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Venturing Forth

Gregory Thomas says he’s energized by working with young entrepreneurs

Gregory Thomas says he’s energized by working with young entrepreneurs as the new executive director of the Berthiaume Center.

People may know the Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship from its public events, most notably the Innovation Challenge, where UMass Amherst students compete for seed money to turn entrepreneurial ideas into viable businesses. But the center’s new director, Gregory Thomas, wants to broaden the center’s reach and help more young people understand that the goal isn’t to win a competition — it’s to develop a true entrepreneurial mindset that will serve them well no matter where their lives take them.

On the surface, the UMass Amherst students who competed in the recent Minute Pitch at the university’s Berthiaume Center for Entrepreneurship were vying for a top prize of $1,000 and the ability to move to the next stage of competition in a program known as the Innovation Challenge.

But, on a broader level, there’s a lot more at stake.

Take, for example, the winner, an app called Find a Missing Kid, which aims to help identify missing or exploited children in public settings like schools, routine traffic stops, and public transportation. It was proposed by Grace Hall, Arta Razavi, and Cameron Harvey.

Earning second prize was Let’s Talk About It, developed by Ashley Olafsen and Thomas Leary, which seeks to provide relevant wellness-related curriculum to schools and individuals, with a focus on topics like mental health, self-esteem, consent, eating disorders, and relationships.

Third prize went to Devin Clark for Digital Mapping Consultants, with the goal of producing crop-health maps for the agricultural industry in order to guide precision agriculture to increase yields while reducing inputs throughout the growing season.

These are all with the potential to change the world — or, at least, dramatically change the lives of individuals who use them.

Gregory Thomas likes when ideas like that emerge, and are given the support to advance beyond the idea stage. And, as the new executive director of the Berthiame Center, he wants to see more of them.

“We need to figure out how to get more stuff into the funnel,” Thomas told BusinessWest. “The more ideas and more ventures we get coming through the funnel, the more we get on the other end, stimulating the economy.”

The Innovation Challenge, a four-part entrepreneurship competition that launches promising ventures to the next levels of startup, is perhaps the best-known of the Berthiaume Center’s initiatives, but Thomas is hoping to increase the center’s impact in other ways, both on campus and off — and even across the planet, through ventures that break through to market.

Grace Hall receives the top prize in the Minute Pitch

Grace Hall receives the top prize in the Minute Pitch from Gregory Thomas (left) and Tom Moliterno, interim dean of the Isenberg School of Management.

“Our mission is to teach students how to be a successful entrepreneur, how to run a venture so it’s successful — which includes knowing when to pivot and shut down an idea and find a new one,” he noted. “We also encourage curiosity — what really drives you. You may have a cool idea, but who would buy it and why? How would you make money? We have to teach those fundamentals to our ventures. Otherwise, they’re just polishing presentations to win a challenge. The challenge is the carrot to get them in the door. After that, we teach them to be entrepreneurs.”

He added that most of these students aren’t going to become the next Steve Jobs, but whether they wind up working for somebody or start their own business, entrepreneurial skills translate well to the workplace, and will always make them more effective on whatever path they choose.

That’s why he wants to broaden Berthiaume’s programs and keep students interested in them — not just those who win money to advance their ideas, but the ones who didn’t make the finals, or didn’t apply in the first place. Because those students, too, have ideas that could one day change lives.

“What can we do to help them perfect their craft and work on their ventures and keep them in our ecosystem, continue to educate them?” Thomas said. “There’s a reason why we’re not getting everything into the funnel, and that’s something I’d like to work on with key leaders on campus. How do we get more into the funnel?”

There’s plenty of room in that funnel, he said, and sufficient brainpower on campus — and well beyond it — to help students not just win a prize, but think like entrepreneurs for the long term.

Growing an Idea

Ask Julie Bliss Mullen about that. She developed an innovative technology that uses electricity for water filtration. In 2016, trying to figure out how to bring the idea to market, she filed a provisional patent with UMass and enrolled in entrepreneurship courses to further understand the commercialization process.

“The Berthiaume Center has been instrumental in making my ideas reality,” Bliss Mullen told BusinessWest. “As a Ph.D. student, I was used to conducting research, but had no clue what to do with an idea, let alone form a startup. They helped me to put things into perspective, making me think about what box I envision the water-purification device being sold to consumers even before I came up with a name for the company. This kind of thinking quickly made my idea a reality.”

The center also helped her vet potential co-founders for her business. While taking a graduate-level entrepreneurship class, she met Barrett Mully, a fellow at the Berthiaume Center who was attending the class as a teaching assistant. The two partnered up and eventually won the top award at the Innovation Challenge, claiming $26,000 in seed money to help jump-start the company, which was initially named ElectroPure and later renamed Aclarity.

Tom Moliterno (left) and Gregory Brand (right) present the third prize in the Minute Pitch competition to Devin Clark.

Tom Moliterno (left) and Gregory Brand (right) present the third prize in the Minute Pitch competition to Devin Clark.

They were accepted into the inaugural Berthiaume Summer Accelerator in 2017, and it used that experience to continue customer discovery, meet with mentors, work with the university toward converting the patent, develop a business strategy, and advance technology research and development. The company won additional seed funding — including a $27,500 prize from the Valley Venture Mentors Accelerator Awards earlier this year — and embarked on a collaboration effort with Watts Water Technologies Inc. to help bring a residential product to market.

“It was through Berthiaume that I learned how important product-market fit and developing and testing a business model is,” Bliss Mullen told BusinessWest, adding that they were introduced to investors, subject-matter experts, accelerators, grant agencies, and mentors through the Summer Accelerator. “I’ve always had a spark for entrepreneurship, but it was really Berthiaume that guided me through the unknowns and made me realize my passion.”

The Innovation Challenge, simply put, is a series of competitions designed to assist and reward UMass students and young alumni pursuing a novel business idea and developing it into a marketable product. The goal is for interdisciplinary teams to conceptualize a product with regard to its scientific and technological design, identify customers, and create a business plan for the product’s commercialization.

The first phase is the Minute Pitch, the event won last month by Find a Missing Kid. True to the name, students have 60 seconds to pitch their venture ideas to a panel of judges. No written business models or plans are required, and mentors are on site to provide feedback.

The second phase is the Seed Pitch Competition, in which participants form business models and perfect their elevator pitch. Where the Minute Pitch offers $2,500 in total awards, this second step distributes $15,000 to select teams as determined by the judges.

The third phase, the semifinal, simulates an investor boardroom experience, in which the young entrepreneurs present their venture to a panel of judges in a closed-door setting and compete for a spot in the final. During that final, the best projects vie for a total of $65,000 in seed money to move their ventures forward.

Events like that are complemented by a series of entrepreneurship classes across campus, student clubs focused on different elements of entrepreneurship, the Summer Accelerator, and partnerships with organizations across the Valley.

“The first chapter of Berthiaume was really focused on building a foundation of events and curriculum for UMass students — and, quite honestly, it has been a limited group of UMass students,” Thomas said.

While the center has distributed more than $300,000 to new ventures and built partnerships across campus and the Valley, he added, the next step will be to broaden all of that.

Thomas Leary and Ashley OIafsen took second prize in last month’s Minute Pitch.

Thomas Leary and Ashley OIafsen took second prize in last month’s Minute Pitch.

“We want to expand on campus and expand partnerships in the Valley with organizations like VentureWell, which focuses on entrepreneurship and training, and Valley Venture Mentors and the EDC. We should be building and rebuilding our connections there,” he went on. “Today, Berthiaume is a catalytic entity to stimulate entrepreneurship and entrepreneurial thinking in the ecosystem.”

Building a Network

To that end, the center has started building a “mentor network” of community leaders and social entrepreneurs, he explained. “It could be alumni and entrepreneurs who are interested in volunteering their time to coach our team, so they can get better at not just reaching out in the community, but expanding our community and growing the ecosytem.”

Thomas brings a broad base of business experience to his current role of evolving the Berthiaume Center’s mission. Most recently, he held various senior-level global manufacturing, finance, and control roles with Corning Inc. During the last five years at Corning, he was a strategist in the Emerging Innovation Group, focusing on bringing new products, processes, and businesses to market.

“There are some cool things happening here,” he said. “For a guy who graduated from Technical High School in 1986 but hasn’t lived in Springfield for 32 years, it’s very exciting for me to come home and see all that’s going on. I’ve come home to a bustling Pioneer Valley.”

He also brings experience as a consultant to nonprofit organizations, as well as being a prolific volunteer and fundraiser. A 1991 alumnus of UMass Amherst, he never lost touch with his alma mater, recently serving as president of the UMass Amherst Alumni Assoc. board.

“I’ve been involved and seen most of the progress that UMass has made,” he told BusinessWest. “Now, instead of volunteering, I’m doing everything I love and used to do as a hobby, and being paid for it.”

Meanwhile, Stephen Brand, who has taught entrepreneurship at colleges and universities across the country, was recently named Berthuame’s new associate director. Thomas and Brand join Carly Forcade, operations and student engagement specialist; Amy LeClair, office manager; and Molly O’Mara, communications, events, and constituent relations coordinator, all of whom joined the center during the past year. Bruce Skaggs, Management Department chair, serves the center as its academic coordinator, aligning curricular offerings between Berthiaume and the various departments across UMass.

Recently, Thomas visited MIT to visit with Trish Cotter, executive director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship, to exchange ideas, including how to develop a system where people are interested in investing in startups in an altrutistic way — not angel funders looking for a return, “but people who just genuinely want to help them and will volunteer some of their time to strengthen our economy and our community,” he said.

It’s just one of many ideas being kicked around by Thomas, who said he stopped drinking coffee in August, yet is enjoying a higher energy level than ever, simply because he’s energized by the potential of the Berthiaume Center to make a difference in even more lives.

“It’s hard for me to sleep. I wake up ready to go. There are so many exciting things going on,” he told BusinessWest. “Entrepreneurship affects lives — and I’m excited to be back in the Pioneer Valley, seeing the impact of entrepreneurship on lives and communities.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Joseph Deedy (left) and Karl Stinehart say Southwick strikes a healthy balance between economic growth and outdoor attractions.

Joseph Deedy (left) and Karl Stinehart say Southwick strikes a healthy balance between economic growth and outdoor attractions.

