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Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

For Longmeadow Town Manager Lyn Simmons, it’s been quite a first year on the job.

With 16 years of experience in municipal government in of Northampton — the last six years as chief of staff for Mayor David Narkewicz — Simmons became Longmeadow’s town manager a year ago this month. After three months on the job, Longmeadow — like the entire world — found itself in uncharted territory.

As challenging as the pandemic has been, Simmons said one positive has been the opportunity to build relationships with department heads and the emergency-management team much faster than she might have under less-hectic circumstances.

“We had to come together quickly and navigate all of this together,” Simmons said. “As difficult as the pandemic has been, the team that’s in place here and the relationships that we’ve formed have made dealing with it much easier.”

She also credits Longmeadow residents for their response in handling the pandemic, noting that people in town are adhering to public-health guidelines and taking personal responsibility. “We see people social distancing, wearing masks, and doing what they need to do to help protect themselves, their families, and our community.”

Lyn Simmons

“People like living in Longmeadow because it’s a great community, it’s very walkable, and there are lots of outdoor recreation activities. It really appeals to every generation.”

Because most residents complied with state mandates, Longmeadow experienced low numbers of the coronavirus throughout the summer. While the number of cases in town has begun to increase during the fall, this reflects the overall trend in Western Mass. and across the state, Simmons said, adding that a team of municipal employees is monitoring pandemic-related grants and other funding sources that might be available through the state and federal government.

“The pandemic has certainly been a disruption to normal life, whether it’s doing business with town offices or making adjustments to programs that are run by the Parks and Rec department, or the Adult Center,” she noted. But business not been halted, and as she spoke with BusinessWest, she outlined some of the ways progress continues in this small, residential town.

Worth Their Salt

In the midst of all the COVID-related disruption, Simmons points to two town projects she calls bright spots during these challenging times. First, a new Department of Public Works (DPW) facility — a $24 million project on Dwight Road, on the site of a former tennis club — is nearing completion.

The second project is the $14 million Adult Center, where finishing touches are being applied as it gets closer to opening day. While the Council on Aging will have a large presence, the Parks and Recreation department will also run programs and activities from the facility, making it a resource for all residents.

After COVID-19 hit, safety protocols were implemented at the DPW and Adult Center sites to allow construction work to continue and keep both projects on track to open in early 2021.

“The only disruption we had occurred earlier in the spring when the subcontractor who was providing and installing a salt-storage shed was quarantined crossing the state line from New York,” Simmons said. “We’ve been able to move past that, and the salt shed is fully constructed now.”

With 95% of property in Longmeadow devoted to residential dwellings, town officials pay close attention to activity in the real-estate market. Like most towns, the normal sales bump that occurs each spring was delayed by the pandemic. Sales activity returned in July and has remained brisk since then, with most houses selling at the asking price.

“We’ve been able to capture that strong real-estate market,” Simmons said. “On average, houses are staying on the market for about 20 days; low interest rates have certainly helped.”

The demographics in Longmeadow have remained similar to what they’ve historically been. Simmons said the town has a healthy mix of approximately 29% families and about 30% in the over-60 demographic. One key indicator that remains steady is school enrollment, where no declines have been reported.

“People like living in Longmeadow because it’s a great community, it’s very walkable, and there are lots of outdoor recreation activities. It really appeals to every generation,” she noted.

Looking to the future, the town owns a 10-acre parcel on Academy Drive known as the Water Tower property. Prior to the pandemic, the area was under consideration for an over-55 housing development. If this project moves forward, Simmons said, it might solve a dilemma for many seniors in town. Many aging residents want to continue to live in Longmeadow but would also like to downsize from their current home to one-level living, and an over-55 housing development could be a good solution.

Longmeadow at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1783
Population: 15,784
Area: 9.7 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $24.21
Commercial Tax Rate: $24.21
Median Household Income: $109,586
Median Family Income: $115,578
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting; Town Manager; Board of Selectmen
Largest Employers: Bay Path University; JGS Lifecare; Glenmeadow
* Latest information available

“Once we get the pandemic behind us, I expect our discussions of this site to be dusted off and brought back into the public sphere,” she added.

Meanwhile, conversations about two other potential projects are continuing, including development of a former church at the intersection of Williams Street and Redfern Drive with a different use, and a project on Williams Street that involves building a long-term-care facility. “As far as I know, those plans are still in the works,” Simmons said of the latter plan, “but it’s been slow-moving.”

 

Sharing Resources

More concrete progress can be found on a regional level. Last year, Longmeadow joined with Chicopee to form an emergency communications center called WESTCOMM. By taking a regional approach to emergency dispatch calls, both towns save money, increase efficiency, and have backup support when multiple calls come into either town.

Now nearly a year into the program, WESTCOMM has been a great success — and is growing, Simmons said. “Since WESTCOMM launched in December, we’ve added two more communities this year, when East Longmeadow and Monson came on board with Longmeadow and Chicopee.”

WESTCOMM currently operates out of the Chicopee Police Department, but officials are exploring a move to a larger facility as more communities come on board. Simmons said she expects to hear more about that in the coming year.

Before the pandemic, Longmeadow was looking to share some public-health services with neighboring East Longmeadow. Because the health departments and boards of health for both towns are expending all their energy on COVID-19 concerns, that project has been set aside at least until the pandemic is over, she added. “Looking at a merger of two health departments right now is a little more than we can take on at the moment.”

Simmons was born and raised in Northampton, and she first became familiar with Longmeadow while pursuing her undergraduate degree at Bay Path University.

As she completes her first year as Longmeadow’s town manager, she’s proud of how well people in the community have responded throughout the pandemic.

“I appreciate everyone’s understanding and support as we all try to get through this time together,” she said. “I am really looking forward to the new year when we will open both the new DPW and Adult Center in town.”

Simmons added that she can’t wait for the public to see both buildings and hopes to take residents on tours of the new facilities when they formally open in 2021 — a year when municipal leaders in all communities hope they can put COVID-19 behind them and are able to focus fully on the future once again.

COVID-19 Features

Let There Be Light

Judy Matt says the Spirit of Springfield (SOS) exists for one reason — to entertain residents across the region and create some memories.

It hasn’t been able to do any of that to this point in 2020, obviously, and Matt, the long-time executive director of the nonprofit agency, has been frustrated and disappointed by this reality. Annual events such as the pancake breakfast (long heralded as the world’s largest), the Fourth of July fireworks, and the Big Balloon Parade have been wiped off the calendar due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and there remains uncertainty about whether any of those can be staged in 2021.

Meanwhile, at the SOS, with little revenue coming in other than a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan and the proceeds from the annual golf tournament, the staff — and that includes Matt — have been on unemployment for at least some of this year, although she has continued to come to the office every day.

But there will be one bright spot as a very trying year — for both the region and the SOS — comes to a close, as the necessary approvals (and many of them were required) have been received to stage Bright Nights in Forest Park from Nov. 25 to Jan. 6.

Things won’t be exactly the same — there will be new restrictions on everything from the hours of operation (the front gate will have to be shut at 8:45 p.m.) to how tickets are paid for (no cash, for example) — and the the gift shop in the park will be closed, although a facility will open downtown in the Springfield Visitors Center. And no one will be allowed to get out of their cars under any circumstances.

“Everyone has indicated to us that they think it’s going to be the best one we’ve had.”

But just being able to have Bright Nights will provide a huge boost for the region and the Spirit of Springfield, Matt said. “The region needs Bright Nights, now more than ever. It’s been a long, trying year for everyone.”

Bright Nights will go on in 2020

There will be some new restrictions on hours, method of payment, and other matters, Judy Matt says, but Bright Nights will go on in 2020, a bright spot in an otherwise dark year.

But while the region needs Bright Nights, so too does the Spirit of Springfield, which relies on the income from this signature event to help carry out its mission and present those other annual gatherings listed earlier.

So Matt and others will be keeping their fingers crossed on the weather — past history has shown that a few snowstorms can wreak havoc on the bottom line — while trying to make the most of the opportunity it has been given to stage Bright Nights in the middle of a pandemic.

And early indications are that, despite some restrictions on the hours and other factors, this could be one of the best seasons in the 26-year history of the Bright Nights, given what kind of year it’s been and the need for some kind of relief valve, especially as the holiday season approaches.

“Everyone has indicated to us that they think it’s going to be the best one we’ve had,” she told BusinessWest, adding that, while it might well achieve that status, this year’s Bright Nights will be challenged by the restrictions imposed upon it by city and state officials, especially the shortened hours of operation.

“We are theoretically losing 39 hours during which we could have been selling tickets — in the past, we had a lot of nights where we were open ’til 11,” she said, adding that, with vehicles going through at the rate of 300 per hour, those lost hours will hurt.

The city has allowed Bright Nights to stay open an additional three days, she went on, adding that, while this will help, the volume of traffic through the displays decreases markedly after Jan. 1.

“I can keep talking about what we can’t do and what we won’t have,” she said. “But we’re just very grateful to be able to do this; it’s important that this region has Bright Nights this year.”

As for what comes after Bright Nights … Matt said there are certainly question marks about whether the SOS will be able to get back into the entertainment business full-time next year, but she and her staff have to plan as if that is going to be the case.

But if the current conditions continue well into next year, the agency will be facing some hard questions. In addition to the events being wiped off the slate, COVID-19 also prohibited the agency from staging its annual Bright Nights Ball, which traditionally nets the SOS $50,000 to $60,000 for operating expenses.

Without that revenue, the agency needs a very solid year for Bright Nights and probably other forms of help, such as that small PPP loan it received last spring, which enabled a few of the staff members to remain on the payroll.

“We’re trying to figure it all out,” she told BusinessWest. “We’re hoping we have a good year for Bright Nights; if we have a good Bright Nights, that will take us into March or April. After that … we’ll have to see what happens.”

While the long-term picture is clouded by question marks, the immediate future is bright — or at least brighter — now that the agency has been given the green light to continue what has become a holiday tradition, not just for those in this region, but for those who travel to it to enjoy what has been recognized among the top holiday lighting displays in the country.

The pandemic has turned out the lights on a great many institutions and activities this year, but not these lights.

It won’t be exactly the same — nothing is in the middle of a pandemic — but this impressive show will go on.

 

—George O’Brien

COVID-19 Features

A Week’s Worth of Happiness at Work

By Pam Victor

“Good grief, woman. How can we think about happiness at a time like this?”

That’s what you must be thinking, and as a professional improv comedian and happiness coach, I’ve been asked variations of this question a lot lately.

And it’s a totally valid query. With restructuring, layoffs, kids schooling at home, and a worsening pandemic, we’re all being stressed and stretched to our limits. Unfortunately, there doesn’t seem to be much relief ahead any time soon.

Pam Victor

Pam Victor

How can we think about happiness at a time like this? My response is: how can we not? Improv trains me to continually jump into the unknown and to keep moving forward together with as much joy and ease and play and laughter as I can possibly cobble together. After all, what’s the other option? (I tried hiding under my covers for a while. It’s not a financially sustainable practice.)

Establishing happiness practices at work provides much-needed mental healthcare and resilience support for your teams. Because we’re collectively experiencing a marathon of stress, anxiety, and unpredictable change, with an unsettling amount of unknown ahead, prioritizing happiness at work is more than just a goofy team-building exercise.

According to research findings conducted by Julia K. Boehm and Sonja Lyubomirsky published in the​ Journal of Career Assessment,​ “happy people are more satisfied with their jobs and report having greater autonomy in their duties. They perform better on assigned tasks than their less-happy peers and are more likely to take on extra role tasks, such as helping others. They receive more social support from their co-workers and tend to use more cooperative approaches when interacting with others. Happy people are less likely to exhibit withdrawal behaviors, such as absenteeism … happy people enjoy greater workplace success, and engage in more behaviors paralleling success, than do less-happy people.”

The good news is that happiness also feels great. The even better news is that it doesn’t take much to stimulate significant well-being benefits. Whether you’re remote or at the office, here are a week’s worth of simple but profound happiness practices to bring some more joy, ease, and laughter to your workplace:

Meditation Mondays​: Start the week off with a shared, guided 10-minute meditation. Apps like Insight Timer, Calm, Ten Percent Happier, and YouTube provide a plethora of styles of meditation that start the week off with shared focus, grounding, positivity, and stress relief.

Treat-yourself Tuesdays​: Encourage employees to plan one experience of special self-care each week, such as picking up a favorite beverage from a coffeehouse they’ve been missing, a delicious dessert, an extra hour of sleep, a warm bath, or sitting in the sun during lunch hour. Generate ideas and support by inviting folks to share their treat-yourself treats on a Slack channel, e-mail thread, or during a weekly meeting.

Walking Wednesdays​: Everyone takes a 10- to 20-minute walk after lunch each week. This two-for-one happiness practice delivers both exercise and time in nature, both proven to benefit well-being. Make it a shared walk — either virtual or in-person — and now you’ve added in a third happiness enhancer: personal connection.

Thank-you Thursdays​: Each person sends a note of thanks to someone else on the team who brought them joy or ease over the course of the last week. Leadership can model the power of gratitude by incorporating regular, heartfelt thank-yous into every meeting in order to make it part of the company culture. Thank-yous could be public on a #ThankYouThursday Slack channel or private e-mails. To make it even more special, gift employees with a stack of company-branded thank-you notes to send actual handwritten thank-you notes, old-school style.

Gratitude is one of the most powerful happiness practices around. A regular gratitude practice is associated with improved mental and physical health, increased resilience, and stronger relationships. Other research has shown that managers who thank their team may result in employees feeling more motivated to work harder.

Friday Freshen Up​: In this simple but powerful practice, the team spends 10 minutes straightening up their work space at the beginning of the work day on Fridays. It’s astounding how impactful these 10-minute tidying sessions can be after a few weeks. It helps individuals start the day with an accomplishment, and it’s delightful to be greeted on Monday with a neater workspace. Add in some extra joy by playing 10 minutes of motivating, toe-tapping tunes (either in person or via Zoom) in order to make it a team-bonding experience.

It’s a common practice for improv comedians to tell their teammates, “I’ve got your back” before a show. At this challenging time, your team needs all the extra support they can get. By demonstrating the value of happiness at work, you’re showing the team you have their backs … and inviting them to bring their whole selves to their work.

 

Pam Victor is ‘head of happiness’ (president and founder) of Happier Valley Comedy; [email protected]

Coronavirus Features Special Coverage

Tightening the Safety Net

 

Andrew Morehouse stands in the warehouse at the Food Bank’s complex in Hatfield.

Andrew Morehouse stands in the warehouse at the Food Bank’s complex in Hatfield.

As Andrew Morehouse conducted his tour of the facilities at the Food Bank of Western Massachusetts, the sights and sounds helped tell the story that is emerging at this agency — and within this region — at a critical time.

The first thing to notice was the copious amounts of food of all kinds — from sweet potatoes in huge bins to hundreds of cases of canned tuna — now stored at the complex in Hatfield and in other locations as well, destined for local meal sites and food pantries. Indeed, the Food Bank is “over capacity,” as Morehouse, its executive director, put it, because of the soaring numbers of people who are now facing food insecurity in the wake of the pandemic, and the way government agencies, businesses, and individuals have responded to those numbers.

This capacity issue was clearly in evidence, with pallets of food stacked not only on the shelves and the floor space of the warehouse, but in the hallways leading to it as well.

“The warehouse is jam-packed; we’re storing food off site, and we’re moving it faster,” he explained. “We’ve brought on additional staff, we’ve purchased another van, we’re about to purchase another truck so we can move food as quickly as possible. The pandemic has put us over the top in a big way, so we’re looking at options for expansion.”

As for the sounds … well, the Food Bank was mostly quiet at the hour of this visit — late morning, approaching noon — but the few workers on the floor were talking about what they witnessed in the parking lot of Central High School in Springfield, where a drive-thru food-distribution site, supported in part by the Food Bank, has been established. The staffers were talking about long lines of vehicles, and how this has become a constant, or a new norm, with this initiative.

“The warehouse is jam-packed; we’re storing food off site, and we’re moving it faster. We’ve brought on additional staff, we’ve purchased another van, we’re about to purchase another truck so we can move food as quickly as possible. The pandemic has put us over the top in a big way, so we’re looking at options for expansion.”

Meanwhile, fewer people are working at the Hatfield facility, with many more working remotely because of the pandemic, and a host of safety protocols in place to keep those who do come in — and the public in general — safe.

In many ways, the Food Bank — and the hundreds of sites it serves — has become one of the enduring symbols of this pandemic locally. Indeed, just as the bread lines of the mid-1930s became an indelible image that came to represent the Great Depression, the long lines of motorists picking up food — it can no longer be distributed indoors — have come to symbolize this pandemic.

And as fall continues and winter approaches, need is only expected to grow, said Morehouse, who cited projections from Feeding America showing that, by year’s end, an estimated one in six residents in Western Mass. (perhaps 127,000 people) will be experiencing food insecurity, as opposed to one in 10 before the pandemic began, and one in four children. That would be a 40% increase in the number of people overall, and a more than 60% increase in the number of children.

In many ways, such numbers help tell this story. During the fiscal year that just ended Sept. 30, the Food Bank distributed 14.8 million pounds, or the equivalent of 12 million meals — a 23% increase over the previous year, compared to an average 6% increase year over year. Meanwhile, over the past seven months, the increase has been roughly 30% (from 7.3 million pounds to 9.5 million), much higher than the annual increase, obviously, because of the direct impact of the pandemic, and the highest seven-month spike in the agency’s 38-year history.

Behind the numbers, though, is the inspiring story of how the region and its business community have responded to the crisis, said Morehouse, adding that this response was quick and profound, and it is ongoing.

Sweet potatoes from local farms

Sweet potatoes from local farms are among the many items jamming the shelves and floor space at the Food Bank, which is over capacity due to spiking need.

The biggest question concerns what comes next, and it’s one that’s hard to answer, he noted, adding that many factors will go into determining where these numbers go in the weeks and months to come.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Morehouse about the mounting problem of food insecurity in the wake of the pandemic and how his agency has responded. Overall, he said this response “is how the safety net is supposed to work.”

Elaborating, he noted that the Food Bank has been able to meet soaring need because federal and state agencies have stepped up and put more food into the system, but also because the region has stepped up as well.

 

Food for Thought

As he talked about what has transpired since March, when the pandemic arrived in Western Mass., Morehouse said it’s been a period of adjustment — for area residents, for his agency, and even for area farms.

For many, the pandemic left them unemployed or in a position where they were earning less — although generous unemployment benefits certainly helped large numbers of people impacted by the downturn in the economy. But those unemployment benefits also had the unintended consequence of leaving individuals ineligible for SNAP (Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) benefits, creating a different kind of problem.

For the Food Bank, the first several weeks of the pandemic were chaotic, he said, as the agency mounted a response to what was happening — but had to do so in the middle of a health crisis.

“There was a lot of uncertainty about how to protect oneself from COVID-19, and suddenly, so many people lost their jobs or were furloughed,” he explained. “There was an outpouring of concern, of wanting to help, from people who don’t know that an emergency food network exists. So we were fielding calls from community groups from all across Western Massachusetts, saying, ‘we want to bring food to the Food Bank,’ or ‘how can we support you?’

“And it took a while for us to connect people to the pantries and meal sites in their communities as a way to support households that were at risk of hunger, because that’s who we work with,” he went on. “We don’t receive individuals who are in need of food assistance at our warehouse, and we don’t deliver food to households; we work through the existing network of about 165 independent pantries and meal sites, plus our own distribution programs to 51 senior centers every month, and on our mobile food bank, which has 26 distribution sites across all four counties on a biweekly or monthly basis.”

When asked how the Food Bank responded to that 30% spike over the past seven months, Morehouse replied with a quick “it wasn’t easy,” before elaborating.

Pallets of food destined for area meal sites and pantries

Pallets of food destined for area meal sites and pantries spills out into the hallways at the Food Bank, clear evidence of soaring need in the region.

“It took us a while to catch up, I’ll be honest,” he told BusinessWest, noting that there were a number of challenges to overcome, starting with disruption to what he called the “supply chain,” meaning donations of food to the agency from individuals and also, and especially, area supermarkets.

“There was a run on those supermarkets, so it was a significant hit,” he recalled, adding that roughly half the food distributed by the agency comes from the private food industry in the form of dry goods, produce, and close to 1 million pounds of meats frozen on the sell-by date.

Beyond this disruption to the supply chain, the Food Bank was impacted by shortages of staff and a loss of many of its distribution sites; several of them closed, including all brown-bag sites for elders and many mobile locations.

Slowly, over time, those sites reopened, while also changing how food was distributed, he noted, adding that as, the spring progressed, the Food Bank adapted to what became a new normal, both in terms of how it operated and with the numbers of people now facing food insecurity.

Indeed, over the period from March to August, the latest information available, the average number of individuals served each month grew to 107,000, Morehouse said, adding that 20,000 of those, or 19%, are people who have never come to a pantry or meal site.

And that percentage of new visitors was much higher, perhaps 40%, in the early weeks of the pandemic, when the layoffs and furloughs started climbing, and before those generous unemployment benefits kicked in. The numbers then leveled off for a time, but they started climbing again, he went on, adding that, when the new six-month numbers come out, the total people being served should far surpass that 107,000 figure.

 

Numbers to Chew On

Behind the numbers is the story of how this rising demand has been met with the help of a number of contributing sources — that safety net Morehouse described earlier.

These include the federal government, state agencies, area businesses, and philanthropic efforts like Jeff Bezos’ $100 million gift to Feeding America’s COVID-19 Response Fund.

“The federal government has stepped up — we’ve received considerably more federal food,” he explained, referring specifically to CARES Act appropriations that enable such agencies to buy more food. “And there was an outpouring of support from individuals, businesses, and regional and state foundations, as well as from Feeding America, the national network of food banks.”

The agency has also received more than $400,000, with another $123,000 coming, from the Massachusetts COVID Relief Fund, he went on, adding that a number of individual businesses, including Big Y and the Antonocci Family Foundation, have made sizable donations as well.

Part of the federal government’s response has come in the form of Farmers to Families Food Boxes, a new program through which the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service is partnering with national, regional, and local distributors, whose workforces have been significantly impacted by the closure of restaurants, hotels, and other food-service businesses, to purchase up to $4.5 billion in fresh produce, dairy, and meat products from American producers of all sizes.

Mapleline Farm in Hadley is one of several local farms in the region that have adjusted with the pandemic, now supplying the Food Bank with milk in family-sized packaging.

This program supplies boxes of fresh fruits and vegetables, dairy products, and meat products, which distributors package into family-sized boxes, then transport them to food banks, community and faith-based organizations, and other nonprofits serving Americans in need.

The program has benefited several area farms, said Morehouse, noting that those supplying the boxes are purchasing products from many area farmers who were severely impacted by their inability to sell to restaurants, colleges, and universities closed by the pandemic.

“It took a while for some of these farms to adapt, but many of them have,” he said, citing, as one example, Mapleline Farm in Hadley, a dairy farm whose name and logo were on countless boxes of quart containers of milk in the Food Bank’s warehouse.

As for the future, Morehouse said the contributions that have poured in from individuals and businesses have left the organization in a solid position financially for this current fiscal year, one in which overall need is expected to continue growing, while the economy is projected to continue struggling.

Meanwhile, question marks remain about the ongoing level of support from state and federal governments, as well as from individual contributors, he said, citing the potential for donor fatigue as the pandemic wears on.

“The state is operating on a month-to-month budget, so we’re not even sure if we’re going to be level-funded for a program that we’ve come to rely on for 30% of our food since 1992,” he told BusinessWest. “And the federal government has not passed another stimulus package, so we’re anticipating a decline in federal support.

“We have a jigsaw puzzle of public and private emergency food resources that rely of federal and state funding and private charitable support,” he went on. “We rely on all those sources of support to get the food we need and the resources we need to keep operations afloat.”

One of the important pieces of that puzzle is Monte’s March, the fundraising walk from Springfield to Greenfield that was launched by radio personality Monte Belmonte to benefit the Food Bank. Belmonte has seen the ranks of people joining him on his late-November trek grow steadily over the years, as well as the amount raised for the agency, but that first trend won’t continue this year, as the pandemic is forcing organizers to encourage individuals to support the march remotely — although the top-performing teams when it comes to generating donations will be able to march.

But, given the urgent need for support, they are hoping the second trend will continue. The goal for this year has been raised from the $333,000 mark set last year — each dollar donated buys three meals, so the goal was to fund 1 million meals — to $365,000, or $1,000 a day, or 4,000 meals a day (one dollar now buys four meals, due to greater efficiency).

 

Hard to Digest

Looking at the projections from Feeding America for the next several months, the ones predicting that one in six area residents will be food-insecure, Morehouse had his doubts initially about whether things would really get that bad here.

But now, he’s thinking they may be realistic — painfully realistic, to be more precise — especially when one ponders the unanswerable questions concerning when the pandemic will subside and to what degree the federal government will keep on printing money.

One thing Morehouse does know is that the Food Bank will continue to pivot and respond proactively to the ongoing crisis — right down to finding more warehouse space.

 

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

Features Special Coverage

A ‘Family Business’

Tom Hebert says his novels are a way of paying back the Marine Corps for all it has given him.

Tom Hebert says his novels are a way of paying back the Marine Corps for all it has given him.

The story sounds like some of the fiction that Tom Hebert now devotes much of his non-working time to writing.

But it’s not.

Flashing back to when he was in high school, Hebert said he and his father, William, were having a talk about what he might do with his life, career-wise. The elder Hebert had just used his last match to light a cigarette, and after doing so, he noticed the ad on the back of the matchbook: ‘Become a CPA.’

“He handed me the matchbook cover, and I said, ‘OK, I’ll look into it,’ said Hebert, who would earn a degree in accounting at American International College. Eventually, he would join what was then one of the ‘Big 8’ accounting firms, Lybrand, Ross Bros. & Montgomery, and subsequently work in a number of other settings in Connecticut and Massachusetts, including Cambridge Credit Counseling, which he currently serves as chief financial officer.

“Discipline and leadership … that’s what I took away from the Marines. It shows in the respect I have for people, including the people who work for me — treating them well, treating them with respect.”

But while the saga of how he wound up in financial services is intriguing and makes for good reading, Herbert’s story is largely about what else he’s done with his life, starting with his time in the Marine Corps, which included a stint in Vietnam in 1970, as that conflict was beginning to wind down in many ways (much more on that later).

More recently, a second career has emerged: writing fiction, specifically about Marines. His first book, The Remains of the Corps, Volume I: Ivy & the Crossing, which he authored under the pseudonym Will Remain (with Remain being an anagram of Marine), came out early this year.

Covering the period from 1899 to 1917, several months before the U.S. entered World War I, it tells the story of Kenneth Remain (Will’s grandfather, who was born in Worcester and educated at Harvard), and the love triangle he enters along with Harvard classmate Lawrence Blakeslee and the “beautiful KatyKay Mulcahy.” The reader is also introduced to the 57 enlisted men of the fictional Fourth Platoon of the 87th Company of the true-to-life Third Battalion of the Sixth Marine Regiment.

“These gentlemen would have used a very large vocabulary, and I had to develop my vocabulary tremendously to have it fit for these two gentlemen .”

“When Kenneth takes KatyKay away from Lawrence, it creates problems between the two families that last for decades,” Hebert said, describing the plotline for the first book and those that will follow. “There’s this interaction between the two families that will last right up ’til the Vietnam War.”

The book is selling fairly well, but Hebert admits to not yet reaching the ‘break-even’ point that all self-publishers aspire to. Originally in hardcover, there’s now a paperback version of Remains of the Corps, as well as an e-book, and an audiobook will soon follow.

A second book is in progress, one that will take the story into the battlefields of France in World War I, with subsequent volumes covering the 1920s and ’30s. Eventually, his fictional characters will fight in World War II, which his father did, having taken part in the epic battle on Iwo Jima.

His father’s service — and his own — helped inspire the books, said Hebert, who told BusinessWest his writing is a way to give back to the Marine Corps, which he said gave him so much.

When asked what, specifically, he said the Corps gave him discipline, something he’s called on in all facets of his intriguing life, as well as some moments he won’t forget.

“Discipline and leadership … that’s what I took away from the Marines,” he explained. “It shows in the respect I have for people, including the people who work for me — treating them well, treating them with respect.”

Thus, Hebert’s saga represents the perfect Veteran’s Day story for this business publication: it’s a tale of military service and a family’s devotion to the Marine Corps, but also one about business — the one Hebert joined with some help from that matchbook cover, as well as the one he’s in now — and the challenging world of publishing.

 

The Write Stuff

“That’s the final straw!” Kenneth Remain said angrily, as he sat down heavily at a table in Jimmy’s Lunch. The melting snow on the brim of his boater and the shoulders of his benny testified to the fact that a sockdologer of a storm had clobbered Boston, an affront to the spring solstice of two days hence; though waning, the storm had not breathed its last.

Those are the first lines of The Remains of the Corps, Volume I: Ivy & the Crossing, and they provide not only a glimpse of Hebert’s mostly self-taught writing style, but also the immense amount of research that goes into writing a book set more than a century ago.

Tom Hebert says his second novel is almost fully researched and one-quarter written

Tom Hebert says his second novel is almost fully researched and one-quarter written. He plans six volumes in all to tell the story of the Remains.

Indeed, before he could pen a story set in 1917, Hebert said he needed to know the vocabulary of 1917 — specifically the vocabulary used by people attending Harvard, hence words like ‘boater,’ a type of straw hat; ‘benny,’ a greatcoat; and ‘sockdologer,’ a synonym for any word connoting ‘whopper’ or ‘defining.’

“People talked much more formally back then — they used the king’s English,” he explained. “These gentlemen would have used a very large vocabulary, and I had to develop my vocabulary tremendously to have it fit for these two gentlemen.

“Any time my wife and I were out at bookstores and flea markets, I would pick up books on vocabulary, idioms, and more,” he went on. “And as part of my training, I went through those books and selected words, phrases, thoughts, and philosophies, and I would say, ‘I could use this in one of my books.’”

Several years of research and work learning how to write fiction went into The Remains of the Corps, Volume 1, said Herbert, noting, again, that his decision to dive into what he expects will become a six-book set was inspired by the service of his own family and a firm desire to give something back to the Corps.

With that, we’ll do what fiction writers often do: we’ll flash back — first to 1945, when William Hebert was ending his lengthy tour of duty with the Marines. He enlisted just after Pearl Harbor and served throughout the war — and even after it ended, as part of the peacekeeping force in Japan. Upon returning home, he built a house in Chicopee and went to work as a pressman for Springfield Newspapers, retiring at age 62.

“I work partly because I enjoy working — I thoroughly enjoy my position here. But also because it enables me to fund the things that I want to do in life — one of which is writing.”

Hebert said his father, like many who fought in World War II, didn’t talk much about his service. “But he was always singing the Marine Corps hymn when I was a boy,” Tom recalled, adding that, while his father never pushed him to join the service or that specific branch, he found himself signing up.

That was in May 1968, just a few months after the Tet Offensive, when the Vietnam War was in some ways at its height. Hebert had just earned that accounting degree at AIC, and attended Office Training School for 10 weeks, and then another five months at a specialty school for officers.

His military occupational specialty was to be a tank officer, so he then went to Camp Pendleton in California for two months. Around that same time, he got married and was told he could spend another 18 months in California.

Tom Hebert began his service in Vietnam a few months after the Tet Offensive

Tom Hebert began his service in Vietnam a few months after the Tet Offensive in 1968, when the conflict was at its height.

But there was a quick change in plans, as he and several other tank officers were told there was an urgent need for their services in Vietnam.

“When we arrived at First Marine Division and met with the personnel officer, he said, ‘I don’t know why they sent you all here — I have three times as many tank officers as I need,’” he recalled. “That’s typical of the military, and my father had warned me about the bureaucratic aspects of being in the service.”

With his background in accounting, Hebert was eventually sent to the Central Service Agency, essentially a supply position — and wasn’t too happy with that assignment.

“After being there a short time, I went to the personnel officer and said, ‘I can’t do this — my father was in the Marines, he served at Iwo Jima … this is not why I joined,” he recalled. “He kicked me out of his office and said, ‘you’ll go where you’re told.’”

So he spent a year in Da Nang as — in the language of that time — an REMF, which stands for rear echelon mother… well, you can fill in the rest. Or, as they also said, ‘in the rear with the gear.’

Still, that time gave him a deep appreciation of the Corps and some valuable life lessons about leadership and teamwork.

When he came back home, he had a case of what was and still is known as ‘survivor guilt,’ which prompted him to publish a Vietnam War newsletter and also sell books through what was known as the Vietnam Book Store, a mostly mail-order operation.

 

Turning the Page

Longing to do more, Hebert eventually settled on the idea of writing about fictional Marines, but with art imitating life in many ways, especially when it comes to the Marine Corps being a generational phenomenon, or what Hebert calls a “family business.” It was that way for his family, and for the one he’s writing about as well, in stories told by the youngest generation.

That would be Will Remain, whose background is similar to Hebert’s, but with some important differences. Remain graduated from Harvard, not AIC, and upon graduation enlisted in the Marines and attended Officer Candidates School and Basic School in Quantico, Va. Instead of serving in the rear with the gear, he fought at Khe Sanh in 1967 and the Battle of Hue City during the Tet Offensive of 1968.

Hebert said he was inspired in many ways by the war novel Once an Eagle, written by Anton Meyer. A New York Times bestseller, it has been a favorite of American military men and women since it was penned in 1968, he noted.

“That book just fascinated me,” he told BusinessWest. “It was about the Army, and it covered several decades of one officer’s time. That book really inspired me to write.” Indeed, Hebert’s first forays into writing were non-fiction works about Meyer and his books.

