DoorDash, Uber, Amazon, and Fiver all offer individuals the ability to earn income by doing work for companies and individuals. However, this does not make up the entire market of gig work.

Ian Coddington

Ian Coddington

“This form is different from your W-2 in that 1099 income is considered self-employment earnings, which is taxed differently than W-2 wages.”

People who sell artwork or wrap Christmas presents, handymen, and movers are all examples of individuals who could earn income on the side. We have seen how some side hustles can turn into profitable ventures, while others just use it to have extra spending money. If you took on additional sources of income during the pandemic, there might be some tax considerations you might not be aware of.

 

Self-employed Vs. W-2

Unlike a normal employed job where you receive a Form W-2, most gig work will consider workers independent contractors, and issue you a Form 1099. The most common form received for this work was a 1099-MISC, which is now replaced with the new Form 1099-NEC.

If you were paid at least $600 from a business that was not your employer, you can expect one of these forms come tax time. This form is different from your W-2 in that 1099 income is considered self-employment earnings, which is taxed differently than W-2 wages. When you work for an employer, they will withhold a percentage of your wages for taxes. However, when you are self-employed, you are subject to self-employment taxes and might be subject to estimate payments.

Depending on your level of income and other withholdings, one benefit of this is a self-employment tax deduction, where you can deduct what an employer would have paid on your tax return. For delivery drivers, it is important to track your mileage, as you can deduct the allowable mileage expense against your self-employed earnings. If you used a home office for business, you could potentially deduct a portion of your mortgage, utilities, and even repairs to that space. Prior to taking this deduction, you should review the rules closely.

 

Meet with an Advisor

These benefits sound good, but what if you have unique situations for your side hustle? What if you are paid through cash apps like Venmo or Zelle? Can you deduct the transaction fees paid to payment processors like PayPal or Stripe? What if you receive a Form 1099-K? Questions like these can be answered by an advisor, like a licensed tax preparer. Here is a quick list of things to bring to a meeting with a tax preparer:

• Any W-2s or 1099s received;

• Personal or business bank statements;

• Information on your home office, including square footage;

• Log of mileage; and

• Purchases for the business.

Working a side hustle can be an exciting and hopefully profitable venture; however, it can add complexity to your tax return. Take charge of the additional complexity, gather the required documentation, and minimize your tax liability.

 

Ian Coddington is an associate at the Holyoke-based accounting firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.; (413) 536-8510.

 

Construction

Building Confidence

Construction may be on the upswing in 2021, according to a report by Associated Builders and Contractors (ABC).

“While many contractors enter 2021 with significant trepidation, the most recent backlog and confidence readings suggest that the onset of vaccinations has generally led to more upbeat assessments regarding nonresidential construction’s future,” said ABC Chief Economist Anirban Basu. “Backlog is down substantially from its year-ago level, and profit margins remain under pressure, yet many contractors expect to enjoy higher sales and to support more staff six months from now.”

The organization’s Construction Backlog Indicator rebounded modestly to 7.3 months in December, an increase of 0.1 months from November’s reading, according to an ABC member survey conducted from Dec. 18 to Jan. 5. The backlog is 1.5 months lower than in December 2019.

“While many contractors enter 2021 with significant trepidation, the most recent backlog and confidence readings suggest that the onset of vaccinations has generally led to more upbeat assessments regarding nonresidential construction’s future. Backlog is down substantially from its year-ago level, and profit margins remain under pressure, yet many contractors expect to enjoy higher sales and to support more staff six months from now.”

ABC’s Construction Confidence Index readings for sales, profit margins, and staffing levels all increased in December. The sales index climbed above the threshold of 50, indicating contractors expect to grow sales over the next six months. The index reading for profit margins remained below that threshold. The staffing level index increased to 56.3 but remains well below its December 2019 reading.

“The baseline expectation is that, by the spring, the U.S. economy will blossom,” Basu said. “With many households sitting on mounds of savings and sustaining pent-up demand for many goods and services, the U.S. economy is set for rapid growth as it reopens more fully during mid- to late 2021. While it will take time for that to fully translate into new construction projects, some that were postponed earlier during the pandemic are likely to come back to life over the next several months. That should help many contractors begin to rebuild backlog, and to eagerly await 2022.”

The report comes on the heels of news that the construction industry added 51,000 net new jobs in December, according to ABC analysis of data released by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. During the last eight months, the industry has added 857,000 jobs, recovering 79.1% of the jobs lost during the earlier stages of the pandemic.

“The expectation remains that, as vaccination proceeds, the U.S. economy is poised for a significant uptick in growth during the latter half of 2021,” Basu said. “That will set the stage for improving industry performance in 2022 and beyond, particularly if the new administration is able to push forward an aggressive infrastructure stimulus package.”

 

Construction

Something to Build On

By Joe Bousquin

The term ‘construction’ appears 636 times in the $908 billion pandemic relief package and $1.4 trillion omnibus spending bill passed by Congress and signed by President Trump at the end of December.

In other words, while the relief package was less than half the size of last spring’s $2.2 trillion Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act, there’s still plenty in the overall bill for contractors to be happy about.

“Lots of construction spending is always a good thing, as long as everyone has access to it,” said Kristen Swearingen, vice president of Legislative and Political Affairs at Associated Builders and Contractors. Her cautionary tone refers to the Protecting the Right to Organize Act, which many non-union contractors oppose, potentially being passed in the 117th Congress after Democrats regained control of the Senate earlier this month.

But in general, construction advocates said the new pandemic relief package should be viewed as a win.

“This bill for the construction industry has a lot of good things overall,” said Jimmy Christianson, vice president of Government Relations at Associated General Contractors of America. “I would say, on the list of the many things we were asking for, we got probably 80%.”

“This bill for the construction industry has a lot of good things overall. I would say, on the list of the many things we were asking for, we got probably 80%.”

Nevertheless, one lament is that the package doesn’t include liability protection for employers against lawsuits from employees who were exposed to or became infected with COVID-19 at work.

Here’s a closer look at some of the provisions that should help contractors in 2021:

• Paycheck Protection Program. There are several wins for contractors in the the legislation’s renewed PPP funding, including a provision to ensure expenses paid for with forgiven PPP loans are tax-deductible, an issue many contractors were wringing their hands over last fall.

• Expansion of the Employee Retention Tax Credit. This gives qualifying employers a $5,000 credit per worker for employees not paid with PPP funds in 2020, as well as a $7,000 credit per worker per quarter in the first half of 2021.

“That’s a huge deal for construction companies and employees to help manage the continuing uncertainty that’s still happening,” Christianson said.

• State transportation funding. One of the headline numbers for contractors is the $10 billion earmarked for state DOTs, many of which saw their funding decline in 2020. That should provide relief for road and other civil builders who have increasingly felt the impacts of stalled projects.

“It will help mitigate the impact of bid-letting delays and project cancellations that we saw in 2020 throughout the country,” Christianson said. “And the fact that it’s dedicated funding means that states can’t use it for other things.”

• School construction. The package also includes $82 billion for education, at least some of which can be used for construction and renovations post-COVID-19, when students return en masse to classrooms.

 

Joe Bousquin reports on the construction industry for Construction Dive.

Cover Story Economic Outlook

Question Marks Dominate the Horizon

Entering a new year, there are always question marks about the economy and speculation about the factors that will determine just what kind of year it will be. For 2021, there are far more questions — and fewer definitive answers — and the speculation comes in layers. A great many of them. Much of this speculation involves the pandemic and, with vaccines becoming available to ever-greater numbers of people, whether we are truly seeing light at the end of the tunnel, the beginning of the end (of the pandemic), or any of those other phrases now being used so frequently. But there are other things to speculate about as well, including what the landscape will look like when and if things to return to normal, or a ‘new normal,’ another phrase one hears a lot these days. Will the jobs that have been lost come back? Will people pick up old habits regarding going to restaurants, the movies, the doctor’s office, or sporting events? Will businesses return to their offices? And will their offices be the same size and in the same community? Another phrase you’re hearing — and will read in the stories that follow — is ‘pent-up demand.’ Many businesses, from eateries to colleges and universities to medical practices, are counting on it, but will it actually materialize? These are all good questions, and for some answers, we turned to a panel of experts for a roundtable discussion, without the roundtable. Collectively, they address the question on everyone’s minds: what is the outlook for 2021?

The Big Picture >>

Economist says pent-up demand will be the key to any recovery

Education >>

School presidents project multi-year emergence from pandemic

Banking >>

This CEO says some habits are changing, but are they permanent?

Accounting >>

This CPA is advising clients to keep the seat belt buckled

Healthcare >>

A Q&A with Baystate Health President and CEO Dr. Mark Keroack

Fitness >>

Business owners grapple with an industry battered by restrictions

Restaurants >>

Owner of large, regional group says it’s survival of the fittest

Technology >>

IT expert says it’s time for businesses to move from survival to growth

Retail >>

Big Y’s Charlie D’Amour reflects on 2020 — and the year to come

Features Special Coverage

Marking a Milestone

Over the years, Paul Mina says, the name over the door and on the stationery has changed many times — previous incarnations include Community Chest, Red Feather, and United Fund — but the basic mission of the United Way of Pioneer Valley (UWPV) certainly hasn’t.

“The names have changed, the faces have changed, but the work is the same,” said Mina, who serves as administrator of both the United Way of Pioneer Valley and the United Way of Tri County in Framingham in an arrangement that speaks to the many fiscal challenges the organization has confronted in recent years and the need to consolidate and achieve economies of scale. “And that is, very simply, to improve the quality of life for people living in the Pioneer Valley area.”

As he talked with BusinessWest about this mission, on the occasion of the agency’s centennial (the actual birthday is Jan. 10), Mina was looking through some old news clippings, brochures, and assorted memorabilia that had been gathered to help with various efforts to mark this milestone. Together, these pieces help tell the story, he said, adding that the United Way has certainly evolved, as its name has, over the years.

But, as he noted, the underlying mission hasn’t.

“I look for a golden thread throughout the narrative,” he said as he thumbed through a large scrapbook and collections of news stories and promotional material. “And through all of that narrative, all of that archival material … the golden thread that links 1921 to 2021 is helping to improve people’s lives; that’s the endgame.

Paul Mina

Paul Mina

“The names have changed, the faces have changed, but the work is the same.”

“And it’s very significant to note that it was never about giving a handout — it was always about giving a helping hand — and to do it with as much dignity and respect as possible,” he continued. “Whether it’s 1921 or 2021, there are still people who need a helping hand so they can move from dependence to independence and self-sufficiency. That has been the goal, it is the goal, and it will always be the goal.”

 

It is somewhat fitting, said Mina, that the agency’s milestone celebration comes in the midst of a crisis — the COVID-19 pandemic — because, while the United Way of Pioneer Valley has been there to serve those in need every month of every year since January 1921, it has always come forward and stepped up at especially challenging times to meet greater and often different needs.

With that, Mina offered some history lessons. During World War II, for example, the agency, historically linked very closely with the Red Cross, worked to provide a number of services to returning veterans, and in the case of the local chapter, there was a specific focus on helping to reunite families broken apart by the war, and then help them assimilate to a very changed landscape.

“There was a lot of upheaval back home,” he said. “The men were off fighting overseas, the women were in factory jobs … there was a very different kind of assimilation. When a lot of these men came home, their wives, who were basically homemakers prior to them leaving, many of them had good jobs and careers in factories. This wasn’t something that any of them were used to seeing.

“When the men came back, there was a great amount of adjustment that had to take place,” he went on. “The women had to go back to their previous domestic role because the men had to get their jobs back to go back to work. There was a lot of assimilating, and that’s when philanthropy really took off because, now that women had been outside the home, they were involved in many, many things they hadn’t been involved in before, charity being one of them.”

 

That’s just one example, he said, noting that the agency has stepped up during other periods of turbulence, change, and need, providing help with everything from administering the polio vaccine in the 1950s to supplying food to the many who needed it during the Great Depression.

Bringing things right up to the present, Mina noted that, in recent years, the agency has added new services and new ways to help those in need, with everything from prescription savings to financial-literacy efforts to a Mass 211 hotline and its companion suicide-prevention ‘call-to-talk’ line.

And during this pandemic, UWPV, which serves Hampden County, Granby, and South Hadley, has continued that pattern of stepping up.

Indeed, it created a COVID-19 relief fund that including the awarding of grants to roughly 40 organizations, bringing a truckload of 5,000 hot meals to the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, delivering another truckload of food-relief boxes (20 pounds per box) to the Holyoke Boys & Girls Club for distribution throughout the city, an initiative called Project Toybox that brought 15,000 new toys to affiliated agencies across the region for distribution to young people, and even a drive-up Halloween event at the TD Banknorth building in downtown Springfield, which served to fill a void left by formal and informal bans on trick-or-treating (more on some of these later).

For this issue, BusinessWest talked with Mina about the many things being celebrated as this agency celebrates this milestone, and how the work being carried out during the pandemic is in many ways simply the latest chapter in a century-old story of meeting needs within the community.

 

Past Is Prologue

To emphasize his repeated points about how things have changed over the past century or so — and how they haven’t — Mina pulled a clipping from the pile he had collected, an advertisement of sorts for something called the ‘Charity Chest,’ and pointed to the date, 1918, and then the headline over the piece:

“Charity is not a pocket for the shiftless to dip into,” it read, with the subhead “Far from it. Charity is a long ways from being a lazy man’s paradise.”

Mina noted that this was a reference to how many looked upon those seeking help in those days. He also noted that the language regarding charitable efforts has long since changed, with those involved no longer making any references to the ‘shiftless’ or the ‘lazy,’ for obvious reasons.

But the rest of the ad could almost run today, he said, noting phrases like these with regard to charity: “Its prime function is to relieve distress. Always has been and always will be. Yet, while giving relief in deserving cases, it does far more than that.” And also: “Its main object is to prevent the cause, thereby vitally affecting you and me and everybody. Distress does not always mean poverty. It may mean misfortune, sickness, or the suffering of innocents from wrongdoing of others. All of these charity tries to prevent.”

Again, some of the language has obviously changed over the years, but those sentiments expressed back at the height of World War I are those that still define the United Way today. As Mina noted, it’s not a handout, but a helping hand, and it has been this way through a host of name changes, affiliations, and partnerships.

Tracing the history of all those names the agency has used, Mina said the organization got its start as the Springfield Community Chest. Later, it became the Springfield Community Chest Red Feather Drive (he still has a red feather mounted in a large frame), with the feather being a symbol of charitable giving for more than 150 years. In fact, he noted, the Red Cross and the Red Feather ran an annual appeal together, before the two organizations separated.

Later, the organization was known under the names United Appeal and United Fund, before United Way came into use in the late 1960s.

Regardless of the name on the door, the organization has been carrying out the same essential mission, said Mina, adding that the agency’s programmatic niche, if that’s the proper phrase for it, can be summed up with three simple words: basic human needs.

Elaborating, he said these include food, clothing, shelter, and programs for children and seniors. “These are the things we focus on for a reason, because these are the things that resonate with people. These are the things, whether people are black, white, no matter what ethnicity or color, people in need are in need. Period. That’s the way it’s always been here, and I’m proud to say that it continues to be that way.”

To put the mission and its importance in perspective, Mina rewound the tape on a phone call he received only a half-hour before he talked with BusinessWest from a woman now living in New Mexico after relocating from this region.

“We helped her and her family when they were very much in need about 10 years ago,” he said. “And she called me to say, ‘I don’t know if you remember me or not … but I’m so and so, and I moved from the Pioneer Valley down to New Mexico, and a friend of mine who still lives there needs a helping hand right now — she’s got it very tough, she’s unemployed. I told her that I would call you because I was treated so well by the United Way back then that I wanted her to know that there was someone they could call that would treat them with dignity and respect and do the best they can for you. They’re not going to promise you the moon, but they’ll do the best to help you.’

“That’s a nice compliment she paid us there,” he went on, “because that’s the goal; that’s the whole goal.”

 

Where There’s a Will …

Carrying out these goals has never been anything approaching easy, but in recent years, it has become much more difficult, for a number of reasons.

For starters, the way individuals undertake charitable giving has changed, with many now choosing to give directly to specific groups, rather than to larger umbrella agencies like the United Way that funnel money to other nonprofits, said Mina. Meanwhile, the business landscape has changed dramatically through mergers and consolidations, especially in the financial-services sector, and with many small, family businesses simply disappearing from the landscape.

Also, some major corporations have created their own charitable foundations or giving arms, as was the case with MassMutual in Springfield, which had long been one of the primary supporters of the United Way of Pioneer Valley, he said, noting that all these factors have contributed to making the organization itself much smaller — as well as the level of donations it makes annually. Indeed, while this was a $5 million United Way years ago, in terms of total donations, it is now closer to $2 million.

It was these challenges that prompted the UWPV board to explore a number of options when it came to creating efficiencies and reducing the cost of doing business, for lack of a better phrase, while still carrying out its mission. One of those options was a partnership with the United Way of Tri County whereby that agency would share an administrator and also handle backroom operations — bookkeeping, marketing, and others — for this region’s United Way for a percentage of the funds raised during its annual campaign.

The partnership, which came after several years of unsettledness at the UWPV, one that included two CEOs and two interim CEOs between 2016 and 2018, has brought what the board desired most — stability and continued autonomy.

Those qualities have been needed during a pandemic that has further tested the agency, forcing staff to work remotely for a lengthy stretch because its services were not deemed essential, and further impacting its ability to raise money because of the way it has impacted businesses and families alike.

Indeed, this 100th year for the UWPV has been very different, and also very challenging. Need within the communities has obviously increased, but raising funds to meet those needs has been made much more difficult during the pandemic, especially when it comes to the United Way’s time-honored, preferred method of soliciting donations — via payroll deduction.

“Many of the [annual] campaigns are going to be hurting this year because companies are not going back to work in the time frame we need them to,” Mina said earlier this year. “You can’t ask for people to make contributions through payroll deduction if they’re working, and it’s very hard to ask people for support when they themselves are hurting for the first time maybe in many years.

“We’ve found that a very significant number of people in the hospitality industry, restaurants, and food and beverage operations are only a shadow of what they once were,” he went on. “And some of them are never going to recover; a lot of support isn’t there.”

Yet, amid these challenges, the UWPV has found new and different ways to meet its mission during this difficult year, and new and different ways to remind people of the importance of its basic mission.

Through efforts ranging from the food-distribution efforts to the Halloween gathering, the agency was able to meet growing need within the community and address the many ways in which the pandemic impacted day-to-day living and overall quality of life.

Mina was especially proud of Project Toybox.

“It was a wonderful thing,” he said of that initiative. “A lot of the kids that live in the urban area don’t have a backyard, they couldn’t go to the park, they weren’t allowed to congregate … so we figured this was a great opportunity to give them something they could do indoors.”

All this came on top of the annual Stuff the Bus program, which, as that name suggests, fills a school bus each August with age-appropriate backpacks with all the school supplies kids need.

This year, the agency filled 2,600 such backpacks, but in this era of COVID, the exercise was quite bit a different than it has been in previous years.

“It was difficult to come by this stuff because it’s usually donated by the public,” said Mina. “People come to Six Flags, and they get a free roller-coaster ride when they bring items for the backbacks. There’s also a huge collection point at the Holyoke Mall. All those things were not allowed this year.”

So the agency relied instead on a large donation from the MassMutual Foundation as well as some money from the COVID-19 Relief Fund to purchase the needed items at a discounted price.

Overall, these various efforts have been a continuation of that golden thread Mina mentioned earlier, a concerted effort to enable individual donors to collectively make a huge difference in the lives of countless people.

“It’s about empowering the masses to do things that they can’t do alone,” said Mina in summing it all up. “That’s why payroll deduction, which has been the hallmark of the United Way since its inception, is so important. It allows people who don’t have money in the bank, who aren’t necessarily individuals of high net worth, to be able to take a little money out of their paycheck every week, so, at the end of the year, they might have a $52 donation. That $52 donation, added together with the other folks at their company who do the same thing and give a dollar a week, ends up being an enormous amount of money. But they could never do that on their own if they had to give a lump sum.”

 

Finding a Way

Looking to the future, though, payroll deduction is becoming a less-effective way to raise money, for those reasons mentioned earlier, he said. Meanwhile, instead of channeling funds to other agencies, the United Way will be looking to provide more direct services to the residents of this region.

“We just finished a needs assessment, and 90% of the respondents were donors, and of those 90%, 82% thought that the model we had of funding agencies to do good work, to be a middleman of sorts, was not a model that is modern; it’s not a model that they’re willing to continue to support at the levels that they have in the past.

“They want to know that their contribution is directly impacting things,” he went on. “So we looked at the areas that these donors were identifying as gaps, and we put that together with some intelligence work we did on our own, plus what other agencies were telling us, and we identified three huge gaps that we’re going to fill: food insecurity, continuation and expansion of the call-to-talk and Mass 211 lines, and youth-development programs.

“These are our core areas,” he explained. “The survey only reinforced what we already knew — that our niche is basic human needs and helping people improve their quality of life.”

Looking ahead to 2021, Mina said it will be a milestone year for the United Way, and the occasion will be marked in a number of ways.

But for many of the region’s residents, there won’t be much to celebrate. Indeed, while 2020 was the roughest year in memory for many, the coming months are projected to be in some ways even worse as those basic human needs he mentioned continue to mount, healthcare issues multiply because of the many effects of the pandemic, and resources become more scarce.