A 250th anniversary celebration, Karl Stinehart says, is an opportunity in many ways for a town like Southwick.

“It’s tourism, it’s economic development, but it’s also history — people asking, ‘where do I live, and how do I value that? What is the history of my community?’” said Stinehart, the town’s chief administrative officer. “It was once known for its agricultural base and its ice houses. Now, the branding in town is more related to recreational opportunities.”

Southwick officials and volunteers have been meeting to plan a yearlong slate of anniversary events throughout 2019, securing a $25,000 state grant, with the help of state Sen. Don Humason and state Rep. Nicholas Boldyga, to plan activities, market events, and purchase street banners and commemorative merchandise, among other earmarks.

“We have a very active main committee that is being chaired by Jim Putnam, the town moderator,” Stinehart said. “They have a series of subworking groups working on different facets, and we’ve been reaching out to all the businesses to see how they want to participate and to what extent, whether it’s donating money or being involved with a float or an event or program.”

There’s plenty to celebrate as the anniversary approaches, Stinehart said, from recreational offerings — like boating on the Congamond Lakes, motocross events at the Wick 338, and town events at the 66-acre Whalley Park — to growth on the residential front, particularly two large developments.

Specifically, work continues on 26 homes at the new Noble Steed subdivision off Vining Hill Road, with 12 of those units already sold. Meanwhile, Fiore Realty is developing 65 to 70 homes at the former Southwick Country Club site, with 16 of the 23 sites on the west side of the property already sold; another 45 or so will later go up on the east side.

“It sounds like it’s full steam ahead over there,” said Joseph Deedy, who chairs Southwick’s Select Board.

As important as residential expansion is, Stinehart added, it’s as important to develop the main economic corridor in town, which runs along College Highway. “We want to balance any residential development with economic and business development.”

For instance, Deedy said, a new O’Reilly Auto Parts store is expected to open in February. “What’s nice about those folks is they actually purchased the property, so it’s not another leaseholder where it could be vacant in two years and sits for 10. They have a stake in the community, which is nice to see.”

The town also recently executed PILOT (payment in leiu of taxes) agreements with two solar farms on Goose Pond, off Congamond Road, Deedy added, noting that they will provide fiscal benefits to the town in an unobtrusive way. “These are landlocked parcels, so it’s not something people are going to see and be inconvenienced by.”

Ramping Up the Fun

What Southwick officials do want people — residents and visitors alike — to see is the array of recreational opportunities that have made this town of fewer than 10,000 residents a destination for tens of thousands of others.

For starters, outdoors enthusiasts enjoy the Metacomet/Monadnock Trail, as well as a 6.5-mile-long linear park, or rail trail, that runs through town from the Westfield border to the Suffield border. And the town’s two golf courses, Edgewood and the Ranch — not to mention the par-3 track at Longhi’s, near the Feeding Hills line — are doing well following the closure of Southwick Country Club, Deedy said.

Meanwhile, the lakes on the south side of town — featuring two boat ramps, a fishing pier, and a town beach — provide plenty of activity for residents. A $275,000 project recently renovated the south boat ramp on Berkshire Avenue, making it more modern and handicap-accessible, and the beachfront was recently renovated as well.

Southwick at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1770
Population: 9,502
Area: 31.7 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $17.47
Commercial Tax Rate: $17.47
Median Household Income: $52,296
Family Household Income: $64,456
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting; Board of Selectmen
Largest Employers: Big Y; Whalley Computer Associates; Southwick Regional School District
*Latest information available

Stinehart said the lakes and their environs are an important aspect of Southwick’s outdoor culture and worthy of investment, being, among other things, a major destination for freshwater fishing tournaments.

“Anytime you come by at 5 a.m., they’re out there,” Deedy added.

Then there’s the Wick 338, the motocross track behind the American Legion, which abuts the Southwick Recreation Center and Whalley Park. The complex hosts the annual Lucas Oil Pro Motocross Championship — which is broadcast live on NBC and draws some 15,000 to 18,000 people to town — as well about 25 other races throughout the year and a host of other events, including Rugged Maniac New England, a challenging, mud-splattered 5K obstacle course. That continual flow of visitors to town benefits a host of other businesses, from gas stations to restaurants, Stinehart noted.

As for Whalley Park itself — which was donated to the town by the prominent Whalley family and developed using municipal and Community Preservation Act funds — it includes a full-size soccer field, baseball field, and softball field, lighting for the fields, a huge kids’ play area, and a pavilion. Deedy said the town recently put up more lights and is looking to expand its roster of tournaments and other bookings.

“It’s getting recognized as a destination for leagues,” Stinehart added, adding that the Rotary presented a series of concerts there last summer, and the town is looking to present other types of shows that would be popular community draws. “It’s getting quite a diverse number of groups. It’s between the rec center and the school complex — that’s a great collection of parcels with different uses.”

Southwick has kept busy with needed infrastructure efforts as well, including a current project to improve the roadway and drainage on Congamond Road — a key entry into town from Connecticut — aided by more than $4 million in state funds. That follows a similar project that wrapped up last year on Feeding Hills Road.

“They’re adding sidewalks, a bike lane, and it will help connectivity to the rail trail and the lakes,” Stinehart said. “Those areas will be able to come right out to the Gillette’s Corner economic area. So some of these projects are about connecting and having access to places. Any place we have a recreational area, we want to be able to connect it to a commercial area.”

The town also tapped $500,000 from the state’s small-bridges program, while leveraging some local funds, to replace the Shurtleff Brook culvert on North Loomis Street, near the Westfield line, Deedy said, noting that all cities and towns could use more such assistance.

“Every single community has certain common denominators, and those are culverts and bridges and roads — and the need for additional money.”

“Every single community has certain common denominators, and those are culverts and bridges and roads — and the need for additional money,” Stinehart added.

Ongoing efforts to preserve open space nearby are also gaining ground, as the town continues to raise money toward the acquisition of a 144-acre parcel on North Pond at Congamond Lakes. The Mass. Department of Fisheries and Wildlife awarded Southwick money to help purchase it, and the Franklin Land Trust has embarked on a fund-raising effort to make up the difference in price. The parcel is abutted by two areas owned by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts and the state of Connecticut.

Why Southwick?

Overall, Deedy noted, the town offers plenty of incentives for businesses, ranging from proximity to Bradley International Airport to a singular tax rate of $17.47 for residential and commercial properties, as well as modern schools — the complex on Feeding Hills Road that houses Woodland Elementary School, Powder Mill Middle School, and Southwick Regional High School underwent significant additions and renovations in recent years — that have the space to accommodate Southwick’s developing neighborhoods.

Not to mention a leadership culture in town that promotes volunteerism opportunities and open communication, Deedy added.

“If you do have a problem, most of the leaders have a business, and you can walk right in. It happens daily. I don’t think anyone here has a closed-door policy,” he said. “A lot of times, most of the complaints people have are a phone call away to fix. It’s all about communication.”

These days, with the 250th anniversary coming up and continued progress on the residential, business, and recreational fronts, there are plenty of positives to communicate in this small but active community.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Features

Exciting STUFF

John Cook, president of Springfield Technical Community College

John Cook, president of Springfield Technical Community College, proudly displays the cribbage board given to him by students at Pathfinder Regional Technical High School in Palmer

John Cook, president of Springfield Technical Community College, says he doesn’t play the card game cribbage.

But that doesn’t mean the cribbage board given to him recently gathers dust sitting in a drawer or closet unused. In fact, it now occupies a prominent place on a desk already crowded with items that speak to his personal life and career in higher education.

That’s because the elaborate board was crafted by students at Pathfinder Regional Vocational Technical High School in Palmer. It’s fashioned from metal — Cook isn’t sure exactly what the material is, although he suspects it’s aluminum — and it’s truly a one-off, complete with his name and title printed on it.

As noted, Cook’s never used the gift for its intended purpose, but he’s found an even higher calling for it.

“I take this around, and I tell people that, if they can create one of these at one of those labs like the one at Pathfinder, there’s a $50,000-a-year job waiting for you,” he said as he started to explain, making it clear that his cribbage board has become yet another strategic initiative in a multi-faceted effort to educate people about careers in manufacturing and inspire them to get on the path needed to acquire one.

Other steps include everything from taking young people on tours of area plants — and their parking lots (more on that later) — to working with the parents of those people to convince them that today’s manufacturing jobs are certainly not like those of a generation, or two, or three, ago.

“I take this around, and I tell people that, if they can create one of these at one of those labs like the one at Pathfinder, there’s a $50,000-a-year job waiting for you.”

And there’s good reason for all the time and hard work put toward this cause. It’s all spelled out in the latest Workforce Development and Technology Report prepared as part of the Precision Manufacturing Regional Alliance Project, or PMRAP for short.

Indeed, the numbers on pages 7 and 8 practically jump off the page. The chart titled ‘Workforce Indicators’ reveals that the 41 companies surveyed for this report project that, between new production hires and replacement of retiring employees, they’ll need 512 new workers this year. Extrapolate those figures out over the entire precision-manufacturing sector, and the need is 1,400 to 1,500, said Dave Cruise, president and CEO of the MassHire Hampden County Workforce Board, formerly the Regional Employment Board of Hampden County. Meanwhile, the number of people graduating annually from programs at the region’s vocational high schools and STCC is closer to 300, he said, noting quickly, and with great emphasis, that not all of those graduates, especially at the high-school level, will go right into the workforce.

Those numbers translate into a huge gap and a formidable challenge for this region and its precision-manufacturing industry, said Cruise, Cook, and others we spoke with, adding that additional capacity, and a lot of it, in the form of trained machinists, must somehow be created to keep these plants humming. But before finding the capacity (the expensive manufacturing programs) required to train would-be machinists, the region must create demand for those programs. Right now, there certainly isn’t enough, hence strategic initiatives involving everything from plant tours to Cook’s traveling cribbage board.

BusinessWest has now become an active player in this initiative with an aptly named special publication called Cool STUFF Made in Western Mass. It’s called that to not only confirm that there are a lot of intriguing products made in this region — from parts for the latest fighter jets to industry-leading hand dryers to specialty papers — but to grab the attention of area young people; Cool STUFF will be distributed at middle schools and high schools with tech programs, regional workforce development offices, state college career counseling offices, non-manufacturing employers, top manufacturing firms, BusinessWest subscribers, guidance counselors, community colleges, and employment offices.

