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Construction Special Coverage

Framing the Issue

Few industries have been immune to the supply shortages and rising costs that have plagued the world economy over the past few months, but construction is especially vulnerable, relying heavily on materials — most notably lumber and steel, but dozens more as well — riddled by soaring prices. The good news is that demand for work is high, but many still worry about the long-term implications of a cost problem with no end in sight.

 

By Mark Morris

Early in 2020, several lumber mills and steel plants expected demand for their products to take a nosedive once the pandemic hit, so they slowed down or closed some of their operating plants. Instead, after only a brief hiatus in March, home and commercial construction resumed — and then significantly increased.

For Bob Boilard, vice president of Boilard Lumber, the decreased supply of lumber and growing demand have created multiple challenges. Orders for lumber that once took a week for delivery now have vague timetables and constantly changing prices.

“Pricing right now is set at the time of shipment, so we don’t know exactly what it’s going to cost us until it’s on the back of a truck,” Boilard said.

Because lumber prices change so often, Boilard and dealers like him study the commodity market every day to make sure they stay current. At press time, an eight-foot 2-by-4, used primarily to frame houses and certain commercial buildings, had increased to $11, up from $4 several months ago, a price hike of 175%.

Nick Riley

Nick Riley says shortages are nothing new in construction, but so many types of materials being in short supply at one time is very uncommon.

Construction professionals have called this an unprecedented time. Price hikes and shortages of certain building materials are nothing new to the construction industry, but no one has seen inflation and scarcity of so many supplies that go into building a house or a business.

BusinessWest spoke with several construction managers who said we are currently in a perfect storm of greatly increased demand, COVID-related manufacturing slowdowns, and, literally, storms.

For instance, back in February, ice storms knocked out the power grid in Texas, shutting down several resin plants there and in neighboring Louisiana for several weeks. The resins from these plants are used in a broad range of building products, from adhesives to make plywood to the plastic that insulates electric cables. The resins are also used in many paints and primers.

“This is the first time I’ve seen drastic increases and shortages affect this many products. In the past, we’ve seen oil prices drive up the cost of roofing shingles, but never across the board with nearly every building material.”

Dan Bradbury, director of Sales and Marketing for Associated Builders, said the commodity price he follows closely is cold rolled steel. Most of the structures his company builds are pre-engineered metal buildings for commercial and industrial use.

“Cold rolled steel prices have increased 225% since last August,” Bradbury said. Due to shortages in getting the steel, he tells customers the building they order today will be delivered in about 20 weeks. Before COVID-19, that same project would take 10 to 12 weeks.

Increases and shortages don’t end with commodities, but also affect other materials involved in construction. Craig Sweitzer, co-owner of Sweitzer Construction, said an electrical contractor told him about the price instability of a heavy-duty cable used in commercial applications.

“His supplier would only hold the price for one day,” Sweitzer said. “Usually, our material prices are good for 15 days, so we’re not used to seeing this.”

What makes this time different is the broad array of materials impacted, said Nick Riley, owner of N. Riley Construction.

The price of a basic 2-by-4 has risen by 175% in recent months.

The price of a basic 2-by-4 has risen by 175% in recent months.

“This is the first time I’ve seen drastic increases and shortages affect this many products,” he noted. “In the past, we’ve seen oil prices drive up the cost of roofing shingles, but never across the board with nearly every building material.”

As someone who builds medical and dental offices, Sweitzer uses steel studs in place of 2-by-4 wood studs for interior wall partitions. At one time, the two products were close in price. While prices for both have increased, a steel stud is now far less expensive than wood.

“While the price of a steel stud has increased about 30%, it’s well below the double and triple price hikes we’ve seen with wood,” he said, adding that he’s also experienced shortages in random materials such as joint compound to finish walls, acoustical insulation, and interior doors. “There’s a particular style of door we use that once took a week to get. Now it can take eight weeks, and the price has increased.”

 

Steady On

Despite shortages and price hikes, the construction managers we spoke with are all grateful to have plenty of work scheduled.

“I’m fortunate to be busy, and at the same time, it’s incredibly stressful to keep everyone happy and meet deadlines,” Riley said. “It’s a crazy time right now.”

To manage some of that craziness, he has invested in a new tool, a CRM (customer relationship management) system.

“Through our system, we can keep everyone on the same page, and it allows customers to check in on their project,” Riley said. “By staying in closer contact with our customers, they’ll know immediately about any issues that might slow down a project.”

Managing expectations becomes essential when prices and timelines are uncertain. When someone wants a fast turnaround on a project, Bradbury gives them straight talk. “We’re honest and upfront with our customers as to what’s realistic,” he said.

Some customers have chosen to delay their projects, anticipating that prices may come down. Bradbury said that may work for some, but when a company needs a building to grow their business, they can’t always wait it out.

“My advice is to build it sooner rather than later because we are more likely to see further price increases,” he said. “Also, with lead times so long, the sooner you get in the queue for your project, the better off you’ll be.”

Beyond materials, shortages have also extended to the human element. Riley said finding laborers for home building has always been challenging, and the increased demand for new homes only exacerbates an already-tough situation.

One of the thorniest challenges to solving supply shortages, Boilard noted, involves finding truckers to move the goods. “You can’t get drivers to get behind the wheel of a tractor-trailer. There are lots of trucking jobs open right now, but few people to fill them.”

Construction workers were deemed essential during the pandemic, so their time off the job was brief. Bradbury said the short shutdown allowed his company to retain most of its workers. “Some of our subcontractors have felt labor shortages, but we are grateful that has not had a significant impact on our business.”

When COVID first hit, Sweitzer gave all his employees a raise to make sure they were compensated well enough to stay with his company. “We’ve been lucky because we have an extremely good and loyal crew. I’ve found that good labor is worth the investment.”

 

Looking Ahead

Predictions on when prices and supplies might stabilize is anyone’s guess. Boilard explained that his company determines its lumber-buying needs early in the year, which these days is a real challenge. If a dealer stocks up heavily now only to see prices eventually crash, they are stuck with expensive inventory in a market that no longer supports those higher prices.

This building under construction shows how much cold rolled steel Associated Builders uses in a project.

This building under construction shows how much cold rolled steel Associated Builders uses in a project.

“It’s not a fun time because we have to do a balancing act of meeting our customers’ needs without having too much inventory on hand,” he said.

Riley has seen conflicting predictions about lumber prices dropping either at the end of 2021 or sometime in 2022. He’s seen lumber and electrical wire come down before, but he’s more concerned about other materials that go into building a house.

“In my years in business, when windows, siding, and roofing shingles increase in price, I’ve never seen them come back down,” he said. “I think increases like that are here to stay.”

Bradbury said he can’t predict what will happen in his industry, but he hopes to see the supply of steel catch up to demand by the end of this year. “My best guess is supply will get better and lead times will improve before we see prices start to stabilize.”

Sweitzer noted that he has a degree in management, while his two sons have degrees in economics and business administration, so they often discuss what may lie ahead. And their conversations have been optimistic.

“Markets always find some level of equilibrium, and I believe that will happen in this market,” he said. “Market equilibrium may take a temporary vacation, but it has always returned, and I think it will again.”

Health Care Special Coverage

An Anxious Transition

While the economic reopening is being called the ‘new normal,’ things aren’t back to normal, really — at least not by pre-pandemic standards. With COVID-19 still lingering, developments like the loosing of mask and gathering rules and a growing call for employees to return to the office have only ratcheted up the stress and anxiety among a broad swath of the population. In other words, for many, returning to the world as they knew it will be a gradual process.

By Mark Morris

In these unique times when COVID-19 is still active but in decline, we all have lots of questions about how to navigate daily life.

For example, if you have been vaccinated, should you continue to wear a mask? Why does the CDC say you can go without a mask, yet many public places still require one?
Should we still socially distance and sanitize in certain situations?

And, importantly, how much anxiety are such questions causing these days?

Answers can come from many places. Lauren Favorite, assistant program director with Behavioral Health Network, noted that, while information can be good, an overload of messages from different sources results in confusion.

“When we are bombarded with a plethora of information, it’s difficult for people to make a singular choice that will be the right one for them,” Favorite said. “Too much conflicting information can create anxiety.”

“Because so many people are not sure what to do, they will hold on to behaviors even when they no longer serve their intended purpose.”

BusinessWest spoke with several behavioral-health professionals who said much of the stress people are feeling right now is rooted in their concerns about how safe it is to go back into the world. Despite the May 29 reopening of Massachusetts, allowing everything from restaurants to sports arenas to fully welcome the public, Alane Burgess, clinic director for MHA’s BestLife program, said many people still do not feel safe going to the supermarket.

Alane Burgess

Alane Burgess says it’s always easier to learn how to be afraid than to unlearn that mindset.

“It’s always easier to learn how to be afraid than it is to be unafraid,” Burgess said. “Even when we’re told everything is OK, people still have questions.” As COVID-19 is a relatively new virus and scientists are still learning about it, continued concerns about personal safety are not surprising.

A recent research article looked at the trauma experienced by refugees after they emerged from a war-torn country. Favorite said their experience serves as a metaphor for these times.

“In the war zone, they had to develop certain habits and routines as a way to survive,” she said. “Once they escaped and reached a safe place, they held on to those behaviors because they didn’t know how else to act.”

All behaviors have a motivation, she continued, and the ones we followed to stay safe during the pandemic served us well. As we move beyond the pandemic, however, it’s time to examine if those behaviors are still serving us.

“Because so many people are not sure what to do, they will hold on to behaviors even when they no longer serve their intended purpose,” Favorite said. “I think many people will be in a sort of in-between place until we start to see a critical mass of vaccinations.”

 

Baby Steps

For many, entering back into the world needs to be a gradual process. Kathryn Mulcahy, clinic director for Outpatient Behavioral Health Services at the Center for Human Development, encourages her clients to start small.

“Instead of trying to do everything at once, I remind people it’s OK to take baby steps,” Mulcahy said. “You might not be ready to go out to the movies, but you can start getting back into the world by taking a walk in your neighborhood.”

As an incentive to go out again, Burgess advises her clients to make a bucket list of activities they are excited about doing again. “Making a list reminds people of what brought them joy before COVID and can help motivate them to get back to doing those things again.”

lauren favorite

Lauren Favorite

“I think many people will be in a sort of in-between place until we start to see a critical mass of vaccinations.”

COVID also had a significant impact on the nature of work. Depending on the occupation, some people reported to work every day during the pandemic, while others followed a more hybrid approach of working at home some days and at the office other days. A third group has been working from home since last March.

Employers have begun asking Joy Brock, director of the CONCERN Employee Assistance Program, how to proceed as we move toward the end of the COVID era.

“Companies are struggling with how to translate all the different mandates,” Brock said. “They are having as much anxiety as their employees.”

According to the Massachusetts Attorney General’s Fair Labor Division, employers are allowed to ask if an employee has been vaccinated. In some cases, they can require vaccination in order to report to work. Exceptions are allowed for those protected by legal rights, such as individuals who have disabilities or those with sincerely held religious beliefs.

Brock said even those distinctions beg more questions. “What if I’m vaccinated, but the person next to me isn’t? How is that going to work with masks, social distancing, and other considerations?”

When there is no clear-cut direction, individuals usually figure out how to keep themselves safe. Brock said even modest steps to take control over one’s health can help reduce anxiety. “If that means you are the only one in the office wearing a mask, that’s perfectly fine.”

Finding a comfort level at work and in the world ultimately depends on the individual. Burgess emphasized that everyone is on their own journey, and it’s OK to move at a different pace than others.

“I advise people to be patient with themselves and not make any self-judgments just because their comfort level is different than their friends or co-workers,” she said.

One clear demand Brock has heard from workers involves flexibility in work schedules.

“For the most part, people have enjoyed working from home because it makes child care easier to manage, they have been able to match or exceed their productivity, and many report lower stress levels,” she said.

With that in mind, many employers are looking at a hybrid model and trying to figure out the right mix between working at the office and from home.

Kathryn Mulcahy

Kathryn Mulcahy

“Instead of trying to do everything at once, I remind people it’s OK to take baby steps. You might not be ready to go out to the movies, but you can start getting back into the world by taking a walk in your neighborhood.”

A return to the office also means remembering how to be a colleague. Even if co-workers talk remotely every day, Mulcahy said people can get out of the habit of face-to-face conversations.

“As silly as it sounds, practicing an in-person conversation with someone outside your bubble is one more way to prevent that overwhelming feeling of being thrown back into the workplace,” she explained.

Beyond water-cooler discussions, Burgess said a successful transition back to the office also requires companies to be tuned in to the apprehensions their employees may have. “It will be important for people to have an open dialogue with their employers about any anxieties or concerns they may be feeling.”

Added Favorite, “as a supervisor in the workplace, I’m having conversations with my staff to assuage their fears about coming back on site.”

 

Talk About It

One key to putting COVID behind us is recognizing what everyone has gone through since last March.

“For the past 14 months, we’ve lived in a world full of trauma,” Burgess said. “The idea that we can suddenly go back to the way everything was is an impossible task.”

Mulcahy said she has heard from people who are embarrassed because they feel stressed and anxious about returning to a more normal life.

“They feel like they should be happy and excited that people are vaccinated, but instead they just feel worried,” she noted. “I want people to know they are not alone and they can reach out for help to navigate these feelings; that’s why we’re here.”

Burgess also pointed out that life was different during the pandemic, and we should accept that we are not the same people we were before.

“Our life has changed, and we have changed in some of the ways we think, how we feel, and what feels safe,” she said. “It’s important to respect who we are today because that, too, is part of the process in getting back into the world.”

When everyone was forced to suddenly deal with a pandemic, it created anxiety for many. Now, as the pandemic (hopefully) nears its end, that creates anxiety, too. Those who spoke with BusinessWest agree that talking about this stress, and letting people know their feelings are valid, will go a long way to easing everyone’s anxiety.

After all, Favorite said, “we’re still learning how to be in a world where we don’t have to worry all the time.”

Innovation and Startups Special Coverage

Moving Pictures

 

John Hazen stands beside displays

John Hazen stands beside displays of just a fraction of the products created at his company using holographic technology.

Hazen Paper, a third-generation family business that’s approaching a century in operation in the Holyoke mill district, has never stood still, expanding its operation over the years into facets like foil laminating, specialty coating, and rotary embossing. But its emergence over the past 15 years as an internationally celebrated producer of holographic printed products may be its most profound shift. Its entry into this niche was a calculated risk, the company’s co-owner said, but one that gradually paid off in a striking way.

 

John Hazen figured there was some risk in purchasing his first holographic printer back in 2005. But, as the third-generation co-owner of Hazen Paper Co. in Holyoke, he also saw the potential.

“I always say I was like Jack and the beanstalk,” he told BusinessWest. “Dad sent me out with a bag of beans — ‘grow the business, son!’ — and I bought this crazy thing called a holoprinter.”

But he was determined to build Hazen’s footprint in the world of holographic printing, and plenty of other technology at the company sprung from that first investment.

The results? Well, the numerous awards that pour in every year testify to the company’s success. Like a 2021 Product Excellence Award from the Assoc. of International Metallizers, Coaters and Laminators (AIMCAL), for a holographic consumer package.

“To magnify visual effect on a very small carton,” the press release for the award reads, “Hazen micro-embossed specially coated polyester film with ‘Mercury,’ a unique overall holographic pattern, then metallized the film and laminated it to a solid bleached sulfate board before registered sheeting. The film lamination delivers mirror-like brightness and a liquid-flash effect of full-spectrum color, as well as durable performance for clean scoring and folding.”

“I always say I was like Jack and the beanstalk. Dad sent me out with a bag of beans — ‘grow the business, son!’ — and I bought this crazy thing called a holoprinter.”

Most of those words won’t register with the average consumer. But the effect of the packaging certainly does. “This package really stood out,” one judge said. “The embossed areas are like a hallmark and impart a feeling of luxury.”

It’s the latest in a string of AIMCAL awards for Hazen, which also earned the association’s Product of the Year honors in 2018, 2019, and 2020. The latest was for a transfer-metallized carton, featuring custom holography, created for Nordic Premium Beverages’ Arctic Blue Gin, a project made with Hazen Envirofoil, which uses less than 1% of the aluminum of traditional foil laminate — one way the company continues to stress sustainability, which is being increasingly demanded by clients.

The carton for Arctic Blue Gin, made using Hazen Envirofoil

The carton for Arctic Blue Gin, made using Hazen Envirofoil, earned Product of the Year honors in 2020 from the Assoc. of International Metallizers, Coaters and Laminators (AIMCAL).

In fact, it’s understanding customer needs that led Hazen to step into the world of holography with two emphatic feet in the first place. “In many ways, it’s requests from the customers, information coming in from the market — trying to identify opportunity.”

For background, he explained that the holographic industry saw significant consolidation between 2000 and 2004. In the late ’90s, holographic manufacturers were mostly small mom-and-pop shops, but that changed when larger players started buying them out. One of the catalysts was … well, toothpaste.

“When Colgate came out with a line of holographic packaging on their toothpaste … in the world of holography, the world of consumer packaging, that was a major event,” Hazen said. “They gained market share against Crest, and that’s what it’s all about. If they can pick up 1%, it’s massive. Once Colgate truly validated the use of holography, things got pretty exciting.”

Another growth area was DVD packaging — in fact, Hazen would go on to create holographic images for the DVD boxes for numerous major films, including for the likes of Pixar and Marvel. But its entry into that niche came in 2004, when it created the DVD packaging for the TV show Quantum Leap, which involved a custom hologram.

By that time, however, some of the small holographers Hazen used in the ’90s had been bought up, so it turned to one of the big conglomerates, Illinois Tool Works, or ITW, which had bought up several of the small, boutique holographers.

“We had to work with ITW, but we didn’t feel like they were using their power very well,” Hazen recalled. “We got the job done, and it won an award — and the feedback we were getting from studios and box makers was that this could be big.”

So, seeing the expanding opportunities in front of him, Hazen started creating an in-house holographic division.

Around 2005, “one of the companies that got acquired got busted into pieces, and we were able to start reassembling the pieces of the broken puzzle,” he recalled. “We set up our holographic lab, bought the holoprinter technology, hired some castoffs from the consolidation era, and set up a holographic lab in the basement. Since then, we’ve been able to expand.”

 

Shining Examples

Holography isn’t particularly new in the corporate world, Hazen said, noting its use on the dove image on Visa cards.

“That’s a hologram. They’ve had that on the Visa card for 40 years. A lot of times, holography is used as a branding feature, but also as a security feature. It authenticates, makes it hard to counterfeit. It’s done with money as well. That’s security holography, and it tends to be small.

“The holography we do for decorative packaging and some branding is larger format,” he went on. “We’re producing holographic plates as big as 60 inches by 60 inches. It’s not security holography and tends to be lower-resolution. But it is very unique; it’s hard, if not impossible, to replicate. And from a graphic point of view, it gives the graphic artist a mechanism for providing backlighting, for creating movement, for creating a 3D kind of effect.”

Hazen also uses a digital process — several different ones, actually, as opposed to Visa. “The Visa dove is analog — they created the model of a dove, set up lasers around a room, and got light to refract and bounce back.”

“We got the job done, and it won an award — and the feedback we were getting from studios and box makers was that this could be big.”

These days, Hazen Paper’s holography can be seen in hundreds of applications worldwide, from product packaging to the program covers for annual events like the Basketball Hall of Fame enshrinement (since 2013) and the Super Bowl (since 2004, although not in 2021, since there were questions early on about the game’s scheduling during COVID-19, and the design process has to start many months in advance).

Hazen showed off a copy of the 2020 hoops-hall enshrinement program, the class that includes the likes of Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan, and Kevin Garnett. It showcases 3D imagery of the Hall of Fame’s iconic dome and spire and its panoramic interior, juxtaposed with a collage of the year’s inductees in action. The back cover is a holographic treatment of Mohegan Sun in Connecticut, where the enshrinement ceremony was held. Again, it used the sustainable Envirofoil process.

Hazen has created over the past two decades

Top: the holographic Kat Von D Metal Crush limited-edition powder highlighter carton won AIMCAL’s Product of the Year honors in 2018. Above: one of the many DVD packages Hazen has created over the past two decades.

Hazen has also added to its trophy shelf multiple times in the past year, including a Next Century Award from Associated Industries of Massachusetts, which recognizes employers, individuals, and community organizers that have made unique contributions to the economy and residents of Massachusetts. The company employs 200 people and participates in an internship program with Western New England University that helps engineering students gain experience.

“We create opportunities for young people to learn about the industry in general and our operation in particular — and expand our future talent pool,” Hazen said when the award was announced.

And back in December, the International Hologram Manufacturers Assoc. (IHMA) named Hazen Paper’s 2020 holographic calendar Best Applied Decorative/Packaging Product at its Excellence in Holography Awards.

Featuring a fire-breathing dragon with three-dimensional scales, the oversized calendar utilized an array of innovative holographic techniques to create a decorative design the IHMA called “outstanding.” These holographic designs included gray-motion for the sky background, color-motion for the dragon, and two-channel color-motion lenses and fire-motion lenses to animate the flames.

And the company continues to innovate. For example, it announced back in August it had created an innovative, two-sided promotion to demonstrate cutting-edge holographic technologies. The Hazen team designed the artwork on both sides to showcase specific visual effects with nano-holography that delivers an even more dramatic three-dimensional effect.

Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the promotion is that it is two-sided custom holography, transfer-metallized on both sides. “It hasn’t been done before,” Hazen said last summer. “The ability to transfer-metallize a lightweight stock on two sides with custom holography opens up the potential for use in many applications where consumer impact is key. It’s very exciting.”

 

Changing Times

Clearly, Hazen Paper has come a long way from its origins in 1925, when Hazen’s grandfather, also named John, launched the enterprise as a decorative paper converter and embosser. His younger brother, Ted, joined Hazen in 1928 to help manage the growing company, which grew rapidly in the 1930s and expanded into printing and foil laminating by the 1940s.

Ted’s son, Bob, joined the company in 1957, and John’s son, Tom, signed on in 1960, and the second generation expanded the company numerous times over the next three decades, as Hazen Paper became known worldwide for specializing in foil and film lamination, gravure printing, specialty coating, and rotary embossing. Hazen products became widely used in luxury packaging, lottery and other security tickets, tags and labels, cards and cover stocks, as well as photo and fine-art mounting.

The third-generation owners, John and Robert Hazen, joined the company at the start of the 1990s, and have continued to grow the enterprise and expand its capabilities, with a special emphasis on coating, metallizing, and — of course — holographic technology.

In 2005, Hazen Paper set up its holographic origination lab and design studio in Holyoke, and has since developed thousands of unique holographic designs and holds several patents on the processes it has developed. Shortly after, the company launched a holographic embossing and metallizing operation a mile away on Main Street.

“They always say it’s dangerous to go outside your traditional business model, outside your wheelhouse,” John Hazen said of those early days in this new niche, and particularly that plant. “We came in way over budget, at least six months behind, but that plant came to life right at the end of 2008.”

That’s right — at the beginning of a crippling recession.

“When you think about what was going on in the world, the first half of 2009 was really a scary time,” he said. “Fortunately, the business came back in the summer of 2009, and everything started to fall into place.

“Everyone’s system for making holography is different — they’re similar, but they’re different — but the one thing we knew was our system worked,” he went on. “But we went through some rough years from 2010 to 2016. We definitely overextended ourselves to get into the holographic business, and part of that overextension was the impact of the 2009 recession.”

In 2006, Hazen set up its first satellite plant in Indiana, a lamination and sheeting operation that ultimately operated 24/7, with more than 50 full-time employees. In 2016, however, it sold the plant as a strategic move away from commodity-type foil laminations to increase focus on growth opportunities in holography and specialty paper products in Holyoke.

Broadly speaking, packaging remains the broadest category of holographic work nationally, with designs seen on everything from boxes of golf balls and toothpaste to liquor packages. But the sky is the limit, Hazen said, and new uses emerge all the time — justifying that initial investment more than 15 years ago.

“It really was a startup, a technology startup in an older company. And ultimately, we really reinvented Hazen Paper,” he told BusinessWest. “The holographic technology ended up feeding the old business. So it’s like we installed a new heart in an old body.”

Not a bad return on that bag of beans.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight Special Publications

Communty Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Michelle Theroux

Michelle Theroux says businesses in town, including her own, Berkshire Hills Music Academy, are anxious to ramp up operations as the economy reopens.

 

For Mike Sullivan, the past 15 months have been a learning experience on many levels.

As town administrator in South Hadley, Sullivan has learned just how essential online payment systems and Zoom meetings have become for residents who need to do business with the town.

“As we make more access points available to the public, we’ve seen participation in government increase,” Sullivan said, adding that, while many people are looking forward to meeting in person again, Zoom is also here to stay.

The pandemic also taught him about the efficiencies of running Town Hall. By limiting in-person visits to appointment only, staff have been able to more efficiently get business done. Going forward, he looks to follow a model other towns have adopted of limiting hours or closing to the public one day a week.

“There are multiple ways to take care of business,” Sullivan said. “I appreciate that some people have complicated business they need to conduct in person, and we will accommodate them. When residents use online platforms or even ‘snail mail’ instead of visiting Town Hall, it saves money for the town and for everyone’s individual taxes.”

Sullivan made plenty of adjustments to keep South Hadley moving forward during the pandemic. Attendees to last year’s town meeting, for example, never left their cars.

“People tuned into the discussion over their car radios, just like an old drive-in movie,” he said. A similar drive-in town meeting is planned for this year, but there will also be a seating area for those who feel safe enough to leave their cars. “We’re looking forward to getting back to some semblance of normalcy.”

Michelle Theroux, president of the South Hadley and Granby Chamber of Commerce, said one indication of a return to normalcy is the “we’re hiring” signs around town. She acknowledges there are many factors why people are not immediately returning to work, but even with recruitment issues, the signs represent a positive step.

“The good news is that people are looking to hire, and they are in a position to bring people back into the workforce,” she said.

As the end of the pandemic nears, Theroux credits the South Hadley community for its support of small business. From restaurant takeout orders to holiday shopping, it was local people who provided enough support so that no chamber-member businesses permanently closed due to the pandemic.

“Certainly, many downsized and did what they had to do to survive,” she said. “It’s a real credit to community support because small business is such an important part of South Hadley.”

Because small business is such an essential part of South Hadley, banks in town worked with the chamber to secure Paycheck Protection Program funds for businesses in town. In addition, the chamber recently partnered with the Northampton chamber and the Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism to secure $20,000 in state grants.

“The good news is that people are looking to hire, and they are in a position to bring people back into the workforce.”

The chamber also spread the word among its members on how they could help each other, as well as support businesses that are not necessarily top of mind.

“If you look at the South Hadley Commons, we all think of the great restaurants there,” Theroux said. “The Commons also has a movie theater and a number of small boutiques that offer unique and personalized items you can’t find at a big-box store.”

 

Forward Momentum

One key project that kept going during the pandemic involves the Woodlawn Shopping Plaza. At one time the site of a Big Y supermarket, the parcel now features various retail stores anchored by Rocky’s Hardware. The site has been approved for a 60-unit, mixed-income apartment complex that will occupy three acres in the back of the parcel.

“Way Finders of Springfield is running the housing-complex project, and they are waiting for federal funding to come through before they break ground,” Sullivan said.

Theroux is excited about the project because it provides a glimpse at the future of development.

“At Woodlawn, you have a multi-use site with different types of businesses and living options all in one central location,” she said, while predicting that the entire area surrounding Woodlawn will see a revitalization over the next several years. As one example, Northampton Cooperative Bank and PeoplesBank have recently opened branches in or near the Woodlawn Plaza.

Sullivan also pointed with pride to the new senior center on Dayton Street, which is scheduled to open June 30.

“We were able to successfully build the senior center during the pandemic, and the costs were below the estimated bids,” he said. “Even with increases in some of the materials, we will still come in nearly $700,000 under the original estimate.”

South Hadley at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1775
Population: 17,791
Area: 18.4 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential and commercial tax rate: $19.46 (Fire District 1); $19.80 (Fire District 2)
Median Household Income: $46,678
Median Family Income: $58,693
Type of government: Town meeting
Largest Employers: Mount Holyoke College; the Loomis Communities; Coveris Advanced Coatings; Big Y
* Latest information available

Six years ago, Mohawk Paper opened a plant in South Hadley to great fanfare and optimism for a long relationship with the community. Last year, in pursuit of more favorable taxes and incentives, the company closed its operations in South Hadley and moved to Ohio.

As tough as it was to see Mohawk pack up and leave, Sullivan noted that E Ink, the company located across Gaylord Street from the former Mohawk plant, has good news moving forward. “E Ink is planning to double in size because they have a new product line coming out.”

E Ink makes the agent used in tablets like the Amazon Kindle, which allows an electronic page to read like a physical book. In addition to tablets, E Ink screens are used in a variety of applications ranging from signage at MBTA stations and international airports to retail price signs.

On top of contributing as a successful company, Sullivan noted that E Ink is a strong supporter of community projects and events in South Hadley.

Meanwhile, the Ledges Golf Club, owned by the town and a financial drag for many years, is on its way to performing at par. At the beginning of the pandemic last year, golf courses across the state were mandated to stay closed for several weeks. Sullivan called the lost months a “kick in the shins” because, once it opened, the Ledges did brisk business all season and came close to hitting a break-even point.

“This year, we made $200,000 in revenue in just March and April,” Sullivan said. “By the end of the fiscal year next June, we think the Ledges will break even.”

In addition to her duties as chamber president, Theroux’s full time job is executive director of Berkshire Hills Music Academy (BHMA), a music-infused program that helps young adults with special needs to expand their social, vocational, and life skills. Before the pandemic, BHMA employed just over 100 people. Though it normally offers both residential and day programs, state mandates forced BHMA to quickly shift to remote classes for its day students. After furloughs and layoffs due to the new mandates, 64 staff remain.

“Our current state is a hybrid model where we have about 40% of our day students back on campus, with the rest joining us by remote,” Theroux said. “Once we can fully reopen, we’d like to staff up to where we were before the pandemic.”

Looking ahead to the fall, she wasn’t sure what to expect for new enrollments, but was pleasantly surprised to see strong numbers for BHMA’s incoming class.

“Once their loved one is vaccinated, many families are all in on our program, and that’s a huge positive for us,” Theroux said. “Three months ago, I would not have been as confident about what next year would look like.”

 

Back to School

After more than a year of remote learning, Mount Holyoke College students have begun to return to campus. While remote learning is still available, many have indicated they plan to return to campus in the fall.

“The presence of Mount Holyoke students back on campus will provide a real boost to South Hadley feeling normal again,” Theroux said.

Sullivan is on the move, too. After a long career of public service, he has announced he will retire in June. Looking back, he points to a number of projects he’s helped shepherd to success. One area of particular pride is the progress South Hadley has made in hiring a more diverse workforce. As an example, he mentioned Police Chief Jennifer Gundersen, who recently joined South Hadley’s force after several years in Amherst.

“Certainly, many downsized and did what they had to do to survive. It’s a real credit to community support because small business is such an important part of South Hadley.”

Sullivan in only one of South Hadley’s leaders who are moving on. Planning Director Richard Harris is also retiring, and the superintendent of schools left in December to pursue another professional path.

While grateful for their service to the town, Theroux sees this as a time for South Hadley to bring new faces into leadership roles.

“As we emerge from the pandemic, I’m optimistic about the future and a new era of leadership for our town,” she said, adding that she looks forward to people once again enjoying all that South Hadley has to offer.

Construction

Air Apparent

Scott Cernak’s expertise and development of the residential division at M.J. Moran

Scott Cernak’s expertise and development of the residential division at M.J. Moran are serving him well today as the head of his own venture.

Never underestimate the influence of a teacher.

Or, in Scott Cernak’s case, two of them, who taught plumbing when he was a student at Smith Vocational & Agricultural High School, and proved engaging enough in the subject to capture his attention.

“I wasn’t sure which trade I wanted to take,” he said. “The plumbing teachers there were really good — I never thought I would have chosen plumbing, but I ended up liking it quite a bit.”

He likes the trajectory of his career as well. Today, Cernak is the owner of a company — Western Mass Heating, Cooling & Plumbing — that recently spun off M.J. Moran Inc., the only company he’d ever worked for, and where he latched on as an intern early in his junior year at Smith.

“I started on my 16th birthday and started liking it more and more,” he recalled. “I got into more and more things; I started doing sprinkler fitting, all kinds of pipe fitting, welding and plumbing and HVAC.”

“It was a really good, mutually beneficial decision to have us part ways and for me to buy the division.”

All of that appealed to him, but he was especially interested in the residential division, which hadn’t been a significant part of Moran’s business, but which he and two other employees started growing steadily. “At this point, I was in my early 20s and running a lot of large residential and small commercial jobs, new-construction service calls — anything from packing a faucet to doing a whole new house and everything in between.”

His success in that division led to a promotion to general manager of the company in 2016, and something bigger four years later. “I got the opportunity to buy the division that I helped build,” he told BusinessWest, “and here we are.”

The reason for the spinoff company is that Jim Moran, who launched his enterprise 42 years ago, is heading — slowly — toward retirement, Cernak explained.

“He’ll never fully retire, but he wanted to take a little off his plate right now. His sons, Chad and Kyle, who run the commercial-industrial division, don’t have any interest in the residential divison — they relied on me for that anyway — so it just made sense for Jim and myself and our departments.

“It was a really good, mutually beneficial decision to have us part ways and for me to buy the division; it worked really well for them, and it’s worked really well for us,” he went on. “We still communicate frequently, and we still collaborate; I hire them as a sub when we need extra manpower, or they hire us as a sub on some jobs. So it works out pretty well.”

Roughly eight months into his new enterprise, Cernak said his work is well-balanced, split fairly evenly between service work, major renovations for general contractors, and installing and replacing heating and cooling systems. “It’s a pretty good mix, and some of that is commercial, too — service work and small installation work.”

Western Mass Heating, Cooling & Plumbing is more departmentalized than most similar firms, he added, with a full service department.

“Most companies around us don’t have a service department; they just throw in a service call here and there. We actually have a service department that’s dedicated to service work, then we have a new-construction installation department that’s dedicated to the bigger work. That works well for our dispatching and keeping things organized and keeping the right guys on the right jobs. It’s one reason we’re able to stay efficient and continue to grow.”

 

Into the Pipeline

What first drew Cernak into the plumbing field at Smith Voke was, simply, realizing for the first time the breadth of what tradespeople in that field do.

“As a teenager, I didn’t realize that plumbing was more than just cleaning a drain or fixing a toilet. A lot of people — not just young teenagers — think plumbing is just fixing plumbing; they think it’s just dirty work. But I got to see a different side of it — learning how the pipefitting works, doing some welding and some soldering.”

“Even before 2020, new houses were getting a lot tighter, and indoor air quality was becoming a much higher priority for people.”

He also quickly learned, by researching the field, that it’s a trade with stability and good job security. “It’s one of the higher-paid trades, so there were a lot of factors. But before that, it had never clicked to me that, hey, plumbers actually install the plumbing in a new house, too, not just fix the plumbing in an old house.”

The science of plumbing hasn’t changed much during his career, but HVAC is a different story.

