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Hopes Are High

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mark  Zatyrka says INSA has attracted a diverse array of customers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Green Growth

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Making a Name

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]m

Employment

More Than a Job

President Tricia Canavan

President Tricia Canavan

At its core, the mission of a staffing agency is to connect employers with job seekers — a task United Personnel has tackled with success for 35 years. But creating those matches doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Rather, building a healthy workforce is a region-wide effort that makes demands of employers, colleges, training programs, K-to-12 schools, and lawmakers. United Personnel President Tricia Canavan recognizes this big picture — and her firm’s role in closing the gaps.

Tricia Canavan’s job is to help people get jobs, and to help companies find those people. It’s that simple — only, it’s not.

“Workforce development and education are things I’m really passionate about and involved in in a variety of ways,” she told BusinessWest. “We’ve heard about the skills gap and the disconnect between people who are not working or are underemployed, and employers who are saying they can’t expand because they don’t have the staff they need, and they have to turn work away because there’s not enough employees. There’s a real disconnect. So, what are the strategies we can use to be able to bridge that gap?”

As president of United Personnel, Canavan connects job seekers to regular paychecks every day. But the challenge of doing so runs far deeper than many might assume. In fact, for many, it starts well before kindergarten.

“I think we need to be really comprehensive and innovative in how we look at workforce develoment and education, even K to 12. They call it cradle to career — you want to start kids with a really good background to enter kindergarten.”

Consider, she said, that only 7% of Springfield children are considered kindergarten-ready when they enter school, and if they don’t hit reading proficiency by third grade, it sets them on a never-ending pattern of playing catchup.

“It’s said that, from kindergarten to third grade, you’re learning to read, and from third grade on, you’re reading to learn,” Canavan said. “So if your reading-comprehension skills are not where they need to be, it’s a very tough thing to make that up. The gaps start young, and they persist, and continue through high school.”

Beyond high school, in fact, contributing to what are commonly known in the employment world as skills gaps. Which brings her back to her daily role, one she tackles with a decidedly big-picture view.

“I think the disconnect and the skills gap we see is not only a challenge and a missed opportunity for local residents, but it also is an economic-development concern,” she said. “Ultimately, employers need the skilled workforce to be able to grow, and if we, over the long term, or even the medium term, are not able to produce better results at a time when Massachusetts population is pretty flat, we’re going to have a problem. It’s critical that we’re engaging as many of those residents as can work and want to work, and making sure they have the skills they need to be successful for themselves and their families, too.”

In today’s reasonably healthy economy, Canavan said, good jobs exist. She knows, because she’s got a large roster of clients that want to fill them.

“If we cannot access candidates that have the skill sets that employers need, we will not be viable as an organization. So we have some serious skin in this game,” she went on. “But I also see it as a social-justice issue. If we can do better in these fields of education and workforce development, if we can connect people with the opportunties that exist in ways they had not been connected before, that can be a game changer.”

“I think the disconnect and the skills gap we see is not only a challenge and a missed opportunity for local residents, but it also is an economic-development concern.”

For this issue’s focus on employment, BusinessWest sat down with Canavan to talk about the ways her 35-year-old firm continues to close the gaps between job creators and job seekers, and the myriad ways that task is complicated by a lifetime of factors.

Steady Growth

Jay Canavan, Tricia’s father, transitioned from a career as president of Springfield Museums to launch United Personnel in 1984; his wife, Mary Ellen Scott, joined him about six months later, eventually serving as the company’s long-time president until eight years ago, when Tricia took the reins.

Jay and Mary Ellen opened their first office in Hartford, specializing in professional, administrative, and finance services. A few years later, they opened a second office in Springfield, focusing on support to the light industrial sector. Today, the firm also boasts offices in Northampton, Pittsfield, Chelmsford, and New Haven.

Meanwhile, its roster of specialties has grown to include manufacturing, hospitality, information technology, nonprofits, medical offices, and even a dental-services division, which has proven to be a significant growth area.

“Then we continue to focus on some core competencies,” she noted. “We do a lot of vendor-on-premises account management, where we provide turnkey human-resources support for our clients.”

One example is Yankee Candle, a business whose staffing level fluctuates through the ebbs and flows of the retail seasons. “Back in the day, people would hire and lay off, hire and lay off, Now, using a vendor-on-premises model, we partner with their human resources and production teams, and we manage seasonal staffing for them in a turnkey way. We have management on site 24/7, so their human resources and production teams can focus on their core business, and we supplement those activities.”

Cavanan said she enjoys working in partnership with clients because it allows United to become a part of their business and operational strategy and provide real value.

“Because we deal with such a wide variety of clients, we’re often able to take best practices and lessons learned and apply them to new clients. It’s almost like a knowledge-sharing service that we offer. And we’ve been really pleased with the results of some of that expertise we’ve been able to implement.”

Whether it’s helping clients with continuous improvement, staff-retention strategies, or joint recruiting events, she said United does its best work when it’s able to take on that level of partnership.

“If clients are open to this, we’re able to take an advisory and consulting role where we share with them, ‘here are some things we’re seeing in the marketplace.’ Oftentimes, it’s even current employment law,” Canavan said, noting that, just last week, United showed a client that one of its incentive programs was no longer legal due to changes in the law.

“We’re really proud of being able to serve as subject-matter experts in terms of recruitment, but also often in terms of human-resources compliance,” she went on. “We’re not attorneys, but because of the nature of what we do, we frequently have a very good finger on the pulse of what’s happening in compliance and employment law.”

Those various human-resources services are often crucial to smaller clients that may not have an in-house HR team or, at best, have one person handling everything from benefits and compliance to performance management and recruitment.

“To recruit well and comprehensively in a very tight labor market is extremely time-consuming,” she said. “Not only are we doing it all day, every day, but we have the infrastructure to find not only candidates that are actively seeking employment, but also candidates who might be open to considering a new job. And being able to partner with small and medium-sized customers allows us to bring them support with services they likely don’t have time to do. We’re really proud of that aspect of our work.”

Work Your Way Up

But Canavan is also proud of the big-picture view United takes of the region’s jobs landscape, citing efforts like the Working Cities grant that aims to better align workforce-development efforts and produce positive results for both job seekers and employers. “The economy is good, so let’s use this time to focus on training those who need it.”

Many well-paying careers, she noted, are in reach without a college education for those who are willing to access training, start small, and work their way up — in advanced manufacturing, for instance. The MassHire career centers offer training programs in that realm, but the classes aren’t always full. “How do we do a better job helping people build awareness of those opportunities, connecting them to those opportunities, and supporting them through it?”

United Personnel has been headquartered in Springfield

For most of its history, United Personnel has been headquartered in Springfield — currently on Bridge Street — but its reach expands far beyond this region.

There are institutional barriers as well, such as the so-called ‘cliff effect’ that throws up financial disincentives to people on public benefits who want to work. She said a bill currently making its way through the state Legislature would address that scenario through a pilot program that would help low-income Springfield residents access jobs while reducing the need for public benefits.

On an individual level, part of United Personnel’s mission is to dismantle as many roadblocks to employment as it can, Canavan explained. For example, employers typically prefer to hire someone with at least six months of recent, steady work without gaps. But, realizing there are reasons those gaps exist, United offers myriad short-term jobs to help people build a portfolio and references and prove they can handle something more permanent.

“It’s not that hard to be successful. It’s being on time, paying attention, staying off your phone. And, if you’re successful, you’ll find lots of opportunities for career pathways.”

“We’re really proud of being able to serve as subject-matter experts in terms of recruitment, but also often in terms of human-resources compliance. We’re not attorneys, but … we frequently have a very good finger on the pulse of what’s happening in compliance and employment law.”

She understands that some job seekers, especially younger ones, often struggle with those ‘soft skills.’

“It may be a lack of awareness, or not being super engaged in the work they’re doing. Entry-level jobs can frequently be boring or repetitive — it may not be the most exciting day you’ve ever had in your life,” she went on, noting that one of her first jobs out of college was a temp role in Chicago, doing numeric data entry all day. “It was terrible. But we’ve all had those jobs.”

The idea is to use every opportunity — whether a temp job or a training program — as a chance to move up to something better. And when job seekers do just that, it’s especially gratifying.

“It’s not our success, it’s their success. We just helped them get a foot in the door,” she said. “A lot of people don’t realize the opportunities that come from working with a staffing firm. We can be your advocate. We can help you. Lots of jobs are available — start small, and you can work your way up.”

Community Focus

United Personnel has certainly worked its way up over the past 35 years, not just in helping people find jobs and helping clients run their businesses more efficiently, but through a culture of community support. Team members are encouraged to volunteer and serve on boards, while the company itself offers financial support to numerous organizations in areas like workforce development and education, women’s leadership, community vitality, and arts and culture. One program is an endowed scholarship at the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts for first-generation college students from area gateway cities.

“We’re interested in leveraging what we do and whatever financial resources we have available to us,” Canavan told BusinessWest. “We consider it a privilege to be able to do that. We don’t just want to be here to do business; we want to be a part of the community. We are all very cognizant of the fact that we are successful because of our community.”