“There’s going to be a major shortfall in resources in the next year because COVID is having devastating effects on our economy as well as our health,” he said. “But we’ll figure out a way to deal with it; we’ll figure out a way to continue doing our job. We’ve faced tough times before — we’ve faced World War I, World War II, the Korean conflict, Vietnam, the ’60s … we’ve been there through all these things, and we’ll be there through this, too.”

Figuring out a way and doing its job. This is what the United Way of Pioneer Valley has been doing for a century now. And as its second century starts, this track record of success is certainly worth celebrating.

 

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

Law Special Coverage

Ringing Out the Old

By Amy B. Royal, Esq.

Most of us are happy to leave 2020 behind.

It was a year wrought with struggles both at home and in the workplace. Many companies faced closures, near-closures, reduced capacities, and reduced business all because of the impact of the COVID-19 global pandemic. Companies were also hit with several new, COVID-related laws, such as paid emergency leaves of absence, furthering the burdens they were facing during an already-difficult time.

It isn’t surprising that we are ready to ring in and embrace this new year. And, with the new year here, v is a good time to shift gears, reboot and regroup, and return to building better business practices. With that said, the new year provides an opportunity to proactively take a look at your company’s current employment-law practices to ensure compliance with the myriad evolving employment laws affecting your company.

 

Paid Family and Medical Leave and Minimum Wage

Two noteworthy laws take effect in Massachusetts this January: the Paid Family and Medical Leave (PFML) law and the revised minimum-wage law.

PFML law takes effect in the Bay State this January. While employer obligations under PFML commenced on Oct. 1, 2019, as of Jan. 1, 2021, employees can begin to apply for and receive paid leave for most medical and family leaves of absence. The remaining leave provisions will take effect on July 1, 2021. Under PFML, employees can take paid leaves for their own serious health condition, to bond with a newborn child, to bond with a child after adoption or foster-care placement, to care for a family member with a serious health condition, or to manage family affairs when a family member is on active duty in the armed forces.

All private Massachusetts employers are covered under the law regardless of their size. Leave entitlements range from 12 weeks to 26 weeks depending on the type of leave needed, and employees can take leave intermittently, if medically necessary, for medical leave for an employee’s own serious health condition or take family leave to care for a covered service member or to care for a family member with a serious health condition.

Amy B. Royal

Amy B. Royal

“With the new year here, it is a good time to shift gears, reboot and regroup, and return to building better business practice.”

Intermittent leave cannot be used to bond with a child. PFML and federal FMLA run concurrently. The same is true for the Massachusetts Parental Leave Act. Employees can choose to use but may not be required to use other forms of paid time off. PFML provides job protection and restoration rights akin to the federal FMLA. Employers are required to restore employees who take leave to their previous position, or to an equivalent position, with the same status, pay, benefits, length-of-service credit, and seniority as of the date of leave.

On Jan. 1, 2021, the Massachusetts minimum wage increased from $12.75 to $13.50 per hour. The service rate also increased from $4.95 to $5.55 per hour. Premium pay for Sunday retailer workers decreased. The next step in our minimum-wage rise is to $15 per hou, slated to take effect in 2023.

 

Proactive Employment Steps

The new year can serve as a good reminder and placeholder for reviewing and auditing your employment practices. Doing so will enable you to be strategic about that piece of your business and move toward creating a detailed and updated personnel plan going forward.

A good plan starts with an annual review of employment policies and manuals, written job descriptions, and employee-training programs to ensure that your company is compliant with state and federal laws and that your employees are properly trained in your processes and procedures.

Well-crafted employment policies are important because they communicate expectations to employees and help insulate your company from certain legal liabilities. When crafting employment policies, know that certain ones are legally required, while others are good business practice. Depending on your company’s size, required employment policies may include anti-discrimination, anti-harassment, parental leave, paid family and medical leave, and sick time. The implementation of other policies may be a good idea, such as codes of conduct, discipline and termination, workplace safety, off-duty conduct and the use of social media, drug and alcohol use and testing, use of cell phones, and use of company computer equipment and other electronic resources.

Written job descriptions are also a good practice. While not legally mandated, they can be a good tool to assess and evaluate prospective and current employees and also can reduce your company’s exposure to certain lawsuits. Accurate job descriptions that set forth the essential functions of a position can minimize liability when your company is faced with either internal requests for accommodations or external disability claims. Providing an accurate job description to an employee’s medical provider can also help determine whether an employee can perform their job with or without an accommodation or qualify for a leave of absence.

Another good business practice is employee training. Training managers and supervisors is especially important. Indeed, such trainings can help them understand company policies and their roles and responsibilities under these policies. Particularly important trainings for managers include anti-discrimination and anti-harassment, employee disabilities and recognizing requests for reasonable accommodations, and effective employee discipline and documentation.

Many employment issues that eventually evolve into litigation stem from actions or inactions of managers or supervisors. Employers should regularly conduct trainings to give these key employees the knowledge and skills required to enable them to properly handle situations as they arise.

The cost of defending expensive litigation far exceeds the investment in taking proactive, preventive steps to reduce the risk of litigation. Therefore, employers should consider conducting an internal audit at the beginning of each and every new year.

 

Amy B. Royal, Esq. is a litigation attorney who specializes in labor and employment law matters at the Royal Law Firm LLP, a woman-owned, women-managed corporate law firm that is certified as a women’s business enterprise with the Massachusetts Supplier Diversity Office, the National Assoc. of Minority and Women Owned Law Firms, and the Women’s Business Enterprise National Council; (413) 586-2288; [email protected]

Special Coverage Women in Businesss

A Matter of Self-worth

When Jessi Kirley took the reins at the Family Business Center in 2018, she was looking for a new challenge — and some meaning.

“I had a major what-matters-most moment,” she said. “I had just lost my dad to cancer, my own health was suffering, I’d been working in the medical field for 20 years, and I was facing burnout and overperformance. When my dad died, I ended up quitting my job — what mattered most was reconnecting to my health and wellness.”

The FBC, known for its dinner forums, morning workshops, peer-advisory groups, custom consulting, and other programs cultivated under the long-time leadership of Ira Bryck, proved a gratifying role, but it — like so many companies and organizations across the U.S. — became a financial victim of COVID-19 and closed its doors last spring.

“That was another moment when I asked myself, ‘what really matters?’” Kirley said. “Here I am again, two years later, during a massive global pandemic that has caused so much loss and disruption, and I’m including myself there — I was again on unemployment, facing my own fears and insecurities.”

As the single mother of three teens, she felt pressure to provide stability to her household, but she also loved working. “It was a lot of figuring things out, like so many of us needed to do. And what I noticed was that I felt compelled to go back to my roots of helping people.”

Seven months later, the result of those ideas became JKirley Collective, which offers personal- and professional-development courses, beginning with its first track, the “Dignity Series,” and the pilot program in that track, “Dignity in Conversation,” which includes a virtual workshop on Jan. 19 and a follow-up virtual peer-group session on Jan. 26.

As she explained, JKirley Collective collaborates with others who share the mission of helping people unlock their potential to build the lives they want through transformative action. As the pandemic wore on, she said, “I found myself asking what really matters — to me, and to this world. I started a business to pursue my passion of helping people unlock their potential, to craft the lives they want.”

It’s quite a detour from when she studied biology at Smith College with a goal of one day curing cancer.

“I was very ambitious,” she said. “But I always came back to that anchor within myself, wanting to help people. With COVID and the loss of jobs and just moving through this workforce disruption and transformation, how can I help people navigate that? What skills do I have? That’s what brought me to offer my Dignity Series programs.”

 

Three Pillars

Although ‘dignity’ is the theme of the collective’s first series of courses, it’s also the foundational concept of the business itself, Kirley explained.

From that foundation rise three pillars. “The first is dignity as defined by self-worth, something that’s inherent, that we bring with us all the time. The second pillar is the embodiment of this connection to our self-worth; there’s a difference between simply understanding dignity and bringing it into the body and seeing it as a platform for growth and a way to increase confidence and ward off self-doubt. That’s the embodiment piece.”

The third pillar is about action. “We’ve dived into concepts of self-worth and our dignity and really worked on ways to embody that and practice that. So, how do we connect to our agency, our actions, our free choice? And the choice, in this case, maybe, is to move through these disruptions to make a better life for ourselves, or to be more generous, or to step into a new role.”

Many individuals these days are certainly doing the latter. “In this time of change, we’re stepping into new responsibilities, with massive amounts of uncertainty — and what does that feel like? Maybe we’re unsure of ourselves, not confident, doubting our own abilities, questioning our success. And that can derail our ability to reach our goals and move to the other side.”

Getting back to the collaborative concept at the heart of her new enterprise, Kirley credits Andrea Bordenca, who is helping her design and develop the Dignity Series, with being a sounding board as she built the business.

“Considering her valuable experience, it gave me a kind of safety net,” she said of Bordenca, who is CEO of both the Institute for Generative Leadership and DESCO Service, as well as the founder of Lead Yourself Youth. “Taking a chance to start a business — the visioning, the planning — is a very vulnerable experience, and it can be scary. Having a safety net in Andrea allowed me to reach higher.”

Jessi Kirley

Jessi Kirley

“Here I am again, two years later, during a massive global pandemic that has caused so much loss and disruption, and I’m including myself there — I was again on unemployment, facing my own fears and insecurities.”

Another early collaborator is Amy Jamrog, a financial advisor and founding partner of the Jamrog Group, who is helping Kirley develop a second track of courses, called Claim Your Worth, which will incorporate concepts of self-worth and dignity into practical lessons on financial empowerment. That program’s first course will launch on Feb. 10.

The individual classes are collaborations as well; offerings in the Dignity Series will include Kelly Vogel, owner of Sound Passage, who helps her clients discover the power of their voice; and Dr. Tom Naro, a physical therapist and owner of My PT.

Naro actually approached Kirley, she said, because he felt her concepts could help his clients reach their physical-therapy goals. “Sometimes they struggle with self-doubt, questioning their self-worth, think they don’t deserve to feel good and look good — all those negative thoughts,” she explained.

Each class will feature a workshop followed by a peer-group session a week later, so participants can be introduced to theories and then unpack them in a deeper way, talk about their own personal struggles, and develop strategies for action. While the classes are held virtually now, Kirley sees a role in the future for a hybrid model, even after folks are able to gather in groups again, because it opens her programs up to a wider geographic area.

And, while most participants will likely be women, JKirley Collective welcomes everyone. “Honestly, who doesn’t need this kind of work?” she said. “We know from consumer behavior that women tend to sign up for self-help, self-improvement, but that doesn’t mean it’s not beneficial for everyone.”

She also sees many different applications of these courses, from employee-assistance programs to management team building, to an individual preparing to join a nonprofit board or take on a new leadership role in the community. “The theme is, when we step into something new, by force or by choice, we can doubt ourselves. We want to help people be successful in whatever change they’re going for.”

Currently a business advisor for the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center, Kirley has been committed to serving the community in various capacities for more than 20 years. “I had the fortunate opportunity to go through a Foundations course with the Institute for Generative Leadership,” she said, “which helped me clarify my offering and build a collaboration model for my business.”

 

Bump in the Road

However, she ran into a discouraging roadblock right off the bat. She initially planned to launch in the fall and call her enterprise DignityWorks — a name that, despite her research, proved to be a problem.

“A business owner in the UK contacted me who had been using DignityWorks for many years, and I faced the threat of litigation,” she recently wrote in her blog. “I halted all program promotion, postponed the pilot to January 2021, and resigned to go back to square one for brand name and design. It felt like a devastating loss of time, money, and momentum. This breakdown opened the door for all of my dignity threats to come knockin’!”

Specifically, all the ‘I’m not worthy’ stories she helps clients deal with flooded her own head and wracked her body with anxiety, thoughts like “I should have known how to avoid this setback,” “this business will never be ‘real’ or earn me a living,” “I am letting everyone down, and no one will trust me after this,” and “I look like a fool, and who am I to start my own business?”

She had to put her own advice into practice — to stay calm, actively move away from anxiety and toward dignity, and take “many deep breaths” — before having a productive Zoom meeting with the business owner across the pond, and then going about changing her business name.

Through the whole experience, “I had to walk the talk of my own worth,” she told BusinessWest. “That was pretty cool.”

By the way, she loves the new brand name, especially its focus on the word ‘collective.’ “Who am I as a person? What are my values? I love connecting people, and I love working collaboratively. When I started to think about my values, it was important that collaboration was the driving force in starting this business.”

So, a new year begins on a more positive note. “Having endured 2020, we’re trying to start 2021 by finding ways to invest in self, grow positively, and have better wellness,” Kirley said — and, above all, do it together.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

As the world looks to generate energy from different sources and reduce waste, a new facility just opened in Agawam that contributes to both efforts.

What looks like a plain green building on Main Street is actually a plant that converts food waste into natural gas and fertilizer. Vanguard Renewables, based in Wellesley, approached Agawam Mayor William Sapelli about locating an organics-recovery facility in Agawam. After addressing some initial concerns about truck traffic and potential odor from the plant, the town gave the go-ahead.

“Because Agawam is a designated green community, it’s important for us to bring in facilities like this,” Sapelli said, noting that this is only the second plant of its type in Massachusetts.

Here’s how it works. Let’s say the nearby Hood dairy plant has a pallet of yogurt that does not meet specifications or has expired. Hood can bring that pallet to the Agawam facility, where large extracting machines separate the packaging from the yogurt. The packaging gets bundled and brought to a recycling facility, while the yogurt is mixed with other food waste and water. This forms a slurry, which is then delivered by tanker truck to an anerobic digester, a large, dome-shaped structure. (The closest digesters to Agawam are located on farms in Deerfield and Hadley.)

The slurry is mixed with farm-animal waste in the digester, where two things happen. First, biogas rises from the mix and gets converted to renewable natural gas for heating and cooling. Then, the remains of the slurry, known as digestate, are used as low-carbon fertilizer for area farmers.

“In the past, all this waste was incinerated or dumped into a landfill, but now it’s being turned into energy and fertilizer,” Sapelli said, calling the process “amazing.” As the Agawam facility ramps up to full capacity, it will be able to process 250 tons of food waste per day, according to Vanguard.

Mayor William Sapelli

Mayor William Sapelli

“Because Agawam is a designated green community, it’s important for us to bring in facilities like this.”

That’s just one project that has Agawam officials excited as they move past a challenging 2020 for all municipalities. While the pandemic is still a daily reality, they say this town is focused on growth as a new year dawns.

 

Bridge to Tomorrow

For the past couple of years, the largest infrastructure project in Agawam has been the rebuilding of the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge connecting Agawam and West Springfield. The original completion date was scheduled for May 2022. After Sapelli met with Lt. Gov. Karyn Polito to incentivize the project contractor, Northern Construction, to work overtime and weekends to shorten the deadline, the date was moved to August 2021.

Once the pandemic hit and fewer people were out and about, bridge construction accelerated further. Favorable weather, as well as lighter traffic from both vehicles and pedestrians, allowed crews to get more done every day. Then, the Big E canceled its 2020 fair.

“By contract, the crews had to stop work during the Big E,” Sapelli said. “When the fair was canceled this fall, it gave them an extra 17 days to work on the bridge.” While noting that he is not putting pressure on the construction crews, he predicted the bridge may now be completed by June 2021.

The mayor is also pleased that many of the headaches and traffic jams that usually occur with a major construction project have not materialized. “It’s been a great project,” he said. “You don’t hear a mayor say that very often.”

Like every community, Agawam has had to deal with COVID-19. In fact, the mayor himself had a false alarm after testing positive on a quick test. After going into self-quarantine for several days and not experiencing any symptoms, he took a PCR test (referred to as the ‘gold standard’ of COVID testing), which revealed he had never been infected with coronavirus.

the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge project may now be done by June

With the pandemic reducing traffic and accelerating the pace of work last year, the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge project may now be done by June.

“I asked if I was asymptomatic or if I’d had it a week before, and the answer to both was, ‘no, it was a false positive,’” he said.

While state mandates have limited public access to Town Hall, Sapelli explained that, even if it were open to the public, the building’s layout just doesn’t work well with COVID-19 mandates.

“For example, the public area in the Collector of Taxes office measures about five feet by eight feet,” Sapelli said. “With social distancing, that means no more than one person can stand there; anyone else would have to wait in the hall, which is also cramped.”

Still, with an emphasis on safety first, Sapelli said Town Hall is open for business for anyone who calls ahead for an appointment.

In order to reduce COVID-19 risks and still encourage in-person education, Agawam’s public schools have adopted a hybrid model. Students whose last names begin with the letters A-K attend class on Monday and Tuesday, while those with L-Z last names attend Thursday and Friday. On the three days they are not scheduled in person, students attend class remotely.

The Department of Health and the superintendent of schools are employing the hybrid model as long as COVID-19 cases within the education community remain low compared to the community as a whole. As a former Agawam school superintendent, Sapelli supports this direction.

“The hybrid approach has been working for Agawam. First, we’re making sure everyone is safe so we can get our students in front of teachers,” he said, adding that parents who are uncomfortable with the hybrid model may choose remote learning full-time.

Bars and restaurants everywhere have greatly suffered during the pandemic from mandated closings, limited seating, and other restrictions. To support those businesses in Agawam, the City Council and the mayor have co-sponsored a resolution to waive the $1,500 liquor-license fee in 2021 for all bars, restaurants, and banquet halls.

“We recognize they’ve lost a lot of revenue and have not been able to host the types of events and gatherings they normally do,” Sapelli said. “Waiving the fee is one thing we can do during the pandemic to help local businesses in these tough times.”

Agawam at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1636
Population: 28,718
Area: 24.2 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $16.83
Commercial Tax Rate: $31.61
Median Household Income: $49,390
Family Household Income: $59,088
Type of government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: OMG Inc., Agawam Public Schools, Six Flags New England, Whalley Computer Associates
* Latest information available

The fee waiver is just one of the ways the City Council and the mayor are working together to help local businesses, he added. “We are business-friendly. When a new business wants to locate in Agawam, we try to expedite the permitting process by having a team meeting that includes everyone from our fire and police departments to the health inspectors and building inspectors. They all meet together with the business owner, so it becomes one-stop shopping.”

 

House Calls

That cooperative attitude makes life easier for Marc Strange, director of Planning and Community Development in Agawam, who told BusinessWest about several projects in the area of South Westfield Street in the Feeding Hills section of town. One of the most anticipated projects is the Villas at Pine Crossing, an over-55 community that will add 44 units of senior housing to the market.

“Our office frequently gets calls from residents who are looking to downsize, but they want to stay in Agawam,” Strange said. “The designs at the Villas are more friendly for an aging population, something that is desperately needed in Agawam and everywhere else.”

He said he’s grateful the developer chose Agawam for the Villas, and welcomes similar projects. “We’re hoping this will trigger future developments for 55-plus communities in Agawam.”

The land parcel that was once the Tuckahoe Turf Farm sits adjacent to the Villas at Pine Crossing. After years of considering new uses for the property, Agawam officials are now looking at a solar-energy installation for part of the site. “The revenue from the solar field will allow us to develop the rest of the property for recreational uses, such as walking trails and such,” Sapelli said.

Agawam also completed a project in 2020 to convert all its streetlights to LED fixtures, which emit brighter light but also help the city reap potential savings of $220,000 every year. “Agawam is looking to save about $100,000 per year in energy costs and nearly $120,000 per year in streetlight maintenance,” Strange said.

During construction of the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge, crews are using two desirable land parcels to stage and store equipment. Once the bridge is complete, those two parcels will be available for development as well.

“To be clear, as exciting as it is to market prime commercial sites, the new bridge will have an impact on the town that goes well beyond those two parcels,” Strange said.

All of which promises a brighter future for Agawam — literally and figuratively.

Law

A Question of Mandates

By Timothy F. Murphy

 

Employers have a key role to play in ensuring the successful rollout of COVID-19 vaccines and that people are safe at work. Many employers may wish to adopt vaccine mandates, especially if their employees work in close contact with others. But before doing so, employers need to consider a number of things.

 

Can Employers Require Vaccinations?

Yes. Non-union employers can unilaterally require employee vaccinations because employment relationships are ‘at will,’ and they have a legal duty to provide a safe and healthy workplace. Many employers already require workers to get inoculated against certain infectious diseases.

 

Can Employees Object to Vaccine Mandates?

Yes. Anti-discrimination laws provide disabled and religious employees with legal protections from vaccine mandates. Employers that require employees to receive the COVID-19 vaccine must meet certain requirements under those laws.

Timothy F. Murphy

Timothy F. Murphy

“Non-union employers can unilaterally require employee vaccinations because employment relationships are ‘at will,’ and they have a legal duty to provide a safe and healthy workplace.”

A worker with a covered disability may seek an exemption from a vaccine mandate. For instance, medical advice to avoid a vaccine due to an employee’s underlying health condition may legally justify a vaccine refusal. In such situations, the employer must explore whether an exemption is a reasonable accommodation given the disability and job duties — so long as it isn’t an undue burden for the employer. Accommodations — like telework or working in isolation from co-workers — that would allow the unvaccinated employee to perform essential job functions would likely not be an undue burden.

According to recent guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, sincerely held religious beliefs may also justify a vaccine refusal. An employer must provide a reasonable accommodation “for the religious belief, practice, or observance” that prevents the worker from receiving the vaccine, unless that accommodation poses more than a “de minimis” cost or burden. Employers may seek verification of such beliefs only if they have an objective reason for doing so.