“Indoor air quality has been a big factor,” he said. “Coronavirus certainly helped with that — or hurt with that, however you want to put it. But coronavirus certainly put a new spin on it. But even before 2020, new houses were getting a lot tighter, and indoor air quality was becoming a much higher priority for people, so we sell a lot of products that help with filtration and literally zap bacteria and viruses out of the air; there are all kinds of air-cleaning products that we’re selling as part of our systems, part of our installations, part of our services. It’s not the core of our business, but it certainly is a pretty big part of our business.”

Businesses in Massachusetts took the lead on emphasizing air-quality measures indoors, much of it driven by regulations. But in the era of COVID-19, people increasingly demand high-tech air-purifying systems in their homes.

“We’d never had people asking for indoor air-quality measures — or very rarely; maybe 1% of people would ask for something like that back before coronavirus. And now, probably close to 20% to 30% ask for it specifically.”

Scott Cernak said his company is growing and hiring

Scott Cernak said his company is growing and hiring, even though his industry is challenged by a slow pipeline of young talent entering the field.

Clearly, there will always be a market for plumbing and HVAC work — as Cernak said, this is a stable field — and he can see his fledgling company growing, but one challenge will be attracting talent as it does. Right now, nationwide, roughly three workers are aging out and retiring from these disciplines for every two young people who come in.

“And out of those two, probably only one to one and a half are going to make it past five years,” he went on. “So there’s a big-time shortage, and it’s going to get worse and worse.”

As one way to counter that trend, “I have longer-term goals of creating more education within our company,” he explained. “I’d like to bring a sheet-metal school in house, not necessarily from us, but probably third-party, using our facility; that’s going to help attract some people.”

Meanwhile, “we have ads out on different internet platforms, and we’re trying to recruit internally too. Everyone who works with us knows we’re looking for at least one or two more service techs on top of other positions as well. We have been hiring — four people in the past month and a half — so we’re definitely growing, and we’re on a trajectory of more growth as well.”

 

Investments in the Future

One key to achieving that growth, Cernak said, is not being afraid to invest in the kinds of things that will attract top talent.

“I’ve got an eye for talent — and I’m not afraid to hire the best and pay for the best, that’s for sure,” he told BusinessWest. “I provide the best tools, the best training, we have new, well-equipped trucks, and we’re working on getting even more trucks. So all our people have the right tools, the right trucks, and the right infrastructure to do their jobs.”

In addition, “I’ve invested heavily into software and IT systems to organize how we do our work and how we bill for our work and how we store data and how we access data, which is a huge part of the industry that people generally overlook,” he went on. “We’re not fumbling through file cabinets to find the customer’s history. With a couple clicks, we’re there. Same thing with our guys in the field — they have access via tablet or smartphone to access any of our customers’ history. When a customer calls, we know what they have already, and we know the right tech to send to the right job.”

What it adds up to is efficiency, which both employees and customers appreciate, Cernak said. “We’re very good in the service department, dispatching, getting people there. We have quite a backlog sometimes, but we’re also very good at prioritizing emergencies.”

Creating efficient systems and investing in better resources may not bring an immediate payback, he added, but he’s looking long-term — at the kind of success his mentor, Jim Moran, enjoyed for more than four decades. It’s why, when he saw an opportunity to build upon his experience and set out on his own, he took it.

“Sometimes,” he said, “you’ve got to go with your gut and know what’s right and do it.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Construction

Soaring Again

 

MassDevelopment has provided an $800,000 loan to Eagle Mill Redevelopment, LLC, which is using the proceeds to redevelop the former Eagle Mill and surrounding parcels in Lee into a mixed-use complex featuring 128 residential housing units and 14,000 square feet of retail and office space.

The developer used loan proceeds and additional financing from Adams Community Bank to buy 10 adjacent properties that will be combined and subdivided into six separate parcels for future redevelopment. Construction on the project, which is expected to cost approximately $55 million, is slated to begin in the fourth quarter of 2021, with its first phase completed within 14 to 18 months.

“A priority of the Baker-Polito administration is to breathe life back into underutilized factory and mill buildings that were once integral to the Commonwealth’s industrial success,” said Housing and Economic Development Secretary Mike Kennealy, who serves as chair of MassDevelopment’s board of directors. “These properties are uniquely situated for redevelopment into mixed-use communities that accelerate economic growth and expand housing opportunities, and we were proud to deliver a $4.9 million MassWorks award to facilitate needed infrastructure work at Eagle Mill. MassDevelopment’s contribution of loan financing advances the transformation of the site and complements the other state, local, and private investments.”

“Bringing additional housing, businesses, and jobs back to Eagle Mill, a defining site in Lee’s industrial history, will be an important part of the community’s next chapter.”

Built in 1808, Eagle Mill is located along the Housatonic River in Lee. In the later part of that century, Lee was the national leader in papermaking and home to 25 paper mills. As operations dwindled, Eagle Mill closed in 2008 — resulting in the loss of 165 factory jobs — and has remained vacant since. The town received a $4.9 million MassWorks Infrastructure Program grant in 2018 to upgrade the water main in the town and install 9,000 linear feet of new water main to the development site, allowing the Eagle Mill project to move forward. The project is also supported with both state and federal historic tax credits.

“Bringing additional housing, businesses, and jobs back to Eagle Mill, a defining site in Lee’s industrial history, will be an important part of the community’s next chapter,” MassDevelopment President and CEO Dan Rivera said. “MassDevelopment is proud to be a financial partner in Eagle Mill Redevelopment, LLC’s plans to unlock the economic potential of this property.”

Jeffrey Cohen, the lead developer in the Eagle Mill redevelopment, has been involved in the project since 2012. He has done similar, large-scale historic restoration and redevelopment projects in Washington, D.C.; Portland, Maine; and St. Paul, Minn. DEW Construction, another partner and the project’s general contractor, brings similar experience and expertise to the effort, with projects of more than $150 million each year.

“It is incredibly fortunate that MassDevelopment has so many tools by which they are able to enhance the likelihood of our project’s success,” Cohen said. “They provide financing for predevelopment, amongst other things, which is otherwise so difficult to obtain, making their support invaluable to our project. The essential turning point that will lead to the project’s ultimate success was, and is, the approval by then-Secretary [Jay] Ash and MassWorks of the $4.9 million grant to the town of Lee, enabling the replacement of the water line to the mill, without which we would not have been able to move forward.”

MassDevelopment, the state’s finance and development agency, works with businesses, nonprofits, banks, and communities to stimulate economic growth across the Commonwealth. During FY 2020, MassDevelopment financed or managed 341 projects generating investment of more than $2.69 billion in the Massachusetts economy. These projects are estimated to create or support 10,871 jobs and build or preserve 1,787 housing units.

Health Care

Disrupting the Cycle

 

The past year has been a difficult one in many ways, Dr. Alisha Moreland-Capula said.

“It’s been a tough time with COVID. We’ve had a lot of uncertainly, a lot of loss, and we’ve also had a rise in racial tension and a disruption in the relationship between law enforcement and the community,” the psychiatrist and author of Training for Change noted.

But when addressing an issue like urban violence, what many people — even those working to solve the problem — often don’t understand is the impact of fear. Not occasional fear, but long-term, lived-in fear.

“If you can imagine a life that is completely consumed and shaped by fear, then it is not absolutely outside the realm of possibility to understand how toxic that can be on someone’s life,” Moreland-Capula said.

The occasion for her words was the keynote address of a virtual forum last month hosted by Roca, an organization that aims to disrupt incarceration, poverty, and racism by engaging young adults, police, and systems that impact urban violence.

Fear can be a positive, she noted, when it heightens one’s senses in order to escape a dangerous situation or seek help.

However, “being afraid is meaningful until it’s not,” she said — when it’s a constant presence in a young person’s life, due to stressors like racism, poverty, and violence. That’s why Roca aims to tackle the issue of violence by addressing the causes of other traumas first — engaging not only with young people, but with the systems that impact them, from education to law enforcement to child welfare.

Gov. Charlie Baker

Gov. Charlie Baker

“Roca has been a relentless force in disrupting incarceration, poverty, and racism by engaging young adults, law enforcement, and systems at the center of urban violence and relationships to address trauma, find hope, and drive change.”

“We know from brain science that the external environment around us impacts who we are and who we become,” Moreland-Capula explained. “What Roca says is that we have to work with those environments, change the systems, and help to change the trajectory of the young adults we seek to serve.”

Mike Davis, vice president of Public Safety and chief of Police at Northeastern University, as well as a Roca board member, understands that concept.

“We have before us a moral imperative to be better as individuals and collective members of society,” he told forum attendees, adding that, too often, people lose hope because change hasn’t happened fast enough or, worse, believe working for change is someone else’s responsibility.

“Both of these thoughts are not only wrong, but but if they serve as the guidance for our behavior, they will guarantee failure,” Davis went on. “Substantive change is everyone’s responsibility, without exception. What needs to animate our actions now is a sense of urgency based on a vision for what is possible.”

Roca has such a vision, he explained, based on the premise that all people have intrinsic value and potential to contribute something unique to their society — and has not only helped steered young people away from prison and toward better outcomes, but also worked with police to see their roles differently.

“The loss of life to homicide or prison not only not only impacts that individual, that community, or that city, it impacts all of our society,” Davis said. “Loss of life is loss of possibility.”

In a brief address to the forum, Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker noted that “Roca has been a relentless force in disrupting incarceration, poverty, and racism by engaging young adults, law enforcement, and systems at the center of urban violence and relationships to address trauma, find hope, and drive change. I’ve seen firsthand that Roca and its programming works.”

 

Fear Factors

Fortunately, Moreland-Capula said, Roca has been ahead of the curve in paying attention to the relationship between root traumas and their societal impact.

“They understand that, for whole communities to heal, for people to heal, there has to be keen attention paid to specific things like community violence, like trauma.”

Some of the chronic fear she mentioned earlier stems from a lack of basic needs, from food and water to shelter, safety, even love and belonging. By helping young people access education and employment, those cycles can be broken as well, she noted. “We know there are complex and structural challenges that require a complex and structural approach.”

Molly Baldwin, Roca’s founder and CEO, said the proliferation of drugs, violence, and guns in communities requires innovative approaches.

“Our old methods won’t work. Incarceration is expensive and a failure. Jobs and GED programs are not enough, and even the most credible messenger cannot convince a young person to do differently if that young person is living in a state of fight or flight and cannot access the thinking part of their brain for healthy decision making,” she said. “If we don’t address the impact of lived trauma, we can’t hope for healing and change.”

That philosophy is behind the recent establishment of the Roca Impact Institute, which works with communities and institutions that have a clear commitment to addressing violence by working with young people who are at the center of local incidents and trends.

Molly Baldwin

Molly Baldwin

“Even the most credible messenger cannot convince a young person to do differently if that young person is living in a state of fight or flight and cannot access the thinking part of their brain for healthy decision making.”

Unlike a typical training approach, the Roca Impact Institute is an intensive coaching approach that works with police departments, criminal-justice agencies, and community-based programs in sustained, collaborative partnerships over a 12- to 24-month period. Experienced Roca leaders engage these partners to learn new, trauma-informed strategies and apply them in their local context.

The idea, Baldwin said, is to change together. “If we hope for change for young people, we must change, too.”

At the virtual forum, Baldwin presented Roca’s James E. Mahoney Award to Peter Forbes, commissioner of the Massachusetts Department of Youth Services (DYS), which has implented some of the concepts Roca promotes. Back in the 1990s, he noted, juvenile justice was in a different place, using terms like ‘predator’ and ‘offender,’ and concepts like boot camps and scared-straight programs.

But those thing didn’t work, he said, instead generating poor outcomes for individuals and communities. “Since that time, our work at DYS has evolved. We’ve embraced the principle that young people can make positive change in their lives, that we as an agency can be part of that change, and that our investment in youth development actually contributes to community safety.”

He cited national studies demonstrating that therapeutic approaches to justice-involved youth drive lower recidivism than punishment strategies. “If we run a coercive system, we actually run the risk of young people being worse off for their contact with the system.”

It starts, Forbes said, with meeting young people where they are. “People who work with adolescents see disrespect, non-responsiveness, impulsivity, defiance — behaviors that are typical of adolescents. Those are not descriptors of juvenile delinquency; that’s typical adolescent behavior. So it’s really important, as adults working with young people, that we respond to the behavior, but not overreact.”

 

New Beginnings

The event featured a brief address by former U.S. Rep. Gabby Giffords, who has been an ardent gun-control advocate following her assassination attempt in 2011. Her message struck a different, more activist tone than the rest of the program.

“These are scary times — racism, sexism, lies, coronavirus. It’s time to stand up for what’s right. It’s time for courage,” she said. “We must do something to stop gun violence and protect our children, our future … to make our country a safer place, a better place.”

It will be a better place, Baldwin said, through the kind of relationship building, mutual understanding, and personal accountability that lie at the heart of Roca.

“We are humbled and honored to work with the young people at the center of urban violence — those who are traumatized, full of distrust, and trapped in a cycle of violence and poverty that traditional youth programs alone can’t break,” she said. “Today is a celebration of those who make this work possible, from young people to Roca teams and our partners committed to sparking new thinking about working with young people who are traumatized and stuck.”

Getting unstuck is a decision, she noted, offering a George Bernard Shaw quote: “Progress is impossible without change, and those who cannot change their minds cannot change anything.”

Roca is doing its part to create change, Baldwin said, but it can’t achieve its goals alone. “There is an opportunity for all of us to begin again.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Innovation and Startups

Breaking Down the Silos

Barbara Casey

Barbara Casey says Pixel Health’s companies understand the technology underpinning healthcare, but spend more time on people and processes.

 

For Pixel Health, 2020 was a year of growth — double-digit sales growth, in fact, and a 30% staff increase despite the impact of COVID-19 on the healthcare industry.

Or, perhaps — at least in part — because of the pandemic’s effect.

That’s because information-technology (IT) needs shifted dramatically during the pandemic, and health systems had a lot to sort through.

“There were a ton of digital-health startups funded in 2020,” said Barbara Casey, chief revenue officer at Holyoke-based Pixel Health, which comprises five separate but interconnected companies that assist health organizations in myriad ways. In fact, she noted, investment dollars in digital-health startups doubled last year, from $7 billion in 2019 to $14 billion in 2020.

“Digital health in general had a tremendous boom in 2020, which is good — and, in some ways, not so good,” Casey told BusinessWest. “It creates more noise in the market. If we can learn more about what our clients’ requirements are and what they want the experience to be like for stakeholders, we can help them sort through those vendors and see which ones match their requirements.

“There’s a ton of choice — that’s why we exist,” she went on. “There’s so much variability, so many ways you can do it. I think working with an organization like us, with as much depth and breadth as we have, is helpful to clients in finding a streamlined path to the end result.”

Pixel Health companies, which assist hospitals and health systems in creating IT infrastructure, improving operational processes, developing software, and facilitating financial efficiencies, has dramatically expanded its national client base since the pandemic began.

“Now we’re coordinating beyond the IT department, coordinating with the clinical side of healthcare, and that opens up a whole different range of consulting services we offer to healthcare providers.”

“While most healthcare-consulting groups specialize in either strategic planning or technical execution, Pixel Health companies do both,” company founder Michael Feld said.

In its marketing, Pixel Health claims its companies can “make healthcare better for patients, providers, and administrators alike by facilitating the use of technology, simplifying the process of using it, and overcoming the cultural and organizational constraints hindering its adoption. We help make the delivery of care better.”

President Brad Mondschein noted that the network’s first two companies, VertitechIT and baytechIT, “were really about how to coordinate the IT buildout and the provision of IT services to healthcare providers, and make those healthcare providers aware of what needs to be communicated internally and, frankly, even externally about their capabilities.”

With three other companies — Nectar Strategic Consulting, akiro, and Liberty Fox Technologies — now in the fold, “we’ve stepped beyond that — now we’re coordinating beyond the IT department, coordinating with the clinical side of healthcare, and that opens up a whole different range of consulting services we offer to healthcare providers,” he continued. “It’s also helped healthcare providers ensure that their IT services are focused so the clinical staff are getting what they need out of IT.”

 

A Quick Breakdown

The five Pixel Health companies are interconnected in some ways, but each brings unique atttributes to the table.

VertitechIT’s goal is to drive IT transformation for health systems. Its executive and clinical consultants, architects, and engineers design and implement IT roadmaps in line with the strategic plans of client organizations.

VertitechIT also touts its ability to implement transformational changes for clients at virtually no net new capital expense. As one example, a $2.5 billion health system constructed a three-site, software-defined data center and saved $8 million over previous designs with little to no impact on its budget. Senior consultants also took on interim leadership roles, working to transform the institution’s siloed work culture as well.

Brad Mondschein

Brad Mondschein says Pixel Health’s “secret sauce” is being able to bring many different areas of expertise to bear to meet a healthcare client’s needs.

Meanwhile, baytechIT is a managed service provider (MSP) and value-added reseller — one of the only health-centric MSPs in the country, in fact. The company operates a call center staffed by healthcare analysts, adept at meeting the unique and often time-critical needs of the clinical environment.

Nectar specializes in applying technology to serve the quadruple aim of healthcare delivery: delivering the right care at the right time, at the right cost, and improving the clinical experience in the process. It offers a boutique consulting environment, offering a unique perspective on unifying technology and driving healthcare transformation to achieve clinical objectives.

“Nectar is about the digital-health experiences of consumers, patients, families, but also clinicians, nurses, doctors, and other professionals,” Casey said. “There should be ease of use and frictionless quality with how those experiences happen for all those different stakeholders. That’s where Nectar comes in — we do know a lot about the underpinnings of technology, but we spend more time on people and processes.”

Next, akiro tackles the needs of healthcare from the revenue cycle and financial management to government-program assistance and complex merger-and-acquisition support. “They really focus on the business side of healthcare,” Mondschein said, “and they’re helping healthcare providers manage their mergers and acquisitions.”

“I don’t want to say we’re the only company that does it this way, but we think what we do is very unique.”

Finally, Liberty Fox, the only Pixel Health company acquired by the network and not developed inside it, takes a boutique design approach to software development, touting itself as a one-stop shop for all things technology and providing software solutions and recommendations that improve clients’ business.

“They can create software from scratch, write apps, but also do integrations between each system,” Casey said. “They make sure the integration that needs to happen on the patient-clinician side is seamless and makes sense.”

Some clients take advantage of the services of multiple Pixel Health companies, Casey said. “For example, Behavioral Health Network is an organization where baytech is helping them with delivery of IT services, Vertitech is also helping them with several things, and Nectar is working with them on telehealth strategy and implementation. So, several entities are all working in that organization.”

The model is an attractive one for clients, Mondschein said.

“I don’t want to say we’re the only company that does it this way, but we think what we do is very unique. There are MSPs out there that do some of these individual things, but don’t combine it the way we do it. Our secret sauce is our ability to take the different expertise we have in each of our subsidiaries and bring all of them to bear on an issue or a problem or project that a client might need.

“One thing that’s really important to remember is, at the same time we’re providing services, the goal is to make healthcare a better experience for patients and clinicians,” he added. “That’s our mission.”

 

Growth Potential

It’s a mission that has led to considerable growth, Mondschein said.

“Internally, we’re looking at how we can expand the services we’re offering while attracting really good employees and really good technicians as well. The large majority of our staff work in Western Mass. and provide services in Western Mass. We certainly have a national presence, but Western Mass. is still our headquarters, and we still have a great affiliation with the practices here in Western Mass. and with Baystate.”

As noted earlier, the pandemic didn’t slow the pace of growth.

“We were fairly lucky — we were well-prepared for the remote working environment because we do so much work around the country, not just in Western Mass.,” Mondschein explained. “Much of our staff was already remote; we were able to collaborate remotely prior to the pandemic.”

What became evident during the pandemic is that improvements in healthcare technology are allowing remote collaborations to work even better than they did prior to the pandemic, and that’s good news for providers.

“For our clients, the need for the telehealth strategies accelerated significantly, and the ability to go mobile and have the mobility pieces in place significantly increased,” he told BusinessWest. “Certainly, telehealth is going to be here a long time, so patients been very fortunate as well, because not everyone has access to healthcare, and telehealth can give people access they didn’t have before.”

And the increasing presence of IT in healthcare — not just in telehealth, but in any number of applications — has positioned Pixel Health well to help organizations turn all that ‘noise,’ as Casey put it, into solutions that work for everyone.

“We have the ability to translate among those different domains,” she said. “A lot of our clients have been operating within a lot of silos — operations does this, clinical does this, IT, marketing, strategy, all these pieces. Especially in digital strategy, they often don’t have the staff that can translate among all those different components. We’re able to translate and accelerate that implementation.

“That’s hard, and there aren’t a lot of other firms out there doing that,” she added. “It’s something that really differentiates us.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Features

Facility Gains Altitude After Pandemic-induced Declines

The addition of new flights from carriers

The addition of new flights from carriers Breeze Airways and Sun Country Airlines is one of many signs of progress and vibrancy at Bradley International Airport.

Kevin Dillon can see a number of signs of much-needed progress at Bradley International Airport, starting with the parking garage.

Until quite recently, it was all the parking the airport needed to handle not only the passenger volume at the facility, but all the employees as well. In fact, it was far more than enough. But over the past few months, things have started changing.

“Now, most days, we’re starting to fill the parking garage, and we opened up two additional surface lots — and that’s a good sign,” said Dillon, executive director of the Connecticut Airport Authority, adding that there are many others indicating that Bradley is gradually returning to pre-pandemic levels of vibrancy, including the restaurants and retail shops that are reopening their doors after being closed for months, new carriers introducing routes out of the airport, and, most important, climbing passenger totals.

“We’re pleased with the way the numbers are starting to roll out, although we still have a ways to go,” he said, noting that most all travel at present is leisure in nature. “At the beginning of the year, we were still down 60% compared to pre-pandemic levels; now, on any given day, we’re down 40% to 50% — it can shift any day. And it really does seem to correspond with the vaccine rollout here in the region. The more people got vaccinated, the more people started to fly. The more people start to fly, the more people see that, and they start to get a level of confidence.

“As we look toward the summer, we are expecting a very healthy summer travel period,” he went on. “What you’re starting to see in terms of some of these airline announcements and route announcements is a recognition on the part of the airlines, as well, that this recovery is well underway.”

Elaborating, he said it’s difficult to project where the airport will be by the end of the summer in terms of those passenger-volume numbers, but he believes that, if current trends continue (and most all signs point toward that eventuality), then Bradley might be down only about 25% from pre-pandemic levels — a big number, to be sure, but a vast improvement over the past 14 months.

Overall, a number of factors will determine when and to what extent Bradley fully recovers all it has lost to the pandemic, including everything from business travel to international flights.

Let’s start with the former, which, by Dillon’s estimates, accounts for roughly half the travel in and out of Bradley.

While some business travel has returned, the numbers are still way down from before the pandemic, he said, adding that the next several months could be critical when it comes to the question of when, and to what extent, business travel comes back.

He expects the numbers to start to improve once businesses set their own internal policies for when employees can return to the office and resume many of the patterns that saw wholesale changes after COVID-19 arrived in March 2020.

“If you still have people telecommuting for COVID purposes, what does that say to the employee about required business travel?” he asked, adding that there has to be a “reckoning” within the business community as to where it’s going with some of its pandemic-related policies.

“If you still have people telecommuting for COVID purposes, what does that say to the employee about required business travel?”

Dillon said there are two types of business travel. One involves businesses traveling to see customers, a tradition he expects will return once COVID-related fears subside. The other is inter-company travel, where a business sends an employee from one of its locations to a different one. It’s this kind of travel that seems most imperiled, if that’s the proper word, by teleconferencing, Zoom, and other forms of technology, and it’s this mode that will likely lag behind the other.

As for international flights, these, too, will be among the last aspects of the airport’s business to return to something approaching pre-COVID conditions, said Dillon, noting that Air Canada is severely limited by severe restrictions on travel to that country. Meanwhile, Aer Lingus, which initiated flights out of Bradley in 2016, is still ramping up after restrictions on overseas flights were lifted in the fall of 2020. Nothing has been confirmed, but he is anticipating a return of that carrier in the spring of 2022.

Meanwhile, getting back to those signs of life — and progress — that Dillon noted, some new additions to the list were added late last month in the form of two new carriers. Actually, one is new, the other is an existing freight and charter carrier expanding into passenger service.

The former is Salt Lake City-based Breeze Airways, the fifth airline startup founded by David Neeleman, which will launch non-stop flights out of Bradley this summer, including Charleston, Columbus, Norfolk, and Pittsburgh. The latter is Sun Country Airlines, which will be expanding its footprint at the airport with the introduction of passenger service to Minneapolis.

Dillon noted that several of those new destinations, and especially Charleston and Norfolk, are primarily leisure-travel spots, meaning they could get off to solid starts as Americans look to make up for lost time when it comes to getting away from it all.

Looking at the big picture, Dillon said decisions in Connecticut and Massachusetts to move up their ‘reopening’ dates and accelerate the return to a ‘new normal’ will only help Bradley gain altitude as it continues to climb back from what has been a dismal 14 months since the pandemic struck.

 

—George O’Brien

Features

This Berkshires Staple Has Exhibited Patience and Flexibility

The Clark, which now features exhibits

The Clark, which now features exhibits indoors and outdoors at its Williamstown campus, will take it slow as the state enters the ‘new normal’ and gradually increase capacity. Photo by of Jeff Goldberg coutesy of Clark Art Institute

Victoria Tanner Salzman says it was a complete coincidence that the Sterling and Francine Clark Art Institute’s first-ever outdoor exhibition opened just a few months after COVID-19 arrived in Western Mass.

It takes years of planning to bring such an exhibit to fruition, she explained, and that was certainly the case with Ground/work, a collection of eight works created by six international artists that are found in varied locations across the Clark’s sprawling, 140-acre campus in Williamstown.

“These installations are embedded in a landscape that is ever-changing — both daily and seasonally,” according to a description on the institute’s website. “Ground/work highlights the balance between fragility and resilience that both nature and the passage of time reveal, while offering fresh experiences with every visit.”

Tanner Salzman, the Clark’s director of Communications, noted that “this exhibit has given our visitors the opportunity to see art outdoors, indoors, or both. And we’ve gotten tremendous response from our visitors about the experience; you can wander our trails and walk through our meadow and come upon these pieces and hopefully enjoy them.”

The phenomenal timing of Ground/work has been one of the many factors that has enabled the Clark to more than weather what has been a protracted and quite challenging storm, said Tanner Salzman, adding that others include a host of virtual initiatives and limited visitation marked by strict adherence to COVID policies and best practices to keep visitors and staff safe at all times.

“We’re taking this as opportunity to put our toes in the water and begin to feel more acclimated to going back to the new normal, if you will.”

“At certain points over the past year, the governor’s orders increased capacity, but we chose, at those points, to remain at a lower capacity just out of concern for the comfort of our visitors and the safety of everyone,” she explained. “We’ve either been at the capacity level prescribed by the state or below it.”

And as the state moves up its timetable for fully reopening the economy and removing restrictions on businesses of all kinds, the Clark will continue to be diligent and err, if that’s even the right word, on the side of caution, she told BusinessWest.

“We are taking it slowly, but we will increase our capacity; our current operating capacity is permitted to be 50%, but we’ve chosen to operate at a lower capacity,” she explained, adding that the facility planned to increase to that 50% level on May 29. And moving forward, it plans to increase the numbers as the conditions permit. “We will adjust upwards as we feel it’s best for everyone to do so.

“We’re taking this as opportunity to put our toes in the water and begin to feel more acclimated to going back to the new normal, if you will,” she went on. “We’ll take a look at it on a weekly basis, and certainly our hope is to be in a position in the summer where we’ll hopefully bump it back up. But we have not made that decision yet.”

While watching and adjusting as the conditions permit, the Clark will apply some of the lessons it learned during the pandemic, said Tanner Salzman, echoing the sentiments of business owners and managers across virtually every sector of the economy.

And many of these lessons involve using technology to broaden the Clark’s audience and bring its collections and programs to people who might not otherwise make it to Williamstown.

“We were learning lessons every day throughout this, and I’m sure that some of the practices that we adopted during this period will find a carry-over life as we move forward,” she explained. “We are certainly looking very hard at virtual events and continuing them; we found great success in doing such events, and we recognize that it allows us to open our doors to people who cannot necessarily be here to walk through them for an event. Instead of just having people at a live event at the Clark, we’ve had people tuning in from all around the world, people regularly coming onto live Zoom calls from California, Florida, all over, so we will want to continue that.

“I think there’s a hybrid model out there that we settle into as we move forward,” she went on, adding that there was a very limited amount of virtual programming before COVID. “We’ve done all sorts of things over the past year-plus, from gallery tours to lectures; Q&A conversations with curators to podcasts. We’re enthusiastic about finding ways to adapt these virtual programs into the menu we offer on a regular basis.”

Looking back on 2020, Tanner Salzman said the opening of Ground/work was certainly slowed by COVID. Pieces were arriving from the around the world, she explained, and as borders were closing and studios were closing as well, the process of bringing those works to Williamstown became more complicated and time-consuming, with the exhibit taking shape over time.

“We had to be more flexible and a little more patient,” she said, adding that these qualities have served the Clark well in very aspect of coping with the pandemic and effectively serving art lovers from across the country and around the world.

And flexibility and patience will continue to be the watchwords as this institution continues through that phase known as the ‘new normal.’

 

—George O’Brien

Features

Downtown Mainstay Sees New Signs of Life, Anticipates Many More

Stacey Gravanis

Stacey Gravanis says the phones starting ringing seemingly within minutes after the governor announced the new timetable for the final stage of his reopening plan.

 

Stacey Gravanis doesn’t particularly like that phrase ‘new normal’ (and she’s certainly not alone in that opinion). She prefers ‘return to life’ to describe what’s happening at her business, the Sheraton Springfield, and the broad hospitality sector.

And that choice of phrase certainly speaks volumes about what’s been happening — or not happening, as the case may be — in the hotel industry over the past 14 months. In short, there haven’t been many signs of life, at least life as these facilities knew it before COVID-19.

“The bottom just fell out,” she said, for all categories of business for the hotel — corporate and leisure stays, events, conventions, visitors to the casino, weddings, even the business from the military and airlines (flight crews flying into Bradley staying overnight came to a screeching halt in mid-March 2020). And it would be months before any of that came back, and then it was mostly the airline and military business, said Gravanis.

“Our customers are reacting. I have said there’s not going to be this switch that flips, and the business is just going to come back. But it felt like that day, someone did flip a switch because the phones were going crazy. What we budgeted for June … we already have it on the books.”

“When it first started, we were tracking the loss on a weekly basis; we had a spread sheet that we would review,” she recalled. “And then we just stopped reviewing it, because everything, everything, canceled. Reviewing it was pointless; we were just focused on how to rebuild.”

That rebuilding process started over the last two quarters of 2020, she said, adding that, by May, occupancy reached 40%, 10% above what she actually budgeted, said Gravanis, who then provided needed perspective by noting that, in a ‘normal’ May, buffeted by college graduations and other events, occupancy reaches 90%.

She expects the numbers to continue climbing, and while she expected the timeline for fully reopening to be accelerated, and was preparing for that eventuality, the response from the public has been more immediate and more pronounced than she anticipated.

“Our customers are reacting,” she told BusinessWest. “I have said there’s not going to be this switch that flips, and the business is just going to come back. But it felt like that day, someone did flip a switch because the phones were going crazy. What we budgeted for June … we already have it on the books.”

On the other end of those phone calls have been clients across a broad spectrum, including everything from leisure travelers with newfound confidence to book rooms for this summer to those planning to participate in a recently announced three-on-three basketball tournament, to brides looking to bring more guests to weddings that were booked for this June and July.

“Some wanted to double their numbers,” she recalled. “We had a wedding for 175 people that’s now 250 people, booked for the end of June.”

The hotel can handle such developments, she said, but it requires staffing up, which is one of the question marks and challenges moving forward, said Gravanis, adding that another concerns just when — and to what extent — corporate travel, a large and important part of the portfolio at the Sheraton, returns.

“We’re seeing a slow, slow return of business travel,” she explained, adding that corporate gatherings are critical to the hotel’s success, accounting for perhaps 40% of overall group/convention business. “We have heard some encouraging news from some of our tower tenants [Monarch Place] that they will be starting to return in June. We knew it would be the last to come back.”

But will it return to pre-COVID levels?

“I feel that it will,” she said, offering a few questions, the answers to which are on the minds of everyone who relies on business travel. “Who’s not sick of being behind a screen? And are those Zoom meetings as productive as bringing everyone together and putting them in the same room?”

As for staffing, she said the Sheraton has benefited greatly from corporate direction to keep key personnel amid large-scale furloughs and layoffs, on the theory that it would be difficult to replace them. That theory certainly has validity, she said, and keeping those personnel has helped the hotel as it returns to life.

Still, the Sheraton, like most businesses in this sector, is struggling to find enough help to handle the new waves of business now arriving.

“You may have 25% of your interviews actually show up,” she said with a noticeable amount of frustration in her voice — because she handles the interviews. “The hiring crisis hasn’t really hurt us yet because we have such talented managers, and every employee who works for us can work in multiple disciplines — they’re all cross-trained; our front-desk people can also drive a shuttle and jump into laundry. That said, we’re struggling just like everyone else.”

She remains optimistic, though, that these struggles won’t interfere with this downtown landmark’s long-awaited return to life.

 

—George O’Brien

Features

The Basketball Hall of Fame

 

John Doleva

John Doleva stands in the new Kobe Bryant exhibit at the Basketball Hall of Fame, which is drawing considerable attention and is now one of many reasons for optimism at the shrine.

 

John Doleva says it was probably within minutes after Vanessa Bryant, widow of the NBA star and entrepreneur Kobe Bryant, posted an Instagram photo of her in the new exhibit at the Basketball Hall of Fame dedicated to Kobe — a photo that has garnered 17 million ‘likes’ — when the phone started ringing.

On the other end were people — from this region, but also across the country — who wanted to know more about the exhibit and how long it would be running.

“The phones been ringing off the hook,” said Doleva, the long-time president and CEO of the Hall. “We’ve had calls from all across the country, but especially from California, with people saying, ‘I want to come see it; don’t take it down.’”

Vanessa Bryant’s Instagram post, followed soon thereafter by an article on her visit to the Hall in Us Weekly magazine and the response to both, is one of many things going right for the Hall of Fame a year and change after everything — as in everything — started going wrong.

Indeed, at the start of 2020, the year was shaping up as potentially the best in the Hall’s history. A star-studded class, headlined by Bryant, Tim Duncan, and Kevin Garnett, was going to be inducted that September. Meanwhile, a series of major additions and renovations to the Hall were being completed, prompting expectations for a surge in visitation. A commemorative coin was slated to be launched, one that was projected to become a major fundraiser for the shrine. And plans were being finalized for a massive three-on-three basketball tournament, with the Hall as a major player — and drawing card for participating teams.

And then … it all went away.

The induction ceremonies, a major source of funding for the Hall, were pushed back several times, and eventually to last month, and moved to Mohegan Sun in Connecticut. The commemorative coin was scrapped, and the three-on-three tournament, dubbed Hooplandia, was scrubbed as well.

“The phones been ringing off the hook. We’ve had calls from all across the country, but especially from California, with people saying, ‘I want to come see it; don’t take it down.’”

As for the Hall’s renovation, COVID-19 actually provided an opportunity to slow down the pace of work and add two new attractions — the Kobe Bryant exhibit and another exhibit that allows visitors to virtually join the set with TNT’s NBA broadcast team, which includes Charles Barkley and Shaquille O’Neal, and read a few highlights.