That said, she noted that legislative mandates from Boston continue to burden employers and make it more difficult than ever to do business in Massachusetts. Which makes it even more important for her to make clients’ lives a little easier.

“We feel honored to be able to do this work with our customers and candidates that come to us. When a client is happy with what we’ve done, or a candidate comes to us with a table-sized box of chocolates to say ‘thank you,’ that’s rewarding. It’s a privilege to help people find work and help companies find that talented staff they need to drive the success of their organization.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Health Care

On the Front Lines

VA Hospital in Leeds, Mass.

Early aerial photo of the VA Hospital in Leeds, Mass.

Gordon Tatro enjoys telling the story about how the sprawling Veterans Administration facility in Leeds came to be built there.
The prevailing theory, said Tatro, who worked in Engineering at what is now the VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System for 20 years and currently serves as its unofficial historian, is that the site on a hilltop in rural Leeds was chosen because it would offer an ideal setting for treatment and recuperation for those suffering from tuberculosis — one of its main missions, along with treatment for what was then called shell shock and other mental disorders.

And while some of that may be true, politics probably had a lot more to do with the decision than topography.

“President Warren G. Harding came out and said, ‘stop looking for places … we’re going to put it in Northampton,’” said Tatro, acknowledging that he was no doubt paraphrasing the commander in chief, “‘because Calvin Coolidge is my vice president and he lives in Florence, and we want it to be in or around Florence.’”

Nearly 95 years later — May 12 is the official anniversary date — it is still there. The specific assignment has changed somewhat — indeed, tuberculosis is certainly no longer one of the primary functions — but the basic mission has not: to provide important healthcare services to veterans.

Overall, there has been an ongoing transformation from mostly inpatient care to a mix of inpatient and outpatient, with a continued focus on behavioral-health services.

“We’re more of a managed-care facility now,” said Andrew McMahon, associate director of the facility, adding that the hospital provides services ranging from gerontology to extended care and rehabilitation; from behavioral-health services to primary care; from pharmacy to nutrition and food services. Individual programs range from MOVE!, a weight-management program for veterans, to services designed specifically for women veterans, including reproductive services and comprehensive primary care.

Andrew McMahon says the VA facility in Leeds is undergoing a massive renovation

Andrew McMahon says the VA facility in Leeds is undergoing a massive renovation and modernization initiative scheduled to be completed by the 100th anniversary in 2024.

“When this facility was established, the mission of the VA was much different than it is today,” McMahon told BusinessWest. “We were a stand-alone campus in a rural part of the state that had 1,000 beds and where veterans went for the rest of their lives.

“Now, we are one facility within a network of eight serving Central and Western Massachusetts. We have this beautiful, 100-year-old campus, but the needs of today’s veterans are changing — they need convenience, primary care, and specialty care, and we’re trying to establish those services in the areas where the veterans live, primarily Worcester and Springfield.”

Elaborating, he said that, as the 100th anniversary of the Leeds facility in 2024 approaches, the hospital is in the midst of a large, multi-faceted expansion and renovation project designed to maximize its existing facilities and enable it to continue in its role as a “place of mental-health excellence for all of New England,” as McMahon put it, and also a center for geriatric care and administration of the broad VA Central Western Massachusetts Healthcare System.

By the 100th-birthday celebration, more than $100 million will have been invested in the campus, known colloquially as ‘the Hill,’ or Bear Hill (yes, black bears can be seen wandering the grounds now and then), said McMahon, adding that an ongoing evolution of the campus will continue into the next century.

“President Warren G. Harding came out and said, ‘stop looking for places … we’re going to put it in Northampton, because Calvin Coolidge is my vice president and he lives in Florence, and we want it to be in or around Florence.’”

Round-number anniversaries — and those not quite so round, like this year’s 95th — provide an opportunity to pause, reflect, look back, and also look ahead. And for this issue, BusinessWest asked McMahon and Tatro to do just that.

History Lessons

Tatro told BusinessWest that, with the centennial looming, administrators at the hospital have issued a call for memorabilia related to the facility’s first 100 years of operation. The request, in the form of a flyer mailed to a host of constituencies, coincides with plans to convert one of the old residential buildings erected on the complex (specifically the one that the hospital directors lived in) into a museum.

The flyer states that, in addition to old photographs, those conducting this search are looking for some specific objects, such as items from the old VA marching band, including uniforms and instruments; anything to do with the VA baseball team, known, appropriately enough, as the Hilltoppers, who played on a diamond in the center of the campus visible in aerial photos of the hospital; any of the eight ornate lanterns that graced the grounds; toys made by the veterans who lived and were cared for at the facility; copies of the different newspapers printed at the site, including the first one, the Summit Observer; and more.

Collectively, these requested items speak to how the VA hospital was — and still is — more than a cluster of buildings at the top of a hill; it was and is a community.

The oval at the VA complex

The oval at the VA complex has seen a good deal of change over the years. Current initiatives involve bringing more specialty care facilities to that cluster of buildings, bringing additional convenience to veterans.

“It was like a town or a city,” said Tatro, noting that the original campus was nearly three times as large as it is now, and many administrators not only worked there but lived there as well. “There was a pig farm, veterans grew their own food, there were minstrel shows, a marching band, a radio station … it really was a community.

“In that era, everyone had a baseball team, and we played all those teams,” he said, noting that the squad was comprised of employees. “The silk mill (in Northampton) had one, other companies had them; I’ve found hundreds of articles about the baseball team.”

This ‘community’ look and feel has prevailed, by and large, since the facility opened to considerable fanfare that May day in 1924. Calvin Coolidge, who by then was president (Harding died in office in 1923) was not in attendance, but many luminaries were, including Gen. Frank Hines, director of the U.S. Veterans Bureau.

He set the tone for the decades to come with comments recorded by the Daily Hampshire Gazette and found during one of Gordon’s countless trips to Forbes Library on the campus of Smith College. “President Coolidge has well stated that there is no duty imposed upon us of greater importance than prompt and adequate care of our disabled. And every reasonable effort will be made in that direction. I consider it the duty of those in charge of the veterans’ bureau hospitals to bring about a management and an administration of professional ability in such a manner as to recover many of those whose care is entrusted to them.”

“It was like a town or a city. There was a pig farm, veterans grew their own food, there were minstrel shows, a marching band, a radio station … it really was a community.”

The facility was one of 19 built in the years after World War I to care for the veterans injured, physically or mentally, by that conflict, said Gordon, adding that the need for such hospitals was acute.

“There was a drive in Congress to get the veterans returning from World War I off the streets,” he said. “They were literally hanging around; they had no place else to go. Public health-service hospitals couldn’t handle it, and the Bureau of War Risk Insurance couldn’t handle the cost, and I guess Congress just got pushed to the point where it had to do something.”

That ‘something’ was the Langley bill — actually, there were two Langley bills — that appropriated funds to build hospitals across the country and absorb the public health-service hospitals into the Veterans Bureau Assoc.

The site in Leeds was one of many considered for a facility to serve this region, including a tissue-making mill in Becket, said Tatro, but, as he mentioned, the birthplace of the sitting vice president ultimately played a large role in where the steam shovels were sent. And those shovels eventually took roughly 12 feet off the top of the top of the hill and pushed it over the side, he told BusinessWest.

As noted earlier, the facility specialized in treating veterans suffering from tuberculosis and mental disorders, especially shell shock, or what is now known as post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In the early years, there were 300 to 500 veterans essentially living in the wards of the hospital, with those numbers climbing to well over 1,000 just after World War II, said Tatro.

Gordon Tatro, the unofficial historian at the VA hospital

Gordon Tatro, the unofficial historian at the VA hospital, says the facility is not merely a collection of buildings on a hill, but a community.

With tuberculosis patients, those providing care tried to keep their patients active and moving with a range of sports and games ranging from bowling to swimming to fishing in ponds stocked by a local sportsman’s club, or so Tatro has learned through his research.

As for those with mental-health disorders, Tatro said, in the decades just after the hospital was built, little was known about how to treat those with conditions such as shell shock, depression, and schizophrenia, and thus there was research, experimentation, and learning.

This added up to what would have to be considered, in retrospect, one of the darker periods in the facility’s history, when pre-frontal lobotomies and electric-shock therapy was used to help treat veterans, a practice that was halted in the late ’40s or early ’50s, he said, adding that this is one period he is still researching.

Battle Tested

Over the past several decades, there has been a slow and ongoing shift from inpatient care to outpatient care, said McMahon, who, in his role as associate director, is chief of all operations. He added that there are still inpatient wards at the hospital, and it retains its role as the primary regional provider of mental-health services for veterans.

But there is now a much broader array of services provided at the facility, and for a constituency that includes a few World War II and Korean War veterans, but is now dominated by Vietnam-era vets and those who served in both Gulf wars.

Overall, more than 28,000 individuals receive care through the system, which, as noted, includes both Central and Western Mass. and eight clinics across that broad area. The system measures ‘encounters’ — individual visits to a clinic — and there were more than 350,000 encounters last year.

The reasons for such visits varied, but collectively they speak to how the hospital in Leeds has evolved over the years while remaining true to its original mission, said McMahon.