He then embarked on the first installment of his novel, which wound up taking him a decade or so to write and prepare for publication. It includes dozens of illustrations by Tara Kaz that help bring the individual stories to life.

As for those stories, or the elements of his novels, he said the process of weaving them together is very much like that of putting together a jigsaw puzzle — which happens to be another of his hobbies; he said he’s put together more than 75 of them, with his favorite (unsurprisingly) being an image of the Iwo Jima Memorial in Washington.

“I have tons and tons of research material, and it’s all in pieces,” he went on, adding that, as he read books on history and vocabulary, for example, he would tear out the pages and keep them for future reference. “I take all those pieces — and we’re talking about an incredible amount of information — and put it together in a book.”

His second book is 95% researched and about 25% written, he said, adding that this segment details the battles in France during World War I. Book three, meanwhile, covers the period between the wars, and book four will likely take place on a fictional island in the Pacific during World War II.

Hebert writes when he’s not working, which means nights and weekends, and at age 73, he intends to keep on working — for several reasons.

“I work partly because I enjoy working — I thoroughly enjoy my position here,” he explained. “But also because it enables me to fund the things that I want to do in life — one of which is writing.”

As noted, his first book is off to a decent start, with about 300 copies sold and a far less expensive paperback now available. He’s optimistic, and excited, about the audiobook version, which will be read by noted narrator Grover Gardner, who, coincidentally (or not), has also read Once an Eagle.

“My hope, with the audiobook being read by someone so well-known, is that this will bring some attention to it and sell more books in print — that’s my goal, anyway,” he said, adding that this is far more an enjoyable hobby than a money-making enterprise. “I work to write.”

 

The Last Word

Hebert’s life has taken a number of twists and turns since his father glanced down at that matchbook cover and eventually handed it to him.

As noted at the top, some of it, including that episode, does sound like fiction, which is appropriate, said Hebert, because life really does imitate art in many ways.

His art certainly does. It’s a collection of tales about people. But it’s also about a business — a family business.

That’s what the Marine Corps became for him — and for those in the Remain family — and it’s a success story on a number of levels.

 

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Amy Cahillane says the DNA’s advocacy work has surpassed its events programming this year

Amy Cahillane says the DNA’s advocacy work has surpassed its events programming this year — because advocacy is needed, and events are few.

For the past four years, Amy Cahillane has led the Downtown Northampton Assoc. (DNA) in its many efforts to boost vibrancy in the city’s center.

The DNA typically handles such things as city plantings and holiday lights, and sponsors events that bring visitors to downtown, like Summer Stroll and Holiday Stroll, Arts Night Out, and sidewalk sales.

Note that word ‘typically.’ Because this hasn’t been a typical year.

“The pandemic changed it completely,” said Cahillane, the DNA’s executive director. “We usually focus heavily on events — it’s sort of our centerpiece. In light of COVID, I’d say 98% of our events were unable to happen. Arts Night Out is a monthly gathering where we invite lots of people into a small space to share food and drinks. That was one of our first COVID casualties — there’s no way to do that safely.”

But the DNA’s second major role is advocacy, making sure the downtown community has a voice at City Hall and that people feel their voice is heard, through public meetings and community forums on issues that impact businesses. That function was magnified in this unusual year.

“As everything changed, we were forced to change our focus because our small-business community is in desperate need of help, as is every other downtown in this area,” she told BusinessWest. “Even had our events not been canceled, it became clear pretty quickly we’d have to change our focus to advocacy at both the state and local levels, just to keep businesses afloat.”

Much of that advocacy came in the form of pushing for state and local aid, while other efforts were narrowly targeted, like making sure downtown parking was altered so restaurants could expand outdoor seating — “anything we could think of that could help them carry on through this trying to time, until we see some light at the end of the tunnel.”

And the city’s leaders have been responsive, Cahillane said, from a round of direct emergency grants to the business community to making the changes needed to bolster restaurants.

“They stepped up right away to work with our organization and downtown restaurants to make it possible to have outdoor seating, and make it last as long as possible. They got that up and running pretty quickly, and the License Commission was very fast turning around approvals for those who wanted to serve liquor outside.”

Debra Flynn, who owns Eastside Grill, was among the first downtown restaurateurs to pivot to curbside takeout and delivery once eateries were forced to shut down in early spring. “We had no idea how to do it,” she said, adding that it was important to buy the right containers to keep food warm and make sure meals were presented with care, even in the boxes.

“I can’t complain right now; we’ve had such wonderful support from our community,” she said, noting that she was able to set about 30 seats outside and eventually bring patrons back inside as well. “But I’m nervous going forward.”

“It’s definitely remained slower than the pre-COVID days, but each month, we have been seeing a smaller margin in the percentage we were down from last year. That’s helped me stay optimistic.”

That’s because the weather is getting colder, and while regulars are comfortable with the safety protocols being taken inside, she worries that folks who haven’t visited recently might not want to do so during flu season. And while the governor’s new mandate that businesses need to close by 9:30 p.m. doesn’t affect Eastside, it does impact the operations of other downtown restaurants. “They’re very nervous and upset about this whole thing,” she noted.

 

Shifting Winds

Alana Traub, who owns Honey & Wine, a clothing shop in Thornes Marketplace, has had a worrisome time this year, too.

“Everything changed for my business with the pandemic, when all businesses closed for quite a while,” she told BusinessWest. “When it finally did reopen in June, it was extremely slow going; I think people were really nervous to go out, and maybe they didn’t even know if we were open or not.

“Since then, it’s definitely remained slower than the pre-COVID days, but each month, we have been seeing a smaller margin in the percentage we were down from last year. That’s helped me stay optimistic.”

If there’s a downtown that’s well-positioned to rebound after the pandemic, Cahillane said, it’s Northampton.

“Even among my circle of friends, we are dying to go back out to restaurants, go bar hopping,” she said. “I think these businesses downtown are doing everything they can to hang on.”

Perhaps the economic shakeup — and some business closures that have followed in its wake — will present opportunities for some new faces to enter the downtown scene, she added. “A pandemic seems an odd time to start a business, but we’ve seen several open up; we might see a new round of creative, exciting businesses downtown.”

Lindsay Pope made the jump over the summer, purchasing Yoga Sanctuary, also at Thornes, from former owner Sara Rose Page on Aug. 1. A former member at the studio, Pope said she decided to become a business owner in this uncertain time because she feared Page may not have found another buyer.

“I feel like this time is incredibly liberating,” Pope said. “What do I have to lose? The alternate was that we could have lost this space, and instead, we’re going to give it another shot.”

With the times in mind, she launched not only reinvigorated studio programming in September, but also new online programming and an online video-library platform. “We’re going to try to evolve to meet the needs of the times and the next generation. That’s what we’re all being called to do right now in the chaos that’s happening.”

Cahillane said many other businesses have pivoted as well — although she admitted she’s a little sick of that word.

“Restaurants that never did curbside were nervous to try it, but our community showed up and started ordering curbside. Stores that never did local deliveries wondered if people would take advantage of it, but they did. People definitely have been incredibly supportive of downtown — the question is whether that’s enough.”

 

Holding Pattern

Before the pandemic struck, the DNA — which cites beautification among its top goals, along with programming and advocacy — was coming off a couple of years that saw a series of major projects on the Pleasant Street corridor, from a $2.9 million infrastructure upgrade to make the street safer and more navigable for motorists, bicyclists, and pedestrians to the completion of the roundabout at Pleasant and Conz streets and a number of residential and mixed-use developments along the thoroughfare.

To say 2020 has been a different sort of year is an understatement, although traffic has returned to some degree in recent months, and many businesses, including those in the retail marijuana trade, continue to do well. But anxiety lingers for many.

“I think everyone is concerned,” Cahillane said. “There is certainly more traffic than there was in March, April, or May, for sure. But winter is coming. It’s easy right now to park your car and walk outside, or enjoy some coffee on the sidewalk, when it’s sunny and pretty and the leaves are changing.

“But I think the first sign of snowfall will change that picture pretty dramatically,” she went on. “Are people going to be comfortable shopping indoors in the winter? I don’t know. Or sit inside a restaurant in the winter? I don’t know. And because so much is unknown about COVID, are people going to be extra anxious during flu season, when they don’t know if the person next to them has a cold or something more? There are so many unknowns. People are definitely concerned.”

Yet, Traub senses optimism from other business owners in Thornes and downtown in general, not because the pandemic is close to ending, but because Northampton is a strong enough business community to fully rebound once it does.

“That’s the general consensus,” she said. “I think everyone is also being realistic because no one knows what’s ahead. This is so unprecedented.”

Still, she moved her five-year-old business here from Franklin County for a reason. “I would call this the shopping destination in Western Mass. It’s definitely been a lot of fun, and I’ve been happy with my move to Northampton.”

And waiting for a time when the city is truly on the move again.

 

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Features Special Coverage

A Season on Ice

Nate Costa, president of the Thunderbirds

Nate Costa, president of the Thunderbirds

The wall opposite Nate Costa’s desk is covered in a wrap depicting action from the American Hockey League (AHL) All-Star Classic, played at the MassMutual Center in January 2019 — probably the high point of the five-year re-emergence, and renaissance, of professional hockey in Springfield.

Costa pointed toward that wall several times as he tried to explain just how the Springfield Thunderbirds, which he serves as president, might place spectators so they are at least six feet apart — if, and it’s mighty big if, the governor, the city, and whoever else might need to sign off on such a plan gives the proverbial green light. And he also pointed while talking about the many subtleties and challenges that go into such an exercise.

“It’s almost like a puzzle,” he explained. “We have 6,700 seats, and our season-ticket holders are typically jammed into the best seats. All our center-ice seats are completely taken … so what do you do in a six-foot distancing model? — everyone can’t get the seat they would normally want to have, and that’s just one of the challenges.”

As he talked with BusinessWest on Oct. 15, five days after the 2020-21 season was supposed to start, Costa acknowledged that trying to put together this puzzle is just one of the myriad questions and challenges he and a now considerably smaller staff are working to address.

“The ownership has given a commitment to Springfield — we’re not going anywhere. It’s going to be a challenging year for us, like it is for everyone else, but the commitment is there to get through this year and plan for the long term. We’ll get through this … it’s just going to be tough.”

Indeed, Costa admitted he has no real idea if or when he might be able to put such a plan into action. In reality, he has no idea when or under what circumstances hockey might again be played on Main Street. He was told in July by the National Hockey League, parent to the AHL, that games might be able to commence by early December, but he’s very doubtful about that date.

He believes January or even February is a far more likely start time. But beyond that, he cannot say with any degree of certainty how — and how many — games might be played, and how late into 2021 the season might go. Instead, there are only question marks — many of them, involving everything from if and how many fans can sit in the stands to if and how this team can travel to away games in other states, let alone Canada.

All these questions, most of them difficult if not impossible to answer at this juncture, make this a difficult, very frustrating time for Costa and all those involved with a franchise that had become one of the feel-good stories in Springfield over the past several years.

games might be played in early December

While the AHL is expressing hope that games might be played in early December, Nate Costa, president of the Thunderbirds, believes January or early February is a more likely target for a return to action at the MassMutual Center.

Under Costa’s stewardship and the backing of a large, committed ownership group, Springfield had gone from a city without hockey after the Falcons departed for Arizona more than five years ago, to one with a franchise that was not only filling the MassMutual Center with increasing regularity, but also becoming part of the fabric of the region.

Turning the clock back just seven months or so, although it seems like an eternity, to be sure, Costa said the team was clicking on all or most cylinders, meaning everything from ticket and merchandise sales to creating strong partnerships with a number of area businesses.


Listen to BusinessTalk with Nate Costa Podcast HERE


“We were, fortunately, in a really good position when the season ended last year,” he noted. “We were ahead of budget, we were on track to make a profit, which was three years in the making. We were in great shape — we had nine sellouts through March last year, which was our previous record, and we had three weekends left and were expecting three more sellouts. The business was in great shape.”

In the proverbial blink of an eye, though, everything changed. The season, and the MassMutual Center, were shut down. Initially, the Thunderbirds, like most businesses closed down by the pandemic, thought it might be a matter of several weeks before things went back to something approaching normal. As it became clear this wouldn’t be the case, the team — again, like many other businesses — had to make some hard decisions and eventually furlough several employees; once a staff of 19, it is now down to seven.

“The thing that has been frustrating and challenging — to everyone, but me in particular — is that we don’t have a lot of control over much of anything at this point. You’re beholden to the state and other states and also to the league … you can have all the best plans in the world, but if we don’t have the ability to do it and do it safely, then it’s going to be a challenge.”

Those who remain are trying to carry on as they did seven and half months ago — selling season tickets, planning events, working within the community, and building the team’s foundation. But it’s all different. For the most part, the staff is trying to prepare for contingencies, plan what can be planned, and, perhaps above all, work tirelessly to remain relevant while waiting for games to commence and the pandemic to run its course.

“The ownership has given a commitment to Springfield — we’re not going anywhere,” Costa said. “It’s going to be a challenging year for us, like it is for everyone else, but the commitment is there to get through this year and plan for the long term. We’ll get through this … it’s just going to be tough.”

 

Setting Goals

When asked about how he’s apportioning his time these days, Costa said he spends much of it on the phone.

Many of those calls are to and from other team executives in the AHL — he knows most of them going back to the days when he worked for the league — who are looking to compare notes and share thoughts on how to deal with a situation unlike anything they’ve encountered.

“I’m seeing what other teams are doing, what they’re hearing from their states, and what the temperature is for us to play in the upcoming year,” he explained. “There’s a lot of conversation going on about how we can pull this off and how we can do it the right way. It’s a challenge that none of us have faced in our careers, and there’s no way to really plan for it.”

In addition to other AHL officials, Costa and others within the league are also talking with leaders from other sports, including the National Football League. From these conversations, they’re learning it’s been difficult to sell even those comparatively few tickets that states like Florida, Texas, and Missouri are allowing teams to sell.

Indeed, while the popular notion might be that there is considerable demand for those few seats, and that teams would struggle to figure out who might be awarded them, that is certainly not the case.

“They’re having a hard time selling the limited inventory that they have because people are just not mentally ready for it yet,” Costa said. “Even the Cowboys are facing challenges; they’ve had to comp a lot of tickets. The Dolphins, the same thing. That’s what we’re seeing.”

2019-20 Thunderbirds’ schedule

Signage outside the MassMutual Center still displays the 2019-20 Thunderbirds’ schedule because the slate for this year remains clouded by question marks.

This harsh reality brings yet another layer of intrigue, and questions, to the discussion concerning just when, if, and under what circumstances the AHL might be permitted to carry out its 2020-21 season. Indeed, while the league wants to commence action and get fans back in the arenas, if they start too early, fans will not be eager to come back.

And the harshest reality of all is that this league — and the NHL as well — simply cannot operate for any length of time without fans in the stands.

The AHL is a league with no national television contracts and only some smaller, regional deals. The vast majority of revenues come from sponsorships and sales of tickets, concessions, and merchandise. And without fans in the stands … well, it’s easy to do the math.

Meanwhile, the inability to play in front of fans is also presenting a major challenge to the parent league, the NHL, whose franchises own the bulk of the teams in the AHL, with a dozen or so, including the Thunderbirds, being independently owned.

“Even though the perception is that the NHL is this huge entity that can just sustain losses, with them not having the ability to put fans in the stands, that impacts everything,” he explained. “That’s the trunk to the revenue tree. If you don’t have fans, it’s hard to sell sponsorships, and you can’t sell merchandise and concessions. And at our level, that’s what really drives our business — it’s butts in seats.

“In this league, it’s crucially important to have fans in the arena,” he went on. “And that’s what we spent four years doing — rebuilding the fan base and packing this arena so that our business would be much more financially solvent.”

But playing games without fans in the stands remains one of the options moving forward, said Costa, calling it a last resort, but still a possibility, especially if he can negotiate with one of the local TV stations to televise some of the games. And talks along those lines are ongoing, he told BusinessWest.

The hope, though, is that, by January or February, the state will allow fans in the arenas with a six-foot-distancing model, he said, referring again to that image on his wall.

“It’s not going to be a ton of people, maybe 1,200 to 1,500 people from what we’re doing with our modeling,” Costa continued. “But at least it would get us started, and then the hope would be that, as the spring would move along, we’d be able to bring more bodies into the building.”

That’s the hope. But Costa and his team, as noted, are preparing, as best they can, for a number of contingencies.

“The thing that has been frustrating and challenging — to everyone, but me in particular — is that we don’t have a lot of control over much of anything at this point,” he said. “You’re beholden to the state and other states and also to the league … you can have all the best plans in the world, but if we don’t have the ability to do it and do it safely, then it’s going to be a challenge.”

 

Knowing the Score

Next spring will mark the 50th anniversary of the Calder Cup championship run authored by the team known then as the Springfield Kings, the minor-league affiliate of the then-fledgling Los Angeles Kings.

Costa said the team has been making plans to honor that squad and its accomplishment with a throwback game featuring the Kings’ colors and logos, an on-ice ceremony featuring surviving members of that team, and other events.

Now, most of those plans, as well as those to mark the fifth anniversary of the Thunderbirds themselves, are in limbo, like just about everything else concerning the 2020-21 season.

Indeed, even as Costa and his team try to prepare for the new season, there are still so many things beyond their control, especially the virus itself. By most accounts, a second wave has commenced, with cases on the rise in a number of states. Some of those states, and individual communities, have already put a number of restrictions in place as part of efforts to control the spread of the virus, and there may be even more in the weeks and months to come.

The ones already in place create a number of logistical concerns.

“Rhode Island has a 14-day mandatory quarantine, so if we play Providence, how does that work?” he asked rhetorically. “Meanwhile, the Canadian border is closed; we have Canadian teams, including one in our conference, Toronto. And then, there’s the challenge of air travel — Charlotte is in our division, and we would normally go there once or twice a year. How do you do that, and how do you do it safely?

“There’s a lot of things that we as a league have to work through,” he went on, and while coping with these day-to-day questions and challenges, he stressed the need to think and plan for the long term. He said the pandemic will eventually be something to talk about with the past tense, and he wants to properly position the franchise for that day, even while coping with the present challenges.

This mindset has dominated the team’s actions with regard to everything from refunding tickets sold but not used last season to managing the partnerships that have been developed over the years with corporate sponsors.

“We reached out to every season-ticket holder and gave them a number of options,” he said in reference to the seven games they missed at the end of last season. “They could roll the credit over to the following year, they could donate to our foundation, or, if they didn’t want to do any of those, we would be happy to give them a refund because, at the end of the day, it’s the right thing to do.

“None of us planned for this, so from a business perspective, we thought that any sort of pushback or anything like that is not the way to be,” he went on. “We want to make sure we’re doing the right thing for the people who have supported us from the start, and we’ve been proactive and honest because, at the end of the day, it’s so important for us to be authentic through this process because we’re not the only ones dealing with this — everyone has their own challenges.”

This approach, coupled with the team’s strong track record over the past several years, has helped the organization maintain its strong base of support, said Costa, adding that the Thunderbirds have been able to retain roughly 85% of their season-ticket sales from last year, despite the question marks hovering over the upcoming season.

“It’s been incredible to see the level of support we’ve been given,” he said. “I think people were really seeing what we are able to do in the community and how much of an impact we were having. We’ve been given commitments by people that they’re going to be here when we’re back.”

Looking ahead to the day when the pandemic is over and he can once again focus on selling out the MassMutual Center, Costa is optimistic about his prospects for doing just that.

“I think it’s going to take some time — it might take until the summer for those people who aren’t diehards to come back to our arena, but I think that, by next fall, we’ll be able to pack this place again,” he told BusinessWest. “I think there’s going to be a lot of pent-up demand, and I think we’re positioned well. I think that, when people are ready to get back in the arena again, they’re going to think twice about driving to Boston and paying $300 to $400 for a ticket when they can get the same experience and see really good hockey right here in our area for a fraction of that price.”

 

Taking Their Best Shot

As he walked and talked with BusinessWest while showing off some of the many other wraps adorning the team’s offices on Bruce Landon Way, Costa stopped and reflected on the fact that last year’s schedule is still posted on the wall outside those facilities.

That schedule has become symbolic of how the NHL and the Thunderbirds have become frozen in time in some respects. No one can say when there will be new games on the slate, how the games will be played, or where.

What Costa does know is that, sometime soon — just when, he doesn’t know — there will be a new schedule in that space. Things will be different for some time to come, and the team is certainly not going to pick right up where it left off when the music stopped last March.

But he firmly believes that the solid foundation laid before the pandemic entered everyone’s lives has the team in a good place for when we’re all on the other side of this crisis.

 

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

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Charlie Christianson

Charlie Christianson says many local businesses have had to pivot and be nimble in the face of COVID-19.

Despite all the challenges a pandemic brings, Mary McNally says, town officials and business leaders in East Longmeadow are looking forward with a sense of optimism.

After serving in an interim role, McNally became East Longmeadow’s permanent town manager in December 2019 — just before every town in America began dealing with the effects of COVID-19.

Even though Town Hall has been closed to the public since mid-March, McNally said the staff has worked hard to maintain town services to the public and keep projects moving.

“All of our Planning Department functions, such as petitions and site-plan reviews, are being conducted — business as usual,” McNally said. “That is, if you accept Zoom meetings as business as usual.”

According to Charlie Christianson, those types of adjustments have enabled the town and its businesses to find their way during these difficult times. Christianson, board president of the East of the River Five Town Chamber of Commerce, said COVID-19 forced a number of companies to pivot and find new ways to stay viable. He cited Go Graphix, maker of signs, vehicle wraps, and other marketing materials, as an example of an East Longmeadow company that made a big adjustment and found success by doing so.

“When business fell off at the beginning of the pandemic, Go Graphix pivoted early to make plexiglass partitions as well as signs to help communicate social distancing and mask wearing. Now, it’s a big part of their business.”

In addition to his work with the chamber, Christianson runs CMD Technology Group, a provider of IT solutions and support. With so many people working from home, his business was able to pivot to set up workers who needed remote connections.

“We have seen a lot of activity in our remote-access business where we help companies get their remote employees into their online system in an effective and secure way,” he explained.

“All of our Planning Department functions, such as petitions and site-plan reviews, are being conducted — business as usual. That is, if you accept Zoom meetings as business as usual.”

Chamber member Steve Graham, CEO of Toner Plastics, said several of the products his company makes are considered essential, a designation that kept his workers busy all year. Perhaps the most notable product Toner makes these days is the elastic for N95 masks.

“Since the pandemic, you can imagine the demand for that product went through the roof,” Graham said, adding that, during a time when other companies were cutting back due to COVID-19, his company had to quickly ramp up for more production.

With Toner facilities in Pittsfield and Rhode Island, as well as in East Longmeadow, Graham appreciates the opportunity to continue his operations during these challenging times. “We’re fortunate that we are able to keep people employed and continue to ship to our customers; best of all, none of our employees have been inflicted with COVID-19.”

 

Go with the Flow

Despite the pandemic, municipal projects in East Longmeadow keep moving. The town applied for a $600,000 grant through MassWorks to improve sewage outflow where it connects to the Springfield system, allowing East Longmeadow to more accurately monitor what gets sent to Springfield.

“While it’s not a glamourous project, it’s a big undertaking and represents a real improvement in our town’s infrastructure,” McNally said.

After years of applying to the Massachusetts School Building Authority, East Longmeadow is in the eligibility period to explore funding for a new high school. McNally said this milestone is significant because it represents the first step in the process to eventually replace the current, 60-year old facility.

For many years, residents have been concerned about the site of the former Package Machinery site, with any potential development hampered by its industrial zoning status. McNally said the Town Council and the Planning Board have recently taken action to change the zoning status to mixed use, which would allow residential as well as commercial buildings to locate there.

“While no official project is in front of the Town Council, one development that has been discussed could include single-family homes, condominiums, apartments, and light-use business entities,” McNally said. “The idea is to have a new walkable neighborhood near the bike trail and the center of town.”

To keep projects like these moving forward, McNally and her staff are working to develop a new master plan for East Longmeadow. The last master plan for the town dates back to 1976, prompting her to put this effort high on the must-do list. The first phase of the plan is scheduled to be complete by June 2021.

A master plan allows the town to move from talking about projects to getting them done. One example is Heritage Park, where architect drawings were generated in 2016 to add athletic fields, an amphitheater, and other improvements. The $5 million price tag has kept the redevelopment in the discussion stage.

McNally said including Heritage Park in the master plan improves its chances of eventually reaching completion. “It’s a beautiful resource, and we want to capitalize on it to make the park available to everyone, but right now it’s still a work in progress.”

“We have seen a lot of activity in our remote-access business where we help companies get their remote employees into their online system in an effective and secure way.”

During the pandemic, the chamber has been successful in bringing people together to talk about the challenges of COVID-19 and a variety of business topics. Christianson credits the chamber’s ability to quickly embrace the virtual world.

“To say we didn’t skip a beat would be an exaggeration, but we’ve done a pretty good job to help our members and to keep a consistent value proposition for them.”

He noted that the chamber has even found a way to keep the popular Feast in the East event going. Traditionally, this is a networking event in which members sample food from area restaurants while local chefs compete for the Top Chef Trophy.

“This year’s event will be like the show Iron Chef, with three local chefs competing in front of judges,” he explained. Offered as a paid Zoom event, ticket purchasers can watch the competition and receive a ‘takeout’ package of offers from local restaurants. “Through creative thought and hard work, the chamber found another way to still run this popular event.”

 

Here’s the Scoop

One of the real strengths of East Longmeadow, according to Christianson, is the healthy mix of residential and business interests. One intriguing project scheduled to open next year involves the train depot built in 1876 and located in the center of town.

Earlier this year, Graham bought the train depot and the three acres where it sits. He is in the process of converting it into an ice-cream shop called the Depot at Graham Central Station.

“Even though there have been a lot of delays due to COVID, we are finishing up the conversion, and we’re looking forward to opening the depot for the town to enjoy next spring,” he said. Because of its close proximity to the bike path, he hopes to open in the morning and offer light breakfast items, too.

While the anticipation of a new ice-cream shop in town is certainly something to look forward to, Graham said he’s anticipating even bigger news on many fronts.

As a plastics manufacturer, he works with industries as far-ranging as aerospace and automotive to medical devices and retail displays. “We are affected by many of these industries, and when they were down, it had an impact on us,” hs said.

But recent conversations with his customers reveals that many industries are starting to come back, and come back strong. “I have a great deal of optimism for the future.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

John Page and Claudia Pazmany

John Page and Claudia Pazmany say the chamber has stepped up its role this year in many ways to help businesses, including those in Hadley.

Before the pandemic, up to 80,000 cars would travel on Route 9 in Hadley each day, bringing workers, students, and customers to and through the town.

Known for its agriculture, proximity to the Five College community, and a robust retail corridor along Route 9, Hadley has been challenged, like all towns, since the arrival of COVID-19. But efforts by a group of town officials are meeting those challenges to keep Hadley viable today and well into the future.

David Nixon, deputy town administrator, said area colleges play an important role in the local economy. Hadley’s location is central to the Five College community, but Nixon actually sees it as a 30-campus community because that’s how many colleges are within an hour’s drive of Hadley.

While some campuses are open, others have stayed closed, and some are taking a hybrid approach, mixing on-site classes with distance learning.

“This has had an impact on local businesses,” he said, noting that less activity at the colleges, most notably UMass Amherst, which borders Hadley, adds to the struggles many businesses are facing as they try to comply with pandemic restrictions and stay afloat. “Right now, we are doing as much as possible to keep people safe and to support our businesses.”

Hadley officials have reduced licensing fees and expedited the process for businesses that are adapting to state COVID-19 guidelines. For example, when restaurants had to amend their food and liquor license permits to allow outdoor service, Nixon said the town was quick to respond to get the changes made.

“We’ve also expedited the inspections that are necessary when a business changes the footprint of their building,” he added, noting that cooperation among the town’s Planning Board, building inspectors, Fire Department, and Select Board ensured an easier process for the businesses involved.

Hadley is also one of seven communities benefiting from a $900,000 Community Development Block Grant to help microbusinesses stay afloat during the pandemic. Easthampton is the lead community on the grant, which allows businesses with five or fewer employees to apply for up to $10,000 in grant money.

David Nixon

David Nixon

“This project is also an opportunity to replace 100-year old sewer and water pipelines under Route 9. By doing this all at once, it will save taxpayers a lot of money.”

Also pitching in to help businesses is the Amherst Area Chamber of Commerce, which covers Hadley and other surrounding towns. Claudia Pazmany, executive director of the chamber, said the area has been fortunate in that the number of COVID-19 cases is lower than most parts of the state. To keep it that way, the chamber is now providing PPE, as well as printed posters and floor decals, that reinforce messages of social distancing, mask wearing, and hand washing. Available at no charge to chamber members, the signage is just one of the ways to help businesses get back on their feet.

“These are not business-saving techniques by themselves, but we hope to help our members reduce their costs as they open back up under the new guidelines,” she told BusinessWest.

 

Lines of Communication

The chamber has stepped up its role during the pandemic in other ways as well. “Our ability to advocate for and to market our businesses has become even stronger since COVID-19,” Pazmany noted, adding that it’s one of the few “silver linings” of these times.

The town and the chamber have been working together on a series of Zoom meetings with local businesses to hear their concerns and offer whatever help they can, she said. “We’ve been hosting these meetings to keep an open conversation between the town and businesses.”

One of the popular topics in the meetings has been the widening of Route 9, which is expected to start next year. The $26 million project will add travel and turning lanes to the road.

“This project is also an opportunity to replace 100-year old sewer and water pipelines under Route 9,” Nixon said. “By doing this all at once, it will save taxpayers a lot of money.”

Pazmany said the Route 9 widening has been in the planning phase for years, and once complete, the improvements will benefit all who use the roadway.

“Many people use the bus to go to work and school. Among other things, the widening project will provide much safer bus stops and allow buses to get more people moving in an efficient manner.”

The widening project will begin at Town Hall and go east for 2.6 miles to the intersection of Route 9 and Maple Street.

Business owners located along Route 9 have expressed concerns about the loss of business due to COVID-19 being followed up by a loss of business due to road construction. To alleviate that concern, the town has applied for an economic-development grant to market the Route 9 corridor. John Page, the chamber’s marketing and membership manager, said the idea is to position Route 9 as a great place to open a business.

“The grant would be about marketing and planning the future of Route 9 post-COVID,” he explained. “Hopefully, that’s coming sooner rather than later.”

As plans for the future of the town come into focus, Pazmany reminded everyone that Hadley has a great deal to offer right now.

“For those looking for a day trip, this is the time to come and visit,” she said, adding that, with the arrival of autumn, “Hadley will be at its most beautiful and picturesque in the next few weeks.”

She noted that many local restaurants participate in farm-to-table efforts with Hadley farms supplying many of the vegetables.

And, as more people take part in outdoor activities, the Norwottuck Rail Trail bike path has seen more riders than ever before, she said. The path runs completely through Hadley and features scenic views of farms and neighborhoods.

Hadley at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1661
Population: 5,250
Area: 24.6 square miles
County: Hampshire
Residential Tax Rate: $12.78
Commercial Tax Rate: $12.78
Median Household Income: $51,851
Median Family Income: $61,897
Type of Government: Open Town Meeting, Board of Selectmen
Largest Employers: Super Stop & Shop; Evaluation Systems Group Pearson; Elaine Center at Hadley; Home Depot; Lowe’s Home Improvement
* Latest information available

Nixon said the rail trail gives people another perspective on his town. “I often talk about the view of Hadley from Route 9 and the view from the bike path. They look like two completely different communities.”

 

Moving On

Two out of three building projects started last year in Hadley have been completed. The new Senior Center is complete and providing remote programs for residents. The new fire substation is also up and running, and the town library is close to completion.

As those projects conclude, Nixon is planning to wrap up his 15-year career with Hadley and retire on Dec. 31. To transition out of his role as town administrator, he has assumed the title of deputy town administrator while he helps Carolyn Brennan, the recently hired town administrator, transition into the job.

As someone who has been involved in municipal governments for more than 30 years, Brennan’s experience ranges from working with councils on aging in Amherst, Hampden, and East Longmeadow. She remains active as a selectman in Wilbraham, where she lives. Back when Brennan was a student at UMass, she lived in Hadley and worked at the Shady Lawn Rest Home.

Brennan said she’s glad to be back and described Hadley as being in great shape thanks to the town employees and Nixon’s management. “Having worked in other municipalities, I’m impressed with the all of the employees; they are real stakeholders in their community.”

She also appreciates having Nixon work with her while she gets acclimated to the job. “With David staying on until the end of the year, you couldn’t ask for a better transition plan for the town and for me.”

As for Nixon, he reflected on his career with Hadley and spoke of how rewarding it was to serve the town for 15 years.

“I’ll definitely miss the people,” he said. “I’m glad I was part of advancing our community a little further down the road.”

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Jeff Smith

Jeff Smith says getting town business done during COVID-19 has been more challenging than usual, but projects continue to be approved.

Wilbraham is a mostly residential town with two main business districts — the town center, as it’s known, on Main Street, and along a lengthy stretch of Route 20, or Boston Road.

The fact that both have seen development activity during the ongoing pandemic is good news indeed, said Jeffrey Smith, chairman of the Planning Board.

Take, for example, a couple of vacant buildings next to Home Depot that have been vacant for about a decade. They will soon become a 7,000-square-foot O’Reilly’s Auto Parts store and a 2,340-square-foot Valvoline instant oil-change facility.

“It’s great,” Smith said. “Being on the Planning Board and being a resident in town, I hear from people all the time, in casual converations, ‘what’s going on with that place?’ This is one of those vacant and seemingly abandoned properties that is getting a great redo, and I think it’s going to be a welcome addition. The site has been an eyesore for some time.”