Sponsored by the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, the Massachusetts Manufacturing Extension Partnership, Associated Industries of Massachusetts, and MassDevelopment, Cool STUFF will include a number of profiles of area companies. These profiles will list the products made, the customers served, and the markets these companies supply. But the most important details are the job opportunities, the benefits paid, and the thoughts of those working for these companies.

As BusinessWest continues work on Cool STUFF, to be distributed later this fall (companies interested in purchasing profiles can still do so), it will use this edition of the magazine to set the table, if you will, by detailing the size and scope of the challenge facing this region when it comes to its manufacturing sector, and also highlighting many of the initiatives to address it.

Making Some Progress

Kristen Carlson is working on the front lines of the manufacturing sector’s workforce challenge — in a number of capacities, first as president of the local NTMA chapter, which has about 60 members, but also as owner and president of Peerless Precision in Westfield, a maker of parts for the aerospace and defense industries.

Kristin Carlson, owner of president of Peerless Precision

Kristin Carlson, owner of president of Peerless Precision, says area precision shops are very busy; the only thing holding them back is finding enough good help.

She told BusinessWest that business is booming for Peerless and most other precision manufacturers in this region, and it’s likely to stay that way for the foreseeable future — a fact lost on many not familiar with the high quality of work carried out at area shops and this region’s reputation across the country and around the world as a precision hub.

“In the precision-machining side of the manufacturing sector, companies are not leaving this area,” she explained while debunking one myth about this industry. “There is a skilled workforce here that other states simply cannot compete with. So while it might cost a company less to do business in Tennessee or South Carolina, for example, they’re not going to see the same skill that we need in order to produce the parts our customers need.

“Right now, every industry is booming — aerospace, defense, oil and gas, even the commercial sectors,” she went on. “A lot of us are seeing really large growth percentages over the past 12 months; the only thing that’s holding us back is having the workforce to fill the jobs that we have.”

Peerless has seen 30% growth over the past year, and added six new people over the first six months, she continued, adding that, several years ago, the pace would have been closer to one new person a year.

“I could double in size if I had the workers,” she told BusinessWest, adding that there are many in this sector who could likely say the same thing.

The challenge of inspiring more individuals to become interested in manufacturing is not exactly a recent phenomenon in this region; it’s been ongoing for some time. However, the problem has become more acute as shops continue to add work and also as the Baby Boom generation moves into retirement.

The problem becomes one of supply and demand. There is considerable demand, but simply not enough supply. In most matters involving this equation, supply usually catches up with demand, but this situation is different in many respects.

Indeed, there are many impediments to creating supply, starting with perceptions (or misperceptions, as the case may be) about this sector and lingering fears that jobs that might be there today won’t be there tomorrow. These sentiments are fueled by memories of those with the Boomer generation, who saw large employers such as the Springfield Armory, American Bosch, Uniroyal, Diamond Match, Digital Equipment Corp., Westinghouse, and others disappear from the landscape.

Dave Cruise

Dave Cruise says surveys of area precision manufacturers reveal a huge gap between expected need for workers and the region’s ability to supply them.

Meanwhile, another challenge is creating capacity. Manufacturing programs are expensive, said Rick Sullivan, president and CEO of the Economic Development Council (EDC) of Western Mass., adding that it’s also difficult to find faculty for such facilities because potential educators can make more money working in the field than they can in the classroom.

Regarding those perceptions, the obvious goal is to change the discussion, or the narrative, surrounding manufacturing, said Sullivan, by driving home the relative security of most jobs today and the fact that “these are not your grandfather’s manufacturing jobs.”

“Manufacturing today … is not, for the most part, standing at a machine doing some kind of manual labor,” he told BusinessWest. “The high-end precision manufacturers today are very technology-driven; there’s lot of computer science, lots of IT. It’s a clean environment, and the jobs in manufacturing, especially precision manufacturing, are very-good-paying jobs, and you can have a very good middle or upper-middle lifestyle, particularly in Western Massachusetts.”

Cook, whose school has several manufacturing programs and is the region’s clear leader in supplying workers for the industry, said that, despite the costs and challenges, additional capacity can and will be created — if (and this is a big if) demand for such programs grows and becomes steady.

That’s why Carlson and others say that manufacturers must sell this sector and its employment opportunities to not only the region’s young people, but also their parents.

“And their parents are often the harder sell,” said Carlson. “If I have a class of 20 kids come in and three or four or five of them show a real interest in manufacturing, I consider that a good day. But then, those kids go home, and selling it to their parents is the difficult part, because many of them still believe this is your grandfather’s machine shop — it’s a dark, dingy place, and only people who can’t go to college do that work, which is not the case.”

Meanwhile, young people are not the only targets. Indeed, other constituencies include those who are unemployed and underemployed, those looking for new careers, and the region’s large and still-growing African-American and Latino populations.

Across all those subgroups, women have become a focal point, in part because they — and, again, their parents — have not looked upon manufacturing as a viable career option when, in fact, it is just that.

“We know there are really well-paying jobs out there, but there’s a lot of work to be done to invite new individuals into this career path,” said Cook. “And I talk about two groups in particular — women and students of color — and there’s work to be done there. We have to engage families, and at much younger ages.”

Still Some Work to Do

It’s called the Twisters Café.

That’s the name given to a ’50s-style diner at Sanderson MacLeod in Palmer, a maker of twisted wire brushes for the cosmetic, healthcare, handgun, and other markets.

It was created a year or so ago, not long after the company also added an appropriately named ‘appreciation garden,’ an outdoor break area complete with picnic tables, chairs, umbrellas, and more.

The additions are part of ongoing efforts to make the workplace more, well, livable and attractive to employees and potential employees.

“They’re little things, but they make this a better environment,” said Mark Borsari, the company’s president. “People are here more than they’re at home, and we hope these steps make this a more enjoyable place to be.”

Those sentiments are yet another indication of how manufacturing has changed in recent years. And making people aware of not just perks like the Twisters Café, but also, and more importantly, the jobs and careers available in manufacturing today, is the broad, multi-faceted mission of a growing group of individuals, agencies, and companies.

This constituency includes the EDC, the various MassHire agencies, the vocational high schools and STCC, the NTMA, and individual manufacturers.

Shop owners will go into the schools themselves to talk about what they do and how, said Sullivan, and the shops will host tours of students, taking them onto the floor, and later into the parking lot.

“That’s a big part of these tours,” he said. “They show the students what they can do, what they can have, with the money they can earn from one of these jobs.”

And such initiatives are starting to generate results on some levels, said Sullivan, noting that many of the vocational schools now have waiting lists, especially for their manufacturing programs — something that didn’t exist a decade ago or even five years ago, when such schools were largely viewed as the best option for students not suited for a typical college-bound curriculum.

But those numbers on pages 7 and 8 of the PMRAP report show there is still a huge gap between demand and the current supply, and therefore there is still considerable work to be done, said Cruise, noting that the goal moving forward is to reach more people overall, more young people, and young people at an earlier age.

Cook agreed, and to get his point across, he brought out another item he’s collected — a fidget spinner made by a young student during a summer STEM program staged at the STCC campus.

“We have to do more of that,” he explained. “We have to do more work with younger students; we have to engage their families over the summer, and we have to let the young people get their hands on the equipment and build things like this. And we have to do things like this at scale — we have to start inviting far larger groups of students to our campus to see these programs.”

Cook does a lot of promotional work for the manufacturing sector — and STCC’s programs — himself, and his cribbage board is very often part of the presentation.

“I bring it to meetings every once in a while,” he explained. “It’s that teacher in me that still likes to use something physical for people to see, to touch, and to hold. They can realize that there’s still a very important place for this in our economy, and there’s nothing better than to put this into people’s hands and make them realize that that’s something significant about the ability to generate something like this.”

Cool STUFF will hopefully act like that cribbage board in that young people can see the products many area companies are making, and, in the snapshot profiles of these company’s employees, they can maybe see themselves in a few years.

“Manufacturing has a rich history in this region, but too many people think ‘history’ means ‘in the past,’” said BusinessWest Associate Publisher Kate Campiti. “There’s still history being written in this sector, and the future looks exceedingly bright. Cool STUFF will hopefully drive this point home and encourage young people to include manufacturing in their list of career options.”

Parts of the Whole

Carlson was talking about the salaries and benefits offered by her company — most workers are paid $1,000 a week or more — when she paused for a moment.

“When you add up wages, overtime, and everything else, there are a few guys here making more money than I do,” she said, adding that this is not an exaggeration, but it is a fact lost on many young people, their parents, and other constituencies.

Bringing such facts, and numbers, to life is an ongoing priority for the region, and Cool STUFF will become part of the answer moving forward, as will John Cook’s cribbage board, plant parking-lot tours, and much more.

The stakes are high, but so is the number of opportunities — for potential job holders, the companies that will employ them, and the region as a whole.

People need to be made aware of these opportunities, said all those we spoke with, and, more importantly, inspired to reach for them.

(For more information on Cool STUFF Made in Western Mass., on how to have your company profiled, for advertising opportunities, and to receive copies, call (413) 781-8600.)

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

Features

Test Driving a New Model

Paul Mina

Paul Mina says the United Way of Pioneer Valley has to go back to basics in many respects, but it also has to do a lot of outside-the-box thinking.

Steve Lowell says he took the phone call back in early August; he doesn’t recall the exact date.

Everything else, though, he remembers quite clearly.

That’s because on the other end of the line was Paul Mina, president and CEO of the United Way of Tri County, who asked for a moment of Lowell’s time — and used it to get a whole lot more than that.

Mina was calling Lowell, president and CEO of Monson Savings Bank, and chairman of the board of the United Way of Pioneer Valley (UWPV), with a proposition of sorts, a unique partnership that has many potential — and, in some cases, already real — benefits for both United Ways.

That partnership comes in the form of a management agreement (two and a half years in length) whereby UWTC, as it’s called, will essentially share a CEO (Mina) with UWPV and handle backroom operations — bookkeeping, marketing, and others — for this region’s United Way for a percentage of the funds raised during its annual campaign.

This partnership, forged after several years of unsettledness at the top for UWPV — it has seen two CEOs and two interim CEOs since early 2016 — brings what Lowell called some “much-needed stability,” while also enabling UWPV to maintain its autonomy at a time when many such agencies are entering into mergers.