“We haven’t really downshifted in our inpatient mental health — that’s an area of strength for the VA, and we continue to invest in that area,” he explained. “But in geriatrics, we’re looking to expand our nursing-home footprint, and hopefully double the size of those facilities by the time the 100th comes around — we have 30 beds now, and we’re looking to add maybe 30 more.”

McMahon, an Air Force veteran, said he’s been with the VA hospital for more than seven years now after a stint at Northampton-based defense contractor Kollmorgen. He saw it is a chance to take his career in a different, more meaningful direction.

“To get over into this area and serve the veterans … it’s a job that has a mission behind it,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s more than a paycheck.”

That mission has always been to provide quality care to those who have served, and today, as noted, the mission is evolving. So is the campus itself, he said, adding that ongoing work is aimed at maximizing resources and modernizing facilities, but also preserving the original look of the campus.

Current projects include renovation of what’s known as Building 9, vacant for roughly 15 years, into a new inpatient PTSD facility, with those services being moved from Building 8, an initiative started more than two years ago and now nearing its conclusion.

The new facility will be larger and will enable the VA hospital to extend PTSD care to women through the creation of a dedicated ward for that constituency.

Meanwhile, another ongoing project involves renovation of a portion of Building 4. That initiative includes creation of a new specialty-care floor, a $6 million project that will include optometry clinics, podiatry services, cardiology, and more.

Set to move off the drawing board is another major initiative, a $15 million project to renovate long-vacant Building 20 and move a host of administrative offices into that facility, leaving essentially the entire ‘Hill’ complex for patient care and mental-health services.

“We’re going to get HR, engineering, and other administrative offices down to Building 20 and expand our mental-health facilities around the oval,” McMahon said, referring to the cluster of buildings in the center of the campus. “There’s $40 million in construction going on at present, and by the end the this year, we expect that number to be closer to $60 million.

“There’s a lot of construction going on right now,” he went on. “But things will look good for the 100th.”

That includes the planned museum. The search goes on for items to be displayed in that facility, said Tatro, adding that he and others are working to assemble a collection that will tell the whole story of this remarkable medical facility that became a community.

Branches of Service

Tatro told BusinessWest he’s been doing extensive research on the history of the Hill since he retired several years ago. He’s put together thick binders of photographs and newspaper clippings — there’s one with stories just from the Gazette that’s half a foot thick — as well as some smaller booklets on individual subjects and personalities.

Including one Cedric (Sandy) Bevis.

There’s a memorial stone erected to him in what’s known as Overlook Park, created with the help of that 12 feet of earth scraped off the top of the hill. Tatro found it while out on one of his many walks over the grounds, and commenced trying to find out who Bevis was (he died in 1981) and why there was a stone erected in his honor.

But no one seemed to know.

So Tatro commenced digging and found out that Bevis was a Marine officer who served in Vietnam as a helicopter pilot. He had been shot down more than once but survived. After attaining the rank of lieutenant colonel, he left the service in June 1971, married, and settled in the Florence area. As a Marine Reservist, he got involved with a Vietnam veterans organization called ComVets (short for Combat Veterans) at the VA Hospital and was elected its first president.

“He was honored for his impact on other Marines who were part of ComVets, and they initiated and obtained a plaque for him,” said Tatro, adding that the saga of Sandy Bevis is one of thousands of individual stories written over the past 95 years. And those at the VA facility are going about the process of writing thousands more.

The last line on Bevis’ plaque reads, “He served when called.” So did all those all others who have come to the Hill since the gates opened in 1924. That’s why it was built, and that’s why it’s readying itself for a second century of service.

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

Sports & Leisure

Diversity, Revenue Streams Are Key to Clubs’ Success

Attilio Cardaropoli displays one of the new four-passenger carts

Attilio Cardaropoli displays one of the new four-passenger carts at Twin Hills Country Club, one of many steps taken to make the game more enjoyable.

The golf business has never been entirely about golf. There has always been a need a diversity in the form of food and beverage, weddings and other events, and even cross-country skiing in the winter. But at a time when clubs are being challenged by declining play and rising expenses, the need to create revenue streams and put all their facilities to use has never been greater.

The ‘10-year challenge.’

That was the social-media phenomenon that started in early January and fizzled out … maybe in mid-January. You remember. Everyone was posting photos of themselves from then and now in an effort to judge who fared best over the ensuing decade.

People did it. Internet companies did it. If Twin Hills Country Club in Longmeadow did it, it would certainly have fared well against like facilities. Indeed, a decade ago, it was almost a casualty of a changing golf business and a new subdivision in a town that hadn’t seen one built in decades.

But Attilio Cardaropoli, a Twin Hills member who thought the club’s day hadn’t yet come, bought it and commenced writing a remarkable turnaround story. There were 85 members when he acquired it; now there are north of 300, and the number is holding steady. Back then, the course was tired and needed a facelift; same for the clubhouse. He’s done all that work and continues to make improvements every year inside and out, a formula that is certainly working.

“We keep making improvements — every year, we designate some area that needs some attention and improvement, and we continue to do that,” he explained. “Our members like to come in every season and see something new that’s been added on. It’s been a big factor in our success.”

But not many golf operations would have fared nearly as well with the 10-year challenge. The past decade has been a continuation of challenging times that peaked with the Great Recession and improved only slightly in the intervening years.

The story has been told many times. It’s about a falling level of interest in the game, especially among young people, families putting their time and money into avenues that don’t include the local country club, some closures among the area’s large roster of courses, and intense competition among the courses that remain for a shrinking pool of golfers.

And then, in the summer and fall of 2018, the story got even worse, as seemingly relentless rain, a lot of it coming on all-important weekends, erased days from the calendar, robbing clubs of revenue they couldn’t recover.

Dave DiRico, seen here with his son-in-law, Drew Michael

Dave DiRico, seen here with his son-in-law, Drew Michael, says both public and private courses must be diverse operations with a number of revenue streams.

“We had nine rainouts on Tuesdays, and it rained quite a few Saturdays and Sundays, too,” said Ryan Hall, head pro at Springfield’s two municipal courses, Franconia and Veterans, referring to both leagues and daily-fee golf. And with such washouts, a club loses more than greens fees — there’s also cart rentals and food and beverage.

“And people aren’t going to go out and play twice as much the next week,” said Hall, adding that this revenue is essentially lost.

As the 2019 season commences — thankfully early for the clubs able and willing to welcome players in early April or even late March — many challenges remain, said Hall and others we spoke with, but so does a high level of determination to find solutions to the current problems in the golf industry.

Some of them don’t necessarily involve golf, although they relate back to it some ways.
Indeed, diversification and securing new revenue streams are a huge component of the success formula for any club today, public or private, said those we spoke with. This means everything from the 19th hole — many clubs are redoing them and retooling menus at the same time — to more special events, from Mother’s Day brunches to cruise nights to weddings and banquets.

Meanwhile, on the golf side, the driving forces, as always, but especially in this climate, are providing value to existing customers, generating repeat business, and trying to grow the pie by attracting new players, especially when it comes to women and young people.

In some respects, Hall said, a large number of people now in their 20s, 30s, and early 40s are not involved with the game because they were not actively introduced to it and encouraged to play it. The industry seems intent on not making this same mistake with today’s young people.

Indeed, it is being more aggressive in getting them on the course through programs like the PGA Junior League, which creates teams of young people who practice together and play against teams from other area courses in an effort to introduce them and ease them into a game they can play into their 90s.

Springfield’s municipal courses have not participated in the program to date, but Hall plans to change that because of the program’s proven success in generating enthusiasm for the game.

“We just have to get golfers out there,” he explained. “We have to get these young kids to start to understand the game a little bit; it starts at the junior level, and if we can start to develop those skills a little bit and develop a love for the game at that age, we can grow the game.”

For this issue and its focus on sports and leisure, BusinessWest talked with a number of area club owners and operators and pros to gauge what the 2019 season holds. In most all respects, it holds more of what’s been seen over the past decade, which means still more grinding things out.

Course of Action

As he offered BusinessWest a quick tour of Twin Hills to highlight the latest changes and improvements, Cardaropoli stopped by the first tee. There, he asked one of the attendants to bring around one of the new four-passenger golf carts the club put into operation last year.

The majority of the club’s golfers make a point of walking, he noted with a discernable dose of pride, adding quickly that, for those who want or need a lift, the new carts have proven to be quite popular, especially with young families.

“Dad can go out with two or three kids, and they can all ride together,” he said, adding that, while this was the constituency everyone had in mind when the carts were ordered, others have taken a liking to them as well.

Ryan Hall says it’s imperative for those in the golf business to grow

Ryan Hall says it’s imperative for those in the golf business to grow the market by encouraging young people to take up the game.

“Older members are saying that this is a way they can be more sociable — they like them, too,” said Cardaropoli, adding that they are also popular with some playing in the many charitable tournaments hosted by the club, especially those where pace of play is generally slow and four people driving around in the same cart hunting down golf balls won’t slow things down any further.

In many ways, these four-passenger carts are an example of how Twin Hills, and all clubs, are reacting to changing forces around them. They’re responding with strategies to perhaps bring more people into the game and also make it more enjoyable.