 

Government Vaccine Mandates Appear Unlikely for Now

A general state vaccine mandate does not appear to be in the cards anytime soon. On the federal level, President-elect Biden has signaled that he is not considering a vaccine mandate at this time. It also appears unlikely that the federal agency charged with workplace safety, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), would require employers to mandate a COVID-19 vaccine. In the past, OSHA has permitted employers to require employees to receive the flu vaccine.

 

Public-health Experts Warn Against Mandates for Now

Even if employers can legally mandate COVID-19 vaccinations, U.S. Surgeon General Jerome Adams recommends against it. “Right now, we are not recommending that anyone mandate a vaccine,” Adams said in a recent interview with Yahoo Finance, noting that Pfizer’s vaccine hasn’t been fully approved yet. According to Saad Omer, a vaccinologist and infectious-disease epidemiologist at Yale University, “mandates shouldn’t be the frontline policy option.”

 

Avoid the Backlash

A vaccine mandate could trigger employee-morale issues. Vaccine hesitancy is a concern across the country. One study revealed that more than one-third of Americans would refuse a COVID-19 vaccine if offered one. However, other data suggests that Americans’ willingness to take a COVID-19 vaccine has risen as data on the vaccines’ efficacy have emerged. Many people have said they are more comfortable waiting a few months to get the vaccine. Employers need to be sensitive to employee concerns if vaccination is mandated as soon as it becomes publicly available.

 

Reduce Potential Legal Liability

Employees injured by a mandated vaccine may bring legal claims for workers’ compensation, negligence, and OSHA violations. It is difficult to predict the success of such claims. The ability to argue that government recommendations were followed would go far in defending against them. Limiting a vaccine mandate to high-risk positions or workplaces may also reduce potential legal liability and employee backlash.

 

Wait and See Is the Way to Go

Most Massachusetts non-healthcare employers and their employees are not going to have access to any vaccines before the spring of 2021. So most employers can wait to decide to mandate vaccines simply because there won’t be vaccines immediately available.

In the meantime, employers should be prepared to provide reliable information; reinforce other steps to protect employees and the public, like continued screening, fitness-for-duty programs, and contract tracing; implement employee incentives for voluntary vaccinations; and consider mandatory rapid testing, as those products come to market, as an alternative to mandatory vaccination.

 

Timothy Murphy is a partner at Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C., focusing his practice on labor relations, union avoidance, collective bargaining and arbitration, employment litigation, and employment counseling.

Law

To Contest or Not to Contest?

Benjamin Coyle, Esq.

 

None of us want to think that, after we pass away, our loved ones may someday fight over an inheritance. But as we all know, family relationships are complex, and can be particularly so when finances are involved. Add in the grief of losing a loved one, and suddenly, relatives who have always gotten along well may find themselves at odds. Keeping peace in the family is often a vital consideration in estate planning.

One of the most important components of a person’s estate plan is the document that ultimately directs the final disposition of their property, both real and personal, upon their passing. In most circumstances, that document is either a last will and testament or a trust. A question that often arises during the drafting process is: “what can I do to make sure that no one fights over my estate?”

Benjamin Coyle

Benjamin Coyle

“Family relationships are complex, and can be particularly so when finances are involved. Add in the grief of losing a loved one, and suddenly, relatives who have always gotten along well may find themselves at odds. Keeping peace in the family is often a vital consideration in estate planning.”

While an attorney can never guarantee that heirs or beneficiaries will not fight, there are provisions that can be made to deter an interested person from contesting the terms of a will or trust. For wills, Massachusetts law recognizes a provision purporting to penalize an interested person for contesting the will or instituting other proceedings relating to the estate. For trusts, the courts in Massachusetts have upheld the enforceability of ‘no-contest’ (or ‘in terrorem’) clauses.

In 2012, Massachusetts adopted the Uniform Probate Code (UPC), a model code adopted by 18 states in order to standardize probate laws. However, in adopting the UPC, Massachusetts did not incorporate the model’s no-contest provision, which essentially allowed for challenges or contests where probable cause exists. Rather, Massachusetts determined that the Commonwealth would maintain its historic baseline regarding no-contest provisions, and, in doing so, the Legislature provided that such clauses are enforceable as a matter of law, subject to some limitations as determined by the court.

Generally speaking, a no-contest provision is a clause within a will or trust with specific language stating that any person who challenges the estate must then forfeit their share. One of the primary purposes of including such a provision is to deter an interested person from bringing a challenge against the estate.

Typically, if an interested person believes they are not receiving what they may consider to be their fair share of the estate, that perception can provoke a desire to fight the terms of the will or trust. Emotions tend to run particularly high if a sibling or family member may receive a larger portion, or if someone is left out of an estate altogether. These challenges are not often successful, so long as the creator of the will or trust complied with all statutory requirements, was not subject to undue influence or duress, and had the appropriate mental capacity to execute the document.

Occasionally, though, when an interested person is able to present evidence of duress or incapacity, a successful challenge to a will could result in the entire document being invalidated, which would naturally include the no-contest provision. If the no-contest provision is eliminated as a result of the challenge, the contesting party may then be eligible to receive a share of the estate or trust, depending upon the other circumstances at hand.

When administering any will or trust, whether a no-contest provision is included or not, the fiduciary in charge (that is, the trustee of a trust, or the personal representative under a will) must still comply with all the other terms of the document, and the fiduciary is still responsible to beneficiaries. They are required to account to the beneficiaries for the assets under their control, as this is a matter of public policy that the courts have determined cannot be avoided with a no-contest provision.

Typically, we might see no-contest provisions enforced within the discretion of the fiduciary, for frivolous matters involving the administration of the will or trust. Occasionally, a beneficiary may ask the court for an interpretation of the provisions of a will or trust, to make sure the fiduciary is complying with its terms. Provided they are not trying to challenge or change the provisions in the document, the court is unlikely to invoke the no-contest provision when a request for interpretation is made by an interested person.

If you are a beneficiary of a last will and testament or a trust, it is extremely important to review the document to see if it contains a no-contest provision. If it does, and if a challenger comes forward, the court is likely to uphold the no-contest clause, which could result in the forfeiture of an inheritance. One must carefully weigh the options and potential outcomes before asserting a challenge.

On the other hand, if you are preparing your own estate plan and are concerned that disagreements may erupt among beneficiaries, you may wish to consider including a no-contest provision in your documents. Keeping the family peace in the future is certainly worth spending some time and effort today.

 

Benjamin Coyle is a shareholder with Bacon Wilson, P.C. He specializes in matters of estate planning and administration and also has extensive experience with real estate, business, corporate, and municipal law; (413) 781-0560; [email protected]

Women in Businesss

Undervalued Again

By Alex Thornton

The COVID-19 pandemic, and the economic downturn it has caused, have hit everyone hard. But the impact has not been spread equally. A new report by UN Women has found clear evidence that, although both genders have seen their unpaid workloads increase, women are bearing more of the burden than men.

Even before the pandemic, women were spending on average three times as many hours as men on domestic chores, childcare, and looking after vulnerable or elderly loved ones. Widespread restrictions on daily life, school closures, disruption to businesses, and a big rise in working from home have made many tasks more time-consuming and arduous. And more women than men have reported an increase in their workload in almost every aspect of domestic life.

The data also shows more men saying they usually don’t do a particular task. The average woman now spends nearly the equivalent of a full-time job doing unpaid childcare — a full working day a week more than the average man. Nearly one-third of women report spending more time cooking and serving meals, compared to just under one-fifth of men. Half of all men say they don’t normally get involved in preparing food at all.

A similar picture emerges when looking at childcare. Research for UN Women carried out by Ipsos in 16 countries showed that, before the pandemic, women spent an average of 26 hours per week looking after children, compared to 20 hours a week for men. That has now risen by 5.2 hours for women, and just 3.5 hours for men. As a result, the average mother now spends nearly the equivalent of a full-time job doing unpaid childcare — a full working day a week more than the average father.

There are big regional differences. Although every nation surveyed showed a rise, the effects were most pronounced in less affluent countries in Latin America, Asia, and Africa, compared to wealthier countries.

The pandemic has reaffirmed the persistence of gender bias in social and cultural norms. All but a small fraction of men acknowledge that their wives or partners are doing more around the house, while just two-thirds of women say the same of their husbands or partners. Perhaps more concerning for gender equality in the future is that parents are more likely to notice their daughters doing more to help than their sons.

The overall effect is that the gradual progress toward gender equality seen in recent decades could not only stall, but be reversed.

Already, more than 28 million women over age 25 are estimated to have left the labor market altogether in 55 high- and middle-income countries over the last year, compared to 24 million men. Given that women were already less likely to be in the workforce, this represents a serious threat to the economic status of huge numbers of women. On a global scale, it’s thought that the pandemic will push a further 47 million women and girls into extreme poverty by 2021.

Despite the clear evidence that women are disproportionately suffering economically from the effects of the pandemic, the vast majority of measures that have been enacted by policymakers do little to address the increased burden on women.

However, there are some notable exceptions: increases in monthly child allowance payments in places like Argentina, expanding paid parental-leave programs in Italy and Belgium, and compensating parents affected by closures, as in Germany and South Korea.

Perhaps the biggest step would be simply recognizing the value of the unpaid domestic and caring work done by women, pandemic or not. The 16 billion hours spent on unpaid caring every day would represent nearly 10% of the world’s entire economic output if it was paid at a fair rate. Women were grossly undervalued before the pandemic — now the situation is getting even worse.

 

Alex Thornton is senior writer, Formative Content for the World Economic Forum.

Economic Outlook

The Big Picture

Bob Nakosteen has an old saying hanging in a frame in his office at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst — the one he hasn’t been in but once since last March.

It reads: “You Can See the Future by Looking at the Past.”

Nakosteen, a professor of Economics at Isenberg, said he’s lived by those words, especially at this time of year, when he’s asked to try to forecast what might come over the next 12 months.

Only this time, that saying doesn’t hold. Indeed, while people tend to throw that word ‘unprecedented’ into the mix early, often, and sometimes when it doesn’t actually apply, one could certainly use it with regard to COVID-19, the economy, and any efforts to look into the crystal ball and make some projections.

“In virtually every situation I’ve been in before, you can pick out an historical situation that came close and give some perspective on what might happen next,” he said. “Now, you can’t at all. Even 1919 and the last global pandemic was different; there was lingering demand from World War I, and a lot of global agriculture had been shut down. That really bolstered United States agriculture; we were still predominantly an agricultural country. There were some circumstances that we can’t duplicate now.”

So if people can’t look to the past to project what will happen in 2021, how can they handle that assignment?

“Not very easily,” said Nakosteen, who noted there are always question marks going into a new year. This year, they come by the bushel bag, and cover everything from vaccines — how effective they’ll be and when they’ll be widely available — to overall consumer confidence, always a huge issue in determining which way the arrow will point; from the election of a new president to what’s happening in other countries, especially with regard to the pandemic; from the employment scene (specifically, how many of those millions of lost jobs will actually come back) to whether, and to what degree, Congress keeps printing money and dispensing it to those in distress.

Bob Nakosteen

Bob Nakosteen

With these vaccines coming online, once people get them, and they have confidence that other people have done the same thing, then you’ll likely see a pretty robust recovery, starting slowly and then accelerating. But, then again, we’re in completely uncharted territory.”

Add it all up, and there is simply too much uncertainty to make any real projections, said Nakosteen, adding that, while the country may well avoid another recession, or the dreaded ‘double-dip recession,’ as it’s called, the eventual shape of the recovery — which has been the subject of endless conjecture, with possibilities ranging from a V to a U to something like a Nike swoosh — is still be to determined. Obviously.

“What we could have is a W-shaped recovery,” said Nakosteen, offering another possibility, noting that, in this scenario, the economy would move back down again, hopefully not as bad as it did when it cratered last March, but eventually climb back up.

“With these vaccines coming online, once people get them, and they have confidence that other people have done the same thing, then you’ll likely see a pretty robust recovery, starting slowly and then accelerating,” he told BusinessWest, adding that the bounce-back might also take the more dramatic Nike swoosh shape. “But, then again, we’re in completely uncharted territory.”

When asked about the factors that will dictate the eventual shape of the recovery, Nakosteen said there are almost too many to count. They include:

• How much more stimulus money will be injected into the economy. Like most, Nakosteen said the recent $900 billion package approved by Congress will help, but it won’t be enough. When asked if the federal government could keep on printing money, in essence, he said he didn’t see why it couldn’t. “One of the things that happens during an economic crisis is that the government will provide temporary support until the economy heals itself. This is not permanent; this is temporary, and it’s a bridge to the future. And right now, we need a bridge.”

• The election of a new president. “That generally seems to perk things up — there’s generally a first-administration bounce — but in these unprecedented times, who knows?”

• To what extent new habits might become permanent. These include everything from not dining out or traveling to doing most shopping online, to working remotely. “I would like to get back to going out more, but my guess is that my life has changed, and we’ll never really go back to the way it was before the pandemic.”

• How many of the jobs that have been lost are regained. Employment is always a key to any recovery, and there is conjecture that many jobs will be lost permanently due in part to those changes in behavior; and

• Whether this region can somehow benefit from these changes in behavior and attitude. Some have suggested that, now that people can successfully work remotely, they may choose to do so in a setting like Western Mass., which provides space and a lower cost of living than Boston or other major cities.

While making hard projections is difficult, Nakosteen said he could offer what he considers to be a best-case scenario:

“By early summer, enough of the country is vaccinated and enough of the state is vaccinated, and, almost as importantly, people have confidence in the vaccine and the percentage of the population that’s been vaccinated, and then you see people start to re-engage. The industries that have been hurt have all been face-to-face industries — accommodations, retail, other services, the arts, and recreation. These face-to-face services start to bounce back quickly because people have a great hunger to get back out. If things go well, you’re going to see them get back out in the summer, and that’s when you’ll start to see the beginning of a serious rebound.”

Again, that’s the best-case scenario.

The worst case? An insufficient percentage of the population receives the vaccine, supply-chain issues “gum things out,” news of new strains of the virus spreads fear, people lose confidence in a recovery, and things drag on into the fall and perhaps longer, he said, adding, again, that myriad factors will determine which scenario — possibly one in between those two — becomes reality.

Summing things up, Nakosteen noted that, in some respects, we know what’s coming next — the administering of vaccines to millions of people over the next several months. What we don’t know is how all that is going to play out.

As he said, normally you can look to the past to see the future. But not in this case.

 

Economic Outlook

Education

Jamie Birge was searching for a piece of wood to knock on.

Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA), which he serves as president, had essentially made it through a very different fall semester with only a handful of positive cases of COVID-19. He considers this a victory for his institution, and a clear indication that the many protocols put in place were effective.

“For the full semester, our positive rate was 10 times lower than the Commonwealth’s positive rate, and each week we outperformed our host city [North Adams], the county, and the Commonwealth,” he explained. “We were actively hunting the virus through our testing protocol, and through our tracing protocol, we made sure there was no spread. I think we had six cases, and in each of those cases, none of them spread on campus, because we were able to identify the virus through testing, we were able to either quarantine or isolate individuals, and we went to remote learning after Thanksgiving, which turned out to the best time to do that because there was an uptick in positive cases in Berkshire County, and our students were already off campus learning remotely. From a numbers perspective, we did extraordinarily well.”

The semester was a success on many levels, he went on, but for the students living on campus in singles or in off-campus housing, it certainly wasn’t the “typical residential college experience,” he noted, adding that those on campus were all in single rooms, and access was limited between residence halls. “You couldn’t go visit other people.”

Jamie Birge

Jamie Birge

“Even in the era of online and remote learning, students still want to be on campus; they want that traditional experience.”

Focusing on the future, Birge is obviously looking forward to the day when the school can again offer that full experience. He’s not sure when that will happen — certainly not before next fall and perhaps not even then — but there are signs of encouragement, he said, referring to everything from the introduction of vaccines to the projections for enrollment for next September.

“The latest I’ve seen for the 2021 cycle is that we’re within 3% of the pre-pandemic numbers, so we’re feeling good about that,” he said, noting that, by this time of the year, many students have already committed to where they will be attending school in the fall, although the next four or five weeks are critical. “I think that’s a soft figure, and, overall, we think this is going to be a multi-year emergence to return to where we had been. But I’m encouraged by the fact that we’re only off 3%.”

He said that number seems to be consistent with what the other eight state schools are reporting, although there is some variation. And time will tell if those numbers hold up as the vaccines are rolled out and their effectiveness is gauged.

Meanwhile, beyond the all-important process of rebuilding enrollment, colleges and universities will face other challenges, said Yves Salomon-Fernández, president of Greenfield Community College (GCC), especially the need to “adjust, adapt, and evolve,” as she put it, to effectively prepare students for what will be a changed landscape when it comes to the workforce and how work is done.

“For next year, we have to very intentional about our learning because the world we’ll be returning to, post-COVID — and with the vaccines, which will be a game-changer — is going to different from the one we had become accustomed to before COVID,” she explained. “We know that there are a number of jobs that won’t be returning.”

Elaborating, she said GCC will lean heavily on a panel it created called the Future of Work Advisory Committee, comprised of area business leaders across several sectors, including healthcare, hospitality, financial services, manufacturing, and others.

“They help us keep a pulse on what’s changing, what they anticipate, and what the outlook is, so we can align our new academic programs, and also adjust our existing programs to meet their demands,” she noted. “Also, it will be critically important for us to get a sense of what the workplace will look like and the skills that employers will be looking for.”

In this respect, she said colleges and universities, at least those with an eye on the long term, will be taking lessons from evolved companies that looked at the marketplace and how it was changing and began to adjust accordingly.

“These companies started asking themselves, ‘what are the market needs today that we can adapt to and meet — and what will be the unmet needs in the future, and how can we best position ourselves to meet them?’” she explained, adding that colleges have to do the same.

As for enrollment, the lifeblood of any college or university, area schools have been battling not only the pandemic, but demographics in the form of smaller high-school graduating classes. The two forces collided with considerable force this past September, with enrollment down as much as 20% at some area schools (that was the number at MCLA) and 15% at most of the institutions, with many high-school graduates taking a gap year and many already in college simply taking a break.

The question hanging over the industry involves that matter of pent-up demand and whether there will be good amount of it when the product is a college education.

Yves Salomon-Fernández

Yves Salomon-Fernández

“For next year, we have to very intentional about our learning because the world we’ll be returning to, post-COVID — and with the vaccines, which will be a game-changer — is going to different from the one we had become accustomed to before COVID.”

Birge believes there will be such demand, although, as he said, it might be the fall of 2022 or 2023 before pre-pandemic levels return.

“From the information we collect from students, the students want to return to campus,” he told BusinessWest. “Even in the era of online and remote learning, students still want to be on campus; they want that traditional experience.”

Noting that enrollment at community colleges usually rises during times of recession and high unemployment, Salomon-Fernández noted that this past fall semester was an exception to that rule, both because of large amounts of assistance to those who became jobless and the inability to attend in-person classes. She believes the vaccines, and the eventual end to those stimulus benefits, will change that equation.

“I think enrollment will start picking up in the fall of 2021,” she said. “In the long term, we can’t keep borrowing against ourselves — the national debt is the highest it’s been since the Great Depression. This is not sustainable, and we expect that, as the vaccine becomes available, the government subsidies will decline, and people will have ample incentive to get back to work — and they’ll need the skills to enter, continue in, and thrive in the job market.”

Looking ahead to the spring, Birge said MCLA will operate very much as it did in the fall, but with even more testing due to the colder weather at the start. Spring break will be eliminated, and an extra day will be tacked on to President’s Day weekend.

Like he said, the spring will be a lot like last fall. It will be different, though, if the vaccines work as the experts project they will, because the finish line, when it comes to the pandemic, will be much closer.

“Everyone is down right now when it comes to enrollment,” Birge said. “But we’re feeling a little bit of encouragement that it’s better than we thought it was going to be, although it’s certainly not what we want it to be.”

 

—George O’Brien

Economic Outlook

Banking

Donna Boulanger says she doesn’t how the landscape might change in 2021. What she does know is that it changed quite a bit in 2020.

That goes for everything from attitudes regarding online and mobile banking to sentiments on remote working, to thoughts on where people might prefer to live. Overall, she noted, these past 10 months have been a time to rethink how we do things and where we do them. And many of these changes may well be permanent, which will go a long way toward determining what 2021 — and the years that follow — will be like.

“A lot depends on the rollout of the vaccine and the effectiveness of the vaccine,” she said. “There is some pent-up demand, and it’s just a question of how quickly we return to a new normal, because are we ever going to go back to what was normal? Probably not,” said Boulanger, president and CEO of North Brookfield Savings Bank, which has eight branches and serves customers in both Western and Central Mass.

Donna Boulanger

“There is some pent-up demand, and it’s just a question of how quickly we return to a new normal, because are we ever going to go back to what was normal? Probably not.”

“And how much have consumers’ habits changed?” she went on. “Are they going to go back to retail stores? Are they going to go back to restaurants? Will they go back to traveling? They are so many factors in play, and that makes predicting what will happen in 2021 very difficult. There are a lot of moving parts.”

Looking back on 2020, she said it was a period of adjustment — for the bank and many of its customers. Like all financial institutions, North Brookfield Savings Bank had to pivot, as she termed it, when it came to everything from staffing branches — teams would rotate in for two-week periods — to providing much-needed lessons in online and mobile banking to the bank’s generally older customer base.

Overall, Boulanger said, many businesses and consumers adjusted well to the pandemic, and state and federal support played a large role in this.