But it also gains much more, including perhaps $200,000 in savings on administrative costs and, even more importantly, a CEO with 30 years of experience working within the United Way family, said Lowell, adding that Mina brings a wealth of experience, and energy, to his expanded role.

“We needed some stability in the organization, and we needed a forward-looking, positive strategy,” he explained. “And in talking with Paul, our board of directors became convinced that he could do all that; he’s hit the ground running and done more in the month he’s been on board than I would have thought possible.”

Mina’s comments on his expanded duties and his approach to them echo those sentiments.

 

Steve Lowell

Steve Lowell

“We needed some stability in the organization, and we needed a forward-looking, positive strategy. And in talking with Paul, our board of directors became convinced that he could do all that; he’s hit the ground running and done more in the month he’s been on board than I would have thought possible.”

 

“I’m not a United Way CEO who hangs around and goes to meetings,” he told BusinessWest. “I’m a get-your-hands-dirty, fundraising person; I’m the chief fundraiser here, and I’m the chief fundraiser at our other office in Framingham, and I lead by example in that regard.”

By that, he meant that he’s generally not in his office at 1441 Main St. and is instead on the road, visiting area companies and stressing to decision makers that, while the times, and charitable giving habits, have changed, the United Way is still relevant, and it still plays a pivotal role within the community it serves.

“The first thing I said to everyone here in Springfield when we met on the first day was, ‘take your job descriptions and throw them out the window,’” he went on. “That’s because we’re all fundraisers, and that includes people who never leave this office.”

Such energy — and such a focus on fundraising — will certainly be necessary because, as most know, this United Way is much smaller (in every way) than it was a decade or even five years ago, especially when it comes to annual donations.

Indeed, this was a $5 million United Way — that’s the parlance used — earlier this decade, and is now closer to a $2 million agency. The loss of financial-services giant MassMutual as a major contributor — that corporation now gives back to the community through its own foundation — has been a major factor in the decline of the UWPV, but there are other factors as well.

These include changes within the business community, especially the smaller number of locally based banks and other types of companies, as well as those noted changes in how many individuals and businesses give back. Many now donate directly to a specific cause or charity, often through vehicles like the hugely successful Valley Gives program.

In response to these trends, and to bring its numbers higher, UWPV has to go back to basics in some respects, some Mina, and remind companies why it’s so important to support the United Way.

But it must also think outside the box, which in this case means beyond the traditional payroll-deduction model of giving back, as is the case with a new initiative called ‘Feed a Family,’ which invites individuals and businesses to donate specifically to the many food banks supported by the United Way (more on that later).

For this issue, BusinessWest looks at the new partnership arrangement, the projected benefits, and how the UWPV looks to capitalize on them.

When a Plan Comes Together

Summing up his first several weeks on the job, Mina said he’s on what he described as a ‘thank-you tour.’

By that, he meant he’s reaching out to many individuals who have been strong supporters of UWPV over the years, letting them know their support is certainly appreciated. He’s doing so, he said, because, due to all the transition in leadership in recent years, such acknowledgements have been somewhat lacking.

“We didn’t thank people enough — we didn’t honor people enough,” he told BusinessWest, adding quickly, “you can never thank people enough.”

Mina said that’s one of many lessons he’s learned over a more than 40-year career working for and behalf of nonprofits. It began with a lengthy stint as director of the Lincoln Square Boys Club in Worcester and, later, the Worcester Boys and Girls Club’s Camp Hargrove as well. He joined the United Way organization in 1988 as senior campaign fundraiser for the United Way of Central Mass., and in 1994, he became president of the United Way of Assabet Valley in Marlboro.

Since 1996, he’s led the UWTC, an entity created through the merger of several smaller United Ways based in Marlboro, Framingham, Norwood, Westborough, and Clinton — the three counties (actually parts of them) being Middlesex, Norfolk, and Worcester.

And since 2006, he’s also been president and CEO of Mass211, a program (a phone number, really) that connects callers to information about critical health and human services available in their community.

With these stops on his résumé, Mina is well aware of the many challenges facing United Ways across the country and across the region, especially the smaller organizations. Most all of them are looking for creative answers to the twin challenges of increasing revenues and reducing expenses.

It was with this thought in mind that a proactive Mina — aware that UWPV had launched a search to find a successor to Jim Ayers, who left his position as president and CEO to seek another opportunity, and looking for a way to help two United Ways — picked up the phone and called Steve Lowell.

“I said, ‘it’s very important that the western part of the state has an anchor United Way,’” he recalled, adding that he invited Lowell to breakfast to “hear him out.”

He agreed (Mina, Lowell, and Denis Gagnon, vice chair of UWPV, got together the next day, in fact), and Lowell recalls soon liking what he was hearing.

“He said that he might have a solution for a solution for our organization that would allow it to keep its autonomy and the local oversight we want, but also gain some efficiencies,” Lowell recalled, adding that, with that opening, he was all ears.

Fast-forwarding a little, the two sides worked out a proposal and took it back to their respective full boards. Mina said his board had a number of questions, which were answered sufficiently to garner a 17-1 vote to enter into the agreement. The vote was unanimous at the UWPV, which, said Lowell, viewed the partnership as the best possible path for the agency moving forward.

“This really benefits both organizations,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, beyond the help on the expense side of the budget, UWPV gains from Mina’s vast experience working for the United Way and guiding agencies through the recent whitewater.

“He has more than 30 years of United Way experience; he’s been through some tough times and been successful at turning them into positive situations,” Lowell said. “When you put it all together, it was a great solution for us.”

Shared Enthusiasm

Gagnon agreed with that assessment.

He noted that Mina and UWTC have a strong track record of bringing United Ways together in a merger, creating efficiencies, and providing ways for these agencies to carry out their missions effectively given the many challenges they’re facing.

This arrangement is not a merger, he said, stressing that point repeatedly, but the goals are similar, and so are the basic strategies for achieving them.

“We needed a new leader and a few other key staff members,” he said, noting that, with Ayers’ departure, there were some others as well. “The United Way of Tri County can provide that all in one shot, rather than have separate recruiting efforts.”

The plan is for Mina to spend half his week in Springfield and other half in Framingham, leading the UWTC, although he knows there will some weeks where he’ll be in one region more than the other. And these will certainly not be 40-hour weeks.

But will this arrangement work as intended for both agencies?

Those we spoke with are, as noted, certainly optimistic, and also convinced that this partnership is better than the alternative — hiring a CEO specifically for UWPV and keeping the backroom operations in Springfield, especially at this critical time for the organization — the middle of an all-important annual campaign.

More to the point, both United Ways need it to work and are committed to making it work, said Mina, noting that all United Ways are facing a host of challenges, including those mentioned earlier with regard to how people give and why.

Which brings him back to those notions of stressing the basics, but also thinking outside the box.

“People give through their heart to their head to their wallet,” he explained. “And we have to do a good job of telling people what happens when they contribute to the United Way. It’s not a right that we have that people give to us, it’s a privilege, and we have to prove that what we’re doing is valuable and that it helps improve quality of life for the people who live and work here.

“And in order to do that, you have to be able to show ROI,” he went on, “and you can’t do that if you’re not out in the community seeing what’s important and doing what’s necessary to be done.”

As an example of this, he noted the Feed a Family drive, which specifically targets food pantries and other agencies that help feed those within the community.

“At the United Way of Pioneer Valley, we have focused for decades on funding safety-net services that assist this very vulnerable population. One such service area is our food-security initiative where food pantries and congregate meal programs feed hungry individuals and families in our region,” he said, noting that last year, United Way- funded programs provided more than 251,000 meals in the Pioneer Valley.

“While that’s an impressive number, the need unfortunately continues to increase rapidly, and donations lag far behind,” he went on, adding that the initiative will directly support the Gray House, Home City Development Inc., Open Pantry Community Services, the Salvation Army, and the Springfield Rescue Mission (all based in Springfield), as well as Neighbors Helping Neighbors in South Hadley, Our Community Food Pantry in Southwick, and Providence Ministries for the Needy in Holyoke.

Bottom Line

The Feed a Family drive is, as Mina noted, somewhat outside-the-box thinking for this United Way, but something definitely needed amid these changing and very challenging times.

The same can be said for the management agreement between the UWPV and UWTC. It is something different, but also something both boards deemed ultimately necessary — not just for this area’s United Way, but for both agencies.

Rather than an act of desperation, Mina called it “an act of intelligence,” and he credited both boards for having the imagination, and good sense, to make it happen.

Will it work? Time will tell, but so far the arrangement has generated what its architects hoped it would — stability and optimism.

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Margaret Kerswill (left) and Laureen Vizza

Margaret Kerswill (left) and Laureen Vizza in front of their Main Street shop, Mutability in Motion.

Margaret Kerswill has a couple of good views of Stockbridge’s business community. One is as president of the Stockbridge Chamber of Commerce. The other is from her storefront window on Main Street.

“I think there’s a real appeal that’s well-defined in our town’s tagline, which is ‘a quintessential New England town.’ It feels small; it feels intimate,” said Kerswill, co-owner with her wife, Laureen Vizza, of Mutability in Motion, a downtown store that sells crafts handmade by artisans from across the U.S., many of them local.

“There’s a connection between people in town,” she went on. ‘When you walk through town in the morning, just about everyone says ‘good morning’ to you. There’s a very nice atmosphere about Stockbridge.”

Still, outsiders often peg the community as a tourist destination — which is certainly is — and not much else, and are surprised to find a bustling local economy that doesn’t shut down during slow tourism seasons.

“I know being in my shop, a lot of the visitors who come, who have never been here, are often surprised to see businesses stay open year-round,” Kerswill said. “When they visit other tourist areas at the beginning and end of the season, a lot of those restaurants and shops close down. We’re a small town, so most of our foot traffic is in the summer season, but we’re still here year-round, serving local regulars.”

Still, Stockbridge relies heavily on tourism and visitorship for economic development. With a population of just under 2,000 — ranking it in the bottom sixth in the Commonwealth — the community doesn’t have a deep well of residents or businesses from which to draw tax revenue, but it does boast a widely noted series of destination attractions, from Tanglewood to the Norman Rockwell Museum; from the Berkshire Theatre Festival to Berkshire Botanical Garden.