And it’s all necessary because, unlike 20 years ago, as Tigermania was sweeping the country and clubs merely had to open the register and point to the first tee, now they have to work at it — and work pretty hard.

Assessing the situation, Dave DiRico, owner of DiRico’s Golf & Racquet in West Springfield, a course pro for more than 30 years, and a close observer of the region’s golf market (for obvious reasons), said the laws of supply and demand have certainly caught up with the golf industry — nationally and also locally.

In short, there’s more supply than current levels of demand would dictate. That’s great for people looking for tee times, but not for course owners facing ever-climbing expenses for everything from personnel to fertilizer and an ultra-competitive market where raising prices is essentially not an option.

All this has led to a thinning of the herd. In late 2017, Southwick Country Club was sold to a residential real-estate developer, and houses are now taking shape along the old fairways. And in Amherst, Hickory Ridge Country Club has closed and will become a solar farm.

These developments certainly benefit the courses remaining in those respective areas, said DiRico, noting that Agawam’s four public courses, Wesfield’s three, and the two remaining in Southwick all picked up some business from the closure of Southwick Country Club. Likewise, remaining courses in Amherst and neighboring Belchertown stand to benefit from Hickory Ridge’s demise.

But the market is still saturated with both public and private courses, he went on, adding that, to be successful, operations must focus on the total experience and not just 18 holes — although that’s a big part of it. And they have to put all of their facilities to work generating revenue.

This is nothing new, really — it’s always been this way — but in this environment, such diversity takes on heightened importance.

“A lot of clubs are doing functions now — weddings, showers, whatever they can book,” said DiRico. “That’s a big part of supplementing their revenue; they need to do those things.

“You need food and beverage,” he went on. “That’s a big revenue center. Years ago, many of the courses didn’t have elaborate food and beverage operations; now they’re adding them because they’re so important.”

Elaborating, he said such amenities enable clubs to book more tournaments because they can handle not only the golf but the networking, dinner, and awards presentation that come after — one-stop shopping that tournament organizers desire, and often demand.

Franconia has historically lost some events and been able to handle only the golf side of many tournaments because it didn’t have a facility on site, said Hall, adding that this will change this year with the addition of a large pavilion built late last year.

It’s a simple structure that is not enclosed, but still, it will enable tournament organizers to stage a dinner on site, rather than forcing participants to drive to the nearby Elks lodge or an area restaurant. And Hall said he can already see the impact in the number of events he’s booking this offseason.

“Having that pavilion is going to help us a great deal — we’re really growing that outside tournament business already,” he told BusinessWest. “People are excited about it, and they want to take advantage of it.”

Going for the Green

Looking back on his first 10 years of ownership at Twin Hills, Cardaropoli said a number of factors have contributed to the club’s turnaround.

He listed everything from some good fortune in the form of some private clubs moving to a semi-private format (Crestview and nearby Elmcrest, for example) and some struggles at other clubs, to strict policies at Twin Hills regarding assessments (there are none) and rate structures — the only real deals are given to long-standing members.

“A lot of clubs are doing functions now — weddings, showers, whatever they can book. That’s a big part of supplementing their revenue; they need to do those things.”

But the real keys have been continuous investments in all aspects of the property, from the course itself to the banquet rooms to other facilities.

Like the pool area, which is currently being expanded to create a larger play area for children, said Cardaropoli, who pointed out the ongoing work while offering his tour.

Meanwhile, on the course, work will start soon on the second and 11th holes — drainage, bunker work, and more — following improvements made last year to the seventh and eighth holes to enlarge the greens, reposition bunkers, and remove dozens of trees, a step taken to help improve drainage and even speed up play.

“Every year, we have a course designer come in and help us renovate the golf course, and every year we end up doing complete renovations on several holes,” he explained. “This past year, we removed 225 trees from the golf course, which makes it a lot healthier and able to dry up quicker after we have rains.”

Ongoing improvements are needed to retain members and attract new ones, he went on, adding that investments in the banquet facilities have also opened the door to additional bookings of weddings and other events, key revenue generators that help enable Twin Hills to avoid the assessments that have plagued other clubs.

And while private clubs are a breed apart in the golf industry, a focus on the customer and providing value are needed at all clubs, said DiRico, who noted, again, that the equation must involve more than just golf.

“To be more successful, clubs have to be more universal in what they provide,” he told BusinessWest. “And that’s not just for public golf, but private golf as well. The private clubs have to do a better job of keeping the families there — they have to be value-added facilities, and by that I mean that it’s not just golf anymore.”

But golf is the foundation for most of those other revenue streams, said those we spoke with, so it’s imperative to bring new players into the game. And the obvious focal point is young people, said Hall, adding that the PGA Junior League has enjoyed a great deal of success in this realm.

“You take kids and create teams — in Springfield, we could probably have one to three teams of maybe 12 kids — and you give them practice once a week, and then we set up matches against other clubs,” he explained, adding that the team format and scramble mode of play (everyone goes to where the best shot came down and plays from there) help ease people into a game that is in many ways daunting and even scary.

“You get kids who may be intimidated by golf because they don’t want to play off their own ball or be by themselves, so you play that scramble format and as a team against other kids their age,” Hall went on. “You develop their skills that way, and this is imperative to growing the game.”

Imaginative Strokes

DiRico said that, despite all the rain last year — or maybe in part because of it — he had his best year since he opened his store eight years ago.

He theorizes that people who couldn’t play focused at least some of those energies on buying new equipment and accessories for when they could play. It’s just a theory, and he listed several more solid reasons why business was so good in 2018 and the first three months of 2019.

These include everything from the store’s fitting services — no one should play clubs off the rack anymore — to the hot new drivers that everyone wants.

Whatever the reason, that side of the golf business is apparently holding its own. The rest of it? It’s as challenging as ever, as any club taking the 10-year challenge can attest.

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Charlie Blanchard says Palmer continues to make progress

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

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

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

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

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

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

Palmer at a glance

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

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

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

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

Projects and Progress

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Powering an Economy

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

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

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

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

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

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Nonprofit Management

In Good Company

Jennifer Connelly, left, and Dawn Creighton

Jennifer Connelly, left, and Dawn Creighton display promotional materials for the JA Inspire program’s career-exploration fair set for May 28.

The 100th Anniversary Gala for Junior Achievement of Western Massachusetts will have a decidedly ’20s flair — as in the 1920s. In fact, the theme is “The Roaring ’20s are Back.”

Attendees are encouraged, but not required, to come in period dress, a challenge that Jennifer Connelly, executive director of the local JA chapter, met (with considerable help from her daughter) by doing a hard search online that yielded the appropriate dress as well as a headband with a feather.

“I’ll have the long gloves and the long cigarette holder — a full outfit; it will be very interesting to see what people come up with to mark the ’20s,” she said with a trace of understatement in her voice.

But while the gala will amount to an effort to turn back the clock in many respects, Junior Achievement, and especially its Western Mass. chapter, have been turning the clock forward, focusing on the 2020s — and the decades to follow — with a host of programs that are seemingly far removed from the organization’s original mission to introduce young people to the principles of business — but then again, not very far removed at all.

Programs like JA Inspire.

Created by a coalition of education and industry leaders led by JA of Western Mass., this endeavor is designed to introduce young people to industry sectors and careers, and also provide awareness of what skills will be needed to thrive in those settings.

At the heart of the initiative is a massive career fair set for May 28 at the MassMutual Center that won’t follow the typical model for such events.

Actually, it will, but the audience will be decidedly different. Instead of people looking for jobs they can enter in a few weeks or even a few days, those roaming the aisles will be middle- and high-school students gaining information on jobs they might fill sometime in the next decade.

“We’re going to have representatives of a number of industry clusters, and we’ll also have representatives of the post-secondary schools in this area,” said Connelly, “so students can understand that there is a pathway to a career that they might be interested in.”

In many respects, JA has always been about identifying and illuminating pathways, and JA Inspire is just one example of how this nonprofit has stayed true to its original mission while also evolving over the years and expanding into programs, 23 of them in all, for students in grades K-12, said Connelly.

These programs provide lessons in everything from how government works to how large a slice of one’s paycheck the IRS takes; from how global the global economy truly is to the all-important difference between a ‘want’ and a ‘need’ when it comes to how one spends their money, she said, adding that, to get these messages across, JA relies (as it has throughout its history) on volunteers.

“We try to make that match between what they’re learning and why it’s important, and it’s very rewarding work.”

People like Sharon Dufour, chief financial officer at Ludlow-based LUSO Federal Credit Union and a JA volunteer for more than 30 years, 20 of them in this market. She has been instrumental in bringing JA programs into schools in the Wilbraham/Ludlow area, and also in moving beyond traditional school-banking initiatives — where students learn the basics of banking — and into financial literacy.

She’s taught at all levels, including seventh grade and a program called “JA is My Future,” which helps students understand the value of what they’re learning.

“It helps them understand the skills they’ll need for specific jobs,” she explained,” adding that, in the last full school year, LUSO helped coordinate 130 classes for Junior Achievement, reaching 2,810 students. “We try to make that match between what they’re learning and why it’s important, and it’s very rewarding work.”