Then there’s the former Papa Gino’s restaurant near the Springfield line that’s been vacant several years, but will soon be home to an expansion of Springfield-based Vanguard Dental. Meanwhile, Excel Therapy and Conditioning, a physical-therapy practice that’s expanding to sports rehabilitation and personal training, will set up shop on Boston Road as well.

“We had to work fast to fast-track this during the height of the pandemic, with Town Hall closed,” recalled John Pearsall, director of Planning. “They were in a situation where their lease was running out and they had a chance to purchase this building and move and expand their practice. That’s been a good success story, saving a local business during these difficult times.”

Doing due diligence on development projects hasn’t been easy with offices closed, Smith noted.

“Just like every other town, we’re dealing with COVID, and all Planning and Zoning board meetings have to be done remotely. John and I used to meet quite a bit more in person during the week and outside our regularly scheduled meetings, and we do a little less of that right now. Everything has become more cumbersome, with a lot of extra steps.”

“For a long time, residents in the center of town have complained that it’s a little sleepy, and they want to have more activity there. We’re finally getting some actual development and change. The project will be a real catalyst for the center of town.”

Yet, important work continues, including efforts by the Board of Selectmen, the Board of Health, and licensing authorities to get restaurants reopened in recent months.

“We’re trying to do the best we can to help our businesses stay afloat during these difficult times,” Pearsall said. “And they seem to be very active. I think people are happy to have that option, whether it’s curbside pickup or being able to go out and have a meal outside the home. That’s a big thing for people these days.”

As the town continues to develop a Route 20 renovation plan — including widening driving lanes, adding sidewalks and bike lanes, and more — business continue to see it as an attractive destination, Smith and Pearsall said. That bodes well for 2021, when the process of getting anything permitted in town — and, let’s be honest, life in general — promises to be slightly easier.

Center of Activity

Most schools throughout Western Mass. are currently teaching students remotely. But not Wilbraham & Monson Academy, which launched an ambitious plan earlier this year — including everything from reconfiguring buildings to implementing strict safety guidelines — to bring students back to campus.

“We worked extensively as a town with WMA to reopen and allow students back,” Smith said, recalling Head of School Brian Easler working the Planning Board, Board of Health, and Board of Selectmen to produce a comprehensive plan to get students back safely for in-person learning. “I was surprised at the lengths they went and the protocols they put in place to get reopened.”

The town had a stake in the plan that went beyond what was best for students and their families, Pearsall said. “We were happy to see them open because they provide a real anchor to the town center.”

It’s a center that has long been the subject of speculation. Two years ago, an effort to allow a mixed-use development in the area of Main and Springfield streets failed to garner the necessary two-thirds approval at a town meeting, falling short by about a dozen votes. Since then, town officials have struggled to balance the need to fill vacant buildings with general pushback when it comes to change.

Currently, two vacant buildings at the corner of Main Street and Burt Lane have been slated for demolition and development, Smith said.

“We’ve been working at least the last two years with the owner of the property and getting something viable in place for those buildings,” he told BusinessWest. “If everything goes as planned, that will be a major change in the way the town center looks. The owner of the property has worked extensively with us and other committees and boards in town to come up with a design concept that would fit in with the town center.

“It’s a very sensitive area; it’s looked the way it has for quite some time,” he added. “This is a new use on this spot — mixed-use development, with retail on the ground floor and apartments on the second floor. Actually, it’s bringing in an old use. At one point, a hotel stood on this spot. So we’re bringing residential use back, and resurrecting something that was done years ago.”

Wilbraham at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1763
Population: 14,868
Area: 22.4 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $22.38
Commercial Tax Rate: $22.38
Median Household Income: $65,014
Median Family Income: $73,825
Type of government: Board of Selectmen, Open Town Meeting
Largest Employers: Baystate Wing Wilbraham Medical Center; Friendly Ice Cream Corp.; Big Y; Home Depot; Wilbraham & Monson Academy
*Latest information available

Some folks in the neighborhood are open to change, Pearsall said. “For a long time, residents in the center of town have complained that it’s a little sleepy, and they want to have more activity there. We’re finally getting some actual development and change. The project will be a real catalyst for the center of town.”

The former post office on Crane Park Drive recently changed ownership and could be repurposed as commercial office space, he added, while a new cosmetology business, Inner Glow Skin Studio, is moving in. Meanwhile, the old Masonic Hall on Woodland Dell Road was purchased by a local resident who is converting it to office space for his dental-management business.

“We’re taking a property that was tax-exempt and putting it back on the tax rolls,” Smith added.

Also along Main Street, Rice’s Fruit Farm and adjoining Fern Valley Farms have been enjoying a strong year, with pick-your-own-apples business boosted by cooperative weather and families looking for something to do. In fact, Rice’s has been working with town Planning and Zoning officials on parking expansions to accommodate the enterprise’s growth.

“It’s been very successful,” Smith said, adding that a parking crunch is, in one sense, a good problem to have. “They’re kind of taking the next step.”

Developing Stories

Wilbraham also has two solar farms under construction, a 1.4-MW project on Tinkham Road and a 3.4-MW project on Beebe Road; the latter development straddles the Hampden town line, with another 2 MW available for that community.

Another development in the works is part of a ‘community compact’ to identify and explore the potential for expanding municipal fiber along Boston Road to determine how that might impact business opportunities.

“There’s a need for fiber and high-speed internet,” Smith said. “We moved some time ago to be a municipal light plant, which means we can essentially be a supplier of high-speed internet.”

“There’s a broadband committee, being coordinated by our IT director, to move that project forward,” Pearsall added.

Residential growth advances slowly in a small town, but some trends have emerged. Even before COVID-19 struck, Pearsall noted, more people were starting to work from home.

“We’ve seen a lot more interest and activity from people trying to do home-based businesses,” he said. “We’ve also seen a lot of interest in so-called in-law apartments in town, and we have zoning for that, where elderly parents own a home and want their children to live with them, or the children own the home and create an apartment for their parents. That seems very popular right now.”

It’s another way times are changing and town leaders must adapt — in a year when they’ve certainly had plenty of practice.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Punching Back

Peter Picknelly, left, and Andy Yee

Peter Picknelly, left, and Andy Yee are partnering in a restaurant project at the former Court Square Hotel property.

Springfield Mayor Domenic Sarno noted that his city is certainly well-versed in dealing with natural and man-made disasters — everything from the tornado in June 2011 to the natural-gas explosion a year and a half later.

“Battle-tested” was the phrase he used to describe a community that has been though a lot over the past few decades.

But the COVID-19 pandemic … this is a different kind of disaster.

The new façade of the Tower Square Hotel, which expects to be under the Marriott flag next spring.

“It’s like shadow boxing in a lot of ways,” he said, using that phrase to essentially describe a foe that’s hard to hit and an exercise that amounts to punching air. “With those other disasters, I knew what hit us, and I knew how to jab back; with COVID-19, we don’t know when it’s going to go away, and we don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

But the city is certainly punching back against the pandemic, said the mayor and Tim Sheehan, the city’s chief Development officer, noting that it has undertaken initiatives aimed at everything from helping small businesses keep the doors open to assisting residents with paying their mortgage, rent, and utility bills.

And while the pandemic has certainly cost the city some vital momentum, the development community, which usually takes a long view, remains bullish on the city, said Sheehan, noting that there has been strong interest in projects ranging from the former School Department headquarters building on State Street to properties in the so-called ‘blast zone’ (damaged by that aforementioned natural-gas explosion), to buildings in the general vicinity of MGM Springfield in the city’s South End.

“One of more positive things we’re seeing is that development interest in Springfield remains strong,” he told BusinessWest. “And for some larger-scale projects, it’s new interest, from outside the area. And that bodes well for the whole effort that’s been made in terms of the downtown renaissance and the casino development; the development community’s message on Springfield is a good one.”

In the meantime, some projects are already moving forward, most notably the conversion of the long-dormant former Court Square Hotel into apartments and retail space, but also the extensive renovations (although that’s not the word being used) at the Tower Square Hotel in anticipation of regaining the Marriott flag that long flew over the facility, the new Wahlburger’s restaurant going up next to MGM Springfield, the new White Lion Brewery in Tower Square, the conversion of the former Willys-Overland building on Chestnut Street into market-rate housing, movement to reinvent the Eastfield Mall, a plan to redevelop Apremont Triangle, and much more.

But despite these projects, and despite the mayor’s confidence that the city will rebound quickly once the pandemic eases, there are certainly concerns about what toll the pandemic will take on existing businesses, especially those in retail, hospitality, and the commercial real-estate sector — specifically, the office towers downtown.

Mayor Domenic Sarno

Mayor Domenic Sarno says he’s confident that the city can make a strong — and quick — rebound from COVID-19.

There is strong speculation that businesses that now have some or most employees working remotely will continue with these arrangements after the pandemic eases, leaving many likely looking for smaller office footprints. Sheehan noted that such potential downsizing might be offset by businesses needing larger spaces for each employee in a world where social distancing might still be the norm, but there is certainly concern that the office buildings that dominate the downtown landscape will need to find new tenants or new uses for that space.

“There’s some conflicting data out there — the average size of a typical commercial office lease was going down prior to COVID, and a big reason was the rise of the communal working space,” he explained. “Well, now, the communal working space isn’t working so well anymore; there are some impacts that are forcing companies to require more space, not less.

“It’s like shadow boxing in a lot of ways. With those other disasters, I knew what hit us, and I knew how to jab back; with COVID-19, we don’t know when it’s going to go away, and we don’t know what’s going to happen next.”

“Still, before COVID, the vacancy rate for commercial real estate was somewhat high,” he went on. “We collectively need to be working with the building owners and businesses to make sure those numbers don’t exacerbate as we come out of COVID. But, clearly, there is concern about the commercial real-estate market.”

For this, the latest installment in BusinessWest’s Community Spotlight series, the focus turns to the unofficial capital of the region, the current battle against COVID-19 and the many forms it takes, and the outlook for the future, both short- and long-term.

View to the Future

As he walked around the former Court Square Hotel while talking with BusinessWest about his involvement with the project to give the landmark a new life, Peter A. Picknelly pointed to the windows in the northwest corner of the sixth floor, and noted that this was where a City Hall employee had just told him she wanted to live as he and business partner Andy Yee were leaving a meeting with the mayor.

But then he quickly corrected himself.

“No, she was referring to that corner,” he noted, pointing toward the windows on the northeast side, the ones with a better overall view of Court Square and Main Street. “That’s the one she said she wanted.”

Talk about actually living in the still-handsome structure that dominates Court Square is now actually real, whereas for the better part of 30 years it had been nothing but a pipe dream. That’s how long people have been talking about renovating this property, and that’s how challenging this initiative has been.

Indeed, like Union Station, another project that took decades to finally move beyond the talk stage, Court Square’s redevelopment became real because of a public-private partnership with a number of players, ranging from Picknelly’s Opal Development and WinnCompanies to MGM Springfield, to the city, the state, and federal government.

“This project was a bear, and that building was an albatross around the neck of a lot of mayors,” Sarno said. “This was all about persistence and not giving up when it would have been easy to do that.”

As for Picknelly, this is a legacy project of a sort, he said, noting that his father, Peter L. Picknelly, had long talked about creating a boutique hotel at the site — which, after its days as a hotel, was home to a number of law offices because of its proximity to the courthouse — as a way to inject some life into a still-struggling downtown.

Chief Development Officer Tim Sheehan

Chief Development Officer Tim Sheehan says the city’s first priority has been to assist businesses and help ensure they’re still in business when the pandemic eases.

The boutique-hotel concept became less viable as new hotels were built in the city, he went on, but the urgent need to convert the property for a new use — identified as the top priority in the Urban Land Institute study completed more than a decade ago — remained.

“How can Springfield really see its full potential if this building is vacant?” asked Picknelly, who again partnered with Yee — the two have resurrected both the Student Prince and the White Hut — to create a restaurant in the northwest corner of the property (more on that in a bit). “This is going to be the centerpiece of Springfield’s renaissance.”

The Court Square project is just one example of how things are moving forward in the city, even in the midst of the pandemic, said Sheehan, noting that, in the larger scheme of things, Springfield remains an attractive target for the development community — and for the same reasons that existed before the pandemic, namely an abundance of opportunities, growing momentum in the central business district, the casino, Union Station, the burgeoning cannabis industry, and more.

Still, the the pandemic has certainly been a major disruptive force in that it has imperiled small businesses across many sectors, especially hospitality; brought a relative stillness to the downtown area as many employees continue to work at home; closed the casino for nearly four months and forced it to reopen at one-third capacity; cancelled all shows, sports, and other gatherings at the casino, the MassMutual Center, Symphony Hall, and elsewhere; and even forced the Basketball Hall of Fame to reschedule its induction ceremonies (normally held this month) to the spring and move them to Mohegan Sun.

So the first order of business for the city has been to try to control, or limit, the damage, said Sarno and Sheehan, adding that it has been doing this in a number of ways, including its Prime the Pump initiative.

The Court Square project

The Court Square project, roughly 30 years in the making, was made possible by a comprehensive public-private partnership.

The program, using Community Development Block Grant monies, has provided small grants to city businesses in amounts up to $15,000. The awards have come over several rounds, with the first focused on restaurants, perhaps the hardest-hit individual sector, with subsequent rounds having a broader focus that includes more business sectors and nonprofits. Sheehan said businesses receiving grant funds have also represented a diversity of ownership.

“Prime the Pump numbers in terms of minority representation were huge — more than 72% of the awards were to minority-owned, women-owned, or veterans, and all of the nonprofits we supported had 30% or more minority participation on their board of directors,” he explained, adding that these numbers are significant because many minority-owned businesses had difficulty attaining other forms of support, such as Paycheck Protection Program loans.

In addition to helping businesses weather the storm, the city has also provided financial assistance to residents, said the mayor, noting that this aid has gone toward paying mortgages, utility bills, and rent, assistance that also helps the city’s many landlords.

“In this region, I don’t think any community has done more to help their businesses and their residents,” Sarno noted. “We have put out well over $5 million, and perhaps $6 million. We’ve been very proactive, and we’re going to continue working with businesses, such as our restaurants, to help them stay open.”

Such support is critical, said Sheehan, because in order to rebound sufficiently once the pandemic subsides, consumers will need to find outlets for that pent-up demand the mayor mentioned.

“How can Springfield really see its full potential if this building is vacant? This is going to be the centerpiece of Springfield’s renaissance.”

“When there is a vaccine, or when our numbers are so low that people feel safe and feel willing to go back out, the responsiveness will be there,” he noted. “My concern is making sure that the businesses we have are still in business when we get there.”

When We Meet Again

While he talked about COVID-19 using mostly the present tense, Sarno also spent a good deal of time talking about the future.

He said the pandemic will — eventually and somehow — relent. And, as he said earlier, he is confident the city will rebound, and quickly, and perhaps return to where it was before ‘COVID’ became part of the lexicon. For a reference point, he chose Red Sox Winter Weekend in January, an event staged by the team but hosted by MGM Springfield. It brought thousands of people to the city, filling hotels and restaurants and creating traffic jams downtown as motorists tried to maneuver around closed streets and various gatherings.

In many ways, Red Sox Winter Weekend is emblematic of all that’s been lost due to the pandemic. It won’t all come back overnight, Sarno and Sheehan noted, but the vibrancy will return.

“COVID-19 has really knocked us for a bit of a loop,” the mayor said, stating the obvious. “But I think there there’s a lot of pent-up … not only frustration, but desire to get back out there, so when we defeat this, I really think we’re going to rebound very nicely, and even quickly, because we continue to move projects forward and put new projects on the board.”

Tower Square Hotel

These renderings show what the front lobby (above) and ballroom will look like in the Tower Square Hotel that is being ‘reimagined’ and ‘redesigned’ and will soon be flying the Marriott flag.

This optimism extends to MGM, which had been struggling to meet projections (made years ago) for gross gambling revenue before the pandemic, and has, as noted, been operating at one-third capacity since early summer, with the hotel and banquet facilities closed.

“When MGM was hustling and bustling, with shows coming in, downtown was thriving,” Sarno said. “I’m hoping that, as we head into the last quarter and eventually the holiday season, if people can regain their confidence in going out to places like this, we see things pick up.”

And there will be some positive changes to greet visitors as they return, starting with a new Marriott.

Indeed, work continues on a massive project that Peter Marks, general manager of the hotel, insists is not a renovation, because that word doesn’t do justice to the massive overhaul. He instead said the hotel has been “reimagined” and “redesigned.”

Indeed, slated to open — or reopen, as the case may be — next spring or summer, the 266-room facility is getting a new look from top to bottom, inside and out. The most visible sign of the change is a new, more modern façade that greets visitors coming over the Memorial Bridge. But the entire hotel is being made over to new and stringent standards set by Marriott.

“This is not a reflagging; it’s a new build, and that’s why the work is so extensive,” he explained. “Everything that that a guest could see or touch is being replaced. Beyond that, we’ve moved walls, we’ve moved emergency staircases in the building to accomplish higher ceilings … it’s impressive what has been done.”

The timing of the project — during the middle of a pandemic — has been beneficial in one respect: there was minimal displacement of guests due to the ongoing work and, therefore, not a significant loss of overall business. But the pandemic has also been a hindrance because it’s made getting needed construction materials much more difficult, causing delays in the work and uncertainty about when it can all be completed.

“You might get a shower wall in, but not the shower tub,” Marks explained. “And you can’t do the wall without the tub, so you have to wait, and this happens all the time. If everything goes smoothly from here, it might be April when we reopen, or it could also be summer.”

By then, he thinks the world, and downtown Springfield, will look considerably different, and there will be a considerable amount of pent-up demand.

“Especially for the leisure travelers,” he said. “People are really itching to get out; they’re all waiting to go somewhere, and also go to events, weddings, family reunions, and other celebrations. I’m hopeful that we’ll be opening right when the pent-up demand is coming.”

As for the restaurant planned for the Court Square property, Picknelly and Yee project it will be open for business by the fall of 2022, and that, when it does debut, it will be an important addition to a downtown that may look somewhat different, but will likely still be a destination and a place people not only want to visit, but live in.

“Winn has done 100 renovation projects like this around the country,” Picknelly said. “They are 100% convinced that this building will be fully occupied by the time we open — there’s no doubt in their minds, based on the projections. I think that says a lot about people still wanting to live in urban areas, and I think it says a lot about Springfield and what people think of this city.”

Fighting Spirit

Returning to his analogy about shadow boxing, Sarno said COVID-19 has certainly proven to be a difficult sparring partner.

Unlike the tornado, which passed through quickly and left a trail of destruction to be cleaned up, COVID has already lingered far longer than most thought it would, and no one really knows for sure how much longer we’ll be living with it.

Meanwhile, as for the damage it will cause, there is simply no way of knowing that, either, and the toll creeps higher with each passing week.

But, as the mayor noted, the city is already punching back, and it intends to keep on punching with the goal of regaining the momentum it has lost and turning back the clock — even if it’s only six or seven months.

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

Features

Telecommuting Can Be Taxing

By Carolyn Bourgoin and Lisa White

In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and the related public-health concerns, many businesses have implemented work-from-home (WFH) arrangements for their employees. Whether due to government-mandated shutdowns or voluntary efforts of employers to protect workers, there has been a significant rise in telecommuting that continues even as some states begin to relax restrictions.

Carolyn Bourgoin

Carolyn Bourgoin

Lisa White

Lisa White

Businesses with telecommuting workers need to evaluate the potential payroll and business-tax consequences created by those employees working from home in states where the business would not otherwise have a taxable presence.

Though most states have existing guidance addressing telecommuting for both businesses and workers, the unusual circumstances created by the COVID-19 pandemic has necessitated the need for states to revisit these rules. Unfortunately, there is also little uniformity among the states in both the existing guidance and the temporary guidance being issued.

In order to remove some of the uncertainty and to limit the potential adverse state tax consequences of employees working remotely, the Remote and Mobile Worker Relief Act (RMWR) was introduced to the Senate in July as part of the American Workers, Families, and Employers Assistance Act. The RMWR contains special provisions prohibiting a state and its localities from taxing the wages of an employee who is performing services in a state other than their state of residence due to the COVID-19 public-health emergency.

“Businesses with telecommuting workers need to evaluate the potential payroll and business-tax consequences created by those employees working from home in states where the business would not otherwise have a taxable presence.”

For calendar year 2020, this protection is afforded for a period not to exceed 90 days. Businesses would also be provided protections under this tax-relief package concerning their telecommuting employees. Remote workers performing duties in a state or locality where the employer does not otherwise have a presence would not automatically cause the business to be subject to taxation in that state. However, as it is unclear when or if this bill will pass, employers must continue to review the guidance of the respective states and localities where their remote workers are performing services.

Massachusetts Guidance

Massachusetts issued temporary guidance providing tax relief where an employee is working remotely in the state due to the COVID-19 pandemic. A recent technical information release (TIR 20-10) issued by the Department of Revenue provides that the presence of one or more employees working remotely in Massachusetts will not by itself create a withholding responsibility with respect to that employee if the remote work is due to any one of the following:

• A government order issued in response to the COVID-19 pandemic;

• A remote-work policy an employer adopts to comply with federal or state guidance or public-health recommendations relating to COVID-19;

• A worker’s compliance with quarantine requirements due to a COVID-19 diagnosis or suspected diagnosis; or

• A worker’s compliance based on a physician’s advice due to a worker’s COVID-19 exposure.

For businesses, wages paid to a non-resident employee who, prior to the pandemic, was performing services in Massachusetts, but who is now telecommuting, will continue to be treated as Massachusetts source income, subject to income tax and withholding. The information release further provides that, while it is in effect, the presence of one or more remote workers in the state due to the COVID-19 pandemic will not automatically create a Massachusetts sales and use tax-collection responsibility or a corporate excise tax-filing responsibility.

These provisions are effective until the earlier of Dec. 31, 2020 or 90 days after the state of emergency in Massachusetts is lifted. Employers must maintain written records to substantiate the pandemic-related circumstances that caused an employee to fall under the TIR’s provisions.

Massachusetts issued its temporary guidance with the understanding and expectation that other states either have adopted or are adopting similar sourcing rules. However, similar to the relief provided in the Senate bill discussed earlier, it would still be prudent for an employer to still review the guidance of the respective states and localities where their remote workers are performing services.

Guidance from Neighboring States

New York: New York is one of five states that has a ‘convenience of the employer rule,’ treating as New York wages any compensation earned by employees of a New York company while they are working outside the state. Under this rule, the wages of a telecommuter could be sourced to both New York and the telecommuter’s resident state, requiring payroll withholdings for both states.

A bill was introduced in the New York Senate in May that would offer relief to businesses by exempting the non-resident employee wages from New York income tax and withholding requirements for a specified amount of time. However, as of the time of this article, the New York Department of Revenue has remained silent on its position regarding these matters.

Connecticut: Connecticut is another state with a ‘convenience of the employer rule.’ However, the state only applies this rule in determining Connecticut source income of residents of states that also apply the convenience rule. Otherwise, wages are sourced to Connecticut based on the portion of services performed within the state.

The Connecticut Department of Revenue has not issued any form of guidance to date, but did respond to a state survey this past May regarding telecommuting due to the COVID-19 crisis. The agency replied that it was working on guidance that would ensure ‘fair and equitable treatment’ to both its individual residents and Connecticut-based businesses.

Rhode Island: Rhode Island has issued formal guidance similar to that of Massachusetts, providing that the presence of one or more remote workers in the state due to the COVID-19 pandemic will not automatically create an income tax-filing responsibility and sales and use tax-collection responsibility. Wages paid to a non-resident employee who is now telecommuting will continue to be treated as Rhode Island source income subject to income tax and withholding.

Businesses with telecommuting employees in other states must check to see if those states offer tax relief from withholding taxes, income-tax nexus, and sales and use tax-filing obligations created by these remote workers during the COVID-19 health crisis. Unfortunately, there is no set time frame or requirement that states issue such guidance.

Passage of the Remote and Mobile Worker Relief Act would help to remove some of the uncertainty surrounding the tax treatment of these workers. Employers in the meantime are left to monitor potential changes to state tax laws where their remote workers are located during the COVID-19 pandemic to determine whether they have relief from tax filings in the telecommuting state.

Carolyn Bourgoin, CPA is a senior manager, and Lisa White, CPA is a manager for the Holyoke-based accounting firm Meyers Brothers Kalicka, P.C.; [email protected]; [email protected]

Features

This Nonprofit Is Finding New Ways to Provide a ‘Safe Place’

Kelsey Andrews (third from left, with Therese Ross, program director; Bill Scatolini, board president; and Diane Murray, executive director) calls Rick’s Place “a wonderful support system” — and much more.

Diane Murray says that, like most nonprofits, Rick’s Place is responding to the pandemic in a proactive fashion.

In other words, this agency, founded to provide peer support to grieving families, and especially children, has, out of necessity, changed, pivoted, and in some ways reinvented itself, said Murray, its executive director, noting that much of this involves carrying out its mission in a virtual manner.

“As soon as we became aware that it wasn’t safe to have in-person meetings, we moved to a virtual format for all our peer-support groups,” she told BusinessWest. And that was very successful. We were surprised at how well children made that transition; it’s hard enough to be grieving and talk about it in person with your peers, but looking at a screen can be tricky. But we sent them activities, and they would complete them and bring them to the meeting. It’s worked quite well.”

As she noted, grieving and talking about loss among a group of peers is hard, but it has become a proven method for helping children and families cope with the loss of a loved one. And Rick’s Place has been bringing people together in this way and providing what many call a ‘safe place’ since 2007.

Its mission, and its success in carrying it out — which made the agency the latest of several nonprofits to be named Difference Makers by BusinessWest — was summed up succinctly and effectively by Program Director Therese Ross when we spoke with her back in February.

“It’s a unique grief journey, but it’s also a universal experience,” she noted. “To hear from other people how they manage when their child says this or does that, it’s real boots on the ground, people living it, and it’s really helpful.”

Providing such help was the overarching goal for the many friends of Rick Thorpe, the former football star and 1984 graduate at Minnechaug High School who was among the more than 1,100 people who died in the South Tower of the World Trade Center on 9/11. He left behind his wife, Linda, and newborn daughter, Alexis. Searching for ways to memorialize Rick, friends and family members eventually turned to Alexis for inspiration and created a bereavement center in her honor.

In 2020, the work of this agency goes on, but obviously many things have changed, and in the meantime, new and different needs have emerged, said Murray, noting, as just one example, the restrictions placed on funeral services for the first several months of the pandemic.

“Deaths during the COVID era are so much more complicated for kids,” she explained. “Losing a grandparent or parent — and not being able to have the usual services you would have and seeing a large number of family and friends — has impacted the grief and made it more complicated. Also, in many cases, they didn’t get a chance to say goodbye, and that makes the process so much more difficult. We’re focusing on these COVID-era issues with families and giving them information on how to start that grief journey.”

Overall, though, a movement to virtual services has been the biggest change brought about by COVID-19, Murray noted, adding that, in addition to virtual peer sessions, the agency is also conducting virtual training sessions with local school systems on the impact of grief on students. Meanwhile, she and others at the agency are talking with area schools about taking the popular eight-week ‘grief groups’ it had been offering to a virtual format now that school has started up again.

“The schools are where we see our most diverse population and students with the greatest economic need,” she explained. “Finding a way to continue those virtually is very important to us. We’re talking to some school counselors who are very invested in getting our programs into the schools virtually.”

Since 2007, Rick’s Place and its loyal supporters — and there are many of them — have been invested in providing much-needed support to those who are grieving. In the COVID-19 era, the word ‘place’ has taken on new meeting. Now, in many cases, it’s not an actual, physical place, but rather … well, a computer screen where people can still gather. And where they can share, cope, and learn together.

As Murray said, the agency has had to pivot and in some cases reinvent. But its vital mission, one that has made it a Difference Maker, remains unchanged.

—George O’Brien

Features

This Advocate and Cheerleader Remains Active on Many Fronts

Photo by Leah Martin Photography

When we first introduced Dianne Fuller Doherty back in February, we used the term ‘semi-retired’ to describe her status — and it’s the appropriate phrase to use.

Indeed, while she has stepped down from her role as director of the Massachusetts Small Business Development Center Network’s Western Mass. office, she remains heavily involved in this region, and on a number of fronts — everything from mentoring young people, especially women, to serving on several boards and being part of a few prominent search committees, such as the one that eventually chose Robert Johnson to be the sixth president of Western New England University (see story, page 29).

And most, if not all, of her work has been in some way impacted by COVID-19, including that search at WNEU, and another at Tech Foundry.

“We never met any of the candidates — only the winner after he had been given the position,” she said of the WNEU search, noting that all interviews were conducted remotely, a process she didn’t think would be very effective, but ultimately proved to be. “When we started both these searches, I said, ‘how can we not meet these people?’ It turned out it was incredibly effective — you really got to know these candidates.”

Fuller Doherty’s commitment to remain involved in this region and be, in some respects, a cheerleader for it comes naturally. She’s been doing this she came to Western Mass. in the early ’70s after marrying attorney Paul Doherty, a community leader himself, who passed away several years ago. And she become involved with everything from the creation of the Women’s Fund — she was one of the original founders — to the growth and maturation and the region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem.

Over the course of her lengthy career, she was a business owner — she and partner Marsha Tzoumas started a marketing firm that bore their last names — and, as director of the Small Business Development Center, one who helped countless small businesses get off the ground and to that proverbial next level.

She has a great deal of experience in all matters of launching and operating a business, and she’s never been shy about sharing it with others.

As she told us in February, her MO has always been to provide a kind of tough love to entrepreneurs — in other words, be supportive whenever possible, but also honest and realistic, telling people what they needed to hear, not what they wanted to hear.

“The best advice I give to people is to ask enough questions so that they can come to the right conclusion on whether this is the right time, or the right place, or the right financial backing to go forward,” she said when we first spoke with her. “You let them come to the decision about whether it’s a ‘no.’ And if it’s a ‘yes,’ then you just try to be as supportive as possible and it them know that there are going to be highs and lows in any business, and the challenges will come. But the rewards will come also.”

For Fuller Doherty, the biggest reward has been to see the region continue to grow, prosper, and meet the enormous potential she has always thought it possessed. Progress has come on a number of fronts, she said, listing everything from the advancement of women, thanks to groups like the Women’s Fund, to that entrepreneurial ecosystem, to the capital of the region, the city of Springfield.

She told BusinessWest she has always been focused on ‘what’s next’ for the region, and especially Springfield, and believes the answer may lie in housing.

“Education requirements dictate housing investment,” she explained. “And I think we can do a lot with housing; Springfield used to be the City of Homes, and I think it can come back to that.”

But there is work still to do on all these fronts, she acknowledged, and she wants to continue playing a meaningful role in all of it.

In other words, she has no intention of slowing down, even in the era of COVID-19, and this attitude, this mindset, certainly explains why she is a member of the Difference Makers class of 2020.

—George O’Brien

Features

COVID Has Brought New Challenges to an Already-intense Cancer Fight

Photo by Leah Martin Photography

Sandy Cassanelli has always been a fighter.

Which is good, because these first nine months of 2020, the year of COVID, have tested her in every way imaginable.

Let’s start with her health. As most know, she was diagnosed with stage-4 breast cancer four years ago, and has been not only fighting that fight, but helping others fight it as well through the Breast Friends Fund, a charity that raises funds that go directly to metastatic breast-cancer research at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute.

Having a terminal illness in the middle of a pandemic, though, brings even more challenges to the fore.

“There was the realization that this virus could kill me,” she said, noting that, for obvious reasons, she began working at home back in March. “And my husband, Craig, had to be careful to make sure he wasn’t bringing anything home to me; he would take off his clothes in the garage and run up to the shower every day. He jokes that I would spray Lysol on him before I would let him in the house.”

Meanwhile, as she started a new treatment regimen and underwent tests and biopsies, the protocols were much different.

“At Dana-Farber, my husband always comes with me — he’s never missed an appointment,” she explained. “But once everyone started locking down, only the patients could go, so I had to go from my first scans to see if my new treatment was working by myself. And since March, I’ve had to go to every appointment by myself. It’s been very challenging not to have the support of my husband.”

Let’s move on to her business that she manages with Craig — Greeno Supply. Near the top of the list of the products it supplies to a wide range of customers are a number of items in high demand but short supply during the pandemic — paper towels, toilet paper, cleaning supplies … all those things. Getting them — and meeting the needs of customers — has been daunting, to say the least.

“It was very challenging — it was hard to get these things from our suppliers,” she said of products that ranged from those paper goods to gloves, masks, and other PPE. “We had to reinvent the wheel and go out to different suppliers just to get these items. And we’re still struggling — we’re still reinventing the wheel.”

And then, there’s family, or life at home, a phrase that has certainly taken on new meaning during this pandemic.

Cassanelli, like many parents, and especially many women, has been working at home and helping her children with school at home. In this case, the children were in eighth and 12th grade, respectively — big years, graduation years. Not a year one would want to spend confined at home.

“I’ve been battling for seven years, so my daughters are used to adversity and things not going the way normal life goes,” she explained. “They’ve been dealing with a lot, and they actually did really well because they know how to deal with adversity. But I’d have to say that when the final announcement came that they wouldn’t be going back to school and there was no graduation — that was probably the only time that tears flowed in my house.

“When I was first diagnosed with stage-4 cancer, the doctor set a goal for me and my older daughter Samantha — that I would get to see her graduate and walk across the stage” she went on. “So it was a double whammy — but we moved on.”

Overall, Cassanelli’s ability to meet all these challenges head on helps explain why she’s a Difference Maker in this memorable year.

It’s a mindset summed up perfectly by something she said to BusinessWest back in February while discussing her diagnosis and her approach to life.