Other attractions continue to emerge as well, including the oft-delayed Elm Court project by Travaasa Berkshire County, which will turn the historic Elm Court Estate into a resort featuring 112 hotel rooms, a 60-seat restaurant, and a 15,000-square-foot spa.

The property, which sits on the border of Stockbridge and Lenox on Old Stockbridge Road, was constructed in 1886 as a summer cottage for William Douglas Stone and Emily Vanderbilt, completed a series of renovations in 1919, and evolved into an inn in the ’40s and ’50s, hosting dinners, events, and overnight accommodations. It was eventually placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The project to renovate it began six years ago when Front Yard purchased the estate from the Berle family, who had run a boutique, wedding-oriented hotel there from 2002 to 2009. Eight neighbors appealed the 2015 approval of the resort by the Lenox Zoning Board of Appeals, but the Massachusetts Land Court eventually ruled in favor of the developer, Front Yard LLC. This past summer, Front Yard asked the Stockbridge Select Board for — and received — an extension of the permit which would have expired last month. Construction is expected to begin in the spring.

Meanwhile, the Boston Symphony Orchestra is developing a $33 million construction project at Tanglewood, a four-building complex that will house rehearsal and performance space for the Tanglewood Music Center as well as a new education venture known as the Tanglewood Learning Institute — the first weatherized, all-season structure at Tanglewood, which the BSO plans to make available for events beyond the summer months.

“We really are an amazing cultural center here, between the visual arts and handcrafted arts and crafts,” Kerswill said. “We’ve got music, dance, and theater with amazing summer-stock casts. On one hand, we have the feel of country living, but we have the convenience of Manhattan two hours away, Albany 45 minutes away, Boston two hours away, and all the culture in our immediate area. It’s remarkable. That’s why I’m here — the culture and the arts.”

Community Ties

As chamber president, Kerswill leads a member base that’s smaller than most chambers, but “strong and loyal,” as she called it.

“We do some chamber-related functions to connect,” she said, “and we also have tri-town chamber mixers with people from Lenox and Lee, where we get together and share experiences in an informal setting over cocktails for a couple hours.”

Margaret Kerswill

Margaret Kerswill

“We really are an amazing cultural center here, between the visual arts and handcrafted arts and crafts. We’ve got music, dance, and theater with amazing summer-stock casts.”

The chamber also presents an annual event to honor members and businesses, alternating between an individual one year and a company the next. On top of that, it puts on two major events. One is the three-day Main Street at Christmas festival — slated this year for Nov. 30 through Dec. 2 — which brings thousands of people into town with activities for families and children, concerts, caroling at the Red Lion Inn, and self-guided house tours. On Sunday, Main Street closes down for several hours, antique cars are brought in, and the strip transforms into a scene straight out of a Norman Rockwell painting.

That follows a summer arts and crafts fair each August, a weekend-long event that always sells out its vendor capacity, she said. “There’s no entry fee for patrons, and people freely walk around and come and go as they please. That brings a lot of people to town, at a time when summer is winding down and there’s less traffic.”

Stockbridge at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1739
Population: 1,947 (2010)
Area: 23.7 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $9.76
Commercial Tax Rate: $9.76
Median Household Income: $48,571
Median Family Income: $59,556
Type of government: Town Administrator; Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Austen Riggs Center; Tanglewood; Red Lion Inn
* Latest information available

Not wanting to rest on its laurels when it comes to its status as a desirable town for tourists and residents alike, a visionary project committee was formed by Stockbridge officials several years ago to develop recommendations that could be implemented over the next 20 years. The committee issued a report in 2016 titled “Planning a Way Forward.”

That report noted that residents value the town’s cultural institutions and historic buildings; its open space, recreation sites, and walking trails; and its downtown (although many would like to see additional shops and services, as well as more parking). Meanwhile, they want to see smart housing growth that takes into account the community’s aging population, as well as additional transportation options and better accommodation of walkers and bicyclists.

As a result, the document envisioned a Stockbridge in 2036 that mixes the traditional strengths of tourism, culture, and creative economy with green- and technology-based businesses, food production from local farmers, and agri-tourism. The ideal community would also be less auto-reliant, expanding pedestrian networks, bicycle infrastructure, and regional bus and ride-sharing services.

The report also predicts a socially and economically diverse population that provides equally diverse housing options, from apartments and condominiums to smaller single-family homes, co-housing projects, and historic ‘Berkshire cottages.’ These include a mix of sustainable new construction and repurposed buildings, including the preservation of older homes, along with an increase of people living close to the town center, including mixed-use buildings with apartments over shops to support downtown businesses.

While the overall vision may be ambitious, it encompasses the sorts of goals a town of Stockbridge’s size can reasonably set when looking to move into its next era.

Blast from the Past

Kerswill, for one, is happy she and Vizza set up shop in Stockbridge — right next to the Red Lion Inn, in fact, which is in many ways the heart of the downtown business culture.

“It’s a great experience being in downtown in Stockbridge,” she told BusinessWest. “We don’t have any chain stores or restaurant franchises. We are all independently owned, and the chances are good, when you pop into one of our stores, that you’re going to be meeting the owner. It becomes a very personal experience because of that.”

As for the Red Lion itself, “it’s cozy and intimate,” she went on, “and they’ve modernized with things that people expect, like wi-fi, but you still get a real, old-fashioned experience, and I think people really crave that. I know I do.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Features

Thinking Outside the Big Box

This Google Earth image of the Eastfield Mall shows how, with the closing of its main anchors, its vast parking lots are almost empty.

This Google Earth image of the Eastfield Mall shows how, with the closing of its main anchors, its vast parking lots are almost empty.

The emergence of online shopping giants like Amazon and changing shopping patterns have spelled doom for giant retailers while also hastening the demise of indoor shopping malls across the country. The Eastfield Mall in Springfield is part of this trend, and so is the ambitious plan for its next life — as a so-called ‘community within a community.’

Chuck Breidenbach says the term ‘de-malling’ — or the verb ‘de-mall’ — while still not officially in the dictionary, has been part of the business lexicon for quite some time now.

That’s because, ever since they started building large, enclosed shopping malls more than 50 years ago, some have occasionally failed and had to be repurposed. This region has witnessed the phenomenon a few times, starting with the so-called ‘dead mall’ in Hadley, which went silent more than 30 years ago, and the Fairfield Mall in Chicopee, which succumbed at the start of this century.

But the pace of de-malling has picked up in recent years, as everyone knows, thanks to Amazon and other online retailers, as well as changing shopping habits, especially among the younger generations. And with those trends, old shopping malls have found new lives as everything from homeless shelters to apartment complexes to mixed-use facilities blending residential, retail, and entertainment elements.

Which brings us to the Eastfield Mall in Springfield, near the border with Wilbraham. The facility is historic, sort of, because it is the first enclosed mall in the region, opened in the mid-’60s. But it is also typical of recent trends, because most all of its big box stores — Sears, JCPenney, and Macy’s — have closed, leaving hundreds of thousands of square feet of vacant retail space looking for a new purpose.

Finding one has been Breidenbach’s day job (or one of them) for some time now, in his role as managing director of MDC Retail Properties Group, a division of New Jersey-based Mountain Development Group, which has owned the mall since 1998.

Mountain Development recently hired the real-estate brokerage firm Cushman and Wakefield to market a joint-venture partnership opportunity for the property’s mixed-use development. The solution taking shape on the drawing board — a work in progress, to be sure — is called Eastfield Commons, a $200 million, mixed-use development that Breidenbach likes to call a “community within a community.”

That’s because it will be just that, a community, a place where — theoretically, but also realistically — if all goes as planned, someone can live, work, shop, eat, take their children to daycare, go to the gym, see a movie, and more, all while walking a few hundred yards at most.

“You want to develop this as a tightly knit, walkable community,” he explained, adding that just what shape this community will take remains to be seen.

At many converted malls, the inclination is to go vertical, with multi-story developments. But at Eastfield, the tact may well be to go horizontal, with one or two levels.

The concept plan taking shape (see rendering on page 8) calls for 450,000 to 500,000 square feet of commercial space (remodeled and new construction) and 23 residential buildings with 12 units each (276 total units). The cinemas will remain, as will the existing food court.

“The idea is to open it up and take it from an enclosed mall to an open-air concept with a lot of public space, a lot of green space … very much the opposite of what you get in an enclosed mall,” he said, adding that this has been the trend nationally, by and large.

“Our vision is to put in a number of restaurants of different types and price points so people have their choice,” he went on. “And to also have some specialty retail, a mix of national and local, so we can give this center its own local flair.”

Flair of any kind has been a missing ingredient at the sprawling site off Boston Road, but as the art and science of mall conversion continues to mature — and Springfield continues its economic recovery — there is considerable optimism that Eastfield can do what it did 50 years ago and get the region buzzing about something new and different.

“The idea is to open it up and take it from an enclosed mall to an open-air concept with a lot of public space, a lot of green space … very much the opposite of what you get in an enclosed mall.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Breidenbach about mall redevelopment in general, and repurposing Eastfield in particular. He noted that, with these projects, the market will dictate what can be done, but imaginative, outside-the-box — or in this case, outside-the-big-box — thinking is always needed.

Setting Sale

Breidenbach has had a long career in retail — long enough to have seen malls come to what amounts to full circle, meaning from being in demand to being in serious decline.

“I’ve seen a lot of things come and go; I’ve lived through the golden years of shopping centers, when you couldn’t put them up fast enough,” he told BusinessWest. “And now, we’re in the gray years of shopping centers, where you can’t redevelop or convert them into something else fast enough.”

The latest cycle — of conversion, or de-malling — began early in this century, he went on, adding that, as was noted earlier, Fairfield Mall, now the site of a Home Depot and other retail outlets, was part of that early wave.

But the pace of conversion really picked up roughly a decade ago, he said, as the Great Recession, coupled with the emergence of online retailers and some changing shopping patterns, took a huge toll on traditional retailers, a trend that continues today.

“There was a change in generations,” he explained. “The Baby Boom generation was and still is, in many ways, a very shopping-oriented culture. The Millennials and Generation-X folks are not.”

Some facilities — Breidenbach calls them super-regional malls, or fortress malls (the Holyoke Mall is one of them) — have been more resilient to the forces of change, because of sheer volume of stores, location (the Holyoke Mall certainly has that), and other factors.