Julie Ann Pelletier agreed. A retired transplant to the Berkshires just over a decade ago, she was looking for volunteer work to take on and certainly found it with JA — she now coordinates the agency’s programs across the Berkshires.

One of them is an initiative to promote entrepreneurship in high-school students, for which they needed a product that students could design, make, market, and sell. Pelletier helped inspire one — crocheted hats (she teaches that art).

Fast-forwarding, she said she wound up teaching a number of Putnam Vocational Academy students that skill, and a few of them went on to start their own businesses and eventually win business competitions as they moved their ventures forward.

“I’m 72, and they’re 17, so they called it ‘Twisting the Generations,’ — it was the old school teaching the new school,” she said, summing up quickly and efficiently what JA, and its volunteers, have been doing for the past century.

For this issue and its focus on nonprofits, BusinessWest examines all that JA is celebrating as its marks an important milestone — 100 years of not only teaching young people about business, but preparing them for all that life can throw at them.

Getting Down to Business

Connelly told BusinessWest that JA’s 100th birthday bash will be a year-long celebration, one that has a number of goals, from honoring the past to raising awareness of its many programs and initiatives in an effort to ensure sustainability.

It will be capped, in most respects, by a series of events on Sept. 28, when JA National, as it’s called, which is based in Colorado, will stage JA Day at the Big E, home to the first Junior Achievement building ever erected — funded by Horace Moses, president of Strathmore Paper Co., and one of three men who founded JA in 1919. There will be a parade, speeches, and a dinner, and Connelly is expecting representatives from many of the 107 JA chapters nationwide to be in attendance.

Jennifer Connelly says JA has evolved considerably

Jennifer Connelly says JA has evolved considerably over the past century, but remains true to its original mission.

Locally, the immediate focus is on the May 4 gala, to be staged at MGM Springfield, an event expected to draw more than 300 people. The list of attendees includes two descendants of U.S. Sen. Murray Crane of Massachusetts, another of the founders (the third was Theodore Vail, president of AT&T), as well as a representative of Strathmore Paper.

So there will be significant ties to the past, said Connelly, adding that the gala will honor the agency’s founders, but also all the change and evolution that has come over the past century, and there has been quite a bit of both, as her quick history lesson shows.

“When they founded JA 100 years ago, it started off with what they called the company program,” she explained. “Students came together, formed a company, and sold a product; they envisioned a way to help young people transitioning from an agrarian-based economy to a manufacturing-based economy.”

A glass display case in the front lobby of the JA’s offices on the second floor of Tower Square holds artifacts that speak to those early days of the company program, everything from ribbons awarded at a competition in the mid-1920s to a wooden lamp built by area high-school students to later sell. (Connelly isn’t sure of the date on that item, but guesses it’s from the mid-’70s.

The student-company initiative continues to this day, she said proudly, noting that a number of area high schools run the program after school, during the summer, and as part of the regular school day.

Pathfinder Regional High School, for example, has expanded its program to includes a Facebook page, she said, adding that one class is enjoying success with selling a brush designed for pets called Brush It Off.

But over the past 30 years or so, JA has taken on a broader role, one certainly in keeping with the founders’ intent, especially within the realm of financial literacy. And that role will likely become deeper still following the passage of a bill in January that allows state education officials to establish standards around financial literacy, which schools could incorporate into their existing curricula in subjects like math, business, and social sciences.

The standards will be guidelines, not a mandate, said Connelly, adding that, for those schools who wish to adopt these guidelines, JA could become a partner in helping to bring those lessons home.

The agency already provides a wide array of financial-literacy programs to students in grades K-12, she noted, citing, as one example, something called the Credit for Life Fair, staged recently at Elms College, a program created for high-school students.

Students essentially choose a field, are given a budget, and are presented a number of options on how to spend their money — from investments to essentials like housing, a car, and groceries, as well as ‘fun’ items. They then visit with a credit counselor to review their choices and discuss the consequences of each one.

“These are great learning experiences,” Connelly said of the fair, several of which are conducted each year. “They actually get to see that, even if they get a good job and make a lot of money, that money doesn’t go too far. And they learn about the importance of having a good credit score; they can be a doctor and make a lot of money, but if they have a bad credit score, that’s going to hurt them down the road.”

The Job at Hand

While JA is providing young people with a look at life in a chosen profession through these Credit for Life programs — well, sort of — it is also introducing them to industry sectors, career paths, and specific jobs through initiatives like the JA Inspire program and the aforementioned event at the MassMutual Center.

The formal name of that gathering is the Inspire Career Exploration Fair, and that’s appropriate, because that’s what the attendees will be doing — exploring. And while they’re doing that, area employers might be getting some help with the biggest problem they face these days — securing a workforce for the future.

“Every employer in every industry sector is experiencing workforce shortages,” said Dawn Creighton, Western Mass. director for Associated Industries of Massachuetts, which came on board as a sponsor of the initiative early on and has been encouraging its members to take part. “People are not ready for the workforce, whether it’s vocational skills, technical skills, soft skills — they’re not ready.”

The career-exploration fair was conceived to help ensure that the next generation of workers is more ready, she went on, by not just introducing young people to career possibilities they may or may not have known about, but also spell out for them what it will take to land such a position in terms of skills and education.

And that’s why the event has caught the attention of businesses in several sectors, from manufacturing to healthcare to financial services, and from every corner of the 413, said Creighton, adding that all see a chance to open some eyes.

“All too often, these types of career days come during the spring of senior year, and by then it’s often too late,” she told BusinessWest. “We need to introduce young people to all the career opportunities out there, and we need to do it earlier.”

Sharon Dufour, long-time volunteer with JA

Sharon Dufour, long-time volunteer with JA, is seen here with third-graders as she provides lessons about zoning and building a city.

Thus, the fair, as noted, is an example of how JA’s mission has evolved and the agency has moved beyond the classroom in many respects. But area schools are where most of JA’s life lessons are delivered, a tradition that began a century ago and continues today through the work of teachers and especially volunteers.

Dufour has worked to recruit them for years and said more are always needed to help JA reach more young people.

“I tell every volunteer I know that it’s the most rewarding experience you can imagine,” she said. “The kids see you; they remember you. I once had a kid come flying across the Stop & Shop to give me a big hug. Her mother said, ‘my daughter does not stop talking about you.’”

Pelletier agreed, and said the rewards from volunteering come in many flavors, especially the satisfaction that comes from seeing a light go on in a young person’s eyes as they realize their potential to take an idea or a skill (like crocheting) and run with it.

“Once people get the basics, they fly,” she said, referring specifically to crocheting, but also to the many principles of business in general. “And it’s incredibly exciting to watch it happen.”

Past Is Prologue

“The future of our country depends upon making every individual fully realize the obligations and responsibilities belonging to citizenship. Habits are formed in youth. What we need in this country now is to teach the growing generations to realize that thrift and economy, coupled with industry, are as necessary now as they were in past generations.”

Theodore Vail spoke those words a century or so ago when JA was in its infancy. But they certainly ring true today, especially that part about habits being formed in youth.

Helping young people develop the right habits has been JA’s informal mission for 100 years now. There are now more ways in which in that mission is being carried out, but it’s still about pathways and putting people on the right ones.

And that’s a proud history worth celebrating.

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

Health Care

Combating ‘Hair Interruption’

By Mark Morris

Joan Quinn, coordinator of the Wig Boutique at the Cancer House of Hope in West Springfield.

Joan Quinn, coordinator of the Wig Boutique at the Cancer House of Hope in West Springfield.

When a cancer patient goes through chemotherapy treatment, feelings of nausea, fatigue, and hair loss are all common physical reactions. For women, loss of hair often adds an emotional element of humiliation and shame.

“I don’t call it hair loss; I call it hair interruption,” said Joan Quinn, coordinator for the Wig Boutique at the Cancer House of Hope (CHH) in West Springfield, who sees her mission as helping women look good and feel better about themselves while their hair grows back.

And she is passionate about her work, as will become abundantly clear.

The Center for Human Development (CHD) runs the Cancer House of Hope as a free community resource to provide comfort and support in a home-like atmosphere for anyone going through cancer treatment. Yoga classes and Reiki massage are among the many services offered there.

As for wigs … Joseph Kane, former director of the Cancer House of Hope (he left that position for another opportunity earlier this month), admits that, while they’ve always been available, they were often treated as an afterthought.

“If someone asked for a wig, we’d pull one out of a plastic tub, and it usually looked like it had bed head; it wasn’t ideal,” he said, adding that this important service has come a long way in recent years thanks to Quinn, who not only provided the drive to create and stock a boutique where there was none, but also staff it with volunteers, maintain a steady inventory, and raise needed funding to keep the operation thriving.

Our story begins with a visit to CHH by one of Quinn’s neighbors, who left her tour thinking that the wig service, such as it was, needed serious help, and that Quinn, a cosmetology-field veteran of more than 50 years who spent 26 years teaching the subject at Springfield Technical Community College, was just the person to provide that help.

“If someone asked for a wig, we’d pull one out of a plastic tub, and it usually looked like it had bed head; it wasn’t ideal.”