In recent weeks, visitation to this new, more modern, more immersive Hall has been steadily increasing, said Doleva, who expects that pattern to continue, and for a number of reasons, ranging from Vanessa Bryant’s Instagram post to the fact that many people who might otherwise be heading to the Cape or Martha’s Vineyard this summer will be coming to Western Mass. for day trips because they can’t book rooms or cottages at those destinations.

“Our traffic right now is ahead of pre-pandemic, 2019 numbers, and our pre-bookings for upcoming weekends are excellent,” he noted. “On a normal Saturday in May, we would get 300 to 400 people; last Saturday (May 22), we had 660. School is not out yet, and yet we’re still seeing a few hundred on a weekday.

“Our projections are that this will be the best summer we’ve ever had; we’re going to be aggressive in our promotion of visitation — we didn’t invest $21 million to hope and pray people come,” he went on, adding that he’s expecting 100,000 visitors to visit this summer, a 30% to 40% increase over what has been typical over the years.

And the governor’s moving of the reopening date from Aug. 1 to May 29 will certainly help in this regard, he said, adding that June and especially July are key months for the shrine.

“We were anxiously awaiting the green flag — and now we’re ready to run,” he told BusinessWest, noting that, while some businesses were not fully ready for May 29, the Hall was, and especially grateful for gaining nine critical weeks.

Overall, Doleva believes 2021 will, in many respects, be the year that 2020 wasn’t for the Hall. There will actually be two induction ceremonies, with the class of 2021, headlined by former Celtics Paul Pearce and Bill Russell (to be honored as the first black coach in the NBA), to be celebrated in September at the MassMutual Center, as well as a return of collegiate basketball tournaments that benefit the Hall. Meanwhile, Doleva is also projecting a strong surge in corporate events and outings at the Hall as the business world gradually returns to something approaching normal.

He said the Hall boasts a number of amenities, including a theater with seating for several hundred and Center Court, which can seat more than 400 for a sit-down dinner and now includes a 14-by-40-foot video screen.

“We’re getting a lot of interest, a lot of calls,” he said, noting that a few banquet facilities closed due to COVID, and the Hall stands to benefit whenever the business community and other constituencies are ready and willing to gather in large numbers again.

Getting back to those calls from California and the Kobe Bryant exhibit, Doleva said the typical lifespan for such a display is at least three to five years, and perhaps longer. He joked that those at the Hall are telling those callers, ‘why don’t you buy your tickets today, and we’ll hold it until you come.’”

Enthusiasm for that exhibit is just one of many reasons why those at the Hall of Fame believe they can fully rebound from a year that saw a number of hard losses.

 

—George O’Brien

Features

Reopening Timeline Prompts Excitement, but Also Trepidation

Greathorse GM Bryan Smithwick

Greathorse GM Bryan Smithwick is optimistic about the last two quarters of 2021, but, like all those in the hospitality sector, he has real concerns about the process of staffing up.

Bryan Smithwick believes he’s like most business owners and managers in the broad hospitality sector when he says that the news of the accelerated timeline for fully reopening the state was greeted with a mix of excitement, anticipation, and trepidation.

The first two elements are a function of just how bad 2020 was — we’ll get to that in a minute — while the third is obviously a reflection of a labor market the likes of which even those businesses owners with several decades of experience have never seen before.

“It’s like … great, we got the green light to go ahead and reopen and start hosting large audiences,” said Smithwick, general manager of the Starting Gate at GreatHorse, the high-end private golf club in Hampden. “But the labor market is so challenging right now. It’s awesome that the deadline was moved up, and moved up so significantly, but I think businesses thought they would have more time to plan, more time to really get their employees re-engaged with work — those employees who had been laid off — and even find new employees.

“The time frame was greatly reduced,” he went on. “And in the post-COVID world — I think I can say we’re in the post-COVID world now — that’s the greatest challenge we face, finding employees and getting geared up. We’re going to execute well over 80 weddings in 2021, and finding staff that can meet the business levels and get prepared is something we’re really struggling with right now.”

Looking back on 2020, Smithwick said it was certainly a great year for the golf business.

Indeed, while play was up at the public and semi-public courses, the private clubs benefited as well, with individuals and families deciding that, if they couldn’t travel, they should invest in a country-club membership.

That was certainly true at GreatHorse, which opened in 2015.

“For people who had been contemplating private-club membership, COVID really was the stimulus that made people take a hard look at all that private clubs have to offer,” he noted. “The safe-haven effect, and the relevance of clubs, was certainly strengthened during that emotional time, and we saw tremendous growth in our membership at GreatHorse, and we’ve continued to see that into the first and second quarters of 2021; we’ve really grown that side of our business.”

Unfortunately, the same could not be said of the banquet and event side of the ledger, one that has become an all-important part of the portfolio at the club.

“It’s awesome that the deadline was moved up, and moved up so significantly, but I think businesses thought they would have more time to plan, more time to really get their employees re-engaged with work — those employees who had been laid off — and even find new employees.”

Pretty much every event that was on the books after March 2020 was canceled or, in the case of weddings, pushed back a year or two, said Smithwick, adding that it was a year of “emotional conversations” with clients (and especially brides), pivoting, and trying to make the most of an extremely difficult time.

“We were only able to execute about 15% of the weddings that we had planned in 2020,” he told BusinessWest. “We were able to salvage the overwhelming majority of our weddings and shift them into 2021 and some even into 2022, but, overall, it was a lost year for revenue on that side of the business.”

While the outlook for this year is gradually improving, the shifting of those weddings slated for 2020 consumed a number of the dates in 2021 — and some in 2022 — limiting the overall revenue potential of this year and next, said Smithwick, adding quickly that projections are for a solid balance of the year — even if most weddings will not increase in size in proportion with the loosening of COVID restrictions — and an especially strong fourth quarter, with the anticipated return of holiday parties.

“It’s nice to know that we will have an opportunity this year to secure some December revenue,” he noted. “Without holiday parties, December can really be a soft month.”

But while the general outlook is positive, some question marks remain concerning the ‘new normal’ and challenges when it comes to making a full recovery, especially in regard to staffing.

Returning to that subject, and speaking for everyone who shares his title or something approximating it, Smithwick repeatedly stressed that finding and retaining good help is the most pressing issue facing those in this sector, and one that has made this transition into the new normal exciting but also daunting on several levels.

Taking a deep dive into the matter, he said a number of factors influence this problem. That list includes veterans of this industry (servers, bartenders, even managers) simply leaving it for something else during a very difficult 2020, generous unemployment benefits that have made sitting on the sidelines even when jobs are available an attractive proposition, and difficulty with bringing on interns from overseas, something GreatHorse had done with great success prior to COVID.

“Traditionally, we would work with J1 students from South Africa to England,” he explained, referring to the visa program that offers cultural and exchange opportunities in this country through initiatives overseen by the U.S. State Department. “With COVID being a world pandemic, we have not had access to the students looking to do internships in the hospitality sector; we’re really hit a roadblock with every avenue we’ve chosen, from job fairs to working with local hospitality schools to putting referral bonuses in place for existing employees.

“It’s tough, really tough. I’m not going to lie — it’s the most suppressed labor market for hospitality that I’ve seen in my career,” Smithwick went on. “Our staffing levels are not where they need to be; we’re just not having much success finding servers and bartenders, which is the key for our business model here.”

That’s why an otherwise joyous and exciting time is also being met with a dose of trepidation on the side.

 

—George O’Brien

Features

After a Year to Forget, This Springfield Label Is Ready to Roar

Ray Berry, seen here at the canning line at White Lion’s downtown Springfield brewery

Ray Berry, seen here at the canning line at White Lion’s downtown Springfield brewery, is moving on from ‘cans to go’ to the next chapter in the story of this intriguing business venture.

 

He called the promotion ‘cans to go,’ which pretty much says it all.

Indeed, while he could brew his craft-beer label, White Lion, at his new facility on the ground floor in Tower Square, Ray Berry couldn’t sit any visitors at the attached pub because the facility wasn’t finished and painstakingly slow in its progress. But he could sell cans to go — and he did, quite a few of them, in fact — on Wednesdays and Saturdays from 2:30 to 7 p.m.

May 26 was the last of those Wednesdays, and the last day for the promotion. Berry was sad to see them go. Well … sort of, but not really.

He called a halt to cans to go so he could direct 100% of his energies into the next phase of the White Lion story, a chapter that has been delayed more than a full year by COVID-19 — the opening of that much-anticipated downtown brew pub and a resumption of outdoor events with the now familiar White Lion logo attached to them.

“We want to make sure all the I’s are dotted and T’s are crossed, take a pause, exhale, and made sure everything is in place for our June opening,” he said. “We want to be ready to really hit the ground running.”

As he talked with BusinessWest, Berry was checking the schedules of a number of prominent elected officials, trying to find a date when most of them could attend a ribbon-cutting for the opening of his downtown facility. That ceremony will be both a beginning and an end — a beginning, as we noted, of an exciting new chapter, and the end of 15 months of COVID-fueled frustration that didn’t derail White Lion, but struck at the absolute worst time for the brand born in 2014.

“COVID set us back a full year,” he said, adding that the owners of Tower Square, who also act as the general contractor for the buildout of his facility, had set May 2020 as the date for that project to turn the key and open for business. “We’ve been creative, and we’ve made a number of pivots along the way and diversified our portfolio, but the bottom line is we lost a full year and more.”

He said moving up the timetable for fully reopening the state will certainly help, giving him an additional 10 weeks of operating without restrictions that he wasn’t anticipating — although he was watching the situation closely and was hoping the date would be moved.

“We’ve been creative, and we’ve made a number of pivots along the way and diversified our portfolio, but the bottom line is we lost a full year and more.”

“We were already going to gear up for some sort of opening during the month of June,” he explained. “But we always wanted to be in a situation where any opening would be an unrestricted opening first, rather than a restricted opening, so we’re very happy to be in this new normal.”

Berry acknowledged that the office crowd that has helped make his outdoor events so successful — and will be one of his target groups for his Tower Square facility — hasn’t come back yet, may not return until the fall, and certainly may not be all that it was, sizewise, at the start of 2020. But he said that audience is just part of the success formula for this endeavor and that the ultimate goal is to bring people into downtown from outside it.

“We’ve never predicated our business model on one particular group,” he explained. “Craft breweries are destinations — they are considered experiences to the consumer. So consumers will take it upon themselves to find out where the local craft breweries are.

“Even when we had cans to go two days a week, we would have an influx of people from outside the area who would say they were driving through or were eating somewhere local downtown and looked up ‘local breweries,’ and White Lion popped up, so they came in.”

As for other aspects of the White Lion business, Berry said the beer garden that was a fixture in the park across Main Street from Tower Square will return in some form in 2021 — and at multiple locations. He’s currently in discussions with those running Springfield’s Business Improvement District and other business partners to schedule what he called “a series of special events that will encourage people to come out and support the local businesses in the downtown corridor.”

Overall, a dream that was years in the making took another full year to finally be fully realized. But, at long last, White Lion is ready to roar to life in downtown Springfield.

 

—George O’Brien

Features

At These Eateries, Guests Will Determine Pace of Reopening

Ralph Santaniello

Ralph Santaniello says his customers, and not the governor, will determine how quickly and how profoundly he increases capacity at the venues within the Federal Restaurant Group.

Ralph Santaniello says he’s read the language contained in Gov. Charlie Baker’s decision to bring the state into the final stage of his reopening plan at least a dozen times.

And each time, he came away with the conclusion that the phrase ‘no restrictions’ means … well, no restrictions.

“That means no more mask requirements, no more tables being six feet apart, no barriers, no restrictions on capacity,” said Santaniello, director of Operations for the Federal Restaurant Group, which includes the Federal in Agawam, Vinted in West Hartford, and Posto in Longmeadow.

But just because it’s there in black and white doesn’t mean this restaurant group has to go as far and especially as fast (the date for full reopening was moved from Aug. 1 to May 29, as everyone knows by now) as the governor says it can.

And it won’t.

Indeed, Santaniello — several times, in fact — said it will be customers, the buying public, and not the governor who ultimately determines the pace at which these restaurants work their way back to where they were in the winter of 2020, before COVID-19 reached Western Mass.

“We’re not just going to turn on the faucet right away and have everything back to normal day one — the guests are going to decide things,” he noted. “What we’ll probably do is eliminate the barriers and slowly introduce more seating so the guests get comfortable. We’ll start to ramp up and ease our way back and see how things go.”

For example, while the requirement that tables be six feet apart has been lifted, the three restaurants in the group won’t immediately turn back the clock on such spacing, and will likely start with tables four feet apart and gradually reduce that number, again, with the pace of change and distance set by the public and its perceived comfort level with the surroundings.

“We’re not just going to turn on the faucet right away and have everything back to normal day one — the guests are going to decide things.”

Overall, as his group ramps up in the wake of the reopening announcement, Santaniello is projecting a solid balance to 2021, although projecting numbers is somewhat difficult. He noted, for example, that last summer was very strong for the three restaurants, all of which had outdoor dining, and one reason was because far fewer people were able to vacation out of the area. This summer, more might be able to, but most spots on the Cape and elsewhere are sold out.

“If spring is any indication, our reservations are up — they’re up to even 2019 levels,” he said, adding that the calls for reservations and booking events started picking up several weeks ago as the number of COVID cases started declining and the number of people vaccinated kept increasing.

Santaniello is projecting a strong fourth quarter, which is traditionally the most important three months for most restaurants, and especially the one he was sitting in while talking with BusinessWest, the Federal in Agawam, located in an historic home built just before the Civil War.

It has become a popular gathering spot year-round, he said, but business peaks during the holidays, and he is expecting a hard run on dates in December for holiday parties, especially after most companies, and families, went without last year.

But the next several months will feature a number of challenges, said Santaniello, noting rising food prices and especially the ongoing labor shortages as the two most pressing items on the list. The latter is the one keeping most restaurateurs up at night, he noted, adding quickly that he’s certainly in that group counting sheep.

“Last year, I had employees I was trying to keep on the payroll and no customers; this year, it feels like I have a ton of customers and no employees,” he said. “A good percentage of our employees have not come back yet, or some have left the industry; some are not ready to come to work for any of a number of reasons. Everyone has to do what’s right for them.”

He noted that the problem will actually limit the amount of business he can take on for the foreseeable future.

“Last year, I had employees I was trying to keep on the payroll and no customers; this year, it feels like I have a ton of customers and no employees.”

Indeed, while the Federal has historically been open six nights a week (Sundays are reserved for events), it will go down to five and possibly to four (Wednesday through Saturday, with events on Sunday), in large part due to the staffing situation.

Overall, though, the outlook for 2021 is obviously much better than 2020, he said, adding that he’s optimistic that the employment situation will eventually stabilize, probably by the fall, and overall business, by most projections, will continue to improve as customers feel more comfortable with being indoors and around other people.

“I think we’re going to have a great summer, and it’s going to be an even better fourth quarter,” Santaniello said. “The second quarter is shaping out great, the third quarter will be good, and the fourth quarter and the holiday season will be really, really good.”

 

—George O’Brien

Special Coverage Travel and Tourism

Fun in the Sun

Last year may not have been a total washout when it came to outdoor recreation and events, but many well-loved attractions and destinations had to dramatically scale back operations — if they opened at all. This year, with May 29 marking the end of most gathering restrictions in Massachusetts, there’s once again plenty to look forward to. You can read about some of them on the following pages: two local collegiate baseball teams back in action, the return of a beloved music and craft festival in Greenfield, and — as a shoutout to the governor — a baker’s dozen other options. There’s much, much more to look forward to, so get online and check out what else is happening near you, during a summer that promises to be a long-awaited breath of fresh air.

Berkshires Arts Festival

380 State Road, Great Barrington

www.berkshiresartsfestival.com

Admission: $7-$14; free for children under 10

Aug. 13-15: Ski Butternut plays host to the Berkshires Arts Festival, a regional tradition now in its 20th year. When Gov. Charlie Baker announced the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions as of Aug. 1 (since revised to May 29), event organizers moved the dates of this year’s festival to mid-August. Thousands of art lovers and collectors are expected to stop by to check out and purchase the creations of more than 175 artists and designers from across the country, in both outdoor and air-conditioned indoor exhibition spaces. “With its relaxed atmosphere, great food, exceptional art, and fine crafts, puppet shows, and live music,” the Berkshires Visitors Bureau notes, “it’s a great weekend for the entire family.”

 

The Big E

1305 Memorial Ave., West Springfield

www.easternstatesexposition.com

Admission: $8 and up; free for children under 5; 17-day pass $20-$40

Sept. 17 to Oct. 3: Yes, it’s happening. And as regional fairs go, it’s still the big one, with something for everyone, whether it’s the copious fair food or the livestock shows, the Avenue of States houses and parades, the local vendors and crafters, or the live music. Musical highlights this year include Machine Gun Kelly in concert on Sept. 17, and Brad Paisley performing in the arena on Sept. 24, marking the 20th anniversary of the first time Paisley played the Big E.

 

Crab Apple Whitewater Rafting

2056 Mohawk Trail, Charlemont

www.crabapplewhitewater.com

Admission: Varies by activity

All summer: Wanna get wet? Crab Apple is a third-generation, multi-state family business that operates locally on the Deerfield River in the northern Berkshire Mountains of Western Mass. Its rafting excursions range from mild to wild, full- or half-day runs, in rafts and inflatable kayaks. In short, Crab Apple offers something for everyone, from beginners to more experienced rafters. Starting May 29, the company will accept reservations for all group sizes. Meanwhile, waivers will be sent in advance to guests for e-signing to ensure a touch-free check-in process, hand-washing stations have been added at all building entrances, and transportation to and from the river will be offered in vans and buses.

 

Drive-in Concerts at the Wick

The Wick, Legion Road, Southwick

www.westfieldlivemusic.com/southwick

Admission: $25 to $45

June 11, July 9, Aug. TBA: The national touring and recording artists Beatlemania Again will headline a summer series of live drive-in concerts on to benefit the Southwick Civic Fund, which creates and produces events that provide a sense of community spirit, celebration, and civic pride. The concert will be held at the Southwick MotoX Track (the Wick) on Legion Road in Southwick on June 11 at 7:30 p.m., and will follow all current CDC and local health department guidelines. Each vehicle will have a space next to it for the occupants to set up lawn chairs or blankets to enjoy the show. A modest PA and lighting will provide a real concert feel. Upcoming concerts in the series include Foreigners Journey (July 9) and an August show to be announced.

 

FreshGrass Festival

1040 MASS MoCA Way, North Adams

www.freshgrass.com

Admission: $50-$150 for three-day pass; free for children under 6

Sept. 24-26: The Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art is known for its musical events, and the FreshGrass festival is among the highlights, showcasing dozens of bluegrass artists and bands over three days. This year, the lineup includes Dispatch, Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue, Béla Fleck My Bluegrass Heart (featuring Michael Cleveland, Sierra Hull, Justin Moses, Mark Schatz, and Bryan Sutton), Watchouse, Sarah Jarosz, and many more. FreshGrass features bluegrass traditionalists and innovators on four stages and platforms throughout the museum’s 16-acre campus. Festival programming also includes FreshScores, a silent film with original live music; FreshGrass commissions and world premieres; instrument and industry workshops; pop-up performances and retail; and local Berkshire food and spirits vendors.

 

Fresh Paint Springfield

Downtown Springfield

www.freshpaintspringfield.com

Admission: Free

June 5-13: Fresh Paint Springfield, the mural festival that began in 2019 in downtown Springfield and transformed large exterior walls into art, will return with 10 new murals downtown and in Mason Square. This year’s festival will involve members of the community in the design and painting of all 10 murals, which will result in opportunities for more than 1,000 Springfield residents to actively participate in the beautification of the city. The murals will use a technique that employs giant paint-by-numbers canvases on special polytab mural fabric for members of the community to paint at COVID-safe outdoor paint parties during the festival. New this year, the Community Mural Apprentice program will pair 10 local artists with established muralists to learn how to independently engage with the community in designing and painting large, professional murals.

 

Historic Deerfield

84B Old Main St., Deerfield, MA

www.historic-deerfield.org

Admission: $5-$18; free for children under 6

All summer: This outdoor museum interprets the history and culture of early New England and the Connecticut River Valley. Visitors can tour 12 carefully preserved antique houses dating from 1730 to 1850 and explore world-class collections of regional furniture, silver, textiles, and other decorative arts. Summer activities include educational lectures, cooking demonstrations, and exhibitions of period items and art. Due to COVID-19, access to the historic house museums is still restricted, but at least one historic house will open for touring each day, with wider access possible later on. Visitors should inquire on the day of their visit which house is open for touring that day.

 

Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival

358 George Carter Road, Becket

www.jacobspillow.org

Admission: Prices vary

June 30 to Aug. 29: Jacob’s Pillow has become one of the country’s premier showcases for dance, and this year’s festival returns with live, in-person events, but much more as well. “We will share the restorative and uplifting power of dance in person at our campus in the Berkshire Hills, on the road in our communities, as well as through live and on-demand events online to reach audiences across the world,” its directors say. “Our offerings will include commissions, premieres, Pillow debuts, talks, and workshops that take into account COVID-compliant protocols to ensure the health and safety of our community. The festival will put artists back to work after the devastation of the pandemic and remind us all of the power of dance to positively impact communities.”

 

Mattoon Street Arts Festival

Mattoon Street, Springfield

www.mattoonfestival.org

Admission: Free

Sept. 11-12: Now in its 48th year, the Mattoon Street Arts Festival is the longest-running arts festival in the Pioneer Valley, featuring about 100 exhibitors, including artists that work in ceramics, fibers, glass, jewelry, painting and printmaking, photography, wood, metal, and mixed media. Food vendors and strolling musicians help to make the event a true late-summer destination. Admission is free, as is parking at the TD Bank lot. Located just three blocks from I-91, this family-friendly event is ideal for holiday shopping, seeing new craft ideas, or just walking on a beautiful Victorian street.

Pedal ‘n’ Party

Brunelle’s Marina, 1 Alvord St., South Hadley

www.pedalnparty.com

Admission: $30 for 60 minutes, $15 for 30 minutes

All summer: Want to have some fun out on the water? Rent an individual hydrobike, which can be use to explore the Connecticut River and the streams that feed into it. This eco-friendly, pedal-powered vessel moves at a comfortable 4-6 mph with easy effort. From its stability to its high visibility on the water, the hydrobike is engineered for a safe, reliable ride. Its pontoons were scientifically developed by a professional canoe designer for optimum buoyancy, speed, and maneuverability, ensuring a smooth ride even in very choppy water. Stable enough to dive from, the hydrobike can also handle rough water conditions, including five-foot swells. Rent it for a beautiful day on the water, a workout, or a fun group activity.

 

Pioneer Valley Ballet

Park Hill Orchard, 82 Park Hill Road, Easthampton

www.pioneervalleyballet.org

Admission: $20, $10 for children and seniors

June 4-5: It’s been a year and a half since Pioneer Valley Ballet (PVB) last performed for a live audience, but that will change in June as the company welcomes spring with an outdoor, site-specific performance of one of Shakespeare’s most popular and treasured works, A Midsummer Night’s Dream. After having to cancel all of its 2020 performances, PVB is once again taking to the stage — only this time the ‘stage’ is Easthampton’s Park Hill Orchard, where for two afternoons small groups will wind through the fields, discovering scenes from the Midsummer story at sites throughout the picturesque orchard. A new audience will enter every 30 minutes. The first performance of each day will be a non-roaming, single-location performance for anyone with mobility concerns.

 

Six Flags New England

1623 Main St., Agawam

www.sixflags.com/newengland

Admission: $29.99 and up; season passes $49.99

All summer: Continuing an annual tradition of adding a new major attraction each spring, Six Flags New England recently unveiled Supergirl Skyflyer, a spinning, high-speed thrill ride. The main park is now open, and the Hurricane Harbor waterpark opens Memorial Day weekend. “We are beyond thrilled that we can reopen our theme park with a full complement of our more than 100 rides, attractions, and unique experiences,” park President Pete Carmichael said recently. “Now more than ever, families need an escape that is safe, accessible and fun.”

 

The Zoo in Forest Park

293 Sumner Ave., Springfield, MA

www.forestparkzoo.org

Admission: $5-$10; free for children under 1

Through Oct. 14: The Zoo in Forest Park, located inside Springfield’s Forest Park, is home to a wide variety of species found throughout the world and North America. Meanwhile, the zoo maintains a focus on conservation, wildlife education, and rehabilitations. The Zoo is open seven days a week, weather permitting, but all guests, including members, currently need a timed ticket to visit. Recently, state Sen. Eric Lesser and other local lawmakers announced $125,000 in pandemic recovery funding for the zoo to continue its mission of education, conservation, and rehabilitation.

 

 

Features Special Coverage

Relief, Joy … and Anxiety, Too

 

While it was not exactly unexpected news, in some quarters, at least, Gov. Charlie Baker’s recent announcement that he was accelerating the reopening of Massachusetts — shifting the date for removing most restrictions on businesses from Aug. 1 to May 29 and also removing most mask mandates — nonetheless sent shockwaves through the business community.

And for different reasons.

For tourism-related businesses, the announcement means they gain nine precious weeks during their peak time of the year to operate without the restrictions that have hamstrung them since March 2020. Everyone was looking longingly toward that time, but it comes sooner than most anticipated.

Indeed, for those businesses and many others, the announcement comes at a time when they’re struggling to find enough workers to handle the current pace of business, let alone the surge expected to come when the restrictions are lifted, adding another rather large dose of anxiety on that issue.

And, speaking of anxiety, for those businesses that were struggling with the challenge of when and how to fully reopen their offices and bring back employees who have been working remotely, the governor’s announcement brings more layers of intrigue to what were already-complicated decisions.

As for the lifting of the mask mandate — the governor and CDC have decided that vaccinated individuals no longer have to wear masks indoors or outdoors — it has created a whole new set of headaches for employers who already had enough to deal with, said Meredith Wise, president of the Employers Assoc. of the NorthEast, adding that faith in the honor system is not shared by many employers and employees alike.

Meredith Wise

“Things are very volatile in many respects. One of our members said, ‘we’ve gotten into a period where we’re intolerant of other people’s views and perspectives, and all this adds one more layer that can potentially cause a problem in the workplace.’”

“Things are very volatile in many respects,” she said, adding that differing opinions about whether vaccinated individuals should still wear masks in the workplace prompted a fistfight recently between two now-former employees of a company in Rhode Island, an EANE member. “One of our members said, ‘we’ve gotten into a period where we’re intolerant of other people’s views and perspectives, and all this adds one more layer that can potentially cause a problem in the workplace.’”

So it was certainly with a mix of emotions that the business community greeted the news that the state has finally reached the fourth stage of the reopening plan the governor announced almost exactly a year ago: what Baker calls the ‘new normal.’

There was definitely some joy and relief, especially in the beleaguered hospitality sector, said Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Western Massachusetts Economic Development Council, who predicted both a quick and profound impact on such businesses.

Rick Sullivan

Rick Sullivan

“All of our destination locations are going to see a pretty quick uptick in business; I think there’s a huge amount of pent-up demand in the travel and tourism industry for people to get away.”

“I know people are pretty excited about it,” he said, adding that he’s had discussions with many in the hospitality sector who were looking forward to the day when they could be at full capacity — and now it’s almost here. “All of our destination locations are going to see a pretty quick uptick in business; I think there’s a huge amount of pent-up demand in the travel and tourism industry for people to get away.

“I think people are really ready for some quality time,” he went on. “And that means travel and taking advantage of the venues we have here in Western Mass. for day trips.”

Nancy Creed, president of the Springfield Regional Chamber, agreed, noting that gaining those two all-important summer months will provide a much-needed lift for businesses in that sector.

“This is great for the hospitality sector — they really need those summer months,” she said, adding that the difference between May 29 and Aug. 1 for that sector is immense.

That said, the governor’s announcement is only the latest of many that have caught business owners and managers by surprise and left them somewhat flat-footed, with little time to adjust to changing conditions.

Nancy Creed

Nancy Creed

“Some people were a little shell-shocked with the announcement.”

“Some people were a little shell-shocked with the announcement,” said Creed, adding that this sentiment applies to everything from restaurants and tourist attractions ramping up for full capacity to business owners of all sizes now having to deal with questions on mask wearing, requiring vaccinations, bringing remote workers back to the office, and more.

Wise agreed. She said the announcement from the governor has left some wondering just what to do, especially when it comes to many of the precautions they’ve been taking for the past 14 months.

“There are definitely factions within management teams and organizations that are saying, ‘yay … let’s throw away all the masks and do away with all the social distancing and just get back to the way we used to operate,” said Wise, noting that EANE’s hotline has been flooded with calls on various aspects of the reopening plan and mask mandates. “But then there are concerns about whether people have been vaccinated or not. Do businesses put something out that says, ‘if you’re vaccinated, you don’t have to wear a mask?’ And if they do, will there then be peer pressure for people who haven’t been vaccinated to stop wearing a mask because they don’t want to stand out?”

 

Changing on the Fly — Again

Peter Rosskothen, owner of the Log Cabin Banquet & Meeting House, the Delaney House restaurant, and other hospitality-related businesses, has lived through a number of announcements from the governor and has become adept at changing on the fly. Still, this change is abrupt and huge in scale.

“This reversal is traumatic in some ways,” he said the day after the announcement came down. “Everything we’ve been doing for the last year and half is out the door in 10 days. Think of all the things we were doing … and now we’re just flipping a switch and going back to the old way, like with buffets. Now it’s suddenly OK to let people serve themselves? It just doesn’t seem right mentally.”

This change has him excited on some levels — he has a number of weddings booked for those two months, and now the bride and groom can invite more people to those ceremonies — but there is some apprehension as well, especially when it comes to the daunting task of staffing up for larger volumes of business.

“This reversal is traumatic in some ways. Everything we’ve been doing for the last year and half is out the door in 10 days.”

In no way is this remotely one of those proverbial good problems to have, he told BusinessWest, adding that businesses across the hospitality sector have been struggling mightily to not just hire people, but keep them for any length of time amid immense competition for good help.

“I’ve heard that there’s one restaurant that’s paying people $1,000 if they stay for three months,” he noted, adding that many others have resorted to sign-on bonuses and other types of incentives to get people in the door.

He hasn’t taken that step yet (he’s thinking about it), but he is increasing hourly wages, a step he believes will help but certainly not solve what has been a persistent problem made worse, in his opinion and that of many others, by generous unemployment benefits and an overall relaxing of rules requiring those out of work to look for employment. Meanwhile, he’s not sure how these soaring labor costs will impact his ability to do business.

“This labor shortage is going to radically increase our labor costs,” he explained. “We were ready for a minimum wage of $15, and we were planning on that in our pricing. But $15 is not good enough post-COVID.”

As for people who are employed, the governor’s decision to move up the timetable for fully reopening the state is, as noted, bringing fresh emphasis to a problem many employers were looking to deal with later, rather than sooner.

That problem is simply deciding who comes back, when, and under what circumstances. Wise told BusinessWest several weeks ago that many employers were struggling with this issue because employees had grown accustomed to working from home and many of them would prefer to keep on doing so, even as their managers would prefer they return.

Compromises in the form of hybrid schedules are one solution, said Wise, adding that the new timetable for fully reopening the state is creating a new sense of urgency among some employers, whether they like it or not.

“Organizations probably thought they had a few more months before they had to actually roll out any new policies and procedures regarding how and when they’re going to bring people back and whether they’re going to require them to come back full-time or work a hybrid schedule,” she told BusinessWest. “Now, with everything being lifted as of May 29, do they rush this, do they put it on steroids and get it going a lot faster, or do they still take their time and be more thoughtful and more planned?”

Knowing that business owners are uncertain about how to handle this situation, EANE is preparing to survey its members on this matter, said Wise, adding that the results will be eagerly awaited by those pressed to make decisions.

“Everyone wants to know what everyone else is doing,” she told BusinessWest. “They want to know how to compare and benchmark against everyone else.”

What happens in offices in Springfield, Northampton, and other communities will certainly play a role in how quickly and profoundly some businesses bounce back, said Sullivan, adding that he expects that aspect of the economy to emerge much more slowly than the tourism sector.

“The bounceback to the office work as it was before the pandemic is going to be slower than the travel and tourism industry because everyone is going to be careful and methodical when it comes to opening back up,” he explained, adding that it might be fall or a little sooner before most offices are back to something approaching pre-pandemic conditions. “There will still be a significant amount of mask wearing and social distancing, especially in a larger office setting, even with the relaxed CDC guidelines.”

 

 

Back to Normal?

In many respects, the governor’s announcement amounts to more pivoting, said Creed, adding that, by now, most businesses have gotten pretty good at it — a trend she expects to continue into the governor’s ‘new normal’ stage of reopening the state.

“If there’s one thing we’ve learned through all of this, it’s that we can absolutely can pivot, and we’re incredibly resilient and can adjust,” she said. “So now, we just have to adjust to slowly getting back to normal.”

Meanwhile, for Rosskothen, the acceleration of the state’s reopening plan means something else — getting back to doing business as he did before the pandemic.

“The exciting thing about this is that we’re going to be real managers again,” he told BusinessWest. “Instead of thinking about how we can get free money from the government, I’m 100% switching to becoming a manager — how do we manage this labor shortage? How do we motivate staff? How do we get staff ready so we can manage this influx of business that’s right around the corner?

“It’s real management again,” he went on. “No complaining about COVID or restrictions … it’s about work, and that’s a good thing.”

That’s just one of many good things to come from an announcement that brought a large helping of joy and relief, but with some anxiety on the side.

 

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

Commercial Real Estate Special Coverage

Getting Down to Business

WestMass CEO Jeff Daley (left) and Sean O’Donnell (right), the agency’s Economic Development planner and leasing manager, with metal sculptor Kamil Peters, who relocated to Ludlow Mills last summer.

WestMass CEO Jeff Daley (left) and Sean O’Donnell (right), the agency’s Economic Development planner and leasing manager, with metal sculptor Kamil Peters, who relocated to Ludlow Mills last summer.

The primary role of the Westmass Area Development Corp. — as the agency recently stressed in a letter to area stakeholders — is to “to manage the entire economic-development process — from conception to completion.” How it performs that role is changing and expanding, however — not just in its portfolio of development and property reuse, including its industrial parks and the ever-intriguing Ludlow Mills project, but as a valuable consultant for businesses and communities with a vision.

The letters, 150 of them, went out earlier this month.

They were sent to mayors, economic-development leaders, and other officials in communities across the four counties of Western Mass., dozens of area cities and towns, and served as introductions, invitations, and reminders all at the same time.

Officials in those communities were and are being invited to take full advantage of the talent and resources available at Westmass Area Development Corp. — the not-for-profit economic and real-estate development firm established in 1960 by state-enabling legislation — to help with a wide range of projects, from urban-renewal plans to environmental permitting; from complex site-related issues to specialized tax incentives.

The reminder part? Well, Westmass has been offering this kind of assistance to area communities almost from the start, but under the leadership of Jeff Daley, who took the helm at the agency in the summer of 2019, consulting work has become a much larger part of the business plan for the agency, which is promoting such services more heavily — and in a number of ways.

Like with those those letters, which quickly get to the heart of the matter.