“Holyoke has multiple levels, multiple anchors, parking decks … it’s made to do a massive amount of business,” he explained. “And retailers have pulled back into those fortress malls really as a means of protection.”

Meanwhile, those same retailers are leaving smaller facilities such as Eastfield, he went on, adding that the handwriting was pretty much on the wall for many of these malls years ago. And major real-estate companies, such as the Rouse Co., which developed and owned Eastfield for many years, saw that handwriting and sold off many of those properties.

Today, Eastfield’s huge parking lots fronting Boston Road are barren wastelands. Cars, and not many of them, are clustered near one of the main entrances where a few retailers still do business, such as Old Navy, the 99 Restaurant, O’Donnell’s Restaurant, and others.

Changing this landscape is an involved process, said Breidenbach, adding that, when it comes to how malls are converted these days, it’s generally a function of what the market in question wants, needs, and will support. In other words, while there are models that be studied and perhaps borrowed from, each property is unique, and so is its conversion.

Opened in 1967, Eastfield was the region’s first enclosed mall.

Opened in 1967, Eastfield was the region’s first enclosed mall. Today, it is part of an ongoing trend that is seeing these facilities put to new and imaginative uses.

“Your market studies will lead you to specific strategies and different amounts of space devoted to different types of uses,” he explained. “Those studies will determine how much you need for multi-family rental, multi-family condominium-style properties, retail uses, restaurant uses, entertainment uses, personal services, medical uses, health and fitness — it all depends on what the market will bear, what’s missing in the area, and what people are leaving the area to try and find because they’re dissatisfied with what they get, or it’s not being supplied.

“We have to follow the numbers very closely,” he went on, adding that market studies are followed up with surveys of various constituencies (including residents, small-business owners, and restaurateurs) in the area in question asking people what they want to see and what they’ll come to that location for.

At Eastfield, the emerging solution is a what Breidenbach calls a ‘live, work, play’ atmosphere, one that is seemingly internet-resistant.

This rendering shows the proposed components of Eastfield Commons.

This rendering shows the proposed components of Eastfield Commons.

In other words, one can’t live on the internet, or eat a meal there, or have their haircut there, or take dance lessons there.

And that’s the general idea as one goes about repurposing a mall, he went on, adding that the goal is to create a destination that will hopefully appeal to all generations, but especially those who seem to like this model — empty-nesters and the younger audiences that are less inclined to shop than their parents or grandparents.

“These younger generations would much rather pay for an experience than an expensive pair of jeans,” said Breidenbach, adding that ‘experience’ is a broad term that covers everything from a movie to a meal out to laser tag.

And these sentiments are reflected in some of the statistics relayed to attendees at the latest Shopping Center Convention in Las Vegas, a massive gathering Breidenbach has attended religiously for decades now.

“We heard that restaurant sales in the U.S. had surpassed grocery stores for the first time in history,” he said. “That means more people are eating out — they’re spending their time and money in that direction, as opposed to eating at home and then buying things.”

The Shopping Center Convention, staged annually in May, has seen discussion gravitate in recent years toward the internet and, more specifically, how to survive it, with a big focus being on just what to do with traditional malls, like Eastfield, that have been marginalized (Breidenbach’s word) by the fortress malls and online shopping.

Mixed-use developments — vertical and horizontal alike — have become the answer in many cases, with individual components varying, as stated earlier, with identified need and demand.

Breidenbach believes there will be a need for housing at that site, particularly the multi-family variety, because there haven’t been any new developments of that type in that area in decades, and there is apparent need for such a product.

“We see a huge a huge opportunity there for up-do-date multi-family housing,” he told BusinessWest. “And we also see a need for up-to-date, current retail space, meaning junior anchors, stores up to 20,000 to 25,000 square feet; this is an opportunity to think differently.”

Registering Results

Or to think outside the box — the big box, he said in conclusion.

Such thinking is necessary at Eastfield, a once-vibrant shopping area that has become part of an ongoing trend in this country — one that is seeing the enclosed shopping mall turned into a relative ghost town.

Now, Eastfield wants to be part of another trend — bringing new life to these deserted or nearly deserted areas.

If things go as planned, a property that made some history a half-century ago can make some more.

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

With projects like the convenience store on Shaker Road complete, East Longmeadow is anticipating progress

With projects like the convenience store on Shaker Road complete, East Longmeadow is anticipating progress on higher-profile developments, like the health complex at the Longmeadow line and a possible mixed-use project on Chestnut Street.

Denise Menard has witnessed plenty of growth in East Longmeadow’s Town Hall since becoming the community’s first town manager two years ago, from the creation of a seven-member Town Council to the creation of a Human Resources department, a new director of Finance and director of Planning and Community Development, and the establishment of a Board of Health overseen by a full-time director.

But she says the most important change in the city offices may be the ease with which new businesses to town can navigate the permitting process.

“I see myself as a business manager for the town — a business manager that has the authority to make the kinds of decisions that need to be made to streamline the process,” she said. “Just being here day to day, helping implement the priorities of the council and all these other things, is a real a plus for the community. And in the last two years, we’ve seen a lot.”

Take, for instance, the 18,000-square-foot medical office building at 250 North Main St. constructed by Associated Builders last year for Baystate Dental Group. The dental office occupies the first floor, and the second floor is being rented for medical and office space.

“That’s a great credit to the community; they just wanted to locate in East Longmeadow,” Menard said. “We’ve been told by regional economic-development groups that we are one of the hottest communities right now to try to locate businesses in, and that’s an awesome example.”

Another, more complex project in the health realm is a joint venture with the town of Longmeadow — a medical complex that will add to East Longmeadow Skilled Nursing Center at 305 Maple St., cross town lines, and provide benefits to both communities.

“We’ve been told by regional economic-development groups that we are one of the hottest communities right now to try to locate businesses in, and that’s an awesome example.”

The project includes four structures on a 20-acre site: a 50,000-square-foot medical office building in Longmeadow that will be occupied by Baystate Health; a two-story, 25,000-square-foot office building in East Longmeadow; and an assisted-living facility and expansion of an existing skilled-nursing facility run by Berkshire Health.

“It’s really moving along,” she said, adding that the buildings on the East Longmeadow side should be up by the spring. Meanwhile, the two towns have worked together to improve road infrastructure at the site. The project encompasses three intersections on Dwight Road — two in Longmeadow and one in East Longmeadow. Longmeadow is managing the road improvements, and East Longmeadow is receiving contributions from the nursing-home developer, which will pass through to Longmeadow to offset the cost of the street improvements.

“The road improvements have been painful to say the least, but it will be such a great improvement at the end of the day,” Menard said. “It’s so nice to have a joint venture with Longmeadow, and both sides are going to win with that. Longmeadow and I are good neighbors. The two town managers really work well together.”

Major projects like these are complemented by a number of other developments in town, a trend she says was boosted by the town’s change in government two years ago.

“I’ve had developers come in and say, ‘we waited because we wanted to see what the new charter was going to be like before we decided to come to East Longmeadow,’” she recalled. “So there was a change in the philosophy of people looking in from the outside, as to what they would like to see here, and I think they’re happy with what they see now with the new government.”

Setting Down Roots

Menard said East Longmeadow has a decent stock of developable land.

“We have industrial space, and we also have agricultural land, and we’re wondering what’s going to happen with that because farming is getting more difficult. But we want to be agriculture-friendly and hope to continue down that path.”

The new director of Planning and Community Development, Constance Brawders, has been taking the land stock into consideration as part of a master plan that’s in the early stages, Menard added.

“That master plan will focus on what residents here want,” she explained, adding that a series of public forums will focus on topics like recreation, traffic, and what kind of land-use mix residents want, balancing residential neighborhoods with the need for commercial and industrial investment.

East Longmeadow
at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1894
Population: 15,720
Area: 13.0 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $20.94
Commercial Tax Rate: $20.94
Median Household Income: $62,680
Median Family Income: $70,571
Type of Government: Town Council, Town Manager
Largest Employers: Cartamundi; Lenox; Redstone Rehab & Nursing Center; East Longmeadow Skilled Nursing and Rehabilitation
* Latest information available

“It will take a little while, but it hasn’t been updated in a long time,” she told BusinessWest. “So it’s time for us to take a snapshot of today and see what we want to look like in the future.”

It’s healthy to conduct such an exercise because society changes a lot over the years, and that affects how businesses operate and how towns cater to their needs.

“Think about the changes in the world just in the past 20 years. There are huge differences,” she said. “The big businesses that required a lot of space because they needed a lot of employees — now maybe they don’t need so many on site because a lot of them can work from home. My son works from home, and he’s part of a huge organization; they don’t require the footprint they used to.

“So a lot of things have changed since we’ve updated our plan,” she went on, “and it’ll be time to just address what we have now and what the current businesses and residents and everybody that has anything to do with East Longmeadow wants, so we can move forward. That’s really exciting.”

Some projects in the works have the potential to create vibrancy in town, such as an ongoing plan to create a mixed-use development at 330 Chestnut St., in the former Package Machinery building. The project would include commercial, retail, and possibly office space in the front part of the building, and above will be some residential apartments or condominiums.

The applicant for that project, MM Realty Partners, withdrew the proposal last winter, but they are now moving forward. The exact nature of the project is still being hammered out, but Menard says mixed use is a promising model for the site, due to the energy and foot traffic it would create.

“That’s the interesting part about it, but we’ve got to make sure it’s the right fit in the right spot for East Longmeadow,” she noted. “It certainly is an interesting concept.”

Other projects have come on line recently, including a gas station and 6,500-square-foot convenience store at 227 Shaker Road, a lot that had been empty for many years. That development was delayed when Atlantis Management Group bought out the property, but after a second round of permitting and approvals, construction went forward and was completed this year.

“The whole change in ownership delayed them applying for the permits they needed to bring it all together,” she added, “but now that’s on board, and they’re always busy.”

Attractive Mix

Part of what makes East Longmeadow attractive, Menard said, is a healthy mix of properties of all kinds, both residential and commercial.

“We have some very high-end housing, but we have some very moderate housing as well,” she noted. “We have a great Recreation Department, and our schools have a great reputation.”