“My neighbor said, ‘oh, Joan, I know your standards, and this doesn’t meet them. You should stop in and see them.’”

She did, and this was, coincidentally, after an answered prayer left her looking for a way to give back — and in a big way.

Indeed, a few years earlier, Quinn’s son suffered from a heart condition that required a transplant. As he was living in Iowa City, Quinn flew there to help. “During that time, I prayed that he would receive a heart transplant and promised God that, if he lived, I’d give back tenfold.”

Her son did receive a transplant and is healthy today.

Feeling that she now had to deliver on her promise, Quinn had no idea how she could help the American Heart Assoc. But when the need for a better wig situation presented itself at CHH, she knew immediately she could make a difference.

And she has. Now in operation for more than three years, the Wig Boutique is currently booking appointments five days a week with three volunteer consultants. Quinn estimates the facility has provided more than 300 wigs for cancer patients since opening.

For this issue and its focus on healthcare, BusinessWest explores how the Wig Boutique came to be and why the services it provides are so important to women battling cancer.

Root of the Problem

As she retold the story of how the boutique was launched, Quinn noted that, under some health-insurance plans, cancer patients can purchase a wig and get reimbursed after the fact. In order to be covered under MassHealth, cancer patients must travel to its contracted wig provider located in Worcester.

When Kane learned that three wig providers in the area went out of business, the thought of a dedicated wig program began to sound like a viable idea.

“When I met Joan, she had a vision to make the wig boutique feel like a higher-end service,” Kane said. Likewise, Quinn credits Kane for what she called his “blind faith” that she could convert one of the rooms in the Cancer House of Hope into a boutique on a zero budget.

Volunteer Jan D’Orazio in the Wig Boutique.

Volunteer Jan D’Orazio in the Wig Boutique.

The energetic Quinn began by figuring out how many wigs CHH had and how to get them into presentable shape. Tapping into her network, she convinced her former teaching colleagues at STCC to open their cosmetology classrooms during summer break and made arrangements to have 110 wigs washed. “We even brought in people who didn’t know how to wash wigs, but we taught them.”

Now with a starting inventory, Quinn needed to purchase shelving material and clean lighting for the room. “It had to be organized, and it had to be cheerful,” she explained. “I could not envision people coming in to look through a tub of wigs.”

Before she even had shelves, Quinn approached local businesses and asked them to sponsor $20 shelf tags to be placed in front of each displayed wig. In a short time, she raised enough to pay for the building materials.

While planning the design of the room at the Home Depot, Quinn lamented that she had enough money for materials but not enough to cover labor. The Home Depot associate told her about a program the store sponsors where it would pay for the labor as a donation, a big step toward executing Quinn’s vision.

The finished room resembles a true boutique, displaying 59 wigs under clean lighting with a fitting chair and a full-length mirror. Kane said the boutique provides a unique experience for cancer patients.

“It gives someone who is losing her hair a chance to come in, meet with a professional, and leave with something that does not look like a wig — all for free,” he told BusinessWest. “It’s really powerful.”

When women first come in for a consultation, Quinn said, they are often reliving the horror of having cancer and confronting the reality of their hair falling out.

“Many of the women we see are depressed and fearful of taking off their head covering,” Quinn said. “While we can’t take away their fear, we reassure them that we work with many people in their situation and that this is a safe place.”

She added that the dozens of wigs displayed in the room help to shift the women’s focus away from themselves and onto which style of wig they might want.

“Current wig styles change quickly, so we’re always looking for new styles and quality wigs,” she noted, adding that she approached Sally’s Beauty Supply in West Springfield and left her name on a piece of paper to call if they ever had wigs they wanted to donate. The manager of Sally’s happened to pin Quinn’s contact information on a bulletin board, and one day, when the company discontinued its line of high-end wigs, Quinn got the call and filled two shopping carts with donated wigs. In addition to local donations, CHH receives wig and accessory donations from as far away as North Carolina and California.

Quinn told BusinessWest she is grateful for her network of volunteers and professionals, whom she refers to as her “angels.” She works with many salons in the area whose owners are often former students.

Quinn approached salons with a fundraising idea for the Wig Boutique called “Hang Cancer Out to Dry,” consisting of a small, desk-sized clothesline where customers can attach cash donations with miniature clothespins.

“In its first 17 months, this effort has raised more than $10,000,” Quinn said, adding that it’s not unusual for a salon owner to raise $300 from customer donations and then match it with a $300 donation of their own.

While Quinn pursues donations with great drive and enthusiasm, she also goes after volunteers the same way. Jan D’Orazio was shopping for Christmas decorations at Michael’s when Quinn approached her and asked if she was a hairdresser. D’Orazio replied that many years ago she was, but hadn’t done it in a long time.

“I must have been having a good hair day, because the next thing I knew, Joan was showing me pictures of the boutique on her iPad and encouraging me to join her,” said D’Orazio. “By the time I got to my car, I said, ‘what did I just agree to do?’”

Quinn freely admits she chased down D’Orazio and is glad she did. “Jan is very calm, and she makes people feel comfortable.”

Joni Provost also works with D’Orazio and Quinn as a volunteer coordinator for the Wig Boutique. The three women provide consulting services on selecting wigs. They do not cut or style the wigs, but encourage having that done at a hairdresser. Quinn said sometimes a woman brings along her hairdresser to the boutique. “We want people to feel this could be their hair and their length.”

A Cut Above

D’Orazio said one of the most rewarding parts of working at the Wig Boutique is seeing her clients change in demeanor.

She said many women who come in are feeling down and have what she described as a “cancer look.” The consultation helps to brighten their day and change their whole outlook.

“Last week, a lady came in who is fighting her third bout with breast cancer. When she was getting ready to leave, she was so happy and told me, ‘I feel like Cinderella; I don’t look like I have cancer anymore.’”

Those sentiments speak to how the boutique is providing not only hair and a certain look, but a chance for women to feel better about themselves as they confront perhaps the most difficult time in their lives.

Thus, it’s changing lives in a profound way.

Sports & Leisure

More History to Write

From left, Charlie Arment and Elizabeth and Bob VanZandt

From left, Charlie Arment and Elizabeth and Bob VanZandt stand in the main ballroom at Wyckoff Country Club, one of its many facilities that have undergone a facelift.

None of the members of the new ownership team at Wyckoff Country Club in Holyoke had spent any time on the golf course — or in the golf business — prior to their acquisition earlier this year.

But they did know a few things about what they were getting into. Actually, more than a few.

They knew how to run a business — Bob VanZandt Sr. has operated American Tire Sales & Service in Springfield for nearly 40 years, and Charlie Arment has been at the helm of Charlie Arment Trucking in Springfield, a 65-year-old family business, since 1978.

Beyond that, well, they knew that there was still some history to be written at Wyckoff, originally known as Mount Tom Country Club, a Donald Ross design that has seen many changes over the decades and, like most all clubs, has suffered greatly in recent years as interest in the game has waned.

Most importantly, the new owners — VanZandt and his wife, Elizabeth, and Arment and his brother, William — who acquired the property from long-time owner Clarence “Clarky” Wojtowicz, understood that the golf business isn’t really the golf business anymore. Instead, it’s the entertainment and hospitality business, with golf as a big part of the equation, and they believe that Wyckoff, after some renovations and additions to the landscape, could certainly thrive in that environment.

“It’s more than the golf here — you have to diversify, which we did,” said VanZandt. “We’ll be able to make it because of the banquet facilities upstairs and downstairs, the kitchen, and the golf shop; it’s an attractive package.”

But it’s a package that needed some work, to be sure, and the new owners are supplementing their original purchase of the property — roughly 120 acres in total —with additional investments in both the course and, especially, the clubhouse, in an effort to capitalize on what they consider an attractive location (just off I-91 roughly halfway between Springfield and Northampton) and a solid foundation on which to build.

“No one wanted Wyckoff to go away. While some of the members had questions and concerns, this is what they wanted to see happen here — some improvements inside and out and attention to what the members wanted.”

Elaborating, VanZandt said the course — altered significantly by the construction of I-91 in the mid-’60s — is a hidden gem to many but certainly appreciated by members. Meanwhile, the main banquet facility is one of the largest in the region and can seat 470 for weddings and other events.

“There aren’t many rooms like that in this region — not many places where you can have a wedding or Christmas party or other event and host nearly 500 people,” he noted. “And there’s another room downstairs that holds 130 for bridal showers, brunches, and other events.”

Describing the work done inside to date, VanZandt and Arment said it involves modernizing and improving many of the facilities while also making some needed additions. Regarding the former, VanZandt started with a reference to a hallway on the lower level.

“This was all covered with green wallpaper — I think it was from the ’80s, but it might have been the ’60s; I’m not sure. Anyway, it needed to go,” he said, pointing to the bright white paint on the wall.

Meanwhile, a major renovation of the smaller, lower-level banquet room is underway, replacing wood paneling from several decades ago with a much more modern look. And just off a 19th hole that has been given a minor facelift, work is set to begin on a large patio that will be used by members and event attendees alike.