“Every community, no matter its size or complexity, requires an ongoing economic-development effort to ensure financial stability of that community,” it reads. “Ideally, through the public-private partnership process, commonly shared economic-development goals can be identified and ultimately achieved. The primary role of Westmass is to manage the entire economic-development process — from conception to completion — and [be] engaged throughout all stages.”

“Westmass has always had some foot in the consulting business, helping communities and developers. But given my background, what I want to bring to the table is really opening the door for businesses and communities with economic and real-estate development projects; we’re really ramping things up.”

There are already some good examples of how Westmass with worked with area communities to achieve stated goals, said Daly, citing assistance with managing grants that helped land the Green High Performance Computing Center in Holyoke and some similar assistance with bringing the Holyoke Community College MGM Culinary Arts Center to reality.

The goal moving forward is to add to the portfolio and become more of a contributing force when it comes to economic development and property reuse in the region.

“Westmass has always had some foot in the consulting business, helping communities and developers,” he explained. “But given my background, what I want to bring to the table is really opening the door for businesses and communities with economic and real-estate development projects; we’re really ramping things up.”

That background he mentioned includes his own private consulting firm, CJC Development Advisors, and a stint as director of the Westfield Redevelopment Authority, during which he worked on several projects in the city’s downtown. He is now part of a team that also includes Sara la Cour, vice president of Operations for Westmass, and Sean O’Donnell, Economic Development planner and leasing manager for the agency.

Nick Moran, founder of Iron Duke Brewing

Nick Moran, founder of Iron Duke Brewing, is expanding his operation at the Ludlow Mills, making the complex more of a destination.

Overall, this consulting arm is now one of three main prongs to the Westmass operation, with the others being industrial-park management — the agency oversees several parks, including facilities in Agawam, Chicopee, East Longmeadow, Hadley, and Westfield, most of which are fully leased — and redevelopment of the Ludlow Mills site, a 15-to 20-year project that Daly believes can serve as a model for what other communities can do with old mill buildings and complex brownfield sites.

The mill now boasts 30 tenants, including a senior housing complex, a rehabilitation hospital, and a host of smaller businesses, including several recent arrivals. That list includes Kamil Peters, a contemporary metal sculptor who relocated to the mill from Holyoke (more on him later); Westnet Inc., a medical-supplies distributor, which moved in earlier this year; and Herron Automation, a machinist and CNC operator.

It also includes a tenant that isn’t new but is intriguing nonetheless. That would be Iron Duke Brewery, which almost left the mill in the protracted legal battle over whether lease conditions were violated, but wound up staying and is now in an expansion mode, with work on a new beer garden slated to begin later this year.

For this issue and its focus on commercial real estate, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at how Westmass intends to broaden its impact in the region by helping area cities and towns take complex projects off the drawing board and make them reality.

 

Not Run of the Mill

Returning to that letter sent out to area communities, it’s part of a larger effort on the part of those at Westmass to create more visibility for the agency, make its expertise and resources known to more municipal officials and developers, and, in general, tell its story. A move downtown, to offices in Monarch Place, is part of that initiative.

“We’ve certainly experienced enough in this now that we can go in and help cities and towns with buildings like this, whether they’re mills or old dilapidated structures; we can help them go in and see what can be done.”

Other components, part of a new multi-year strategic plan being reviewed by the Westmass board, include a revamped, far more modern website and more extensive use of social media, said Daly, adding that many in the region believe Westmass is only in the business of developing industrial parks. That’s a big part of the mission, he noted, but it’s not the whole story.

And he wants to write more chapters in the broad realm of consulting, where, he believes, there is considerable room for growth. That’s because of the wide range of experience the agency can bring to the table, including assistance to both communities and developers in many realms.

These include everything from business-improvement districts (la Cour ran the Amherst BID for many years) to district-improvement financing, one of Daly’s areas of expertise.

“When I started my own private business, it was a shot in the dark because I saw what communities didn’t have and what developers were missing,” he explained. “And it proved to be very successful very quickly. I’m taking the same passion I had for that kind of work in my private practice and rolling it into Westmass’ purview to help area communities, because that’s what we’re here to do — develop properties, help communities, and create jobs.”

Daly said Westmass is targeting all communities west of Worcester when it comes to its consulting arm. And while smaller communities without economic-development staffs can certainly benefit from such services, larger municipalities can as well, and some already have.

Kamil Peters is one of a number of new tenants at Ludlow Mills

Kamil Peters is one of a number of new tenants at Ludlow Mills that are giving the complex a different look and feel.

The full list of areas for which Westmass can assist developers and municipalities also includes strategic planning for integrated project permitting, project financing and incentives, public procurement and grant management, and site acquisition and redevelopment of historic buildings, greenfields, and brownfields.

That last category brings us back to Ludlow Mills, which encompasses all three of those types of property. It is certainly historic — the mills played a huge role in the growth and development of Ludlow, and there is a large mix of brownfields and greenfields being redeveloped.

And with its experience in redeveloping the mill complex, Westmass has established itself as a leader of sorts in this kind of large, very complex redevelopment.

“This is the biggest mill in the region, and it’s very time-consuming and capital-intensive,” he noted. “But we’ve certainly experienced enough in this now that we can go in and help cities and towns with buildings like this, whether they’re mills or old dilapidated structures; we can help them go in and see what can be done.”

Often with such projects, environmental issues are a key consideration — and a major stumbling block, he went on, adding that this was certainly the case with Ludlow Mills. Over the past 11 years, Westmass has applied for and received several million dollars worth of grants from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the state to clean the site and make it ready for redevelopment.

The latest EPA grant, totaling $461,000 (word of approval was just received), will enable Westmass to clean 10 buildings on the site with roofs loaded with asbestos, preparing them for eventual demolition and redevelopment of five to six acres of property.

“It was a competitive and comprehensive program that we applied for,” said Daly, “and we’re grateful to the EPA to get selected for exactly what we asked for.”

The property in question, just south of the Ludlow Senior Center, includes several of the stockhouses that populate the site. Some may remain standing, said Daly, but the ‘clean dirt’ that will result from demolition of those deemed unsavable will give Westmass a real opportunity to add to its eclectic mix of tenants in the mill complex.

“I was in Holyoke for 10 years. My space was starting to close in on me a little bit. I was invited to take a look here and found it had ample power, the price was reasonable, and there were already things going on here, like Iron Duke. I decided I wanted to be part of it.”

That tenant base has evolved over the years, said O’Donnell, and now includes a number of storage-related ventures, several light manufacturers, the brewery, a battery sales and servicing company, the senior housing complex, and even a wholesale florist.

Then, there’s Peters, who has transformed one of the high-ceilinged stockhouses into a new studio. On the day BusinessWest visited, he was working on a number of wooden benches (he does woodworking as well) for a new client that is transforming what was the late actor Christopher Reeves’ estate in the Berkshires into a mix of Airbnb and event space. He was also doing some work for Harold Grinspoon, one of BusinessWest’s recently honored Difference Makers, who is, in addition to being a successful business owner and philanthropist, a prolific sculptor.

Known for his metal masks, Peters said he found Ludlow Mills at the suggestion of a few friends and colleagues who thought the space would provide him space to work — and grow.

“I was in Holyoke for 10 years,” he noted. “My space was starting to close in on me a little bit. I was invited to take a look here and found it had ample power, the price was reasonable, and there were already things going on here, like Iron Duke. I decided I wanted to be part of it.”

The plan moving forward is to make the mill more of destination, which could attract many different kinds of businesses, said Daly, adding that, as noted, this is both a brownfields project — redevelopment of the old mill buildings — and greenfields, specifically 37 acres of undeveloped land which is drawing considerable interest and will certainly attract much more when a private road to that property, one of many priorities for Westmass at this site, is constructed.

Meanwhile, a $7 million project to construct a public road along the Chicopee River, which will create frontage for several properties, should also put the mill property on more radar screens.

Overall, the evolving mix of tenants is “changing the dynamic” at the mill complex, said Daly, adding that, with the beer garden and tenants like Peters, who has a goal to create an artists’ gallery in his space, the mill does become a destination.

“Businesses like this are bringing people here after work, on weekends … it’s not just a 7-to-3 manufacturing facility anymore,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s driving a different economy of scale with who comes here and the money they’re spending. It’s a neat concept that we’ve stumbled into, if you will.”

 

Bottom Line

It’s the kind of concept that Westmass would like to help other area communities stumble into.

With those letters that went out earlier this month, as well as other initiatives undertaken recently to improve its visibility, Westmass is not exactly broadening its mission, but rather putting more emphasis on what could be called another ‘growth area’ for the agency.

It’s all part of a larger strategic plan aimed at making an agency that has been a driving force in economic development in this region an even more powerful engine.

 

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

Home Improvement Special Coverage

Upscale but Simple

While interior-design trends in homes can be slow to change — and, in many ways, have been, as evidenced by the white and grey colors that still dominate — the way people are using their homes did change somewhat over the past year. That, and a growing desire among older homeowners to age in place, has influenced what people are looking for in kitchens and bathrooms — and they have no shortage of options to achieve their vision.

By Mark Morris

 

With a wave of her hand, Lori Loughlin makes the water flow from a touchless kitchen faucet.

With a wave of her hand, Lori Loughlin makes the water flow from a touchless kitchen faucet.

 

 

While homebuyers want to put their own stamp on a new house, Scott Keiter said, when it comes to kitchens, they tend to think alike.

In fact, the owner of Keiter Builders currently has six new homes under construction, and for every one, the owners want kitchens that provide plenty of light, an airy feeling, and enough room for people to gather.

“We’re seeing less of a distinction between the kitchen and living area and more of a merger as the two morph into one space,” he said.

In many cases, the anchor to this space is the kitchen island. While islands have been popular for years as a way to provide more counter and cabinet space, during the pandemic, they saw increased use for food preparation as people ate more meals at home. The island also served as a desk for many who suddenly found themselves working from home. As a result, Keiter said, islands have become more multi-purpose, and the kitchen is now seen as a multi-use space.

“On top of the normal cooking and food prep, we’re seeing a movement to make the kitchen a more communal room. It’s becoming a place to work from home, as well as a place for guests and friends to congregate.”

While the kitchen is becoming more of a gathering place and its form and function are changing, Dave Lloyd, manager of Budget Cabinet, said every customer looking to remodel that space shares one objective: convenience.

“While new houses allow for bigger islands, we do a lot of remodeling projects where people are limited by the footprint of their house,” he said.

Whether incorporating an island or not, one trend that addresses convenience and improved function is what Lloyd called “drawers over doors.” Many cabinet designs offer wide and deep drawers to store bulky or heavy items. That way, instead of making someone reach overhead for heavy dishes in a cabinet, a waist-high drawer allows for easier access — which becomes more important as people age.

“We’re seeing less of a distinction between the kitchen and living area and more of a merger as the two morph into one space.”

Aging in place also comes into play in bathroom design, said Lori Loughlin, manager at Frank Webb Home. These days, she noted, handheld shower heads are the choice of nearly every bathroom renovation. Also popular are shower fixtures that combine a handheld with a rainfall feature.

“We work with many people who want to age in place, so we stress that a handheld shower is more convenient to use and clean the shower stall,” she explained.

Converting old bathrooms to accommodate a lower-threshold shower for the aging or physically challenged isn’t new, she added, but the styles are changing. “There are things we can do to make a shower safe and functional without it looking institutional. For example, there will be a seat and grab bars, but they are done with more style, so the result looks more like a spa.”

Colors such as gray translucent stain are appearing in more kitchens.

Colors such as gray translucent stain are appearing in more kitchens.

Aging in place also affects kitchen design, where islands are available in multiple levels, with a lower level constructed to accommodate seniors or people in a wheelchair.

Because everyone is more aware of touching surfaces, touchless bathroom faucets and a toilet that flushes by waving one’s hand over a sensor are available as well. While once considered gimmicky, sophisticated toilet seats that have a warmer built in, along with a bidet, are growing in interest. Loughlin noted that these more premium seats also contribute to aging-in-place considerations by allowing people who might otherwise need assistance to take care of themselves.

Such bathroom renovations might seem like an indulgence, Lloyd said, but the result is a space that provides easier access and convenience, again, allowing people to live in their homes longer.

During this boom time in home building and renovations, BusinessWest caught up with several professionals who shared what their customers are looking for in their kitchens and bathrooms — for both their present and future needs.

 

Form and Function

Lloyd noted that today’s kitchens emphasize designs that are high-functioning and less ornate, and tastes are trending toward cabinet designs with clean lines such as the Shaker look, as well as simpler cabinet hardware.

While the overall trends haven’t changed much over the years, he added, colors have seen some changes. “Translucent cabinet stains are becoming popular because it gives you some color, but you can still see the grain of the wood. Whites and grays — both light and dark — are still very popular color choices.”

Lloyd said his customers want interesting but not ornate designs in kitchen backsplashes, while upscale appliances remain very popular in kitchen remodels, with stainless steel a popular option and black stainless on the rise as a trend.

Black may become the new neutral, Loughlin said, noting that touchless and black faucets are currently big sellers in kitchens. “For the next couple of years, I think we will be seeing a trend of faucets with mixed metals, such as black and gold,” she noted, while faucets with a black finish are trending in the bathroom as well.

Dave Lloyd demonstrates a two-level silverware drawer.

Dave Lloyd demonstrates a two-level silverware drawer.

Deep drawers provide easier access for larger items.

Deep drawers provide easier access for larger items.

While white farmhouse sinks remain popular, she said they are now available in black and other colors to better match darker shades of quartz and granite countertops. Speaking of which, quartz has passed granite as the most popular stone countertop material.

“People are spending more time in their kitchens, so they are getting what they want,” she explained. The styles that resonate most with her customers include the contemporary farmhouse look and industrial chic, where faucets and lighting have a stylish but industrial look to them.

Lighting also reflects black and gold color schemes, with open fixtures creating an airy look. Pendant lighting, which once featured small pendants suspended from the ceiling, have grown into larger pendants that fill more space and provide more light.

Kitchen floor upgrades were once limited to hardwoods or tile floors made of ceramic or porcelain. Eclipsing both of those choices, the current most popular trend in flooring is LVT, or luxury vinyl tile. Resembling wood planks, LVT floors click into place and are known in the industry as ‘floating’ floors, so named because they are not glued down. Jake Levine, manager of Advanced Rug and Flooring Center, said the waterproof properties of LVT make it a best seller in his store.

“Because LVT handles water so well, it is replacing other more expensive alternatives,” he said. “LVT is also 40% warmer to the touch than a tile floor, and it’s not prone to chipping, also an issue with tile floors.”

Installing a hardwood or tile floor takes real expertise, Levine explained, noting that LVT floors can be a do-it-yourself project because they allow more room for error.

“If you don’t like the direction of the planks, you can unclick them and reinstall,” he said. “I’m not saying everyone will get the same results as a professional, but a capable DIY-er can do it.”

For customers who prefer a tile look, LVT is available in 24-by-12-inch pieces featuring stone patterns that click in place similar to the planks. This style and its waterproof properties make it a good choice for a bathroom, but Levine said most people still prefer porcelain or ceramic tile.

“For many people, the word ‘vinyl’ suffers from an old stigma of linoleum floors that discolored and peeled,” he said. “The click floors are very good for bathrooms because they are designed for areas that get water.”

As Western Mass. is known for its many older homes, a bathroom renovation can often involve converting a spare bedroom into a larger, more modern bathroom, usually adjacent to the master bedroom. Lloyd said this is a popular renovation among empty-nest couples.

Mixed metals are an increasingly popular option for kitchen faucets.

Mixed metals are an increasingly popular option for kitchen faucets.

“People who want to stay in their home are figuring out how to use the same square footage, but improve it,” he explained. “The idea of living space is changing, where people will give up a bedroom for a luxury bathroom with better lighting, better shower, and more storage in the cabinetry.”

While many bathroom renovations replace the tub with a more upscale shower, Loughlin said that decision is usually driven by personal preference.

“There are bath people, and there are shower people,” she noted. “People who like to take baths will spend whatever they want for a bathtub, while those who only want a shower won’t even install a bathtub in their master bathroom.”

 

As Seen on TV

For those considering upgrading a kitchen or bathroom, popular media such as the HGTV cable network and social-media sites Pintrest, Instagram, and others offer endless examples of what’s new in design and accessories.

“Every customer who comes in has at least one Pinterest photo on their phone, or they reference something they saw on HGTV,” Lloyd said, adding that houzz.com is another influencer.

Meanwhile, Levine credits HGTV shows with increasing the awareness of LVT flooring. “The vinyl plank is now common knowledge thanks to them.”

Loughlin said the Frank Webb showroom carries several kitchen sink styles that appear on HGTV because customers often have a vision that is influenced by the network. While helpful most of the time, however, these shows can also contribute to outlandish and unrealistic expectations.

“Some people think they can redo their house in 30 minutes; it just doesn’t work that way,” she said. “It’s not unusual for the timeframe to surprise people, especially now, when hiring a contractors is more difficult because they are all so busy.”

While new trends emerge in kitchens and bathrooms, older ones are meeting their demise. In new homes, Keiter noted, people still want bathrooms that are upscale and functional, but use less space.

“Real estate is so expensive now, some people are reassessing where they want to spend their money,” he said. “Instead of a 250 square-foot bathroom with a whirlpool tub, they are opting to lose the whirlpool and reduce the overall size of the bathroom.”

Instead, he said, customers are spending their money in the kitchen or a sunroom, where they spend far more of their time.

In the spirit of simplicity and a clean look, Lloyd said the recent trend of glass cabinet doors is on its way out because “people like to put things away and not have to keep looking at them.”

He also noted that counter space for wine bars is starting to give way to dedicated cabinetry to house an emerging trend: coffee bars. “Wine was big for a while, but coffee has become bigger of late.”

Though tastes may differ, kitchen and bath professionals all agree that customers these days have plenty of options.

“Manufacturers are expanding their product lines to accommodate many different tastes and needs,” said Loughlin, giving people the opportunity to follow their vision or create their own style.

Law

Examining PFML

Paid family medical leave is now the law in Massachusetts. And while most all employers know that, they may not know all the provisions and eligibility rules for this important piece of legislation. They need to know, because failure to abide by all those provisions may be costly, in more ways than one.

By Katharine Shove, Esq.

 

Back in 2018, Gov. Charlie Baker signed the Massachusetts Paid Family and Medical Leave program (PFML) into law. That legislation has now taken effect, and many employers have questions about exactly how the law works and to whom it applies.

Beginning Jan. 1, 2021, most eligible employees who work in Massachusetts are entitled to paid, job-protected time off from work to manage a serious health condition of their own; to bond with a child following the child’s birth, adoption, or foster placement; or to care for a family member suffering from a serious health condition.

Katharine Shove, Esq

Katharine Shove, Esq

“The PFML law has strict notice requirements. Employers must provide written notice of the PFML program to all employees within 30 days of the employee’s start date.”

The PFML program is run by the state’s Department of Family and Medical Leave, providing income replacement benefits to eligible employees. PFML benefits are funded by a payroll contribution deducted from employees’ wages. Under the PFML law, employers were required to begin such contributions on Oct. 1, 2019.

 

 

Who Is Eligible?

Leave under the PFML program applies to most W-2 employees in Massachusetts, regardless of whether they are full-time, part-time, or seasonal. Unlike the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), the Massachusetts PFML law says an employee is not required to work for a minimum length of time in order to be eligible for leave under the PFML law. However, an employee must meet the minimum-threshold earning requirements in order to be eligible for leave under the law.

 

How Many Weeks of Leave Are Available?

The PFML law requires employers to provide eligible employees up to 26 weeks of leave in a benefit year. Beginning Jan. 1, 2021, eligible employees may be entitled to up to 20 weeks of paid leave to manage their own serious health condition. Eligible employees may also receive up to 12 weeks of paid leave to bond with a child who is newly born, adopted, or placed in foster care, and up to 26 weeks to care for a family member in the Armed Forces.

On July 1, 2021, employees will be able to receive up to 12 weeks to care for a family member with a serious health condition. Under the Massachusetts PFML law, a family member could be an employee’s spouse, domestic partner, child, parent, sibling, grandparent, parent of a spouse, or parent of a domestic partner.

In the aggregate, eligible employees may not receive more than 26 weeks of paid leave in a benefit year, even if they have more than one family member who may need care.

 

Requirement of Written Notice to Employees

The PFML law has strict notice requirements. Employers must provide written notice of the PFML program to all employees within 30 days of the employee’s start date. Such notice must include information about the benefits under the PFML program, contribution rates, and job protections under the law. The notice to employees must also include an opportunity for an individual to either acknowledge or decline receipt. In addition to written notice, employers must display posters (issued or approved by the Massachusetts Department of Family and Medical Leave) that explain the benefits available to eligible employees under the PFML law.

 

Application Process

Employees must inform their employers of their need to take leave under the law at least 30 days before the start of the leave, and before filing an application for leave with the state. Where reasons beyond an employee’s control prevent them from giving such advance notice, they must inform their employer as soon as is practical. It is then the employee’s responsibility to apply for leave through the Department of Family and Medical Leave, and the department will make the decision as to whether the leave is approved or denied. Once the department receives the employee’s application, the department will request information from the employer relative to the employee’s job status.

 

Important Considerations for Employers

It is illegal for an employer to discriminate or retaliate against an employee for exercising any right to which he or she is entitled under the law, including the right to request PFML leave. To this end, the PFML law has a strict anti-retaliation provision. If an employer takes adverse action against an employee during the employee’s leave, or within six months after their return to work, there is a presumption that the employer retaliated against the employee for exercising his or her rights under the PFML law.

It is then the employer’s burden to prove there was some independent and justifiable reason for taking the adverse employment action. Adverse employment action can include termination of employment, disciplinary action, or reduction in status, pay, or benefits.

The PFML law runs concurrently with other applicable state and federal leave laws, such as the federal FMLA and the Massachusetts Parental Leave Act. Similar to the federal FMLA, a Massachusetts employee who returns to work after taking leave under PFML law must be returned to same or similar position as he or she had prior to their leave.

If an employee files a lawsuit against his or her employer for violation of the PFML law and the employer is found to be in violation of the PFML law, numerous remedies are available to the employee. These remedies include reinstatement of the employee to the same or similar position, three times the employee’s lost wages and benefits, and the employee’s attorney’s fees incurred in bringing the action.

 

Can Employers Opt Out of the Program?

Some Massachusetts employers can opt out of the PFML program and apply for an exemption from paying PFML contributions if they purchase a private plan with benefits that are as generous as the state’s plan, and which provide the same protections.

 

Get Assistance with Making Policy

The PFML rollout presents a great deal of new information to navigate both for employees and employers. A qualified attorney will be able to assist with interpretation of the PFML, amending current leave policies, and practical matters of doing business in this new benefit environment. For those with questions about the Massachusetts PFML program, the best protection is to seek guidance from an experienced employment-law attorney.

 

Attorney Katharine Shove is an associate with Bacon Wilson, P.C. and a member of the firm’s litigation team. She works on matters of employment law involving discrimination and retaliation, wage-and-hour laws, and workplace policies and compliance; (413) 781-0560; [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Mayor John Vieau says better control of COVID and the ongoing economic reopening have Chicopee officials excited about progress in the city.

Mayor John Vieau says better control of COVID and the ongoing economic reopening have Chicopee officials excited about progress in the city.

After a year when everyone got used to pivoting — and got sick of that word — Chicopee Mayor John Vieau is happy to be pivoting in a different direction.

Specifically, he made some adjustments to a standing meeting with his staff — but this time for a more positive reason. Since the earliest days of the pandemic, Vieau met three times a week with a COVID-19 task force made up of city department heads. He’s still meeting with the group, but their focus has now shifted from COVID to reopening Chicopee. Among the agenda items are reinstalling basketball hoops and opening essential city buildings.

“For the last year, anyone needing services at City Hall, the library, or the Council on Aging had to make an appointment, so we’re excited about welcoming the public again,” he said.

Vieau pointed with pride to municipal employees for all their efforts during the pandemic, noting that the city made it through the last 14 months without having to furlough or lay off even one employee. “The response from everyone in Chicopee has been exceptional. Because we’ve all pulled together, there is a very bright light at the end of the tunnel.”

Moving forward, proper training and advancement of city employees is a priority for the mayor. Noting that both the fire and police chiefs worked their way into the top jobs in their respective departments, Vieau wants the same opportunities for those who follow. “I want to make sure there is always a success ladder available for employees and the right training is available for them.”

Like every community, local businesses in Chicopee were hit hard by the pandemic. That’s why the city contracted with the Greater Chicopee Chamber of Commerce to offer free grant application assistance to any Chicopee business.

“The response from everyone in Chicopee has been exceptional. Because we’ve all pulled together, there is a very bright light at the end of the tunnel.”

Julie Copoulos, executive director of the chamber, noted that, because her organization has such a large network, it’s able to get information out quickly and to find out what a small business might need.

“Many business owners just needed someone who could say, ‘hey, I think this grant application fits you and would be a good one to apply for,’” Copoulos said. “These programs can save a person’s business, but the application can be complex, so it really helps to have a person who has been through the process, to sit with you and get it done.”

 

Positive Shifts

Two Chicopee chamber members did not see a slowdown during the pandemic, but instead ramped up their efforts. Universal Plastics shifted its production to make COVID testing machines and face shields, while Callaway Golf manufactured the company’s top-end Chrome Soft golf ball in a year when the golf business jumped 8%.

“Universal Plastics is an excellent example of what great companies do,” Vieau said. “During a time of uncertainty, they modified their production to meet current demands.”

Copoulos credits Chicopee businesses for being resilient and adaptable during a challenging year. “It was amazing to see these folks turn on a dime and change their business model,” she said. “Now they are in the process of changing it back.”

A new Chicopee Center project conducted in partnership with MassDevelopment is designed to bring more business to downtown and support the businesses already there, the mayor noted. “I’m excited about the future of downtown. It will be a thriving area with a small-town feel, and it will be one of the coolest downtowns you’ll see.”

Chicopee officials recently selected a developer for the last parcel of the former Facemate property. Plans for the site include a 54,000-square-foot, multi-sport facility; a 102-unit residential building; and renovation of the Baskin building into a 10,000-square-foot restaurant and brewery, where Loophole Brewing is expected to locate.

An artist’s rendering of the proposed Facemate site

An artist’s rendering of the proposed Facemate site, showing the athletic-field complex and the renovated Baskin building.

The Food Bank of Western Massachusetts recently purchased 16.5 acres in the Chicopee River Industrial Park and plans to move all its operations from its longtime location in Hadley. The Food Bank is making the move to expand its warehouse space and locate closer to major highways. “We’re going to be right at the center of the effort to solve food insecurity,” Vieau said.

In addition to businesses reopening, new ones are locating in Chicopee. On the day BusinessWest spoke with the mayor, he had just attended a ribbon cutting for La Diaspora, a new art consignment store. Vieau also noted that the pandemic did not slow down construction of a new Florence Bank branch that recently opened on Memorial Drive.

Like communities everywhere, home sales in Chicopee are booming. Copoulos said Chicopee has an advantage over neighboring communities by offering some of the lowest residential real-estate prices in the Pioneer Valley.

“Chicopee has huge opportunity right now because young families are getting priced out of towns like Easthampton and Northampton,” she said. “Chicopee is accessible for first-time homebuyers, and I look forward to young families locating here.”

 

Back to School

Vieau also looks forward to Chicopee students returning to their schools.

“Nearly all our classrooms are air-conditioned,” he noted, “and we’ve enhanced the air quality in all the school buildings as well.”

Both Vieau and Copoulos spoke of a general feeling of optimism now that COVID-19 is more under control and the economy is opening back up statewide. Both were excited to talk about the Center Fresh Farmers Market starting in June. Hosted by the chamber, Center Fresh represents a chance for people to get together again.

“I’m excited that we will be able to see people on the street again, face to face,” Copoulos said.

Added Vieau, “efforts like this help reignite downtown. We’ve been on pause far too long.”

While he admits the pandemic was a true test for Chicopee, the mayor pointed out that the city is finishing strong. In addition to hosting a regional vaccination site at the Castle of Knights, the city has partnered with Holyoke Health Center and its mobile vaccine clinic. Overall, he believes Chicopee’s success in weathering the coronavirus is due to efforts by people all over the city.

“It has been a team effort with different people stepping up to help,” Vieau said, citing examples like library staff who made comfort calls to check in on people and help them sign up for vaccines, and the Council on Aging providing up to 300 to-go lunches five days a week. “People all over Chicopee were willing to redefine their roles and their jobs because they wanted to do the right thing.”

Travel and Tourism

Play Ball!

Kate Avard says the Blue Sox have maintained strong relationships

Kate Avard says the Blue Sox have maintained strong relationships with programs that have delivered key players in its past few successful seasons.

Kate Avard first discovered the Valley Blue Sox as a summer intern with the club in 2016, while working toward degrees in sport management and kinesiology at UMass Amherst, and she was excited to return to the franchise as its general manager in 2020.

It wasn’t the experience she had hoped for, to say the least. But she’s happy to see the team finally taking the field in 2021.

“We didn’t get to play last year, and I think everyone across the league — players, staff, and interns — are all very excited to be able to play this season,” Avard told BusinessWest.

Last year’s lull particularly smarted for the Blue Sox, who were coming off three outstanding seasons — New England Collegiate Baseball League championships in 2017 and 2018 and a nailbiter loss in the division finals in 2019.

“We’ve gotten tons of interest from players wanting to get back out there for us,” she said. “The same thing with interns — we pull interns from across the U.S. Everyone wants to get back out on the field, and that goes for all the organizations in our league.”

Chris Thompson had a different pandemic experience last year. The co-founder of the Westfield Starfires was grateful that the Futures Collegiate Baseball League actually went through with a season, albeit one with strict pandemic protocols and limited fans. He, too, is looking forward to a more normal campaign in 2021.

“It’s an opportunity for kids to come together and kind of celebrate the social gathering once again.”

“We’re proud to be part of such an innovative and forward-thinking league,” he said. “In the last year, we were able to manage the intricacies of multiple states and municipalities to pull off a season — some of the only baseball played in North America. We’re pretty proud of that — of showcasing our team and being able to provide a safe, positive experience for fans at Bullens Field.”

In fact, the Futures league not only played last year, but managed to grow its footprint during the pandemic, welcoming two new teams, the Burlington (Vt.) Lake Monsters and the Norwich (Conn.) Sea Unicorns, into the fold, which speaks well of continued interest in baseball, Thompson noted. “We’ve been able to attract new ownership groups, which is really exciting for us.”

Despite the lost season of play last year, Avard said the Blue Sox’ director of Baseball Operations, John Raiola, was able to maintain relationships that have long fed Holyoke’s summer franchise. “He knows all the recruiting very well, so he was able to stay in contact with a lot of programs and schools that we’ve previously drawn from. We definitely didn’t go silent last year.”

Meanwhile, the Starfires have been in contact with college coaches around the country as well, Thompson said, though national recruiting is a little more difficult because Westfield is among many teams that have put host-family programs on hold during the pandemic. “Teams are taking a more local and regional roster approach for 2021.”

The Blue Sox, on the other hand, have continued to solicit host families to house the college players this summer.

“We rely on our host families to welcome them and show our players why Western Mass. is so great,” Avard said, while those players, in turn, help the team provide low-cost, family-friendly entertainment for local fans.

She added that the team is following all state health mandates for capacity and social distancing at MacKenzie Stadium — restrictions that were significantly loosened days before press time. Still, the park will be equipped with hand-washing and hand-sanitizer stations in a nod to the fact that the pandemic hasn’t gone away.

“It’s America’s pastime,” Thompson added. “We’re going to have a great atmosphere at Bullens Field. It’s an opportunity for kids to come together and kind of celebrate the social gathering once again, while following all the CDC protocols.”

The Starfires, which were named after a fighter jet once stationed at Barnes Air National Guard Base, will open the season with a new mascot, a black squirrel named Stanley Starfire, who shares a namesake with Stanley Park. “We continue to pay homage to the city of Westfield.”

Thompson is also excited about a partnership with Amherst Brewing Co., which created a new Starfires IPA for sale at the park and at the local Hangar Pub & Brewery. But he’s mostly excited about baseball. “The players are fired up and looking forward to getting back on the field.”

The two local collegiate teams — which both start play in the coming days and continue into August — aren’t the only options for fans, of course. The Hartford Yard Goats, the double-A affiliate of the Colorado Rockies, still draw impressive crowds just down I-91 in Dunkin’ Donuts Park, while the Red Sox moved their triple-A affiliate to Worcester, where they recently kicked off play in Polar Park.

“I personally think baseball is integral to this area,” Avard said. “We have so many different teams in so many different levels, and I’ve seen so much support from the fans. People were reaching out to us in January, asking about the season, asking if we’d be back at MacKenzie.

“Baseball is one of the biggest sports around here,” she went on. “Everyone is so excited to be back on the field. As an outdoor activity, it’s a great way to start bringing things back to normal this summer.”

 

—Joseph Bednar

Nonprofit Management

Taking Things to a Higher Gear

Bob Charland

Bob Charland

 

While providing BusinessWest a tour of the facilities that were once home to the makers of Absorbine Jr., Bob Charland stopped at the top of the stairs leading to the huge basement.

“You want to see what 2,000 bikes looks like … there you go,” he said, gesturing with his hand toward a room absolutely crammed with bicycles of every color, size, and shape imaginable. “And that’s just a fraction of what we have here.”

Indeed, on the other side of a wall that divides the basement are probably another 1,000 bikes, he said, adding that more are stored in a facility in Palmer and still more in a trailer. Meanwhile, in other parts of the massive home for the nonprofit known as Pedal Thru Youth, several hundred bikes are in various stages of being ready for delivery to various constituencies, including 200 that are ready for delivery to working homeless individuals in Hartford.

These rooms filled with bikes go a long way toward telling the story of this unique individual known to most as simply “the Bike Man” and the nonprofit he created four years ago. But there is much more to that story as well, as his tour makes clear.

“There’s nothing in the stores; I was in a bike shop the other day, and there were maybe four bikes there, and these were the high-end models that sell for a few thousand dollars.”

There are also large supplies of clothes for the needy here, as well as backpacks filled with health supplies bound for the homeless, wheelchairs being retrofitted, and bicycles customized for those with special needs.

There’s also a bedroom that Charland adjourns to when he’s working very late (which happens often) and is simply too tired to drive home — which happens “once in a while.”

Collectively, the stops on the tour tell of the mission and the inestimable energy and passion that Charland brings to his work, which has certainly evolved since he launched Pedal Thru Youth and evolved even further in the wake of the pandemic.

 

Changing Lanes

Indeed, when COVID-19 shut down schools (to which this agency provides a large number of bikes), the economy in general, and non-essential businesses and nonprofits, Charland shifted to making cloth masks and distributing them to police departments and other destinations.

“I was bored,” he said when recalling those first few weeks after COVID arrived. “I know how to sew, so I started sewing face masks at home with my stepson. We then started putting the masks, hand sanitizer, and gloves in backpacks and handing them out to police departments, because those departments certainly weren’t ready for COVID — they didn’t have enough supplies.”

Just some of the thousands of bikes waiting to be repaired and prepared for delivery to children

Just some of the thousands of bikes waiting to be repaired and prepared for delivery to children, veterans, and other constituencies at the headquarters for Pedal Thru Youth in Springfield.