“In the Western Mass. and Central Mass. area, the loan portfolios held up very well; delinquencies, and I know this is hard to believe, are at record lows,” she explained. “Whether it is the increased unemployment or stimulus checks, our customers have weathered this storm fairly well. But there are certainly pockets, in Massachusetts and across the country, where people are not faring so well.

“We have a lot of customers who have fully recovered,” she went on, meaning they’ve returned to pre-pandemic revenue patterns. “These are generally manufacturers or specialty businesses; they’re not in hospitality, they’re not in retail. The people still being impacted are those in personal service, whether you’re a nail salon, a barbershop, a gym, or daycare facility.”

The bank took what she called a “proactive approach,” calling each and every business customer to see if help was needed, and in what form. Meanwhile, it was active with the Paycheck Protection Program, handling applications not only for customers, but businesses well outside its general service area.

Looking ahead, like others we spoke with, she noted that winter is a slow time for many business sectors, and the next few months could well be tough sledding for many ventures. And beyond those few months, question marks loom about consumer behavior and just how much pent-up demand there will be for some products and services.

But some shifts are already taking place, she said, adding that there are visible signs that attitudes are changing, about everything from where people want to live to how and where they will work.

“There is an outward movement from cities — we see it in our market,” she told BusinessWest. “When I talk to our local Realtors, we see people moving into Central and Western Mass. They’re coming from New York, they’re coming from New Jersey. Is that going to continue? No one knows, but it’s happening now.

“Palmer, Belchertown, Ware … we’re seeing people move there from outside Massachusetts, and I don’t think you would have seen that before,” she went on. “There’s demand for open space because people are going to continue to be able to work remotely. And because people aren’t going to restaurants as much, they don’t need to be in the big city; you’re not going to walk to the local restaurant or the local business.”

The question moving forward is how much permanence can be attached to these changes in attitude and behavior.

“Are these going to be long-term changes, or will people, when they feel safer, return to the cities because of the amenities?” she said in conclusion. “That’s the struggle for all the big cities.”

And that’s just one of the questions, one of those moving parts, that make predicting the future, even the next few years, so difficult.

 

—George O’Brien

Economic Outlook

Accounting

‘Uneasiness.’

That was the word Julie Quink summoned, after considerable thought, to describe the sentiment of most small-business owners as the calendar turns to 2021.

And it seems like an appropriate choice.

Indeed, regardless of how a business fared in 2020 — and some of her clients actually held up pretty well — Quink, managing partner at the West Springfield-based accounting firm Burkhart Pizzanelli, said most simply don’t know what to expect for the year again. Thus, they are uneasy and likely to be cautious and conservative in the months to come, which will likely play a role in how quickly and profoundly this region bounces back from all the body blows it took over the past 10 months or so.

Julie Quink

Julie Quink

“I have clients that are doing swimmingly well — they’re in the right industries that are flourishing in this environment — and I have others, third-generation businesses, that are closing; we’re helping them wind down.”

Many of these businesses are also uneasy because they were able to “limp along,” as she put it, thanks to support from the CARES Act, especially in the form of forgivable Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans that provided a much-needed cushion from sometimes dramatic drops in revenue.

Starting this past fall, when many businesses effectively spent down their PPP, they’ve been getting a look at operating without a net underneath them, if it can be called that, and for many, it’s a scary proposition.

“That’s why I think we’re going to see the true impact of this crisis over the next 12 months or so, especially as the pandemic continues,” said Quink, adding quickly that, another round of PPP was included in the recently passed stimulus package, little is known about how much help will be available, when, and to whom. And even for those businesses that get another round of help, 2021 is likely to be a struggle, she went on, again because of all that uneasiness.

Quink, like most of those in the accounting and tax field, has a good read on the economy and the factors driving it because her portfolio of clients is diverse and represents virtually every sector. Slicing through the phone calls, the questions asked, and the answers provided, she said some businesses have actually done well during this pandemic (she has a few commercial cleaners, for example), others are holding their own, and still others are really struggling.

“There is such a mixed bag with our clients,” she said, adding that this diversity of performance reflects what’s happening across the region. “I have clients that are doing swimmingly well — they’re in the right industries that are flourishing in this environment — and I have others, third-generation businesses, that are closing; we’re helping them wind down.”

She related the story of a second-generation business, a wholesaler that services the airline industry, among many others. Revenues are down roughly 50% from a year ago, not because there are fewer customers, but because most of the existing customers are ordering far less as their needs have diminished.

“We had a conversation today about how to plan, and I said, ‘you should tighten your belt because I think this is going to be a rough ride this year,’” she recalled, adding that she has given this same advice to many of her clients.

Getting back to that sentiment of uneasiness, Quick said there are many things to be uneasy about, from the ongoing pandemic to a presidential election that, while officially over, has been tumultuous in every way, to the deep uncertainty about the year ahead.

“People are waiting — they’re waiting for things to be final,” she said, using that phrase to describe everything from the stimulus package to the pandemic itself. “And I don’t think the election helped anything; all the events surrounding the election have made people uneasy.”

Still another factor contributing to this state concerns changes that have come to how business is being done, and questions about when, or even if, things will go back to normal.

“I have some clients who are international and can’t fly and can’t participate internationally in person,” she explained. “So they’ve had to refocus on how they do business now, and they don’t really know what the future will bring.”

As for her own profession, 2020 was certainly a different year, one with a tax season that never seemed to end. But it was a good year for most, because clients needed more assistance, or ‘touches,’ as she called them, with PPP and other matters.

And 2021 is certainly shaping up as more of the same, with another round of PPP looming, more questions concerning how to plan for the months and quarters ahead, and more of that uneasiness that will certainly play a large role in determining what kind of year this will be.

 

—George O’Brien

Economic Outlook

Healthcare

 

Editor’s Note: One of the sectors most impacted by the pandemic — and one facing a great number of questions moving forward — is healthcare. We put some questions to Baystate Health President and CEO Dr. Mark Keroack, who has become a very visible leader during this crisis and was recently named one of BusinessWest’s Healthcare Heroes for 2020.

 

BusinessWest: Dr. Keroack, already we’re seeing a great deal of optimism and expectation accompanying the arrival of vaccines in this nation and this region. What are your thoughts on the impact these vaccines will have on the broader economic picture in this region and when that impact will be seen?

 

Dr. Keroack: The vaccines represent a major scientific breakthrough, and they are the beginning of the end of the pandemic. Economies depend on consumer confidence, and, therefore, I have always seen recovery from the pandemic and recovery of the economy as one and the same. Removing the pandemic will boost confidence and enable the economy to recover. What is less clear is which businesses will have survived the terrible stress test of 2020 to even be able to recover.

 

BusinessWest: ‘Normal’ is a word we hear a lot these days, as in ‘when things return to normal.’ With the vaccines now here, is there any more clarity on when ‘normal’ — as in pre-COVID — may return?

 

Dr. Mark Keroack

Dr. Mark Keroack

“The light at the end of the tunnel is real, but it is still months away, and we are now in a perilous situation with more virus circulating in the community than we had last spring.”

Dr. Keroack: I believe that when a majority of people — more than 70% — receive the vaccine and are immune, case numbers will fall precipitously because the virus will not be able to find new hosts easily. That will enable governmental leaders to lift the restrictions we all have been struggling with these past several months. I suspect that will happen in late spring or early summer.

 

BusinessWest: Dr. Keroack, this has been a trying year for the healthcare system and hospitals in general. Can you in any way anticipate what 2021 will be like — both in terms of providing services and from a business (bottom-line) perspective?

 

Dr. Keroack: I think we should expect consumer attitudes to be changed in the wake of the pandemic. For several months, people have been getting used to different ways of getting their needs fulfilled, whether it is virtual visits, remote working, takeout dining, or online retail. I think this will put greater pressure on traditional bricks-and-mortar enterprises, including Baystate, to revisit their business models.

 

BusinessWest: In many ways, you have been the face of the pandemic in this region, often sending out strong statements on the need to socially distance, wear masks, and take the steps necessary to stem the spread of the virus. What is your message to the community now, 10 months after the start of the pandemic, and with what many are calling a light at the end of the tunnel in sight?

 

Dr. Keroack: The light at the end of the tunnel is real, but it is still months away, and we are now in a perilous situation with more virus circulating in the community than we had last spring. Many people, especially older people, are doing what they need to do to protect themselves, but many more are minimizing or still denying the risks of infection. It is now more important than ever to follow the guidance on masking, social distancing, and handwashing. Furthermore, we need to restrict our visits to indoor spaces that are not our homes, particularly if masks are not being worn.

 

BusinessWest: The governor recently rolled back, if that’s the proper phraseology, many of the restrictions on certain types of businesses. Do you believe further restrictions will be needed before the current situation improves?

 

Dr. Keroack: I think it is likely that the latest restrictions will not be enough to slow down the spread of the virus. We are seeing that some mayors are issuing regulations that go beyond what the governor recently proposed, and I suspect he too will have to roll back things still further before we are through the current crisis.

 

BusinessWest: Continuing with that thought, many businesses have closed over the past several months, and many more are barely hanging on amid the restrictions placed on them. It’s often been said that elected leaders have to choose between saving the economy and saving lives. Is there any way, in your opinion, to effectively do both?

 

Dr. Keroack: There are examples of countries that have done both. They are characterized by high rates of rule following, easy access to testing, and financial support for people who are sick and cannot work. Many Asian countries had great success opening their economies while also driving down infection rates. Other countries, like the U.S., were more likely to object to or doubt the effectiveness of the guidelines, and we saw a lot of people deciding to exempt themselves, sometimes with disastrous consequences. We also are not consistent in terms of sick leave, so many were tempted to go to work while sick. For all these differences, it is fair to say that now nearly every country is sliding backward to higher virus levels, because even the most compliant groups get fatigued by these restrictions.

 

BusinessWest: As a business leader and manager of one of the region’s largest employers, can you talk about the ways this pandemic has changed business and how it’s conducted, and which of these changes may be permanent?

 

Dr. Keroack: I mentioned earlier the importance of flexibility and meeting the customer where they are. We have recommitted to improved customer service and easier access to care. We are still learning in healthcare to be more like more customer-friendly sectors. I also expect that the strains on the economy will cause healthcare to be examined again for being too high in cost. Baystate Health is the lowest-cost large health system in the state, and yet we still need to drive down costs further. We also need to remember that embedded in the pandemic was the George Floyd killing, which led to a reckoning with systemic racism in our country. Baystate Health as an organization has made eliminating racism and enhancing diversity, equity, and inclusion in our health system a top priority. Finally, I think we need to re-examine and improve how we do preventive public health in our state, and I hope Baystate Health can play a role there.

 

BusinessWest: They say adversity makes those who endure it stronger. How will this region become stronger because of this lengthy and difficult battle against COVID-19?

 

Dr. Keroack: If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that we are all connected to each other. Infections historically have attacked those in lower socioeconomic groups more severely. When those infections spread easily, we all suffer when we have not dealt fully with advancing economic opportunity across all our communities. If we come out of this with a greater sense of community and togetherness, we will have gained something valuable from what was otherwise a terrible ordeal.

 

BusinessWest: Personally and professionally, what has it been like for you to lead a company like Baystate though this crisis? What have you learned about yourself, as a leader, if anything?

 

Dr. Keroack: There have been many stressful days, given the unknowns and dangers of this virus. I worry a lot about protecting our employees and see the stresses they have been going through. I am blessed with a wonderful team that has strong experience in infectious-disease management and epidemic containment. I also am gratified by the can-do attitude from so many on the front lines. They show tremendous commitment, compassion, and innovation. I think the major lessons I learned as a leader is to make sure people understand the reasons behind what we are trying to do and then to trust them to find the solutions. I have not been disappointed in that trust.

 

Economic Outlook

Fitness

For a year and a half after F45 Training Hampshire Meadows opened in Hadley, owner Danny Deane knew what members wanted — to get fit, sure, but also to cultivate a sense of family and community with their fellow goal-setters.

“We were sharing equipment, people were shoulder to shoulder, giving sweaty high fives,” he said, noting that none of that has been possible since the pandemic began.

Danny and Jessye Deane, owners of two local F45 Training franchises.

Danny and Jessye Deane, owners of two local F45 Training franchises.

In fact, the fitness center, like all others in this industry, closed its doors for almost four months, a casualty of Gov. Charlie Baker’s sweeping lockdowns in March, following by a slow, gradual, phased approach to reopening — during which time F45 launched online programs and later ran outdoor boot camps before getting the all-clear to invite members back inside.

These days, the Hadley facility — and a second F45 location Deane and his wife, Jessye, opened in West Springfield over the summer — have implemented a series of strict safety protocols, from reducing session sizes and mandating masks to requiring everyone to sanitize, pass a temperature check upon entry, and even change shoes; from reformatting space for physical distancing and barring shared equipment to sanitizing all surfaces, floors, and equipment every 45 minutes. Both studios — and their HVAC systems — have been fitted with the hospital-grade PermaSAFE disinfectant and antimicrobial system and are electrostatically fogged weekly.

The result? Out of 20,027 member visits since July, the two studios have been responsible for exactly zero transmissions of COVID-19.

“Making health everyone’s priority is really why we opened this,” Danny said, which is why he and Jessye considered CDC and state safety recommendations and not only met, but exceeded them, at both locations.

It’s certainly a bold move to expand during a pandemic, especially in an industry as hard-hit as this one by COVID-19 and the associated lockdowns and restrictions.

“The industry is hurting, significantly,” Danny said. “We say failure is never an option for us, but for the majority of fitness in the United States, it is certainly an option.”

Indeed, while most fitness centers say they’re hanging on, many have shut their doors permanently. The most recent capacity rollback in Massachusetts, to 25%, isn’t helping matters for an industry whose leaders have consistently maintained they’re not the problem when it comes to spreading COVID-19.

“These setbacks are crushing,” said Frank Nash, president of Massachusetts Independent Fitness Operators, noting that the industry’s rigid safety measures have resulted in a less than .000034% positivity rate in more than 1.3 million check-ins. “Our industry has collectively spent hundreds of thousands of dollars outfitting studios with ventilation equipment, social-distancing measures, employing robust cleaning procedures, and instituting contact tracing, and it’s working.”

Jessye Deane agreed. “The data shows gyms are not breeding grounds for transmission, and we’ve certainly seen that,” she said, adding that industry stresses go beyond government mandates; some people simply don’t want to return yet, while others, due to economic strain, have had to cut certain things out of their household budgets, fitness memberships among them.

Yet, many gyms and fitness centers are taking lessons from the pandemic and plan to expand upon innovations introduced this year, such as virtual classes.

“We thought COVID-19 was a catastrophic event for our industry, but — although challenging — it has turned into a transformative event,” said Kevin Mannion, vice president of Marketing at Glofox, a consulting firm for the international fitness industry. “Less than a week after most countries went into lockdown, we noticed that gyms everywhere were organically starting to run online classes through Zoom, Facebook, YouTube, and Instagram. Some larger operators were able to offer classes free on their social-media channels, while at the same time developing a paid online service that could reach people the world over.”

For gyms that are moving forward with in-person activity, the safety measures are critical, Danny Deane said. At a time when Baker is rolling back indoor capacity limits and tightening safety mandates due to the recent viral spike, “we’ve had all this set in stone from the get-go, so we don’t have to all of a sudden introduce masks or reduce capacity. We’ve been on point the whole time.”

Added Jessye, “there’s no reason for us not to be as safe as possible. We have members who have compromised immune systems. We have members who have elderly parents. It’s really important to us that we’re protecting all our members — our F45 family, and all their families.

“This is hard,” she said, gesturing at a safely distanced group workout going on behind her. “It’s even harder with a mask. But people have adapted, and it’s been really impressive to see the way our members have been committed to us and stuck by us — because we would not be able to get through this without them.”

Not only has the business survived, but, as noted, it expanded. When the Deanes decided last year to open a second location in West Springfield, called F45 Training Riverdale, the pandemic was months away from anyone’s radar.

When COVID-19 did appear, “did we ever think about turning the other way?” Danny said. “No, absolutely not. It was full steam ahead, always.”

Jessye called it a “burn the boats” move. “We will always adapt, and we’re committed to the people we serve because we’ve seen how it changes lives,” she said. “Every worry has been worth it. We’re giving people years on their lives. We’re not here so people can have abs. Abs are great, don’t get me wrong, but we really want people to live longer and move better. So there was no way we were going to turn our back on that.”

Of course, the planned April opening on Riverdale Street wasn’t going to happen, but they did go ahead with a grand-opening event of sorts: a virtual workout fundraiser to support local healthcare heroes, with all proceeds donated to Baystate Health. The new facility opened its doors to members four months later, in August.

The fitness centers that survive 2020 will have to make their own decisions about how much programming to offer in-person and virtually going forward. As Mannion noted, “COVID-19 accelerated a trend of at-home workouts, and businesses have been forced to respond … The fitness businesses of the future realize they need to be adaptable and offer both in-person and virtual workouts in order to prevent shocks and to cater to the evolving needs of the consumer.”

Still, Jessye Deane said she’s looking to the days when they can once again pack in members at their two physical locations.

“This isn’t the business model we signed up for,” she said of the much-less-crowded studios these days. “I don’t think it’s the business model anyone signed up for. But we wouldn’t be operational at all if we weren’t positive we could offer a safe environment.”

However, they’re both optimistic about what will happen in 2021, as mandates fade and people realize they miss working out together.

“We have done a significant job growing through this, but there’s still a significant pool to tap into once the restrictions are lifted,” Danny said. “I’m really excited to see both facilities back at full capacity.”

 

—Joseph Bednar

Economic Outlook

Restaurants

Andy Yee was still slogging — his word, and he would use it more than a few times — through the holiday season when he talked with BusinessWest for this Outlook section. But he was already thinking about the next one and what it might be like.

And his thoughts were colored with optimism.

“I think there is going to be a lot of pent-up demand,” he said, referring to that day when the clouds eventually lift and people feel confident returning to restaurants and especially indoor dining. “People have been cooped up a long time. I know people who haven’t been out, and have barely left their houses, since March. When this is over, people are going to be ready to get out and go on the town.”

While he feels confident in that assessment, and even offered a timeline of sorts — projecting some improvement by spring as vaccines are rolled out, much more by summer, and perhaps something approximating normal by Q4, or certainly next holiday season — what he doesn’t know is how many restaurateurs currently doing business in the region be along for that ride, whenever it does come.

Andy Yee

Andy Yee

“People have been cooped up a long time. I know people who haven’t been out, and have barely left their houses, since March. When this is over, people are going to be ready to get out and go on the town.”

Indeed, several have already been forced to shut their doors, he said, and others will be challenged to survive what will likely be another several months of slogging, even with the promise of additional help coming in the form of support from the state.

“January and February are traditionally leaner months — people have that holiday hangover, although I’m not sure what that will be like this year,” he noted. “It’s going to be hard for some people to hang on. There will be some casualties; there will be more closures.”

There have been several already, due directly to COVID-19 or perhaps the pandemic accelerating the timeline for retirement, said Yee, adding quickly that the number of additional losses to the landscape will be determined by a number of factors, from how quickly and effectively vaccines reach the general population to the level of confidence people have with going back out again, even with a vaccine, to the overall experience level and savvy of the restaurateurs in question.

“This really will be survival of the fittest,” he told BusinessWest, adding that his definition of ‘fittest’ is those with the experience and will to maneuver through this whitewater. “There are some people who have been doing this a long time, and this is a tough business; these are the ones who will probably buckle down and adjust to leaner times.”

Summing up 2020 and speaking for everyone in his sector, Yee said it’s been a long, long, long haul.

Indeed it has, a nine-month stretch of restrictions that have varied in their severity, but have been generally punitive to restaurateurs, limiting how, where, and when they can serve diners. Some have fared reasonably well with takeout, outdoor dining, and reduced indoor seating, he noted, but none are doing anything approaching what they were doing a year ago, revenue-wise.

And many have decided they can’t continue to slug it out, he said, noting closures up and down the Pioneer Valley and also in the Berkshires. As bad as it’s been, it’s been far worse in major cities with much higher commercial lease rates, he told BusinessWest, adding that Boston has been devasted, and perhaps 35% of all the restaurants in New York will chose for good due to the pandemic.

Despite the devastation, the pandemic did provide some positive learning experiences, especially when it came to outdoor dining, something few restaurants had tried, but now were all but forced to undertake. It’s something that may become a permanent fixture.

“It has been a good learning experience for us,” he said, citing the Student Prince in Springfield as perhaps the best example from within the Bean Group of an establishment that invested heavily in outdoor dining and saw some success. “We are going to try to emulate that and duplicate that next year.”

Looking ahead, he does have confidence that the vaccines are cause for optimism, and also that, when this pandemic is over, people will go back to their old habits of dining out — a question that many have been asking over the past several months as the discussion turns to how the pandemic may change societal norms for the long term.

“I agree with people who say we can see the finish line with COVID,” he told BusinessWest. “My feeling is that, by March, things will start to loosen up a little; by the summertime we’ll be back to some kind of new normal, whatever that means; and in the fourth quarter we’ll roar back with people going out and celebrating.”

Meanwhile, for the entrepreneurial — and he certainly falls into that category — there will be opportunities within this sector as the pandemic draws on and more establishments grow weary of the fight.

Yee said he’s already received a number of calls from individuals looking to sell, and he expects those calls to keep coming.

In that respect, 2021 might see many more changes to the landscape in this important sector.

 

—George O’Brien

Economic Outlook

Technology

In 2020, virtually every business was caught off guard by pandemic restrictions, which forced them to focus primarily on ways to stabilize and survive. For those that are back in operation, 2021 offers a chance to return to strategic growth — with the right tools.