There are a number of events, said Elizabeth VanZandt, referring to everything from a recent St. Patrick’s Day dinner to planned brunches on Easter and Mother’s Day; from a Friday-night winter concert series to a tradition at Wyckoff known simply as ‘Wednesday Burger Night,’ a name that tells you all you need to know.

Bob VanZandt and Charlie Arment stand near a new patio that will soon be built at Wyckoff.

Bob VanZandt and Charlie Arment stand near a new patio that will soon be built at Wyckoff.

A sign of the times —

A sign of the times — literally; clubs like Wyckoff are now hosting a number of non-golf events to maximize revenues from their various facilities.

Meanwhile, on the course, Charlie Arment Trucking, which has done work on several area golf courses, has started on a number of projects at Wyckoff. Plans call for repairing sand traps, cleaning up ponds, renovating cart paths, clearing overgrown brush and trees, and restoring the ‘Wyckoff Country Club’ sign visible from I-91.

“The course was in pretty tough shape, but we’ve had people out cleaning it and getting it ready,” said Arment, adding that, while there was a soft opening in late March, the course will not be officially open until the end of this month, with the first tournaments scheduled for early May.

Summing up their plans, the new owners said they plan to continue things as they have been for the past 60 years or so — but, as noted, also make some much-needed improvements and additions. They knew considerable work was needed, but wanted to hear from members about what they thought, and received generous amounts of feedback at a meeting early this past winter.

“We asked them what they wanted, and we’re fulfilling what they wanted, and that’s what bringing membership back up,” said VanZandt, adding that the list of requests included everything from much-needed work on the sand traps to new lighting and carpeting in the 19th hole.

Moving forward, the new owners plan to be aggressive in getting the word out about Wyckoff through some targeted marketing, and they said that word-of-mouth marketing has already generated a solid response.

Membership that once exceeded 400 is now closer to 150, and the new owners obviously hope their investments and ongoing work to get the message out will bring that number considerably higher.

“No one wanted Wyckoff to go away,” Arment said. “While some of the members had questions and concerns, this is what they wanted to see happen here — some improvements inside and out and attention to what the members wanted. We’re seeing very positive feedback — a lot of past members are very interested in getting involved again.”

If this trend continues, then a course with some rich history can continue adding new chapters to that discourse for decades to come.

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

Employment

Understanding PFML

John Gannon says there are always hot topics within the broad realm of employment law. And sometimes — actually quite often these days — there are what he called “sizzling hot” topics.

The state’s Paid Family and Medical Leave (PFML) law certainly falls in that latter category. Provisions of the bill, specifically the contributions to be paid by employers, go into effect on July 1. The actual law itself doesn’t take effect until Jan. 1, 2021, but the time between now and then will go by quickly, said Gannon, an employment-law specialist with Springfield-based Skoler, Abbott & Presser, adding that employers should do whatever they can to be ready. And there are things they can do, which we’ll get to in a minute.

First, the law itself. Gannon used the single word ‘scary’ to describe it, and he was referring to the reaction of employers large and small who simply don’t know how this piece of legislation, which makes the acronym PFML a new and important part of the business lexicon, will affect their business but have a good right to be scared because of how generous it is.

“This is a payroll tax at its core. So I think employers are going to have questions about how and whether they’re going to be billed, what their tax contributions are going to be, and other concerns.”

Gannon is expecting the Paid Family and Medical Leave Law to be among the main focal points of conversation at the firm’s annual Labor and Employment Law Conference, set for May 21 at the Sheraton Springfield. The conference is staged each year to help local businesses stay abreast of laws and regulations relating to labor issues, said Gannon, and this year there will certainly be a number of issues to discuss. Indeed, breakout sessions are slated on a host of topics, including PFML; wage-and-hour mistakes; harassment, discrimination, and why employers get sued; a labor and employment-law update, how to handle requests for reasonable accommodations (there will be a panel discussion on that topic); and how to conduct an internal investigation.

But Gannon told BusinessWest that paid family and medical leave will likely be the focus of much of the discussion and many of the questions, primarily because the law represents a significant change in the landscape, and business owners and human resources personnel have questions about what’s coming at them.

The first of these questions concerns the contributions to start July 1.

“This is a payroll tax at its core,” he explained. “So I think employers are going to have questions about how and whether they’re going to be billed, what their tax contributions are going to be, and other concerns.”

A 30-page set of draft regulations was recently released by the Executive Office of Labor and Workforce Development’s Department of Family and Medical Leave, and that same office has issued a toolkit for employers with information on everything from remitting and paying contributions to notifying their workforce to applying for exemptions.

There’s quite a bit to keep track of, said Gannon, adding that, under the new law, Massachusetts employees will be eligible to take up to 12 weeks of paid family leave (up to 26 weeks in certain circumstances) and up to 20 weeks of paid medical leave. In most cases, leave may be taken intermittently or on a reduced-schedule basis.

Family leave can be taken to bond with a new child, for qualifying exigency related to a family member on (or called to) active duty or to care for a family member who is in the service, or to care for a family member with a “serious health condition.” Medical leave can be taken for the employee’s own “serious health condition.”

 

John S. Gannon

John S. Gannon

“Someone has a medical impairment, and they need a new chair, or someone needs to change their schedule — they can’t work mornings anymore — or whatever the change in job structure they’re requesting … these matters can get complicated. How do companies handle these requests? Do they have to grant them? How do they work with employees? These are all questions this panel will address.”

In most cases, the annual cap for family leave is 12 weeks, 20 weeks for medical leave, and 26 weeks total cap for both, if needed.

The employee must give at least 30 days notice of the need for leave or as much notice as practicable. The weekly benefit amount maximum is $850 to start; in future years, it will be capped at 64% of state average weekly wage. The weekly benefits will be funded by contributions from payroll deductions into a state trust fund. The initial rate will be 0.063% of the employee’s wages. Employers may require employees to contribute up to 40% toward medical leave and up to 100% for family leave. Employers with fewer than 25 employees are exempt from paying the employer share of the contributions.

Employers must continue employee health-insurance benefits and premium contributions during any period of family or medical leave, said Gannon, and they must restore employees who return from leave to their previous, or an equivalent, position, with the same status, pay, benefits, and seniority, barring intervening layoffs or changed operating conditions.

There are many other conditions and bits of fine print, he told BusinessWest, adding that, while Jan. 1, 2021 is a long seven business quarters away, business owners and managers can and should start to prepare themselves for that day.

They can start by asking questions and getting answers, he said, adding that small businesses with fewer than 50 employees have not had to deal with federal family medical leave regulations and thus are treading into uncharted waters.

“They’re going to have to start thinking about how they’re going to manage this from a staffing perspective,” he said, adding that he is expecting a number of queries along these lines at the May 21 conference and the months to follow.

“Employers have to start thinking about this and getting ready for this now because of how generous the leave portion of this is,” he explained. “This is going to be a real challenge for employers.”

But overall, it’s just one of many challenges facing employers in the wake of the #metoo movement and other forces within employment law, all of which can have a significant impact on a business and its relative health and well-being.

Handling requests for reasonable accommodations is another area of concern, he noted, and that’s why the conference will feature a panel of experts addressing what has become a somewhat tricky subject for many business owners and managers.

“Someone has a medical impairment, and they need a new chair, or someone needs to change their schedule — they can’t work mornings anymore — or whatever the change in job structure they’re requesting … these matters can get complicated,” he explained. “How do companies handle these requests? Do they have to grant them? How do they work with employees? These are all questions this panel will address.”

For more information on the conference, visit skoler-abbott.com/training-programs.

— George O’Brien

Architecture Construction

Designs on Growth

As one local architect noted, we’re far enough away from the last recession to start worrying about the next one — and recessions tend to hit this sector particularly hard. Still, despite mixed signals in the long-term economic picture nationally, work remains steady locally, with municipalities, colleges, and businesses of all kinds continuing to invest in capital projects. Even if storm clouds do appear down the road, the 2019 outlook in architecture seems bright.

Curtis Edgin put it in simple terms when asked how 2019 is shaping up in the architecture sector.

“We’re busy; I can’t complain,” he told BusinessWest. Those five words sum up a strong outlook in an industry that tends to be a leading indicator for the economy as a whole — when things slow down, construction, finance, and other areas tend to follow — and is currently trending up, or at least holding steady.

“We’re far from the last recession — maybe far enough to worry about the next one,” said Edgin, a principal with Caolo & Bieniek Associates (CBA) in Chicopee. “But I don’t see that coming yet, looking at our workload.”

The American Institute of Architects (AIA) reports a similar outlook, with architecture firm billings nationally strengthening to a level not seen in the previous 12 months. Indicators of work in the pipeline, including inquiries into new projects and the value of new design contracts, also improved in January.

“The government shutdown affected architecture firms but doesn’t appear to have created a slowdown in the profession,” AIA Chief Economist Kermit Baker noted. “While AIA did hear from a few firms that were experiencing significant cash-flow issues due to the shutdown, the data suggests that the majority of firms had no long-term impact.”