“Does it suck? Yeah, it totally sucks. But me crawling up in a ball and putting the sheets up over my head is not going to fix anything, so I might as well just get up and go,” she said. “I try not to sweat the small stuff. I believe that every day is a gift, and I’m going to make the best of that day, and I’m going to be positive, because if I’m positive, then everyone around me is going to be positive.”

COVID-19 — and all that has thrown at her — isn’t small stuff. But she doesn’t seem to be sweating it, either.

—George O’Brien

Features

Former Family Business Center Leader Is Still Delivering Frank Talk

Ira Bryck spent 25 years as the executive director of the Family Business Center of the Pioneer Valley. And over that quarter-century, he left an indelible mark on those he helped through his rather unique style and ability to create impactful learning experiences.

These included plays he authored, dinner meetings with provocative speakers, and, quite often, frank talks about family businesses and whether people should be part of them or not.

And he continues to make a mark, even though he’s retired from the FBC, as it was called, and the center itself has gone out of business. He does it through a radio show with WHMP called The Western Mass. Business Show a variety of consulting work, and even his work in the COVID-19 era to help keep the residents of Amherst, where he has lived for some time, safe as college students return to campuses.

In all these settings and circumstances, Bryck speaks his mind, creates dialogue, and helps to generate progress in many forms. And that, in a nutshell — and he wrote a play called A Tough Nut to Crack — is why he is a member of the Difference Makers class of 2020.

He has decided not to join his fellow classmates for the ceremony on Sept. 24 due to a strong desire to help keep his family safe during this pandemic — two adult children and their families with New York addresses have moved in with him as they seek what amounts to higher ground during the pandemic — but he has definitely earned his place on the podium, even if he’ll be addressing his audience remotely.

That’s because, since being named director of the fledgling FBC in 1994, he has done things his way — and in an ultimately effective way. And he has helped educate and inspire an important, if often unrecognized, segment of the local economy — its family businesses.

They come in various shapes and sizes and cross a variety of sectors, but they share common issues and challenges. When we talked with Bryck in February, he compared small businesses to snowflakes in that no two are alike, and summoned that famous opening line from Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina: “All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

Bryck has addressed these issues and challenges in a manner that had members of the FBC describe him, alternately, as ‘communicator,’ ‘connector,’ ‘facilitator,’ and even ‘entertainer.’

One long-time member described his style and his approach this way: “He can take things that are very theoretical and make them realistic. It’s one thing to read a paper from a professor who deals in theory, but it that reality? Can that be applied to the everyday businessperson? Ira was able to translate those kinds of things.”

And he’s still doing all that, just in different settings and with different audiences. With his radio show, he just passed a milestone — his 300th interview.

“It’s a nice exercise to meet and interview someone every week,” he said. “It’s been a lot of fun and a tremendous learning experience.”

Meanwhile, he’s also working with Giombetti Associates as a senior advisor working on personality assessments, coaching, and organizational development. He’s involved in several projects, including one with a private school in Springfield that is undergoing a change in leadership.

“We’re restructuring and creating much more of an idea system within their leadership team,” he explained, adding that he’s working on another project involving a Connecticut grower of plants and trees that is seeking to make structural changes and increase self-awareness and self-management.

He’s also coordinating a roundtable for area business owners. “We meet monthly and just explore people’s challenges and help each other think things through, and that also involves coaching,” he said, adding that he’s also involved with the family business center at Cornell University, participating in what he called a “speed-dating event involving mentors and mentees.”

“All this keeps me busy, but I’m only working about half as much as I used to,” he explained. “Which leaves me plenty of time of walk five to 10 miles a day, so I’ve lost 45 pounds.”

Overall, he’s still finding ways to educate — and also entertain, in some cases — while also making a mark on those he’s working with.

In short, he’s still very much making a difference in this region — and well beyond it.

—George O’Brien

Features

His March Will Go On … but with Fewer Marchers

Monte Belmonte says the COVID-19 pandemic has brought about some changes in what he does on the radio each day.

Like helping his listeners know what day it is — a simple assignment that has become a good deal more difficult as the days blend together and the things that make them different are increasingly removed from the equation.

“I would come in and do my show the same way I’d been doing it, except I introduced what I call ‘quaran-themes’ — a different musical theme for each day of the week,” explained Belmonte, a DJ with WRSI the River Radio in Northampton. “Wednesday, for example, is wanderlust Wednesday, where I take people musically to places they couldn’t otherwise go — like the ukulele version of ‘Somewhere Over the Rainbow’ to make them feel like they could go on that trip to Hawaii they were supposed to go on but couldn’t.”

Like everyone else, Belmonte is making needed adjustments because of the pandemic — at home, at work, on the air — and especially with the fundraiser to combat food insecurity that now bears his name: Monte’s March.

Indeed, the march, which takes place in November and has grown exponentially — in every way — since he started it back in 2010, has, in recent years, attracted hundreds of marchers who have joined Belmonte on his two-day trek from Springfield to Greenfield. This year, in the name of social distancing, those marchers will be encouraged to stay home and support the effort virtually, something many supporters have already been doing.

“It’s such a long walk that people have participated virtually over the years — where they create a fundraising team and set up a fundraising page — so at least there some institutional knowledge,” he explained, noting that specific details of this year’s march are coming together and will be announced soon. “But now, with everyone doing almost everything virtually, I think people will want to participate.”

And they certainly need to participate, he went on, because need has never been greater. That’s because the pandemic is leaving many in this area unemployed and in need of help — bringing the broad issue of food insecurity to the forefront as perhaps never before.

Nightly newscasts show long lines of cars at designated locations to pick up donations of food. Many of those being interviewed say this is the first time they’ve ever needed such help and that they never imagined they would be in such a situation. It’s a scenario playing itself out in California, Florida, Texas — and the Pioneer Valley.

“Because of the pandemic, hunger has been in the forefront of people’s minds in a different way,” Belmonte told BusinessWest. “I’ve talked with some of the survival centers, and the need has definitely grown.”

Getting back to his day … Belmonte said the pandemic has certainly impacted that as well — in ways beyond his song to signal what day it is.

Indeed, he noted that, in many ways, radio, and his work on the air, have more become more important and more appreciated in the era of COVID-19 as people look for some normalcy and comfort in their lives.

“Especially in the beginning, the pandemic reinforced how important radio is to people at a time like this,” he noted. “It’s a medium that feels more personal and intimate than some others; maybe the commuting times have changed, but people are still going places in their car, so most of the time it’s just you and your radio in your car together. When people needed a listening ear and a voice and some kind of sense of normalcy that might have been lost, they turned to radio in a different way.”

Meanwhile, he has used his show, his platform, to provide needed information and also try to help the businesses that have been impacted by the pandemic, especially restaurants.

“We offered to the restaurant community what amounted to public-service announcements,” he explained. “We said, ‘let us know what you’re doing, whether it’s takeout or whatever,’ and we called it the ‘takeout menu.’ It let people know what different restaurants were doing at different times.”

Overall, Belmonte said some things are starting to feel a least a little more like normal. But the pandemic is still impacting lives in all kinds of ways — which is why he’s still helping people understand what day it is.

And also why he’s hoping his next march will be among his most successful — even if supporters are not actually on the road with him.

—George O’Brien

Features

He Has Plans to Retire, but No Plans to Scale Back His Involvement

Photo by Leah Martin Photography

When we talked with Steve Lowell back in January, he related just how familiar he became with the commute from Cape Cod to Upton in the middle of the state, where he lived, earlier in his career.

That’s because, while he was working for a bank on the Cape, he also became heavily involved in the community there — as part of his work, but mostly because giving back is his MO. He recalled that he was on the Cape so much, many people thought he lived there.

When we reconnected several days ago, Lowell was again talking about this commute, but from a different perspective.

Indeed, only days after he was introduced as a member of the Difference Makers class of 2020 in February, Lowell announced he would be retiring as president and CEO of Monson Savings Bank, effective early next year, and stepping into a role new for this institution — chairman of the board. He and his wife, Anne, are in the process of relocating to the Cape, but he now keeps a small apartment in Brookfield and is there three or four nights a week, because he’s not only neck-deep in the transition of leadership at the bank (Dan Moriarty, the long-time CFO at the bank, has been named his successor), he’s still active in this region. Make that very active.

And he intends to remain involved with a number of organizations in this region, which means he’ll doing that commuting thing again.

“I’ll be around,” he said with conviction, he said, noting that’s not certain how long he will continue those living arrangements in Brookfield. “One way or another, I’ll be around.”

And while his work and that of his team at MSB has been somewhat different because of the COVID-19 pandemic, such as handling PPP loan applications, the basic formula hasn’t changed, he said, meaning Monson continues to fill the many roles of a community bank — and continues to search for new growth opportunities in a heavily banked region.

“In spite of COVID, we’ve moving forward, and we’re looking to the future,” he told BusinessWest, noting that the institution recently opened a new branch in East Longmeadow. “We’re trying to build an organization that is resilient enough to withstand not only this but anything else that might happen.”

While working to build this organization, Lowell is transitioning into his new role as chairman, one that will translate into a good deal of mentoring and also helping to guide the bank through a period that will likely be much more difficult than the one it just went through.

“I think 2021 is going to be an extremely challenging year, so I’m happy to stay involved and lend whatever expertise I can to them to make sure we keep things going in a really positive way,” he said. “I’m excited about that; I’m honored that they thought that this would be helpful, and I’m looking forward to it; I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

Meanwhile, as noted earlier, he will continue a career-long pattern of being heavily involved in the community, work that has involved nonprofits and institutions ranging from the United Way of Pioneer Valley to Link to Libraries; Baystate Health’s Eastern Region (Wing Memorial and Mary Lane hospitals) to the Western Mass. Economic Development Council (EDC).

“They’ve asked me to stay on for another year as chairman of the board of the Baystate Health Eastern Region,” he said. “And I just got asked by Rick Sullivan [president and CEO of the EDC] to continue on as treasurer — he said, ‘even though you’re going to be down on the Cape, can you stay on as treasurer?’ And I said, ‘as long as you’ll have me.’”

That request, and his answer in the affirmative, both speak to why Lowell is a member of this Difference Makers class of 2020. He’s almost always said ‘yes’ when asked to serve, and, more importantly, he usually didn’t wait to be asked.

He noted that, as he was arriving in this region in the late spring of 2011, the region — and Main Street in Monson — were hit, and hit hard, by a tornado. And as he’s retiring — at least from his role as president and CEO — the world, and Main Street in Monson, are being hit, and hit hard, by a pandemic.

“People might be happy to see me go,” he joked.

That’s certainly not the case. Even more to the point, he won’t be going anywhere soon, except for that commute he knows all too well.

—George O’Brien

Features

Meeting Community Needs Has Become Even More Critical During a Difficult Year

Ronn Johnson has spent a lifetime improving the neighborhood of his youth — and impacting lives far beyond it.
(Photo by Leah Martin Photography)

When times got tougher for struggling families back in March, they appreciated any resources they could access, from emergency food supplies to educational assistance to … lotion?

“With children being home every day, parents were super stressed, and they needed a way to manage it all,” said Ronn Johnson, president and CEO of Martin Luther King Jr. Family Services Inc. in Springfield.

“We said, ‘let’s deliver pampering products to these women — lotions, bath oils, shower gels, facial scrubs — things they can use to pamper themselves with on occasion, once the children are down,” he told BusinessWest earlier this month. “With the response we got, it was like we’d given them a pot of gold — they said, ‘these are things I’ve never been able to get for myself.’”

Those items were complemented by deliveries of hard-to-find cleaning supplies and paper products. But they certainly didn’t replace the bread-and-butter services of the organization, from educational resources to healthy-food access.

The pandemic, in fact, only laid bare a growing need for such services — and new ways of delivering them.

“It was a tremendous challenge to pivot on a dime. We’ve had to restructure ourselves from being an after-school resource to being a remote-learning center,” Johnson said, noting that the organization serves many economically disadvantaged families that need extracurricular support and don’t want to have to choose between their kids and making a living. “Work is important to them, but their child’s education is also important. We’re one of the resources in the community trying to be responsive to the needs of children.”

The center has also expanded its emergency-food program, serving up to 400 people weekly. Even so, pantry volunteers weren’t seeing some of the faces they expected to see — mainly older people — and learned these regulars were staying at home because of fears for their health.

So Johnson talked to community partners, in particular Baystate Health, which helped procure a cargo van to deliver food to homes. The volunteer-driven delivery program began with about 10 recipients and now visits some 65 elderly, sick, and shut-in individuals every week.

Johnson’s work with MLK Family Services — the latest stop in a career dedicated to his community — is one reason he was chosen as a Difference Maker, along with his work with the Brianna Fund, named for his daughter, which has raised more than $750,000 over 22 years and helped 50 children with physical limitations access tools to improve their lives.

But he stresses that he can’t do his job alone. To serve 750 different people each week with after-school programs, college courses, family support, public-health outreach, sports programs, cultural activities, and more — with only about $1.6 million in annual funding — he relies not only on his team, but more than 100 volunteers.

They worked together to open summer camp this year, he noted. “That was well-thought-out; we assured we had all the safe distancing and PPE, and we made it work, with no incidents of the virus spreading. It was a real benefit to both children and their parents, to provide meaningful activities for them eight hours a day.”

Community members stepped up this spring and summer in other ways as well. For example, a woman came by in late March to donate a new laptop to the center, along with funds to distribute items like coloring books, flash cards, notebooks, crayons, and markers so kids could occupy themselves when holing up at home became the new normal.

Johnson also credited the Community Foundation of Western Massachusetts for its financial support of the center, as well as donations that came in after Common Wealth Murals and Art for the Soul Gallery drew attention to the center in June with a mural, called “Say Their Names,” honoring individuals killed by police violence.

He’s equally gratified that people are talking.

“It’s been heartwarming and affirming that our white neighbors and other community members have extended their support to us, not only financially, but they’re looking to be engaged in conversations,” he said. “So many families from the suburbs and the hilltowns came to Mason Square to show their children this mural.”

It’s a conversation being held back on the national level by leaders who refuse to engage in these issues and create positive momentum, he added. Yet, he’s encouraged by young people of all races who are energized by fighting for social justice.

“That is very encouraging,” he said. “We need to build bridges to understanding and have it happen in a more global way than just these pockets of support.”

In the meantime, he’ll keep building bridges locally, and making a difference for families whose needs go much deeper than lotion.

But a little pampering never hurt.

—Joseph Bednar

Coronavirus Features Special Coverage

Plane Speaking

Travelers at Bradley

Travelers at Bradley (and there are fewer of them) will find a number of new protocols, from mandatory face coverings to more frequent cleaning and sanitizing.

Bradley International Airport has a contract with a medical laboratory willing to conduct COVID-19 testing for arriving passengers.

Kevin Dillon, executive director of the Connecticut Airport Authority (CAA), which manages the airport in Windsor Locks, Conn., thinks that would be an ideal way for healthy travelers to avoid a mandatory 14-day quarantine instituted by Gov. Ned Lamont in July.

But state leaders turned that option down.

“We have a lab that’s willing to start testing here, yet we can’t convince the Department of Public Health to allow that to occur. It makes no sense,” Dillon said. “Because what’s impacting us now is the travel advisory that’s been put in place here in Connecticut.”

According to the policy, both tourists visiting from other states and Connecticut residents returning from vacations in COVID-infested areas are required to fill out a travel advisory form and indicate where they will self-quarantine. Failure to do so incurs a $1,000 fine.

“Unfortunately, the airlines are reacting to the travel advisory by pulling flights out of the airport,” Dillon explained. “As you can imagine, it’s very, very difficult for someone to take a week vacation and then, when they come back, have to take a two-week quarantine. The same goes for business travel — people aren’t going away for two days when they have to quarantine for 14. That’s had a pretty chilling effect on our level of recovery.”

It’s a recovery — if one can call it that — from the most dramatic loss of business airports across the country have ever experienced, the post-9/11 period included. In April, passenger volume at Bradley was down 98% compared to the same period last year. The airport has recovered some of its volume, but a typical day is still some 70% to 75% below 2019 numbers. And the state of Connecticut is doing the airport no favors with one of the most rigid travelers’ advisories in the nation.

Kevin Dillon

Kevin Dillon

“Airports are competing for some very limited airline assets, aircraft and flights, so we want to present a market that’s viable. This travel advisory really starts to skew how some carriers look at Connecticut and Bradley Airport and this region.”

“I’m not questioning the medical necessity of a travel advisory — I’m not qualified to question that, and I take folks at their word that it’s is a necessary thing,” Dillon told BusinessWest. “What we have asked for here is a testing option. If you get a negative COVID test, you should be able to avoid a 14-day quarantine period. Massachusetts is doing that.”

He has other questions — including why it’s OK to cross the border for a funeral, but not a business meeting — and they all come, he said, from a place of common sense. “We’re not questioning the travel advisory, but I do think testing here at Bradley would make all the sense in the world.”

If the impact of discouraging interstate travel was a short-term thing, it would be less frustrating, but Dillon is looking far beyond 2020, when airlines will emerge from the pandemic as much smaller companies, with fewer planes to spread around the nation’s airports, and some tough decisions to make about where to put them.

“They’re really having a struggle,” he said, with some airlines saying they don’t expect to return to normal operations until 2023 or 2024. “There are going to be winners and losers coming out of this.”

This is true, he said, not only of airlines, but of airports.

“Airports are competing for some very limited airline assets, aircraft and flights, so we want to present a market that’s viable,” Dillon explained. “This travel advisory really starts to skew how some carriers look at Connecticut and Bradley Airport and this region. It’s a concern of ours not only for today but as we look to the future — what damage we’re doing to our relationships to airlines as well as their view of this market.”

Physical distancing

Physical distancing is easier when terminals are less crowded, as they are now.

For this issue’s focus on transportation, BusinessWest spoke with Dillon about how Bradley is navigating an unprecedented business challenge, and why it’s important to keep investing in the future, because the future is where this story really gets interesting.

Shifting on the Fly

Even before COVID-19 was a thing, Dillon often spoke about how Bradley was constantly competing on two levels: with Logan and the New York airports for passengers, and with every airport in the country for those precious aircraft assets. On thar front, Connecticut’s mandatory quarantine isn’t helping.

“Airlines have to be in locations like Boston and New York simply because of the population and business volume. But airlines have alternatives in terms of not having to serve Bradley and still serving a good portion of this market area,” he explained. “I don’t think it would serve the area really well without us, but an airline trying to skinny down as a result of cost-cutting measures could very well look at it that way.”

The more pressing issue in 2020 has been plummeting demand, of course. “If we don’t have passengers coming through the airport, airlines cut back, we don’t get airline fees, and no one’s here utilizing concessions, parking, renting cars, all the businesses here. When your business is off 75% to 80%, you have a corresponding drop in revenue. It’s a difficult balancing act.”

Dillon said Bradley was fortunate to receive some financial assistance from the CARES Act, which allocated $10 billion to airports across the country. Based on the allocation formula, Bradley received $28 million, which sounds like a lot of money, he went on, but to put it in perspective, that covers about three months of operating expenses and debt service. And the pandemic-related travel slowdown is now well into its sixth month.

“We are fortunate that, as an airport authority, we did create what I consider some healthy reserves, and we will rely on those reserves to some extent, but it wouldn’t be prudent to exhaust our reserves,” he said, noting that they impact bond ratings, among other things.

Bradley did institute a hiring freeze, not replacing most employees who chose to retire this year, and has cut department budgets by 10% to 20%. The CAA is also looking at further measures, including a voluntary severance program.

“It is a goal of ours to try to prevent involuntary severances,” Dillon said. “We don’t want to get to a place where we’re talking about layoffs. For now, that’s off the table. We tried to make a commitment to the employee base — first and foremost, to protect their health, and second, to protect their paycheck. As you can imagine, it’s a challenge.”

About $20 million in capital projects are on hold as well, but some are moving on, including an airport-wide restroom-renovation project that should be complete by October, and features a largely touchless experience with sinks, soap dispensers, hand dryers, and more. These features were planned well in advance of the pandemic, but Dillon said travelers will appreciate them more now.

“People want a safe, healthy, clean environment, and we try to deliver that the best we can,” he noted. “Folks think differently about hygiene in public places now; they have different expectations.”

Other protocols in place at Bradley include the expected: mandatory face coverings, more frequent cleaning and sanitization efforts at high-touchpoint areas, plenty of hand-sanitizer stations, signage detailing physical distancing rules, and plexiglass shields in high-passenger-interaction areas.

Some airlines have committed to limited capacity on planes as well, Dillon said, citing Southwest and Delta as two examples. And the airport is developing touchless kiosks where travelers don’t have to interact with an agent or touch the screen to activate the ticketing process.

Bradley’s restrooms

A major renovation of Bradley’s restrooms, including many touchless features to discourage the spread of germs, began well before the pandemic.

“The key for us is to keep differentiating ourselves from our larger competitors,” he told BusinessWest. “We want people to understand that Bradley is going above and beyond in terms of sanitizing and cleaning the facilities. And Bradley might represent a better option because it’s less congested. We’re going to keep highlighting to the traveling public why Bradley is a better alternative.”

View from the Ground

Again, however, all these efforts are blunted by the fact that considerably fewer people are traveling, and Connecticut is making it difficult to do so.

Airlines are struggling too, Dillon said, sending 135-passenger planes into the sky with only 25. And, like airports, they’re all having internal discussions about the future. Bradley’s five-year contract with carriers expired in June, and with no airlines in a position to sign another five-year deal, they opted for one-year extensions.

But even had longer-term contracts been in place, he explained, “I think a lot of people don’t understand how an airline agreement works. It doesn’t necessarily guarantee you full revenue coming in, because airlines pay revenue in large measure based on landing fees. Airlines can have a presence and pay rent for space, but they’re not required to operate a certain number of flights. If you have carriers cut operations in half, the landing fees we get are then cut in half from that carrier.”

As a difficult, uncertain year continues to unspool, there are a few bright spots, especially progress on a $210 million ground transportation center — expected to be fully operational in late 2021 — that will house car-rental services, expand public parking, and incorporate public-transit connections.

“All that money had been bonded prior to the pandemic, so we’re committed to the project,” Dillon said. “It will really transform the look of the airport and our operations. People who haven’t been to the airport recently will be surprised by the magnitude of the project and how it’s transforming the space out there.”

In addition, cargo business at Bradley has remained consistently strong. “I believe one factor is that people are staying home and doing a lot of online ordering, so we’re seeing small-package delivery — UPS, Fedex, and Amazon — all increase at the airport,” he noted. “Unfortunately, the revenue profile of cargo is much different than passenger traffic, as the bulk of the revenue at any airport comes from the passenger side of the house. But I appreciate that cargo is doing well right now.”

After all, in a year of startling setbacks, any good news is welcome. But what airports need now is clarity — and for people to get back on planes.

“It’s going to be a challenge,” he said. “I’m convinced that, by working smart and having employees work smart, we’ll be able to get through this. But it will be a balancing act for a while.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight Special Coverage

Community Spotlight

Ryan McNutt

Ryan McNutt says a burgeoning cannabis sector is just one of many positive developments in Palmer.

If there’s one thing capitalism doesn’t like, Ryan McNutt says, it’s uncertainty. And COVID-19 has certainly injected plenty of that into the regional and national economic picture.

But unlike more densely populated areas like Boston, where the death toll — and accompanying anxiety — are higher, leading to a slower return to acitity, Palmer has seen only seven coronavirus-related deaths. Even now, only nine people are under some sort of quarantine order, following a long stretch of no cases at all.

How much Palmer’s low case count has affected business activity is hard to tell, said McNutt, who became town manager last year. But there’s reason for cautious optimism.

“I’m encouraged that our busiest department right now is our Building Department; in fact, I’m going to add another building inspector,” he told BusinessWest. “And some other Western Mass. communities are seeing that as well.”

Local projects run the gamut from a bar on Main Street being converted to a pizza restaurant to Adaptas Solutions adding a building to its complex in the Palmer Industrial Park.

“It’s a growing business — even in this pandemic, people are still adding jobs, adding capacity, adding new product lines,” said McNutt, noting that Sanderson MacLeod, which specializes in manufacturing twisted wire brushes, has grown recently by shifting to new product lines, some of them medical, during the pandemic. “Capitalism is creative destruction. People are going to enter new markets, or enter existing markets where others couldn’t fill those markets, and Palmer will benefit from that.”

The cannabis sector certainly shows no signs of slowdown, with four businesses — Altitude Organic and Heka Health on the retail side and and MINT Cultivation Facilities and the WingWell Group on the cultivation side — getting ready to open in the coming months.

“I’m encouraged that our busiest department right now is our Building Department; in fact, I’m going to add another building inspector.”

“This will be an amazing amount of unrestricted local revenue,” McNutt said, though he was quick to add that most neighboring states still haven’t legalized cannabis. “Once those states or the federal government legalize, there will be diminishing returns. We’re seeing hundreds of thousands of dollars coming in from other states.”

That said, he expects the industry to be a net positive for Palmer’s tax base for a long time to come, even if it’s hard to predict the exact impact. “There’s obviously a floor of cannabis users, but what is the ceiling?”

It’s a question he can apply to many types of economic development, including a long-talked-about rail line that could eventually be a game changer for this community of just over 13,000 residents.

Focused Approach

When McNutt, the former city manager of Claremont, N.H., took over in Palmer last July, economic development was a key focus from the start.

“Economic development is important, making sure we grow the tax base and make it sustainable for the people who live here but also create opportunities to attract new people coming in,” he said. “We can do that to some degree ourselves, and then there are macro things happening, like the east-west rail line. Some days I’m more confident that will come in, some other days I’m less confident. I try to stay on the optimistic side of it.”

Palmer at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1775
Population: 13,050
Area: 32 square miles
County: Hampden
Tax Rate, residential and commercial: Palmer, $22.80; Three Rivers, $23.42; Bondsville, $23.89; Thorndike, $24.16
Median Household Income: $41,443
Median Family Income: $49,358
Type of government: Town Manager; Town Council
Largest Employers: Baystate Wing Hospital; Sanderson MacLeod Inc., Camp Ramah of New England; Big Y World Class Market
* Latest information available

That said, “if our folks at the federal level are really looking at this country, starting to talk more and more about having a national infrastructure package, then I think the east-west rail line is more promising, because it will take federal money; it will take being a component of a larger national infrastructure package to make it doable. But that east-west rail line would be so transformative for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.”

In recent years, the Palmer Town Council established a citizens’ advisory committee and contracted with the UMass Center for Economic Development to study the merits of an east-west passenger rail stop in Palmer. The town’s position, roughly central to Springfield and Worcester, and also at the center of a market that extends north to UMass Amherst and the Five Colleges and south to the University of Connecticut, makes it a point of connection in many directions that would benefit from expanded rail service.

In addition, McNutt noted, Palmer has a workforce of close to 8,000 people, and 85% of them work outside of Palmer, mostly in Worcester but more than 100 in Pittsfield. A rail line would ease the commute for many, while individuals who want to work in the Boston area, where housing prices can be exorbitant, could instead choose to live in towns along the rail line, like Palmer.

“There are a lot of good opportunities that make Palmer an attractive community, as long as we market ourselves correctly,” he told BusinessWest. “We’re making sure we’re doing everything we can so when a national infrastructure package gets introduced, we will be shovel-ready.

Speaking of infrastructure, Palmer boasts nine bridges that span four rivers, all built around 80 years ago with a life expectancy of about 50 years, he said. The cost to repair them is about $3 million per bridge, on average, and with the entire municipal budget, including schools, around $40 million, “it’s not like we have the internal capacity to just fix those bridges.”

The town submitted a $7.5 million grant application to the federal BUILD program last year to repair a couple of those bridges, competing with $10 billion worth of applications — across all 50 states — for about $900 million in funding. Despite those odds, Palmer made it to the final round of consideration before being dropped, and McNutt said the region’s federal lawmakers encouraged him to reapply this year. He’s cautiously optimistic the news will be better this time around.

“I think both Democrats and Republicans agree we’ve let huge swaths of this country fall apart since the end of World War II. Bridges, ports, airports … we’ve got to get on top of this. Everyone understands the deficiency across the country is bipartisan. The amount of jobs that could will be created would keep people working for the 20 years fixing the stuff we’ve let go for 70 years. And borrowing money has never been cheaper.”

Bang for the Buck

McNutt said he’s always thinking in terms of economic development, and its importance in communities with tax-rate increases constrained by Proposition 2½.

“I’m conservative when it comes to taxpayer resources,” he said. “I grew up in Massachusetts, and I know the strain Proposition 2½ places upon communities and municipalities, considering the rising fixed expenditures and costs we face, especially on the school side. And at the same time, I really believe that taxpayers pay a lot of money. I’m very keen on making sure people get value for that taxpayer dollar, so we’re always looking for grants and efficiencies in doing business, to be able to control those costs.”

For that reason, he went on, it’s important for towns of Palmer’s size and demographics to attract an influx of younger residents, and expanded rail could help boost that effort.

“Everybody who’s aging and on a fixed income, they really have a limited runway in what the property taxes can get to,” he noted. “That’s something that’s always my first focus — what is the tax base, what is the tax rate, and what is the economic capacity to pay it? How quickly do we need to find new revenue to support municipal operations without having everything fall on the backs of the retiree who’s lived in Palmer their whole life, and not necessarily getting new revenue themselves?”

Fortunately, even during a pandemic, growth is possible — and, in many cases, happening — and the promise of east-west rail service only boosts McNutt’s sense of what’s possible. While his confidence on that front may waver, depending on the day, his belief in Palmer’s potential — and its ability to weather the current storm — certainly does not.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Features Special Coverage

On the Right Track

Jeremy Levine

Jeremy Levine says Pioneer Valley Railroad and Railroad Distribution Services have a unique business model that has led to decades of success and steady growth.

When it comes to moving freight, Jeremy Levine says, many business owners believe it comes down to a choice between rail — if it’s available — or trucks.

But in many cases, he believes, the best answer might be rail and trucks.

And this is the answer that has enabled Westfield-based sister businesses Pioneer Valley Railroad (PVRR) and its wholly owned subsidiary Railroad Distribution Services (RDS) — both Pinsly Railroad companies — to thrive for the past 35 years and remain on a steady growth trajectory.

“Railroads and trucking … they have their lobbyists in D.C. on opposite sides of the aisle trying to argue against one another,” said Levine, who is awaiting new business cards that will identify him as the company’s business-development coordinator. “But the truth is, for a short-line railroad like us, we use trucking all the time — we’re sending out hundreds of trucks a year to do the last-mile transit for our customers, either here in Westfield or all across the Northeast.”

As a short-line railroad, PVRR, as it’s known to many in this area, moves on 17 miles of operable track running north from Westfield, said Levine, the fourth-generation administrator of the company started by his great-grandfather, Samuel Pinsly. There is a branch running roughly four miles in Westfield and another branch running 13 miles into Holyoke.

The company interchanges with two class-1 railroads — Norfolk Southern and CSX — and takes freight that last mile, as Levine put it, referring to the last leg of a journey that might begin several states away or even on the other end of the country.

“The number you’ll hear is that four trucks equals one rail car. So if you looking to ship a distance or something that’s very heavy, that’s where we provide economies of scale.”

“If you want to get lumber from Louisiana, a large class-1 railroad such as CSX will bring that up, interchange with us at our yard in Westfield, and we’ll take it the last mile or miles to our customers, if they’re located directly on our line,” he explained, adding that, for customers not on the line — those without a rail siding — RDS will take it the last leg by truck via two warehouses it operates in Westfield.

And in some cases, that last leg might be dozens or even hundreds of miles, he noted, adding that rail is a less expensive, more effective way to move material, and RDS enables customers to take advantage of it, at least for part of the journey.

“The number you’ll hear is that four trucks equals one rail car’s worth of capacity,” he explained. “So if you looking to ship a distance or something that’s very heavy, that’s where we provide economies of scale.”

This has been a successful business model since 1982, and the company continues to look for growth opportunities in this region, he noted, adding that such growth can come organically, from more existing companies using this unique model, or from new companies moving into the region to take advantage of its many amenities — including infrastructure. And Pinsley Railroad owns several tracts of land along its tracks that are suitable for development, he noted.

For this issue and its focus on transportation, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at PVRR and RDS, and how those letters can add up to growth potential — for the company and the region itself.

Train of Thought

Levine told BusinessWest that, while he didn’t work at what he called the “family business” in his youth, he was around it at times, well aware of it, and always intrigued by it.

“When my grandmother was running the business, that’s when they moved the headquarters from Boston to Westfield,” said Levine, who grew up in nearby Granby. “You grow up going to the rail yard, and you’re around these people; you’re definitely going to be inclined to the business.”

But he didn’t take a direct route, as they might say in this industry, to PVRR’s headquarters on Lockhouse Road. Indeed, after graduating from George Washington University in 2015, he stayed in D.C. and worked on Capitol Hill, specifically on transportation policy. He later moved to the private sector and worked at a firm advocating for railroads.

Eventually, he decided he wanted to be a part of the family’s business and relocated to Western Mass. “It’s been quite a ride,” he said while borrowing more language from the industry, noting that he started at PVRR and RDS roughly a year ago.

He came to a company that had a small, steady, and diverse group of rail customers, some that receive thousands of rail cars of material a year and others merely a handful of cars, and more than three dozen RDS customers.

He said his new job description is essentially to generate new business, and he believes there is enormous potential to do just that — again, because of the unique business model these companies have developed and the benefits that rail (or a combination of rail and trucks known as ‘transloading’) brings to potential customers.

As Levine talked about the sister companies and how they operate together, one could hear the drone of forklifts operating in the warehouse outside his office, which led to an explanation of how it all works.