“While businesses are not in control of whether or not there are secondary or terciary waves of infections, they can adopt a technology plan to support their new workplace environment and ensure productivity,” said Sean Hogan, president of Hogan Technology.

While business owners may have been surprised that their employees actually kept working while remote, they also want to ensure the technology employees are using works, too, he noted.

“In 2020, many businesses were using workarounds to solve communication breakdowns, but by now, there’s no reason for lapses in productivity,” he explained. “In fact, there are plenty of technology tools at our fingertips that businesses are utilizing successfully to keep team members engaged, productive, and efficient, regardless of the physical limitations imposed by the pandemic.”

Sean Hogan

Sean Hogan

“For this workplace-interaction strategy to be successful, employees must be backed with technology tools that support key functions.”

Successful small to mid-sized businesses are well aware of the benefits of strategic planning, Hogan noted, and even though the pandemic has posed unforeseen variables, businesses now have enough information to build workplace-interaction strategies that will support revenue growth in 2021. “Although businesses may consider themselves to be lucky to have survived, they need to expand their thinking in terms of setting new goals, instead of being caught in reaction mode once more.”

COVID-19 has forced companies to adapt, he went on, and at this point, every business owner essentially needs three distinct strategic plans for workplace interaction, and the most sophisticated businesses are creating contingency plans for all three potential environments.

The first is a fully remote workplace. Many organizations that were flexible enough to sustain a fully remote workforce have opted to keep everyone remote until further notice. Such a work environment presents its own unique set of challenges, Hogan said, but also new opportunities.

“For this workplace-interaction strategy to be successful, employees must be backed with technology tools that support key functions,” he explained. “For example, employees need to be empowered to remain in constant communication with other team members. Additionally, business owners need to provide them central access to data, with responsible levels of cybersecurity on the network.”

A remote team means more exposure to the network, he added, but it also brings more flexibility than ever before. A full transition to this model means the business won’t be interrupted by further restrictions or lockdowns.

The second model is a hybrid workplace, which majority of businesses believe will be the most likely scenario in 2021. Over the past year, companies have cycled through lockdowns, partial openings, and full reopenings depending on health-risk factors.

If a business owner wants to plan for a hybrid model going forward, he or she must consider ways to secure entrances, exits, and access points with tools like body-temperature scanners or touchless door-access controls. They can also benefit significantly tools like cloud voice with call forwarding, to make transitions seamless when staff migrate from the office to remote-work environments.

“In order for hybrid to work, remote technology needs to be secure and seamless,” Hogan said, “while workers and customers need to feel safe in person.”

The third model is an in-person workplace with social distancing. “For a minority of businesses, all activities are dependent on the physical location remaining open,” he noted. “For these businesses, owners need to consider how to adhere to and accommodate various safety measures to ensure compliance and worker safety.”

Regardless of which workplace environment is chosen, Hogan said, three critical aspects must be addressed to ensure success. The first is that employees need access to cloud voice to keep team members in constant communication and to ensure that office calls are properly routed to cell phones when team members are out of the office. Second, the team needs to be able to collaborate effectively.

Lastly, every workplace environment needs to be kept secure. For in-person strategies, this means secure access points, with tech like body-temperature scanners to ensure illnesses cannot spread. For remote workplaces, this means cybersecurity precautions have to be considered because, generally speaking, home networks pose much higher risks than office environments.

“We are currently meeting with customers, and, depending on what they want to achieve in 2021, we are devising custom technology plans to help them accomplish their strategic goals,” Hogan said. “This is what leaders do — they step up and lead in times of uncertainty. We are using our expertise to provide structure and clarity so that businesses can continue to thrive. Technology just happens to be our particular expertise, but this effort is about honoring our responsibility to the business community at large.”

Economic Outlook

Retail

Editor’s Note: Retail was among the sectors most impacted by the pandemic. Some businesses were forced to close, while all others had to make sweeping changes to how they did things to keep customers and employees safe. BusinessWest asked Charlie D’Amour, president of CEO of Big Y, to put 2020 in perspective and look ahead to what might come next.

 

BusinessWest: 2020 was certainly a tumultuous year for retail — and business in general. No one has a crystal ball, but what do you project for the year ahead, in terms of the economy and Big Y?

 

D’Amour: 2020 has certainly been fraught with challenges. Keeping our employees and customers safe while providing essential services has been foremost in our efforts. One of the biggest challenges has been supply chain, and that has been compounded in a number of ways.

First, panic buying ensued, and safety stock that is usually kept in reserve evaporated overnight. Many manufacturers and food suppliers facing their own COVID challenges, from staffing to supply, have not been able to keep up. Distribution centers have also felt these impacts, along with transportation, etc. Going forward, I do not expect that these areas will see a complete return to normal operation until late into 2021 or even into 2022. The recent uptick in COVID cases has put a lot of pressure on transportation and distribution. I anticipate that once we get through the holidays and the winter months, things will slowly improve.

Staffing continues to be an area of focus for us, and we are actively hiring. Currently, we have more than 1,000 open positions. We’ve adapted our training protocols to keep everyone safe yet provide adequate training.

Though I’m optimistic about the economy starting to bounce back in 2021, it is clear that government help will be needed, especially for those who have lost their jobs and for businesses that are struggling. There may be some longer-term systemic changes to the economy that could continue to linger. From my conversations with other supermarket operators both in China and in Europe, it seems that people are still reluctant to venture into inside venues. This has had an ongoing impact on restaurants, gyms, movie theaters, travel and hospitality, etc. As the vaccine takes hold, I believe that this will improve and folks will begin to travel again, and ‘experiences’ will become foremost in returning to some normalcy.

Charlie d’Amour

Charlie d’Amour

“Staffing continues to be an area of focus for us, and we are actively hiring. Currently, we have more than 1,000 open positions.”

How and where people work, I think, will be forever changed. Even in our own offices, more and more folks are working remotely. We are communicating more with video and virtual meetings. We continue to adapt and adjust. And, though I think the supermarket will continue to be the primary way people get their food and groceries, the growth of online shopping is here to stay. In 2021, we are excited to be opening our first micro-fulfillment center, which was planned and begun before the pandemic hit but which we believe will have an ever-increasing role in the way people shop in the future.

 

BusinessWest: Big Y has been on a path of steady expansion over the past several years. Will this pattern continue in 2021, and how and where will this growth take place?

 

D’Amour: We have been pleased that, despite the pandemic, we’ve actually had an exciting year of growth. We have opened two new gas and convenience stores, a new supermarket, completed our new Fresh & Local Distribution Center, and remodeled over 16 supermarkets. We’ve accomplished a lot. We have two new supermarkets planned for next year, several new gas and convenience stores, and, as I mentioned, the opening of our online ordering and micro-fulfillment center in Chicopee.

 

BusinessWest: Over the course of the past several months, we have seen a number of changes when it comes to how work is done and where. How has Big Y responded to these shifts, and will some of them be permanent?

 

D’Amour: Obviously, in our supermarkets, distribution centers, gas and convenience stores, and at Table & Vine, a physical presence is required. We very quickly realized in our physical locations that we needed to keep our employees safe, and to that end, we jumped on making sure that the appropriate cleaning procedures were in place and that PPE was available. We were one of the first retailers to install plexiglass shields at our registers, among many many other things. We have made sure to accommodate not only our frontline workers, but everyone with flexible schedules, leaves of absence if required, and continuing to pay employees who had to quarantine or care for a loved one.

We have continued to provide our employees with ‘thank-you’ pay, first as an hourly bump and now through a monthly bonus which will continue into the first part of 2021. We have also provided a holiday bonus to all full-time, part-time, and casual employees to reward and thank them for rising to the challenges we have all faced with this pandemic.

In our offices, we have definitely moved from a company that favored in-person meetings and collaboration to embracing new technologies and remote working. Here, again, flexible schedules and accommodating employees with childcare issues, etc. has been our focus and will likely continue. One area that has been accelerated because of the virus has been our use of virtual meetings and video communications. As our geographic territory has spread, bringing our store folks to our Store Support Center has presented more and more of a challenge. As a result of the virus, we have been forced to explore more avenues to connect, which have, for the most part, been effective and well-received by our employees.

 

BusinessWest: As the leader of a major corporation, can you talk about the ways this pandemic has impacted your ability to plan long-term, or if it has?

 

D’Amour: The supermarket business is very dynamic, and, as such, we are always in a state of change and flux. We are also in a business where our customers give us almost instant feedback to what’s new and changing. Our leadership team gets together every year to focus on our strategies and how we are adapting and evolving as our customers are adapting and evolving. As such, we are maintaining our current course of action, and our long-term plans and strategic initiatives have not changed. Every year, there are minor course corrections and adjustments, but our overall direction is the same, and that has not changed because of the pandemic.

 

BusinessWest: Speaking of leadership, talk about your experiences leading a company through these most challenging of times.

 

D’Amour: For me, first and foremost was the importance of communication. Being present, being authentic, and regularly communicating with our employees, customers, and other stakeholders was especially important early on when things were changing rapidly and coming at us a mile a minute. While I couldn’t get out to our stores as frequently as I usually like to, being able to find other ways to connect with our stores was essential.

Our employees especially were appreciative that we were visible, even virtually, and that we were genuinely concerned. Though we did shut down our offices for all but the most essential employees, I tried to be in our offices as much as possible to show a physical presence and to connect with our leadership team and others that were in the building. I believe that all of these things helped to inspire confidence within our organization. We tried to push decisions down to the lowest level and trusted in our employees and our teams. We established a crisis management committee, now dubbed the pandemic response committee. As such, we were able to quickly and effectively respond to a very fast-paced and changing dynamic.

Another area that underscored a point of focus for us this past year was in regard to redoubling our efforts regarding diversity and inclusion in our company. While we have made progress over the years, it was clear that we needed to do more. To that end, we have refocused and engaged our efforts, developed a new employee-resource group called “Y You Belong,” and created a steering committee of senior leaders and outside advisors from the community. We also conducted a half-day seminar for our leadership team with the Healing Racism Institute of Pioneer Valley to better understand our role in healing racism in our company and our community.

Throughout this past year, the role of leadership was and continues to be an important linchpin in our ability to deal with the challenges of this pandemic.

Giving Guide Special Coverage

Regional Philanthropic Opportunities

While philanthropy is a year-round activity, this is a time when many of us think about those who are most in need, and how, in general, they can help make Western Mass. a better community for all who call this region home.

To help individuals, groups, and businesses make effective decisions when it comes to philanthropy, BusinessWest and the Healthcare News present the annual Giving Guide, which is especially relevant during this time of a global pandemic, when so many people are in need, and when so many of the nonprofits that work to meet those needs are struggling.

Open the PDF flipbook to view profiles of several area nonprofit organizations, a sampling of the thousands of agencies that provide needed services. These profiles are intended to educate readers about what these groups are doing, and also to inspire them to provide the critical support (which comes in many different forms) that these organizations and so many others desperately need.

Indeed, these profiles list not only giving opportunities — everything from online donations to corporate sponsorships — but also volunteer opportunities. And it is through volunteering, as much as with a cash donation, that individuals can help a nonprofit carry out its important mission within our community.

BusinessWest and HCN launched the Giving Guide in 2011 to essentially harness this region’s incredibly strong track record of philanthropy and support the organizations dedicated to helping those in need. The publication is designed to inform, but also to encourage individuals and organizations to find new and imaginative ways to give back. We are confident that it will succeed with both of these assignments.

George O’Brien, Editor and Associate Publisher

John Gormally, Publisher

Kate Campiti, Sales Manager and Associate Publisher

 


 

 

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Banking and Financial Services Special Coverage

Lending a Hand

By Mark Morris

Sometimes being thrown into a challenging situation leads to … well, a good idea or two. Or at least a new way of thinking.

Back in March, when COVID-19 first hit, banks and credit unions in Massachusetts were designated essential businesses by Gov. Charlie Baker. That meant making sure everyone had access to their accounts while, at the same time, limiting in-person banking to appointments only, complete with masks, social distancing, and frequent sanitizing protocols.

“It forced us to think outside the box and to figure out the best ways to serve our members during a time of reduced access,” said Kara Herman, vice president, Retail Administration with Freedom Credit Union, adding that her team set out to first communicate all the options members had available to them to get business done without going inside a branch.

BusinessWest spoke with several local bank and credit-union professionals about the challenge of making adjustments to their businesses in the middle of a pandemic. For Kevin O’Connor, executive vice president and chief banking officer for Westfield Bank, reducing foot traffic in the lobbies back in the spring was a chance to review how to make customer interactions with the bank easier in ways that were not face-to-face.

“We published all our branch phone numbers on our website so people can easily reach their local branch,” O’Connor said. “In this way, we could blend the digital experience with the personal touch of a local branch staff member who is there to assist.”

During the summer months, mandates were relaxed, and banks and credit unions were allowed to reopen their lobbies to walk-in traffic. But this month, as COVID-19 infection rates spiked, lobby restrictions were reinstated at many institutions.

“Because we went through lobby closures back in the spring, we were able to refine the process of helping customers find different ways to accomplish what they need to do,” O’Connor said.

Mike Ostrowski

Mike Ostrowski says the pandemic has been a “disruptive innovation” that helped many customers appreciate the benefits of banking online.

For example, Westfield Bank makes video tutorials available online for those who are new to electronic banking. “We do this to encourage people to be comfortable in whatever way they interact with us.”

Michael Ostrowski, president and CEO of Arrha Credit Union, noted that, when lobby traffic was first curtailed and members would call to complete a basic transaction, his staff would take the the time to educate the caller on how to accomplish what they wanted to do electronically.

“In some ways, the pandemic was a disruptive innovation because it helped us to migrate so many people to the electronic world,” Ostrowski, said adding that online and mobile activity with Arrha has increased 30% in the last nine months.

Educating members is also the approach Craig Boivin, vice president of UMassFive College Federal Credit Union, has taken. While the aim is to reduce traffic in the branch, there’s still one in-person appointment that he encourages.

“A member of our contact center staff will set up an in-branch appointment with folks who aren’t as tech-savvy and take them through a hands-on tutorial on how to use what’s available,” he explained. “We do this so the member can avoid going to the branch in the future for simple transactions.”

Customers who regularly use online banking and mobile apps barely noticed the limited lobby access, but there are others who rely on being able to walk into a branch and do business face-to-face.

“Some of our customers need to come in every day, such as small-business people who need coin and currency to run their shops,” said Kate Megraw, chief operating officer and chief information officer for New Valley Bank and Trust. This past summer, while adhering to all safety and cleaning protocols, New Valley’s lobbies stayed busy.

Kevin O’Connor

Kevin O’Connor

“We published all our branch phone numbers on our website so people can easily reach their local branch. In this way, we could blend the digital experience with the personal touch of a local branch staff member who is there to assist.”

“As a new bank, we are in a growth mode right now, so we were trying to make it easy for customers to come in and open accounts,” she noted. With renewed limits on lobby access, she now encourages appointments as well as the drive-up location at the 16 Acres branch.

Drive-up banking has gone from a routine convenience to a vital service as customers bring more complex transactions to the drive-up window than in the past. It’s one way both bank customers and employees had to adjust to a new environment back in the spring — and may have to adjust again.

 

Striking a Balance

As branches reopened over the summer, loan activity related to the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) ramped up as as well, Megraw said, providing another opportunity.

“The PPP allowed us to touch a lot of local businesses in Massachusetts and parts of Connecticut,” she added, noting that, through the PPP, New Valley arranged more than 500 small-business loans totaling nearly $90 million.

With branches retreating to a less-accessible time, the challenge now is to strike the right balance between giving people the time they need and keeping the line of cars in the drive-thru moving. Along with placing experienced tellers at the window, O’Connor said, other branch staff speak with people as they approach the drive-up to make sure they have their materials at the ready to make their visit more efficient.

Kate MeGraw

Kate MeGraw

“The pandemic has shown us that high-touch customer service and the ability to speak to someone over the phone or safely take a meeting still makes a big difference when a customer is trying to get something done.”

UMassFive recently converted a drive-up ATM machine at its Hadley branch to a video teller. As a complement to the two existing drive-up tellers, the video teller provides a third option that reduces long lines and still maintains the personal touch.

“It gives our members an additional way to talk to a live person without having to come into the branch or get out of their car,” Boivin said. Installed in two other branch foyers, he added, video tellers have really caught on as usage has tripled just this fall.

Herman said Freedom recently launched video chat as part of its online offerings and said it’s the next best thing to an in-person meeting. “It gives people a chance to see us and talk to us. It’s face-to-face communication even though they are not physically in front of us.”

Because so many people are more comfortable doing things from their home, opening accounts online has substantially increased. While this tool was lightly employed before the pandemic, O’Connor saw an opportunity to enhance it for customers who use it.

“We are supplementing the online account-opening process by having a branch person follow up with the customer to make sure they received the experience they wanted,” he said.

On the lending side of the business, Herman noted that online applications and electronic signatures have further streamlined the process of people conducting bank business from home.

Boivin reported that volume at the UMassFive contact center is up 43% for the year and has nearly doubled in the last two months as coronavirus has spiked. A number of employees moved out of their traditional retail positions to handle the increased activity in the contact center.

“Our staff has been impressive with their flexibility and willingness to work in different departments to get the job done,” he added.

Ostrowski believes his staff were as vulnerable as essential retail workers who have been on the job throughout the pandemic. “Because we appreciate their hard work,” he said, “we recently rewarded our staff with a hazard-pay bonus for all their efforts during COVID-19.”

 

The People Part

As customers increasingly use online and mobile apps for banking, all the managers we spoke with agree that in-person branches still play a vital role. Ostrowski emphasized that technology doesn’t take the place of personal service, but just enhances it.

While acknowledging that digital services are an important and growing part of banking, Megraw also believes the “people part” is still essential.

Craig Boivin

Craig Boivin

“Our staff has been impressive with their flexibility and willingness to work in different departments to get the job done.”

“The pandemic has shown us that high-touch customer service and the ability to speak to someone over the phone or safely take a meeting still makes a big difference when a customer is trying to get something done.”

Boivin hopes the changes that forced people out of the branches will result in more convenience for them and an elevated role for the branches.

“In the long run, we see branches being centers where people can sit down with someone face-to-face for those in-depth conversations about their finances, such as buying a house for the first time,” he said. “We still see a need for those interactions to continue at the branch level.”

Ostrowski predicts banking will move toward a hybrid approach that combines the latest technology innovations with an old-fashioned, hometown banking experience.

“I like the term ‘the big hug,’ meaning, even if you do all your regular business electronically, there are times when you want to come in for a mortgage, or you’re having trouble with a tax bill, and we’re there to give you that big hug of caring service when you need it.”

Herman believes the events of the last nine months have caused banks to re-evaluate the roles and responsibilities that branch staff will have in the future.

“I think the traditional job descriptions we had back in February no longer exist, and they are evolving as we speak,” she said, adding that, while people will remain an important part of branch banking, the industry has to figure out how to serve the new needs their customers will have going forward.

Autos Special Coverage

Driving Forces

 

Rob Pion was walking outside at his family’s Buick/GMC dealership on Memorial Avenue in Chicopee, and used the view to put things in perspective for this industry as a trying, but not altogether terrible, year comes to an end.

“That’s basically the new-car inventory,” he said, pointing to a long single line of cars along the front of the property, noting that he was exaggerating, but only slightly.

Indeed, inventory remains an issue for almost all dealers in this region as manufacturers struggle to catch up after weeks, if not months, of shutdown at the factories. And matters are worse for GM dealers, said Pion, the third-generation principal of this venture, because of the lengthy strike at that corporation in 2019.

But aside from supplies of new cars — and things are getting slightly better on that front as well, as we’ll hear — the picture is brightening somewhat for auto dealers, and a sense of normal is returning, at least in some respects.

Or a new normal, if you will.

Indeed, Pion said the pandemic has effectively served to speed up the pace of change within the auto industry when it comes to doing things remotely and moving away from those traditional visits to the dealership to look at models, kick the tires, and even drop off the car for service.

Rob Pion

Rob Pion says inventory remains an issue at his dealership, and it will likely remain that way into the new year.

“There are experts out there saying that we moved forward 10 years in three months when it comes to internet purchasing, out-of-state deliveries, and people doing 98% of the deal over the phone or the internet,” he told BusinessWest. “And that sounds about right.”

Carla Cosenzi, president of TommyCar Auto Group, which operates four dealerships (Volkswagen, Nissan, Hyundai, and Volvo), agreed. She said the pandemic has certainly made online buying, as well as vehicle pickup and dropoff for needed service, more popular, and these trends will have staying power, especially as the number of COVID-19 cases rises again.

And while it was a somewhat tumultuous year, especially when it came to inventories of both new and used cars (and the prices of the latter), it wasn’t really a bad year for many dealerships — and certainly not as bad as things as things looked in March and April, when some dealerships actually closed and all others were seeing business come to something approaching a standstill.

“We’re actually on track for what our plan was 2020, even with what happened in March, April, and May,” said Peter Wirth, co-owner with his wife, Michelle, of Mercedes-Benz of Springfield, quickly noting a few caveats to that assessment. “Some things moved around a little — more used cars and fewer used cars based on supplies — but overall, as I said, we’re on track for where we wanted to be as a dealership.”

Cosenzi concurred. “Given the circumstances and what happened, we feel really good about how we finished in 2020,” she said. “When you look back to how everyone was feeling in March, we feel really appreciative of how we finished the year.”