Broken down by region, the Northeast is performing better than the West, but slightly trailing the South (which continues to rebuild from a rough 2018 hurricane season) and the Midwest. Nationally, billings softened slightly in February from the January pace, but remain strong in the big-picture sense, Baker said. “Overall, business conditions at architecture firms across the country have remained generally healthy.”

Curtis Edgin says specializing in a range of diverse niches is a plus for any firm

Curtis Edgin says specializing in a range of diverse niches is a plus for any firm, serving as a buffer against a downturn in any one area.

Jonathan Salvon, a principal with Kuhn Riddle Architects in Amherst, reports strong business as well, especially in the education realm, traditionally a strength for the firm, with projects for UMass and a historic-renovation conversion project for Elms College.

“Then there’s a mix of multi-family housing and commercial projects,” he told BusinessWest. “We’ve got a new office building for Way Finders going up on the old Peter Pan site in Springfield, which is our biggest commercial project at the moment. And there’s a 36-unit, multi-family housing project going up on University Drive in Amherst.”

Caolo & Bieniek, known for its wide range of public projects, from schools to fire and police stations, has expanded its base of private projects since merging with Reinhardt Associates in 2017.

“It’s been kind of a good synergy. We’ve blended our strengths and their strengths,” Edgin said, noting that one example is the recently completed Baystate Health & Wellness Center on the Longmeadow-East Longmeadow line, as Reinhardt has a solid history in medical office buildings.

“E-commerce has been growing at about three times the rate of traditional brick-and-mortar sales. The slowdown in housing hasn’t helped, as new residential development often spurs new retail construction activity. Instead, larger shares of investment in these facilities is going to the renovation of existing buildings.”

Other recent CBA projects recently started or well underway include a senior center in West Boylston, a police station in Williamstown, a public-safety complex in Lenox, a renovation of Chicopee’s public-safety facility, a pre-K to grade-8 school in Easthampton, and some work with UMass Amherst, Westfield State University, and other colleges.

“There’s a good mix of private and public, and we seem to be doing a fair amount of work with human-services agencies,” Edgin added, noting that the firm just did a project for Guidewire in Chicopee, and Sunshine Village in the city has also been a consistent client. “We seem to have a bit going in that sector right now. We’re busy, and it’s a good mix all around.”

Strong Pace, but Red Flags

The AIA suggests that growth in architecture should continue at least through 2020, but a number of emerging red flags suggest a cautious outlook.

Spending on non-residential buildings nationally is projected to grow by 4.4% this year, paced by healthy gains in the industrial and institutional building sectors, it notes. For 2020, growth is projected to slow to 2.4%, with essentially no increase in spending on commercial facilities, but gains in the 3% range in the industrial and institutional categories.

“Still,” Baker said, “there is growing concern inside and outside of the industry that a broader economic downturn may be materializing over the next 12 to 24 months.”

Nationally, growth in gross domestic product is estimated to be close to 3% in 2019, while the job market continues to be healthy, with more than 2.6 million net new payroll jobs added in 2018, an improvement over 2017’s figure of just under 2.2 million. In fact, the national unemployment rate was below 4% for most of 2018. Consumer-sentiment levels remained strong, and the nation’s factories also were busy, with industrial output achieving its strongest growth in almost a decade.

Jonathan Salvon says one of his firm’s three ‘legs,’ residential work, has been impacted by a slowdown in single-family construction

Jonathan Salvon says one of his firm’s three ‘legs,’ residential work, has been impacted by a slowdown in single-family construction over the past decade, but a rising portfolio of multi-family projects has picked up the slack.

However, there are several signals that point to an emerging slowdown in the broader economy, and therefore in the construction sector, Baker noted. These include declines in leading economic indicators, weakness in some key sectors of the economy, and softness in the markets of major U.S. trading partners. “These signals may be temporary responses to negative short-term conditions, but historically they have preceded a more widespread downturn.”

Meanwhile, since dropping sharply during the Great Recession, housing starts have had a very slow recovery, the AIA notes, and Salvon can attest to that reality locally. But Kuhn Riddle has adjusted in other ways.

“We’ve always been a stool with three legs,” he said. “One-third is work for various colleges, charter schools, prep schools, secondary schools, and even some day cares — we run the whole gamut in education. The second third is residential work; in the past, before the 2009 recession, that was often single-family residences. That market has never really come back, at least for us. But we’ve been lucky to develop a new market in multi-family projects.”

The third leg is a variety of commercial projects, including office buildings, restaurants, and bank renovations, to name a few, Salvon said.

“Hopefully we all stay busy. But we do know it goes in cycles; we’ve been through plenty of slower times and a lot of boom times. But we’ve been very blessed. We’re pretty busy and hope to stay that way.”

Nationally, Baker sees design work on the commercial front as a bit of a mixed bag at the moment.

“Business investments often reflect what corporate leaders feel is the growth potential for their companies. Investment nationally in new plants and equipment saw healthy growth in 2017 and through the first half of 2018, but slowed significantly beginning in the third quarter of last year,” he noted. “Given the recent trends in business-confidence scores, investment is unlikely to accelerate anytime soon. Business confidence fell sharply through 2018, with the fourth quarter showing the lowest levels in six years.”

In the Bay State, the picture is equally muddy. The Business Confidence Index issued monthly by Associated Industries of Massachusetts (AIM) reported a gain in February after dropping in January to its lowest level in more than two years.

“Employers remain generally optimistic about a state economy that continues to run at full-employment levels and a U.S. economy that is projected to grow by 2.2% this year,” said Raymond Torto, Chair of AIM’s Board of Economic Advisors and a lecturer at the Harvard Graduate School of Design. “At the same time, the erosion of confidence among Massachusetts manufacturers during the past 12 months raises some concern about the long-term sustainability of the recovery.”

On a sector-by-sector basis, Baker reported, design work for retail facilities continues to suffer from the growth on online shopping.

“E-commerce has been growing at about three times the rate of traditional brick-and-mortar sales. The slowdown in housing hasn’t helped, as new residential development often spurs new retail construction activity,” he noted. “Instead, larger shares of investment in these facilities is going to the renovation of existing buildings.”

On the other hand, office projects represent the strongest commercial sector in construction right now, with 5% growth projected for this year and 1% in 2020. “This sector has benefited from strong job growth and the apparent bottoming out of the years-long decline in office space per employee,” Baker said. “Much of the increase has come from the booming technology sector, so the outlook is dependent on continued growth in this industry sector.”

Meanwhile, eds and meds — or education and healthcare, two pillars of the Western Mass. economy — represent very healthy sectors nationally for architects and general contractors. AIA projects 5.5% in the education sector this year and an additional 4% in 2020, and 4% growth in healthcare in 2019 followed by 3.6% in 2020. 

“We’re pretty diversified and active in a lot of different environments,” Edgin said. “It’s not just schools, not just police stations, not just fire stations, but a little bit of everything.” He cited the recent renovation of Polish National Credit Union’s Front Street branch in Chicopee, as well as a new Arrha Credit Union branch in West Springfield and a project with the Boys and Girls Club of West Springfield. “A lot of things take a while, so it’s that advance planning that keeps you busy a year or two from now.”

Leading Indicator

Baker reported that business conditions at U.S. architecture firms in 2018, as measured by AIA’s Architecture Billings Index (ABI), were essentially unchanged from 2017.

“Since the ABI has been shown to lead construction spending by an average of nine to 12 months, this would suggest that the growth in spending on non-residential buildings in 2019 should be close to the growth rate of 2018,” he noted. “Additionally, new design contracts coming into architecture firms grew at a healthy pace in 2018, underscoring the robust level of backlogs currently enjoyed by most firms.”

Meanwhile, Dodge Data & Analytics recently released its 2019 Dodge Construction Outlook, which predicted that total U.S. construction starts for 2019 will be $808 billion, staying essentially even with the $807 billion estimated for 2018.

“There are, of course, mounting headwinds affecting construction, namely rising interest rates and higher material costs, but for now these have been balanced by the stronger growth for the U.S. economy, some easing of bank lending standards, still-healthy market fundamentals for commercial real estate, and greater state financing for school construction and enhanced federal funding for public works,” said Robert Murray, chief economist for Dodge Data & Analytics.

Locally, both architects and builders are maintaining the same sort of cautious optimism, at least in the short term.

“Right now, it’s strong,” Edgin said. “We’ve increased our staffing.”

Finding talented staff remains a challenge, he said, because strong growth among architecture firms in general means stiff competition, and Greater Springfield isn’t always a top destination for young professionals in the field compared to, say, Boston or New York, where pay scales are higher (but, of course, so is the cost of living).

Salvon understands that reality as well, but said Kuhn Riddle has benefited from its location in downtown Amherst, where it has easy access to the UMass architecture program. “We’ve been a little spoiled — we’ve been privileged to get some employees out of that program over the last decade or so, and we’ve tried to make a nice work environment, so people been staying here.”

All things considered, he told BusinessWest, the outlook seems strong in architecture locally, and others agree.

“We’ve been able to build some good staff and a good team, so we’re happy about that,” Edgin said. “Hopefully we all stay busy. But we do know it goes in cycles; we’ve been through plenty of slower times and a lot of boom times. But we’ve been very blessed. We’re pretty busy and hope to stay that way.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]