“We have some rail cars here this morning,” he explained. “They got dropped off by CSX late last night; early morning, or 3 a.m. crew [at PVRR] dropped them off here. The crews have been unloading them, staging them, and placing them outbound on trucks to head off to our various customers.”

There are other operations like this, or somewhat like this, in the Northeast, he explained, but what sets this operation apart, beyond the interchange with the two class-1 railroads, is the fact that the company owns both its railroad and distribution services.

“There are companies like our Railroad Distribution Services that are directly on CSX’s line,” he noted. “But the difference there is they don’t control the trains; I can pick up the phone and call the train operator and ask him when he’s going to be here with my rail cars, and with that comes a lot of security that your stuff is not going to backlogged or jammed up and that your deliveries are going to come on time.”

It is this security — and these benefits — that Levine is selling to potential customers. And as he goes about that task, he has the Pinsly team, if you will, focused solely on the Westfield operation and its future. Indeed, the company, which operated short-line railroads in Florida and Arkansas, has divested itself of those operations, with PVRR and RDS being the only holdings in the portfolio.

“What that has allowed us to do is reinvest and recalibrate,” he explained. “We had a very large team throughout the years and a lot of focus on Florida, where we had 250 miles of track; we can now take that talent and focus on our operations here.

“My go-to line is that ‘even you don’t have rail siding, that doesn’t mean you can’t benefit from railroading,’” he continued, adding that he can back up those words with numbers, and he intends to use them to build the company’s portfolio of customers.

PVRR owns a 1930s-era passenger rail car that it calls the ‘dinner train.’ As that name suggests, it’s used for fundraising events, a customer-appreciation gathering, and even as a means to transport Santa Claus to Holyoke Heritage State Park for annual festivities there.

It hasn’t been out of the yard much in the era of COVID-19, but U.S. Rep. Richard Neal recently used it as a backdrop for an event, said Levine, adding that the dinner train has become a highly visible part of this company for decades now.

But the bottom line — in virtually every respect — is that PVRR and RDS are about getting freight, not people, from one place to another.

It’s a moving story, and one that could well add a number of new chapters in the years to come as the company tries to get customers on the right track when it comes to freight — literally and figuratively.

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

Despite what she described as “shifting sands and shifting times,” Easthampton Mayor Nicole LaChapelle believes her city is more than holding its own in the face of COVID-19.

By that, she meant this community of roughly 16,000 people is moving ahead with a number of municipal projects and economic-development initiatives. And it is also undertaking several efforts, often in cooperation with other entities — such as the Greater Easthampton Chamber of Commerce — to help its business community, and especially the very small businesses that dominate the landscape, weather this intense storm.

“We’re focused on a good, basic plan that addresses infrastructure and quality of life for everyone in our city,” she said, as she addressed the former — and the latter as well.

In that first category, she listed everything from a $100 million school-building project to a $45 million mixed-use development, called One Ferry, that involves renovating old mill buildings and reworking the infrastructure in the Ferry Street area.

“Easthampton’s grit and resilience has gotten us through things like this in the past, and it’s getting us through these scary times. It’s not graceful, but we’ll still be standing at the end.”

And in the second category, she mentioned several initiatives, from small-business grants to a community-block-grant program designed to help microbusinesses, to efforts to help renters. Indeed, the city has put aside $300,000 in relief for renters; the relief begins in the fall and is meant to keep an important source of affordable housing in place.

“If you start losing renters, many of the owners will have to sell because they’ll have trouble paying their mortgages,” the mayor said, adding that there are many ripple effects from the pandemic, and the city’s strategy is to keep the ripples from gaining size and strength.

Overall, LaChapelle acknowledged that COVID-19 is forcing businesses, families, and institutions to make pivotal changes during very uncertain times, but she remains an optimist.

“Easthampton’s grit and resilience has gotten us through things like this in the past, and it’s getting us through these scary times,” she noted. “It’s not graceful, but we’ll still be standing at the end.”

Progress Report

Like other mayors BusinessWest has spoken with in recent weeks, LaChapelle said COVID-19 has certainly impacted businesses in every sector, changed daily life in innumerable ways, and even altered how city government carries out its business.

But in many respects, it hasn’t slowed the pace of progress in the city — at least when it comes to a number of important municipal and development projects, including the aforementioned school project.

Mo Belliveau

Mo Belliveau

“It’s one place where anyone who wants to do business in Easthampton can go to learn about what resources are available to them.”

The as-yet-unnamed school, located on Park Street, is an example of several elements of the city’s plan coming together. The new building will house students from pre-K through grade 8, replacing three older elementary schools in Easthampton. New road infrastructure is planned in front of the building as well, with the addition of a roundabout intersection.

LaChapelle noted that the $100 million project is slightly ahead of schedule and should be completed by late 2021 or early 2022. The roundabout will be completed this month.

Meanwhile, other projects are taking shape or getting ready to move off the drawing board. One involves River Valley Co-op, the Northampton-based food cooperative, which is currently building a 23,000-square-foot market in Easthampton on the site of the former Cernak Oldsmobile Pontiac dealership. The co-op is scheduled to open by spring or summer of next year.

Once complete, the mayor explained, River Valley will employ 60 full-time union workers with the potential to expand to nearly 100 workers in the next two years. Road improvements that will benefit the new co-op include a dedicated turning lane into the market and straightening the road in front.

“This is an area along Route 10 that has been a traffic pain point for economic development,” she said. “While it’s a $400,000 project, we expect the return to far exceed those dollars.”

Another project in the works is One Ferry, an initiative expected to bring new residents, new businesses, and more vibrancy to the city.

“In the next 18 to 24 months, this project will add quality apartments, condominiums, and office space,” LaChapelle said, adding that public infrastructure to support this project includes a roundabout that connects a residential area, the industrial park, and the mill district of Easthampton. The first building in the project, recently completed, provides space for two businesses and two apartments.

“Right now, this project is providing jobs and vitality for the area, and that will only increase,” she noted. “One Ferry is huge for our future.”

Dave Delvecchio

Dave Delvecchio

“While many restaurants in the city were affected by the virus, they’ve adapted well by doing things they didn’t do before, like offering takeout options. It’s remarkable that they’ve been able to continue to offer a service to the community, but in a different way.”

Another bright note for the future involves Adhesive Applications, which makes adhesive tapes for use in more than a dozen industries. The longtime Easthampton manufacturer is planning a 40,000- to 50,000-square-foot addition to the company, the mayor said.

The chamber and the mayor’s office are also working together on Blueprint Easthampton, a resource map designed for entrepreneurs and business people.

“It’s one place where anyone who wants to do business in Easthampton can go to learn about what resources are available to them,” said Mo Belliveau, executive director of the chamber.

According to a news release on Blueprint Easthampton, the mapping initiative will improve access to available business tools and strengthen the links between the city and the business community.

New Normal

While work continues on these projects, efforts continue to assist those businesses impacted by the pandemic. And the Greater Easthampton Chamber has played a large role in such efforts.

Prior to the pandemic, Belliveau had begun shifting the emphasis at the agency away from events and more on education and discussion-type programming. After organizing and scheduling programs for the year, stay-at-home orders went into effect in March and wiped out all those plans.

“Like so many small businesses, we at the chamber had to pivot along with our partners and find new ways to provide meaningful value to our community,” Belliveau said, adding that many of these new ways involve providing information — and other forms of support — to businesses during the pandemic.

Indeed, Easthampton received a $30,000 grant from the state attorney general’s office designed to help small businesses pay for COVID-19-related expenses and allow them to continue their operations. LaChapelle invited the chamber to be the administrator of what became the Greater Easthampton Sustaining Small Business Grant (SSBG) program. Applicants could request up to $1,500 and use the grant for buying PPE, paying their rent, or purchasing supplies needed to comply with state guidelines on reopening.

A total of 31 businesses qualified for the grants, which were to be awarded on a first-come, first-served basis. Fortunately, all 31 applicants received grant money totaling more than $43,000, thanks to donations from Easthampton-businesses Applied Mortgage, which kicked in an additional $10,000, and Suite 3, which covered the remainder of the funding requests.

“My goal going forward is to find other businesses that are able to contribute to this effort so we can do another round of funding,” Belliveau said. “The need is great, and the money from this first effort went fast.”

In addition, Easthampton and six surrounding communities recently became eligible for a $900,000 Community Development Block Grant to help microbusinesses get through the pandemic. Businesses with five or fewer employees can apply for up to $10,000 in grant money. Easthampton was the lead community in applying for the block grant.

“We have many innovative small businesses in Easthampton who still can’t reopen,” LaChapelle said. “This grant program is designed to help them stay afloat.”

Dave DelVecchio is president of Suite3, a company that provides IT services for businesses of all sizes. While most of his customer base is in Western Mass., Suite3 also has clients internationally and in several U.S. states.

As an IT service provider, DelVecchio measures success by “ticket requests,” an indication that a customer needs support. When COVID-19 started taking its toll and many businesses were shut down in March and April, ticket requests were at their lowest point. Since then, Suite3’s business has come back to pre-pandemic levels.

As a past president and current treasurer of the chamber, DelVecchio was concerned about the impact COVID-19 was having on the business community, and especially its growing portfolio of restaurants.

“While many restaurants in the city were affected by the virus, they’ve adapted well by doing things they didn’t do before, like offering takeout options,” he said. “It’s remarkable that they’ve been able to continue to offer a service to the community, but in a different way.”

He added that Easthampton has a good number of other businesses affected by COVID-19 that did not receive as much attention as the restaurants.

“Businesses such as travel agencies and professions that require personal interaction, like chiropractors and massage therapists, were also affected by the virus,” he said, noting that the SSBG and Community Development Block Grant can make a real difference for such businesses.

Coming Together

DelVecchio credits Belliveau with changing the focus of the chamber to more education without losing its important role as a provider of networking opportunities. Part of the changing organization involved moving from an annual fee model to monthly dues. While that can be a risky move, DelVecchio noted there was almost no attrition in membership.

“We are grateful that we continue to get support from the business community and they see value in the chamber,” he said, “especially at a time when expenses are being put under greater scrutiny.”

This support is another indication of how the community, which had been thriving before the pandemic, has come together to cope with a crisis that has provided a real test — or another real test — for residents and businesses alike.

As the mayor noted earlier, Easthampton’s grit and resilience has helped it survive a number of economic downturns and other challenges in the past. And those qualities will see it through this one as well.

Features

What’s New?

By Isaac C. Fleisher

It’s that time of year again. On July 20, the Cannabis Control Commission (CCC) revealed the latest round of proposed revisions to its regulations. Following a period of public comment and review, the CCC is scheduled to take a final vote on these revisions on Sept. 4.

Last year’s round of revisions made waves with two new categories of licenses (social consumption and home delivery), but this year’s revisions are more focused on the owners behind the licenses. This is not too surprising because the demographics of license ownership has become a heavily debated (and litigated) topic.

When the CCC crafted its initial regulations (way back in the halcyon days of 2018), it included provisions intended to diversify the industry, such as a fast track to licensing for economic-empowerment (EE) applicants, as well as fee waivers, training, and technical assistance for social-equity (SE) applicants. Even the new license types that were created under last year’s revisions to the regulations are initially reserved for EE and SE applicants. However, as small startups slam into the economic realities of the cannabis industry, it has revealed a tension between the need for capital and the need for equity.

The CCC’s latest round of draft revisions would require economic-empowerment applicants to satisfy at least one of the criteria related to ‘majority equity ownership’ and then report any changes of ownership and control when renewing their license. EE status is revoked if fewer than 51% of the owners meet the EE criteria. Similarly, the draft revisions specify that the various fee waivers and discounts available to SE applicants only apply to licensees with at least 51% SE ownership.

Last year’s round of revisions made waves with two new categories of licenses (social consumption and home delivery), but this year’s revisions are more focused on the owners behind the licenses.

These changes would help prevent EE and SE certification from being turned into a commodity that could be purchased by investors that were never the intended beneficiaries. However, it would also further trap EE and SE applicants in the catch-22 of needing to raise millions in investment without giving up equity to investors that don’t satisfy the EE or SE criteria.

The draft revisions also seek to tighten the definition of what constitutes ‘control’ over a cannabis business. This is significant because Massachusetts prohibits any entity from controlling more than three licenses of any type. This restriction is a substantial departure from the trend in most other states that have legalized a recreational cannabis industry, and it has become a thorn in the side for cannabis investors trying to build a diverse portfolio, as well as for large, multi-state cannabis companies that rely on economies of scale. As a result, more than a few savvy investors and entrepreneurs have utilized creative corporate structures in an attempt to circumvent the limitations on control.

In 2019, the CCC made substantial updates to its definition of control, making it clear that it was serious about enforcing the three-license cap. The current draft revisions further expand the definition of control by establishing a precise dollar amount for the types of contracts that would be evidence of control; clarifying that anybody with the power to appoint 50% of the company’s board is in control of that company, whether the board members are called directors, managers, or anything else; and, in a possible sign of the times, establishing that a person appointed as a receiver for the licensee is in a position of control.

Additionally, the revisions would redefine the threshold for when control over a parent company constitutes control over the subsidiary. In the current regulations, anybody “with a controlling interest in” the parent company is considered to have control over the subsidiary, but the revised draft would change this to anybody “having control over” the parent company. This subtle change is potentially significant, as the “controlling interest” language has generally been interpreted to relate only to an actual equity interest, while the meaning of “having control” could include people with substantial decision-making authority, even if they are not actually a majority owner. These changes may not be nearly as substantial as the 2019 overhaul of the definition of control, but the fact that the CCC felt that additional changes were necessary at all is a sign that attempts to circumvent the license cap are still happening.

One prosed change that seems to cut against the trend of tightening restrictions on ownership is the revision to the craft marijuana cooperative license, which would actually loosen the requirement that a member of the cooperative filed a profit or loss from farming in the last five years (i.e. they’re a farmer). If accepted, the revisions would allow a cooperative to satisfy this requirement by merely leasing land from such a person. There are plenty of good reasons for this change, but ultimately it likely arises from the CCC’s recognition that the requirements for a craft cannabis cooperative are so burdensome and idiosyncratic that only three applications have been submitted for this license type, and of those, only one has even received a provisional license.

With nearly 550 applications receiving provisional or final licenses, and only 122 currently authorized to commence operations (and a shameful dearth of racial or economic diversity among these licensees), it is becoming clear there is a financial bottleneck in the licensing process. Most commercial financial institutions still won’t go anywhere near the cannabis industry, and cannabis entrepreneurs must therefore rely on venture-capital financing. The result has been an increase in the number of provisional licenses being ‘flipped’ as small startups are forced to sell out to simply cover their growing debt.

This trend toward market consolidation has put the CCC’s equity provisions and ownership limitations under tremendous strain. The draft revisions address that strain by attempting to close potential loopholes in the restriction. These changes would certainly help align the letter of the law with the spirit of the law, but ultimately, they do not address the actual root of the problem.

In order to build a cannabis industry that is stable, sustainable, and diverse, much more needs to be done to lower the economic barrier of entry, such as establishing a state lending program to provide SE and EE applicants with access to financing, or even just simplifying the licensing process so that applicants aren’t forced to submit hundreds of pages of plans, policies, and procedures, only to wait over a year just to obtain a provisional license. But those changes may need to wait for 2021.

Attorney Isaac C. Fleisher is an associate with Bacon Wilson, P.C., where his practice is focused on business and corporate law, with particular emphasis on the rapidly expanding cannabis industry. An accomplished transactional attorney, he has broad experience in all aspects of business representation in legal matters ranging from mergers and acquisitions to business formation and financing; (413) 781-0560; [email protected]

Features

An Uphill Battle

By Mary Bonzagni

Federal trademark registration is viewed as an attractive form of property-rights protection for most industries. The benefits of such a registration are numerous.

A federal trademark registration serves to recast what would normally be localized common-law trademark rights into nationwide trademark rights. It provides the owner with the right to use the ® designation, to enforce the owner’s rights in federal court, and to file the trademark registration with U.S. Customs to block infringing imports. A federal registration also provides a basis for registering the trademark in foreign countries and jurisdictions.

Unfortunately, members of the cannabis industry have faced an uphill battle when trying to protect their brands on the federal level.

This article will focus on strategies for protecting trademarks used on CBD products, which may be grouped into two categories: marijuana-derived CBD products and hemp-derived CBD products.

Mary Bonzagni

Mary Bonzagni

“Unfortunately, members of the cannabis industry have faced an uphill battle when trying to protect their brands on the federal level.”

Marijuana is still treated as a controlled substance and is illegal under the Controlled Substances Act (CSA), regardless of its legality under certain state laws. As such, trademarks for marijuana-derived CBD products cannot be federally registered. The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has issued trademarks for goods and services that are indirectly related to marijuana, but the closer the description of goods and services is to the sale or distribution of marijuana, the less likely it is that the UPSTO will allow the application.

Hemp was previously regulated as an illegal substance under the CSA. It was removed as an illegal substance under the Agricultural Improvement Act of 2018, also known as the Farm Act, which federally legalized hemp and hemp-derived products that contain no more than 0.3% THC (by dry weight). The 2018 Farm Act legalized CBD derived from hemp not from marijuana, so, at least for now, the federal government will view the source of the CBD as decisive in determining its legality under federal law.

To recap, marijuana-derived CBD products are illegal under federal law, and, thus, trademarks for such products cannot be federally registered. On the other hand, products infused with CBD derived from hemp, which have a low-THC content, are now legal under federal law, and the trademarks under which they are used are capable of federal registration. Being capable of federal registration, however, does not guarantee registration.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s current policy is to refuse trademarks for foods, beverages, dietary supplements, and pet treats containing hemp-derived CBD that have not been approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). These goods raise lawful-use issues under the Federal Food Drug and Cosmetic Act (FDCA). Trademarks for the following goods, however, can be federally registered:

• Hemp-derived CBD products that are not consumed (e.g. salves, ointments, and skin oils) which contain less than 0.3% THC on a dry-weight basis; and

• ‘Generally recognized as safe’ (GRAS) products (e.g. hulled hemp seeds, hemp seed protein powder, and hemp seed oil). On Dec. 20, 2018, the same day the 2018 Farm Act took effect, the FDA approved the sale of hulled hemp seeds, hemp seed protein powder, and hemp seed oil, and the use of these products in human food. Therefore, trademarks for these hemp products are eligible for federal registration at the USPTO.

In addition, trademarks for hemp advocacy groups and trade associations, and for services such as consulting and advertising services and the like, can also be federally registered. It is legal for advocacy groups and trade associations to educate the public and advocate for changes in hemp and marijuana laws. Thus, the USPTO is willing to issue trademarks to those groups and to others providing services to the legal hemp industry.

Let’s assume for purposes of this article that your trademark is being used on goods that do not fall within one of the above categories, and thus your trademark cannot be federally registered. Here are some options for proceeding.

Federal Registration for Permissible Ancillary Products and/or Services

The first area to explore is whether you also sell goods or offer services that fall outside the restrictions of the CSA or FDCA. For example, do you sell goods without CBD as an ingredient, or provide a website featuring blogs and publications (e.g. articles, brochures, etc.) advocating for changes in hemp and marijuana laws, which constitute lawful goods or services? By obtaining a federal trademark registration in relation to any such lawful goods and services you provide (i.e. registering around the edges of the CSA or FDCA), you may still be able to protect your brand.

Alternatives to Federal Registration

Whether or not you pursue federal registration, you should also consider proceeding within the common-law and state-law frameworks so that you can protect your mark within your geographical trading area. You may also consider copyright protection to protect your logo or design trademark.

Common-law Trademark Rights

By using your trademark in commerce on select goods and services, you will develop common-law rights in that mark. Common-law rights are based solely on use of the mark in commerce within a particular geographic area. Your common-law rights may be used to stop infringers.

State Registrations

Another option to consider is seeking one or more state registrations for your trademark in states that recognize the legality of your goods or services. While state registrations confer the benefits of registration only within the boundaries of that state, registering on the state level can be an effective way to protect your mark and to prevent third parties from using the same or confusingly similar mark on the same or similar goods or services in that state.

Copyright Registrations

Copyright protection may constitute an alternative route to protecting your logos or design trademarks, provided they contain original authorship and are not just familiar shapes, symbols, or designs. Copyright is a form of protection provided under U.S. law to ‘original works of authorship,’ once fixed in a tangible form. A copyright registration establishes a public record of a copyright claim as well as offering several other statutory advantages.

In Conclusion

CBD-based businesses should start using their trademarks on their goods and services as soon as possible in order to establish common-law trademark rights, seek federal registration for trademark uses that are legal under the CSA and do not raise lawful-use issues under the FDCA, seek state registrations in states where trademark use occurs and where cannabis use is legal, and seek copyright registrations for eligible logo and design trademarks.

Please contact us for further information or to set up an initial consultation. We look forward to assisting you in protecting your valuable IP.Please contact us for further information or to set up an initial consultation. We look forward to assisting you in protecting your valuable IP.Please contact us for further information or to set up an initial consultation. We look forward to assisting you in protecting your valuable IP.

Mary Bonzagni is the IP partner with the Springfield-based law firm Bulkley Richardson; (413) 272-6200.

Features Special Coverage

Mission: Accepted

Paul Belsito

Paul Belsito

Paul Belsito admits he’s struggling somewhat with Zoom and conference calls — not the technology, but the nature of those forms of communication.

He’s a people person, and he likes meeting them face to face — and not on screen or over the phone.

“I enjoy going to events and networking — that’s how I meet people,” he said, noting that there haven’t been any opportunities like that since he’s arrived, and he’s looking to the day when they return. “Zoom is OK, and I’m getting good at it, but it’s not the same.”

But it is reality in the summer of 2020, and this is how Belsito, chosen late this spring to fill the rather large shoes of Mary Walachy as executive director of the Irene E. and George A. Davis Foundation, has been going about what will remain his primary assignment for the foreseeable future.

And that is to ‘meet’ as many people as possible and come to fully understand the many issues and challenges facing the Western Mass. community.

“This is a world built on relationships, and you have to understand people’s perspectives and listen actively so you can help build on the foundation that’s been laid,” he explained, adding that, since arriving in early June, he’s been doing a lot of listening, with the intention of acting — and collaborating with others — on what he’s hearing.

It’s an assignment he accepts with considerable enthusiasm, and one to which he brings an intriguing background, blending work in financial services, government (he was district director for state Sen. Edward Augustus), higher education (he was executive assistant to the president at Assumption College in Worcester, his alma mater), and philanthropy; most recently he served as president of the Hanover Insurance Group Foundation in Worcester and assistant vice president for Community Relations.

And he intends to draw on all that experience in a role that involves everything from community outreach to regional problem solving, but mostly comes down to what Belsito calls “impact philanthropy.”

“A lot of my work has been grounded in community work,” he said, using that phrase to describe many of his career stops. “Getting involved and influencing has always been part of my DNA, and it’s generational in many ways — my family was very involved in the community in Worcester.”

This devotion to community work, as well as an opportunity to continue and build on Davis Foundation initiatives in literacy, early-childhood education, improving the Springfield Public Schools, and other endeavors, drew him to the Davis Foundation, created by George Davis, founder of American Saw & Manufacturing, and his wife Irene, and the opportunity to succeed Walachy, whose work he has admired from Worcester.

“The work that Davis has done in literacy and specifically early education is well-known throughout the Commonwealth,” he noted. “I had known them from that lens of an active member in a peer community trying to work on the same issues; Mary is a household name in the early-education space throughout the Commonwealth, and her name is often brought up as someone to model in her guidance on how to pull these programs together.”

Coming to Springfield from Worcester, Belsito said there are many similarities between the state’s second- and third-largest cities (with Worcester being the former), and common challenges. These include everything from education to economic development and job creation. But they are different and unique communities with their own “personalities,” as he called them.

“This is a world built on relationships, and you have to understand people’s perspectives and listen actively so you can help build on the foundation that’s been laid.”

“Worcester and Springfield are not the same, although they do have similar traits,” he noted. “It’s my job to listen and maybe take some of my experiences from Worcester and share those with folks in Springfield. Maybe one in 20 will catch and improve the lives of children and families.”

Meanwhile, recent events have brought other priorities to the fore, including the plight of the region’s nonprofits, many of which have been severely impacted by the pandemic from the standpoints of revenue and sustainability, and the broad issue of racial justice, which the foundation has helped address through creation of the Healing Racism Institute, now a separate 501(c)(3), but still very much affiliated with the Davis Foundation.

Educare Springfield

Paul Belsito says his primary goal is to build on the foundation created by the Davis Foundation with initiatives such as Educare Springfield, a unique early-education facility that opened its doors last fall.

And these emerging issues are dominating many of those discussions he’s been having as he goes about listening and building relationships.

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Belsito about his new role, but especially about the challenges facing Springfield, the region, and its large core of nonprofits — all of which have looked to the Davis Foundation over the years for not simply financial support, but also direction and leadership.

Moving forward, he said the foundation will be continuing in those roles and constantly looking for new ways in which to make an impact and move the needle.

Background: Check

Tracing the steps that brought him to the Davis Foundation’s suite of offices in Monarch Place, Belsito said his professional career started at Flagship Bank and Trust Co. in Worcester, where he served as a trust administrator, working with families to help manage their assets and trusts.

While in that role, he started doing volunteer work within the community, and before long, his career aspirations changed.

“All of a sudden, everything flipped, and the volunteer work became a career,” he told BusinessWest, adding that, in 2005, he started working for Augustus, now the city manager in Worcester. After a stint as a private consultant, he became executive assistant to the president at Assumption, which was, in many ways, a continuation of the work he did at the State House.

“I worked for a state senator who was very driven by policy, not politics,” he explained. “His mindset was, while we were in that building, how could we improve the lives of people not only in that district, but across the Commonwealth? The policy piece was very important to me, and it carried over to the higher-education piece.”

From Assumption, he went to Hanover Insurance, which, like MassMutual in this market, has historically been deeply involved in the community, often serving as a “catalyst for change,” as he put it.

He started in community relations and eventually became president of the Hanover Insurance Group Foundation.

“As we began to pivot on how to not only make the company a world-class company but also the city in which it was headquartered, I did a lot of work with the Worcester Public Schools, with the Hanover Theater, and various organizations within the community that really helped to round out the experience for children and families so that they would be successful out in the community,” he said, noting that perhaps the most significant initiative launched by the Hanover Foundation is the Advancement Via Individualized Determination (AVID) college-readiness program in the Worcester Public Schools.

“It was an honor to work for a company that was so committed to impact philanthropy,” he went on, “which is trying to move the needle and have outcomes and data that support the investment that you’re making.”

Slicing through his job description at Davis, he said it’s to generate this type of needle-moving philanthropy — or more of it, because the foundation has been involved in a number of potentially game-changing initiatives, including Cherish Every Child, a nationally recognized Reading Success by 4th Grade program, the advocacy group Springfield Business Leaders for Education, and, most recently, the effort to establish the innovative Educare Springfield early-education center, which opened last fall near the campus of Springfield College.

“One of the things that struck me about the Davis family was the humility with which they do their work. They want to be sure they’re supporting things that generate outcomes and improve the quality of education and quality of life for children and families in the region.”

The desire to continue such initiatives and create more of them brought Belsito to Springfield (via Zoom) to interview for the Davis job, a job posting that came about as he was looking for a new challenge after spending a short stint working for the city of Worcester on its COVID-19 response.

“I had known of Davis for a long time — and we actually used Davis and the work that Springfield was doing as one of the models as we were developing a reading-for-success program what would work best for our community.”

Forward Thinking

Looking ahead, Belsito said that, as the Davis Foundation continues its mission of service to the community, the specific direction of its initiatives will be determined by recognized needs within area cities and towns.

But he’s certain that education and a hard focus on young people will be at the heart of those discussions.

“One of the things that struck me about the Davis family was the humility with which they do their work,” he explained. “They want to be sure they’re supporting things that generate outcomes and improve the quality of education and quality of life for children and families in the region.

“And if you look at the legacy of the family, that’s been a consistent theme,” he went on. “And as we look to the next phase of where the Davis family’s impact will be, I believe that it will consistently be in education and literacy, but we also have a new generation of family members who are getting more active within the community, so how do we integrate some of their perspectives in making sure that we have a consistent, shared goal of improving the lives of children and families in Hampden County?”

Beyond this shared goal, there are new and emerging needs within the community, he said, noting, as one example, the mounting challenges facing the region’s large core of nonprofit organizations, many of which were struggling with finances before COVID-19.

“Many nonprofits are in a vulnerable state from a financial perspective,” he noted. “And this experience from the past few months has only exacerbated that. So we want to look at how Davis and organizations like the Community Foundation of Western Mass. can come together to help ensure that the mission-driven organizations that are needed for the community to be successful can thrive and be able to provide the services they need.

“Even from the start of my interview process at Davis to today, a lot has changed,” Belsito went on, referring not only to the pandemic and its repercussions, but also George Floyd’s death and the resulting focus on racial justice. “Perspectives have changed, and priorities have changed, and so we need to convene people at the local level and ask, ‘what does this community need to be successful?’”

What hasn’t changed are the many social determinants of health — from housing and transportation to food insecurity and job losses — that are impacting quality of life in the region, he continued, adding that COVID-19 has helped shine a light on inequities in the system and the need to initiate steps to address them.

And when it comes to such efforts and other initiatives, the key is listening to members of the community and creating a dialogue about to address these problems, he said, adding that the Davis Foundation has historically been a leader in such discussions, and it will continue to play that role into the future.

“I’m a believer that, when you pull people together, there’s usually a solution that can be found,” he said, using that phrase to refer to everything from the sustainability of nonprofits to improving public education.

‘Meeting’ the Challenge

Left with what he says is little choice, Belsito has become quite savvy with Zoom and other virtual methods for meeting and getting to know people.

It’s not as he would want it, but it is indeed reality. And so are the many challenges confronting Springfield and the region, many of them amplified or accelerated by a pandemic that has been relentless.

Belsito said his first assignment is to understand what makes Springfield Springfield, and it is ongoing. From there, his job is to pull people together — something the Davis Foundation has always been good at it — and, when possible, move the needle.

He’s made it a career to take on such work, and he’s more than excited about what the next chapter might bring.

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Mayor John Vieau

Mayor John Vieau says COVID-19 has put a damper on many of his plans for Chicopee, but he remains optimistic about the city and its future.

John Vieau wasn’t exactly planning on running for mayor last summer.

That’s because he was reasonably sure that incumbent and two-time Mayor Richard Kos would be seeking another two-year term — and Kos eventually did take out papers for re-election. And when Kos ultimately decided in February 2019 to return to his law practice instead of the corner office, Vieau, a Willimansett native and long-time alderman from Ward 3, didn’t exactly jump into the race.

Indeed, he had to think long and hard about this decision, especially the prospect of leaving a well-paying job with the Commonwealth — specifically, the Massachusetts Department of Transportation (MassDOT) — and take a pay cut to serve as mayor.

“I’m not a gambler,” said Vieau with a laugh, adding that he ultimately decided to run for mayor — and prevail over a crowded field — but take a leave of absence from his job with MassDOT so he can ultimately return when he’s finished with City Hall.

That careful due diligence notwithstanding, being mayor has been a long-time goal, if not a dream job, for Vieau, who said he fully understood everything that came with the territory … except maybe a global pandemic.

COVID-19 has changed virtually every aspect of municipal management — from greeting guests at City Hall (elbow bumps instead of handshakes) to making a budget — and made just about every facet of economic development, from maintaining the momentum that was building downtown to beginning the next stage in the life of the massive Cabotville Industrial Park, that much more difficult.

“It’s put a lot of things on pause,” said Vieau, who put the accent on ‘lot,’ noting that the pandemic has impacted municipalities as hard as it has hit specific economic sectors and individual businesses. It has affected how city business is conducted, sharply reduced revenues, and, as noted, put a number of projects on ice.

“We put guidelines in place that were more strict than what the governor rolled out initially with regard to stores. And other states, and businesses like Walmart, were adopting our rules, our guidance, and our procedures. We acted swiftly, and we saved lives.”

“All the ideas and things that were happening are sitting on the back burner as we combat this time of uncertainty and crisis,” he said while summing things up succinctly, before amending to say ‘most all’ the ideas and projects.

Indeed, there are some things happening, from a new Florence Bank branch at the site of the old Hu Ke Lau on Memorial Avenue to a new restaurant, Jaad, located downtown. But, as he said, the pandemic has certainly slowed the pace of progress at a time when he thought the downtown, and the city as a whole, were seeing a renaissance of sorts.

But Vieau, while not exactly welcoming the challenge of COVID-19, is embracing it to some extent and looking upon it as a stern test of his management and leadership capabilities — a trial by extreme fire, if you will.

He noted that he took his first full weekend off since March early last month, and said it felt good to get some rest. But he fully understands that the future is a very large question mark, and the pandemic certainly isn’t done making life difficult for the residents and leaders of the region’s second-largest city.

“We have to remain diligent,” he said, echoing the governor when it comes to the pandemic and how the city, the state, and the country, are far from out of the woods. “We have to do everything we can to keep this under control.”

For this, the latest installment if its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest talked at length with the city’s relatively new mayor about life in the age of COVID-19 and how he’s trying to see his community through to the other side of this crisis.

Numbers Game

At one point in his talk with BusinessWest, Vieau paused and reached for some papers on his desk — the latest reports on the state of the pandemic in his city.

He didn’t have to consult the paperwork to know the numbers — he had already pretty much committed them to memory — but he did so to show just how much data he and others in municipal management have to keep track of, and just how committed he is to understanding everything he can about the spread of the virus on any given day — or moment, for that matter.