‘Normal’ also applies, to some extent, to end-of-year, holiday-season sales, said those we spoke with, adding quickly that smaller inventories will certainly limit how many cars, trucks, and SUVs will be sold, including to businesses looking for tax incentives — although demand is certainly there.

But those end-of-year sales, such as Mercedes’ annual Winter Event, are happening, and they are bringing customers to the ‘dealership,’ literally or figuratively.

“It’s like a cherished piece of normalcy,” said Wirth. “People see that the Winter Event is happening, that the deals are out there. I feel like both our customers and our team are enjoying the fact that there’s a normal, busy holiday-selling season — so far, at least.”

He made that statement toward the middle of December, and that tone reflects a degree of uncertainty that still prevails in this industry and most all others as well.

Peter and Michelle Wirth

Peter and Michelle Wirth say their Mercedes-Benz dealership managed to hit most of the set goals for 2020 despite the pandemic.

Indeed, while it’s easy to reflect on 2020, projecting what will happen in 2021 is much more difficult, said those we spoke with. Generally, there is optimism — or guarded optimism, which is the popular phrase at this time of year, and this time in history especially — but still some concern.

Overall, those we spoke with said trends and sentiments that took hold in 2020 — from less reliance on public transportation and services like Uber and Lyft (fueled by pandemic fears) to people gaining more comfort from (while also putting more resources into) their vehicles — should continue in 2021, and that bodes well for the year ahead.

But, as this year clearly showed, things can change — and in the time it takes for one of these new models to go from 0 to 60.

 

Changing Gears

Looking back on 2020, the dealers we spoke with said it was a trying year in many respects, and, overall, a time of adjustment — for both those selling cars and buying them — because of the pandemic.

Many of those adjustments involved the purchase or leasing process, with much of it, as noted, moving online. But the pandemic also forced most car manufacturers to shut down for weeks or months, eventually leading to those half-full (if that) lots at the dealership that became one of the enduring, and very visible, symbols of the pandemic.

Thus, instead of going to the lot and picking out what they wanted, as they had become accustomed to doing for years, many more customers had to factory-order their vehicle and wait, usually several weeks, for it to arrive. This meant extending leases in some cases, said Wirth, adding that the factory-ordering process took longer, in general. Overall, he noted, customers and his dealership adjusted, and there wasn’t a significant loss of business.

“Given the circumstances and what happened, we feel really good about how we finished in 2020. When you look back to how everyone was feeling in March, we feel really appreciative of how we finished the year.”

That’s because demand was consistently high, for a number of reasons, starting with some pandemic-fueled reliance on the family cars — yes, even as people were driving less, and considerably less in some cases — and a greater desire to take care of that car or trade up, something made more feasible and attractive by everything from incentives from the manufacturers to stimulus checks from the federal government, to the fact that people weren’t spending money on vacations or many other things.

Indeed, Michelle Wirth said 2020 was a year of greater appreciation for the car, and a time when many chose to focus on, and put money in, their homes, their cars, or both.

“There was a point in time during all this when your vehicle was probably the only recommended mode of transportation available to you,” she explained. “And if you chose, for whatever reason, not to have a car for a long time, suddenly, you felt you needed one.

“And if you had one, and it wasn’t as safe or new or nice as you might like, you did something about that,” she went on. “It was the same with home improvement — people were looking around and saying, ‘I didn’t spend much time here before. Now I do; I need to do something.’ The same with their car.”

Cosenzi agreed. “We saw many people reallocating their household budget,” she said. “We saw the majority of the people who shop our brands put their money in their houses and their vehicles, and also feel more like they had to rely on their vehicles, now more than ever.”

Elaborating, she said — and others did as well — that this sentiment applies to both service (taking better care of the car currently in the driveway) and buying or leasing something new or newer, more reliable, and in some cases lighter on the monthly budget.

Indeed, some manufacturers have been offering unprecedented incentives — Cosenzi noted that at least one brand is offering no interest for 84 months — and many of those still employed and with stimulus checks in hand soon eyed new or used cars as rock-solid investments.

“People were saying, ‘I can upgrade my car and get a lower interest rate; I can have a newer car that’s under warranty; I can pay less in interest in the long run and maybe lower my payment,’” she explained. “There are a lot of people who weren’t working or nervous about not working, that were taking advantage of the stimulus and really took that to make decisions about how to allocate their income.”

The problem is that supplies haven’t been able to keep up with demand — for most of this year and on most lots, anyway.

 

Keep On Truckin’

Which brings us all the way to back to Rob Pion pointing at that single line of new cars at his dealership. He said inventories have been consistently low and are due to remain that way. And when vehicles do arrive on the lot, they’re either already spoken for or not on the lot for long, especially when it comes to trucks, the pride of the GM line.

“We’re preselling vehicles at an unprecedented rate — the vehicles are sold before they hit my lot,” he explained. “Typically, people just want to come in and see them: ‘give me a call when it gets here.’ Now, they’re ‘here’s my deposit, call me when I can pick it up.’

“I don’t have any pickup truck inventory,” he went on. “So any businesses looking to make those year-end purchases for tax writeoffs … that’s just not happening this year because there’s little or no availability for them when it comes to that type of vehicle.”

Still, overall, dealers are reporting that the parking lots are more full than they have been.

Peter Wirth said supplies have been steadily improving at Mercedes-Benz, and in the meantime, between the stock at the Chicopee location and a sister dealership in New York, most customers have been able to find what they’re looking for or factory-order it.

Cosenzi, meanwhile, said inventory levels have “balanced out” at her dealerships, and there are now adequate supplies for what she hopes will be a solid end-of-year run.

As for what has been a crazy year for the used-car market, where at times vehicles were difficult if not impossible to find and prices skyrocketed, some normalcy is returning to that realm as well.

“As quickly as it went up, the market is perhaps just as quickly coming back down,” said Pion, adding that, overall, it’s been ultra-challenging for dealers to not only get used cars but cope with the fluctuations in that market — from when the bottom dropped out back in the spring to when prices soared during the summer, to the state of relative uncertainty that exists now.

Peter Wirth agreed that it’s been a bumpy road when it comes to used cars — for a time, he had one employee who did nothing else but try to find vehicles to buy — but said some stability has returned.

“We have roughly 75 used cars in stock,” he noted. “It took us a while to catch up on inventory, just because sales were really good on pre-owned cars all year, so while we kept buying more cars, we sold them right away. It’s taken us until now to find more cars so we replenish supplies. And it’s not just about buying cars — you want be selective and find the right cars.”

Looking ahead … well, while people can do that, it’s difficult given how many unknowns dominate the conversation, regarding everything from pandemic spikes to vaccines to new- and used-car inventories.

“The vaccine is a positive, people not wanting to depend on public transportation or ride-sharing is a positive, and the incentives and low interest rates are positives,” Cosenzi said. “But we can’t be in denial that there is still a virus out there and people are being more cautious than ever before.”

But while question marks remain for the year ahead, the consensus is that 2020 was, overall, not as bad as it could have been, and that a sense of normal — if perhaps a new normal — has returned.

 

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

Business of Aging

No Time Like the Present

By Mark Morris

The senior-living industry is preparing for a “gray tsunami.”

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly 10,000 Baby Boomers will turn 65 every day for the next 10 years, while the oldest Boomers will start turning 80 in 2025.

Robert Kelley, in-house counsel for Everbrook Senior Living, predicts that, once Boomers start reaching that age, the demand for senior-living communities will increase significantly. That’s one of the many reasons he’s excited about his company’s newest community, Cedarbrook Village in Ware.

From its corporate office in Southampton, Everbrook already manages three senior-living communities in Windsor Locks, Hebron, and Bozrah, Conn., and Cedarbrook is its first community in Massachusetts.

Originally planned for a July opening, various delays postponed the ribbon-cutting ceremony until Sept. 14. Kelly Russell, executive director of Cedarbrook Village, has worked in the industry for more than 20 years and has overseen plenty of community openings, but this one was different.

“For this grand opening, we made sure to have plenty of PPE on site for anyone who needed it,” Russell said. Moving people into their apartments safely during COVID-19 also required a new approach.

“We set up different times and arranged for people to use different doors, so they would not run into each other,” she said, adding that social distancing and cleaning between move-ins was all part of the extra planning and organization necessitated by the pandemic.

When families help their parents move into senior living, it’s often a stressful time, she said, and the added stress of COVID-19 has only intensified the anxiety and guilt family caregivers feel. With all the restrictions imposed by COVID-19, families now worry they won’t be able to see their loved ones.

“We reassure family members that we are taking all the necessary precautions so they can schedule visits in a safe environment and stay in touch with their loved ones,” Russell said.

For example, scheduled visits are a departure from pre-COVID times when families could drop in anytime.

Kelly Russell

Kelly Russell says senior living is an attractive option during a pandemic because the safety measures in place give families peace of mind.

“We would tell families this is their home, too. If they wanted to come spend the night with their loved ones and eat in the dining room with them, they were welcome to do all that,” Russell said.

Unfortunately, that wide-open policy is on pause — one of many ways life is different right now in the senior-living sector. But the fact that Cedarbrook opened at all during such a year is a reflection of the growing demand for such facilities, and how this multi-site company intends to continue meeting that need.

 

Safety First

Keeping an aging loved one safe at home during the pandemic can mean a great deal of work for a family. That’s why senior living is a good option, Russell said, noting that Cedarbrook has extensive COVID-19 safety measures in place which can ease the burden for families and give them peace of mind.

“We saw this location as a good fit, and the town of Ware was very accommodating to work with.”

“Even if families don’t see them as much, they know their loved ones are getting all the care they need and still being able to socialize with the residents,” she noted, adding that she also reassures families through social-media postings.

“Whether we’re using FaceTime or sending videos, I post a lot online,” she said. “This way, the families who can’t visit their loved ones often enough can see them smiling and engaged in activities with other people. It lets the family know their loved one is OK.”

Among its 119 units, Cedarbrook offers independent living, assisted living, and a memory-care center. Russell explained there are many reasons why people choose to move in.

“Folks usually move in to our independent-living apartments because they are tired of taking care of a house and a yard, or their laundry is in the basement and stairs have become too difficult, things like that,” she said, adding that independent residents can either make meals for themselves or join others in the dining room.

“Those who move into assisted living usually need some help with everyday tasks such as eating, dressing, and grooming,” she continued. Instead of sitting home alone watching TV, they can be part of a community and engage in activities and exercise programs, and socialize with other people.

Independent-living residents

Independent-living residents can either make meals for themselves or join others in the dining room.

Everbrook chose Ware as the site for Cedarbrook because the Quaboag region, encompassing Ware, Brimfield, and surrounding towns, had no senior-living facilities; the closest options were located in the Wilbraham/Ludlow area to the west and Greater Worcester to the east.

“We saw this location as a good fit, and the town of Ware was very accommodating to work with,” Kelley said, adding that the building design incorporated local influences.

“Several design details of the building are reminiscent of the South Street School that once occupied this site,” he noted, while another example is the large-screen movie room at Cedarbrook, called the Casino Theatre, inspired by the iconic movie house once located on Main Street in Ware.

Trends in senior living have changed over the years. Twenty years ago, such communities tended to attract people in their mid- to late 70s. As longevity has increased, the average move-in age these days has risen closer to the 80s and even 90s.

In the past, inquiries from families focused on services and amenities offered, as well as activities and the level of care. Since COVID-19, Russell said, the questions have changed. “Now, we’re asked, ‘do you have a generator?’ ‘how do you respond to emergencies?’ and ‘what supplies do you have on hand?’”

As a new building that has only recently opened, Russell is able to market the community as having plenty of space for socially distanced meals in two large dining rooms. “Everyone can eat together because we can space them far enough apart.”

Cedarbrook also works with a primary-care physician whom residents can access through telehealth for routine inquiries, rather than going out to a doctor’s office. Meanwhile, an exercise physiologist runs the fitness programs for residents. At one time, exercise programs and other activities filled the calendar, but the number of activities has been reduced to allow for disinfecting equipment and rooms in between sessions. Russell described it as emphasizing quality and safety over quantity.

“If you’re smart about it,” she said, “you can still offer activities and keep everyone safe.”

 

Shifting Tides

By following that same approach, Russell continues to assure families that senior-living communities such as Cedarbrook are the right choice for their loved ones during this crisis.

“We want families to feel secure in knowing that there will always be support here for their loved ones,” Russell said, adding that, while no one can guarantee COVID-19 won’t find a way to infect people, Cedarbrook has measures and equipment in place in the event of an outbreak.

“If our residents have to quarantine, they will still get the care they need and still have their meals,” she said. “We will also help residents stay in touch with their families.”

Keeping safety as the main priority, Russell believes the key is to make adjustments as things change. “I don’t really feel like there is a ‘new normal’ because every day brings new and different challenges we have to face.”

And, like everyone, she looks forward to a time when COVID-19 restrictions are a thing of the past. “We can’t wait until we can fully open the community and share with families everything we have to offer here.”

Prior to Cedarbrook’s opening, Russell had another big event on her calendar this year — she was married on Aug. 28, a date she intentionally chose before the September opening.

“The wedding was much easier to plan than opening the building,” she said with a laugh — but is happy to have accomplished both during a year no one will forget.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Tom Bernard says myriad entities in North Adams, from restaurants to municipal offices to MCLA, have had to do business differently this year.

The last time BusinessWest spoke with Mayor Thomas Bernard for the Community Spotlight, about a year ago, he was talking up the city’s Vision 2030 plan, which was hatched in 2011 and is revisited regularly.

At a public information session last year, city leaders discussed the plan’s seven priorities — economic renewal, investment in aging infrastructure, creation of a thriving and connected community, intergenerational thinking, fiscal efficiency, historic preservation, and food access — and some specifics of what’s happening in each.

But 2020 has been about reacting as much as planning — though Bernard says communities need to do both, even during a pandemic.

“I look at my wonderfully organized and beautifully color-coded and phased planning documents from January and February, and I think about our February staff meeting where we discussed this COVID thing — ‘what could this mean for us?’” he recalled. “It’s been such a difficult year, but I can still point to some really great signs of progress.”

That includes continued movement toward adaptive reuse of old mill space, plans to renovate 67-year-old Greylock Elementary School, and a regional housing-production study that uncovered a need for more affordable housing, but more market-rate housing as well.

That said, it’s been a tough year for many businesses, too.

“People want to get the most bang for their buck without sacrificing quality, without sacrificing engagement, without sacrificing the memories they make. In that sense, North Adams continues to be attractive, and the Berkshires continue to be attractive.”

“Everyone has been struggling,” the mayor said. “Our restaurants did a terrific job early on in making the pivot to curbside and delivery, and they did fairly well when the weather was nice, and then a lot of them got really creative in how to expand their outdoor dining. The city and the licensing board tried to be as friendly and accommodating and make it as easy as possible for people,” Bernard noted, adding, of course, that winter will pose new hardships.

Municipal business continued apace as well, albeit sometimes with a creative, socially distanced flair.

For example, “as part of our property-disposition strategy, we did an auction of city properties, and we did it down at the municipal ballfield. There was plenty of space in the bleachers and stands for bidders, and the auctioneer was out on the field, taking bids. We brought people back to City Hall, one at a time, to do the paperwork. We went nine for 10 on properties we put up for auction.”

 

The Old College Try

Another success story took place at Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts (MCLA) — simply because it made it through a semester of on-campus learning with no major COVID-19 outbreaks.

“We heard loud and clear that the campus experience is important,” said Gina Puc, vice president for Strategic Initiatives, noting, of course, that it’s a somewhat different experience than usual, with students alternating between the classroom and online learning in their residence halls, while only 550 of the 1,225 enrolled students this fall were on campus, all in single rooms.

“And it worked — our positivity rate was 10 times lower than the state’s,” she said. “We made it through the entire semester without having to alter our plans. The students were the main reason we were able to stay the course. We had incredible adherence to all the social-distancing and health and safety guidelines in place.”

The testing program was so successful, in fact, that MCLA was able to donate 130 leftover COVID tests to the city’s public schools, to perform asymptomatic testing on teachers and staff.

“They did such a great job with their testing program,” Bernard added. “Their positivity stayed low, contact tracing was good, and it helped that they were out before the holidays, so Thanksgiving didn’t play into it.”

Enrollment was down about 20%, but mostly among first-year students, reflecting a nationwide trend. “The 2020 high-school graduates didn’t even get their own graduation ceremonies, and it certainly disrupted their college plans,” Puc said.

But she’s confident the college will build off its unusual, but encouraging, fall semester and continue to attract students to North Adams. “We have an incredible combination of beauty and the kinds of cultural amenities usually found in urban areas,” she said.

Students studying the arts have plenty of local institutions at which to intern, but the college’s STEM center and the addition of a radiologic technology program in the health sciences reflect the regional growth of careers in those fields, as reflected by big players like General Dynamics, the Berkshire Innovation Center, and Berkshire Health Systems, and a host of smaller companies.

Tourism is a critical industry in North Adams as well, and visitor numbers were certainly down in 2020 overall, Bernard said, although MASS MoCA had a successful reopening and continues to do well. “The big advantage they have is space — you can be there in a socially distanced way. But, still, fewer people have come through this year.”

North Adams at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1878
Population: 13,708
Area: 20.6 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $18.64
Commercial Tax Rate: $39.83
Median Household Income: $35,020
Family Household Income: $57,522
Type of government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: BFAIR Inc.; Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts
* Latest information available

The exception is outdoor recreation, which has thrived across the Berkshires this year.

“As much as we’ve done incredible work because of our location, because of MASS MoCA and Williamstown Theatre Festival and Williams College and Barrington Stage and Berkshire Theatre and all these tremendous cultural resources, we don’t always appreciate how gorgeous it is out here,” Bernard said. “But, for a lot of people, that’s a huge draw.”

While the number of people visiting for foliage season may have been down from past years, he said he drove around the iconic Route 2 hairpin turn on a number of occasions, and always saw people stopping to take photos.

“Again, what a great, socially distanced way to appreciate the nature of the Berkshires in a year when you can’t engage in the area as fully as you might otherwise,” he said. “You can still get in the car, a motorcycle, or take a bike ride, and see it all. We know there’s demand for that.”

 

Hit the Road

He belives tourism in and around North Adams should rebound fine post-pandemic — if only because people’s dollars go further here, because of the mix of reasonably priced attractions and no-cost nature.

“People want to get the most bang for their buck without sacrificing quality, without sacrificing engagement, without sacrificing the memories they make. In that sense, North Adams continues to be attractive, and the Berkshires continue to be attractive,” he said.

As part of the Mohawk Trail Woodlands Partnership, the city recently landed some funding for a comprehensive mapping and marketing effort of its trail systems. “It’s for people who want to visit, maybe go to a museum, have a good meal, stay a few days as tourists, but then they want to get out on the trails.”

Add it all up, and there’s plenty to look forward to in 2021.

“I’m bullish and optimistic about what spring and summer could bring,” Bernard went on. “I think there will still be caution, I think there will be wariness, but I think there’s also pent-up demand, too, and people will think about where they want to go and what they want to do.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services

Play Ball

Paul Scully Charles Steinberg

Paul Scully (right) tours the under-construction Polar Park in Worcester with team President Charles Steinberg.

Baseball season is — hopefully — just four months away, and Paul Scully says that’s reason for excitement in Massachusetts.

“Just think about this year and the fact that so many of us have been inside, just looking for something to do,” said Scully, president and CEO of Country Bank, while talking about the bank’s ‘founding partner’ status with the Worcester Red Sox during a recent episode of BusinessTalk, the BusinessWest podcast.

“Just the prospect of having baseball back, right here within a quick drive for most of us … we’re very excited about it for the fans, for our customers, and for businesses throughout the area. It’s a great time.”

As one of 21 founding partners of the WooSox, who plan to begin play in Worcester’s brand-new Polar Park this spring, Country Bank’s multi-tiered sponsorship includes a large sign in right field atop the stands known as the Worcester Wall, along with the Country Bank Guest Services area located on the first-base concourse.

“We toured the park two weeks ago … and it really has some wonderful attributes that represent the Central Mass. area. It’s different from Fenway, but there are some similarities,” Scully said, noting that the high Worcester Wall is in right field, and will be colored blue, as opposed to the left-field Green Monster in Fenway.

Meanwhile, the Country Bank Guest Services area is a place where fans can come for help with any number of issues, from missing keys to missing kids, he noted — a way for the bank to extend its customer-service philosophy to this new partnership.

Speaking of partnerships, the bank and the WooSox Foundation will work together on a number of charitable efforts, from a Teacher of the Month recognition program to a combined charitable-giving campaign throughout the baseball season.

“We have been impressed and inspired by Country Bank’s sense of community involvement,” WooSox President Charles Steinberg said. “We see how helpful they are to various institutions and thousands of people in our region, and we welcome them to Polar Park with open arms as we work together to enhance the quality of life in our community even more.”

To kick off their partnership last month, a team from Country Bank and the WooSox mascot, Smiley Ball, delivered 500 Thanksgiving meals prepared by Old Sturbridge Village along with apple pies from Worcester-based Table Talk to the St. John’s Food Pantry for the Poor.

“Just the prospect of having baseball back, right here within a quick drive for most of us … we’re very excited about it for the fans, for our customers, and for businesses throughout the area. It’s a great time.”

“The alignment of our organizational values with the WooSox solidifies our commitment to service and teamwork as we continually strive for excellence in all we do,” Scully said.