Residents and businesses also appreciate that the town is conservative when it comes to taxation and spending, she added.

“Businesses see that our tax rate isn’t fluctuating up and down; it is really just gradually going to a level of what we need to address the needs of the community. And it’s a community that people are saying they want their children to grow up in. They want to own houses here.”

Employers feel the same way, she added. “In fact, we had a business come in — he was going to be leasing from somebody in East Longmeadow — and he said, ‘I want to come here because my staff, my workers, would be able to live in a nice community with good amenities and good community spirit.’”

Maintaining that culture takes planning, of course, and the woman who sees herself as a business manager is pleased that those plans will be carefully crafted — and hopefully implemented — in the coming years.

“This is a moving, growing community, to be sure,” Menard said. “We have a lot going for us.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Folks in Western Mass. know they’re often dismissed by residents out east, Lisa Stowe says. So how does a city like Westfield make its case as a vibrant destination for a business looking to plant roots?

By working together.

That’s exactly what a handful of partners — municipal leaders, Westfield Gas + Electric (WG+E), Whip City Fiber, the Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce, and corporate sponsor Westfield Bank — have done by launching Go Westfield, a still-evolving engine to encapsulate what makes this city a desirable landing spot, and, more importantly, tell people about it.

“We worked on this for six or eight months,” said Stowe, marketing and communications specialist for WG+E. “We want to use this opportunity to highlight what makes Westfield unique and a good place to do business. So many people think Massachusetts stops at 495, but there are a lot of things that are not so great about living in that part of the state — cost of living, high traffic, the cost of buying a piece of land. We wanted to draw attention to the things that make Westfield really attractive for people who are looking to relocate.”

The partners in Go Westfield had been doing that, to varying degrees, in their own ways, she added, but a focused partnership allows them to broadcast the message more efficiently.

“If you’re a site selector, we check a lot of boxes,” Stowe said, citing not only the city’s access to Mass Pike, an airport, and rail service, but its strong inventory of developable land — not to mention the municipal utility.

“If you’re a commercial customer, you pay 18% less than the state average for electricity, and 13% lower for gas rates than the state average,” she added. “If you’re an organization doing manufacturing, that’s significant. We feel that’s a good piece of the story to tell.”

Kate Phelon

Kate Phelon

“We really want to promote our city and the positive aspects of it. It’s an ongoing joint effort to drive the message that businesses should come look at Westfield to develop. We have quite a bit of developable land, but how do you get the word out to a company in Texas or Minnesota?”

So is Whip City Fiber, a division of WG+E that now reaches 70% of residences and businesses with high-speed internet. “The fiber project is a big deal,” she said, noting that customers like not only the speed, but the fact that service comes from a local company, not a national behemoth. “We’ve easily met the targets we had set in the business plan.”

Kate Phelon, executive director of the Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce, said early meetings with the Go Westfield partners focused on how to promote the economic-development landscape in Westfield.

“We wanted a way to really persuade businesses to come to Westfield,” she told BusinessWest. “There are the usual assets everyone knows, like the turnpike exchange, airport, and rail, but we wanted to get a group of stakeholders together and come up with a marketing plan for all of it. We’re very excited about this initiative. There’s a local component to it, but the bigger initiative is a push outside the region to get companies to look at Westfield for commercial developments.”

The group has been discussing marketing strategies as well as ideas like industry-specific focus groups.

“We really want to promote our city and the positive aspects of it,” she said. “It’s an ongoing joint effort to drive the message that businesses should come look at Westfield to develop. We have quite a bit of developable land, but how do you get the word out to a company in Texas or Minnesota?

Westfield also boasts strong schools, a state university, and proximity to numerous other colleges, she added, as well as a chamber of commerce that continually strives to keep businesses informed of state and national trends and developments that could affect them.

In short, the Whip City has a lot going for it, and Go Westfield is just starting to broadcast that message far and wide.

Heart of the City

Meanwhile, the Elm Street Urban Renewal Plan, approved in 2013, focuses on revitalizing 4.88 acres in a two-block area in the heart of downtown Westfield running along both sides of Elm Street, the city’s main commercial thoroughfare. The city has also directed funding to revitalize the so-called Gaslight District adjacent to it.

One recent success story is the $6.6 million Olver Transit Pavilion, which opened in April 2017. The transit center was designed to both catalyze related economic development and increase the use of public transportation. The state-of-the-art center includes parking space for four buses with bicycle racks, as well as a bicycle-repair station, which speaks to the proximity of the Columbia Greenway Rail Trail only a block away.

The Westfield Redevelopment Authority also demolished a former bowling alley near the transit center, with plans to create a multi-story, mixed-use building with retail, restaurants, office space, and market-rate apartments. The city recently issued a request for proposals for the project, taking advantage of the area’s designation as an ‘opportunity zone,’ a state program that provides tax relief for people willing to invest in certain neighborhoods in need of economic development.

“The PVTA project was the first phase of renewal,” said Peter Miller, Westfield’s director of Community Development. “We’re looking for private development to get some mixed-use retail space on the ground floor, and residential space on the top floors.”

Joe Mitchell, the city Advancement officer, noted that Millennials in particular are drawn to urban, mixed-use living, one reason why such projects have popped up around the region in recent years.

“A three-bedroom house and a white picket fence on a half-acre is not what young people are looking for,” he said. “They want a coffee shop downstairs and a bike rack, and being part of a tight-knit community where there’s activity going on right at their doorstep.”

Another $25,000 in state money will soon fund a wayfinding project for downtown, not just to point visitors to destinations off the main thoroughfare but to help them access parking as well. “We have sufficient parking in our downtown, but people don’t always know where it is,” Miller said. “This infusion of money from the state will allow us to better direct people to where the parking is.”

Phelon noted that the city recently switched all on-street parking, which had been a mix of one-hour and two-hour time limits, to two hours across the board — a small change, maybe, but a good example of how quality-of-life issues can be communicated and remedied across departments.

The momentum downtown has spurred some organic growth, too, Mitchell added, noting that Myers Information Systems is relocating there from Northampton, bringing 20 software-development professionals and renovating 110 Elm St., which used to be a restaurant with industrial space above it.

“They’re moving from an urban, walkable space they’ve outgrown in Northampton to buying one of our old buildings and investing private dollars here,” he added. “It was an extremely underutilized building, and they’re converting it into modern office space. They have a real vision for it.”

He doesn’t think Myers will be the last to make that move. “One of the reasons to relocate to Westfield is that we’re at the cusp of something, and people want to be a part of it.”

Back to School

Phelon says Westfield has accomplished more in recent years because of its culture of collaboration. One example is the Westfield Education to Business Alliance, which connects the city’s schools, where students are beginning to contemplate their career paths, with companies that are eager to mine local talent.

At a time when the state is looking for public schools to forge more meaningful pathways to economic development, she added, the alliance puts the Whip City at the forefront of an important trend.

Westfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1669
Population: 41,552
Area: 47.4 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $19.36
Commercial Tax Rate: $36.82
Median Household Income: $45,240
Median Family Income: $55,327
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Westfield State College, Baystate Noble Hospital, Savage Arms Inc., Mestek Inc., Advance Manufacturing Co.
* Latest information available

She said the next phase could be an adopt-a-classroom program in which area businesses could engage repeatedly with a teacher and his or her students. “I also think we need to get students and teachers into the business world on a regular basis. The work environment is changing so rapidly, with technology and robotics and social media.”

Because of this, she went on, it would benefit teachers to see what employees at area companies do on a day-to-day basis, and how. “That’s what they need to be teaching, so they need to see that.”

The Westfield Education to Business Alliance also facilitates a career fair at Westfield High School that gives students exposure to the types of career opportunities available at local companies — and, more important, what skill sets they will need to take advantage of them.

The goal of the next career fair will be to attract 75 companies, up from 51 last time, to interact with the 500 or so students who show up.

“It’s not a job fair; it’s a career fair,” Phelon stressed. “The message is twofold: for students to see what companies are here, and see that they can go away to college and come back here and get good jobs. It’s also good for these students to talk to these employees about their hiring practices, what degree do I need, should I expect a drug test or a CORI check, what are your procedures. And they could talk to students about internships and co-ops.”

The alliance one of many examples of how Westfield continues to bring people and organizations together to raise the fortunes of all.

“The mayor [Brian Sullivan] has been very supportive of these collaborations,” Miller said. “He made building bridges his theme. That’s how we’ll get the most out of the assets we have — not by operating in silos.”

Phelon agreed. “We have our individual purposes and missions, but there’s a bigger picture of working together and collaborating. It’s such a great city, and we’re fortunate to have the assets we have.”

Now it’s time to let everyone know it.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Once a dominant retail force, Enfield Square Mall has struggled in recent years.

Once a dominant retail force, Enfield Square Mall has struggled in recent years.

While Laurie Whitten doesn’t think the recent opening of MGM Springfield, a few miles north over the Massachusetts border, is a negative, neither is she convinced the incoming traffic does much for nearby Enfield, Conn. The same goes for a casino expected to open in East Windsor, Conn. in the spring of 2020.

“For the most part, casinos are pretty much on their own,” said Whitten, Enfield’s recently appointed director of Development Services. “A lot of people think if you’re across the street, you’ll get all sorts of business, but for the most part, people leave and don’t go shopping or out to eat.”

The way she sees it, any benefit to nearby towns, like Enfield, might be in housing or hotel development, as workers new to the area might be looking for somewhere to live, and casino visitors increase demand for hotel rooms. “That’s where the trickle-down would be when it comes to development.”

But Enfield isn’t looking to surrounding towns for energy, she added; instead, it’s busy creating its own — and she’s excited about the future.

Take the planned transformation of the Thompsonville neighborhood on the Connecticut River, with an intermodal transit center as the centerpiece of a walker-friendly village.

Part of this effort is a river-access project to be funded through a $3.4 million Federal Highway Administration grant. The bulk of the money is being used for riverfront improvements, including the construction of a biking and walking path from Freshwater Pond to the riverfront.

In addition, last year, Eversource signed an access agreement with the town to allow environmental site assessment work to be done to determine the extent of contamination on its North River Street property near the station. TRC Solutions is under contract to perform the work.