The story went viral on social media, and People magazine published a piece that caught the attention of Samsonite, which sent Charland some industrial sewing machines, fabric, and elastic so he could ramp up production of masks.

“We ended up having nine sewing machines out in the community,” he said, adding that he soon had more than 100 masks coming his way each day that he started distributing to senior centers, nursing homes, and a host of police departments.

Because of that initiative, Charland’s agency was deemed essential. And soon, most of the focus was back on bikes and other, more traditional aspects of its mission. But there was some pivoting as well.

With schools closed, many of the donations of bicycles shifted to the homeless and veterans groups, he noted, adding that he also teamed up with the Massachusetts Military Support Foundation to bring food to veterans’ organizations.

Getting back to bicycles … this is still the primary mission of Pedal Thru Youth, and the work of repairing and readying those thousands of bikes that have been donated or collected by police departments, public-works employees, and others has gone on throughout the pandemic.

The donations have mostly been much smaller in scale — again, because most schools remain closed or not open to the public — but Charland has improvised.

“There’s nothing in the stores; I was in a bike shop the other day, and there were maybe four bikes there, and these were the high-end models that sell for a few thousand dollars.”

“We did a very large donation of bikes, 169 of them, to West Springfield, but, because the schools were closed, we had to go house to house to deliver the bikes to individual families,” he said, adding that now, as the pandemic is easing, there is greater demand and an even a greater sense of urgency — if that’s possible.

That’s because bicycles — and bicycle parts — are now firmly on the growing list of items that are in demand, but also short supply. As in very short. During COVID, with children out of school, demand for bikes soared, Charland explained, adding that manufacturers have struggled mightily to build inventory amid supply-chain issues.

“There’s nothing in the stores; I was in a bike shop the other day, and there were maybe four bikes there, and these were the high-end models that sell for a few thousand dollars,” he said, adding that this dynamic is generating more individual requests for bikes from families and nonprofits in need.

Pedal Thru Youth is better equipped to handle larger requests and bulk deliveries of a few dozen or a few hundred bicycles, but, out of necessity, it has adjusted, as with those deliveries to West Springfield families. Overall, he meets roughly 90% of the individual requests for bicycles.

He tries to meet this demand not all by myself, but pretty close.

He has some help from some volunteers, including a few individuals involved in the program called Roca, which strives to end recidivism and return offenders to society through job placement and other initiatives. They assist with basic repairs to bicycles — Charland handles the more difficult work — and getting them ready for transport.

On average, he and his volunteers will get roughly 20 bikes ready for the road each day, said Charland, adding that many of the donated bikes are in decent shape, and those needing considerable work are often stripped down for parts.

In addition to traditional bicycles, requests are soaring for bikes for children with special needs. And they come from not only Western Mass., but across the country. Charland had a few ready to go out the door on the day BusinessWest visited, but there are roughly 90 requests for such bikes on his desk.

 

Pedaling On

Meanwhile, as he goes about meeting these requests, he battles a number of health issues, most recently three hernias, and shoulder and kidney issues that now keep him from working for a living and waging legal battles for workers’ comp. This is addition to a head injury that has long impacted his quality of life.

He said he soldiers on because of the satisfaction he gets from his various efforts, especially the delivery of a bicycle — and a helmet, water bottle, and first-aid kit — to a child in need.

“I love what I do,” he said simply. “This is a lot of fun, and to see the look on the kids’ faces … that’s what drives me.”

 

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

Travel and Tourism

Better Late Than Never

Femi Kuti & the Positive Force

Femi Kuti & the Positive Force entertain the crowd at the Green River Festival in 2018. (Photo by Douglas Mason)

Since its inception in the late 1980s, the Green River Festival had never been canceled. Until last year.

And Jim Olsen wanted to give it every chance to return in 2021, even if it meant moving the date from mid-July to Aug. 27-29 — which turned out to be unnecessary, but hey, better safe than sorry.

“It was definitely a challenge to plan on so many levels,” said Olsen, president of Signature Sounds, the Northampton-based company that produces the annual festival in Greenfield.

“It became apparent in January that July wasn’t going to fly — at least, it didn’t seem that way at the time,” he went on, a perception that speaks volumes about how far the state and the nation have come with COVID-19 case rates and a massive vaccination effort. At first, the move seemed prescient, especially after Gov. Charlie Baker announced the state would fully reopen, without gathering restrictions, on Aug. 1.

No one knew the governor would eventually shift that date to May 29, but Olsen doesn’t mind an extra month to get the Green River Festival right, even if the planning got a little thorny.

“We had already booked all the musicians for July, and we had to scrap that and start over again for August,” he said — a feat in itself, since musicians tend to book a series of shows in succession, and it’s not always easy to shift dates around.

“These musicians are dying to get back out there. They depend on being on the road.”

But shift they did, and this year’s festival features about 30 bands, headlined by the likes of Jon Batiste, Shakey Graves, Ani DiFranco, Valerie June, and Drive-By Truckers over the event’s three days. Check out greenriverfestival.com for the full lineup and plenty of other information.

Speaking of changes, the festival also had to find another venue after 33 years at Greenfield Community College, which announced earlier this year it would be closed for the summer. The new host is the Franklin County Fairgrounds, which actually offers more space, Olsen said. “It’s a great site, and we’re really excited about it. I feel it’s going to be a new and exciting chapter for us.”

He’s not the only one who’s excited. Musicians have struggled badly during the pandemic like few businesses have — and, make no mistake, music is a business, one that relies on live performance.

“These days, you really don’t make much money recording,” Olsen said of a market that has radically de-emphasized physical product in favor of streaming. “It’s all in the live shows. These musicians are dying to get back out there. They depend on being on the road.”

While they’re enjoying this year’s stop along that road — the event will feature music on three different stages throughout the weekend — the festival will also feature plenty of what fans have loved in the past, from Berkshire Brewing Co.’s beer and wine tent to food trucks hailing from across the Northeast to the Makers Market, a collection of regional artisans selling handmade crafts, jewelry, clothing, and more.

“We’ve worked very hard building a world-class crafts market,” Olsen said. “We like to represent the best of Western Mass. at the Green River Festival. That’s why we continue to do so well.”

Tickets cost $139.99 for the weekend, but patrons can attend Friday only for $44.99 or Saturday or Sunday for $69.99 each day. Camping is available, but RV passes are already sold out.

“Our ticket sales have been very, very strong, from the minute we announced it,” Olsen said. “There’s so much anticipation among people to get back to life, to get back out and enjoy the stuff we love. I’ve always felt like this was a big community party — and this year, it’s going to be supersized.”

 

—Joseph Bednar

Law

Policy Decisions

By Timothy M. Netkovick, Esq.

The COVID-19 pandemic has caused many businesses to examine their balance sheets. One of the areas that could be looked at is how much benefit a business is getting from its current insurance portfolio, and whether downsizing coverage could be an option.

In today’s world, a common feature of a business-insurance portfolio is employment-practices liability insurance (EPLI), which is different than traditional liability insurance and provides coverage for discrimination, wrongful termination, and other workplace issues.

EPLI typically covers discrimination claims based upon sex, race, national origin, age, and all other characteristics prohibited by law. This includes claims made under the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Family Medical Leave Act, associated state discrimination statutes, and other federal laws. EPLI policies usually provide coverage to the company, management, supervisors, and employees from claims that arise under the policy. EPLI typically does not cover wage-and-hour law violations, unemployment issues, ERISA, or COBRA matters.

Timothy M. Netkovick, Esq

Timothy M. Netkovick, Esq

“COVID has prompted myriad adjustments in the business world. EPLI is one of the expenses a company will want to examine to see if it is getting the most bang for its buck.”

Perhaps your business has been fortunate enough to avoid employment litigation over the past few years. Therefore, the cost/benefit analysis to your business will be different than a business that has been tied up in employment litigation in the recent past. The first obvious cost is the cost of purchasing the policy. Higher insurance coverage costs more than a policy with a lower-policy limit. In addition to the cost of purchasing the policy, businesses will also need to factor in the cost of the ‘retention’ it is required to pay in the event of a claim.

Retention is similar to a deductible in other insurance policies, and is the amount of expenses for which the business is responsible before the insurer will begin paying for the cost of defense. Insurers use retention as a way to avoid incurring the expense of defending against nominal or frivolous claims by passing on that expense to the business. Conversely, the business will also want to evaluate the amount of their retention prior to obtaining EPLI.

A business will need to evaluate its options if it is faced with a high retention and a small amount of discrimination claims that are usually resolved at the administrative level. Has your business had EPLI for several years and never exhausted its retention? Or does your business have a high volume of discrimination cases at the administrative level and also never exhausted its retention?

Another factor to consider in evaluating the cost of EPLI is your company’s approach to employment lawsuits. Businesses will need to have a consistent strategy when it comes to employment lawsuits. Is your company going to vigorously defend against all claims? If so, that may impact your decision on the cost of the EPLI policy you intend to purchase. How many claims are made against your company? The more claims are reported, the more the policy will cost, and the higher the retention amount will be. The increased retention will have an impact on the company’s budget for the next policy period.

COVID has prompted myriad adjustments in the business world. EPLI is one of the expenses a company will want to examine to see if it is getting the most bang for its buck.

 

Timothy M. Netkovick, 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 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]

 

Law

Changing the Dynamic

By Jeremy M. Forgue

 

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted the workplace forever.

According to a report titled “Women in the Workplace – 2020,” women have been hit especially hard. As the report explains, “the COVID-19 crisis has disrupted corporate America in ways we’ve never seen before. No one is experiencing business as usual, but women — especially mothers, senior-level women, and black women — have faced distinct challenges. One in four women are considering downshifting their careers or leaving the workforce due to COVID-19.”

Gender and racial diversity are unquestionably beneficial to the workplace as it can lead to a wider talent pool with people who provide different perspectives and skill sets to utilize. With job rates slowly climbing back towards pre-pandemic levels, businesses need to put a conscious effort on recruiting and retaining female employees, and females of color in particular. Businesses small and large should re-evaluate their current practices and consider several ways to increase or maintain women in the workforce. Here are some suggestions from an employment-law attorney.

 

Flexible Schedules and Core Hours

This can be the easiest strategy, depending on your business. Allowing employees to establish their own schedules or flex the typical 9-5 business model can assist them in better balancing their home and work responsibilities. This option can allow parents to mold their schedule around daycare availability (e.g., 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. or 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.) or split their shift around home responsibilities.

 

Forgiving Gaps in Workers’ Employment History

According to a study by ResumeGo, applicants with work gaps of greater than six months have a 45% lower chance of receiving job interviews. Millions have lost their jobs during the pandemic and remain unemployed. With so many individuals forced to exit the workforce over the past year, accepting gaps in employment is critical to eliminating these hiring barriers.

 

Offering Job Training or Cross-training

The COVID-19 pandemic has made it clear that new job skills are critical in a more digitized working environment. Remote work and Zoom meetings are here to stay. Offering initial job training for skills and requirements that do not require certification or a degree will allow displaced workers a chance to gain useful skills in a new working environment. Similarly, cross-training employees to learn each other’s responsibilities (so long as their positions have enough overlap) can be effective when emergencies arise due to absences from work or other staffing challenges.

 

Create Mentorship Programs or Opportunities

A female-led or minority-led mentorship program can support and promote the advancement of under-represented groups within the workplace. Seasoned women employees can be great support structures for other women trying to begin their careers or advance within the company. Women who are currently excelling at their position or working in an executive-level position can assist other women dealing with similar daily challenges, such as work-life balance.

 

Re-evaluate the Businesses Culture

This one is more abstract and requires internal inquiries, but you should ask if your business provides a culture where women are valued or has a diverse demographic that is often desired by applicants. Ask yourself: is your workforce gender-diverse? What about the leadership positions? If the answer to these questions suggests unequal gender representation in the workplace, ask whether it is because of a culture that does not support women. Perhaps it’s more of a recruiting issue. In any event, you should dig deep for answers and insist on change.

 

 

Childcare Options

Providing on-site childcare is probably an option only for larger businesses. However, here are a few suggestions for all businesses to consider:

• Revisit your employee benefits. Do you already, or can you afford to, provide a childcare subsidy, childcare referral services for nearby locations, or extended paid leave?

• Partner with surrounding businesses. If your business space is too small to provide on-site childcare, reach out to nearby childcare locations and discuss rates and hours that could create a partnership between the businesses or, at the very least, a referral resource.

• Offer extended FFCRA benefits, which are available until Sept. 30, 2021, and can be used by employees to take time off for childcare or other COVID-19-related reasons.

 

Final Thoughts

After making positive strides in the workforce over the past decade, women’s participation in the workforce declined over the last year. To correct this trend, businesses will need to put a conscious effort toward recruiting women into their workforce.

 

Jeremy M. Forgue is an attorney with the law firm Skoler, Abbott & Presser, P.C. in Springfield; (413) 737-4753; [email protected]

Features Special Coverage

Generating Results

Holyoke G&E Manager Jim Lavelle

Holyoke G&E Manager Jim Lavelle at the hydroelectric facility at the Hadley Falls Dam.

Holyoke Gas & Electric was recently recognized among a handful of utilities nationwide for its leadership in transforming to a carbon-free energy system. That designation, from the Smart Electric Power Alliance, underscores a green-energy mindset at the municipal utility that is not only earth-friendly, but a powerful force when it comes to economic development in the Paper City.

Jim Lavelle acknowledged that Holyoke Gas & Electric (HG&E) has some decided advantages when it comes to clean energy and reducing its carbon footprint.

Take, for example, the hydroelectric facility at the Hadley Falls Dam on the Connecticut River, capable of generating 33 megawatts of electricity, as well as some smaller hydro units located throughout the Holyoke canal system that produce another 15 megawatts — clean-power generation that is beyond the means of many utilities, especially municipal operations.

“We’re extremely fortunate that we have this infrastructure at our disposal — 50 megawatts of hydro in our backyard,” said Lavelle, general manager of HG&E. “It’s a tremendous asset that we try to take full advantage of.”

But HG&E’s commitment to a carbon-free energy system goes well beyond the hydroelectric facility. Indeed, it also includes early adoption of utility-grade solar power (20 megawatts in all), punctuated by the Mount Tom Solar & Energy Storage System. That facility, built near the site of a former fossil-fuel plant, is a large, utility-scale battery and the second such system to be installed in the state, drawing power directly from the solar farm, the largest community solar project in the Commonwealth.

“We’re extremely fortunate that we have this infrastructure at our disposal — 50 megawatts of hydro in our backyard. It’s a tremendous asset that we try to take full advantage of.”

That commitment also includes a diverse power-supply portfolio that includes hydro, solar, nuclear, and wind, as well as efficiency and conservation programs and development of emerging clean-energy technologies, all of which have the utility well-positioned to meet the state’s net-zero target by 2050 (established in the recent clean-energy bill), as well as incremental benchmarks for 2030 (50% below 1990’s emissions levels) and 2040 (75% below).

But long before these mandates and net-zero targets were put in place, HG&E was taking full advantage of its assets, especially those in the clean-energy category, and promoting what it called “cost-competitive clean energy.”

The Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center

The Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center is located in Holyoke, in large part, because of the low-cost, green energy available there.

This track record, coupled with many recent initiatives, has earned HG&E recognition among a handful of utilities nationwide for its leadership in transforming to a carbon-free energy system by the Smart Electric Power Alliance (SEPA) and a spot on the 2021 Utility Transformation Leaderboard. There, it joins just nine other utilities, all of them much larger, including Southern California Edison, Green Mountain Power in Vermont, and Consolidated Edison of New York.

While Lavelle is clearly proud of the award, what it means, and what it says about his utility, he is focused as much on what it — and all of the utility’s efforts toward clean, modern energy — mean for Holyoke. Indeed, the municipal utility and its lower-cost energy have always been selling points and economic-development engines, he said, but they become even more so as the energy becomes cleaner and greener.

“We have a ‘green team’ here that does a lot of our advanced planning on carbon-footprint management, but we also have everyone involved in some way, shape, or form in this effort. Our team is really engaged, and it’s good to see how passionate people are about working toward this objective and how creative they are.”

This was in evidence with the Massachusetts Green High Performance Computing Center, which is based in Holyoke, in large part, because of the availability of vast amounts of clean, lower-cost energy, said Lavelle, adding that these factors also played sizable roles in bringing two huge cannabis-production facilities to the city, with more on the way. And as companies of all kinds look to reduce their carbon footprints, embrace clean energy, and perhaps escape the high lease rates of major urban areas, HG&E and its drive to a carbon-free energy system could bring more businesses to the Paper City.

But while the utility has made great progress in the broad realm of clean energy, it acknowledges there will be stern challenges as it continues down this road.

“With this climate bill … if everyone’s going to convert their gas and oil and propane — their inefficient systems — to cleaner electric systems, that’s going to put a huge demand on our electric capacity,” Lavelle said. “So what we’re forecasting is that we could potentially see a tripling of our electric kilowatt-hour sales by 2050, depending on how we navigate from here to there.

“And even today, we’re seeing that, in certain neighborhoods, all it takes is one resident to put in an electric vehicle, and it taxes the transformer that’s serving that neighborhood,” he went on, adding that upgrading these transformers, built for a different time, will be just one of the many tests awaiting a utility that is committed to being ready for whatever the future brings. And that’s another reason why it’s one of just 10 utilities on SEPA’s short list.

The Mount Tom Solar facility

The Mount Tom Solar facility is the largest community solar project in the Commonwealth.

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at Holyoke G&E’s ongoing efforts — and true leadership — with regard to clean-energy transformation, what it means for a city looking to make history of a different kind, and what the road to hitting the state’s benchmarks might look like.

 

Scaling Up

As he gave BusinessWest a tour of the Hadley Falls Dam facility, which has been powering businesses for more than 150 years, Lavelle talked at length about what else goes on there.

Indeed, this is the site of the Robert E. Barrett Fishway, and the fishlift there helps migrating fish over the dam. In a normal spring, the facility would be visited by dozens of school classes on field trips — and other visitors — who can watch American shad, sea lamprey, sturgeon, and (hopefully) a few Atlantic salmon make their way through the lift and over the dam to resume their journey north. This is not a normal spring, however, and the fishway is closed due to COVID-19.

The work of ferrying fish over the dam continues, however, as does the work of producing electricity at the twin turbines, production that, as noted, is just one of the reasons HG&E finds itself among those utilities identified by SEPA as taking the lead in transforming to a carbon-free energy system.

As it went about completing its report on the state of clean-energy transformation and identifying utilities now on its leaderboard, SEPA listed what it calls the “four dimensions of utility transformation” — clean-energy resources, corporate leadership, modern grid enablement, and allied actions and engagement.

As he talked about his utilities efforts, Lavelle touched on all these elements, starting with those clean-energy resources.

HG&E now has many of them, he said, listing the dam, the Mount Tom Solar and Energy Storage System, and others, which, together, create a diverse, increasingly clean power-supply portfolio.

Beyond this portfolio is a mindset to embrace clean energy, efficiency, conservation, and planning for tomorrow, a mindset that has existed for many years now, long before the state started setting net-zero goals.

“We have a ‘green team’ here that does a lot of our advanced planning on carbon-footprint management, but we also have everyone involved in some way, shape, or form in this effort,” Lavelle noted. “Our team is really engaged, and it’s good to see how passionate people are about working toward this objective and how creative they are.”

The latest example of this passion and creativity is the Mount Tom Energy Storage System. Operated by ENGIE Storage (formerly Green Charge Networks), it is designed to keep electric rates stable by reducing rising demand-based charges for HG&E and its customers by storing energy needed to reduce peak loads — in a clean, environmentally friendly manner.

“Two of the highest-cost elements in our energy ledger are capacity and transmission costs,” said Jonathon Zwirko, HG&E’s project engineer and Energy Resources coordinator. “By timing things properly and discharging the batteries at the right time, we’re able to save on both capacity and transmission costs.”

Through the use of this battery system, which can store 6 megawatt hours of energy at a rate of up to 3 megawatts per hour, the utility can save 2% to 2.5% on its total energy costs annually, a number that will go higher when a second, larger battery facility, this one on Water Street, goes online later this month.

Jim Lavelle at HG&E’s energy-storage system

Jim Lavelle at HG&E’s energy-storage system, the second such system to be installed in the state.

The solar facility and energy-storage facility are just a few components of a diverse clean-power portfolio that, as noted, also includes hydro, wind, and nuclear, a portfolio that gives the utility flexibility and the ability to offer competitive rates, Lavelle said.

As noted, this powerful combination has helped bring some businesses to Holyoke that might not otherwise have considered that zip code.

That’s especially true of the cannabis businesses, including large manufacturers, that have, well, put down roots in the city. They’ve been drawn by the hundreds of thousands of square feet of available mill space, said Zwirko, but even more important to them is the large amounts of green, comparatively cheap electricity needed for all elements of the operations, but especially the lights that enable plants to grow.

Green Thumb Industries is currently operating a plant on Appleton Street that consumes roughly 1.5 megawatts of electricity, said Zwirko, noting that Trulieve, which recently moved into the old Conklin Furniture complex just a few hundred yards from the Hadley Falls Dam, will, when operating at peak capacity, consume 4 megawatts. By contrast, Holyoke Medical Center and Holyoke Community College each consume roughly a half-megawatt.

“If we see a tripling of our load, and that power has to come from carbon-free sources, that will be a real challenge. Different camps think offshore wind will fill in a lot of the gaps, but if we’re going to see a tripling of load, every other utility is going to see a tripling of load, so there will be a huge demand.”

So these are huge users of electricity, he went on, adding quickly that HG&E can handle several more of these facilities.

“There are about 10 others that have received licenses and are in the process of construction,” he said, “and we probably have another handful that are knocking on our door, with that 5-megawatt request — each — which we’re prepared to handle.”

Lavelle agreed.

“Part of our strategy with our local grid has been anticipating this growth,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, starting with the computing center, which consumes roughly 4 megawatts, the city has anticipated that it’s blend of clean, inexpensive power would attract more large-scale users. “We weren’t anticipating the cannabis industry at that time, but were targeting and anticipating data-related loads.

The hydroelectric faciliity at the Hadley Falls Dam

The hydroelectric faciliity at the Hadley Falls Dam is just one of HG&E’s many assets when it comes to green energy.

“We’d like to see more people, more jobs, tied to these developments, and while we haven’t seen that on the data side, we’re seeing it on the cannabis side,” he went on, adding that, with improvements made to the system, the city and its utility can accommodate another 15 or 20 megawatts worth of cannabis-related businesses.

 

Watt’s Happening?

While the utility is well-positioned to handle the needs of the present — and the addition of several more cannabis-related businesses — the future, as noted, is dotted with question marks, especially when it comes to what’s becoming known as ‘electrification’ — of cars and many other things

“If we see a tripling of our load, and that power has to come from carbon-free sources, that will be a real challenge,” Lavelle said. “Different camps think offshore wind will fill in a lot of the gaps, but if we’re going to see a tripling of our load, every other utility is going to see a tripling of load, so there will be a huge demand.”

In the face of these seemingly inevitable surges in demand, utilities, including HG&E, will have to put an even greater emphasis on energy efficiency, conservation, and education to stem the tide, he went on.

“We’re going to have to do those things so we don’t see a tripling of load,” he said. “Can we mitigate, or offset, that growth through energy efficiency and energy conservation and educate people on how to use less energy? We’ll have to. We’ll need to educate people about how to charge their electric vehicles at the right time — at night, right now — at off-peak times.”

Elaborating, he said there will likely be more of what he called “behavioral incentives” that are already being used to change attitudes about clean energy and reduce surges in demand.

Summing up HG&E’s efforts toward transforming its energy system, Lavelle channeled Kermit the Frog by implying strongly that it’s not easy being green. In fact, it’s quite challenging.

But it’s necessary, and for many reasons. The state is demanding it, and, increasingly, customers, both residential and commercial, are demanding it as well.

Well before these demands became loud in nature, HG&E was committed to exploring and implementing strategies to make its power portfolio cleaner and more earth-friendly, knowing they would pay off, not with awards and accolades (although those have come, too) but in cost reductions and opportunities for the city to grow and attract new businesses.

These investments are certainly starting to pay off, and as they do so, HG&E is making a powerful statement, literally and figuratively.

 

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

Banking and Financial Services Special Coverage

Making Change

As essential businesses that couldn’t shut down operations during the pandemic, banks and credit unions met some daunting challenges over the past year — both logistical and in meeting the needs of customers, many of whom were navigating difficult financial times. While things are starting getting back to normal now, the definition of ‘normal’ has shifted — and area banking leaders say they’ve learned some lessons they will certainly bring into the future.

Aleda De Maria says PeoplesBank

Aleda De Maria says PeoplesBank’s call-center activity tripled over the past 14 months.

By Mark Morris

Winston Churchill gets credit for first remarking, “never let a good crisis go to waste.”

For bankers in Western Mass., the COVID-19 crisis was in many ways a chance to learn what works best for their customers and their workers.

While branch offices for most banks have reopened, they were ordered closed to the general public at the beginning of the pandemic, opening to customers only by appointment. As a result, many customers relied on online banking to handle routine transactions.

For those who needed to open an account, it was no longer necessary to visit a branch, as the entire process can be done online, said Aleda De Maria, senior vice president, Retail and Operations for PeoplesBank, who noted that new account applications doubled in the past year, and the use of mobile deposits is up nearly 40%.

“Customers who may have been reluctant in the past to try our online self-service channels are now using them,” she added. “We’ve also seen occasional users of these tools become more aggressive users.”

Because customers had plenty of questions amid the uncertainty of the past 14 months, De Maria reported a significant increase in activity on the bank’s phone lines. “Our call center tripled the volume of activity we would normally see. Now we’re back to what I would call a busy, but more normal level.”

As cars lined up at drive-up windows during business hours, many banks increased their use of video tellers to extend the hours tellers can be available. A video teller looks and functions like a standard ATM, but the customer can also reach a live professional when they have a more complex transaction.

“Customers who may have been reluctant in the past to try our online self-service channels are now using them. We’ve also seen occasional users of these tools become more aggressive users.”

“It’s as if you are standing in front of a teller,” said John Howland, president and CEO of Greenfield Savings Bank. “We had six of these in place before COVID, and they really worked well for us during that time when we could not allow people to come into the branches.” The bank has since added six more of its Teller Connect video tellers.

De Maria said video tellers made it possible to expand beyond normal business hours to even include Sundays.

Glenn Welch

Glenn Welch says credit-union CEOs have been discussing the future of hybrid work arrangements, since employees will expect that flexibility.

“We can now offer banking services seven days a week without us having to keep our banking centers open seven days a week,” she noted, adding that the pandemic made one point crystal clear: customers want options, now more than ever. “Customers want the flexibility to either interact with someone or not to interact.”

For this issue’s focus on banking and finance, BusinessWest spoke with several executives from local banks and credit unions about how they have weathered the past year, what lies ahead, and what they — and their customers — have learned.

 

From a Distance

In addition to new ways of serving customers, banks were challenged to become more flexible with their employees, many of whom were forced to work from home.

Glenn Welch, president and CEO of Freedom Credit Union, recalled that, at the height of the pandemic, 30 employees worked exclusively from home while another 30 split their time between home and the office. Now, 47 employees are taking a hybrid approach of splitting their work time between the office and home.

“Going forward, employees are going to expect to have an option for some kind of hybrid between working at home and the office,” Welch said, adding that an online forum of credit-union CEOs recently discussed how a hybrid approach might work. “The consensus is to bring people back to the office as much as possible while still allowing them the flexibility to work from home probably one or two days a week.”

“The consensus is to bring people back to the office as much as possible while still allowing them the flexibility to work from home probably one or two days a week.”

John Bissell, president and CEO of Greylock Federal Credit Union, said 176 of his employees work from home right now, and he has no immediate plans to require a mass return to the office.

“In fact, we are so confident in the success of the work-from-home model that we are consolidating one of our branches with a nearby operations center,” Bissell said. While Greylock has no plans to permanently close branches, it is looking into shared-space arrangements to increase efficiency and save on future real-estate investments.

All the bankers agreed that, when possible, they prefer personal interactions with their employees and customers. When that’s not possible, they are grateful for advances in technology that have made it easier to work from home. Sometimes it results in seeing certain jobs in a different light.

John Howland

John Howland says some positions, such as those in loan processing, are more suited for a remote setup than others.

“I never thought I’d say this, but there are some situations where the business and the task is better suited to work remotely,” Howland said, citing certain loan-processing positions as one example. “Because all the documents are electronic, it’s easy to measure a person’s productivity without looking over their shoulder.”

Bissell admits this past year has helped him understand how the pandemic affects employees in different ways.

“Those with school-aged children or who are caregivers have different needs than those who may be at risk themselves or have a partner who works as a first responder,” he said. “We must pay close attention to employee needs and build in opportunities to meet them where they are.”

Whether employees worked in the office or from home, they all stayed busy with mortgage applications for people buying new homes and for those looking to refinance at historically low interest rates.

“Our mortgage business was up nearly 65% last year,” Welch said. “As fewer houses are available for sale, we’re making up some of that slack in the refinancing area.”

He predicts slower growth could loom on the horizon, however. “There are only so many people who can refinance, and when you have less housing inventory to sell, it suggests a slowdown in the mortgage business may be coming.”

While the mortgage market is still active, Bissell pointed out there is a greater demand than housing supply, so Greylock is trying to help increase the supply. “We are partnering with local leaders to look at ways to stimulate development of more housing across the pricing spectrum,” he said, with the goal of a healthy housing market that is accessible to all members of the community.

On the flip side of new mortgages, job losses during the pandemic made staying current on mortgage payments a burden for many.

“We anticipated that people would have trouble when COVID hit,” Howland said, “so we allowed people to defer their mortgage payments without having to substantiate they had a need.”

 

By All Accounts

The pandemic — and the economic shutdown it ushered in — challenged business-banking clients as well, and for the first round of Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans, Greenfield Savings Bank created a task force of 43 employees to help local businesses process their loan applications. Employees often made calls on the weekend to clarify any point that might slow down the process. Several applicants received calls from Howland himself.

“It was amazing that no one complained for calling them at 8 p.m. on a Saturday,” he said. “They were all just happy we were working on their behalf.”

In the first round of PPP, Greenfield Savings processed 720 loans totaling around $60 million, and followed up with nearly the same amount in the second round. Meanwhile, the business-banking team at Greylock secured $30 million in PPP loans, which Bissell said helped save nearly 4,000 jobs in the Pittsfield area.

As everyone tries to figure out what lies ahead, bankers remain optimistic. Like every institution, Freedom Credit Union saw a surge in deposits after $1,400 pandemic-relief checks began landing in accounts, Welch noted. “People have only spent about 25% of their government checks, so there’s lot of pent-up demand out there.”

While banks had been increasing their use of technology anyway, industry data suggests COVID accelerated that shift by at least five years. Based on that trend, Welch sees bankers moving toward more of a consulting role.

“I think, eventually, people will visit a bank or credit-union branch when they need financial advice such as buying a home or a car,” he said. “Increasingly, they will handle their routine transactions online.”

Video teller machines are another example of the increased use of technology for everyday transactions.

“I think the pandemic made customers more willing to try new technology that we hadn’t offered before,” De Maria said. “We’ve seen some real success in their adoption of tools like our video banker.”

Still, while bankers are pleased with how well customers have adjusted to making technology part of their banking routine, they all look forward to the time when in-person banking becomes normal once again.

“When you get down to the basics, we provide relationship-based financial services,” Bissell said. “It’s really about personal relationships.”

In addition to engaging customers again, Howland said the camaraderie and collegiality of the staff being together is also essential.

“I’m a big believer in the small talk around the water bubbler,” he said, adding that the pandemic robbed people of those everyday social interactions that were taken for granted in the past.

“We are looking forward to a routine where we see our customers on a regular basis and we can have that friendly conversation once again,” he went on. “Everyone in our company is looking forward to that happening.”

Special Coverage Technology

Bringing a Message to Life

From left, Kathryn Taccone, Karen Webb, and Will Colón discuss a project.

From left, Kathryn Taccone, Karen Webb, and Will Colón discuss a project.

Will Colón, Kathryn Taccone, and Karen Webb all took different paths to a career in animation, but when the opportunity arose to launch their own company, they were certainly of one mind. That’s because they’re believers not only in the potential of animation in the business and nonprofit worlds, but that it’s still an underused tool, with plenty of room to grow. Four years after its inception, Open Pixel Studios is proving their conviction to be true.

Remote work might be all the rage right now, but it’s nothing new to the three partners at Open Pixel Studios.

“The future of work is working remotely, having the systems to do that, working with multiple people across different disciplines across the same project — all in a remote environment,” said Will Colón, co-owner of the animation studio he, Kathryn Taccone, and Karen Webb opened in 2017. These days, they work with freelancers across the U.S. to create content for business and nonprofit clients.

“We were doing the remote thing for quite a while before the pandemic hit,” Colón added. “The pandemic really raised the stakes on whether we were doing this correctly — it put us to the test a little bit. But there was almost no shift; our business did not waver at all.”

In some ways, COVID-19 actually provided more opportunity.

“What ended up happening was more people asked us for more work,” he went on. “Normally, a production requires filming and video and people in a studio or on a production set. Those roles diminished overnight, and everyone said, ‘what else can we do? Instead of having people on a screen, or talking heads, let’s do animation instead.’ It was a really big boost to our company.”

And it’s not all remote, even during the pandemic, Taccone was quick to note. “We pride ourselves on being able to communicate with clients in a way that’s comfortable for them. Sometimes clients prefer to be in person, and sometimes it’s totally fine sending e-mails. We try to match how the project is managed, and the way we communicate, to their personalities, so everyone is comfortable.”

Using animation for marketing and messaging is nothing new, Colón said, citing the well-known example of Walt Disney producing animated shorts for every branch of the U.S. military during World War II, putting beloved characters to work rallying support for the war effort.

“I don’t think the things we’re doing are much different than Walt Disney creating content during World War II. Those were ‘explainer videos,’ talking through the points the military wanted to talk about. So this isn’t new technology. What’s new is the application.”

Meaning, while animation has been a mainstay during the internet age — as part of websites, mobile games, and in movies and television — it remains underused by businesses. Colón, Taccone, and Webb are hoping to change that.

At one of Open Pixel’s production stations, well-communicated concepts become animation.

At one of Open Pixel’s production stations, well-communicated concepts become animation.

“A lot of businesses haven’t realized they can do amazing things,” Colón said. “Our job as a studio is to introduce businesses to animation for the first time.”

And do it, for the most part, remotely.

“We have 20 freelancers across the country, and I’ve met only a few in person,” he noted. “We’ve always been remote, always done Zoom calls, always done projects managed through cloud-based solutions. It’s been a breeze, and that’s a testament to our process. We were one of the first ‘pandemic industries’ pre-pandemic. We were ready for it.”

Now, they’re ready to move the needle even further when it comes to the power of animation in the business world.

 

Crossing Paths

Colón’s journey to the world of animation began at Hampshire College, where, during his first year in 2009, he tried to get into an advanced computer animation class, but was rejected by the instructor, Chris Perry, because he had no experience.

But after Colón excelled at an introductory course in the field, Perry — a Pixar veteran who served as a technical director on A Bug’s Life and Finding Nemo — accepted him into the advanced course.

“As I moved from the basics to more advanced stuff, I didn’t know how much I would love it, that I’d lose myself in the work, forget about time, and really enjoy the process more than the results,” Colón recalled. “I knew this was something I could go into.”