He noted that, at a time when spectator sports continue to be redefined by new norms of social distancing, sports sponsorships are taking on new forms, extending beyond the stadium walls to make a real impact in the community. But he knows fans want to have a good time, too.

“We couldn’t be more excited to be a part of the WooSox and the Worcester community,” he said. “The addition of year-round entertainment, including ballgames, concerts, and various family activities at Polar Park, is exciting for the people and businesses in the region. We all look forward to the day when we can come together again at the ballpark, enjoying activities with our families and friends. We also look forward to seeing our businesses thrive once again after being heavily impacted by the pandemic.”

Scully knows, of course, that the pandemic is far from over, and the baseball season may or may not start on time in April. But he also senses a regional fan base that will enthusiastically support another professional sports franchise in this region, especially one with the cachet of the Boston Red Sox’ Triple-A affiliate.

“They’re part of the Central Mass. community now, and we’re excited for them, and we’re excited for us,” he told BusinessWest. “But, more importantly, we’re just excited for the fans.”

 

—Joseph Bednar

Banking and Financial Services

More Than Just Bitcoin

By Matthew Ogrodowicz, MSA

 

‘Blockchain’ is a term used to broadly describe the cryptographic technology that underpins several applications, the most widely known of which is Bitcoin and other similar cryptocurrencies.

Matthew Ogrodowicz

Even though it is the largest current application, a survey conducted on behalf of the American Institute of Certified Public Accountants (AICPA) in 2018 found that 48% of American adults were not familiar with Bitcoin, Ethereum, or Litecoin, three cryptocurrencies among those with the largest market capitalizations. The largest of these, Bitcoin, currently sits at a market capitalization of approximately $355 billion. If half of all adults are unfamiliar with this largest application, it is safe to assume that even fewer know about other ways the technology could be used — including for some of the region’s major industries.

Three of these largest industries in Western Mass. are healthcare, manufacturing, and higher education. In each of these industries, the secure and verifiable information network created by blockchain can provide efficiencies. This network, essentially a public ledger, consists of a series of transactions (blocks), which is distributed and replicated across a network of computers referred to as nodes. These nodes each maintain a copy of the ledger, which can only be added to by the solving of a cryptographic puzzle that is verified by other nodes in the network.

The information on the ledger is maintained by another aspect of cryptography, which is that the same data encrypted in the same way produces the same result, so if data earlier in the chain is manipulated, it will be rejected by the other nodes even though the data itself is encrypted. Thus, an immutable chain of verifiable, secure information is created, capable of supporting applications in the aforementioned fields.

Each of these industries can benefit from the blockchain’s ability to host ‘smart contracts.’ A smart contract is a digital protocol intended to facilitate, verify, or enforce the performance of a transaction. The simplest analogue is that of a vending machine — once payment is made, an item is delivered. Smart contracts would exist on the blockchain and would be triggered by a predefined condition or action agreed upon by the parties beforehand. This allows the parties to transact directly without the need for intermediaries, providing time and cost savings as well as automation and accuracy.

Combined with the security and immutability noted earlier, smart contracts should prove to be a valuable tool, though there is still work to be done in codifying and establishing legal frameworks around smart contracts. Other applications of blockchain technology are more specifically applicable to individual fields.

In the field of healthcare, blockchain’s ability to process, validate, and sanction access to data could lead to a centralized repository of electronic health records and allow patients to permit and/or revoke read-and-write privileges to certain doctors or facilities as they deem necessary. This would allow patients more control over who has access to their personal health records while providing for quick transfers and reductions in administrative delay.

In the field of manufacturing, blockchain can provide more supply-chain efficiency and transparency by codifying and tracking the routes and intermediate steps, including carriers and time of arrival and departure, without allowing for unauthorized modification of this information. In a similar fashion, blockchain can provide manufacturers assurance that the goods they have received are exactly those they have ordered and that they are without defect by allowing for tracking of individual parts or other raw materials.

Finally, in the field of higher education, blockchain could be used to improve record keeping of degrees and certifications in a manner similar to that of electronic medical records. Beyond that, intellectual property such as research, scholarly publications, media works, and presentations could be protected by the blockchain by allowing for ease of sharing them while preserving the ability to control how they are used.

And, of course, blockchain development will be a skill high in demand that will benefit from the creation of interdisciplinary programs at colleges and universities that help students understand the development of blockchain networks as well the areas of business, technology, law, and commerce that are impacted by it.

For these reasons and many more, businesses should feel an urgency to increase their knowledge of blockchain’s impact on their industries while exploring the potential dividends that could be reaped by a foray into an emerging technology.

 

Matthew Ogrodowicz, MSA is a senior associate at the Holyoke-based accounting firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.

Business of Aging

Shot in the Arm

As COVID-19 vaccines begin to roll off production lines, many questions remain — about how quickly they’ll reach the general public, about long-term efficacy and safety, about how many Americans will actually want one.

But on one issue, there is no doubt, Dr. Andrew Artenstein said.

“This is a spectacular achievement just to get where we’ve gotten so far, and I think we should appreciate that,” the chief physician executive and chief academic officer at Baystate Health told BusinessWest. “It’s been a whirlwind, and I mean that in a good way.”

Everyone in healthcare understands the upside — the dramatic promise — of a vaccine as the COVID-19 pandemic enters its 10th month.

“A vaccine is a major component of getting on the other side of this,” Artenstein added. “It’s not the only component, but it’s an important and necessary piece of shortening the duration of this pandemic and possibly preventing future waves.”

With Pfizer gaining emergency-use authorization from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to begin distributing its vaccine — and Moderna expected to do the same — the Baker-Polito administration announced allocation and distribution plans for the first round of vaccine shipments to Massachusetts, expected to begin around Dec. 15. The state’s first shipment of 59,475 doses of the Pfizer vaccine was ordered from the federal government and will be delivered directly to 21 hospitals across eight counties, as well as to the Department of Public Health immunization lab.

Doses will then be redistributed for access to 74 hospitals across all 14 counties for frontline medical workers. Another 40,000 doses of the Pfizer vaccine will be allocated to the Federal Pharmacy Program to begin vaccinating staff and residents of skilled-nursing facilities and assisted-living residences in Massachusetts.

In all, Massachusetts is expecting 300,000 doses of vaccines from both Pfizer and Moderna to be delivered by the end of December. Both vaccines require two doses administered three to four weeks apart. While all delivery dates and quantities are subject to change due to ongoing federal approval and allocation, state leaders expect to receive and distribute more than 2 million doses to priority population groups by the end of March.

Dr. Andrew Artenstein

Dr. Andrew Artenstein says the public should not let down their guard when it comes to masking and social distancing while they wait for the vaccine.

“It does make perfect sense,” Artenstein said of the prioritization plans, which reflect judgments on the federal level and ensure delivery to groups like healthcare workers, first responders, the elderly, and people with co-morbidities before the rest of the public. In the case of seniors, for example, “it’s not that they’re more likely to get the virus, necessarily, but they’re more likely to die if they get infected. They do worse.”

Meanwhile, he added, healthcare workers have a greater risk of coronavirus exposure than most other people.

“We’ve been inundated — inundated — with calls from other groups that they want the vaccine,” he said, placing heavy emphasis on that word. “But the truth is, it isn’t available for the general population now, and it may be several months before it is.”

Artenstein, an infectious-disease expert who founded and directed the Center for Biodefense and Emerging Pathogens at Brown University for more than a decade before arriving at Baystate, has been one of the public faces locally of the fight against COVID-19, and he was careful to temper optimism about a vaccine with a reality check on the timeline — and what people need to do in the meantime.

“A vaccine may eventually be the answer, but it’s only going to be part of the solution for the next six to 12 months, assuming we continue to get vaccines that are safe and effective. It’s going to take a while — even if all goes well — before we get enough immunity in the population to really put an end to this thing.

“In the meantime,” he went on, “we would benefit greatly by continuing to push the classic ways to interrupt transmission: masks, distancing, avoiding gatherings. All those things will continue to help us because, even after we start vaccinating parts of the population, it will take the better part of the year to roll it out to everyone, and we need to continue to interrupt transmission.”

Jessica Collins, executive director of the Public Health Institute of Western Massachusetts, agreed, even though it can be a challenge getting through to people suffering from ‘pandemic fatigue,’ who feel isolated and weary of all the changes in their lives over the past year.

“I’m sorry people are tired,” she said. “But the basic messaging isn’t hard — wear a mask, wash your hands, and don’t be inside spaces with a mask off with people you don’t know. I do think the holidays have created a tremendous sense of urgency to remind people again, especially with students leaving schools and coming back to their homes.”

Hopefully, health leaders say, vaccines will put a definitive end to the crisis. But that day is still far off, Collins added. “People need to wait it out.”

 

Making a List, Checking It Twice

In announcing the Commonwealth’s vaccine-distribution plans, Gov. Charlie Baker noted that Massachusetts goes further than national recommendations by prioritizing all workers in the healthcare environment, not only providers, but also food-service, maintenance, and other facility workers. Similarly, home health workers, including personal-care attendants, are prioritized on the list, recognizing their important role providing services to vulnerable individuals and the fact that they often reside in communities highly affected by COVID-19.

Jessica Collins

Jessica Collins

“Messaging is critical, and the messengers are critical. Hopefully, we’ll have good results, and more people will be willing to take it.”

Phase one of vaccine distribution — which, as noted, includes healthcare-facility workers; police, fire, and ambulance workers; congregate-care settings, including not only senior-living facilities, but shelters and jails; and home-based healthcare workers — is expected to last into February. Phase two, expected to run from February to April, will prioritize individuals with co-morbidities that put them at higher risk for COVID-19 complications; all adults over age 65; as well as workers in the fields of early education, K-12 education, transit, grocery, utility, food and agriculture, sanitation, public works, and public health.

Phase three, expected to follow in April or May, will see the vaccine more widely available to the general public.

Baker’s announcement noted that vaccines go through extensive testing, more than any pharmaceuticals, including extensive testing in clinical trials. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which approves the vaccine, and the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Advisory Committee on Immunization Practices, which will make its recommendation for use, must ensure any vaccine is both safe and effective for the public before approval and distribution.

All this is necessary for emergency-use authorization of the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines, Artenstein said, but the testing process is far from over, and long-term effects won’t be known until, well, the long term.

The emergency-use ruling “is not licensure, but allows the immediate use of the vaccine pending more information that leads to licensure down the road — because we’re in a pandemic,” he noted, adding that he’s optimistic about further testing, as trials so far have shown about 95% effectiveness across all age groups, with no serious adverse effects.

“The data I’ve seen is pretty impressive for efficacy and safety of the vaccine. And there were around 40,000 people in the trial, so that’s a good sample,” he said — enough to start delivering some immunity to high-risk populations now.

The question, especially as distribution widens in the spring, is how many Americans will actually take the vaccine. Collins said the Public Health Institute has conducted preliminary outreach and found some skepticism and mistrust of the government when it comes to vaccine advice, especially in communities of color.

“In order to counteract that, we have been trying to find and lift up messengers in the community who are trusted people, whether faith-based leaders or other trusted messengers, to counteract skepticism and fear about getting vaccines, whether the flu vaccine or the COVID-19 vaccine,” Collins told BusinessWest, adding that the institute held a virtual town-hall event two days before Thanksgiving and asked 10 such messengers to share their wisdom on prevention measures.

Artenstein breaks down vaccine attitudes into three distinct groups of people — two of which are those champing at the bit for a vaccine, and a small but robust community of anti-vaxxers who express skepticism at vaccines in general.

“Then there’s a whole middle group who could be convinced to get the vaccine, but they’re concerned about safety and effectiveness,” he explained. “It’s a risk-benefit calculation, and based on what I know about vaccines, the risk seems low, and the risk of COVID seems pretty high, especially right now, with such high rates in the community.

Hampden County, in fact, currently ranks third among Massachusetts counties for transmission rate, with more than 50 positive cases per 100,000 residents.

Typically, around 70% of people in a community — or a nation — need to be exposed, either through natural infection or a vaccine, to reach the desired herd immunity, he added. “In the U.S., that’s a big number. But the risk-benefit calculation is obvious. You’d like, over time, to have enough people willing to get the vaccine to help the general population.”

 

Anticipation and Reality

While surveys currently suggest about 60% of Americans are willing to take a COVID-19 vaccine, that number could rise higher if early results from the priority groups demonstrate both effectiveness and safety.

“The U.K. is going first, and then U.S. healthcare workers have to go — which is obviously the right thing to do — then people over 65,” Collins noted. “It’s not like the general public is being made guinea pigs. We will actually be able to see a lot of people getting the vaccine, and the companies will see the reactions.

“So, messaging is critical, and the messengers are critical,” she added. “Hopefully, we’ll have good results, and more people will be willing to take it.”

Artenstein agreed, adding that, for the group of Americans ready to line up right now, the wait may be longer than they realize, but that’s OK.

“We’re a little over our skis on this,” he said. “There’s a lot of excitement and anticipation, but it’s going to come out as more of a slow roll; there’s a manufacturing process, an approval process, and a safety process. There won’t be 300 million doses available tomorrow, and that’s hard for some folks.

“There’s going to be a lot of interest, questions, and anxiety, and rightly so,” he added. “We’re living in a very different time, and people want to move very fast. But we have to make sure we do things in the safest possible way.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

 

Education Special Coverage

The Sternest of Tests

By George O’Brien

 

Yves Salomon-Fernández says the region’s community colleges were facing some pretty severe headwinds before the COVID-19 pandemic reached Western Mass. in March.

Indeed, these institutions, like all colleges and universities, have been seriously impacted by demographic trends — specifically, a decade or more of consistently smaller high-school graduating classes, said Salomon-Fernández, president of Greenfield Community College (GCC).

But they’ve also been adversely impacted by what was the nation’s longest economic expansion and historically low unemployment rates, in a continuation of a trend that has become quite familiar to those in the community-college realm — when times are good, enrollment suffers, she noted; when times are bad, like during the Great Recession, people go back to school and enrollment climbs.

Yves Salomon-Fernández

Yves Salomon-Fernández says the pandemic has in some ways accelerated the pace of change when it comes to jobs and the workforce, and community colleges will need to help individuals thrive in this altered landscape.

But while the pandemic has created some of the worst times this region has seen in the past 90 years or so and put thousands on the unemployment rolls, that development hasn’t benefited the community colleges in the manner it has in the past, said Salomon-Fernández and others we spoke with. There are a number of reasons for that, many of which have to do with the ongoing health crisis itself.

Listing some, Christina Royal, president of Holyoke Community College (HCC) and one of BusinessWest’s Women of Impact for 2020, said many individuals and families are simply coping with too many issues right now — from balancing life and work to trying to find employment, to simply putting food on the table — to consider adding a college education to the mix.

Beyond that, one of the real strengths of community colleges is their personal style of learning in the classroom, something taken away by the pandemic, and something that is keeping many students on the sidelines, Royal continued.

“We have a lot of students who prefer in-person learning,” she explained, noting that, in what would be normal times, roughly 20% of courses offered by the school are taught remotely; now, that number is closer to 95% or even 98%, and it will be that way at least through next spring. “So some students feel frustrated that the pandemic is continuing; what they thought would be a one-semester impact is now much more than that.”

But maybe the biggest reason this crisis has hit the community colleges harder than other institutions of higher learning is that this has not been an equal-opportunity pandemic, said John Cook, president of Springfield Technical Community College (STCC), noting that it has impacted those in urban areas, those in lower-income brackets, and those in the minority community more severely than other constituencies. And these individuals, which were already struggling in many ways before the pandemic, form the base of the student populations at all of the state’s community colleges.

“For us and for the other community colleges, this is a conversation about equity,” he told BusinessWest. “We are a college that has a majority of students of color, and we’re seeing steep enrollment declines. It’s right in line with the way the pandemic has disproportionately impacted the African-American community and the Hispanic community.”

Christina Royal

Christina Royal says enrollment at community colleges has been dropping consistently since 2012, a pattern exacerbated by the pandemic.

Add all this up, and the region’s community colleges have had a very trying time since the spring. There have been cutbacks — STCC has had to cut several programs, for example, everything from automotive technology to landscape architecture (more on that later) — and workforce reductions by attrition at each school. And no one is really sure when the picture might at least start to brighten, which may be the biggest challenge of all.

“I’m encouraged, like the world, by vaccines, but just like everything with this pandemic, there is a great deal of uncertainty as to when anything is going to take place,” Cook said. “So it’s really hard to forecast for next fall and beyond.”

But in some ways, this has been a proud moment for the schools, if that’s the right term, as they have focused their attention on the students who are enrolled and their growing needs during the pandemic — for everything from Chromebooks to hotspots so students can have internet access, to food and even desks so students can study remotely.

“From 2012 until now, we’ve lost about 40% of our enrollment. This is staggering for any industry, any sector, and it tells a certain story about community colleges.”

Meanwhile, the schools are doing what they always do — looking to the future and seeing how the pandemic will impact the employment landscape with an eye toward preparing students for what will be a changing job market.

“The economy is changing, and jobs are changing, and we were already beginning to see these shifts before the pandemic,” said Salomon-Fernández. “When you read reports from the World Economic Forum, you see predictions that, over the next several years, many of the jobs that exist now will disappear. We knew there was a change coming in the future of work, and what we’re seeing now is that the pandemic is affecting how we work — and what the work is.”

For this issue and its focus on education, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at how the pandemic has impacted the region’s community colleges, and how they’re responding to these even stronger headwinds.

 

Difficult Course

Cook told BusinessWest that the presidents of the state’s 15 community colleges meet weekly.

They’ve always done this, he said, but the meetings are different now. For starters, they’re by Zoom, obviously, and the tone is decidedly different as the schools collectively deal with challenges on an unprecedented scale.

Unprecedented, because the schools have never faced a perfect storm like this one.

“There’s a solidarity there, for sure — you’re with a group of peers and colleagues contending with similarly difficult circumstances,” he said with some understatement in his voice. “We do a lot of listening and sharing — of strategic actions; navigation of federal, state, and local regulations; and best practices. We’re all coping with the same challenges.”

And there are many of them, starting with enrollment. As noted earlier, several forces have been pulling the numbers down for the bulk of the past decade, including the smaller high-school graduating classes and the economy — and the impact has been significant.

Indeed, overall enrollment at STCC had fallen by 30% between 2012 (when there were 7,000 students on campus) and the fall of 2019, said Cook, and it took another 15% hit this fall.

“From 2012 until now, we’ve lost about 40% of our enrollment,” he noted. “This is staggering for any industry, any sector, and it tells a certain story about community colleges.”

John Cook

John Cook says the pandemic has disproportionately impacted urban areas and communities of color — constituencies served by community colleges.

The story is similar at most all of the other community colleges. Royal said enrollment has been declining at a rate of roughly 5% a year since 2012, or the peak, if you will, when it comes to enrollment growth in the wake of the Great Recession, and the pandemic has certainly compounded the problem. At HCC, enrollment is down 13.7% (roughly 600 students) from the fall of 2019, while the number of full-time equivalents is down 17%. And they are projected to decline further for the spring (enrollment is traditionally lower in the spring than the fall), she noted, as her school and other community colleges have announced that all learning next semester will be remote.

At GCC, the school hasn’t been hit as hard when it comes to enrollment, perhaps an 8% decline, said Salomon-Fernández, but the numbers are still down, and the long-term projections show they will continue trending downward for perhaps the balance of the decade, something GCC and other schools have been trying to plan for.

These enrollment declines obviously take a toll on these schools financially, said those we spoke with, a toll that has been greatly acerbated by the pandemic; Cook equated the 15% drop in enrollment from last year to $3 million in lost revenues. State and federal assistance from the CARES Act and other relief efforts have helped, he said, but there are restrictions on those monies, and, overall, they certainly don’t offset the steep losses.

Meanwhile, other headwinds are blowing, he said. At STCC, for example, the school has a number of issues with its buildings, some of which are more than 150 years old, with costs totaling several million dollars.

In response, the institutions have been using every tool in the toolbox to cope with the declines in revenue, including inducements to retire, not filling positions when people do retire or leave, reducing part-time personnel (and then full-time workers) if needed, creating efficiencies when possible, and cutting down on expenses wherever possible, including travel, utilities, and more.

In some cases, schools have had to go further and cut programs, as at STCC, which has eliminated several programs, including automotive, cosmetology, civil engineering, and dental assisting, which together enrolled roughly 120 students. These cuts came down to simple mathematics, said Cook, adding that, while some programs were popular and certainly needed within the community, like automotive, they are losing propositions, budget-wise.

“As much as we try to encourage them to stick with their plan and help them, through myriad services, to persist, the numbers seem to indicate that they need to take a break. And that’s disproportionately unique to community colleges — we don’t see the same level of enrollment decline at state universities, at UMass, or at undergraduate private institutions.”

“By and large, with every program we offer, the tuition and fees do not cover the costs; no program really breaks even, especially anything that has a lab or a technical or clinical element to it; those are all losing endeavors,” he explained. “Which means there’s even more pressure when enrollment falls.”

 

Steep Grade

And, as noted, enrollment is projected to keep falling for the foreseeable future, and for all of the reasons, many of them pandemic-related, mentioned above — from individuals not able to attend college for financial or other reasons to people not wanting to learn remotely, which is all that community colleges can offer right now, except for some lab programs. And these trends are piling up atop those falling birth rates and smaller high-school classes.

Overall, it’s far more than enough to offset any gains that might come from the economy declining and the jobless rate soaring, said Royal, noting that this downturn is unlike those that came before because of the pandemic and the wave of uncertainty that has accompanied it.