Depending on the results of that survey, if the site needs to be remediated or capped, the transit center could be looking at a three- to five-year timeline. In the meantime, the state will build a basic rail station, with an elevated, double-tracked platform on each side. Later on, the town will build in some parking, bus facilities, and outdoor recreation, including walking trails and overlook areas so people can enjoy the view of the river.

Enfield at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1683
Population: 44,654
Area: 34.2 square miles
County: Hartford
Residential Tax Rate: $33.40
Commercial Tax Rate: $33.40
Median Household Income: $67,402
Median Family Income: $77,554
Type of Government: Town Council, Town Manager
Largest Employers: Lego Systems Inc., MassMutual, Retail Brand Alliance, Enfield Distribution Center
* Latest information available

“There are a lot of different things happening down there,” Whitten said. “We’re certainly working toward being prepared for a new train station and focusing on some adapted reuse of dilapidated buildings down there. We will also be adopting new regulations for downtown Thompsonville, promoting mixed use and higher densities in that area.”

Meanwhile, a Complete Streets plan with new bike paths is under consideration, and renovations at the former St. Adalbert School, which stood vacant for 12 years, are almost complete as developer William Bellock turns it into an apartment building with 20 one-bedroom units, less than a quarter-mile from Town Hall.

“When you’re developing transit-oriented development, the idea is to create higher density,” Whitten said. “Millennials, especially, like to live someplace where they don’t need a car. With high density, they can walk to the train station or ride a bike.”

Moving In

Speaking of housing, development in that sector is on the rise, Whitten noted. “We have some high-end apartments under construction on the north end, and we just adopted some new regulations to allow apartments in transition zones along the I-91 corridor — that would be the transition between commercial, industrial, and residential.”

Meanwhile, a design-district overlay was approved for the Hazardville area of town to promote some historic-style achitecture and mixed use, Whitten said. “We’re also working with developers about the reuse or expansion of some of the larger buildings in downtown, and we just approved a large industrial warehouse distribution center on the south end of King Street, in Metro Park North.”

Enfield has seen an influx of manufacturing, warehousing, and distribution businesses over the past few years, which is a positive for a town that continues to diversify away from its traditional reputation as a retail center. The corridors of Routes 220 and 190, bordering Enfield Square Mall, continue to be a bustling mix of restaurants and retail, but the mall itself, heavily buffeted by store departures over the past decade, doesn’t draw nearly the traffic it used to.

An example is Panera Bread, which was recently approved for an outbuilding in the nearby Home Depot plaza — but will be leaving the mall to get there.

“We’re going to be working diligently to promote smart growth and customer-friendly service, which will probably include some new software; we want to streamline the development process.”

Still, Enfield’s growth in the manufacturing, warehousing, and distribution sectors, as well as a strong uptick in small and sole-proprietor businesses over the past few years — reflecting an entrepreneurial wave the entire region has experienced — remain positive signs.

So are community-building events like the popular Enfield Regional Farmers Market, which runs every Wednesday from July through mid-October, featuring farm-fresh fruit and vegetables, artisan goods, musical entertainment, and a food truck.

Meanwhile, the Thompsonville Community Garden, established a decade ago by the town of Enfield, the University of Connecticut Master Gardener Program, and a grant from the Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, has been a popular program as well.

The garden features 50 raised garden beds, which are rented for the planting season; the rental includes use of tools, seeds, starter plants, compost, water, and educational sessions — and a sense of community for Enfield gardeners who want to grow their own organic vegetables.

Location, Location, Location

Organic growth is something Whitten would like to see on a town-wide basis, of course, noting that Enfield is an attractive location for a number of reasons, including its location between Boston and New York, along I-91, and close to Bradley Airport. “I think there’s a lot of potential in our location,” she told BusinessWest.

That said, she called Enfield a town in transition in some ways, especially when it comes to economic development. “We have a lot of new members on the Town Council, and there’s been a complete reorganization of the Land Use Department. They lose a lot of their top people, so we’re trying to get reorganized and get some good people in there and work as a team.”

Meanwhile, “we’re going to be working diligently to promote smart growth and customer-friendly service, which will probably include some new software; we want to streamline the development process.”

And the development potential is there, she added, pointing again to Enfield’s surplus of available land and possible reuse sites. To that end, officials will be looking at establishing some tax-abatement policies to help businesses access some of those opportunities. “We’re going to be here to help them through the process.”

With the Thompsonville transit center on the horizon and the town continuing to leverage its location and amenities, this community that lies between what will eventually be two casinos is betting big on its future as a business and lifestyle destination.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

The former Cranwell Spa & Golf Resort

The former Cranwell Spa & Golf Resort is undergoing a $60 million renovation and expansion by the Miraval Group.

As its town manager, Christopher Ketchen is certainly bullish on Lenox.

“If you’re moving to the Berkshires, Lenox has clearly got to be on your radar for many reasons,” he told BusinessWest, adding that he’s one of the more recent converts. “I made the move here myself from the Boston area four years ago. I’m originally from Alford, and when I moved back to this area, I chose to live in Lenox.”

Lenox may be known mainly — and deservedly — for its cultural and recreational attractions, from Tanglewood, the summer home of the Boston Symphony Orchestra, to Shakespeare & Co., to the town’s collection of rustic inns and bed and breakfasts.

But a different sort of economic energy has been bubbling up in recent years, from the small businesses, hotels, and motels springing up along the Route 7 corridor to an ongoing, $60 million expansion and renovation at the former Cranwell Spa & Golf Resort. The Miraval Group, a subsidiary of Hyatt Hotels, purchased the property in 2016 for $22 million and plans to transform it into a high-end wellness resort.

Then there’s the new Courtyard by Marriott, which opened last year and features 92 rooms with panoramic views, an indoor pool, a large patio with firepits, a restaurant, and a 12,000-square-foot event space. Meanwhile, the 112-room Travaasa Experimental Resort at Elm Court, which straddles the Lenox and Strockbridge line, is moving forward as well.

Other projects in recent years include the relocation of Morrison’s Home Improvement Specialists Inc. from Pittsfield and its adaptive reuse of a blighted building that had been vacant for 10 years, an apartment conversion at the Walker Street Residences by the Allegrone Companies, and the construction of Allegrone’s headquarters and co-working office space using green design and technology in a building on Route 7.

Chris Ketchen says Lenox is a draw

Chris Ketchen says Lenox is a draw because of its schools, healthy finances, cultural offerings, and a host of other factors.

“The hospitality industry is probably the biggest economic driver locally,” Ketchen told BusinessWest. “Miravar, the Cranwell development, is still in progress, Elm Court is still in progress, Marriott is up and running. As far as new projects coming in the door, there’s nothing else on that scale today, but that could change tomorrow.”

Moving On Up

In some ways, Lenox doesn’t need the kind of business growth other towns and cities do, because its strengths have long lay in both tourism for visitors and quality of life for residents.

“The town has gotten a fair amount of regional and national recognition in recent years for the schools and for the town’s financial practices,” Ketchen said, noting that Lenox is just one of two Massachusetts municipalities west of the Connecticut River whose finances have AAA ratings from Standard & Poor’s, the other being Great Barrington.

Meanwhile, “our schools are knocking it out of the park year after year in terms of their recognition at both the federal Department of Education and various statewide rankings. The high school ranked number four by U.S. News & World Report, the annual benchmark rating a lot of districts measure themselves by, so a very attractive place for families to locate and make a home.”

Lenox at a glance:

Year Incorporated: 1767
Population: 5,025
<strong>Area: 21.7 square miles
County: Berkshire
Residential Tax Rate: $12.14 
Commercial Tax Rate: $14.98
Median Household Income: $85,581
Median Family Income: $111,413
Type of Government: Board of Selectmen, Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Canyon Ranch, Boston Symphony Orchestra, Kimball Farms

* Latest information available

Not wanting to rest on its laurels, Lenox residents recently approved an appropriation to work with regional agencies to update the town’s comprehensive master plan. “The Planning Board is undertaking that as we speak,” Ketchen said, “and we’ve created a housing production plan through the affordable housing committee, so we’re tackling those issues in a thoughtful way moving forward.”

The state seeks 10% of housing units in any town to be affordable, but in Lenox, the current level is just over 7%, based on the 2010 Census.

The town has also been undertaking significant infrastructure improvements in recent years, the latest announcement being a $9 million, federally funded widening and improvement of a stretch of Walker Street, in addition to water and sewer improvements there.

“We’ve been investing heavily in infrastructure through aggressive capital-improvement programs,” Ketchen said.

To address an aging population — the median age of residents is 51, reflecting a trend in other towns in the Berkshires — town officials created a first-time-homebuyers program in 2016 in partnership with four banks that offers up to $10,000 in down payments to qualified applicants. They also changed zoning requirements to make it easier to build new apartments and condominiums or convert older housing stock into appealing residences, as well as adopting a Complete Streets policy that will make the town eligible for state funds to improve connectivity for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Meanwhile, to address a dearth of of market-rate apartments in Lenox, Allegrone Companies completed a renovation last year of the 1804 William Walker House, transforming it into eight market-rate apartments.

The Whole Package

To encourage companies to move to Lenox or expand, town officials have been focused on a five-year open-space plan that was adopted several years ago.

“With our proximity to employment centers in Pittsfield and also Springfield and Albany, there are options for workers who want to make Lenox their home.”

“We have an open-space and recreation plan that was really well-conceived by the Conway School in conjunction with our Land Use Department, and we’re a few years into executing that plan to preserve open space,” Ketchen said, noting projects like a major improvement to Lenox Town Beach at Laurel Lake last year. In addition, the Berkshire Natural Resources Council, the regional land trust, has been working to develop a regional trail network with a long section passing through Lenox.

Add it all up, Ketchen said, and this town of just over 5,000 residents has plenty to offer.

“With our proximity to employment centers in Pittsfield and also Springfield and Albany, there are options for workers who want to make Lenox their home — and it’s a wonderful place to make a home,” he told BusinessWest. “The town is well-managed financially. We have outstanding schools, libraries, and community center. For a town of our size, we’re providing a lot of services for residents of all ages. Our public-safety and public-works operations are some of the best in the business.”

He added that the town’s tax rates are low — $12.14 for residents and $14.98 for businesses — and relatively stable from year to year.

“Couple that with the employment opportunities and the outstanding municipal and educational programs, the arts and cultural amenities of the region, and the recreational opportunities — put that together, and you have a very attractive package.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]