After college, he returned to the Boston area and worked at special-effects company Zero VFX, but desired a move back into animation, and landed a job at Anzovin Studio in Florence in 2013.

Characters created for a piece on Behavioral Health Network’s Crisis Healthline.

A project for Amherst College’s bicentennial

Animated messaging advocating for changes in tobacco laws

Webb, who had attended the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan and worked for a time in Los Angeles and San Diego, eventually moved to Western Mass. to work at Perry’s independent studio, Bit Films — and later started working at Anzovin Studio, where she met Colón.

Their company took shape after Anzovin decided to shift his business model into animation tools, while the production team, where Colón and Webb worked, was spun off into a separate entity. The pair then decided to go in a different direction, by launching their own studio.

Taccone’s passion for animation was sparked by a high-school trip to Pixar Animation Studios in California. She later studied animation at UMass Amherst and met Colón while taking class at Hampshire, where he was the teaching assistant. After a stint at HitPoint Studios, she worked at Anzovin from 2014 to 2016, then moved to California to work in the games industry, for EA and Toys for Bob. But in 2017, she returned to Western Mass. to help Colón and Webb launch Open Pixel.

“We decided to go into a different realm, building something new that was going to be ours,” Colón said. “Kathryn came back from California, and that was the beginning of our journey.”

Speaking of journeys, hearing Taccone describe the process of moving a concept to a finished product, it’s striking how much work happens before the actual animation begins.

“A client will come to us with an idea of the message they’re trying to send; typically they’ll have a call to action associated with that message,” she explained. “We take this from the initial script phase — whether we write it ourselves or the client provides it — and bring it into an audio-visual script, which allows us all to be on the same page with what will happen with the story.”

This all happens before visuals are actually created, she added. In other words, clear communication is key — not just with the target audience, but between all the players in creating the animation, and at every stage.

“We make a choice at the concept stage whether or not something should be represented through iconography, text, characters, or just backgrounds,” she added, noting that just using animated words can often be as powerful as talking characters. “Often we’ll use a blend of those things.”

Once the concepts are established, next comes discussion of style, tone, and other elements. Then storyboards are created, laying out the content from start to finish — again, so everyone involved can envision the final piece and make changes before the actual animation begins.

“When we do the animation,” Taccone said, “we hire voice-over artists, we do music and sound effects — again, depending on the client’s needs, but all serving the purpose of matching the tone and style and direction to the story we’re trying to tell.”

While many corporate clients rely on Open Pixel’s work in their employee training videos and modules as well as marketing, a particularly feel-good part of the team’s mission is working with nonprofits on messaging that will draw more attention and support. Nonprofit leaders aren’t always natural salespeople, Colón noted, and he and his team can help them hone their message and educate the public.

“They’re trying to make the world a better place; that’s their mission,” he said. “We’re helping them close the gap between the audience and their mission. We use animation to explain what they’re doing.”

In the end, Taccone said, even the most eye-catching animation isn’t a success if it doesn’t meet the client’s needs. “In a way, the communication is sometimes more important than the art. We’re trying to make sure everyone is on the same page.”

 

Mission Accomplished

For Colón, such work is especially gratifying considering that, early in his career, he never thought about running a business. But his former employer, Raf Anzovin, encouraged that growth — and, in fact, encouraged him and Webb to branch out on their own.

“I feel like the people I met along the way influenced me in continuing this work. If those people weren’t there, we wouldn’t be around,” Colón said.

Achieving the studio’s goals in Western Mass. — a region that has been steadily growing its reputation for innovation and technology — is especially satisfying, he said. Clients run the gamut from large corporations to small outfits, and the remote nature of the work allows Open Pixel to take on projects from Boston to the West Coast.

He’s also particularly proud that the company is certified as a majority women-owned business. Noting that the history of animation has not always been a friendly one for women, he hopes Open Pixel inspires other women to pursue this field.

Through it all, he, Taccone, and Webb hope to continue to expand the work they do, but also become a destination to start a career.

“In the future, we want to be a jumping-off point for folks getting out of college,” he said, noting that it’s natural for talented graduates to depart the Five Colleges and look for jobs in New York, Los Angeles, or Boston. To encourage them to start their careers closer to home, Open Pixel has developed a pipeline of interns from Amherst College and Hampshire College. “Not only can you learn the tools here, this can be an entry point into the field.”

As for those tools, they’re much more affordable and accessible than they once were,” Colón said. “You can get a license and run a studio from your home office. But what makes us special is our process and our back end, our ability to push animation further than where it currently is right now.

“So much of it is in entertainment — games and movies,” he went on, “but we’re seeing a shift toward companies creating advertising campaigns utilizing animation because it’s so limitless. You can create anything you like. That’s what we see — unlimited creative expression.”

And always in the service of the client, Taccone added.

“We pride ourselves on being a studio that takes time to understand the balance between the client’s needs and our artistic identity. That way, we all enjoy the process as we go through it.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Restaurants Special Coverage

Chain of Events

John (right) and Chris LaVoie at Hot Table’s location in Tower Square.

John (right) and Chris LaVoie at Hot Table’s location in Tower Square.

Hot Table, now a chain of panini restaurants, started humbly in 2007 with a small location in the Breckwood Shoppes in Springfield. The brand has come a long way since then, and in many different ways. There are now seven locations, with plans for four more to open this year or early next, including the first free-standing facility. After that … well, the partners talk of having perhaps 50 stores by the end of this decade. What they do know is that growth will be controlled — and strategic in nature.

John DeVoie gestured toward an array of architect’s renderings of Hot Table’s first free-standing facility, complete with a mobile pickup window, planned for Memorial Drive in Chicopee, and said, “that’s our future.”

He then corrected himself and said, “well … that’s a big part of our future.”

Indeed, the future takes a number of shapes and directions for this growing chain of panini restaurants. Indeed, while construction is due to start on that Chicopee location later this year or early in 2022, work will begin before that on new locations within shopping malls in Framingham and West Hartford, with an additional location planned for a development, blueprinted by Pride Stations owner Bob Bolduc, to reshape the land inside the jug handle off turnpike exit 3 in Westfield with Hot Table and Starbucks.

Overall, this chain, which started with one small restaurant in the Breckwood Shoppes across Wilbraham Road from Western New England University and now has seven locations, has aggressive plans to add four more restaurants by the end of this year and reach perhaps 50 by the end of this decade.

“For the most part, we’re keeping our efforts focused on New England,” said John, who launched the chain with his brother, Chris, and another partner in 2007. “And over the next 10 years, we want to become a well-known, regional brand.”

This brand is striving for a mix of free-standing facilities like the one in Chicopee and more locations leased in retail centers, and, overall, a “balanced portfolio,” said Chris, adding that the goal is measured growth.

“We’re very excited to grow, but we want to grow the right way,” he told BusinessWest. “We don’t want to add overhead and layers of management just to support a few more stores; we want to be very strategic about how and where we expand.”

Overall, with four new stores on the drawing board, 2021 is certainly shaping up as a milestone year in the company’s history, one that will take it to new markets and in new directions. This growth and territorial expansion come at a time when many restaurants have been fighting to merely survive the COVID-19 — and some haven’t. Hot Table itself was hit hard initially.

“In March and April, when the pandemic hit, we weren’t sure we had a company — we had an 80% plunge in revenue,” John recalled. “We had the same ‘what the heck just hit us?’ experience that just about everyone in the restaurant business did.”

But within the fast-casual category within this sector, many chains bounced back quickly and have enjoyed success since, said John, adding that many have benefited from the takeout nature of most business and also from an added delivery component.

Hot Table invested in an app that enables consumers to order from the menu and arrange delivery through Grubhub or another provider, said John, adding that the technology served to introduce the brand to new audiences.

An architect’s rendering of Hot Table’s first free-standing location

An architect’s rendering of Hot Table’s first free-standing location, slated for a parcel on Memorial Drive in Chicopee.

“That was a silver lining for us,” he explained. “We had a lot of folks discover us who might have just been at home ordering from a third-party platform, who had never been in one of our stores.”

And this is just one of the ways the pandemic has actually benefited Hot Table, he went on, adding that it has made real estate both more available and more affordable.

So much so that the company, which has long considered Boston far out of its reach when it comes to real-estate prices, is being encouraged to take a good look at the Hub.

Whether this chain can actually attain a Boston address for one its locations is one of the many questions that will be answered over the next several years. For now, the company is focused on 2021, and all that it has on its plate — literally as well as figuratively.

For this issue and its focus on restaurants, BusinessWest talked with the brothers DeVoie and third partner Rich Calcasola, based in Charlotte, N.C., to get a sense for where this brand can go next and how big the portfolio can become.

 

Ingredients for Success

As he referenced those architectural renderings of the Chicopee site, John DeVoie pointed to what could become the ‘golden arches’ for this chain. That would be the tall red signage, or marquee, with what has become the company’s brand — a stylized slice of panini bread with grill marks running across it, with the words ‘Hot Table’ over it.

It’s not really possible to put such large, pronounced signage on the existing locations within shopping plazas, he said, adding that the new look represents another breakthrough for the company and an opportunity to not only sell more paninis, but grow its brand.

“When you build your own building, you have the opportunity to think about what your brand says on the outside — what is the golden arch for us?” he noted. “And it’s a long way from our origins at the Breckwood Shoppes.”

By that, he meant not just the marquee, but the free-standing store concept, locations on both ends of the state, aggressive plans to add four stores in just over a year, and ongoing talk about where to go next.

“For the most part, we’re keeping our efforts focused on New England. And over the next 10 years, we want to become a well-known, regional brand.”

But before talking more about the present and future, let’s recap how we got here.

Our story begins in 2006, when John and Chris, both successful in corporate sales, decided they wanted to make money for themselves, instead of someone else, and started to focus on the restaurant industry.

Blending vast amounts of experience with taking corporate clients with a healthy appetite for entrepreneurship out to eat, they started shaping a concept for the growing fast-casual category of eatery, and followed the advice of their sister, who told them about a dining model she encountered on a trip to Italy — cafés of sorts called tavola calda, which translates, literally, to ‘hot table,’ and their parents, who suggested a made-to-order panini concept.

For their first location, the two chose the Breckwood Shoppes, which they knew well because they both graduated from Western New England. The site wouldn’t attract any of the huge players in the fast-casual arena — Chipotle, Chick-fil-A, Panera Bread, Shake Shack, and others — because of the demographics of the surrounding area, but for them, it worked.

It blended the college crowd — students, professors, staff, and administration alike — with a thickly settled neighborhood, large traffic volume, and visitors to other shops in the plaza.

The large players in smart casual wouldn’t have gone where Hot Table went next — Tower Square in downtown Springfield, in 2009 — either. But the brothers, enticed by the large population of office workers in surrounding towers and an attractive offer from then-owner MassMutual, decided to roll the dice. And they essentially rolled a ‘7.’ Indeed, the site has become a popular lunchtime destination — even moreso with recent arrivals such as Cambridge College and UMass Amherst Center at Springfield — and has even thrived during the pandemic without most of those workers and students.

“We’re pretty close to last year’s numbers, overall,” said John, comparing 2020 with 2019. “What’s happened is that this has become a delivery hub for people in West Springfield, Chicopee, and other cities and towns.

“With the new model of how we do business — we have more than 30,000 users of our app, which allows people to order and then utilize a third-party platform for delivery — our business model shifted,” he went on. “So now, we’re way above pre-pandemic sales levels overall.”

After Tower Square, the DeVoie brothers, now partnering with Calcasola, have been focusing on where the large players in fast-casual have put down stakes. In fact, the strategy has been to follow them — on the theory that their research into where to locate is certainly solid — and, in doing so, create more of a critical mass of quality eateries, which creates dining destinations.

“In March and April, when the pandemic hit, we weren’t sure we had a company — we had an 80% plunge in revenue. We had the same ‘what the heck just hit us?’ experience that just about everyone in the restaurant business did.”

This was the case with the company’s next locations — in Enfield (2012) and Glastonbury, Conn. (2014), Route 9 in Hadley (also 2014), Marlborough (2017), and Worcester (2019). And that’s also the case, to one extent or another, with the Chicopee (there’s a Chick-fil-A right next door), Framingham, Hartford, and Westfield locations.

“People just drive there to eat, and you get in the rotation,” Chris said. “When Chick-Fil-A and other competitors came to Enfield, our sales went up.”

 

Location, Location, Location

When asked about the chain’s ‘formula’ when it comes to identifying markets they want to be in and then locations within those markets, the partners said it involves a blend of science and intuition, but mostly critical masses of traffic, retail, diners, and, yes, competitors.

All these ingredients are found in Hadley, said Calcasola, noting not only the large college population (there are four colleges within a few miles of the store’s location on Route 9), but also a host of fast-casual competitors and a large and growing cluster of retail that draws people from three counties.

Most of these same essentials can be found in Worcester, in the chain’s site in the the Trolley Yard, a mixed-use development that is also home to Starbucks, Chipotle, Sprint, and other national brands. Indeed, Worcester boasts seven colleges and a growing business base, said Chris, noting that it benefits greatly from being within easier commuting distance from Boston.

Meanwhile, in Marlboro, there are no colleges, little retail, and a less-dense population than in other communities the chain calls home. But there are a number of office parks and hotels, said John, adding that this was the store most impacted by the pandemic — although it, too, has rebounded.

An architect’s rendering of Hot Table’s first free-standing location

The Hot Table chain has come a long way since the opening of its first location in the Breckwood Shoppes in Springfield.

In Chicopee, Memorial Drive has been transformed into a retail destination over the past decade, said Chris, noting that the changes have caught the attention of Chipotle, Buffalo Wild Wings, and Chick Fil-A, which made that the address for its first (and still only) location in Western Mass.

Meanwhile, the Framingham store now under construction and set to open in June is in Shoppers World, a large retail complex boasting 27 stores, including Chick-Fil-A, Olive Garden, TGI Fridays, and Chipotle.

“That whole area is called the Golden Triangle,” said John, referring to the retail district in Framingham and Natick. “And it’s the number-one retail destination in metro Boston. So it’s kind of a big jump for us, but our business model now supports that.”

By ‘big jump,’ he meant, among other things, the rates for the property being leased, which was also the case in West Hartford and a spot in Corbin’s Corner next to Shake Shack, although, as noted earlier, the pandemic has eased some of the sticker shock, while also creating some opportunities as stores — and restaurants — went out of business.

“There are more opportunities in the form of spaces becoming available,” said Calcasola. “Meanwhile, the asking price dropped in some locations, including West Hartford; we’re still paying a good amount of money, but not what they were advertising it for a year and half ago.”

As to the question of where the chain might go next, there are many ways to answer it.

For starters, the company wants to go where those major brands listed several times above are going. In fact, that’s usually the first question being asked, said Chris, noting that, as Hot Table ponders whether to expand into Rhode Island, the presence of other chains is a key consideration.

“We’re pretty close to last year’s numbers, overall. What’s happened is that this has become a delivery hub for people in West Springfield, Chicopee, and other cities and towns.”

“We’ll ask if there are Chick Fil-As and Chipotles around,” he told BusinessWest. “Wherever they’re going, that’s where we want to be. We want to compete with the nationals.”

Availability of real estate is another issue, said John, adding that the company has long sought to be on Riverdale Street in West Springfield, specifically the stretch south of I-91, but has not been able to secure a location because of exclusivity clauses secured by some competitors. Meanwhile, price remains an issue in some areas, including Boston, although the pandemic, as noted, might bring that city into reach.

“We have a consultant that we work with. Before the pandemic, he said, ‘guys, don’t even bother going into Boston; it’s crazy — don’t do it,’” said John. “The last meeting we had with him, he said, ‘you may want to think about exploring opportunities in Boston.’”

 

Pressing On

When and if the company goes down that road remains to be seen. For now, its principals, as noted, have other things on their plate.

Lots of them.

Indeed, this will be a year when Hot Table takes giant strides toward becoming that established brand the partners want it to be, a year when that image of the panini top with the grill marks on it becomes known in new markets and in new ways, like that sign on the property in Chicopee.

That location isn’t the future — but it is a big part of the future, with additional growth and territorial expansion on the menu.

As John DeVoie said, this company has come a long way from the Breckwood Shoppes — and in all kinds of ways.

 

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

 

As COVID-19 has encouraged many Americans to move out of large urban areas, a good number of them are moving to Pittsfield.

In April, the New York Times reported on a U.S. Postal Service survey that tracked the top metro areas where people moved during the pandemic. Pittsfield ranked sixth on the list.

According to Jonathan Butler, Pittsfield’s proximity to both New York City and Boston certainly put the city in a good spot to benefit from the migration away from larger metro areas.

“Our location positioned us well for people who have decided to move to a more rural setting and take advantage of telecommuting after their experiences during the pandemic,” said Butler, who is president and CEO of 1Berkshire, the economic-development and tourism organization for Berkshire County.

A USA Today article in March suggested that, as more people work from home, big cities may lose population to smaller areas that cost less and offer better quality of life. Using data from Moody’s Analytics, the article included Pittsfield among the top five cities that could stand to gain from the shift to remote work. Moody’s ranked Pittsfield in the 53rd percentile for affordability, and for quality of life it scored 90.2.

Mayor Linda Tyer

Mayor Linda Tyer says the city’s COVID-19 task force, which met daily at first, still gathers each week.

More than a statistical exercise, Butler said these trends are reflected in reality.

“There has been a 40% increase in net real-estate sales compared to last year,” he said, noting that the increase represents more properties selling, and selling at higher prices. “We’ve seen real-estate prices skyrocket in the Berkshires, anywhere from 10% to 30%.”

Still, while the pandemic may present many opportunities for Pittsfield, the city certainly faced difficult challenges when COVID first hit.

In her recent state-of-the-city address, Mayor Linda Tyer said Pittsfield entered 2020 with a robust agenda of ways to enhance the city when, suddenly, all priorities shifted to managing a pandemic.

Tyer led a COVID-19 task force in Pittsfield that brought together medical, police, fire, and education professionals who meet daily at the beginning of the crisis. They still meet weekly to review public-health data and plans of action. As a result, Tyer said Pittsfield now has a solid response infrastructure in place, as well as vaccinators and volunteers ready to deploy.

“State officials have recognized our task force as an example of best practices, and it serves as a model that could be replicated in other communities,” she noted.

Another key move early on was establishing the COVID-19 Economic Relief and Recovery Program, a comprehensive economic package to support small businesses, nonprofits, and residents. By the end of 2020, Pittsfield had awarded 90 grants to local small businesses and restaurants totaling nearly $700 thousand.

In addition, “we were able to provide easy access to food and supply Chromebooks to students after the schools were closed,” the mayor said. “We also created 13 ‘grab-and-go’ zones to support our restaurants with takeout and delivery services. These are just a few examples of the many ways we came together to support each other.”

 

Down to Business

Tyer pointed to a new, innovative company that opened in Pittsfield in 2020 despite the pandemic. United Aircraft Technologies is a veteran-owned, minority-owned, female-led business that created a new type of sensing clamp for aircraft wiring. The clamps are 65% lighter than what is currently in use, and they do not need other hardware, such as screws or bolts. Two local companies will handle production of the clamps.

“Our location positioned us well for people who have decided to move to a more rural setting and take advantage of telecommuting.”

“United Aircraft Technologies has teamed up with Sinicon Plastics to produce the clamps, and SABIC will provide the materials to make them,” she said.

For many years, officials in Pittsfield have emphasized job creation, with success stories ranging from advanced manufacturing to e-commerce. Since the pandemic, Butler said, they have a new priority. “Our emphasis is no longer on creating jobs, it’s now about filling jobs and recruiting talent to the region.”

Among its infrastructure projects, Tyer talked about several revitalization efforts happening on Tyler Street. By the end of this year, she predicts 36 new market-rate apartments and “promising new interest” in saving the historic fire station from demolition.

“There has been a 40% increase in net real-estate sales compared to last year. We’ve seen real-estate prices skyrocket in the Berkshires, anywhere from 10% to 30%.”

She also discussed a $3 million MassWorks grant for the Tyler Street streetscape project that will begin this year. “The improvements include a roundabout, upgrades to sidewalks and crosswalks, and other amenities along the corridor.”

“There has been a 40% increase in net real-estate sales compared to last year. We’ve seen real-estate prices skyrocket in the Berkshires, anywhere from 10% to 30%.”

This spring also marks the start of construction of the Ashuwillticook Rail Trail extension through Pittsfield. The bike trail will connect Adams and Pittsfield, with a plan to eventually connect the trail throughout Berkshire County.

For Butler, the trail extension is a real positive, as one of the region’s bright spots from last year was an increase in people coming to the area for outdoor activities. Whether it’s state parks or cultural attractions such as the Norman Rockwell Museum and Hancock Shaker Village, visitors were able to explore these sites while staying outside much of the time.

The past year has also brought many new hikers to the region, he added. “From Mount Greylock to October Mountain State Forest, our hiking trails have been bustling with more activity than they’ve ever had.”

Pittsfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1761
Population: 44,737
Area: 42.5 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $19.25
Commercial Tax Rate: $39.99
Median Household Income: $35,655
Median family Income: $46,228
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Berkshire Health Systems; General Dynamics; Petricca Industries Inc.; SABIC Innovative Plastics; Berkshire Bank
* Latest information available

While the additional outdoor activity couldn’t replace all the lost business in 2020, he admitted, it certainly helped, and makes him feel optimistic going forward. “We have introduced a lot of new people to the Berkshires who have not come out here previously, so that’s a positive takeaway.”

With its location in the middle of the region, Butler said Pittsfield is in a good position to benefit from the increased visitor traffic anticipated for this summer and beyond. Like every city, Pittsfield saw restaurants and retail shops struggle financially during the pandemic, with some not surviving. But as people’s comfort levels about going out increases, he believes that will generate new activity.

“The demand for those businesses is still going to be there, and it will create opportunities for new entrepreneurs to step into those closed businesses and try their own model,” he said. “It won’t happen overnight; we’re looking at it as a one- to two-year cycle.”

 

Gaining Momentum

While many Americans are expected to book flights for vacations this year, more are planning to travel by car — and shifts in air travel have tended to help the tourist economy in the Berkshires, Butler noted.

“We always benefit when people decide to book a three- or four-night getaway to the Berkshires instead of flying south or out west,” he said. “We expect there will be more of that than usual this summer.”

As more people visit the area, and even move there, it creates new opportunities and new challenges for Pittsfield. Tyer believes her city will rebound from the pandemic thanks to the resolve of its residents and business owners.

“As we emerge from this public-health crisis,” she said, “we will be stronger than ever before and ready for good things to happen.”

Technology

Impactful Gift

Michael and Theresa Hluchyj

Michael and Theresa Hluchyj say there’s a need for innovative clinical solutions where both nursing and engineering play a role.

Michael and Theresa Hluchyj are no strangers to giving back to their alma mater — and seeing their investments bear fruit.

For example, the couple, who graduated from UMass Amherst in 1976 and 1977, respectively, established a graduate fellowship program in 2008 to support students from the College of Engineering and the College of Nursing who are interested in clinical healthcare research.

One recipient of the fellowship, Akshaya Shanmugam, who earned a master’s degree and PhD from UMass in electrical and computer engineering, earned recognition in 2017 in Forbes’ 30 under 30 for her achievements in healthcare. She founded Lumme Inc. while at UMass, using her knowledge and research to create software to help people quit smoking.

That’s the kind of impact these alumni hope to see from their latest investment in the future, a $1 million gift to create a Center for Nursing and Engineering Innovation, bringing together two fields that can improve personal well-being and save lives. Simply put, they envision a place where nurses and engineers collaborate on clinical solutions in new ways.

“We are excited to support UMass in this new initiative,” Michael Hluchyj said. “Innovation is often accelerated at the intersection of different academic disciplines. The worldwide health crises resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic make clear the critical need for innovative solutions in clinical settings where both nursing and engineering play vital roles.”

The Center for Nursing and Engineering Innovation Fund will support participating students, staff, and faculty from both colleges, and provide financial support for activities and resources at the center such as graduate fellowships, seed funds for R&D pilot projects, and an annual symposium. Funds will be shared between the College of Nursing and the College of Engineering, enabling them to recruit top student researchers from the College of Engineering’s more than 2,800 students and the College of Nursing’s 730 students, as well as others from outside the university.

The center will not only provide students with an environment to work together, but will also integrate innovation and entrepreneurship into the current nursing and engineering curriculum. In the future, with support from faculty leaders, students will engage with industry partners on enhancing and inventing their own products.

“The worldwide health crises resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic make clear the critical need for innovative solutions in clinical settings where both nursing and engineering play vital roles.”

“We are deeply grateful to the Hluchyjs for their generous support of our vision to improve patient treatment and advance the healthcare industry through interdisciplinary collaboration,” said Allison Vorderstrasse, dean of the College of Nursing. “Since the onset of the pandemic, UMass nursing and engineering students have successfully partnered on projects addressing, for example, the need for rapid PPE-manufacturing technologies. This center is the natural progression of that partnership, and I am excited to see the innovations it produces.”

In April 2020, nursing and engineering researchers at UMass Amherst created one of the first COVID-related interdisciplinary teams to design an effective, efficient and low-cost face shield. The shield, created with rapid mass production in mind, was then shared for free with frontline workers in regional healthcare facilities.

Soon after, UMass established both symptomatic and asymptomatic testing centers on campus, and, with the release of the COVID-19 vaccines, has since created a community vaccination center. These centers have been, in large part, run by nursing students. More recently, Sarah Perry, associate professor of Chemical Engineering, launched a research collaboration with Michigan Technological University to develop a new method of keeping vaccines stable without refrigeration.

“As engineers, our students work tirelessly to build systems and products that solve some of the world’s most challenging problems,” said Sanjay Raman, dean of the College of Engineering. “By working in direct collaboration with nurses on projects for medical devices, they can also incorporate the insights and experience nurses have to offer — allowing them to make their designs safer, more efficient, and more end-user-friendly.

“A key element of our vision is an integrated nursing-engineering faculty and student team working on every problem we tackle,” he went on. “We are deeply grateful to the Hluchyj family for their forward thinking and investment in this barrier-breaking center.”

The impact that a nurse-engineer collaboration can make is not a new concept for the Hluchyjs. While Michael was working toward his engineering degree, Theresa was studying to become a nurse.

They currently live in the Boston area. Michael serves as a board member for Uptycs and is a fellow of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. He is also an Ernst & Young New England Entrepreneur of the Year winner and has served on the Electrical and Computer Engineering Advisory Board at UMass Amherst. Theresa has served in many community organizations, including the Wellesley Service League and the Wellesley Scholarship Foundation. She is currently a member of the Newton-Wellesley Hospital Board of Advisors, a guide at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and a member of the university’s Amherst Campus Council.

Karen Giuliano, joint associate professor for the College of Nursing and the Institute for Applied Life Sciences, will serve as the inaugural co-director of the Center for Nursing and Engineering Innovation along with Jenna Marquard, professor of Mechanical and Industrial Engineering.

“The ability to quickly and effectively tackle everyday challenges in healthcare requires both nursing and engineering expertise,” Giuliano said. “The power of a nurse-engineer approach is derived from mutual collaboration, where the nurse identifies the problem, the engineer creates potential solutions, and, through bi-directional, real-time, continuous collaboration, iterations and tradeoffs occur until the best solutions are found.”

Restaurants

Sunny Outlook

Debra Flynn in the alley behind Eastside Grill

Debra Flynn in the alley behind Eastside Grill, which has been transformed into a charming, colorful dining spot.

When COVID-19 arrived 14 months ago, restaurant owners everywhere went into survival mode. Bill Collins was no exception.

Fast-forward to, well, just last week, and the story is a different one.

“We just celebrated our seven-year anniversary,” said Collins, owner of Center Square Grill in East Longmeadow, who marked the milestone by donating 10% of the day’s total sales to Shriners Hospitals for Children in Springfield. “That’s something we would not have been able to do without outdoor seating.”

Reliance on al fresco dining — and gratitude for the return of warm spring weather — is a common theme for restaurants across Massachusetts, at least those that had outdoor dining space available, or the opportunity to create some.

In Collins’ case, he didn’t even wait for spring to return.

“We’ve had outdoor seating since we opened, but we definitely expanded on that,” he said. “In fact, we spent nearly $20,000 ramping up for the fall, installing greenhouses with electric heat. All winter long, we offered single-use lap blankets for people who came in.”

In doing so, he was able to serve diners at something approaching normal capacity through the cold months, even though interior capacity was still limited by public-health mandates. “It was a game changer. Really, for us, it put us in a position where we were not just able to squeak by, but to comfortably pay our bills all year, which was a great thing.”

Customers appreciate — and usually prefer — the outdoor option, too.

“When the phone rings, 90% of the time, it’s with inquiries to sit outside,” he said. “We took down the greenhouses for the summer but plan to bring them back. People are still talking about the greenhouses. They were a hit for us, and they’ll definitely be back in the fall.”

Munich Haus in Chicopee has long served patrons on a large patio known as the Biergarten, with seating for 150 — well, before physical-distancing rules, anyway — and a 24-seat bar area.

“It was a game changer. Really, for us, it put us in a position where we were not just able to squeak by, but to comfortably pay our bills all year, which was a great thing.”

“It’s been great,” owner Patrick Gottschlicht said. “A lot of our customers already knew about it. We didn’t have to put a tent in the parking lot with concrete barriers or anything; we’ve got a fully set-up Biergarten, a true outdoor area. We’ve always said we’ve tried to emulate the experience of sitting in a biergarten in Germany, to make it as authentic as possible.”

At Eastside Grill in Northampton, owner Debra Flynn has taken several approaches to allowing customers to eat outdoors. She converted an alley behind the restaurant into a cozy, colorful space lined with potted plants, colorful murals, and lightbulbs strung above the tables for the evening hours.

This year, while adding even more plants and patio umbrellas to the alley, Eastside Grill is one of a handful of restaurants and retailers set to benefit from Summer on Strong, a city initiative to close a small portion of Strong Avenue to vehicle traffic from Memorial Day through Labor Day. Eastside will be able to seat 32 more customers in the road, almost doubling its outdoor capacity to 70. Live music outdoors will be a feature on many nights as well.

Like others we spoke with — and have been speaking with since restaurants were allowed to partially reopen last spring — Flynn said many folks want to dine out, but still worry about gathering indoors, so outdoor dining is critical for business.

“We get calls every single day about it,” she said, noting that she doesn’t take reservations specifically for outdoor seating, but customers can request it and wait for a spot. “I don’t blame them. We want them to be very comfortable, and if you’re not comfortable inside, we want to make sure we have a table outside.”

 

Taking to the Streets

The barriers between restaurants and roadways that were a mainstay in downtown Northampton last summer have been going up again in preparation for the outdoor dining season. Despite the loss of parking that results from this concession to restaurants, city leaders heard enough positive feedback last year to allow eateries to push out past the curb again along Main Street, Pleasant Street, Pearl Street, Masonic Street, and other spots — and, in cases like Strong Avenue, well beyond the curb.

“The city has been really wonderful to work with,” Flynn said. “Everyone from the City Hall to the DNA [Downtown Northampton Assoc.] to the chamber has been really helpful. I feel really good about the way things are going right now.”

Meanwhile, a recent order by Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle will allow restaurants and retailers on Main, Cottage, and Union streets to expand their seating options and retail spaces into parking spots and other public spaces. Businesses interested in the exemption must first submit detailed plans, including a review for ADA compliance, an exterior lighting plan, and a timeline for how long the outdoor seating will stay in place.

Easthampton allowed a similar outdoor-dining expansion last year from August to November in an effort to support local businesses struggling to navigate the economic impact of the pandemic. But with the accommodation being announced late in the summer season, only one restaurant, the Silver Spoon on Main Street, ended up using parking spaces for seating. The mayor expects interest from many more businesses this year.

Keisha Fortin says the outdoor Biergarten has been a critical part of business

Keisha Fortin says the outdoor Biergarten has been a critical part of business at Munich Haus during the pandemic, and will continue to be well beyond it.

One reason is the still-prevalent sentiment, even after the majority of Massachusetts adults have been vaccinated against COVID, that dining outdoors just feels like a safer option.

“Anyone who’s concerned about coming in, we have the outdoor seating, and they can feel safe outdoors,” Gottschlicht said. “Or indoors, too — but, yeah, there’s plenty of fresh air and open space out there.”

Kiesha Fortin, longtime manager at the Munich Haus, said she looks forward to the day when distancing rules end and she can put more tables on the biergarten patio, due to how popular that option is. Most people are clamoring to eat out, she noted, but many prefer to do it outdoors.

The pent-up desire to eat out has posed another challenge to restaurants, Collins said — staffing up to meet rising demand.

“We’re seeing more and more people coming back to eat, but the biggest challenge for our business, and everyone I’ve talked to in my line of work, is the way unemployment benefits are being handled. We’re having problems getting entry-level employees in the door because everyone is making more staying at home. Typically we run around 95 employees, but we’ve been struggling to stay above 75.”

That said, “hopefully people starting to come back out will have a little patience and realize what things were like a year and a half ago is not the current scenario,” Collins added. “It’s not that we don’t want to hire people back; we just have no people coming through the door to work.”

They are coming to eat, though, especially to restaurants serving up meals outdoors — a development that, for this beleaguered industry, has certainly been a breath of fresh air. u

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Banking and Financial Services

PV Financial Announces Two Additions to Team

PV Financial Group recently welcomed two new members to its team — Antonio Bastos as retirement plan coordinator and Andrea Santos as digital marketing specialist. Both will be working in PV’s main office located in Ludlow.

Antonio Bastos

Antonio Bastos

Andrea Santos

Andrea Santos

Upon graduating from Nichols College in Dudley with a bachelor’s degree in Business Management, Bastos accepted a job with MassMutual Retirement Services. During his five years with the company, he represented and sold MassMutual’s qualified retirement plan platform to small and mid-sized businesses. Bastos also obtained his Series 6 and Series 63 licenses while gaining beneficial knowledge and experience with qualified retirement plans.

At PV Financial, Bastos’s role is to manage all the qualified retirement plan clients, from day-to-day servicing to fielding all inquiries from retirement plan participants and plan trustees. He will also maintain relationships with retirement-plan providers in the industry. Other responsibilities will include staying connected and up-to-date on new products, services, and ERISA compliance regulations so he can properly and confidently serve PV Financial’s retirement plan clients and participants.

“By having Tony join the team at PV Financial, we have committed to the qualified retirement plan marketplace,” said Edward Sokolowski, PV’s managing partner. “As many local financial firms have been exiting this business, Tony will be able to fill the void and offer professional guidance to companies looking for quality advice for their retirement plans.”

Santos graduated from Holyoke Community College with an associate’s degree in Business Administration, as well as from Elms College with a bachelor’s degree in Business Management and Marketing. Upon graduating from Elms, Santos accepted a job at Northwestern Mutual. During her four years with the company, she held the position of director of Client Services, where she was responsible for the oversight of new business insurance applications and investment accounts, as well as insurance underwriting correspondence. She also worked with clients directly on account inquiries and led the office’s marketing efforts.

At PV Financial, Santos will be the digital marketing specialist. She will be the first point of contact for new and current clients who are a part of PV Financial’s new program, PV Navigator. Other responsibilities include maintaining the program’s website and social media accounts, staying up to date with the services provided within the program, maintaining relationships with the program’s clients, and assisting the advisors with outreach.