“I look at the numbers every day,” he said. “Unfortunately, we’ve had 10 deaths in the city, people with underlying conditions, ages 58 to 100. We have, today, 41 open cases of COVID-19, 399 people who have recovered, and we have 45 people in the N/A group, meaning they’re probably residents of the city that are now in assisted living, some form of nursing home, or other facility that’s not in Chicopee.”

This attention to detail is just part of managing the pandemic, or managing during the pandemic, to be more precise, he said, adding that he has a 10 a.m. conference call with his ‘COVID team’ every day, and these calls have led to some aggressive and ultimately effective efforts to slow the spread of the virus.

Indeed, Chicopee was among the first, and most vigilant, cities when it came to requiring masks in stores and other public places and putting other measures in place to slow the spread of the virus.

“We put guidelines in place that were more strict than what the governor rolled out initially with regard to stores,” he noted. “And other states, and businesses like Walmart, were adopting our rules, our guidance, and our procedures. We acted swiftly, and we saved lives.”

Redevelopment of the massive former Cabotville Industrial Park

Redevelopment of the massive former Cabotville Industrial Park into apartments is one of many projects in Chicopee now clouded by question marks as a result of the pandemic.

This is not exactly what Vieau signed on for when he took out papers for mayor last winter, soon after Kos opted not to seek re-election. What he did sign up for was a chance to take what has become a career of service to the city to a higher level.

That career started with a stint on the Planning Board — he was appointed by Kos during his first stint as mayor — and went to a different plane when he was talked into running for the open Ward 3 seat on the Board of Aldermen 16 years ago, not long after he took a job at MassDOT handling eminent-domain work.

“I saw this an opportunity to get more involved,” he told BusinessWest. “This was the area where I grew up; to have a chance to represent it as an alderman was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.”

Vieau spent the last four of those 16 years as president of the board, and was content to go on representing his ward until Kos decided not to seek another term. Vieau said he received calls from the media within an hour of Kos’s announcement asking if he was going to run, and his quick answer was ‘no,’ for those reasons stated earlier. But after talking with family, friends, constituents, and his employer, and after learning he could take a leave of absence, he ultimately decided to run.

There were many planks to his campaign, from public safety to downtown revitalization to new-business development, and the pandemic has certainly made it more difficult to address any of them.

“Everything I ran on, all the ideas and things that we were hopeful to accomplish here in the city of Chicopee, have been put on hold as we get through this,” he said. “Instead, we’ve been focused on keeping people safe, first and foremost, and how you’re going to handle the budget gaps. It’s not something I’m unfamiliar with — I’ve been involved in the approval of 16 mayor’s budgets — but this is different.”

Elaborating, he said his administration has devoted considerable time and energy to assisting the small businesses that have been impacted by the pandemic — and there have been many of them.

For example, $150,000 in Community Development Block Grant monies were directed toward impacted businesses early on in the pandemic, said the mayor, and later, an additional CDBG grant of $706,000 was received and will be used to “turn the lights back on,” as the mayor put it, at businesses that have been forced to close in the wake of the crisis.

Holding Patterns

One of Vieau’s stated goals for his first term as mayor was to build on the recognizable progress registered in the central business district, where, through initiatives such as regular Friday-night ‘Lights On’ programs and other initiatives, downtown businesses were put in the spotlight, and area residents responded by turning out in large numbers.

The pandemic, which has hit hospitality-related businesses and retail especially hard, took a good amount of wind out of those sails, said the mayor.

“Things were progressively looking better for the future of our downtown — for reviving it. We want to continue these efforts — we just need to get through this period of uncertainty. We’re excited about what can happen, and I think everyone is.”

“We had the Cultural Council firing on all cylinders — we were going to have this amazing, new, energetic downtown that everyone would want to come to,” he said. “We were having Lights On events on Friday nights and had food trucks … all these fun things were happening, and … COVID-19 just put the brakes on it all.”

The hope is that businesses downtown can weather what could be a lengthy storm and emerge stronger on the other side, said Vieau, adding that, if they can, some building blocks can be put into place that might bring additional vibrancy to that once-thriving area.

These building blocks include the Mass Development-funded Transformational Development Initiative (TDI) grant that brought a TDI fellow, Andrea Moson, to the city for a two-year assignment to be dominated by downtown-revitalization efforts, a C3 Policing program aimed at making the area more safe and improving the overall perception of the downtown, and development projects, such as two planned housing initiatives downtown.

One involves the former Cabotville Industrial Park, where 234 units of one-bedroom and efficiency units of affordable housing comprise the first phase of that massive project, and the other involves an additional 100 units at Lyman Mills.

Chicopee at a Glance

Year Incorporated: 1848
Population: 55,298
Area: 23.9 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $17.46
Commercial Tax Rate: $33.93
Median Household Income: $35,672
Median Family Income: $44,136
Type of Government: Mayor; City Council
Largest Employers: Westover Air Reserve Base; J. Polep Distribution Services; Callaway Golf Ball Operations; Dielectrics; MicroTek

* Latest information available

These projects, which the mayor expects to proceed, are considered critical to the revitalization of the downtown area because of the vibrancy and foot traffic they will potentially create.

“We’re looking at young professionals and empty-nesters moving into these units,” he noted. “That influx of people will need goods and services.”

As for the TDI grant, it will be used to help new businesses locate in the downtown, fund tenant improvements, and, in general, bring more vibrancy to the area. Earlier this year, grant monies were funneled in $5,000 amounts to businesses impacted by the pandemic to help them through those perilous first several weeks.

“Things were progressively looking better for the future of our downtown — for reviving it,” he continued. “We want to continue these efforts — we just need to get through this period of uncertainty. We’re excited about what can happen, and I think everyone is.”

While most projects are being talked about in the future tense, some developments are already taking place downtown, said the mayor, noting the arrival of Jaad, a Jamaican restaurant; the pending relocation of the Koffee Kup bakery from the Springfield Plaza to East Main Street in Chicopee, and ongoing work to restore and modernize perhaps the city’s most recognizable landmark, City Hall.

Phase 1 of that project, which involves restoration of the auditorium, is ongoing, said the mayor, adding that this $16 million initiative also includes new windows, roof work, and other work to the shell of the historic structure. Phase 2, which is on hold, will involve interior renovations, modernizing the structure, and making it what Vieau called “active-shooter safe.”

Managing the Situation

As noted earlier, Vieau was happy to finally to get a full weekend off — not that mayors actually get weekends off, given the many events they must attend and functions they carry out.

But the weekends from March through early July were filled with more than ribbon cuttings, dinners, and school graduations. There was hard work to do to manage the pandemic and help control the many forms of damage it has caused.

This wasn’t exactly what he signed up for, and it has put a real damper on many of his plans for his first term. But COVID-19 is reality, and seeing his city through the crisis has become Vieau’s primary job responsibility. There’s no manual to turn to, but he feels he has the experience to lead in these times of crisis.

After all, he has made public service a second career.

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

By Mark Morris

While communities nationwide continue to grapple with what he calls the “grumpy cloud” of COVID-19, Westfield Mayor Donald Humason is looking to project a little sunshine.

“A lot of it has to do with the attitude in Westfield,” the mayor said. “We’re optimistic, and we want people to come to our community because it’s a great place to live, work, go to school, and run a business.” 

Kate Phelon, executive director of the Greater Westfield Chamber of Commerce, agreed, and wants everyone to know Westfield is open for business.

Kate Phelon

Kate Phelon says the Greater Westfield Chamber remains strong and active, and has even welcomed some new members.

While the chamber remains strong with more than 5,000 members, two new businesses have recently joined. Play Now, a new toy store on Silver Street, and Results in Wellness, a health and wellness clinic on Springfield Road, were both planning ribbon-cutting ceremonies at press time. Also scheduled to open is a Five Below store, where everything is priced between $1 and $5.

“New business openings are a great thing to see, especially during these times that are so challenging for everybody,” Phelon said.

After many months of not being able to hold any chamber events, she’s also excited about hosting the annual chamber golf tournament, scheduled for Aug. 31 at East Mountain Country Club. “We will, of course, be following all the guidelines for masks and distancing. It certainly helps that this is an outdoor event.”

Speaking of outdoor events, the Westfield Starfires began their Futures Collegiate Baseball League season on July 8. The team modified Bullens Field to provide a safe experience for fans and staff by following state guidelines for COVID-19 safety. Phelon attended as part of a contingent of chamber members and reported that fans simply wore their masks and were able to enjoy refreshments at properly distanced picnic tables.

“We’re optimistic, and we want people to come to our community because it’s a great place to live, work, go to school, and run a business.”

Considering what’s already been lost in this unprecedented year, the shout of ‘play ball!’ was certainly welcome — and city and chamber officials hope it heralds the start of a back half of 2020 that’s far more promising than the first half.

Full Power

While it was uncertain if the Starfires would be able to play this season, the crew at Westfield Gas & Electric never stopped.

General Manager Anthony Contrino said his crews have consistently provided essential services for customers of the municipal utility. After a crash course on handling COVID-19 in the workplace that kept people safe and followed state guidelines, G & E crews have handled only emergency situations for the last several months. More recently, the utility has been able to handle non-emergency work like in-home gas and electric installations.

Contrino said the many disaster-recovery drills he and his colleagues have done in the past helped prepare them well for COVID-19.

“We’ve had a lot of remote-workforce capabilities in place, but they’ve never been tested to this degree,” he said, calling it a “blessing in disguise” as the last several months confirmed that the processes they had set up work when they are most needed.

Administrative staff returned to their offices at the end of June after the building was reconfigured with the latest pandemic protocols in place.

“I commend my co-workers, who have done a very good job during this time for their service to the city and all of our customers,” Contrino said, adding that Westfield G & E received the Reliable Public Power Provider Award for excellence in operating efficiently, reliably, and safely.

Westfield

Westfield Mayor Don Humason says he has heard from business, both downtown and elsewhere, looking to expand once they feel they can.

Whip City Fiber, a separate business that provides fiber-optic internet service, is also run by Westfield G & E. Contrino said 70% of Westfield now has access to the utility’s fiber-optic network. “In 2020, we have continued to add customers to areas that have access to fiber optics in their neighborhood.”

The plan going forward is to expand the network to the remaining 30% of the city. “Customer demand will determine where we build out the remainder of the network,” he noted.

In addition to serving Westfield, Whip City Fiber is working with 19 towns in Western Mass. to establish their internet service, Contrino added. “We are working in places like the hilltowns that were underserved with internet service, so they are appreciative that we can help them get up and running.”

Once established, customers in the hilltowns will have access to gigabit service, or 1,000 megabits coming into their homes. By installing fiber optics, Contrino said, these towns are “future-proofing” their internet systems. “We already had the competencies in place to build fiber-optic networks, so by expanding our services to other towns, we become more cost-effective for Westfield residents.”

Getting Around

On the recreation front, the Greenway Rail Trail, an elevated bike path, is expanding across the city. By the end of next year, bike paths and five bridges will be added to the trail.

“The completion of the bike trail will be a real economic driver for Westfield,” Humason said. “I think it will attract cyclists from other parts of the country, as well as the state.”

Phelon added that serious cyclists will be able to ride continuously from Westfield to New Haven, Conn., and the trail is a valuable asset for casual cyclists as well.

“Bike riders will now have a way to quickly get across town because the trail goes through the center of Westfield,” she noted. “Because it’s elevated and above all the traffic, they will be able to go from one end of town to the other, complete with off-ramps into different neighborhoods.” 

“New business openings are a great thing to see, especially during these times that are so challenging for everybody.”

The mayor is hopeful that enterprising businesses will locate near the bike trail to serve the bikers, walkers, and others who use it.

“The bike trail fits in nicely with the flavor of old Westfield and our history of industry and agriculture,” he said. “Even if you’re not interested in all that, it’s an easy way to get across town.”

Humason said he’s pleased to see that a number of road improvements over the years now connect the downtown area from the south side of the city all the way to the Mass Pike exit.

The latest road project near completion involves widening and adding sidewalks along Western Avenue. The project also improves traffic flow with turning lanes into Westfield State University, as well as pull-off areas for PVTA buses.

“Western Avenue is one of the longest streets in the city, and it deserved to get this treatment,” the mayor said, adding that certain parts of the road also have traffic islands to separate the east and west lanes. “It’s an easier road to drive now, and it looks really nice.” 

The mayor said the city completed a similar project on East Mountain Road, another long street. “If we continually work on the longer streets and keep them in good order when we have the revenue, we can work on the smaller streets in the neighborhoods and the downtown corridor, so we can keep the city in good shape.” 

Future projects coming to Westfield include a new entry gate to the military side of Barnes Airport to service the both the Army Aviation facility and the Air National Guard base. The new entrance will allow the base to modernize function and security for everyone entering the base.

A public park is also planned just outside the gate that will feature one of the F-15 fighter jets that flew over New York City on 9/11. A plaque to tell the story of the jet’s mission on Sept. 11, 2001 will also be part of the display.

Moving On

Also in the near future, Phelon will be retiring from the Greater Westfield Chamber. Before she leaves on Sept. 25, her plan is to work with the new executive director to ensure continuity in the many chamber projects.

“I want to make sure the next director understands our community, as well as our members, and can work with our public and private partners at the local and state level,” she said.

Despite the tough economic times of the last six months, prospects for Westfield look strong, she told BusinessWest, adding that she’s encouraged by the fact that no businesses have decided to not reopen. Meanwhile, Contrino said his crews have not been asked to shut off any business customers because they are permanently closing. Humason said he’s heard only from businesses looking forward to expanding once they can.

“Like many towns, we’re going through the COVID economy, but that’s not going to last forever,” the mayor said. “We’ll be ready to grow when the restraints have finally been taken off because the people in Westfield have put a lot of time, attention, and money into its city and its downtown.”

Community Spotlight Franklin County Special Coverage

Waiting Game

Scenes like this one are nowhere to be found right now at Historic Deerfield

Scenes like this one are nowhere to be found right now at Historic Deerfield, which is developing plans for a September opening.

Magic Wings is a year-round operation, Kathy Fiore said — even when its doors are shut.

“This is different from a clothing store,” said Fiore, who co-owns the butterfly conservatory in Deerfield with her brother. “When we closed our doors, we still needed to have staff here, because we have to take care of whatever is happening. Butterflies are laying eggs every day. Caterpillars are hatching out every day. We need to feed and care for the lizards, tortoises, birds, fish … all sorts of animals have to be taken care of.”

And that means expenses that don’t disappear when no visitors show up — which they haven’t since the facility closed to the public in mid-March, part of a state-mandated economic shutdown in response to COVID-19.

“We kind of saw it coming, and then it just happened,” she said of the closure. “As owners of the business, we’ve tried to remain positive and upbeat and assure our staff, assure our customers.”

As for when Magic Wings will be allowed to reopen, phase 3 looks most likely, which means very soon. But the state’s guidance is only one consideration. The other is keeping visitors safe and helping prevent a viral flareup in a region that has effectively depressed infection rates, as opposed to states like Florida and Texas that were more lax about regulating crowds — and have seen cases spike in recent weeks.

“When we closed our doors, we still needed to have staff here, because we have to take care of whatever is happening. Butterflies are laying eggs every day. Caterpillars are hatching out every day. We need to feed and care for the lizards, tortoises, birds, fish … all sorts of animals have to be taken care of.”

“My brother and are watching how things are going,” Fiore said. “We’re certainly watching other businesses open back up, but we’re also hearing about the resurgence in certain places, about people getting together and going right back to a situation we don’t want to be in.”

Historic Deerfield, which shuttered its buildings to the public a few weeks before the start of its 2020 season, doesn’t expect to reopen most of them until September.

“We had a lot of different challenges and things to figure out,” said Laurie Nivison, director of Marketing, explaining why the organization’s leadership isn’t rushing back before they feel it’s safe. “Just thinking ahead to when it might be possible to open again, we decided to move some bigger things to the fall. The fall season is always a big time for us. That’s when people start thinking they want to come to Deerfield, so we said, ‘let’s look at opening around Labor Day weekend.’”

Losing an entire spring and most of summer is a considerable financial hit, of course, and the center was forced to lay off dozens of staff. But at the same time, it has looked to stay relevant and connected to the community in several ways, including putting a series of ‘Maker Monday’ workshops online, taking a virtual approach to teaching people how to stencil, make their own paper, or building a decoupage box, to name a few recent examples.

Meanwhile, museum curators have been sharing plenty of interesting artifacts from the collection online, while the director of historic preservation recently took people on a virtual tour of the attic of one of the historic houses.

“People never have the opportunity to do that, so that was great,” Nivison said. “We’ve become really creative trying to think of what we can do to bring Historic Deerfield to people when they can’t come here. Being closed down, we still want to have people engaged.”

Many Franklin County attractions, especially of the outdoor variety — such as Zoar Outdoor and Berkshire East in Charlemont, where people can engage in ziplining, biking, kayaking, and other outdoor activities — are already open. But indoor attractions face different challenges and are on a different reopening pace, due to both state guidelines and their own sense of caution.

But a wider reopening is the goal, as area tourism officials consider the region a connected ecosystem of activity that draws visitors to take in multiple sites, not just one. In short, the more attractions are open, the more each will benefit.

Kathy Fiore says Magic Wings won’t reopen

Because it’s an indoor attraction, Kathy Fiore says Magic Wings won’t reopen until she’s confident visitors will be safe.

“We’re talking a lot about how we can convince visitors to come back when the time is right because there’s so much outdoor fun you can have here,” said Diana Szynal, executive director of the Franklin County Chamber of Commerce. “We have hiking, cycling, fly fishing, regular fishing, walking trails — there’s so much opportunity for things to do here that are perfectly safe and healthy.”

Safety First

Szynal was just scratching the surface when she spoke to BusinessWest. From retail destinations like Yankee Candle Village to museums, golf courses, wineries, and covered bridges, it’s a region that has plenty to offer, and attractions like Magic Wings and Historic Deerfield certainly sense anticipation among fans and potential visitors when they connect with the community on social media.

But they also don’t want to jump the gun and see the region turn into another Houston.

“It’s been a little unnerving, but from the beginning, my brother and I didn’t want to reopen until we feel it’s safe, even if the government lifts the regulations for businesses like Magic Wings. We don’t mind waiting it out a little bit to make sure everything is safe,” Fiore said.

“We normally can take in a lot of people, but we’re different because we’re an indoor facility,” she added, noting that Magic Wings will follow the state’s guidelines for social distancing, masks, and crowd count, while considering options like visiting by appointment as well. “We’re trying to think of all the different things we can do to make sure people are really safe but still have a pleasant experience.”

It helped, she said, that the conservatory procured a Paycheck Protection Program loan to keep its staff paid, and now that reopening approaches, she’s hoping to get everyone back on the regular payroll. “We’re responsible for the livelihood of a lot of people.”

But the shutdown also posed an opportunity, she added. “It’s beautiful here — it’s in pristine shape, because we were able to do some cleanup things, different projects, that we don’t have the opportunity to do when we’re open every single day. We hope to welcome people back to a nice, fresh environment that’s better than they remember.”

While the museum houses of Historic Deerfield remain closed for now, the organization got a boost from the reopening of Deerfield Inn and Champney’s Restaurant & Tavern. The week she spoke with BusinessWest, Nivison said the restaurant already had more than 100 reservations lined up for the following week.

Those facilities will benefit from September’s museum reopening, but this fall may still look a little different than most, as tours may be limited — or be smaller, self-guided experiences — while outdoor tours may be expanded. Demonstrations of trades like blacksmithing may be moved outdoors, while the annual Revolutionary muster event, typically held on Patriots’ Day in April, will likely happen this fall as well.

“We’ve become really creative trying to think of what we can do to bring Historic Deerfield to people when they can’t come here. Being closed down, we still want to have people engaged.”

“We want to be able to give a good experience to folks and really take advantage of all the outdoor things they can do,” Nivison said. “There are a lot of things we can do.”

One thing people aren’t doing as much as they normally would is getting married — with crowded destination receptions, anyway. Because Magic Wings is a popular spot for weddings and receptions, that was another significant revenue loss this spring and summer, Fiore said.

“Couples had to shift everything, and a couple bumped their weddings into 2021. One couple canceled altogether,” she told BusinessWest, noting that weddings already have a lot of moving parts, and couples are simply unsure right now how many guests they’ll be allowed to include until the state offers more guidance.

All Aflutter

That said, Fiore has been buoyed by the number of people calling since the closure. In addition to its social-media presence, Magic Wings also recently ran a television commercial featuring soothing sights and sounds inside the conservatory — to put a smile on viewers’ faces more than anything.

“It was an opportunity for people to take a deep breath,” she said. “We’re all in the same boat, we’re all experiencing something totally new, and we’re all concerned and feeling anxious about what’s going to happen — what’s safe and what’s not.

“People love butterflies, and they do come see us from all around,” she added. “But they also want to know it’s not going to be a huge health hazard, and that’s what we’re working toward.”

Szynal understands the concerns, too.

“People are taking this seriously,” she said. “I see the masks. When people are out on errands, walking through stores, they’re giving each other space. As long as this behavior continues, people will feel better moving around a bit more” — and that includes visiting Franklin County attractions.

“I feel people respect this virus and respect each other,” she concluded. “So far, they’re taking the steps they need to keep Massachusetts on the right track.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Events Features

Meet the Judges

With nominations now closed for BusinessWest’s Alumni Achievement Award, it now falls to three judges — Vince Jackson, Keith Ledoux, and Cheri Mills — to study the entries and determine the sixth annual winner.

The award, sponsored by Health New England, was launched in 2015 as the Continued Excellence Award, an offshoot of BusinessWest’s 40 Under Forty program, which recognizes young professionals for their career accomplishments and civic involvement. Rebranded this year as the Alumni Achievement Award, it is presented annually to one former 40 Under Forty honoree who, in the eyes of the judges, has most impressively continued and built upon the track record of accomplishment that earned them 40 Under Forty status. The award will be presented at this year’s 40 Under Forty Gala. The date and location of the event are still to be determined due to reopening guidelines.

For each application, the judges have been asked to consider how the candidate has built upon his or her success in business or service to a nonprofit; built upon his or her record of service within the community; become even more of a leader in Western Mass.; contributed to efforts to make this region an attractive place to live, work, and do business; and inspired others through his or her work.

The judges will first narrow a broad field of nominees to five candidates, who will be informed that they are finalists for the coveted honor — an accomplishment in itself. They will then choose a winner, the identity of whom will not be known to anyone but the judges until the night of the event.

Past winners include: 2019: Cinda Jones, president, W.D. Cowls Inc. (40 Under Forty class of 2007); 2018: Samalid Hogan, regional director, Massachusetts Small Business Development Center (class of 2013); 2017: Scott Foster, attorney, Bulkley Richardson (class of 2011), and Nicole Griffin, owner, ManeHire (class of 2014); 2016: Dr. Jonathan Bayuk, president, Allergy & Immunology Associates of New England (class of 2008); 2015: Delcie Bean, president, Paragus Strategic IT (class of 2008).

The judges are:

Vincent Jackson

Vincent Jackson

Vincent Jackson is executive director of the Greater Northampton Chamber of Commerce, a role he took on last year. He is also the founder and CEO of the consulting company Marketing Moves, which provides companies — from Fortune 500 corporations to small businesses — with strategic and innovative marketing support. Before founding the company in 2000, Jackson worked for a decade as a senior product manager at PepsiCo, two years as an assistant product manager at Kraft Foods, and three years as a senior systems analyst at Procter & Gamble Company.

Keith Ledoux

Keith Ledoux

Keith Ledoux is vice president of Sales, Marketing and Business Development at Health New England. He has more than 25 years of experience in the insurance industry and has a background in sales, healthcare information technology, and strategy development. Prior to joining HNE in 2019, he served as senior advisor and board member for MiHealth in Medway. He began his career at Tufts Health Plan in Waltham, where he rose to become regional sales manager, and also held senior leadership positions at Fallon Health in Worcester and Minuteman Health and Constitution Health, both in Boston.

Cheri Mills

Cheri Mills

Cheri Mills is a business banking officer with PeoplesBank, and has worked in banking for 32 years. She began her career in 1988 as a mail runner, working up to banking center manager in 1997, and eventually discovered a love of business banking. She takes pride in assisting business owners with achieving financials goals. She is currently the president of the Rotary Club of Chicopee, treasurer of Junior Achievement of Western Massachusetts, and a board member with the Minority Business Council in Springfield.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Features

Into the Breach

Debbie Bitsoli

Debbie Bitsoli says her learning curve has been altered by COVID-19, but she’s made the most of the opportunity.

Debbie Bitsoli understood she was taking on a huge challenge when she accepted the role of president and CEO of Mercy Medical Center and its affiliates late last fall.

But she certainly wasn’t expecting anything quite like this.

Indeed, the first six months of her tenure have been dominated not only by a global pandemic that has tested hospitals, and especially smaller community hospitals, in every way imaginable, but also a painful and controversial decision to close inpatient beds at Providence Behavioral Hospital, one of Mercy’s affiliates (more on that later).

Overall, it has been a pressure-packed, greatly accelerated learning experience on innumerable levels, one that has left her knowing more about herself, and also about Mercy and its team; Trinity Health Of New England, the parent to Mercy Medical Center; and the community the hospital serves.

“This has given me the opportunity to learn more about the culture here at Mercy and its history,” she noted. “It’s allowed me to cherish that history more as I’ve understood it, and all the years the hospital has stood on these grounds. It’s been a different type of learning experience because I’ve had to do a lot of it virtually, but I’ve made the most of it.”

The pandemic arrived in this region just a few months after Bitsoli did, and, as noted, it has impacted the hospital and its staff on a number of levels — everything from combating shortages of personal protective equipment to the strain of treating those with the virus, to the financial trauma resulting from the inability to perform elective surgery and a sharp decline in emergency-room visits due to the public’s fear of contracting the virus.

“This has given me the opportunity to learn more about the culture here at Mercy and its history.”

All hospital administrators have been facing the same potent mix of challenges, but for Bitsoli, who came to Mercy from Morton Hospital in Taunton in early December, the pandemic has greatly accelerated but also profoundly changed the process of putting her stamp on the 147-year-old institution.

And it has left her calling on experience — and experiences — going all the way back to when she worked in the dietary department at a hospital, delivering meals to patients — a job her mother, an emergency room nurse, helped her land.

“My mother set an extremely high bar,” Bitsoli told BusinessWest. “And when she got me my first job, she said two things to me — first, ‘when you bring that tray in to that patient, you’re to think about the person in front of you, not yourself.’ And, second, ‘don’t embarrass me.’ I don’t think I ever have.

“The 12 years I spent on the front lines — in dietary, housekeeping, and ultimately in the intensive care unit by the bedside with the nurses — really helped to prepare for what it’s like in direct clinical care,” she went on. “It has provided me the empathy, respect, and admiration for the front-end work that all the caregivers — the nurses, the doctors, and all the medical staff and colleagues — contribute. I had that as background, which I think equips me very well for the future.”

While the first six months of her tenure have been difficult, Bitsoli said there have been some silver linings, if one chooses to call them that. She said the pandemic has enabled her to work with her team and her board on a level — and under circumstances — that could not have been anticipated when she arrived. Meanwhile, the crisis has enabled her to see first-hand — and in many different ways — the importance of Mercy within the community and the strong level of support the institution enjoys.

“The outpouring from the community, and the love, respect, and admiration that they feel for Mercy Medical Center, has been … I can’t describe in words how much it resonates for me and how much it means for the front-end staff,” she said. “All those contributions we received, and the prayers, respect, and recognition, have meant the world to people here and allowed them to move forward knowing they’re contributing significantly.”

For this issue, BusinessWest talked at length with Bitsoli about her brief but already memorable tenure at Mercy, and how this stern challenge has tested her and the medical center — and will keep doing so for months, if not years, to come.

Background — Check

Bitsoli brings a deep portfolio of experience in healthcare management to her role at Mercy — and the current crisis — with all of it coming in the Bay State.

As noted earlier, she came to the Springfield campus after a four-year stint as president of the 110-bed Morton Hospital. Prior to that, she served as chief operating officer and vice president of Saint Vincent Hospital in Worcester, a position she took after serving for three years as COO of MetroWest Medical Center in Framingham. Previously, she served as associate COO, chief administrative officer, and chief financial officer at Cambridge Health Alliance; administrator of Internal Medicine at Harvard Vanguard Medical Associates; and audit manager and project manager at Harvard Pilgrim Health Care.

She said she was drawn to the leadership post at Mercy by a number of factors, including the hospital’s somewhat unique mission as a Catholic hospital, its strong reputation for quality and caring, and its status as part of the larger Trinity Health Of New England system.

She took over a hospital that reported a $12.6 million loss for the 2018 fiscal year and had made a number of staff reductions and other cutbacks in the months prior to her arrival.

“The 12 years I spent on the front lines — in dietary, housekeeping, and ultimately in the intensive care unit by the bedside with the nurses — really helped to prepare for what it’s like in direct clinical care.”

But such challenges were common to most all smaller hospitals in Massachusetts and New England, and Bitsoli said this was part of the landscape when it comes to hospital administration in this era. And so was dealing with crises, she said, adding that she’s helped lead institutions through recessions, the fallout from 9/11, and even other epidemics, such as SARS.

But this pandemic? That’s another story, and it has changed that landscape quickly and profoundly. Indeed, in addition to treating those with the virus and safeguarding staff and the community from it, Mercy, like all hospitals, has been hit hard by the inability to perform elective surgeries and sharply declining revenues from declining visitation in the ER — conditions that have forced hospitals to trim staff and implement pay cuts, even to doctors.

To guide the hospital through the crisis and its many impact points, Bitsoli said she and the management team have been focused on three things — planning, preparing, and anticipating — to the extent that they are all possible with this fast-moving pandemic.

“We have twice-daily meetings with the executive team seven days a week, so we can plan and adjust accordingly based on what’s occurring,” she noted, adding that, in recent weeks, patient volumes related to COVID-19 have declined. “The key for me was planning, preparing, and anticipating as this unfolded so that we could make sure we had our structures and designs in place to keep our patients safe.”

Meanwhile, the decision to close the 74 inpatient beds — the pediatric, geriatric, and adult units — at Providence has brought its own set of challenges. Deemed necessary because of a lack of permanent psychiatrists, the planned closure of the units, with the intention of patients seeking care at other Trinity Health facilities in Connecticut, has been criticized not only for the level of inconvenience it imposes on area residents, but also for its timing.

Indeed, the pandemic has generated a sharp rise in the need for behavioral-health services as residents cope with everything from isolation-related issues to depression and other conditions related to job loss and financial pressures, promoting even greater need for beds at Providence.

But Bitsoli said that, for several reasons, and especially the lack of psychiatrists, the hospital cannot continue to operate those beds.

“It’s been a difficult but necessary decision in light of the fact that you need physicians to take care of the patients,” she explained, adding that the services are slated to be discontinued on June 30, although the state Department of Public Health has asked for a more detailed plan on how and where people can get help before it can approve the closure plan.

Vision Statement

When asked specifically about what is involved with leading a hospital through a crisis like the COVID-19 pandemic and difficult transitions like that at Providence, Bitsoli paused for a moment as if to convey that there is a lot that goes into that equation.

She mentioned everything from leading by example, something she strives to do every day, to communicating effectively with constituents ranging from patients and staff to the community to state and federal lawmakers about the many forms of help hospitals will need to weather this storm.

When Bistosli, a CPA, was working toward her MBA at Babson College in Wellesley, she did a considerable amount of reading on the subject of leadership, and is putting what she learned from that time — as well as at all the other stops on her résumé — into practice now.

“I read historical books about great leaders like George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, and I think that’s the learning there,” she noted. “One key element of leadership for me is trust and really making sure that the people who are on the direct team know that my vision for leadership is that we’re all in a boat together and we’re all united in that boat moving downstream, with the goal of looking at our workday to provide the maximum impact to patient safety and the colleagues we work with and for.

“For me, leadership is about trust and the ability to have a relationship with people to allow them to do the best work possible,” she went on. “To learn, to adapt, and to sometimes make mistakes, which is OK, because you learn from them. At the end of the day, you mature as a business owner and as a professional, and to me, that’s what leadership is all about.”

She said another key element to providing effective leadership — during a pandemic or any other time — is to inspire team members to reach a level they may have thought was beyond their reach, and then give them the support and the tools needed to get there.

“I want people to really aspire to greatness because, through my career, I’ve seen great, great people who didn’t know that they could get there, but with a little prodding and trust and a comfort zone, they’re able to rise above what they thought they were capable of,” she told BusinessWest. “They got there through a little support, mentorship, and really nudging — and that’s a the sign of a great leader; you invest in people, you mentor people, and you prod them because you know they can get to another level of performance.”

Moving forward during this pandemic, Bitsoli said Mercy, and all hospitals, for that matter, are summoning the same two-word phrase being used by every other business sector to describe the present and the near future: ‘new normal.’

Indeed, as COVID-19 cases decline — Mercy recently closed two of its COVID units — and the state slowly begins the process of reopening the economy, hospitals are, like all other businesses, looking to get back to what was normal.

But that won’t happen for some time, she said, adding that there are several factors that will determine when and if that state can be reached, including everything from possible new surges of the virus to the public’s appetite for returning to places like emergency rooms and doctor’s offices and fully addressing their health issues.

And, again, as at other businesses, the day to-day will certainly be different in this new normal.

“For Mercy and all the other hospitals nationally, there is going to have to be more state and federal funding allotted,” she said, referring to the fiscal challenges created by the pandemic. “It’s going to take a long time for hospitals to be able to open their doors as they did six months ago or even four months; it’s going to be a while.”

Elaborating, she said that so much depends on both the state’s reopening strategy and the ability of individual hospitals to convince the public it is safe to seek care at such institutions. The plan, released on May 18, allows hospitals that can meet specific capacity criteria and public-health and safety standards to resume a limited set of in-person services. These include high-priority preventive services, including pediatric care, immunizations, and chronic-disease care for high-risk patients, and urgent procedures that cannot be delivered remotely and would lead to high risk or significant worsening of the patient’s condition if deferred.