“When we think about the conditions that tend to drive more students to higher education during a recession, in normal times, there is more predictability when it comes to economic cycles,” she explained. “We know that during a recession, jobs are limited, and you use the time to focus on your education; the market is going to turn, and when it does, you’ll have more credentials and certificates to be competitive for a job.

“When you think of the conditions we’re in now, there’s still so much uncertainty that people are feeling nervous about starting a new program when they just don’t have a sense for where the world is going to end up,” she went on. “They’re thinking, ‘what is the world going to look like, and how do we even navigate this?’”

With many schools forced to offer only remote learning, Salomon-Fernández noted, there was some speculation that students, perhaps with some prodding from their parents, might opt to learn remotely at a community college rather than a far more expensive four-year institution of higher learning. But thus far, such a movement has not materialized, she said, adding that some students are opting out altogether and taking at least a semester or year off rather than enroll remotely at any institution.

What is materializing is a situation where those in the minority communities and the lower end of the income scale — frontline workers, in many instances — are being disproportionately impacted by the pandemic. And this is the constituency that fills many of the seats — another term that takes on new meaning during the pandemic — at this region’s community colleges.

“If you look at Holyoke, Springfield, Chicopee, and Westfield — those are our top feeder communities,” Royal said. “These are the communities that are getting impacted by the pandemic in a significant way; we know the pandemic is disproportionately impacting communities of color and low-income communities.”

She and the others we spoke with said the pandemic is putting many people out of work or reducing their hours, affecting everything from housing to food insecurity. Meanwhile, for others, the pandemic has them in a situation where balancing work and life has become more challenging and complicated, leaving fewer hours in the day and less time and opportunity for things like attaining the associate degree that might open some doors career-wise.

“There are so many uncertainties right now that have many people saying, ‘I don’t know if I can handle another thing right now — so I’m just going to wait and see if we can stabilize some of these other factors, especially some consistency with K-12 education and a better understanding of where the jobs are and who’s hiring,’” Royal said.

Cook concurred. “A lot of what we see in our enrollment decline is students not going anywhere — they’re sitting on the sidelines,” he said. “They’re not seeking another option because, frankly, we’re the most affordable and most accessible option in Springfield. They’re literally staying home — taking care of children who are similarly home, or taking care of family members, or addressing working concerns. That’s what we see, and that’s part of the larger story around racial concerns, equity, and structural racism, and this is how it lands at a place like STCC.

“As much as we try to encourage them to stick with their plan and help them, through myriad services, to persist, the numbers seem to indicate that they need to take a break,” he went on. “And that’s disproportionately unique to community colleges — we don’t see the same level of enrollment decline at state universities, at UMass, or at undergraduate private institutions.”

 

Learning Curves

While coping with falling enrollment, the community colleges are facing additional challenges when it comes to serving those who are enrolled, said those we spoke with, noting, again, the disproportionate impact on those in lower-income brackets.

One of the biggest challenges many students face is getting internet access, said Salomon-Fernández, noting that this was already a challenge for some in rural Franklin County before the pandemic; now, it’s even more of an issue.

Royal agreed, noting that many students made use of HCC’s wi-fi and computer labs before the pandemic because they didn’t have it at home or had limited, low-band service.

The schools have responded by giving out laptops and Chromebooks on loan, as well as mobile hotspots to help with wi-fi connectivity.

“We’ve had hundreds of students access technology to help them with remote learning,” said Royal, adding that, through the school’s Student Emergency Fund, help has been provided for everything from rent payments to auto insurance to food, with more than $90,000 distributed to more than 230 students.

But the help goes beyond money, she said, adding that, at the school’s Thrive Center, students can get assistance with filling out applications for unemployment, get connected to mental-health services, find digital-literacy programs, and receive support from the school’s food pantry, in addition to those internet hot spots.

Looking ahead, though, the colleges face a much larger and even more important challenge as they try to anticipate changes to the job market, some of them being shaped by and accelerated by the pandemic, and adjust their programs accordingly.

“We’re trying to understand and anticipate how the job market will change. We expect some jobs to be gone and not come back, and as a community college, we’re preparing ourselves to support the most vulnerable people whose jobs will cease to exist.”

“We’re trying to understand and anticipate how the job market will change,” said Salomon-Fernández. “We expect some jobs to be gone and not come back, and as a community college, we’re preparing ourselves to support the most vulnerable people whose jobs will cease to exist.

“We’re already working with our Workforce Investment Board and with our chamber of commerce and other employment partners to help them think through training, both right now and for what’s coming down the pike,” she added. “It’s a matter of being agile in our thinking, of being responsive in terms of what new academic programs and new workforce-development programs might be needed, and making sure they are informed by industry and that we are ready to serve when people are ready to re-engage in this work.”

‘Ready to serve’ is a phrase that defines the purpose and the mission of the region’s community colleges. Carrying out that mission has become more difficult during the pandemic and the many changes it has brought, but the schools are persevering.

This has been the sternest of tests for them, but they are determined to pass it themselves, and enable all those they serve to do the same.

 

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

Special Coverage Women in Businesss

Knowledge Is Power

The WBOA team with a mural

The WBOA team with a mural commissioned from member and artist Mary Kearney.

 

When the Women Business Owners Alliance launched in 1982, there wasn’t anything quite like it, Anita Eliason said.

“Because there were so few women business owners in the Valley, they felt a need to get together and kind of strengthen their bond and share the experiences they were having that, maybe, were different than the experiences of men in business,” said Eliason, WBOA’s president. “They kind of broke some barriers and did it with a sense of camaraderie with other women business owners.”

These days, business groups, including those focused on women, are much more prevalent, but she thinks the WBOA is still unique — because of its diligent focus on education.

When the alliance became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit recently, “the goal was to establish ourselves as an educational organization,” she said. “Some organizations exist to bring people together to be one another’s customers, like BNI; the whole point of getting together is so I can get to your six degrees, and you can get to my six degrees, and we can all create business.

“We’re really about education and upping skills for people looking to be successful in business, much more than we are about getting business from one another. We’re here to help people be better at business, and we’re mutually learning from one another.”

“That’s not how we operate,” she went on. “We really come together to be enlightened, to be educated, to be inspired so go out and do the business of work. It’s not so much that your sister’s going to be my client, and my mother’s going to be yours. It’s mutually getting together to up our skill level.”

Members of the WBOA say the organization has proven beneficial on many levels, offering inspiration and knowledge from other women’s experiences in a supportive and non-competitive atmosphere. There’s a comfort level many say they haven’t found elsewhere, and it’s helping them gain the confidence and connections to succeed at business and in life.

The organization’s tagline is “going the extra mile for women in business,” reflecting that desire to be more than a networking group or one solely focused on generating new business. In fact, the WBOA tends to avoid the word ‘networking,’ and concentrates instead on making connections and sharing information in a variety of ways.

Eliason, who is also the senior business advisor for the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center’s (MSBDC) Western Regional Office, said not all alliance members are business owners. Some aspire to own a business, while others — such as managers of banks and insurance companies — aren’t technically owners, but are responsible for a company’s day-to-day operations.

“Some people think it’s a social organization, and I think 40 years ago it was something like that. I have the sense that, when they started, they met over dinner in restaurants to start with and then became more formal,” she noted. “Many networking organizations have cropped up in the meantime that are women-focused, and we see ourselves as complementary to those.”

Meaning, the WBOA adds value women professionals may not find elsewhere, and education is at the heart of that value proposition.

For example, the group holds a breakfast meeting every second Thursday at the Scibelli Enterprise Center in Springfield, where the WBOA is based. While the organization has operated remotely since March and the events are virtual for the time being, they have continued without interruption.

Members of the alliance

Members of the alliance meet for an evening roundtable discussion during pre-pandemic times; all meetings since the spring have been remote, but none have been canceled.

Last month, the guest speaker was an electrical engineer at Raytheon and a Six Sigma lean-manufacturing black belt, who talked about organization and creating leaner operations. A week later, as is typical following the breakfast events, a longer evening program took a deeper dive into the subject matter, and more specific strategies were introduced.

The WBOA also holds quarterly events like social-media boot camps, which, last spring, featured a general session and 14 breakout sessions. Next month, a virtual financial workshop will present an accountant, an enrolled agent, and a tax preparer, who will speak about tax laws, PPP forgiveness, and a host of other issues. “The goal is to leave with a profit-loss statement and a balance sheet from this year and then set up a blank one for the following year.”

One of the positives of hosting the organization — and, before the pandemic, these events — at the Enterprise Center is that so many resources, from the SBA to SCORE, are also located there, and that aspect has been missed, Eliason said.

“It’s a great hub of activity for women business owners. But when we had to shift online, we never missed a meeting. We continued to meet without exception, which we’re kind of proud of,” she said, noting that even more programming was added, such as ‘happy hour’ events that are more motivational in nature than the breakfast discussions, with topics ranging from personal wellness to navigating remote work. “It’s really relevant stuff.”

 

Making Connections

It also requires resources to make it all happen, which is why the WBOA seeks sponsorships from organizations to underwrite its work. “We’re nonprofit, but there are expenses,” Eliason said, noting that fundraising has been more difficult in a year when businesses of all kinds are struggling.

Still, she made a point of listing many of the businesses that do support the alliance’s work, including Advanced Manufacturing, Allstate Longmeadow, Associated Industries of Massachusetts, Attorney Marie T. Jablonski, Bacon Wilson, Dale A. Frank Financial Group, Fletcher Sewer and Drain, Goss and McLain, Jerome’s Party Plus, JL Raymaakers & Sons, Latka Printing, Main Street Deli, New England Disc Golf, Veryl’s Automotive Services, and WEIB-FM.

Collaborators include the MSBDC, SCORE, Valley Community Development, the Franklin County CDC, the Center for Women and Enterprise, and Common Capital. The WBOA also created the first TedX event in Easthampton and established the WINGS mentor program at STCC.

“We see ourselves as a place to learn about all the other resources that are available and always come back for additional education. That’s why we’re strategically placed at the Scibelli Enterprise Center,” she said. “We’re really about education and upping skills for people looking to be successful in business, much more than we are about getting business from one another. We’re here to help people be better at business, and we’re mutually learning from one another.”

It’s been called a sisterhood in the past, and Eliason appreciates that.

“I think of it almost like a sorority — we’re going through similar experiences, we have similar challenges, and for every challenge we face, there’s someone who was at that level with their business years ago, and someone who hasn’t gotten there yet.”

Elaborating, she noted that BOA members feel comfortable calling on professionals who have been through what they’re experiencing. “It’s an evolving group of people at different stages of business ownership, so there are people you can call on, really, for anything.”

Right now, the group boasts about 45 members, though it has topped 100 in the past, and Eliason expects the number to rise to about 70 next year, once the pandemic slows. That number, she said, would be a sweet spot, generating a rich pool of experience and connections, but not such a high number that events become unwieldy.

As for those events, she said platforms like Zoom will continue to have a place at the WBOA even after members return to meeting in person, because the virtual events have cast a wider geographic net, and those technologies also allow the organization to archive webinars where important information gets shared.

In each meeting and newsletter, members also learn about available loan and grant opportunities to help them grapple with a pandemic that has hit small businesses hard, and forced many to close altogether. Other members are trying to keep their businesses afloat while working at home and balancing their careers with what their kids need in terms of remote learning.

“They’re doubling as a teacher for their kids,” Eliason said. “That’s not just a woman’s challenge, but for many of them, it’s been tough trying to juggle those two roles. It’s a lot to navigate.”

Even without the adjustments wrought by COVID-19, there’s always more to learn about how to build and grow a business, and to that end, WBOA leadership will continue to identify categories of information that would be most useful to its members.

“We’re looking for even more diversity of speakers in terms of the industries they come from,” she said. “It’s about linking what’s deliverable to really out-of-the-box thinking.”

 

Making the Time

In this difficult year, Eliason knows women aren’t necessarily looking for another networking group. But the WBOA isn’t just another networking group.

“Just come,” she said when asked what she’d say to women wondering whether the alliance is for them. “Attending a meeting is significant. It’s a really safe place to learn information. A lot of people say, ‘I didn’t need what the main speaker had to say, but one of the other people who spoke for five or six minutes, she made it worth coming.’

“We think of it as a think tank,” she continued. “If you’re stuck or in a rut, you can just put yourself in a place where there’s every possibility that someone will say something that will further you. Someone will say something in the course of a meeting that makes you say, ‘yeah, that was great.’”

And the learning — and, hopefully, growing — continues.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Construction Special Coverage

Constructing a Picture

In its recently released 2021 Dodge Construction Outlook, Dodge Data & Analytics predicts that total U.S. construction starts will increase 4% in 2021, to $771 billion.

“The COVID-19 pandemic and recession has had a profound impact on the U.S. economy, leading to a deep dropoff in construction starts in the first half of 2020,” said Richard Branch, chief economist for Dodge Data & Analytics. “While the recovery is underway, the road to full recovery will be long and fraught with potential potholes. After losing an estimated 14% in 2020 to $738 billion, total construction starts will regain just 4% in 2021.”

Furthermore, he added, “uncertainty surrounding the next wave of COVID-19 infections in the fall and winter and delayed fiscal stimulus will lead to a slow and jagged recovery in 2021. Business and consumer confidence will improve over the year as further stimulus comes in early 2021 and a vaccine is approved and becomes more widely distributed, but construction markets have been deeply scarred and will take considerable time to fully recover.”

He noted that the dollar value of starts for residential buildings is expected to increase 5% in 2021, non-residential buildings will gain 3%, and non-building construction will improve 7%. “Only the residential sector, however, will exceed its 2019 level of starts thanks to historically low mortgage rates that boost single-family housing.”

The pattern of construction starts for more specific segments is as follows:

• The dollar value of single-family housing starts will be up 7% in 2021, and the number of units will grow 6% to 928,000. Historically low mortgage rates and a preference for less-dense living during the pandemic are clearly overpowering short-term labor-market and economic concerns.

• Multi-family construction, however, will pay the price for the single-family gain. The large overhang of high-end construction in large metro areas combined with declining rents will lead to a further pullback in 2021. Dollar value will drop 1%, while the number of units started falls 2% to 484,000.

• The dollar value of commercial-building starts will increase 5% in 2021. Warehouse construction will be the clear winner as e-commerce giants continue to build out their logistics infrastructure. Office starts will also increase due to rising demand for data centers (included in the office category), as well as renovations to existing space. Retail and hotel activity will languish.

• In 2021, institutional construction starts will increase by a tepid 1% as growing state and local budget deficits impact public-building construction. Education construction is expected to see further declines in 2021, while healthcare starts are predicted to rise as hospitals seek to improve in-patient bed counts.

• The dollar value of manufacturing plant construction will remain flat in 2021. Declining petrochemical construction and weak domestic and global activity will dampen starts, while a small handful of expected project groundbreakings will level out the year.

• Public-works construction starts will see little improvement as 2021 begins due to continued uncertainty surrounding additional federal aid for state and local areas. Additionally, the unfinished appropriations process for fiscal year 2021, which began Oct. 1, raises doubt about the sector’s ability to post a strong gain in 2021. Public-works construction starts will be flat over the year.

• Electric utilities and gas plants will gain 35% in 2021, led by expected groundbreakings for several large natural-gas export facilities and an increasing number of wind farms.

 

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

the new Ludlow Senior Center

Depending on how the pandemic progresses, the new Ludlow Senior Center could begin hosting some indoor programs by February.

 

Despite the unprecedented challenge of COVID-19, the town of Ludlow keeps building and improving.

As coronavirus rates continue to rise across Massachusetts, Manuel Silva, chairman of the Ludlow Board of Selectmen, said officials in town are closely monitoring the number of cases there.

A long-time selectman who served an earlier term as chairman, Silva said the pandemic has brought more challenges than a typical year. Like most places, Ludlow Town Hall is closed to the general public except by appointment. Silva said some town functions, such as the town clerk and tax collector’s offices, are conducting limited public business from the rear of the building, where they can offer service through a window. “It almost looks like an ice-cream stand,” he said with a laugh.

While Ludlow Mills features several ongoing projects (more on that later), Silva wanted to talk to BusinessWest about a few prominent municipal projects that are nearing completion.

For example, construction on Harris Brook Elementary School is progressing, with a good chance that students will begin attending next fall. Harris Brook is being built to replace Chapin and Veterans Park elementary schools, with the new school located on what used to be playing fields for the adjacent Chapin School.

It’s possible the old buildings may be repurposed and given a second life, Silva said. “We are looking at doing a study on both Chapin and Veterans Park to see what other use the town might have for them.”

He and other town officials are scheduled to tour Harris Brook and inspect the progress that’s been made on it. Once the new school is complete, Ludlow will receive reimbursement from the state for nearly half the cost of the $60 million project.

Another project nearing completion involves road improvements to Center Street, a main artery in Ludlow. Because the street is also part of Route 21, a state highway, the Commonwealth paid for most of the $5.6 million in improvements.

Harris Brook Elementary School

Construction continues on Harris Brook Elementary School, which will replace both Chapin and Veterans Park elementary schools.

Perhaps no one in Ludlow is more enthusiastically looking forward to opening the new Ludlow Senior Center than Jodi Zepke. As director of the Council on Aging, she and her staff plan to move out of the basement of the former high school on Chestnut Street and into the new building on State Street. While staff will be taking occupancy of the new building in mid-December, the Senior Center will remain closed to the public because of COVID-19 concerns, a situation that Zepke said poses both pros and cons.

“We’re excited to get into the building. It will give the staff an opportunity to get comfortable in their new surroundings before we have seniors come back,” she said. “At the same time, we know how excited everyone is to visit the new building as soon as they can.”

In what she called a “perfect world” scenario, the Senior Center could begin hosting some of Council on Aging programs indoors at the new facility in February. Throughout the warmer months, the council’s popular exercise and social programs were held outdoors at the park adjacent to the current senior center. As the weather became colder at the end of October, the outdoor programs wrapped up for the season.

“Without innovative thinking from Westmass and the developers we work with, these mill buildings could have been vacant and falling apart.”

“The outdoor programming was a great opportunity for people to see each other, get out of the house, and do some exercising,” Zepke said, noting that said groups took part in yoga, tai chi, and discussion groups, all socially distanced. Several of the exercise programs are available on local cable-access TV. While the broadcasts can help keep people active, she recognizes that people still need the socialization such programs provide for seniors in town.

“The most important thing is to remain connected to people, otherwise the social isolation is terrible,” she said. “We’re pushing for at least some indoor programming because we’re already seeing the mental-health effects of staying home all the time.”

Before COVID-19, the Senior Center hosted a popular daily lunch program. When coronavirus hit and it was no longer possible to bring people to the center, Zepke said her staff switched gears overnight and converted the daily lunch to a thrice-weekly grab-and-go meal where people drive up and receive a box lunch from center staff who are dressed in appropriate PPE. Zepke calls it one of the best things her organization has done since the pandemic hit.

Ludlow at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1774
Population: 21,103
Area: 28.2 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $20.62
Commercial Tax Rate: $20.62
Median Household Income: $53,244
Median Family Income: $67,797
Type of government: Town Council, Representative Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Hampden County House of Correction; Encompass Rehabilitation Hospital; Massachusetts Air National Guard; Kleeberg Sheet Metal Inc.
*Latest information available

“It’s an opportunity for us to see people and take a few minutes to chat with them,” she said. “It’s the highlight of my day.”

 

Milling About

One of the brightest spots in Ludlow’s economic development for the last several years has been the redevelopment of a series of old mills located on the banks of the Chicopee River. The Westmass Area Development Corp. owns the mills and works closely with the town to bring new vitality to the entire area. Town Planner Doug Stefancik said the partnership between Ludlow and Westmass is a win-win.

“Without innovative thinking from Westmass and the developers we work with, these mill buildings could have been vacant and falling apart,” he said. “Instead, they are developing state-of-the-art projects that enhance the whole State Street corridor.”

Notable tenants in the mill project include businesses such as Encompass Health Rehabilitation Hospital of Western Massachusetts and Iron Duke Brewing, but Stefancik also pointed to a successful housing development known as Residences at Mill 10, which added 75 units of senior housing to Ludlow when it opened in 2017.

Looking forward, plans are in the works to develop the clock tower, also known as Mill Building 8. WinnDevelopment, builder of Residences at Mill 10, has proposed a plan for 95 units of senior housing in the building, with 48,000 square feet on the first floor dedicated to retail space. Stefancik said the project is in the early stages, and the next steps include site-plan approval and a public hearing.

“We’re fortunate that WinnDevelopment is coming back to work on Mill Building 8 because their work is first-rate,” he said. “They completed Residences at Mill 10 three years ago, and since its opening, it has been wildly successful.”

As more residents move to the area, Stefancik said the Ludlow Riverwalk, located behind the mill complex, is growing in popularity. “It’s becoming a walkable neighborhood area, and we like to see that.”

Earlier this year, a key infrastructure component in the redevelopment of the mills was approved. The Riverside Drive project is a proposed roadway that replaces an old access road in the mill complex. The project is currently out for bid, with construction expected to start next year on 4,130 feet of roadway that runs through the mill complex from East Street to First Avenue. When complete, Riverside Drive will improve access to all areas of Ludlow Mills.

The revitalization of the mills has become a major asset for the town of Ludlow.

“It’s been one of the areas where we’ve seen massive growth for economic development and housing opportunities,” Stefancik said, adding that potential exists for even more growth in the years ahead — something that’s true not only for the mill complex, but for the town itself.