“Having Andrea join our team is a major step in the future success of PV Financial,” said Sokolowski. “Andrea’s talents in social media and client relationships will be a cornerstone to our newly launched investment program, PV Navigator.  I look forward to the energy and focus Andrea will bring to our firm and the positive impact she will have on our clients.”


Country Bank Appoints New VP of Marketing

Country Bank announced that Justin Roberts has joined the Marketing and Community Relations team as vice president of Marketing. Roberts’ experience in strategic marketing spans more than a decade in various industries. As a former small-business owner, he brings not just marketing savvy, but real-life experience.

Justin Roberts

Justin Roberts

“I am excited to join the Country Bank team,” Roberts said. “Having admired the brand for several years, I am looking forward to help activate the bank’s founding partnership of the Worcester Red Sox and promoting Country Bank’s presence throughout the region.”

In Roberts’ previous positions, he worked as the Development officer at American International College (AIC) in the office of Institutional Advancement, and also worked at MassLive, where he helped lead the Digital Marketing Strategy team to support local, regional, and national clients. His entrepreneurial spirit recently led him to open his own marketing and community-relations agency before joining the Country Bank team.

Roberts, who earned his bachelor’s degree and MBA in marketing from AIC, is the founder of Suit Up Springfield, a nonprofit organization that provides professional attire and mentorship to young men in Greater Springfield.

He also serves as vice president of the board for Greater Springfield Habitat for Humanity. He has served on many nonprofits and community organizations, including Wonderfund of Massachusetts, the Young Professional Society of Greater Springfield, the Rotary Club of Springfield, and Square One. He is a member of the New England Financial Marketing Assoc. and received the Game Changer award from the Center for Human Development.

“We are thrilled to welcome Justin to the Marketing and Community Relations team. His experience in marketing and digital strategies, combined with his extensive civic and community engagement, makes him a perfect fit for Country Bank,” said Miriam Siegel, first senior vice president of Human Resources. “We’re proud of Justin’s efforts within the communities we serve and look forward to his profound passion for community service while representing Country Bank. u


 

Florence Bank Welcomes Experienced Lender

Florence Bank announced the appointment of Douglas Gilbert to the position of vice president of Commercial Lending. Gilbert comes to the bank with more than 27 years of banking experience.

Douglas Gilbert

Douglas Gilbert

His most recent role was at Country Bank, where he served as first vice president and team leader in the Commercial Lending department. His duties there included managing the Commercial Lending team and an extensive loan portfolio. His experience also includes serving as vice president and head of Commercial Lending at Easthampton Savings Bank and as assistant vice president in Commercial Lending at Westfield Bank.

“It is a great opportunity to be affiliated with Florence Bank, which has such an excellent reputation and does so much good in the community,” Gilbert said. “Everyone here has made me feel right at home from the beginning.”

Gilbert is a certified public accountant who earned an undergraduate degree from Westfield State University and an MBA from the University of Connecticut. He also serves on the board of the Quaboag Valley Business Assistance Corp.

Kevin Day, president and CEO of Florence Bank, added that “Doug is a great addition to the Florence Bank team. His significant lending experience coupled with his knowledge of the communities we serve will be a tremendous value to our business customers.”

Education Special Coverage

Back to Normal?

It’s hard to gauge what ‘normal’ looks like during the era of COVID-19, when normalcy is a moving target. For area colleges and universities, though, getting back to normal means one thing: bringing as many students back to dorms and classrooms as possible. Make no mistake, campus life this fall will still be different from the pre-pandemic college experience, but just opening those classroom and residence-hall doors is a big step — the result of many lessons learned during the most unusual academic year in memory.

Normalcy.

It’s an attractive concept these days, if an elusive one. Just ask the folks planning for the fall 2021 semester at the region’s colleges and universities.

“This fall, we’ll go back to some normalcy, with classes back in person full-time, students in the residence halls, and athletes on the fields,” said Jonathan Scully, vice president of Enrollment Management and Marketing at Elms College. “That’s the plan right now.”

Scully said Elms has long maintained a COVID-19 task force that meets every week to discuss public-health data, on-campus health metrics, current recommendations of the CDC and the state Department of Public Health, and, importantly, how faculty and staff feel about a full return. “That all played a part in making decisions for the fall.”

He noted that students seem excited about coming back to Springfield Street in Chicopee, even though the college’s ElmsFlex hybrid plan, by which students could learn on campus, remotely, or with a combination of both, has been well-received.

“We’re not fully remote; we had that ElmsFlex option, because some students learn better in person, and some did better virtually, and they had the ability to move between the two freely,” Scully said. “But everyone is looking forward to a return to normalcy.”

Western New England University (WNEU) was among just 27% of U.S. colleges and universities that opened to mainly in-person learning and residential living last fall and remained open through the 2020-21 year, having delivered about 75% of courses on campus and the rest through online and hybrid formats, said Bryan Gross, vice president of Enrollment Management and Marketing.

Jonathan Scully

Jonathan Scully

“Because some students learn better in person, and some did better virtually, and they had the ability to move between the two freely. But everyone is looking forward to a return to normalcy.”

Two factors played into that success, he said: a culture of small class sizes (the average student-teacher ratio is 12:1) and plenty of space that made social distancing much easier to implement, and a commitment — a compact, really, among students, faculty, and staff — to make sure the campus could stay open.

“They adhered to that social distancing, we put up tons of signage, we brought in extra cleaning staff, we had plexiglass throughout … all those things contributed to the plan for the past year,” Gross told BusinessWest.

He noted that colleges and universities don’t have the luxury of making their fall opening plans in July or August; the shift on the fly to remote learning that happened last spring is not the preferred model for campus planning. So, while the course of the pandemic might still alter the plans before September, those plans still need to be made and set in motion.

At WNEU, that will mean all courses normally taught on campus will be, indeed, taught in person, with three-foot distancing in place and masks required, at least according to current guidance. While some hybrid options may be available, Gross said, “we feel Western New England is best with face-to-face classwork, and that’s what we’re moving forward with.”

American International College (AIC) is moving in that direction as well, said Matt Scott, vice president for Student Affairs.

For the current year, he explained, residence halls are open, and students are allowed to live on campus, but most classes are remote, and athletics have continued as normal. Surveillance testing for COVID is widespread, and other safety and sanitization protocols are a regular part of life.

For the fall, Scott said, the current plan is to go back to “whatever the new normal will look like,” but the goal being full residence halls and in-person instruction.

“We’re still waiting to see some state guidance — there’s K-12 guidance that came out in terms of desk distancing in classrooms and things of that nature, but they have not come out with specific guidance for colleges yet,” he added. “But that’s the plan.”

Chet Jordan

Chet Jordan

“Safety on our campus is paramount; one of the biggest considerations in our return to campus is how to utilize our space safely.”

The plan at most campuses, it turns out, is for normalcy, or, as Gross noted, whatever that term might mean come September. But optimism is high that college life will finally begin to look like it used to.

 

Safety First

Community colleges, for the most part, were more fully remote than most schools, and are being more cautious with their return to normalcy. For example, Greenfield Community College (GCC) will offer classes in a face-to-face or hybrid format, meeting at least once a week on campus with some possible online instruction as well.

“Safety on our campus is paramount; one of the biggest considerations in our return to campus is how to utilize our space safely,” said Chet Jordan, dean of Social Sciences and Professional Studies at GCC. “Our faculty and staff have been almost entirely remote for the past year, so their input in how we can phase in a slow reopening of the campus was essential to us.”

GCC brought together a group of faculty, staff, and administrators to talk through the complexities of a reopening, eventually crafting a hybrid model. “We want to make sure our faculty and staff feel safe when they return to campus,” Jordan added. “The situation is constantly changing, but we addressed the key questions as best we could.”

Students in GCC’s health-career programs will meet on campus in hands-on courses to best prepare them for essential jobs in the growing healthcare industry. Those in other professional programs, such as business and education, will also have on-campus options. In most programs, students will complete some of their coursework online and will participate in weekly experiential learning opportunities, including lab activities and field trips.

GCC will follow state guidelines on occupancy rates in classrooms and offices, mask requirements, and health screenings, as well as maintaining scrupulous air-quality practices and a thorough sanitizing schedule.

The class schedule is roughly 55% online and 45% in person, Jordan said, which allows time to space out the classes between sections to avoid a bottleneck of students entering and exiting, while maintaining appropriate distancing.

“It gives students who want to be on campus that in-person experience, but also flexibility the rest of the week to finish online,” he said, adding that the library will be available for students to access a virtual class between in-person sessions on any given day. “So they won’t have to jump between campus and home, we’re giving them space to do a remote class and then go to their next class on campus.”

Bryan Gross

Bryan Gross

“The long and short of it is, we’re hopeful to have a more normal, on-the-ground campus experience for our students and families.”

UMass Amherst also expects campus life to return to normal operations in fall 2021. That means an emphasis on face-to-face instruction, full residence halls — an expected 13,000 students will live on campus — and a complement of student events and activities.

Planning for summer orientation is well underway, as new students will be invited to participate in a series of synchronous and asynchronous orientation programs over the summer before they arrive for in-person welcome sessions at the end of August.

This past fall, many first-year students who would have experienced on-campus housing for the first time did not get that opportunity. So, in an effort to support these students, freshmen and sophomores will receive priority consideration to select on-campus spaces this fall. Still, based on current interest, UMass expects to be able to meet all housing requests, including all interested juniors and seniors.

Finally, UMass announced that its renovated Student Union is now open, offering space for events, student organizations, student businesses, and a ballroom.

The campus experience is more than academics, WNEU’s Gross said, noting that the university creative in finding ways to bring students together for small-group activities in the campus center. This fall, he expects larger outdoor activities, including intramural sports, to return, as well as indoor events as long as safety protocols are followed.

“The long and short of it is, we’re hopeful to have a more normal, on-the-ground campus experience for our students and families,” he said, including a big homecoming event inviting back the 2020 graduates, who were unable to have a traditional commencement experience.

 

Learning by Doing

In his first year working at GCC, Jordan said he has been “incredibly warmed and inspired by the creativity of the faculty, who do anything they can do make sure students have the best experience.”

For example, science classes have included more outdoor, experiential learning. Meanwhile, students in the health sciences have been on campus throughout the pandemic, due to the unique, hands-on needs of their training. “They paved the way,” he said. “They’re the ones who figured out how to open as safely as we possibly can.”

At AIC, students in those fields have been diligent about safety protocols and personal protective equipment, Scott said. “Because they’re health-science students, they tend to take it a little further than some of our other students. If they’re getting up close and personal, they’re wearing face shields and masks and such.”

Particularly during the 2020, he noted, constant pivoting was the order of the day for college faculty and administrators, who had to constantly monitor the development of the pandemic and guide a testing and safety plan for their campuses.

“But I think, overall, our plan stayed the same,” he added. “We thought it was safest this year to keep as many students remote as possible and have some in-person experiences that are kind of controlled for the pandemic-related protocols we had in place. That all stayed the same throughout the year, but the way we approached them adjusted as we needed to.”

Some of the lessons learned led to positive developments, said Kerry Cole, vice president for Admissions at AIC. For example, the college used to deliver its certificate of advanced graduate study (CAGS) programs for teachers at 11 physical sites. Once the program was forced online by COVID, administrators began to hear from the grad students that they loved it.

“So, beginning in the fall, we’re moving to a virtual format throughout the state, where we’re able to deliver licensing programs in a virtual format for all the programs we offer,” Cole said. “That came directly from students. They wanted virtual — not online, but virtual, synchronous, so they can communicate with each other.

“We’re very, very excited about it,” she went on. “Our teachers now need more flexibility than ever. They’re rock stars, and we need to be able to support them.”

Scott agreed, noting that there were many instances where he and others said, “wow, we didn’t realize this would work, that students would enjoy this.” One example is online counseling services, which are now much more accessible to commuter students.

That doesn’t mean students don’t want to return to in-person learning, of course; for the most part, they certainly do. But they’ve handled an unusual year well, he said.

“I am amazed every day how well our students are doing with these protocols. You’ll always have the occasional mask below the nose, and that’s going to happen, usually because they have a mask that doesn’t fit them well. But we have not really had any issues with students giving people a hard time when they’re entering the dining commons to get food. We planned for that; we asked, ‘how are we going to deal with the student who shows up and flat-out refuses to wear a mask?’ But we have not had that happen.”

In fact, the worst incidents have been the occasional group of students who head to the mall and don’t wear masks in the car.

“They’re not supposed to do it, but there are far worse things they could be doing and far worse ways they could be violating our protocols,” Scott said. “We try not to have a heavy hand; we try to take an educational approach and make sure they understand the potential impact, the ripple effect those actions can have on the community. But we’ve been very impressed with the way our students have responded this year.”

 

Waiting for the Return

Enrollment dipped last year at many colleges due to uncertainty about what the academic experience and college life would entail, but most area institutions see the application and enrollment numbers on the rise in 2021.

“Along with the rest of the community-college sector, we saw a decline over the past year, but that was an anomaly,” Jordan said. “In most recessions, community colleges do really well, but this was the reverse; this sector was the hardest-hit. The reason is that low-income students and students of color have been unprecedentedly hit by this pandemic, and those are our students.”

It’s especially important, then, for community colleges to offer a flexible model during these times, and that’s what GCC is aiming for, he added.

“We want to be sure we’re reaching students at home with kids, so those students can take classes online, and also opening the campus in such a way that students who need to be on campus will get that in-person instruction. Having more flexible classroom options will invite more people back.”

Cole said AIC successfully implemented the plan it thought best for 2020-21, and will now expand upon that.

“We’re very excited about it,” she said, noting that campus tours have begun again, and the campus hosted its first in-person admissions event of the school year in mid-April. “Graduate students love virtual info sessions and open houses. Undergrads are a mixed bag, but graduate students will take it all day. So we’ll likely keep some of that.”

Scully said nothing is set in stone when it comes to pandemic planning; the past 13 months at the Elms have been proof of that.

“We’re monitoring everything very closely, and our first priority is the safety of students and staff,” he said. “We know things could change on a dime.”

Elms, like many colleges, already offered some programs online before the pandemic, and has since bolstered the technology to conduct those, having purchased new cameras, microphones, and other equipment. “But, like everyone else, we’re looking forward to getting back to normal.”

And doing so safely, Gross said.

“I’ve never been so proud to be part of an organization as I’ve been of our students, faculty, and staff over the last year and a half,” he said. “I can’t stress how many extra hours our faculty and staff put into adjusting curriculum, adjusting extracurriculars, and changing everything we do, from open houses to the way we engage with current students, prospective students, and alumni. It was a group effort in flexibility, agility, determination, and energy.

That said, “the community is tired,” he went on. “We’ve been going non-stop; I can’t tell you how many faculty and staff have told me about the extra hours they’ve put in over the weekends. We’ve all been chipping in to do whatever it takes to keep things safe and enjoyable for students.”

But there’s no time to take a break. Not with the fall semester right around the corner.

“Things are constantly changing,” Gross said. “We’re all learning as we go. But we are a learning organization, after all.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Architecture Special Coverage

A New Environment

The world of development — and all the stakeholders who interact within in, from contractors to engineers; from regulators to municipal officials — have certainly been impacted by COVID-19, mainly because they weren’t able to meet in person anymore. But they adjusted to this new reality, and even learned from it — and continue to grapple with other changes as well, most notably in environmental compliance. To hash out some of these developments (pun intended), five leaders from several interconnected fields spoke with BusinessWest about the lingering effects of the pandemic and how they anticipate pivoting to the next set of changes.

 

When COVID-19 forced a shutdown of the economy 13 months ago, Jeff Daley said, the impact on development was immediate.

“Everything came to a grinding halt,” the president and CEO of Westmass Area Development Corp. told BusinessWest. “The first few days, watching the economy tank, people were scared — they didn’t know where this was going to go.”

It became clear over the next several weeks, however, that projects would continue, and Westmass ramped back up fairly quickly, even as the health implications of the pandemic remained daunting (and, of course, still linger, despite the availability of vaccines).

“It changed the way we did business, though,” Daley added. “Zoom calls with state agencies and local agencies increased from zero to 100% in the first few months. We had to adjust quickly to having meetings and approvals and denials with a different form of communication.

Jeff Daley

Jeff Daley

“We saw some hiccups at the beginning of the pandemic, but when things started ticking up again, it appeared state agencies really had their stuff together, as well as cities and towns.”

“I give credit to towns and cities across the Commonwealth; everyone adapted really quickly,” he went on. “We saw some hiccups at the beginning of the pandemic, but when things started ticking up again, it appeared state agencies really had their stuff together, as well as cities and towns.”

Daley recently took part in a wide-ranging roundtable discussion with BusinessWest about the impact of the pandemic on development and environmental regulation. Also taking part, each bringing a different perspective to the discussion, were David Peter, principal with Site Redevelopment Technologies; Ashley Sullivan, president of O’Reilly, Talbot & Okun Associates (OTO); Mike Gorski, regional director of the Western Regional Office of MassDEP; and environmental attorney Christopher Myhrum.

Peter, whose company cleans up contaminated sites for redevelopment — including, recently, the Games and Lanes brownfields site in Agawam — said the new paradigm of communicating has been a challenge.

“It’s difficult to move forward,” he said. “We rehab sites that have been dormant for many years due to contamination, and it’s very difficult for us right now because a lot of it is interpersonal relationships — meeting with regulators around a table with big maps — and we can’t do that anymore. We’re at a real slowdown for any project still in the planning stages.”

Projects in active development are a different story and, in some cases, have benefited from the pandemic, he added. As one example, last spring, the firm was hauling lightly contaminated soil from Beth Israel Hospital in Boston to a site in Rhode Island, and was able to conduct about twice as many trips as normal due to the lack of traffic on the road during the economic shutdown.

“If you owned, say, a restaurant when this happened, you were severely hit. But many essential businesses benefited, like our trucking situation,” Peter said. “But the biggest impact was not being able to sit down with regulators, politicians, and neighbors. It really slowed us down.”

Sullivan agreed. “In general, we did see a slowdown, and some of the logistics became difficult; there was definitely an adjustment period. But I’ll say we adapted pretty quickly, which was amazing to see,” she said, noting that the company had recently made some investments in technology that eased the transition into a different way of conducting business.

David Peter

David Peter

“It’s very difficult for us right now because a lot of it is interpersonal relationships — meeting with regulators around a table with big maps — and we can’t do that anymore.”

And that transition was happening whether or not everyone was ready for it.

“If you had asked me two years ago if we could our job remotely, I’d have said, ‘absolutely not,’” Gorski said. “But we’ve been remote since St. Patrick’s Day 2020. It took a few weeks to figure things out, with staff working at home, and we made some long-term improvements in technology for certain staff.”

Since then, he added, the process has been smooth, if not ideal. For example, early on, “we were very, very lenient in terms of inspections,” but the office was able to conduct limited risk-based determinations and emergency-response actions. “Staff still needed to visit spills on the highway and other releases.”

MassDEP complemented any necessary in-person visits with virtual inspections through FaceTime video and submitted photos, Gorski added. And after the initial slowdown, the pace of activity has been relatively stable.

“We’ve been on par with past years with the number of inspections in the Western Region, with enforcement numbers being a little bit down,” he said. “I think we’ve done pretty well keeping a presence out there and, more importantly, keeping our staff safe and meeting COVID protocols.”

Myhrum knew any leniency wouldn’t last. “I think clients recognized the likelihood of reductions in inspections at the start of the shutdown order, but they were cautioned, at least by me, that inspections were likely to come back,” he said.

Myhrum, who also serves on the Westmass board, agreed with the other roundtable participants that various stakeholders in the development process, from developers to inspectors to municipal officials, handled the transition to remote operations remarkably well. And he believes the construction and development sector is on the rise after an unusual year.

“Yes, construction was deemed essential, but behind that are a lot of support organizations, and things necessarily slowed down,” he said. “And that has created a lot of potential energy for when things return to some semblance of normal. Beyond that, it has been something of a brave new world, but the adaptability to remote work has been striking.”

 

Holding Pattern

The most distressing pandemic-driven change in Gorski’s job is “the inability to collaborate on certain projects, to sit around a table and push those plans back and forth,” he said, adding that his agency and others have come up with some innovative ways to collaborate remotely. “We’ve become more productive in some ways. And there are some efficiencies with working from home. But we do miss out on the ability to build off collaborative ideas.”

Myhrum agreed. “Screen sharing cannot substitute for a 24-by-36, or larger, exhibit in terms of communicating ideas and demonstrating evidence of what one wants to do. It’s essential to not only understanding what a project is, but also building the trust that’s necessary among the parties to reach a goal together. I believe collaborative efforts within the office are very, very important.”

Some ways business was done in the past won’t completely return, he added, like the idea of people flying to and from California to attend a 15-minute pre-trial conference. “That’s gone; everything is done remotely, through Zoom or Teams or other platforms.”

But to undertake truly effective negotiations and other business, he went on, in-person meetings need to remain an important component.

Ashley Sullivan

Ashley Sullivan

“They were backing off enforcement a little bit, but it was unofficial. Some of it wasn’t clearly communicated.”

Everyone figured out the new normal together, Gorski said, and that included the DEP. “We were very lenient during the first couple months, recognizing that companies were under a tremendous burden in terms of staffing. Once they figured out how to do things remotely, we started getting back into a normal program.

“Now, while we’re certainly not normalized, our inspection numbers here in the Western Region are on par with past years,” he added. “Some of the enforcement penalty numbers were down as well — we were careful how we adjusted penalties because of COVID — but that’s getting back to normal, too.”

Daley noted that any slowdown in regulatory activity was matched by a curtailment of development. “Everyone was trying to figure things out in the first month or two; I don’t think anyone was trying to move projects forward at a rapid pace. It all played in concert; environmental programs were moving forward at the same pace developments were with COVID.”

Sullivan said it was natural for the pace of activity to slow down as the logistics became difficult. She noted that her firm performs many environmental site assessments, doing due diligence about what a project’s environmental concerns may be, which requires communication with fire departments, boards of health, and other municipal departments. “A lot of those were closed for a while, the process would get delayed, and that would, in essence, delay the whole project.”

Reviews on the regulatory side slowed down locally as well, she said, but grace periods became the norm. “They were backing off enforcement a little bit, but it was unofficial. Some of it wasn’t clearly communicated, particularly in the first eight to 12 weeks, and we wondered when things would start up again.”

No one was surprised when it did, Myhrum said. “Massachusetts certainly has a reputation for sound and aggressive environmental enforcement, as well as rigorous regulation, which has gone hand in glove with statutory and regulatory requirements.

“I know, during the pandemic, we had two different cases involving air permits, which can be among the most complicated DEP issues,” he went on. “Those two permit applications were turned around faster than any we’ve worked on. I’d like to think we did a good job on the applications, but the turnaround times were most satisfactory to our clients.”

It’s difficult to gauge how the pandemic has affected regulation on the national level, Myhrum said, adding that a change in presidential administration will likely have a greater impact.

Christopher Myhrum

Christopher Myhrum

“I think one would be in error to believe the EPA’s priorities and activities are going to continue the way they did under the previous administration.”

“The EPA under Trump was not known for being particularly aggressive, having a former coal lobbyist as its administrator. So I think one would be in error to believe the EPA’s priorities and activities are going to continue the way they did under the previous administration. I think it will be interesting to see how the situation plays out.”

Another issue impacting developers during the pandemic is the shift by so many companies to remote work, Peter said, noting that he does a lot of work in the seaport district of Boston, and commercial real estate there is worth about 50% of its pre-pandemic value, while suburban locations with plenty of fresh air and space have risen in value.

That trend may not last forever, Daley said, for some of the communication-related factors mentioned earlier.

“Once the pandemic subsides a little bit, I think people will go back to the office, if for nothing more than partnership and collaboration efforts,” he noted. “I know we do a lot of work on 24-by-36 paper and laying things out, and it’s hard to do that in a Zoom meeting, to look at plans and assess the true value of what you’re going to do.

“Not everyone will go back to work — I agree with that — but I do think, as time goes on and the pandemic hopefully subsides and we pass through this, people have to go back to the office, at least on a hybrid basis,” he went on. “I’m a firm believer in working together and collaborating, and Zoom doesn’t really produce that.”

 

Issues of Justice

Last month, Gov. Charlie Baker signed a new climate-change law that codifies a commitment to achieve net-zero emissions in 2050; authorizes the administration to implement a new, voluntary, energy-efficient building code for municipalities; allows the Commonwealth to procure additional offshore wind energy, and — most notably for urban developers — significantly increases protections for ‘environmental justice communities’ across Massachusetts.

EJ communities, as they’re known, are those which have, historically, been overburdened by poor air quality and disproportionately high levels of pollution; they are often low-income. The new law requires an environmental-impact report for all projects that affect air quality within one mile of an EJ neighborhood, and requires the DEP to conduct a stakeholder process to develop a cumulative-impact analysis as a condition of permitting certain projects.

“That’s needed, I think,” Daley said, noting that he hopes the environmental council the law calls for has adequate representation from EJ communities in Western Mass. “It’s important that we have representation on that council. Far too often, Western Mass. has one token person on a committee, and 17 from the Boston area. This is a great start, but our people need to have a say.”

Gorski said the emphasis on environmental justice is positive because people have a right to a meaningful say in what goes on in their neighborhoods.

“The DEP has had an EJ policy for some time, and we’ve had public involvement in the planning process, but the climate bill now makes that law, and we’re going to be proactively reaching out to various community groups to involve them and educate them, so when we have these public hearings for complicated permits and things of that nature, people understand what we’re talking about, and can come at it from a knowledgable viewpoint, rather than just ‘we don’t want that in our neighborhood.’ It’s important to give people a voice.”

Myhrum agreed. “EJ has evolved from policy to statutory law in Massachusetts,” he said. “People will have the opportunity to participate in an interactive way to discuss the impact and specific ways people are affected.”

It’s important to remember, Sullivan noted, that development projects in urban areas often have a positive impact on the environment, especially those that remediate brownfields and other contamination.

“I’d love to see more mixed-use revitalization and really cleaning up some of these issues,” she said. “At OTO, we love working on these projects, and we’re happy when there’s more funding and regulations pointing that way — if a development can be done in a way that could be responsible, with some thought behind it.”

While he believes there’s significant pent-up energy in the development community, Daley understands plenty of changes are coming related to energy and other aspects of doing business. In the short term, though, the way the pandemic has altered business as usual may have a broader effect.

“Is COVID going to be a transitional time for business, or is it transformational? It’s going to be both,” he said, answering his own question. “It’s going to be transitional in the way we do business, whether it’s the regulatory process or the actual development, lease, and sale of properties and the way they go to market. But it’s also transformational — an opportunity to rethink the way we do business, shifting us more into the digital age.

“I don’t think the office space will ever go away,” he went on, “but [technology] allows people to be more creative with their time and productivity and the way they do business.”

 

Moving Forward

Even though MassDEP is still working largely remotely, Gorski said, “we look forward to getting back to hybrid, or something approaching normal operations. We’re still available for technical assistance, and we still want to collaborate to move projects forward.”

Depending on the project, Sullivan said, OTO works with developers, property owners, other civil engineers, structural engineers, attorneys, regulators … the list goes on, and speaks to the importance of communication, and the ways in which it has been altered by COVID.

“Each of those has been impacted similarly during the past year,” she noted. “We did adjust to not being face to face, but there’s so much that can be accomplished face to face, meeting on site. When that goes away, things slow down, and your meetings aren’t as effective.”

But her firm, like everyone else in the broad, complex, cross-disciplinary business of development managed to adjust, and even learned a few lessons about pivoting and melding traditional and remote ways of doing business.

“This is the new way,” she said. “We’ll take the best of both worlds and hopefully move forward.”

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Special Coverage Technology

Making Connections

After a chaotic start, the pandemic has proven to be good for business in the IT world, where professionals were deluged with requests from clients to set up remote networks for their employees, not to mention a flood of new clients seeking network services for the first time. More than perhaps anyone, these IT pros have seen first-hand how COVID-19 has changed the way companies are doing business. And some of the changes, they say, may be here for the long term.

 

By Mark Morris

As the world begins to emerge from the pandemic, many businesses that survived are trying to understand what the new landscape will look like.

Right now, many business owners are trying to figure out when and if their employees should return to the office or continue to work from home. Either way, access to technology plays an increasing role in getting the job done.

For example, said Delcie Bean, CEO of Paragus Strategic IT, before the pandemic, many businesses were getting by with outdated communication and collaborative tools and depended on e-mail and phones to support their working environment.

“When the pandemic hit, they had to suddenly adopt new technologies like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or other virtual platforms to keep doing business. Almost overnight, we had to set up about 4,000 people to work remotely who weren’t previously set up to do so.”

“When the pandemic hit, they had to suddenly adopt new technologies like Zoom, Microsoft Teams, or other virtual platforms to keep doing business,” Bean said, noting that, as employees in many industries were sent home to work remotely, local IT firms saw a huge influx of work. “Almost overnight, we had to set up about 4,000 people to work remotely who weren’t previously set up to do so.”

Delcie Bean

Delcie Bean

Sean Hogan, president of Hogan Communications, said the last time businesses experienced this much disruption was October 2011, when a surprise snowstorm knocked out power for thousands across the region. This time, the disruption has had a more profound and lasting impact.

“The pandemic woke up a lot of people and forced them to understand they’ve got to change the way they do business,” Hogan said, explaining that, while the pre-Halloween storm a decade ago encouraged investments in backup generators, the pandemic has shown many the importance of storing data in a remote data center, commonly known as the ‘cloud.’

In Bean’s estimation, the idea of a business keeping a server at its facility to host its network is already a legacy model that was on its way to being phased out in the next five years.

“COVID dumped gasoline on that timetable and made converting to the cloud a much higher priority,” he said. With cloud-based technology, employees can more easily access their company’s network from multiple locations and devices.

Resistance to change comes natural to New England business owners as many prefer to keep their data on a server in their office. Hogan often explains to these reluctant clients that cloud-based data centers have spent millions of dollars to make sure there is a disaster recovery set up, as well as backup systems for power, internet and HVAC.

“The average business owner couldn’t afford to make that type of investment to keep their data safe,” Hogan said. “So when people say they don’t trust the cloud we point out how much more reliable it is compared to their office.”

BusinessWest spoke with a number of local IT providers about what several of them called the ‘roller-coaster year’ we’ve just had and what’s on the horizon. As business owners themselves, they, like their clients, have had to figure out how to keep things running during a pandemic and anticipate what that means in the long term.

“I’m looking at the service tickets we’re completing while working remote, and they are right on par with where they were when we were in the office. In fact, we might be a little more efficient.”

As an IT-services vendor, Bean believes firms like his should be a little ahead of the curve so they can test new technologies before they recommend them to clients. For example, Paragus employees have been on the cloud and set up to work from anywhere since June 2019.

“So when the pandemic struck, moving our staff remotely was pretty seamless,” Bean said. “About 80% of our people work remotely, and 15% to 20% come into the office on any given day.”

Jeremiah Beaudry, owner of Bloo Solutions, said his employees are working so well from home, it’s not necessary to come into the office. He noted that productivity has not suffered, and employees have less stress.

Jeremiah Beaudry

Jeremiah Beaudry

“I’m looking at the service tickets we’re completing while working remote, and they are right on par with where they were when we were in the office,” Beaudry said. “In fact, we might be a little more efficient.”

One important thing businesses have learned from the pandemic, according to Charlie Christianson, president of CMD Solutions, is that it’s OK to work from home.

“We can do a lot more than we thought we could outside of the office,” he said. “People are far more open to remote work, and there’s no mystery to it anymore.”

 

Change of Scenery

While some of Hogan’s employees have always worked remotely, the percentage has grown, and their efficiency allows them to escape the daily commute. “They don’t need to be behind a windshield for an hour and a half each day just getting to and from work,” he said.

When companies first sent workers home, IT providers spent most of their time helping clients integrate employees into their respective networks. While they suddenly had a huge amount of work, IT professionals did not see much revenue because many clients had contracts to cover this extra work. Increased revenue soon followed, however, as many new clients sought these services.

“We signed more new customers in 2020 than the previous two years combined,” Bean said, adding that much of the new business came from companies that found their dependence on technology had suddenly increased and their IT capabilities couldn’t meet these new demands.

In addition to new clients coming on board, Christianson explained that many of his current clients, who at first only wanted a “down-and-dirty” setup for remote access, were now looking for a more permanent solution for their network.

“We can do a lot more than we thought we could outside of the office. People are far more open to remote work, and there’s no mystery to it anymore.”

“Those of us in the IT industry are very fortunate,” he said. “We have done well during this time and were not hit hard like so many other industries were.”

With the end of COVID in sight, businesses have begun looking at what comes next. Those we spoke with agree on one thing: it will not be business like it was before or even during the pandemic.

“Most of our clients want some hybrid between those two options, where there is more in-person interaction than during the pandemic, but probably not as much as there was before,” Bean said. Once people started learning videoconferencing and Microsoft 365, he noted, they saw how helpful these tools can be even when everyone is in the office.

As IT providers continue to transition their clients from premise-based servers to the data cloud, they also predict other big shifts on the horizon. For example, with so many companies using smartphones and laptop computers to make calls, the company phone system may soon be a thing of the past.

“A few years from now, the idea of having both a computer and a phone on your desk at work is going to be a very strange concept,” Bean said, especially when companies consider the economics of supporting two systems that make phone calls.

While the demise of the office phone seems inevitable, office space itself could be in for a big reduction, Christianson added. “We’ve seen a lot of instances where people are moving from bigger spaces to smaller ones. They are making the calculation that some people are not coming back.”

Charlie Christianson

Charlie Christianson

Even if it’s in a smaller space, Hogan asserted that an office presence is still vital. “I don’t think we’ll go back to the way it was before, but many people still want to return to their offices, even if only for collaboration and camaraderie.”

Because Zoom and other virtual platforms make it easy to meet with people anywhere, companies have begun to look more closely at their business travel budgets, too. CEO clients have told Beaudry they will not eliminate business travel, but will look to reduce it to only what is necessary.

“One CEO who used to travel 40% of the year said he plans to move most of his meetings to virtual platforms,” he said. “He figures to be 10 times more efficient and save his energy from traveling all over the country.”

As much as Bean would like to see some of the fatigue and expense of travel go away, he also admits that important interactions happen in person that just don’t occur in a virtual setting. He gave an example of logging on to hear a keynote speaker versus attending the event in-person.

“Oftentimes, the person sitting at my table is more valuable to me than the keynote speaker,” he said. “That person might lead to a great networking opportunity where they need my services, or maybe they have a service I need.”

 

Safe at Home

While working at home can provide many benefits for employees and their companies, IT providers say it comes with a whole new array of challenges. Looking at a business with 30 employees, Beaudry gave an example of how quickly technology issues change when working remotely.

“If half the employees work from home,” he said, “the company has gone from managing one network to dealing with the struggles of 15 home networks.”

Common issues when working at home include internet signal strength and the different types and capacities of home modems. Topping all those concerns, however, is the increased vulnerability to a company network getting hacked.

All it takes is one employee to click an attachment in a suspicious e-mail, and the whole network can be damaged by a cyberattack. When working from home, Beaudry said, employees are less likely to ask the simple questions when they confront something that looks suspect.