“Hospitals have to demonstrate to the public that they have sufficient areas that are COVID-free, which Mercy does,” she noted, “and demonstrate to the public through word of mouth that people are coming back, they’re seeing the signage, they’re seeing the care, they’re seeing that we’re going to great lengths to ensure that the public is safe and we’re screening at the door, handing out masks, and taking temperatures.

“It’s going to take the public seeing that continued structure in place to demonstrate that acute-care hospitals are safe for them to come back to,” she went on, adding that it’s difficult at this time to say when that day will come.

She said she couldn’t properly quantify the economic impact at this point, noting that April’s numbers are still being analyzed. What she does know, though, is that all hospitals are in the same boat, and that Mercy is fortunate to be part of the larger Trinity system. “The hospitals that are in the smaller systems that don’t have the leverage and the scale — they’re in a different bucket than a hospital that is based with a system nationally.”

Bottom Line

When asked when things might start to get better for hospitals, Bitsoli said matters are complicated by uncertainty about when elective surgeries may begin again and how a second wave of COVID-19 cases might impact that equation.

“There are criteria being established at the state level for when people can start to do more elective surgeries, and the key driver to that is your intensive-care unit and your number of staffed beds,” she explained. “As we look at the data, we do expect that there will be a second wave, so as they’re discussing opening up the doors to hospitals for elective surgeries, they are factoring in that second wave, which they think will be in the fall.

“Once the state establishes the criteria and we can start to do more procedures based on Governor Baker’s recommendations, we’re going to have a better sense of what the future projections are going to look like,” she went on.

At this time, it’s difficult to make projections about the future because there are simply too many unknowns. For Bitsoli, the plan is to continue planning, preparing, and anticipating, and to lead by example as Mercy confronts novel challenges on an unprecedented scale.

She has several decades of experience to call on, right down to the words of advice her mother gave her about how to focus on the patient when she was bringing in that tray of food.

And, like her mother, she sets a high bar, one that will be needed during this time of challenge and the ongoing work of meeting it head on.

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

Coronavirus Features

The Questions Keep Coming

The Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) was created by the CARES Act to provide forgivable loans to eligible small businesses to keep American workers on the payroll during the COVID-19 pandemic. The SBA recently provided updates to its PPP guidance and also released the form application for PPP loan forgiveness, which will help small businesses seek forgiveness at the conclusion of the eight-week covered period, which begins with the disbursement of their loans.

Here are five common questions area attorneys have been hearing from business owners concerned about how PPP funds may be used in order to be forgiven.

Where can I spend my PPP loan in order for it to be forgiven?

“You’ve got to use 75% of what was loaned for payroll purposes,” said Kathryn Crouss, shareholder with Bacon Wilson. “Obviously, that’s salaries and wages, but other money employers spend on payroll costs count as well — vacation pay, parental or family leave, paid sick leave, or if there’s an employer match for plan premiums. So the definition of ‘payroll costs’ is relatively broad.

“The remaining money can be spent on other approved expenses — keeping the lights on or mortgage or rent or utility bills, those sorts of things,” she added. “Assuming you can prove to the government that you have spent 75% of the loan on qualified payroll expenses and the remaining portion on other qualifying expenses, then the loan should be forgiven and becomes a grant rather than a loan.”

In addition, she added, “if an employer brings an employee back on and that employee used to make, say, $3,000 a month, if they pay them less, they have to be within 75% to be forgiven. That’s not true for head count — they still have to have the same number of employees; not necessarily the same people, but the same head count.”

How do you measure whether an employee’s salary or wages were reduced by more than 25%?

“This may be the area that was causing the most angst among business owners, since it seemed mathematically impossible to not have reduced compensation by at least 25% if you were comparing compensation in the first quarter of 2020 — 13 weeks — to the covered period of eight weeks,” said Scott Foster, partner with Bulkley Richardson. “Fortunately, the SBA has opted to focus only on either the annualized salary for exempt employees, or the average hourly wage for non-exempt employees. Also, with respect to the salaried employees making more than $100,000 per year during the first quarter, as long as the annualized salary remains above $100,000 during the covered period, then any reduction in salary is not considered a reduction under this test.”

What about employees that were furloughed or laid off, but now refuse to return to work?

“For any employee the business has offered to re-employ in writing, and the employee (for whatever reason) refuses to accept re-employment, this will not reduce the loan-forgiveness amount,” Foster said.

Amy Royal, CEO of Royal, P.C., noted that she’s had many questions of this type. “They’re asking, ‘if I want to make sure I get loan forgiveness, how do I address a situation where I’ve offered to bring people back and they’ve said, thanks but no thanks?’ Obviously, those people have their own unemployment issues because if they’ve been offered a job and continue to take unemployment benefits, that could, in certain circumstances, be fraudulent.”

As for the employer, “if you make a good-faith offer to rehire someone with PPP money, make sure that offer is in writing,” she added. “If the employee rejects the offer, make sure you, as a business, have documented that. It will help you when you apply for loan forgiveness. That issue has been a real concern.”

Crouss agreed, noting that some employees may have legitimate reservations about returning to work — for instance, because they have a 95-year-old parent and don’t want to infect them.

“Make sure that conversation is in writing,” she said. “If they say they can’t return, get that response in writing as well, save that correspondence, and put those documents in their personnel file. Where we’re heading is, the head-count piece may be forgiven if they have that kind of documentation.”

Interestingly, Foster noted, “the application states that any employee fired for cause during the covered period does not reduce the borrower’s loan forgiveness. Oddly, this could mean that an employee that was fired for cause prior to the covered period would still count as a missing FTE during the covered period.”

My employees have nothing to do until my business is allowed to reopen and ramps back up. What if I want to save the PPP funds for after the eight-week period?

For example, Royal said, “if you’re a restaurant, you’re not open now. Maybe, if you’re lucky, you’re doing takeout, but the bulk of your business is full service. So the timing has presented issues because they can’t be fully ramped up now, but they’ve got to avail themselves of the funds right now before they run out.”

Businesses may absolutely hang onto the money and use it beyond the eight-week window, she explained — but they will have to pay it back over two years with 1% interest.

“That’s a very attractive loan,” Crouss noted. “Many businesses are making that decision — which is a perfectly sound decision. This only goes for eight weeks, and when you get that amount of money, it should cover your payroll for eight weeks, but what happens if the world hasn’t righted itself? So maybe it makes sense to save it for a rainy day and think of it as a loan and not a forgivable grant.”

Do I have to claim the PPP loan as income?

“The good news is, the IRS has spoken and said no,” Royal said. However, expenses paid for with PPP funds are also not deductible. “That makes sense — you can’t double dip. The way I conceptualize this is, it didn’t happen. We’re going to pretend this period didn’t happen for tax purposes.”

—Joseph Bednar

Features

Closing the Digital Divide

By Mark Morris

When schools closed across Massachusetts due to coronavirus, it revealed a digital-learning divide between low-income students and their higher-income peers. The gap is driven in large part by a lack of internet access and proper devices.

“There was an expectation that, with the schools closed, kids would resume their classwork online, but that can only happen if they have the proper technology and internet service,” said Eileen Cavanaugh, president and CEO of the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Holyoke (HBGC).

Cavanaugh applied for and received a grant for $35,000 from the Waldron Charitable Fund to provide Chrome tablets and internet access to nearly 100 families in Holyoke.

Working with Holyoke Public Schools to identify the families with the greatest need for technology access, club staff began reaching out to those households.

Eileen Cavanaugh

Eileen Cavanaugh

“There was an expectation that, with the schools closed, kids would resume their classwork online, but that can only happen if they have the proper technology and internet service.”

What they found was that many depended on their phones as their only technology and did not own a laptop or tablet computer. Cavanaugh pointed out that phones are not very effective when used for online learning platforms. Even families that owned a tablet or laptop usually had to share it among as many as four school-age children.

“Four kids from one family can’t access the online platforms at the same time using one device, so we were able to supplement those families with additional equipment,” she noted.

Access to reliable internet service is just as important as having the proper device. The HBGC is working with Mobile Citizen to provide secure, high-speed access to internet hotspots in Holyoke for one year.

“Even if students return to the classroom in the coming months, these kids are trying to catch up, so by extending the internet access for a full year, they can take advantage of online educational opportunities,” Cavanaugh said.

A recent study reinforces this point. Curriculum Associates of North Billerica makes distance-learning software for school systems in all 50 states. When schools closed in Massachusetts, they researched the usage patterns of iReady, the company’s digital-learning tool, which was originally designed for the classroom but is now used a great deal in distance learning.

They found that, when learning first moved from the classroom to the home, use of the program dropped significantly in the first week as fewer than half the students who used the software in the classroom used it at home. After five weeks, once students and teachers were able to settle into new routines, the usage rates increased to 81%.

A closer look at the data revealed a digital divide in which students who live in low-income zip codes had a larger initial decrease in using the digital-learning tool followed by a lower recovery percentage five weeks later than students in higher-income zip codes.

On the other hand, once low-income students could access it, they spent more time with the online-learning program than their higher-income peers.

Supplemental Efforts

Cavanaugh pointed out that the HBGC effort supplements the nearly 1,000 tablets and access to Comcast internet hotspots that the Holyoke Public Schools provided to families. She credits Superintendent Stephen Zrike for anticipating that access to digital learning would be a struggle for many families in the city.

In addition to providing devices and hotspots, Cavanaugh said HBGC is also offering technical assistance. “In our conversations with parents, we learned some are not tech-savvy and may need some support, so we’ve made our technology director available for any kind of technical assistance they might need.”

The grant HBGC received was part of a $1 million series of ‘rapid-response grants’ from the Waldron Charitable Fund to assist children affected by school closings due to the COVID-19 crisis. The fund is co-managed by Rob Waldron, CEO of Curriculum Associates, and his wife, Jennifer Waldron, and administered by the Boston Foundation, an organization that does not usually fund efforts in Western Mass.

“This is the first time we’ve been eligible for this type of funding,” Cavanaugh said. “We are grateful for the fast turnaround of our request and the recognition that the need is across the state.”

To date, HBGC staff have distributed nearly 75 tablets. Despite the challenges of social distancing, Cavanaugh said they are able to provide families with tablets and instructions for the device, as well as how to access the internet and tech support. The response has been very positive.

“Our families have been incredibly appreciative,” she said. “They’ve told us about their past frustrations of trying to access the public-school platform by phone and how grateful they are now for our support.”

Coronavirus Features

Unwanted Break in the Action

By Mark Morris

Thunderbirds

Nate Costa says the Thunderbirds were on track for their most successful season when it ended prematurely.

When discussing the impact COVID-19 has had on the AHL’s Springfield Thunderbirds, team president Nathan Costa doesn’t mince words.

“There’s no way to sugarcoat this — it’s a challenge, and it stinks,” he said, noting that, with seven games remaining in the regular season, the Thunderbirds were close to making the playoffs when the American Hockey League (AHL) suspended play on March 12, then formally canceled the remainder of the season on May 11.

“I’ve been in the pro-sports world for more than 10 years, and none of us have ever seen anything like this,” he told BusinessWest, using that phrase to talk about everything from the sudden end to the 2019-20 season to the prospects for the season tentatively scheduled to start in just four short months.

And those sentiments were echoed by executives with teams in another sport — baseball.

Indeed, in Holyoke, the Valley Blue Sox will not be playing in 2020 as its league, the New England Collegiate Baseball League (NECBL), announced on May 1 it would cancel the entire season.

Chris Thompson

Chris Thompson hopes the Starfires are able to take the field at all this summer.

Meanwhile, the Futures Collegiate Baseball League (FCBL) has not yet canceled its season, but it has pushed back opening day from May 27 to an as-yet-undetermined date, which affects the Westfield Starfires, a team in only its second year of existence.

Chris Thompson, owner of the Starfires, said the student athletes on his roster have already missed the spring college season because the NCAA canceled it due to the coronavirus. He remains hopeful there will be some opportunity for his team to play ball this summer, adding that this will happen only if the health and safety of the players, fans, and staff at the ballpark can be assured.

“From our perspective, we won’t play until it’s safe to do so, but we won’t cancel until we’re told we have to,” Thompson said. “There’s no blueprint for this.”

Taking a Timeout

With that last statement, Thompson, who once worked as an executive with the Thunderbirds, spoke for everyone involved in professional sports. There is no blueprint for how to proceed, but teams can try to plan for the short and long term and adjust for what will certainly be a new normal.

Costa said his team and the AHL are having discussions about what the experience will look like for fans at the MassMutual Center, and other buildings in the league, if and when play returns.

He pointed out that the NHL and the NBA may be able to play in empty arenas because of lucrative TV contracts that provide a great deal of income to the teams, but playing with no fans is just not just not feasible for the AHL because so much of its revenue is from ticket sales, concessions, and other in-arena activity.

“As a league, we cannot play without people in the stands,” said Costa. “It’s pretty much impossible to generate any type of revenue, yet we would have the same amount of expense.”

“As a league, we cannot play without people in the stands. It’s pretty much impossible to generate any type of revenue, yet we would have the same amount of expense.”

Before the season was cancelled, Costa was pleased with the momentum the Thunderbirds had been building in their four years as a franchise. Through 31 home games this season, the team had nine sellouts and anticipated at least three more for their remaining games. By contrast, last year they had nine sellouts in their entire 38-game home schedule. He also cited a promotion that received national attention when the team rebranded for one game as the Springfield Ice-o-topes, in a nod to The Simpsons.

With the beginning of a new hockey season four months away, Costa said the AHL has an opportunity to see how other professional leagues handle reopening for games and get a feel for what might work, or not work, as the case may be.

“The NFL will start its season before us,” he noted, “and that will be a real barometer in terms of social distancing at stadiums and what the experience might look like for people going to games.”

He added that state officials and MassMutual Center staff continue to look at ways to make the environment safe for everyone who enters the building. The AHL is also looking at contingencies such as delaying the start of the season to December or January.

“There’s nothing stopping us from pushing back the start and then playing a little longer next year,” Costa said, “especially if it gives us a chance to get a full season in.”

Costa has good reason to be optimistic for a full season next year as it marks the fifth anniversary of the Thunderbirds and begins a new affiliation with the Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues. “We’re already deep into planning what the fifth anniversary season is going to look like, and we’re excited about what the future will bring.”

Thompson had similar thoughts on the Starfires and what lies ahead for that team.

While the FCBL has been working on a plan for social distancing at the ballpark — in this case Bullens Field in Westfield — Thompson said working through an unprecedented challenge like this generates more questions than answers. How teams manage ballpark seating and concession operations are just two of the areas where he has concerns. It even affects travel, as the teams play games in three New England states.

“We usually travel on one coach bus,” he explained. “We can’t afford to have fewer people on two buses; it would double our transportation expense.”

Even if summer baseball happens this year, Thompson said coronavirus has already wrecked a special dynamic in the league. Starfire players often come to Westfield from different parts of the country and stay with local host families for the summer.

“Sometimes a family has an 8-year old Little Leaguer in the house who then has a college roommate for the summer, or we have empty nesters who are looking to host a player or two,” Thompson said. “Host families are one of the great things about summer baseball.”

Now, of course, the model of families hosting players is on hold until next year at the earliest.

Rather, Thompson is now looking to have more players from the eastern part of Massachusetts and the Hartford area of Connecticut so they could commute to games in Westfield.

With the Starfires in a holding pattern, it’s doubtful they will get to play their full 56-game schedule. During this time, Thompson has been reaching out to his corporate sponsors to keep them engaged.

“We’re looking at different ways to use our social-media platforms to get our fans involved and to give our corporate sponsors exposure,” he said.

Finding a Winning Formula

The Thunderbirds are also using social media to extend the reach of their sponsors. Costa said one effective technique has been running ‘rewinds’ of notable games from this season on Facebook. In some cases, the potential audience for sponsors can be larger than in-arena exposure.

“Our Facebook presence has grown to more than 22,000 followers, and on Instagram we have 15,000 followers, giving us a core audience of nearly 40,000 eyeballs,” Costa said, adding that many sponsors have already assured him they will be back next year.

When play was suspended, he placed a high priority on reaching out to season-ticket holders about the seven games they would be missing this year. The team provided options such as a refund for the remaining games, or a credit that would apply to tickets for next season. Costa and his staff also offered a third option.

“We’re setting aside some funds to provide tickets to frontline workers next season at no charge and to recognize all their efforts,” Costa said noting that nearly 25% of the season-ticket holders chose that option.

In a similar move, Valley Blue Sox General Manager Kate Avard said the team had planned to dedicate its opening day in 2021 to “honor and support community organizations and first responders who are currently on the front lines of combating COVID-19.”

As the area’s pro sports teams search for some answers concerning the future, they acknowledge they are hard to come by, noting that perhaps the only certainty is no shortage of uncertainty.

But guarded optimism still prevails.

“We have great community partners who want us to succeed for a long time,” said Thompson, speaking, again, for all those in his profession. “Setbacks like this make us more resilient.”

Coronavirus Features

Lessons Learned from Experience

By Nancy Urbschat

Nancy Urbschat in her home office.

Nancy Urbschat in her home office.

Many of you are experiencing work at home for the first time, and without the luxury of months of planning like those at our marking firm, TSM Design, did when we decided to go virtual on Jan. 1, 2019.

We are now in the midst of a global pandemic, and socially distancing people is the only way to flatten the COVID-19 curve. (Now that’s a sentence I would not have imagined writing, let alone living through. But here we are.)

These are challenging times for everyone. Our concept of normalcy is changing daily. We barely have time to catch our breath before there are new rules of engagement. Businesses have gone from limiting the size of meetings to prohibiting travel and work-at-home orders.

During TSM Design’s morning Zoom on March 16, we started the meeting discussing the impact the virus was having on our lives. Our conversation then turned to all of you who are just starting to work at home. We wondered if we could be helpful sharing what we’ve learned during these past 15 months.

Your Office

• Create a designated workspace in your home. The kitchen or dining-room table is not ideal.

• If possible, position your desk by a window. Then don’t forget to open the shades.

• While you’re working with no one else around, you have the luxury of cranking up the volume on your favorite tunes. No earbuds necessary!

• Don’t assume that your reputation for a messy desk is suddenly going to change now that you’re home.

Virtual Meetings and Conference Calls

• Be mindful of your meeting attendees’ view inside your office.

• If your video is on and no one can see you, uncover your camera. (This has happened on more than one occasion.)

• If you have a barky dog, leave your audio on mute until it’s your turn to speak.

• Project a professional image — at least from the waist up.

• Try never to schedule a virtual presentation with multiple attendees gathered around one computer screen. It’s deadly when you can’t see audience reaction.

• If you have a camera, please turn it on. Keep the playing field level. If you can see me, I ought to be able to see you.

• Provide tutorials for people who are new to videoconferencing platforms.

• Assume the role of facilitator. Pose questions, talk less, listen more.

Productivity

• Take a brisk walk before you start your workday.

• Maintain a regular morning meeting with your team. We try to Zoom every day at 8:30 a.m.

• Try to get your most challenging work done early in the day.

• Save your work frequently — especially if you have a cat that likes to walk across your keyboard.

• Keep a running to-do list. Go ahead and celebrate what got crossed off at the end of every day.

• Don’t sit for hours on end. Get up. Do a few stretches. Walk around the block.

• Don’t eat at your desk. Go to your kitchen and make lunch. Savor it. Then go back to work.

• Give yourself permission to give in to small distractions. If there is a pile of dishes in the sink that’s bothering you, do the dishes. Then go back to work.

Your Mental Health

• Get a good night’s sleep, with plenty of deep sleep and REM. It might be a good time to buy a Fitbit or other device to track your sleep and your heart rate.

• Eat healthy, and stay hydrated.

• Use your newfound virtual-meeting tools to stay in touch with family and friends.

• Schedule a Zoom dinner party.

• Take care of one another.

• Be kind to everyone.

Some Final Thoughts

After a while, the novelty of working from home may wear off. If and when that happens, we hope you’ll remember all of the service-industry workers who have to show up to work in order to get paid. And remember the healthcare workers who are on the front lines, doing battle against the virus, who continue to be in harm’s way without adequate masks and other critical protection.

No one knows how long social distancing will be required or whether more dramatic actions will be necessary. We find ourselves wondering whether people are taking this pandemic seriously and doing what’s necessary to avoid a bona fide human catastrophe. Recent photos from Fort Lauderdale beaches were mind-boggling. Yet, in that same social-media stream, there were posts about acts of courage and heroism.

This is a defining moment for us. Will future generations take pride in how we were able to make sacrifices, pull together, and care for each other?

Your Homework Assignment

So, first-time work-at-homers, get yourself set up, settle in, and shoot me an e-mail about how it’s going.

Nancy Urbschat is president of TSM Design; [email protected]

Coronavirus Features

Taking Action

If your business, or one or more of your major customers’ or suppliers’ businesses, have been or could be adversely impacted by the effects of the coronavirus outbreak, Bulkley Richardson recommends considering the following proactive actions:

1. Review Insurance Coverage. Most standard business insurance packages include ‘business-interruption’ coverage. Business-interruption insurance is designed to replace income lost in the event that a business is halted for some reason, such as a fire or a natural disaster. It can also cover government lockdowns or mandatory curfews or closings such as those becoming more widespread as a result of the coronavirus. In addition to lost income, such coverage may also include items such as operating expenses, a move to a temporary location if necessary, payroll, taxes, and rent or loan payments. Since the language that addresses the terms of business-interruption coverage and exclusions can be lengthy and complex, it can be helpful to have your policy reviewed by a qualified expert.

2. Review Critical Contracts. It is quite common for certain types of contracts, such as supply contracts that require future performance on the part of one or both parties, to include a contract provision that allows a party to suspend or terminate the performance of its obligations when certain circumstances beyond their control arise, making performance inadvisable, commercially impracticable, illegal, or impossible. Such provisions are most often referred to and appear under a ‘force majeure’ clause of a contract. If disaster strikes or the unanticipated occurs beyond the control of a party, such in the case of coronavirus, a force majeure clause may excuse one or both parties from performance of their contractual obligations without liability to the other party.

Determining which types of circumstances will be covered by the force majeure clause is obviously essential. Standard provisions often cover natural disasters like hurricanes, floods, earthquakes, and weather disturbances sometimes referred to as ‘acts of God.’ Other covered events can include war, terrorism or threats of terrorism, civil disorder, labor strikes or disruptions, fire, disease, or medical epidemics, pandemics, or other outbreaks. Such provisions can also place certain obligations on a party seeking to take advantage of excused performance such as undertaking reasonable actions to minimize potential damages to the other party. As with insurance coverage, it can be very helpful to have the assistance of a qualified expert in reviewing contracts critical to the survival of your business.

3. Communications. Once you have reviewed the terms of your business-insurance coverage and critical contracts, you will be in a much better position to effectively communicate with your insurers, suppliers, customers, vendors, creditors, and other parties with whom your business has relationships concerning the uncertainties facing your business and the businesses of those with whom you have significant ongoing relationships.

Actions like placing an insurance carrier on notice of or making a business-interruption insurance claim, advising another party of your intention to exercise your rights under a force majeure clause of a contract or being prepared for another party with whom you have an important relationship to do so, or effectively communicating with a lender, landlord, or other creditor to productively address disruptions to such relationships are all critical to minimizing losses and ensuring the survival of your business. As with the interpretation of insurance policies and other contracts, input from experts can be very helpful in developing effective communications and providing advice concerning the parties to whom such communications should be directed.

Bulkley Richardson launched a COVID-19 Response Team to address issues critical to businesses and their employees. Call (413) 272-6200 to reach the team.

 

Coronavirus Cover Story Features Special Coverage

Life in Limbo

It was becoming clear weeks ago that the novel coronavirus would have some sort of economic impact once it washed ashore in the U.S. — but it’s still not clear, and perhaps won’t be for some time, how severe and wide-ranging the damage could be, as people cancel travel plans, curtail business operations, shut down college campuses, and take any number of other actions to stay safe. It’s a fast-moving story, and one that’s only beginning.

The first confirmed cases of the novel coronavirus had barely shown up in the U.S. when some of Bob Nakosteen’s students in an online graduate economics course started dropping the course because they were dealing with a more immediate issue: supply-chain interruptions in their own companies.

“These companies have supply chains that stretch into China, and, well … the word ‘disruptive’ doesn’t even capture it,” Nakosteen said. “Those chains have been completely severed. These people are absolutely in crisis mode.

“A situation like this interacts with the ethic of lean production,” he went on. “People keep limited inventories — and that’s great as long as there’s a supply chain that’s frictionless and reliable. As soon as you get a disruption in the supply chain, which could happen because of a strike, because of a virus, for any number of reasons, there’s no inventory buffer. It doesn’t cause delayed difficulty to the firm; it causes an immediate one. And that’s what you’ve got now.”

Editor’s Note:

The coronavirus pandemic is impacting this region and its business community in ways that are far-reaching and unprecedented. Visit COVID-19 News & Updates  and opt into BusinessWest Daily News to stay informed with daily updates.

More than a week has passed since we spoke with Nakosteen — a professor and chair of the Department of Operations and Information Management at Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst — for this story, meaning another week for the supply-chain situation for manufacturers and other companies to deteriorate.

In fact, when it comes to the economic impact of the virus that causes the respiratory illness known as COVID-19, now officially a pandemic, virtually everything has only gotten worse.

“We have to assume everything will be affected. Airlines are experiencing reduced demand, cancelling hundreds and thousands of flights,” he said, noting that reduced tourism will hit numerous sectors, from hotels and restaurants to ground transportation and convention halls, that rely on travelers.

“How many firms are curtailing business travel? The NCAA now plans to play playing games with empty stands,” he went on, a decision that became official soon after — not to mention the NBA suspending its season outright. “What happens to the people who provide parking and concessions? Now multiply that over hundreds or thousands of events that are scheduled to take place over the next couple of months. It’s going to have an economic effect.”

UMass Amherst

UMass Amherst is one of several area colleges and universities that are sending students home and will conduct remote classes only for the time being.

Nakosteen’s own campus is certainly feeling that impact. The day before BusinessWest went to press, the five campuses in the UMass system suspended in-person instruction and will transition to online course delivery, at least through early April and perhaps beyond. That followed a similar move by Amherst College, whose president, Carolyn Martin, told students the college was taking to heart the announcement by Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, that the U.S. is past the point of totally containing COVID-19. Other area colleges have since followed suit, or are considering their options.

“While there continue to be no reported cases of the virus on our campus, we need to focus on mitigating its possible effects,” she said, using language that will no doubt be similar to the statements other colleges, in Massachusetts and across the U.S., are currently preparing. “We know that many people will travel widely during spring break, no matter how hard we try to discourage it. The risk of having hundreds of people return from their travels to the campus is too great. The best time to act in ways that slow the spread of the virus is now.”

While all travel is slowing — for example, the governors of Massachusetts and Connecticut have both curtailed out-of-state business travel by government employees, and President Trump issued a European travel ban — Don Anderson, owner of the Cruise Store in East Longmeadow, has seen vacation travel take a major hit.

“We’re a society where, when you’re growing up, you eat your meal, and then you get your dessert. Now we have a situation where people are not having their dessert — their vacation,” he told BusinessWest. “Imagine kids not going to the islands or not going to a park, to the annual parade, not going anywhere. We are a society that works our butts off, we put in overtime, so we can have our time off. To have a year with no time off, that’s not who we are. As Americans, we want our vacation, we want our escape, so we can recharge and come back and work our butts off again.”

But they’re increasingly calling off those vacations, even though Fauci told reporters last week that cruise ships, with all the precautions they’re taking (more on that later), are safe for healthy young people.

“These companies have supply chains that stretch into China, and, well … the word ‘disruptive’ doesn’t even capture it. Those chains have been completely severed. These people are absolutely in crisis mode.”

“The bottom line is, we are unintentionally punishing ourselves by not having an escape. A good portion of our customers are going on trips, but many are not,” Anderson said, adding that he expects the industry to recover after the crisis is over. “That’s what we’re all hoping. Otherwise, it’s a dire situation for the industry and even more so for the economies that travel impacts directly and indirectly, including the United States.”

For now, though, businesses of all kinds are in a sort of limbo, bearing the initial brunt of an economic storm spreading as quickly as coronavirus itself — no one really sure how severe it will get, and when it will turn around.

Sobering Education

Many companies, from small outfits with a few employees to regional giants, are grappling with similar questions about what to do if the virus threatens their workforce. On that upper end, size-wise, is MassMutual in Springfield, which has certainly talked strategy in recent days.

“MassMutual is taking appropriate action to protect the health of our employees, their families, and our community and assure the continuity of our business operations,” Laura Crisco, head of Media Relations and Strategic Communications, told BusinessWest. “This includes limiting non-essential domestic and international business travel and ensuring employees are prepared to work remotely, including proactively testing work-from-home capabilities.”

In the meantime, MassMutual is limiting non-essential guests at its offices, enhancing cleaning protocols at its facilities, and limiting large-scale meetings, she added. “We are continuously monitoring this evolving situation, reassessing our approach, and staying in close communication with our employees.”

Most importantly, Crisco said, anyone who is sick is encouraged to stay home, and the company is also communicating basic guidance on how to prevent the spread of germs, such as thorough hand washing, using hand sanitizer, covering coughs and sneezes, avoiding close contact with people who are sick, avoiding touching faces with unwashed hands, and frequently cleaning and disinfecting touched objects and surfaces.

Kevin Day, president of Florence Bank, told BusinessWest the institution has disaster plans in place for a host of circumstances, from epidemics to natural disasters, and has developed strategies for meeting basic customer needs in case staffing is reduced.

Bob Nakosteen

“As soon as you get a disruption in the supply chain, which could happen because of a strike, because of a virus, for any number of reasons, there’s no inventory buffer. It doesn’t cause delayed difficulty to the firm; it causes an immediate one.”

“We just checked with all our managers and asked, ‘are we comfortable that everyone is cross-trained enough, so that, if your area was out, we could function?’ Pretty much everyone said, ‘yes, we have the plans right here, we know exactly what we’d do.’

He understands, however, that no one can anticipate the extent of the crisis quite yet.

“It’s not like we haven’t seen challenges in the past. Whatever challenge is presented, we’ve just got to get the right people in the building together and think about how to continue to do what we do, which is open the door and serve the customers. We have those things in place,” Day said. “As it ramps up, and all of a sudden your employees start coming down with it, the escalation would get much greater, and you might have to take more draconian steps.”

‘Draconian’ might be a word some people used when they first heard about the college shutdowns, but there’s a logic behind that move.

“While at this time there are no confirmed cases of COVID-19 on our campus or in the surrounding community, we are taking these steps as a precautionary measure to protect the health and well-being of our students, faculty, and staff,” Kumble Subbaswamy, chancellor of UMass Amherst, said in a statement to students. “By reducing population density on campus, we will enable the social distancing that will mitigate the spread of the virus. There is presently no evidence that our campus is unsafe, but our transition to remote learning is intended to create a safer environment for all — for the students who return home and the faculty and staff who remain.”

He conceded that the move is a massive disruption for students and families, but said the university is committed to helping those with the greatest needs on an individual basis. Meanwhile, the Provost’s office is working with the deans to identify laboratory, studio, and capstone courses where face-to-face instruction is essential, and students in these courses will be notified whether they can return to campus after spring break.

At the same time, Martin said Amherst College will consider making exceptions for students who say it’s impossible to find another place to stay.

“It saddens us to be taking these measures,” she added. “It will be hard to give up, even temporarily, the close colloquy and individual attention that defines Amherst College, but our faculty and staff will make this change rewarding in its own way, and we will have acted in one another’s best interests.”

Elementary-, middle- and high schools may close as well, after Gov. Charlie Baker, as part of his emergency declaration last week, freed school districts from mandatory-days rules, so that they have the flexibility to make decisions on temporary closures due to coronavirus.

Specifically, the longest any school district will be required to go is its already-scheduled 185th day. No schools will be required to be in session after June 30. Schools may also disregard all attendance data for the remainder of the school year.

Reaction or Overreaction?

While some economic impacts may be inevitable, Anderson questioned whether some businesses are being hurt more than others based on, in his case, media spin that has focused on a couple of recent outbreaks on cruise ships.

“Honestly, I’m more concerned walking into the supermarket — that tomato I’m grabbing or fresh produce I’m purchasing, I don’t know how many people before me have touched it. I don’t know who’s touching the elevator button. I don’t know who entered their pin number on the debit/credit-card reader. Even when we voted, everyone who used the polling booth shared the same pens,” he said, adding quickly that election officials in East Longmeadow, where he is a Town Council member, did occasionally wipe down the voting surfaces and pens, as did other communities.

“What we do know is there’s been well over 20,000 deaths of American citizens from the flu this season alone, but I’m not seeing large, front-page stories about that,” Anderson noted. “Why aren’t there long lines out of the local CVS or Walgreens to get the flu vaccine?”

Dr. Robert Roose

Dr. Robert Roose

“We are regularly in touch with the state Department of Health as well as monitoring guidance from the Centers for Disease Control. That’s important to ensure all of our activities are aligned with the latest data and resources.”

The key, he said, is a balanced and measured response — and for people to use healthy practices all the time. As one example, he noted the hand-washing stations at the entrance of all restaurants on cruise ships. While at least two cruise lines have temporarily suspended voyages, those still operating strictly follow those protocols.

“You have dedicated crew reminding everyone and watching so you wash your hands before going in,” he said. “It’s not something you see in stateside restaurants. But on cruise ships, you have to wash your hands. These washing stations were a consequence years ago of the norovirus impacting a small number of cruise-ship passengers. As a result, the incidences onboard ships has lowered.”