“You don’t have someone turning to their co-worker, saying, ‘hey, did you get this e-mail? It looks weird,’” he said, adding that he encourages his clients to call whenever they see anything suspicious. “If you take 30 seconds to call and ask, it can save you a week of losing your computer.”

Christianson said cybersecurity is a never-ending battle. “Hackers are always looking for ways into your network. They only have to be right once; we have to be right all the time.”

That’s where IT service providers come in. While today’s technology tools are better than ever, Bean said IT pros can set up a company’s system to make it work best for its needs and stay current on all the security threats.

Beaudry compares his work to that of a plumber. “People need computers for business just like they need water in their home and business,” he said.

And, just like plumbing, if security on a computer network isn’t handled properly, you can have a real mess on your hands.

Commercial Real Estate Special Coverage

Progress Report

Roughly 14 months after COVID-19 arrived in Western Mass., the commercial real-estate market is showing some signs of life, especially with industrial properties, which are in considerable demand, with limited supply. But as companies start to return to their offices, questions remain concerning just how much space businesses will need long-term and how much demand there will be for the large inventories of space now, or soon to be, available.

Pat Goggins has been selling and leasing real estate in and around Northampton for almost a half-century now. It’s very safe to say that he knows that market better than anyone.

And he feels comfortable now, a full year and change after COVID-19 first arrived in this region, in saying that the Northampton market has “bottomed out, and is starting to work its way back to what it had become.”

He bases this assessment on a number of things — from new leases being signed for some vacated properties downtown to interest in some other buildings for sale and lease, to the lease rates themselves, which, he said, haven’t changed appreciably in 20 years now.

“We’re seeing some new activity that is creating some positive vibes,” said Goggins, president of Goggins Real Estate Inc., adding that, while challenges remain and COVID continues to take a toll on Northampton, there are many signs that a corner of sorts is being turned.

Using slightly different words and phrases, other commercial real-estate brokers and managers we spoke with said essentially the same as Goggins, that the market is moving back toward — here comes that phrase again — ‘something approaching normal, or a new normal.’ Meaning, they believe, that the worst is likely over.

“We still have a ways to go, but there is movement back to normalcy,” said Mitch Bolotin, a principal with Springfield-based Colebrook Realty Services, who is using, among other things, the parking-lot test when it comes to what’s happening within this market.

Pat Goggins

Pat Goggins

“We still have a ways to go, but there is movement back to normalcy.”

Indeed, he said the parking lots at the PeoplesBank building in Holyoke, 1441 Main St. in Springfield, and the Basketball Hall of Fame complex in Springfield, just some of the properties managed by the company, are more populated than they were just a few months ago, and much more full than last fall. The cars in those lots are evidence that businesses are, in fact, returning to their offices and the buildings are moving closer to pre-COVID levels of occupancy and vibrancy.

Still, hard questions remain about just how many more cars will be returning to those lots — and when. And these questions — which are being asked in urban areas across the Northeast and, indeed, across the country — will likely determine to just what extent the market fully recovers. Indeed, as leases have expired over the past year, some companies have downsized, said Bolotin, a few have actually upsized to give employees more space in the wake of COVID, and others are essentially standing pat.

Meanwhile, when it comes to negotiating new leases, most tenants have been able to take advantage of a market that favors them and secure a number that certainly isn’t higher, and in many cases is lower.

Ken Vincunas, president of Agawam-based Development Associates, which manages several office buildings in this region, including the Greenfield Corporate Center and Agawam Crossing, said that nearly 14 months after COVID forced many people to work remotely, questions linger about when and if businesses will summon employees back to the office, and how many will actually come back.

“I think people like to work at home,” he said. “Businesses want them to come back, but I’m not sure the employees will want to go back.”

Meanwhile, some segments of the commercial market, especially industrial properties, are vibrant, if not white-hot, said Vincunas, noting that there isn’t enough inventory to meet a growing need.

Ken Vincunas says, others, like industrial, have been very active

While COVID has slowed some segments of the commercial real-estate market, Ken Vincunas says, others, like industrial, have been very active, with inventories struggling to meet demand.

“The bulk of our portfolio is industrial, and that’s all pretty strong right now — inventory for that is very low, and prices are very high,” he said, adding that the market for medical real estate — and his company has some of it in the portfolio as well — remains strong.

For this issue and its focus on commercial real estate, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at what’s happening within the local market and what may happen as the region continues its pursuit of ‘normal’ — whatever that means.

 

Down on Main Street

As he talked about the Northampton market and what has happened within it over the past year or so, Goggins used the word ‘generational’ to describe the changes to the landscape.

By that, he meant many of the businesses that have become synonymous with Paradise City were started by people his age — Baby Boomers at or now approaching retirement.

“Downtown Northampton took off in the ’70s, and it was fueled by people who were contemporaries of mine who came into town or who were part of the community and decided to open restaurants and shops,” he said. “It was fueled by the Baby Boom generation.”

And what COVID did was push some of those entrepreneurs into retirement maybe a little sooner than they were planning, he said, adding that this led to some high-profile vacancies on Main Street, a phrase he uses to connote both that specific thoroughfare and the whole of the downtown. Those vacancies include the massive Silverscape Designs building, a former bank; 147 Main St., formerly Cathy Cross; 162 Main St., formerly Artisan Gallery; and others.

In recent weeks, though, new tenants have been secured for many of these properties, he said, noting that Rebekah Brooks Jewelry has moved into the Cathy Cross space, 25 Central has taken the Artisan Gallery space, and Cotton Gallery has moved into 153 Main St., formerly Thelo. This movement reflects his earlier-stated sentiments that the market has, in fact, bottomed out and is moving back up again, although there is still work to do.

“The vacancy rate is higher than what we would prefer, but we’re nipping away at it,” he said, adding that the emerging cannabis industry has played a factor in these efforts, and it could play a still-larger role moving forward, with nearly a dozen ventures at some stage of the permitting process.

As for the Silverscape property, he said there has been some interest expressed in it, but it is a large space with some accompanying challenges when it comes to a new use.

“It’s not for the faint of heart,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, while the former bank spaces, like teller windows, were imaginatively integrated into the jewelry store’s design, they may in some ways limit what can easily be done with the space now.

The Silverscape Designs building in downtown Northampton

The Silverscape Designs building in downtown Northampton, now on the market, will present opportunities and challenges to its next owner, said Pat Goggins, adding “it’s not for the feint of heart.”

Assessing the office market, Goggins echoed others in noting that, while more businesses are returning to the spaces they completely or partially vacated last March, there are questions about whether businesses that had to rely on people working remotely will bring everyone — or anyone — back to the office.

Vincunas said he has a diverse list of tenants at the Greenfield Corporate Center, including some state agencies that he is not concerned about when it comes to downsizing or not renewing, but also some financial-services and technology-related tenants for which there are some questions moving forward.

“People have learned to work outside the office, so we can’t be sure what will happen long-term,” he said, adding quickly that, for the short term, the property has benefited from COVID in one respect — the regional jury-pool operation has moved into 25,000 square feet of space at the facility for at least a year.

“They couldn’t space people out for jury-pool selection at all the courthouses — there just wasn’t room — so they created an off-site central-clearinghouse type of space,” he told BusinessWest. “We had a big piece of space, so they took it.”

Boloton said he’s seeing some evidence that, while the experiences of the past year have shown that remote working can be effective, most businesses want their workers back together in one place.

“I’ve seen it with a number of businesses … they’ve said, ‘we’re working at home, we’ve figured it out, but there’s still a need to be in the office, and, over time, people want to be in the office,’” he said, adding that the parking-lot test, as unscientific as it is, provides some evidence that companies are working their way back to their office spaces. “It’s a matter of want to, and need to, and there’s a slow progression back. There’s a steady return toward coming back to the office; we’re not there, but we’re getting closer every day.”

For other evidence of progress, he cited the recent closing of a deal with a business to lease 27,000 square feet of office space in a property at 11 Interstate Dr. in West Springfield. He could not disclose the new tenant, but said it was an existing Western Mass. business that is expanding.

“It’s a market that has some areas of slowdown reaction to the pandemic,” he said, listing retail in that category. “But there are other areas that are busy, and we can’t find inventory. Industrial is very strong, and we have a lot of transactions for users buying buildings, so we have a number of properties under contract.”

 

Bottom Line

Between the parking-lot test, some new leases being inked, and tight inventories in the industrial market, the commercial real-estate landscape seems to be changing in this region — and for the better.

That said, many questions remain about the market and especially the office buildings that are not only home to many types of companies, but also generate business at neighboring service- and hospitality-related enterprises.

It may be some time before all those questions are answered, but for now, it seems the worst may well be over and, as Goggins and others noted, this sector is moving steadily closer to something approximating normal.

 

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

Business of Aging

Wave Dynamics

Since they started entering the world just after World War II, the Baby Boomers have influenced society in general, and the business community in particular, in all kinds of ways. The same is true when it comes to the healthcare sector, especially as the oldest members of this huge and proud generation turn 75. The impact of such a large and aging group can be seen in everything from hearing practices to the many facets of the long-term care system. And in some ways, COVID has provided a preview of what it is to come.

 

As she talked about the massive Baby Boom generation, how its oldest members turn 75 this year, and about how almost all the Boomers could now be classified as senior citizens, Dr. Maura Brennan summoned a phase she attributed to her mother, but which she uses often as well: “No one gets out of life alive.”

She used those words to convey the thought that, while this Baby Boom generation may in many ways be healthier than those that preceded it — fewer smokers and more exercisers, for example — and it has enjoyed access to better healthcare and innumerable advances in treatment, from artificial joints to improved cancer care, its members will eventually see their health decline, and they will need increasing amounts of care. And many already do.

“I don’t believe this generation, which I am part of, will readily tolerate limited access to the best care.”

While Brennan — a 70-year-old geriatrician and palliative-care physician — says people being able to live longer is in itself a success story, it has also become a challenge, for today, and especially tomorrow.

Which brings us back to those oldest Boomers, those born just after World War II, who turn 75 this year. That’s the age when, statistically, people begin to see their needs for healthcare increase, said Brennan, adding that, as one might logically assume, when a large number of people hit that threshold all at once, the system will be taxed — in all kinds of ways.

“As one might imagine, it’s going to impact virtually every sector and specialty, with the possible exceptions of OB and pediatrics,” she explained. “We’re going to see increasing numbers of older people; not all those folks are going to be frail and complicated, but there will be an increasing number of people with multiple medical problems.

Dr. Maura Brennan

Dr. Maura Brennan says the healthcare system is struggling to meet demand for direct-care workers, and the situation might get worse.

“The numbers and the complexity will rise,” she went on. “And it will impact every area of healthcare, with probably the biggest impact being in home care and nursing-home care because, personally, I don’t believe this generation, which I am part of, will readily tolerate limited access to the best care that’s going to allow them to stay in their homes and communities as long as possible.”

Mary Flahive-Dickson, chief operating officer at East Longmeadow-based Golden Years Home Care, agreed. She said the milestone age being reached by the oldest of Baby Boomers provides an opportunity to look hard at what’s in store for the healthcare system and ask the question: is it fully prepared for the challenges to come? And, if not, what needs to be done so it might be better prepared?

In many ways, Flahive-Dickson said, the COVID-19 pandemic has actually provided a preview of sorts for what’s coming as this large generation ages, with regard to everything from telehealth to the way the overall healthcare system was tested by sheer volume of cases and even vaccination efforts, to the manner in which the need for home-care services is growing.

During the pandemic, this need was fueled by growing fears of nursing homes and other senior-living facilities. Many of those fears still persist, but for Baby Boomers, by and large, the greater issue is simply wanting to remain independent — and in the home — as long as possible.

Eric Aasheim, a certified senior advisor and owner of Oasis Senior Living of Western Massachusetts, agreed. Aasheim, who assists seniors and family members through the complex process of transitioning from home to senior-living communities across this region, said the entire long-term-care sector will be tested by the aging of this generation.

“What I see, and what I worry about, is that the long-term-care system — and that includes in-home care, nursing homes, and assisted living — is just not ready for the sheer volume of patients and residents that they’re going to have,” he told BusinessWest. “And even though these individuals living longer and their resources are being depleted, there are so few places that have any kind of programs for low-income seniors. Unless something dramatically changes in terms of the number of assisted-living facilities that can serve low-income residents, there won’t be needed options for seniors.”

Meanwhile, besides sheer size and that sense of independence and not wanting to rely on others, the Baby Boom generation boasts some other characteristics as well, including what could be described as denial when it comes to getting old and admitting some aspects of their health have deteriorated.

“That’s not a disaster or a tsunami. That’s one of the greatest success stories in modern history; people are able to live longer and enjoy their lives better.”

And that’s why, even though she is generally seeing more patients than she was years ago, Dr. Susan Bankoski Chunyk, an audiologist, says she’s seeing a continuation of, and perhaps even an exacerbation of, an annoying trend whereby people will put off seeking help for their hearing years after they acknowledge they have a problem, due to lingering perceptions about hearing aids making people look old and feeble, even though modern technology has changed that landscape.

And that’s just one example of why there are still many question marks about how and to what degree this generation will present challenges and opportunities moving forward.

 

Age-old Challenges

Before getting into any real detail about the Baby Boom generation and its advancing age, Brennan wanted to set the proper tone for the discussion.

Indeed, she told BusinessWest that years, if not decades, of talk about a ‘silver tsunami’ have succeeded in casting discussion about the aging Boomers — and, again, she’s a proud, card-carrying member of that generation — in often-negative tones.

Mary Flahive-Dixon

Mary Flahive-Dixon says most Baby Boomers want to age in place, in their own homes.

“This notion of the silver tsunami makes the aging of the population sound like an impending natural disaster over which we have no control that’s going to sweep everything away,” she said. “It feels to me, and most geriatrics leaders, like we’re framing things wrong; we’re setting this up as ‘us versus them’ — us young healthy, productive people against those old people who are going to overrun the system. These people are … us. They’re our neighbors, our teachers, our relatives.”

That said, a lot of ‘us’ are getting on in years. Indeed, maybe half or more of all Boomers can now get a senior discount at the movies, the golf course, and the pharmacy. And large numbers of them are now over 70, which means many aspects of the healthcare system — from eye care to urology; orthopedics to hearing care — are certainly already seeing an impact, and it will only grow as more Boomers reach 70, 80, 90, and beyond.

Restating the matter (again, she doesn’t want to classify it as a problem), Brennan said the Baby Boom generation is indeed large (it’s estimated that, by 2035, 10% of the population will be 85 or older; it’s closer to 6% now), and its members are living longer than the generations that preceded them, again, because of better health and better healthcare.

“That’s not a disaster or a tsunami,” she said. “That’s one of the greatest success stories in modern history; people are able to live longer and enjoy their lives better.”

That’s true, but so is what her mother said so often: that no one gets out of life alive.

“Some period of decline is going to occur for virtually all of us — unless we die in our sleep from a funny heart rhythm or get hit by a truck crossing Main Street,” she told BusinessWest. “And the causes of death in recent years have shifted; if you look back 50 or 80 years, the causes of death were frequently things like trauma, infection, death in childbirth — things that take you rather quickly when you were reasonably functional prior to that. That is no longer true. And with the successes we’ve had, and with people living longer, they are increasingly likely to die of multiple progressing chronic diseases.”

What does all this mean? Increasingly, Brennan said, people will need more care from more people as they age and approach end of life — a team-based approach, if you will.

“We’re going to have to think about care a different way because it’s not all about the doctors and the nurses,” she explained. “People will need hands-on home care, they’ll need symptom management, they’ll need direct-care workers who are grossly underpaid and overworked, and who churn through the system, with tremendous turnover.

“We’re struggling to meet those needs now, and it’s perceived to be, and is, a major problem,” she went on. “And if we do not alter the way we are paying, recruiting, supporting, and respecting those people, it will be infinitely worse. We’re going to need to restructure things, pay people differently, and offer them different kinds of professional development and career ladders that will make those positions more attractive; otherwise, we have a self-perpetuating situation. It’s the classic axiom — the system produces exactly the kinds of results it was designed to produce. If we don’t change the system, you get what you’ve got.”

Another issue that will have to addressed regards the number of specialists that will be needed to care for this larger generation of older residents, said Brennan, referring to geriatrics doctors, general nurse practitioners, social workers, pharmacists, and more.

Dr. Susan Bankoski Chunyk

Dr. Susan Bankoski Chunyk says people still put off seeking treatment for hearing loss due to outdated perceptions about hearing aids.

“As the number of older folks is increasing, the number of experts is not increasing, not one iota,” she told BusinessWest. “And, in fact, in some fields, such as geriatric medicine, the number of certified geriatricians has actually probably declined somewhat because we’re not replacing people who are retiring with equal numbers of new grads.”

 

The Shape of Things to Come

Flahive-Dickson agreed, noting that among the Boomers now in or approaching retirement are large numbers of healthcare workers. Replacing them and making the kinds of systemic changes Brennan mentioned will be just some of the many challenges facing the healthcare system moving forward.

Several of the others involve the growing trend of people wanting to age in place — and especially in their own home.

And this brings her back to COVID and what has been learned during the pandemic.

“More care was moving toward the home, basically as a result of general anxiety about facility care — about being in hospital, about being in a skilled nursing facility,” she explained. “Because of this crisis, we’ve seen more people want to get their care in the home.”

And this is a trend she expects will continue into the future as more people from this huge generation confront questions about the care they need and how and where they want it provided.

But questions arise from this supposition — many of them, in fact, including whether there will be enough providers to care for all those people who will want to stay in their homes, and also whether the payers are willing and able to adjust to a changing landscape of need and pay for services they currently don’t cover.

Again, Flahive-Dickson said the pandemic has provided an intriguing lens for looking at the problem — and the future as well.

“If COVID has done anything for us, it has previewed what is to come,” she told BusinessWest. “The pandemic has shown us that this surge in home care is a glimpse of the future. And it has provided this glimpse not only to healthcare professionals and the general population, but also to regulatory bodies, such as Medicare and Medicare Advantage.

“They have had to relax a lot of rules,” she went on. “As the Medicare population is continuing to grow, Medicare benefits haven’t caught up to that, and this is a huge problem. There are fewer than a dozen states that even offer non-medical home-care services to be paid for by a plan, and that plan is a singular plan, and that’s Medicare Advantage. In Western Mass., no one has a Medicare Advantage plan that offers the benefits of non-medical support, so it’s either out of pocket, or you have to qualify for one of the few programs that cover this.”

As for home-care workers, she said a number of demographic trends (Boomers generally had smaller families than the generations that preceded them) and other issues point toward individuals needing someone outside the family to care for them — and real challenges when it comes to having a steady supply of workers to provide that care.

That’s another lesson from COVID, she said, referring to the law of supply and demand, which was certainly exacerbated by a pandemic during which many had apprehensions about working in others’ homes.

“Fewer and fewer family members are capable of being a caregiver, either because there are fewer families, period, or … because family members might be on a different coast,” she explained. “Just because you grew up in Springfield doesn’t mean you stay in Springfield.”

Aasheim agreed, noting that these demographic trends are just some of the challenges facing the Baby Boom generation. Another is their own lack of preparedness for what is to come — financially and otherwise.

He said that only one individual in 10 has long-term-care insurance, and this is a matter to be addressed — just not when someone is 75 or even 65; those products have to be bought much sooner. Meanwhile, not enough members of this generation (and it’s not exactly unique in this regard) have their ducks in a row when it comes to needed documents — and needed preparation for poor health that often comes on suddenly and without much warning.

“What I try to focus on with the Boomers are the things they can do now, before that eventuality,” he explained. “This includes having discussions with your family about what your preferences are in terms of long-term care, gathering the documents together, getting power of attorney and a healthcare proxy, all those things. That’s what I hammer away with them — get that stuff done now, while you’re still healthy and you have the energy and the mental capacity to deal with it, so your family doesn’t have to handle it in crisis mode a few years down the line.”

Unfortunately, he said, many don’t heed this advice.

“They all nod when I talk to them in these presentations, but are they going home and getting that stuff together? My thought would be, probably not,” he went on. “Because most of the calls I get are from people who are in crisis mode.”

Bankowski Chunyk is another who wishes that more Boomers would heed some advice. Or at least listen to family members telling them they can’t hear as well as they used to, and should do something about it.

She told BusinessWest that the hearing industry talked a lot about the Baby Boom generation years (make that decades) ago, and how its size and advancing age would comprise a great opportunity for audiologists, one they should be prepared to seize.

Bankowski Chunyk did prepare, but she said the wave hasn’t been nearly as big as all those experts predicted it would be, largely because of … well, human nature, as well as lingering perceptions about hearing aids and what they say about those who wear them.

She said data shows that, between 1989 and 2019, the average age of an individual being fitted for a hearing aid for the first time fell from 66 to 65.

“I’m not sure a lot of progress was made getting people to address their hearing,” she said with some sarcasm in her voice, adding that, while there are certainly more people of that age than there were several years ago, sheer volume is not creating the immense opportunity that was predicted back in the ’80s and ’90s.

Whether it will materialize eventually or not, she doesn’t know — but she does know the Boomers are perhaps more vain when it comes to hearing aids than the generations that preceded them, so her industry has some work to do to change those perceptions.

 

Bottom Line

Perceptions are not the only thing that will have to change if the Baby Boomers, and those in the healthcare system who will care for them, will adequately manage this sizable demographic shift.

Brennan is right when she warns about this challenge becoming an ‘us versus them’ scenario, but she’s also right (and her mother was right) when she said that no gets through life alive.

As this generation ages, it will present enormous challenges to a healthcare sector that in many ways seems unprepared for what’s coming. That’s evidenced by the number of comments that began with the words ‘if things don’t change’ — comments referring to everything from workforce to accommodations for low-income seniors.

Only time will tell if things will, indeed, change. What is known is that the Boomers, as they have at every other phase of their life, will alter the landscape as they reach 75 — and beyond. And in all kinds of ways.

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

 

Nadim's

Nadim Kashouh says the return of office workers will be critical to the success of businesses downtown.

The wording in the initial guidance that has come down on the $2 trillion American Rescue Plan, and, more specifically, the $130.2 billion designated for city and county fiscal relief, is somewhat vague and leaves a lot to the imagination.

“Funds can be used to respond to the COVID-19 public-health emergency and its negative economic impacts, including assistance to households, small businesses, and nonprofits, or aid to impacted industries, such as tourism, travel, and hospitality,” it reads, before going on to note that such funds may also be used for everything from investments in water, sewer, and broadband infrastructure to “providing government services in a way that covers the revenue gaps created by the COVID-19 emergency.”

As he reads this guidance, Tim Sheehan, Springfield’s chief Economic Development officer, draws immediate parallels to the federal money Springfield received nearly a decade ago in the wake of the June 1, 2011 tornado that tore through several parts of the city. Even the dollar amounts — roughly $100 million, in each case — are strikingly similar.

“Some of the outcomes resulting from the funding that came from the tornado assistance were transformative for Springfield,” he noted, adding that a reconstruction fund of $96.7 million was put to a number of uses, including business assistance, housing replacement and reconstruction, infrastructure, and more. “And we’re looking to similarly deploy, very strategically, the resources we have from the rescue plan so that we have a similar result.”

How, and how effectively, Springfield can put its American Rescue Plan funds to work will likely play an important role when it comes to how quickly and profoundly the city can recover from a very different kind of disaster. And, like many area communities, Springfield has been hard hit by the pandemic, with many question marks looming over the future.

A city that was in the midst of what many were calling a renaissance in the years leading up to COVID saw much of its momentum halted or certainly slowed by the pandemic. A central business district that was thriving and teeming with events, activity, and new businesses has been eerily quiet, with many constituencies — from office workers to hockey fans; beer garden attendees to concertgoers — absent or in far smaller numbers.

As for those office workers, there are now lingering questions about when they will return (the vast majority haven’t yet) and how many of them will return, casting the future of the office towers that dominate the skyline into doubt.

But there are some signs of life and abundant optimism for the balance of this year and beyond.

Indeed, as he talked with BusinessWest on a quiet late Tuesday afternoon, Nadim Kashouh was looking forward to the upcoming weekend — moreso than any time probably since last Father’s Day, when he struggled mightily to keep up with a flood of takeout orders.

Gymnastics — in the form of youth competitions featuring teams from across New England — were returning to the MassMutual Center for the first time in more than a year. And Kashouh’s eatery, Nadim’s Downtown Mediterranean Grill, located just a block from the convention center, always does well when the gymnasts come to town.

“If they turn right when they leave the building, they find us — and a lot of them do turn right,” said Kashouh, noting that not many people have been coming to town, as in downtown, since COVID changed the landscape in March 2020. “It’s exciting to have the gymnastics back.”

And there are other signs of life as well. The AHL’s Springfield Thunderbirds are not playing hockey — they are one of three teams in the league to essentially opt out of play in a abbreviated 2021 season — but they are gearing up for the 2021-22 slate, and management is optimistic there will be considerable pent-up demand for their product (see related story HERE).

“Some of the outcomes resulting from the funding that came from the tornado assistance were transformative for Springfield. And we’re looking to similarly deploy, very strategically, the resources we have from the rescue plan so that we have a similar result.”

Meanwhile, in Pynchon Plaza, various works by the sculptor Don Gummer are now on display, yet another sign that the Quadrangle, one of the city’s tourism mainstays, is moving ever closer to something approaching normal (see related story HERE).

While COVID has certainly slowed the pace of progress in Springfield, it has also provided an opportunity to step back, look at some of the key development challenges and opportunities in the city, and work to be ready for the proverbial ‘other side’ of the pandemic. That’s been the case with two key areas downtown — the area around MGM Springfield, which is underperforming in many ways, and the so-called ‘blast zone,’ the area surrounding the site of the natural-gas explosion in November 2012 (more on these later).

“Our thought process throughout this has been to take the mindset, ‘once we’re through it, we want to be ready to go,’” Sheehan said. “And some of the funding that is coming will be able to help those initiatives be realized.”

For this latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at the City of Homes and its prospects for not merely turning back the clock to the vibrancy it enjoyed pre-COVID, but taking further steps forward.

 

Food for Thought

As the owner of one of the more prominent and visible restaurants downtown, Kashouh has long been a popular voice with the local media when it comes to commentary about business downtown and the impact of everything from the casino to the Thunderbirds; from concerts at Symphony Hall and the MassMutual Center to, yes, those gymnastics competitions.

As he did son again with BusinessWest, he first flashed back to the view in very early 2020, a time when, as he put it, “the pieces had fallen into place and everything was clicking.”

Over the past 13 months, of course, most of the pieces have fallen out of place, he said, adding that most of the key ingredients for success at his establishment — the shows on weekend nights; the hockey games, conventions, and other events at the MassMutual Center; and, especially, the downtown office workers — have been mostly missing in action as a direct result of the pandemic.

He said they’re all important, but perhaps the most critical is the office traffic, which consistently filled the restaurant at lunch and often the bar area after 5 o’clock. These days, the office crowd is a fraction of what it was, and the impact is profound.

“We saw a few of the old faces back in here today, and it was exciting — you’re seeing some of the regular faces back,” he said, referring to some commercial lenders once based downtown. “But we used to see them three or four times a week and sometimes twice a day; now, you see them once, and you hope to see them again next week — maybe.

“It’s going to be a while before things go back to where they were before,” he went on. “I was hoping that by summer things would be back to normal, but now it doesn’t look like it.”

Given this obvious trickle-down effect, the question of when, and to what extent, the office workers return to downtown looms large over the city and those in the Economic Development office.

Indeed, Sheehan, citing a story he read recently involving Citibank and its announced intention to downsize its office footprint in New York by roughly 40%, said it is becoming obvious that the pandemic will change the way businesses approach their real-estate needs moving forward, leading to endless speculation about the office market and the businesses that rely on it.

The former Willys-Overland building is now accepting lease applications

The former Willys-Overland building is now accepting lease applications, one of the first signs of redevelopment in Springfield’s so-called ‘blast zone.’

As for the present tense, the situation has improved — but only marginally.

“People are starting to come back to downtown to work, but it’s not fully engaged, and I don’t think it’s going to be until sometime late fall,” Sheehan said. “And I don’t think we’re really going to get back to 100% until the turn of the calendar to 2022. And that obviously has a ripple effect on all the businesses that depend on that population coming in every day, so that’s an ongoing concern for the city.”

This brings him back to that language in the guidance concerning the American Rescue Plan, which, he said, could and likely will extend to efforts to help keep existing businesses downtown and bring new ones there.

“Our objective, in terms of deployment of resources, is to keep as many leases in place and tenants in place as possible, and maintain, to the level that we can, the value of those leases,” he explained, “so that we don’t ultimately experience a huge negative devaluation in the commercial real-estate market.”

The process, already underway, starts with understanding the needs on both sides of the equation, meaning landlord and tenant, he went on, adding that some business sectors are doing better than others, with service and hospitality (those businesses relying on direct interaction with the public) faring the worst.

Overall, the city could access as much as $127 million in Rescue Act funds, depending on how the ‘county’ portion of the award is allocated, said Sheehan, adding that city officials are having discussions with the those at the Treasury Department about how they can be deployed.

Speaking in general terms, which is all he can really do at this point, he said the broad goal of this latest round of funding will be to provide a “softer landing” to the wild, turbulent ride COVID has given the city, which differentiates this round from the funding provided in the CARES Act in 2020.

“With the CARES Act funding, we were in the throes of the virus and the public-health orders associated with it,” he explained. “That funding was basically to alleviate the distress. With this round, it’s about how we’re going to rebuild after the virus and bring the economy back to … not necessarily what we had before, but, hopefully, even better.

“The CARES Act was wound triage,” he went on. “The funding that we’re dealing with in terms of the rescue plan is more post-operative care — that’s the analogy you would use.”

 

Forward Thinking

While the city has been mostly living within the moment during the pandemic and dealing with the day to day, planning for the future has gone on, again, with an eye toward enabling the city to emerge from the pandemic with an opportunity to seize whatever opportunities present themselves.

In recent months, there has been increasing speculation, as businesses realize they may not need to be in urban centers like New York and Boston with their (previously) sky-high lease rates, and individuals realize they don’t need to live in those cities to work for companies based in them, that there are opportunities for communities like Springfield.

Sheehan acknowledged the possibilities and, like others in recent months, said the city needs to market itself and otherwise position itself as a viable, lower-cost option to Boston.

Meanwhile, as noted, planning officials have used the COVID period to closely examine two potential-laden but challenged areas of the city, one identified as the ‘Northeast Downtown District,” a.k.a. the blast zone, and the area in and around the convention center and MGM Springfield.

The latter is the focal point of a master development plan created by Chicago Consultants Studio Inc. (CCS) and approved by the City Council in March. In it, the authors write, “MGM delivered a Casino District; the city must now drive the surrounding area development.” In the report, the consultants note what has become obvious: that, despite the city’s and MGM’s significant investment in time, design, money, and commitments to “integrate the casino into the urban fabric, the MGM complex has yet to foster important catalytic economic development and vibrancy outside the confines of the casino district.”

This unexpectedly stymied market, which prompted an urgent revisiting of the so-called Implementation Blueprint drafted for that area in 2018 as the casino was preparing to open, has resulted from a number of factors, they note, including:

• MGM’s decision to “overpay” for key properties critical to the project (an average of 240% over market) has driven an artificial increase in area property valuations, which has yet to correct itself;

• Resulting area rents do not reflect realistic market rates, which has turned away high-quality tenants interested in being adjacent to a casino anchor;

• News of MGM and potential future expansion created area-wide speculation, market inactivity, and a ‘wait-and-see’ attitude in anticipation of a buyout, which is clearly not in MGM’s plans; and

• Resulting property disinvestment, code violations, foreclosures, auctions, and growing blight in prime areas adjacent to the casino were all exacerbated on some levels by the pandemic.

Recognizing the pressing need and urgency for reinvestment in the immediate areas around MGM and the MassMutual Center, the city has narrowed the near-term focus of the Implementation Blueprint to a phase-one district generally bound by I-91/East Columbus Avenue, Harrison Street, Chestnut Street, and Union Street. Within that area, CCS has identified a number of properties that are in transition, vacant, or underutilized, including the Masonic Building, Colonial Block, Old First Church, 101 State St., 13-31 Elm St. (currently being renovated into housing and other uses), and the Civic Center Parking Garage.

The property across Main Street from MGM Springfield

The property across Main Street from MGM Springfield remains underutilized and largely vacant, despite expectations the casino would prompt greater vibrancy.

For this phase-one district, the city, through CCS, has advanced a three-part master development strategy that includes a Main Street and Convention Center Zoning Overlay District and other measures designed to stimulate and facilitate investment in that area, said Sheehan, adding that, while opportunities exist, COVID may in some ways be limiting what’s possible.

“We have to very flexible in terms of looking at what can be done with those properties,” he told BusinessWest. “My concern is that most of the foreclosed portfolio has office space above the ground-floor retail, for lack of a better word. Given the existing office market, I think we have to be very flexible with regard to adaptive reuse.”

Springfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1852
Population: 154,758
Area: 33.1 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential tax rate: $18.90
Commercial tax rate: $39.23
Median Household Income: $35,236
Median Family Income: $51,110
Type of government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Baystate Health, MassMutual Financial Group, Big Y Foods, MGM Springfield, Mercy Medical Center, CHD, Smith & Wesson Inc.
* Latest information available

As for the Northeast Downtown District, or blast zone, a master plan released in January and now still in the public comment period notes that, while that area, characterized by historic brick buildings and warehouses, has suffered a number of setbacks in recent years, including the gas explosion, it still “holds tremendous potential for redevelopment as a transit-oriented neighborhood.”

“We saw a few of the old faces back in here today, and it was exciting — you’re seeing some of the regular faces back. But we used to see them three or four times a week and sometimes twice a day; now, you see them once, and you hope to see them again next week — maybe.”

Elaborating, the report’s authors note that, “anchored by the newly renovated Union Station and the potential connectivity afforded by an anticipated increase in rail service in the coming years, the district is ripe for market-rate, multi-family residential development. And, in addition to a relatively affordable cost of living, the area benefits from being within walking distance of downtown amenities and cultural attractions, including the Springfield Museums.”

This potential is reflected in the ongoing renovation of the former Willys-Overland manufacturing facility on Chestnut Street into market-rate housing, said Sheehan, adding that more developments of this kind could follow.

One key to such efforts, as well as the revitalization of such areas as Apremont Triangle and the development of a needed “mixed-use commercial spine,” as noted by the report’s authors, is making Chestnut Street a two-way corridor, said Sheehan, adding that this change will dramatically increase traffic through the area and provide better linkage to other areas of the downtown, thus stimulating development activity.

 

Bottom Line

There is little doubt that COVID has slowed the pace of momentum in Springfield, a city that spent the better part of 20 years digging out of a deep fiscal morass and successfully reinventing its downtown as a vibrant hub for business, innovation, tourism, and nightlife.

The pandemic put much of that in what can best be described as a holding pattern, one that many see as thankfully coming to an end in the coming months and certainly by the end of this year.

When and how profoundly the city recovers from all that COVID has wrought remains to be seen, but with the gymnasts returning to the MassMutual Center, sculptures now adorning Pynchon Plaza, and the Thunderbirds selling season tickets for the 2021-22 season, there are now ample signs of life and sources of optimism.

Amd with them come more expressions of confidence that the city can not only regain what’s been lost, but surge even higher than in the days before the pandemic.

 

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