Meanwhile, U.S. Travel Assoc. President and CEO Roger Dow worried about bold moves like barring European travel. “Temporarily shutting off travel from Europe is going to exacerbate the already-heavy impact of coronavirus on the travel industry and the 15.7 million Americans whose jobs depend on travel,” Dow said in a statement.

While many businesses struggle with the economic impact of the novel coronavirus and the anxiety it’s causing among Americans, others see it as a chance to expand their services.

For example, the Springfield-based law firm Bulkley Richardson launched a COVID-19 response team last week comprised of attorneys in the areas of business, finance, employment, schools, healthcare, and cybersecurity. Understanding that each business will be affected differently, the firm noted that taking proactive measures may help minimize the risk of business interruptions, and the COVID-19 response team has developed — and posted on its website — a catalog of issues to be considered by each business owner or manager.

Meanwhile, Associated Industries of Massachusetts published an expansive guide to employment-law issues that might arise due to the virus, dealing with everything from quarantines and temporary shutdowns to remote work and employee privacy issues. That guide is available at aimnet.org/blog/the-employers-guide-to-covid-19. John Gannon, a partner with Skoler, Abbott & Presser, also answers some relevant questions in this issue.

Righting the ship if COVID-19 sparks an actual recession could be difficult, for a number of reasons, writes Annie Lowrey, who covers economic policy for the Atlantic. She notes several reasons why a coronavirus recession could be difficult to reverse in the short term, including its uncertainty, demand and supply shocks at the same time (that supply-chain issue again), political polarization in the U.S., the global nature of COVID-19, and the fact that monetary policy is near exhaustion, as the Federal Reserve has already cut rates to near-historic lows, leaving little room to maneuver in the coming months

“They really don’t have much space to cut,” Nakosteen added. “Normally when the economy runs into trouble, the Federal Reserve runs in to the rescue. The problem now is we don’t have much room to rescue.”

He also cited the psychological factor that can quickly turn economic anxiety into something worse. “People say, ‘oh my God,’ they start drawing in their tentacles, and that’s when you have a recession.”

Lives in the Balance

None of this is to suggest that the economic impacts of COVID-19 outweigh the human ones. This is, foremost, a health crisis, one the healthcare community, particularly hospitals, are bracing for.

“We have an emergency preparedness committee, but those policies are sort of general,” said Dr. Joanne Levin, medical director of Infection Prevention at Cooley Dickinson Hospital. “We’ve had a lot of incidents in the past decade — we’ve prepared for Ebola, measles, H1N1, a lot of things. But each epidemic is different in how it’s transmitted and what to watch for. With each epidemic, we have to go through the emergency preparation plan and figure things out.”

Dr. Robert Roose, chief medical officer at Mercy Medical Center, echoed that idea. “We have a standard infection-control committee and a plan that we would activate whenever we have a surge of infectious-disease patients,” he told BusinessWest. “This particular situation is rapidly evolving. We are regularly in touch with the state Department of Health as well as monitoring guidance from the Centers for Disease Control. That’s important to ensure all of our activities are aligned with the latest data and resources.”

Meanwhile, the state Department of Public Health (DPH) continues to offer guidance to the public at www.mass.gov/2019coronavirus. It’s also urging older adults and those with health issues to avoid large crowds and events, while individuals who live in households with vulnerable people, like elderly parents, should also consider avoiding crowds. The DPH is also issuing guidance to long-term-care facilities, where sick visitors could endanger dozens of people very quickly.

Still, coronavirus is also an economic story, one with a plot that’s only beginning to take shape. It also may be a long story, with no end in sight.

“We’re in a position where we don’t know exactly what’s going to happen, but we can speculate on what parts of the economy are going to be affected,” Nakosteen said. “We’re all watching it play out without a whole lot of idea how it will play out.”

Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Tessa Murphy-Romboletti

Tessa Murphy-Romboletti says the addition of a Spanish-speaking accelerator program will enable EforAll Holyoke to become an even more impactful component of the region’s entrepreneurship ecosystem.

It’s been more than three years now since Holyoke Mayor Alex Morse told a TV reporter, tongue in cheek (or not), that he wanted to rename Holyoke ‘Rolling Paper City,’ in a nod to its past — and its potential future as home to businesses in the cannabis industry spawned by a ballot initiative in the fall of 2016.

Things have moved slowly as the city has looked to take full advantage of both its red-carpet treatment for the cannabis industry and vast supply of old mill space — ideal for cultivation as well as other types of businesses in this sector — more slowly than most would have anticipated.

But by most accounts, 2020 should be the year this sector begins to, well, light things up in Holyoke.

Indeed, while Green Thumb Industries, better known to most as GTI, is the only cannabis-related business operating in Holyoke at the moment, that is certain to change soon. True Leaf is ready to commence cultivation operations in the large building on Canal Street that was formerly home to Conklin Office, said Morse, and there are other businesses moving ever closer to the starting line.

“Unfortunately, the length of the process at the state level has slowed things a bit, but 2020 seems poised to be the year we see some concrete results from our embrace of and leadership in the cannabis industry,” said Morse, who, while filling his role as CEO of the city, is also running for Congress this fall. “We’re looking at hundreds of jobs between cultivation and dispensing, and we’re seeing the growth in commercial property values as a result of these investments.”

Meanwhile, there are large tracts of real estate either sold to or under option to a number of other cannabis-related businesses, said Marcos Marrero, the city’s director of Planning and Economic Development.

“We have about 20 companies that have approached us for a host-community agreement; a few of those are no longer proceeding, but we have probably close to a dozen that are still in some part of the process, and we expect a couple to open at some point this year,” said Marrero, who noted that, for decades, Holyoke’s problem was that it had far too much unused or underutilized old mill space. It’s certainly not there yet, but some are starting to think about the possibility of actually running out of that commodity.

But cannabis is certainly not the only promising story in Holyoke at the moment. Indeed, progress is evident on a number of fronts, from the development of several co-working spaces in the city to a thriving cultural economy; from the prospects for a new retail plaza in the vicinity of the Holyoke Mall to Holyoke Community College’s culinary-arts center in the heart of downtown; from Amazon’s new distribution center just off I-91, which has brought more than 100 jobs to the city, to Holyoke Medical Center’s recently announced proposal to build a new, standalone inpatient behavioral-health facility on its campus.

“Unfortunately, the length of the process at the state level has slowed things a bit, but 2020 seems poised to be the year we see some concrete results from our embrace of and leadership in the cannabis industry.”

Then there are the city’s efforts to foster entrepreneurship, especially through the agency known as EforAll Holyoke, which last year cut the ceremonial ribbon at its facilities on High Street.

The agency, originally known as SPARK, will graduate its third accelerator class on March 26, said Executive Director Tessa Murphy-Romboletti, adding that EforAll will soon be expanding with a Spanish-language accelerator, something that’s definitely needed in this diverse community.

“Many people can understand English, but to learn in the language you’re comfortable with … that makes such a difference,” she noted, adding that other EforAll locations have offered programs in Spanish. “There is a need for this here.”

For this, the latest installment of its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest puts the focus on what is still known as the Paper City, a community that has greatly diversified its economy is looking to continue that pattern in the coming years.

In Good Company

Murphy-Romboletti says she won’t be leading the Spanish-speaking accelerator — she’ll be hiring someone to assume that responsibility — but she is taking steps to be better able communicate in that language.

“I’m using Rosetta Stone, and I’m basically telling the people in my life who speak Spanish that they should only speak Spanish to me so I can learn,” she said. “Just growing up in Holyoke, I feel like I understand it fairly well, but I’m still struggling to communicate.”

These language lessons are just one of many items on her plate, including final preparations for the March 26 graduation ceremony, at which accelerator participants will showcase their businesses and many will receive what Murphy-Romboletti refers to affectionately as “those big giant checks” — facsimiles in amounts that will range from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, as well as some seed money.

Those awards may not sound significant, but to small-business owner, they can provide a huge boost, she went on, adding that they can cover the cost of forming a limited liability corporation (LLC), buy a new copier, or perhaps purchase some insurance.

“Those are the little things that a startup often has a hard time attaining,” she said. “That money is very important to them.”

As for the seed money, provided by an array of sources, it is awarded based on how well businesses meet stated goals for growth and development.

“We have them set goals for each quarter, and the entrepreneurs keep meeting monthly with their mentors,” she explained. “We survey them before we meet, and there’s a peer-ranking process based on the progress they’ve made toward the goals they set at the beginning of the quarter. It’s a combination of mentor feedback and peer feedback, and it’s a good way to keep the momentum going.”

Summarizing the breakdown of the first several cohorts, Murphy-Romboletti said there has been a good mix of businesses, including several food-related ventures, some professional services, a few nonprofits, and some construction-related endeavors. None are large in size or scope, but most all of them have promise, and many are already contributing to vibrancy in Holyoke by leasing real estate, buying goods and services, and providing them as well.

“When an entrepreneur is getting started, it can be a very lonely process, and we want people to know they don’t have to go through this whole thing alone,” she said. “And I think we’re starting to see the impact this has on the local economy, when there’s new businesses registering and they’re getting bank accounts for their business, and they’re doing things the right way so they can be legitimate businesses that will contribute to the economy.”

Marrero agreed, noting that the companies fostered by these efforts to promote entrepreneurship have created more than 100 jobs, most of them in Holyoke.

“Not everything is a home run — there are a lot of singles, but that’s another way of getting into the Hall of Fame,” he said. “We’re continuing our efforts to create a culture of entrepreneurship, and we’re starting to see some results.”

Thus, promoting entrepreneurship is an economic-development strategy in Holyoke, said Morse, adding that, while it’s good to attract large corporations like Amazon, growing organically by fostering small businesses is usually a more reliable path to growth.

But there are several other growth strategies being executed, and the cannabis industry, and the city’s pursuit of it, could certainly be considered one of them.

Indeed, while some communities were somewhat cautious in their approach to this sector and others (West Springfield, for example) decided they didn’t want such businesses within their boundaries at all, Holyoke has, seemingly since the day the ballot initiative was passed, been quite aggressive in pursuit of cannabis businesses — and jobs.

Ned Barowsky

Ned Barowsky

“I’m working with a development group that wants to put in more retail — perhaps a few drive-thrus, a coffee shop, and maybe some fast food, with some traditional retail in back. The plans are still coming together.”

And, as the mayor noted earlier, 2020 is shaping up as a year when many of the businesses that have been putting down roots, to use an industry phrase, will start to see their efforts bear fruit.

True Leaf has been aggressively building out its massive space, said Marrero, and it is expected to employ more than 100 people when it that cultivation and processing operation opens later this year. Other similar businesses are also in the process of readying spaces, including Boston Bud Co., Solierge, and Canna Provisions, which will soon be opening a dispensary in downtown Holyoke.

“Once they open, that will create a lot more economic activity, including hiring, and as soon as they have sales, that will also generate income for the city,” he went on, adding that there will be a ramp-up period for the cultivators as the first crops grow. But when these companies are fully operational, he expects that more than 200 jobs will be added.

Meanwhile, mill space continues to be absorbed by this sector, he said, adding that 5 Appleton St. was recently acquired for cannabis-related uses, bringing the total amount of real estate sold or under option to roughly 500,000 square feet, by his estimates, thus creating speculation, and even concern, that no one could have imagined even a decade ago.

“Eight years ago, the concern was that there was too much empty space,” said Marrero. “The long-term proposition and concern for someone in my position is that we might be running out of inventory, which is funny to think, but it could happen.”

What’s in Store

Meanwhile, retail is also an economic-development strategy, or at least a key contributor to the city’s tax base and overall vibrancy. It remains so, but that sector is changing, primarily because of the city’s new corporate citizen, Amazon, and others like it. The landscape is changing — figuratively, but also quite literally.

Evidence of this change is evident at Holyoke Mall Crossing, a retail center just off I-91 at the intersection of Holyoke Street and Lower Westfield Road. Actually, it’s more a former retail center, said owner Ned Barowsky, who acquired the property in 1996. Indeed, a number of former retail spaces now have different uses, as homes to professionals, healthcare facilities, and service providers, as evidenced by the current tenant list.

It includes Baystate Dental, Rehab Solutions, Ross Webber & Grinnell Insurance, ServiceNet, Vonnahme Eye, Great Clips, and H&R Block. It doesn’t include Kaoud Oriental Rugs and Pier 1, two long-time tenants that became the latest retail outlets to leave that location, leaving 13,000 square feet of contiguous space on the ground floor that Barowsky is now working aggressively to lease with ads touting this as “the best location in Western Mass.” And he expects that there will be more healthcare and professionals in this space instead of traditional retailers.

“Slowly but surely, I’ve been converting my building, which was once 100% retail, into office and medical uses,” he said, adding that he expects this trend, which started roughly a decade ago, to continue. “The only true retail left is Hunt’s Photo and Video, which is doing very well.”

Because of the location at the junction of the turnpike and I-91, he said, the site would be ideal for medical practices and other healthcare-related businesses, and he’s already talked with several interested parties.

While spending most of his time and energy working to fill Holyoke Mall Crossing, Barowsky is in early-stage work on a new retail development on a five-acre parcel adjacent to that property that he acquired from the mall. His primary motivation was to create more parking for the healthcare and service-oriented businesses now populating the Crossing, and he will keep one acre for that purpose. As for the rest, a vision is coming into focus.

“I’m working with a development group that wants to put in more retail — perhaps a few drive-thrus, a coffee shop, and maybe some fast food, with some traditional retail in back,” he told BusinessWest. “The plans are still coming together.”

Meanwhile, at the Holyoke Mall, which recently marked 40 years of dominating the local retail landscape, the landscape is shifting there as well, from traditional retail — although there is still plenty of that — to family entertainment and recreation.

“They’re been very savvy about remaining relevant, not like other malls,” said Marrero, citing recent additions such as a Planet Fitness and bowling alleys, as well as new theaters now under construction in the site once occupied by Sears. “They’re integrating a lot more lifestyle entertainment.”

Barowsky, who, as noted, has been a neighbor of the mall for a quarter-century, said that facility is still thriving because of its ability to adjust and put emphasis on entertainment at a time when traditional retail is struggling.

“They’re doing a lot of entertainment-related things to get people in, and hopefully people will shop while they’re there,” he said. “They’re doing a great job of adjusting — the parking lot is still full all the time.”

While the mall is evolving, so too is the downtown area, said Marrero, adding that several new businesses have opened in recent months and more are in the planning stages, including a restaurant, Jud’s, along the Canal Walk; a high-end salon called the Plan, which describes itself as a “sustainable, mission-driven beauty company” and “a force for positive change”; and the Avalon Café, a lounge and game café expected to open soon on Dwight Street.

Most of the growth involves small businesses, said those we spoke with, noting that this organic growth will likely inspire additional vibrancy across many sectors.

“When a forest burns, the forest doesn’t grow back by planting a giant oak tree in the middle of it,” said Marrero. “You have to organically grow an economic ecosystem that feeds off of itself and allows bigger businesses to come in; it’s the small businesses that start putting together the foundation for a place where people want to work and live and enjoy the surroundings.”

Building Blocks

This is what Holyoke has been building toward, said all those we spoke with — building that economic ecosystem that feeds off itself.

There are, as noted, a number of moving parts, from cannabis-related ventures to the small businesses in the accelerator cohorts at EforAll, to the new entertainment options at the Holyoke Mall.

As with the cannabis sector itself, the pieces are coming together slowly but surely. And 2020 is shaping up as a year when it all comes together.

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

Features

Blast from the Past

Todd Crossett and Sonya Yetter

It’s a small business, but it might just be a big part of a significant movement. Granny’s Baking Table, which opened just a few months ago, speaks to a different age in Springfield’s history, when small, locally owned businesses dominated Main Street and the roads around it. And in many ways, it operates in a way consistent with that age — there’s no wi-fi and, instead, a focus on conversation. It’s a blast from the past, but those behind it hope they represent the future.

Todd Crossett remembers how it all started — and especially how his chapter in this story began.

Then a faculty member at the Isenberg School of Management at UMass Amherst, he was making beignets, a French pastry featuring dough and powdered sugar, as a hobby more than anything else. His son told him they were so good that he could sell them from a bicycle.

So he did. In downtown Springfield.

“There were a lot of motivations for that, starting with the fact that downtown Springfield was kind of boring at that time, and I complained about it a lot,” he told BusinessWest, noting that he’s lived in the Mason Square area for more than 25 years. “But then I thought, ‘what am I going to do about it?’ So I thought, ‘this is my contribution, a funky bicycle and beignets that people swoon over; that will be my part.’

“But it didn’t end that way, did it?” he went on, with a hearty laugh, gesturing to his current business partner.

That would be Sonya Yetter, who, While Crossett was selling his beignets on his bike, was in business for herself with a soup and sandwich shop in the Forest Park section of the city.

After years spent cocktail waitressing, bartending, and other assorted jobs, she decided to attend culinary school in Europe. Upon returning to the States, she lived and worked in Maryland and Florida before returning to her hometown of Springfield.

“There were a lot of motivations for that, starting with the fact that downtown Springfield was kind of boring at that time, and I complained about it a lot. But then I thought, ‘what am I going to do about it?’ So I thought, ‘this is my contribution, a funky bicycle and beignets that people swoon over; that will be my part.’”

Through a series of circumstances that will be detailed later, the two have come together in a new venture called Granny’s Baking Table, a name that reflects what goes on there, but doesn’t come close to telling the whole story.

Granny’s is a blast from the past, and in all kinds of ways, as we’ll see. It’s a nod to a day when the streets of downtown Springfield were teeming with small, locally owned businesses like this one. And it’s a nod to the small bakery, with this one combining the baking traditions of the American South and Northern Europe.

It’s all summed up — sort of — in this line from the eatery’s website: “It is our mission to create a space and products that harken to simpler times, when baking was from scratch and the table was for gathering and conversation.”

The menu, like many other aspects of Granny’s Baking Table, is simple, direct, and a nod to the past.

That table — and there is, for the most part, just one large one that sits in the middle of the room — is indeed just for those purposes. There is no wi-fi, so one could do some work, theoretically, but if they wanted to read the morning paper, they would likely have to do it the old-fashioned way and crack open the print edition.

Speaking of old-fashioned, there’s more of that on display at this venue, from the simple menu displayed on a chalkboard — items include the ‘Oh Lawdy’ to the ‘Goodness Gracious’ to the ‘Not Too Fancy,’ a phrase that describes pretty much everything in the place — to the pictures on the wall; some are of family members, others of random individuals that reflect the diversity of the city and its downtown being celebrated at this establishment, to the holiday cookie exchange staged in mid-December (more on that later)

Overall, Granny’s is a nod to the past, and so far, to one degree or another, it seems to be working. The partners acknowledge that, three months after opening, they’re seeing both newcomers and repeat customers, and a good supply of both. But they acknowledged that it’s difficult going up against national chain coffee shops and other forms of competition. And they also acknowledged that times have indeed changed, and operating a business based on small-batch baking is far from easy.

The scope of the challenge they’re facing is reflected in the skepticism they encountered as they went about securing a site, putting a business plan in place, and getting the doors open. It came from family, friends, and even the broker that showed them the property.

“People didn’t like our concepts; they didn’t like the one table, they didn’t like the no wi-fi — there was so much that people were averse to,” Crossett explained. “But we believed in what we were doing, and we still believe in it.”

For this issue, BusinessWest takes an in-depth look at this unique new venture and how its principals are undertaking a noble but nonetheless daunting assignment — bringing the past into the present and making it work.

To-Dough List

Returning to the story of how these two came together — a story they share often because they’re asked often — that chapter really began when Crossett was serving as food-vending recruiter for the Springfield Jazz Festival, and knocked on the door to Yetter’s business in Forest Park.

He successfully recruited her for the event, and they kept in touch. “And here we are,” she said while bypassing several subsequent chapters as the two talked with BusinessWest at that large table in the middle of the room — actually, it’s several smaller tables pushed together.

Filling in the gaps, Crossett said he was looking for a space in downtown Springfield — specifically some square footage in the Innovation Center taking shape on Bridge Street — a from which to sell beignets and other items. Unbeknownst to him, Yetter, a UMass graduate who grew up Springfield, had signed a lease for the property almost across the street — one that had most recently been home to the Honey Bunny’s clothing store but had seen a number of uses over the decades — as a second location for her business.

The Innovation Center plans essentially fizzled as the development of that property changed course, Crosset recalled, adding that he left the last discussions on those plans quite dejected. He was on a cross-country tour with his son when he started thinking about how he and Yetter would not be in competition with one another, so maybe they should become partners.

Some of the pastries available at Granny’s Baking Table.

“He texted me and said, ‘we should talk,’” Yetter recalled, again zooming through subsequent steps for another ‘and here we are.’

That text was sent roughly a year ago; the months that followed were spent converting the space into a bakery — ceilings had to be raised, and a kitchen had to be built — as well as overcoming the skepticism of others around them and getting the venture off the ground.

They were fueled by the desire to make downtown less boring and to be a part of ongoing efforts to restore the vitality that Yetter remembers from her childhood.

“I grew up here, so I remember what downtown once was,” she told BusinessWest, adding that she was in one of the last classes to graduate from Classical High School, which closed in 1986. “I spent a lot of time in Johnson’s Bookstore and Steiger’s — it was a booming, booming town.”

By the time she returned to the city, it was no longer booming, she said, adding that she believes the large shopping malls, now struggling mightily themselves, sucked much of the life out of the central business district. The best hope for the future is small businesses moving into the downtown, she said, adding that Granny’s is part of that movement.

“My hope, and my belief, is that there are more people who are interested in becoming small-business owners now and perfect a craft they might have,” she said. “It’s my hope that this will revitalize the downtown area.”

The communal table, designed to stimulate conversation among patrons.

Today, Yetter splits her time between the Super Sweet Sandwich Shop in Forest Park and Granny’s, with more time at the latter because it’s just getting off the ground. Both she and Crossett said they are off to a solid start and they expect to gain momentum as more people find out about them and perhaps change some eating habits — specifically getting away from fast food, not only at lunch but breakfast as well.

Granny’s features an array of pastries — each day the lineup is different — that include danish, scones, sticky buns, muffins, beignets, and more. The lunch menu, as noted, is rather simple and focused on the basics; for example, the Not Too Fancy is pulled pork with homemade barbecue sauce, the Oh Lawdy is sweet-tea-brined fried chicken with pimento cheese and spicy peach jam served on a biscuit, and the Goodness Gracious is a mustard-infused, buttery croissant with black forest ham and smoked cheese.

Thus far, there’s been a lot of grab and go, especially with the businesspeople working downtown, said Crossett, but there have been many who have sat down to eat as well.

“It is our mission to create a space and products that harken to simpler times, when baking was from scratch and the table was for gathering and conversation.”

Which means that most have had to adjust some other habits as well, the partners acknowledged, noting again that there is no wi-fi here, and there is that ‘communal table.’

“We have a space where we want people to come in and talk and have a conversation,” Yetter explained, “and hopefully get to know anyone else who’s at the table with them — that’s our goal.”

It’s a goal that’s being met in many respects.

“Sometimes you’ll see a full table, and other times you’ll see a few people there,” said Yetter. “What we’ve noticed is that they talk to each other now, which is what we wanted — getting people to talk that normally wouldn’t.”

What’s Cooking

When asked about the success formula to date, Crosset said there are some interesting ingredients.

“We got into the space together, we both have a good sense of humor, we’re both patient, and we’re both really, really finicky about our product,” he explained. “And those things hold us together.”

Yetter agreed, and said another big factor was successfully creating “the feel and the vibe” they were looking for — which together speak to another age, another time, as reflected in that mission statement on the website and the reference to simpler times and baking from scratch.

Time will tell if the skeptics were right or if these somewhat unlikely partners can actually turn back the hands of time. But for now, they seem to be taking some of the boring out of downtown and giving people something new to talk about — whether it’s at that communal table or back in their office.

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

Community Spotlight

Community Spotlight

Mark Avery, co-founder of Two Weeks Notice Brewing, says the company is working hard to build its brand.

Mark Avery says he doesn’t tell the story as much as he used to — maybe because so many people have heard it by now — but he still gets asked on a fairly regular basis.

And he never tires of telling it, because it’s a good story — and, perhaps more importantly, it’s good marketing.

As he recalls, he was out driving one day and thinking about how great it would be to finally give his two weeks notice at work and start making a living doing what had become his passion — brewing beer.

“And that’s when a lightbulb went off in my head,” he said, “and Two Weeks Notice Brewing was essentially born. I Googled it to see if anyone else had it, and luckily no one else did.”

“The vast majority of what we see is redevelopment projects, and we see a steady amount of development happening every year.”

Today, Avery and business partner Derrick Upson — the individual to whom he left those two weeks notice — are brewing a number of labels at their location on Bosworth Street in West Springfield, across Memorial Avenue from the Big E. They include everything from ‘Resignation IPA’ to ‘Casual Friday,’ a pale ale; from ‘West Side Big Slide,’ another IPA that features the Big E’s famous yellow slide on the label, to ‘Bumby Love,’ an imperial stout. Meanwhile, the tap room the partners opened soon after labeling their first can has become an increasingly popular venue, as evidenced by the large crowd on a recent Saturday.

Thus, Two Weeks Notice has become one of many intriguing development stories in West Springfield in recent months. Or redevelopment stories, as the case may be. Indeed, while this community of 29,000 lies on the crossroads of New England, literally — both I-91 and the Mass Turnpike have exits in it — there isn’t much undeveloped land left. Thus, most of the new-business stories involve redevelopment of existing property.

City Planner Allyson Manuel says many of the business projects in West Springfield involve redevelopment of existing properties.

In the case of Two Weeks Notice, it was a comprehensive renovation of the former Angie’s Tortellinis property, a complicated undertaking, as we’ll see. And there have been several others in recent years, said City Planner Allyson Manuel, listing everything from a new seafood restaurant taking the site of the old Bertucci’s on Riverdale Street to remaking an old junkyard operation into the Hot Brass shooting and archery range just off Memorial Avenue.

And now, the city is looking to write more of these stories, especially at two landmark restaurants on or just off Memorial Avenue that are now sporting ‘closed’ signs in their windows.

One is the site that most still refer to as the Hofbrahaus, even though that restaurant closed several years ago, with 1105 Main (also the address) opening in that same space. The other is the small but nonetheless significant White Hut, an eatery with a very loyal following that closed abruptly a few weeks ago.

The site has been in the news almost constantly since, with TV film crews seen getting close-up shots of that aforementioned sign, with most of the news centered on exploratory efforts by Peter Picknelly and Andy Yee, principals of the Bean Restaurant Group, to launch another rescue operation.

The first, of course, was a reopening of another culinary landmark, the Student Prince in downtown Springfield, after it closed briefly in 2014. At press time, the partners were still essentially crunching numbers, said a spokesperson for the Bean Group, adding that a decision on the fate of the beloved burger restaurant would be coming “soon.”

Two landmark restaurants in West Side — the White Hut, above, and 1105 Main (formerly the Hofbrauhaus), now have ‘closed’ signs in their windows.

Meanwhile, there are other properties awaiting redevelopment, said Manuel, listing the former home to United Bank on Elm Street and a mill property off Front Street that was gifted to the city by Neenah Paper Co. in 2018, among others.

But the more pressing news involves infrastructure, she told BusinessWest, adding that the city, and especially businesses along Memorial Avenue, eagerly await the completion of what amounts to the replacement and widening of the Morgan-Sullivan Bridge, which connects the city to Agawam; the latest target date is late summer 2021, an improvement over the original timetable due to incentives being offered by the state for early completion. The other major project is an upgrade to Memorial Avenue itself, a comprehensive project that calls for reconfigured lanes and a bike lane and promises improved traffic flow.

For this, the latest installment in its Community Spotlight series, BusinessWest tells West Side’s story, which is increasingly one of redevelopment.

Feeling a Draught

Avery told BusinessWest that the Angie’s Tortellinis property — it actually had other uses after Angie’s moved to Westfield several years ago — had been vacant for some time when he and Upson first looked at it.

By then, at least a few other brewers had been through and decided that the property would be too difficult to convert for that use. They thought otherwise, although they conceded it would be a stern challenge.

“There were drop ceilings everywhere, the heat hadn’t been on in more than a year, probably … it was a dump when we got it,” he recalled, adding that a number of refrigeration units had to be ripped out and the area that is now that tap room required almost complete demolition and rebuilding.

Backing up a bit, and returning to that story about the name now over the door, he said Upson was his boss at a company called Pioneer Tool Supply, which was located in West Springfield when he started and eventually relocated to the industrial park in Agawam. When not working, Avery was spending most of his time home brewing — and thinking about taking that from a pastime to a career.

After that lightbulb moment noted earlier, he had a name, and he also had several recipes. He was set to partner with another individual and open a brewery in Westfield, but the two eventually concluded that the partnership wasn’t going to work. That’s when Upson, who by then was big into craft beers, entered the equation, and Avery eventually did give his two weeks notice.

They started selling cans in the fall of 2018 and haven’t looked back. The company’s various brands are now on tap in a number of area bars and restaurants, including several in West Springfield and Agawam, and loyal followers can buy cans at the brewery. On the Saturday we visited, Avery had just finished brewing a batch of what he called Performance Review 13 — and, yes, there were a dozen versions before it.

“These are the beers where I kind of play around with different hops, different yeasts, and different styles if I want to,” he explained. “It gives me a little creativity to break up the monotony of production.”

The tap room is now open Thursday through Sunday, and while business — and growth — have been steady, Avery says more aggressive marketing, and just getting the word out, is perhaps the company’s top priority at the moment.

“We’re working to get our name out — we’re still fairly unknown at this point,” he explained. “People will come in and say, ‘this is the first time we’re been here,’ or ‘we’ve never heard of you guys’ — even people in West Side. So we need to change that and grow the brand. For the most part, it’s just doing interesting and fun events.”

While Two Weeks Notice Brewing goes about building its brand, there are other things brewing in West Springfield, pun intended. Especially those infrastructure projects.

Like its neighbor to the west, Agawam, West Side has struggled during the lengthy but very necessary project to replace the 70-year-old Morgan-Sullivan Bridge. Gene Cassidy, president and CEO of the Big E, which worked with officials in both cities to minimize the impact of the bridge work during the fair’s 17-day run, said businesses along Memorial Avenue have definitely been affected by the project, which began roughly 18 months ago.

“In the late afternoons, traffic gets backed up all the way to our to our main entrance,” he said, noting that it is several hundred yards from the bridge. “Many businesses are struggling, and people are going elsewhere to do business.”

He praised the state for incentivizing the contractor handling the work, Palmer-based Northern Construction Service, thus pushing up the closing date and making this fall’s Big E hopefully the last that will have to cope with the bridge work.

But not long after that project is over, another much-anticipated project, the redesign and reconstruction of Memorial Avenue, will commence, said Manuel, noting there is no timetable at present, but the target date is the spring or summer of 2022 — after the bridge project is done.

When asked to summarize the scope of the project, she summoned the phrase ‘road diet’ to describe what will take place before elaborating.

West Springfield at a glance

Year Incorporated: 1774
Population: 28,529
Area: 17.5 square miles
County: Hampden
Residential Tax Rate: $16.99
Commercial Tax Rate: $32.65
Median Household Income: $40,266
Median Family Income: $50,282
Type of Government: Mayor, City Council
Largest Employers: Eversource Energy, Harris Corp., Home Depot, Interim Health Care, Mercy Home Care
* Latest information available

“This is the new best practice, and it involves reducing the amount of pavement while at the same time incorporating amenities or facilities for transportation other than personal vehicles, such as bikes, pedestrians, and buses,” she explained. “By designing it more efficiently, especially when it comes to the intersections and turning areas, you ideally need fewer lanes — that’s what is meant by road diet.

“The plans are not finalized,” she went on. “But it will have a bike lane and new sidewalks and trees; in addition to trying to improve traffic flow, it’s also a beautification project.”

Thus, there will be significant change to a thoroughfare that is already in a seemingly constant state of motion, not only with vehicular traffic, but also with businesses coming and going.

That’s certainly the case today, with a new, larger Planet Fitness opening in the Century Plaza, and the fate of both the White Hut and the Hofbrauhaus property still unknown.

Both landmarks date back to the 1930s, and they have become part of the landscape on Memorial Avenue, said Manuel, adding that the hope is that both will soon have new names over the door, or, in the case of the White Hut, perhaps the same name but with new ownership.

As for the Hofbrauhaus property, it presents both challenges and opportunities.

“The size of the facility is a bit daunting for another restaurant,” she noted. “But the location is so good that I’m sure that something will happen there.”

Meanwhile, movement is also a constant on the other major thoroughfare in the city, Riverdale Street, where the new seafood restaurant is set to open soon, said Manuel. It’s not far from a recently opened Marriott Courtyard, which was built on the site of the former Boston Billiards, yet another example of redevelopment in this city.

“The vast majority of what we see is redevelopment projects, and we see a steady amount of development happening every year,” she said, adding there are many other examples of this, including the ongoing expansion of Titan Industries on Baldwin Street, Hot Brass, and the Holyoke Creative Arts Center moving into one of the mills vacated by Neenah Paper.

Lager Than Life

The hope, and the expectation, is that this pattern will continue, Manuel said, adding that, while the city is indeed land-poor, it is opportunity-rich given its location, easy accessibility, and inventory of properties that can be redeveloped.

Sometimes it takes some imagination and determination — as was certainly the case with Two Weeks Notice and the former tortellini factory — but West Springfield has generally proven to be a mailing address worthy of such diligence.

Avery noted the same while finishing that batch of Performance Review 13, which will hopefully become yet another positive chapter in a business story written in a city where more such sagas are penned each year.

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